THE TEMPERATURE of the Refuge varied from 99 degrees Fahrenheit to 101 degrees Fahrenheit. Steam lay perennially in the air, drifting and billowing sluggishly. Geysers of hot water spurted, and the “ground” was a shifting surface of warm slime, compounded from water, dissolved minerals, and fungoid pulp. The remains of lichens and protozoa colored and thickened the scum of moisture that dripped everywhere, over the wet rocks and sponge-like shrubbery, the various utilitarian installations. A careful backdrop had been painted, a long plateau rising from a heavy ocean.

Beyond doubt, the Refuge was modeled after the womb. The semblance couldn’t be denied—and nobody had denied it.

Bending down, Louis moodily picked up a pale green fungus growing near his feet and broke it apart. Under its moist organic skin was a mesh of man-made plastic; the fungus was artificial.

“We could be worse off,” Frank said, watching him hurl the fungus away. “We might have to pay for all this. It must have cost Fedgov billions of dollars to set up this place.”

“Stage scenery,” Louis said bitterly. “What for? Why were we born this way?”

Grinning, Frank said: “We’re superior mutants, remember? Isn’t that what we decided years ago?” He pointed at the world visible beyond the wall of the Refuge. “We’re too pure for that.”

Outside lay San Francisco, the nocturnal city half-asleep in its blanket of chill fog. Occasional cars crept here and there; pockets of commuters emerged like complicated segmented worms from underground monorail terminals. Infrequent office lights glowed sparsely… Louis turned his back on the sight. It hurt too much to see it, to know that he was in here, trapped, caught within the closed circle of the group. To realize that nothing existed for them but the sitting and staring, the empty years of the Refuge.

“There must be a purpose,” he said. “A reason for us.”

Frank shrugged fatalistically. “War-time sports, generated by radiation pools. Damage to the genes. An accident… like Jones.”

“But they’re keeping us alive,” Irma said, from behind them. “All these years, maintaining us, caring for us. They must get something out of it. They must have something in mind.”

“Destiny?” Frank asked mockingly. “Our cosmic goal?”

The Refuge was a murky, steamy bowl that imprisoned the seven of them. Its atmosphere was a mixture of ammonia, oxygen, freon, and traces of methane, heavily laden with water vapor, lacking carbon dioxide. The Refuge had been constructed twenty-five years ago, in 1977, and the older members of the group had memories of a prior life in separate mechanical incubators. The original workmanship had been superior, and from time to time improvements were made. Normal human workmen, protected by sealed suits, periodically entered the Refuge, dragging their maintenance equipment after them. Usually it was the mobile fauna that went out of order and needed repairs.

“If they had a purpose for us,” Frank said, “they’d tell us.” He, personally, trusted the Fedgov authorities who operated the Refuge. “Doctor Rafferty would tell us; you know that.”

“I’m not so sure,” Irma said.

“My God,” Frank said angrily, “they’re not our enemies. If they wanted to, they could wipe us out in a second—and they haven’t, have they? They could let the Youth League in here at us.”

“They have no right to keep us in here,” Louis protested.

Frank sighed. “If we went out there,” he said carefully, as if he were speaking to children, “we’d die.” At the upper rim of the transparent wall was a pressure vent, a series of safety valves. A dull miasma of acrid gasses trickled in, mixing with the familiar dampness of their own air. “Smell that?” Frank demanded. “That’s what it’s like outside. Harsh and freezing and lethal.”

“Did it ever occur to you,’ Louis asked, “that maybe that stuff leaking in is a deliberate fake?”

“It occurs to all of us,” Frank said. “Every couple of years. We get in our paranoia stage and we start planning to break out. Only we don’t have to break out; all we have to do is walk out. Nobody ever stopped us. We’re free to leave this steamed-up bowl, except for one fact: we can’t survive out there. We’re just not strong enough.”

By the transparent wall, a hundred feet away, stood the remaining four members of the group. Frank’s voice carried to them, a hollow and distorted sound. Garry, the youngest of the group, glanced up. He listened for a moment, but no further words were audible.

