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Title: The Air of Castor Oil
Author: Harmon, Jim
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "The Air of Castor Oil" ***

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                         THE AIR OF CASTOR OIL

                             BY JIM HARMON

                         Illustrated by WALKER

           [Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
                     Galaxy Magazine August 1961.
         Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
         the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]



                   Let the dead past bury its dead?
                    Not while I am alive, it won't!


It surely was all right for me to let myself do it now. I couldn't have
been more safe. In the window of the radio store a color television
set was enjoying a quiz by itself and creased in my pocket was the
newspaper account of the failure of a monumental human adventure in the
blooming extinction of a huge rocket. The boys on the corner seemed
hardly human, scowling anthropoids in walrus-skin coats. It was my own
time. Anybody could see I was safe, and I could risk doing what I ached
to do.

I turned the corner.

The breaks were against me from the start. It didn't come as any
surprise. I could never get away with it. I knew that all along.

There was a Packard parked just beyond the fire plug.

The metal and glass fronts of the buildings didn't show back here, only
seasoned brick glued with powdering chalk. The line of the block seemed
to stretch back, ever further away from the glossy fronts into the
crumbling stone.

A man brushed past me, wearing an Ivy League suit and snap-brim hat,
carrying a briefcase. And, reassuringly, he was in a hurry.

I decided to chance it. I certainly wanted to do it in the worst way.

My footsteps carried me on down the block.

A little car spurted on past me. One of those foreign jobs, I decided.
Only it wasn't. I fixed the silhouette in my mind's eye and identified
it. A Henry J.

Still, I wasn't worried. It was actually too early in the day. It
wasn't as if it were evening or anything like that.

The little store was right where I left it, rotting quietly to itself.
The Back Number Store, the faded circus poster proclaimed in red and
gold, or now, pink and lemon. In the window, in cellophane envelopes,
were the first issue of _Life_, a recent issue of _Modern Man_ with
a modern woman fronting it, a Big Big Book of _Buck Rogers and the
Silver Cities of Venus_, and a brand-new, sun-bleached copy of _Doctor
Zhivago_.

There was a little car at the curb. This time I recognized that it
wasn't an import, just a Crosley.

I went in, the brass handle making me conscious of the sweat on my palm.

       *       *       *       *       *

The old man sat behind a fortress of magazines and books, treacherously
reading the funnies in a newspaper. His bald head swiveled on the
hunched shoulders of his sweater which was azuring toward white. He
grinned, toothless.

"Came back for more of the stuff, did you?"

He laid down the newspaper. (That subheadline couldn't really be
making so nasty a suggestion to a noted general, could it?)

"Yes," I laughed, not very true.

"I know what a craving can be. I shouldn't smoke, but I do. I've tried
to stop but I lie there thinking about cigarettes half the night. Long
ones, short ones, smoked ones, ones unlit. I feel like I could smoke
one in each hand. It like that with you?"

"Not that bad. To me it's just--"

"Don't tell me reading isn't a craving with some of you fellows. I've
seen guys come in here, hardly two threads stuck together on them, and
grab up them horror magazines and read and read, until sweat starts
rolling off the end of their nose. I've hardly got the heart to throw
'em out."

Horror magazines. Ones with lovely girls about to have their flesh
shredded by toothy vampires. Yes, they were a part of it. Not a big
part, but a part.

"That's not what I want to see. I want--"

The old man snickered. "I know what you want. Indeed I do. This way."

I followed his spidering hand and sure enough, there they were. Stacks
upon stacks of air-war pulp magazines.

"Fifteen cents for ones in good condition," the old man pronounced the
ritual, "a dime for ones with incomplete covers, three for a quarter,
check 'em at the desk when you go."

I ran my hand down a stack. _Wings_, _Daredevil Aces_, _G-8 and his
Battle Aces_, _The Lone Eagle_, all of them.

The old man was watching me. He skittered back across the floor and
snatched up a magazine. It was a copy of _Sky Fighters_ with a girl in
a painted-on flying suit hanging from the struts of a Tiger Moth.

"This one, this one," he said. "This must be a good one. I bet she
gets shoved right into that propeller there. I bet she gets chopped to
pieces. Pieces."

"I'll take it."

Reluctantly he handed over the magazine, waited a moment, then left me.

I stared at the stacks of flying story magazines and I felt the slow
run of the drop of sweat down my nose.

My sickness was terrible. It is as bad to be nostalgic for things
you have never known as for an orphan who has never had a home to be
homesick.

