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       Cronos, p.31

           Robert Silverberg
 
“It’s a genetic fluke,” Galuber went on. “She can’t metabolize galactose at all, because of an enzyme deficit. Galactose precursors would pile up, and there’d be cell damage. So she’s had to be on a galactose-free diet from birth, but that leads to other problems. Since there’s the enzyme deficit, she can’t synthesize galactose from endogenous carbohydrates, and if left uncompensated for that would lead to a partial replacement of galactolipids by glucolipids in the brain, a grossly defective blood group spectrum, poorimmune reaction in organ transplants, abnormal brain development—oh, a great problem, in many ways.”

  “Can it be cured?” Quellen asked.

  “Not in the sense of total remission of pathology. But it can be dealt with. Hereditary galactose metabolism defects can be controlled through enzyme synthesis. Nevertheless, she’s got to remain on a special diet and avoid certain substances, among them the one that’s the essence of tonight’s ceremony. Which is why we had to substitute our own prepared material. An inconvenience to the host.”

  “Not at all, not at all,” boomed Brose Cashdan unexpectedly. “A trivial matter! We’re delighted that you could join with us, Mrs. Galuber!”

  Quellen, bewildered by Galuber’s stream of clinical verbiage, was relieved when Cashdan announced that the ceremony was about to begin. The frood had spouted all that stuff on purpose, Quellen thought resentfully, by way of establishing his intellectual supremacy. Instead of tossing forth the jargon on his own trade, which was easy enough to parry if you knew your way around cocktail-party froodianism, Galuber had chosen to engulf Quellen in a cascade of impenetrable technicalities of a medical sort. Quellen quietly cursed Jennifer Galuber’s enzyme deficit, her wanton glances, her galactolipid accumulation, and her jiggling breasts. Slipping away from her, he followed Judith back across the room to the carpeted pit in the center where the ceremony was about to take place.

  Judith said warningly, “Joe, please, don’t back out the way you did the last time. You’ve got to learn to divorce yourself from tribal reactions. Look at things objectively. What’s wrong with mixing a little saliva?”

  “Nothing,” he said. “I suppose.”

  “And digestive fluids—they can’t harm you. It’s all forthe sake of spiritual communion. You mustn’t look at things in obsolete ways.”

  “Is that how you get up the nerve to come naked to a social gathering?” he asked. “By looking at things in a nonobsolete way?”

  “I’m not naked,” she said primly.

  “No. You’re wearing a coat of paint.”

  “It conceals what society requires us to conceal.”

  “It leaves your secondary sex characteristics exposed,” Quellen pointed out. “That’s pretty naked.”

  “But not the primary ones. See for yourself. I’m perfectly covered in that area, and so, I’m well within the norms. Why don’t you look at me? You can be so absurd at times, Joe.”

  Since she insisted on it, he stared at her waist. His eyes traveled as far as her thighs. He had to admit it; she was decently enough clad there. She looked nude, but she wasn’t. Cunning, he thought. Provocative. He wondered how she got the sprayon outfit off. Maybe she would show him that, too, before the night was out. Her lean body held a powerful attraction for him. Unlike Helaine, whose leanness was the result of erosion and general haggardness, Judith’s body was perfect in its lithe, slim elegance. Quellen would gladly have walked out right now with her.

  But there was the ceremony to endure.

  The members of this communion group assembled themselves on the rim of the carpeted pit. Brose Cashdan, as the host, produced a shining metallic bowl in which reposed a doughy mass about the size of a man’s head. This, Quellen knew, was the substance of the love feast; an indigestible algae product with emetic properties. Adapted, no doubt, to suit Mrs. Galuber’s galactose deficit.

  Cashdan said, “Dr. Galuber has kindly consented to be our first celebrant this evening.”

  The lights were dimmed. Galuber took the gleaming bowl from Cashdan and rested it on his knees. Then, solemnly, he broke loose a fistful of the dough and crammed it into his mouth. He began to chew.

  There were many cults. Quellen was no joiner, but even he had now and then been drawn into their ceremonies, generally through the urging of Judith. She drifted everywhere in her search for spiritual fulfillment—from frood to frood, from cult to cult. Quellen suspected that she had frequented the proscribed cults, perhaps even the outlawed Flaming Bess religion. He could picture Judith dancing naked—no flimflam of sprayon to cover her shame—while a groveling pyrotic kindled an extrasensory blaze and raging voices called for the overthrow of the High Government. Pyrotics had actually assassinated several Class One leaders a generation ago. The cult still endured.

