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´╗┐Title: Escape Mechanism
Author: Fritch, Charles E.
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 "Escape Mechanism" ***

This book is indexed by ISYS Web Indexing system to allow the reader find any word or number within the document.



                           ESCAPE MECHANISM

                         BY CHARLES E. FRITCH

                    _Being a world unto one's self
                    is lonely. Even the poor amoeba
                  creature from Venus knew that...._

           [Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
               Worlds of If Science Fiction, April 1955.
         Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
         the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]


She found herself floating again in that strange half-familiar world
of murky fluid where only she existed. The liquid was all around her,
pressing gently on all sides with a force that cushioned but did not
restrain. It was a pleasant sensation, a calming one; the cares of the
outside world were non-existent and therefore meaningless.

She drifted, unhampered by the fluid. There seemed to be no direction
but outward. Her thoughts went out and they returned with impressions.

This was her world and she was the center of it. It pleased her to
think this. It was an alien pleasure that was mental and without
physical counterpart.

There was quiet, stillness, a peace she had never known. The fluid
flowed about her like a great silent sea that held no sound, no
movement.

It seemed natural that she should be here.

She was content.

       *       *       *       *       *

At the accustomed time, the autohypnotics in Miss Abby Martin's body
forced her to the threshold of consciousness and cleared her brain of
the fog of sleep. Slowly, she opened her eyes to the morning brightness
of her bedroom and stared at the vacant skylight and the blue expanse
of sky beyond it, not quite comprehending where she was. The cloudfoam
cushions of her bed gave credence to the floating sensation she had had
during her dream, and for a few seconds she lacked orientation.

Then her eyes wandered about the room, to the closed door of the
raybath stall, the retracted dressing table, the chronometer label that
told her it was March 14, 2123 at thirty seconds past 0700 hours. The
subtle intonation of her favorite music, Czerdon's "Maze of Crystal"
murmured softly from the walls.

Awareness came then, and she lay back on the bed and tried to follow
the intricate crystal melodies. But a frown ridged her brow, and she
wondered at the strange dream instead. She had found it pleasant
enough, for she rather enjoyed the languid floating sensation, the
feeling of being self-sufficient, a world unto herself. Yet the very
fact of the dream's existence in a world where such things were
manufactured disturbed her, for she had taken no dreampills the night
before, nor at any of the other times the dream had come. The incident
made her almost wish that witchdoctor psychiatrics had not been
outlawed twenty years ago, so she might get some inkling of the dream's
meaning; but psychiatrists had been pulled forcibly from the web of
society when mental derangements were put under the jurisdiction of the
Somaticists.

Overhead, a rocket thundered, shaking the house with a gentle hand,
and Abby turned her attention to the sound, momentarily forgetting
the dream. Through the one-way skylight, she saw a speck of light
accelerate beyond vision. She shook her head impatiently.

Rush, rush, rush--that was all people seemed to think about these days.
Go to the Moon, go to Mars, go to Venus. In time they might go to the
outer planets and perhaps even try to reach the stars. As though they
didn't have enough trouble right here on Earth! All they did, it
seemed, was hunt down poor beasts from the various planets and bring
them back to Earth to put in cages and tanks on display, ostensibly to
"learn more of the planets by studying their inhabitants." To Abby, it
seemed cruel and unnecessary.

Like that poor amoeba creature from Venus, she thought, remembering
the day last week when she and her niece Linda had visited the zoo
to see this latest acquisition. It was a creature captured from the
giant oceans of the second planet, a giant amoeba encased in a large
transparent tank of murky fluid for paying visitors to see. The
creature was supposed to be primitively telepathic, but it seemed
harmless enough. Abby found herself sympathizing with it, and it
seemed to her at the time that the creature felt this sympathy and
was grateful for it. For a brief moment she even had fancied that the
Venusian's mind had reached out to her, probing with gentle fingers of
thought.

She shook her head at that. Here in the calm clear light of day
diffused through the one-way skylight, the anthropomorphic notion was
ridiculous; and she mentally chided herself for contemplating such
things.

"I must be getting old," she told herself aloud.

In the next thought, she reminded herself that thirty-nine years was
not old at all, and in the thought that followed, scolded herself for
bothering to defend a statement so obviously rhetorical.

