In 1849, the mist that sometimes rolled through the Golden Gate was known as fog. In 2149, it had become far more frequent, and was known as smog. By 2349, it was fog again.
But tonight there was smoke mixed with the fog. Roddie could smell it. Somewhere in the forested ruins, fire was burning.
He wasn’t worried. The small blaze that smoldered behind him on the cracked concrete floor had consumed everything burnable within blocks; what remained of the gutted concrete office building from which he peered was fire-proof.
But Roddie was himself aflame with anger. As always when Invaders broke in from the north, he’d been left behind with his nurse, Molly, while the soldiers went out to fight.
And nowadays Molly’s presence wasn’t the comfort it used to be. He felt almost ready to jump out of his skin, the way she rocked and knitted in that grating ruined chair, saying over and over again, “The soldiers don’t want little boys. The soldiers don’t want little boys. The soldiers don’t--”
“I’m not a little boy!” Roddie suddenly shouted. “I’m full-grown and I’ve never even seen an Invader. Why won’t you let me go and fight?”
Fiercely he crossed the bare, gritty floor and shook Molly’s shoulder. She rattled under his jarring hand, and abruptly changed the subject.
“A is for Atom, B is for Bomb, C is for Corpse--” she chanted.
Roddie reached into her shapeless dress and pinched. Lately that had helped her over these spells. But this time, though it stopped the kindergarten song, the treatment only started something worse.
“Wuzzums hungry?” Molly cooed, still rocking.
Utterly disgusted, Roddie ripped her head off her neck.
It was a completely futile gesture. The complicated mind that had cared for him and taught him speech and the alphabet hadn’t made him a mechanic, and his only tool was a broken-handled screwdriver.
He was still tinkering when the soldiers came in. While they lined up along the wall, he put Molly’s head back on her neck.
She gaped coyly at the new arrivals. “Hello, boys,” she simpered. “Looking for a good time?”
Roddie slapped her to silence, reflecting briefly that there were many things he didn’t know about Molly. But there was work to be done. Carefully he framed the ritual words she’d taught him: “Soldiers, come to attention and report!”
There were eleven of them, six feet tall, with four limbs and eight extremities. They stood uniformly, the thumbs on each pair of hands touching along the center line of the legs, front feet turned out at an angle of forty-five degrees, rear feet turned inward at thirty degrees.
“Sir,” they chorused, “we have met the enemy and he is ours.”
He inspected them. All were scratched and dented, but one in particular seemed badly damaged. His left arm was almost severed at the shoulder.
“Come here, fellow,” Roddie said. “Let’s see if I can fix that.”
The soldier took a step forward, lurched suddenly, stopped, and whipped out a bayonet.
“Death to Invaders!” he yelled, and charged crazily.
Molly stepped in front of him.
“You aren’t being very nice to my baby,” she murmured, and thrust her knitting needles into his eyes.
Roddie jumped behind him, knocked off his helmet, and pressed a soft spot on his conical skull. The soldier collapsed to the floor.
Roddie salvaged and returned Molly’s needles. Then he examined the patient, tearing him apart as a boy dismembers an alarm clock.
It was lucky he did. The left arm’s pair of hands suddenly writhed off the floor in an effort to choke him. But because the arm was detached at the shoulder and therefore blind, he escaped the clutching onslaught and could goad the reflexing hands into assaulting one another harmlessly.
Meanwhile, the other soldiers left, except for one, apparently another casualty, who stumbled on his way out and fell into the fire. By the time Roddie had hauled him clear, damage was beyond repair. Roddie swore, then decided to try combining parts of this casualty with pieces of the other to make a whole one.
To get more light for the operation, he poked up the fire. Roddie was new at his work, and took it seriously. It alarmed him to watch the soldiers melt away, gradually succumbing to battle damage, shamed him to see the empty ruins burn section by section as the Invaders repeatedly broke through and had to be burned out.
Soon there would be nothing left of the Private Property Keep Out that, according to Molly’s bedtime story, the Owners had entrusted to them when driven away by radioactivity. Soon the soldiers themselves would be gone. None would remain to guard the city but a few strayed servants like Molly, and an occasional Civil Defender.
