Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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Where Dreams Die

by Frederick Rustam



The Desert

"Whoa!" The cold starlight suddenly revealed a man lying among the sagebrush on the sandy desert. "Who's that?"

Shasty had carefully skirted Moletown by hugging the rocky eastern bluff while keeping an eye on the Moles' darkened lookout tower. He'd been told that their watchmen lacked starlight scopes but had a powerful spotlight they could aim at anything they heard out in the dark.

The old geezer who'd briefed him about the area told him the Moles had rigged the land above their subterranean settlement with crude-but-effective, noisemakers. These were attached to thin triplines skillfully strung across the natural pathways of the desert. He'd said that the Mole watchmen augmented their fallible hearing with biosensors: hungry dogs chained to the tower.

Shasty used a tube-hooded flashlight to detect the triplines, but his caution slowed him down. He needed to be well-away from Moletown before the end of this moonless night, a night he'd awaited for three weeks with the old geezer. In exchange for some cleanup/fixup work, the man had told Shasty what he needed to know if he was to seek the City of Scholars.

He approached the man lying on the sand. He kept a hand on the handle of his bowie, not trusting the man's prone posture. He nudged the man with his boot. When he heard a groan, he warily turned him over. Even before he saw his grimy face, he could tell from his filthy clothes that he must be a Mole.

He backed away. The man was looking up at him with squinted dark eyes set in a face so caked with brown clay that he almost seemed to be made of it, like one of those weird sculptures in the old art museums.

"You're a Mole, I reckon."

"Water..." Shasty had seen his symptoms before. He removed the cap of his canteen. "Don't try anything," he warned the Mole. He knew they had many ways of capturing strangers. Strangers were what they ate.

"I won't." The Mole seemed unarmed, but he probably had a concealed knife.

Shasty gripped his bowie tightly as he put the canteen to the Mole's lips. The guy raised himself painfully and drank. When he finished, Shasty capped the canteen. It felt a lot lighter.

"Sorry I drank so much, son."

"Forget it," assured Shasty. It was the code of the desert. If you gave a thirsting man water, you weren't supposed to begrudge him. "What're you doing out here so close to Moletown?"

"I went visitin' and I didn't bring enough water with me. I almost made it, but I couldn't go no fu'ther."

Shasty wondered why the Mole hadn't rattled any of the noisemakers for help. He must know where the triplines are.

"Who are you, son?" he asked Shasty, bluntly. "How do you come to be so close to M-Town."

"I'm on my way to the City of Scholars." There was a touch of pride in Shasty's voice. He felt superior to Moles and he didn't care to hide it.

The Mole smiled. "Another literate kid with big ideas, huh?"

"Sure, I read. Anything wrong with that, Mr. Mole?" Shasty recalled his mother's patient efforts to teach him after his father had died, nastily, of cholera in their village back East.

"Hell no. Some of our best meat comes from readin' folks." His laugh turned into a wracking cough.

"Maybe I should have left you alone, then, so's you could donate your own rotten carcass. I hear it don't matter to you people if your meat's a little... off."

The man chuckled. "Doesn't matter. If you're gonna be a scholar-boy, you have to talk like you've got some 'eddy-cayshun' or the Whiterobes won't let you into their holy City. And yeah, we like our meat aged. But don't get the wrong idea, son. I'm grateful you saved my ass. So, you go on to the White City and be a scholar -- or whatever they'll let you be. Leave me here. I'll be okay. I won't raise a ruckus 'til you're gone."

"That's good, 'cause I ain't about to carry you to Moletown." Shasty secured his canteen and knife and turned to leave. "Aren't," he corrected himself. "Am not."

"Hey! What's your name?" the Mole yelled after Shasty, who stopped and looked back.

"Is that important to you?"

"It could be to you, son. You might end up in M-Town, some day, and you'll be damned glad to remember yourself to me."

"That'll be the day. But I'm Shasty Mummert, from West-By-God Virginia. I'm named after a mountain in California. What's your name, clay man?"

"Angalu -- and don't you forget it, hillbilly."

