- Author: Mark Clifton
Read book online «A Woman's Place by Mark Clifton (love story novels in english .txt) 📕». Author - Mark Clifton
[Transcriber Note: This etext was produced from Galaxy Science Fiction May 1955. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]
It was the speaking of Miss Kitty's name which half roused her from sleep. She eased her angular body into a more comfortable position in the sack. Still more asleep than awake, her mind reflected tartly that in this lifeboat, hurtling away from their wrecked spaceship back to Earth, the sleeping accommodation was quite appropriately named. On another mental level, she tried to hear more of what was being said about her. Naturally, hearing one's name spoken, one would.
"We're going to have to tell Miss Kitty as soon as she wakes up." It was Sam Eade talking to Lt. Harper—the two men who had escaped with her.
"Yes, Sam," the lieutenant answered. "What we've suspected all along is pretty definite now."
Still drowsing, she wondered, without any real interest, what they felt they must tell her. But the other level of her mind was more real. She wondered how she looked to these two young men while she slept. Did she sleep with her mouth open? Did her tiara slip while she snored?
Vividly, as in full dreaming, she slipped back into the remembered scene which had given birth to the phrase. At some social gathering she had been about to enter a room. She'd overheard her name spoken then, too.
"Miss Kitty is probably a cute enough name when you're young," the catty woman was saying. "But at her age!"
"Well, I suppose you might say she's kept it for professional reasons," the other woman had answered with a false tolerance. "A school teacher, wanting to be cozy with her kiddies, just a big sister." The tolerance was too thin, it broke away. "Kind of pathetic, I think. She's so plain, so very typical of an old maid school teacher. She's just the kind to keep a name like Miss Kitty."
"What gets me," the first one scoffed, "is her pride in having such a brilliant mind—if she really does have one. All those academic degrees. She wears them on every occasion, like a tiara!"
She had drawn back from the door. But in her instant and habitual introspection, she realized she was less offended than perversely pleased because, obviously, they were jealous of her intellectual accomplishments, her ability to meet men on their own ground, intellectually as good a man as any man.
The half dream drowsiness was sharply washed away by the belated impact of Sam Eade's question to Lt. Harper. Reality flashed on, and she was suddenly wide awake in the lifeboat heading back to Earth.
"What is it you must tell me?" She spoke loudly and crisply to the men's broad backs where they sat in front of the instrument panel. The implication of the question, itself, that they had been holding something back....
Lt. Harper turned slowly around in his seat and looked at her with that detested expression of amused tolerance which his kind of adult male affected toward females. He was the dark, ruggedly handsome type, the kind who took it for granted that women should fawn over him. The kind who would speak the fatuous cliche that a woman's place was in the home, not gallivanting off to teach colonists' children on the fourth planet of Procyon. Still, perhaps she was unjust, she hardly knew the man.
"Oh, you awake, Miss Kitty?" he asked easily. His tone, as always, was diffident, respectful toward her. Odd, she resented that respect from him, when she would have resented lack of it even more.
"Certainly," she snapped. "What is it you must tell me?"
"When you're dressed, freshened up a bit," he answered, not evasively, but as if it could wait.
She started to insist, but he had already turned back to the nose window to study the starry sky and the huge misty green ball of Earth in front of them. Sam Eade, the radioman, was intently twisting the dials on his set with a puckered frown between his blond eyebrows. He was an entirely different type, tall, blond, but just as fatuously masculine, as arrogantly handsome. Probably neither one of them had an ounce of brains—handsome people so seldom needed to develop mental ability.
Sam, too, turned his face farther away from her. Both backs told her plainly that she could dress, take care of her needs, with as much privacy as the lifeboat could allow anybody.
Not that it would take her long. She'd worn coveralls since the catastrophe, saving the dress she'd had on for landing on Earth. They'd had to leave most of her luggage behind. The lieutenant had insisted on taking up most of the spare space in the lifeboat with that dismantled space warper from the wreck of their ship.
She combed her short graying hair back of her ears, and used a little water sparingly to brush her teeth. Perhaps it had been a quixotic thing, her giving up a secure teaching post on Earth to go out to Procyon IV. Except that she'd dreamed about a new colony where the rising generation, under her influence, would value intellect—with the girls no different from the boys. Perhaps it had been even sillier to take a cabin on a freighter, the only passenger with a crew of four men. But men did not intimidate her, and on a regular passenger ship she'd have been bored stiff by having to associate with the women.
Two of the men....
It wasn't quite clear to her, even yet, what had happened. They'd used the normal drive to get clear of regular solar shipping lanes. The warning bell had rung that they were about to warp into hyperspace, a mechanism which canceled out distance and made the trip in apparent time no more than an overnight jaunt to Mars. There was a grinding shudder—then a twisted ship which looked as if some giant had taken a wet rag and torqued it to squeeze out the water. Lt. Harper and Sam had got her out of her cabin, and finally into the lifeboat which was only partly crippled.
The other two men of the crew....
She zipped up the front of her coveralls with a crisp gesture, as if to snap off the vision. She would show no weakness in front of these two men. She had no weakness to show!
