On the floor, several bright spots formed a row. Snorg liked to watch them move slowly across the dull tiles. The spots of light were different from the glow that suffused the Room. He had discovered some time ago that the source of this light was the small windows near the ceiling. He liked to lie on the floor so the spots would warm him. He wanted to do this now. He tried to move his arms but managed only to fall helplessly off the bed.
"Dags . . . ," he hissed between clenched teeth. He couldn't move his numb jaw. "Dags . . . ," he repeated with an effort.
One of the Dagses turned his head from the viewscreen—in reaction probably to the thud of the body instead of to Snorg's voice. Moosy was humming some tune the whole time, making little yawps for the words. The Dags with a few quick jerks pulled his way to Snorg and slapped him in the face, hard. Both Dagses had strong arms. They didn't use their undeveloped legs much.
"Pa . . . pa . . . ," stammered the Dags, making rhythmic motions with his shoulders to say that Snorg would be able to move his arms in a minute. He started hooking the tangle of wires to Snorg. The other Dags also came, pulling himself, and gave Snorg's hair a yank. The yank hurt, but pain was what Snorg wanted.
"My head . . . head . . ." A pounding in his skull. "Good . . . good."
The second Dags then poked a finger in Snorg's eye. Snorg twisted his head away and roared. The first Dags beat at the second Dags, until the second Dags rolled away. Snorg's eye brimmed with tears, so he couldn't see if the first Dags was attaching all the electrodes right. But he didn't worry, because the Dags usually did. He imagined the Dags attaching the wires of the machine, imagined him cocking his head comically as he worked. Both Dagses had eyes set so wide apart, they had to cock their heads.
"Tavegner! . . . Want to hear a story?" That was Piecky's smooth, resonant voice. Snorg admired the way Piecky talked. He could make out every word, although his lack of external ears limited his hearing. Piecky was answered by a loud gurgle. Tavegner still couldn't move. He announced his presence only by gurgling. Had he stood up, he would have been the tallest of them, taller than Tib or Aspe. Tib only stood, so she was the tallest.
"I might be taller than Tib, if I could stand," Snorg thought.
He was pleased that today he had feeling in his entire head. The pain was a service provided him daily by the Dagses.
"Piecky, shut up!" shouted Moosy. "You can tell him the story later . . . I'm singing now."
Snorg's hands were numb, like pieces of wood, but they moved according to his will. He tore himself free of the tangle of wires and tubes. He pinched his arm. There was no feeling. "At least I can move it," he thought. He inspected the cuts and bruises on his body. Most were healing. But he had two new cuts from his last fall off the bed. Cuts were Snorg's curse: a moment of inattention, and he could blunder into something and break his skin without knowing it. He was constantly afraid that he wouldn't notice a cut in time and it would get infected. He crawled to the viewscreen. Tib stood nearby, rigid, while one of the Dagses was trying to pull her clothes off from the bottom.
"Who dresses her?" Snorg wondered. Every day the Dagses did the same thing, and every day, in the morning, Tib was dressed again.
Finally Tib's gray gown fell to the floor, and the Dags started to climb up her leg.
Snorg watched to see. What happened was what always happened: the little Dags got nowhere. When he was high enough, Tib simply scissored her legs shut. The Dags, resigned, went and squatted in front of the viewscreen and stared open-mouthed at it.
"She's not that stupid," thought Snorg. "She always closes her legs in time . . ."
Tib was a woman—only lately had Snorg realized this. She looked very much like the women the viewscreen showed during the lessons.
"Her hips maybe are a little narrow, and she's too tall, but everything else is in place . . ." Until now he had thought of her as furniture, a motionless decoration of the Room. She seemed even taller from the floor. Someday he would like to talk to her. Tib was the only person in the Room he had been unable to communicate with. Even Tavegner, who lay like a mound of meat and couldn't utter a word, had interesting things to tell. You conversed with him by the trick of having yes be one gurgle and no two. Tavegner filled almost half the Room, and for a long time everyone thought he was like Tib. It was Piecky who figured out how to talk with him. Before that, the Dagses discovered that Tavegner responded to jabs, because they liked to lounge on his immense, soft, warm body. Clever Piecky worked out the way for Tavegner to gurgle yes for the letter of the alphabet he wanted and to gurgle twice to end a word. Everyone would gather around to listen. Snorg would bring the box that held Piecky, and the Dagses would drag Moosy. All together they would spell out letter by letter.
"I am Tavegner," Tavegner said. Then he told them a number of things. He told them he liked it when the Dagses lounged on him, he thanked Piecky, and he asked them to move him a little so he could see the viewscreen better. But lately Tavegner had become lazy: he preferred to be given simple yes-or-no questions.
Snorg moved himself to Piecky.
"Piecky, are you a man or a woman?" he asked and began to unwrap the sheet.
"Stop that, damn it, Snorg . . . It doesn't matter what I am." Piecky's small body twisted, but Snorg unwrapped it all the way. Then he wrapped it up again.
"You don't have anything," he said.
"What did you think, stupid?" Piecky sneered. "The Dagses would have found out long ago if I had . . ."
Piecky's head was beautiful. It was larger even than Snorg's and formed better even than the heads of the people on the viewscreen.
"You have a beautiful head, Piecky," said Snorg, to put him in a better humor. Piecky actually blushed at that.
"I know," he replied. "And yours is ugly, but normally formed, all in all, except for the ears . . . I'm the brains here and will be around long after they've put you all away."
"What are you talking about?"
"Nothing . . . I need the sucker now."
Snorg pulled out the wall tube for excrement, plugged it into Piecky, and left him. The viewscreen was showing trees, a lot of trees. They were pretty, colorful, and moved gracefully. Snorg had never seen trees but dreamed of sleeping in one. He imagined branches arranged around him to make a soft, warm bed. The viewscreen always showed pretty things: spreading landscapes, people shaped correctly. He learned a lot of useful information.
Snorg felt regret that he wasn't pretty like the people he saw on the viewscreen who engaged in all kinds of complicated activities. From the perspective of the floor and his physical shortcomings, those people seemed perfection. It was his fault he was the way he was instead of like them, though he didn't know why it was his fault. Watching the viewscreen, he forgot everything. With his eyes he absorbed the scenes and facts that flowed from it. He saw things that had never been in the Room, things that would have remained unknown to him forever without the viewscreen. A woman appeared. She stood unmoving. She was a model to demonstrate the proportions of a correctly formed woman. Near the viewscreen, Tib stood unmoving and watched with glassy eyes. Snorg compared her with the woman on the viewscreen. Tib was bald, which made her head different from the head of the woman on the viewscreen, but when Snorg tried to picture hair on Tib's head, the comparison wasn't so bad. Tib had delicate ears, which stood out a little and were translucent. Snorg envied her those ears. On the viewscreen, lines appeared, showing the correct proportions. Snorg crawled to Tib to measure her proportions with a string. Not only did she have both arms of equal length, and both legs equal, but also her arms were shorter than her legs, and even in the smallest details Tib's build agreed with the build of the model. To measure her head in proportion to the rest of her body, he got up on his knees and stretched his arms as high as he could. Everything was right.