"That's all? Just 'Angalu'? Not much of a name."

"It's all you need, scholar-boy. You take care."

The Mole weakly waved a goodbye and lay back, staring up at the stars and gathering his strength for a return to the tunnels. Shasty resumed his cautious progress up the valley. Occasionally, he checked behind him. He still didn't trust the grateful Mole with the funny name.

The City

From the ridge where he concealed himself, Shasty observed the fabulous City of Scholars, shimmering in the desert heat. His first impression was that it wasn't really a city. It was a compact collection of low, white buildings.

Shasty had seen photographs of the cities as they were before the War. The old fellows in his home town had told him how bad life in those places had become and how much better-off people were without cities -- even though they'd been born too late to have lived in them. In today's widely-scattered, tightly-organized villages, such as the one ahead, self-appointed elites maintained the old traditions and experimented with new ones.

Shasty had left the forests of his native East to come to the City of Scholars, reputed to be the finest of its kind for those who studied the past and planned, however abstractly, for the future. He had only a vague idea of what he wanted to do there, but he guessed it was the best place for him. He wasn't a trained scholar, but he read the old books and listened at night to far-away radio stations.

In the City of Scholars, there were wondrous information machines which allowed the Scholars to explore the past, virtually. Although some people felt that history was bunk, Shasty appreciated that its study was necessary for an understanding of the present and for future progress.

Shasty boldly advanced toward the City from his hiding place. He hoped its guardsmen wouldn't fire at him until his intentions became clear. Atop the City's protective wall were pillboxes; he could see that some of their guns were aimed in his direction. The elite Scholars who ruled the City were determined to preserve their comfortable sanctuary from invasion by outlanders with criminal intentions.

Ahead, alongside the road, was a head-high concrete column with a videye and speaker-mike from which the guardsmen queried visitors before they approached a city gate.

Shasty advanced and stood silently before the commstation, uncertain of the customary procedure. Suddenly, he remembered his bowie attached prominently to his backwoodsman's wide leather belt. He hastly removed the knife, dropped it, and held up his empty hands.

"Who goes there?" barked a metallic voice from the loudspeaker. Shasty had heard this ancient challenge a lot in his travels. He replied with a firm, determined voice. He was afraid a hesitant approach would gain him only rejection.

"I'm Shasty Mummert from Newcoal, West Virginia, come to the City of Scholars to apprentice myself." He hoped they would be less wary of a far-traveler than they would be of a local desert-rat, their traditional enemy.

Shasty's keen hearing detected background laughter as the guardsman-in-charge answered in an unmistakably ironic voice.

"We're honored, young scholar."

Shasty decided to play it straight. He had to get by these unsympathetic louts if he was to have any chance of realizing his dreams. He remained silent, awaiting instructions. Those he received didn't fill him with confidence about the success of his mission.

"Strip to your skivvies, hillbilly. Leave your clothes here and approach the gate." Shasty, shocked by this abrupt change of tone, hesitated.

A door in the commcolumn opened. The barrel of a scattergun was extruded a few inches and aimed at Shasty's belly.

"Now!"

The Testing

"So you want to be a Scholar -- do you, boy?"

The unnamed middle-aged man in the blue robe smiled at Shasty in a disarming manner. The sign on his office door proclaimed him a "Vocational Counselor." Shasty guessed his job was to screen-out undesirables from among those who sought to enter the City. The good life here attracted opportunists.

After being "in-processed" by the guardsmen in the reception center near the gatehouse -- a procedure in which he was body-searched, force-cleaned, disinfected, and put into a cheap gray robe -- Shasty had been escorted to the Counselor's office for an immediate evaluation.

"Yes, sir." he replied, respectfully. "I do."

"Can you read?"

"Yes, sir."

"Old or new orthography?"

"Both, sir."

"Both? Taught yourself, did you?"

"The new, sir. My mother taught me the old writing."

The Counselor withheld praise, if indeed he had any in him. "You'll have to take a battery of tests to see what you're suited for. Come with me." He arose and escorted Shasty into an adjoining room. The small room contained a desk, chair, and a computerized testing machine.

