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Authors: Philip K. Dick

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BOOK: Martian Time-Slip
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Steiner said, “They're going to close down Camp B-G.”

“Good,” the owner of the Red Fox said. “We don't need those freaks here on Mars; it's bad advertising.”

“I agree,” Steiner said, “at least to a certain extent.”

“It's like those babies with seal flippers back in the '60s, from them using that German drug. They should have destroyed all of them; there's plenty of healthy normal children born, why spare those others? If you had a kid with extra arms or no arms, deformed in some way, you wouldn't want it kept alive, would you?”

“No,” Steiner said. He did not say that his wife's brother back on Earth was a phocomelus; he had been born without arms and made use of superb artificial ones designed for him by a Canadian firm which specialized in such equipment.

In fact he said nothing to the little portly man; he drank his beer and stared at the bottles behind the bar. He did not like the man at all, and he had never told him about Manfred. He knew the man's deepseated prejudice. Nor was he unusual. Steiner could summon up no resentment toward him; he merely felt weary, and did not want to discuss it.

“That was the beginning,” the owner said. “Those babies born in the early '60s—are there any of them at Camp B-G—I've never set foot inside there and I never will.”

Steiner said, “How could they be at B-G? They're hardly anomalous; anomalous means one of a kind.”

“Oh, yeah,” the man admitted. “I see what you mean. Anyhow, if they'd destroyed them years ago we wouldn't have such places as B-G, because in my mind there's a direct link between the monsters born in the '60s and all the freaks supposedly born due to radiation ever since; I mean, it's all due to substandard genes, isn't it? Now, I think that's where the Nazis were right. They saw the need of weeding out the inferior genetic strains as long ago as 1930; they saw—”

“My son,” Steiner began, and then stopped. He realized what he had said. The portly man stared at him. “My son is there,” Steiner at last went on, “means as much to me as your son does to you. I know that someday he will emerge into the world once more.”

“Let me buy you a drink, Norbert,” the portly man said, “to show you how sorry I am; I mean, about the way I talked.”

Steiner said, “If they close B-G it will be a calamity too great for us to bear, we who have children in there. I can't face it.”

“I see what you mean,” the portly man said. “I understand your feeling.”

“You are superior to me if you understand how I feel,” Steiner said, “because I can make no sense out of it.” He set down his empty beer glass and stepped off the stool. “I don't want another drink,” he said. “Excuse me; I have to leave.” He picked up his heavy suitcases.

“You've been coming in here all this time,” the owner said, “and we talked about that camp a lot, and you never told me you had a son in there. That wasn't right.” He looked angry, now.

“Why wasn't it right?”

“Hell, if I had known I wouldn't have said what I said; you're responsible, Norbert—you could have told me, but you deliberately didn't. I don't like that one bit.” His face was red with indignation.

Carrying his suitcases, Steiner left the bar.

“This is not my day,” he said aloud. Argued with everybody; I'll have to spend the next visit here making apologies…if I come back at all. But I have to come back; my business depends on it. And I have to stop at Camp B-G; there is no other way.

Suddenly it came to him that he should kill himself. The idea appeared in his mind full blown, as if it had always been there, always a part of him. Easy to do it, just crash the 'copter. He thought, I am goddamn tired of being Norbert Steiner; I didn't ask to be Norbert Steiner or sell blackmarket food or anything else. What is my reason for staying alive? I'm not good with my hands, I can't fix or make anything; I can't use my mind, either, I'm just a salesman. I'm tired of my wife's scorn because I can't keep our water machinery going—I'm tired of Otto who I had to hire because I'm helpless even in my own business.

In fact, he thought, why wait until I can get back to the 'copter? Along the street came a huge, rumbling tractor-bus, its sides dull with sand; it had crossed the desert just now, was coming to New Israel from some other settlement. Steiner set down his suitcases and ran out into the street, directly at the tractor-bus.

The bus honked; its airbrakes screeched. Other traffic halted as Steiner ran forward with his head down, his eyes shut. Only at the last moment, with the sound of the air horn so loud in his ears that it became unbearably painful, did he open his eyes; he saw the driver of the bus gaping down at him, saw the steering wheel and the number on the driver's cap. And then—

In the solarium at Camp Ben-Gurion, Miss Milch heard the sounds of sirens, and she paused in the middle of the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy from Tchaikovsky's
Nutcracker Suite,
which she was playing on the piano for the children to dance to.

“No, it's an ambulance, Miss Milch,” another boy said, at the window, “going downtown.”

