Players at the Game of People

BOOK: Players at the Game of People
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Ballantine 29235 / $2.25
A Stunning New Novel by
John Brunner
A Del Rey Book
Was he one of the players --
or merely the pawn?
A familiar pressure started to build at the back of
Godwin's mind. He was being Called, and there was
only one safe place to be when that happened. Home.
Godwin scribbled a signature on the bill, having for-
gotten by what name they knew him here -- not that it
mattered, for none of his bills was ever presented for
payment -- and rushed back to the car.
Time was growing short. The pressure in his head
sent bright shooting lights across his field of vision.
Miraculously, there was a space in front of the house.
He parked and scrambled out without bothering to
lock up. If someone stole his car, he could always buy
another. Half-blind with pain, Godwin rushed upstairs
and, not sparing time to turn the room on, spent the
last moments of awareness desperately trying to reach
a decision about his Reward.
Inspiration struck him -- he didn't have to choose!
They knew Rewards he could never think of. Had Irma
requested her Sirian plants? Had Hermann known
about the alien's amazing powers? When had Hugo &
Diana experienced free fall?
Thankful, convinced, Godwin Harpinshield sur-
And was Used.
Also by John Brunner
Published by Ballantine Books:
The Sheep Look Up
The Whole Man
The Squares of the City
The Shockwave Rider
Stand on Zanzibar
Double, Double
The Infinitive of Go
Players at the
Game of People
John Brunner
A Del Rey Book
A Del Rey Book
Published by Ballantine Books
Copyright © 1980 by Brunner Fact & Fiction Limited
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copy-
right Conventions. Published in the United States by Ballantine
Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and Si-
multaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada, Limited,
Toronto, Canada.
Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 80-66561
ISBN 0-345-29235-9
Manufactured in the United States of America
First Edition: December 1980
Cover illustration by: Bill Schmidt
The air was literally filthy. Godwin Harpinshield passed his tongue
across his lips and it reported to his teeth and palate grit: dust from
the daytime air raid which had not yet settled. And now, again, already,
sirens were caterwauling under a darkling summer sky.
There was a slight ache in his right leg, but it was not unbearable.
Rather, it was almost pleasant, indicative of a healing wound. He had
on too many clothes for such warm weather; his feet sweated in tightly
laced black shoes, while on his head was a cap with a stiff peak. He was,
to be precise, wearing an RAF officer's uniform with -- he glanced at
the cuffs -- flight lieutenant's badges of rank. On his left breast were
pilot's wings. His left palm and fingers were sticky, holding a pair of
obligatory brown leather gloves. Smoke made his eyes and nose tingle,
but a breeze was disturbing the still air as the sun went down.
Not that it could be seen from here, for he stood between double ranks
of tenement houses that had known better days, faced partly with brick,
partly with blue and yellow tile. Their windows were taped with brown
adhesive paper and their doorways were labyrinthed with high walls of
khaki sandbags. Here and there bites had been crunched out of their
upper stories, as though a crazy aerial dog had clamped enormous jaws
on what it mistook for food, then spat out disgusting rubble on the
roadway. Prompted by the sirens, people could be seen turning lights
off and drawing thick blackout curtains. None of the streetlamps was on.
Picking its way among piles of debris, here came a lumbering double-decker
bus with its headlights masked. He stood at a bus stop, a temporary
post on a street too narrow for public transport to use under normal
circumstances, even though not a single car or van was to be seen
parked along it. The reason for the detour was made plain by signs at
the Street's two ends: DANGER -- BOMB DAMAGE -- NO RIGHT / NO LEFT TURN.
A resigned voice said, "Oh, damn. Just when a Number Eight finally
turns up."
There were others waiting at the bus stop: a tired elderly couple,
two teenage girls with teeth like discolored tombstones.
Overhead a night fighter left a faint straight vapor trail from west to
east. A searchlight beam sprang up and swiveled in great jerky arcs.
At one point in its traverse it touched the silvery side of a barrage
balloon, creating a fragment of artificial moon. Behind the sirens a
drone began, the sound of several hundred bombers.
One of the girls said, "They're coming back, then," as flatly as though
making a comment about the weather.
Almost in the same second there were soft crumping explosions: the reports
of ack-ack shells far to the east, from ground batteries in Kent and along
the Medway. The bus halted, but not to pick up passengers, only to discharge
those it had. The driver stopped his engine and scrambled to the ground,
cursing. Not yet middle-aged, he looked old. His flesh was pulpy,
testimony to years of a diet based on bread and marge and bacon.
