The cat burst out of the alley and ricocheted off the left front caster of Marvin’s wheelchair. The pursuing mongrel snapped at the cat, missed, and skidded around the other side. In a flash of yellow fur the cat doubled back into the alley and disappeared behind the lineup of trash bins while the dog circled the chair sniffing.
The mutt paused to look Marvin in the eye, then hiked a leg and marked the small package that had fallen from the chair during the collision. The dog lifted both ears toward the alley as if trying to remember why he was where he was. Finally, trotting crookedly off down the sidewalk, he went in search of another adventure.
Marvin strained to lift his head from the cushions and could just see one end of the package on the sidewalk. Breathing deeply he relaxed and mouthed a silent prayer to Kadi-thu.
His little finger gently tugged on the stubby control stick and the chair backed away from the box. He approached from a different angle, and when he was in position dropped an arm over the side clumsily hooking a long slender finger under the cord. “Merciful Kadi-thu, help thy servant,” Marvin prayed, and strained at the small package that weighed less than five pounds. It came up a half inch before his finger uncurled and dropped it.
He wheeled the chair around in a full circle looking in both directions for help. No one was in sight. If there were, would they help him, or just pick up the package and go their way leaving what they presumed to be a helpless cripple? Frustrated, he wheeled another circle.
He trembled at the memory of last week’s encounter. True, that was in a different part of town, but after dark the three punks, with matching bandannas tied around their heads to signify their allegiance to each other, saw him only as a victim. They started with verbal taunts that soon became physical abuse as they poked and prodded to get him to react. Marvin, helpless under the crushing gravity, had hoped to endure until the hoodlums tired of him, but his inability to defend himself or even cry only made them bolder. Then one, Julio someone called him, pulled a knife and began prodding Marvin’s legs with the tip of the blade.
“Hey man, do you bleed? You don’t look like you got no blood in you to bleed. I’m gonna cut you up real bad, man.” Julio caught the knife point in the fabric of Marvin’s pants just above the knee and ripped up. The blade sliced a three inch hole in the material. It also cut flesh and Marvin grimaced at the intense pain. Julio grinned at his victim.
Marvin tried to wheel the chair around and keep his feet toward his attacker. “Hey man, doan do dat,” someone said and slapped his hand off the control stick. Julio stepped in with the knife. What followed was against all Kadi Pandect precepts – Julio had no defense against Marvin touching his mind.
With short jerky motions Julio stumbled involuntarily back a few steps, plunged the knife into the side of his own throat, and slashed outward. He dropped to his knees as Marvin released the mind hook and looked at the knife in disbelief as blood spurted from the horrible gash and splashed on the pavement. In seconds he lost consciousness and fell forward onto his face.
The other two had stood motionless for a moment, and then one screamed and ran. The other followed, looking back with terror in his eyes. Marvin saw a reflection of his own terror in those eyes.
Marvin had stared at Julio’s body for several long moments before he turned away and headed for his sanctuary on that night. Now he made a full circle to make sure no one was on the street in either direction. Satisfied, he wheeled the chair so the package was directly in front of him and teeked the box up onto his lap before nudging the control stick and proceeding on his way.
In the shadows of his small print shop across the street, Ching Au Chow had started out to aid the helpless cripple but stopped and released the latch without opening the door. It fell back into place with a quiet ‘snick’. Standing motionless in the dark he watched Marvin move away down the sidewalk.
Ching pondered this puzzle. If one of his sons had related what he himself just saw, he would thrash the boy with a handful of willow branches until he told the truth. Ching’s mind refused on the one hand to accept what his brain had recorded on the other. In his mind’s eye he replayed the scene: the package fell, the dog pissed on it, the cripple tried to pick it up, the cripple went around in circles. Then, something extraordinary happened. Either the cripple kicked the package into his lap, or it flew there by itself. Neither explanation was acceptable. The cripple had not moved his feet; he did not kick the package. Nor did it rise in an arc as if propelled by a kick. It went straight up, paused, and then went straight back, to settle into the chair.
Ching toyed with one end of his Fu Man Chu moustache and replayed his memory again while Marvin negotiated the remaining four blocks to his destination.
Arriving at the nondescript warehouse, Marvin pressed a coded sequence on a small transmitter to open a sliding door. Once inside, another series of button taps closed the door and summoned the freight elevator. Creaking and groaning the cage reached the top floor. Marvin wheeled out of the elevator into an anteroom with a door at the far end.
Had Marvin been with companions or under duress, he would have entered there, into an ordinary earth like room except for very special defenses.
This time a section of the wall to his right decoalesced at a vocal command and Marvin wheeled through. The wall reformed behind him as the light in the room dimmed to a subtle bronze. In seconds the gravity wave attenuator took effect.