The chronometer ticked silently to 0701, and sighing, Abby rose from
the bed and slipped from the translucent one-piece pajamas to stand
nude in the center of the bedroom. At a sudden thought she glanced
quickly about the room, for she had the strange uncomfortable feeling
that someone was watching her. It was impossible, of course, but she
felt ill-at-ease just the same, and a blush of embarrassment stole over
her at the thought. The feeling of shameful nakedness persisted even in
the raybath stall, and it was a relief to dress and hurry downstairs,
routing the unaccountable ideas from her mind.

As usual, Gretchen had busily cleaned the house during the night,
silently raying germs and dirt out of existence, and had a warm
steaming breakfast-for-two ready by the time Abby had descended the
escalator to the dining room.

"Good morning, Gretchen," Abby said.

"Good morning, Ma'm," Gretchen's mechanical voice agreed tonelessly.
The robot-maid continued monotonously, "The day will be clear and
sunny, with a high of 79 degrees Fahrenheit by 1300 hours--"

"That will be all, Gretchen," Abby interrupted sternly, not interested
in facts of temperature and humidity given so mercilessly.

"Yes, Ma'm," Gretchen said obligingly. She turned and went to her
closet until she would be needed again.

Abby watched her disappear around a corner and frowned. Sometimes, she
thought, the mechanical age could be too mechanical. A simple good
morning--

"Good morning, Aunt Abby," Linda said, bounding into sight.

"Good morning, Linda," Abby replied, smiling at the girl's energy. It
reminded her of when she was seventeen. "Don't rush your breakfast,
dear, you've plenty of time to get to school."

"Yes, Aunt Abby," Linda said, rushing her breakfast. "We're going on a
field trip today," she volunteered between gulps of milk. "To the zoo
to see the amoebaman from Venus."

Abby smiled. "Amoeba_man_?" she questioned. "Couldn't it just as easily
be an amoeba_woman_?"

"Amoebas don't have sex differences," Linda said matter-of-factly. "We
just call it an amoebaman as a sort of classification because it seems
intelligent."

She finished her meal and dashed across the room. "See you later, Aunt
Abby." The door whirred open and shut.

       *       *       *       *       *

Abby went to the window to watch her, sorry she had brought up the
subject of sex classification; yet the question had started out
harmlessly enough.... Waiting outside, a boy stood on an island among
moving metal sidewalks. Abby recognized him as one who had 'vised Linda
very often on questions of homework. At Linda's approach his eyes took
new life, and he laughed a greeting. Together, they stepped onto a
sidewalk and slowly wound from sight, their hands interlocked. Abby
shook her head disapprovingly; this would have to be discouraged. Linda
was much too young to have boyfriends. She shook her head. The younger
generation never seemed to move slowly--they rushed their lives away.

       *       *       *       *       *

That afternoon, Abby sat at the broad one-way windows and watched the
cars and aircabs zooming overhead like frightened hornets. Suddenly,
she wondered where Dr. Gower was these days. Generally he televised her
once in a while or dropped in to chat occasionally, and it pleased her
that he did. He was her only male companion these days.

That's the way with men, she thought bitterly, nodding to herself, as
you grow old, they lose interest in you. Love cannot be founded on a
physical basis.

The thought of physical intimacy disturbed her, and she thrust it
aside. One thing was certain, above all else: she was determined to
protect Linda to the best of her ability, even as she had protected
herself.

"Thank goodness for Linda," she thought. "If it weren't for her...."

She let the thought hang uncontemplated, for she _did_ have Linda; and
she had no wish to dwell upon the memory of her brother's accidental
death in an aircab crash which had brought Linda into her custody.

She returned her attention to the world outside her window and found
nothing there to interest her. Restlessly, she played with the
button-controls on the chair's underarm, causing the walls to spring
into the simulated life of a three-dimensional telecast. A program
called "Old-Time Commercial" was in progress. Abby, like most people,
enjoyed this one, laughing at the exaggerated claims and the tuneless
melodies which had been foisted upon her ancestors during the years
before commercials had been outlawed, and she was disappointed to see
it fade for channel identification. It was followed by a program of
the latest fashions, some of which were much too brazen for Abby to
contemplate without squirming, so she changed stations again with a
flick of her forefinger beneath the armrest.

"... direct from the oceans of Venus," a man's voice announced
enthusiastically, and Abby found herself staring at the amoeba-like
creature she had seen a week earlier at the zoo.