"Have a seat." Shasty sat before the machine. It had a big, curved screen.

"Is this one of the wonderful Scholar-machines I've heard about?"

The Counselor started the machine. "Son, this machine will even check your attitude."

"Wow!" enthused Shasty.

"And, son?..."

"Yes, sir?..."

"You'd better not lie to it."

"No, sir." Lying didn't come easy to Shasty, and he knew better than to try to fool the learned men in the City of Scholars. He might be a bumpkin, but he was a smart bumpkin. He hoped that counted, here.

####

"'Waste Management,' sir?" Shasty fought back tears.

"Everyone has to start somewhere, son. You can't just begin as a full-fledged Apprentice Scholar. You have to prove yourself. You start in a lower position and you work your way up to the Scholar machines."

"Do I have what it takes to be a real Scholar? I mean someone who studies history and such."

"You've got potential, son. Just do your job in Waste Management and you'll be recognized as reliable and dependable. It'll show us you can take orders. That's more important than raw brainpower, even for a Scholar."

"Yes, sir." Shasty felt a heavy weight on his heart. This wasn't how he expected to be treated. Back in Newcoal, people thought he was destined for a higher calling than the mines.

When a black-suited guardsman arrived to escort him to Waste Management, the guy guessed what had happened in the Counselor's office.

"So you're a slush rat now? That's what they call the would-be Scholars they send to the sewers."

"Yeah. I have an aptitude for it, I guess."

"I'll bet the Counselor told you that'd be the beginning of your climb to the top -- right?"

"Yeah."

"They tell everybody that, but it's rejection, pure and simple. They told me, 'Just be a good guardsman and you'll be recognized and advanced.' What they meant was that I'd be recognized for what they figure I am and used accordingly. You might as well accept things. If you make trouble for the Whiterobes, they'll punish you. I kid you not, hillbilly."

"I'm not lookin' for trouble."

"Of course, some do move up from the bottom. Just don't count on doin' it."

"I understand." I can be a slush rat for awhile. But Shasty wondered just how long he could contain his disappointment without marking himself as a malcontent.

The Monk

Shasty walked through the dimly-lighted streets of the worker's quarter. He was headed for the Media Center, a place he often visited after his workshift. It was the popular library and computerized entertainment mecca for drudges. It was the nearest thing to a scholarly environment that Shasty would have while he labored in the sewers.

Despite the shower he took after each workshift, he still vaguely stank of sewage. The smell seemed to grow stronger with time. He'd been a slush rat for a year, now, and his "potential" had still not been recognized by the minions of the Scholar class.

He'd swallowed his disappointment. It had proved to be a bitter pill. Nonetheless, he doggedly accepted his lowly vocation. Having seen some Whiterobes, the certified Scholars of the city, he guessed he'd be an old man like them before he made it into the ranks of the elite -- if he made it at all.

Meanwhile, he established a daily routine: keeping the sewers clear during his shift with the real rats who lived there, a plain supper at the worker's mess, maybe a visit to the Pleasure House, a couple of hours at the Media Center, then back to the worker's dormitory for some shuteye.

He wondered if his acceptance of his dreary life meant that he was unqualified to be a Scholar. Surely, he thought, a real Scholar was a person of independent mind, someone who stood up to others and asserted his ideas. But he fudged this speculation with the sensible guess that even the Whiterobes had rules to follow.

He was correct. The City of Scholars was definitely a place of rules and procedures.

####

Shasty's entrance to the Media Center caught the eye of the elderly clerk at the Help Desk, who stared at him as if he was eagerly awaited. The man had a fringe of cropped white hair, like a monk, and a beak of a nose. He slumped at his desk and stared at the patrons, ignoring his own info-screen.

All the "reality rooms" were occupied, so Shasty took his usual place at one of the long tables in front of an infomachine's 2-D screen. Most workers only came to the Center to lose themselves in the pseudo-worlds of the reality machines, traveling to faux places that seemed far from their humdrum daily existence.