"Her body is completely correct," he thought, and then realized that he had managed to lift himself up on his numb knees. He immediately fell.
The hum in his ears told him that with the fall he had lost consciousness. When the hum went away, Snorg heard Piecky yelling to Moosy.
"Relax! Stop fighting! . . . When he's done, he'll go," Piecky was saying.
Moosy sobbed. "I can't stand . . . He's disgusting, an animal . . . Stop! Leave me alone . . ."
Snorg lifted his head: one of the Dagses had climbed into the box with Moosy.
"This is becoming unendurable," he thought. "We can't defend ourselves against them . . . and we can't live with them."
The Dags stopped its hoarse panting and plopped to the floor.
Piecky was going to tell a story. The Dagses held up his arm for the gesturing, though he could make only the most limited motions with it. He scratched his face with his hand. "That's great, that's wonderful," he said over and over. "You people don't know how to make use of your bodies."
A few slaps by the Dagses brought him around. He began to tell the story.
"It was a lovely dream." Piecky closed his eyes. "I was floating in air . . . It was heavenly . . . I had these black, flat wings on my sides, the kind we see sometimes on the viewscreen . . . The air moved with me. It was wonderfully cool," he said more softly, as if to himself. "Moosy was flying beside me. Her wings were bright green. She had four wings and flapped them so nicely, I was sorry I was only Piecky . . ."
From the corner came a gurgle.
"Tavegner asks you to speak up," said Snorg, and the next hollow gurgle confirmed that.
"All right. The room became smaller and smaller," he continued, "and everything around me got greener and greener. Both the Dagses were flying below us, going in the same direction we were . . . and it was wonderful, because the sky we were flying toward was an enormous viewscreen, and as you got nearer, you could see the pixels. I could move in any direction . . ."
From the corner where Moosy's box was came a quiet sob. Snorg pulled himself toward her.
"Do you need anything?" he asked.
"I wanted to call you, because if one of the Dagses comes, he'll do the thing I hate again. Put me next to Piecky, could you?" she asked.
"Did his story move you?" Snorg asked Moosy, regarding her. Unlike Piecky, she had all her limbs, though they were shriveled.
"It's not Piecky, it's Tavegner," she said through her tears. "The last time Piecky told a story, Tavegner asked to speak by letters . . . and he said . . . he said he wanted to go into the grinder instead of Piecky . . ."
"Piecky learned about it a long time ago," Moosy explained. "He analyzes everything they say on the viewscreen. They pick the best of us . . . those who are formed the best, and the rest go into the grinder."
"You mean, the thing they show on the viewscreen and call war?"
She nodded yes. "Put me next to Piecky," she said. "Every time he finishes telling his beautiful dream, he's so feeble . . ."
Making a tremendous effort, Snorg lifted Moosy from her box and put her in the crib Piecky lay in, after which he had to slide back to the floor in a hurry, because Tib was soiling herself. He attached the sucker to her. When she was finished, he grasped her hips with all his strength and pulled himself to his knees.
"Don't do it that way, all right . . . ?" he said, looking up at her. Tib looked down and saw his face twisted with effort. Her ears stuck out a little, and the light shone through them. They seemed extraordinarily beautiful. He clenched his numb jaw and took Tib by the shoulders. He felt that she was helping him, not pulling away but trying to stand straight to support him. She continued staring at his face. Between her parted lips, white teeth were visible.
Rising, Snorg felt large, gigantic . . . He stood. For the first time he stood on his paralyzed legs. Now he was looking at her not from below but from above . . . looking at Tib, who was as high as the sky.
Everyone stopped talking.
He decided to take a step. He felt power . . . Suddenly he saw that one of his feet was moving toward her . . .
"Tib! I'm walking . . ." It was meant to be a shout, but it came out as a snort or sob. Suddenly the Room swayed, and Snorg fell flat on his back with a crash.
The Room had two other occupants, whom Snorg never met, because they both used the same machine he did. While he was active, they slept. They were Aspe and Dulf. Aspe resembled Tavegner in shape, though she wasn't his equal in size. Piecky said she was intelligent and nasty. She couldn't speak, but communication with her presented no problem. She never detached her artificial arms and loved to play tricks on Piecky or Tavegner. Snorg hoped to talk with her someday, and with Dulf, who lay curled in a fetal position and whose incredibly wrinkled skin made you think he was ancient, though he was the same age they all were, that is, just past puberty.
Tib stopped fouling the Room, she learned to go to Snorg when she felt the need. Snorg, seeing her, usually was able to get the sucker. Tib began to respond to him: sometimes she would walk to the part of the Room where he was lying and stand by him, looking at him. She was much more active than she had been before.
"I underestimated you, Snorg," Piecky said once. "You're OK . . . You were able to make contact with Baldy. I couldn't, though I tried plenty . . . You've changed, Snorg. Before, you looked like an animal that's beaten all the time. Now one can see thought in your face."
"Animal" meant primitive, mindless, and strong. Occasionally the viewscreen showed pictures of real animals that were long extinct. Snorg was pleased by Piecky's compliment and understood why Piecky had given it. From that day Snorg practiced to strengthen his fortitude and will. After the moment when an exertion of will forced his unfeeling legs to make the first step, will became for him the most important thing. He could take many steps now, though often they ended with a dangerous fall. He stood by leaning on Tib's body, but he walked by himself, and she only helped him a little. Sometimes, when he woke, he could move his arms without the help of the Dagses, and without the machine.
"You can see the will in my face," he told Piecky.
Piecky, lying down, lifted his head and looked.
"You're right," he said. "The lines have hardened, the corners of your mouth turn down. But you better hurry, Snorg. I have the feeling we won't be together long . . ."
What Piecky relied on was his brain. He would spend hours at the keyboard of a viewscreen and, if one of the Dagses didn't unscrew his artificial hand as a joke, he would tap at the keys continually. Learning was his passion, and being with the machine. Snorg knew that you could make Piecky happy by setting him down at the keyboard and letting him sit there for hours.
Snorg decided to teach Tib to speak. Piecky advised him to press her hand to his throat so she could feel the vibrations of his vocal cords. For this purpose, in order to stand, Snorg grabbed her by the hips. But he did it too suddenly, and Tib fell. It was the first time he saw her on the floor. One of the Dagses, seizing the opportunity, quickly got between her legs, which had been thrown apart. Snorg swung, and the little one, from the blow, went rolling across the floor. There was blood.
