Жанр книги: Научная Фантастика
Robert A Heinlein To Sail Beyond The Sunset

‘You think I'm out of my head. '

He was not quick to answer. ‘Let me put it this way. One of us is hallucinating. Tests may show which one. Besides that, I have an exceptionally cynical office nurse who can, without tests, almost certainly spot which one of us has slipped his clutch. Will you come? '

‘Yes, certainly. And thank you, sir. But I've got to find some clothes first. I can't very well leave this room until I do. ' (I wasn't certain that this was true. That crowd that had just left obviously did not have the attitudes on ‘indecent exposure' that were commonplace in Missouri when I was born. On the other hand, where I now lived on Tertius nudity at home was unremarkable and it didn't cause any excitement even in the most public places - like overalls at a wedding: unusual but nothing to stare at. )

‘Oh. But Festival is about to start. '

‘"Festival? " Doctor, I'm a stranger in a strange land; that is what I've been trying to say. '

‘Uh - Our biggest holiday is about to start. Starts at sundown, theoretically, but there are many who jump the gun. By now the boulevard out front will have quite a percentage of naked people, already drunk and looking for partners. '

‘Partners for what? ' I tried to sound innocent. I'm not much for orgies. All those knees and elbows -

‘What do you think? It's a fertility rite, my dear girl, to ensure fat crops. And fat bellies for that matter. By now, any virgins left in this fair city are locked up. ' He added, ‘But you won't be bothered simply going with me to my office. .. and I promise I'II find you some sort of clothing. A coverall. A nurse's uniform. Something. Does that suit you? '

‘Thank you, Doctor. Yes! '

‘If I were you and I was still jumpy, I would look for a big beach towel in that bathroom, and make a caftan out of it. If you can, do it in three minutes. Don't dilly-dally, dolly; I've got to get back to the grind. '

‘Yessir! ' I hurried into the bathroom.

It really was a bathroom, not a refresher. When I had searched the suite for clothing, I had noticed a stack of Turkish towels in there. Now I looked more closely and spotted two that bulged fat in that stack. I worked one out and unfolded it. Eureka! A towel fit for a rich South American, one at least six feet long and three feet wide. A razor blade from the medicine chest placed a slit big enough for my head span down the center. Now to find something, anything, to tie around my waist.

While I was doing this, a human head appeared in front of - in place of, rather - the hairdryer. A head female and rather pretty. No body. During my first century this would have made me jumpy. Today I'm used to realistic holos.

‘I've been trying to catch you alone, ' the head said in an organlike baritone. ‘I speak for the Committee for Aesthetic Deletions. We seem to have caused you some inconvenience. For that we are truly sorry. '

‘You should be! What became of that baby? '

‘Never mind the baby. We'll be in touch. ' It flickered.

‘Hey! Wait! ' But I was talking to the hairdryer.

Dr Ridpath looked up from scratching Pixel's chin. ‘Five minutes and forty seconds. '

I'm sorry to be late but I was interrupted. A head appeared and spoke to me. Does that happen often around here? Or am I hallucinating again? '

‘You really do seem to be a stranger here. That's a telephone. Like this - Telephone, please! '

A head appeared in a frame that had contained a rather dull still life, a male head in this case. ‘Your call, sir? '

‘Cancel. ' The head blinked out. ‘Like that? '

‘Yes. But a girl. '

‘Of course. You're female and the call reached you in a bathroom, so the computer displayed a head matching your sex. The computer matches lip movements to words. .. but the visual stays an impersonal animation unless you elect to be seen. Same for the caller. '

‘I see. A hologram. '

‘Yes. Come along. ' He added, ‘You look quite fetching in that towel but you looked still better in your skin. '

‘Thank you. ' We went out into the hotel corridor; Pixel cut back and forth in front of us. ‘Doctor, what is "The Committee for Aesthetic Deletions"? '

‘Huh? ' He sounded surprised. ‘Assassins. Criminal nihilists. Where did you hear of them? '

‘That head I saw in the bathroom. That telephone. ' I repeated the call, word for word, I think.

‘Hmm. Interesting. ' He did not say another word until we reached his office suite, ten storeys down on the mezzanine.

We ran across several hotel guests who had ‘jumped the gun'. Most were naked save for domino masks but several wore full masks - of animals or birds, or abstract fantasy. One couple were dressed most gaudily in nothing but paint. I was glad that I had my terry cloth caftan.

When we reached Dr Ridpath's office suite, I hung back in the waiting-room while he went on into an inner room, preceded by Pixel. The doctor left the door open; I could hear and see. His office nurse was standing, her back to us, talking ‘on the telephone' - a talking head. There appeared to be no one else in the suite. Nevertheless I was mildly surprised to find that she had joined the epidemic of skin; she was wearing shoes, minipanties, a nurse's cap, and had a nurse's white uniform over one arm as if caught by the phone while she was undressing. Or changing. She was a tall and slender brunette. I could not see her face.

I heard her say, ‘I'll tell him, Doc. Keep your guard up tonight. See you in jail. Bye. ' She half turned. ‘That was Daffy Weisskopf, Boss. He has a preliminary report for you. Cause of death, suffocation. But - get this - stuffed down the old bastard's throat, before the catsup was poured in, was a plastic envelope with a famous - or infamous - card in it: "The Committee for Aesthetic Deletions. " ‘

‘So I figured. Did he say what brand of catsup? '

‘Fer cry eye yie! '

‘And what are you doing peeling down? Festival doesn't start for another three hours. '

‘Look here, slave driver! See that clock - ticking off the precious seconds of my life? See what it says? Eleven past five. My contract says that I work until five. '