Shasty still prided himself on being a Scholar-to-be, better than those who wandered around in someone else's manufactured reality. He refused to classify himself as a floater. He keyed up the Center's catalog and contemplated what to search for. His mind wandered as he stared at the screen.

"Uncertain what to study tonight, huh?"

Shasty turned to the voice behind him. The old clerk stood there in his pale-blue robe, his hands tucked into his sleeves like a mandarin. He felt a twinge of annoyance at the old man's interference in his sacred ritual, but he kept this to himself. He couldn't afford to make an enemy of a Media Center functionary.

"Yeah, well, when you're an important scholar like me, there's not much left to explore." Does he really want to help or just have somebody to talk to? At least, he didn't call me "boy" or "son."

"You're a rare bird. Most of the people who come in here prefer to float. Where did you get your scholarly bent, if you don't mind my asking?"

Despite his mood, Shasty found the question flattering. "From my mother. I came to the City hoping to become a Whiterobe, Mister...?"

The man pulled out an adjoining chair and plopped himself down as if he'd lost the energy to stand. He looked as if he'd walked ten klicks to get here. "I'm Memnar. Good name for a media clerk, wouldn't you say?"

"Yeah."

"My real name's Rhys Lloyd. I'm an old Pennsylvania double-L Welshman. I changed it when I came to the wonderful City of Scholars."

"I thought only Whiterobes were allowed to change their names?"

"That's right."

"You mean...?"

"You don't think I worked my way up to my present high position from the sewers, do you?" Noticing the Waste Management patch on the breast of Shasty's brown robe, he added, "No offense meant."

"How...?"

"How did I end up here? They defrocked me, Mister...?"

"Shasty Mummert. I'm a young hillbilly from West Virginia. But I'm gettin' older in the sewers, and smellier too."

Memnar sniffed the air. "Is that what that odor is? I thought we had a leak somewhere." Then he grinned to let Shasty know he was just kidding.

"Yeah, I'm a slush rat. I got sent there because I tried to rise too far above my former station in life. Why did they kick you down here, Dr. Memnar?"

Memnar chuckled. "'Doctor' no more, Mr. Mummert. They took my academic title away, too. You know, it's illegal to refer to yourself as 'Doctor' Somebody, unless you're a Whiterobe or a physician."

"I didn't know."

"Have you noticed my pale-blue robe? They gave me that so people would know I'm a Whiterobe failure."

"How did you come to fail?"

"I wrote one-too-many unacceptable papers." Seeing Shasty's curious expression, he elaborated. "By 'unacceptable,' I mean something the establishment doesn't approve of, something politically or culturally incorrect. It can be a subject they don't want to hear about or even a single unacceptable word."

Shasty considered this unwelcome development.

"I thought there weren't any limits to what a Scholar could study or write about. I thought..."

Memnar cackled and slumped a little more. "You've got a lot to learn about the Scholar class. They're like any in-group: you've got to respect their group beliefs if you want to succeed among them. If you stray from the approved path, your career as a Scholar is kaput."

"'Capoot'?"

"That's Pennsy Dutch for 'down the drain.' You surely know what that means."

"Yeah. But I never imagined it applied to a Whiterobe. What unacceptable stuff did you write about?"

"I can't tell you. I'm forbidden to talk about what I did in my former life. Compartmentalization is big in Scholarland."

"'Compartmentalization'?"

"Secrecy like you wouldn't believe. And that's just part of the downside of Scholarly life. Disputes, backbiting, professional jealousy -- even theft of ideas. That's the way it is up in the clouds."

"I never guessed."

"You ought to see the Whiterobes at a seminar. Sometimes they act like a bunch of lowlife outlanders. They have to have guardsmen present to keep them from fighting."

"Really?" Shasty found these revelations disturbing. He had assumed that Scholar behavior was far-above that of common folks. "Sounds like a real challenge, though."

Memnar grunted. "You still want to make the grade, then, young Scholar-to-be, despite an old man's discouraging talk?"

