Parsec - June 1995
The Legend of the Thin Man - Ben Liddicott
(page 4/13)

The Legend of the Thin Man

The engine was making that noise again.

She looked nervously round at the blistering scenery, beautiful from the safety of her car. Round at the delicate pinnacles of rock on the left, orange and majestic, like helium balloons tied to the earth. The rocks balanced improbably, intent on reaching some incomprehensible goal of their own.

To her right, only the scree, interwoven with the small orange plants that were invisible against the sand, unless you knew they were there. The insects were harmless, though not to each other. Only the mid morning sun was her enemy.

Ahead of her, the city, Greenland. Back from visiting a friend in thousand klick distant Landsville, she did not look forward to the provincial atmosphere of home. Landsville was the biggest city on the planet, with over fifty thousand people. It had nightclubs, a university, restaurant, and even a small church. Greenland had only a general store, a small school and JedNine, the archetypal boy next door. She did not like him.

She might have been able to tolerate him if he had only been an engineers assistant, or if he had served in the store like Acerpac did, smiled at her and called her miss. If, for instance, he had been a farmer, and just looked up to watch her lean, expert figure in the thin shirt as she rode her Trailer Ten over the dirt roads, the back wheel kicking up dust to choke Elias. If he had been a student, finished studying hard and about to make the trip to Landsville for the Oral examination, she might even have taken him to bed with her. If, in other words, he hadn't been uncouth and uneducated, and if he hadn't thought he was good enough for her.

As it was he was a pain in the ass, always making passes, and always getting riled when he always got the brush-off. His father was just as bad.

She lived with her uncle, since the death of her father from hypoimmunity. In other words, he had died from being rotted alive by one of the native fungi, and his immune system hadn't even noticed. Everyone else got stabbed, of course, as soon as his symptoms were noticed, but it was too late for him.

Still, with ten billion harmless fungi on the planet, you couldn't check them all for danger. That would be far too expensive. Much cheaper and more effective to wait until someone caught it.

The engine was really worrying now, making a noise like a digger. Then it cut out, the indicators giving Danger! status. She tried to restart it.

But no, the computer was having none of it. Refusal, it said. Danger of explosion. Recommended action: walk 70 kilometres.

She did not try communicators. There was no SatCom on the vehicle, and there were no relay stations between here and Greenland. Also, she had left her portable in at home. Telephone connection in strange cities was expensive. She took the water bottle, shook it, and found it full, and checking the charge on her coolsuit, set off walking.

The heat was blistering, at a very real forty-nine Celsius. With her wide brimmed hat, and her light blue coolsuit and shoes, she stood out only slightly against the orange road. An observer looking from a distant hilltop would have been hard put to, to notice her.

She was making good time. She did not over exert, or run, though she longed to stretch her legs a little, in order not to overwork the coolsuit. She estimated she was covering about 8 klicks per hour. She should be home by late afternoon, in about nine hours time, or evening if she stopped to rest.

Her uncle would tell her off for not taking her personal. With it she could have telephoned him for help when she got over the ridge, and only had to walk the thirty klicks. "But Steve," she would reply, "I'd only have used it, and I know how expensive the bill was last time." It's your fault, you're the mayor, so you should be able to afford it.

She could probably get a lift from one of the farms, but the nearest was only five klicks from her uncle's house. No, she would just walk straight home, and go to bed, that's how tired she was.

It is midday now, and she is in trouble. An observer watching from the nearest hill could have told this from her staggering gait. Hurrying, she had fallen and improbably split the one of the coolent tubes. As the fluid had leaked, it had frozen solid, and she had had to remove the coolsuit quickly in order to avoid frostbite. An observer on one of the hills, if he had had a telescope, might have enjoyed that.

But now she staggered on, coolsuit working at half efficiency, in the roasting air. At seventy Celsius, you could cook food in the open. She hoped now, her pride gone, for any rescuer, even JedNine in his Trax. It, at least would have a communicator. But there was none.

She stumbled for what seemed like the fiftieth time, and for some reason found it hard to get up again. She thought about it a while, and decided that it was important that she did. She did, after all, want to see her uncle. With great, but somehow unnoticed, effort, she found her feet again, and walked for another ten metres before falling.

This isn't going to work, she thought, and decided to crawl. Only about another ten klicks, and she would be over the ridge, and they would be able to see her from the city.

Later, without noticing that she had yet to begin crawling, she found herself being picked up by a man. It was clumsily done, but she felt big enough not to complain, under the circumstances. Then, she decided that it was because his leg was broken. Yet he seemed to be standing on it all right, but that was because it was made of metal.

He was making good time, she thought. I may yet be back by evening. The tall, thin man strode out, carrying her, his arms transmitting little of his bumpy gait to the now fragile bundle he carried.

He was indeed making good time, and he delivered his unconscious burden to the hospital around four in the afternoon, still another four hours until sunset.

Her face and hands were red and sore under the burst blisters, but she insisted she was well enough to hear. Indeed she wondered what there was to know that required her to be well.

