Book: All Flesh Is Grass and Other Stories



All Flesh Is Grass and Other Stories

Clifford D. Simak

All Flesh Is Grass

All Flesh is Grass

First published: 1965

1

When I swung out of the village street onto the main highway, there was a truck behind me. It was one of those big semi jobs and it was really rolling. The speed limit was forty-five on that stretch of road, running through one corner of the village, but at that time in the morning it wasn't reasonable to expect that anyone would pay attention to a posted speed.

I wasn't too concerned with the truck. I'd be stopping a mile or so up the road at Johnny's Motor Court to pick up Alf Peterson, who would be waiting for me, with his fishing tackle ready. And I had other things to think of, too — principally the phone and wondering who I had talked with on the phone. There had been three voices and it all was very strange, but I had the feeling that it may have been one voice, changed most wonderfully to make three voices, and that I would know that basic voice if I could only pin it down. And there had been Gerald Sherwood, sitting in his study, with two walls lined by books, telling me about the blueprints that had formed, unbidden, in his brain. There had been Stiffy Grant, pleading that I not let them use the bomb. And there had been, as well, the fifteen hundred dollars.

Just up the road was the Sherwood residence, set atop its hill, with the house almost blotted out, in the early dawn, by the bulking blackness of the great oak trees that grew all around the house. Staring at the hill, I forgot about the phone and Gerald Sherwood in his book-lined study with his head crammed full of blueprints, and thought instead of Nancy and how I'd met her once again, after all those years since high school. And I recalled those days when we had walked hand in hand, with a pride and happiness that could not come again, that can come but once when the world is young and the first, fierce love of youth is fresh and wonderful.

The road ahead was clear and wide; the four lanes continued for another twenty miles or so before they dwindled down to two. There was no one on the road except myself and the truck, which was coming up behind me and coming fairly fast.

Watching the headlights in my rear vision mirror, I knew that in just a little while it would be swinging out to pass me.

I wasn't driving fast and there was a lot of room for the truck to pass me, and there was not a thing to hit and then I did hit something.

It was like running into a strong elastic band. There was no thump or crash. The car began slowing down as if I had put on the brakes. There was nothing I could see and for a moment I thought that something must have happened to the car — that the motor had gone haywire or the brakes had locked, or something of the sort. I took my foot off the accelerator and the car came to a halt, then started to slide back, faster and faster, for all the world as if I'd run into that rubber band and now it was snapping back.

I flipped the drive to neutral because I could smell the rubber as the tires screeched on the road, and as soon as I flipped it over, the car snapped back so fast that I was thrown against the wheel.

Behind me the horn of the truck blared wildly and tires howled on the pavement as the driver swung his rig to miss me. The truck made a swishing sound as it went rushing past and beneath the swishing, I could hear the rubber of the tires sucking at the roadbed, and the whole thing rumbled as if it might be angry at me for causing it this trouble. And as it went rushing past, my car came to a halt, over on the shoulder of the road.

Then the truck hit whatever I had hit. I could hear it when it struck.

It made a little plop. For a single instant, I thought the truck might break through whatever the barrier might be, for it was heavy and had been going fast and for a second or so there was no sign that it was slowing down. Then it began to slow and I could see the wheels of that big job skidding and humping, so that they seemed to be skipping on the pavement, still moving forward doggedly, but still not getting through.

It moved ahead for a hundred feet or so beyond the point where I had stopped. And there the rig came to a halt and began skidding back. It slid smoothly for a moment, with the tires squealing on the pavement, then it began to jackknife. The rear end buckled around and came sideways down the road, heading straight for me.

I had been sitting calmly in the car, not dazed, not even too much puzzled. It all had happened so fast that there had not been time to work up much puzzlement. Something strange had happened, certainly, but I think I had the feeling that in just a little while I'd get it figured out and it would all come right again.

So I had stayed sitting in the car, absorbed in watching what would happen to the truck. But when it came sliding back down the road, jackknifing as it slid, I slapped the handle of the door and shoved it with my shoulder and rolled out of the seat. I hit the pavement and scrambled to my feet and ran.

Behind me the tires of the truck were screaming and then there was a crash of metal, and when I heard the crash, I jumped out on the grassy shoulder of the road and had a look behind me. The rear end of the truck had slammed into my car and shoved it in the ditch and now was slowly, almost majestically, toppling into the ditch itself, right atop my car "Hey, there!" I shouted. It did no good, of course, and I knew it wouldn't. The words were just jerked out of me.

The cab of the truck had remained upon the road, but it was canted with one wheel off the ground. The driver was crawling from the cab.

It was a quiet and peaceful morning. Over in the west some heat lightning was skipping about the dark horizon. There was that freshness in the air that you never get except on a summer morning before the sun gets up and the beat closes down on you. To my right, over in the village, the street lights were still burning, hanging still and bright, unstirred by any breeze. It was too nice a morning, I thought, for anything to happen.

There were no cars on the road. There were just the two of us, the trucker and myself, and his truck in the ditch, squashing down my car. He came down the road toward me.

He came up to me and stopped, peering at me, his arms hanging at his side. "What the hell is going on?" he asked. "What did we run into?"

"I don't know," I said.

"I'm sorry about your car," he told me. "I'll report it to the company.

They'll take care of it." He stood, not moving, acting as if he might never move again. "Just like running into nothing," he declared. "There's nothing there." Then slow anger flared in him.

"By God," he said, "I'm going to find out…" He turned abruptly and went stalking up the highway, heading toward whatever we had hit. I followed along behind him.

He was grunting like an angry hog.

He went straight up the middle of the road and he hit the barrier, but by this time he was roaring mad and he wasn't going to let it stop him, so he kept ploughing into it and he got a good deal farther than I had expected that he would. But finally it stopped him and he stood there for a moment, with his body braced ridiculously against a nothingness, leaning into it, and with his legs driving like well-oiled pistons in an attempt to drive himself ahead. In the stillness of the morning I could hear his shoes chuffing on the pavement.

Then the barrier let him have it. It snapped him back. It was as if a sudden wind had struck him and was blowing him down the road, tumbling as he rolled. He finally ended up jammed half underneath the front end of the cab.

I ran over and grabbed him by the ankles and pulled him out and stood him on his feet. He was bleeding a little from where he'd rubbed along the pavement and his clothes were torn and dirty. But he wasn't angry any more; he was just plain scared. He was looking down the road as if he'd seen a ghost and he still was shaking.

"But there's nothing there," he said.

"There'll be other cars," I said, "and you are across the road. Hadn't we ought to put out some flares or flags or something?" That seemed to snap him out of it.

"Flags," he said.

He climbed into the cab and got out some flags.

I walked down the road with him while he set them out.

He put the last one down and squatted down beside it. He took out a handkerchief and began dabbing at his face.

"Where can I get a phone?" he asked. "We'll have to get some help."

"Someone has to figure out a way to clear the barrier off the road," I said. "In a little while there'll be a lot of traffic. It'll be piled up for miles." He dabbed at his face some more. There was a lot of dust and grease.

And a little blood.

"A phone?" he asked.

"Oh, any place," I told him. "Just go up to any house. They'll let you use a phone." And here we were, I thought, talking about this thing as if it were an ordinary road block, as if it were a fallen tree or a washed-out culvert.

"Say, what's the name of this place, anyhow? I got to tell them where I am calling from."

"Millville," I told him.

"You live here?" I nodded.

He got up and tucked the handkerchief back into his pocket.

"Well," he said, "I'll go and find that phone." He wanted me to offer to go with him, but I had something else to do. I had to walk around the road block and get up to Johnny's Motor Court and explain to Alf what had happened to delay me.

I stood in the road and watched him plod along. Then I turned around and went up the road in the opposite direction, walking toward that something which would stop a car. I reached it and it stopped me, not abruptly, nor roughly, but gently, as if it didn't intend to let me through under any circumstances, but was being polite and reasonable about it.

I put out my hand and I couldn't feel a thing. I tried rubbing my hand back and forth, as you would to feel a surface, but there was no surface, there was not a thing to rub; there was absolutely nothing, just that gentle pressure pushing you away from whatever might be there.

I looked up and down the road and there was still no traffic, but in a little while, I knew, there would be. Perhaps, I told myself, I should set out some flags in the east-bound traffic lane to convey at least some warning that there was something wrong. It would take no more than a minute or two to set up the flags when I went around the end of the barrier to get to Johnny's Motor Court.

I went back to the cab and found two flags and climbed down the shoulder of the road and clambered up the hillside, making a big sweep to get around the barrier — and even as I made the sweep I ran into the barrier again. I backed away from it and started to walk alongside it, climbing up the hill. It was hard to do. If the barrier had been a solid thing, I would have had no trouble, but since it was invisible, I kept bumping into it.

That was the way I traced it, bumping into it, then sheering off, then bumping into it again.

I thought that the barrier would end almost any time, or that it might get thinner. A couple of times I tried pushing through it, but it still was as stiff and strong as ever. There was an awful thought growing in my mind.

And the higher up the hill I climbed, the more persistent grew the thought.

It was about this time that I dropped the flags.

Below me I heard the sound of skidding tires and swung around to look.

A car on the east-bound lane had slammed into the barrier, and in sliding back, had skidded broadside across both lanes. Another car had been travelling behind the first and was trying to slow down. But either its brakes were bad or its speed had been too high, for it couldn't stop. As I watched, its driver swung it out, with the wheels upon the shoulder, skinning past the broadside car. Then he slapped into the barrier, but his speed had been reduced, and he didn't go far in. Slowly the barrier pushed back the car and it slid into the other car and finally came to rest.

The driver had gotten out of the first car and was walking around his car to reach the second car. I saw his head tilt up and it was clear he saw me. He waved his arms at me and shouted, but I was too far away to make out what he said.

The truck and my car, lying crushed beneath it, still were alone on the west-bound lanes. It was curious, I told myself, that no one else had come along.

There was a house atop the hill and for some reason I didn't recognize it. It had to be a house of someone that I knew, for I'd lived all my life in Millville except for a year at college and I knew everyone. I don't know how to explain it, but for a moment I was all mixed up. Nothing looked familiar and I stood confused, trying to get my bearings and figure where I was.

The east was brightening and in another thirty minutes the sun would be poking up. In the west a great angry cloud bank loomed, and at its base I could see the rapier flickering of the lightning that was riding with the storm.

I stood and stared down at the village and it all came clear to me exactly where I was. The house up on the hill was Bill Donovan" s. Bill was the village garbage man.

I followed along the barrier, heading for the house and for a moment I wondered just where the house might be in relation to the barrier. More than likely, I told myself, it stood just inside of it.

I came to a fence and climbed it and crossed the littered yard to the rickety back stairs. I climbed them gingerly to gain the stoop and looked for a bell. There wasn't any bell. I lifted a fist and pounded on the door, then waited. I heard someone stirring around inside, then the door came open and Bill stared out at me. He was an unkempt bear of a man and his bushy hair stood all on end and he looked at me from beneath a pair of belligerent eyebrows. He had pulled his trousers over his pajama, but he hadn't taken the time to zip up the fly and a swatch of purple pajama cloth stuck out.

His feet were bare and his toes curled up a bit against the cold of the kitchen floor.

"What's the matter, Brad?" he asked.

"I don't know," I told him. "There is something happening down on the road."

"An accident?" he asked.

"No, not an accident. I tell you I don't know. There's something across the road. You can't see it, but it's there. You run into it and it stops you cold. It's like a wall, but you can't touch or feel it."

"Come on in," said Bill. "You could do with a cup of coffee. I'll put on the pot. It's time for breakfast anyhow. The wife is getting up." He reached behind him and snapped on the kitchen light, then stood to one side so that I could enter.

Bill walked over to the sink. He picked a glass off the counter top and turned on the water, then stood waiting.

"Have to let it run a while until it gets cold," he told me. He filled the glass and held it out to me. "Want a drink?" he asked.

"No, thanks," I told him.

He put the glass to his mouth and drank in great slobbering gulps.

Somewhere in the house a woman screamed. If I live to be a hundred, I'll not forget what that scream was like. Donovan dropped the glass on the floor and it broke, spraying jagged glass and water.

"Liz!" he cried. "Liz, what's wrong?" He charged out of the room and I stood there, frozen, looking at the blood on the floor, where Donovan's bare feet had been gashed by the broken glass.

The woman screamed again, but this time the scream was muffled, as if she might be screaming with her mouth pressed against a pillow or a wall.

I blundered out of the kitchen into the dining-room, stumbling on something in my path — a toy, a stool, I don't know what it was and lunging halfway across the room to try to catch my balance, afraid of falling and hitting my head against a chair or table.

And I hit it again, that same resistant wall that I'd walked into down on the road. I braced myself against it and pushed, getting upright on my feet, standing in the dimness of the dining-room with the horror of that wall rasping at my soul.

I could sense it right in front of me, although I no longer touched it.

And whereas before, out in the open, on the road, it had been no more than a wonder too big to comprehend, here beneath this roof, inside this family home, it became an alien blasphemy that set one's teeth on edge.

"My babies!" screamed the woman. "I can't reach my babies!" Now I began to get my bearings in the curtained room. I saw the table and the buffet and the door that led into the bedroom hallway.

Donovan was coming through the doorway. He was half leading, half carrying the woman.

"I tried to get to them," she cried. "There's something there — something that stopped me. I can't get to my babies!" He let her down on the floor and propped her against the wall and knelt gently beside her. He looked up at me and there was a baffled, angry terror in his eyes.

"It's the barrier," I told him. "The one down on the road. It runs straight through the house."

"I don't see no barrier," he said.

"Damn it, man, you don't see it. It just is there, is all."

"What can we do?" he asked.

"The children are OK," I assured him, hoping I was right. "They're just on the other side of the barrier. We can't get to them and they can't get to us, but everything's all right."

"I just got up to look in on them," the woman said. "I just got up to look at them and there was something in the hall…"

"How many?" I asked.

"Two," said Donovan. "One is six, the other eight."

"Is there someone you can phone? Someone outside the village. They could come and take them in and take care of them until we get this thing figured out. There must be an end to this wall somewhere. I was looking for it…"

"She's got a sister," said Donovan, "up the road a ways. Four or five miles."

"Maybe you should call her." And as I said it, another thought hit me straight between the eyes. The phone might not be working. The barrier might have cut the phone lines.

"You be all right, Liz?" he asked.

She nodded dumbly, still sitting on the floor, not trying to get up.

"I'll go call Myrt," he said.

I followed him into the kitchen and stood beside him as he lifted the receiver of the wall phone, holding my breath in a fierce hope that the phone would work. And for once my hoping must have done some good, for when the receiver came off the hook I could hear the faint buzz of an operating line.

Out in the dining-room, Mrs Donovan was sobbing very quietly.

Donovan dialed, his big, blunt, grease-grimed fingers seemingly awkward and unfamiliar at the task. He finally got it done.

He waited with the receiver at his ear. I could hear the signal ringing in the quietness of the kitchen.

"That you, Myrt? said Donovan. "Yeah, this is Bill. We run into a little trouble. I wonder could you and Jake come over…. No, Myrt, just something wrong. I can't explain it to you. Could you come over and pick up the kids? You'll have to come the front way; you can't get in the back.

Yeah, Myrt, I know it sounds crazy. There's some sort of wall. Liz and me, we're in the back part of the house and we can't get up to the front. The kids are in the front…. No, Myrt, I don't know what it is. But you do like I say. Them kids are up there all alone and we can't get to them…. Yes, Myrt, right through the house. Tell Jake to bring along an axe. This thing runs right straight through the house. The front door is locked and Jake will have to chop it down. Or bust a window, if that's easier…. Sure, sure, I know what I'm saying. You just go ahead and do it. Anything to get them kids. I'm not crazy. Something's wrong, I tell you. Something's gone way wrong. You do what I say, Myrt…. Don't mind about the door, just chop the damn thing down. You just get the kids any way you can and keep them safe for us." He hung up the receiver and turned from the phone. He used his forearm to wipe the sweat off his face.

"Damn woman," he said. "She just stood there and argued. She's a flighty bitch." He looked at me. "Now, what do we do next?"

"Trace the barrier," I said. "See where it goes. See if we can get around it. If we can find a way around it, we can get your kids."

"I'll go with you."

I gestured toward the dining-room. "And leave her here alone?"

"No," he said. "No, I can't do that. You go ahead. Myrt and Jake, they'll come and get the kids. Some of the neighbours will take Liz in. I'll try to catch up with you. Thing like this, you might need some help."

"Thanks," I said.

Outside the house, the paleness of the dawn was beginning to flow across the land. Everything was painted that ghostly brightness, not quite-white, not quite any other colour either, that marks the beginning of an August day.

On the road below, a couple of dozen cars were jammed up in front of the barrier on the east-bound lane and there were groups of people standing around. I could hear one loud voice that kept booming out in excited talk — one of those aggressive loudmouths you find in any kind of crowd. Someone had built a small campfire out on the boulevard between the lanes — God knows why, the morning was surely warm enough and the day would be a scorcher.

And now I remembered that I had meant to get hold of Alf and tell him that I wasn't coming. I could have used the phone in the Donovan kitchen, but I'd forgotten all about it. I stood undecided, debating whether to go back in again and ask to use the phone. That had been the main reason, I realized, that I'd stopped at Donovan" s.

There was this pile of cars on the east-bound lane and only the truck and my battered car on the west-bound lane and that must mean, I told myself, that the west-bound lane was closed, as well, somewhere to the east.

And could that mean, I wondered, that the village was enclosed, was encircled by the wall?

I decided against going back to make the phone call, and moved on around the house. I picked up the wall again and began to follow it. I was getting the hang of it by now. It was like feeling this thing alongside me, and following the feeling, keeping just a ways away from it, bumping into it only now and then.

The wall roughly skirted the edge of the village, with a few outlying houses on the other side of it. I followed along it and I crossed some paths and a couple of bob-tailed, dead-end streets, and finally came to the secondary road that ran in from Coon Valley, ten miles or so away.

The road slanted on a gentle grade in its approach into the village and on the slant, just on the other side of the wall, stood an older model car, somewhat the worse for wear. Its motor was still running and the door on the driver's side was open, but there was no one in it and no one was around. It looked as if the driver, once he'd struck the barrier, might have fled in panic.

As I stood looking at the car, the brakes began to slip and the car inched forward, slowly at first, then faster, and finally the brakes gave out entirely and the car plunged down the hill, through the barrier wall, and crashed into a tree. It slowly toppled over on its side and a thin trickle of smoke began to seep from underneath the hood.

But I didn't pay much attention to the car, for there was something more important. I broke into a run, heading up the road.

The car had passed the barrier and had gone down the road to crash and that meant there was no barrier. I had reached the end of it!

I ran up the road, exultant and relieved, for I'd been fighting down the feeling, and having a hard time to fight it down entirely, that the barrier might run all around the village. And in the midst of all my exultation and relief, I hit the wall again.

I hit it fairly hard, for I was running hard, sure that it wasn't there, but in a terrible hurry to make sure it wasn't there. I went into it for three running strides before it tossed me back. I hit the roadbed flat on my back and my head banged upon the pavement. There were a million stars.

I rolled over and got on my hands and knees and stayed there for a moment, like a gutted hound, with my head hanging limp between my shoulders, and I shook it now and then to shake the stars away.

I heard the crackle and the roar of flames and that jerked me to my feet. I still was fairly wobbly, but wobbly or not, I got away from there.

The car was burning briskly and at any moment the flames would reach the gas tank and the car would go sky high.

But the explosion, when it came, was not too spectacular — just an angry, muffled whuff and a great gout of flame flaring up into the sky. But it was loud enough to bring some people out to see what was going on. Doe Fabian and lawyer Nichols were running up the road, and behind them came a bunch of yelling kids and a pack of barking dogs.

I didn't wait for them although I had half a mind to, for I had a lot to tell and here was an audience. But there was something else that stopped me from turning back — I had to go on tracking down the barrier and try to find its end, if it had an end.

My head had begun to clear and all the stars were gone and I could think a little better.

There was one thing that stood out plain and clear: a car could go through the barrier when there was no one in it, but when it was occupied, the barrier stopped it dead. A man could not go through the barrier, but he could pick up a phone and talk to anyone he wanted. And I remembered that I had heard the voices of the men shouting in the road, had heard them very clearly even when they were on the other side. I picked up some sticks and stones and tossed them at the barrier. They went sailing through as if nothing had been there.

There was only one thing that the barrier would stop and that single thing was life. And why in the world should there be a barrier to shut out, or shut in, life?

The village was beginning to stir to life.

I watched Floyd Caldwell come out on his back porch, dressed in his undershirt and a pair of pants with the suspenders hanging. Except for old Doc Fabian, Floyd was the only man in Millville who ever wore suspenders.

But while old Doc wore sedate and narrow black ones, Floyd wore a pair that was broad and red. Floyd was the barber and he took a lot of kidding about his red suspenders, but Floyd didn't mind. He was the village smart guy and he worked at it all the time and it probably was all right, for it brought him a lot of trade from out in the farming country. People who might just as well have gone to Coon Valley for their haircuts came, instead, to Millville to listen to Floyd's jokes and to see him clown.

Floyd stood out on the back porch and stretched his arms and yawned.

Then he took a close look at the weather and he scratched his ribs. Down the street a woman called the family dog and in a little while I heard the flat snap of a screen door shutting and I knew the dog was in.

It was strange, I thought, that there'd been no alarm. Perhaps it was because few people as yet knew about the barrier.

Perhaps the few who had found out about it were still a little numb.

Perhaps most of them couldn't quite believe it. Maybe they were afraid, as I was, to make too much fuss about it until they knew something more about it.

But it couldn't last for long, this morning calm. Before too long, Millville would be seething.

Now, as I followed it, the barrier cut through the back yard of one of the older houses in the village. In its day it had been a place of elegance, but years of poverty and neglect had left it tumbledown.

An old lady was coming down the steps from the shaky back porch, balancing her frail body with a steadying cane.

Her hair was thin and white and even with no breeze to stir the air, ragged ends of it floated like a fuzzy halo all around her head.

She started down the path to the little garden, but when she saw me she stopped and peered at me, with her head tilted just a little in a bird-like fashion. Her pale blue eyes glittered at me through the thickness of her glasses.

"Brad Carter, isn't it?" she asked.

"Yes, Mrs Tyler," I said. "How are you this morning?"

