“How’s the arm?” I asked Him.
“All healed,” He said, grinning broadly. “Just like I said it would be.” There was no sense of the braggart in his voice, just the tone of a happy child who has learned something new.
“All healed,” I echoed numbly. I was feeling numb all over, as if the constant brushing with Death over the last seven days had acted as sandpaper to wear down my receptors until life was a slick, textureless film through which I slid on greased runners. A doctor, of course, knows of Death and understands the prince. But the context in which he knows and understands him is different than what I had been encountering in this long chase. The physician sees Death in a clinical sense, as a phenomenon of Nature, as something to be combatted on a scientific level. It is something else altogether when Death sets out to claim you and you are fighting, only with your cunning and guile, to keep him from claiming you.
The auto-taxi glided to a halt before the gates of Mount McKinley National Park, the gray shape of the twin-peaked, towering colossus a lighter dark against the night. A pine forest loomed directly ahead through which the road wound in a carefree, unbusinesslike manner. “This taxi is prohibited from making runs into the park after eight o’clock at night. Please advise.” The car’s voice tape had been recorded by a nasal-toned woman in her late twenties or early thirties, and its metallic yet feminine quality seemed out of place coming from the wire speaker grid in the dashboard. I cannot get used to machines sounding like the sort of woman you might want to seduce. I was born and raised before the use of the Kelbert Brain. I like silent machines, mute computers. Old-fashioned, I guess.
I stuffed four poscred bills in the payment slot, two to cover our trip and two more to pay for what I was about to request. “Drive at random for the next half-hour, then return to your stall at the Port.”
“At random?” it asked.
I should have realized that, even with the Kelbert
Brain, it was too stupid to carry on much of a conversation. It was limited in scope to the sort of thing a customer might ask or propose, not something out of the ordinary. Just like, I thought, most of the women I had seduced whose voices were similar to the machine’s. I leaned over the keyboard and punched a random series of numbers and, finally, the code series for the Port as it was listed on the directory chart beside the console. “That should do,” I said. “Let’s go.”
The doors sprung open when we touched the release panels, and we clambered out into the night, taking our bundle of old clothes with us. The car closed up, thrummed like a hummingbird for a moment, then executed a swift turn and whizzed back the way we had come, its amber lights receding and leaving us alone in the darkness.
“What now?” He asked, coming up beside me, shifting the weight of the pack on His back until it settled just as He wanted it to.
“We hide these clothes we had on,” I said, moving to a drainage ditch and pushing my bundle back into the culvert, out of sight. He followed my example, reaching even farther with His longer arms. “And now we climb the fence into the park.”
“Wait,” He said, moving past me to the gate where He stopped, examining the lock. He took off His gloves and placed His hands on the padlock. He stared at the thing a moment, as if imprinting the mechanism on His mind. Finally, He grunted and sucked in huge lungfulls of air. While I watched, the tip of His finger elongated, thinned to the thickness of a coathanger wire, and snaked into the keyhole on the face of the lock. A minute or so passed with the wind beating on us like a hundred rubber sledgehammers. Then something clicked. Clicked again, louder. That was the most joyous sound I had ever heard, for I had not been looking forward to the prospect of scrambling over an eight-foot fence in twenty to thirty mile-an-hour winds with a twenty-five pound pack on my back. Perhaps I’m timid and afraid of new adventures, but I preferred walking through to climbing over. He withdrew His hand, reformed His finger into more conventional shape, put on His gloves, and pushed the big gates inward with a dramatic flourish that showed He had seen or read some pretty melodramatic stuff in His free time back at the laboratory.