The year 1956, in a future that never happened.
He came down the mountain one early summer afternoon, toward the end of what had not yet been dubbed the Hydrogen War. He was just in time to catch the climax of the war.
His goal was to find a replacement for Melinda. Not that he believed he could. He had read the newsfiches. Yet he retained faint hope that someone like Melinda still existed and might want to be his companion.
Jet-cars passed him repeatedly. He ducked every time that happened, envisioning the car's riders staring down at him, even though the skyway was as high above him as the skyhomes that soared on their slender stalks. He had lived in such a home, once.
The groundhomes, where the poorer folk dwelt, worried him more. He sidled through the countryside, skirting the city of Cumberland at the foot of the mountain. Just as he was congratulating himself on his successful effort to avoid being seen, he rounded a forest and found himself facing a person.
He stepped back, intending to flee. But he could not, for the person was an old lady, and she was lying on the ground.
"Well, there you are," she said in a cheerful fashion, as though she had been awaiting him. "I figured that someone would find me eventually. It's this hip of mine. Makes it difficult for me to pick myself up when I fall. Will you lend me your arm?"
He'd as soon have cut off his arm and left it to do the work on its own. But he couldn't abandon her. With his heart thumping, he approached, taking care not to look her in the eye. He helped her up. It was like helping Melinda up after she had taken a spill, he told himself.
"Thank you very much, young man," the old lady said briskly when she was on her feet. "I used to have a cat who would squall something fierce when I fell down; she always attracted the attention of the neighbors. But last year . . . I still can't understand it. Why they killed all the pets, I mean," she added, as though it weren't obvious what she meant. "The Vovimians claimed their sonic weapons were intended to kill the dogs in the Yclau army, but to kill every pet in the Midcoast nations. . . . But here I am, chattering away." She smiled and offered her arm to shake. "I'm Mrs. William Allegany. You are . . . ?"
He said nothing. He couldn't have spoken, even if he were normal. Every pet, she'd said. Every pet in the four nations along the Midcoast of the Northern Continent.
He couldn't travel outside the Midcoast. He had no passport. Maybe he could buy an imported dog?
Mrs. Allegany's smile faded as it became clear he would not shake her arm. He should leave now, before matters worsened. Instead, he fumbled with a piece of paper from his pocket. He dropped it. Just an accident, that was all.
"Oh, dear." Mrs. Allegany looked down, then reached over with a gardening fork she had apparently been using to weed before she fell. She spiked the paper with it. "I can't bend down these days," she said with a smile. "Arthritis, you know. Is this yours? Or is it for me?"
He stared up at where the skyway remained thick with jet-cars. The paper was nothing to do with him. It had left him; it was no longer his.
But as he heard the paper rustle in her hands, he knew what it said.
Hello! My name is Melinda. I'm Phillip Schafer's service dog. Due to social neurosis, my master is unable to communicate directly with you. However, he can give messages to me, and I can give them to you. You don't need to write a message back. Just speak to me, and he will overhear what you say. Thank you! I'm so happy to meet you!
Mrs. Allegany raised her gaze from the paper, but only as far as Phillip's hands. He was holding now the collar, with Melinda's name upon it.
"I'm so sorry for your loss," Mrs. Allegany said softly.
Phillip looked down at the dog collar, feeling tears prickle his eyes.
"It's a very old-fashioned house, I'm afraid," said Mrs. Allegany as Phillip hesitated uncertainly at the back entrance, waiting for the lights to come on. They didn't until Mrs. Allegany pulled a cord on an antique lamp. "My husband was of the Traditionalist faith, you see. He refused to use technology that was invented after the 1930s, when optical computers were first created. So I have a radio but no holovision set; an electric stove but no microwave oven; a mechanical calculator but no terminal to the republic's public computer."
Phillip had already taken in this fact with a glance. The entire house looked like a museum, with furniture from the 1920s and no sign of modern technology.
Stepping forward, he peered out the front window, trying to sight the driveway. He hoped there would be no visitors. He wasn't even sure why he was here.
Misunderstanding his glance, Mrs. Allegany said brightly, "No, we don't own a jet-car. I've never been in a jet-car; William and I married when I was twenty, before jet-cars came along. But we travelled in something just as splendid. Come see!"