"Oh, just tolerable," she told me. "I'm never more than that. I thought that it was you, but my eyes have failed me and I never can be sure."

"It's a nice morning, Mrs Tyler. This is good weather we are having."

"Yes," she said, "it is. I was looking for Tupper. He seems to have wandered off again. You haven't seen him, have you?" I shook my head. It had been ten years since anyone had seen Tupper Tyler.

"He is such a restless boy," she said. "Always wandering off I declare, I don't know what to do with him."

"Don't you worry," I told her. "He'll show up again."

"Yes," she said, "I suppose he will. He always does, you know." She prodded with her cane at the bed of purple flowers that grew along the walk.

"They're very good this year," she said. "The best I've ever seen them. I got them from your father twenty years ago. Mr Tyler and your father were such good friends. You remember that, of course."

"Yes," I said. "I remember very well."

"And your mother? Tell me how she is. We used to see a good deal of one another."

"You forget, Mrs Tyler," I told her, gently. "Mother died almost two years ago."

"Oh, so she did," she said. "It's true, I am forgetful. Old age does it to one. No one should grow old."

"I must be getting on," I said. "It was good to see you."

"It was kind of you to call," she said. "If you have the time, you might step in and we could have some tea. It is so seldom now that anyone ever comes for tea. I suppose it's because the times have changed. No one, any more, has the time for tea."



"I'm sorry that I can't," I said. "I just stopped by for a moment."

"Well," she said, "it was very nice of you. If you happen to see Tupper would you mind, I wonder, to tell him to come home."

"Of course I will," I promised.

I was glad to get away from her. She was nice enough, of course, but just a little mad. In all the years since Tupper's disappearance, she had gone on looking for him, and always as if he'd just stepped out the door, always very calm and confident in the thought that he'd be coming home in just a little while. Quite reasonable about it and very, very sweet, no more than mildly worried about the idiot son who had vanished without trace.

Tupper, I recalled, had been something of a pest. He'd been a pest with everyone, of course, but especially with me. He loved flowers and he'd hung around the greenhouse that my father had, and my father, who was constitutionally unable to be unkind to anyone, had put up with him and his continual jabber. Tupper had attached himself to me and no matter what I did or said, he'd tag along behind me. The fact that he was a good ten years older than I was made no difference at all; in his own mind Tupper never had outgrown childhood. In the back of my mind I still could hear his jaunty voice, mindlessly happy over anything at all, cooing over flowers or asking endless, senseless questions. I had hated him, of course, but there was really nothing one could pin a good hate on.

Tupper was just something that one had to tolerate. But I knew that I never would forget that jaunty, happy voice, or his drooling as he talked, or the habit that he had of counting on his fingers — God knows why he did it as if he were in continual fear that he might have lost one of them in the last few minutes.

The sun had come up by now and the world was flooded with a brilliant light, and I was becoming more certain by the minute that the village was encircled and cut off, that someone or something, for no apparent reason, had dropped a cage around us. Looking back along the way that I had come, I could see that I'd been travelling on the inside of a curve.

Looking ahead, the curve wasn't difficult to plot.

And why should it be us, I wondered. Why a little town like ours? A town that was no different from ten thousand other towns.

Although, I told myself; that might not be entirely true. It was exactly what I would have said and perhaps everybody else. Everyone, that is, except for Nancy Sherwood — Nancy, who only the night before had told me her strange theory that this town of ours was something very special. And could she be right, I wondered? Was our little town of Millville somehow set apart from all other little towns?

Just ahead was my home street and my calculations told me that it was located just inside the encircling barricade.

There was, I told myself, no sense in going farther. It would be a waste of time. I did not need to complete the circle to convince myself that we were hemmed in.

I cut across the backyard of the Presbyterian parsonage and there, just across the street, was my house, set within its wilderness of flowers and shrubs, with the abandoned greenhouse standing in the back and the old garden around it, a field of purple flowers, those same purple flowers that Mrs Tyler had poked at with her cane and said were doing well this season.

I heard the steady squeaking as I reached the street and I knew that some kids had sneaked into the yard and were playing in the old lawn swing that stood beside the porch.

I hurried up the street, a little wrathful at the squeaking. I had told those kids, time and time again, to leave that swing alone. It was old and rickety and one of these days one of the uprights or something else would break, and one of the kids might be badly hurt. I could have taken it down, of course, but I was reluctant to, for it was Mother's swing. She had spent many hours out in the yard, swinging gently and sedately, looking at the flowers.

The yard was closed in by the old-time lilac hedge and I couldn't see the swing until I reached the gate.

I hurried for the gate and jerked it open savagely and took two quick steps through it, then stopped in my tracks.

There were no kids in the swing. There was a man, and except for a battered hat of straw set squarely atop his head, he was as naked as a jaybird.

He saw me and grinned a foolish grin. "Hi, there," he said, with jaunty happiness. And even as he said it, he began a counting of his fingers, drooling as he counted.

And at the sight of him, at the sound of that remembered but long forgotten voice, my mind went thudding back to the afternoon before.

2

Ed Adler had come that afternoon to take out the phone and he had been embarrassed. "I'm sorry, Brad," he said. "I don't want to do this, but I guess I have to. I have an order from Tom Preston." Ed was a friend of mine. We had been good pals in high school and good friends ever since. Tom Preston had been in school with us, of course, but he'd been no friend of mine or of anybody else" s. He'd been a snotty kid and he had grown up into a snotty man.

That was the way it went, I thought. The heels always were the ones who seemed to get ahead. Tom Preston was the manager of the telephone office and Ed Adler worked for him as a phone installer and a troubleshooter, and I was a realtor and insurance agent who was going out of business. Not because I wanted to, but because I had to, because I was delinquent in my office phone bill and way behind in rent.

Tom Preston was successful and I was a business failure and Ed Adler was earning a living for his family, but not getting anywhere. And the rest of them, I wondered. The rest of the high school gang — how were they getting on? And I couldn't answer, for I didn't know. They all had drifted off. There wasn't much in a little town like Millville to keep a man around.

I probably wouldn't have stayed myself if it hadn't been for Mother. I'd come home from school after Dad had died and had helped out with the greenhouse until Mother had joined Dad. And by that time I had been so long in Millville that it was hard to leave.

"Ed," I had asked, "do you ever hear from any of the fellows?

"No, I don't," said Ed. "I don't know where any of them are." I said: "There was Skinny Austin and Charley Thompson, and Marty Hall and Alf. I can't remember Alf's last name."

"Peterson," said Ed.

"Yes, that's it," I said. "It's a funny thing I should forget his name. Old Alf and me had a lot of fun together." Ed got the cord unfastened and stood up, with the phone dangling from his hand.

"What are you going to do now?" he asked me.

"Lock the door, I guess," I said. "It's not just the phone. It's everything. I'm behind in rent as well. Dan Willoughby, down at the bank, is very sad about it."

"You could run the business from the house."

"Ed," I told him shortly, "there isn't any business. I just never had a business. I couldn't make a start. I lost money from the first." I got up and put on my hat and walked out of the place. The street was almost empty. There were a few cars at the curb and a dog was smelling of a lamp post and old Stiffy Grant was propped up in front of the Happy Hollow tavern, hoping that someone might come along and offer him a drink.

I was feeling pretty low. Small thing as it had been, the phone had spelled the end. It was the thing that finally signified for me what a failure I had been. You can go along for months and kid yourself that everything's all right and will work out in the end, but always something comes up that you can't kid away. Ed Adler coming to disconnect and take away the phone had been that final thing I couldn't kid away.

I stood there on the sidewalk, looking down the street, and I felt hatred for the town — not for the people in it, but for the town itself, for the impersonal geographic concept of one particular place.

The town lay dusty and arrogant and smug beyond all telling and it sneered at me and I knew that I had been mistaken in not leaving it when I'd had the chance. I had tried to live with it for very love of it, but I'd been blind to try. I had known what all my friends had known, the ones who'd gone away, but I had closed my mind to that sure and certain knowledge: there was nothing left in Millville to make one stay around. It was an old town and it was dying, as old things always die. It was being strangled by the swift and easy roads that took customers to better shopping areas; it was dying with the decline of marginal agriculture, dying along with the little vacant hillside farms that no longer would support a family. It was a place of genteel poverty and it had its share of musty quaintness, but it was dying just the same, albeit in the polite scent of lavender and impeccable good manners.

I turned down the street, away from the dusty business section and made my way down to the little river that flowed dose against the east edge of the town. There I found the ancient footpath underneath the trees and walked along, listening in the summer silence to the gurgle of the water as it flowed between the grassy banks and along the gravel bars.

And as I walked the lost and half forgotten years came crowding in upon me. There, just ahead, was the village swimming hole, and below it the stretch of shallows where I'd netted suckers in the spring.

Around the river's bend was the place we had held our picnics. We had built a fire to roast the wieners and to toast the marshmallows and we had sat and watched the evening steal in among the trees and across the meadows.

After a time the moon would rise, making the place a magic place, painted by the lattice of shadow and of moonlight. Then we talked in whispers and we willed that time should move at a slower pace so we might hold the magic longer. But for all our willing, it had never come to pass, for time, even then, was something that could not be slowed or stopped.

There had been Nancy and myself and Ed Adler and Priscilla Gordon, and at times Alf Peterson had come with us as well, but as I remembered it he had seldom brought the same girl twice.

I stood for a moment in the path and tried to bring it back, the glow of moonlight and the glimmer of the dying fire, the soft girl voices and the soft girl-flesh, the engulfing tenderness of that youthful miracle, the tingle and excitement and the thankfulness. I sought the enchanted darkness and the golden happiness, or at least the ghosts of them; all that I could find was the intellectual knowledge of them, that they once had been and were not any more.

So I stood, with the edge worn off a tarnished memory, and a business failure. I think I faced it squarely then, the first time that I'd faced it.

What would I do next?

Perhaps, I thought, I should have stayed in the greenhouse business, but it was a foolish thought and a piece of wishfulness, for after Dad had died it had been, in every way, a losing proposition. When he had been alive, we had done all right, but then there'd been the three of us to work, and Dad had been the kind of man who had an understanding with all growing things. They grew and flourished under his care and he seemed to know exactly what to do to keep them green and healthy. Somehow or other, I didn't have the knack. With me the plants were poor and puny at the best, and there were always pests and parasites and all sorts of plant diseases.

Suddenly, as I stood there, the river and the path and trees became ancient, alien things. As if I were a stranger in this place, as if I had wandered into an area of time and space where I had no business being. And more terrifying than if it had been a place I'd never seen before because I knew in a chill, far corner of my mind that here was a place that held a part of me.

I turned around and started up the path and back of me was a fear and panic that made me want to run. But I didn't run. I went even slower than I ordinarily would have, for this was a victory that I needed and was determined I would have any sort of little futile victory, like walking very slowly when there was the urge to run.

Back on the street again, away from the deep shadow of the trees, the warmth and brilliance of the sunlight set things right again. Not entirely right, perhaps, but as they had been before. The street was the same as ever. There were a few more cars and the dog had disappeared and Stiffy Grant had changed his loafing place. Instead of propping up the Happy Hollow tavern, he was propping up my office.

Or at least what had been my office. For now I knew that there was no point in waiting. I might as well go in right now and clean out my desk and lock the door behind me and take the key down to the bank. Daniel Willoughby would be fairly frosty, but I was beyond all caring about Daniel Willoughby.

Sure, I owed him rent that I couldn't pay and he probably would resent it, but there were a lot of other people in the village who owed Daniel Willoughby without much prospect of paying. That was the way he'd worked it and that was the way he had it and that was why he resented everyone. I'd rather be like myself, I thought, than like Dan Willoughby, who walked the streets each day, chewed by contempt and hatred of everyone he met.

Under other circumstances I would have been glad to have stopped and talked a while with Stiffy Grant. He might be the village bum, but he was a friend of mine. He was always ready to go fishing and he knew all the likely places and his talk was far more interesting than you might imagine. But right now I didn't care to talk with anyone.

"Hi, there, Brad," said Stiffy, as I came up to him. "You wouldn't happen, would you, to have a dollar on you?

It had been a long time since Stiffy had put the bite on me and I was surprised that he should do it now. For whatever else Stiffy Grant might be, he was a gentleman and most considerate. He never tapped anyone for money unless they could afford it. Stiffy had a ready genius for knowing exactly when and how he could safely make a touch.

I dipped into my pocket and there was a small wad of bills and a little silver. I hauled out the little wad and peeled off a bill for him.

"Thank you, Brad," he said. "I ain't had a drink all day." He tucked the dollar into the pocket of a patched and flapping vest and hobbled swiftly up the street, heading for the tavern.

I opened the office door and stepped inside and as I shut the door behind me, the phone began to ring.

I stood there, like a fool, rooted to the floor, staring at the phone.

It kept on ringing, so I went and answered it.

"Mr Bradshaw Carter?" asked the sweetest voice I have ever heard.

"This is he," I said. "What can I do for you?

I knew that it was no one in the village, for they would have called me Brad. And, besides, there was no one I knew who had that kind of voice. It had the persuasive purr of a TV glamour girl selling soap or beauty aids, and it had, as well, that dear, bright timbre one would expect when a fairy princess spoke.

"You, perhaps, are the Mr Bradshaw Carter whose father ran a greenhouse?"

"Yes, that's right," I said.

"You, yourself, no longer run the greenhouse?

"No," I said, "I don't." And then the voice changed. Up till now it had been sweet and very feminine, but now it was male and businesslike. As if one person had been talking, then had gotten up and gone and an entirely different person had picked up the phone. And yet, for some crazy reason, I had the distinct impression that there had been no change of person, but just a change of voice.

"We understand," this new voice said, "that you might be free to do some work for us."

"Why, yes, I would," I said. "But what is going on? Why did your voice change? Who am I talking with?" And it was a silly thing to ask, for no matter what my impression might have been, no human voice could have changed so completely and abruptly. It had to be two persons.

But the question wasn't answered.

"We have hopes," the voice said, "that you can represent us. You have been highly recommended."

"In what capacity?" I asked.

"Diplomatically," said the voice. "I think that is the proper…"

"But I'm no diplomat. I have no…"

"You mistake us, Mr Carter. You do not understand. Perhaps I should explain a little. We have contact with many of your people. They serve us in many ways. For example, we have a group of readers…"

"Readers?"

"That is what I said. Ones who read to us. They read many different things, you see. Things of many interests. The Encyclopaedia Britannica and the Oxford dictionary and many different textbooks. Literature and history. Philosophy and economics. And it's all so interesting."

"But you could read these things yourself. There is no need of readers. All you need to do is to get some books…"

The voice sighed resignedly. "You do not understand. You are springing at conclusions."

"All right, then," I said, "I do not understand. We'll let it go at that. What do you want of me? Remembering that I'm a lousy reader."

"We want you to represent us. We would like first to talk with you, so that you may give us your appraisal of the situation, and from there we can…" There was more of it, but I didn't hear it. For now, suddenly, I knew what had seemed so wrong. I had been looking at it all the while, of course, but it was not until this moment that a full realization of it touched my consciousness. There had been too many other things — the phone when there should have been no phone, the sudden change of voices, the crazy trend of the conversation. My mind had been too busy to grasp the many things in their entirety.

But now the wrongness of the phone punched through to me and what the voice might be saying became a fuzzy sound.

For this was not the phone that had been on the desk an hour before.

This phone had no dial and it had no cord connected to the wall outlet.

"What's going on?" I shouted. "Who am I talking to? Where are you calling from?" And there was yet another voice, neither feminine nor male, neither businesslike nor sweet, but an empty voice that was somehow jocular, but without a trace of character in the fibre of it.

"Mr Carter," said the empty voice, "you need not be alarmed. We take care of our own. We have much gratitude. Believe us, Mr Carter, we are very grateful to you."

"Grateful for what?" I shouted.

"Go see Gerald Sherwood," said the emptiness. "We will speak to him of you."

"Look here," I yelled, "I don't know what's going on, but…"

"Just talk to Gerald Sherwood," said the voice.

Then the phone went dead. Dead, completely dead. There was no humming on the wire. There was just an emptiness.

"Hello, there," I shouted. "Hello, whoever you may be." But there was no answer.

I took the receiver from my ear and stood with it in my hand, trying to reach back into my memory for something that I knew was there. That final voice — I should know that voice. I had heard it somewhere. But my memory felled me.

I put the receiver back on the cradle and picked up the phone. It was, to all appearance, an ordinary phone, except that it had no dial and was entirely unconnected. I looked for a trademark or a manufacturer's designation and there was no such thing.

Ed Adler had come to take out the phone. He had disconnected it and had been standing, with it dangling from his hand, when I'd gone out for my walk.

When I had returned and heard the ringing of the phone and seen it on the desk, the thing that had run through my mind (illogical, but the only ready explanation), had been that for some reason Ed had reconnected the phone and had not taken it. Perhaps because of his friendship for me; willing, perhaps, to disregard an order so that I could keep the phone. Or, perhaps, that Tom Preston might have reconsidered and decided to give me a little extra time. Or even that some unknown benefactor had come forward to pay the bill and save the phone for me.

But I knew now that it had been none of these things. For this phone was not the phone that Ed had disconnected.

I reached out and took the receiver from the cradle and put it to my ear.

The businesslike voice spoke to me. It didn't say hello, it did not ask who called. It said: "It is clear, Mr Carter, that you are suspicious of us. We can understand quite well your confusion and your lack of confidence in us. We do not blame you for it, but feeling as you do, there is no use of further conversation. Talk first to Mr Sherwood and then come back and talk with us." The line went dead again. This time I didn't shout to try to bring the voice back. I knew it was no use. I put the receiver back on the cradle and shoved the phone away.

See Gerald Sherwood, the voice had said, and then come back and talk.

And what in the world could Gerald Sherwood have to do with it?

I considered Gerald Sherwood and he seemed a most unlikely person to be mixed up in any business such as this.

He was Nancy Sherwood's father and an industrialist of sorts who was a native of the village and lived in the old ancestral home on top of the bill at the village edge. Unlike the rest of us, he was not entirely of the village. He owned and ran a factory at Elmore, a city of some thirty or forty thousand about fifty miles away. It was not his factory, really; it had been his father's factory, and at one time it had been engaged in making farm machinery. But some years ago the bottom had fallen out of the farm machinery business and Sherwood had changed over to the manufacturing of a wide variety of gadgets. Just what kind of gadgets, I had no idea, for I had paid but small attention to the Sherwood family, except for a time, in the closing days of high school, when I had held a somewhat more than casual interest in Gerald Sherwood's daughter.

He was a solid and substantial citizen and he was well accepted. But because he, and his father before him, had not made their living in the village, because the Sherwood family had always been well-off, if not exactly rich, while the rest of us were poor, they had always been considered just a step this side of strangers. Their interests were not entirely the interests of the village; they were not tied as tightly to the community as the rest of us. So they stood apart, perhaps not so much that they wanted to as that we forced them to.

So what was I to do? Drive out to Sherwood's place and play the village fool? Go barging in and ask him what he knew of a screwy telephone?

I looked at my watch and it was only four o'clock. Even if I decided to go out and talk with Sherwood, I couldn't do it until early evening. More than likely, I told myself he didn't return from Elmore until six o'clock or so.

I pulled out the desk drawer and began taking out my stuff. Then I put it back again and closed the drawer. I'd have to keep the office until sometime tonight because I'd have to come to it to talk with the person (or the persons?) on that nightmare phone. After it was dark, if I wanted to, I could walk out with the phone and take it home with me. But I couldn't walk the streets in broad daylight with a phone tucked beneath my arm.

I went out and closed the door behind me and started down the street. I didn't know what to do and stood at the first street corner for a moment to make up my mind. I could go home, of course, but I shrank from doing it. It seemed a bit too much like hunting out a hole to hide in. I could go down to the village hall and there might be someone there to talk with.

Although there was a chance, as well, that Hiram Martin, the village constable, would be the only one around. Hiram would want me to play a game of checkers with him and I wasn't in the mood for playing any checkers.

Hiram was a rotten loser, too, and you had to let him win to prevent him from getting nasty.

Hiram and I had never got along too well together. He had been a bully on the schoolground and he and I had fought a dozen times a year. He always licked me, but he never made me say that I was licked, and he never liked me. You had to let Hiram lick you once or twice a year and then admit that you were licked and he'd let you be his friend. And there was a chance, as well, that Higman Morris would be there, and on a day like this, I couldn't stomach Higgy. Higgy was the mayor, a pillar of the church, a member of the school board, a director of the bank, and a big stuffed shirt. Even on my better days, Higgy was a chore; I ducked him when I could.

Or I could go up to the Tribune office and spend an hour or so with the editor, Joe Evans, who wouldn't be too busy, because the paper had been put out this morning. But Joe would be full of county politics and the proposal to build a swimming pool and a lot of other things of lively public interest and somehow or other I couldn't stir up too much interest in any one of them.

I would go down to the Happy Hollow tavern, I decided, and take one of the booths in back and nurse a beer or two while I killed some time and tried to do some thinking. My finances didn't run to drinking, but a beer or two wouldn't make me much worse off than I was already, and there is, at times, an awful lot of comfort in a glass of beer. It was too early for many people to be in the place and I could be alone.

Stiffy Grant, more than likely, would be there, spending the dollar that I had given him. But Stiffy was a gentleman and a most perceptive person. If he saw I wanted to be by myself, he wouldn't bother me.

The tavern was dark and cool and I had to feel my way along, after coming in from the brilliance of the street. I reached the back booth and saw that it was empty, so I sat down in it. There were some people in one of the booths up front, but that was all there were.

Mae Hutton came from behind the bar.

"Hello, Brad," she said. "We don't see much of you."

"You holding down the place for Charley?" I asked her. Charley was her father and the owner of the tavern.

"He's catching a nap," she said. "It's not too busy this time of day. I can handle it."

"How about a beer?" I asked.

"Sure thing. Large or small?"

"Make it large," I told her.

She brought the beer and went back behind the bar. The place was quiet and restful not elegant, and perhaps a little dirty, but restful. Up front the brightness of the street made a splash of light, but it faded out before it got too far, as if it were soaked up by the quiet dusk that lurked within the building.

A man got up from the booth just ahead of me. I had not seen him as I came in. Probably he'd been sitting in the corner, against the wall. He held a half-filled glass and he turned and stared at me. Then he took a step or two and stood beside my booth. I looked up and I didn't recognize him. My eyes had not as yet become adjusted to the place.