"All right, gentlemen," she said incisively to their backs. "Now. What is it I must be told?"
Lt. Harper pointed to the ball of Earth so close ahead. It was huge, almost filling the sky in front of them. The misty atmosphere blurred outlines slightly, but she could make out the Eastern halves of North and South America clearly. The Western portions were still in dim darkness.
"See anything wrong, Miss Kitty?" the lieutenant asked quietly.
She looked more closely, sensing a possible trap in his question, a revealment of her lack of knowledge.
"I'm not an authority on celestial geography," she said cautiously, academically. "But obviously the maps I've seen were not accurate in showing the true continental proportions." She pointed to a small chart hanging on the side wall. "This map shows Florida, for example, a much longer peninsula than it actually is. A number of things like that. I don't see anything else wrong, but, of course, it's not my field of knowledge."
Lt. Harper looked at her approvingly, the kind of look she gave a bright pupil who'd been especially discerning.
"Only it's not the map that's wrong, Miss Kitty," he said. "It is my field of knowledge, and I've seen those continental outlines hundreds of times. They always corresponded to the map ... before."
She looked at him without comprehension.
"Not only that," Sam Eade entered the conversation. "As soon as we were clear of the wreck, Lt. Harper took a fix on stars and constellations. He's an astrogator. He knows his business. And they were wrong, too. Just a little wrong, here and there, but enough. And even more than that. On a tight beam, I should have been able to make a connection with Earth headquarters on this set. And I haven't yet got communication, and we know there's nothing wrong with this set."
"Sam knows his business, too, Miss Kitty," Lt. Harper said. "If he can't get communication, it's because there isn't any."
She looked wide-eyed from one to the other. For once, she was more concerned with a problem than with concealing her ignorance about it.
"It means," the lieutenant said, as if he were answering a question she hadn't yet asked, "that the Earth we are returning to is not the Earth we left."
"I don't understand," she gasped.
"There's a theory," Lt. Harper answered slowly. "Heretofore it has been considered only a mathematical abstraction, and having no counterpart in reality. The theory of multiple dimensions." She looked at him closely, and in her habitual ambivalence of thought reflected that he sounded much more intelligent than she had suspected.
"I've read about that," she answered.
He looked relieved, and threw a quick look at Sam. Apparently he had underestimated her intelligence, too—in spite of all her degrees.
"We never thought it could be real," he emphasized. "But the theory was that multiple universes lay side by side, perhaps each an instant's time away from the other. The only thing I can see is that some flaw in the space warper threw us out of our dimension into another one closely adjacent—not far enough for things to be totally different, just different enough that the duplication isn't identical. It's Earth, but it's not our Earth. It's a New Earth, one we don't know anything about."
"In another few hours, we'll be entering the atmosphere," Sam put in, "and we don't know what we'll find. We thought you ought to know."
She flared in exasperation at the simple assumption of male arrogance.
"Of course I should know!" she snapped back. "I am not one of your little bits of blonde, empty-headed fluff to be protected by strong males! I should have been told immediately!"
Lt. Harper looked at Sam with a broad grin. It was amusement, but it was more—a confirmation that they could depend on her to take it in her stride—an approval. Apparently, they had discussed more things about her than she'd overheard, while she slept. He didn't turn off the grin when he looked directly at her.
"What could you have done about it, if we had told you, Miss Kitty?" he asked mildly.
It was not the same Earth. The charts and maps had not been wrong. Her tentative theory that perhaps there were vision flaws in the plastic nose window which had not stood up.
The continents, the lakes, the rivers—the topography really was distorted. Now there was the Mississippi River, one spot swinging rather too widely to the East. The Great Lakes were one huge inland sea. The Gulf of Mexico swung high up into what had once been Alabama and Georgia.
There was no New Orleans, shipping center of the world, headquarters of Space.
There were no cities anywhere up and down the Mississippi. Where St. Louis should have been, there was virgin forest. As they dropped down into the upper reaches of atmosphere, experiencing the familiar and sometimes nauseating reference shift from ahead to below, there had been no New York to the East, no San Francisco to the West. There had been no Boulder Dam, no Tennessee Valley project, no continuous hydroelectric installations running the entire length of the Mississippi, where the strength of the Father of the Waters had finally been harnessed for Man. There were no thin lines of highways, no paint-brush strokes of smoke against the canvas of the Gulf of Mexico to denote steamers, for atomic power was still not available to all.
On this New Earth, Man could not yet have reached a state of complex technology.
And as they dropped lower still, through their telescope sights, they saw no canoes on the river or the feeder streams. They saw no huts along the river shore, no thin streamers of wood smoke from huts hidden under the trees along the bayous. New Earth was purple and blue, then shading into green as they dropped lower. They sighted a deer drinking at the edge of a pool.
But there was no trace of Man.
"If there are no scars, no defacements upon this forest primeval," Miss Kitty said didactically, "then Man has not evolved on New Earth." Since it was spoken in the tone of an axiom, and there was no evidence to refute it, neither