  Mainly, though, the cults were more innocent things— revolting, perhaps, but not criminal. Such as this one, in which the chewing of the cud somehow led to a feeling of interpersonal harmony. Cashdan was intoning a digestive litany of some sort. Galuber was still stuffing resilient dough into his mouth. How much could that capacious belly hold? Jennifer Galuber was watching her husband with pride. The frood continued to devour. His face was transfigured, the eyes virtually sightless. Jennifer glowered. Her bare body seemed even more huge as she took vicarious pleasure from her husband’s importance.

  They were all chanting, now. Even Judith. Low, serious sounds of spirituality came from them.

  She nudged him. “You too,” she whispered.

  “I don’t know the words.”

  “Just drone along, then.”

  He shrugged. Galuber had ingested nearly every scrap of dough in the bowl. Surely his stomach was painfully distended,now. That stuff was like rubber. The emetic it contained worked on a critical-mass basis; once you had enough of the stuff in your gut, the peristalsis reflex was triggered and the sacred regurgitation began.

  Judith, beside Quellen, was begging to be admitted into the realms of Oneness. Nirvana through up-chucking, Quellen thought coldly. How could it be? What am I doing here? The chant rebounded from the glass walls and deafened him. In a subtle antiphony currents of sound were sweeping round and round the room. He could not avoid swaying in rhythm. His lips moved. He would have joined in, if only he knew the words. He found himself humming tunelessly. Cashdan, still leading the ceremony, stepped up his volume. His voice was a fine, thick, black basso, with plenty of intensity to it.

  Galuber sat motionless in the center of the pit. His eyes were closed. His hands were clasped on his abdomen. His face was flushed. He alone was in stasis in the midst of this swaying, chanting congregation. Quellen forced himself to stay aloof, observing. He watched the rhythmic side-to-side motions of Jennifer Galuber’s offensively large breasts. He watched Judith’s fine-boned face turn radiant with some inner ecstasy. A sexless young man with slicked-down maroon hair was jerking as though he had hold of a highvoltage wire. Around the room, the mysterious passion of social regurgitation was taking hold.

  Dr. Galuber began to vomit, now.

  The frood regurgitated with quiet dignity. His thick lips parted, and lumps of dough burst forth into the bowl. Sweat beaded his flushed face; there was effort in any kind of reverse peristalsis, even when the medulla was lulled, as it was by the drug within the dough. Yet he performed his function in the rite nobly. The bowl was filled.

  It was passed around.

  Hands clutched at moist dough. Take and eat, take and eat; here is the body, the authentic substance of the group. Join in the Oneness. Brose Cashdan was eating. Jennifer Galuber ate. Judith tranquilly accepted her portion. Quellen found a wet doughy mass in his hand.

  Take. Eat.

  Be objective. This is Oneness. His hand rose trembling toward his lips. He felt Judith’s thigh warm against his own, beside him. Take and eat. Take and eat. Galuber lay prostrate in the pit, transfixed with ecstasy.

  Quellen ate.

  He chewed lustily, not allowing himself to hesitate. The particular property of the indigestible substan
ce was that it could be digested upon contact with salivafollowingimmersion in the alimentary tract. One swallowing wasn’t enough; Galuber had merely prepared it for their intake. Quellen swallowed. Oddly, he felt no queasiness. He had eaten ants, raw whelks, sea urchins, other exotic delicacies, and had not even been granted a chance of a spiritual experience in the bargain. Why hesitate at this?

  The other communicants were weeping in joy. Tears glistened on Judith’s sprayon garment. Quellen still felt deplorably objective about the universe. He had not joined the mystic communion after all, dutifully though he had observed the rite. He waited patiently for the ecstasy to pass from the others.

  Judith whispered to him, “Will you celebrate the next round?”

  “Absolutely not.”

  “Joe—”

  “Please. I came, didn’t I? I’m participating. Don’t ask me to be the star.”

  “It’s customary for strangers to the group to—”

  “I know. Not me. Someone else can have the honor.”

