I was fifteen years older when I returned to Devon Station, and found it looking oddly shinier than when I was a student there - more sedate than I remembered it, more perpendicular and strait-laced, with narrower corridors and shinier metalwork, as if it had been immaculately polished for better preservation.
Fifteen years ago, of course, there had been a war going on.
Perhaps the station wasn't as well kept up in those days; perhaps polishing bots, along with everything else, had gone to war.
I didn't entirely like this new shiny surface, because it made the station look like a museum, and that was exactly what it was to me - and what I did not want it to be. In the deep, tacit way in which feeling overmasters thought, I had always felt that Devon Station came into existence the day I entered it, was vibrantly real while I was a student there, and then blinked out like a overloaded bulb the day I left.
Now here it was, after all: preserved by some considerate servo with polish and sealant.
Preserved along with it, like stale air in a blocked vent, was the well-known fear which had surrounded and filled those days, so much of it that I hadn't even noticed it was there - unfamiliar with the absence of fear, I had not been able to identify its presence. Looking back over fifteen years, I could see with great clarity the fear I had lived in, which must mean that in the interval I had succeeded in a very important undertaking: I must have made my escape from it. I felt fear's echo, and along with it I felt the unhinged, uncontrollable joy which had been its accompaniment and opposite face, joy which had broken out sometimes in those days like a glowing nebula across a dark starfield.
There were a couple of places that I wanted to see. Both were fearful sites, and that was why I wanted to see them. So after lunch at the Devon Replimat, I floated back toward the station. It was a raw, nondescript time of the cycle in this sector, toward the end of High Tide, the kind of crowded, self-pitying High Tide day when every speck of micrometeor makes a sad little noise against the shielding. Devon luckily had very little of such weather—the occasional serious wandering planet, or the blank emptiness of the interstellar void, were more characteristic of it—but this day it blew tiny, moody dust-specks all around me.
I went hand-over-hand along Gilman Roadway, the best guide-wire in the station environs. The tethered ships were as handsome and as unusual as I remembered. Clever modernizations of old colony vessels, extensions in neo-Victorian cogwheel patterns, and capacious many-coloured shrine-ships lined the guide-wire, as impressive and just as forbidding as ever. I had rarely seen anyone go into one of them, or anyone playing in an observation bubble, or even a face at a porthole. Today, with their drifting dust-clouds and strained, moaning shielding, the ships looked both more elegant and more lifeless than ever.
Like all old, good stations, Devon did not stand isolated behind an exclusion zone but emerged naturally from the cluster of ship-based commerce which had necessitated it. So there was no sudden moment of encounter as I approached it; the ships along Gilman Street began to look more well-maintained, which meant that I was near the station, and then more patched and jury-rigged together, which meant that I was in amongst it.
It was early afternoon and both space and corridors were deserted, since everyone was at sports. There was nothing to distract me as I made my way across a wide dock, called the Far Commons, and up to an airlock as brushed-metal and balanced as the other major airlocks, but with a large cupola and a warning light and a clock and Latin over the doorway—the First Academy Building. In through its pair of rotating doors, I reached a lacquered foyer, and stopped at the foot of a long bleached wooden flight of stairs.
Although they were old stairs, the worn moons in the middle of each step were not very deep. The wood must be unusually hard. That seemed very likely, only too likely, although with all my thought about these stairs this exceptional hardness had not occurred to me. It was surprising that I had overlooked that, that crucial fact.
There was nothing else to notice; they of course were the same stairs I had walked up and down at least once every day of my Devon life. They were the same as ever.
And I? Well, I naturally felt older—I began at that point the emotional examination to note how far my convalescence had gone—I was taller, bigger generally in relation to these stairs. I had more credits and success and "security" than in the days when specters seemed to go up and down them with me. I turned away and went back out the airlock. The Far Common was still empty, and I drifted alone down the interlocking guide-wires among those most Moneyed, bankerish of monuments, New England statues complete with bowler hats, toward the far side of the station.
Devon is sometimes considered the most beautiful station in New England, and even on this dismal afternoon its power was asserted. It is the beauty of small areas of order—a large courtyard, a group of artfully twisted debris sculptures, three similar dormitory modules, a circle of old ships bolted together in contentious harmony. You felt that an argument might begin again any time; in fact it had: out of the Dean's Residence, a pure and authentic colony ship, there now sprouted an ell with a big bare observation bubble. Some day the Dean would probably live entirely encased in a house of clear forcefields and be happy as a gas-giant cloud drifter.
Everything at Devon slowly changed and slowly harmonized with what had gone before. So it was logical to hope that since the component ships and the Deans and the curriculum could achieve this, I could achieve, perhaps unknowingly already had achieved, this growth and harmony myself.
I would know more about that when I had seen the second place I had come to see.
So I roamed on past the brushed metal dormitory modules with webs of outdated sensors and shield generators clinging to them, through a ramshackle salient of disconnected ship berths which invaded the station for a hundred yards, past the solid gymnasium module—full of students at this hour but silent as a monument on the outside—past the Field Module, called The Cage—I remembered now what a mystery references to "The Cage" had been during my first weeks at Devon, I had thought it must be a place of severe punishment—and I reached the huge open sweep of field-enclosed space known as the Playing Fields.
Devon was both scholarly and very athletic, so the playing fields were vast and, except at such a time of year, constantly in use. Now they reached emptily away from me, forlorn tennis courts on the left, enormous football and soccer and lacrosse fields in the center, biosphere on the right, and at the far end a small cluster of comms antennae and laser transmitters detectable from this distance by the few control panels along its banks.
It was such a gray and misty day that I could not see the other side of the comms cluster, where there was a vast openness to avoid blocking its transmissions. I started the long trudge around the fields and had gone some distance before I paid any attention to the constant patter of micrometeorites, which was dooming my fashionable spacesuit. I didn't stop. Near the center of the fields there were thin zones of pulverized dust which I had to make my way around, my dented suit making obscene, fat sparking noises as I made a short jump or two away from the guide-wire.
With nothing to block it, the space wind flung some visible-sized rocks at me; at any other time I would have felt like a fool slogging through a serious micrometeor shower, only to look at a maintenance port. A cloud of dust hung around the comms cluster with its more serious shielding, so that as I neared it I felt myself becoming isolated from everything except the cluster and the few control panels beside it. The wind was blowing more steadily here, and I was beginning to smell a slight ozone stench. I never wore a heavy-duty EVA suit, and had forgotten to pick up an armoured helmet.
There were several maintenance egress panels bleakly blinking their warnings about the fog. Any one of them might have been the one I was looking for. Unbelievable that there were other panels which looked like it here. It had loomed in my memory as a huge lone weakness dominating the wall of comms equipment, forbidding as a singularity generator, wide as the galaxy. Yet here was a scattered assortment of portals, none of them of any particular grandeur. Easing myself through through the sparking, dust-choked shielding, I began to examine each one closely, and finally identified the portal I was looking for by means of certain small scars carved into its walls, and by a view extending over the main laser array, and another smaller egress placed near it.
This was the maintenance port I was looking for, and it seemed to me standing there to resemble those men, the giants of your childhood, whom you encounter years later and find that they are not merely smaller in relation to your growth, but that they are absolutely smaller, shrunken by age. In this double demotion, the old giants have become pygmies, while you were looking the other way.
The maintenance port was not only sealed closed by the dusty season, it seemed weary from age, enfeebled, dry. I was thankful, very thankful that I had seen it. So the more things remain the same, the more they change after all—plus c'est la même chose, plus ça change. Nothing endures, not a maintenance port, not love, not even a death by violence.
Changed, I headed back through the encroaching dust storm. I was heavily pitted; anybody could see it was time to come in out of the micrometeor shower.
The maintenance port was tremendous, an irate, steely black portal beside the main laser array. I was damned if I'd climb out of it. The hell with it. No one but Phineas could think up such a crazy idea. He of course saw nothing the slightest bit intimidating about it. He wouldn't, or wouldn't admit it if he did. Not Phineas.
"What I like best about this port," he said in that voice of his, the equivalent in sound of a hypnotist's eyes, "what I like is that it's such a cinch!" He opened his green eyes wider and gave us his maniac look, and only the smirk on his wide mouth with its droll, slightly protruding upper lip reassured us that he wasn't completely goofy.
"Is that what you like best?" I said sarcastically. I said a lot of things sarcastically that calm season; that was my sarcastic season, 2942.
"Aey-uh," he said. This weird New England affirmative—maybe it is spelled "aie-huh"—always made me laugh, as Finny knew, so I had to laugh, which made me feel less sarcastic and less scared.
There were three others with us—Phineas in those days almost always moved in groups the size of a hockey team—and they stood with me looking with masked apprehension from him to the port. Its soaring black doorframe was festooned with stern plastic warning signs, bracketing a substantial airlock which extended farther toward the comms lasers. Once out of this airlock, you could by a prodigious effort jump far enough out onto the antenna array for safety. So we had heard. At least the seventeen-year-old bunch could do it; but they had a crucial year's advantage over us. No Upper Middler, which was the name for our class on Devon Station, had ever tried.
Naturally Finny was going to be the first to try, and just as naturally he was going to inveigle others, us, into trying it with him.
We were not even Upper Middler exactly. For this was the Low Session, just established to keep up with the pace of the war. We were in shaky transit that calm season from the groveling status of Lower Middlers to the near-respectability of Upper Middlers. The class above, seniors, draft-bait, practically soldiers, rushed ahead of us toward the war. They were caught up in accelerated courses and first-aid programs and a physical hardening regimen, which included jumping from this port. We were still calmly, numbly reading Virgil and playing tag around the sensor arrays farther downstream. Until Finny thought of the port.