       *       *       *       *       *

Living in the past, that was always me. I never watched anything on TV
made later than 1935. I was in love with Garbo, Ginger Rogers, Dolores
del Rio. My favorite stars were Richard Dix, Chester Morris and Richard
Arlen.

The music I listened to was Gershwin and Arlen and Chicago jazz.

And my reading was the pulp literature harking back to the First World
War. This was the biggest part of it all, I think.

You identify with the hero of any story if it's well enough written.
But the identification I felt with the pilots in air-war stories was
plainly ridiculous.

I was there.

I was in the saddle of the cockpit, feeling on my face the bite of the
slipstream--no, that was a later term--the prop-wash?--no, that was
still later--the backlash from the screw, that was it. I was lifting
to meet the Fokker triplanes in the dawn sky. Then in a moment my
Vickers was chattering in answer to Spandaus, firing through the screw
outfitted with iron edges to deflect bullets that did not pass to the
left and right. And back through the aerial maps in the cockpit pocket
at my knee.

Here he comes, the Spandaus firing right through the screw in perfect
synchronization. Look at that chivalrous wave. You can almost see the
dueling scar on his cheek from old Krautenberg. He can afford to be
chivalrous in that Fokker. I'd like to trade this skiddoo for it. That
may be just what I do too if I don't watch it.

You ain't any Boelcke, mister, but this is from the Fifth for Squadron
70.

Missed!

Hard on that rudder! God, look at the snake in that fabric. At least it
was a lie about them using incendiaries.

One of your own tricks for you, Heinie. Up on the stick, up under your
tail, into the blind spot. Where am I? Where am I? _Right here._

Look at that tail go. Tony can't be giving you as good stuff as he
claims.

So long. I'm waving, see.

He's pulling her up. No tail and he's pulling her up. He's a good man.
Come on. A little more. A little more and you can deadstick her. Come
on, buddy. You're doing it. You're pulling her up--

But not enough.

God, what a mess.

I'm sick.

That damned castor oil in the carburetor. I'll be in the W. C. until
oh-six-hundred....

       *       *       *       *       *

No, the air wasn't one of castor oil but the pleasant smell of aged
paper and printer's ink.

I'd been daydreaming again. I shouldn't forget things were getting
different lately. It was becoming dangerous.

I gathered up an armload of air-war magazines at random.

Leaning across the table, I noticed the curtain in back for the first
time. It was a beaded curtain of many different colors. Theda Bara
might have worn it for a skirt. Behind the curtain was a television
set. It was a comforting anti-anachronism here.

The six- or eight-inch picture was on a very flat tube, a more
pronounced Predicta. The size and the flatness didn't seem to go
together. Then I saw that the top part of the set was a mirror
reflecting an image from the roof of the cabinet where the actual
picture tube lay flat.

There was an old movie on the channel. An old, old movie. Lon Chaney,
Sr., in a western as a badman. He was protecting a doll-faced blonde
from the rest of the gang, standing them off from a grove of rocks. The
flickering action caught my unblinking eyes.

Tom Santschi is sneaking across the top of the rocks, a knife in his
dirty half-breed hand. Raymond Hatton makes a try for his old boss, but
Chaney stops his clock for him. Now William Farnum is riding up with
the posse. Tom makes a try with the knife, the girl screams, and Chaney
turns the blade back on him. It goes through his neck, all the way
through.

The blonde is running toward Farnum as he polishes off the rest of the
gang and dismounts, her blouse shredded, revealing one breast--is
that the dawn of Bessie Love? Chaney stands up in the rocks. Farnum
aims his six-shooter. No, no, say the girl's lips. "No!" "No!" says
the subtitle. Farnum fires. Swimming in blood, Chaney smiles sadly and
falls.

I had seen movies like that before.

When I was a kid, I had seen _Flicker Flashbacks_ between chapters of
Flash Gordon and Johnny Mack Brown westerns. I looked at old movies and
heard the oily voice making fun of them. But hadn't I also seen these
pictures with the sound of piano playing and low conversation?

I had seen these pictures before the war.

The war had made a lot of difference in my life.

Comic books were cut down to half their size, from 64 to 32 pages, and
prices had gone up to where you had to pay $17 for a pair of shoes, so
high that people said Wilson should do something about it.

Tom Mix had gone off the air and he and his Cowboy Commandos beat the
Japs in comic books. Only, hadn't he sold Liberty Bonds with Helen
Morgan?