"Anything's better than being a slush rat. I figure your former position must have meant something to you, or you wouldn't be so ready to talk about it. Am I right?"

"Uh huh. The accomodations are pretty good. The status is good for your ego, especially when you walk the streets and get bowed to."

"They say you can really fly in the Scholar machines, not just float like us down here. The whole world is at your feet."

Memnar arose slowly from his chair and stood, looking down at the young Brownrobe. There was an touch of sympathy in his sarcasm. "Yeah. So long as you don't fly too high and too far."

"I wouldn't. I'm disciplined.... No offense meant."

Memnar waved a blue-veined hand to show that he had taken no offense in Shasty's sincere boast.

"A thick skin and a placid interior are worth a lot around here."

"Thanks for the info, Mr. Memnar. I'll think on it."

"You do that. Meanwhile, I still have some friends among the Whiteys. I can put in a word for you."

"Thanks, but I'd rather get there by my own efforts. I don't want anybody saying I got my robe through favoritism."

Memnar patted Shasty's shoulder in a fatherly fashion.

"Well said, young Scholar-to-be. But in the last analysis, that's how it's done: somebody favors you, officially or unofficially, and you're in.... You ought to enter a paper in the annual AppSchol Contest. Let them see your name and your words. The winner is guaranteed a Scholar Apprenticeship."

"A paper? About what -- the sewers? An epic poem about the joys of slushrunning?

"Well, they say 'Write about what you know.' You must know about something interesting -- how you got here, life as a hillbilly, whatever. Give it a try. Let 'em know you're alive and kicking. Just don't kick out in the wrong direction."

"Be 'acceptable,' you mean? I don't even know what 'acceptable' is to the Scholars."

"You find out the hard way. They don't give you a list of No-Nos. Don't try too hard to avoid mistakes.... Hasn't anything unusual happened to you yet?"

Shasty considered his life's experiences. "I saved a Mole's life once."

"A Mole?!" Memnar looked around him, then dropped his voice to a whisper. "You met a Mole, and you didn't end up in a stewpot? That's really unusual. The Whiteys are so scared of the Moles they're afraid to even think about 'em. Put your Mole experience in your paper and see what happens."

Shasty's eyes narrowed. "You aren't tryin' to keep me down here so's a pariah like you will have somebody to talk to."

Memnar smirked. "Noooo. I already have somebody to talk to."

"Who?"

The old man tapped his head with a forefinger. "Myself -- Memnar of Nanty Glo, a distinguished Former Scholar." He returned to his desk and threw himself into his highbacked chair, closed his eyes, and left the real world of the Media Center for that of his memories.

The Paper

Shasty finished the last draft of his paper in one of the Center's dictarooms. He jumped the text back to the beginning and looked at its title: The Way to the City: A Personal Odyssey. He regretted he had no title to add to his name. That was his goal -- to get one. To be Somebody.

Will this rambling account of my insignificant life help? Or will it just give the Whiterobes a good laugh, like the gate guards but on a higher plane? Hell, I can't fall any lower. Or can I?

"Transmit to addressee," he ordered the machine. His masterwork was on its way to the AppSchol Contest judges. He'd wanted to present his paper to Memnar to show him he could write well, but since the old Welchman wasn't around anymore, he'd ordered the machine to autoedit, just to be sure.

Memnar had been found dead at his desk, one night, when the janitor was closing up the Media Center. He must have known the end was at hand. On his infoscreen, he had keyed, "WAS IT REALLY WORTH IT?"

Shasty dedicated his paper to the old man, fearing but not caring that the Whiterobes might disapprove.

####

"Mummert! Are you there?!"

The distorted voice in his commbadge's speaker sounded tinny but authoritative. It came from the Waste Management office. He recognized his boss, a petty tyrant of the worst sort, who preferred yelling to anything else in life.

He put aside his rake and keyed his comm. "Yes, sir."

"We just got a hotliner. You're to report to the Scholarship Screening Office."

"Now?" In his surprise, he omitted the "sir." His boss scarcely noticed. Hotliners from on-high were very rare in Waste Management.