We stood looking up at it, four looks of consternation, one of excitement. "Do you want to go first?" Finny asked us, rhetorically. We just looked quietly back at him, and so he began taking off his clothes, stripping down to his undersuit. For such an extraordinary athlete—even as a Lower Middler Phineas had been the best athlete in the school—he was not spectacularly built. He was my height—one point seven inches (I had been claiming one point seven five before he became my roommate, but he had said in public with that simple, shocking self-acceptance of his, "No, you're the same height I am, one point seven. We're on the short side"). He weighed sixty-eight kilos, a galling five kilos more than I did, which flowed from his legs to torso around shoulders to arms and full strong neck in an uninterrupted, unemphatic unity of strength.
He popped the primary hatch and began scrambling into one of the maintenance suits hung up to one side of the airlock, his back muscles working like a panther's. The suit didn't seem straightforward enough to climb into so quickly. At last he stepped up to the exchange wheel which would take him a little farther toward the comms lasers. "Is this the one they jump from?" None of us knew. "If I do it, you're all going to do it, aren't you?" We didn't say anything very clearly. "Well," he cried out, "here's my contribution to the war effort!" and he spun the wheel, sending us all flocking to the viewing screen, as he smashed into the reinforced antenna array.
"Great!" he said, toggling his suit radio on again, his floating hair drifting into droll bangs around his forehead. "That's the most fun I've had this week. Who's next?"
I was. This port flooded me with a sensation of alarm all the way to my tingling fingers. My head began to feel unnaturally light, and the vague rustling sounds from the nearby air purification units came to me as though muffled and filtered. I must have been entering a mild state of shock. Insulated by this, I took off my clothes and started to don a maintenance suit. I don't remember saying anything. The wheel he had spun was stiffer than it looked from the hatch and much higher. It was impossible to spin it fast enough to be well prepared for the jump. I would have to spring far out or risk falling into the path of the comms lasers next to the port. "Come on," drawled Finny from outside, "stop standing there showing off." I recognized with automatic tenseness that the view was very impressive from here. "When they torpedo the troopship," he shouted, "you can't stand around admiring the view. Jump!"
What was I doing up here anyway? Why did I let Finny talk me into stupid things like this? Was he getting some kind of hold over me?
With the sensation that I was throwing my life away, I jumped into space. Some tips of antennae snapped past me and then I crashed into the array. My legs hit the firm metal of the landing surface, and immediately I was hearing their cheers of congratulation over the radio. I felt fine.
"I think that was better than Finny's," said Elwin—better known as Leper—Lepellier, who was bidding for an ally in the dispute he foresaw.
"All right, pal," Finny spoke in his cordial, penetrating voice, that reverberant instrument in his chest, "don't start awarding prizes until you've passed the course. The port is waiting."
Leper closed his mouth as though forever. He didn't argue or refuse. He didn't back away. He became inanimate. But the other two, Chet Douglass and Bobby Zane, were vocal enough, complaining shrilly about school regulations, the danger of stomach cramps, physical disabilities they had never mentioned before.
"It's you, pal," Finny said to me at last, "just you and me."
He and I led the way back across the fields, preceding the others like two seigneurs. We were the best of friends at that moment.
"You were very good," said Finny good-humoredly, "once I shamed you into it."
"You didn't shame anybody into anything."
"Oh yes I did. I'm good for you that way. You have a tendency to back away from things otherwise."
"I never backed away from anything in my life!" I cried, my indignation at this charge naturally stronger because it was so true. "You're goofy!"
Phineas just walked serenely on, or rather flowed on, rolling forward in his white shoes with such unthinking unity of movement that "walk" didn't describe it. I went along beside him across the enormous playing fields toward the gym. Underfoot the healthy green turf was brushed with dew from the air hydration system, and ahead of us we could see a faint green haze hanging above the astroturf, shot through with the low-angled light from the artificial sunlamps.
Phineas stopped talking for once, so that now I could hear creaking metallic noises and small beeping cries of errant electronic devices, a gymnasium truck gliding along an empty athletic rail a quarter of a mile away, a burst of faint, isolated laughter carried to us from the back door of the gym, and then over all, cool and matriarchal, the six o'clock bell from the Academy Building cupola, the calmest, most carrying bell toll in the sector, civilized, calm, invincible, and final.
The toll sailed over the expansive tops of all the statuary, the great slanting carapaces and formidable exchange vents of the dormitories, the narrow and brittle old gangways, across the open New England starfield to us coming back from the comms array. "We'd better hurry or we'll be late for dinner," I said, breaking into what Finny called my "Academy stride." Phineas didn't really dislike the Star Academy in particular or authority in general, but just considered authority the necessary evil against which happiness was achieved by reaction, the backboard which returned all the insults he threw at it. My "Academy stride" was intolerable; his right foot flashed into the middle of my fast walk and I went pitching forward into the grass.
"Get those sixty-eight kilos off me!" I shouted, because he was sitting on my back. Finny got up, patted my head genially, and moved on across the field, not deigning to glance around for my counterattack, but relying on his extrasensory ears, his ability to feel in the air someone coming on him from behind. As I sprang at him he side-stepped easily, but I just managed to kick him as I shot past. He caught my leg and there was a brief wrestling match on the turf which he won.
"Better hurry," he said, "or they'll put you in the guard station." We were walking again, faster; Bobby and Leper and Chet were urging us from ahead for God's sake to hurry up, and then Finny trapped me again in his strongest trap, that is, I suddenly became his collaborator.
As we walked rapidly along I abruptly resented the bell and my Academy stride and hurrying and conforming. Finny was right. And there was only one way to show him this. I threw my hip against his, catching him by surprise, and he was instantly down, definitely pleased. This was why he liked me so much. When I jumped on top of him, my knees on his chest, he couldn't ask for anything better. We struggled in some equality for a while, and then when we were sure we were too late for dinner, we broke off.
He and I passed the gym and came on toward the first group of dormitories, which were dark and silent. There were only two hundred of us at Devon in the summer, not enough to fill most of the station. We passed the sprawling Headmaster's ship—empty, he was doing something for the government at Capitol Station; past the Shrine—empty again, used only for a short time in the mornings; past the First Academic Convertship, where there were some dim lights shining from a few of its many portholes, Masters at work in their classrooms there; down a short slope into the broad and well-swept Common, on which light fell from the big surrounding colony vessel conversions. A dozen boys were loafing in the gangways after dinner, and a kitchen rattle from the wing of one of the colony vessels accompanied their talk.
The main sunlamp was darkening steadily, matched by a rise in the lights in the dormitories and the old colony vessels; a loud speaker system a long way off played Don't Sit Under the Cargo Hoist, rejected that and played They're Either Too Young or Too Old, grew more ambitious with The Belt-Town Concerto, mellower with The Nutcracker Suite, and then stopped.
Finny and I went to our room. Under the yellow study lights we read our Hardy assignments; I was halfway through Tess of the D'Urbervilles, he carried on his baffled struggle with Far from the Madding Crowd, amused that there should be people named Gabriel Oak and Bathsheba Everdene. Our illegal radio feed, turned too low to be intelligible, was broadcasting the news. Outside there was a rustling early calm-season movement of the interstellar wind quietly testing the dormitory's stabilisation thrusters; the seniors, allowed out later than we were, came fairly quietly back as the bell sounded ten stately times.
Boys ambled past our door toward the bathing chamber, and there was a period of steadily pouring shower water. Then lights began to snap out all over the station. We undressed, and I put on some pajamas, but Phineas, who had heard they were unmilitary, didn't; there was the silence in which it was understood we were saying some prayers, and then that calm station day came to an end.
Our absence from dinner had been noticed. The following morning—the clean-washed shine of calm mornings in the interstellar void—Mr. Prud'homme stopped at our door. He was broad-shouldered, grave, and he wore a gray business suit. He did not have the careless, almost Earther look of most of the Devon Masters, because he was a substitute for the calm season. He enforced such rules as he knew; missing dinner was one of them.
We had been swimming in the vacuum, Finny explained; then there had been a wrestling match, then there was that fantastic docking display that anybody would want to watch, then there'd been several friends we had to see on business—he rambled on, his voice soaring and plunging in its vibrant sound box, his eyes now and then widening to fire a flash of green across the room. Standing in the shadows, with the bright room-light behind him, he blazed with exertion-reddened health. As Mr.Prud'homme looked at him and listened to the scatterbrained eloquence of his explanation, he could be seen rapidly losing his grip on sternness.
"If you hadn't already missed nine meals in the last two weeks . . ." he broke in.
But Finny pressed his advantage. Not because he wanted to be forgiven for missing the meal—that didn't interest him at all, he might have rather enjoyed the punishment if it was done in some novel and unknown way. He pressed his advantage because he saw that Mr. Prud'homme was pleased, won over in spite of himself. The Master was slipping from his official position momentarily, and it was just possible, if Phineas pressed hard enough, that there might be a flow of simple, unregulated friendliness between them, and such flows were one of Finny's reasons for living.
"The real reason, sir, was that we just had to jump out of that maintenance port. You know that port..."
I knew, Mr. Prud'homme must have known, Finny knew, if he stopped to think, that jumping out of the port was even more forbidden than missing a meal. "We had to do that, naturally," he went on, "because we're all getting ready for the war. What if they lower the draft age to seventeen? Gene and I are both going to be seventeen at the end of the summer, which is a very convenient time since it's the start of the academic year and there's never any doubt about which class you should be in. Leper Lepellier is already seventeen, and if I'm not mistaken he will be draftable before the end of this next academic year, and so conceivably he ought to have been in the class ahead, he ought to have been a senior now, if you see what I mean, so that he would have been graduated and been all set to be drafted. But we're all right, Gene and I are perfectly all right. There isn't any question that we are conforming in every possible way to everything that's happening and everything that's going to happen. It's all a question of birthdays, unless you want to be more specific and look at it from the sexual point of view,which I have never cared to do myself, since it's a question of my mother and my father, and I have never felt I wanted to think about their sexual lives too much."