Miss Milch resumed playing, and the children, at the sound of the rhythms coming from the piano, straggled back to their places. They were bears at the zoo, cavorting for peanuts; that was what the music suggested to them, Miss Milch told them to go ahead and act it out.

Off to one side, Manfred stood heedless of the music, his head down, a thoughtful expression on his face. As the sirens wailed up loudly for a moment, Manfred lifted his head. Noticing that, Miss Milch gasped and breathed a prayer. The boy had heard! She thumped away at the Tchaikovsky music even more loudly than before, feeling exultation: she and the doctors had been right, for through sound there had come about a contact with the boy. Now Manfred went slowly to the window to look out; all alone he gazed down at the buildings and streets below, searching for the origin of the noise which had aroused him, attracted his attention.

Things are not so hopeless after all, Miss Milch said to herself. Wait until his father hears; it shows we must never talk of giving up.

She played on, loudly and happily.

4

David Bohlen, building a dam of wet soil at the end of his family's vegetable garden under the hot midafternoon Martian sun, saw the UN police 'copter settle down and land before the Steiners' house, and he knew instantly that something was going on.

A UN policeman in his blue uniform and shiny helmet stepped from the 'copter and walked up the path to the Steiners' front door, and when two of the little girls appeared the policeman greeted them. He then spoke to Mrs. Steiner and then he disappeared on inside, and the door shut after him.

David got to his feet and hurried from the garden, across the stretch of sand to the ditch; he leaped the ditch and crossed the patch of flat soil where Mrs. Steiner had tried unsuccessfully to raise pansies, and at the corner of the house he suddenly came upon one of the Steiner girls; she was standing inertly, picking apart a stalk of wur-weed, her face white. She looked as if she were going to be sick.

“Hey, what's wrong?” he asked her. “Why's the policeman talking to your mom?”

The Steiner girl glanced at him and then bolted off, leaving him.

I'll bet I know what it is, David thought. Mr. Steiner has been arrested because he did something illegal. He felt excited and he jumped up and down. I wonder what he did. Turning, he ran back the way he had come, hopped once more across the ditch of water, and at last threw open the door to his own house.

“Mom!” he shouted, running from room to room. “Hey, you know how you and Dad always are talking about Mr. Steiner being outside the law, I mean in his work? Well, you know what?”

His mother was nowhere to be found; she must have gone visiting, he realized. For instance, Mrs. Henessy who lived within distance north along the ditch; often his mom was gone most of the day visiting other ladies, drinking coffee with them and exchanging gossip. Well, they're really missing out, David declared to himself. He ran to the window and looked out, to be sure of not missing anything.

The policeman and Mrs. Steiner had gone outside, now, and both were walking slowly to the police 'copter. Mrs. Steiner held a big handkerchief to her face, and the policeman had hold of her shoulder, as if he was a relative or something. Fascinated, David watched the two of them get into the 'copter. The Steiner girls stood together in a small group, their faces peculiar. The policeman went over and spoke to them, and then he returned to the 'copter—and then he noticed David. He beckoned to him to come outdoors, and David, feeling fright, did so; he emerged from the house, blinking in the sunlight, and step by step approached the policeman with his shining helmet and his armband and the gun at his waist.

“What's your name, son?” the policeman asked, with an accent.

“David Bohlen.” His knees shook.

“Is Mother or Father home, David?”

“No,” he said, “just me.”

“When your parents return, you tell them to keep watch on the Steiner children until Mrs. Steiner is back.” The policeman started up the motor of the 'copter, and the blades began to turn. “You do that, David? Do you understand?”

“Yes, sir,” David said, noticing that the policeman had on the blue stripe which meant he was Swedish. The boy knew all the identifying marks which the different UN units wore. He wondered how fast the police 'copter could go; it looked like a special fast job, and he wished he could ride in it: he was no longer frightened of the policeman and he wished they could talk more. But the policeman was leaving; the 'copter rose from the ground, and torrents of wind and sand blew around David, forcing him to turn away and put his arm across his face.

The four Steiner girls still stood gathered together, none of them speaking. One, the oldest, was crying; tears ran down her cheeks but she made no sound. The smallest, who was only three, smiled shyly at David.

“You want to help me with my dam?” David called to them. “You can come over; the policeman told me it was O.K.”

After a moment the youngest Steiner girl came toward him, and then the others followed.

“What did your dad do?” David asked the oldest girl. She was twelve, older than he. “The policeman said you could say,” he added.

There was no answer; the girl merely stared at him.

