Peace backed away from him in consternation and took refuge in the lee of the coffee machine until, some minutes later, the klaxon sounded to announce that the ship was going into the landing phase. As soon as the floor had given its familiar conclusive lurch he joined the group of men clustered around the exit. After a tantalizing pause the door slid open and revealed an expanse of sunlit grass which could have been a pasture instead of a landing field.
The air was warm and sweet and in the distance, shining with harmonious pastels, was the graceful architecture of the city.
Peace felt an immediate liking for what he could see of Aspatria and he wondered if that could be a sign of previous acquaintance with the place. He stepped out with the others on to the pliant turf, filling his lungs with the scented air, revelling in the freedom from physical danger, then became aware of a different kind of hazard. Lieutenant Merriman had decided to address his men, yet again, on the evils of tobacco and alcohol, and—as he had a tendency to repeat everything he said—was almost certain to reiterate his order about returning to the ship within four hours. Peace was now unprotected by the command neutralizer and if he heard the order he would have no choice but to obey.
“Over there you will find a spaceport coach which will take you into Touchdown City,” Merriman said, pointing towards a complex of low buildings. “Visit as many museums and art galleries as you possibly can, but don’t forget that you…”
Whimpering with alarm, Peace clapped his hands over his ears, doubled low and scuttled away along the side of the spaceship. On rounding the corner of the transceiver tower he glanced back and, although it was difficult to be certain, got the impression that some of the blue-suited figures had turned to watch his departure—which must have looked slightly odd, not to say suspicious. Cursing himself for having blundered at such an early stage in his scheme, he looked around for an escape route and saw that the field’s perimeter was within sprinting distance. He ran towards it, expecting at any moment to hear a hue and cry developing in his wake, and reached the five-strand wire fence. Praying the wires were not electrified, he clambered through into the longer grass beyond. Ahead of him was a gentle rise which he ascended at top speed. On the crest he looked back and was relieved to see that neither Lieutenant Merriman nor any of his former comrades had emerged into view behind the rectangular hulk of the ship.
Relaxing a little, Peace took stock of his surroundings. The land fell away before him in a long and rather steep grassy bank, at the bottom of which a substantial road curved off in the direction of the city. A limousine painted in the unmistakable brash yellow of a taxi was cruising along the road. Peace considered using it as a quick and providential means of getting into the city, then decided against it on the grounds that he would need to conserve what was left of his money. He set off at an angle down the slope, determined to move at a leisurely pace and regain his composure. The lushness of the grass made the going slippery, and almost at once his thighs began to quiver with the effort of holding himself back on the incline. He began walking faster and faster, losing more control with each second, and before he really knew what was happening he was bounding down the long bank at breakneck speed.
I’ll learn from this little experience, he thought, trying to preserve a detached calm while the wind whistled in his ears and his contacts with the ground grew more fleeting. One should always expect the unexpected.
At that moment, as if to ratify his conclusions, the unexpected occurred again. On the road below, the driver of the cruising taxi—apparently under the impression that the flailing of Peace’s arms was intended to draw his attention—flashed his headlights and brought his vehicle to a halt at a point where he judged Peace’s descent would terminate. He must have had a keen eye for angles and distances, because Peace found himself hurtling straight at the taxi with no way of stopping, or even slowing down.
“Oh, no!” he shouted. “Out of the way, you fool!” The image of the taxi ballooned in his vision with frightening rapidity.
The driver looked out of his side window, making ready to welcome his fare, and his jaw sagged as he belatedly realized his peril. He was still struggling with the handbrake when Peace ran into the taxi with outstretched hands and beat the side window in on top of him.
Peace, whose chin had collided painfully with the vehicle’s roof, fell back onto the grass.
“You maniac!” the taxi driver shouted, brushing glass confetti out of his hair and off his shoulders with trembling hands. “What did you want to do that for?”
“What did I…?” Peace gaped at him. “What did you want to stop there for?”
“You hailed me … and, besides, I can stop anywhere I want.”
“I didn’t hail you, and I can walk anywhere I want.”
“Call that walking?” The driver sneered through the newly formed aperture in the side of his car. “You Blue-asses from Earth are all the same. Still sore about ‘83, so when you come here on leave you get all tanked up and start throwing your weight around. Well let me tell you, Mister Blue-ass—this is going to cost you.”