Everything he said was true and sincere; Finny always said what he happened to be thinking, and if this stunned people then he was surprised.
Mr. Prud'homme released his breath with a sort of amazed laugh, stared at Finny for a while, and that was all there was to it.This was the way the Masters tended to treat us that calm season. They seemed to be modifying their usual attitude of floating, chronic disapproval. During high tide most of them regarded anything unexpected in a student with suspicion, seeming to feel that anything we said or did was potentially illegal. Now on these clear June days in New England they appeared to uncoil, they seemed to believe that we were with them about half the time, and only spent the other half trying to make fools of them. A streak of tolerance was detectable; Finny decided that they were beginning to show commendable signs of maturity.
It was partly his doing. The Devon faculty had never before experienced a student who combined a calm ignorance of the rules with a winning urge to be good, who seemed to love the station truly and deeply, and never more than when he was breaking the regulations, a model boy who was most comfortable in the truant's corner. The faculty threw up its hands over Phineas, and so loosened its grip on all of us.
But there was another reason. I think we reminded them of what peace was like, we boys of sixteen. We were registered with no draft board, we had taken no physical examinations. Noone had ever tested us for hernia or color blindness. Trick knees and punctured eardrums were minor complaints and not yet disabilities which would separate a few from the fate of the rest.
We were careless and wild, and I suppose we could be thought of as a sign of the life the war was being fought to preserve. Anyway, they were more indulgent toward us than at any other time; they snapped at the heels of the seniors, driving and molding and arming them for the war. They noticed our games tolerantly. We reminded them of what peace was like, of lives which were not bound up with destruction.
Phineas was the essence of this careless peace. Not that he was unconcerned about the war. After Mr. Prud'homme left he began to dress, that is he began reaching for whatever clothes were nearest, some of them mine. Then he stopped to consider, and went over to the dresser. Out of one of the drawers he lifted a finely moulded shirt, carefully cut, and very pink.
"What's that thing?"
"This is a table protector," he said out of the side of his mouth.
"No, cut it out. What is it?"
"This," he then answered with some pride, "is going to be my emblem. Ma sent it up last week. Did you ever see stuff like this, and a color like this? It doesn't even fold open for you to wrap it round. You have to let it mould itself to you, like this."
"Mould itself to you? Pink! It makes you look like a fairy!"
"Does it?" He used this preoccupied tone when he was thinking of something more interesting than what you had said. But his mind always recorded what was said and played it back to him when there was time, so as he was folding down the high collar in front of the mirror he said mildly, "I wonder what would happen if I looked like a fairy to everyone."
"You're nuts." We both knew that it was another way out of the war, although spoken about less than trick knees - after all, one could hardly have soldiers failing to epitomise the New England values over which the war was, in part, being fought.
"Well, in case suitors begin clamoring at the door, you can tell them I'm wearing this as an emblem." He turned around to let me admire it. "I was reading in my news feed that we bombed the occupied sectors for the first time the other day." Only someone who knew Phineas as well as I did could realize that he was not changing the subject. I waited quietly for him to make whatever fantastic connection there might be between this and his shirt. "Well, we've got to do something to celebrate. We haven't got a flag, we can't float Old Glory proudly out the port. So I'm going to wear this, as an emblem."
He did wear it. No one else on the station could have done so without some risk of having it torn from his back. When the sternest of the Low Sessions Masters, old Mr. Patch-Withers, came up to him after history class and asked about it, I watched his drawn but pink face become pinker with amusement as Finny politely explained the meaning of the shirt.
It was hypnotism. I was beginning to see that Phineas could get away with anything. I couldn't help envying him that a little, which was perfectly normal. There was no harm in envying even your best friend a little.
In the afternoon Mr. Patch-Withers, who was substitute Headmaster for the calm season, offered the traditional term tea to the Upper Middle class. It was held in the deserted Headmaster's ship, and Mr. Patch-Withers' wife trembled at every glass tinkle. We were in a kind of observation bubble and courtyard combined, spacious and damp and without much decoration. Those statues there had large abstract bodies, with big barbaric spars jutting out. The chocolate brown mock-wicker furniture shot out menacing spikes of plastic-coated metal, and three dozen of us stood tensely teetering our glasses amid the mock-wicker and spars, trying hard not to sound as inane in our conversation with the four present Masters and their wives as they sounded to us.
Phineas had soaked and brushed his hair for the occasion. This gave his head a sleek look, which was contradicted by the surprised, honest expression which he wore on his face. His ears, I had never noticed before, were fairly small and set close to his head, and combined with his plastered hair they now gave his bold nose and cheekbones the sharp look of a ramming prow. He alone talked easily. He discussed the bombing of the occupied areas. No one else happened to have seen the story, and since Phineas could not recall exactly what target in which sector had been hit, or whether it was the New English, Dynastic, or even Sobernost air force which had hit it, or what day he read it in which news feed, the discussion was one-sided.
That didn't matter. It was the event which counted. But after a while Finny felt he should carry the discussion to others. "I think we ought to bomb the daylights out of them, as long as we don't hit any women or children or old people, don't you?" he was saying to Mrs. Patch-Withers, perched nervously behind her urn. "Or hospitals," he went on. "And naturally no youth training centres. Or shrines."
"We must also be careful about works of art," she put in, "if they are of permanent value."
"A lot of nonsense," Mr. Patch-Withers grumbled, with a flushed face. "How do you expect our boys to be as precise as that thousands of miles away with kinetic energy in the megatons! Look at what the Uploaders did to Konigsburg! Look at what they did to New Coventry!"
"The Uploaders aren't the occupied sectors, dear," his wife said very gently.
He didn't like being brought up short. But he seemed to be just able to bear it, from his wife. After a temperamental pause he said gruffly, "There isn't any 'permanent art' in the occupied sectors anyway."
Finny was enjoying this. He unbuttoned his formal jacket, as though he needed greater body freedom for the discussion. Mrs. Patch-Withers' glance then happened to fall on his belt.
In a tentative voice she said, "Isn't that the . . . our . . ."
Her husband looked; I panicked. In his haste that morning Finny had not unexpectedly used a tie for a belt. But this morning the first tie at hand had been the Devon Station tie.
This time he wasn't going to get away with it. I could feel myself becoming unexpectedly excited at that. Mr. Patch-Withers' face was reaching a brilliant shade, and his wife's head fell as though before the guillotine. Even Finny seemed to color a little, unless it was the reflection from his pink shirt. But his expression was composed, and he said in his resonant voice, "I wore this, you see, because it goes with the shirt and it all ties in together—I didn't mean that to be a pun, I don't think they're very funny, especially in polite company, do you?—it all ties in together with what we've been talking about, this bombing in the occupied territories, because when you come right down to it the station is involved in everything that happens in the war, it's all the same war and the same galaxy, and I think Devon ought to be included. I don't know whether you think the way I do on that."
Mr. Patch-Withers' face had been shifting expressions and changing colors continuously,and now it settled into fixed surprise. "I never heard anything so illogical as that in my life!"
He didn't sound very indignant, though.
"That's probably the strangest tribute this school has had in a hundred and sixty years."
He seemed pleased or amused in some unknown corner of his mind. Phineas was going to get away with even this. His eyes gave their wider, magical gleam and his voice continued on a more compelling level, "Although I have to admit I didn't think of that when I put it on this morning." He smiled pleasantly after supplying this interesting additional information. Mr. Patch-Withers settled into a hearty silence at this, and so Finny added, "I'm glad I put on something for a belt! I certainly would hate the embarrassment of having my pants fall down at the Headmaster's tea. Of course he isn't here. But it would be just as embarrassing in front of you and Mrs. Patch-Withers," and he smiled politely down at her.
Mr. Patch-Withers' laughter surprised us all, including himself. His face, whose shades we
had often labeled, now achieved a new one. Phineas was very happy; sour and stern Mr. Patch-Withers had been given a good laugh for once, and he had done it! He broke into the charmed, thoughtless grin of a man fulfilled.
He had gotten away with everything. I felt a sudden stab of disappointment. That was because I just wanted to see some more excitement; that must have been it.
We left the party, both of us feeling fine. I laughed along with Finny, my best friend, and also unique, able to get away with anything at all. And not because he was a conniver either; I was sure of that. He got away with everything because of the extraordinary kind of person he was. It was quite a compliment to me, as a matter of fact, to have such a person choose me for his best friend.
Finny never left anything alone, not when it was well enough, not when it was perfect.
"Let's go jump out of the port," he said under his breath as we went out of the observation bubble. He forced compliance by leaning against me as we walked along, changing my direction; like a triad of police ships blocking off other vectors, he directed me unwillingly toward the gym and the maintenance port. "We need to clear our heads of that party," he said, "all that talk!"
"Yes. It sure was boring. Who did most of the talking anyway?"
Finny concentrated. "Mr. Patch-Withers was pretty gassy, and his wife, and . . ."
Turning a look of mock shock on me, "You don't mean to infer that I talked too much!"
Returning, with interest, his gaping shock, "You? Talk too much? How can you accuse me of accusing you of that!" As I said, this was my sarcastic season. It was only long after that I recognized sarcasm as the protest of people who are weak.
