Foster, You’re Dead
School was agony, as always. Only today it was worse. Mike Foster finished weaving his two watertight baskets and sat rigid, while all around him the other children worked. Outside the concrete-and-steel building the late-aftemoon sun shone cool. The hills sparkled green and brown in the crisp autumn air. In the overhead sky a few NATS circled lazily above the town.
The vast, ominous shape of Mrs. Cummings, the teacher, silently approached his desk. “Foster, are you finished?” “Yes ma’am,” he answered eagerly. He pushed the baskets up. “Can I leave now?”
Mrs. Cummings examined the baskets critically. “What about your trap-making?” she demanded.
He fumbled in his desk and brought out his intricate small-animal trap. “All finished, Mrs. Cummings. And my knife, it’s done, too.” He showed her the razor-edged blade of his knife, glittering metal he had shaped from a discarded gasoline drum. She picked up the knife and ran her expert finger doubtfully along the blade.
“Not strong enough,” she stated. “You’ve oversharpened it. It’ll lose its edge the first time you use it. Go down to the main weapons-lab and examine, the knives they’ve got there. Then hone it back some and get a thicker blade.” “Mrs. Cummings,” Mike Foster pleaded, “could I fix it tomorrow? Could I not fix it right now, please?” Everybody in the classroom was watching with interest. Mike Foster flushed; he hated to be singled out and made conspicuous, but he had to get away. He couldn’t stay in school one minute more.
Inexorable, Mrs. Cummings rumbled, “Tomorrow is digging day. You won’t have time to work on your knife.” “I will,” he assured her quickly. “After the digging.” “No, you’re not too good at digging.” The old woman was measuring the boy’s spindly arms and legs. “I think you better get your knife finished today. And spend all day tomorrow down at the field.”
“What’s the use of digging?” Mike Foster demanded, in despair.
“Everybody has to know how to dig,” Mrs. Cummings answered patiently. Children were snickering on all sides; she shushed them with a hostile glare. “You all know the importance of digging. When the war begins the whole surface will be littered with debris and rubble. If we hope to survive we’ll have to dig down, won’t we? Have any of you ever watched a gopher digging around the roots of plants? The gopher knows he’ll find something valuable down there under the surface of the ground. We’re all going to be little brown gophers. We’ll all have to learn to dig down in the rubble and find the good things, because that’s where they’ll be.”
Mike Foster sat miserably plucking his knife, as Mrs. Cummings moved away from his desk and up the aisle. A few children grinned contemptuously at him, but nothing penetrated his haze of wretchedness. Digging wouldn’t do him any good. When the bombs came he’d be killed instantly. All the vaccination shots up and down his arms, on his thighs and buttocks, would be of no use. He had wasted his allowance money: Mike Foster wouldn’t be alive to catch any of the bacterial plagues. Not unless—
He sprang up and followed Mrs. Cummings to her desk.
In an agony of desperation he blurted, “Please, I have to leave. I have to do something ”
Mrs. Cummings’ tired lips twisted angrily. But the boy’s fearful eyes stopped her. “What’s wrong?” she demanded. “Don’t you feel well?”
The boy stood frozen, unable to answer her. Pleased by the tableau, the class murmured and giggled until Mrs. Cummings rapped angrily on her desk with a writer. “Be quiet,” she snapped. Her voice softened a shade, “Michael, if you’re not functioning properly, go downstairs to the psych clinic. There’s no point trying to work when your reactions are conflicted. Miss Groves will be glad to optimum you.”
“No,” Foster said.
“Then what is it?”
The class stirred. Voices answered for Foster; his tongue was stuck with misery and humiliation. “His father’s an anti-P,” the voices explained. “They don’t have a shelter and he isn’t registered in the Civic Defense. His father hasn’t even contributed to the NATS. They haven’t done anything.”
Mrs. Cummings gazed up in amazement at the mute boy. “You don’t have a shelter?”
He shook his head.
A strange feeling filled the woman. “But ” She had
started to say, but you’ll die up here. She changed it to, “But where’ll you go?”
“Nowhere,” the mild voices answered for him. “Everybody else’ll be down in their shelters and he’ll be up here. He even doesn’t have a permit to the school shelter.” Mrs. Cummings was shocked. In her dull, scholastic way she had assumed every child in the school had a permit to the elaborate subsurface chambers under the building. But of course not. Only children whose parents were part of CD, who contributed to arming the community. And if Foster’s father was an anti-P . . .
“He’s afraid to sit here,” the voices chimed calmly. “He’s afraid it’ll come while he’s sitting here, and everybody else will be safe down in the shelter.”
He wandered slowly along, hands deep in his pockets, kicking at dark stones on the sidewalk. The sun was setting. Snub-nosed commute rockets were unloading tired people, glad to be home from the factory strip a hundred miles to the west. On the distant hills something flashed: a radar tower revolving silently in the evening gloom. The circling NATS had increased in number. The twilight hours were the most dangerous; visual observers couldn’t spot highspeed missiles coming in close to the ground. Assuming the missiles came.
