Read A Century of Progress Online

Authors: Fred Saberhagen

Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Science Fiction

A Century of Progress

BOOK: A Century of Progress
9.27Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

 “Your heart’s in good shape,” she murmured, half to herself. “And we don’t have a whole lot of time locally. Alan, I’m going to prove to you that we can travel in time. I’m going to bring in someone you’ll remember.”

Norlund felt a new clutch of unreasoning fear as Ginny turned toward the door. “Come in!” she called in a clear voice, and phantoms of the dead chased through his imagination . . .

The door opened. The figure that entered was not one of the phantoms, but a young man of about nineteen. His right arm, Norlund saw with a shock like that of fear, ended in what was either an odd glove or a very advanced type of artificial hand. The arm lay in a supporting sling at elbow level.

“Al?” the young man asked. It was a familiar voice.

“Andy.” Norlund nodded. It wasn’t that Andy had been hard to recognize. The problem was that he couldn’t help recognizing him. And that was a very great problem indeed, requiring some adjustment. Andy Burns stood before him, solid and three-dimensional, as real as he had been that day over Regensburg in nineteen forty-three when Alan Norlund had tried to tighten the tourniquet on the stump of Andy Burns’ right arm, then had tightened up his chute harness for him, clamped his left hand on the D-ring and then had put him out through the right waist gun opening of the burning Fortress.

And Andy was not only still alive but not a day older than he was that day forty years ago . . .

 

 

A C
ENTURY OF
P
ROGRESS

This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, except for obvious historical references, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.

Copyright (c)1983 by Fred Saberhagen

A TOR Book

Published by:

Tom Doherty Associates, Inc.

8-10 West 36th Street

New York, New York 10018

First TOR printing, September 1983

ISBN: 48-568-9

Printed in the United States of America

Distributed by:

Pinnacle Books

1430 Broadway

New York, New York 10018

 

1984

Norlund hadn’t killed anyone for decades, but he was getting in the mood for it today.

He came out of the hospital’s main entrance, a compact, crag-faced, gray-haired man wearing the rumpled trousers of a gray suit, and a mismatched old corduroy jacket over a white shirt. After standing for a moment he crossed the street to the little park and sat down there in the mild spring sunshine of Chicago. He moved with a slight limp because the old leg wound was bothering him a touch today. But it wasn’t his leg that made him feel like killing.

Before he had been sitting on the park bench thirty seconds he had an impulse to jump up and move on to somewhere else. The trouble was the kids playing in the park. They were healthy kids, all up on their feet and running around, and all Norlund could think of, looking at them, was that he was never going to see Sandy doing that again.

But he didn’t jump up from the bench and move on, because it wouldn’t have helped. Instead he continued to sit there, trying not to think about choking the children who shrieked with their good health and not from pain. He watched the hospital entrance, and he wished, darkly and selfishly, that today Sandy’s mother might leave her slowly dying child a little earlier than usual, and come across to the park to comfort her—aging father who couldn’t take it any more . . .

Norlund, held in isolation by the ugly gray fog of his own feelings, wasn’t really aware of the brisk footsteps as they came close to him along the paved walk, then stopped.

“Mr. Norlund?”

“Huh?” The voice of the young woman did get through to him, and he looked up, relieved at any interruption of his thoughts. She was standing almost directly in front of him, almost within reach, wearing a light spring coat. Dark hair and blue eyes; a pretty but completely unfamiliar face. Without really thinking about it, Norlund assumed immediately that she must have some connection with the hospital.

Her smile was businesslike, pleasant but impersonal—it might certainly have been that of a hospital administrator. She spoke to Norlund in a low, attractive voice. “I’m Ginny Butler. I’m so sorry to hear about your granddaughter’s illness, and I very much hope to be able to do something to help.” After that many words were out, Norlund thought he could detect just a hint of something British in her tones.

Whatever she wanted, he continued to feel grateful for the distraction. “There’s not much anyone can do, I’m afraid . . . will you sit down?” And in a symbolic gesture of welcome he slid over a little on the bench, though there would have been room enough anyway.

Meanwhile he squinted up into the sunshine at his visitor. Now that he had had time to think about it, he decided that the hospital probably wouldn’t have sent anyone across the street to talk to him. Therefore this young woman must be some friend of Marge. Or possibly one of Sandy’s teachers. The number of cards and phone calls Sandy received in the hospital had convinced Norlund that his granddaughter was a popular girl at school.

But his visitor, whoever she was, remained standing. In a voice touched with elegance she replied: “No thanks, I really can’t stay now. But I want to assure you that I do expect to be able to do something for Sandy. Something that will make her, and your daughter, and you, all very happy.” The young woman’s tones were forceful, her trim figure erect and full of purpose. Whatever she really meant, it was something more than polite well-wishing.