“If you tell me,” David said, “I won't tell anyone. I promise to keep it a secret.”

Sunbathing out on June Henessy's fenced, envined patio, sipping iced tea and drowsily conversing, Silvia Bohlen heard the radio from within the Henessy house give the late afternoon news.

Beside her, June raised herself up and said, “Say, isn't he the man who lives next door to you?”

“Shh,” Silvia said, intently listening to the announcer. But there was no more, only the brief mention: Norbert Steiner, a dealer in health foods, had committed suicide on a down-town New Israel street by throwing himself in the path of a bus. It was the same Steiner, all right; it was their neighbor, she knew it at once.

“How dreadful,” June said, sitting up and fastening the straps of her polka-dot cotton halter. “I only saw him a couple of times, but—”

“He was a dreadful little man,” Silvia said. “I'm not surprised he did it.” And yet she felt horrified. She could not believe it. She got to her feet, saying, “With four children—he left her to take care of four children! Isn't that dreadful? What's going to happen to them? They're so helpless anyhow.”

“I heard,” June said, “ that he deals on the black market. Had you heard that? Maybe they were closing in on him.”

Silvia said, “I better go right home and see if there's anything I can do for Mrs. Steiner. Maybe I can take the children for a while.” Could it have been my fault? she asked herself. Could he have done it because I refused them that water, this morning? It could be, because he was there; he had not gone to work yet.

So maybe it is our fault, she thought. The way we treated them—which of us has ever been really nice to them and accepted them? But they are such dreadful whining people, always asking for help, begging and borrowing… who could respect them?

Going into the house she changed, in the bedroom, to her slacks and T-shirt. June Henessy followed along with her.

“Yes,” June said, “you're right—we all have to pitch in and help where we can. I wonder if she'll stay on or if she'll go back to Earth. I'd go back—I'm practically ready to go back anyhow, it's so dull here.”

Getting her purse and cigarettes, Silvia said goodbye to June and set out on the walk back down the ditch to her own home. Breathless, she arrived in time to see the police 'copter disappearing into the sky. That was them notifying her, she decided. In the backyard she found David with the four Steiner girls; they were busy playing.

“Did they take Mrs. Steiner with them?” she called to David.

The boy scrambled at once to his feet and came up to her excitedly. “Mom, she went along with him. I'm taking care of the girls.”

That's what I was afraid of, Silvia thought. The four girls still sat at the dam, playing a slow-motion, apathetic game with the mud and water, none of them looking up or greeting her; they seemed inert, no doubt from the shock of learning about their father's death. Only the smallest one showed any signs of reviving, and she probably had not comprehended the news in the first place. Already, Silvia thought, that little man's death has reached out and touched others, and the coldness is spreading. She felt the chill in her own heart. And I did not even like him, she thought.

The sight of the four Steiner girls made her quake. Am I going to have to take on these pudding-y, plump, vapid, lowclass children? she asked herself. The answering thought thrust its way up, tossing every other consideration aside:
I don't want to!
She felt panic, because it was obvious that she had no choice; even now they were playing on her land, in her garden—she had them already.

Hopefully, the smallest girl asked, “Miz Bohlen, could we have some more water for our dam?”

Water, always wanting water, Silvia thought. Always leeching on us, as if it was a trait born into them. She ignored the child and said instead to her son, “Come into the house—I want to talk to you.”

Together, they went indoors, where the girls could not overhear.

“David,” she said, “their father is dead, it came over the radio. That's why the police came and took her. We'll have to help out for a while.” She tried to smile, but it was impossible. “However much we may dislike the Steiners—”

David burst out—“I don't dislike them, Mom. How come he died? Did he have a heart attack? Was he set on by wild Bleekmen, could that be?”

“It doesn't matter how he happened to die; what we have to think of now is what we can do for those girls.” Her mind was empty; she could think of nothing. All she knew was that she did not want to have the girls near her. “What should we do?” she asked David.

“Maybe fix them lunch. They told me they didn't have any; she was just about to fix it.”

Silvia went out from the house and down the path. “I'm going to fix lunch, girls, for any of you who want it. Over at your house.” She waited a moment and then started toward the Steiner house. When she looked back she saw that only the smallest child was following.

The oldest girl said in a tear-choked voice, “No, thank you.”

“You'd better eat,” Silvia said, but she was relieved. “Come along,” she said to the little girl. “What's your name?”

“Betty,” the little girl said shyly. “Could I have a egg sandwich? And cocoa?”

