Friday, p.20
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       Friday, p.20

           Robert A. Heinlein
 

  Either the recruiting sergeant was lying or someone had lied to her and she wasn’t bright enough to spot the illogicality. Never mind, there was no point in quizzing her. I reached for a pen. “Do I see the medical officer now?”

  “Are you kidding?”

  “How else?” I signed, then said, “I do,” when she read off rapidly an oath that more or less followed the indenture.

  She peered at my signature. “Jones, what does F stand for?”

  “Friday.”

  “That’s a silly name. On duty, you’re Jones. Off duty, you’re Jonesie.”

  “Whatever you say, Sergeant. Am I on duty now, or off?”

  “You’ll be off duty in a moment. Here are your orders: Foot of Shrimp Alley is a godown. Sign says WOO FONG AND LEVY BROTHERS, INK. Be there by fourteen o’clock, ready to leave. Use the back door. You’re free from now till then to wind up your private affairs. You are free to tell anyone of your enlistment but you are strongly admonished under penalty of disciplinary action not to make conjectures as to the nature of the duty on which you are embarking.” She read off the last rapidly as if it were a recording. “Do you need lunch money? No, I’m sure you don’t. That’s all, Jonesie. Glad to have you aboard. We’ll have a good tour.” She motioned me toward her.

  I went to her; she put an arm around my hips, smiled up at me. Inwardly I shrugged as I decided that this was no time to be getting my platoon sergeant sore at me. I smiled back, leaned down, and kissed her. Not bad at all. Her breath was sweet.

  XVIII

  The excursion boat Skip to M’Lou was a real Mark Twainer, much fancier transportation than I had expected—three passenger decks, four Shipstones, two for each of twin screws. But she was loaded to the gunwales and it seemed to me that a stiff breeze would swamp her. At that we were not the only troopship; the Myrtle T. Hanshaw was a few lengths ahead of us, carving the river at an estimated twenty knots. I thought about concealed snags and hoped that their radar/sonar was up to the task.

  The Alamo Heroes were in the Myrtle as was Colonel Rachel, commanding both combat teams—and this was all I needed to nail down my suspicions. A bloated brigade is not a palace guard. Colonel Rachel was expecting field action—possibly we would disembark under fire.

  We had not yet been issued weapons and recruits were still in mufti; this seemed to indicate that our colonel did not expect action at once and it fitted in with Sergeant Gumm’s prediction that we were going upriver at least as far as Saint Louis—and of course the rest of what she said about our becoming bodyguard to the new Chairman indicated that we were going all the way up to the capital—

  —if the new Chairman was in fact at the seat of government.—if Mary Gumm knew what she was talking about.—if someone didn’t turn the river around while I was not looking. Too many “ifs,” Friday, and too little hard data. All I really knew was that this vessel should be crossing into the Imperium about now—in fact I did not know which side of the border we were on or how to tell.

  But I did not care greatly because sometime in the next several days, when we were close to Boss’s headquarters, I planned to resign informally from Rachel’s Raiders—before action, by strong preference. I had had time to size up this outfit and I believed strongly that it could not be combat-ready in less than six weeks of tough field training at the hands of tough and blooded sergeant instructors. Too many recruits, not enough cadre.

  The recruits were all supposed to be veterans…but I was certain that some of them were farm girls run away from home and in some cases about fifteen years old. Big for their age, perhaps, and “when they’re big enough, they’re old enough,” as the old saw goes—but it takes more than massing sixty kilos to make a soldier.

  To take such troops into action would be suicide. But I did not worry about it. I had a belly full of beans and was settled on the fantail with my back against a spool of cordage, enjoying the sunset and digesting my first meal as a soldier (if that is the word) while contentedly contemplating the fact that, about now, the Skip to M’Lou was crossing into, or had crossed into, the Chicago Imperium.

  A voice behind me said, “Hidin’ out, trooper?”

  I recognized the voice and turned my head. “Why, Sergeant, how could you say such a thing?”

  “Easy. I just asked myself, ‘Where would I go if I was goldbricking?’—and there you were. Forget it, Jonesie. Have you picked your billet?”