We walked along through the shining afternoon to the river. "I don't really believe we bombed the occupied sectors, do you?" said Finny thoughtfully. The dormitory modules we passed were massive and almost anonymous behind their thick layers of obsolete sensors, big, old-looking dishes you would have thought untouched since their maiden voyage, permanent installations as old as the traditions New England claimed to uphold. Between the buildings, statues curved so high that you ceased to remember their height until you looked above the familiar reaches and the lowest umbrellas of decorative elaboration and took in the lofty complex they held high above, branches and branches of branches, a world of branches with an infinity of engravings. They too seemed permanent and never-changing, an untouched, unreachable world reaching out into space, like the ornamental towers and spires of a great church, too high to be enjoyed, too high for anything, great and remote and never useful.
"No, I don't think I believe it either," I answered.
Far ahead of us four boys, looking like white flags on the endless green playing fields, crossed toward the tennis courts. To the right of them the gym meditated behind its gray metal skin, the high, wide, oval-topped portals shining back at the sunlamp. Beyond the gym and the fields began the biospheres, our, the Devon Station's biospheres, which in my imagination were the beginning of the great re-planting. I thought that, from the Devon Biospheres, plants and creatures reached in an unbroken, widening succession away to down to the planets that no one had yet set foot upon, the other end somewhere up in the far unorganized tips of the Resettlement.
We seemed to be playing on the tame fringe of the last and greatest frontier, which all of New England yearned to return to. I never found out whether this is so and perhaps it is. Bombs in the occupied territories were completely unreal to us here, not because we couldn't imagine it—a thousand newsfeed pictures and video segments had given us a pretty accurate idea of such a sight—but because our place here was too fair for us to accept something like that. We spent that calm eason in complete selfishness, I'm happy to say. The people in the galaxy who could be selfish in the summer of 2942 were a small band, and I'm glad we took advantage of it.
"The first person who says anything unpleasant will get a swift kick in the ass," said Finny reflectively as we came to the maintenance port.
"Are you still afraid to jump out of the port?"
"There's something unpleasant about that question, isn't there?"
"That question? No, of course not. It depends on how you answer it."
"Afraid to jump out of that port? I expect it'll be a very pleasant jump."
After we had played around with the control panel hacking into various comms feeds for a while, Finny said, "Will you do me the pleasure of jumping out of the port first?'
Rigid, I began donning the suit, slightly reassured by having Finny right behind me.
"We'll jump together to cement our partnership," he said. "We'll form a suicide society, and the membership requirement is one jump out of this port."
"A suicide society," I said stiffly. "The Suicide Society of the Spacer Session."
"Good! The Super Suicide Society of the Spacer Session! How's that?"
"That's fine, that's okay."
We were standing by the door, I a little farther out than Finny. I turned to say something else, some stalling remark, something to delay even a few seconds more, and then I realized that in turning I had begun to lose my balance. There was a moment of total, impersonal panic, and then Finny's hand shot out and grabbed my arm, and with my balance restored, the panic immediately disappeared. I turned back toward the doorway, made a few last checks on my suit, then spun the wheel and fell into the deep embrace of the vacuum. Finny also made a good jump, and the Super Suicide Society of the Spacer Session was officially established.
It was only after dinner, when I was on my way alone to the library, that the full danger I
had brushed at the doorway shook me again. If Finny hadn't come up right behind me... if he hadn't been there... I could have tumbled in the suit straight into the main comms laser! If I had fallen awkwardly enough I could have blown up the power pack, invariably fatal. Finny had practically saved my life.
Yes, he had practically saved my life. He had also practically lost it for me. I wouldn't have been in that damn suit except for him. I wouldn't have turned around, and so lost my balance, if he hadn't been there. I didn't need to feel any tremendous rush of gratitude toward Phineas.
The Super Suicide Society of the Spacer Session was a success from the start. That night Finny began to talk abstractedly about it, as though it were a venerable, entrenched institution of the Devon Station. The half-dozen friends who were there in our cabin listening began to bring up small questions on details without ever quite saying that they had never heard of such a club. Stations are supposed to be catacombed with secret societies and underground brotherhoods, and as far as they knew here was one which had just come to the surface. They signed up as "trainees" on the spot.We began to meet every night to initiate them. The Charter Members, he and I, had to open every meeting by jumping ourselves.
This was the first of the many rules which Finny created without notice during the season. I hated it. I never got inured to the jumping. At every meeting the wheel seemed stiffer, the suit air thinner, the safe platform harder to reach. Every time, when I got myself into position to jump, I felt a flash of disbelief that I was doing anything so perilous.
But I always jumped. Otherwise I would have lost face with Phineas, and that would have been unthinkable.We met every night, because Finny's life was ruled by inspiration and anarchy, and so he prized a set of rules. His own, not those imposed on him by other people, such as the faculty of the Devon Station. The Super Suicide Society of the Spacer Session was a club; clubs by definition met regularly; we met every night. Nothing could be more regular than that. To meet once a week seemed to him much less regular, entirely too haphazard, bordering on carelessness.
I went along; I never missed a meeting. At that time it would never have occurred to me to say, "I don't feel like it tonight," which was the plain truth every night. I was subject to the dictates of my mind, which gave me the maneuverability of a full deep-space exploration suit. "We're off, pal," Finny would call out, and acting against every instinct of my nature, I went without a thought of protest.
As we drifted on through the summer, with this one inflexible appointment every day—classes could be cut, meals missed, Shrine services skipped—I noticed something about Finny's own mind, which was such an opposite from mine. It wasn't completely unleashed after all. I noticed that he did abide by certain rules, which he seemed to cast in the form of Commandments. "Never say you are one point seven five metres when you are one point seven" was the first one I encountered. Another was, "Always say some prayers at night because it might turn out that there is a God."
But the one which had the most urgent influence in his life was, "You always win at sports." This "you" was collective. Everyone always won at sports. When you played a game you won, in the same way as when you sat down to a meal you ate it. It inevitably and naturally followed. Finny never permitted himself to realize that when you won they lost. That would have destroyed the perfect beauty which was sport. Nothing bad ever happened in sports; they were the absolute good.
He was disgusted with that season's athletic program—a little tennis, some zero-g aerobics, clumsy softball games, badminton. "Badminton!" he exploded the day it entered the schedule. He said nothing else, but the shocked, outraged, despairing note of anguish in the word said all the rest. "Badminton!"
"At least it's not as bad as the seniors," I said, handing him the fragile racquet and the fey shuttlecock. "They're doing calisthenics."
"What are they trying to do?" He swatted the shuttlecock the length of the locker room. "Destroy us?" Humor infiltrated the outrage in his voice, which meant that he was thinking of a way out.
We went outside into the cordial afternoon sunshine. The playing fields were optimistically green and empty before us. The tennis courts were full. The softball diamond was busy. A pattern of badminton nets swayed sensually in the breeze. Finny eyed them with quiet astonishment. Far down the fields toward the comms void there was a wooden tower about ten feet high where the instructor had stood to direct the senior calisthenics. It was empty now. The seniors had been trotted off to the improvised obstacle course nestled amongst the biospheres, or to have their blood pressure taken again, or to undergo an insidious exercise in The Cage which consisted in stepping up on a box and down again in rapid rhythm for five minutes. They were off somewhere, shaping up for the war. All of the fields were ours.
Finny began to walk slowly in the direction of the tower. Perhaps he was thinking that we might carry it the rest of the way to the comms array and throw it out into deep space; perhaps he was just interested in looking at it, as he was in everything. Whatever he thought, he forgot it when we reached the tower. Beside it someone had left a large and heavy leather-covered ball, a medicine ball. He picked it up.
"Now this, you see, is everything in the world you need for sports. When they discovered the circle they created sports. As for this thing," embracing the medicine ball in his left arm he held up the shuttlecock, contaminated, in his outstretched right, "this idiot tickler, the only thing it's good for is eeny-meeny-miney-mo." He dropped the ball and proceeded to pick the feathers out of the shuttlecock, distastefully, as though removing ticks from a dog. The remaining rubber plug he then threw out of sight down the field, with a single lunge ending in a powerful downward thrust of his wrist. Badminton was gone.
He stood balancing the medicine ball, enjoying the feel of it. "All you really need is a round ball."
Although he was rarely conscious of it, Phineas was always being watched, like the weather. Up the field the others at badminton sensed a shift in the wind; their voices carried down to us, calling us. When we didn't come, they began gradually to come down to us.
"I think it's about time we started to get a little exercise around here, don't you?" he said, cocking his head at me. Then he slowly looked around at the others with the expression of dazed determination he used when the object was to carry people along with his latest idea. He blinked twice, and then said, "We can always start with this ball."
"Let's make it have something to do with the war," suggested Bobby Zane. "Like a dogfight or something."
"Dogfighting," repeated Finny doubtfully.
"We could figure out some kind of dogfighting baseball," I said.
"We'll call it fighter-ball," said Bobby.
"Or just fightball," reflected Finny. "Yes, fightball." Then, with an expectant glance around, "Well, let's get started," he threw the big, heavy ball at me. I grasped it against my chest with both arms. "Well, run!" ordered Finny. "No, not that way! Toward the comms array! Run!"
I headed toward the array surrounded by the others in a hesitant herd; they sensed that in all probability they were my adversaries in fightball. "Don't hog it!" Finny yelled. "Throw it to somebody else. Otherwise, naturally," he talked steadily as he ran along beside me, "now that we've got you surrounded, one of us will knock you down."
"Do what!" I veered away from him, hanging on to the clumsy ball. "What kind of a game ist hat?"
"Fightball!" Chet Douglass shouted, throwing himself around my legs, knocking me down.
"That naturally was completely illegal," said Finny. "You don't use your arms when you knock the ball carrier down."
"You don't?" mumbled Chet from on top of me.
"No. You keep your arms crossed like this on your chest, and you just butt the ball carrier. No elbowing allowed either. All right, Gene, start again."