And at school I had bought
Defense--War--Savings--Security--Liberty--Freedom--I had bought stamps
at school. I never did get enough to trade in for a bond, but Mama had
taken my book and traded parts of it in for coffee. She could never get
enough coffee....

"Nobody would look at my magazines," the old man chuckled, "if I put it
out front. My boy got me that. He runs a radio and Victrola store. A
good boy. His name's in the fishbowl."

I pressed some money on him and walked myself out of the store.
Shutting the door, I saw that the copy of _Doctor Zhivago_ had been
replaced by _Gone With the Wind_.

       *       *       *       *       *

The street was full of wooden-paneled station wagons, blunt little
roadsters with canvas tops, swept-back, tailless sedans. Only one dark,
tailed, over-thyroided car moved through the traffic. It had a light on
the roof.

I dodged in front of a horse-drawn garbage wagon and behind an electric
postal truck and ran for that light, leaving a trail of gaudy air
battles checkering the street behind me.

I grabbed the handle on the door, opened it and threw myself into the
back seat.

"Madison Avenue," I said from my diaphragm, without any breath behind
it.

Something was wrong. Two men were in the front seat. The driver showed
me his hard, expressionless face. "What do you think you are doing?"

"This isn't a taxicab?" I asked blankly.

"Park Police."

I sat there while we drove on for a few minutes.

"D. & D.," the second man said to the driver.

"Right into our laps."

The second officer leaned forward and clicked something. "I'll get the
City boys."

"No, kill it, Carl. Think of all that damned paper work."

Carl shrugged. "What will we do with him?"

I was beginning to attach myself to my surroundings. The street was
full of traffic. My kind of traffic. Cars that were too big or too
small.

"Look, officers, I'm not drunk or disorderly. I thought this was a cab.
I just wanted to get away from back then--I mean back _there_."

The two policemen exchanged glances.

"What were you running from?" the driver asked.

How could I tell him that?

Before I even got a chance to try, he said: "What did you do?"

"I didn't _do_ anything!"

The car was turning, turning into shadows, stopping. We were in an
alley. Soggy newspapers, dead fish, prowling cats, a broken die, half
a dice, looking big in the frame of my thick, probably bullet-proof
window.

The men opened their doors and then mine.

"Out."

       *       *       *       *       *

I climbed out and stood by the car, blinking.

"You were causing some kind of trouble in that neighborhood back
there," the driver announced.

"Really, officers--"

"What's your name?"

"Hilliard Turner. There--"

"We don't want you going back there again, Turner, causing trouble.
Understand?"

"Officer, I only bought some books--I mean magazines."

"These?" the second man, Carl, asked. He had retrieved them from the
back seat. "Look here, Sarge. They look pretty dirty."

Sarge took up the _Sky Fighters_ with the girl in the elastic flying
suit. "Filth," he said.

"You know about the laws governing pornography, Turner."

"Those aren't pornography and they are my property!"

I reached for them and Carl pulled them back, grinning. "You don't want
to read these. They aren't good for you. We're confiscating them."

"Look here, I'm a citizen! You can't--"

Carl shoved me back a little. "Can't we?"

Sarge stepped in front of me, his face in deadly earnest. "How about
it, Turner? You a narcotics user?"

He grabbed my wrist and started rolling up my sleeve to look for needle
marks. I twisted away from him.

"Resisting an officer," Sarge said almost sadly.

At that, Carl loped up beside him.

The two of them started to beat me.

They hit clean, in the belly and guts, but not in the groin. They gave
me clean white flashes of pain, instead of angry, red-streaked ones.
I didn't fight back, not against the two of them. I knew that much. I
didn't even try to block their blows. I stood with my arms at my sides,
leaning back against the car, and hearing myself grunt at each blow.

They stood away from me and let me fold helplessly to the greasy brick.

"Stay away from that neighborhood and stay out of trouble," Sarge's
voice said above me.

I looked up a little bit and saw an ugly, battered hand thumbing across
a stack of half a dozen magazines like a giant deck of cards.

"Why don't you take up detective stories?" he asked me.

I never heard the squad car drive away.

       *       *       *       *       *

Home. I lighted the living room from the door, looked around for
intruders for the first time I could remember, and went inside.

I threw myself on the couch and rubbed my stomach. I wasn't hurt badly.
My middle was going to be sorer in the morning than it was now.

Lighting up a cigarette, I watched the shapes of smoke and tried to
think.

I looked at it objectively, forward and back.

The solution was obvious.

