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Chapter IV

            The newspaper shouted the news: Venus convulsed by mighty earthquakes. Scientists believe that the rapid constriction of the surface of the planet offset some internal balance. The tremors would continue, they predicted, for some time. The cooling was carefully planned by mineralogists who set up the locations for the original settlements. The new mutant-coolers threw off the balance of the planet. Earthquakes would continue for some time.
            The teleset that Alice Harding and her "pupil" were watching sputtered, flashed, died. Alice gently, reluctantly, unfolded Lee's arms from around her neck and waist.
            "What are we going to do, Lee?" Alice was worried.
            "That's true," he mused, "they never did find what would happen if a mutant and a normal person mated."
            "Lee," she said, hurriedly, though not unkindly, "That's not what I meant. What are we going to do about these earthquakes."
            "We can't do anything about them," he said irritatedly. "Who cares about Venus OR the Earth." He proceeded to imprison her in his arms again. He was five.
            "That's not what I meant," she said, genuinely angry now, "what if the quakes continue and we're---"
            With a resounding roar, the chandelier in Alice's apartment fell to the floor at their feet. She jumped to her feet, hastily shaking her skirt free of the slivers of glass that ricocheted there, leaving him sitting, his arms at his sides. He sat still for a second and rose to his feet to pull her back down on the chair. The house rocked; they were on the second floor of a three-story apartment house and there was great danger of the house falling in on them. Its supporters were already weakened by the first quake that centered right in that district, because their bubble was the first that was set up on the surface of the morning star.
            Again the house quivered; she walked across the room and her foot with the carpet under it went through the undiscovered hole in the floor. She screamed, expecting to fall all the way down. The thickness of the rug prevented that; however, she went down a few inches and severely twisted her ankle. She moaned piercingly twice and he came lightly over the floor to aid her. Again the sinewy arms enfolded her. Effortlessly she was swung into his arms and they started for the door. The room gave a sickening lurch and a heavy bed came crashing through the ceiling behind them. It lay on the carpet for a split-second and then fell through that floor too into the flat below. He was temporarily thrown off balance and staggered against the doorway. She drew in her breath quickly; but he regained his equilibrium and continued.
            The landing was littered with debris and masonry. With horror they found that the stairway from the third floor down to theirs was down, wrecked on the first landing. On the third floor were two families. One had left the night before right after the first tremor, but the other found it necessary to stay the night. Three members of that family were stranded on the upper floor. A small girl, probably three---she wasn't struck by the mutation yet---was shying away from the edge. In her scratched arms she held a beautiful bridal doll dressed in lace and finery, with silver slippers on her plastic feet, hair done in an elaborate upsweep. The child's face was tear-streaked and often she let out a sobbing moan. The second stranded person was a boy of fifteen, normal as could be seen by simply looking at him. He was sitting down and his face was twisted into a grimace of pain; his leg was broken and bleeding beneath him. The third survivor was an aged woman in a wheelchair. Her hair was white and tied up in a tight braid. Her face was starkly white and wrinkled. Her blackish eyes were bright with fear, sparkling in the semidarkness. The three looked pleadingly at the pair below them. They boy opened his mouth to speak; he could only groan weakly. Tears came into Alice's eyes. Lee looked at her for aid. The house was shaking terribly now and she closed her eyes. Tears welled out between the lashes and Lee's childish heart was torn between one he loved and the three on the landing. The decision was not in his hands; Fate decided the case. The house whipped as if it were in a high wind. The balcony-like projection on which the trio was waiting, imploring with their eyes, sagged suddenly downward. The old lady's eyes opened the wider as her wheelchair started to roll toward the edge of the landing. It came to a gentle rest up against the railing that ran the length of the landing except for the stairwell. The little girl playfully sat her dolly up on the railing at that moment, and shoved slightly against the weakened balustrade. Again the house tremored; the railing yawed slightly, and with a shrieking of nails, fell to the floor. The edge lowered another fraction of an inch. The wheels of the chair rolled slowly toward the edge. The fifteen-year-old futilely reached forward to stop its slow progress. The exertion brought a fresh flow of blood from his wounded leg and he fell backwards on the floor in a swoon. The woman's hands flew up and flailed the air to stop herself. A piercing screech rent the air. The little girl sobbed again, loudly, "Grandmama." The cords on Lee's neck tensed as he watched, uselessly. It was beyond his intervention. One wheel of the chair went over the edge; the chair jerked abruptly, throwing her out into the air. The blanket pulled out of the chair and dropped. The chair hung precariously by one wheel at a great slant and pitched over. The frail figure twisted around in the air and fell the two floors to the landing below. The black figure looked tiny as it lay there, crumpled and broken, chair on top of the blackness, twisted and bent. Crying piteously, the infant peered over the brink and cried, "Grandmama, get up, get up."