I began quickly, "Wouldn't somebody else have possession of the ball after—"
"Not when you've been knocked down illegally. The ball carrier retains possession in a case like that. So it's perfectly okay, you still have the ball. Go ahead."
There was nothing to do but start running again, with the others trampling with stronger will around me. "Throw it!" ordered Phineas. Bobby Zane was more or less in the clear and so I threw it at him; it was so heavy that he had to scoop my throw up from the ground. "Perfectly okay," commented Finny, running forward at top speed, "perfectly okay for the ball to touch the ground when it is being passed." Bobby doubled back closer to me for protection. "Knock him down," Finny yelled at me.
"Knock him down! Are you crazy? He's on my team!"
"There aren't any teams in fightball," he yelled somewhat irritably, "we're all enemies. Knock him down!"
I knocked him down.
"All right," said Finny as he disentangled us. "Now you have possession again." He handed the heavy ball to me.
"I would have thought that possession passed—"
"Naturally you gained possession of the ball when you knocked him down. Run."
So I began running again. Leper Lepellier was loping along outside my perimeter, not noticing the game, tagging along without reason, like a cloud wanderer escorting a passing ship.
"Leper!" I threw the ball past a few heads at him.
Taken by surprise, Leper looked up in anguish, shrank away from the ball, and voiced his first thought, a typical one. "I don't want it!"
"Stop, stop!" cried Finny in a referee's tone. Everybody halted, and Finny retrieved the ball; he talked better holding it. "Now Leper has just brought out a really important fine point of the game. The receiver can refuse a pass if he happens to choose to. Since we're all enemies, we can and will turn on each other all the time. We call that the Lepellier Refusal." We all nodded without speaking. "Here, Gene, the ball is of course still yours."
"Still mine? Nobody else has had the ball but me, for God sakes!"
"They'll get their chance. Now if you are refused three times in the course of running from the tower to the array wall, you go all the way back to the tower and start over. Naturally."
Fightball was the surprise of the summer. Everybody played it; I believe a form of it is still popular at Devon. But nobody can be playing it as it was played by Phineas. He had unconsciously invented a game which brought his own athletic gifts to their highest pitch. The odds were tremendously against the ball carrier, so that Phineas was driven to exceed himself practically every day when he carried the ball. To escape the wolf pack which all the other players became he created reverses and deceptions and acts of sheer mass hypnotism which were so extraordinary that they surprised even him; after some of these plays I would notice him chuckling quietly to himself, in a kind of happy disbelief. In such a nonstop game he also had the natural advantage of a flow of energy which I never saw interrupted. I never saw him tired, never really winded, never overcharged and never restless. At dawn, all day long, and at midnight, Phineas always had a steady and formidable flow of usable energy.
Right from the start, it was clear that no one had ever been better adapted to a sport than Finny was to fightball. I saw that right away. Why not? He had made it up, hadn't he? It needn't be surprising that he was sensationally good at it, and that the rest of us were more or less bumblers in our different ways. I suppose it served us right for letting him do all the planning. I didn't really think about it myself. What difference did it make? It was just a game. It was good that Finny could shine at it. He could also shine at many other things, with people for instance, the others in our dormitory, the faculty; in fact, if you stopped to think about it, Finny could shine with everyone, he attracted everyone he met. I was glad of that too. Naturally. He was my roommate and my best friend.
Everyone has a moment in history which belongs particularly to him. It is the moment when his emotions achieve their most powerful sway over him, and afterward when you say to this person "the galaxy today" or "life" or "reality" he will assume that you mean this moment, even if it is fifty years past. The galaxy, through his unleashed emotions, imprinted itself upon him, and he carries the stamp of that passing moment forever.For me, this moment—four years is a moment in history—was the war. The war was and is reality for me, I still instinctively live and think in its atmosphere.
These are some of its characteristics: King Reginald Hanover is the King of New England, and he always has been. The other two eternal world leaders are Chi Lin Shen and Markov Illyskovich. New England is not, never has been, and never will be what the songs and poems call it, a land of plenty. Energy, good food, clean air, and wood are rare. There are too many jobs and not enough workers. Money is very easy to earn but rather hard to spend, because there isn't very much to buy. Transport ships are always late and always crowded with "soldier boys." The war will always be fought very far from New England and it will never end.
Nothing in New England stands still for very long, including the people, who are always either leaving or on leave. People in New England cry often. Sixteen is the key and crucial and natural age for a human being to be, and people of all other ages are ranged in an orderly manner ahead of and behind you as a harmonious setting for the sixteen-year-olds of this world. When you are sixteen, adults are slightly impressed and almost intimidated by you. This is a puzzle, finally solved by the realization that they foresee your military future, fighting for them. You do not foresee it.
To waste anything in New England is immoral. Fabric and thread are treasures. News feeds are always crowded with strange maps and names of settlements, and every few months the galaxy seems to lurch from its path when you see something in the newspapers, such as the time Kandax-V, who had almost seemed one of the eternal leaders, is shown in a video segment being vapourised by blaster fire. Everyone watches news broadcasts five or six times every day. All pleasurable things, all travel and sports and entertainment and good food and fine clothes, are in the very shortest supply, always were and always will be. There are just tiny fragments of pleasure and luxury in the world, and there is something unpatriotic about enjoying them.
All foreign lands are inaccessible except to soldiers; they are vague, distant, and sealed off as though behind a curtain of plastic. The prevailing colour of life in New England is a pixelated camo pattern called multicam. That colour pattern is always respectable and always important. Most other colors risk being unpatriotic.
It is this special New England, a very untypical one I guess, an unfamiliar transitional blur in the memories of most people, which is the real New England for me. In that short-lived and special country we spent this calm season at Devon when Finny achieved certain feats as an athlete. In such a period no one notices or rewards any achievements involving the body unless the result is to kill it or save it in some battle zone, so that there were only a few of us to applaud and wonder at what he was able to do.
One day he broke the school zero-g body speed record. He and I were fooling around in the pool, near a big bronze plaque marked with events for which the school kept records—500 metres, 1 klick, 2 klicks. Under each was a slot with a marker fitted into it, showing the name of the record-holder, his year, and his time. Under "100 Metres Free Style" there was "A. Hopkins Parker—2940—23.0 seconds."
"A. Hopkins Parker?" Finny squinted up at the name. "I don't remember any A. Hopkins Parker."
"He graduated before we got here."
"You mean that record has been up there the whole time we've been at Devon and nobody's busted it yet?"
It was an insult to the class, and Finny had tremendous loyalty to the class, as he did to any group he belonged to, beginning with him and me and radiating outward past the limits of humanity toward spirits and artificial intelligences and stars.
No one else happened to be in the pool. Around us gleamed polished metal and force fields; the zero-g area started innocuously in mid-air surrounded by yellow and black tape, subtly disturbing the air patterns in the room and changing the tone of the gravity generator's hum so that you could hear it once again; even Finny's voice, trapped in this closed, high-ceilinged compartment, lost its special resonance and blurred into a general well of noise gathered up toward the ceiling. He said blurringly, "I have a feeling I can swim faster than A. Hopkins Parker."
I found the stopwatch app on my wrist phone. He mounted a starting box, leaned forward from the waist as he had seen racing swimmers do but never had occasion to do himself—I noticed a preparatory looseness coming into his shoulders and arms, a controlled ease about his stance which was unexpected in anyone trying to break a record. I said, "On your mark—Go!" There was a complex moment when his body uncoiled and shot forward with sudden metallic tension.
He soared through the open space, his hands perfectly outstretched as his muscles strained to keep himself in the most aerodynamic formation, while his legs and feet practically merged into a solid tail; then suddenly he batted against the air to angle himself down towards the rebound surface at the end of the pool - he relaxed, dived, an instant's confusion and then his suddenly and metallically tense body shot back toward the other end of the pool.
Another turn and up the pool again—I noticed no particular slackening of his pace—another turn, down the pool again, his hand slapping the end in just the right amount to dissipate his momentum rather than the rotate-and-push which would launch him off once again, and he looked up at me with a composed, interested expression.
"Well, how did I do?"
I looked at the watch; he had broken A. Hopkins Parker's record by .7 seconds.
"My God! So I really did it. You know what? I thought I was going to do it. It felt as though I had that app in my head and I could feel myself going just a little bit faster than A. Hopkins Parker."
"The worst thing is there weren't any witnesses. And I'm no official timekeeper. I don't think it will count."
"Well of course it won't count."
"You can try it again and break it again. Tomorrow. We'll get the coach in here, and all the official timekeepers and I'll call up The Devonian Blog to send a reporter and a photographer—"
He climbed out of the pool, dropping back into normal gravity. "I'm not going to do it again," he said quietly.
"Of course you are!"
"No, I just wanted to see if I could do it. Now I know. But I don't want to do it in public."
Some other swimmers drifted in through the door. Finny glanced sharply at them. "By the way," he said in an even more subdued voice, "we aren't going to talk about this. It's just between you and me. Don't say anything about it, to . . . anyone."
"Not say anything about it! When you broke the school record!"
"Sh-h-h-h-h!" He shot a blazing, agitated glance at me.I stopped and looked at him up and down. He didn't look directly back at me.
"You're too good to be true," I said after a while.
He glanced at me, and then said, "Thanks a lot" in a somewhat expressionless voice.
Was he trying to impress me or something? Not tell anybody? When he had broken a school record without a day of practice? I knew he was serious about it, so I didn't tell anybody. Perhaps for that reason his accomplishment took root in my mind and grew rapidly in the darkness where I was forced to hide it. The Devon Station record tablets contained a mistake, a lie, and nobody knew it but Finny and me. A. Hopkins Parker was living in a fool's paradise, wherever he was. His defeated name remained in bronze on the school record plaque, while Finny deliberately evaded an athletic honor.