Already Norlund’s original relief was starting to shade into wariness. The last thing he wanted or needed right now was a confrontation with some kind of crackpot, faith-healer or whatever. Not now on top of what he was already going through.

He could hear his changing attitude reflected in his voice. “I don’t think I understand. Are you a doctor, Miss? Connected with the hospital in some way?”

She started to confirm Norlund’s suspicions by ignoring the question. She had one of her own, which she now put to him very solemnly: “Mr. Norlund, do you know how to drive a truck? I don’t mean a very large one necessarily, but an older type. Say one that might have been in use around nineteen-thirty, with that kind of a stick shift?”

Norlund could feel his newly aroused wariness already flagging. The sheer irrelevance of the question was disarming. It seemed unlikely to form part of any sales pitch or swindle worth bothering about. But it did touch his curiosity, and he answered patiently: “Yes, I know how to do that. I did it often enough when I was young. Why?”

“I expect to be able to offer you a job.” This too sounded supremely irrelevant to Norlund, who hadn’t known that he was looking for one. But the young lady was still utterly serious, and went on: “We can talk about that later. Right now I have some good news to give you about your granddaughter. During the next few days Sandy’s going to experience a dramatic improvement.” The announcement was delivered with the calm certainty of a judge awarding a prize in a contest. “And one week from today, after you have witnessed this improvement for yourself, I want you to meet me again.”

The attractive blue eyes lifted away from Norlund’s face, to gaze around at the park and its surroundings. “I think right here would be a good place. If it should be raining, you can wait for me in one of those doorways across the street—the apartment building, or the drugstore.”

Automatically Norlund followed her gaze, then frowningly returned his eyes to his visitor. “What are you saying about my granddaughter?”

The question was received with perfect patience, as if the young woman had fully expected that her announcement would have to be repeated. She said, quietly and distinctly: “I am saying that not only will Sandy be alive one week from today, she will be much improved. Very much improved indeed. There is only one condition: that you say nothing to anyone about my speaking to you, nor repeat what I’ve said. Not to your daughter or Sandy or anyone else. Is that agreeable?”

“Wait a minute. Wait. What did you say your name was?”

“My name’s Ginny Butler. But I can’t wait now. Remember, meet me one week from this hour, right here at this bench. Across the street if it’s raining. And meanwhile say nothing to anyone.” With a last momentary brightening of her smile the young woman turned away. Her retreating heels made light, brisk sounds on the paved walk. Her dark hair—Norlund noticed now that it was somewhat curly—bounced a little as she walked. She moved steadily away from Norlund, not looking back, heading for one of the side streets bordering the park.

“But you . . .” Norlund had risen to his feet at last, and was standing there with one hand raised. For a moment he even thought of chasing after her.

That was on Friday afternoon. By Saturday evening, Norlund had all but forgotten his strange encounter in the park. Because all through Saturday Sandy had been obviously sinking. The little girl was now more often unconscious than awake.

No one, no doctor or nurse, had yet come right out and told Norlund that his only grandchild was on the brink of death. Not that there was any need for them to do so.

All through Sunday, Sandy’s mother and grandfather—there were no other relatives in visiting distance—spent most of their time in her room. Norlund and his daughter took turns dozing in chairs, spelling each other for occasional leg-stretching walks down the corridor or visits to the coffee shop.

It didn’t help Norlund’s weekend at all to be treated to a preview of how his daughter was going to look as an old woman. Marge’s hair hung in odd neglected waves; her eyes looked more dead than alive. Her face seemed to have collapsed, as if it were compelled to mimic Sandy’s sunken features.

Then, almost imperceptibly at first, starting Sunday evening or Sunday night, the tide somehow turned. Probably the first change that Norlund noticed was that Sandy’s breathing had grown easier. A little later, when he looked at her closely, he got the impression of someone sleeping—resting—rather than sinking into death. She was clearly in less pain, even when her prescribed drug dosage was accidentally delayed.

On Monday morning Sandy opened her eyes at something like a normal wake-up time. She looked about her and talked; she said she didn’t hurt. In general, she was fully conscious for the first time in several days. She was still painfully weak, and appeared somehow diminished, younger than her twelve years. But Norlund, no matter how fiercely he cautioned himself against starting to hope, could not help seeing what he saw: that life was returning to Sandy’s face instead of passing from it.

By breakfast on Tuesday, Sandy was eating again, with almost her normal appetite. She was talking freely, making jokes, telling everyone that she felt better. And on Tuesday afternoon the oncologist, after taking a close look at the patient, pronounced the first official notice of the change. “There’s been a certain improvement, I think. Looks like the chemotherapy may be taking hold at last. I don’t want to get your hopes up unjustifiably, but—”

Things had already gone too close to the brink, reality had been engaged far too deeply, for mere words from anyone to have much effect now on Norlund’s hopes.