Even as the passengers descended, grousing but not objecting, half a
dozen boys and elderly men appeared from nearby doorways, donning tin
hats marked fore and aft with the letters ARP, standing for "air raid
precautions." The same acronym could be seen on numerous posters giving
advice about what to do when the Luftwaffe struck at London. In an area
where most people could scarcely read their own names, all those lines
of close black print were clearly fruitless. The people milled about
like frightened ants as they spilled into the roadway.
The ARP wardens did their amateur best, shouting through cupped hands
that in the next street, out of sight but there all the same, a basement
had been designated as an official shelter. But moving that way meant
heading east, toward and not away from the noise of gunfire and by now
probably the first salvos of bombs, and they were overwhelmed as the
other occupants of the buildings came flooding forth. At first a trickle,
then a spate of families with small children, led by women because almost
all active men had already gone to war, rushed headlong toward the more
credible sanctuary of a tube station a few hundred yards to the west.
Knowing when they were beaten, the wardens tried at least to keep the
fugitives orderly. But the children, roused from bed and hastened into
the street in nightclothes or tattered underwear, were frightened. They
cried. Some of them screamed. Urgency threatened to turn into panic. The
wardens shouted, but could not make the crowd obey. There was too much
noise; there was the wail of sirens like banshees riding an invisible
storm; there were ever more explosions, some of which by now must be from
bombs dropped on Port of London, because the racket of enemy aircraft was
almost deafening -- well over a hundred in this wave alone, each with
a pair of thousand-horsepower engines; also there were shrill police
whistles and the bells of fire engines and ambulances and the grinding
slump as structures of brick and tile and concrete were laid low by the
devastating onslaught.
Abruptly a vast redness lit the eastern sky. A heartbeat afterward there
followed a puff of hot sound. Something very burnable had been hit: oil,
wax, maybe even munitions. The people's cries and fears redoubled as
they arrived at the tube station and realized how narrow the entry was,
how steep the stairs-beyond.
At least the station staff were having the grace not to insist on the
legal penny-halfpenny fare from every adult, though they were in duty
bound to do so. Some duties, their humanity advised, must take precedence
over what was officially laid down. These people, Godwin thought with
a glow of pride, could never staff extermination camps . . .
But mere goodwill was not enough. Here was a crowd on the point of
becoming a leaderless mob. Suppose a child tripped and was trampled
to death!
Godwin took mental stock of his condition. The pain in his leg indicated
one potential weakness, for it came from a bullet wound. But it was
nearly healed. In contrast, the fact that he wore this of all uniforms
would stand in good stead. Much publicity had made the world familiar
with such a shade of gray-blue, and with RAF wings . . . even though he
was already being looked at resentfully by some, as though his presence
-- that of a warrior armed against the foe -- might conjure down a doom
on this street rather than another.
what's he doing here instead of flying his plane and
killing Jerries?
Then the thrill of a right decision reached ran through his spare frame.
A few paces ahead of him was a woman wearing a gray coat over a nightdress,
clutching a baby and trying to keep track of three little girls, all blond,
all thin, all peaky from the undernourishment which had beset this nation
during the Depression and which careful rationing of food had not yet
rectified. Aged perhaps three, five, and seven, they gazed about them
in dumb and wide-eyed wonder, as though fancying they were still in
dreamland, where parents' orders did not have to be attended to.
The ground shook. Flakes of brick and mortar shivered from the façades
of nearby buildings. Also the eastern sky was aflame as more and more
incendiary bombs planted the seeds of inferno across the city.
Already the people converging on the station entrance were elbowing each
other and shouting insults. In a minute there might be a fight. Wildfire
was among the ancientest of terror-symbols; what to take as a symbol
of calm?
That wizened three-year-old: she would do perfectly. With a stride and
a wince and a stride Godwin was beside her, sweeping her into his arms
as though he were her father.
"Come on now, you
!" he barked in his most parade-ground tone.
There were some men helping to jam the stairs, and they were old
enough to recall the other war. "Women and children first! Here, make
sure these little girls are safe!" And he disposed of his own load --
not unthankfully, for her hair and her very clothes were greasy to his
touch -- to the tallest man within reach on a lower step, and turned to
pick up her sister.
It worked. The panic halted. They handed the chidren over their heads
at first -- and some giggled and squealed, but at least they weren't
screaming in terror -- and the dense press of people lessened as those
below dispersed along the platforms, soothing the youngsters. In a moment
or two it was possible for women to follow, the men standing aside to
let them through. Backs straightened. There were smiles, especially from
the wardens overjoyed at this helpful intrusion on the part of a member
of the officer class, this renewed proof that it was always safe to rely
on Squire.