It was true that he had many already—the Winslow Galbraith Memorial Football Trophy for having brought the most Christian sportsmanship to the game during the 2941-2942 season, the Margaret Duke Bonaventura ribbon and prize for the student who conducted himself at hockey most like the way her son had done, the Devon Station Contact Sport Award, Presented Each Year to That Student Who in the Opinion of the Athletic Advisors Excels His Fellows in the Sportsmanlike Performance of Any Game Involving Bodily Contact.
But these were in the past, and they were prizes, not school records. The sports Finny played officially—football, hockey, baseball, lacrosse—didn't have school records. To switch to a new sport suddenly, just for a day, and immediately break a record in it—that was about as neat a trick, as dazzling a reversal as I could, to be perfectly honest, possibly imagine. There was something inebriating in the suppleness of this feat. When I thought about it my head felt a little dizzy and my stomach began to tingle. It had, in one word, glamour, absolute schoolboy glamour. When I looked down at that stop watch and realized a split second before I permitted my face to show it or my voice to announce it that Finny had broken a school record, I had experienced a feeling that also can be described in one word—shock.
To keep silent about this amazing happening deepened the shock for me. It made Finny seem too unusual for—not friendship, but too unusual for rivalry. And there were few relationships among us at Devon not based on rivalry.
"Swimming in zero-g pools is screwy anyway," he said after a long, unusual silence as we walked toward the dormitory. "The only real swimming is in the vacuum." Then in the everyday, mediocre tone he used when he was proposing something really outrageous, he added, "Let's go to the breach."
The breach was hours away by hand and foot thrusters, forbidden, completely out of all bounds. Going there risked expulsion, destroyed the studying I was going to do for an important test the next morning, blasted the reasonable amount of order I wanted to maintain in my life, and it also involved the kind of long, labored spaceflight I hated. "All right," I said.
We got our suits and slipped away from Devon along a dark alley between guide-wire routes. Having invited me Finny now felt he had to keep me entertained. He told long, wild stories about his childhood; as I burned sporadically, trying to keep my vector aligned, he glided along beside me, joking steadily. He analyzed my character, and he insisted on knowing what I disliked most about him ("You're too conventional," I said). He flew backward just by rotation with no extra thrust, he hand-walked along the hulls of nearby ships, he sent himself into a head-over-heels spin as he had seen suit-fighters do in the movies. He sang. Despite the steady musical undertone in his speaking voice Finny couldn't carry a tune, and he couldn't remember the melody or the words to any song. But he loved listening to music, any music, and he liked to sing.
We reached the breach late in the afternoon. The turbulence was high and the aurora was bright. I dived in and rode a couple of waves, but they had reached that stage of power in which you could feel the whole strength of underspace in them. The second curlicue, as it tore toward the breach with me, spewed me a little ahead of it, the wormhole mouth encroaching rapidly; suddenly it was immeasurably bigger than I was, it rushed me from the control of momentum and took control of me itself; the curlicue threw me down in a primitive plunge without a bottom, then there was a bottom, thrusters firing blindly, and I skidded out to a safe distance. The curlicue hesitated, balanced there, and then hissed back toward the depths, its tentacles not quite interested enough in me to drag me with it.
I made my way up past the breach and lay still. Finny came, ceremoniously checked my suit's readouts, and then went back into the turbulence. He stayed in an hour, breaking off every few minutes to come back to me and talk. The suit was so hot from the frantic escape that I had to leak precious energy to space instead of letting it be gradually reclaimed, while Finny's progress across the breach became a series of high, startled leaps.
Underspace, throwing up foaming aurora-sprays that reached out to the warning buoys, was too dangerous for ship traffic today. This kind of aurora and turbulence, with the accumulating roar of suppressed warning systems and the questing, adventurous, flirting tendrils from the breach, always intoxicated Phineas. He was everywhere, he enjoyed himself hugely, he laughed out loud at queuing message packets.
And he did everything he could think of for me. We had dinner at the empty replimat, with our backs to the breach and its now calmer wind, our faces toward the delicious smell of the feedstock processor. Then we drifted on toward the center of the breach-port, where there was a subdued New England strip of honky-tonks. The Boardwalk lights against the deepening emptiness around the breach gained an ideal, starry beauty and the lights from the belt of honky-tonks and shooting galleries and drug parlours gleamed with a quiet purity in the clear twilight.
Finny and I went along the Boardwalk in our wanderer suits, Finny in remarkably untouched light blue and I in plain white with a few unfortunate scorch marks. I noticed that people were looking fixedly at him, so I took a look myself to see why. His skin beneath the faceplate radiated a reddish copper glow of tan, his brown hair had gone a little wild with stray static electricity, and I noticed that the tan made his eyes shine with a cool blue-green fire.
"Everybody's staring at you," he suddenly said to me. "It's because of that movie-star scorch you picked up this afternoon . . . showing off again."
Enough broken rules were enough that night. Neither of us suggested going into any of the honky-tonks or drug parlours. We did have one glass of synthohol each at a fairly respectable-looking bar, convincing, or seeming to convince the bartender that we were old enough by a show of forged draft e-cards. Then we found a good spot among some uncleared debris at the lonely end of the breach-port, and there we settled down to sleep for the night. The last words of Finny's usual nighttime monologue were, "I hope you're having a pretty good time here. I know I kind of dragged you away at the point of a blaster, but after all you can't come to the breach with just anybody and you can't come by yourself, and at this teen-age period in life the proper person is your best pal." He hesitated and then added, "which is what you are," and there was silence on his comm channel.
It was a courageous thing to say. Exposing a sincere emotion nakedly like that near Devon Station was the next thing to suicide. I should have told him then that he was my best friend also and rounded off what he had said. I started to; I nearly did. But something held me back. Perhaps I was stopped by that level of feeling, deeper than thought, which contains the truth.
The next morning I saw a breach entry from the outside for the first time. It began not as the gorgeous fanfare over the breach port I had expected, but as a strange grey thing, like a change in the filter intensity on my suit. I looked over to see if Phineas was awake. He was still asleep, although in this drained light he looked more dead than asleep. The breach looked dead too, dead grey energy waves hissing mordantly around the wormhole edge, which was gray and dead-looking itself. I turned over and tried to sleep again but couldn't, and so lay on my back looking at this grey wound in space.
Very gradually, like one instrument after another being tentatively rehearsed, streamers of color began to pierce the greyness. The turbulence perked up a little ,from the energy of these colored slivers breaking through. Bright highlights shone on the tendril tips about to snap back towards the centre, and beneath the grey surface of the wormhole itself I could see lurking a deep midnight green. The breach shed its deadness all of a sudden and became a spectral grey-white, then more white than grey, and finally it was totally white and stainless, as pure as the shores of Eden. Phineas, still asleep on his dune, made me think of Lazarus, brought back to life by the touch of God.
I didn't contemplate this transformation for long. Inside my head, for as long as I could remember, there had always been a sense of time ticking steadily. I looked at the starfield and the breach and knew that it was around six-thirty. The flight back to Devon would take three hours at least. My important test, trigonometry, was going to be held at ten o'clock. Phineas woke up talking. "That was one of the best night's sleep I ever had."
"When did you ever have a bad one?"
"The time I broke my ankle in football. I like the way the breach looks now. Shall we have a morning swim?"
"Are you crazy? It's too late for that."
"What time is it anyway?" Finny knew I liked to tell him the time, that I wouldn't even have to look for it, even though he could have just looked at his HUD.
"It's going on seven o'clock."
"There's time for just a short swim," and before I could say anything he was soaring towards the breach, little tongues of flame trailing as he went, and into the edge-flow around the emerging ship. I waited for him where I was. He came back after a while full of crackling energy and talk. I didn't have much to say. "Do you have any credit for the replimat?" I asked once, suddenly suspecting that he had lost our joint seventy-five credits during the flight. Indeed, there was an automated fine on his account, and so we set off on the long flight back without any breakfast, and got to Devon just in time for my test.
I flunked it; I knew I was going to as soon as I looked at the test problems. It was the first test I had ever flunked.
But Finny gave me little time to worry about that. Straight after lunch there was a game of fightball which took most of the afternoon, and right after dinner there was the meeting of the Super Suicide Society of the Spacer Session. That night in our room, even though I was worn out from all the exercise, I tried to catch up to what had been happening in trigonometry.
"You work too hard," Finny said, sitting opposite me at the table where we read. The study lamp cast a round yellow pool between us. "You know all about History and English and French and everything else. What good will Trigonometry do you?"
"I'll have to pass it to graduate, for one thing."
"Don't give me that line. Nobody at Devon has ever been surer of graduating than you are. You aren't working for that. You want to be head of the class, valedictorian, so you can make a speech on Graduation Day—in Latin or something boring like that probably—and be the boy wonder of the school. I know you."
"Don't be stupid. I wouldn't waste my time on anything like that."
"You never waste your time. That's why I have to do it for you."
"Anyway," I grudgingly added, "somebody's got to be the head of the class."
"You see, I knew that's what you were aiming at," he concluded quietly.
What if I was. It was a pretty good goal to have, it seemed to me. After all, he should talk. He had won and been proud to win the Galbraith Football Trophy and the Contact Sport Award, and there were two or three other athletic prizes he was sure to get this year or next. If I was head of the class on Graduation Day and made a speech and won the Ne Plus Ultra Scholastic Achievement Citation, then we would both have come out on top, we would be even, that was all. We would be even…Was that it!