"Brad Carter?" he asked. "Could you be Brad Carter?"

"Yes, I could," I said.

He put his glass down on the table and sat down across from me. And as he did, those fox-like features fell into shape for me and I knew who he was.

"Alf Peterson!" I said, surprised. "Ed Adler and I were talking about you just an hour or so ago." He thrust his hand across the table and I grabbed it, glad to see him, glad for some strange reason for this man out of the past. His handclasp was firm and strong and I knew he was glad to see me, too.

"Good Lord," I said, "how long has it been?"

"Six years," he told me. "Maybe more than that." We sat there, looking at one another, in that awkward pause that falls between old friends after years of not seeing one another, neither one quite sure of what should be said, searching for some safe and common ground to begin a conversation.

"Back for a visit?" I inquired.

"Yeah," he said. "Vacation."

"You should have looked me up at once."

"Just got in three or four hours ago." It was strange, I thought, that he should have come back to Millville, for there was no one for him here. His folks had moved away, somewhere east, several years ago. They'd not been Millville people. They'd been in the village for only four or five years, while his father worked as an engineer on a highway project.

"You're going to stay with me," I said. "There's a lot of room. I am all alone."

"I'm at a motel west of town. Johnny's Motor Court, they call it."

"You should have come straight to my place."

"I would have," he said, "but I didn't know. I didn't know that you were in town. Even if you were, I thought you might be married. I didn't want to just come barging in."

I shook my head. "None of those things," I said.

We each had a drink of beer.

He put down his glass. "How are things going, Brad?" My mouth got set to tell a lie, and then I stopped. What the hell, I thought. This man across from me was old Alf Peterson, one of my best friends. There was no point in telling him a lie. There was no pride involved. He was too good a friend for pride to be involved.

"Not so good," I told him.

"I'm sorry, Brad."

"I made a big mistake," I said. "I should have gotten out of here. There's nothing here in Millville, not for anyone."

"You used to want to be an artist. You used to fool around with drawing and there were those pictures that you painted."

I made a motion to sweep it all away.

"Don't tell me," said Alf Peterson, "that you didn't even try. You were planning to go on to school that year we graduated."

"I did," I said. "I got in a year of it. An art school in Chicago. Then Dad passed away and Mother needed me. And there wasn't any money. I've often wondered how Dad got enough together to send me that one year."



"And your mother? You said you are alone."

"She died two years ago."

He nodded. "And you still run the greenhouse."

I shook my head. "I couldn't make a go of it. There wasn't much to go on; I've been selling insurance and trying to handle real estate. But it's no good, Alf. Tomorrow morning I'll close up the office."

"What then?" he asked.

"I don't know. I haven't thought about it." Alf signalled to Mae to bring another round of beers.

"You don't feel," he said, "there's anything to stay for."

I shook my head. "There's the house, of course. I would hate to sell it. If I left, I'd just lock it up. But there's no place I want to go, Alf, that's the hell of it. I don't know if I can quite explain. I've stayed here a year or two too long; I have Millville in my blood."

Alt nodded. "I think I understand. It got into my blood as well. That's why I came back. And now I wonder if I should have. Of course I'm glad to see you, and maybe some other people, but even so I have a feeling that I should not have come. The place seems sort of empty. Sucked dry, if you follow me. It's the same as it always was, I guess, but it has that empty feeling." Mae brought the beers and took the empty glasses.

"I have an idea," Alf said, "if you care to listen."

"Sure," I said. "Why not?"

"I'll be going back," he said, "in another day or so. Why don't you come with me? I'm working with a crazy sort of project. There would be room for you. I know the supervisor pretty well and I could speak to him."

"Doing what?" I asked. "Maybe it would be something that I couldn't do."

"I don't know," said All, "if I can explain it very logically. It's a research project — a thinking project. You sit in a booth and think."

"Think?"

"Yeah. It sounds crazy, doesn't it? But it's not the way it sounds. You sit down in a booth and you get a card that has a question or a problem printed on it. Then you think about that problem and you're supposed to think out loud, sort of talking to yourself, sometimes arguing with yourself. You're self-conscious to start with, but you get over that. The booth is soundproofed and no one can see or hear you. I suppose there is a recorder of some sort to take down what you say, but if there is, it's not in sight."

"And they pay you for this?"

"Rather well," said Alf. "A man can get along."

"But what is it for?" I asked.

"We don't know," said Alf. "Not that we haven't asked. But that's the one condition of the job — that you don't know what it's all about. It's an experiment of some sort, I'd guess. I imagine that it's financed by a university or some research outfit. We are told that if we knew what was going on it might influence the way we are thinking. A man might unconsciously pattern his thinking to fit the purpose of the research."

"And the results?" I asked.

"We aren't told results. Each thinker must have a certain kind of pattern and if you knew that pattern it might influence you. You might try to conform to your own personal pattern, to be consistent, or perhaps there'd be a tendency to break out of it. If you don't know the results, you can't guess at the pattern and there is then no danger." A truck went by in the street outside and its rumble was loud in the quietness of the tavern. And after it went past, there was a fly buzzing on the ceiling. The people up in front apparently had left — at least, they weren't talking any more. I looked around for Stiffy Grant and he wasn't there. I recalled now that I had not seen him and that was funny, for I'd just given him the dollar.

"Where is this place?" I asked.

"Mississippi. Greenbriar, Mississippi. It's just a little place. Come to think of it, it's a lot like Millville. Just a little village, quiet and dusty and hot. My God, how hot it is. But the project centre is air conditioned. It isn't bad in there."

"A little town," I said. "Funny that there'd be a place like that in a little town."

"Camouflage," said All. "They want to keep it quiet. We're asked not to talk about it. And how could you hide it better than in a little place like that? No one would ever think there'd be a project of that sort in a stuck-off village."

"But you were a stranger…"

"Sure, and that's how I got the job. They didn't want too many local people. All of them would have a tendency to think pretty much alike. They were glad to get someone from out of town. There are quite a lot of out-of-towners in the project."

"And before that?"

"Before that? Oh, yes, I see. Before that there was everything. I floated, bummed around. Never stayed too long in any spot. A job for a few weeks here, then a job for a few weeks a little farther on. I guess you could say I drifted. Worked on a concrete gang for a while, washed dishes for a while when the cash ran out and there was nothing else to do. Was a gardener on a big estate down in Louisville for a month or two. Picked tomatoes for a while, but you can starve at that sort of work, so I moved on. Did a lot of things. But I've been down in Greenbriar for eleven months."

"The job can't last forever. After a while they'll have all the data they need." He nodded. "I know. I'll hate to have it end. It's the best work I ever found. How about it, Brad? Will you go back with me?"

"I'll have to think about it," I told him. "Can't you stay a little longer than that day or two?"

"I suppose I could," said All. "I've got two weeks" vacation."

"Like to do some fishing?"

"Nothing I'd like better."

"What do you say we leave tomorrow morning? Go up north for a week or so? It should be cool up there. I have a tent and a camping outfit. We'll try to find a place where we can get some wall-eyes."

"That sounds fine to me."

"We can use my car," I said.

"I'll buy the gas," said All.

"The shape I'm in," I said, "I'll let you."

3

If it had not been for its pillared front and the gleaming white rail of the widow walk atop its roof, the house would have been plain and stark.

There had been a time, I recalled, when I had thought of it as the most beautiful house in the entire world. But it had been six or seven years since I had been at the Sherwood house.

I parked the car and got out and stood for a moment, looking at the house. It was not fully dark as yet and the four great pillars gleamed softly in the fading light of day. There were no lights in the front part of the house, but I could see that they had been turned on somewhere in the back.

I went up the shallow steps and across the porch. I found the bell and rang.

Footsteps came down the hall, a hurrying woman's footsteps. More than likely, I thought, it was Mrs Flaherty. She had been housekeeper for the family since that time Mrs Sherwood had left the house, never to return.

But it wasn't Mrs Flaherty.

The door came open and she stood there, more mature than I remembered her, more poised, more beautiful than ever.

"Nancy!" I exclaimed. "Why, you must be Nancy!" It was not what I would have said if I'd had time to think about it.

"Yes," she said, "I'm Nancy. Why be so surprised?"

"Because I thought you weren't here. When did you get home?"

"Just yesterday," she said.

And, I thought, she doesn't know me. She knows that she should know me. She's trying to remember.

"Brad," she said, proving I was wrong, "it's silly just to stand there. Why don't you come in." I stepped inside and she dosed the door and we were facing one another in the dimness of the hail.

She reached out and laid her fingers on the lapel of my coat.

"It's been a long time, Brad," she said. "How is everything with you?

"Fine," I said. "Just fine."

"There are not many left, I hear. Not many of the gang."

I shook my head. "You sound as if you're glad to be back home." She laughed, just a flutter of a laugh. "Why, of course I am," she said. And the laugh was the same as ever, that little burst of spontaneous merriment that bad been a part of her.

Someone stepped out into the hall.

"Nancy," a voice called, "is that the Carter boy?

"Why," Nancy said to me, "I didn't know that you wanted to see Father."

"It won't take long," I told her. "Will I see you later?"

"Yes, of course," she said. "We have a lot to talk about."

"Nancy!"

"Yes, Father."

"I'm coming," I said.

I strode down the hall toward the figure there. He opened a door and turned on the lights in the room beyond.

I stepped in and he closed the door.

He was a big man with great broad shoulders and an aristocratic head, with a smart trim moustache.

"Mr Sherwood," I told him, angrily, "I am not the Carter boy. I am Bradshaw Carter. To my friends, I'm Brad." It was an unreasonable anger, and probably uncalled for. But he had burned me up, out there in the hall.

"I'm sorry, Brad," he said. "It's so hard to remember that you all are grown up — the kids that Nancy used to run around with." He stepped from the door and went across the room to a desk that stood against one wall. He opened a drawer and took out a bulky envelope and laid it on the desk top.

"That's for you," he said.

"For me?"

"Yes, I thought you knew." I shook my head and there was something in the room that was very close to fear. It was a sombre room, two walls filled with books, and on the third heavily draped windows flanking a marble fireplace.

"Well," he said, "it's yours. Why don't you take it?" I walked to the desk and picked up the envelope. It was unsealed and I flipped up the flap. Inside was a thick sheaf of currency.

"Fifteen hundred dollars," said Gerald Sherwood. "I presume that is the right amount."

"I don't know anything," I told him, "about fifteen hundred dollars. I was simply told by phone that I should talk with you." He puckered up his face, and looked at me intently, almost as if he might not believe me.

"On a phone like that," I told him, pointing to the second phone that stood on the desk.

He nodded tiredly. "Yes," he said, "and how long have you had the phone?"

"Just this afternoon. Ed Adler came and took out my other phone, the regular phone, because I couldn't pay for it. I went for a walk, to sort of think things over, and when I came back this other phone was ringing."

He waved a hand. "Take the envelope," he said. "Put it in your pocket.

"It is not my money. It belongs to you." I laid the envelope back on top the desk. I needed fifteen hundred dollars. I needed any kind of money, no matter where it came from. But I couldn't take that envelope. I don't know why I couldn't.

"All right," he said, "sit down." A chair stood angled in front of the desk and I sat down in it.

He lifted the lid of a box on the desk. "A cigar?" he asked.

"I don't smoke," I told him.

"A drink, perhaps?"

"Yes. I would like a drink."

"Bourbon?"

"Bourbon would be fine." He went to a cellaret that stood in a corner and put ice into two glasses.

"How do you drink it, Brad?"

"Just ice, if you don't mind."

He chuckled. "It's the only civilized way to drink the stuff" he said.

I sat, looking at the rows of books that ran from floor to ceiling.

Many of them were in sets and, from the looks of them, in expensive bindings.

It must be wonderful, I thought, to be, not exactly rich, but to have enough so you didn't have to worry when there was some little thing you wanted, not to have to wonder if it would be all right if you spent the money for it. To be able to live in a house like this, to line the walls with books and have rich draperies and to have more than just one bottle of booze and a place to keep it other than a kitchen shelf.

He handed me the glass of whisky and walked around the desk. He sat down in the chair behind it. Raising his glass, he took a couple of thirsty gulps, then set the glass down on the desk top.

"Brad," he asked, "how much do you know?"

"Not a thing," I said. "Only what I told you. I talked with someone on the phone. They offered me a job."

"And you took the job?"

"No," I said, "I didn't, but I may. I could use a job. But what they whoever it was had to say didn't make much sense."

"They?"

"Well, either there were three of them — or one who used three different voices. Strange as it may sound to you, it seemed to me as if it were one person who used different voices." He picked up the glass and gulped at it again. He held it up to the light and saw in what seemed to be astonishment that it was nearly empty. He hoisted himself out of the chair and went to get the bottle. He slopped liquor in his glass and held the bottle out to me.

"I haven't started yet," I told him.

He put the bottle on the desk and sat down again.

"OK," he said, "you've come and talked with me. It's all right to take the job. Pick up your money and get out of here. More than likely Nancy's out there waiting. Take her to a show or something."

"And that's all?" I asked.

"That is all," he said.

"You changed your mind," I told him.

"Changed my mind?"

"You were about to tell me something. Then you decided not to."

He looked at me levelly and hard. "I suppose you're right," he said. "It really makes no difference."

"It does to me," I told him. "Because I can see you're scared." I thought he might get sore. Most men do when you tell them they are scared.

He didn't. He just sat there, his face unchanging.

Then he said: "Start on that drink, for Christ's sake. You make me nervous, just roosting there and hanging onto it." I had forgotten all about the drink. I had a slug.

"Probably," he said, "you are thinking a lot of things that aren't true. You more than likely think that I'm mixed up in some dirty kind of business. I wonder, would you believe me If I told you I don't really know what kind of business I'm mixed up in."

"I think I would," I said. "That is, if you say so."

"I've had a lot of trouble in life," he said, "but that's not unusual. Most people do have a lot of trouble, one way or the other. Mine came in a bunch. Trouble has a way of doing that." I nodded, agreeing with him.

"First," he said, "my wife left me. You probably know all about that. There must have been a lot of talk about it."

"It was before my time," I said. "I was pretty young."

"Yes, I suppose it was. Say this much for the two of us, we were civilized about it. There wasn't any shouting and no nastiness in court. That was something neither of us wanted. And, then, on top of that I was facing business failure. The bottom went out of the farm machinery business and I feared that I might have to shut down the plant. There were a lot of other small farm machinery firms that simply locked their doors. After fifty or sixty or more years as going, profitable concerns, they were forced out of business." He paused, as if he wanted me to say something. There wasn't anything to say.

He took another drink, then began to talk again. "I'm a fairly stupid man in a lot of ways. I can handle a business. I can keep it going if there's any chance to keep it going and I can wring a profit from it. I suppose that you could say I'm rather astute when it comes to business matters. But that's the end of it. In the course of my lifetime I have never really had a big idea or a new idea." He leaned forward, clasping his hands together and putting them on the desk.

"I've thought about it a lot," he said, "this thing that happened to me. I've tried to see some reason in it and there is no reason. It's a thing that should not have happened, not to a man like me. There I was, on the verge of failure, and not a thing that I could do about it. The problem was quite simple, really. For a number of good economic reasons, less farm machinery was being sold. Some of the big concerns, with big sales departments and good advertising budgets, could ride out a thing like that. They had some elbow room to plan, there were steps that they could take to lessen the effects of the situation. But a small concern like mine didn't have the room or the capital reserve. My firm, and others, faced disaster.

"And in my case, you understand, I didn't have a chance. I had run the business according to old and established practices and time-tested rules, the same sort of good, sound business practices that had been followed by my grandfather and my father. And these practices said that when your sales dwindled down to nothing you were finished. There were other men who might have been able to figure out a way to meet the situation, but not me. I was a good businessman, but I had no imagination. I had no ideas. Ad then, suddenly, I began to get ideas. But they were not my own ideas. It was as if the ideas of some other person were being transplanted to my brain.

"You understand," he said, "that an idea sometimes comes to you in the matter of a second. It just pops from nowhere. It has no apparent point of origin. Try as you may, you cannot trace it back to anything you did or heard or read. Somehow, I suppose, if you dug deep enough, you'd find its genesis, but there are few of us who are trained to do that sort of digging.

"But the point is that most ideas are no more than a germ, a tiny starting point. An idea may be good and valid, but it will take some nursing. It has to be developed. You must think about it and turn it around and around and look at it from every angle and weigh it and consider it before you can mould it into something useful.

"But this wasn't the way with these ideas that I got. They sprang forth full and round and completely developed. I didn't have to do any thinking about them. They just popped into my mind and I didn't need to do another thing about them. There they were, all ready for one's use. I'd wake up in the morning and I'd have a new idea, a new mass of knowledge in my brain. I'd go for a walk and come back with another. They came in bunches, as if someone had sown a crop of them inside my brain and they had lain there for a while and then begun to sprout."

"The gadgets?" I said.

He looked at me curiously. "Yes, "the gadgets. What do you know about them?"

"Nothing," I told him. "I just knew that when the bottom fell out of the farm machinery business you started making gadgets. I don't know what kind of gadgets."

He didn't tell me what kind of gadgets. He went on talking about those strange ideas. "I didn't realize at first what was happening. Then, as the ideas came piling in on me, I knew there was something strange about it. I knew that it was unlikely that I'd think of any one of them, let alone the many that I had. More than likely I'd never have thought of them at all, for I have no imagination and I am not inventive. I tried to tell myself that it was just barely possible I might have thought of two or three of them, but even that would have been most unlikely. But of more than two or three of them I knew I was not capable. I was forced, finally, to admit that I had been the recipient of some sort of outside help."

"What kind of outside help?"

"I don't know," he said. "Even now I don't."

"But it didn't stop you from using these ideas."

"I am a practical man," he said. "Intensely practical. I suppose some people might even say hard-headed. But consider this: the business was gone. Not my business, mind you, but the family business, the business my grandfather had started and my father had handed on to me. It wasn't my business; it was a business I held in trust. There is a great distinction.

"You could see a business you had built yourself go gurgling down the drain and still stand the blow of it, telling yourself that you had been successful once and you could start over and be successful once again. But it's different with a family business.

"In the first place, there is the shame. And in the second place, you can't be sure that you can recoup. You were no success to start with. Success had been handed to you and you'd merely carried on. You never could be sure that you could start over and build the business back. In fact, you're so conditioned that you're pretty sure you couldn't."

He quit speaking and in the silence I could hear the ticking of a clock, faint and far off, but I couldn't see the clock and I resisted the temptation to turn my head to see if I could find it. For I had the feeling that if I turned my head, if I stirred at all, I'd break something that lay within the room. As if I stood in a crowded china shop, where all the pieces were precarious and tilted, fearing to move, for if one piece were dislodged, all of them would come crashing down.

"What would you have done?" asked Sherwood.

"I'd have used anything I had," I said.

"That's what I did," said Sherwood. "I was desperate. There was the business, this house, Nancy, the family name — all of it at stake. I took all of those ideas and I wrote them down and I called in my engineers and draughtsmen and production people and we got to work. I got the credit for it all, of course. There was nothing I could do about it. I couldn't tell them I wasn't the one who'd dreamed up all those things. And you know, strange as it may sound, that's the hardest part of all. That I have to go on taking credit for all those things I didn't do."

"So that is that," I said. "The family business saved and everything is fine. If I were you, I wouldn't let a guilt complex bother me too much."

"But it didn't stop," he said. "If it had, I'd have forgotten it. If there'd just been this single spurt of help to save the company, it might have been all right. But it kept right on. As if there might be two of me, the real, apparent Gerald Sherwood, the one sitting at this desk, and another one who did the thinking for me.

"The ideas kept on coming and some of them made a lot of sense and some made no sense at all. Some of them, I tell you, were out of this world, literally out of this world. They had no point of reference, they didn't seem to square with any situation. And while one could sense that they had potential, while there was a feeling of great importance in the very texture of them, they were entirely useless.

"And it was not only the ideas; it was knowledge also. Bits and bursts of knowledge. Knowledge about things in which I had no interest, things I had never thought of. Knowledge about certain things I'm certain no man knows about. As if someone took a handful of fragmented knowledge, a sort of grab-bag, junk-heap pile of knowledge and dumped it in my brain." He reached out for the bottle and filled his glass. He gestured at me with the bottle neck and I held out my glass. He filled it to the brim.

"Drink up," he said. "You got me started and now you hear me out. Tomorrow morning I'll ask myself why I told you all of this. But tonight it seems all right."

"If you don't want to tell me. If it seems that I am prying…"

He waved a hand at me. "All right," he said, "if you don't want to hear it. Pick up your fifteen hundred."

I shook my head. "Not yet. Not until I know how come you're giving it to me."

"It's not my money. I'm just acting as an agent."

"For this other man? For this other you?"

He nodded. "That's right," he said. "I wonder how you guessed." I gestured at the phone without a dial.

He grimaced. "I've never used the thing," he said. "Until you told me about the one you found waiting in your office, I never knew anyone who had. I make them by the hundreds…"

"You make them!"

"Yes, of course I do. Not for myself. For this second self. Although," he said, leaning across the desk and lowering his voice to a confidential tone, "I'm beginning to suspect it's not a second self."

"What do you think it is?"

He leaned slowly back in the chair. "Damned if I know," he said. "There was a time I thought about it and wondered at it and worried over it, but there was no way of knowing. I just don't bother any more. I tell myself there may be others like me. Maybe I am not alone — at least, it's good to think so."

"But the phone?" I asked.

"I designed the thing," he said. "Or perhaps this other person, if it is a person, did. I found it in my mind and I put it down on paper. And I did this, mind you, without knowing what it was or what it was supposed to do. I knew it was a phone of some sort, naturally. But I couldn't, for the life of me, see how it could work. And neither could any of the others who put it into production at the plant. By all the rules of reason, the damn thing shouldn't work."

"But you said there were a lot of other things that seemed to have no purpose."

"A lot of them," he said, "but with them I never drew a blueprint, I never tried to make them. But the phone, if that is what you want to call it, was a different proposition. I knew that I should make them and how many might be needed and what to do with them."

"What did you do with them?

"I shipped them to an outfit in New Jersey." It was utterly insane.

"Let me get this straight," I pleaded. "You found the blueprints in your head and you knew you should make these phones and that you should send them to some place in New Jersey. And you did it without question?"