"Snorg! Stop!" cried Piecky. "You'll hurt him."
"It's my blood," said Snorg, inspecting his hand. "I cut my hand on him."
Tib had pulled herself together and sat up. The Dagses didn't approach her, watching Snorg carefully.
"Maybe it's good you did that," said Piecky. "I would have, if I could, for Moosy . . . They do with her what they want, whenever they want."
Snorg took Tib's hand and placed the palm on his throat.
"Tib," he said, pointing at her. She watched him in silence.
"Tib," he repeated. She looked frightened.
He passed his hand along her face, touched a pink ear, and was surprised: Tib's ear had no opening.
"Piecky!" he shouted. "You're a genius! You were right. She's deaf. Only by touch . . ."
Over and over, with extreme care to be correct, he pronounced her name. He had complete control of his mouth now. After one of the times, her lips moved, and she gave a muffled, hollow noise: "Ghbb . . ." She got to her feet and repeated it several times.
"Ghbb . . . ghbbr." She said it louder and louder, walking across the Room.
"She'll wake Dulf," Piecky said.
Snorg gestured for her to come. She came and sat. Again he started saying her name.
Tib learned quickly. Soon she could say her name, Snorg's, Piecky's, and several other words. Piecky was of the opinion that her sight was not good either and that most information came to her through touch. He wasn't sure, however, whether this was physiological or whether Tib's brain was simply unable to process all the data entering through her eyes.
Dulf began to wake up more frequently. He never changed his position on the floor, though he blinked and even spoke. His speech was comical: he stammered and couldn't find words. Snorg wanted to know how Dulf managed without a machine, but Dulf didn't know the meaning of the word "will," so there was nothing to discuss between them. The Dagses once tried to straighten Dulf on the floor, but it turned out that his body was actually in a ball. Piecky said that was impossible, the only explanation was that Dulf was twins grown together and he had a little brother on his belly.
"Have you noticed, Snorg," Piecky remarked, lifting his artificial hand from the keyboard, "how quickly we've been changing? Before, I thought everything was fixed for us: you crawled, Tib stood, Dulf spoke only when you slept. And now?"
"What do you mean, Piecky?"
"A big change awaits us, a very big change. Remember how it was at the beginning?"
"Each one of us had a viewscreen in front of his nose. The viewscreens taught us everything, showed us what the world was like and how it should be . . . We were surrounded with wires, which got our muscles going, our organs, the whole body . . . and kept us alive."
"I still use the machine sometimes, but I seem to recall, through a fog, that it was that way with all of us," said Snorg.
"Through a fog, exactly!" Piecky became excited. "They pump drugs into us, give us powders. We forget . . . Though maybe they want what we forget to remain deep inside us . . . in the unconscious."
Snorg saw that Piecky didn't look well: his beautiful face was tired, the skin was dark around his eyes, and he was very pale.
"You spend too much time in front of the viewscreen. You're looking worse and worse . . . ," Snorg said.
Suddenly one of the Dagses became interested in Piecky. The Dags apparently wanted to carry him to another place, though for the moment he only stroked Piecky's cheek gently and tugged at his hair. Piecky gave Snorg a knowing look.
"You see?" He smiled. "They understand some things after all. I only became aware of this recently. I don't know why they both want to pass themselves off as cretins."
The Dags gave Piecky a slap and angrily left for another part of the Room. Piecky's grin broadened.
"You think I'm entertaining myself, Snorg? That all Piecky needs is to be put in front of the viewscreen and have his hand screwed on, and he's happy?"
"Snoegg," said Tib. She could now take the sucker from the wall herself and didn't foul the Room anymore, but she wasn't able to put the tube away. Snorg helped her and returned to Piecky.
Piecky told him, "Thanks to the viewscreen, I've learned a lot of things. Did you know, Snorg, that there exist many rooms like ours? The people that live in them, they're like us. Some more defective, some less. One can see those rooms, because there are not only viewscreens everywhere but also cameras . . . We are constantly observed. My guess is that the lenses are near the ceiling, but it's hard to see them. In one of the rooms, a dark blue room, lives a Piecky just like me. His name is Scorp. We've introduced ourselves. He looks at me on the viewscreen, and I look at him. He too has an artificial hand . . ."
"Maybe," Snorg suggested, "we don't deserve to live the way the people shown on the viewscreen do, who are correctly formed."
"So you've swallowed that crap! And you feel guilty." Piecky twisted so violently, it loosened the straps of his hand. Snorg had to tighten them.
Piecky's eyes roved, glittered. "They feed us guilt," he spat. "I don't know why they're doing it, but I'll find out . . . Just as I found out a lot more from those goddamn viewscreens than I was supposed to . . ."
Snorg was awed by the strength that pulsed from Piecky. "And I thought will was my specialty," he mused.
Piecky must have read the expression on his face as doubt, because he went on: "Think about it, Snorg. Every program they show us, every fact . . . it's all about how a human being should be. The arms, such a way, the legs, such a way, the correct way . . . And we? And I, what am I? A tatter of a man . . . And that's supposed to be my fault? Do you understand?! Why do they keep drumming that into us?"
Snorg said nothing. This proved how extremely wise Piecky was. One could learn from him, learn how to look at the world differently. Tib sat down beside Snorg and began to snuggle her face in his. The touch of her delicate skin Snorg loved more than anything.
"I'm afraid I won't have time to learn everything. Time's running out," Piecky concluded under his breath, seeing that Snorg was no longer listening.
"Pieckyy! . . ." called Moosy.
"Don't, he's sleeping," said Snorg.
"Then come here and look at Aspe," she insisted. "She's not breathing."
Getting up by himself took Snorg several seconds of excruciating effort. Aspe, it turned out, was lying as she usually did—a little twisted, her withered hands tucked underneath her large, flat face. Snorg examined her.
"She's sleeping, the way she always does."
"You're wrong, Snorg. Look again."
Turning Aspe's face toward the ceiling was beyond Snorg's strength. Fortunately the meddlesome Dagses were nearby. The three together were able to move her. Her body was cold and stiff.
"Damn, you're right . . . It must have happened some time ago," he said in a hollow voice. "And I never exchanged a word with her. She was always asleep . . . Should we wake Piecky?"
"No. He'll find out anyway," Moosy said. "I don't understand her death. It doesn't go with what Piecky told us."
Snorg sat with his face in his hands. Hearing a low, incoherent noise behind him, he turned. It was Tavegner crying. Tears, one after the other, were streaming down his red cheeks.
"Turn me over on my back," Moosy asked Snorg. "The skin on my stomach burns. I must have bedsores."
"On your stomach, you're safer from the Dagses," he said.
"When they want it, it's no problem for them to turn me over."
Aspe's body disappeared while everyone slept, so no one knew how it was done.