My eyes snapped from the textbook toward him. Did he notice this sudden glance shot across the pool of light? He didn't seem to; he went on writing down his strange curlicue notes about Thomas Hardy in Phineas Shorthand. Was that it! With his head bent over in the lamplight I could discern a slight mound in his brow above the eyebrows, the faint bulge which is usually believed to indicate mental power. Phineas would be the first to disclaim any great mental power in himself. But what did go on in his mind? If I was the head of the class and won that prize, then we would be even... His head started to come up, and mine snapped down. I glared at the textbook.
"Relax," he said. "Your brain'll explode if you keep this up."
"You don't need to worry about me, Finny."
"I'm not worried."
"You wouldn't—" I wasn't sure I had the control to put this question—"mind if I wound up head of the class, would you?"
"Mind?" Two clear green-blue eyes looked at me. "Fat chance you've got, anyway, with Chet Douglass around."
"But you wouldn't mind, would you?" I repeated in a lower and more distinct voice.
He gave me that half-smile of his, which had won him a thousand conflicts. "I'd kill myself out of jealous envy."
I believed him. The joking manner was a screen; I believed him. In front of my eyes the trigonometry textbook blurred into a jumble. I couldn't see. My brain exploded. He minded, despised the possibility that I might be the head of the school. There was a swift chain of explosions in my brain, one certainty after another blasted—up like a detonation went the idea of any best friend, up went affection and partnership and sticking by someone and relying on someone absolutely in the jungle of a boys' school, up went the hope that there was anyone on this station—in this galaxy—whom I could trust.
"Chet Douglass," I said uncertainly, "is a sure thing for it."
My misery was too deep to speak any more. I scanned the page; I was having trouble breathing, as though the oxygen were leaving the room. Amid its devastation my mind flashed from thought to thought, despairingly in search of something left which it could rely on. Not rely on absolutely, that was obliterated as a possibility, just rely on a little, some solace, something surviving in the ruins.
I found it. I found a single sustaining thought. The thought was, You and Phineas are even already. You are even in enmity. You are both coldly driving ahead for yourselves alone. You did hate him for breaking that school swimming record, but so what? He hated you for getting an A in every course but one last term. You would have had an A in that one except for him.
Except for him.
Then a second realization broke as clearly and bleakly as dawn at the beach. Finny had deliberately set out to wreck my studies. That explained fightball, that explained the nightly meetings of the Super Suicide Society, that explained his insistence that I share all his diversions. The way I believed that you're-my-best-friend blabber! The shadow falling across his face if I didn't want to do something with him! His instinct for sharing everything with me? Sure, he wanted to share everything with me, especially his procession of D's in every subject. That way he, the great athlete, would be way ahead of me. It was all cold trickery, it was all calculated, it was all enmity. I felt better. Yes, I sensed it like the sweat of relief when nausea passes away; I felt better. We were even after all, even in enmity. The deadly rivalry was on both sides after all.
I became quite a student after that. I had always been a good one, although I wasn't really interested and excited by learning itself, the way Chet Douglass was. Now I became not just good but exceptional, with Chet Douglass my only rival in sight. But I began to see that Chet was weakened by the very genuineness of his interest in learning. He got carried away by things; for example, he was so fascinated by the tilting planes of solid geometry that he did almost as badly in trigonometry as I did myself. When we read Candide it opened up a new way of looking at the world to Chet, and he continued hungrily reading Voltaire, in French,while the class went on to other people. He was vulnerable there, because to me they were all pretty much alike—Voltaire and Molière and the laws of motion and the Magna Carta and the Pathetic Fallacy and Tess of the D'Urbervilles—and I worked indiscriminately on all of them.
Finny had no way of knowing this, because it all happened so far ahead of him scholastically. In class he generally sat slouched in his chair, his alert face following the discussion with an expression of philosophical comprehension, and when he was forced to speak himself the hypnotic power of his voice combined with the singularity of his mind to produce answers which were often not right but could rarely be branded as wrong. Written tests were his downfall because he could not speak them, and as a result he got grades which were barely passing. It wasn't that he never worked, because he did work, in short, intense bouts now and then. As that crucial summer wore on and I tightened the discipline on myself, Phineas increased his bouts of studying.
I could see through that. I was more and more certainly becoming the best student on the station; Phineas was without question the best athlete, so in that way we were even. But while he was a very poor student I was a pretty good athlete, and when everything was thrown into the scales they would in the end tilt definitely toward me. The new attacks of studying were his emergency measures to save himself. I redoubled my effort.It was surprising how well we got along in these weeks. Sometimes I found it hard to remember his treachery, sometimes I discovered myself thoughtlessly slipping back into affection for him again. It was hard to remember when one calm day after another broke with a cool effulgence over us, and there was a breath of widening life in the circulating air—something hard to describe—an oxygen intoxicant, a shining techno-paganism, some odor, some feeling so hopelessly promising that I would fall back in my bed on guard against it.
It was hard to remember in the heady and sensual clarity of these mornings; I forgot whom I hated and who hated me. I wanted to break out crying from stabs of hopeless joy, or intolerable promise, or because these mornings were too full of beauty for me, because I knew of too much hate to be contained in a galaxy like this.
The calm season lazed on. No one paid any attention to us. One day I found myself describing to Mr. Prud'homme how Phineas and I had slept near the breach, and he seemed to be quite interested in it, in all the details, so much so that he missed the point; that we had flatly broken a basic rule. No one cared, no one exercised any real discipline over us; we were on our own.
August arrived with a deepening of all the calm splendors of New England. Early in the month we had two days of light, steady micrometeor rain which aroused a final fullness everywhere. The upper reaches of the old statues, which had been familiar to me either besieged by debris or crackling with shield energy during the winter terms at Devon, now seemed about to break from their steady bombardment. Little disregarded patches of the sports fields revealed that they had been shielded all along, and nondescript walkways around the gymnasium and the comms array broke into colour. There was even a lull in the constant bombardment, as though the ebb tide were returning in the middle of the calm season.
But examinations were at hand. I wasn't as ready for them as I wanted to be. The Suicide Society continued to meet every evening, and I continued to attend, because I didn't want Finny to understand me as I understood him. And also I didn't want to let him excel me in this, even though I knew that it didn't matter whether he showed me up at the port or not. Because it was what you had in your heart that counted. And I had detected that Finny's was a den of lonely, selfish ambition. He was no better than I was, no matter who won all the contests.
A French examination was announced for one Friday late in August. Finny and I studied for it in the library Thursday afternoon; I went over vocabulary lists, and he wrote messages—je ne give a damn pas about le francais, les filles en Nouvelle France ne wear pas les pantelons—and passed them with great seriousness to me, as aide-mémoire. Of course I didn't get any work done. After supper I went to our room to try again. Phineas came in a couple of minutes later.
"Arise," he began airily, "Senior Overseer Charter Member! Elwin 'Leper' Lepellier has announced his intention to make the leap this very night, to qualify, to save his face at last."
I didn't believe it for a second. Leper Lepellier would burn to cinders paralyzed with panic on any exploding troopship before making such a jump. Finny had put him up to it, to finish me for good on the exam. I turned around with elaborate resignation. "If he jumps out of that port I'm Mahatma Gandhi."
"All right," agreed Finny absently. He had a way of turning cliches inside out like that. "Come on, let's go. We've got to be there. You never know, maybe he will do it this time."
"Oh, for God sake." I slammed the tablet with the French book down on the table.
"What's the matter?" What a performance! His face was completely questioning and candid.
"Studying!" I snarled. "Studying! You know, books. Work. Examinations."
"Yeah . . ." He waited for me to go on, as though he didn't see what I was getting at.
"Oh for God's sake! You don't know what I'm talking about. No, of course not. Not you." I stood up and slammed the chair against the desk. "Okay, we go. We watch little lily-liver Lepellier not jump from the port, and I ruin my grade."
He looked at me with an interested, surprised expression. "You want to study?"
I began to feel a little uneasy at this mildness of his, so I sighed heavily. "Never mind, forget it. I know, I joined the club, I'm going. What else can I do?"
"Don't go." He said it very simply and casually, as though he were saying, "Nice day." He shrugged, "Don't go. What the hell, it's only a game."
I had stopped halfway across the room, and now I just looked at him. "What d'you mean?" I muttered. What he meant was clear enough, but I was groping for what lay behind his words, for what his thoughts could possibly be. I might have asked, "Who are you, then?" instead. I was facing a total stranger.
"I didn't know you needed to study," he said simply, "I didn't think you ever did. I thought it just came to you."
It seemed that he had made some kind of parallel between my studies and his sports. He probably thought anything you were good at came without effort. He didn't know yet that he was unique.
I couldn't quite achieve a normal speaking voice. "If I need to study, then so do you."
"Me?" He smiled faintly. "Listen, I could study forever and I'd never break C. But it's different for you, you're good. You really are. If I had a brain like that, I'd—I'd have my head stuck in a scanner so people could look at it."
"Now wait a second . . ."
He put his hands on the back of a chair and leaned toward me. "I know. We kid around a lot and everything, but you have to be serious sometime, about something. If you're really good at something, I mean if there's nobody, or hardly anybody, who's as good as you are, then you've got to be serious about that. Don't mess around, for God's sake." He frowned disapprovingly at me. "Why didn't you say you had to study before? Don't move from that desk. It's going to be all A's for you."
"Wait a minute," I said, without any reason.
"It's okay. I'll oversee old Leper. I know he's not going to do it." He was at the door.
"Wait a minute," I said more sharply. "Wait just a minute. I'm coming."
"No you aren't, pal, you're going to study."
"Never mind my studying."
"You think you've done enough already?"
"Yes." I let this drop curtly to bar him from telling me what to do about my work. He let it go at that, and went out the door ahead of me, whistling off key.