“Why should we be sore about…? What do you mean, it’s going to cost me?”
“A hundred monits for a new window, and twenty for my loss of time.”
It was Peace’s turn to sneer. “You can whistle for it.”
“Suits me.” The driver raised a large, complex-looking whistle which had been hanging on a cord around his neck. “I like using these subetheric jobs. You never know who’s going to answer the call first—the police or the Oscars.” He put the instrument to his lips.
“I’ll pay,” Peace said hastily, getting to his feet and producing his emaciated roll of bills. He counted off the required amount and passed it over.
“That’s better,” the driver grumbled. “I don’t know what’s the matter with folks these days—hailing cabs and then claiming they didn’t. It must be a new craze.”
“Look, I’m sorry about damaging your taxi,” Peace said. “How about taking me into the city?”
“Ten monits—and that’s half price.”
“Okay.” Peace was concerned about his reserves of cash, now approaching zero, but it had occurred to him that the taxi driver could be a good source of information about day-to-day life on Aspatria. He got into the vacant front seat, noticing as he did so that a small rent had already appeared in the sleeve of his new suit. The car surged forward with a low whine from its unimagnetic engine and the brilliant yellow-green landscape became a flowing panoramic lightshow.
“Nice day,” the driver said, seemingly ready to forgive and forget. He was a long-faced man with watered-down hair. “Nice place for a furlough.”
“Very nice.” Peace gave the scenery an approving nod. “I don’t know anything about Touchdown City and I…”
“Don’t worry—I’ll take you to the right place.”
“Sure. There’s nothing in it for me, of course— no commission or anything like that—but make sure Big Nelly writes my name in the book as you go in. Trev, they call me. Don’t forget—Trev.”
“You’ve got the wrong idea, Trev.” Peace tried not to show his indignation. “I want to go to the Blue Toad.”
“You can’t afford it, soldier.” Trev gave Peace an amiable double nudge with his elbow.
“Listen, you’re bound to be starving—all the legionaries I pick up are starving—and I bet you like good music, too.”
“Good music?” Peace felt he was losing the thread of the conversation.
“Sure. My cousin runs this place called the Handel Bar. High class it is—because everything’s named after highbrow composers and such—but it’s cheap. There’s nothing in it for me, of course—no commission or anything like that— but for twenty monits you’d get a big plate of his speciality, Chopin’s Bolognaise, with loads of sonata ketchup, or a Minuet Steak, or a…”
“It sounds like a wonderful place,” Peace said, “but I have to go to the Blue Toad.”
“Suit yourself—it’s not as if there was anything in it for me—or if you just want a quick snack there’s the Strauss Malts or…”
“Tell me about the Oscars,” Peace interrupted, returning to a subject which had a baleful fascination for him. “Did you say they’d answer if you blew that police whistle?”
“Sometimes they do.” Trev remained quiet for a moment, showing he had been hurt by the rejection of his commercial advances. “Sometimes they don’t.”
“But why do they do it at all?”
“Nobody knows. They never talk to anybody, but there are some things they don’t like—specially violent crime—and, boy, if you ever do anything an Oscar doesn’t like you’re in big trouble.”
“Are they like vigilantes?”
“Except you could get away from a vigilante— you can’t get away from an Oscar.”
Peace turned the new information over in his mind, trying to reconcile the notion of enigmatic, superhuman crime-busters with the atrocity scene described by Bud Dinkle. “Is it true they can read minds?”
“Some people say they can.” Trev gave Peace a thoughtful glance. “What’s it to you, anyway?
You some kind of crook or something?”
“Of course not,” Peace replied. He lapsed into a broody silence while he reviewed his misfortunes. Not only had he been deprived of all memory and identity, not only was he alone on an alien planet, not only was he almost penniless and with no place to sleep, not only was he a deserter who would soon be pursued by the Space Legion—it could easily turn out that he had a criminal record on Aspatria. And if that were the case he was likely to be hounded down and punished by invincible, telepathic supermen whose idea of light relaxation was feeding wounded Earthmen to monsters.
“Cheer up,” Trev said as the taxi swung into a wide boulevard which ran through the centre of Touchdown City. “There’s always somebody worse off than yourself.”