He followed her through the front door, pausing first to check whether anyone stood outside. But the house appeared to be a former farmhouse, built before the farm laboratories took over production of food in the Magisterial Republic of Mip. The house was set well apart from other groundhomes, beside what must have been a large field at one time, but which was now a tangled overgrowth of weeds and saplings.
Mrs. Allegany glanced at his expression and sighed. "It's terribly run-down, isn't it? William always said, 'I'll take care of you for as long as we live, sweet one.' Even when my arthritis prevented me from keeping house for him, he was happy to hire help. . . . But he died three years ago. I have his small pension, but I had to let go the servants: the cook, the housekeeper, the gardeners, the handyman. I'll have to sell the house soon; I just can't maintain it. But it's hard to leave a place where you've lived nearly all your life."
Phillip tilted his head. Here, near the foot of the mountain, he could see the sparkle of the mountain stream far above. Hidden in the woods behind the stream was his cottage. He'd only lived there for two years.
They were the happiest two years of his life. He needn't speak to anyone. He wrote weekly electromails to his parents, and Melinda took care of delivering his letters to the social worker when she visited monthly. The social worker spoke to Melinda, and Phillip overheard whatever the social worker said.
But Melinda was gone, and no dogs existed in Mip to replace her. Phillip followed Mrs. Allegany to the driveway. Then he halted abruptly, seeing what the driveway contained.
"Isn't it lovely?" Beaming proudly, Mrs. Allegany gestured toward her treasure. "William bought the latest model. The manufacturers still make them, you know; they're used for weddings and funerals. It was expensive, but William said no price was too high for me."
It was an automobile. An old-fashioned, wheels-on-the-ground automobile, like in the holomovies about the pre-computer world. Its turquoise paint was shiny, its fender skirts unscratched. His parents' jet-car seemed shabby by comparison.
"He drove us in it only half a dozen times before he died, alas." Mrs. Allegany patted the hood, as though the auto were a beloved pet. "It has stood unused ever since. I never learned to drive; my hands can't easily grip the steering wheel. But the auto reminds me of our early years of marriage, when we travelled down the National Road in our previous automobile, before the jet-cars crammed the skies. The wind in my hair, the radio playing songs . . ."
Phillip peered through the window. A cushion lay on the floor of the two-seater auto. He opened the passenger door and scooped up the cushion. Then he put the cushion on the passenger seat.
"Why, how gallant of you!" As she spoke, Mrs. Allegany eased her way into the auto. "Oof! Yes, that cushion is a great help. My neighbors' boy wanted me to ride his astrobike – 'You can sit in the sidecar, Mrs. Allegany,' he said. I couldn't tell the poor dear that the hard plastic seat in his sidecar would be torture on my bad hip. Well, isn't this nice," she added as Phillip eased his way into the driver's seat. "Just like old times, sitting next to a handsome young man." She smiled at Phillip. "Perhaps some music? I think the battery still works."
Phillip reached toward what he thought must be the auto's radio, from the numbers on it. It took him a while to find a station. In the sky, the jet-cars hummed. Mrs. Allegany frowned, peering up through the windshield. "There are so many cars out today. You'd think there was a race on—"
"—not a test," said the radio. "Repeat: This is not a test. Peace talks between Vovim and Yclau have broken down. An atomic attack is considered imminent. The government of the Magisterial Republic of Mip has ordered a mandatory evacuation of the nation. All citizens are required to immediately drive their jet-cars to foreign refuge towns designated by our government—"
Phillip looked at Mrs. Allegany. She was staring straight at the windshield, as though reading an article in a newsfiche. "Young man," she said, "I hope you can drive an automobile."
". . . warn Mippite citizens not to fly east, because the Dozen Landsteads have closed their border. Repeat. The border to the Dozen Landsteads is closed. There are unconfirmed reports that the Dozen Landsteads' navies are shooting down any jet-cars which enter that national alliance's airspace. In recognition of Mip's status as a neutral nation, both Yclau and Vovim are permitting Mippite jet-cars whose passengers possess the proper passport codes to cross their borders. Because it is expected that the bombs will fall where the conflicting armies are gathered, in the border provinces of Yclau and Vovim, the magisterial seats are advising that Mippites head for the refuges established by the Queendom of Yclau and the Kingdom of Vovim. Yclau's refuge is at Covington in the queendom's southwest mountains. Vovim's refuge is at Tupper Lake in the Adirondacks. Mippites without access to jet-cars are advised to head for the major skyports of our republic, where government rockets will evacuate citizens until this evening. The major skyports are as follows: Westminster Skyport in eastern Mip—"
Phillip hastily set down the gasoline can and began scribbling on the pad of paper he always carried, because carrying an electropad would require him to hand the electropad directly to the other person. Pieces of paper could be torn from the pad and handed to Melinda.