And himself, Roddie reflected, spitting savagely into the fire. He might remain. But how he fitted into the picture, he didn’t know. And Molly, who claimed to have found him in the ruins after a fight with Invaders twenty years before, couldn’t or wouldn’t say.
Well, for as long as possible, Roddie decided, he’d do his duty as the others did theirs--single-mindedly. Eventually the soldiers might accept him as one of themselves; meanwhile, this newly attempted first aid was useful to them.
He gave the fire a final poke and then paused, wondering if, when heated, his screwdriver could make an unfastened end of wire stick on the grayish spot where it seemed to belong.
Stretching prone to blow the embers hot so he could try out his new idea, Roddie got too close to the flames. Instantly the room filled with the stench of singed hair. Roddie drew angrily back, beating out the sparks in his uncut blond mane.
As he stood slapping his head and muttering, a deranged Civil Defense firefighter popped into the doorway and covered him with carbon dioxide foam.
Roddie fled. His life-long friends were not merely wearing out, they were unbearably wearing.
In the street, even before he’d wiped off the foam, he regretted his flight. The fire was back home. And here in the cold of this fog-shrouded canyon, a mere trail between heaped-up walls of rubble, the diaper he wore felt inadequate against the pre-dawn cold. His cherished weapon, a magnetic tack-hammer, was chill beneath the diaper’s top, and the broken, radium-dialed wristwatch suspended from a string around his neck hung clammy against his chest. He stood irresolute on numbing bare feet, and considered returning to the more familiar bedlam.
But colder than cold was his shame at being cold. Molly never was, though she knew how to keep him warm, nor were the others. Hunger, thirst, pain and coldness were sensations never experienced by his friends. Like the growth he’d been undergoing till recently, these were things of ignominy, to be hidden as far as possible from inquiring eyes. Cold as it was, he’d have to hide.
Temporarily, the darkness concealed him, though it was not quite complete. From above the fog, the moon played vaguely deceptive light on the splinters of architecture looming toward it. Some distance off, an owl hooted, but here nocturnal rodents felt free to squeak and rustle as they scampered.
The world seemed ghostly. Yet it wasn’t dead; it merely lurked. And as an irrepressible yawn reminded Roddie of his absurd need for sleep even in the midst of danger, he concluded for the thousandth time that the One who’d built him must have been an apprentice.
For just such reasons he’d developed the hideout toward which he now walked. It had been the haven of his adolescence, when the discovery of how much he differed from his friends had been a shock, and the shock itself a difference to be hidden.
His hiding place was a manhole, dead center in the dead street. A weathered bronze bar, carefully placed in the cover’s slotted rim, was the levering key that opened its door.
Everything was wrong tonight! He couldn’t even find the bar. Of course that spoiled things, because the bar was a roller on which to move the heavy cover from below, and a support that held it ajar for ventilation.
But the example of his friends had taught him above all else to carry out every purpose. Molly was a nurse; she had raised him despite all obstacles. The soldiers were guards; they protected the ruins against everything larger than a rat. The firefighter had put even him out when he was aflame...
Anyhow, the manhole cover had been loosened by his frequent handling. He lifted it aside by main strength, then flattened himself to the street, and felt with his feet for the top rung.
Halfway down the iron ladder, something made him pause. He looked, but saw only blackness. He listened, sniffed, found nothing. What could have entered through the iron cover?
He sneered at his own timidity and jumped to the bottom.
It was warm! The dry bottom of the hole had the temperature of body heat, as if a large animal had recently rested there!
Quickly, Roddie drew the hammer from his waist. Then, with weapon ready for an instantaneous blow, he stretched his left hand through the darkness. He touched something warm, softish. Gingerly he felt over that curving surface for identifying features.
While Roddie investigated by touch, his long fingers were suddenly seized and bitten. At the same time, his right shin received a savage kick. And his own retaliatory blow was checked in mid-swing by an unexpected voice.