"Why, why, what is it? Tell me." she demanded. She had had enough of the barrier creams and ointments and anti-fungal treatments, enough of the nurse and the hospital and the lying in bed all day away from the action.

"Did you notice anything about him." her uncle asked, friendly and clean shaven. He looked stylish in his purple coolsuit.

"He had a limp." she said, "I think he had an artificial leg." She thought briefly. "But it was unusual, because all the metal was showing, it wasn't flesh coloured." Why all the questions, she thought.

"Is that all?" he asked, very surprised. "I mean, you saw nothing else? Not his face, or anything, no other distinguishing features, like his arms or hands or..." He finished lamely, not knowing how to go on. He was very concerned, and surprised, that she had been in that bad a state when she was rescued. He fingered the seam of his suit nervously.

"No, I don't think so. He was wearing a dark brown hat. I couldn't see his face. Why, anyway?" She challenged. "Who is he? An escaped murderer? a hermit? What?" A look of concern crossed her face. "He didn't have some disease did he?" She looked away out of the window quickly, as if afraid to receive the answer. Burying herself in the detail of the scene. A man operating a seed drill.

"No, nothing like that." he reassured her, yet his voice intimating that the truth was worse. He looked down at the grey swirls in the pattern of the floor, then up again at the sheets of her bed, uncomfortable. Then officially, as if to avoid the question, "Did you notice anything else? Anything at all?"

"No, nothing. What is it? Tell me." she demanded. "Look, you have to tell me eventually, Steve, so why not get it over with?" She looked straight into his eyes, reasonableness beaming forth like a magnetic force. Tell me.

"The man was wearing a brown felt hat, as you described so artfully, Joan." He wound his way up to it, as if building a road up a steep hill. "He walked straight into the city, past the stares of everyone silly enough to be out at that time, and deposited you inside the lobby of the hospital." He hesitated.

"Go on, I'm fascinated." She did the best sweet and innocent look she could with the scabby condition her face was in. "Go on," she prompted.

"Well, he was wearing a suede waistcoat, did I tell you that?" He looked up at the impatience in her eyes, and hurried along. "He explained to the nurse how he had found you, and how your car had broken down. The orderly was putting you to bed by this time, of course, and then he turns to the crowd of locals, who by this time had gathered, and were discussing it amongst themselves. You know how they do." He stopped, aware he was spending too much time on too little story. He tapped the controls on the waistband of his suit. "Did I tell you he was wearing a suede waistcoat?"

"Go on, you were going to tell me what you noticed about him that I didn't." She smiled sweetly at him. "Clever thing that you are."

He looked through half closed eyelids at her, as if to say: Lay off the sarcasm. "Well, he said to them, to PaulFour, I think, 'Do you think I could borrow an electricity feed?' Paul showed him the hospital one, of course." He stopped again, as if hoping she would guess. "Did I mention he was very tall and thin?"

He waited while the implications sunk in. As the look on her face betrayed her comprehension and she began to say, "You don't mean he was a thin man" he interrupted, almost garbling.

"Like he was two point two metres tall and thin like a pole, and had metal arms and metal hands and a metal face to go with his metal legs, and by the way, you were quite correct, he does have a limp."

"But, I don't understand. Why would a thin man rescue me? Why not kill me, or just leave me to die? I mean, surely he knows, he's not got damaged memory or anything has he?" The implications were staggering. "What did you do?"

"Well I wasn't there, but if I was I'm quite sure I would have done the same thing. They just stood and watched while he took a feed for five minutes. You don't tangle with a thin man, unless you are armed with an X-gun. Even an injured one." He was tremendously exited to relate the tale. Excited, she judged, that such a thing should happen in his jurisdiction. He hit his fist into his palm, his eyes distracted by his thoughts.

"What, and then he just walked off into the sunset?"

"Well, yes, who was going to follow him?"

"But why... I mean if he rescued me..." She stopped, realising the futility of the question.

"Why did he rescue you? I don't pretend to be able to fathom the motives of a thin man, but just because he's done us one favour, doesn't mean that he'd ignore an outright threat like that."

"So what are you going to do now?" she asked, almost knowing the answer, and dreading it. "Will you inform the CDF?"

"Well, I have to. Even though he did rescue you." Thinking thoughts of his own, something about the implications of the event to his political position. "We can't perform a search ourselves. We don't have the resources, for one thing. For another there must be hundreds of hermits in those hills. I wonder if any more are thin men?

"Then the CDF will send a detachment to try and hunt him down. Waste of time that will be. Just soldiers hanging around for months on end, treating us like a military base."

She lay back on her pillows. "He didn't have to stick his neck out like that," she said. "I hope they don't find him." She stared at the ceiling, and tried to recall what he had been like. She contemplated how strong he must be, how unlike some of her foppish physics colleagues in her student days, but more a father than a lover.

"So do I." He stood up, and walked over to look out of the window at their peaceful land. "Still, it will be eight years to get a message there and a ship back. He could be on the other side of the planet by then."

Ben Liddicott

an inappropriate cartoon by crisp