Seeing Piecky sitting haggard at the keyboard, Snorg decided to tell him what Moosy had said. He put Piecky in a more comfortable position, sat beside him, and told him.
"Aspe's death doesn't contradict what I've concluded," Piecky answered. "The laws that govern us operate statistically. It's simple: first they tested us thoroughly and selected those who were viable, or possibly the others died . . . Then they discarded those who couldn't learn, the complete cretins. The rest they taught intensively, using various means . . ."
Snorg watched the capering Dagses, then looked at Piecky, who returned the look with a smile . "Exactly," Piecky went on. "Aspe died because the tests they ran weren't perfect. Unless continued survival is itself a test."
"What comes next?" asked Snorg.
Piecky's shrug was with his whole body.
"Nothing good, I'm sure . . . In any case, nothing good for me." He hesitated. "You see, Snorg, I was able to penetrate the information system that serves us. I saw other rooms, many of them. In each one, the people are our age, or younger. The very young ones sit in front of viewscreens and fill themselves with information. The ones our age do what we are doing now: living, observing, conversing . . . I haven't yet found a room with people who are older than us . . . There's a kind of information barrier. The system doesn't answer questions about that . . . But it will end soon, this. I feel it, Snorg."
A strong light hit Snorg in the eyes. For a while he couldn't focus. Then he became aware that he was no longer in the Room. He was lying on something hard, in a place that seemed vast. He felt terribly alone, because none of his companions was with him. At the other end of the place sat an unknown man. He was very old, but Snorg realized that the man was simply older than those Snorg had been living with. The man, seeing that Snorg was awake, approached him and extended a hand.
"My name is Bablyoyannis Knoboblou," he said.
Slowly, with an effort of will, Snorg rose from his bedding.
"Congratulations, Snorg. On this day you become a person. You were the best . . ."
Snorg reached and shook the man's hand, curious to see what the hand felt like.
"I have here the report of Central"—the man took a few sheets of paper from the desk—"and the decision of the Committee, which is made up of persons . . . You will receive an identity card and can choose a name."
Snorg didn't understand. The man gave the impression of a kindly clerk who was performing a pleasant yet routine duty.
"Your results," Bablyoyannis continued, running an eye over the papers he held. "A 132. Not bad. On my test, I scored 154," he said with a smile of pride. "That Piecky one got dangerously close to you, with 126 points, but his lack of limbs, genitals . . . It's hard to make up for that with intelligence alone . . . Better that someone like you was chosen and not one of those stumps."
Snorg thought, "I'd like to crack your head." He said, "Piecky is my friend," and felt the old numbness in his jaw.
"It's better not to have friends until you become a person," observed Bablyoyannis. "Do you want to know how the others did? Moosy--84, Tib--72, Dulf--30 . . . The rest, close to zero. The Dagses scored 18 each, and that ox, Tavegner, 12."
Snorg heard the scorn in Bablyoyannis's voice and felt a growing hatred for the man.
"What happens to me now?" he asked. The numbness in his face wouldn't go away.
"As a person, you have a choice. You will enter the normal life of the society. A short period of training . . . and then you can either continue studying or take a job. From today, you receive an account with the sum of 400 money, as does everyone who becomes a person. Personally I would advise you not to have cosmetic surgery until you obtain a steady source of income. Ears are not really that important . . ." He gave Snorg a confidential look. "In time, you'll be able to save up. There's always a large selection of parts."
Snorg felt cold sweat trickling down his back: he could see Tib before him.
"What happens to the others?" he finally managed to ask.
"Ah. Yes . . . You have the right to know." Bablyoyannis was trying to be patient. "There are always many more individuals born than individuals who attain personhood. We harvest them for material. Among them, you can find a perfectly good pair of ears, or eyes, or a liver . . . Though some don't even possess that. A type like Tavegner is probably good only for tissue cultures . . ."
"That's inhuman," Snorg couldn't help saying, through clenched teeth.
"Inhuman?! No. The war, that was inhuman. Today a hundred percent of the population is born with physical defects, and three-quarters with mental defects. Reproduction, as a rule, is possible only by test tube. Save your indignation for our ancestors."
Apparently Snorg didn't seem convinced, because Bablyoyannis went on: "The birth rate has been maximized, to increase the probability of obtaining normal individuals." He looked hard at Snorg. "As for the others . . . They're the cheapest way for us to produce the organs we need. Because even the chosen aren't perfect, are they, Snorg? . . . I've been working in this department for seven years now," Bablyoyannis said, "and I can assure you that this path is the only one that's right."
"You're not perfect either, Bablyoyannis. You drag your left leg, and your face is partially paralyzed," said Snorg.
"I know. It shows." Bablyoyannis was prepared for that remark. "But I work hard, and I've been saving almost all my money . . . for an operation."
Tibsnorg Pieckymoosy began work in the Central Archive of Biological Materials. At the same time, he continued his education. The salary he made was good, but after a pro rata deduction to pay for the care he had received until now, not much remained. Expenditure for food and the rent for a dark little room consumed the rest of his money, so that his paycheck was only symbolic. The food, synthetic, was eaten in a cafeteria. It was an improvement over the IV. In the cafeteria he kept seeing the same people, which was boring, but by his calculations he couldn't afford a better eating place, one where he would be able to come at different hours. He exchanged few words with the people he met in the cafeteria. They were all older than he. Some came in wheelchairs, but most could walk. He looked at them carefully: not one was completely normal. Each had deformities.
Tibsnorg was lucky: had he scored lower than 120 on his test, he wouldn't have been allowed to continue his education. But he also kept working, because he feared the memories that came with free time. He would pay for all his operations himself, but he didn't forget who had first helped him stand on his legs and conquer his nerveless body. Also, as a person, he had the right to know the truth, to know—despite the pictures on the viewscreen showing pretty landscapes, people formed correctly, and animals that had once lived—what the world really looked like now. Every five days, after work, he was allowed to go up to the surface and from an observation tower view his surroundings.
It was a grayish brown waste. Massive gray trucks continually moved across it, carrying loads from different mines. The trucks, he knew, were operated by people who could not have children, because the radiation background on the plain was too high. One of these drivers ate at Tibsnorg's cafeteria. He looked completely normal and made three times more money than anyone else there, and yet Tibsnorg would not have traded places with him.
The tests Tibsnorg had done on himself, with his first saved money, showed that he was fertile, though probably only passively, that is, through the collection and storing of his sperm. In a short time he mastered his computer job and was promoted. His new position was administering the decisions made by the division of Central that chose material to harvest from among the living specimens. Central's decisions were clear, logical, and in general didn't need correction. A bonus was given for discovering mistakes in them, and Tibsnorg paid close attention to his work. The material was harvested both for the general public hospital and for individuals who at their own cost wanted to reduce their defectiveness. There was plenty of work: several dozen requests came in every day, and with them the decisions, which all had to be read, considered, processed. Soon Tibsnorg established a procedure and began to have free time, which he used to familiarize himself with the computer and learn various facts.