A mechanical newsmachine shouted at him excitedly as he passed. War, death, amazing new weapons developed at home and abroad. He hunched his shoulders and continued on, past the little concrete shells that served as houses, each exactly alike, sturdy reinforced pillboxes. Ahead of him bright neon signs glowed in the settling gloom: the business district, alive with traffic and milling people.
Half a block from the bright cluster of neons he halted. To his right was a public shelter, a dark tunnel-like entrance with a mechanical turnstile glowing dully. Fifty cents admission. If he was here, on the street, and he had fifty cents, he’d be all right. He had pushed down into public shelters many times, during the practice raids. But other times, hideous, nightmare times that never left his mind, he hadn’t had the fifty cents. He had stood mute and terrified, while people pushed excitedly past him; and the shrill shrieks of the sirens thundered everywhere.
He continued slowly, until he came to the brightest blotch of light, the great, gleaming showrooms of General Electronics, two blocks long, illuminated on all sides, a vast square of pure color and radiation. He halted and examined for the millionth time the fascinating shapes, the display that always drew him to a hypnotized stop whenever he passed.
In the center of the vast room was a single object. An elaborate, pulsing blob of machinery and support struts, beams and walls and sealed locks. All spotlights were turned on it; huge signs announced its hundred-and-one advantages—as if there could be any doubt.
THE NEW 1972 BOMB-PROOF RADIATION-SEALED SUBSURFACE SHELTER IS HERE!
Check these star-studded features:
* automatic descent-lift—jambproof, self- powered, e-z locking
* triple-layer hull guaranteed to withstand 5g pressure without buckling
* A-powered heating and refrigeration system — self-servicing air-purification network
* three decontamination stages for food and water
*four hygienic stages for pre-bum exposure
*complete anti-biotic processing
*e-z payment plan
He gazed at the shelter a long time. It was mostly a big tank, with a neck at one end that was the descent tube, and an emergency escape-hatch at the other. It was completely self-contained; a miniature world that supplied its own light, heat, air, water, medicines, and almost inexhaustible food. When fully stocked there were visual and audio tapes, entertainment, beds, chairs, vidscreen, everything that made up the above-surface home. It was, actually, a home below the ground. Nothing was missing that might be needed or enjoyed. A family would be safe, even comfortable, during the most severe H-bomb and bacterial-spray attack.
It cost twenty thousand dollars.
While he was gazing silently at the massive display, one of the salesmen stepped out onto the dark sidewalk, on his way to the cafeteria. “Hi, sonny,” he said automatically, as he passed Mike Foster. “Not bad, is it?”
“Can I go inside?” Foster asked quickly. “Can I go down in it?”
The salesman stopped, as he recognized the boy. “You’re that kid,” he said slowly, “that damn kid who’s always pestering us.”
“I’d like to go down in it. Just for a couple minutes. I won’t bust anything—I promise. I won’t even touch anything.”
The salesman was young and blond, a good-looking man in his early twenties. He hesitated, his reactions divided. The kid was a pest. But he had a family, and that meant a reasonable prospect. Business was bad; it was late September and the seasonal slump was still on. There was no profit in telling the boy to go peddle his newstapes; but on the other hand it was bad business encouraging small fry to crawl around the merchandise. They wasted time; they broke things; they pilfered small stuff when nobody was looking.
“No dice,” the salesman said. “Look, send your old man down here. Has he seen what we’ve got?”
“Yes,” Шее Foster said tightly.
“What’s holding him back?” The salesman waved expansively up at the great gleaming display. “We’ll give him a good trade-in on his old one, allowing for depreciation and obsolescence. What model has he got?”
“We don’t have any,” Mike Foster said.
The salesman blinked. “Come again?”
“My father says it’s a waste of money. He says they’re trying to scare people into buying things they don’t need.
He says ”
“Your father’s an anti-P?”
“Yes,” Mike Foster answered unhappily.
The salesman let out his breath. “Okay, kid. Sorry we can’t do business. It’s not your fault.” He lingered. “What the hell’s wrong with him? Does he put in on the NATS?” “No.”
The salesman swore under his breath. A coaster, sliding along, safe because the rest of the community was putting up thirty per cent of its income to keep a constant-defense system going. There were always a few of them, in every town. “How’s your mother feel?” the salesman demanded. “She go along with him?”
“She says ” Mike Foster broke off. “Couldn’t I go
down in it for a litde while? I won’t bust anything. Just once”
“How’d we ever sell it if we let kids run through it?
We're not marking it down as a demonstration model— we’ve got roped into that too often.” The salesman’s curiosity was aroused. “How’s a guy get to be an anti-P? He always feel this way, or did he get stung with some* thing?”