Marvin straightened his body and stepped away from the chair, stretching luxuriously to his full eight-foot height now that he could move normally. He removed the rags of cloth that disguised his body, the wig that hid his glabrous head, and the contact lenses that protected his eyes from the harsh glaring sunlight of this inhospitable planet.
Marvin turned on the main console and, for the hundredth time in the past few days, brought up the departure check list. The only item not completed was to transport the cargo to the docks two days hence, and that was arranged. Somewhere in the South Polar Region, far away from the possibility of detection, the powerful generators hidden in the ship would create an intersection with the gate. Marvin, his mission over, would step through there to his home, his own world.
Midmorning on the day of departure, Marvin rolled his motorized wheelchair up the ship’s ramp. From the deck he watched as a large pallet, wrapped in a cargo net and dangling from a cable, swung over the gunwale and descended into the hold. With the fruits of his year long collection assignment safely aboard, Marvin maneuvered across the deck and disappeared into the bowels of the ship as Ching watched from a distance down the pier.
Several days later, below decks in a special gravity compensated compartment, Marvin watched as the transgate shimmered and his replacement stepped through. Marvin held out his hand, palm toward Mavis, all six digits splayed. Mavis matched his gesture and they pressed their fingertips together in a sibling ritual.
“Kadi-thu’s peace, sister.”
“Kadi-thu’s peace, brother. Our family is excited for your return.”
“It would have been my choice for another to replace me, sister.”
“There you are. My eternally protective big brother. You know I’ve dreamed of this assignment since I was a child and you told me such wonderful stories of your adventures.”
“That is not to my credit then. It has changed. I have changed. The risks are so high, and the rewards are so few. How many hundreds of years have we studied here? And for what purpose? We can’t occupy this planet. We can’t live here without the habitats. We only exist here at enormous costs and risks. Two of ours were delivered to Kadi-thu during this phase. And I was almost — ” He broke off without revealing the danger he’d faced.
“Enough, I’ll be fine. You’ll see. Now, is there anything I should know that is not yet in the reports?”
“Yes. The oriental has become a problem. He has assimilated too many pieces of information. He lingered outside the habitat, watching, two nights ago after he followed me there. And he is observing from the docks at this moment.”
“Well, based on your latest report, the Council of Regents has decided to eliminate the threat. I’ve been given instructions on how to deal with the problem of the Chinaman.”
“How?” Fear spread over Marvin’s face; it was difficult for him to imagine his sister as an assassin.
Sensing his thoughts, Mavis laughed. “Oh, brother, relax. We’re going to enlist him to help us. That’s all. He is a very influential person, and will be an asset.”
Marvin released his tense shoulder muscles. “Good,” he said. “He is an honest man. He’s just gotten too close to ignore any longer. He will be an asset.”
“It’s time,” a metallic voice declared out of nowhere.
Marvin rose from the couch. “Good luck, sister. May Kadi-thu guide you safely.”
“Kadi-thu’s peace, brother,” Mavis said as Marvin turned and stepped through the shimmering portal.
When the ship returned to the dock in Long Beach, Mavis lowered her lanky frame into the specially contoured cushions of the wheelchair just as she had practiced in training,. When she had it just right, she nodded at the bulkhead. A technician decreased the attenuation and in fifteen seconds the full effect of earth’s gravity sucked Mavis down. Her head lolled over onto her shoulder and her mouth sagged open. She strained to close it to keep from drooling on her blouse.
An opening appeared in the bulkhead and Mavis, on her own now, grasped the control stick and nudged the chair forward onto the ramp leading down to the dock. It was a mile from the dock to her first goal, the sanctuary of the habitat. She had to be there when the replenishment supplies arrived later in the day.
The chair’s wheels jounced between gaps in the rough planking of the wharf. Pain lanced through her and caused her to stop a few times. At each stop she mouthed a short prayer. Tears filled her eyes, dimming her vision. The heat was unbearable. In spite of the training she gasped at the too dense air, tasting the metallic poisons.
Traveling the comparative comfort of the sidewalk, she ignored the short dark-skinned human standing to one side of her path. The epicanthic folds narrowed his eyes to slits so she could not see the pupils.
Ching suppressed his surprise as Mavis passed. The figure in the chair was not the one he’d watched board the ship. This one was oddly different. A major piece of his puzzle had changed shape. “What is this?” he wondered silently.
He turned to watch the wheelchair roll to a stop at the intersection. With one hand he fidgeted with the corners of his moustache. When the traffic signal turned green, the chair started forward again.
Ching followed at a discrete distance, mulling over this new twist. Before the intersection he made an abrupt left turn and stepped off the curb, directly into the path of an oncoming cargo truck accelerating to make the green light.
Mavis released the Chinaman’s mind an instant before the impact. “That was easy,” she thought to herself as she continued on her way, listening to the thud followed by the screech of tires.