The Girls and Nugent Miller
Click on image to enlarge.
by Robert Sheckley
Category: Science Fiction/Humor
Description: Robert Sheckley (1928-2005) was a Hugo and Nebula nominated American author. First published in the science fiction magazines of the 1950s, his numerous quick-witted stories and novels were famously unpredictable, absurdist, and broadly comical.Sheckley was given the Author Emeritus honor by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America in 2001. "The Girls and Nugent Miller" originally appeared in "The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction," March 1960 issue.
eBook Publisher: Wildside Press, 1960 The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction
eBookwise Release Date: August 2009
9 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [25 KB]
Reading time: 12-16 min.
NUGENT MILLER bent down and examined the footprints, gently brushing aside leaves and twigs with his pocket knife. They had been made recently, by a small foot. Perhaps a woman's foot?
Staring at the footprints, Miller could glimpse the woman rising from them, could see too vividly the high-arched foot, the narrow ankle and the slender golden legs. Turning the imaginary woman on her imaginary pedestal, Miller admired the long graceful curve of her back, and he could see--
"That's enough," he told himself. He had no proof other than the footprint. Hope could be dangerous, desire could be catastrophic.
He was a tall, thin, sad-faced man, very sunburned, wearing sneakers, khaki slacks and a blue polo shirt. He had a knapsack on his back and a geiger counter in his hand. He wore horn-rimmed glasses. The left sidepiece had been broken and repaired with a twig and string, and he had reinforced the nosepiece with wire. The glasses seemed secure now, but he still didn't trust them. He was quite myopic. If a lens broke, he could never replace it. Sometimes he had a nightmare in which his glasses dropped from his nose and he reached for them and just missed and the glasses fell down a mountainside, turning over and over in the air.
He pressed the glasses more firmly against his nose, walked forward a few yards and examined the ground again. He could detect two or three sets of footprints, maybe more. From the look of the ground they had been made recently.
Miller found that he was beginning to tremble. He squatted down beside the footprints and reminded himself that he must not hope. The people who made those prints were probably dead.
Still, he had to make sure. He straightened up and began following the footprints. They led through a stubbled field to the edge of a forest. He stopped for a moment and listened.
It was a silent, beautiful September morning. The sun beat down on the barren fields, and light glinted from the stripped white branches of the forest. The only sounds he heard were the tired sigh of the wind and the background clicking of his geiger counter.
"Normal reading," Miller said to himself. "Whoever came this way must have had a geiger."
But they might not have used it properly. Perhaps they were contaminated, perhaps they were dying of radiation sickness. He couldn't allow himself to hope. He had stayed sane this long by not hoping, not wishing, not desiring.
"If they're dead," he told himself, "I'll give them decent burial." That thought exorcised the evil demons of hope and desire.
Within the forest, he lost the faint trail in the underbrush. He tried to continue in the same direction, but his geiger counter began to chatter furiously. He moved out at right angles, holding the geiger in front of him. When he had by-passed the hot spot he turned again, at an exact right angle, and walked parallel to the direction of the trail. Carefully he counted his paces. It wouldn't do for him to get caught in a pocket with radiation all around and no clear path out. That had happened to him three months ago, and the geiger's batteries had been nearly exhausted before he could find a way out. He had spare batteries in his knapsack now, but the danger was still there.
After about twenty yards he turned again to cross the trail, walking slowly, watching the ground.
He was lucky. He found the footprints again, and near them a fragment of cloth caught on a bramble bush. He plucked the cloth and put it in his pocket. The footprints looked very fresh. Did he dare allow himself a little hope?
No, not yet. He still remembered what had happened less than six months ago. He had climbed a small sandstone cliff to forage a warehouse on its top. At sunset he had come back down the cliff, and at the base he had found the body of a man. The man had been dead only a few hours. A submachine gun and a rifle were strapped to his shoulders, and his pockets were stuffed with grenades. They had been no protection against his subtlest enemy. The man had killed himself; the warm revolver was still in his hand.
Apparently he had been following Miller's footprints. When he had come to the base of the sandstone cliff, the footprints ended. Perhaps the man's stamina had been undermined by the harsh radiation burns across his chest and arms; perhaps the instant of shattered hope when the footprints ended in solid stone had been too much for him. Whatever the reason, he had blown out his brains at the foot of the cliff. Hope had killed him.
Miller had removed the man's armament and buried him. He thought about the weapons for the better part of a day. He was tempted to keep them. They might be very necessary in this shattered new world.
But finally he decided against keeping them. He was not going to violate the sternly held pledge of a lifetime; not after all he had seen. Besides, weapons at a time like this were too dangerous to the user. So he threw them into the nearest river.
That had been less than six months ago. Now it was Miller who followed footprints, through thin forest loam to a narrow stream of running water. When he had crossed it he was able to count, in the stiff mud, five separate sets of footprints. They were so recent that the water was still seeping into them. The people must have passed here within the half-hour.
He felt the demons of hope and desire stir within him. Surely it wouldn't be too unwise now to consider the possibility of meeting people? Yes, too unwise. The unleashed demons, once frustrated, turned against you, as they had turned against the man at the base of the sandstone cliff. Hope and desire were his most dangerous enemies. He didn't dare release the genies from the corked bottle deep in his mind.
He walked quickly along the trail, certain, from the increasing freshness of the prints, that he was moving faster than the presumed group of people. His geiger clucked contentedly to itself, satisfied with the low radiation level. The people ahead of him--if they were still alive--must be picking their way through with a geiger.
Survival had been so simple, really; but so few had managed it.