"Now! Drop everything! Go! And don't forget to clean up!"

Does he think I'd go to the S-Office dripping sewage? "Yes, sir! On my way!" His voice echoed loud in the confining space of the trunk sewer. Ahead, in the darkness beyond his helmet lamp, he could hear some spooked rats scrambling for cover. Despite the old stereotype, they were smart enough to keep well away from slush workers armed with stun-prongs on their cleaning tools. Shasty respected the sewer rats, though. They knew where they belonged.

It must be the paper. I shouldn't have dedicated it to "Rhys Lloyd, PhD." Maybe I shouldn't have written it at all. Something unacceptable has got the Whiteys upset.

He picked up his rake and began sloshing back up the sewer through the scummy water in his highboots. Gotta take my medicine. I just hope they don't bar me from the Media Center. I'd rather go back to Moletown than be barred from the machines.

Little did he know how appropriate that thought was.

The Task

"Well, well. You're Shasty Mummert. I'm Counselor Ridekoi."

The elderly man in the pale-blue robe beamed at Shasty in an avuncular manner, but he didn't offer his hand in greeting. Shasty wondered if he was another downranked Scholar like Memnar or whether his robe had just faded from too many washings. He didn't inquire about that.

"Pleased to meet you, sir." Another damn Counselor. Where's this one going to send me? I can't go lower than the sewers.

"Your paper, The Way to the City: A Personal Odyssey, has come to the attention of the distinguished Scholar-Judges. They deem it a fine piece of work. Congratulations."

"Thank you, sir. Did I win the AppSchol Contest?"

The man smiled wanly and shifted in his comfortable chair. "Well, the final decision hasn't been reached yet, but your paper is a strong contender."

Shasty pressed on, boldly. "Does it show I have the potential to become an Apprentice Scholar, sir?"

"Son, the Screening Office feels that you have more potential than that required for a mere apprenticeship. They feel that you should immediately enter the ranks of the scholarly Field Researchers.... What do you think of that?"

"I'm honored, sir." He was more perplexed than honored, though. What the heck is a "Field Researcher?" Is that on or off the Scholar track?

"We're particularly interested in your account about aiding Angalu, the Mole Master. Do you recall his saying you might need his name later?"

Shasty had a bad feeling about this line of questioning.

"Yes, sir."

"The Moles are a subject area which needs researching. Since Moletown is fairly close to the City, and the Moles are hostile to scholarship, we need to know more about them and their subterranean environment."

Shasty's bad feeling got a lot worse.

The Counselor burbled enthusiastically, as if he were trying to sell Shasty something he didn't need or want. "We feel that, in light of your experience, you're the ideal new potential Scholar to obtain some vital intelligence."

Shasty frowned, despite his determined effort to present himself in a positive manner to this smiling functionary. "You mean you want me to go to Moletown?"

Counselor Ridekoi avoided a direct answer. "Here's what we have in mind: we'll disguise you as an official InterCity Messenger. Even the Moles don't molest them; they send mail, too. We'll equip you with a weapon and a covert imaging device to record your experience. Under the pretext of needing water, you'll ask for Angalu, and they'll take you to him. He'll give you water and send you on your way. You'll return with the first images of interior Moletown." Noticing Shasty's dubious expression, he added, "It'll be a great coup, and it'll strongly recommend you for a Scholar-Aprenticeship. What do you think of that?"

"Sounds good, sir. I'm ready." But he wasn't, really.

These guys want me to do something nobody's had the guts to do before. And if I get killed, they won't lose anybody important.... What if Angalu isn't in Moletown, anymore?... A weapon? What good'll that be; the Moles'll disarm me, right away.... "Recommend me for acceptance into the Scholar class," hell. If I manage to return alive, they'll just send me somewhere else dangerous. That's what "Field Researcher" means. They're never going make me a Scholar-Apprentice. They want me to be Ambassador to the Moles.

"Excellent." The Counselor arose from his chair. "Follow me, son. We'll equip you for your new research project. We'll get you out of that brown robe and into a smart Field Researcher's outfit. You've seen the last of the sewers."