            With great difficulty the child's attention was drawn away from the body on the landing. The little girl was crying but willing to do whatever they could to get her down from her perch. Alice tried to make the girl rouse the boy but either the boy was too far gone or the girl didn't know what to do; either way, he could not be returned to consciousness. Suddenly the child discovered the loss of the bride doll which had fallen with the aged grandmother. That knowledge was instrumental in getting the child safely down before anything happened to the house, as they were sure it would. It was rocking back and forth in a truly alarming manner. As the house convulsed again, the landing lowered another notch, making a perilous slope. There was an agitation in the shadows in the background and the figure of the boy, hidden in the shadows till now, rolled down the slant. He rolled off the edge and the rush of air must have revived the poor thing momentarily, for just before he struck the lower level he uttered an abrupt cry, cut short by his impact on landing; his leg stuck out at an unnatural angle grotesquely. Lee went down three or four steps and called Alice to come too.
            "Alice, darling, we MUST save that child," he said, with fierce determination. "I'm going to see if I can get her to jump and I might be able to catch her." He leaned over the railing and sized up the situation. He was five. He reached out his arms as far as he could and then, as they reached their limit, his foot slipped on the smooth stair wood. He careened forward and, with a mighty effort, succeeded in righting himself. "That was close," he gasped. "What do we do now?" "You get down on the step again, and when you reach out I will hold onto your legs so you won't tip forward," Alice said, confidently. "Let's try it first."
            Lee leaned forward again with Alice bearing down on his ankles. "Wait," she cried desperately as her hands slipped on his pant-leg. Lee sensed what was wrong and, bending over, tore the bottom of his pants off at the knee. Again they tried it, and succeeded. All this time the little girl was peering down on the duo beneath her with curiosity. "Whatcha' doin'?" she asked many times, but received no answer. The tremblers increased; a crack appeared in the wall behind them. Plaster dust filled the air. Sharp crashes were heard; a radio blared loudly and then abruptly stopped; through the door that they had left open to her apartment they could see the ceiling falling into the room. Lamps and tables crashed through the ceiling and in turn through the floor, thence to the basement, probably. A huge section of the chimney plummeted through the roof to the left of them, carrying away a small portion of the stairs on which they had to descend.
            All this while there were screams to be heard outside the door to the street; these had gradually thinned out and died away entirely; they were alone.
            "Lee," shouted Alice above the din of falling masonry, "I wonder if the dome is still holding up. If it gets a crack in it we are dead." Lee was tensely silent. He realized the danger; if the dome leaked, all the precious air would escape and they would be doomed. He began shouting instructions to the girl, sometimes pleading, sometimes threatening. She was afraid to jump. She saw that her grandmother didn't get up and that she screamed as she fell. She couldn't do that. The argument that won her over, finally, was that she would get her bride dolly back if she would jump. She agreed. There was no time to spare; the railing that Lee was leaning over was weakening rapidly; bricks were continuously falling near them. It was a miracle that either one of them was not seriously injured as yet. The bricks bounced off the forms at the bottom continually. The second landing fell into a heap of rubble, the stairs held only by their fastenings onto the wall that had an ever-widening crack down its center. The stairs jolted downward---another second and they must fall. With an awesome roar the roof above the landing on which the girl was crying fell in upon it. The landing hung suspended for a second. Without a word Alice hunched down and grabbed Lee's straining calves. Hands reached out in hopes of catching a human child, farther. They wouldn't reach! Debris piled onto the landing; it groaned, fell. The girl fell free, twisted, turned, cried. Lee's arms reached out to an impossible length. Alice cried out; his feet were clear of the floor. His calves sweated and knotted under the sudden weight of the child. She had been caught! The third-floor landing on which she had been crouched scattered itself over the dead bodies below. The stairs screeched as they started to pull out from the wall. A hand reached out and grabbed Alice by the hair; by sheer force of pain, Lee forced her to fly down the falling stairs. Arms aching from the strain, Lee skimmed over the steps, limp child in one arm, Alice in the other.
            Alice screamed from his rudeness but, compelled by the racking pain, stumbled headlong down the trembling stairs. When they were ten feet from the bottom of the stairs, the wall flew into nothingness and the stairs collapsed on the debris already littered below. With one supreme effort Lee managed to keep the child above his body when he landed with a jar on the blocks of concrete.