"Oh, certainly with question. I felt somewhat like a fool. But consider this: this second self, this auxiliary brain, this contact with something else had never let me down. It had saved my business, it had provided good advice, it had never failed me. You can't turn your back on something that has played good fairy to you."

"I think I see," I said.

"Of course you do," he told me. "A gambler rides his luck. An investor plays his hunches. And neither luck nor hunch are as solid and consistent as this thing I have." He reached out and picked up the dialless phone and looked at it, then set it down again. "I brought this one home," he said, "and put it on the desk. All these years I've waited for a call, but it never came."

"With you," I told him, "there is no need of any phone."

"You think that's it?" he asked.

"I'm sure of it."

"I suppose it is," he said. "At times it's confusing."

"This Jersey firm?" I asked. "You corresponded with them?"

He shook his head. "Not a line. I just shipped the phones."

"There was no acknowledgement?"

"No acknowledgement," he said. "No payment. I expected none. When you do business with yourself…"

"Yourself! You mean this second self runs that New Jersey firm?"

"I don't know," he said. "Christ, I don't know anything. I've lived with it all these years and I tried to understand, but I never understood." And now his face was haunted and I felt sorry for him.

He must have noticed that I felt sorry for him. He laughed and said.

"Don't let me get you down. I can take it. I can take anything. You must not forget that I've been well paid. Tell me about yourself. You're in real estate."

I nodded. "And insurance."

"And you couldn't pay your phone bill."

"Don't waste sympathy on me," I said. "I'll get along somehow."

"Funny thing about the kids," he said. "Not many of them stay here. Not much to keep them here, I guess."

"Not very much," I said.

"Nancy is just home from Europe," he told me. "I'm glad to have her home. It got lonesome here with no one. I haven't seen much of her lately. College and then a fling at social work and then the trip to Europe. But she tells me now that she plans to stay a while. She wants to do some writing."

"She should be good at it," I said. "She got good marks in composition when we were in high school."

"She has the writing bug," he said. "Had half a dozen things published in, I guess you call them little magazines. The ones that come out quarterly and pay you nothing for your work except half a dozen copies. I'd never heard of them before. I read the articles she wrote, but I have no eye for writing. I don't know if it's good or bad. Although I suppose it has to have a certain competence to have been accepted. But if writing keeps her here with me, I'll be satisfied."

I got out of my chair. "I'd better go," I said. "Maybe I have stayed longer than I should."

He shook his head. "No, I was glad to talk with you. And don't forget the money. This other self, this whatever-you-may-call-it told me to give it to you. I gather that it's in the nature of a retainer of some sort."

"But this is double talk," I told him, almost angrily. "The money comes from you."

"Not at all," he said. "It comes from a special fund that was started many years ago. It didn't seem quite right that I should reap all benefit from all of these ideas which were not really mine. So I began paying ten per cent profits into a special fund…"

"Suggested, more than likely, by this second self?

"Yes," he said. "I think you are right, although it was so long ago that I cannot truly say. But in any case, I set up the fund and through the years have paid out varying amounts at the direction of whoever it may be that shares my mind with me." I stared at him, and it was rude of me, I know. But no man, I told myself, could sit as calmly as Sherwood sat and talk about an unknown personality that shared his mind with him.

Even after all the years, it still would not be possible.

"The fund," said Sherwood, quietly, "is quite a tidy sum, even with the amounts I've paid out of it. It seems that since this fellow came to live with me, everything I've touched has simply turned to money."

"You take a chance," I said, "telling this to me."

"You mean that you could tell it around about me?

I nodded. "Not that I would," I said.

"I don't think you will," he said. "You'd get laughed at for your trouble. No one would believe you."

"I don't suppose they would."

"Brad," he said, almost kindly, "don't be a complete damn fool. Pick up that envelope and put it in your pocket. Come back some other time and talk with me — any time you want. I have a hunch there may be a lot of things we'll want to talk about." I reached out my hand and picked up the money. I stuffed it in my pocket.

"Thank you, sir," I said.

"Don't mention it," he told me. He raised a hand. "Be seeing you," he said.

4

I WENT slowly down the hall and there was no sign of Nancy, nor was she on the porch, where I had half expected to find her waiting for me. She had said yes, that I would see her later, that we had a lot to talk about, and I had thought, of course, that she meant tonight. But she might not have meant tonight. She might have meant some other time than this. Or she might have wafted and then grown tired of waiting. After all, I had spent a long time with her father.

The moon had risen in a cloudless sky and there was not a breath of breeze. The great oaks stood like graven monuments and the summer night was filled with the glittering of moonbeams. I walked down the stairs and stood for a moment at their foot and it seemed for all the world that I was standing in a circle of enchantment. For this, I thought, could not be the old, familiar earth, this place of ghostly, brooding oaken sentinels, this air so drenched with moonlight, this breathless, waiting silence hanging over all, and the faint, other-world perfume that hung above the soft blackness of the ground.

Then the enchantment faded and the glitter went away and I was back once more in the world I knew.

There was a chill in the summer air. Perhaps a chill of disappointment, the chill of being booted out of fairyland, the chill of knowing there was another place I could not hope to stay. I felt the solid concrete of the walk underneath my feet and I could see that the shadowed oaks were only oaks and not graven monuments.

I shook myself, like a dog coming out of water, and my wits came back together and I went on down the walk. As I neared the car, I fumbled in my pocket for my keys, walking around on the driver's side and opening the door.

I was halfway in the seat before I saw her sitting there, next to the other door.

"I thought," she said, "that you were never coming. What did you and Father find to talk so long about?

"A number of things," I told her. "None of them important."

"Do you see him often?"

"No," I said. "Not often." Somehow I didn't want to tell her this was the first time I had ever talked with him.

I groped in the dark and found the lock and slid in the key.

"A drive," I said. "Perhaps some place for a drink."

"No, please," she said. "I'd rather sit and talk." I settled back into the seat.

"It's nice tonight," she said. "So quiet. There are so few places that are really quiet."

"There's a place of enchantment," I told her, "just outside your porch. I walked into it, but it didn't last. The air was full of moonbeams and there was a faint perfume…"

"That was the flowers," she said.

"What flowers?

"There's a bed of them in the curve of the walk. All of them those lovely flowers that your father found out in the woods somewhere."

"So you have them too," I said. "I guess everyone in the village has a bed of them."

"Your father," she said, "was one of the nicest men I ever knew. When I was a little girl he always gave me flowers. I'd go walking past and he'd pick a flower or two for me." Yes, I thought, I suppose he could be called a nice man. Nice and strong and strange, and yet, despite his strength and strangeness, a very gentle man. He had known the ways of flowers and of all other plants. His tomato plants, I remembered, had grown big and stout and of a dark, deep green, and in the spring everyone had come to get tomato plants from him.

And there had been that day he'd gone down Dark Hollow way to deliver some tomato plants and cabbage and a box full of perennials to the widow Hicklin and had come back with half a dozen strange, purple-blossomed wild flowers, which he had dug up along the road and brought home, their roots wrapped carefully in a piece of burlap.

He had never seen such flowers before and neither, it turned out, had anybody else. He had planted them in a special bed and had tended them with care and the flowers had responded gratefully underneath his hands. So that today there were few flower beds in the village that did not have some of those purple flowers, my father's special flowers.

"Those flowers of his," asked Nancy. "Did he ever find what kind of flowers they were?"

"No," I said, "he didn't."

"He could have sent one of them to the university or someplace. Someone could have told him exactly what he'd found."

"He talked of it off and on. But he never got around to really doing it. He always kept so busy. There were so many things to do. The greenhouse business keeps you on the run."

"You didn't like it, Brad?"

"I didn't really mind it. I'd grown up with it and I could handle it. But I didn't have the knack. Stuff wouldn't grow for me."

She stretched, touching the roof with balled fists.

"It's good to be back," she said. "I think I'll stay a while. I think Father needs to have someone around."

"He said you planned to write."

"He told you that?"

"Yes," I said. "he did. He didn't act as if he shouldn't."

"Oh, I don't suppose it makes any difference. But it's a thing that you don't talk about — not until you're well along on it. There are so many things that can go wrong with writing. I don't want to be one of those pseudo-literary people who are always writing something they never finish, or talking about writing something that they never start."

"And when you write," I asked, "what will you write about?"

"About right here," she said. "About this town of ours."

"Millville?

"Why, yes, of course," she said. "About the village and its people."

"But," I protested, "there is nothing here to write about."

She laughed and reached out and touched my arm. "There's so much to write about," she said. "So many famous people. And such characters."

"Famous people?" I said, astonished.

"There are," she said, "Belle Simpson Knowles, the famous novelist, and Ben Jackson, the great criminal lawyer, and John M. Hartford, who heads the department of history at…"

"But those are the ones who left," I said. "There was nothing here for them. They went out and made names for themselves and most of them never set foot in Millville again, not even for a visit."

"But," she said, "they got their start here. They had the capacity for what they did before they ever left this village. You stopped me before I finished out the list. There are a lot of others. Millville, small and stupid as it is, has produced more great men and women than any other village of its size."

"You're sure of that?" I asked, wanting to laugh at her earnestness, but not quite daring to.

"I would have to check," she said, "but there have been a lot of them."

"And the characters," I said. "I guess you're right. Millville has its share of characters. There are Stiffy Grant and Floyd Caldwell and Mayor Higgy…"

"They aren't really characters," said Nancy. "Not the way you think of them. I shouldn't have called them characters to start with. They're individualists. They've grown up in a free and easy atmosphere. They've not been forced to conform to a group of rigid concepts and so they've been themselves. Perhaps the only truly unfettered human beings who still exist today can be found in little villages like this."

In all my life I'd never heard anything like this. Nobody had ever told me that Higgy Morris was an individualist. He wasn't. He was just a big stuffed shirt. And Hiram Martin was no individualist. Not in my book, he wasn't. He was just a schoolyard bully who had grown up into a stupid cop.

"Don't you think so?" Nancy asked.

"I don't know," I said. "I have never thought about it." And I thought — for God's sake, her education's showing, her years in an eastern college, her fling at social work in the New York welfare centre, her year-long tour of Europe. She was too sure and confident, too full of theory and of knowledge. Millville was her home no longer. She had lost the feel and sense of it, for you do not sit off to one side and analyse the place that you call your home. She still might call this village home, but it was not her home. And had it ever been, I wondered? Could any girl (or boy) call a bone-poor village home when they lived in the one big house the village boasted, when their father drove a Cadillac, and there was a cook and maid and gardener to care for house and yard? She had not come home; rather she had come back to a village that would serve her as a social research area. She would sit up here on her hilltop and subject the village to inspection and analysis and she'd strip us bare and hold us up, flayed and writhing, for the information and amusement of the kind of people who read her kind of book.

"I have a feeling," she said, "that there is something here that the world could use, something of which there is not a great deal in the world. Some sort of catalyst that sparks creative effort, some kind of inner hunger that serves to trigger greatness."

"That inner hunger," I said. "There are families in town who can tell you all you want to know about that inner hunger." And I wasn't kidding. There were Millville families that at times went just a little hungry; not starving, naturally, but never having quite enough to eat and almost never the right kind of things to eat. I could have named her three of them right off, without even thinking.

"Brad," she said, "you don't like the idea of the book."

"I don't mind," I said. "I have no right to mind. But when you write it, please, write it as one of us, not as someone who stands off and is a bit amused. Have a bit of sympathy. Try to feel a little like these people you write about. That shouldn't be too hard; you've lived here long enough."

She laughed, but it was not one of her merry laughs. "I have a terrible feeling that I may never write it. I'll start it and I'll write away at it, but I'll keep going back and changing it, because the people I am writing of will change, or I'll see them differently as time goes on, and I'll never get it written. So you see, there's no need to worry." More than likely she was right, I thought. You had to have a hunger, a different kind of hunger, to finish up a book. And I rather doubted that she was as hungry as she thought.

"I hope you do," I said. "I mean I hope you get it written. And I know it will be good. It can't help but be." I was trying to make up for my nastiness and I think that she knew I was. But she let it pass.

It had been childish and provincial, I told myself, to have acted as I had. What difference did it make? What possible difference could it make for me, who had stood on the street that very afternoon and felt a hatred for the geographic concept that was called the town of Millville?

This was Nancy Sherwood. This was the girl with whom I had walked hand in hand when the world had been much younger. This was the girl I had thought of this very afternoon as I'd walked along the river, fleeing from myself. What was wrong, I asked myself.

And: "Brad, what is wrong?" she asked.

"I don't know," I said. "Is there something wrong?

"Don't be defensive. You know there's something wrong. Something wrong with us."

"I suppose you're right," I told her. "It's not the way it should be. It's not the way I had thought it would be, if you came home again." I wanted to reach out for her, to take her in my arms — but I knew, even as I wanted it, that it was not the Nancy Sherwood who was sitting here beside me, but that other girl of long ago I wanted in my arms.

We sat in silence for a moment, then she said, "Let's try again some other time. Let's forget about all this. Some evening I'll dress up my prettiest and we'll go out for dinner and some drinks." I turned and put out my hand, but she had opened the door and was halfway out of the car.

"Good night, Brad," she sad, and went running up the walk.

I sat and listened to her running, up the walk and across the porch. I heard the front door close and I kept on sitting there, with the echo of her running still sounding in my brain.

5

I told myself that I was going home. I told myself that I would not go near the office or the phone that was waiting on the desk until I'd had some time to think. For even if I went and picked up the phone and one of the voices answered, what would I have to tell them? The best that I could do would be to say that I had seen Gerald Sherwood and had the money, but that I'd have to know more about what the situation was before I took their job.

And that wasn't good enough, I told myself; that would be talking off the cuff and it would gain me nothing.

And then I remembered that early in the morning I'd be going fishing with Alf Peterson and I told myself, entirely without logic, that in the morning there'd be no time to go down to the office.

I don't suppose it would have made any difference if I'd had that fishing date or not. I don't suppose it would have made any difference, no matter what I told myself. For even as I swore that I was going home, I knew, without much question, that I'd wind up at the office.

Main Street was quiet. Most of the stores were closed and only a few cars were parked along the kerb. A bunch of farm boys, in for a round of beers, were standing in front of the Happy Hollow tavern.

I parked the car in front of the office and got out. Inside I didn't even bother to turn on the light. Some light was shining through the window from a street light at the intersection and the office wasn't dark.

I strode across the office to the desk with my hand already reaching out to pick up the phone — and there wasn't any phone.

I stopped beside the desk and stared at the top of it, not believing. I bent over and, with the flat of my hand, swept back and forth across the desk, as if I imagined that the phone had somehow become invisible and while I couldn't see it I could locate it by the sense of touch. But it wasn't that, exactly. It was simply, I guess, that I could not believe my eyes.

I straightened up from feeling along the desk top and stood rigid in the room, while an icy-footed little creature prowled up and down my spine.

Finally I turned my head, slowly, carefully, looking at the corners of the office, half expecting to find some dark shadow crouching there and waiting.

But there wasn't anything. Nothing had been changed. The place was exactly as I had left it, except there wasn't any phone.

Turning on the light, I searched the office. I looked in all the corners, I looked beneath the desk, I ransacked the desk drawers and went through the filing cabinet.

There wasn't any phone.

For the first time, I felt the touch of panic. Someone, I thought, had found the phone. Someone had managed to break in, to unlock the door somehow, and had stolen it. Although, when I thought of it, that didn't make much sense. There was nothing about the phone that would have attracted anyone's attention. Of course it had no dial and it was not connected, but looking through the window, that would not have been apparent.

More than likely, I told myself, whoever had put it on the desk had come back and taken it. Perhaps it meant that the ones who had talked to me had reconsidered and had decided I was not the man they wanted. They had taken back the phone and, with it, the offer of the job.

And if that were the case, there was only one thing I could do — forget about the job and take back the fifteen hundred.

Although that, I knew, would be rather hard to do. I needed that fifteen hundred so bad I could taste it.

Back in the car, I sat for a moment before starting the motor, wondering what I should do next. And there didn't seem to be anything to do, so I started the engine and drove slowly up the street.

Tomorrow morning, I told myself, I'd pick up Alf Peterson and we'd have our week of fishing. It would be good, I thought, to have old Alf to talk with. We'd have a lot to talk about — his crazy job down in Mississippi and my adventure with the phone.

And maybe, when he left, I'd be going with him. It would be good, I thought, to get away from Millville.

I pulled the car into the driveway and left it standing there.

Before I went to bed, I'd want to get the camping and the fishing gear together and packed into the car against an early start, come morning. The garage was small and it would be easier to do the packing with the car standing in the driveway.

I got out and stood beside the car. The house was a hunched shadow in the moonlight and past one corner of it I could see the moonlit glitter of an unbroken pane or two in the sagging greenhouse. I could just see the tip of the elm tree, the seedling elm that stood at one corner of the greenhouse. I remembered the day I had been about to pull the seedling out, when it was no more that a sprout, and how my dad had stopped me, telling me that a tree had as much right to live as anybody else. That's exactly what he'd said as much as anybody else. He'd been a wonderful man, I thought; he believed, deep inside his heart, that flowers and trees were people.

And once again I smelled the faint perfume of the purple flowers that grew in profusion all about the greenhouse, the same perfume I'd smelled at the foot of the Sherwood porch. But this time there was no circle of enchantment.

I walked around the house and as I approached the kitchen door I saw there was a light inside. More than likely, I thought, I had forgotten it, although I could not remember that I had turned it on.

The door was open, too, and I could remember shutting it and pushing on it with my hand to make sure the latch had caught before I'd gone out to the car.

Perhaps, I thought, there was someone in there waiting for me, or someone had been here and left and the place was looted, although there was, God knows, little enough to loot. It could be kids, I thought sonic of these mixed-up kids would do anything for kicks.

I went through the door fast and then came to a sudden halt in the middle of the kitchen. There was someone there, all right; there was someone waiting.

Stiffy Grant sat in a kitchen chair and he was doubled over, with his arms wrapped about his middle, and rocking slowly, from side to side, as if he were in pain.

"Stiffy!" I shouted, and Stiffy moaned at me.

Drunk again, I thought. Stiffer than a goat and sick, although how in the world he could have gotten drunk on the dollar I had given him was more than I could figure. Maybe, I thought, he had made another touch or two, waiting to start drinking until he had cash enough to really hang one on.

"Stiffy," I said sharply, "what the hell's the matter?" I was plenty sore at him. He could get plastered as often as he liked and it was all right with me, but he had no right to come busting in on me.

Stiffy moaned again, then he fell out of the chair and sprawled untidily on the floor. Something that clattered and jangled flew out of the pocket of his ragged jacket and skidded across the worn-out linoleum.

I got down on my knees and tugged and hauled at him and got him straightened out. I turned him over on his back. His face was splotched and puffy and his breath was jerky, but there was no smell of liquor. I bent close over him in an effort to make certain, and there was no smell of booze.

"Brad?" he mumbled. "Is that you, Brad?"

"Yes," I told him. "You can take it easy now. I'll take care of you."

"It's getting close," he whispered. "The time is coming dose."

"What is getting close?" But he couldn't answer. He had a wheezing fit. He worked his jaws, but no words came out. They tried to come, but he choked and strangled on them.

I left him and ran into the living-room and turned on the light beside the telephone. I pawed, all fumble-fingered, through the directory, to find Doc Fabian's number. I found it and dialled and waited while the phone rang on and on. I hoped to God that Doc was home and not out on a call somewhere.

For when Doc was gone, you couldn't count on Mrs Fabian answering. She was all crippled up with arthritis and half the time couldn't get around. Doc always tried to have someone there to watch after her and to take the calls when he went out, but there were times when he couldn't get anyone to stay.

Old Mrs Fabian was hard to get along with and no one liked to stay.

When Doc answered, I felt a great surge of relief.

"Doc," I said. "Stiffy Grant is here at my place and there's something wrong with him."

"Drunk, perhaps," said Doc.

"No, he isn't drunk. I came home and found him sitting in the kitchen. He's all twisted up and babbling."

"Babbling about what?"

"I don't know," I said. "Just babbling — when he can talk, that is."

"All right," said Doc. "I'll be right over." That's one thing about Doc. You can count on him. At any time of day or night, in any kind of weather.

I went back to the kitchen. Stiffy had rolled over on his side and was clutching at his belly and breathing hard. I left him where he was. Doc would be here soon and there wasn't much that I could do for Stiffy except to try to make him comfortable, and maybe, I told myself, he might be more comfortable lying on his side than turned over on his back.

I picked up the object that had fallen out of Stiffy's coat. It was a key ring, with half a dozen keys. I couldn't imagine what need Stiffy might have for half a dozen keys. More than likely he just carried them around for some smug feeling of importance they might give to him.

I put them on the counter top and went back and squatted down alongside Stiffy. "I called Doc," I told him. "He'll be here right away." He seemed to hear me. He wheezed and sputtered for a while, then he said in a broken whisper: "I can't help no more. You are all alone." It didn't go as smooth as that. His words were broken up.

"What are you talking about?" I asked him, as gently as I could. "Tell me what it is."

"The bomb," he said. "The bomb. They'll want to use the bomb. You must stop them, boy." I had told Doc that he was babbling and now I knew I had been right.

I headed for the front door to see if Doc might be in sight and when I got there he was coming up the walk.

Doc went ahead of me into the kitchen and stood for a moment, looking down at Stiffy. Then he set down his bag and hunkered down and rolled Stiffy on his back.

"How are you, Stiffy?" he demanded.

Stiffy didn't answer.

"He's out cold," said Doc.

"He talked to me just before you came in."

"Say anything?"

I shook my bead. "Just nonsense." Doc hauled a stethoscope out of his pocket and listened to Stiffy's chest. He rolled Stiffy's eyelids back and beamed a light into his eyes.

Then he got slowly to his feet.

"What's the matter with him?" I asked.

"He's in shock," said Doc. "I don't know what's the matter. We'd better get him into the hospital over at Elmore and have a decent look at him." He turned wearily and headed for the living-room.

"You got a phone in here?" he asked.

"Over in the corner. Right beside the light."

"I'll call Hiram," he said. "He'll drive us into Elmore. We'll put Stiffy in the back seat and I'll ride along and keep an eye on him." He turned in the doorway. "You got a couple of blankets you could let us have?"

"I think I can find some."

He nodded at Stiffy. "We ought to keep him warm."