First of all, I positively could _not_ have been an aviator in World
War One. I was in my mid-twenties; anybody could tell that by looking
at me. The time was the late 'Fifties; anybody could tell that from
the blank-faced Motorola in the corner, the new Edsels on the street.
Memories of air combat in Spads and Nieuports stirred in me by old
magazines, Quentin Reynolds, and re-runs of _Dawn Patrol_ on television
were mere hallucinations.

Neither could I remember drinking bootleg hooch in speak-easies,
hearing Floyd Gibbons announce the Dempsey-Tunney fight, or paying
$3.80 to get into the first run of _Gone with the Wind_.

Only ... I probably had seen GWTW. Hadn't I gone with my mother to a
matinee? Didn't she pay 90¢ for me? So how could I remember taking a
girl, brunette, red sweater, Cathy, and paying $3.80 each? I couldn't.
Different runs. That was it. The thing had been around half a dozen
times. But would it have been $3.80 no more than ten years ago?

I struck up a new cigarette.

The thing I must remember, I told myself, was that my recollections
were false and unreliable. It would do me no good to keep following
these false memories in a closed curve.

I touched my navel area and flinched. The beating, I was confident, had
been real. But it had been a nightmare. Those cops couldn't have been
true. They were a small boy's bad dream about symbolized authority.
They were keeping me from re-entering the past where I belonged,
punishing me to make me stay in my trap of the present.

Oh, God.

I rolled over on my face and pushed it into the upholstery.

That was the worst part of it. False memories, feelings of persecution,
that was one thing. Believing that you are actively caught up in a
mixture of the past with the present, a Daliesque viscosity of reality,
was something else.

I needed help.

Or if there was no help for me, it was my duty to have myself placed
where I couldn't harm other consumers.

If there was one thing that working for an advertising agency had
taught me, it was social responsibility.

I took up the phone book and located several psychiatrists. I selected
one at random, for no particular reason.

Dr. Ernest G. Rickenbacker.

I memorized the address and heaved myself to my feet.

       *       *       *       *       *

The doctor's office was as green as the inside of a mentholated
cigarette commercial.

The cool, lovely receptionist told me to wait and I did, tasting mint
inside my mouth.

After several long, peaceful minutes the inner door opened.

"Mr. Turner, I can't seem to find any record of an appointment for you
in Dr. Rickenbacker's files," the man said.

I got to my feet. "Then I'll come back."

He took my arm. "No, no, I can fit you in."

"I didn't have an appointment. I just came."

"I understand."

"Maybe I had better go."

"I won't hear of it."

I could have pulled loose from him, but somehow I felt that if I did
try to pull away, the grip would tighten and I would never get away.

I looked up into that long, hard, blank face that seemed so recently
familiar.

"I'm Dr. Sergeant," he said. "I'm taking care of Dr. Rickenbacker's
practice for him while he is on vacation."

I nodded. What I was thinking could only be another symptom of my
illness.

He led me inside and closed the door.

The door made a strange sound in closing. It didn't go _snick-bonk_; it
made a noise like _click-clack-clunk_.

"Now," he said, "would you like to lie down on the couch and tell
me about it? Some people have preconceived ideas that I don't want
to fight with at the beginning. Or, if you prefer, you can sit
there in front of my desk and tell me all about it. Remember, I'm a
psychiatrist, a doctor, not just a psychoanalyst."

I took possession of the chair and Sergeant faced me across his desk.

"I feel," I said, "that I am caught up in some kind of time travel."

"I see. Have you read much science fiction, Mr. Turner?"

"Some. I read a lot. All kinds of books. Tolstoi, Twain, Hemingway,
Luke Short, John D. MacDonald, Huxley."

"You should _read_ them instead of live them. Catharsis. Sublimate, Mr.
Turner. For instance, to a certain type of person, I often recommend
the mysteries of Mickey Spillane."

I seemed to be losing control of the conversation. "But this time
travel...."

"Mr. Turner, do you really believe in 'time travel'?"

"No."

"Then how can there be any such thing? It can't be real."

"I know that! I want to be cured of imagining it."

"The first step is to utterly renounce the idea. Stop thinking about
the past. Think of the future."

"How did you know I keep slipping back into the past?" I asked.

       *       *       *       *       *

Sergeant's hands were more expressive than his face. "You mentioned
time travel...."

"But not to the past or to the future," I said.

"But you did, Mr. Turner. You told me all about thinking you could go
into the past by visiting a book store where they sold old magazines.
You told me how the intrusion of the past got worse with every visit."

I blinked. "I did? I did?"

"Of course."

I stood up. "I did not!"