He remembered Piecky's words, that because information was a privilege, one had to make the utmost use of it. He learned that the decision whether someone would be a person or not was usually based on a simple sum of scores on tests. There was therefore a fairly large margin of error. He also learned that he had become a person thanks only to Bablyoyannis's intervention. Bablyoyannis had changed Central's decision to give Piecky personhood. The number of points Piecky had earned for mental ability had in fact exceeded what Snorg accumulated for physical function, correctness of form, and intelligence. When Tibsnorg read on the viewscreen that Tib had received exactly a zero, he uttered an obscenity.
He had always been intrigued by the light of day that fell into the Room. Now he learned that it was only a lamp in the visible and the ultraviolet spectrum, a lamp that was turned on and off periodically. The Room was located far beneath the earth. On the surface, he saw the sun only once—a bright-gray disk shining through a thick mist. The sun was better now than it had been; in the time when the earth was covered constantly with snow, the sun never pierced the clouds.
Tibsnorg became better acquainted with the classification system for biological material. Tib, Piecky, and the others had been given serial numbers, from AT044567743 to AT044567749, and no longer possessed names. It soon happened that from number 44567746—from Moosy—an eye, nose, and one kidney were harvested for cosmetic use. Tibsnorg submitted a memo in opposition to the selection of AT044567746, but it was ignored, no doubt outvoted by others who were experts. He was very upset by this.
Next was the Dags numbered 44567748. The surgery was fatal: from the Dags was taken the esophagus and stomach, liver, intestines, both hands, and penis (though not the testicles). What was left could not live, so the skin, muscles, and bones of the arms were put in a tissue culture bank, and number 44567748 was removed from the database.
The value of each organ was calculated on the basis of what it had cost to maintain the individual. It was easiest to make such a calculation when the individual's number was removed, because in that case one simply divided the cost of maintenance of the biological material among the recipients of the organs harvested, by organ (using the proper coefficient). When the organs were not harvested together, the method of calculation applied became complicated and unclear, and Tibsnorg suspected that only the computer system could keep track of it.
He wondered what number he would have been given, if not for Babylonis. Would it have come after Tib's?
At the cafeteria, he no longer sat alone. He began talking with the driver who worked on the trucks that carried loads from the metal mines. The man called himself Abraham Dringenboom, and he was tall, thickset, and extremely proud of his name, which had been dug out of some library of history. Dringenboom had a deep, powerful voice and spoke very loudly, which made Tibsnorg uncomfortable, because ordinarily the cafeteria was silent. It seemed to him that everyone was watching them, though that made little sense, seeing as no one was interested in them. Besides, many of the diners had poor hearing or couldn't hear at all.
"Tibsnorg Pieckymoosy . . . ," boomed Dringenboom. "A strange name. Why did you choose it?"
"It's many names," Tibsnorg replied quietly. "There are many in me."
"Hmm," muttered Dringenboom. "So you made it up . . . It's not wise to get too close to the others in your Room . . . You know, today they said that the average lifespan of a person now is as much as twenty-four years." He was changing the subject. "I think it's too good to believe. I think they're fiddling with the medical statistics a little, so we won't feel bad."
"How do they arrive at that figure?" asked Tibsnorg, interested. "Is it for all individuals born or only for persons?"
"Are you kidding? For persons, of course. Less than a tenth are born alive."
Tibsnorg scrutinized Dringenboom. The driver seemed completely normal. True, he wore a gray tunic and trousers, so his body was not visible, but apart from the harelip that had been operated on, the scar from it mostly hidden by a graying stubble, nothing indicated any departure from the norm.
As if reading his thoughts, Dringenboom said, "My entire trunk was covered with warts on long, disgusting stalks. I had them removed. But the biggest problem is between my legs." Dringenboom grimaced. "But don't feel sorry for me, Tibsnorg. I'll buy myself the proper equipment and make five living kids with it. I've already put 1620 money away," he added, seeing Tibsnorg's disbelief.
That much money was inconceivable: Tibsnorg could save only 22.24 money from each ten-day period. For the sum of 1620 one could buy all of Tib—that is, of course, as biological material. More and more often her slender, graceful figure appeared before him, surrounded by a storm of colorful hair. His dreams were invariably about the Room. In and out of those dreams moved familiar shapes, but Tib was always present.
Tibsnorg rented a better room, one that had a window. Rooms at the surface were a rarity, so he was surprised that his new room—though a little smaller and with two viewscreens instead of three—cost only eight money more than the previous one. He understood the reason when he learned how high the radiation background was in rooms at the surface. But the view was worth it. He would spend hours looking at the opaque, leaden clouds that hung over the bare dun hills. The edge of the glacier wasn't visible, because his window was too low. The glacier could be seen only from the observation tower, and only on clear days or with good binoculars.
The scene, though it wasn't lovely like the ones on the viewscreen, drew him with irresistible force. That was probably why he applied for the position of driver of an outside transporter. Another motive was the high salary, which would allow him to save a considerable sum in a relatively short time.
At the transport bureau he was told to go to an official in a wheelchair. The man didn't come much above the desk, but there was something in his eyes that advised caution. When Tibsnorg presented the application, the man looked him over.
"Are you neuter or sexed?"
"Neuter," Tibsnorg lied, aware that being neuter was a condition for the job. The official nodded and with a disproportionately small hand entered something on the keyboard. He regarded the screen, and the lines of his face hardened. Even before he spoke, it was clear that the interview was over. Dringenboom almost struck Tibsnorg when he heard what had happened. In a fury, he pulled from the pocket of his worksuit his indicator—a small, pink piece of plastic.
"Look at that, idiot!" he said, pointing a thick finger at the plastic. His finger wobbled over the pink rectangle. "When that turns red, I can throw out my calendar . . ." His eyes flashed in his deeply tanned face. He made so much money, he could tan his skin. "Are you in such a hurry to get into the ground?!" he snarled.
"You can afford a sun lamp," said Tibsnorg quietly.
"And what, stupid, is that worth? . . . You can have woman by the bunch . . . even if you're missing everything between your legs but balls. The balls are what's important . . . the rest of it, the meat, doesn't cost more than 600, 800 money."
"I'm all right physically," Tibsnorg blurted. "It's my nervous system that's not complete."
"That's even cheaper . . . I'm telling you, you won't be able to drive the women away. They'll pull you apart. You should live, not die, my friend . . ."
Tibsnorg thought of telling him about Tib, but changed his mind, and the conversation ended there.