He placed the list on the passenger seat and finished refueling the auto. As he did so, Mrs. Allegany returned, saying, "That's the very last time I bake casseroles for my neighbors."
His expression must have shown his confusion, for Mrs. Allegany laughed. "They've all departed," she explained. "I called all my neighbors on the emergency visiphone that I insisted William buy, but they've left in their jet-cars, every blasted one of them." She sighed. "I suppose each family thought another had come to fetch me. And the commuter jet-bus left hours ago; I don't imagine it will be returning. Well, at least we have the auto. You do know how to drive it, don't you?" she added in her first sign of anxiousness.
Pretending not to hear, he placed the manual on the hood. His parents, modestly mid-class, had gone to the expense of leaving him with a library of five thousand microfiche books. In the beginning, his intention had been only to teach himself how to garden and fish, but the fichebooks had proved so interesting that he had determined to read them all, whatever their topic. He'd learned to speed-scroll through the fichebooks, absorbing their contents rapidly.
Mrs. Allegany nodded, satisfied. Phillip pocketed the driver's manual he had found in the auto's glove compartment – an actual paper manual, with pages that turned. He opened the passenger door. That Mrs. Allegany was standing near the door was a coincidence, he told himself. He just needed to air out the car.
Mrs. Allegany slid into the car with her usual "Oof!" as she simultaneously picked up the note and peered at it. "'Westminster Skyport, Frederick Skyport, Hagerstown Skyport,'" she read. "Thank goodness! We certainly don't have enough gasoline to reach the refuges." She checked the analog clock on the auto's dashboard. "Two o'clock. Hagerstown is less than seventy miles east. Even in this slow-poke automobile, we should reach Hagerstown within the hour. Step on the gas, young man." As he slid into the driver's seat, she tossed him the auto keys.
". . . last flights from Hagerstown Skyport and Westminster Skyport will be at nine o'clock," said the radio announcer, who sounded hoarse after his many hours on the air. "The last flight from our capital's skyport will be at ten o'clock. All air traffic will cease at that time. Vovim and Yclau have already closed their borders to ground traffic. The Dozen Landsteads have declined to evacuate their citizens to other nations, but at an emergency meeting of the High Masters' Council at Hoopers Island, the governmental alliance ordered an immediate evacuation of all Landsteaders to the ocean-bordering Fifth Landstead, which is farthest away from Yclau and Vovim. The countries surrounding the Midcoast nations have refused to take refugees, although Akbar, whose border is close to the Vovimian city of Philadelphia, has strongly protested the use of nuclear weapons—"
"A little late for that, I think." Mrs. Allegany spoke through gritted teeth. Her driveway ended, not at the groundway that led to Hagerstown, but at a country lane. Phillip had soon realized that the major difference between a jet-car and an auto was not that the former could fly but that the latter must travel over every bump in the road.
"—Vovim and Yclau have both issued statements confirming that, in accordance with the terms of the Bi-National Arms Treaty of '53, their launches are wired in with the Bi-National Bomb Defense System." The announcer was beginning to sound tired. "Both nations claim they can only launch an initial bomb if they are attacked with a nuclear weapon. Critics of the Bi-National Bomb Defense System have long pointed out, however, that if the two nations' initial bombs are triggered for flight within a few seconds of each other, the system may not be able to distinguish between offense and defense, resulting in the release of both bombs—"
"Stop, stop!" cried Mrs. Allegany.
Phillip had already begun to pull the auto over, having sighted the figure waving frantically at them from the side of the lane.
It was a young girl in pigtails. She wore overalls that – even by the modest-wealth standards of western Mip – were clearly past due being replaced. As the auto slid to a halt, the girl hurried over to the passenger side. Without preliminary, she asked, "Have you seen my mama? She's Miss McCusker. I took this picture of her last month with a camera my teacher lent me." She thrust something at Mrs. Allegany.