This was a thesis which Peace would have liked to dispute, but almost at once he saw—standing out with a vivid clarity from the other business signs—a tridi light sculpture in the shape of an enormous blue toad. He stared at it unblinkingly until the taxi came to a halt outside the building, where it floated like an insubstantial balloon. It was possible that his moment of truth was at hand, and—if so—it had found him in a condition in which he would have preferred several decades of reassuring lies.
He paid off the taxi and, realizing the necessity to act quickly before his nerve failed, squared his shoulders and walked in through the expensive, smooth-gliding doors of the Blue Toad.
The foyer in which Peace found himself standing featured textile carpets and antique tubular chrome furniture, and he knew at once that all the warnings he had received had been justified. Even the air in the Blue Toad had an expensive smell to it. He began to doubt if the ten monits remaining in his pocket would buy anything more than a cup of coffee, which meant that his time in the place would be sharply limited unless he thought of a way of stalling.
“Was there something sir wanted?” The head waiter who had appeared from behind an ornamental grille was dressed in the full old-world regalia of denims and polo-neck sweater. He had pale blue eyes which stared coldly from the centre of a pink and puffy face, making it clear that he had no misconceptions about Peace’s social or financial status. Peace instinctively covered the rip in the sleeve of his paper suit, then realized he was—as the maitre de had intended—getting off on the wrong psychological footing. A man, he decided, who had successfully fought off a pack of enraged multichews had no business letting himself be cowed by an elderly waiter, no matter how spendidly attired that waiter might be.
The head waiter cleared his throat. “Was there something that sir wanted?”
Peace donned a look of mingled surprise and irritation. “Food, of course. You don’t get many people coming in here to buy surgical trusses, do you?” He glanced around with a critical eye.
“Or have I come to the wrong place?”
The waiter’s face stiffened. “The main dining room is on your left, sir.”
“I know that.” Peace took the plastic blue toad from his pocket and flicked it in the air. “Don’t you remember me?”
The head waiter examined Peace’s face. “No, sir,” he said, looking somewhat relieved.
“Never mind.” Hiding his disappointment, Peace walked towards the restaurant. “Table for one—near the windows.”
A floor waiter, a younger man who was also wearing formal denims, showed him to a seat and provided him with a menu.
“I don’t think we need bother with a menu,” Peace said, giving the waiter a democratic nudge.
“Just bring me my usual.”
The waiter blinked several times. “Your usual what, sir?”
“You know.” Peace nudged him again, more forcibly. “My usual—what I always have when I come here.”
The waiter moved out of range of Peace’s elbow. “I know all my regulars, and sir isn’t one of them. If sir would like to consult the menu I’m sure…”
“I don’t want to consult the menu,” Peace whispered fiercely. “Look, there must be somebody out in the kitchen who knows me. Tell them I want my usual.”
The waiter gazed at Peace in perplexity for a moment, then comprehension dawned in his eyes. “I’m with sir, now,” he said.
“Good! I’m glad about that.” Peace stared hopefully at him, wondering exactly what he had achieved.
“Sir can rely on me, of course.” The waiter leaned close to Peace, opened the menu and lowered his voice to an oily conspiratorial murmur. “There’s no disgrace in not being able to read— many quite intelligent people suffer from word-blindness—but if sir will pretend to study the menu I’ll tell sir what each item means, and that way…”
“I can read it myself, you fool.” Peace snatched the heavy booklet away from him, temporarily abandoning his quest, and scanned the printed pages. His heart sank as he saw that the tariff, instead of being quoted in the common contraction of monits, was given in monetary units—the sort of traditional touch usually associated with exorbitant prices. His worst fears were confirmed when he looked at the figures themselves and found that coffee was thirty monits a cup, with a minimum cover charge of a hundred. He broke into a gentle sweat. All his hopes for the future, and for his past, were based on spending as long a time as possible in the restaurant and being seen by the maximum number of regular customers and staff. This meant that, regardless of ethics, he would have to order a sizeable meal in the full knowledge that he was unable to pay for it, and not think about the consequences until they came. The decision, though not an easy one, was influenced by the fierce gnawing in his stomach, which for a full month had known nothing but gruel and leathery strips of jerky.