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Authors: John Varley

Picnic on Nearside

BOOK: Picnic on Nearside
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JOHN VARLEY

He is the author of
Titan, Wizard
, and
Demon
. He has been compared by Asimov to the early Heinlein. He has been accused by others of being too flashy, too deep, too sexy, too adventurous, too “pulpy”, too literary . . .

Accused, in fact, of everything but being dull . . .

Berkley Books by John Varley

MILLENNIUM

PICNIC ON NEARSIDE

(formerly titled
THE BARBIE MURDERS
)

The Gaean Trilogy by John Varley

TITAN

WIZARD

DEMON

PICNIC ON
NEARSIDE

JOHN VARLEY

Previously published as
The Barbie Murders

PICNIC ON NEARSIDE

A Berkley Book / published by arrangement with
the author

PRINTING HISTORY

Berkley edition / September 1980

Second printing / August 1984

All rights reserved.

Copyright © 1980 by John Varley.

Cover illustration by Barclay Shaw.

This book may not be reproduced in whole or in part,

by mimeograph or any other means, without permission.

For information address: The Berkley Publishing Group,

200 Madison Avenue, New York, New York 10016.

ISBN: 978-1-101-65603-7

A BERKLEY BOOK ® TM 757,375

The name “BERKLEY” and the stylized “B”

with design are tradmarks belonging to

Berkley Publishing Corporation.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

“Bagatelle,” copyright © 1976 by Universal Publications and Distributing Corporation for
Galaxy Magazine
, August 1974.

“The Funhouse Effect,” copyright © 1976 by Mercury Press Inc. for
The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction
, December 1976.

“The Barbie Murders,” copyright © 1978 by Davis Publications for
Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine
, February 1978.

“Equinoctial,” copyright © 1977 by David Gerrold from
Ascents of Wonder
, published by Popular Library.

“Manikins,” copyright © 1976 by Ultimate Publishing Company for
Amazing Science Fiction Story Magazine
, January 1976.

“Beatnik Bayou,” copyright © 1980 by John Varley from NEW VOICES III, published by Berkley Publishing Corporation, April 1980.

“Good-bye, Robinson Crusoe,” copyright © 1977 by Davis Publications for
Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine
, Spring 1977.

“Lollipop and the Tar Baby,” copyright © 1977 by Damon Knight from ORBIT 19, published by Harper & Row, Inc.

“Picnic on Nearside,” copyright © 1974 by Mercury Press Inc. for
The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction
, August 1974.

CONTENTS

B
AGATELLE

T
HE
F
UNHOUSE
E
FFECT

T
HE
B
ARBIE
M
URDERS

E
QUINOCTIAL

M
ANIKINS

B
EATNIK
B
AYOU

G
OOD
-
BYE
, R
OBINSON
C
RUSOE

L
OLLIPOP AND THE
T
AR
B
ABY

P
ICNIC ON
N
EARSIDE

Bagatelle

T
HERE WAS A BOMB
on the Leystrasse, level forty-five, right outside the Bagatelle Flower and Gift Shoppe, about a hundred meters down the promenade from Prosperity Plaza.

“I am a bomb,” the bomb said to passersby. “I will explode in four hours, five minutes, and seventeen seconds. I have a force equal to fifty thousand English tons of trinitrololuene.”

A small knot of people gathered to look at it.

“I will go off in four hours, four minutes, and thirty-seven seconds.”

A few people became worried as the bomb talked on. They remembered business elsewhere and hurried away, often toward the tube trains to King City. Eventually, the trains became overcrowded and there was some pushing and shoving.

The bomb was a metal cylinder, a meter high, two meters long, mounted on four steerable wheels. There was an array of four television cameras mounted on top of the cylinder, slowly scanning through ninety degrees. No one could recall how it came to be there. It looked a little like the municipal street-cleaning machines; perhaps no one had noticed it because of that.

“I am rated at fifty kilotons,” the bomb said, with a trace of pride.

The police were called.

*   *   *

“A
nuclear
bomb, you say?” Municipal Police Chief Anna-Louise Bach felt sourness in the pit of her stomach and reached
for a box of medicated candy. She was overdue for a new stomach, but the rate she went through them on her job coupled with the size of her paycheck had caused her to rely more and more on these stopgap measures. And the cost of cloned transplants was going up.

“It says fifty kilotons,” said the man on the screen. “I don’t see what else it could be. Unless it’s just faking, of course. We’re moving in radiation detectors.”

“You said ‘it says.’ Are you speaking of a note, or phone call, or what?”

“No. It’s talking to us. Seems friendly enough, too, but we haven’t gotten around to asking it to disarm itself. It could be that its friendliness won’t extend that far.”

“No doubt.” She ate another candy. “Call in the bomb squad, of course. Then tell them to do nothing until I arrive, other than look the situation over. I’m going to make a few calls, then I’ll be there. No more than thirty minutes.”

“All right. Will do.”

There was nothing for it but to look for help. No nuclear bomb had ever been used on Luna. Bach had no experience with them, nor did her bomb crew. She brought her computer on line.

