Foundation and Chaos

Page 4

This day, she stood on a promenade overlooking the Distributor’s Market, the most ragged and disreputable retail district in Dahl, waiting for an unnamed man in dusty green to pick up a package. The pieced squares of sky in the overarching dome showed great flickering gaps that cast shadows on the crowds, now thinning as the evening and home hours approached for the first shift of workers. Men and women shopped for their night’s sparse supper, bartering more often than using credits. Dahl was developing its own economy; in fifty years, Klia thought, it might go independent, pushing out a weak and vacillating Palace-mandated economy for something more fundamental and native. But that, too, was little more than a dream...

Imperial trade monitors stood on the outskirts of the market, men and women with eyes and cameras constantly watching, recording the crowds. Where money and political oversight were concerned, creativity seemed to flourish; in every other endeavor, Klia thought, Trantor was intellectually bankrupt.

She saw a man who met the description standing between two of the omnipresent trade monitors. He wore a baggy, dusty green suit and cloak. The monitors seemed prepared to ignore him, much as they ignored Klia when she ventured into the market. She watched this with narrowed eyes, wondering whether he had bribed them, or whether he had other, less common ways of not attracting attention.

If he could do what she did, he would be a person to reckon with, perhaps partner with, in business--unless his skills were stronger than her own. In which case, she would have to avoid him like a fatal rash. But Klia had never met anyone stronger than she.

She lifted one arm, as she had been instructed. He quickly spotted her and walked with a light, almost mincing step in her direction.

They met on the stairs leading from the promenade to the market and the taxi square. Close-up, the man in dusty green had a plain and unremarkable face not improved much by a thin and unconvincing mustache. Klia was conventional enough to enjoy a good mustache on a man; this one did not impress her in the least.

Then he looked squarely at her and smiled. The comers of the mustache lifted and his teeth shone brilliant white behind smooth, babylike lips.

“You have what I need,” he told her. No question; declaration.

“I hope so. It’s what I was told to bring.”

“That,” the man said, pointing to her small parcel, “is of no consequence.” Still, he extended a handful of credits and took the package with a thin smile. “You are what I seek. Let’s find a quiet place to talk.”

Klia drew back cautiously. She did not doubt she could take care of herself; she always had. Still, she never walked into any situation unprepared. “How quiet?” she asked.

“Just where we don’t have to listen to the street noises,” the man said. He lifted stiff-fingered hands.

There were few such places around the market. They walked several streets away and found a small coco-ice stall. The man bought her a red coco-ice, which she accepted despite her distaste for the popular Dahlite delicacy. He bought himself a small dark stimulk, which he licked with quiet dignity as they sat at a tiny triangular table.

A square of sky above them darkened so severely that she could barely see his face. His lips seemed to glow around the stimulk.

“I’m looking for young men and women eager to see other parts of Trantor,” the man said.

Klia grimaced. “I’ve heard enough recruiters to last me a lifetime.” She started to rise.

The man reached out and took her arm. Without words, she tried to compel him to move it. “For your own good,” he said, and did not react. She tried harder.

“Let me go,” she ordered.

As if stung, the hand withdrew. It seemed to take a few seconds for the man to compose himself. “Of course. But this is a good time to listen.”

Klia watched the man curiously. She hadn’t compelled him; he had obeyed more like a servant reacting to his mistress than to a young girl he was trying to collar in a public place. Klia focused with more intensity on the man. His surface was not particularly attractive, but she encountered unexpected reserves, a central stillness, a peculiar metallic sweetness. His emotions did not taste the same as others.

“I only listen to people who are interesting,” Klia said. She was starting to sound a little too arrogant. She fancied herself a more dignified sort of woman, not a street braggart.

“I see,” the man said. He finished his stimulk and deftly tossed the stick into a receptacle. The proprietress walked to the receptacle, removed five sticks--a meager show for the day--and took them back to the rear of the stall to clean. “Well, is survival interesting?”

She nodded. “As a general topic.”

“Then listen closely.” He leaned forward earnestly. “I know what you are and what you can do.”

“What am I?” Klia asked.

He looked skyward, just as the square immediately above flickered back to full brightness. His skin was unusually sallow, as if he wore makeup against some skin condition, though she could not detect the pockmarks of brain fever. Klia’s cheeks themselves showed deep pocks, beneath the fur. “You had a bout of fever as a child, didn’t you?” he asked.

“Most do. It’s typical on Trantor.”

“Not just here, young friend. On all human worlds. Brain fever is the ever-present companion of intelligent youth, too common to be noticed, too innocuous to be cured. But in you, it was no easy childhood illness. It nearly killed you.”