I went to get the blankets. When I came back with them, Doc was in the kitchen. Between the two of us, we got Stiffy all wrapped up. He was limp as a kitten and his face was streaked with perspiration.

"Damn wonder," said Doc, "how he keeps alive, living the way he does, in that shack stuck out beside the swamp. He drinks anything and everything he can get his hands on and he pays no attention to his food. Eats any kind of slop he can throw together easy. And I doubt he's had an honest bath in the last ten years. It does beat hell," he said with sudden anger, "how little care some people ever think to give their bodies."

"Where did he come from?" I asked. "I always figured he wasn't a native of this place. But he's been here as long as I remember."

"Drifted in," said Doc, "some thirty years ago, maybe more than that. A fairly young man then. Did some odd jobs here and there and just sort of settled down. No one paid attention to him. They figured, I guess, that he had drifted in and would drift out again. But then, all at once, he seemed to have become a fixture in the village. I would imagine that he just liked the place and decided to stay on. Or maybe lacked the gumption to move on." We sat in silence for a while.

"Why do you suppose he came barging in on you?" asked Doc.

"I wouldn't know," I said. "We always got along. We'd go fishing now and then. Maybe he was just walking past when he started to get sick."

"Maybe so," said Doc.

The doorbell rang and I went and let Hiram Martin in. Hiram was a big man. His face was mean and he kept the constable's badge pinned to his coat lapel so polished that it shone.

"Where is he?" he asked.

"Out in the kitchen," I said. "Doc is sitting with him." It was very plain that Hiram did not take to being drafted into the job of driving Stiffy in to Elmore.

He strode into the kitchen and stood looking down at the swathed figure on the floor.

"Drunk?" he asked.

"No," said Doc. "He's sick."

"Well, OK," said Hiram, "the car is out in front and I left the engine running. Let's heave him in and be on our way." The three of us carried Stiffy out to the car and propped him in the back seat.

I stood on the walk and watched the car go down the street and I wondered how Stiffy would feel about it when he woke up and found that he was in a hospital. I rather imagined that he might not care for it.

I felt bad about Doc. He wasn't a young man any longer and more than likely he'd had a busy day, and yet he took it for granted that he should ride with Stiffy.

Once in the house again, I went into the kitchen and got out the coffee and went to the sink to fill the coffee pot, and there, lying on the counter top, was the bunch of keys I had picked up off the floor. I picked them up again and had a closer look at them. There were two of them that looked like padlock keys and there was a car key and what looked like a key to a safety deposit box and two others that might have been any kind of keys. I shuffled them around, scarcely seeing them, wondering about that car key and that other one which might have been for a safety box. Stiffy didn't have a car and it was a good, safe bet that be had nothing for which he'd ever need a safety deposit box.

The time is getting close, he'd told me, and they'll want to use the bomb. I had told Doc that it was babbling, but now, remembering back, I was not so sure it was. He had wheezed out the words and he'd worked to get them out. They had been conscious words, words he had managed with some difficulty. They were words that he had meant to say and had laboured to get said. They had not been the easy flow of words that one mouths when babbling. But they had not been enough. He had not had the strength or time.

The few words that he'd managed made no particular sense.

There was a place where I might be able to get some further information that might piece out the words, but I shrank from going there. Stiffy Grant had been a friend of mine for many years, ever since that day he'd gone fishing with a boy often and had sat beside him on the river bank all the afternoon, spinning wondrous tales. As I recalled it, standing in the kitchen, we had caught some fish, but the fish were not important. What had been important then, what was still important, was that a grown man had the sort of understanding to treat a ten-year-old as an equal human being. On that day, in those few hours of an afternoon, I had grown a lot. While we sat on that river bank I had been as big as he was, and that was the first time such a thing had ever happened to me.

There was something that I had to do and yet I shrank from doing it — and still, I told myself, Stiffy might not mind. He had tried to tell me something and he had failed because he didn't have the strength. Certainly he would understand that if I used these keys to get into his shack, that I had not done it in a spirit of maliciousness, or of idle curiosity, but to try to attain that knowledge he had tried to share with me.

No one had ever been in Stiffy's shack. He had built it through the years, out at the edge of town, beside a swamp in the corner of Jack Dickson's pasture, and he had built it out of lumber he had picked up and out of flattened tin cans and all manner of odd junk he had run across. At first it had been little more than a lean-to, a shelter from the wind and rain. But bit by bit, year by year, he had added to it until it was a structure of wondrous shape and angles, but it was a home.

I made up my mind and gave the keys a final toss and caught them and put them in my pocket. Then I went out of the house and got into the car.

6

A thin fog of ghostly white lay just above the surface of the swamp and curled about the foot of the tiny knoll on which Stiffy's shack was set.

Across the stretch of whiteness loomed a shadowed mass, the dark shape of a wooded island that rose out of the marsh.

I stopped the car and got out of it and as I did, my nostrils caught the rank odour of the swamp, the scent of old and musty things, the smell of rotting vegetation, and ochre coloured water. It was not particularly offensive and yet there was about it an uncleanliness that set one's skin to crawling. Perhaps, I told myself, a man got used to it. More than likely Stiffy had lived with it so long that he never noticed it.

I glanced back toward the village and through the darkness of the nightmare trees I could catch an occasional glimpse of a swaying street lamp. No one, I was certain, could have seen me come here. I'd switched off the headlights before I turned off the highway and had crawled along the twisting cart track that led in to the shack with no more than a sickly moonlight to help me on my way.

Like a thief in the night, I thought. And that, of course, was what I was — except I had no intent of stealing.

I walked up the path that led to the crazy door fashioned out of uneven slabs of salvaged lumber, dosed by a metal hasp guarded by a heavy padlock.

I tried one of the padlock keys and it fitted and the lock snicked back. I pushed on the door and it creaked open.

I pulled the flashlight I had taken from the glove compartment of the car out of my pocket and thumbed its switch. The fan of light thrust out, spearing through the doorway. There was a table and three chairs, a stove against one wall, a bed against another.

The room was clean. There was a wooden floor, covered by scraps of linoleum carefully patched together. The linoleum was so thoroughly scrubbed that it fairly shone. The walls had been plastered and then neatly papered with scraps of wallpaper, and with a complete and cynical disregard for any colour scheme.

I moved farther into the room, swinging the light slowly back and forth. At first it had been the big things I had seen — the stove, the table and the chairs, the bed. But now I began to become aware of the other things and the little things.

And one of these smaller things, which I should have seen at once, but hadn't, was the telephone that stood on the table.

I shone the light on it and spent long seconds making sure of what I'd known to start with — for it was apparent at a glance that the phone was without a dial and had no connection cord. And it would have done no good if it had had a cord, for no telephone line had ever been run to this shack beside the swamp.

Three of them, I thought — three of them I knew of. The one that had been in my office and another in Gerald Sherwood's study and now this one in the shack of the village bum.

Although, I told myself, not quite so much a bum as the village might believe. Not the dirty slob most people thought he was. For the floor was scrubbed and the walls were papered and everything was neat.

Me and Gerald Sherwood and Stiffy Grant — what kind of common bond could there be among us? And how many of these dialless phones could there be in Millville; for how many others of us did that unknown bond exist?

I moved the light and it crept across the bed with its patterned quilt — not rumpled, not messed up, and very neatly made. Across the bed and to another table that stood beyond the bed. Underneath the table were two cartons. One of them was plain, without any lettering, and the other was a whisky case with the name of an excellent brand of Scotch writ large across its face.

I walked over to the table and pulled the whisky case out from underneath it. And in it was the last thing in the world I had expected. It was not an emptied carton packed with personal belongings, not a box of junk, but a case of whisky.

Unbelieving, I lifted out a bottle and another and another, all of them still sealed. I put them back in the case again and lowered myself carefully to the floor, squatting on my heels. I felt the laughter deep inside of me, trying to break out — and yet it was, when one came to think of it, not a laughing matter.

This very afternoon Stiffy had touched me for a dollar because, he'd said, he'd not had a drink all day. And all the time there had been this case of whisky, pushed underneath the table.

Were all the outward aspects of the village bum no more than camouflage? The broken, dirty nails; the rumpled, thread-bare clothing; the unshaven face and the unwashed neck; the begging of money for a drink; the seeking of dirty little piddling jobs to earn the price of food — was this all a sham?

And if it were a masquerade, what purpose could it serve? I pushed the case back underneath the table and pulled out the other carton. And this one wasn't whisky and neither was it junk. It was telephones.

I hunkered, staring at them, and it now was crystal clear how that telephone had gotten on my desk. Stiffy had put it there and then had waited for me, propped against the building. Perhaps he had seen me coming down the street as he came out of the office and had done the one thing that would seem entirely natural to explain his waiting there. Or it might equally well have been just plain bravado. And all the time he has been laughing at me deep inside himself.

But that must be wrong, I told myself. Stiffy never would have laughed at me. We were old and trusted friends and he'd never laugh at me, he. would never do anything to fool me.

This was a serious business, too serious for any laughing to be done.

If Stiffy had put the phone there, had he also been the one who had come back and taken it? Could that have been the reason he had come to my place — to explain to me why the phone was gone?

Thinking of it, it didn't seem too likely.

But if it had not been Stiffy, then there was someone else involved.

There was no need to lift out the phones, for I knew exactly what I'd find. But I did lift them out and I wasn't wrong.

They had no dials and no connection cords.

I got to my feet and for a moment stood uncertain, staring at the phone standing on the table, then, making up my mind, strode to the table and lifted the receiver.

"Hello," said the voice of the businessman. "What have you to report?"

"This isn't Stiffy," I said. "Stiffy is in a hospital. He was taken sick."

There was a moment's hesitation, then the voice said, "Oh, yes, it's Mr Bradshaw Carter, isn't it. So nice that you could call."

"I found the phones," I said. "Here in Stiffy's shack. And the phone in my office has somehow disappeared. And I saw Gerald Sherwood. I think perhaps, my friend, it's time that you explained."

"Of course," the voice said. "You, I suppose, have decided that you will represent us."

"Now," I said, "just a minute, there. Not until I know about it. Not until I've had a chance to give it some consideration."

"I tell you what," the voice said, "you consider it and then you call us back. What was this you were saying about Stiffy being taken somewhere?"

"A hospital," I said. "He was taken sick."

"But he should have called us," the voice said, aghast. "We would have fixed him up. He knew good and well…"

"He maybe didn't have the time. I found him…"

"Where was this place you say that he was taken?"

"Elmore. To the hospital at…"

"Elmore. Of course. We know where Elmore is."

"And Greenbriar, too, perhaps." I hadn't meant to say it; I hadn't even thought it. It just popped into my mind, a sudden, unconscious linking of what was happening here and the project that Alf had talked to me about.

"Greenbriar? Why, certainly. Down in Mississippi. A town very much like Millville. And you will let us know? When you have decided, you will let us know?"

"I'll let you know," I promised.

"And thank you very much, sir. We shall be looking forward to your association with us." And then the line went dead.

Greenbriar, I thought. It was not only Millville. It might be the entire world. What the hell, I wondered, could be going on?

I'd talk to Alf about it. I'd go home and phone him now. Or I could drive out and see him. He'd probably be in bed, but I would get him up. I'd take along a bottle and we'd have a drink or two.

I picked up the phone and tucked it underneath my arm and went outside.

I closed the door behind me. I snapped the padlock shut and then went to the car. I opened the back door and put the telephone on the floor and covered it with a raincoat that was folded on the seat. It was a silly thing to do, but I felt a little better with the phone tucked away and hidden. I got behind the wheel and sat for a moment, thinking, Perhaps, I told myself; it would be better if I didn't rush into things too fast. I would see Alf tomorrow and we'd have a lot of time to talk, an entire week to talk if we needed it. And that way I'd have some time to try to think the situation out.

It was late and I had to pack the camping stuff and the fishing tackle in the car and Ishould try to get some sleep.

Be sensible, I told myself. Take a little time. Try to think it out.

It was good advice. Good for someone else. Good even for myself at another time and under other circumstances. I should not have taken it, however. I should have gone out to Johnny's Motor Court and pounded on Alf's door. Perhaps then things would have worked out differently. But you can't be sure. You never can be sure.

But, anyhow, I did go home and I did pack the camping stuff and the fishing gear into the car and had a few hours of sleep (I wonder now how I ever got to sleep), then was routed out by the alarm dock early in the morning.

And before I could pick up Alf I hit the barrier.

7

"Hi, there," said the naked scarecrow, with jaunty happiness. He counted on his fingers and slobbered as he counted.

And there was no mistaking him. He came clear through the years. The same placid, vacant face, with its frog-like mouth and its misty eyes. It had been ten years since I had seen him last, since anyone had seen him, and yet he seemed only slightly older than he had been then. His hair was long, hanging down his back, but he had no whiskers. He had a heavy growth of fuzz, but he'd never sprouted whiskers. He was entirely naked except for the outrageous hat. And he was the same old Tupper. He hadn't changed a bit. I'd have known him anywhere.

He quit his finger-counting and sucked in his slobber. He reached up and took off his hat and held it out so that I could see it better.

"Made it myself," he told me, with a wealth of pride.

"It's very fine," I said.

He could have waited, I told myself. No matter where he'd come from, he could have waited for a while. Millville had enough trouble at this particular moment without having to contend once again with the likes of Tupper Tyler.

"Your papa," Tupper said. "Where is your papa, Brad? There is something I have to tell him." And that voice, I thought. How could I ever have mistaken it? And how could I ever have forgotten that Tupper was, of all things, an accomplished mimic? He could be any bird he wanted and he could be a dog or cat and the kids used to gather round him, making fun of him, while he put on a mimic show of a dog-and-cat fight or of two neighbours quarrelling.

"Your papa!" Tupper said.

"We'd better get inside," I told him. "I'll get some clothes and you climb into them. You can't go on running around naked."

He nodded vaguely. "Flowers," he said. "Lots of pretty flowers." He spread his arms wide to show me how many flowers there were. "Acres and acres," he said. "There is no end to them. They just keep on forever. Every last one purple. And they are so pretty and they smell so sweet and they are so good to me." His chin was covered with a dampness from his talking and he wiped it with a claw-like hand. He wiped his hand upon a thigh.

I got him by the elbow and got him turned around, headed for the house.

"But your papa," he protested. "I want to tell your papa all about the flowers."

"Later on," I said.

I got him on the porch and thrust him through the door and followed after him. I felt easier. Tupper was no decent sight for the streets of Millville. And I had had, for a while, about all that I could stand. Old Stiffy Grant laid out in my kitchen just the night before and now along comes Tupper, without a stitch upon him. Eccentrics were all right, and in a little town you get a lot of them, but there came a time when they ran a little thin.

I still held tightly to his elbow and marched him to the bedroom.

"You stand right there," I told him.

He stood right there, not moving, gaping at the room with his vacant stare.

I found a shirt and a pair of trousers. I got out a pair of shoes and, after looking at his feet, put them back again. They were, I knew, way too small. Tupper's feet were all spraddled out and flattened. He'd probably been going without shoes for years.

I held out the trousers and the shirt.

"You get into these," I said. "And once you have them on, stay here. Don't stir out of this room." He didn't answer and he didn't take the clothes. He'd fallen once again to counting his fingers.

And now, for the first time, I had a chance to wonder where he'd been.

How could a man drop out of sight, without a trace, stay lost for ten years, and then pop up again, out of that same thin air into which he had disappeared?

It had been my first year in high school that Tupper had turned up missing and I remembered it most vividly because for a week all of the boys had been released from school to join the hunt for him. We had combed miles of fields and woodlands, walking slowly in line an arm's length from one another, and finally we had been looking for a body rather than a man. The state police had dragged the river and several nearby ponds. The sheriff and a posse of townspeople had worked carefully through the swamp below Stiffy's shack, prodding with long poles. They had found innumerable logs and a couple of wash boilers that someone had thrown away and on the farther edge of the swamp an anciently dead dog.

But no one had found Tupper.

"Here," I told him, "take these clothes and get into them." Tupper finished with his fingers and politely wiped his chin.

"I must be getting back," he said. "The flowers can't wait too long." He reached out a hand and took the clothes from me. "My other ones wore out," he said. "They just dropped off of me."

"I saw your mother just half an hour ago," I said. "She was looking for you." It was a risky thing to say, for Tupper was the kind of jerk that you handled with kid gloves. But I took the calculated risk and said it, for I thought that maybe it would jolt some sense into him.

"Oh," he said lightly, "she's always hunting for me. She thinks I ain't big enough to look out for myself." As if he'd never been away. As if ten years hadn't passed. As if he'd stepped out of his mother's house no more than an hour ago. As if time had no meaning for him — and perhaps it hadn't.

"Put on the clothes," I told him. "I'll be right back." I went out into the living-room and picked up the phone. I dialled Doc Fabian's number. The busy signal blurped at me.

I put the receiver back and tried to think of someone else to call. I could call Hiram Martin. Perhaps he was the one to call. But I hesitated.

Doc was the man to handle this; be knew how to handle people. All that Hiram knew was how to push them around.

I dialled Doc once more and still got the busy signal. I slammed down the receiver and hurried toward the bedroom. I couldn't leave Tupper alone too long. God knows what he might do.

But I already had waited too long. I never should have left. The bedroom was empty. The window was open and the screen was broken out and there was no Tupper.

I rushed across the room and leaned out of the window and there was no sign of him.

Blind panic hit me straight between the eyes. I don't know why it did.

Certainly, at that moment, Tupper's escaping from the bedroom was not all that important. But it seemed to be important and I knew, without knowing why, that I must run him down and bring him back, that I must not let him out of my sight again.

Without thinking, I stepped back from the window and took a running jump, diving through the opening. I landed on one shoulder and rolled, then jumped up to my feet.

Tupper was not in sight, but now I saw where he had gone.

His dewy tracks led across the grass, back around the house and down to the old greenhouse. He had waded out into the patch of purple flowers that covered the old abandoned area where once my father and, later, I myself had tended rows of flowers and other plants. He had waded out some twenty feet or so into the mass of flowers. His trail was clearly shown, for the plants had been brushed over and had not had time to straighten yet, and they were a darker hue where the dew had been knocked off them.

The trail went twenty feet and stopped. All about it and ahead of it the purple flowers stood straight, silvered by the tiny dewdrops.

There was no other trail. Tupper had not backed out along the trail and then gone another way. There was just the single trail that headed straight into the patch of purple flowers and ended. As if the man might have taken wing and flown away, or dropped straight into the ground.

But no matter where he was, I thought, no matter what kind of tricks he played, he couldn't leave the village. For the village was closed in by some sort of barrier that ran all the way around it.

A wailing sound exploded and filled the universe, a shrieking, terrible sound that reverberated and beat against itself. It came so suddenly that it made me jump and stiffen. The sound seemed to fill the world and to dog the sky and it didn't stop, but kept on and on.

Almost at once I knew what it was, but my body still stayed tense for long seconds and my mind was curdled with a nameless fear. For there had been too much happening in too short a time and this metallic yammering had been the trigger that had slammed it all together and made the world almost unendurable.

Gradually I relaxed and started for the house.

And still the sound kept on, the frantic, full-throated wailing of the siren down at the village hall.

8

By the time I got up to the house there were people running in the street — a wild-eyed, frantic running with a sense of panic in it, all of them heading toward that screeching maelstrom of sound, as if the siren were the monstrous tootling of a latter-day Pied Piper and they were the rats which must not be left behind.

There was old Pappy Andrews, hobbling along, cracking his cane on the surface of the street with unaccustomed vigour and the wind blowing his long chin whiskers up into his face. There was Grandma Jones, who had her sunbonnet socked upon her head, but had forgotten to tie the strings, which floated and bobbed across her shoulders as she stumped along with grim determination. She was the only woman in all of Millville (perhaps in all the world) who still owned a sunbonnet and she took a malicious pride in wearing it, as if the very fact of appearing with it upon her head was a somehow commendable flaunting of her fuddy-duddyness. And after her came Pastor Silas Middleton, with a prissy look of distaste fastened on his face, but going just the same. An old jalopy clattered past with that crazy Johnson kid crouched behind the wheel and a bunch of his hoodlum pals yelling, and cat-calling, glad of any kind of excitement and willing to contribute to it. And a lot of others, including a slew of kids and dogs.

I opened the gate and stepped into the street. But I didn't run like all the rest of them, for I knew what it was all about and I was all weighed down with a lot of things that no one knew as yet. Especially about Tupper Tyler and what Tupper might have had to do with what was happening. For insane as it might sound, I had a sneaky sort of hunch that Tupper had somehow had a hand in it and had made a mess of things.

I tried to think, but the things I wanted to think about were too big to get into mind and there were no mental handholds on them for my mind to grab a hold of. So I didn't hear the car when it came sneaking up beside me.

The first thing I heard was the click of the door as it was coming open.

I swung around and Nancy Sherwood was there behind the wheel.

"Come on, Brad," she yelled, to make herself heard above the siren noise.

I jumped in and closed the door and the car slid up the street. It was a big and powerful thing. The top was down and if felt funny to be riding in a car that didn't have a top.

The siren stopped. One moment the world had been filled to bursting with its brazen howling and then the howling stopped and for a little moment there was the feeble keening as the siren died. Then the silence came, and in the weight and mass of silence a little blot of howling still stayed within one's mind, as if the howling had not gone, but had merely moved away.

One felt naked in the coldness of the silence and there was the absurd feeling that in the noise there had been purpose and direction. And that now, with the howling gone, there was no purpose or direction.

"This is a nice car you have," I said, not knowing what to say, but knowing that I should say something.

"Father gave it to me," she said, "on my last birthday." It moved along and you couldn't hear the motor. All you could hear was the faint rumble of the wheels turning on the roadbed.

"Brad," she asked, "what's going on? Someone told me that your car was wrecked and there was no sign of you. What has your car to do with the siren blowing? And there were a lot of cars down on the road…"

I told her. "There's a fence of some sort built around the town."

"Who would build a fence?"

"It's not that kind of fence. You can't see this fence." We had gotten close to Main Street and there were more people. They were walking on the sidewalk and walking on the lawns and walking in the road. Nancy slowed the car to crawling.

"You said there was a fence."

"There is a fence. An empty car can get through it, but it will stop a man. I have a hunch it will stop all life. It's the kind of fence you'd expect in fairyland."

"Brad," she said, "you know there is no fairyland."