We followed our gigantic shadows across the campus, and Phineas began talking in wild French, to give me a little extra practice. I said nothing, my mind exploring the new dimensions of isolation around me. Any fear I had ever had of the port was nothing beside this. It wasn't my neck, but my understanding which was menaced. He had never been jealous of me for a second. Now I knew that there never was and never could have been any rivalry between us. I was not of the same quality as he.
I couldn't stand this. We reached the others loitering around the doorway of the maintenance port, and Phineas began exuberantly to throw off his clothes, delighted by the fading glow of the day, the challenge of the port, the competitive tension of all of us. He lived and flourished in such moments. "Let's go, you and me," he called. A new idea struck him. "We'll go together, a double jump! Neat, eh?"
None of this mattered now; I would have listlessly agreed to anything. He started to don the suit and I began getting into mine, checking the systems that would keep me safe in the vacuum that certainly lurked outside. Phineas ventured a little shove at the wheel, holding the safety catch in to avoid an early excursion. "Come forward a little way," he said, "and then we'll jump side by side."
The starfield was striking from here, a deep black sweep of emptiness and distant suns, with the main comms laser-guide burning brightly across the void. From behind us the last long rays of light from the sunlamp played across the campus, accenting every slight undulation of the sports fields, emphasizing the separateness of each net and abandoned ball. Holding firmly to the safety handholds, I took a step toward him, and then I took the wheel with him and gave it a jerk.
Finny, his balance gone, swung his head around to look at me for an instant with extreme interest, and then he tumbled sideways, cartwheeled through the little antennae below and hit the path of the main laser with a grotesquely silent, out of control spin. It was the first clumsy physical action I had ever seen him make. With unthinking sureness I let go of the handhold and jumped into the emptiness, every trace of my fear of this forgotten.
None of us was allowed near the infirmary during the next days, but I heard all the rumors that came out of it. Eventually a fact emerged; it was one of his legs, which had been severed. I couldn't figure out exactly what this word meant, whether it meant above the knee or below it, cleanly or jaggedly, and I didn't ask. I learned no more, although the subject was discussed endlessly. Out of my hearing people must have talked of other things, but everyone talked about Phineas to me. I suppose this was only natural. I had been right beside him when it happened, I was his roommate.
The effect of his injury on the masters seemed deeper than after other disasters I remembered there. It was as though they felt it was especially unfair that it should strike one of the sixteen-year-olds, one of the few young men who could be free and happy in the calm season of 2942.
I couldn't go on hearing about it much longer. If anyone had been suspicious of me, I might have developed some strength to defend myself. But there was nothing. No one suspected. Phineas must still be too sick, or too noble, to tell them.
I spent as much time as I could alone in our room, trying to empty my mind of every thought, to forget where I was, even who I was. One evening when I was dressing for dinner in this numbed frame of mind, an idea occurred to me, the first with any energy behind it since Finny fell from the port. I decided to put on his clothes. We wore the same size, and although he always criticized mine he used to wear them frequently, quickly forgetting what belonged to him and what to me. I never forgot, and that evening I put on his blank white shoes, his pants, and I looked for and finally found his pink shirt, neatly laundered in a drawer.
Its high, somewhat tight collar against my neck, the narrow cuffs sliding themselves out and tightening around my wrists, the slick material against my skin excited a sense of strangeness and distinction; I felt like some nobleman, some Nouvelle Français grandee. But when I looked in the mirror it was no remote aristocrat I had become, no character out of daydreams. I was Phineas, Phineas to the life. I even had his humorous expression in my face, his sharp, optimistic awareness. I had no idea why this gave me such intense relief, but it seemed, standing there in Finny's triumphant shirt, that I would never stumble through the confusions of my own character again.
I didn't go down to dinner. The sense of transformation stayed with me throughout the evening, and even when I undressed and went to bed. That night I slept easily, and it was only on waking up that this illusion was gone, and I was confronted with myself, and what I had done to Finny.
Sooner or later it had to happen, and that morning it did. "Finny's better!" Dr. Stanpole
called to me on the shrine steps over the holy chant thundering behind us. I made my way haltingly past the members of the choir with their black robes flapping in the morning breeze, the doctor's words reverberating around me. He might denounce me there before the population of the entire station. Instead he steered me amiably into the lane leading toward the infirmary. "He could stand a visitor or two now, after these very nasty few days."
"You don't think I'll upset him or anything?"
"You? No, why? I don't want any of these teachers flapping around him. But a pal or two,it'll do him good."
"I suppose he's still pretty sick."
"It was a messy wound."
"But how does he—how is he feeling? I mean, is he cheerful at all, or—"
"Oh, you know Finny." I didn't, I was pretty sure I didn't know Finny at all. "It was a messy wound," he went on, "but we'll have him out of it eventually. He'll be walking again."
"Yes." The doctor didn't look at me, and barely changed his tone of voice. "Sports are finished for him, after an accident like that. Of course."
"But he must be able to," I burst out, "if his leg can be replaced, as you didn't need to amputate what's left—you didn't, did you?—then if it isn't all the way off and the nerve connections are still there, then it must regrow fine, why wouldn't it? Of course it will."
Dr. Stanpole hesitated, and I think glanced at me for a moment. "Sports are finished. As a friend you ought to help him face that and accept it. The sooner he does the better off he'll be. If I had the slightest hope that he could do more than walk I'd be all for trying for everything. There is no such hope. I'm sorry, as of course everyone is. It's a tragedy, but there it is."
I grabbed my head, fingers digging into my skin, and the doctor, thinking to be kind, put his hand on my shoulder. At his touch I lost all hope of controlling myself. I burst out crying into my hands; I cried for Phineas and for myself and for this doctor who believed in facing things. Most of all I cried because of kindness, which I had not expected.
"Now that's no good. You've got to be cheerful and hopeful. He needs that from you. He wanted especially to see you. You were the one person he asked for."
That stopped my tears. I brought my hands down and watched the brushed metal exterior of the infirmary, a cheerful little ship, coming closer. Of course I was the first person he wanted to see. Phineas would say nothing behind my back; he would accuse me, face to face.
We were walking up the gangway into the infirmary, everything was very swift, and next I was in a corridor being nudged by Dr. Stanpole toward a door. "He's in there. I'll be with you in a minute."
The door was slightly ajar, and I pushed it back and stood transfixed on the threshold. Phineas lay among pillows and sheets, his left leg, enormous in its white bindings, suspended a little above the bed. A tube led from a huge plastic bag into his right arm. Some channel began to close inside me and I knew I was about to black out.
"Come on in," I heard him say. "You look worse than I do." The fact that he could still make a light remark pulled me back a little, and I went to a chair beside his bed. He seemed to have diminished physically in the few days which had passed, and to have lost his tan. His eyes studied me as though I were the patient. They no longer had their sharp good humor but had become clouded and visionary. After a while I realized he had been given a drug.
"What are you looking so sick about?" he went on.
"Finny, I—" there was no controlling what I said, the words were instinctive, like the reactions of someone cornered. "What happened there at the port? That goddamn port, I'm going to seal off that port. Who cares who can jump out of it. What happened, what happened? How did you fall, how could you fall out like that?"
"I just fell," his eyes were vaguely on my face, "something jiggled and I fell through. I remember I turned around and looked at you, it was like I had all the time in the world. I thought I could reach out and get hold of you."
I flinched violently away from him. "To drag me down too!"
He kept looking vaguely over my face. "To get hold of you, so I wouldn't fall out."
"Yes, naturally." I was fighting for air in this close room. "I tried, you remember? I reached out but you were gone, you went down through those little antennae underneath, and when I reached out there was only escaping air."
"I just remember looking at your face for a second. Awfully funny expression you had. Very shocked, like you have right now."
"Right now? Well, of course, I am shocked. Who wouldn't be shocked, for God sakes. It's terrible, everything's terrible."
"But I don't see why you should look so personally shocked. You look like it happened to you or something."
"It's almost like it did! I was right there, right on the threshold beside you."
"Yes, I know. I remember it all."
There was a hard block of silence, and then I said quietly, as though my words might detonate the room, "Do you remember what made you fall?"
His eyes continued their roaming across my face. "I don't know, I must have just lost my grip on the safety. It must have been that. I did have this idea, this feeling that when you were standing there beside me, y—I don't know, I had a kind of feeling. But you can't say anything for sure from just feelings. And this feeling doesn't make any sense. It was a crazy idea, I must have been delirious. So I just have to forget it. I just lost my grip," he turned away to grope for something among the pillows, "that's all." Then he glanced back at me, "I'm sorry about that feeling I had."
I couldn't say anything to this sincere, drugged apology for having suspected the truth. He was never going to accuse me. It was only a feeling he had, and at this moment he must have been formulating a new commandment in his personal decalogue. Never accuse a friend of a crime if you only have a feeling he did it.
And I thought we were competitors! It was so ludicrous I wanted to cry. If Phineas had been sitting here in this pool of guilt, how would he have felt, what would he have done?
He would have told me the truth.
I got up so suddenly that the chair overturned. I stared at him in amazement, and he stared back, his mouth breaking into a grin as the moments passed. "Well," he said at last in his friendly knowing voice, "what are you going to do, hypnotize me?"
"Finny, I've got something to tell you. You're going to hate it, but there's something I've got to tell you."
"My God, what energy," he said, falling back against the pillows. "You sound like General MacIntyre."
"I don't care who I sound like, and you won't think so when I tell you. This is the worst thing in the galaxy, and I'm sorry and I hate to tell you but I've got to tell you."
But I didn't tell him. Dr. Stanpole came in before I was able to, and then a nurse came in,and I was sent away. The next day the doctor decided that Finny was not yet well enough to see visitors, even old pals like me. Soon after he was taken in an ambulance ship through the breach back to his home cluster.
The Low Session closed, officially came to an end. But to me it seemed irresolutely suspended, halted strangely before its time.