"Please try to keep from getting violent, Mr. Turner. People like you
actually have more control over themselves than you realize. If you
_will_ yourself to be calm...."

"I _know_ I didn't tell you a thing about the Back Number Store. I'm
starting to think I'm not crazy at all. You--you're trying to do
something to me. You're all in it together."

Sergeant shook his head sadly.

I realized how it all sounded.

"Good--GOD!" I moaned.

I put my hands to my face and I felt the vein over my left eye
swelling, pulsing.

Through the bars of my fingers I saw Sergeant motion me down with one
eloquent hand. I took my hands away--I didn't like looking through
bars--and sat down.

"Now," Sergeant said, steepling his fingers, "I know of a completely
nice place in the country. Of course, if you respond properly...."

Those hands of his.

There was something about them that wasn't so. They might have been the
hands of a corpse, or a doll....

I lurched across the desk and grabbed his wrist.

"_Please_, Mr. Turner! violence will--"

My fingers clawed at the backs of his hands and my nails dragged off
ugly strips of some theatrical stuff--collodion, I think--that had
covered the scrapes and bruises he had taken hammering away at me and
my belt buckle.

Sergeant.

Sarge.

I let go of him and stood away.

For the first time, Sergeant smiled.

I backed to the door and turned the knob behind my back. It wouldn't
open.

I turned around and rattled it, pulled on it, braced my foot against
the wall and tugged.

"Locked," Sergeant supplied.

He was coming toward me, I could tell. I wheeled and faced him. He had
a hypodermic needle. It was the smallest one I had ever seen and it had
an iridescence or luminosity about it, a gleaming silver dart.

I closed with him.

       *       *       *       *       *

By the way he moved, I knew he was used to physical combat, but you
can't win them all, and I had been in a lot of scraps when I had been
younger. (Hadn't I?)

I stepped in while he was trying to decide whether to use the hypo on
me or drop it to have his hands free. I stiff-handed him in the solar
plexus and crossed my fist into the hollow of the apex arch of his
jawbone. He dropped.

I gave him a kick at the base of his spine. He grunted and lay still.

There was a rapping on the door. "Doctor? Doctor?"

I searched through his pockets. He didn't have any keys. He didn't
have any money or identification or a gun. He had a handkerchief and a
ballpoint pen.

The receptionist had moved away from the door and was talking to
somebody, in person or on the phone or intercom.

There wasn't any back door.

I went to the window. The city stretched out in an impressive panorama.
On the street below, traffic crawled. There was a ledge. Quite a wide,
old-fashioned ornamental ledge.

The ledge ran beneath the windows of all the offices on this floor. The
fourteenth, I remembered.

I had seen it done in movies all my life. Harold Lloyd, Douglas
Fairbanks, Buster Keaton were always doing it for some reason or other.
I had a good reason.

I unlatched the window and climbed out into the dry, crisp breeze.

The movies didn't know much about convection. The updraft nearly lifted
me off the ledge, but the cornice was so wide I could keep out of the
wind if I kept myself flat against the side of the building.

The next window was about twenty feet away. I had covered half that
distance, moving my feet with a sideways crab motion, when Carl,
indisputably the second policeman, put his head out of the window
where I was heading and pointed a .38 revolver at me, saying in a
let's-have-no-foolishness tone: "Get in here."

I went the other way.

The cool, lovely receptionist was in Sergeant's window with the tiny
silver needle in readiness.

I kept shuffling toward the girl. I had decided I would rather wrestle
with her over the needle than fight Carl over the rod. Idiotically, I
smiled at that idea.

I slipped.

I was falling down the fourteen stories without even a moment of
windmilling for balance. I was just gone.

Lines were converging, and I was converging on the lines.

You aren't going to be able to Immelmann out of this dive, Turner.
Good-by, Turner.

Death.

A sleep, a reawakening, a lie. It's nothing like that. It's nothing.

The end of everything you ever were or ever could be.

I hit.

My kneecap hurt like hell. I had scraped it badly.

Reality was all over me in patches. I showed through as a line
drawing, crudely done, a cartoon.

Some kind of projection. High-test Cinerama, that was all reality meant.

I was kneeling on a hard surface no more than six feet from the window
from which I had fallen. It was still fourteen flights up, more or
less, but _Down_ was broken and splattered over me.

I stood up, moving forward a step.

It brought me halfway through the screen, halfway through the wall at
the base of the building. The other side of the screen. The solid side,
I found, stepping through, bracing a hand on the image.

Looking up fourteen floors, I saw an unbroken line of peacefully closed
panes.

