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22

The eating place stood in the apex of a Y where the road forked in two directions. In the half-light of not-quite-dawn, the red sign that stood above its roof showed pink.

Blake limped a bit more rapidly. Here was a chance to soak up a little warmth while he rested, an opportunity to stow away some food. The sandwiches Elaine had provided him had carried him through the long night of walking, but now he was hungry again. With the coming of morning he'd have to find a place where he could get some sleep and still be hidden — a haystack, perhaps. He wondered if there still were haystacks, or if even such simple things as haystacks had been swept away since he had known the Earth.

The wind whipped wickedly out of the north and he pulled the cowl of the robe forward around his face. The strap of the knapsack was galling his shoulder and he tried to readjust it, to find an area of skin that had not been chafed, but it seemed that no such area remained.

He finally reached the Diner and crossed the parking lot in front of it, climbed the short flight of stairs to the door. The place was empty. The counter gleamed from polishing, the chrome of the coffee urn shone brightly in the light of the lamps that marched across the ceiling.

'How are you? asked the Diner. The voice was that of a brassy, wise-cracking waitress. 'What will it be this morning?

Blake looked around, seeing no one, then realized the situation. Another robotic installation, like the flying houses.

He went across the floor and sat down on one of the stools.

'Cakes, he said, 'and some bacon. And coffee.

He let the knapsack slip off his shoulder and lowered it to the floor beside the stool.

'Out early, aren't you? asked the Diner. 'Don't tell me you have walked all night.

'Not all night, said Blake. 'Up early, that is all.

'Don't see many of you fellows any more, the Diner said. 'What is your racket, friend?

'I do a little writing, said Blake. 'At least, I try to do it.

'Well, said the Diner, 'at least you get to see some of the country. Me, I'm stuck here all the time. I never get to see anything at all. All I get is a lot of talk. Not, said the Diner, hastily, 'that I dislike hearing talk. At least it's something to occupy my mind.

A spout poured a gob of batter on the griddle, moved along a travelling track to pour a second and a third, then snapped swiftly back to its original position. A metal arm mounted beside the coffee urn unfolded, extended itself and tripped a lever above the griddle. Three slices of bacon slid out and flopped upon the griddle. Deftly the arm descended and separated them, nudging them into a neat row.

'Want your coffee now? asked the Diner.

'If you please, said Blake.

The metallic arm grasped a cup, held it under the faucet of the urn and raised it to activate the spout. Coffee poured out, the cup filled, the arm swung around and deposited it before Blake, then dipped down underneath the counter, came up with silverware, politely pushed the sugar dispenser closer to his reach.

'Cream? the Diner asked.

'No, thanks, said Blake.

'Heard a good story the other day, the Diner said. 'Fellow in here the other day sprung it on me. It seems that…

Behind Blake, the door came open.

'No! No! screamed the Diner. 'You cut out of here. How often do I have to tell you never to come in when I got customers.

'I came in to see your customer, said a squeaky voice.

The sound of the voice spun Blake around.

A Brownie stood just inside the door, the bright, beady eyes glittering above the rodent snout, the high-domed skull flanked by the tasselled ears. Its trousers were striped green and pink.

'I feed it, wailed the Diner. 'I put up with it. People say it's good luck to have one of them around, but this one never brings me anything but trouble. It is full of tricks. It is impertinent. It has no respect for me…

'That's because you put on human airs, the Brownie said, 'forgetting that you are not human, but a stand-in for a human, taking away an honest job that a human might perform. I ask you why anyone should have respect for you?

'No more handouts for you! screamed the Diner. 'No more sleeping in here when the nights are cold. Nothing more for you. I've had my fill of you.

The Brownie disregarded the tirade, came briskly across the floor. He stopped and made a formal bow to Blake.

'Good morning, honoured sir. I hope I find you well.

'Very well, said Blake, amusement struggling with a deep sense of foreboding. 'Would you have some breakfast with me?

'Gladly, said the Brownie, leaping to the stool next to Blake. He perched on it, with his feet dangling above the floor.

'Sir, he said, 'I will have whatever you are having. It is most generous and courteous of you to ask me, for I hunger greatly.

'You heard my friend, said Blake, speaking to the Diner. 'He will have what I am having.

'And you will pay for it? asked the Diner.

'Most certainly I will.

The mechanical arm scooped up and flipped the baking cakes, shoved them towards the griddle's front. The spout began spraying out new gobs of batter.

'It is a treat to eat a regular meal, said the Brownie, speaking confidentially to Blake. 'Most people give me scraps. And while hunger cannot choose, the inner creature sometimes craves more consideration.