On the other hand, almost any job's got to be better than working for that screaming boss of mine.

####

Shasty stood at the lab table in his new desert-tan pants outfit. A revolver hung heavily in the black-leather holster attached to his Sam Browne belt. His thick boots looked like they could really take the sand and rocks, and the techs had even given him a gold-plated Messenger's badge. On the back of his tunic was printed a colorful outline map of the region and a message in both orthographies, promising a reward to anyone who aided him.

"This sunhelmet contains a pinhole videocorder. You turn it on, here, with this disguise-stud. Okay, so far?" The Bluerobe technician from the Imagery Lab stared at Shasty over the spectacles which had slipped down his nose.

"Understood."

"When the recording capacity is nearly exhausted, there'll be a beeping in your earphone. When you hear that, get to the surface and transmit the video to our satellite. After you transmit, the recorder'll reset itself, and you can record more data. I'll show you how to transmit. Just be sure you're in the clear; it's a low-power radio."

"Right." Easier said than done.

Counselor Ridekoi, who had been standing apart from Shasty and the tech, boomed his approval. "Well, Shasty, you certainly do look the model Field Researcher. I'm sure you'll bring home the bacon."

"Thank you, sir." I wish I could feel so confident, Mr. Faded Bluerobe. But then, I'm goin' to Moletown, and you aren't.

As if he anticipated Shasty's thoughts, Ridekoi patted him on the back and added, with false bravado, "I wish I could be with you on this exciting adventure. After our imaging technicians process your video, we should have a most entertaining -- uh, informative -- record of your sortie into Moletown. I assure you the Scholars at the highest levels of the guild will view your work with great interest."

Yeah. I can hear 'em now: "We lost the boy who sent us that. Too bad. But there are always more ambituous young fellows available."

The Return

By the time Shasty had maneuvered himself close to the lookout tower in Moletown, he had lost all of his scant enthusiasm for the "research project."

The techs had only given him a little water for his journey. They said he had to be convincingly short of it, or his story wouldn't hold up. The sunhelmet heated his head, and it seemed to grow heavier with each hour in the desert. The techs had warned him not to remove it. The Messenger's uniform, made more to keep him warm at night, was a handicap during the daytime.

He felt like discarding the heavy pistol, too. Not only was it a burden, he was afraid the Moles would panic when they saw it and attack him -- even as he shouted Angalu's name.

In short, he was tired, thirsty, and ready to give up his quest for Moletown intel. But he couldn't. Because he was out of water, he had to go to Moletown to get more. The techs knew this would happen.

Now, in the dim light of a crescent moon, he pressed on, carefully avoiding triplines. He needed to get close to the watchman in the lookout so he could alert someone who could summon the Mole leader.

Slowly, he moved forward until he was as close as he dared get to the watchdogs. Finding himself before yet-another tripline, he began the charade. He yanked the line and threw himself to the ground beyond it. The rattle of artfully-suspended tin cans sounded loud in the silent night. The dogs chained to the tower awoke from their unauthorized slumber and barked angrily into the darkness. Suddenly, Shasty was blinded by a strong light from the tower. It was time to scream.

"I'm the Mailman!" he shouted into the dazzling brilliance. "Angalu knows me!"

There was no reply from the tower, but after he had lain in the dust for a few minutes, he heard running sounds behind him. He turned and, in the after-vision left him by the spotlight, he saw two Moles with their old Army rifles. They bracketed him and stood, breathing heavily. Shasty clasped his hands on his head.

"Meat!" A Mole yelled their traditional cry of success.

The hell you say. "I want to see Angalu. He knows me. I'm a friend of his."

"A friend?" scoffed the Mole. "Angalu don't have no friends."

####

"Long time, no see, hillbilly."

Shasty, gripped by the two Mole guards, contemplated the soiled face he recalled from that night in the desert. They were in an underground office room. Angalu sat at a table, on which there were papers but no computer. Behind him was a rusty old filing cabinet.