  I had not done so because there were many choices, all bad. Most of the troops were quartered in staterooms, four to each double room, three to a single. But our platoon, along with one other, was to sleep in the dining salon. I could see no advantage to being at the Captain’s table so I had not engaged in the scramble.

  Sergeant Gumm nodded at my answer. “Okay. When you draw your blanket, don’t use it to stake out a billet; somebody’ll steal it. Portside aft, abreast the pantry, is the dining-room steward’s stateroom—that’s mine. It’s a single but with a wide bunk. Drop your blanket there. You’ll be a damn sight more comfortable than sleeping on the deck.”

  “That’s mighty nice of you, Sergeant!” (How do I talk my way out of this? Or am I going to have to relax to the inevitable?)

  “Call me Sarge. And when we’re alone, my name is Mary. What did you say your first name was?”

  “Friday.”

  “Friday. That’s kind o’ cute, when you stop to think about it. Okay, Friday, I’ll see you around taps.” We watched the last reddish slice of sun disappear into the bottomland astern of us, the Skip having swung east in one of the river’s endless meanders. “Seems like it ought to sizzle and send up steam.”

  “Sarge, you have the soul of a poet.”

  “I’ve often thought I could. Write poetry, I mean. You got the word? About the blackout now?”

  “No lights outside, no smoking outside. No lights inside except in spaces fully shuttered. Offenders will be shot at sunrise. Doesn’t affect me much, Sarge; I don’t smoke.”

  “Correction. Offenders will not be shot; they’ll just wish to God they had been shot. You don’t smoke at all, dear? Not even a friendly hit with a friend?”

  (Give up, Friday!) “That’s not really smoking; that’s just friendly.”

  “That’s the way I see it. I don’t go around with my head stuffed full of rags, either. But an occasional hit with a friend when you’re both in the mood, that’s sweet. And so are you.” She dropped to the deck by me, slipped an arm around me.

  “Sarge! I mean Mary. Please don’t. It’s not really dank yet. Somebody’ll see us.”

  “Who cares?”

  “I do. It makes me self-conscious. Spoils the mood.”

  “In this outfit you’ll get over that. You’re a virgin, dear? With girls, I mean.”

  “Uh…please don’t quiz me, Mary. And do let me go. I’m sorry but it does make me nervous. Here, I mean. Why, anybody could walk around the corner of that deckhouse.”

  She grabbed a feel, then started to stand up. “Kind o’ cute, you bein’ so shy. All right, I’ve got some mellow Omaha Black I’ve been saving for a special—”

  The sky lit up with a dazzling light; on top of it came a tremendous karoom! and where the Myrtle had been the sky was filled with junk.

  “Jesus Christ!”

  “Mary, can you swim?”

  “Huh? No.”

  “Jump in after me and I’ll keep you afloat.” I went over the port side in as long a dive as I could manage, took a dozen hard strokes to get well clear, turned over onto my back. Mary Gumm’s head was silhouetted against the sky.

  That was the last I saw of her as the Skip to M’Lou blew up.

  In that stretch of the Mississippi there are bluffs on the east. The western limit of the river is simply higher land, not as clearly marked, ten or fifteen kilometers away. Between these two sides the location of the river can be a matter of opinion—often of legal opinion because the river shifts channels and chews up property rights.

  The river runs in all directio
ns and is almost as likely to run north as to nun south. Well, half as likely. It had been flowing west at sundown; the Skip, headed upriver, had the sunset behind her. But while the sun was setting the boat had swung left as the channel turned north; I had noticed the red-and-orange display of sunset swinging to portside.

  That’s why I went over the side to port. When I hit the water, my immediate purpose was to get clear; my next purpose was to see if Mary followed me in. I did not really expect her to because (I’ve noticed!) most people, human people, don’t make up their minds that fast.

  I saw her, still aboard; she was staring at me. Then the second explosion took place and it was too late. I felt a brief burst of sorrow—in her own rutty, slightly dishonest way Mary was a good sort—then I wiped her out of my mind; I had other problems.