*   *   *

Roger Birkson liked his job. It wasn’t so much the working conditions—which were appalling—but the fringe benefits. He was on call for thirty days, twenty-four hours a day, at a salary that was nearly astronomical. Then he got eleven months paid vacation. He was paid for the entire year whether or not he ever had to exercise his special talents during his thirty days duty. In that way, he was like a firefighter. In a way, he
was
a firefighter.

He spent his long vacations in Luna. No one had ever asked Birkson why he did so; had they asked, he would not have known. But the reason was a subconscious conviction that one day the entire planet Earth would blow up in one glorious fireball. He didn’t want to be there when it happened.

Birkson’s job was bomb disarming for the geopolitical administrative unit called CommEcon Europe. On a busy shift he might save the lives of twenty million CE Europeans.

Of the thirty-five Terran bomb experts vacationing on Luna at the time of the Leystrasse bomb scare, Birkson happened to be
closest to the projected epicenter of the blast. The Central Computer found him twenty-five seconds after Chief Bach rang off from her initial report. He was lining up a putt on the seventeenth green of the Burning Tree underground golf course, a half kilometer from Prosperity Plaza, when his bag of clubs began to ring.

Birkson was wealthy. He employed a human caddy instead of the mechanical sort. The caddy dropped the flag he had been holding and went to answer it. Birkson took a few practice swings, but found that his concentration had been broken. He relaxed, and took the call.

“I need your advice,” Bach said, without preamble. “I’m the Chief of Municipal Police for New Dresden, Anna-Louise Bach. I’ve had a report on a nuclear bomb on the Leystrasse, and I don’t have anyone with your experience in these matters. Could you meet me at the tube station in ten minutes?”

“Are you crazy? I’m shooting for a seventy-five with two holes to go, an easy three-footer on seventeen and facing a par five on the last hole, and you expect me to go chasing after a hoax?”

“Do you know it to be a hoax?” Bach asked, wishing he would say yes.

“Well, no, I just now heard about it, myself. But ninety percent of them are, you know.”

“Fine. I suggest you continue your game. And since you’re so sure, I’m going to have Burning Tree sealed off for the duration of the emergency. I want you right there.”

Birkson considered this.

“About how far away is this ‘Leystrasse’?”

“About six hundred meters. Five levels up from you, and one sector over. Don’t worry. There must be dozens of steel plates between you and the hoax. You just sit tight, all right?”

Birkson said nothing.

“I’ll be at the tube station in ten minutes,” Bach said. “I’ll be in a special capsule. It’ll be the last one for five hours.” She hung up.

Birkson contemplated the wall of the underground enclosure. Then he knelt on the green and lined up his putt. He addressed the ball, tapped it, and heard the satisfying rattle as it sank into the cup.

He looked longingly at the eighteenth tee, then jogged off to the clubhouse.

“I’ll be right back,” he called over his shoulder.

*   *   *

Bach’s capsule was two minutes late, but she had to wait another minute for Birkson to show up. She fumed, trying not to glance at the timepiece embedded in her wrist.

He got in, still carrying his putter, and their heads were jerked back as the capsule was launched. They moved for only a short distance, then came to a halt. The door didn’t open.

“The system’s probably tied up,” Bach said, squirming. She didn’t like to see the municipal services fail in the company of this Terran.

“Ah,” Birkson said, flashing a grin with an impossible number of square teeth. “A panic evacuation, no doubt. You didn’t have the tube system closed down, I suppose?”

“No,” she said. “I . . . well, I thought there might be a chance to get a large number of people away from the area in case this thing does go off.”

He shook his head, and grinned again. He put this grin after every sentence he spoke, like punctuation.

“You’d better seal off the city. If it’s a hoax, you’re going to have hundreds of dead and injured from the panic. It’s a lost cause trying to evacuate. At most, you might save a few thousand.”

“But . . .”

“Keep them stationary. If it goes off, it’s no use anyway. You’ll lose the whole city. And no one’s going to question your judgment because you’ll be dead. If it doesn’t go off, you’ll be sitting pretty for having prevented a panic. Do it. I
know
.”

Bach began to really dislike this man right then, but decided to follow his advice. And his thinking did have a certain cold logic. She phoned the station and had the lid clamped on the city. Now the cars in the cross-tube ahead would be cleared, leaving only her priority capsule moving.

They used the few minutes delay while the order was implemented to size each other up. Bach saw a blonde, square-jawed young man in a checkered sweater and gold knickers. He had a friendly face, and that was what puzzled her. There was no trace of worry on his smooth features. His hands were steady, clasped
calmly around the steel shaft of his putter. She wouldn’t have called his manner cocky or assured, but he did manage to look cheerful.

She had just realized that he was looking her over, and was wondering what he saw, when he put his hand on her knee. He might as well have slapped her. She was stunned.

“What are you . . . get your hand off me you . . . you groundhog.”

Birkson’s hand had been moving upward. He was apparently unfazed by the insult. He turned in his seat and reached for her hand. His smile was dazzling.

“I just thought that since we’re stalled here with nothing else to do, we might start getting to know each other. No harm in that, is there? I just hate to waste any time, that’s all.”

She wrenched free of his grasp and assumed a defensive posture, feeling trapped in a nightmare. But he relented, having no interest in pursuing the matter when he had been rebuffed.

“All right. We’ll wait. But I’d like to have a drink with you, or maybe dinner. After this thing’s wrapped up, of course.”

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