It was a photo – not a holophoto, but a 2D photo. Glancing at it, Phillip gaped. The young woman in the picture seemed scarcely older than himself. She must have been very young indeed when she gave birth to her daughter.
And the mother's name was Miss McCusker, not Mrs.? He glanced at the girl. Judging from her reddened cheeks, she'd been mocked before for her mother's lack of a married title. Phillip himself wasn't shocked; such things happened sometimes, here in the mountains.
Or so he'd read. He tried not to stare too closely at the girl, though she was the first child he'd met since he was five years old. That was when his parents had fruitlessly tried to enroll him in kindergarten. He remembered his screams that day.
"I'm afraid I don't know your mother," said Mrs. Allegany, peering through her glasses at the photo. "Where did you last see her?"
"At our home." The girl pointed to the ramshackle house behind her. "We heard the news about the bombs on our vision set. Mama tried to flag down a passing jet-car. A family stopped for us . . . but they said they only had room for one of us. Mama started shrieking, and they said they'd leave us both if she didn't stop her hysteria. So she got in the jet-car. She said she'd go to the next town and hire a jet-taxi, then come back for me. That was three hours ago." The girl's lips quivered, but her eyes remained dry.
Phillip saw Mrs. Allegany look his way, but he kept his gaze centered on the photo. He wondered whether she was thinking the same thing he was: the woman in the photo was so young that she'd probably panicked, sacrificing her daughter in order to save her own life.
"Well, dear," said Mrs. Allegany briskly, "I think you'd better come with us. If we meet your mother along the way, we can give her a ride also—"
"She's not coming back for me, is she?" The girl had paled, but she had control of her expression now. She stood straight, like a soldier preparing to be shot.
Mrs. Allegany replied gently, "I can't say, dear. But it's possible that the people she rode with didn't wish to take the time to let her off at the next town. As soon as we're safe, we'll try to learn where she's gone."
"Tupper Lake," said the girl with a gulp. "That's where the jet-car was headed." She looked from Mrs. Allegany to Phillip, who ducked his head. Then she seemed to make up her mind. "I'm Linda. Where are we going?"
"—winds are currently due east, minimizing fallout danger to Mip. The locations where the bombs will fall are not yet known, but scientific reports indicate that both countries' initial bomb is automatically aimed by computer at the place in the enemy country where the enemy army has amassed its greatest strength. The rationale of the Bi-National Bomb Defense System is that civilian casualties should be reduced through computer programs that zero in on military targets. Critics of the system, however, have long suggested that the computers might go awry and instead send bombs on highly populated cities. Indeed, a direct hit on Mip's capital is not out of the question. On a positive note, the defense system is programmed to pause after the initial launch, in order to give the bombed nation time to surrender. At that point, manual intervention can prevent the sending of further bombs.
"Critics question whether even one hydrogen bomb can be justified, given the terrible loss of life within the thirty-mile radiation zone. Defenders of the defense system claim that the computer takes this into account in making its calculations and strives to keep the radiation zone away from highly populated areas. Those reassurances have not prevented the border provinces of Yclau and Vovim from being drained of their populace at a dramatic rate—"
"She has a passport," said Linda, squirming in the middle of the auto's seat as she looked over her shoulder at the gas station behind her – one of the few gas stations left in Mip, designed for trucks that carried goods. "The border guards will recognize her fingerprints in the jet-car's passcode system and let her car through, I think. And we'll be able to find where Mama went, because Vovim's air traffic control will trace the path of her car. What's that?"
She spoke so abruptly, without any change in tone, that Phillip, who had leaned forward to turn down the announcer's recital of radiation illnesses, responded automatically, "A radio."
Then he froze, unable to believe he had just done what he did.
Oblivious to the bomb that had exploded inside their auto, Linda smiled as she brushed her fingers across the radio, grazing Phillip's hand as she did so. "I thought we were old-fashioned, because we only have a 2D vision set instead of a holovision set. Gee, this is like living in the last century. How fast can this auto go?"
Phillip, who could still barely breathe, raised his eyes to the scene in front of them. Yards away, beyond the ramp they had just hurried down, was the groundway, clogged with vehicles.
He would not have thought there were that many ground vehicles in the world, much less in western Mip. Trucks, yes – even on his mountain perch, he'd heard the daily rumble of trucks on the groundway. But it appeared that nearly every family who couldn't afford a private jet-car had taken the trouble to keep their old automobile for emergencies.