            The plaster dust settled quietly about the scene. Sifted from the fallen walls by the air currents caused by their destruction, it circled around and then, finding no wind to waft it anywhere else, it settled on the silent figures at the bottom of the ruin. It settled gently on the uppermost figure of a child, silent either from a faint or from death. It settled on a woman---her hair matted with the dust, her dress torn by the jagged edges of the cruel rocks, one foot bare, one heel-less shoe---her lipstick, once fiery red, now paled, dimmed by the sifting white dust---her hands scratched and raw, her face twisted by anguish and pain, her body---bent and bleeding. It settled on a man---pants torn from the knee and ripped from the thigh, feet bare and burned, chest and shoulders buried under the weight of the woman who fell on him, hand still tightly gripping the woman's hair, the other hand around the waist of the girl, shirt torn and ragged, exposing his bleeding neck, hair graying under the snowy dust, face begrimed with sweat and dirt, head thrown back, mouth open in pain, eyes closed. It settled on the pieces of brick and masonry, tumbled helter-skelter about, some on the figures, burying the wheelchair, twisted like paper-mâché, burying the boy, except for his leg that protruded from his pants showing splinters of raw bone---long since drained dry of blood, rocks burying the aged figure of the much-loved, now dead, grandmother, with her shawls wrapped around her and the blanket mercifully covering her head. The dust settled, too, on the once immaculate, now sooty and dirty, bridal doll. One leg could be seen missing under the ruffled, upturned skirt, one silver slipper badly crushed, the hair, once done up meticulously with tiny hairpins and curlers now straggled over the rocks, no longer honey-blond but gray as if with great age. The lacy fan that she once held demurely before her face was gone, as were the fingers that held it. One eye was out, but the other remained open, staring.
            For a long moment everything was silent. The small girl moved, painfully; she whimpered as she saw her own blood, whimpered at the still forms around. Turning her head she espied the doll that had fallen from her grasp; scrambling over the litter, she tightly grasped the dolly's arm and quieted her imaginary crying. "Look, mister man, I got my doll baby back. Look, mister." No answer. She looped the doll snugly under one arm and slowly walked out of the rubble, not seeing her grandmother only three feet away from her. Minutes, eternal minutes passed; again the dust was uplifted by an air current---a whitened shape rose from the masonry. Lee regained consciousness. He stirred, moaned, soothed his throbbing head. He saw his loved one near him, pale, he started to his knees and dragged himself to her. Her eyelids fluttered, casting off a whirlwind of dancing notes, opened. She saw him, smiled wanly, and was content; he was safe. "Lee," she started, "where is the girl?" Remembering the child that they had risked their lives to save he glanced around; she was nowhere to be seen. Frantically, they began to claw the rubble, trying to find a lifeless form that was not there. "Alice, she's not here, she must have walked off somewhere," Lee said. "I held her above my head as we fell, she would be above us, not below us."
            Alice heaved a sigh of relief and staggered to her feet. As she distributed part of her weight on her right foot, she cried out in agony and sank back to the bricks. "My ankle," she sobbed, "it hurts, awful." She drew her breath in between her clenched teeth.
            Smiling grimly, Lee said, "I carried you once, I can carry you again---where?" It struck the both of them. Where would they go? What could they do? The ground beneath their feet was constantly heaving and rising. He ripped off the remains of his tattered shirt, stooped, and gathered her pain-racked form into his arms. She laid her head against his bare chest, heard his throbbing heart, dozed. Moments later, she was awakened by another severe shock. She opened her eyes and found that she was lying on one of the benches that she would so often sit on while she was waiting for the subway. A movement beside her made her focus her eyes, and there sat the little girl that they had saved. "Mommy, you're awake," she chortled and threw herself into Alice's embrace. Alice was surprised at her new name, but rejoiced as she felt the fragile form in her arms. "Daddy went to see someone, Mommy," she said in a tone that told her that the little girl had explained all in that phrase, she thought.
            "Mommy---Daddy---what are you talking about, little girl," asked Alice, bewildered.
            "My grandmama told me and Butch that our Mommy and Daddy would come back some day, so you must be them. My name is NOT "little girl," she added, indignantly. "It's Sandra, but my grandmama said that they would call me Sandy," she said with finality. "You ARE my Mommy and he is my Daddy," she said, suddenly doubtful, pointing to the tanned man coming toward them, "ain'tcha?"
            "Lee---" Alice began.
            "Yes, Mommy?" he answered cheerfully.
            "What IS all this?" she said, waving her hand vaguely.
            "Honey," he explained, "when I came out of the apartment, what was left of it, I saw her wandering around on the lawn outside, crying. When she saw us, she even dropped her dolly and ran up to me, looked me square in the eye, and said, "You're my daddy, ain'tcha." What could I say. Since we're getting married anyway," he said mischievously, pinching her leg, "I thought we might as well get a head start on our family---if it's O.K. with you---Mommy." He grinned widely.
            "And he is five," she thought as she nodded yes and felt herself in another of his passionate embraces. "So what!"
            The clinch was broken when their "daughter" pulled on Alice's belt and said wistfully, "Let's go home now, or ain't we got a home?"
            "That child has got to stop using 'ain't' or I'll scream," said Alice as the teacher instinct came back to her. When she felt the "little girl" boring a hole into her back, she hastily amended, "Sandy."