'Don't let him take you in, the Diner cautioned Blake. 'Buy him this breakfast, if you must, but then shake free of him. Don't let him fasten on to you, or he will suck you dry.

'Machines, the Brownie said, 'have no sensibilities. They are ignorant of the finer instincts. They are callous to the suffering of the very ones they are meant to serve. And they have no souls'

'Neither have you, you heathen alien, raged the Diner. 'You are a chiseller and a moocher and you are a parasite. You use humankind most unmercifully and you have no gratitude and you don't know when to stop.

The Brownie slanted his rodent eyes at Blake and lifted both of his hands, palms upward, in a hopeless gesture.

'Well, you don't, the Diner said, aggrieved. 'There is solemn truth in every word I said.

The arm scooped up the first three cakes, put them on a plate, ranged the bacon alongside them, punched a button and caught, with great dexterity, the three pats of butter ejected from a chute. The arm set the plate in front of Blake, darted down underneath the counter and came up with a jug of syrup.

The Brownie's nose twitched with pleasure. 'They smell delicious, he said.

'No snitching! screamed the Diner. 'You wait till yours are done.

From far off came a faint moaning bleat.

The Brownie stiffened, its ears stretched up and flaring.

The moaning came again.

'It's another one of them! the Diner yelled. 'They are supposed to warn us well ahead of time, not come sneaking up on us like this. And you, you no-good chiseller, are supposed to be out there, listening for the first sign of them. That's what I feed you for.

'It's way too soon for another one, the Brownie said. 'There shouldn't be another one through until late this evening. They are supposed to spread themselves out, to use different roads so one road doesn't have to put up with them all the time.

The moaning came again, louder and closer — a lonesome, wailing sound trailing off the hills.

'What is it? asked Blake.

'It's a cruiser, the Brownie told him. 'One of those big sea-going freighters. It has a load of something that it's carried all the way from Europe, maybe from Africa, and it came ashore an hour or so ago and is coming up the road.

'You mean it doesn't stop when it reaches shore?

'Why should it? asked the Brownie. 'It travels on the same principle as the ground cars, on a cushioned jet stream. It can travel on either land or water. It comes up to shore and never hesitates — just goes booming down a road.

Metal screeched and thudded on metal. Blake saw that great steel shutters were creeping across the outside of the windows. Clamps swivelled out of the wall and moved against the door, snugging it tight.

The moaning filled the room now and far off there was a terrible howling, as if a gigantic storm moved across the land.

'All battened down! the Diner screamed to be heard above the noise. 'You guys better hit the floor. This sounds like a big one.

The building was shaking and the noise was a numbing cataract that poured from all directions to fill the room to bursting.

The Brownie had nipped beneath the stool and was hanging tightly, both arms wrapped about the metal standard on which the stool was mounted. His mouth was open and it was evident that he was yelling at Blake, but his voice was engulfed and drowned out by the howling that was coming up the road.

Blake threw himself off the stool and hugged the floor. He tried to hook his fingers into the floor, but the floor covering was a hard, smooth plastic and he could get no grip on it.

The Diner seemed to buck and the howling of the cruiser was almost unendurable. Blake found himself sliding on the floor.

Then the howling tapered off and died away, became a faint, long-drawn and distorted moaning.

Blake picked himself off the floor.

A lake of coffee lay upon the counter where his cup had been and there was no sign of the cup. The plate on which the cakes and bacon had rested was on the floor, smashed and scattered. The cakes lay limply on the stool. The cakes meant for the Brownie still were on the griddle, but were smoking and had turned black around the edges.

'I'll start over, said the Diner.

The arm reached out and snatched up a spatula, scraped the burned cakes off the griddle, flipped them into a garbage can underneath the burner.

Blake looked over the counter and saw that the space behind it was littered with broken crockery.

'Yeah, look at it! the Diner screeched. 'There ought to be a law. I'll notify the boss and he'll slap a claim against that outfit and he'll see they pay — he always has so far. You guys might want to file claims as well. Allege mental agony or something. I got claim forms if you want to do it.

Blake shook his head. 'What about motorists. What if you met that thing on the road?"

'You saw those bunkers along the road, ten feet high or so, with exit lanes leading up to them?

'Yes, I did, said Blake.

'The cruiser has to sound its horn as soon as it leaves water and starts travelling on land. It has to keep on sounding it all the time it's travelling. You hear that siren and you head for the nearest bunker and you duck behind it.

The spigot travelled deliberately along its track, pouring out the batter.

'How come, mister, asked the Diner, 'you didn't know about the cruisers and the bunkers? You come from the backwoods, maybe?

'It's none of your business, said the Brownie, speaking for Blake. 'Just get on with our breakfast.


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