'Stand up,' came a shout that made him jump. Mike turned to see a Sergeant Major striding towards him. The man arrived alongside him but didn't say anything. The main doors opened and in came a group of people. Mike suddenly recognized them. There were Sue, Gilbert, Pete's girl friend, Guy, and a number of army officers. Mike was just about to go and find out what was going on, when he felt a firm hand restraining him. Four top-ranking officers came out onto the platform accompanied by Leadbury.
'Mr Jerome,' said one of the men from the platform, 'we are here to hear your defence on the serious charges that have been brought against you. Do you plead guilty or not guilty?'
'What?' asked Mike in amazement.
'Guilty or not guilty?' came the voice from the stage.
'Guilty,' roared the people from the other table.
Mike woke to the vigorous shaking of his shoulder.
'What is it?' he asked, in a bit of a panic.
'You're having a rough time,' said Leadbury cheerfully. 'What were you dreaming about?'
'This bloody mess I seem to have got myself into,' said Mike, feeling very sweaty and uncomfortable.
'Do you feel guilty about it?' asked the Major, sitting down.
'How can I feel guilty about anything? Nothing makes sense. You don't make sense, and the disappearance of my friend, Pete, makes no sense,' said Mike crossly.
'I understand how you feel about your friend,' said the Major, with a worried look on his face.
'Do you, do you really?' said Mike bitterly.
'I think I do.'
'What's worrying you?' asked Mike, watching Leadbury's face.
'My superiors are insisting that I make a decision about you.'
'They like everything cut and dried, and I'm afraid your story isn't.'
'So what are you going to do?' asked Mike.
'I don't really know. One of our biggest problems is the fact that you still look on yourself as an individual.'
'Why shouldn't I?'
'Because this alienates.'
'Surely the individual has the right to try to survive,' said Mike, not grasping what the Major was talking about.
'I'm afraid the freedom of the individual has been superseded by the group.'
'Mainly because the group has a better chance to survive economically.'
'Sorry, I'm lost.'
'It's just a form of community living which is beginning to spread round the world, brought about by the breakdown of cities and the move towards decentralized living,' said the Major.
'And I suppose to make everything cut and dried, everyone has to belong to a group.'
'Right. There's a sort of unwritten law that everybody belongs. You see, a community can have good, strong administration. Therefore, everyone in that group must be a member. They can then have a plentiful supply of food, good communications, medical services, so on and so forth.'
'You mean these people are willing to spend their money and supply other services at the discretion of their administration!'
'Right Total local government. The country's government still makes the basic laws, but over the years the general populace objected to over taxation, health schemes and so on, so the central government had to give the population more freedom. The people organized themselves into economic groups. The central government gave each group a yearly target for things like taxes, population growth and the supply of personnel for government jobs.'
'And you say this has become the general practice throughout the world?'
'Yes. Some countries are farther advanced than others, but from what one hears, they're all moving in that direction.'
'Why should this complicate the issue in my case?'
'It wouldn't if you were willing to join in and co-operate. But my superiors, after reading your statement, have decided that you wouldn't be able to adjust to normal society. This gives me a problem; either I must have you confined, or conditioned to our way of thinking.'
'And you yourself feel that I couldn't adjust?'
'Honestly, no. If your story's true, then you have come from an era where the freedom of the individual was held very high. If you hadn't been a writer there might have been a chance,' said the Major, standing up.
'What would I need to be to make me acceptable?'
'Oh, any occupation that didn't require original thought. All I can advise you to do, is to think carefully about what we've discussed. In the morning you'll come before my superiors, and I suppose if you could persuade them that you were ready to fit into a group, they might agree.'
'Otherwise?' asked Mike.
'I'll try and get you the lightest sentence I can,' said the Major, moving to the door. 'So think really hard.' He then vanished down the corridor.
A picture began to form in Mike's mind. The development of society became clear. Instead of a steady progress towards stricter central government control of the people, as was happening in the late 1960s, the situation had reversed itself. The people were taking over some of the central government's duties and creating their own type of home rule.
But the freedom of the individual had gone. Mike thought about his own position for a while, and then quickly decided his plan of action.
'When in doubt, win the trick.'
Mike got up off the bed and pressed the button by the door.
'Yes, sir,' said a soldier coming to the door.
'Is there anywhere I can get something to eat?'
'Yes,' said the soldier, looking at his watch. 'You'll just make it before the canteen closes.'
Mike followed the soldier through the lighted alleyways between single-storey buildings which seemed to be the standard architecture of the establishment, and on to the canteen. It was humming with civilians relaxing and talking. Walking down the room he glanced carefully at the crowded tables, just in case he caught a glimpse of the professor, but he wasn't there. A clock at the back of the counter showed a quarter to twelve.
After a meal of stew and coffee he was restless and needed the relaxation of a walk. The soldier did not object and the two men set off on a tour of the establishment. Mike had been thinking he might be able to hurdle his way over the high perimeter fence but, on close inspection of the fifteen-foot wire enclosure and the look-out posts, he decided against this idea of escape. It was when he saw a building marked '
that a more feasible plan began to form. Telling the soldier he'd like a bath, he left him waiting at the main door while he quickly and efficiently went over the building, but it was empty. What he'd had in mind was to borrow a soldier's uniform and make a bid for his freedom through the main gate. Deciding to be more patient, he found himself a bathroom, undressed and lounged in the luxury of deep, warm water.
'Come in,' said Mike in reply to a knock at the door.
'Enjoying your bath?' asked Leadbury.
'Thinking about what we were talking about earlier?'
'Have a good soak,' said the Major, closing the door behind him.
