“Biochemistry—genetics and tectogenetics—and here we are at the clinic!”
He came back to the here and now with a start. The girl was holding a door open for him; beyond it, he glimpsed the international pastel décor and sniffed the international disinfectant odour of a hospital.
“You said that that was the genetics department?” he demanded, gesturing to the last building they had passed.
“The department in which the famous Dr. Sugaiguntung works?”
“Yes, sir.” This time the girl’s smile seemed not to be forced; there was genuine pride in her voice, too. “I have the honour to work in that department. I am studying directly under him.”
Donald framed a flowery phrase including gratitude for her help, admiration of her beauty and a good deal about the plight of a foreign stranger. Contacting one of Sugaiguntung’s own students would be an incredible stroke of good fortune!
But before he could speak she had folded her umbrella and marched briskly away. Twenty students had crowded between him and her by the time he reacted.
And there was a nurse eyeing him from inside the clinic’s door, about to address him. He sighed. All he could do was mark down the salient features of the genetics building in his mind’s eye, in case he got the chance to return here.
Making this quick final survey, he noticed something that struck him as strange about the passing students. There were many fewer smiles than one might expect among people who felt they were achieving great things. Nodding or waving to friends, they maintained looks of serious concentration.
And the girl who had brought him over from the gate had sounded tired.
Exhausted from being driven too hard? That would fit. Dedication was the outstanding one of all Yatakang’s many centres of higher education; competition to get in must be fierce, with millions of families uging their children on.
The thought made him nervous. He wasn’t used to being among people who admired dedication to the degree where they would wear themselves out. At home, it had become unfashionable. He turned to speak to the nurse and explain his reason for calling here.
Just as he did so, there was a scream. Jerking his gaze back, he saw a ripple run through the students closer to the genetics building, and something rose above the close-packed dark heads. Light glinted on it. He recognised its unique shape at once: a phang, the Yatakangi scimitar to which these people were so fond of comparing their sword-sweep of islands.
The single scream blurred into an unvoiced howling and a boy stumbled weeping out on to the immaculate face of the sand-garden that here too separated the white towers and the pagodaed walks. He was bleeding brilliant red from a slash across his chest. After two yards he fell and began to leak his life into the ground, writhing.
In sick amazement Donald envisaged himself as the carrier of a new and strange disease: the infective agent for riot and slaughter. He had only arrived in this city today, and …
One didn’t have to have previous experience of this phenomenon. One knew, instantly. It was a fact of modern life—or death. Just a few yards from him, past a barrier to vision composed of abruptly panicking students, was a person who had gone over the edge of sanity and decided to run amok.
The demand it made on his perceptions was too great for him to take the whole scene in. He saw single facets of it: the bleeding boy, the fear-stricken survivors, and then a girl in a slashed shareng who stumbled out as the boy had done, making deep footprints in the sand-garden, holding one of her own small breasts against herself with her hand and staring down at the monstrous gash which had almost separated it from her body—too stunned to cry, able only to stare and suffer.
The mucker had chosen a perfect site to gather victims. Cramped into the walkway at the point where people leaving the high genetics building were hampered by doors, there was no need to seek targets, only to chop and chop. The blade swung into sight again, sowing spatters of blood on walls and faces and backs, and slammed down butcher-wise, cleaving meat and bone. Overhead, faces appeared at windows, and a long way off a buff-uniformed man with a drawn bolt-gun came in sight, fighting his way through the press of fright-crazed students. A third victim collapsed off the walkway like a jointless dummy, this one a youth with his brains spilling out to the day.
The mad yelling turned to a word, and the word was a name, and the name was—Donald didn’t understand why—“Sugaiguntung!” Why should he be sent for? Was the mucker not human, but one of the modified orang-outangs he’d produced? The possibility seemed wild, but no wilder than the idea that he should have walked into a mucker directly upon his arrival.
Without realising what he was doing, he found himself trying to get a clear sight of the killer, and because he stepped away from the clinic door his retreat—available, not yet used—was cut off. A pack of terror-blind students crushed past him, one of them falling and unable to rise for an eternal moment, knocked back and back to sprawl on the pavement as careless legs and feet battered him.
Not a student. The fact impressed itself on Donald at the same instant as another, far more urgent. The person who had fallen was a man of middle age, growing stout, and—a rarity among Yatakangis—bald at the crown of his head. But that was a snapshot, meaningless. What counted was that the mucker had come after him.
Donald’s mind chilled as though someone had cracked his skull like that of the dead boy a few yards distant, then poured it full of liquid helium. He felt a control and detachment like a cryogenic computer, and time ceased for a while to be linear and became pictorial.
This is a classic portrait of the mucker phenomenon. The victim is a thin youth a little above average height for his ethnic group, sallow, black-haired and dressed in conventional garb spotted with fresh blood. His eyes, which are black-irised, are fixed wide open, and the pupils are doubtless dilated though the contrast is too low for me to see them. His mouth is also open and his chin is running with saliva. There is a little froth on the left cheek. His breathing is violent and exhalation is accompanied by a grunt—haarrgh ow haarrgh ow! His muscular tensions are maximised; his right sleeve has split from the pressure of the biceps. He has a convulsive grip on his phang and all his knuckles are brightly pale against his otherwise sallow skin. His legs are bowed and his feet planted firmly apart like a sumo wrestler’s when confronting an opponent. He has a conspicuous erection. He is in a berserk frame of reference and will not feel any pain.
With that realisation, a question came—what in God’s name am I to do?—and time re-started.
The phang whistled and stung Donald’s face with drops of blood hurled at him so fast he could feel them like gale-driven needles of rain. He jumped back, the man on the ground made another attempt to get up, the mucker almost lost balance cancelling the violence of the blow he had aimed at Donald and diverted the blade to the man on the ground and with the very tip of it managed to write a line of pain across his bumping buttocks.
Someone had said that to Donald Hogan: a variant Donald Hogan, the Mark II man who had learned nearly a thousand different ways to end a human life.
Never go against an armed man without a weapon if there’s one in reach. If there’s not one in reach, get in reach of one!
There was nothing to snatch and wield. There was a solid wall, a tiled pavement, pillars anchored to carry a heavy roof, and a sterile oriental garden without a living tree from which to tear a whip-like twig.