"An hour ago I knew," I said. "I don't know any more." We came out on Main Street and a big crowd was standing out in front of the village hall and more coming all the time. George Walker, the butcher at the Red Owl store, was running down the street, with his white apron tucked up into his belt and his white cap set askew upon his head. Norma Shepard, the receptionist at Doc Fabian's office, was standing on a box out on the sidewalk so that she could see what was going on, and Butch Ormsby, the owner of the service station just across the street from the hall, was standing at the kerb, wiping and wiping at his greasy hands with a ball of waste, as if he knew he would never get them clean, but was bound to keep on trying.

Nancy pulled the car up into the approach to the filling station and shut off the motor.

A man came across the concrete apron and stopped beside the car. He leaned down and rested his folded arms on the top part of the door.

"How are things going, pal?" he asked.

I looked at him for a moment, not remembering him at first, then suddenly remembering. He must have seen that I remembered him.

"Yeah," he said, "the guy who smacked your car." He straightened and reached out his hand. "Name is Gabriel Thomas," he said. "You just call me Gabe. We never got around to trading names down there." I shook his hand and told him who I was, then introduced Nancy.

"Mr Thomas," Nancy said, "I heard about the accident. Brad won't talk about it."

"Well," said Gabe, "it was a strange thing, miss. There was nothing there and you ran into it and it stopped you as if it had been a wall of stone. And even when it was stopping you, you could see right through it."

"Did you phone your company?" I asked.

"Yeah. Sure I phoned them. But no one will believe me. They think I'm drunk. They think I am so drunk I wouldn't dare to drive and I'm holing up somewhere. They think I dreamed up this crazy story as a cover-up."

"Did they say so, Mr Thomas?"

"No, miss," he said, "but I know how them jokers think. And the thing that hurts me is that they ever should have thought it. I ain't a drinking man. And I got a good record. Why, I won driving awards, three years in a row." He said to me, "I don't know what to do. I can't get out of here. There's no way to get out. That barrier is all around the town. I live five hundred miles from here and my wife is all alone. Six kids and the youngest one a baby. I don't know what she'll do. She's used to it, of course, with me off on the road. But never for longer than three or four days, the time it takes for me to make a run. What if I can't get back for two or three weeks, maybe two or three months? What will she do then? There won't be any money coming in and there are the house payments to be made and them six kids to feed."

"Maybe you won't be here for long," I said, doing my best to make him feel a little better. "Maybe someone can get it figured out and do something about it. Maybe it will simply go away. And even if it doesn't, I imagine that your company will keep your salary going. After all, it's not your…"

He made an insulting, disgusted noise. "Not that bunch," he said. "Not that gang of chisellers."

"It's too soon to start worrying," I told him. "We don't know what has happened and until we do…"

"I guess you're right," he said. "Of course, I'm not the only one. I been talking to a lot of people and I'm not the only one. I was talking to a guy down in front of the barber shop just a while ago and his wife is in the hospital over at — what's the name of that town?"

"Elmore," Nancy said.

"Yes, that was it. She's in the hospital at Elmore and he is out of his mind, afraid he can't go to visit her. Kept saying over and over that maybe it would be all right in a little while, that he could get out of town. Sounds like she may be pretty bad off and he goes over every day. She'll be expecting him, he says, and maybe she won't understand why he doesn't come. Talked as if a good part of the time she's not in her right mind.

"And there was this other fellow. His family is off on a vacation, out to Yellowstone, and he was expecting them to get home today. Says they'll be all tired out from travelling and now they can't reach their home after they have travelled all those miles to get back into it again. Was expecting them home early in the afternoon. He's planning to go out on the road and wait for them at the edge of the barrier. Not that it will do any good, meeting them out there, but he said it was the only thing he could do. And then there are a lot of people who work out of town and now they can't get to their jobs, and there was someone telling me about a girl here in town who was going to marry a fellow from a place called Coon Valley and they were going to get married tomorrow and now, of course, they can't."

"You must have talked to a lot of people," I said.

"Hush," said Nancy.

Across the street Mayor Higgy Morris was standing on the top step of the flight of stairs that led up to the village hall and he was waving his arms to get the people quiet.

"Fellow citizens," yelled Higgy in that phony political voice that makes you sick at heart. "Fellow citizens, if you'll just be quiet."

Someone yelled, "You tell "em Higgy!" There was a wave of laughter, but it was a nervous laugh.

"Friends," said Higgy, "we may be in a lot of trouble. You probably have heard about it. I don't know what you heard, for there are a lot of stories. I don't know, myself, everything that's happened."

"I'm sorry for having to use the siren to call you all together, but it seemed the quickest way."

"Ah, hell," yelled someone. "Get on with it, Higgy." No one laughed this time.

"Well, all right," said Higgy. "I'll get on with it. I don't know quite how to say this, but we've been cut off. There is some sort of fence around us that won't let anybody in or anybody out. Don't ask me what it is or how it got there. I have no idea. I don't think, right now, that anybody knows. There may be nothing for us to get disturbed about. It may be only temporary; it may go away."

"What I do want to say is that we should stay calm. We're all in this together and we got to work together to get out of it. Right now we haven't got anything to be afraid of. We are only cut off in the sense that we can't go anywhere. But we are still in touch with the outside world. Our telephones are working and so are the gas and electric lines. We have plenty of food to last for ten days, maybe more than that. And if we should run short, we can get more food. Trucks loaded with it, or with anything we need, can be brought up to the barrier and the driver can get out, then the truck can be pulled or pushed through the barrier. It doesn't stop things that are not alive."

"Just a minute, mayor," someone shouted.

"Yes," the mayor said, looking around to see who had dared to interrupt him. "Was that you, Len?" he asked.

"Yes, it was," said the man.

I could see now that it was Len Streeter, our high school science teacher.

"What did you want?" asked Higgy.

"I suppose you're basing that last statement of yours — about only non-living matter getting through the barrier — on the car that was parked on the Coon Valley road."

"Why, yes," said Higgy, condescendingly, "that is exactly what I was basing the statement on. What do you know about it?"

"Nothing," Len Streeter told him. "Nothing about the car itself. But I presume, you do intend to go about the investigation of this phenomenon within well restricted bounds of logic."

"That's right," said Higgy, sanctimoniously. "That's exactly what we intend to do." And you could tell by the way he said it he had no idea of what Streeter had said or what he was driving at.

"In that case," said Streeter. "I might caution you against accepting facts at their first face value. Such as presuming that because there was no human in the car, there was nothing living in it."

"Well, there wasn't," Higgy argued. "The man who had been driving it had left and gone away somewhere."

"Humans," said Streeter, patiently, "aren't the only forms of life. We can't be certain there was no life in that car. In fact, we can be pretty sure there was life of some sort in it. There probably was a fly or two shut up inside of it. There might have been a grasshopper sitting on the hood. It was absolutely certain that the car had in it and about it and upon it many different kinds of micro-organisms. And a micro-organism is a form of life, just the same as we are." Higgy stood up on the steps and he was somewhat flustered. He didn't know whether Streeter was making a fool of him or not. Probably never in his life had he heard of such a thing as a micro-organism.

"You know, Higgy," said a voice I recognized as Doc Fabian" s, "our young friend is right. Of course there would be microorganisms. Some of the rest of us should have thought of it at once."

"Well, all right, then," said Higgy. "If you say so, Doc. Let's say that Len is right. It don't make any difference, does it?"

"At the moment, no," said Doc.

"The only point I wanted to make," said Streeter, "is that life can't be the entire answer. If we are going to study the situation, we should get a right start at it. We shouldn't begin with a lot of misconceptions."

"I got a question, mayor," said someone else. I tried to see who it was, but couldn't.

"Go ahead," said Higgy, cordially, happy that someone was about to break up this Streeter business.

"Well, it's like this," said the man. "I've been working on the highway job south of town. And now I can't get to it and maybe they'll hold the job for me for a day or two, but it isn't reasonable to expect the contractor to hold it very long. He's got a contract he has to meet — a time limit, you know, and he pays a penalty for every day he's late. So he's got to have men to do the job. He can't hold no job open for more than a day or two."

"I know all that," said Higgy.

"I ain't the only one," said the man, "There are a lot of other fellows who work out of town. I don't know about the rest of them, but I got to have my pay. I ain't got any backlog I can fall back on. What's going to happen to us if we can't get to our jobs and there isn't any pay cheque and no money in the bank?"

"I was coming to that," said Higgy. "I know exactly what your situation is. And the situations of a lot of other men. There isn't enough work in a little town like this for everyone who lives here, so a great many of our residents have work outside of town. And I know a lot of you haven't too much money and that you need your pay cheques. We hope this thing clears up soon enough that you can go back and your jobs will still be there."

"But let me tell you this. Let me make a promise. If it doesn't clear up, there aren't any of you going to go hungry. There aren't any of you who are going to be turned out of your homes because you can't make your payments or can't manage to scrape the rent together. There won't nothing happen to you. A lot of people are going to be without jobs because of what has happened, but you'll be taken care of, every one of you. I am going to name a committee that will talk with the merchants and the bank and we'll arrange for a line of credit that will see you through. Anyone who needs a loan or credit can be sure of getting it." Higgy looked down at Daniel Willoughby, who was standing a step or two below him.

"Ain't that right, Dan?" he demanded.

"Yes," said the banker. "Yes. Sure, it's quite all right. We'll do everything we can." But he didn't like it. You could see he didn't. It hurt him to say it was all right. Daniel liked security, good security, for each dollar he put out.

"It's too early yet," said Higgy, "to know what has happened to us. By tonight maybe we'll know a whole lot more about it. The main thing is to keep calm and not start going off half- cocked.

"I can't pretend to know what is going to happen. If this barrier stays in place, there'll be some difficulties. But as it stands right now, it's not entirely bad. Up until an hour or so ago, we were just a little village that wasn't too well known. There wasn't, I suppose, much reason that we should have been well known. But now we're getting publicity over the entire world. We're in the newspapers and on the radio and TV. I'd like Joe Evans to come up here and tell you all about it." He looked around and spotted Joe in the crowd.

"You folks," he said, "make way, won't you, so Joe can come up here." The editor climbed the steps and turned around to face the crowd.

"There isn't much to tell so far," he said. "I've had calls from most of the wire services and from several newspapers. They all wanted to know what was going on. I told them what I could, but it wasn't much. One of the TV stations over in Elmore is sending a mobile camera unit. The phone was still ringing when I left the house and I suppose there are calls coming into the office, too.

"I think we can expect that the news media will pay a lot of attention to the situation here and there's no question in my mind that the state and federal governments will take a hand in it, and if I understand it rightly, more than likely the scientific community will have a considerable interest, as well."

The man who had the highway job spoke up again. "Joe, you think them science fellows can get it figured out?"

"I don't know," said Joe.

Hiram Martin had pushed his way through the crowd and was crossing the street. He had a purposeful look about hint and I wondered what he could be up to. Someone else was asking a question, but the sight of Hiram had distracted me and I lost the gist of it.

"Brad," said someone at my elbow.

I looked around.

Hiram was standing there. The trucker, I saw, had left.

"Yes," I said. "What is it?"

"If you got the time," said Hiram. "I'd like to talk with you."

"Go ahead," I said. "I have the time." He jerked his head toward the village hall.

"All right," I said.

I opened the door and got out.

"I'll wait for you," said Nancy.

Hiram moved off around the crowd, flanking it, heading for the side door of the hail. I followed close behind him.

But I didn't like it.

9

Hiram's office was a little cubbyhole just off the stall where the fire engine and ladder rig were housed. There was barely room in it for two chairs and a desk. On the wall above the desk hung a large and garish calendar with a naked woman on it.

And on the desk stood one of the dialless telephones.

Hiram gestured at it. "What is that?" he asked.

"It's a telephone," I said. "Since when did you get so important that you have two phones?"

"Take another look," he said.

"It's still a telephone," I said.

"A closer look," he told me.

"It's a crazy looking thing. It hasn't any dial."

"Anything else?"

"No, I guess not. It just doesn't have a dial."

"And," said Hiram, "it has no connection cord."

"I hadn't noticed that."

"That's funny," Hiram said.

"Why funny?" I demanded. "What the hell is going on? You didn't get me in here just to show me a phone."

"It's funny," Hiram said, "because it was in your office."

"It couldn't be. Ed Adler came in yesterday and took out my phone. For non-payment of my bill."

"Sit down, Brad," he said.

I sat down and he sat down facing me. His face was still pleasant enough, but there was that odd glitter in his eyes — the glitter that in the olden days I'd seen too often in his eyes when he'd cornered me and knew he had me cornered and was about to force me to fight him, in the course of which endeavour he would beat the living Jesus out of me.

"You never saw this phone?" he asked.

I shook my head. "When I left the office yesterday I had no telephone. Not this one or any other."

"That's strange," he said.

"As strange to me as to you," I told him. "I don't know what you're getting at. Suppose you try to tell me." I knew the lying in the long run would not get me anywhere, but for the moment it was buying me some time. I was pretty sure that right now he couldn't tie me to the telephone.

"All right," he said, "I'll tell you. Tom Preston was the man who saw it. He'd sent Ed to take out your phone, and later in the afternoon he was walking past your office and he happened to look in and saw the phone standing on your desk. It made him pretty sore. You can see how it might have made him sore."

"Yes," I said. "Knowing Tom, I presume he would be sore."

"He'd sent Ed out to get that phone and the first thing he thought of was that you'd talked Ed out of taking it. Or maybe Ed had just sort of failed to drop around and get it. He knew you and Ed were friends."

"I suppose, he was so sore that he broke in and took it."

"No," said Hiram, "he never did break in. He went down to the bank and talked Daniel Willoughby into giving him the key."

"Without considering," I said, "that I was renting the office."

"But you hadn't paid your rent for three solid months. If you ask me, I'd figure Daniel had the right."

"In my book," I told him, "Tom and Daniel broke into my place and robbed me."

"I told you. They didn't do any breaking. And Daniel had no part in it. Except giving Tom the extra key. Tom went back alone. Besides, you say you'd never seen this phone, that you never owned it."

"That's beside the point. No matter what was in my office, he had no right to take it. Whether it was mine or not. How do I know he didn't walk away with some other stuff?"

"You know damn well he didn't," Hiram told me. "You said you wanted to hear about this."

"So go ahead and tell me."

"Well, Tom got the key and got into your office and he saw right away that it was a different kind of phone. It didn't have a dial and it wasn't connected. So he turned around and started to walk out and before he reached the door, the phone rang."

"It what?"

"It rang."

"But it wasn't connected."

"I know, but anyhow, it rang."

"So he answered it," I said, "and there was Santa Claus."

"He answered it," said Hiram, "and there was Tupper Tyler."

"Tupper! But Tupper…"

"Yeah, I know," said Hiram. "Tupper disappeared. Ten years ago or so. But Tom said it was Tupper's voice. He said he couldn't be mistaken."

"And what did Tupper tell him?"

"Tom said hello and Tupper asked him who he was and Tom told him who he was. Then Tupper said get off this phone, you're not authorized to use it. Then the phone went dead."

"Look, Hiram, Tom was kidding you."

"No, he wasn't. He thought someone was kidding him. He thought you and Ed had cooked it up. He thought it was a joke. He thought you were trying to get even with him."

"But that's crazy," I protested. "Even if Ed and I had fixed up a gag like that, how could we have known that Tom would come busting in?"

"I know," said Hiram.

"You mean you believe all this?"

"You bet I believe it. There's something wrong, something awfully wrong." But his tone of voice was defensive. I had him on the run. He had hauled me in to pin me to the wall and it hadn't worked that way and now he was just a little sheepish about the entire matter. But in a little while he'd start getting sore.

He was that kind of jerk.

"When did Tom tell you all of this?"

"This morning."

"Why not last night? If he thought it was so important…"

"But I told you. He didn't think it was important. He thought it was a joke. He thought it was you getting back at him. He didn't think it was important until all hell broke loose this morning. After he answered and heard Tupper's voice, he took the phone. He thought that might reverse the joke, you see. He thought you'd gone to a lot of work…"

"Yes, I see," I said. "But now he thinks that it was really Tupper calling and that the call actually was for me."

"Well, yes, I'd say so. He took the phone home and a couple of times early that evening he picked up the receiver and the phone was alive, but no one answered. That business about the phone being alive puzzled him. It bothered him a lot. It wasn't tied into any line, you see."

"And now the two of you want to make some sort of case against me."

Hiram's face hardened. "I know you're up to something," he said. "I know you went out to Stiffy's shack last night. After Doc and I had taken Stiffy in to Elmore."

"Yes, I did," I said. "I found his keys where they had fallen out of his pocket. So I went out to his place to see if it was locked and everything was all right."

"You sneaked in," Hiram said. "You turned off your lights to go up Stiffy's lane."

"I didn't turn them off. The electrical circuit shorted. I got them fixed before I left the shack." It was pretty weak. But it was the best I could think of fast. Hiram didn't press the point.

"This morning," he said, "me and Tom went out to the shack."

"So it was Tom who was spying on me."

Hiram grunted. "He was upset about the phone. He got suspicious of you."

"And you broke into the shack. You must have. I locked it when I left."

"Yeah," said Hiram, "we broke in. And we found more of them telephones. A whole box full of them."

"You can quit looking at me like that," I said. "I saw no telephones. I didn't snoop around." I could see the two of them, Hiram and Tom, roaring out to the shack in full cry, convinced that there existed some sinister plot which they could not understand, but that whatever it might be, both Stiffy and myself were neck-deep in it.

And there was some sort of plot, I told myself and Stiffy and myself were both entangled in it and I hoped that Stiffy knew what it was all about, for certainly I didn't. The little I knew only made it more confused.

And Gerald Sherwood, unless he'd lied to me (and I was inclined to think he hadn't) knew little more about it than I did.

Suddenly I was thankful that Hiram did not know about the phone in Sherwood's study, or all those other phones which must be in the village, in the hands of those persons who had been employed as readers by whoever used the phones for communication.

Although, I told myself, there was little chance that Hiram would ever know about those phones, for the people who had them certainly would hide them most securely and would keep very mum about them once this business of the phones became public knowledge. And I was certain that within a few hours' time the story of the mystery phones would be known to everyone.

Neither Hiram nor Tom Preston could keep their big mouths shut.

Who would these other people be, I wondered, the ones who had the phones — and all at once I knew. They would be the down-and-outers, the poor unfortunates, the widows who had been left without savings or insurance, the aged who had not been able to provide for their later years, the failures and the no-goods and the hard-of-luck.

For that was the way it had worked with Sherwood and myself. Sherwood had not been contacted (if that was the word for it) before he faced financial ruin and they (whoever they might be) had not been concerned with me until I was a business failure and willing to admit it. And the man who seemed to have had the most to do with all of it was the village bum.

"Well?" asked the constable.

"You want to know what I know about it?"

"Yes, I do," said Hiram, "and if you know what's good for you…"

"Hiram," I told him, "don't you ever threaten me. Don't you even look as though you meant to threaten me. Because if you do…" Floyd Caldwell stuck his head inside the door.

"It's moving!" he yelled at us. "The barrier is moving!" Both Hiram and I jumped to our feet and headed for the door. Outside people were running and yelling and Grandma Jones was standing out in the middle of the street, jumping up and down, with the sunbonnet flapping on her head. With every jump she uttered little shrieks.

I saw Nancy in her car across the street and ran straight for it. She had the motor going and when she saw me, she moved the car out from the curb, rolling slowly down the street. I put my hands on the back door and vaulted into the back, then clambered up in front. By the time I got there the car had reached the drugstore corner and was picking up some speed.

There were a couple of other cars heading out toward the highway, but Nancy cut around them with a burst of speed.

"Do you know what happened?" she asked.

I shook my head. "Just that the barrier is moving." We came to the stop sign that guarded the highway, but Nancy didn't even slow for it. There was no reason that she should, for there was no traffic on the highway. The highway was cut off.

She slewed the car out onto the broad slab of pavement and there, up ahead of us, the eastbound lane was blocked by a mass of jam-packed cars.

And there, as well, was Gabe's truck, its trailer lying in the ditch, with my car smashed underneath it, and its cab half canted in the air. Beyond the truck other cars were tangled in the westbound lane, cars which apparently had crossed the centre strip in an effort to get turned around, in the process getting caught in another minor traffic jam before the barrier had moved.

The barrier was no longer there. You couldn't see, of course, whether it was there or not, but up the road, a quarter mile or so, there was evidence of it.

Up there, a crowd of people was running wildly, fleeing from an invisible force that advanced upon them. And behind the fleeing people a long windrow of piled-up vegetation, including, in places, masses of uprooted trees, marked the edge of the moving barrier. It stretched as far as the eye could see, on either side of the road, and it seemed to have a life of its own, rolling and tossing and slowly creeping forward, the masses of trees tumbling awkwardly on their outstretched, roots and branches.

The car rolled up to the traffic jam in the westbound lane and stopped.

Nancy turned off the ignition. In the silence one could hear the faint rustling of that strange windrow that moved along the road, a small whisper of sound punctuated now and then by the cracking and the popping of the branches as the uprooted trees toppled in their unseemly tumbling.

I got out of the car and walked around it and started down the road, working my way through the tangle of the cars. As I came clear of them the road stretched out before me and up the road the people still were running — well, not running exactly, not the way they had been. They would run a ways and then stand in little groups and look behind them, at the writhing windrow, then would run a ways and stop to look again. Some of them didn't run at all, but just kept plodding up the road at a steady walk.

It was not only people. There was something else, a strange fluttering in the air, a darting of dark bodies, a cloud of insects and of birds, retreating before this inexorable force that moved like a wraith across the surface of the land.

The land was bare behind the barrier. There was nothing on it except two leafless trees. And they, I thought — they would be left behind. For they were lifeless things and for them the barrier had no meaning, for it was only life that the barrier rejected. Although, if Len Streeter had been right, then it was not all life, but a certain kind, or a certain size, or a certain condition of life.

But aside from the two dead trees, the ground lay bare.

There was no grass upon it, not a single weed, not a bush or tree. All that was green was gone.

I stepped off the roadbed onto the shoulder and knelt down and ran my fingers along the barren ground. It was not only bare; it was ploughed and harrowed, as if some giant agricultural rig had gone over it and made it ready for new seed. The soil, I realized, had been loosened by the uprooting of its mat of vegetation. In all that ground, I knew, no single root existed, no fragment of a root, down to the finest rootlet. The land had been swept clean of everything that grew and all that once had grown here was now a part of that fantastic windrow that was being swept along before the barrier.