"... believed to be directly related to our own Earth amoeba," the man
continued, "except, of course, this one is far from microscopic, being
larger than a man. For communication purposes, these Venusian creatures
seem to use a form of telepathy...."

Abby mused upon what Linda had said concerning the amoeba's sex, or
rather lack of it. She knew that the creatures reproduced by dividing
themselves, but she wondered if reproduction came instinctively or by
determination. Either way, the method was to be admired, she felt. It
was a pity humans were so complicated. An image stirred deep within
her, a fragment of some forgotten memory, but Abby did not notice it.

The creature from Venus moved restlessly across the three dimensional
screen, extending itself. It seemed to be regarding her with an intense
sort of curiosity, as though it were reaching out, enveloping her....

Sunlight spilling through the window, spread a warm languorous pool
about her, and she felt pleasantly drowsy. She closed her eyes. After
awhile, her head tilted, and the rushing world faded as though it had
never been.

She floated, placidly content. She seemed, suddenly, to possess a
million eyes that probed about in all directions at once. Her body
stretched, elongating itself, and moved forward through a translucent
fluid to an invisible wall, beyond which stood shadowy figures. She
focused her mind upon these figures, and they became clear.

There was a little boy gazing at her in awe, his nose pressed against
the glass in fascination, not certain if he should be frightened or
not. Mentally, she smiled to herself and directed her thoughts to the
boy, telling him not to be afraid. There were several children there,
and Abby turned her attention to another.

It was Linda! Linda staring with wide, curious eyes. And next to her a
man. Dr. Gower. Her heart leaped--

And she awoke with the warm sunlight streaming in upon her, her heart
pounding unaccountably. She looked around. She was still in her front
room before the windows. The television was going, presenting the
newscast that followed the zoo program.

It was just a dream, but it had seemed so real that it still disturbed
her minutes after she was fully awake. For awhile, she was not even
certain that the dream had not been real and that this now was not
really a dream, that reality and dreaming had not somehow suddenly
changed places.

       *       *       *       *       *

Abby was still sitting at the window when Linda came home from school.
She watched as Linda and the boy came down the moving sidewalk and
stepped off on the island before the house. They stood talking for a
moment, then Linda rushed up the walk. The door whirred open and shut,
and Linda instead of looking for Abby as was her habit, went straight
to the escalator.

Abby called, "Linda!"

The girl paused. "I--I'll be back down."

"I'd like to see you right now, please," Abby's tone, though not
hostile, was unrefusable.

Linda appeared hesitantly in the doorway, hands behind her.

Abby smiled pleasantly. "Who was that boy, dear? I don't think I know
him."

"Jimmy Stone," Linda said, excitement creeping into her voice. "He
lives over in Sector Five, and he's in my history class at school."

Abby recognized the symptoms and frowned mentally at the diagnosis.
"He's probably a very nice young man, but--"

"He is, he's very nice," Linda agreed quickly. "He's going to be an
astronautical engineer. Look what he made me in plastics class."

She drew her hands from behind her and held a scarlet rose cupped in
them. It looked soft, as smooth as though it had been just plucked, as
though it held a fragrance that was not artificial.

"It's very nice," Abby admitted, but she wondered how in this age of
intense specialization a future astronautical engineer had managed
to enroll in a plastics class to waste his time making pseudo-roses.
Despite her wish to the contrary, she found herself briefly admiring
the youngster, then told herself it was a case of puppy love that had
inspired the frivolity. "But don't you think you're a little young to
be thinking about boys?"

"No," Linda said defensively, pouting. "I like Jimmy and he likes me. I
don't see why we shouldn't see each other."

"You're in the same class," Abby pointed out; "that should be enough.
After all, you're only seventeen."

"Yes," Linda flared in annoyance, and rushed on in a sudden torrent,
"then I'll be eighteen and then nineteen and then twenty and then
thirty. If I wait long enough maybe I'll let life pass me by, like--"
She paused, eyes wide and regretful at what she was about to say.

Abby smiled gently, but a cold chill gripped her. "Like me?" she said.
"You're afraid of being an old maid like me, is that it?"

She hated to use the expression "old maid," but she knew that was what
many people called her. She minded the name more than she admitted even
to herself, for the words held an unpleasantness, a loneliness she
didn't feel--very often anyway. But then she had Linda for company.