  My first problem was not to be hit by debris; I surface-dived and stayed under. I can hold my breath and exercise almost ten minutes, although I don’t like it at all. This time I stretched it almost to bursting before surfacing.

  Long enough: It was dark but I seemed to be clear of floating debris.

  Perhaps there were survivors in the water but I did not hear any and did not feel impelled to try to find any (other than Mary and no way to find her) as I was not well equipped to rescue anyone, even myself.

  I looked around, spotted what was left of the loom of sunset, swam toward it. After a while I lost it, turned over on my back, searched the sky. Broken clouds and no moon. I spotted Arcturus, then both the Bears and Polaris, and I had north. I then corrected my course so that I was swimming west. I stayed on my back because, if you take it easy, you can swim forever and two years past, on your back. Never any problem to breathe and if you get a touch weary, you can just hold still and twiddle your fingers a trifle until you are rested. I wasn’t in any hurry; I just wanted to reach the Imperium on the Arkansas side.

  But of crash-priority importance I did not want to drift back down into Texas.

  Problem: to navigate correctly at night with no map on a river a couple of kilometers wide, when your object is to reach a west bank you can’t see…without giving any southing as you go.

  Impossible?—the way the Mississippi winds around, like a snake with a broken back? But “impossible” is not a word one should use concerning the Mississippi River. There is one place where it is possible to make three short portages totaling less than ninety meters, float down the river in two bights totaling about thirty kilometers…and end up more than one hundred kilometers up the river.

  No map, no sight of my destination—I knew only that I must go west and that I must not go south. So that is what I did. I stayed on my back and kept checking the stars to hold course west. I had no way of telling how much I might be losing to the south through the current, save for the certainty that, if and when the river turned south, my own progress west through the water would fetch me up on the bank on the Arkansas side.

  And it did. An hour later—two hours later?—a lot of water later and Vega was high in the east but still far short of meridian, I realized that the bank was looming over me on my left side. I checked and corrected course west and kept on swimming. Shortly I bumped my head on a snag, reached behind me and grabbed it, pulled myself up, then pulled my way through endless snags to the bank.

  Scrambling up on the bank was no problem as it was only half a meter high, about, at that point. The only hazard was that the mud was thick and loose underfoot. I managed it, stopped, and took stock.

  Still inky-black all around with stars the only light. I could tell the smooth black of the water from the thick black of the brush behind me only by the faint glint of starlight on the water. Directions? Polaris was now blocked by cloud but the Big Dipper told me where it had to be and this was confirmed by Spica blazing in the south and Antares in the southeast.

  This orientation by the stars told me that west sliced straight into that thick black brush.

  My only alternative was to get back into the water, stick with the river…and wind up sometime tomorrow in Vicksburg.

  No, thanks. I headed into the bush.

  I’m going to skip rapidly over the next several hours. It may not have been the longest night of my life but it was surely the dullest. I am sure that there must be thicker and more dangerous jungles on Earth than the brush on the bottomland of the lower Mississippi. But I do not want to tackle them, especially without a machete (not even a Scout knife!).

  I spent most of my time backing out, having decided, No, not through there—now how can I go around?—No, not on its south side!—how can I get around it to the north? My track was as contorted as the path of the river itself and my progress was possibly one kilometer per hour—or perhaps I exaggerate; it could have been less. Much of the time was spent reorienting, a necessity every few meters.

  Flies, mosquitoes, gnats, crawly things I never saw, twice snakes underfoot that may have been water moccasins but I did not wait to find out, endless disturbed birds with a dozen different sorts of cries—birds that often flew up almost in my face to our mutual distress. My footing was usually mud and always included something to trip over, ankle-high, shin-high, or both.

  Three times (four times?) I came to open water. Each time I held course west and when the water was deep enough I swam. Stagnant bayou mostly, but one stretch seemed to have a current and may have been a minor channel of the Mississippi. Once there was something large swimming by me. Giant catfish? Aren’t they supposed to stay on the bottom? Alligator? But there aren’t supposed to be any there at all. Perhaps it was the Loch Ness monster on tour; I never saw it, simply felt it—and levitated right out of the water through sheer fright.