  She looked reproachfully at him. Quellen realized that he had failed her. Tonight had been some sort of a test, and he had nearly passed. Nearly.

  Brose Cashdan had produced a second mass of ritual dough. Without a word, Jennifer Galuber accepted the bowl and began to stuff herself. The frood, exhausted by his efforts, sat slumped wearily beside her, hardly watching. The rite proceeded as had the first. Quellen took part as before, without ever becoming involved in the action.

  Afterward, Brose Cashdan approached Quellen and said softly, “Would you care to lead us in our next communion?”

  “I’m sorry,” said Quellen. “I really can’t. I’ve got to leave soon.”

  “I regret that. We had hoped you’d participate to the fullest.” Cashdan smiled dreamily and handed the bowl to someone else.

  Quellen tugged at Judith’s wrist and drew her to one side. “Come home with me,” he whispered urgently.

  “How can you think of sexhere?”

  “You aren’t dressed chastely, you know. You’ve had two communions. Will you leave with me?”

  “No,” she said firmly.

  “If I wait until the next communion is over?”

  “No. Not then. You’ll have to take communion yourself, as a celebrant, andmeanit. Otherwise I’d feel no kinship to you later. Honestly, Joe, how can I give myself to a man I don’t relate to? It would be so utterly mechanical—it would harm us both.”

  Her nakedness that was not nakedness stabbed at him. He could not bear to look down at the alluring slenderness of her body. With pain he said, “Don’t do this to me, Judith. Play fair. Let’s leave now.”

  For answer, she turned away and rejoined her companions in the ritual pit. The third communion was about tobegin. Cashdan looked invitingly at Quellen, who shook his head and quickly left the room. Outside, he glanced back through the transparent wall and saw Judith with her head thrown back and her lips parted in rapture. The Galubers likewise looked ecstatic. The image of Jennifer Galuber’s obese body burned its way indelibly into Quellen’s brain. He fled.

  He was home not long after midnight, but his apartment gave him no comfort. He had to escape. Recklessly, he stepped into the stat field and let himself be hurled to Africa.

  Morning had come, there. A light mistlike rain was falling, but the golden gleam of the sun cut through the gray haze. The crocodiles were in their usual places. A bird screeched. The leafy boughs, heavy with rain, trailed toward the rich wet black earth. Quellen tried to let the peace of the place enfold him. Kicking off his shoes, he walked down to the edge of the stream. The muck oozed voluptuously between his toes. Some small insect nipped at his calf. A frog leaped into the stream, making a pool of widening concentric circles in the dark surface of the water. One crocodile lazily opened a glistening eye. The sweet, heavy air surged into Quellen’s lungs.

  He took no comfort in any of it.

  This place was his, but he had not earned it. He had stolen it. He could have no real peace here. Behind him, in Appalachia, he likewise found no repose. The world was too much with him, and he was too little of the world. He thought of Judith, sensuous in sprayon, ecstatic as she chewed the cud. She hates me, Quellen thought, or perhaps she pities me, but the effect is the same. She’ll never see me again.

  He did not wish to remain in these pleasant surroundings while he was in such a mood.

  Quellen returned to the stat. He stepped into the field, and was hurled back across the sea to his own apartment, leaving morning and entering the fist of night. He slept poorly.

  11.

  At the office the following morning, Quellen found his two UnderSecs waiting for him with a third man, a tall, awkward, shabbily dressed fellow with a broken nose that projected beak-like from his face. Brogg turned the oxy vent up to full, Quellen noticed.“Who’s this?” Quellen asked. “You’ve made an arrest?” Could it be, he wondered, that this was Lanoy? It didn’t seem likely. How could this seedy prolet—too poor, apparently, to afford a plastic job on his nose—be the force behind the hoppers?

  “Tell the CrimeSec who you are,” Brogg said, nudging the prolet roughly with his elbow.

  “Name is Brand,” the prolet said in a thin, whiningly high voice. “Class Fifteen. I didn’t mean no harm, it was just that he promised me a home all my own, and a job, and fresh air—”

  Brogg cut him off. “We ran up against this man in a drinker. He had had one or two too many and was telling everyone that he’d have a job soon.”