Above me a dull rumble of thunder rippled in the sky and rolled along the air. I glanced backward over my shoulder, and saw that the thunderstorm which had been threatening all morning now was close upon us, but it was a ragged storm, with wind-twisted clouds, broken and fragmented, fleeing through the upper emptiness.

"Nancy," I said, but she did not answer.

I got quickly to my feet and swung around. She had been right behind me when I'd started through the traffic tangle, but now there was no sign of her.

I started back down the road to find her and as I did a blue sedan that was over on the opposite shoulder rolled off down the shoulder and swung out on the pavement — and there, behind the wheel, was Nancy. I knew then how I'd lost her. She had looked among the cars until she had found one that was not blocked by other cars and with the key still in the lock.

The car came up beside me, moving slowly, and I trotted along to match its speed. Through the half-open window came the sound of an excited commentator on the radio. I got the door open and jumped in and slammed the door behind me.

"…called out the national guard and had officially informed Washington. The first units will move out in another — no, here is word just now that they have already moved out…"

"That," said Nancy, "is us he's talking about." I reached out and twisted the dial."… just came in. The barrier is moving! I repeat, the barrier is moving. There is no information how fast it's moving or how much distance it has covered. But it is moving outward from the village. The crowd that had gathered outside of it is fleeing wildly from it. And here is more — the barrier is moving no faster than a man may walk. It already has swept almost a mile…" And that was wrong, I thought, for it was now less than half a mile from its starting point.

"… question, of course, is will it stop? How far will it move? Is there some way of stopping it? Can it keep on indefinitely; is there any end to it?"

"Brad," Nancy said, "do you think it will push everyone off the earth?

Everyone but the people here in Millville?"

"I don't know," I said, rather stupidly.

"And if it does, where will it push them"? Where is there to go?"

"… London and Berlin," blared the radio speaker. "Apparently the Russian people have not as yet been told what is happening. There have been no official statements. Not from anywhere. Undoubtedly this is something about which the various governments may have some difficulty deciding if there should be a statement. It would seem, at first thought, that here is a situation which came about through no act of any man or any government. But there is some speculation that this may be a testing of some new kind of defence. Although it is difficult to imagine why, if it should be such, it be tested in a place like Millvile. Ordinarily such tests would take place in a military area and be conducted in the greatest secrecy." The car had been moving slowly down the road all the time we'd been listening to the radio and now we were no more than a hundred feet or so behind the barrier. Ahead of us, on either side of the pavement, the great windrow of vegetation inched itself forward, while further up the road the people still retreated.

I twisted around in the seat and glanced through the rear window, back toward the traffic snarl. A crowd of people stood among the cars and out on the pavement just beyond the cars. The people from the village had finally arrived to watch the moving barrier.

"…sweeping everything before it," screamed the radio.

I glanced around and we were almost at the barrier.

"Careful there," I warned. "Don't run into it."

"I'll be careful," said Nancy, just a bit too meekly.

"… like a wind," the announcer said, "blowing a long line of grass and trees and bushes steadily before it. Like a wind…" And there was a wind, first a preliminary gust that raised spinning dust devils in the stripped and denuded soil behind the barrier, then a solid wall of wind that slewed the car around and howled against the metal and glass.

It was the thunderstorm, I thought, that had stalked the land since early morning. But there was no lightning and no thunder and when I craned my neck to look out the windshield at the sky, there still were no more than ragged clouds, the broken, fleeing tatters of a worn-out storm.

The wind had swung the car around and now it was skidding down the road, pushed by the roaring wind, and threatening to tip over. Nancy was fighting the wheel, trying to bring the car around, to point it into the direction of the wind.

"Brad!" she shouted.

But even as she shouted, the storm hit us with the hard, peppering sound of raindrops splashing on the car.

The car began to topple and this time I knew that it was going over, that there was nothing in the world that could keep it from going over. But suddenly it slammed into something and swung upright once again and in one corner of my mind I knew that it had been shoved against the barrier by the wind and that it was being held there.

With one corner of my mind, for the greater part of it was filled with astonishment at the strangest raindrops I had ever seen.

They weren't raindrops, although they fell like raindrops, in drumming sheets that filled the inside of the car with the rolling sound of thunder.

"Hail," Nancy shouted at me.

But it wasn't hail.

Little round, brown pellets hopped and pounded on the car's hood and danced like crazy buckshot across the hard flatness of the pavement.

"Seeds!" I shouted back. "Those things out there are seeds!" It was no regular storm. It was not the thunderstorm, for there was no thunder and the storm had lost its punch many miles away. It was a storm of seeds driven by a mighty wind that blew without regard to any earthly weather; There was, I told myself, in a flash of logic that was not, on the face of it, very logical, no further need for the barrier to move. For it had ploughed the ground, had ploughed and harrowed it and prepared it for the seed, and then there'd been the sowing, and everything was over.

The wind stopped and the last seed fell and we sat in a numbing silence, with all the sound and fury gone out of the world. In the place of sound and fury there was a chilling strangeness, as if someone or something had changed all natural law around, so that seed fell from the sky like rain and a wind blew out of nowhere.

"Brad," said Nancy, "I think I'm beginning to get scared." She reached out a hand and put it on my arm. Her fingers tightened, hanging onto me.

"It makes me mad," she said, "I've never been scared, never my life. Never scared like this."

"It's all over now," I said. "The storm is ended and the barrier has stopped moving. Everything's all right."

"It's not like that at all," she told me. "It's only just beginning." A man was running up the road toward us, but he was the only one in sight. All the other people who had been around the parked cars were no longer there. They had run for cover, back to the village, probably, when the blast of wind had come and the seeds had fallen.

The running man, I saw, was Ed Adler, and he was shouting something at us as he run.

We got out of the car and walked around in front of it and stood there, waiting for him.

He came up to us, panting with his running.

"Brad," he gasped, "maybe you don't know this, but Hiram and Tom Preston are stirring up the people. They think you have something to do with what's happening. Some talk about a phone or something."

"Why, that's crazy!" Nancy cried.

"Sure it is," said Ed, "but the village is on edge. It wouldn't take too much to get them thinking it. They're ready to think almost anything. They need an explanation; they'll grab at anything. They won't stop to think if it's right or wrong."

I asked him: "What do you have in mind?"

"You better hide out, Brad, until it all blows over. In another day or two…"

I shook my head. "I have too many things to do."

"But, Brad…"

"I didn't do it, Ed. I don't know what happened, but I didn't have a thing to do with it."

"That don't make no difference."

"Yes, it does," I said.

"Hiram and Tom are saying they found these funny phones…" Nancy started to say something, but I jumped in ahead of her and cut her off, so she didn't have a chance to say it.»

"I know about those phones," I said. "Hiram told me all about them. Ed, take my word for it. The phones are out of it. They are something else entirely." Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Nancy staring at me.

"Forget about the phones," I said.

I hoped she'd understand and apparently she did, for she didn't say a thing about the phones. I wasn't actually sure that she'd intended to, for I had no idea if she knew about the phone in her father's study. But I couldn't take a chance.

"Brad," warned Ed, "you're walking into it."

"I can't run away," I told him. "I can't run somewhere and hide. Not from anyone, especially not from a pair like Tom and Hiram." He looked me up and down.

"No, I guess you can't," he said. "Is there anything I can do?"

"Maybe," I said. "You can see that Nancy gets home safely. I've got a thing or two to do." I looked at Nancy. She nodded at me.

"It's all right, Brad, but the car's just down the road. I could drive you home."

"I'd better take a short cut. If Ed is right, there's less chance of being seen."

"I'll stay with her," said Ed, "until she's inside the house." Already, in two hour's time, I thought, it had come to this — to a state of mind where one questioned the safety of a girl alone upon the street.

10

Now, finally, I had to do a thing I had intended to do ever since this morning — a thing I probably should have done last night — get in touch with Alf. It was more important now than ever that I get in touch with him, for in the back of my mind was a growing conviction that there must be some connection between what was happening here in Millville and that strange research project down in Mississippi.

I reached a dead-end street and started walking down it. There was not a soul in sight. Everyone who could either walk or ride would be down in the business section.

I got to worrying that maybe I'd not be able to locate Alf, that he might have checked out of the motel when I failed to get there, or that he might be out gawping at the barrier with a lot of other people.

But there was no need to worry, for when I reached my house the phone was ringing and Alf was on the line.

"I've been trying for an hour to get you," he said. "I wondered how you were."

"You know what happened, Alf?"

He told me that he did. "Some of it," he said.

"Minutes earlier," I said, "and I would have been with you instead of penned up in the village. I must have hit the barrier when it first appeared." I went ahead and told him what had happened after I had hit the barrier. Then I told him about the phones.

"They told me they had a lot of readers. People who read books to them…"

"A way of getting information."

"I gathered that was it."

"Brad," he said, "I've got a terrible hunch."

"So have I," I said.

"Do you think this Greenbriar project…?"

"That's what I was thinking, too." I heard him drawing a deep breath, the air whistling in his teeth."

"It's not just Millville, then."

"Maybe a whole lot more than Millville."

"What are you going to do now, Brad?"

"Go down into my garden and have a hard look at some flowers."

"Flowers?"

"Alf," I told him, "it's a long, long story. I'll tell you later. Are you staying on?"

"Of course I am," said Alf "The greatest show on earth and me with a ringside seat."

"I'll call you back in an hour or so."

"I'll stay close," he promised. "I'll be waiting for your call." I put down the phone and stood there, trying to make some head or tail of it. The flowers, somehow, were important, and so was Tupper Tyler, but they were all mixed up together and there was no place one could start.

I went out of the house and down into the garden by the greenhouse. The trail that Tupper had left was still plain and I was considerably relieved, for I had been afraid that the wind that brought the seeds might have blown it away, that the flowers might have been so beaten and so twisted that the trail could well be lost.

I stood at the edge of the garden and looked around, as if I were seeing the place for the first time in my life. It wasn't really a garden.

At one time it had been land on which we'd grown the stuff we sold, but when I quit the greenhouse business I'd simply let it go wild and the flowers had taken over. To one side stood the greenhouse, with its door hanging on the broken hinges and most of the panes gone from the windows. And at one corner of it stood the elm tree that had grown from seed — the one I'd been about to pull up when my father stopped me.

Tupper had talked wildly about flowers growing by the acre. All of them, he said, had been purple flowers and he had been most emphatic that my father should be told of them. The mystery voice, or one of the mystery voices on the phone had been well informed about my father's greenhouse and had asked if I still ran it. And there had been, less than an hour ago, a perfect storm of seeds.

All the little purple flower-heads with their monkey faces seemed to be nodding at me as if at a secret joke and I jerked my gaze away from them to stare up at the sky. Broken clouds still streamed across it, shutting out the sun. Although, once the clouds were gone, the day would be a scorcher.

One could smell the heat in the very air.

I moved out into the garden, following Tupper's trail. At the end of the trail I stopped and told myself that it had been a witless thing — this belief of mine that I would find something in this flower patch that would make some sense.

Tupper Tyler had disappeared ten years ago and he'd disappeared today and how he'd managed it no man might ever know.

And yet the idea still went on banging in my skull that Tupper was the key to all this screwy business.

Yet I couldn't, for the life of me, explain the logic of my thinking.

For Tupper wasn't the only one involved — if he was, in fact, involved.

There was Stiffy Grant as well. And I realized, with a start, that I had not asked anyone how Stiffy might be doing.

Doc Fabian's house was on the hill just above the greenhouse and I could go up there and ask. Doc might not be home, of course, but I could wait around a while and eventually he'd show up. At the moment there was nothing else to do. And with Hiram and Tom Preston shooting off their mouths, it might be a good idea not to be found at home.

I had been standing at the end of Tupper's trail and now I took a step beyond it, setting out for Doc's. But I never got to Doc's. I took that single step and the sun came out and the houses went away. Doc's house and all the other houses, and the trees as well, and the bushes and the grass.

Everything disappeared and there was nothing left but the purple flowers, which covered everything, and a sun that was blazing out of a cloudless sky.

11

I had taken that one step and everything had happened. So now I took another one to bring my feet together and I stood there, stiff and scared, afraid to turn around afraid, perhaps, of what I'd see behind me. Although I think I knew what I would see behind me. Just more purple flowers.

For this, I knew, in one dim corner of my curdled mind, was the place that Tupper had been telling me about.

Tupper had come out of this place and he'd gone back to this place and now I'd followed him.

Nothing happened.

And that was right, of course. For it seemed to me, somehow, that this would be the sort of place where nothing ever happened.

There were just the flowers and the sun blazing in the sky and there was nothing else. There wasn't a breath of wind and there was no sound. But there was a fragrance, the almost overpowering, cloying fragrance of all those little blossoms with their monkey faces.

At last I dared to move and I slowly turned around. And there was nothing but the flowers.

Millville had gone away somewhere, into some other world.

Although that was wrong, I told myself. For somewhere, in its same old world, there yet must be a Millville. It had not been Millville, but myself, that had gone away. I had taken just one step and had walked clear out of Millville into another place.

Yet, while it was a different place, the terrain seemed to be identical with the old terrain. I still was standing in the dip of ground that lay behind my house and back of me the hill rose steeply to the now non-existent street where Doc's house had stood and a half a mile away loomed the hill where the Sherwood house should be.

This, then, was Tupper's world. It was the world into which he had gone ten years ago and again this morning. Which meant that, at this very moment, he must still be here.

And that meant, I told myself with a sudden rush of hope, that there was a chance of getting out, of getting back to Millvile. For Tupper had gotten back again and thus must know the way. Although, I realized, one never could be sure. You never could be sure of anything with a dope like Tupper Tyler.

The first thing to do, of course, was find him. He could not be far off. It might take a while, but I was fairly confident that I could track him down.

I walked slowly up the hill that, back in my home village, would have taken me to Doc Fabian's place.

I reached the top of the hill and stopped and there, below me, lay the far sweep of land clothed by the purple flowers.

The land looked strange, robbed of all its landmarks, naked of its trees and roads and houses. But it lay, I saw, as it had lain. If there were any differences, they were minor ones.

There, to the east, was the wet and swampy land below the little knoll where Stiffy's shack had stood — where Stiffy's shack still stood in another time or place.

What strange circumstances, or what odd combination of many circumstances, must occur, I wondered, to make it possible for a man to step from one world to another.

I stood, a stranger in an unknown land, with the perfume of the flowers dogging not my nostrils only, but every pore of me, pressing in upon me, as if the flowers themselves were rolling in great purple waves to bear me down and bury me for all eternity. The world was quiet; it was the quietest place I had ever been. There was no sound at all. And I realized that perhaps at no time in my life had I ever known silence. Always there had been something that had made some sort of noise — the chirring of a lone insect in the quiet of a summer noon, or the rustle of a leaf. Even in the dead of night there would have been the creaking of the timbers in the house, the murmur of the furnace, the slight keening of a wind that ran along the eaves.

But there was silence here. There was no sound at all. There was no sound, I knew, because there was nothing that could make a sound. There were no trees or bushes; there were no birds or insects. There was nothing here but the flowers and the soil in which they grew.

A silence and the emptiness that held the silence in its hand, and the purpleness that ran to the far horizon to meet the burnished, pale-blue brightness of a summer sky.

Now, for the first time, I felt panic stalking me — not a big and burly panic that would send one fleeing, howling as he fled, but a little, sneaky panic that circled all about me, like a pesky, yapping dog, bouncing on its pipestem legs, waiting for a chance to sink its needle teeth in me. Nothing one could fight, nothing one could stand against — a little yapping panic that set the nerves on edge.

There was no fear of danger, for there was no danger. One could see with half an eye that there was no danger. But there was, perhaps worse than any danger, the silence and the loneliness and the sameness and the not knowing where you were.

Down the slope was the wet and swampy area where Stiffy's shack should be, and there, a little farther off, the silver track of river that ran at the edge of town. And at the place where the river bent toward the south, a plume of smoke rose daintily against the blue wash of the sky — so faint and far a trickle that one could barely make it out.

"Tupper!" I shouted, running down the slope, glad of a chance to run, of some reason I should run, for I had been standing, determined not to run, determined not to allow the little yapping panic to force me into running, and all the time I'd stood there I had ached to run.

I crossed the little ridge that hid the river and the camp lay there before me — a tiny hut of crudely woven branches, a garden full of growing things, and all along the river bank little straggling, dying trees, with most of their branches dead and bearing only a few tassels of green leaves at their very tops.

A small campfire burned in front of the hut and squatting by the fire was Tupper. He wore the shirt and trousers I had given him and he still had the outrageous hat perched on his head.

"Tupper!" I shouted and he rose and came gravely up the slope to meet me. He wiped off his chin and held out his hand in greeting. It still was wet with slobber, but I didn't mind.

Tupper wasn't much, but he was another human.

"Glad you could make it, Brad," he said. "Glad you could drop over." As if I'd been dropping over every day, for years.

"Nice place you have," I said.

"They did it all for me," he said, with a show of pride. "The Flowers fixed it up for me. It wasn't like this to start with, but they fixed it up for me. They have been good to me."

"Yes, they have," I said.

I didn't know what it was all about, but I went along. I had to go along. There was just a chance that Tupper could get me back to Millville.

"They're the best friends I have," said Tupper, slobbering in his happiness. "That is, except for you and your papa. Until I found the Flowers, you and your papa were the only friends I had. All the rest of them just made fun of me. I let on I didn't know that they were making fun, but I knew they were and I didn't like it."

"They weren't really unkind," I assured him. "They really didn't mean what they said or did. They were only being thoughtless."

"They shouldn't have done it," Tupper insisted. "You never made any fun of me. I like you because you never made any fun of me." And he was right, of course. I'd not made fun of him. But not because I hadn't wanted to at times; there were times when I could have killed him.

But my father had taken me off to the side one day and warned me that if he ever caught me making fun of Tupper, like the other kids, he would warm my bottom.

"This is the place you were telling me about," I said. "The place with all the flowers."

He grinned delightedly, drooling from both corners of his mouth "Ain't it nice?" he said.

We had been walking down the slope together and now we reached the fire. A crude clay pot was standing in the ashes and there was something bubbling in it.

"You'll stay and eat with me," invited Tupper. "Please, Brad, say you'll stay and eat with me. It's been so long since I've had anyone who would eat with me." Weak tears were running down his cheeks at the thought of how long it had been since he'd had someone who would stay and eat with him.

"I got corn and potatoes roasting in the coals," he said, "and I got peas and beans and carrots all cooked up together. That's them in the pot. There isn't any meat. You don't mind, do you, if there isn't any meat?"

"Not at all," I told him.

"I miss meat something dreadful," he confided. "But they can't do anything about it. They can't turn themselves into animals."

"They?" I asked.

"The Flowers," he said, and the way he said it, he made them a proper noun. "They can turn themselves into anything at all — plant things, that is. But they can't make themselves into things like pigs or rabbits. I never asked them to. That is, I mean I never asked them twice. I asked them once and they explained to me. I never asked again, for they've done a lot of things for me and I am grateful to them."

"They explained to you? You mean you talk with them."

"All the time," said Tupper.

He got down on his hands and knees and crawled into the hut, scrabbling around for something, with his back end sticking out, like a busy dog digging out a woodchuck.

He backed out and he brought with him a couple of crude pottery plates, lopsided and uneven. He put them down upon the ground and laid on each of them a spoon carved out of wood.

"Made them myself," he told me. "Found some clay down in the river bank and at first I couldn't seem to do it, but then they found out for me and…"

"The Flowers found out for you?"

"Sure, the Flowers. They do everything for me."

"And the spoons?"

"Used a piece of stone. Flint, I guess. Had a sharp edge on it. Nothing like a knife, but it did the job. Took a long time, though." I nodded.

"But that's all right," he said. "I had a lot of time." He did a mopping job and wiped his hands meticulously on his trouser seat.

"They grew flax for me," he said, "so I could make some clothes. But I couldn't get the hang of it. They told me and they told me, but I couldn't do it. So they finally quit. I went around without no clothes for quite a spell. Except for this hat," he said. "I did that myself, without no help at all. They didn't even tell me, I figured it all out and did it by myself. Afterwards they told me that I'd done real good."

"They were right," I said. "It's magnificent."

"You really think so, Brad?"

"Of course I do," I said.

"I'm glad to hear you say so, Brad. I'm kind of proud of it. It's the first thing in my life I ever did alone, without no one telling me."

"These flowers of yours…"

"They ain't my flowers," said Tupper, sharply.

"You say these flowers can turn themselves into anything they want to. You mean they turned themselves into garden stuff for you."

"They can turn themselves into any kind of plants. All I do is ask them."

"Then, if they can be anything they want to be, why are they all flowers?"

"They have to be something, don't they?" Tupper demanded, rather heatedly. "They might as well be flowers."

"Well, yes," I said. "I suppose they might." He raked two ears of corn out of the coals and a couple of potatoes. He used a pot-lifter that looked as if it were fashioned out of bark to get the pot off the fire. He dumped the cooked vegetables that were in it out onto the plates.

"And the trees?" I asked.

"Oh, them are things they changed themselves into. I needed them for wood. There wasn't any wood to start with and I couldn't do no cooking and I told them how it was. So they made the trees and they made them special for me. They grow fast and die so that I can break branches off and have dry wood for fire. Slow burning, though, not like ordinary dry wood. And that's good, for I have to keep a fire burning all the time. I had a pocket full of matches when I came here, but I haven't had any for a long, long time." I remembered when he spoke about the pocket full of matches how entranced he had always been with fire. He always carried matches with him and he'd sit quietly by himself and light match after match, letting each burn down until it scorched his fingers, happy with the sight of flame. A lot of people had been afraid that he might bunt some building down, but he never did. He was just a little jerk who liked the sight of fire.

"I haven't any salt; said Tupper. "The stuff may taste funny to you. I've got used to it."

"But you eat vegetables all the time. You need salt for that kind of stuff."

"The Flowers say I don't. They say they put things into the vegetables that takes the place of salt. Not that you can taste it, but it gives you the things you need just the same as salt. They studied me to find out what my body needed and they put in a lot of stuff they said I needed. And just down the river I have an orchard full of fruit. And I have raspberries and strawberries that bear almost all the time." I couldn't rightly understand what fruit had to do with the problem of nutrition if the Flowers could do all he said they could, but I let the matter stand. One never got anywhere trying to get Tupper straightened out.