Later, of course, nightly descents into the bowels of London would become
commonplace, but now it was weird and incredible that one should lie on
hard, cold platforms among neighbors who until today were strangers. The
Germans had only just shifted their attention from airfields to cities;
the name "Battle of Britain" was freshly coined. It was a beautiful
summer and should never have been despoiled by those clouds of smoke,
those pillars of rising dust.
Certain policemen were hovering, who had orders from Whitehall to refuse
admission to the tubes during a raid. They were embarrassed, and shuffled
their feet, and made no move to comply with their instructions. As soon
as they had an excuse to move off, like the shrill of ambulance bells,
they seized it gratefully and disappeared.
"Thanks very much, sir," said a warden from under the shadowing brim of
his helmet. "We needed somebody to take charge." He moved slightly to
let latecomers go by; now there was a steady, controlled, regular flow
descending the stairs, and someone was trying to start a singsong with
"Roll Out the Barrel."
"Last night," he added, "my old woman fell down and got 'er arm broke.
Wouldn't 'ave been too much worse off if Jerry'd got 'er," he appended
with a wry attempt at humor. "You from around 'ere, are you, sir?"
"My parents were," Godwin said, not looking at him. "I'm on convalescent
leave, you see. Came to visit them today. But when I got there . . . Ruins.
Rubble." He gave a shrug.
"Bastards, aren't they?" the warden said with enormous feeling. "Ruddy
bastards! Well, I think we can go down now and join the others."
But his last word was cut short even as he and Godwin made to do so.
A salvo of bombs was being shed by an aircraft driven off the course of
the main raid, perhaps evading a searchlight -- now a dozen were weaving
back and forth overhead -- or chased by one of the pitifully few night
fighters the RAF could muster to zero in on the attackers as darkness
thickened. Jettisoned or aimed, those bombs were doing damage. The noise
was like the crushing sound of a giant's boots as he marched over the
fragile, contemptible creations of humanity.
"Down!" Godwin yelled, and hurled himself flat on the pavement, bringing
the warden with him.
A vast detonation rent the air, and even before their tortured eardrums
recovered from the blast, their exposed skins were peppered with tiny
fragments of masonry. That one had struck within fifty yards or so,
probably in the street the fleeing crowd bad left mere minutes before.
And the rumble of collapsing walls was followed by a scream.
"Greer! Greer!
Where's my Greer?
Here, fighting her way back up the staircase without her baby, was the
mother of the family Godwin had singled out. She clutched at his arm,
"Greer, my oldest!" she babbled. "Myrna's there and Bette's there and
Merle's there -- but where's my Greer? Where's my oldest? I did wake
her up, I swear I did, but she was in the other room and --
Her coherent words dissolved into sobbing.
Simultaneously, a sound of crunching mixed with the hiss of a gas main
taking fire indicated that a block of flats just out of sight was being
destroyed: maybe hers.
"I'll find her for you," Godwin promised. He spun on his heel, the ache
from his leg wound instantly forgettable.
"Stop! Stop!" shouted the warden, who was portly and middle-aged and
exempted from military service. After a pause to decide whether he might
safely so address an officer, he added, "You bloody fool!"
But Godwin was already rounding the corner. There was nothing for it
but to set out after him, at a waddling run.
The sky glowed redder and the air grew dirtier and the stench blew
fouler and there were more and more horrible, hideous, gut-wrenching
crump-crump-crump sounds as the metal birds overhead shat their loads
of ruin on what had once been the richest city of the planet.
Godwin's thin leather shoe-soles reported every lump and bump of the
rubble-strewn road. Also his trousers were of a coarse emergency material
and rubbed his calves and he had dropped his gloves somewhere on the
way and his underpants chafed his crotch and his silly stiff-peaked cap
kept trying to fall off, although be managed to keep it in position
with reflex tosses of his head until he was back in the street where
the temporary bus stop stood. There he lost it as be stumbled over an
unseen block of debris that did his injured leg no good at all.
Still, he was able to pull himself upright and survey the scene.
The bomb had fallen, not on the tenement from which the family with
film stars' names had come pouring out (what would the baby be called,
who wearing only a vest was obviously a boy? Cary? Gary? Van?), but
straight through the roof of the next building but one, and had exploded
at basement level. Walls which had been upright canted insanely around
him, uttering creaks and showers of dust. Taking a single step seemed
like a terrifying commitment, not solely because glass and brickwork
crunched at every move, reminding him of the image of the trampling
giant (but the aircraft were swerving away, lightened and quickened
by the disposal of their bomb loads), but because those tall façades
of masonry had been rendered precarious, the element of choice removed
from them in favor of something random, something hazardous, something
impervious to reason and to prayer . . .
BOOK: Players at the Game of People
8.11Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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