“We'll see what there is,” Silvia said.

Later, while the child ate her egg sandwich and drank her cocoa, Silvia took the opportunity to explore the Steiner house. In the bedroom she came upon something which interested her: a picture of a small boy with dark, enormous, luminous eyes and curly hair; he looked, Silvia thought, like a despairing creature from some other world, some divine and yet dreadful place beyond their own.

Carrying the picture into the kitchen she asked little Betty who the boy was.

“That's my brother Manfred,” Betty answered, her mouth full of egg and bread. Then she began to giggle. Between the giggles a few hesitant words emerged, and Silvia caught the fact that the girls were not supposed to mention their brother to anyone.

“Why doesn't he live with you?” Silvia asked, full of curiosity.

“He's at camp,” Betty said. “Because he can't talk.”

“What a shame,” Silvia said, and she thought, At that camp in New Israel, no doubt. No wonder the girls aren't supposed to mention him; he's one of those anomalous children you hear of but never see. The thought made her sad. Unglimpsed tragedy in the Steiner household; she had never guessed. And it was in New Israel that Mr. Steiner had taken his life. Undoubtedly he had been visiting his son.

Then it has nothing to do with us, she decided as she returned the picture to its place in the bedroom. Mr. Steiner's decision was based on a personal matter. So she felt relieved.

Strange, she thought, how one has the immediate reaction of guilt and responsibility when one hears of a suicide. If only I hadn't done this, or had done that… I could have averted it. I'm at fault. And it was not so in this situation, not at all; she was a total outsider to the Steiners, sharing no part of their actual life, only imagining, in a fit of neurotic guilt, that she did so.

“Do you ever see your brother?” she asked Betty.

“I think I saw him last year,” Betty said hesitantly. “He was playing tag, and there were a lot of other boys bigger than me.”

Now, silently, the three older Steiner girls filed into the kitchen and stood by the table. At last the eldest burst out, “We changed our mind, we would like lunch.”

“All right,” Silvia said. “You can help me crack the eggs and peel them. Why don't you go and get David, and I'll feed him at the same time? Wouldn't that be fun, to all eat together?”

They nodded mutely.

Walking up the main street of New Israel, Arnie Kott saw a crowd ahead and cars pulled to a halt at the curb, and he paused momentarily before turning in the direction of Anne Esterhazy's Contemporary Arts Gift Shop. Something up, he said to himself. Robbery? Street brawl?

However, he did not have time to investigate. He continued on his way and arrived presently at the small modern shop which his ex-wife ran; hands in his trouser pockets, he sauntered in.

“Anybody home?” he called jovially.

No one there. She must have taken off to see the excitement, Arnie said to himself. Some business sense; didn't even lock up the store.

A moment later Anne came hurrying breathlessly back into the store. “Arnie,” she said in surprise, seeing him. “Oh my God, do you know what happened? I was just talking to him, just talking, not more than an hour ago. And now he's dead.” Tears filled her eyes. She collapsed onto a chair, found a Kleenex, and blew her nose. “It's just terrible,” she said in a muffled voice. “And it wasn't an accident; he did it deliberately.”

“Oh, so that's what's going on,” Arnie said, wishing now that he had gone on and taken a look. “Who do you mean?”

“You wouldn't know him. He has a child at the camp; that's how I met him.” She rubbed her eyes and sat for a time, while Arnie meandered about the store. “Well,” she said at last, “what can I do for you? It's nice to see you.”

“My goddamn encoder broke down,” Arnie said. “You know how hard it is to get decent repair service. What could I do but come by? What do you say to having lunch with me? Lock up the store a little while.”

“Of course,” she said distractedly. “Just let me go wash my face. I feel as if it was me. I saw him, Arnie. The bus rolled right over him; they have such mass, they just can't stop. I would like some lunch—I want to get out of here.” She hurried into the washroom—and closed the door.

Soon afterwards the two of them were walking up the sidewalk together.

“Why do people take their own lives?” Anne asked. “I keep thinking I could have prevented it. I sold him a flute for his boy. He still had the flute; I saw it with his suitcases on the curb—he never gave it to his son. Is that the reason, something to do with the flute? I debated between the flute and—”

“Cut it out,” Arnie said. “It's not your fault. Listen, if a man is going to take his life nothing can stop him. And you can't cause a person to do it; it's in his bloodstream, it's his destiny. They work themselves up to doing it years in advance, and then it's just like a sudden inspiration; all of a sudden—wham. They do it, see?” He wrapped his arm around her and patted her.

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