But when he looked at Sandy, he could not help seeing what he saw.

And by Wednesday the change for the better was so obvious that hope could no longer be denied. Sandy was sitting up in bed, taking every chance to get up and walk, eating ravenously, and wondering aloud how much school work she was going to have to make up. Sandy’s mother, her hair newly styled, was walking about in a lightfooted daze, as if uncertain whether she was going to collapse or dance.

And it was only on Wednesday that Norlund remembered, with a small private shock of fascination, the odd event that he had so completely forgotten: that peculiar interview with the young woman in the park across the street. He happened to be shaving when he first remembered it, alone in his small apartment condo in a moderately expensive area of the North Side. With razor in hand he paused, looking at his angular face in the mirror and wondering if that odd event might have sprung completely from his imagination, a kind of hallucinatory memory provoked by stress.

At Thursday morning’s chemotherapy session, Sandy complained more than usual about the discomforts of the process. But it was less an invalid’s protest than a well person’s energetic crabbing. On Thursday afternoon, sitting in Sandy’s overfamiliar hospital room while his daughter and granddaughter walked the corridors arm-in-arm, Norlund found himself staring out the window. But instead of the apartment rooftops opposite he was seeing himself and the young woman talking in the park across the street.

He tried several times to recall exactly what she had looked like, and all the words of their brief dialogue. Most of it was pretty hazy. The name had definitely stayed with him, though: Ginny Butler. He couldn’t remember ever knowing anyone by that name. Which didn’t prove, he realized, that she wasn’t someone he ought to be able to remember. Norlund had never been good at keeping track of marginal relationships, nor did this faculty, at least for him, tend to improve with age.

That young woman had talked so strangely. Unless he had somehow misinterpreted her words . . . But no. He probably wasn’t remembering all the details correctly, but the strange prophecy had been there.

On Thursday morning, immediately after the chemo session, and again on Thursday afternoon, Norlund found himself on the point of mentioning the park incident to Marge. Both times he refrained. Maybe it was just that he didn’t want to burden his daughter right now with anything remotely disturbing. Or maybe . . . maybe he was afraid of sounding like he’d had some kind of hallucination, as if he might be cracking up under the strain.

Which last explanation, Norlund had to admit to himself, was for all he knew quite possible. There was no way to be sure. No, there was probably one way.

The patient was doing so well by Friday morning that Marge went back to work. There was talk of Sandy going home in another day or so, barring complications. Norlund had no such clear-cut decision as Marge’s to make about work; he was three-fourths retired now anyway. He had been manager and part owner of a small firm wholesaling electronic and electrical parts, and though he still kept his hand in as consultant and stockholder the business could go on quite well without him, and left him a lot of flexibility in his schedule. After looking in on Sandy at the hospital Friday, he came out and stood gazing across the street. He was coatless today, it was warmer now than it had been a week ago. Norlund stood there with hands in his pockets, gazing toward the park.

One week from this hour
. That was what she had said. And exactly what hour had that been? A week ago, Norlund had made no effort to fix the time, but now he considered that two o’clock had to be approximately right.

He looked at his watch: one thirty. He strolled left toward the corner, where a traffic light periodically jammed the continual creep of hospital traffic looking for a place to park. Norlund strolled across the street, across grass, then along the paved path to the same bench he had been sitting on a week ago. A shower seemed imminent.
If it’s raining, you can stand in one of those doorways
. Norlund looked toward those doorways, again involuntarily, but she wasn’t waiting for him there.

A few drops were coming down now, but it wasn’t raining all that much. Belatedly, as so often, Chicago’s spring was arriving. The park flowerbeds, largely dormant a week ago, today were blooming gorgeously. Sitting on his bench again, Norlund would have been quite willing to accept an hallucination or two as a trivial price to pay for the glory of Sandy’s resurrection . . .

The young woman, wearing the light spring coat he remembered, was walking toward him, coming from the direction in which she’d disappeared last Friday. As she drew closer Norlund could see that the dark hair and the blue eyes were as he’d remembered them.

She approached Norlund directly, smiling as she drew near. It was a more relaxed and friendly smile, he thought, than it had been a week ago—almost as if they had somehow spent the week in contact, getting better acquainted. The young woman’s shoes clicked on the walk as they had last Friday. And now she was stopping directly in front of him, just as she had before.

BOOK: A Century of Progress
9.27Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

A Rogue's Proposal by Stephanie Laurens
Skateboard Tough by Matt Christopher
Highland Solution by Ceci Giltenan
The Love Letter by Walker, Fiona
A Daughter's Story by Tara Taylor Quinn
Joan Hess - Arly Hanks 13 by Maggody, the Moonbeams
Dread Locks by Neal Shusterman