Linda's features softened. "I'm sorry, Aunt Abby," she said quietly.

"That's all right, child, I understand how you feel," Abby said. "Now,
you go along up and take a shower and get yourself ready for supper,
and maybe we'll talk about it later."

Linda nodded soberly and turned away.

Abby sat in the silence of the room, listening to the soft whisper of
the escalator. It hurt her to think that Linda wasn't going to show her
the plastic rose at first. You had to be firm in these matters, though,
to prevent worse trouble. If care weren't taken, Linda might rush off
and be married before she was ready. This was a difficult time for the
poor thing, that was certain, but she'd get over it. The little things
in a child's life always seemed more important than they really were;
that's why there were older people to guide them.

Her own mother had been very strict, and Abby saw no reason to regret
it. If it hadn't been for that, she might have married the first boy
she'd met. She tried to recall him, but somehow she couldn't, and only
a vague image came to mind. It disturbed her to have that blank spot in
her memory, but Somatic drugs had consistently failed to fill it in.

Linda came in a few minutes later, freshly scrubbed but not convinced.

"All ready, dear?" Abby said pleasantly.

She got up and put a consoling arm about the young girl. Together they
went into the dining room, where Gretchen had silently placed the
appropriate food a few minutes before.

       *       *       *       *       *

They ate in silence, with only the sounds of eating and an occasional
whir from the robot-maid as she appeared and disappeared with dishes.
Linda was moody, thoughtful.

"How was the field trip, dear?" Abby wondered.

"All right," Linda answered. "The Venusian amoeba is very much like our
own, the man said. It even reproduces itself by division."

"Isn't that nice," Abby said, just a bit hesitantly, uncertain that
reproduction by any means should be discussed. However, if they taught
it in school--

"I feel sorry for it," Linda said.

Abby stared at her.

"Having no one to love," Linda went on, a faraway look on her face, "no
one to love it. If it has any feelings, it must be very lonely."

Abby made an irritable stab at a piece of synthetic potato on
her plate. "Nonsense," she snapped. "You're talking like a silly
schoolgirl."

On second thought, she decided that Linda _was_ a silly schoolgirl and
would naturally talk like one; she was still a little girl, dependent
for protection upon her Aunt Abby. That thought gave her some measure
of comfort.

"I feel like an amoeba sometimes," Linda said, poking restlessly at a
piece of meat on her plate.

"Sometimes I wish you were, dear," Abby said, feeling strangely annoyed
by the statement. "Now, eat your steak before it gets cold."

"Don't you ever get lonely, Aunt Abby," Linda asked. "Suppose Dr. Gower
went away, wouldn't you be lonely."

"Dr. Gower is not going away," Abby pointed out.

"He might," Linda insisted. "You haven't seen him for three days now.
He might be gone already."

Despite herself, Abby felt sudden panic. "He's probably busy. Doctors
are busy these days."

"He could have called."

"Linda, eat your supper," Abby said sternly, "and stop this nonsense.
Besides, what difference would it make. One person doesn't make the
world begin or end. Dr. Gower and I are good friends, but we must
adjust to these things. If he is gone away, he's gone, and that's all
there is to it!"

She tried to make her voice sound calm, but there was a sinking feeling
in her stomach, and a small questioning voice in the back of her mind
kept asking did he? did he? did he? Furiously, she thrust the thought
aside.

"I saw him at the zoo today," Linda said.

"You did?" Abby said, relieved, and then she thought of her dream of
the zoo and of Linda standing there and Dr. Gower beside the girl.
Could she be psychic? No, there was a simpler explanation. "I saw you
both there," she went on, smiling, "on television this afternoon."

Linda frowned. "But Dr. Gower didn't arrive until the program was over,
Aunt Abby."

"I saw you," Abby insisted.

"But I'm certain of it."

"You must be mistaken, dear," Abby said in a tone of finality. And that
settled that.

The doorbuzzer sounded, and Gretchen whirred to answer it. Abby pressed
a button beneath the table, and the image of Dr. Gower appeared on a
small screen set invisibly in the opposite wall. She could feel her
blood accelerate at the sight of him, but she wondered why he looked
disturbed.

She rose. "I'm going in to see Dr. Gower, dear," she told Linda. "Now,
don't rush your food."