Abe Dringenboom was the only person Tibsnorg saw regularly. With random acquaintances at the table Tibsnorg exchanged only a few words. In contrast with his life in the Room, he led a solitary existence. He didn't seek out people; he lived with his memories. The women he met in the cafeteria or passed in the corridors couldn't compare with Tib: either they were ugly or their deformities were too evident. He began to wear, according to the rules, the red stripe that signified that he was not neuter, but that made no change whatever in his behavior. Perhaps he grew a little curt with the women, who now began to approach him. Possibly, had he worn the two red stripes that indicated full function, the pulling apart that Dringenboom warned about would have happened, but with one stripe Tibsnorg was left in peace.
Several days later, Dringenboom brought unpleasant news.
"I have cancer," he said in a dull voice.
"So? Half the population has cancer," said Tibsnorg with a shrug.
"Mine's in phase C," said Dringenboom.
"You have 1620 money, you'll be all right," said Tibsnorg.
"It's 1648," corrected Dringenboom. "But it's too little, it's worth shit . . . I have the kind that spreads quickly. To cure it, I'd need at least one and a half thousand, and then there'd be nothing left for a dick."
Tibsnorg was annoyed. "Why did they let it get to phase C? That's advanced. You could sue the medical division," he said.
"It's my fault," muttered Dringenboom. "I didn't go for the tests, because they cost and I wanted to save up before my indicator went completely red."
"But you can get free medical care, like every person."
"No thanks." Dringenboom's eyes were lusterless, and in his voice you could hear the lisp from his harelip operation. "They'll leave me my brain, eyes, and part of my nervous system, and the rest they'll take out and burn because of all the metastases. Then they'll make me part of a control unit for a shoveler in a mine or for a conveyer belt . . ."
"I think they could cure you another way than by replacing the diseased organs. But they don't do that for economic reasons. The demand for organs would fall if they did that . . ." Saying this, Tibsnorg began to calculate: 1648 money could buy all of Tib. And Dringenboom would be dead soon in any case. His indicator was already very dark. How many organs could Dringenboom buy? Twelve? Fourteen? Tibsnorg thought, "He'll lose his body in the end anyway, and for him that's worse than death. How can I get his money?"
Dringenboom looked at Tibsnorg, saying nothing.
Dringenboom changed after that. He became reticent and less sure of himself. When Tibsnorg told him about Tib, he shook his head wearily and said it was ridiculous, Tibsnorg should pick a woman for himself among persons and not go looking among biological material. To purchase an entire Tib he would probably have to save for a lifetime, and long before that happened, others would buy different parts of her body.
But Dringenboom agreed to take Tibsnorg for a ride on his huge truck. He carried loads from a fairly distant open mine. The run went through hills covered with wind-driven gray dust.
"All it takes is a dozen breaths of that," Dringenboom said, baring his teeth between his asymmetrical lips. "But the dust has to get past a pretty good filter," he laughed, "so instead it takes a few hundred thousand breaths."
The open mine was the ruins of an ancient city, from which the metal was being reclaimed. A giant shovel dug into the twisted walls of a former residence or factory. Dringenboom waited on line for the metal. Finally a portion of reinforced concrete, rubble, and dust was emptied into his truck.
"I make four, five runs a day . . . Central always tells me the path to take that has the lowest radiation level. Because the path changes, according to how the wind blows or how the rain or snow falls." He pointed at the tiny screen. "The radiation level is constantly updated. Today it's low, but sometimes the screen makes an awful racket . . . On such days we get a bonus of two or three money."
On the way back he let Tibsnorg drive a little. It was a matter only of giving the commands, since the truck was computer-controlled.
"If anything goes wrong, the autopilot brings it home," said Dringenboom. "Like if you pass out. The load can't be lost."
On one of the hills stood a solitary little building half buried in dust. It was all in one piece, even to the roof, door, and glass in the windows.
"I'd like to live in that house," said Dringenboom, "and not in the city."
"Live on the surface?"
"Your room is on the surface, Tibsnorg. One can do it, with enough shielding . . ."
At last the day came that had to come. The day that Tibsnorg had imagined in many different variations, but never thought that when it came, it would find him so unprepared.
He was working, as usual, at the viewscreen. He had saved up 48 money plus 320 of deferred credit. The screen presented the next order requiring a decision. A neat row of green letters and numbers informed him, with precision, that for AT044567744 it was proposed that the arms, legs, and trunk with neck be removed for one female recipient, the head for another. The brain would be terminated, and of course the code would be removed from the register.
"The woman must have had to work hard and long to afford such a body," he thought bitterly. "And the other woman, she must have liked the slender face and blue eyes in the catalog, liked them tremendously, to put up with deafness. Unless she saved enough to buy another pair of ears . . ."
He had known all along that this would happen, yet now he hesitated. He had thought he could save more money for this moment. But he had to act quickly, in this situation that was not the one he had imagined.
"Shit," he said over and over.
He asked the system for time to think, explained that he was considering the possibility of only one recipient's acquiring specimen AT044567744, as that would be more profitable. His request would delay the decision a little. He disconnected the cameras, got up from his desk, and left. His stride was efficient, swift. Exertion of will at every step had become a habit with him.
It was not far to the warehouse of biological material. He had already learned from the system in which room she was being kept. The system had also given him all the entry passwords. The sleepy guard at the massive metal door did not challenge him. Tibsnorg was covered with sweat. The elevator went with terrifying slowness. At last—the right level. An endless corridor with identical doors. What he intended to do was unheard of.
He came to door AT0445677. It opened automatically. Along the walls of the next corridor were stations that held biological material—dozens of individuals of different sizes and different degrees of deformity. All were without clothes; all were in a web of wires, electrodes. At first he counted nervously, then saw that there were numbers over each station. A long time passed before he reached her. She stood with open eyes. Their eyes met. She knew him. Disconnecting the wires took a few moments. It took longer to undo the straps that constrained her arms and legs. She immediately pressed herself, her face, to him.
"Yoo retoont, Sneogg. Ay noo," she said softly.
"Hurry, Tib, hurry." He took her by the hand. He knew that her muscles would be in good condition from electric stimulation. No one wanted to buy an atrophied limb.
"Piecky," she said, pointing to a small shape in a cluster of wires. Together they freed Piecky, who immediately woke.
"Leave it, Snorg," he said. "This is absurd."
Snorg took him in one arm and led Tib with the other. He caught his breath only in the elevator.
"And now what?" asked Piecky. Tib nestled her face against Snorg the whole time.
"I know all the passwords," said Snorg. "We'll have surprise on our side . . ."
In a room they passed, he found coveralls for Tib. At the main door the guard gave them an indifferent look. The thought did not occur to him that two of the three leaving were only material. He entered the password Snorg gave him, looked at the screen, and nodded for them to go.
Outside the warehouse, they practically ran. Snorg stopped a small automatic car, and they all climbed in. Even by vehicle, it was a considerable distance to Dringenboom's room. In all the corridors, the silence was unbroken and ominous.
