This finally seemed to be the right corridor. Blake had never been down to Level 69 before, and everything was unfamiliar, even the forced cheeriness of the local muzak. He'd made a few false turns, and the hostile reception from a red-haired woman whose door he'd buzzed in error had warned him off asking for directions. He hesitated now, even though he was almost certain this was the right door. But there was no reason to be intimidated by someone whose services he was paying for. He hit the buzzer.
The door slid halfway open, before brown fingers appeared round the edge to tug it the rest of the way. The smiling face that greeted Blake's was also tanned, highlighting his white teeth. It was a striking contrast to the usual pallor of Dome-dwellers, and probably signalled someone who'd lived for years off Earth, on planets where it was safe to spend time under the sun.
"Are you Tosh Karat?" asked Blake. "I've come about the boots."
"Ah, you're Roj Blake!" said the man. "Yes, yes, I'm Karat, come in, love."
Blake raised an eyebrow at this endearment - not something he heard very often from his mother, let alone Deltas he'd never met before. He followed Karat into his quarters, which were cramped but unexpectedly colourful, with a patchwork of cloth scraps covering the walls. After tugging the door shut again, the man insisted that he sit on a couch and accept a drink.
"So, you've a journey to make!" said Karat. "Away from Earth, and through the stars... Is it your first time, then?"
"Yes," said Blake, grinning at the prospect, in spite of an uneasy awareness of what must come next.
"Travelling with your mum and dad?"
"No, I'm visiting my uncle."
"And where does he live?"
"Exbar," said Blake defiantly. But Karat showed no sign of recognising the name.
"What does he do there? Farmer? Miner? No, you're Alpha-born... Perhaps he's an administrator, in a new town?"
Hold your head high. "No. Exbar's a penal colony. My uncle's a prisoner there."
Karat nodded, apparently unperturbed. "Where there's law, there's injustice," he said, as if a convict in the family was the sort of accident that might happen to anyone. "He'll be pleased to see someone from home, for sure."
Blake supposed so; Uisdean's vistapes had reminded them a couple of times that grade four offenders were allowed visitors before his sister-in-law suggested they ought to talk about it.
"He can't seriously expect us to drop everything and trek out to some wilderness in the fourth sector," grumbled Kiran Blake. "Even if I could manage a holiday, which I can't, it's the last place I'd want to go."
"It's not about holidays, it's about family," said Wyn. "He's all on his own with that little girl since Ebba died. Imagine trying to bring up Seren in a dump like that!"
"Well, he should have thought of that before losing it with his director. It's entirely my brother's fault he ended up on Exbar, and it could have been somewhere a lot worse if I hadn't got that lawyer to talk the whole thing down. And we offered to take the girl, but he wouldn't have it."
"I could try and get some time off," said Wyn. "I haven't had any for four years, they owe me."
"Things don't work like that, and you know it," said her husband.
"Why don't I go?" asked Roj.
"You? You've your education to think of," said Kiran. "And if any of us went, it would only remind everyone of the whole sordid affair, just when they'd begun to forget it."
"No one who matters round here forgets anything," said Wyn.
"What you should do is say it's to teach me a lesson," suggested Roj. "Tell people you're sending your son to a penal colony to show him what comes of being a hothead."
"That might actually work," said his mother. "Those complaints from the teachers about answering back all the time..."
"Oh, they'll be glad to get rid of me! And they could easily give me one of those distance-learning courses. I'll probably do better, working at my own pace."
"You just think it will be an adventure," said his father.
"Of course it will!" said Roj.
But he noted that Kiran had said "will", not "would be". After a few more hours' argument, and several days' negotiation with the school authorities, a message was sent to Uisdean telling him his elder nephew would arrive on Exbar in a couple of months. In due course, a reply came: "Looking forward to seeing him. Make sure he has warm clothes and a good pair of boots."
"So, you need boots for your big journey," said Karat.
"Yes, I'll be Outside a lot once I get there," said Blake. “But standard issue won't fit, my calves are too big. Someone said you could make boots to order..."
"Yes, indeed, it's easy enough if you've the craft and the leather. I know someone who can get that for me. So," - he knelt down, rather awkwardly - "let's measure these calves, and your feet. You're what, m'dear, eighteen?"
"Big for your age!"
"Yes - oh, what's that?"
A small, four-legged creature - a dog, Blake thought - had emerged from an inner room. It trotted between them, and sniffed his legs, while Karat patted its flank.
"This is Floppy," he said. "Because of her ears."
"But are you allowed..."
Karat laughed. "They say the spaceship captain doesn't check every hatch. Maybe she lived with a rich man once, but she fell through the cracks. I found her lost and wandering, so now she lives with me."