Linda nodded abstractedly. She wasn't in a rushing mood.

"Abby, how are you?" Dr. Gower said warmly, at her approach.

"Very well, thank you, Tom," Abby said. "I thought I might have to get
sick to see you."

"I was busy," he explained. "The colonization of space brings up a
great many new medical problems. How's Linda?"

"Fine. I'm afraid, she's beginning to have a slight case of puppy love;
I'm sure it can be discouraged in time, though."

Dr. Gower hesitated. Then he said, "Linda's a normal young girl, Abby.
You can't stifle her natural desires forever."

"I not only can, but I will." To cushion the harshness of the
statement, she added, "At least until she's mature enough to decide
these things for herself. She's still a child."

"A great many women get married at eighteen," Dr. Gower pointed out.
"Physically, it's a good age for marriage, and a psychology going
against the physical grain isn't going to help."

"There are such things in life, Dr. Gower," Abby said a bit coldly, "as
moral considerations. We're not animals, you know."

"It might help sometimes," Dr. Gower mused, "if there were a little
more animal in us and a little less so-called human."

Abby found her enthusiasm for seeing Dr. Gower ebbing, being replaced
by what she considered a justified annoyance. Dr. Gower knew her
feeling about Linda. Something seemed to have changed his tactics. She
did not like the change.

"If you don't mind," she said, "I'd like to bring up Linda in my own
way. The courts made me legal guardian of Linda until she's twenty-one,
and I intend to protect her until then to the best of my ability."

"By that time, you'll have her so confused about the world she'll be
defenseless against it. I never said anything before, Abby--"

"And now is a poor time to start!" Abby's voice was like ice. "I'm
sorry, Dr. Gower, but if you persist in talking this way, I'll have
to ask you to leave. Linda is in my charge, and I won't stand for
interference, even from you."

The doctor's shoulders slumped dejectedly. "Do you know why you were
chosen guardian, Abby," he said slowly.

"Of course. I was the nearest relative. Why bring that up?"

Dr. Gower shook his head. "Nothing," he said, after awhile. "Nothing at
all. I came around to say goodbye, Abby."

Abby wavered, the ice in her melting. "Goodbye?"

"I'm leaving for Venus," he said, "the day after tomorrow. They need
doctors up there, and I can probably do more good there than here.
Besides, I'd like to investigate these amoeba creatures; I suspect they
have more intelligence than we give them credit for."

"I--I'll be sorry to see you leave, Tom."

"I came to ask you to go with me. You know how I feel about you, Abby;
I thought I'd try just once more."

"I couldn't leave Linda," Abby said.

"The standard excuse," he reminded her, his voice more weary than
bitter. "What Linda has needed all these years was a father, Abby.
You're giving her a warped viewpoint."

"The Somaticists don't think so," Abby flung at him.

He crimsoned. "Somatics aren't the answer. Our era has become so
mechanical that people have come to think that pressing a button is
going to cure the evils of the world. Pills and pushbuttons are fine
in their place, Abby, but they're not the answer, not the complete one
anyway. At one time, they thought psychiatry was the answer; they were
wrong there, too. The answer's probably a combination of the two."

"I'm not looking for the answer to anything," Abby said wearily. "I
just want to be let alone."

Dr. Gower nodded and turned to go.

"Have a nice trip," Abby said, trying to sound cheerful, "I'm sorry we
had to argue like this." The thought of his leaving brought a sinking
sensation which she tried to thrust off and couldn't. But there was
Linda to think of; the girl couldn't go to Venus.

At the door, Dr. Gower hesitated. "I don't know if I should tell you
this; it might help, and it might not." He paused again uncertainly and
then went on in a decisive tone. "Linda's your own child, Abby."

She looked at him, puzzled. "Of course. The courts--"

Dr. Gower shook his head impatiently. "I don't mean that. I mean Linda
was actually born to you."

The words sank in, but Abby found them meaningless. Two and two did not
make five no matter how many times you added them. There was a tense
silence, but she didn't know what to say to fill it.

"That's what happened in your blank spot, Abby," Dr. Gower went on.
"You ran away from home when you were twenty-one, because your mother
was too strict, because she acted just like you're acting with Linda.
Before she could find you again, someone else had. You were pregnant."