And now those automobiles were on the groundway. Jammed together, stopping and starting every few seconds. Their own auto had passed seven accidents already, as well as many automobiles that had broken down from the heat or from old age.
Their auto had crawled along the groundway, inch by inch. The time was well past eight o'clock now, and they hadn't yet reached the turnoff for Hagerstown, much less the skyport to the north of the city.
"No gas," announced Mrs. Allegany, arriving back. "The attendant says the station only carries diesel fuel. However, he dug into the back of his dusty locker and gave me something just as valuable."
"A paper map!" cried Linda, reaching forward to grab it as Mrs. Allegany slid into the auto with her usual grunt; Phillip had already exited the auto in order to hold the door open for her. "I didn't know they made maps on paper anymore."
"That one's from the 1940s," explained Mrs. Allegany. "It's filled with old roads that nobody uses anymore. Still, the map shows the groundway, as well as the airport that existed in Hagerstown before the skyport was built on top of it."
Linda was whispering numbers in her head. She said in a small voice, "I don't think we'll make it in time. We've only been going ten miles an hour. We've still got eleven miles to go, and the rocket leaves at nine o'clock."
"And it may not have room for more passengers by the time we arrive." Mrs. Allegany sighed. "That's the disadvantage of living in the west – so few people here own private jet-cars. I'm sure the crowding is much less at the central and eastern skyports."
"Couldn't we just drive somewhere that's safe from the bombs?" suggested Linda, still poring over the maps as Phillip returned to the driver's seat.
Mrs. Allegany shook her head. "Nowhere in Mip is safe from the bombs. We're such a thin little country, sandwiched between Vovim and Yclau; if a bomb falls on one of those countries' border provinces, then any part of Mip could be within the radiation zone."
"And we don't have enough gas to drive beyond the border provinces." Linda frowned, considering the problem.
Phillip looked through the windshield. Next to the ramp was an old-fashioned, metal sign that said, "Hagerstown Skyport 11 miles. Frederick Skyport 32 miles." He glanced at the map in Linda's hands. Then, with the wheels screeching, he spun onto the road beside the ramp and turned south.
"Young man," said Mrs. Allegany mildly, "you're driving toward Yclau."
Linda, who was still scrutinizing the map, squealed with delight. "No, he isn't! Look! There are all these other roads on the map, besides the groundway. If we follow this one south to the Yclau border and then turn east, we'll reach a road that goes straight to Mip City, where Frederick Skyport is!"
"The National Road." A smile appeared in Mrs. Allegany's eyes. "I haven't been on that road since I was a girl. William used to court me by taking me on week's-break drives to Mip's capital."
"That's where you're headed, isn't it?" Linda turned an eager face toward him.
Phillip kept his gaze fixed firmly on the road they were travelling upon, which looked as though it hadn't been repaired since the groundway was built. Mrs. Allegany put a gentle hand on Linda's arm. "Dear, Mr. Schafer is too ill to speak to us."
"But—" Linda started and then stopped, seeing the expression on Phillip's face. With a smile almost smug, she settled back in her seat. "Okay. How long will it take us to reach Frederick Skyport?"
"—refuges are now overflowing with refugees. With the aid of Mip's Republican Guard, the Red Circle has set up thousands of tents on the lawns of Tupper Lake and Covington. Millions of people have taken refuge in nearby towns. The refugees consist of residents of the crowded border provinces of Vovim and Yclau, the government officials of that kingdom and queendom, and nearly the entire population of the Magisterial Republic of Mip. Mip's government, police, and military have been evacuated from our nation, as have its scientists, technicians, medical workers, businessmen, and reporters. This broadcast is being sent via satellite from Tupper Lake, with additional reports sent to us from our sister station WMIP, which has relocated its operations to Covington. According to the last journalists to evacuate Mip, nobody of importance remains in our republic. Only one rocket remains to transfer the final refugees from Mip, and it will leave in a short time. . . ."
"You haven't spoken for two years?"
Linda's exclamation was soft; Mrs. Allegany was dozing now. Phillip kept a careful eye on the road. Night had fallen, and there were no streetlights along this neglected road.
"Not since my parents moved to the west coast of the continent when I turned seventeen," he whispered. "They were the only people I could ever talk to."