       *       *       *       *       *

I remembered riding up in the elevator, the moments inside, the faint
feeling of vertigo. Of course, who was to say the elevator really
moved? Maybe they had only switched scenery on me while I was caught
inside, listening to the phony hum, seeing the flashing lights. Either
cut down or increase the oxygen supply inside the cubicle suddenly and
that would contribute a sensation of change, of movement. They had it
all worked out.

My fingers rubbed my head briskly, both hands working, trying to get
some circulation in my brain.

I guessed I had to run. There didn't seem much else to do.

I ran.

Get help?

Not this old lady and her daughter. Not this Neanderthal sailor on his
way to a bar and a blonde. Not the bookkeeper. Maybe the car salesman,
ex-Army, Lions Club member, beefy, respectable, well-intentioned, not
a complete fool. The guy on the corner reading a newspaper by the bus
stop.

"I need help," I panted to him. "Somebody's trying to kidnap me."

"Really makes you sick to hear about something like that, doesn't it?"
he said. "I'm in favor of the Lindbergh Law myself."

"I'm not sure whether--"

"This heat is murder, isn't it? Especially here in these concrete
canyons. Sometimes I wish I was back in Springfield. Cool, shaded
streets...."

"Listen to me! These people, they're conspiring against me, trying to
drive me insane! Two men, a girl--"

"For my money, Marilyn Monroe is _the_ doll of the world. I just don't
understand these guys who say she hasn't got class. She gets class by
satirizing girls without any...."

He was like anybody you might talk to on the street. I knew what he
would say if I cued him with "baseball" or "Russia" instead of the key
words I had used.

I should have known better, but I wanted to touch him in some way, make
him know I was alive. I grabbed him and shook him by the shoulders, and
there was a whoosh and as I might have expected he collapsed like the
insubstantiality he was.

There was a stick figure of a man left before me, an economical
skeleton supporting the shell of a human being and two-thirds of a
two-trouser suit.

Hide.

I went into the first shop I came to--Milady's Personals.

Appropriately, it was a false front.

A neutral-colored gray surface, too smooth for concrete, stretched away
into some shadows. The area was littered with trash.

Cartons, bottles, what looked like the skin of a dehydrated human
being--obviously, on second thought, only the discarded skin of one of
the things like the one I had deflated.

And a moldering pile of letters and papers.

Something caught my eye and I kicked through them. Yes, the letter I
had written to my brother in Sioux Falls, unopened. _And which he had
answered._

My work.

The work I had done at the agency, important, creative work. There
was my layout, the rough of the people with short, slim glasses, the
parents, children, grandparents, the caption: Vodka is a Part of the
American Tradition.

All of it lying here to rot.

Something made me look away from that terrible trash.

Sergeant stood in the entrance of Milady's, something bright in his
hand.

Something happened.

I had been wrong.

The shining instrument had not been a hypodermic needle.

       *       *       *       *       *

"You're tough," Sergeant said as I eased back into focus.

"You aren't, not without help," I told him in disgust.

"Spunky, aren't you? I meant mental toughness. That's the one thing
we can never judge. I think you could have taken the shock right from
the start. Of course, you would still have needed the conditioning to
integrate properly."

"Conditioning? Conditioning?" It came out of me, vortexing up, outside
of my piloting. "What have you done to my mind?"

"We've been trying to get it to grow back up," Sergeant said
reasonably. "Think of this. Fountain of Youth. Immortality.
Rejuvenation. This is it. Never mind how it works. Most minds can't
stand being young and knowing they will have to go through the same
damned thing all over again. We use synapse-shift to switch your upper
conscious memories to your id and super-ego, leaving room for new
memories. You remember only those things out of the past you _have_ to,
to retain your identity."

"Identity," I repeated. "I have no identity. My identity is a dream. I
have two identities--one of them years beyond the other."

Sergeant tilted his head and his eyes at me and slapped me across the
face. "Don't go back on me now. We gave you the best we could. The
Rejuvenation Service couldn't help it if you were too old for a _beta_.
You shouldn't have waited until you were so old, so very old. We used
the very oldest sets and mock-ups we had for _betas_, but you, you had
to keep wandering onto _alpha_ territory, while they were striking
sets, even. _Beta_ or not, we gave you good service. Don't slip now."

I heard the voice and I heard another voice, and it said "What could
you expect of a _beta_?" and they were only some of the voices I was
hearing, and I wondered what you could expect from a _beta_, and I
didn't know, or think that I would ever know.





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