Abby's brow furrowed. "You mean--" the thought completed itself, and
a look of horror replaced the frown. "That's a horrible thing to say,
even in a lie."

"I wish I were lying," Dr. Gower said earnestly. "You didn't remember
anything that had happened, and were still dazed for nearly a year
afterward. Your subconscious used amnesia as an escape mechanism, and
you forgot the incident, repressed it without realizing it. An escape
is sometimes possible only in the mind, where Somaticists are often
helpless. I didn't say anything before, but now I'm afraid Linda may be
made to suffer if I don't."

Abby stared at him in shocked silence. She said, after awhile. "It's
not true, it can't be."

Dr. Gower shrugged. "I'm sorry, Abby, it is. It's not Linda you're
worried about, it's yourself; you're afraid to face reality."

"Get out," Abby said slowly, hating him for that. Her voice rose the
least bit. "I won't listen to these lies."

"I thought it might help. Say goodbye to Linda for me." The door closed
behind him with a click.

Abby stared at the closed door, a small portion of her was calm, the
rest chaotic. The calm portion wondered why she should be so disturbed
by something so obviously impossible. All these years she'd been wrong
about Dr. Gower, trusting him as a friend. For what he said was untrue,
of course. It had to be. And yet why couldn't she remember things? It
was only eighteen years ago and important things had happened in that
year, but somehow her memory bypassed their happening. It was like
reading a book with several pages blank; you knew from later pages
what had happened, but the actual experience of the events was lost.
Could it be--the thought came despite her--could it be that she'd had
amnesia, that Dr. Gower had really told her the truth, that someone had
actually--

"No. He was lying," she told the room.

"He never lied before," Linda said quietly from the doorway.

"You--heard?"

Linda nodded.

Abby tried to smile. "I'm afraid, dear, that Dr. Gower is like all
men. When he couldn't have what he wanted--" her face clouded at the
thought--"he tried to shock me, to hurt me, to make me ashamed...."

"Would it make you ashamed to have me for a daughter?"

Abby's heart beat quickly. "Of course not, Linda. But the
circumstances--"

"I see," Linda said slowly. "They have a name for children like me;
that's what you're ashamed of. Or maybe, as Dr. Gower said, you're
afraid for yourself!"

"But it's not true, Linda, don't you see?" Abby insisted.

She put her arm on the girl's shoulder. Linda shook it off; tears
welling in her eyes.

"You don't even want to know," the girl accused. "You don't even care."
And she turned and ran from the room.

The escalator whispered, and Abby stood in the center of the room
looking at the empty doorway. She stood on the brink of a great
precipice, balancing precariously, and for a brief moment she found
herself believing what Dr. Gower had said. He was a fine man, and good,
and he would not lie to her. Things her brother had said came to mind,
once-harmless statements that seemed to take on new significance, as
though he'd said them to prepare her for this moment. And suddenly,
very suddenly, the world was tottering; dazedly, she made her way to a
chair and sat limply in it.

Dr. Gower was gone now, and she would never see him again. She knew
that, and she knew that despite the things she'd said, that it did
matter that he was going. But then she had Linda to think of. Or was
it really Linda that concerned her? She could take the girl along,
certainly; that would even clear up the problem of Jimmy Stone. Was it
really the marriage she feared, a fear based upon some secret mental
block in her mind? The doubt returned then, and she wasn't sure. She
wasn't sure of anything anymore. Abby had to think. She had to quiet
her nerves and the frantic jumbled thoughts that had begun to race
through her mind.

She felt dizzy and held a hand to one of the walls to steady herself
as she walked to her bedroom. From the dressing table drawer she took
a bottle of dreampills. The label was fuzzy to her eyes, but the word
_Danger_ stood out in bold letters. Abby swallowed three of the pills,
which was two more than the safe dosage, and lay across the bed, eyes
closed. The door to the room closed automatically.

"It's not true," she told herself again, a desperate urgency to her
voice. "I've got to get away from these thoughts. Got to get away.
Got--to--escape."

She felt drowsy, but the thought of what Dr. Gower had said persisted.
It couldn't be true. It couldn't. And yet it might be; it was the
possibility that disturbed her. That blank spot. Eighteen years ago.
Eighteen years...