He shooed Floppy off, grabbed a piece of string, and began to measure Blake's calves. In a little while, he said he had all he needed, accepted a down payment and said the boots would be ready in five days.
The next time, Blake found Karat's door quite easily, and was soon walking up and down in the boots to try them out. They weren't quite finished - Karat said he'd left some minor adjustments until he could see how they fitted. He sat on the floor, his left leg stuck out, using what he called a stitching awl to complete the job.
Blake enjoyed watching him at work; it was clearly a highly skilled craft, and the boots already looked the best he'd ever seen.
"Where did you learn this?” he asked.
"Cobbling, m'dear? Back on Pollux-3, before they took me for a soldier."
"So you're not from Earth?"
"It's four generations since my family flew away. The colony was new then, they had plenty to do to make it fit for honest living."
"But you became a soldier?" Blake couldn't quite imagine this amiable man killing anybody.
"They came and said they needed men, one in every ten. And I was the one my family could spare most easily, with no children." Karat shook his head. "I was lucky. I served five years, then I lost half my leg." He tapped his left calf, and from the sound Blake realised it was made of some kind of plastic. "Then they brought me here, and I got work in the water recycling division."
"Did you think about going home?"
"Of course, love! But I'd no money to pay my way - it took years to clear the debt on my leg, even with cobbling on the side." He smiled ruefully. "Back on Pollux, we often wondered what it would be like to see Earth, the mother of us all."
"Don't you like it?"
"In all these years, I've never really seen her, m'dear! We might as well be on a spaceship," said Karat. "In space it's night all day, we used to say; you have to land to see daylight. But here, it's the same, night and day. Nothing to tell you what time it is except that voice in the corridor; on and on she goes. There, that's done, try it on again."
Blake walked a few paces. "Yes, that's perfect. I've never had shoes that felt so comfortable." He put his hand in his pocket for the money. "I'd like to pay more, they're worth it, but I've only got what we agreed..."
Karat looked pleased. "That's fine, love, it's always good to work with my old tools again." He took the money and put it in a box.
Blake was looking round. "Where's Floppy today?"
"Oh, she's gone."
"Gone? You mean she ran off?"
"No, a neighbour heard her and reported it, and the local security officer took her away. I shouldn't have had her here really."
"It doesn't seem fair," said Blake. "She wasn't doing any harm, and she seemed very quiet." Although pets were a privilege for the elite, he could see how Floppy would have been a comfort to a man so far from home and family. "What did they do with her?"
Karat shrugged. "Who can say? But it may be for the best, it was no life for a dog here, shut indoors with nowhere to run and stale air to breathe. Not much of a life for a man, either." He looked at Blake with sudden curiosity. "What did your uncle do, love?"
"Do? His crime, you mean? He... headbutted his boss."
Karat nodded, as he'd done when he first heard about Uisdean, and again conveyed the sense that there was nothing so very shameful about it, after all.
"Thanks so much for the boots," Blake said. Then, on impulse, he added "Would you like me to come and tell you about the trip, when I get back?"
The man's face lit up. "That's a kind thought, love, I'd like that!" They shook hands and said goodbye.
It was seven months later when Blake returned. The door opened smoothly, and a grey-faced man stared out at him.
"Oh... I'm sorry, have I got the wrong place? I'm looking for Tosh Karat."
The door shut.
Blake hesitated, then turned away. As he did so, a door on the other side of the corridor slid open, and an elderly woman peered out. He looked at her warily, wondering if she was the neighbour who had reported Floppy.
"You looking for Karat?" she muttered.
"Yes. Where is he?"
She glanced round, nervously. "They arrested him. Took him away, don't know where."
Blake lowered his voice. "Arrested? Why?"
"Someone said he slapped the supervisor. And then, of course, they searched his room and found he'd been carrying on an illegal business."
"It was hardly a business, surely - just a few jobs..." Blake was horrified by the idea that he'd contributed to Karat’s downfall.
"I wouldn't have told them," she asserted. Then, "Are you the boy?"
"I heard them take him. Didn't risk looking out. He was shouting, not angry, like, but so as we'd hear - 'If the boy comes back, tell him his uncle showed me the way.' D'you know what that was about?"
Blake frowned. "Maybe. Thank you." She closed her door, and he walked back down the corridor.
"His uncle showed me the way." And Karat had committed practically the same crime as Uisdean. Had it worked? Blake would probably never know; he had learned enough to realise it would be unwise to make enquiries, and there was nothing he could do to help. But maybe Karat had found the only way to get off Earth without paying a fare he couldn't afford, however many boots he made. It wouldn't have taken him home, but maybe a penal colony was the closest he could get: a planet where he could work Outside, breathe in the open air - as Blake had now done - even find some small animal to care for. Maybe, on his own terms, Karat was now free.