“Get your filthy hands off me!” it whispered angrily. “Who do you think you are?”
Startled, he dropped his hammer. “I’m Roddie,” he said, squatting to fumble for it. “Who do you think you are?”
“I’m Ida, naturally! Just how many girls are there in this raiding party?”
His first Invader--and he had dropped his weapon!
Scrabbling fearfully in the dust for his hammer, Roddie paused suddenly. This girl--whatever that was--seemed to think him one of her own kind. There was a chance, not much, but worth taking, to turn delay to advantage. Maybe he could learn something of value before he killed her. That would make the soldiers accept him!
He stalled, seeking a gambit. “How would I know how many girls there are?”
Half expecting a blow, he got instead an apology. “I’m sorry,” the girl said. “I should have known. Never even heard your name before, either. Roddie ... Whose boat did you come in, Roddie?”
Boat? What was a boat? “How would I know?” he repeated, voice tight with fear of discovery.
If she noticed the tension, she didn’t show it. Certainly her whisper was friendly enough. “Oh, you’re one of the fellows from Bodega, then. They shoved a boy into our boat at the last minute, too. Tough, wasn’t it, getting separated in the fog and tide like that? If only we didn’t have to use boats ... But, say, how are we going to get away from here?”
“I wouldn’t know,” Roddie said, closing his fingers on the hammer, and rising. “How did you get in?”
“Followed your footprints. It was sundown and I saw human tracks in the dust and they led me here. Where were you?”
“Scouting around,” Roddie said vaguely. “How did you know I was a man when I came back?”
“Because you couldn’t see me, silly! You know perfectly well these androids are heat-sensitive and can locate us in the dark!”
Indeed he did know! Many times he’d felt ashamed that Molly could find him whenever she wanted to, even here in the manhole. But perhaps the manhole would help him now to redeem himself...
“I’d like to get a look at you,” he said.
The girl laughed self-consciously. “It’s getting gray out. You’ll see me soon enough.”
But she’d see him, Roddie realized. He had to talk fast.
“What’ll we do when it’s light?” he asked.
“Well, I guess the boats have gone,” Ida said. “You could swim the Gate, I guess--you seem tall and strong enough. But I couldn’t. You’ll think it’s crazy, but I’ve given this some thought, and even looked it over from the other side. I expect to try the Golden Gate Bridge!”
Now he was getting somewhere! The bridge was ruined, impassable. Even her own people had crossed the Strait by other means. But if there were a way over the bridge...
“It’s broken,” he said. “How in the world can we cross it?”
“Oh, you’ll find out, if you take me up there. I--I don’t want to be alone, Roddie. Will you go with me? Now?”
Well, she could be made to point out the route before he killed her--if nothing happened when she saw him.
Uneasy, Roddie hefted the hammer in his hand.
A giggle broke the pause. “It’s nice of you to wait and let me go first up the ladder,” the girl said. “But where the heck is the rusty old thing?”
“I’ll go first,” said Roddie. He might need the advantage. “The ladder’s right behind me.”
He climbed with hammer in teeth, and stretched his left hand from street level to grasp and neutralize the girl’s right. Then, nervously fingering his weapon, he stared at her in the thin gray dawn.
She was short and lean, except for roundnesses here and there. From her shapeless doeskin dress stretched slender legs that tapered to feet that were bare, tiny, and, like her hands, only two in number.
Roddie was pleased. They were evenly matched as to members, and that would make things easy when the time came.
He looked into her face. It smiled at him, tanned and ruddy, with a full mouth and bright dark eyes that hid under long lashes when he looked too long.
Startling, those wary eyes. Concealing. For a moment he felt a rush of fear, but she gave his hand a squeeze before twisting loose, and burst into sudden laughter.
“Diapers!” she chortled, struggling to keep her voice low. “My big, strong, blond and blue-eyed hero goes into battle wearing diapers, and carrying only a hammer to fight with! You’re the most unforgettable character I have ever known!”
He’d passed inspection, then--so far. He expelled his withheld breath, and said, “I think you’ll find me a little odd, in some ways.”