       *       *       *       *       *

She drifted into a restless sleep. Mentally, she traveled across the
familiar plains of her past to that strange dark canyon she couldn't
recall. Her mind hovered frightened above the depths, failing to
see through its darkness; then she passed to the other side, to her
childhood, to when she was a young girl and her mother was alive.

The scene burst upon her with vivid clarity, and she found herself
reliving it. It was there, all of it. The home life, protecting and yet
restraining. Her dissatisfaction. The secret determination. The running
away in the dead of night. It was all there, just as Dr. Gower had said.

"But it's a dream," she murmured, "just a dream."

Yet it seemed a reality. She could feel the cool night press upon her
as she made her way slowly through the strange-familiar darkness and
descended into the depths of the canyon. The feeling of having been
here before was with her, and it brought terror with it. She walked on,
looking to either side, listening fearfully. And then she stopped, her
blood becoming ice.

There was a man before her. She could see only his eyes, but they were
cruel eyes, savage and lustful.

Knowledge came then, bursting over her in a raging tide. She screamed
and ran, her footsteps echoing frantically as she hurried through the
darkness, looking for an opening for a protecting light. But no opening
appeared, no light came. She ran until she was exhausted, and then she
sank to the ground panting trying to still her spasms of breath. There
was a small sound, as of the scraping of a shoe and she looked into the
eyes again.

She screamed again and again and again not knowing where screams ended
and echoes began. She put her hands over her ears and screamed into the
darkness. She could feel hands reaching out for her and she shrank away
from them.

Her mind was a playground for terror. She had to escape. She had to.

(But sometimes the only escape is in the mind!)

The hands reached out. She was suddenly falling, down, down, down.
Calmness came, and a grateful thought appeared: she had escaped.
Nothing else mattered; only that....

She stopped falling. The mist grew thick, thicker; it became dense;
it became liquid. She could not feel the beating of her heart, but
her mind was calm and it looked about with a detachment that was
intellectual.

She was floating again, floating silently through a world of murky
fluid. The liquid was pressing with a force so gentle it almost did not
exist. It enveloped her like a protecting shield.

She drifted. There seemed to be no direction but outward. Her thoughts
went out and they returned with impressions. This was her world and she
was the center of it. There were no problems here, no encroachments
on existence or security. It was like a return to the womb. Womb? she
thought. She turned the word over in her mind and found the concept
alien. She regarded it intellectually, at leisure.

Time passed silently, without incident, without measurement. It had no
meaning, no referent.

Curious after awhile, she went forward, her mind impinging upon shadowy
figures behind the transparent barrier. She focussed her attention upon
them, and the image cleared.

There was a man there, and a woman, and a girl. She could hear them as
they spoke.

"I don't know why you wanted to come here, Abby," the man was saying.
"You'll see enough of these creatures on Venus."

"This one is special," the woman said slowly, tasting the words like
some unfamiliar food. "It's what made me change my mind about--things.
It must be very lonely."

"Bosh," the man scoffed gently. "Intelligent or not, an amoeba doesn't
have feelings of loneliness."

"Doesn't it?" the woman wondered. "Perhaps not at first. But being able
to probe the minds of humans and sympathize with them yet not contact
them can...."

"We'll be late for the rocket, Mother," the girl said. "Jimmy promised
he'd be down to see me off and let me know if he can go to the Venus
Academy next year."

"All right, Linda, we're going now."

At the door, the woman turned for a last look; her thoughts were
thoughts of sorrow, of pity, of--regret, perhaps.

"You'll learn much of the world this way," the thoughts came, "and
you'll have time to readjust. Knowledge will pyramid gently, and with
it will come wisdom. After awhile, escape won't be necessary. You'll
want to return then and be a part of your world. Meanwhile, I must help
my own people; this is the best way for both of us to escape."

The woman linked arms with the man and the girl then, and the three of
them went out.

Silence returned, bringing with it a troubled wonderment. Then the
murky fluid flowed past all vision, and the world returned, safe and
familiar. The thoughts returned briefly, as echoes, but they were
unfamiliar this time and meaningless.

But it was not always so, and it would not always be, for contemplation
bred curiosity, and curiosity bred knowledge, and knowledge bred
desire, and desire the ways and means of accomplishment.

Meanwhile, there was quiet, stillness, a peace she had never known. The
fluid flowed about her in a silence that held no sound, no movement. It
was womb-like, protective.

It seemed natural that she should be here.

For the moment, she was content.





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