Klia’s mother had nursed her through the rough time, then had died just months later, in an accident in the sinks. She hardly remembered her mother, but her father had told her all about the illness. “What about it?”

His eyes were pale, and she suddenly realized they were not looking directly at her face, but at some irrelevant point to the right of her forehead. “I can’t see well now. I make my way around by feeling the people, where they are, how they move and sound; in a place without people I am in some distress. I prefer crowds for that reason. not. Crowds irritate you. Trantor is a crowded world. It confines you.”

Klia blinked, uncertain whether it was polite to keep staring at his dead eyes. Not that she cared overmuch for politeness in a situation such as this.

“I’m just a runner and sometimes a swapper,” she said. “No one pays much attention to me.”

“I can feel you working on me, Klia. You want me to leave you alone. I disturb you, mostly because what I am saying has a certain truthful resonance--am I right?”

Klia’s eyes narrowed. She did not want to be special or even memorable to this blind man in dusty green.

She closed her eyes and concentrated: Forget me. The man cocked his head to one side, as if experiencing a muscle cramp. His mind had such an odd flavor! She had never experienced a mind like it.

And she would have sworn he was lying about being blind...but none of that was important in the face of her failure to persuade him.

“You’ve done well for yourself, for a child,” he said in a low voice. “Too well. People are looking for those who succeed where they should fail. Palace Specials, secret police, not at all friendly.”

The man stood and arranged his coat and brushed crumbs from the seat of his pants. “These chairs are filthy,” he murmured. “Your effort to make me forget was exceptionally powerful, perhaps the most powerful I’ve experienced, but you lack certain skills...I will remember, because I must remember. There are a surprising number of those with your skills on Trantor now; perhaps one or two thousand. I’ve been told, no matter by whom, that most of you are marked by a particularly strong reaction to brain fever. Those who hunt for you are mistaken. They believe it passed you by;”

The man smiled in her general direction. “I’m boring you,” he said. “I find it painful to be where I’m not wanted. I’ll go.” He turned, seemed to feel for somebody to guide him, and took a step away from the table.

“No,” Klia said, her voice catching. “Stay for a minute. I want to ask you something.”

He stopped with a small tremor. Suddenly, he seemed very vulnerable. He thinks I can hurt him. And maybe I can! She wanted to understand his strange flavor--clean and strangely compelling, as if within this man, behind flimsy masks of deception, lurked a basic honesty and decency she had never encountered before.

“I’m not bored,” she said. “Not yet.”

The man in dusty green sat down again and put his hand on the table. He took a deep breath. He doesn’t need to breathe, Klia thought, but put away the absurdity quickly” A man and a woman have been searching for your kind for a number of years, and many have joined their group. I hope they live well where the man and woman will send them; I, for one, am unwilling to take the risk.”

“Who are they?”

“They say one is Wanda Seldon Palver, the granddaughter of Hari Seldon.”

Klia did not know the name. She shrugged. “You can go to them, if you want--” the man continued, but she made a sour face and interrupted.

“They sound connected,” she said, using the word in its derogatory meaning of close to the Palace and the Commissioners and other government officials.

“Oh, yes, Seldon was once a First Minister, and they say his granddaughter has gotten him out of a number of tough scrapes, legal and otherwise.”

“He’s an outlaw?”

“No, a visionary.”

Klia pursed her lips and frowned again. In Dahl, visionaries were a dime a dozen-street-corner crazies, out of work, out of the grind, most driven insane by their work in the heatsinks.

The man in dusty green observed her reaction closely. “Not for you? Now, however, another man is searching for your type--”

“What type?” Klia asked nervously. She needed more time to think, to understand. “I’m still confused.” She felt out his defenses lightly, hoping not to intrude in a way he would notice.

The man flinched as if poked. “I am a friend, not an enemy to be lightly manipulated. I know there’s risk even talking to you. I know what you could do to me if you put your mind to it. Somebody else in a position of power thinks your kind is monstrous. But he doesn’t understand at all. He seems to think you are all robots.”

Klia laughed. “Like tiktoks?” she asked. The worker machines had fallen out of favor long before her birth, banned because of frequent and unexplained mechanical revolts, and the public distaste for them still lingered.

“No. Like robots out of history and legend. Eternals.” He pointed west, in the general direction of the Imperial Sector, the Palace. “It’s madness, but it’s Imperial madness, not easy to overcome. Best if you leave, and I know the best place to go...on Trantor. Not far from here. I can help you make arrangements.”

“No thank you,” she said. There was too much uncertainty here for Klia to put herself in the hands of this stranger, however compelling parts of his story might seem. His words and what she sensed did not add up.

“Then take this.” The man thrust a small display card into her hand and stood once more. “You will call. This is not in question. It is only a matter of time.”

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