"Except me?" Linda leaned forward, interest written upon her face. "Why me? Is it because I'm young?"
He shook his head slowly. "I don't think so. As far back as I can remember, I knew I was different. Odd. When I first met other children, I knew they would guess I was odd if I spoke. So I didn't. Not to anyone normal. Just my parents, and they left eventually."
Linda considered this as dark clouds passed over the moon's bright face. "I don't live a normal life. Our family doesn't have a holovision or an ultrasonic dishwasher or irradiated foods . . . Nothing that ordinary families have. And I don't know who my daddy was. I guess I'm odd too." She tilted her head to the side as she looked at Phillip. "Why didn't you leave Mip when your parents moved?"
"They didn't want me." He pushed down a lever that flashed a light as he changed lanes. "I overheard them talking about me. I was a horrible burden on them – a boy who never talked, who had to be taught through expensive computer tapes. Having Melinda trained cost my father a year's salary. After that, they couldn't bear me any longer."
"Who is Melinda?"
He explained as he squinted, trying to read the rusted road-signs that gave directions to Mip's capital. The houses along the National Road were decayed, deserted. It was as though the Bomb had already gone off.
Over the murmur of the radio broadcast, Linda said, "My rabbit died too. I cried for a week. Mama said she'd buy me a goldfish, since the fishes survived the sonic weapons, but she never did. I suppose she couldn't afford it. We're awfully poor," she concluded matter-of-factly.
Phillip glanced at Mrs. Allegany. As though reading his mind, Linda said, "The poor, the old, and—" She hesitated.
"The ill," he supplied.
"Right. Our government forgot all about us. It's already moved to Tupper Lake, did you hear?"
All the jet-cars had reached the refuges by now, Phillip guessed. He risked another glance at the clock.
"The turnoff!" Pointing frantically, Linda shouted her warning.
The auto screamed as Phillip skidded it onto the groundway ramp. Startled awake, Mrs. Allegany adjusted her glasses and peered at the clock. "Eight-thirty," she announced. "We might make it – by all that is sacred, we might make it! Where is the capital's skyport?"
None of them knew. It wasn't marked on the map.
"Built after the map was created, I suppose," announced Mrs. Allegany with a sigh. "Let's head for the city park. Someone is bound to be there who can tell us."
More than a few someones were at Baker Park when the auto arrived: old people, sick people, tatter-clothed men and women urging their children along. They were all headed east.
Just at the moment that Phillip and Linda and Mrs. Allegany poured out of the auto, everyone lifted their faces, their bodies bright with light. Thunder roared.
Not until the last refugees had travelled well to the north did Linda speak. "The rocket left early!"
"Probably means the Bomb is coming." These grim words came from an old man, black-skinned and grizzled. His mouth was set hard. Nearby, a group of children began to cry, clinging to their mother's legs. A young man on crutches began to scream in terror.
The air at the north end of the park solidified until it became a giant holovision screen. On top of the screen were the words "Emergency Broadcast System." Below the words was a map with two blips on it, heading in opposite directions.
Through hidden loudspeakers, the radio announcer said, "Vovim's bomb has passed over Mip. Repeat, it has passed beyond the southern border of Mip. Yclau's bomb is passing over Front Royal. . . . It is nearing Mip City. . . ."
Linda took Phillip's hand. Mrs. Allegany put her arm around Linda. There was a faint whoosh above; then it was gone.
"Vovim's bomb has reached Front Royal. . . . . It is passing over. Repeat. Vovim's bomb has passed over Front Royal. Yclau's bomb is nearing Mip's northern border. . . ."
"Thirty miles," murmured a young woman, wiping sweat from her forehead as she held her daughter tight with the other hand. "The bombs just need to be thirty miles from our borders, and we'll be safe from the radiation."
"Vovim's bomb is nearing Waynesboro. . . . It is past Waynesboro. Yclau's bomb has passed Harrisburg—"
"We're safe!" cried someone. "The bombs are too far away to reach us!"
With one voice, the people in the park roared. Linda was crying now, hugging Phillip as all around, people cheered and sobbed and praised their gods.
But when Phillip looked at Mrs. Allegany, he saw she was still watching the screen. She was whispering prayers.