They found Dringenboom in his room; he was still sleeping. A blow, and the camera hung sadly from its cable. A sharp pull completely broke the connection.
"Abe! Get up!" Snorg shook his shoulder. "Tib's with me. Are you coming with us?"
Dringenboom rubbed his eyes. He looked at them.
"Don't call me Abe. I'm Abraham," he said. "She's lovely," he added, looking at Tib. "No, I'm not going with you. Take the keycard for my truck and hit me on the head. Do it with that book, so there will be some blood . . . and get as far as you can from the city. That's your only chance."
"All right," said Snorg. "I'll tie you up too. It'll look better."
It took a while, because Snorg didn't want to hurt him too much. Finally Abraham Dringenboom lay senseless and tied up on his sofa, blood flowing from the broken skin on his forehead.
They were driving to the hangar of the transporter machines when the corridor filled with the howl of sirens. It was beginning. Every few meters, a red light flashed. The cameras in the corridor all turned slowly. The fugitives made it to the hangar before the doors locked. Snorg found Dringenboom's truck. He slid the keycard in its entry slot, and the machine responded. All three of them got on the rising platform and in a few moments were inside the control cabin. Snorg drove the truck from the hangar. It was a dark day, the clouds heavier than usual. He activated the viewscreen. An information broadcast was being given.
". . . shocking theft of biological material at a value of more than 4500 money! Nothing like this has happened in our memory! An intensive search is being conducted for the perpetrator, who is a DG-rank officer of the Archive of Biological Material. His name is Tibsnorg Pieckymoosy. The defense forces are joining the search. They will guarantee that the stolen property is reclaimed without damage and that the perpetrator is captured quickly."
The screen showed a number of taped images, from various cameras, of Snorg carrying Piecky and with Tib walking beside him.
Snorg whistled through his teeth. "Those defense forces are several hundred he-men with perfectly functioning bodies full of muscles," he said.
"I would say we haven't a prayer." Piecky took his eyes from the screen. "But I'm grateful to you for allowing me to see this . . ." He gazed out the window. "I lost track of time, hooked up to those wires. There was an injection for sleeping, an injection for waking . . . and so on, in a circle."
Tib also had been staring out the window, silently, from the moment they left the hangar.
"Fortunately there was a guy my height opposite me, and we could talk," Piecky went on. "The guy also talked with Tib, so she wouldn't become totally stupid. I couldn't talk to her, because she couldn't see my mouth and she can't hear. She's getting smarter. At least that's what the guy said."
Snorg drove the truck to the mine.
Piecky watched with great attention as a powerful claw gathered pieces from a ruin that had once been a cathedral. "And people lived in that . . . ?" he asked. Snorg nodded. Pieces were loaded into the truck.
"So that was how they lived before the war," Piecky said to himself. "They must have felt very lonely in such spread-out buildings."
When the truck was filled, Snorg turned it around.
"We're going back?" asked Piecky, uneasy.
"I have a plan," Snorg said.
The truck went at maximum speed.
"Tib, put a mask on yourself and one on Piecky," he said, nodding in the direction of the compartment that held the masks. But Tib didn't respond, because Snorg was facing the viewscreen as he spoke and she didn't see his lips. When he repeated it toward her, she took out the masks and suits, and then quickly and with surprising skill put them on herself and on Piecky. Snorg put on his own mask and suit. They came to the hill where the solitary intact building stood.
Snorg stopped the truck, and the moving platform took them to the ground. The sound indicator he carried chattered. Tib carried Piecky in her arms like a baby. The protective suits they all wore were made of transparent material. Piecky was too short, so Tib wrapped the excess several times around him. They saw that they would have to walk a distance much greater than any they had ever crossed on foot. In addition, the dust came to mid-calf. For a while they stood and watched the truck leaving, on automatic, the huge machine growing smaller and smaller until it disappeared at the horizon. They turned and started walking. It was slow and difficult making their way through the dust and loose sand. By the time they reached the building, they were covered with sweat. Tib was a little less tired, because her muscles had been kept in such good condition in the warehouse.
Inside, they found that the roof was in one piece, and the thick wood door as well, and there was even a fence and gate in the back. Snorg continued to hope that their escape would be successful, but Piecky thought it was a mistake for them to have left the truck. He said they should have driven as far as possible from the city and its defense forces. The city might then have given up its pursuit of them. Snorg privately agreed with Piecky, but he wasn't able to break altogether with the city. Having left it, the three were so extremely alone.
None of them removed the protective suit, because the dust was everywhere.
Tib sat and looked at Snorg.
"Ay w'shoor yood retoon f'mee . . . ," she said. He smiled.
"Ay'd a dreem . . . that ay leff th'Room. Layt was all round . . . and thees straynge peepul, s'many peepul . . . Then thay put mee ther next t'Piecky . . . It's s'good that yoor heer 'gain," she said, watching his lips the whole time.
"Listen to her yap," said Piecky. "Next she'll tell about the injections . . . how a needle jabs you in the side, and bam, you sleep . . . and bam, you're awake . . . Like turning a switch on and off. And the gurneys every day going down the row, the three-level gurneys . . . always pulled by the same people in gray. And they'd always take someone away in them. And few returned, and if they did return, they were all bandaged up . . . I couldn't see much down where I was. Always one of us. And it was hard to talk, because every other guy in the row was out, and if you shouted, bam, you got a needle. But even so we exchanged information, like a chain, using just the right voice that could be heard but that wouldn't cause the needle. The worst was . . . how silent he'd be when they wheeled him by. Then the ones in gray would remove the bandages, and . . . he wouldn't have arms, or legs. It varied. The worst was when a gurney slowed down by you, and you'd think, will it stop? The ones in gray weren't sadists, but the gurneys had bad wheels . . . They tried to make them go as smoothly as possible, because they knew what we were feeling . . . But sometimes a wheel would catch and the gurney would slow down. But I decided that if they took me, I didn't want to come back. I don't have much body as it is . . ."
"On thoos gurnees thay took always three peepul," said Tib, whose eyes now were on Piecky's face. "Too came back, yoozhly, sometaymes one . . . I r'member Moosy, how she came back. Only one eye showt from the banjes, but it was Moosy . . . Colfi said she was coming back . . . and tole us how thay took off the banjes . . ."
"Enough!" said Piecky. "I don't want to hear that again. I know what she looked like . . . and then they took her a second time, and she didn't come back."
"Moosy," said Snorg with a groan. "That didn't happen on my shift. But they could have taken Tib too," he said to himself. "I was lucky, lucky that with her it happened on my shift."
"How, lucky?" Tib asked.
"That you're here with me now. There were so many things I didn't take into account."