"Let me guess. You need water -- right?" He poured some turbid fluid from a pitcher into a grimy cup and gave it to Shasty, who greedily drank it, then shakily, poured himself another.

"Help yourself." said the Mole, sarcastically. "We don't stand on ceremony here."

Shasty drained the cup. "I need more than water, Angalu. I need a favor. But it's for your benefit, too."

"Let me guess: you didn't make it as a Scholar, so you want to be something better: a Mole."

Shasty grinned at the Mole leader. "Not really. I'm headed back East to the green hills. Can I talk to you in private?"

The Mole looked wary, but he gestured peremptorily to the two guards. "Get out." They placed Shasty's revolver on the desk and left slowly to show they weren't really intimidated by their grumpy leader. Shasty understood why Angalu didn't have any friends in Moletown. When the guards were gone, he put his cards on the table.

"I'm a spy from the City."

Angalu didn't find that remark very enlightening. "With a uniform, a badge, and a gun? Some spy you are." He handed Shasty back his pistol. "Don't fire that while you're down here -- it might collapse our ceiling. This isn't the Roman Catacombs, you know."

Shasty explained his "research project" to the Mole leader, who scowled darkly at his revelation of the videocorder in his sunhelmet. "You really are a spy."

Then, Shasty proposed a big change in his "mission parameters." He told Angalu what he had in mind.

The Mole Master roared with laughter. "I love it!"

The Message

In a luxuriously-furnished room in a secluded part of the City of Scholars, the Executive Committee of senior Scholars prepared to view the results of the latest field research project. The fat Scholars sat in their overstuffed chairs, puffing cigars, drinking expensive wine, and gossiping.

Counselor Ridekoi made his way to the front of the room and stood before a wide video-display screen. He respectfully held up his hands for silence.

"Honored Scholars, we're about to see a video showing the first penetration of Moletown by a Field Researcher who, unfortunately, may have given his life so that this vital intelligence could be transmitted. I haven't viewed this video, myself. I rushed it here from the Imagery Lab, even though the techs wanted me to view it, first." He chuckled. "There's no need for that. We all know what a fine job they do."

This elicited mumbling and a few harumphs from those in the audience who were unimpressed with the Counselor's crude attempt to curry favor with his seniors.

Ridekoi gestured to the video operator. The room lights faded and the screen displayed a ramp-entrance to a Moletown tunnel. No Mole was in sight.

The view continued smoothly down a weakly-illuminated earthen tunnel, turned at a cross-tunnel, and continued on. More turns were made, but no Moles or their appurtenances were shown.

"How much did this masterpiece cost us?" inquired one elderly Scholar.

Ridekoi began to feel uncomfortable. Mummert should have encountered someone or something by now. Didn't he contact Angalu, like he was supposed to?

The video showed only more tedious progress down the tunnels. This elicited a loud yawn from a Scholar. Finally, a small table appeared in the center of the tunnel. The image jiggled as the researcher took off his sunhelmet and placed it on the table.

The audience was restive. "Is he tired, or what?" asked one Scholar. "Well, I am," offered another.

Counselor Ridekoi began to perspire. I should have previewed this video.

Into the image strode the Field Researcher, whose name had been forgotten by most of the Scholars. He stood with his back to the imager.

"What's he doing?"

Shasty Mummert -- Field Researcher for the City of Scholars -- unbuckled his belt, dropped his new official Intercity Messenger's pants and shorts. He bent over for the imager to record the words painted in red on his buttocks:

TO HELL WITH
SCHOLAR SHIP

After what seemed to the stunned Scholars an excessive display-time for a final image, the screen faded to black and was replaced by the logo of the Imagery Lab.

THE END


© 2011 Frederick Rustam

Bio: Frederick Rustam is a retired civil servant. He formerly indexed technical reports for the Department of Defense. In his retirement, he studies information science and writes science fiction for ezines. He has yet to write the ultimate information science short story, but one of his most recent attempts, Thy Kingdom Come, My Will Be Done, appeared in the December 2009 / January 2010 issue of Aphelion.

E-mail: Frederick Rustam

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