"Quiet!" shouted someone. "Quiet! The bombs—"
"By all that is sacred," murmured the old man near them. "Sweet blood. Sweet, sweet blood."
"Mama." Linda's word was a whimper.
"Vovim's bomb is landing on Covington!" The hysterical voice of the radio announcer could finally be heard. "It's landing on Yclau's refuge! Yclau's bomb is headed toward us at Tupper Lake—!"
Screams could be heard behind the announcer. Then, with a crackle, the broadcast ended. On the mute map, the bombs lit up, destroying most of the population of the Midcoast nations.
"—need help urgently." It was a different voice now, not the voice of a trained radio announcer but the voice of a Red Circle volunteer on a ham radio, her plea diverted by some means into the Emergency Broadcast System. "Thousands of people are dying here. Millions have died. We need doctors, medicine, bedding – send anything you can. This is Nurse Doris Rocketman. Please help us—"
"Most just war that's ever been waged," declared a man nearby. "All the warmongers who started it got killed."
"Oh, how can you say that?" His wife was in tears. "Those poor, poor children who died!"
"They're saying sixty percent of Vovim and Yclau's population may have died," murmured the grizzled man.
"And ninety percent of Mip's," contributed a boy, hanging onto the handlebars of his hovering wheelchair as though he expected the hoverchair to be snatched. "All the farm lab technicians too. How are we going to eat, once we've used up this?" He waved his hands toward the nearby, abandoned shops.
No reckless looting was taking place. The survivors in Mip City, trained from childhood to take on citizen responsibilities at any time, had already formed an emergency government, a police force, and dozens of committees to cope with various aspects of the crisis. Similar measures were occurring in Mip's other cities and towns, they had learned through visiphone conversations.
That virtually none of the survivors left behind had ever held office or served on police forces made no difference. Mippites, having spent their early centuries being constantly invaded by the two larger nations to the north and south of them, were hardy folk.
More than hardiness would be needed in the coming months, Phillip thought as he filled their auto with one of the cans of gasoline that an enterprising committee had taken from the empty skyport. Though most of the survivors here remained calm, it was clear from their expressions that they knew a desperate struggle for existence had begun.
"You'll be careful, won't you?" Her eyes still red after hours of crying, Linda leaned over the hood, watching him anxiously.
He automatically checked to see that nobody else was within hearing; then he nodded. "I'll stay out of Vovim's radiation zone, I promise. But the surviving refugees are going to need this." He waved his hand toward the auto's trunk, which was filled with supplies that the medical committee had removed from the abandoned hospital. All around him, automobiles were revving their engines, preparing to travel north or south as Mippites who had been abandoned heeded the calls for help from the hospital camps set up just outside the radiation zones.
There had been no more bombs. Yclau and Vovim, though they had lost a smaller percentage of their citizens than Mip had, were reeling too heavily from the massive loss of life to consider continuing the now-ended Hydrogen War. Their soldiers had withdrawn from the borders, rushing to help with the recovery of whichever wounded people could be saved from the countryside surrounding the former refuges.
Phillip wondered briefly how he would communicate once he reached Vovim. Linda must have considered this as well, for she burst out, "Let me come! I can be like Melinda, delivering messages from you!"
Phillip shook his head. He could hear the chattering type-bars of the nearby radio teleprinter. Within an hour of the bomb-falls, Vovim's air traffic control had begun releasing names of the drivers and passengers of jet-cars which had reached within the area around Tupper Lake that had been utterly decimated. Linda's mother had been on the list.
Best that Linda not come near the radiation zone and see the horrible suffering of the survivors.
"We'll stick together."
Surprised, Phillip turned to look at Mrs. Allegany. A badge on her gingham dress proclaimed her as a member of the agricultural committee.
She said crisply, "We can't hope that Mip will remain this peaceful for long." She waved her hand toward the citizens energetically organizing relief efforts. "Violence is bound to break out as the food supplies dwindle. I've donated my property to the new government, so that they can try to farm it. We three should stay together, and once we've delivered the medical supplies and helped the hospital camps in any fashion we can, we should find a safe place to live – one that's close to a food supply."
In the silence that followed, Phillip looked upon the survivors around him. Old people, poor people, ill people . . . There wasn't a man or woman or child around him that could in any way be considered normal.
He said to his two new friends, "I grow my own food, and I know how to fish. Come live with me."