"Ay coodn't anymor. Th'mussils jumpin, makin me s'tired . . . and talkin w'Colfi, b'cause ay coodn't see Piecky's mouth . . . and the rest. Ay wood of gone crazy. Ay din go crazy, but if it was longer, Ay wood f'shoor . . ."
They both talked, she and Piecky, interrupting each other. Piecky spoke while she spoke, but when she saw he was speaking, she stopped. Then she would break in again, to tell her story in her hoarse, halting voice. It was hard to express so many days in just a few hours. Then Piecky turned away to look at the thick brown cloud of dust swirling across the sky. He watched, rapt, and something shone in his face, something like bliss, which surely would have amazed Snorg had he seen it.
"Stop rustling that plastic," Piecky finally said.
They both looked at him.
"Listen, Snorg, I'm talking to you, because Skinny's eyes are fixed once more on your smug face . . ." He went on, and the way he spoke was so much like the old times that Snorg grinned with pleasure.
"What I feel . . . that someday I'll fly among those clouds, high above the earth, on wings, and it will be the best part of my life."
"Maybe they'll make you the controls of a machine, because your body is useless, but your brain, that's really . . . But first they have to catch us, and that won't be so easy for them. No camera saw where we went."
"What will happen when they catch us?" said Piecky. "Because I am certain they will." He wasn't impressed by Snorg's arguments.
"Shut, Piecky!" It was Tib. Snorg had never heard her talk in that tone. "Less yoo pr'fer thoos jekshins, ther."
"I say what I think."
"We should consider," said Snorg after a moment of thought. "It seems to me that two of us are not in any real danger, since this situation has no precedent. Two of us should be all right, though each for a different reason. Nothing will be done to me, because the preservation of life is a fundamental law for human beings. Once someone is named a person, then he can't stop being a person, so they would never turn an officer of the Archive of Biological Materials into just another specimen for the warehouse. And Piecky, you too will be all right. Your dream will come true: you'll look down on us from the height of a mine shoveler. They'll have to make use of us, you see, to justify all the effort and energy it takes them to catch us."
"Was that why we left the truck?" Piecky asked.
"No," answered Snorg after a silence. "There is no place to go . . . Other than the city, there is nothing . . . But here, Abe knows where we are, he remembers this little house, he'll bring us food. Abe is our hope."
This time the silence was broken by Tib.
"An mee, Sneogg? . . . Wha 'bout mee?" She bent and fixed her eyes on his mouth.
"You. You're the only one," he said, turning fully to her, "a tragic fate awaits . . . One woman wants your body, another your head and face. They're rich and no doubt deserving women, but I would die rather than let that happen."
"So it was thanks to Baldy that I got to see the sky," Piecky said softly, and said nothing after that. He gazed at the sky, at the swiftly moving clouds.
When the twilight turned from gray to the darkness of night, they fell asleep, huddled together, hungry and cold.
They woke to a gray, cold dawn. Tib was more talkative and animated than ever. She amazed him. In his memory she had been beautiful but not that aware of things. He saw that they were all developing mentally, not just he, who had been named a person, Tibsnorg Pieckymoosy.
He thought, "Maybe everyone, if given enough time . . ."
They waited for Dringenboom to come. Snorg was counting on Abe's driving up in his giant truck and giving them food, and then all together they would figure out what to do next. Dringenboom was their only chance. They waited and waited, watching the string of vehicles in the distance carrying rocks from the city. Hunger gnawed at them. Around noon, a yellow sun showed through the clouds. It grew dazzlingly bright. Tib and Snorg stood side by side in a ray of sun and beheld the shadows they cast. Such a clean, clear sun. They saw it for the first time in their lives.
"If they made me the control unit of a machine, could I see this often?" Piecky wondered, peering out the window.
"I don't know. Maybe they would let you keep your eyes," said Snorg, but doubtfully. "You haven't been named a person, so they might treat your brain as just material. Only those people have a right to keep their eyes who lost their bodies to an incurable illness. But it's not impossible that you'd be installed in one of those great shovels . . . and you'd need your eyes for that. And with your intelligence, who knows? . . ."
He was interrupted by the roar of engines, a roar that definitely didn't come from a truck. Snorg paled, understanding that Dringenboom would never bring them food. The roar grew and made the ground vibrate. Multicopters began to land around the building, heavy flying machines of the defense forces.
"One . . . two . . . three," Snorg counted, feeling his face turn numb.
Tib pressed to him with all her strength. "Them . . . Wha we did mayd n'senss," she whispered, watching the armored copters land.
Around the machines appeared small figures in gray uniforms, helmets, and bulletproof vests. They jumped nimbly to the ground and waded through the dust to the building. Snorg saw that they were armed with rifles, and a few carried laser guns.
"All those cannons for us?" he thought wryly. "Do they intend to level the house?"
He didn't even try to count the commandos. There were at least fifty. They quickly took up positions around the house.
"Tibsnorg Pieckymoosy!" boomed a sudden, shrill voice. "You have no hope. Surrender. Surrendering the stolen biological material now will mitigate your sentence. Your accomplice, Abraham Dringenboom, has been placed under arrest."
Tib was looking hard at him. She seemed to understand. He repeated to her what the loudspeaker had said, making sure she could see his mouth.
"Tibsnorg Pieckymoosy!" the speaker repeated. Piecky said nothing, terror in his eyes.
"Shit . . . shit . . . ," said Snorg, standing in the middle of the room and holding Tib.
"Buh wee only wan t'live," she whispered, looking at him.
". . . will mitigate," the voice was booming, when a noise began at the door. Suddenly a powerful explosion blew the door apart. Two commandos jumped inside, like lightning, and fell to the floor, aiming at Snorg.
"Good maneuvers," he thought.
They were extremely capable. A third commando appeared in the smoking hole. He had a colorful winged dragon painted on his bulletproof vest, which reached below his hips. The man stood motionless on spread, muscular legs, aiming at Snorg with a revolver that had a long barrel. He held the gun with both hands, arms extended. In place of a nose he had a single black nostril, and he bared his teeth. The teeth, with the lack of eyelids, gave his face the look of a skull.
"You wanted to be first," Snorg thought. "For this you'll be able to buy yourself a new face. Unless they consider that the ones on the floor were first . . ."
Snorg looked at the prone commandos. The one standing followed Snorg's eyes. More commandos rushed into the room through the broken door and immediately fell to the floor. The one standing, as if reading Snorg's mind, again swept his eyes over the prone soldiers. He stiffened, reaching a decision. For another brief moment he regarded Snorg through the plastic helmet, regarded him with those lidless bug eyes.
And although none of the three fugitives had moved an inch, a shot rang out, and Tib, who had been shielding Snorg with her body, went limp in his arms. Snorg felt something constrict his throat. He didn't hear the second shot. The yellow flash before him became a row of bright spots and then went out.
-Kraków, October 1984