At least, though, the phone was working. When he was alone he sat down at it, feeling vaguely uncomfortable about not having a screen so that he could see his correspondent and looking at the wall-mounted mirror instead.
In that mirror, just after he had punched his first number, he saw a door—not the one he had come in by, the one leading to the adjacent room—and it was creeping open.
He rose to his feet with as little sound as possible and darted across the narrow room, taking his stand where the door would shield him. A glance at the mirror showed that whoever was entering could not see him by reflection—nor, by the same token, could he see the intruder. But a dusky hand came around the corner of the door, and a foot, and—
He pounced, his newly acquired eptification in combat making his movements sure and economical. In the next second he had the intruder by wrist and neck, ready to lift into the air and drop across his knee in a disabling blow to the base of the spine.
Also in that second he said with horror, “Bronwen!”
“Let go, you’re hurting!” she panted past the grip he had taken on her slim throat.
“I’m terribly sorry!” Frantic, he helped her to regain her balance, steadied her with a hand on her arm as she swayed. “But you shouldn’t have come in like that—one never knows what’s liable to happen nowadays!”
“I certainly wasn’t expecting that,” she said wryly. “I thought I heard your voice and realised you’d been put in the room next to mine. I’m sorry. I only wanted to surprise you.”
“That you managed,” he said grimly. “Oh—that must be my call. Sit down. I’ll be with you in a moment.”
He darted back to the phone, which was making ill-defined grunting sounds in Yatakangi. The speaker was not, as he had hoped, the local stringer he was to visit, but the stringer’s partner, who didn’t know when his colleague would be back and declined to do more than take a message.
Donald told him where he was staying and cut the circuit.
Swivelling his chair, he looked at Bronwen and gave a wry grin.
“Know something? For a sick girl, you’re strong.”
“It’s only in the preliminary stages,” Bronwen muttered, looking at the floor. “My husband diagnosed it immediately before they killed him.”
Now he had a chance to take in her appearance. She must have gone straight to the paper clothing dispenser and fitted herself out with a set of Yatakangi garments; she was in a pale grey shareng and a short stiff yellow coat.
She noticed him looking, and fidgeted, plucking at her waist. “These things are awful,” she said. “Worse than what we get at home, and that’s bad. I was only going to ask you if you could spare a little while to help me buy some cloth dresses instead of paper like this.”
Donald made some quick mental calculations. Coming to Yatakang, he had picked up time; it was local morning, evening back in California. Yatakangi custom decreed a sort of siesta between noon and three poppa-momma; he would not be able to make his appointments for earlier than three, therefore, and that left a couple of hours free.
“Sure I can,” he said. “Just let me make a few calls and I’ll be with you.”
“Thanks very much,” she said, and returned to her own room without closing the door.
In there, the closet swung open instead of sliding as his did. He noticed this almost at once, because on resuming his seat at the phone he could see the reflection of a reflection in the mirror which had shown him the silently opening door. He kept his eyes on the glass absently as he waited for his call to the government information office to go through.
In that fashion, he saw her pause and glance down at herself in the drab grey and yellow paper and make a moue.
“Yes?” said the phone.
“Overseas correspondents liaison section, please.”
“Wait one minute.”
She put her hands up to her breast as though to tear off the offending garments, but the paper was too tough, being reinforced with plastic against Yatakang’s frequent rain. Defeated, she slipped off the little coat and balled it up angrily, tossing the crumpled remains on the floor.
“Overseas liaison,” the phone said.
“My name is Donald Hogan and I’m accredited to you by Engrelay Satelserv. You should have had notification of my arrival from my head office.”
“Please repeat the name and I will see if that is so.”
The upper part of the shareng, automatically pre-pleated by the dispenser into a rough approximation for her size and height, unfolded from her with a rustling noise. Donald caught his breath. She was wearing nothing under it, and her breasts were like small brown pears with nipples of bright carnelian.
“Yes, Mr. Hogan, we have been notified about you. When will you wish to come and register with us for official journalistic status in Yatakang?”
“If three this afternoon is not too early—?”
She had unwound the three turns of the shareng from her waist and was bending over to sort out the complicated slots and tags that made up the portion between her legs. Her breasts hardly moved as she doubled over.
“I will consult the appointment schedule for the appropriate official. Hold on, please.”
She must have managed to put the garment on, but it was taking her a great deal of trouble to get it off. She turned, still bending, as though to get a better light on what her hands were doing, and her small shapely buttocks loomed round in the square of the mirror. Light caught the tuft of black hair at their parting.
“Yes, three today will be acceptable. Thank you, Mr. Hogan,” the phone said, and clicked off. Donald rose, his mouth a little dry and his heart hammering, and went through the doorway.
With her back to him, she stepped aside from the ruin of the paper shareng and said, “I knew you were watching, of course.”
He didn’t say anything.
“I think sometimes I’m mad,” Bronwen said, and there was a slight high edge of unborn hysteria on her voice. “And then again sometimes I think I’m not mad, but very sensible. He taught me to love my body—my husband. And there may not be very much time left for me to show that love.”
She turned at last, slowly, pivoting on one delicate foot of which the sole, Donald saw now, was tinted with pinkish dye to match the paint on the nails.
“I’m sorry,” she said abruptly. “It’s no special compliment to you. It’s just … Well, I’ve never had an American, so I’d like to. While I can. That is, if you want to.” The words came out with a strange flatness, like a machine talking. “I’m quite—how does the pun go? I’m quite impregnable, isn’t that it? They sterilised me just in case leukaemia of my sort is hereditary. I’m absolutely and completely sterile.”
“So am I,” Donald said in a tone that shocked him with its gruffness, and tugged loose the comb that held her long black hair, spilling it down her in a tressy waterfall of forgetfulness.
tracking with closeups (19)
SMALL WANTS AND THOSE EASILY SATISFIED
When his TV went wrong and would show nothing but a field of irregularly wavering grey lines interspersed with dots which moved like dust suspended in liquid and examined under a microscope to demonstrate Brownian motion, accompanied by a white-noise hiss from the speaker, Bennie Noakes thought about having it repaired. After an hour or two, however, he discovered that the random patterns and the noise were themselves psychedelic. What was more, reality didn’t intrude those annoying and disgusting bits about people killing people. Digesting himself down to a unit of pure perceptivity, he continued to watch the screen. Occasionally he said, “Christ, what an imagination I’ve got.”
HE STUCK IN HIS THUMB
The Bight of Benin! The Bight of Benin!
One comes out where forty went in!
There was no direct express service to any point in Beninia. The country could not afford to build one of the huge five-mile concrete pans that the planes required, let alone the ancillary services. From the sleek modern womb of the express Norman was decanted at Accra and put aboard a tiny, ancient, wobble-winged Boeing that ran the local services via Port Mey to up-country Nigeria. It could not have been built more recently than 1980 and it was serviced by trucks carrying not lox and hydrazine but kerosene. Their hoses leaked, as he could smell, and he thought wildly of outbreaks of fire.