“Okay,” Vivian said impatiently. “Let’s go.” Garry nodded. “Goodbye womb,” he muttered. Reaching up, he pressed the red button that would bring Doctor Rafferty.

Doctor Rafferty said: “Our small friends get somewhat excited, once in awhile. They’ve decided they can lick any man in the house.” He led Cussick to the upramp. “This will be interesting… your first time. Don’t be surprised; it may be a shock. They’re quite different from us, physiologically speaking.”

At the eleventh floor the first elements of the Refuge were visible, the elaborate pumps that maintained its temperature and atmosphere. Doctors instead of police were visible, white uniforms instead of brown. On the fourteenth floor Rafferty stepped from the rising ramp, and Cussick followed.

“They’re ringing for you,” a doctor said to Rafferty. “They’re highly disturbed, these days.”

“Thanks.” To Cussick, Rafferty said: “You can watch on that screen. I don’t want them to see you. They shouldn’t be aware of the police guard.”

A section of wall retired. Beyond it was the swirling blue-green landscape of the Refuge. Cussick watched as Doctor Rafferty strode through the lock and into the artificial world beyond. Immediately the tall figure was surrounded by seven curious parodies, gnomish miniatures both male and female. The seven of them were agitated, and their frail, bird-cage chests rose and fell with emotion. Crying shrilly, excitedly, they began to explain and gesture.

“What is it?” Rafferty interrupted. In the sweltering steam of the Refuge he was gasping for breath; perspiration dripped from his reddening face.

“We want to leave here,” a female piped.

“And we’re walking,” another announced, a male. “We’ve decided—you can’t keep us shut up in here. We have rights.”

For an interval Rafferty discussed the situation with them; then, abruptly, he turned and made his way back through the lock. “That’s my limit,” he murmured to Cussick, mopping his forehead. “I can tolerate three minutes in there, and then the ammonia goes to work.”

“You’re going to let them try it?” Cussick asked.

“Activate the Van,” Rafferty said to his technicians. “Have it ready to pick them up as they drop.” To Cussick he explained: “The Van is an iron lung for them. There won’t be too much risk; they’re fragile, but we’ll be ready to gather them up before damage is done.”

Not all the mutants were leaving the Refuge. Four hesitant figures were picking their way along the passage that led to the elevator. Behind them, their three companions remained in the safety of the entrance, huddled together in a group.

“Those three are more realistic,” Doctor Rafferty said. “And older. The slightly heavier one, the dark-haired one who looks the most human, is Frank. It’s the younger ones who give us the trouble. I’ll put them through a gradational series of stages to acclimatize their overly-vulnerable systems—so they won’t suffocate or die of heart stoppage.” Worriedly, he went on: “What I want you to do is clear the streets. I don’t want anybody to see them; it’s late and there won’t be many people out, but just in case…”

“I’ll phone Secpol,” Cussick agreed.

“How soon can it be done?”

“A few minutes. The weapons-police are already mobile, because of Jones and the mobs.”

Relieved, Rafferty hurried off, and Cussick began searching for a Security police phone. He found it, got in touch with the San Francisco office, and gave his instructions. While he kept the phone circuit open, the airborne police teams began collecting around the Refuge building. He stayed in direct touch until the street-blocks had been erected, and then he left the phone to look for Rafferty.

By elevator the four mutants had descended to the street level. Staggering, groping numbly, they followed Doctor Rafferty across the lobby, toward the wide doors that led to the street.

No pedestrians or cars were in sight, Cussick observed; the police had successfully cleared everybody away. At the corner one gloomy shape broke the expanse of gray; the Van was parked, its motor running, ready to follow.

“There they go,” a doctor said, standing beside Cussick. “I hope Rafferty knows what he’s doing.” He pointed. “The almost-pretty one is Vivian. She’s the youngest female. The boy is Garry—very bright, very unstable. That is Dieter, and his companion is Louis. There’s an eighth, a baby, still in the incubator. They haven’t as yet been told.”

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Categories: Dick, Phillip K.