  “That’s what the fellow said,” Brand mumbled. “Just had to give him two hundred credits and he’d send me somewhere where everyone had a job. And I’d be able to send money back to bring my family along.”

  “That can’t be right,” said Quellen. “Sending money back? Contactupthe time-path?”

  “That’s what he said. It sounded so good, sir.”

  “A phony inducement,” Brogg suggested. “If there’s two-way contact, it upsets all our calculations. But there isn’t any such thing.”

  Quellen said, “What was this fellow’s name?”

  “Lanoy, sir.”

  Lanoy! Lanoy everywhere, tentacles reaching in all directions at once!

  Brand muttered. “Someone gave me this and told me to get in touch with him.”

  He held out a crumpled minislip. Quellen unfolded it and read it. It said:

  OUT OF WORK?

  SEE LANOY

  “These things are everywhere,” Quellen said. He reached into his own pocket and pulled out the slip he had been handed on the flyramp. Quellen had been carrying it around for several days like a talisman. He laid it beside the first. They were identical.

  OUT OF WORK?

  SEE LANOY

  “Lanoy’s sent a lot of my friends there,” Brand said. “He told me they were all working and happy there, sir—”

  “Where does he send them?” Quellen asked gently.

  “I don’t know, sir. Lanoy said he was going to tell me when I gave him the two hundred units. I drew out all my savings. I was on my way to him, and I just dropped in for a short one, when—when—”

  “When we found him,” Brogg finished. “Telling everyone-in sight that he was heading to Lanoy to get a job.”

  “Mmm. Do you know what the hoppers are, Brand?”

  “No, sir.”

  “Never mind, then. Suppose you take us to Lanoy.”

  “I can’t do that. It wouldn’t be fair. All my friends—”

  “Suppose wemakeyou take us to Lanoy,” Quellen said.

  “But he was going to give me a job! I can’t do it. Please, sir.”

  Brogg looked sharply at Quellen. “Let me try,” he said. “Lanoy was going to give you a job, you say? For two hundred units?”

  “Yes, sir.”

  “What if we tell you that we’ll give you a job for nothing? No charge at all, just lead us to Lanoy and we’ll send you where he was going to send you, only free. And we’ll send your family along, too.”

  Quell
en smiled. When it came to handling the lower prolets, Brogg was a far better psychologist than he was. He was forced to admit that.

  “Sounds fair,” Brand said. “Only I feel bad about it. Lanoy was nice to me. But if you say you’ll send me for nix—”

  “Quite right, Brand.”

  “I’ll do it, then. I guess.”

  Quellen turned down the oxy vent. Brogg gestured to Leeward, who led Brand out of the room. Quellen said, “Let’s go before he changes his mind. He’s obviously wavering.”

  “Are you coming with us, sir?” Brogg asked. There was just a hint of sarcasm behind Brogg’s obsequious tones. “It’llprobably be a pretty filthy part of town. Vermin all over the place. The criminal section—”

  Quellen scowled. “You’re right,” he said. “No need for me to go. You two take him. I’ve got plenty to do here.”

  As soon as they were gone, Quellen rang Koll.

  “We’re hot on the trail,” he said. “Brogg and Leeward have traced a lead to the man who’s behind the hoppers. They’ve gone out to make the arrest.”

  “Fine work,” Koll said coldly. “It should be an interestinginvestigation.”

  “I’ll report back to you as soon as—”

  “Let it go for a while. Spanner and I are discussing departmental status changes. We’d prefer not to be disturbed during the next hour.” He hung up.

  What did that mean, Quellen wondered? The coldness in Koll’s voice—well, that was nothing unusual, but it was significant. Koll had been harrying him all week for progress on the hopper business. Now that some progress had finally been made—now that a man was in custody who could lead them to the elusive Lanoy—Koll had been brusque, almost totally uninterested. Koll’s hiding something, Quellen thought.

  His conscience pricked him. The instant suspicion returned: Koll knows about Africa. That trip I made last night was monitored, and it was the last chunk of evidence in the case against me. Now they’re getting the indictment ready.

  No doubt Brogg had been offered a bigger price to talk than Quellen had been giving him to be silent, and he had sold out to the highest bidder. Koll knew everything, now. Demotion would be the least of Quellen’s punishments.

 
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