Mike turned to check that the man had left. Curious that Leadbury should also be keeping an eye on him, he thought. Maybe the Major was a rather pent-up individual at heart. He shivered as the bath water suddenly felt cold, got out, dried, and dressed quickly swearing aloud when he remembered that they had taken his wallet. Maybe it was a good thing after all. I f he were picked up, he could say he'd lost his memory, or even call himself Charles Dickens.
Outside the building there was no sign of the soldier. He stood looking round but nobody appeared. Catching sight of the main entrance, on a sudden Impulse he decided to chance it. Hurrying footsteps made him freeze but after a moment they retreated into the distance. He started off warily, looking over his shoulder from time to time. The distance between himself and the cover of the retreating buildings looked enormous. There seemed to be no sign of activity by the main gate, but he wasn't taking any chances. On reaching the back of the guard hut 1.2 listened, but there was no sound. He hadn't time to wonder why. He cautiously made his way round to the door and peered in. It was empty. Someone must have set this all up. Bastards, where were they? He looked back at the buildings in the far distance, hesitated and then started to run past the hut and out of the main gate. From there he sprinted across the road into a large open field, stumbling and jumping his way across.
'Stop, or we fire,' came a voice through a loud hailer.
Mike had no intention of stopping, and went on running faster than before. Somewhere up in front of him he could see a barrier of sorts. Suddenly light flooded the whole area round him and he saw that the barrier was a fence. Behind him he heard the sound of gunfire. He felt hard lumps of earth hit his back as the bullets sprayed the ground. The fence was only a few yards away, but with no time to stop or think he hurled himself at the top, grabbed the wire and frantically dragged himself over. A machine gun started up somewhere behind, and raked the fence as he fell over the other side. The sounds of the deadly lead pinging through the fence made Mike try to throw himself in a different direction from his line of fall. He gave a mental sigh of relief as he went to the right, that it the gunner had started his sweep from right to left. The hovercraft machine-gun carrier was throwing up the dust as it swept to the fence. Mike picked himself off the ground and started to run.
A single shot rang out and he started to zig-zag. Another shot threw him bodily sideways. He felt no pain, except his aching muscles. The sound of the vehicle somewhere behind him, made him cling to the ground. He listened intently to the engines, until they died away then lifted his face from the ploughed field, wiped the dirt off and looked back. The machine was making its way along the fence away from him. Struggling to his feet he moved unsteadily to the trees up in front. He knew he shouldn't rest, but he had to and leant gasping against a tree trying to catch his breath. Once he was sufficiently recovered he felt over his clothing to see where he'd been hit. A bullet had passed through his jacket and sweater just under his armpit, leaving a mass of torn wool and suede. The noise of the hovercraft's engines brought him back to reality, and he started out in the opposite direction from the sound of the machine.
The fields and wood rolled gently away in front of him as he jogged along steadily, trying hard not to trip and fall in the darkness. Behind him the ominous sounds of the engines could still be heard. How much longer would it remain dark, giving him an advantage over his pursuers. Suddenly he stopped. Somewhere up in front of him came the sound of another engine. This was impossible, they couldn't have got round in front of him, or could they? The sound behind him came closer and closer. Mike moved on, ready to dive to the ground and bury himself in the dirt. He came to more trees, and made his way cautiously through them to the edge of the copse, where in the open space in front of him was a vehicle, lights full on. The machine seemed to be moving up and down the field, as if searching every inch of ground. As it reached the edge of the wood, he saw with relief that it was only a giant combine harvester busy at work. Even so he must keep as far away as possible. He'd only just rounded the field when his pursuers came into sight and as they approached the harvester Mike moved away quickly. He trotted on and on along the sides of fields, until up in front of him he heard a low rumbling. It was a sound that he had heard before, many times. He couldn't place it immediately, but it gave him a sense of security. Maybe he was mistaken but in Mike's mind it was better than the harsh exhaust note of his pursuing vehicle. He crawled up an embankment. That's why the sound was familiar. It was a highway.
The traffic was heavy and it took a number of minutes to cross to the other side. Giant trucks lumbered along, and it occurred to Mike that he might be able to thumb a lift. Then he had another idea. He would try and find a place where he could hop on a vehicle without being seen. After a moment's thought, he decided to travel in the direction of the heaviest flow of traffic keeping within sight of the yellow carriageway lights that seemed to brighten up the whole sky.
On reaching the giant intersection he walked under the arches of the fly-over and onto the down ramp of the east-bound traffic. He lay on the verge looking for a good point to take a run at a truck. He noticed that on the entrance to the motorway there were traffic signals flashing red, and then green for a moment, and then back to red. He watched for a while until he saw their purpose. On red it meant that there was traffic on the motorway in the slow lane, but on green it was clear to proceed. Traffic coming off the fly-over was very good about obeying these signals and would slow right up until it saw the go-ahead. All he had to do now was to wait for the right truck coming off the ramp, with no vehicle following it and he'd have a chance to climb aboard.
Mike lay there in the damp grass feeling very miserable as the dew seeped through his clothes. The last forty-eight hours reminded him of a Chekhov play. It seemed strange that Leadbury had given him such a good chance to escape. Perhaps it was set up so they could shoot him on the run and obviate the difficulty of disposing of him.
A group of trucks came over the fly-over and slowly down the ramp and, as the last one went slowly by, he stood up and ran in behind the trailer. Fortunately the load was covered by some sort of canvas, securely fastened. He took hold of a strap and pulled himself up. When the truck accelerated he nearly lost his grip but doggedly climbed to the top of the load where he wriggled his legs under the strap and lay down flat. The wind that whistled over him was cold, and he soon began to shiver in his damp clothes. The truck moved on at great speed for about half an hour, then slowed. Mike turned his head and his heart missed a beat. Up in front there seemed to be a check point. Lying flat and still, he wished that he could stop his heart thumping as they reached their turn in the queue.