  About eight hundred years after the sinking of the Skip and the Myrtle came the dawn.

  West of me about a kilometer was the high ground of the Arkansas side. I felt triumphant.

  I also felt hungry, exhausted, dirty, insect-bitten, disreputable, and almost unbearably thirsty.

  Five hours later I was the guest of Mr. Asa Hunter as a passenger in his Studebaker farm wagon hitched to a fine span of mules. We were approaching a small town named Eudora. I still had not had any sleep but I had had the next best and everything but—water, food, a wash-up. Mrs. Hunter had clucked over me, lent me a comb, and given me breakfast: basted fried eggs, home-cured bacon thick and fat, corn bread, butter, sorghum, milk, coffee made in a pot and settled with an eggshell—and to appreciate in fullness Mrs. Hunter’s cooking I recommend swimming all night alternated with crawling through the thickets of Old Man River’s bottomland mud. Ambrosia.

  I ate wearing her wrapper as she insisted on rinsing out my bedraggled jump suit. It was dry by the time I was ready to leave, and I looked almost respectable.

  I did not offer to pay the Hunters. There are human people who have very little but are rich in dignity and self-respect. Their hospitality is not for sale, nor is their charity. I am slowly learning to recognize this trait in human people who have it. In the Hunters it was unmistakable.

  We crossed Macon Bayou and then the road dead-ended into a slightly wider road. Mr. Hunter stopped his mules, got down, came around to my side. “Miss, I’d thank you kindly to get down here.”

  I accepted his hand, let him hand me down. “Is something wrong, Mr. Hunter? Have I offended you?”

  He answered slowly, “No, miss. Not at all.” He hesitated. “You told us how your fishing boat was stove in by a snag.”

  “Yes?”

  “Snags in the river are a pesky hazard.” He paused. “Yesterday evening come sundown something bad happened on the river. Two explosions, about at Kentucky Bend. Big ones. Could see ’em and hear ’em from the house.”

  He paused again. I didn’t say anything. My explanation of my presence and of my (deplorable) condition had been feeble at best. But the next best explanation was a flying saucer.

  Mr. Hunter went on, “Wife and I have never had any words with the Imperial Police. We don’t aim to. So, if you don’t mind walking a short pie
ce down this road to the left, you’ll come to Eudora. And I’ll turn my team around and go back to our place.”

  “I see. Mr. Hunter, I wish there were some way I could repay you and Mrs. Hunter.”

  “You can.”

  “Yes?” (Was he going to ask for money? No!)

  “Someday you’ll find somebody needs a hand. So give him a hand and think of us.”

  “Oh! I shall! I surely shall!”

  “But don’t bother to write to us about it. People who get mail get noticed. We don’t crave to be noticed.”

  “I see. But I’ll do it and think about you, not once but more than once.”

  “That’s best. Bread cast upon the waters always comes back, miss. Mrs. Hunter told me to tell you that she plans to pray for you.”

  My eyes watered so quickly that I could not see. “Oh! And please tell her that I will remember her in my prayers. Both of you.” (I had never prayed in my life. But I would, for the Hunters.)

  “Thank y’ kindly. I will tell her. Miss. May I offer you a word of advice and not have you take it amiss?”

  “I need advice.”

  “You don’t plan to stop in Eudora?”

  “No. I must get north.”

  “So you said. Eudora’s just a police station and a few shops. Lake Village is farther away but the Greyhound APV stops there. That’s about twelve kilometers down the road to the right. If you can cover that distance between now and noon, you could catch the midday bus. But it’s a dogtrottin’ distance and a pretty hot day.”

  “I can do it. I will.”

  “Greyhound’ll take you to Pine Bluff, even to Little Rock. Um. Bus costs money.”

  “Mr. Hunter, you’ve been more than kind. I have my credit card with me; I can pay for the bus.” I had not come through the swim and the mud in very good shape but my credit cards, IDs, passport, and cash money had all been in that waterproof money belt Janet had given me so many light-years ago; all had come through untouched. Someday I would tell her.

 
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