If you tried to reason with him, you just made matters worse.

"We might as well sit down," said Tupper, "and get started on this." I sat down on the ground and he handed me a plate, then sat down opposite me and took the other plate.

I was hungry and the saltless food didn't go so badly. Flat, of course, and tasting just a little strange, but it was all right. It took away the hunger.

"You like it here? I asked.

"It is home to me," said Tupper, solemnly. "It is where my friends are."

"You don't have anything," I said. "You don't have an axe or knife. You don't have a pot or pan. And there is no one you can turn to. What if you got sick?" Tupper quit wolfing down his food and stared at me, as if I were the crazy one.

"I don't need any of those things," he said. "I make my dishes out of clay. I can break off the branches with my hands and I don't need an axe. I don't need to hoe the garden. There aren't ever any weeds. I don't even need to plant it. It's always there. While I use up one row of stuff, another row is growing. And if I got sick, the Flowers would take care of me. They told me they would."

"OK," I said. "OK." He went back to his eating. It was a terrible sight to watch. But he was right about the garden. Now that he had mentioned it, I could see that it wasn't cultivated. There were rows of growing vegetables — long, neat rows without the sign of ever being hoed and without a single weed. And that, of course, was the way it would be, for no weed would dare to grow here. There was nothing that could grow here except the Flowers themselves, or the things into which the Flowers had turned themselves, like the vegetables and trees.

The garden was a perfect garden. There were no stunted plants and no disease or blight. The tomatoes, hanging on the vines, were an even red and all were perfect globes. The corn stood straight and tall.

"You cooked enough for two," I said. "Did you know that I was coming?" For I was fast reaching the point where I'd have believed almost anything. It was just possible, I told myself that he (or the Flowers) had known that I was coming.

"I always cook enough for two," he told me. "There never is no telling when someone might drop in."

"But no one ever has?"

"You're the first," he said. "I'm glad that you could come." I wondered if time had any meaning for him. Sometimes it seemed it didn't. And yet he had wept weak tears because it had been so long since anyone had broken bread with him.

We ate in silence for a while and then I took a chance. I'd humoured him long enough and it was time to ask some questions.

"Where is this place?" I asked. "What kind of place is it? And if you want to get out of it, to get back home, how do you go about it?

I didn't mention the fact that he had gotten out of it and returned to Millville. I sensed it might be something he would resent, for he'd been in a hurry to get back again — as if he'd broken some sort of rule or regulation and was anxious to return before anyone found out.

Carefully Tupper laid his plate on the ground and placed his spoon upon it, then he answered me. But he answered me in a different voice, in the measured voice of the businessman who had talked to me on the mystery phone.

"This," said Tupper, in the voice of the businessman, "is not Tupper Tyler speaking. This is Tupper speaking for the Flowers. What shall we talk about?"

"You're kidding me," I said, but it wasn't that I really thought I was being kidded. What I said I said almost instinctively, to gain a little time.

"I can assure you," said the voice, "that we are very much in earnest. We are the Flowers and you want to talk with us and we want to talk with you. This is the only way to do it." Tupper wasn't looking at me; he didn't seem to be looking at anything at all. His eyes had gone all bleak and vacant and he had an indrawn look.

He sat stiff and straight, with his hands dangling in his lap. He didn't look human, any more; he looked like a telephone.

"I've talked to you before," I said.

"Oh, yes," said the Flowers, "but only very briefly. You did not believe in us."

"I have some questions that I want to ask."

"And we shall answer you. We'll do the best we can. We'll reply to you as concisely as we know."

"What is this place?" I asked.

"This is an alternate Earth," said the Flowers. "It's no more than a clock-tick away from yours."

"An alternate Earth?"

"Yes, there are many Earths. You did not know that, did you?"

"No," I said, "I didn't."

"But you can believe it?"

"With a little practice, maybe."

"There are billions of Earths," the Flowers told me. "We don't know how many, but there are many billions of them. There may be no end to them. There are some who think so."

"One behind the other?"

"No. That's not the way to think of it. We don't know how to tell it. It becomes confused in telling."

"So let's say there are a lot of Earths. It's a little hard to understand. If there were a lot of Earths, we'd see them."

"You could not see them," said the Flowers, "unless you could see in time. The alternate Earths exist in a time matrix…"

"A time matrix? You mean…"

"The simplest way to say it is that time divides the many Earths. Each one is distinguished by its time-location. All that exists for you is the present moment. You cannot see into the past or future…"

"Then to get here I travelled into time."

"Yes," said the Flowers. "That is exactly what you did." Tupper still was sitting there with the blank look on his face, but I'd forgotten him. It was his lips and tongue and larynx that formed the words I heard, but it was not Tupper speaking. I knew that I was talking with the Flowers; that, insane as it might seem, I was talking with the purpleness that flowed all around the camp.

"Your silence tells us," said the Flowers, "that you find it hard to digest what we are telling you."

"I choke on it," I told them.

"Let's try to say it another way. Earth is a basic structure but it progresses along the time path by a process of discontinuity."

"Thanks," I said, "for trying, but it doesn't help too much."

"We have known it for a long time," said the Flowers. "We discovered it many years ago. To us it is a natural law, but to you it's not. It'll take you a little time. You cannot swallow at a single gulp what it took us centuries to know."

"But I walked through time," I said. "That's what's hard to take. How could I walk through time?"

"You walked through a very thin spot."

"Thin spot?"

"A place where time was not so thick."

"And you made this thin spot?"

"Let's say that we exploited it."

"To try to reach our Earth?"

"Please, sir," said the Flowers, "not that tone of horror. For some years now, you people have been going into space."

"We've been trying to," I said.

"You're thinking of invasion. In that we are alike. You are trying to invade space; we're trying to invade time."

"Let's just go back a ways," I pleaded. "There are boundaries between these many Earths?"

"That is right."

"Boundaries in time? The worlds are separated by time phases?"

"That is indeed correct. You catch on very neatly."

"And you are trying to break through this time barrier so you can reach my Earth?"

"To reach your Earth," they told me.

"But why?"

"To co-operate with you. To form a partnership. We need living space and if you give us living space, we'll give our knowledge; we need technology, for we have no hands, and with our knowledge you can shape new technologies and those technologies can be used for the benefit of each of us. We can go together into other worlds. Eventually a long chain of many Earths will be linked together and the races in them linked, as well, in a common aim and purpose." A cold lump of lead blossomed in my guts, and despite the lump of lead I felt that I was empty and there was a vile metallic taste that coated tongue and mouth. A partnership, and who would be in charge? Living space, and how much would they leave for us? Other worlds, and what would happen in those other worlds?

"You have a lot of knowledge?"

"Very much," they said. "It is a thing we pay much attention to — the absorption of all knowledge."

"And you're very busy collecting it from us. You are the people who are hiring all the readers?"

"It is so much more efficient," they explained, "than the way we used to do it, with results indifferent at best. This way is more certain and a great deal more selective."

"Ever since the time," I said, "that you got Gerald Sherwood to make the telephones."

"The telephones," they told me, "provide direct communication. All we had before was the tapping of the mind."

"You mean you had mental contact with people of our Earth? Perhaps for a good long time?"

"Oh, yes," they said, most cheerfully. "With very many people, for many, many years. But the sad part of it was that it was a one-way business. We had contact with them, but by and large, they had none with us. Most of them were not aware of us at all and others, who were more sensitive, were aware of us only in a vague and fumbling way."

"But you picked those minds."

"Of course we did," they said. "But we had to content ourselves with what was in the minds. We could not manage to direct them to specific areas of interest."

"You tried nudging them, of course."

"There were some we nudged with fair success. There were others we could nudge, but they moved in wrong directions. And there were many, most of them perhaps, who stubbornly remained unaware of us, no matter what we did. It was discouraging."

"You contact these minds through certain thin spots, I suppose. You could not have done it through the normal boundaries."

"No, we had to make maximum usage of the thin spots that we found."

"It was, I gather, somewhat unsatisfactory."

"You are perceptive, sir. We were getting nowhere."

"Then you made a breakthrough."

"We are not quite sure we understand."

"You tried a new approach. You concentrated on actually sending something physical through the boundary. A handful of seeds, perhaps."

"You are right, of course. You follow us so closely and you understand so well. But even that would have failed if it had not been for your father. Only a very few of the seeds germinated and the resultant plants would have died out eventually if he'd not found them and taken care of them. You must understand that is why we want you to act as our emissary…"

"Now, just a minute there," I told them. "Before we get into that, there are a few more points I want cleared up. The barrier, for instance, that you've thrown around Millville."

"The barrier," said the Flowers, "is a rather simple thing. It is a time bubble we managed to project outward from the thin spot in the boundary that separates our worlds. That one slight area of space it occupies is out of phase both with Millville and with the rest of your Earth. The smallest imaginable fraction of a second in the past, running that fraction of a second of time behind the time of Earth. So slight a fraction of a second, perhaps, that it would be difficult, we should imagine, for the most sophisticated of your instruments to take a measurement. A very little thing and yet, we imagine you'll agree, it is quite effective."

"Yes," I said, "effective." And, of course, it would be — by the very nature of it, it would be strong beyond imagination. For it would represent the past, a filmy soap bubble of the past encapsulating Millville, so slight a thing that it did not interfere with either sight or sound, and yet was something no human could hope to penetrate.

"But sticks and stones," I said. "And raindrops…"

"Only life," they said. "Life at a certain level of sentience, of awareness of its surroundings, of feeling — how do you say it?"

"You've said it well enough," I told them. "And the inanimate…"

"There are many rules of time," they told me, "of the natural phenomenon which you call time. That is a part, a small part, of the knowledge we would share with you."

"Anything at all," I said, "in that direction would be new knowledge for us. We have not studied time. We haven't even thought of it as a force that we could study. We haven't made a start. A lot of metaphysical mutterings, of course, but no real study of it. We have never found a place where we could start a study of it."

"We know all that," they said.

And was there a note of triumph in the way they said it? I could not be entirely sure.

A new sort of weapon, I thought. A devilish sort of weapon. It wouldn't kill you and it wouldn't hurt you! It would shove you along, herding you along, out of the way, crowding you together, and there wouldn't be a thing you could do about it.

What, Nancy had asked, if it swept all life from Earth, leaving only Millville? And that, perhaps, was possible, although it need not go that far. If it was living space alone that the Flowers were looking for, then they already had the instrument to get that living space. They could expand the bubble, gaining all the space they needed, holding the human race at bay while they settled down in that living space. The weapon was at once a weapon to be used against the people of the Earth and a protection for the Flowers against such reprisals as mankind might attempt.

The way was open to them if they wanted Earth. For Tupper had travelled the way that they must go and so had I and there was nothing now to stop them. They could simply move into the Earth, shielded by that wall of time.

"So," I asked, "what are you waiting for?"

"You are, on certain points, so slow to reach an understanding of what we intend," they said. "We do not plan invasion. We want co-operation. We want to come as friends in perfect understanding."

"Well, that's fine," I said. "You are asking to be friends. First we must know our friends. What sort of things are you?"

"You are being rude," they said.

"I am not being rude. I want to know about you. You speak of yourselves as plural, or perhaps collective."

"Collective," they said. "You probably would describe us as an organism. Our root system is planet-wide and interconnected and you might want to think of it as our nervous system. At regular intervals there are great masses of our root material and these masses serve — we suppose you'd call them brains. Many, many brains and all of them connected by a common nervous system."

"But it's all wrong," I protested. "It goes against all reason. Plants can't be intelligent. No plant could experience the survival pressure or the motivation to achieve intelligence."

"Your reasoning," they told me calmly, "is beyond reproach."

"So it is beyond reproach," I said. "Yet I am talking with you."

"You have an animal on your Earth that you call a dog."

"That is right. An animal of great intelligence."

"Adopted by you humans as a pet and a companion. An animal that has associated with you people since before the dawning of your history. And, perhaps, the more intelligent because of that association. An animal that is capable of a great degree of training."

"What has the dog to do with it?" I asked.

"Consider," they said. "If the humans of your Earth had devoted all their energies, through all their history, to the training of the dog, what might have been achieved?"

"Why, I don't know," I said. "Perhaps, by now, we'd have a dog that might be our equal in intelligence. Perhaps not intelligent in the same manner that we're intelligent, but…"

"There once was another race," the Flowers told me, "that did that very thing with us. It all began more than a billion years ago."

"This other race deliberately made a plant intelligent?"

"There was a reason for it. They were a different kind of life than you. They developed us for one specific purpose. They needed a system of some sort that would keep the data they had collected continually correlated and classified and ready for their use."

"They could have kept their records. They could have written it all down."

"There were certain physical restrictions and, perhaps more important, certain mental blocks."

"You mean they couldn't write."

"They never thought of writing. It was an idea that did not occur to them. Not even speech, the way you speak. And even if they had had speech or writing, it would not have done the job they wanted."

"The classification and the correlation?"

"That is part of it, of course. But how much ancient human knowledge, written down and committed to what seemed at that time to be safe keeping, is still alive today?"

"Not much of it. It has been lost or destroyed. Time has washed it out."

"We still hold the knowledge of that other race," they said. "We proved better than the written record — although this other race, of course, did not consider written records."

"This other race," I said. "The knowledge of this other race and how many other races?"

They did not answer me. "If we had the time," they said, "we'd explain it all to you. There are many factors and considerations you'd find incomprehensible. Believe us when we say that the decision of this other race, to develop us into a data storage system, was the most reasonable and workable of the many alternatives they had under study."

"But the time it took," I said, dismayed "My God, how much time would it take to make a plant intelligent! And how could they even start? What do you do to make a plant intelligent?"

"Time," they said, "was no great consideration. It wasn't any problem. They knew how to deal with time. They could handle time as you can handle matter. And that was a part of it. They compressed many centuries of our lives into seconds of their own. They had all the time they needed. They made the time they needed."

"They made time?"

"Certainly. Is that so hard to understand?"

"For me, it is," I told them. "Time is a river. It flows on and on. There is nothing you can do about it."

"It is nothing like a river," said the Flowers, "and it doesn't flow, and there's much that can be done with it. And, furthermore, we ignore the insult that you offer us."

"The insult?"

"Your feeling that it would be so difficult for a plant to acquire intelligence."

"No insult was intended. I was thinking of the plants of Earth. I can't imagine a dandelion…"

"A dandelion?"

"A very common plant."

"You may be right," they said. "We may have been different, originally, than the plants of Earth."

"You remember nothing of it all, of course."

"You mean ancestral memory?"

"I suppose that's what I mean."

"It was so long ago," they said. "We have the record of it. Not a myth, you understand, not a legend. But the actual record of how we became intelligent."

"Which," I said, "is far more than the human race has got."

"And now," said the Flowers, "we must say goodbye. Our enunciator is becoming quite fatigued and we must not abuse his strength, for he has served us long and faithfully and we have affection for him. We will talk with you again."

"Whew!" said Tupper.

He wiped the slobber off his chin.

"That's the longest," he said, "I have ever talked for them. What did you talk about?"

"You mean you don't know?"

"Of course I don't," snapped Tupper. "I never listen in." He was human once again. His eyes had returned to normal and his face had become unstuck.

"But the readers," I said. "They read longer than we talked."

"I don't have nothing to do with the reading that is done," said Tupper. "That ain't two-way talk. That's all mental contact stuff."

"But the phones," I said.

"The phones are just to tell them the things they should read."

"Don't they read into the phones?"

"Sure they do," said Tupper. "That's so they'll read aloud. It's easier for the Flowers to pick it up if they read aloud. It's sharper in the reader's brain or something." He got up slowly.

"Going to take a nap," he said.

He headed for the hut.

Halfway there, he stopped and turned back to face me. "I forgot," he said. "Thanks for the pants and shirt."

12

My hunch had been correct. Tupper was a key, or at least one of the keys, to what was happening. And the place to look for clues, crazy as it had sounded, had been the patch of flowers in the garden down below the greenhouse.

For the flower patch had led, not alone to Tupper, but to all the rest of it — to that second self that had helped out Gerald Sherwood, to the phone set-up and the reader service, to the ones who employed Stiffy Grant and probably to the backers of that weird project down in Mississippi. And to how many other projects and endeavours I had no idea.

It was not only now, I knew, that this was happening, but it had been happening for years. For many years, they'd told me, the Flowers had been in contact with many minds of Earth, had been stealing the ideas and the attitudes and knowledge which had existed in those minds, and even in those instances in which the minds were unaware of the prowlers in them, had persisted in the nudging of those minds, as they had nudged the mind of Sherwood.

For many years, they'd said, and I had not thought to ask them for a better estimate. For several centuries, perhaps, and that seemed entirely likely, for when they spoke of the lifetime of their intelligence they spoke of a billion years.

For several hundred years, perhaps, and could those centuries, I wondered, have dated from the Renaissance? Was it possible, I asked myself, that the credit for the flowering of man's culture, that the reason for his advancement might be due, at least in part, to the nudging of the Flowers?

Not, of course, that they themselves would have placed their imprint upon the ways of man, but theirs could have been the nagging force which had driven man to much of his achievement.

In the case of Gerald Sherwood, the busybody nudging had resulted in constructive action. Was it too much to think, I wondered, that in many other instances the result had been the same — although perhaps not as pronounced as it had been in Sherwood's case? For Sherwood had recognized the otherness that had come to live with him and had learned that it was to his benefit to co-operate. In many other cases there would not have been awareness, but even with no awareness, the drive and urge were there and, in part, there would have been response.

In those hundreds of years, the Flowers must have learned a great deal of humanity and have squirrelled away much human knowledge. For that had been their original purpose, to serve as knowledge storage units. During the last several years man's knowledge had flowed to them in a steady stream, with dozens, perhaps hundreds, of readers busily engaged in pouring down their mental gullets the accumulated literary efforts of all of humankind.

I got off the ground where I was sitting and found that I was stiff and cramped. I stretched and slowly turned and there, on every side, reaching to the near horizons of the ridges that paralleled the river, swept the purple tide.

It could not be right, I told myself. I could not have talked with flowers. For of all the things on Earth, plants were the one thing that could never talk.

And yet this was not the Earth. This was another Earth — only one, they'd said, of many billion earths.

Could one measure, I asked myself, one earth by another? And the answer seemed to be one couldn't. The terrain appeared to be almost identical with the terrain I had known back on my own Earth, and the terrain itself might remain the same for all those multi-billion earths. For what was it they had said — that earth was a basic structure?

But when one considered life and evolution, then all the bets were off.

For even if the life of my own Earth and this other Earth on which I stood had started out identically (and they might well have started out identically) there still would be, along the way, millions of little deviations, no one of which perhaps, by itself, would be significant, but the cumulative effects of all these deviations eventually would result in a life and culture that would bear no resemblance to any other Earth.

Tupper had begun to snore — great wet, slobbering snores, the very kind of snores that one might guess he'd make. He was lying on his back inside the hut, on a bed of leaves, but the hut was so small that his feet stuck out the doorway. They rested on his calloused heels and his spraddled toes pointed at the sky and they had a raw and vulgar look about them.

I picked up the plates and spoons from where they rested on the ground and tucked the bowl in which Tupper had cooked our meal underneath my arm. I found the trail that led down to the water's edge and followed it. Tupper had cooked the food; the least I could do, I told myself; was to wash the dishes.

I squatted by the river's edge and washed the awkward plates and pot, sluiced off the spoons and rubbed them clean between my fingers. I was careful with the plates, for I had the feeling they'd not survive much wetting. On both of them and on the pot there still were the marks of Tupper's great splayed fingers, where he had pressed them into shape.

For ten years he had lived and been happy here, happy with the purple flowers that had become his friends, secure at last from the unkindness and the cruelty of the world into which he was born. The world that had been unkind and cruel because he had been different, but which was capable of unkindness and of cruelty even when there was no difference.

To Tupper, I knew, this must seem a fairyland, for real. Here was the beauty and the simplicity to which his simple soul responded. Here he could live the uncomplicated and undisturbed sort of life for which he'd always yearned, perhaps not knowing that he yearned for it.

I set the plates and pot on the river bank and stooped above the water, scooping it up in my two hands, clasped together, drinking it. It had a smooth, clean taste and despite the heat of the summer sun, it had a touch of coldness.

As I straightened up, I heard the faint sound of crinkling paper and, with a sinking heart, suddenly remembered. I put my hand into my inside jacket pocket and pulled out the long, white envelope. I flipped back the flap and there was the sheaf of money, the fifteen hundred dollars that Sherwood had put on the desk for me.

I squatted there, with the envelope in my hand and I thought what a damn fool thing to do. I had meant to hide it somewhere in the house, since I intended leaving on the fishing trip with Alf before the bank had opened, and then, in the rush of events, had forgotten it. How in the world, I wondered, could one forget fifteen hundred dollars!

With a cold sweat breaking out on me, I ran through my mind all the things that could have happened to that envelope. Except for plain fool luck, I'd have lost it a dozen times or more. And yet, aghast as I might be that I should so utterly forget such a handsome sum of cash, as I sat there and looked at it, it seemed to have lost some of its significance.

Perhaps it was, I thought, a condition of Tupper's fairyland that I should not think so highly of it as I had at one time. Although I knew that if it were possible to get back into my world again it would assume its old importance. But here, for this little moment, a crude piece of pottery made out of river day was an important thing, a hut made out of sticks and a bed made out of leaves. And more important than all the money in the world, the necessity to keep a little campfire burning once the matches were gone.

Although, I told myself, this was not my world. This was Tupper's world, his soft, short-sighted world — and tied in with it was his utter failure to grasp the overwhelming implications of this world of his.

For this was the day about which there had been speculation — although far too little speculation and too little done about it because it seemed so distant and so improbable. This was the day that the human race had come into contact (or perhaps, collision) with an alien race.

All the speculation, of course, had concerned an alien out of space, an alien on, or from, some other world in space. But here was the alien, not out of space, but time or at least from behind a barrier in time.

It made no difference, I told myseIf. Out of either space or time, the involvement was the same. Man at this moment finally faced his greatest test, and one he could not fail.

I gathered up the pottery and went back up the trail again.

Tupper was still sleeping, but no longer snoring. He had not changed position and his toes still pointed at the sky.

The sun had moved far down the west, but the heat still held and there was no hint of breeze. The purple of the flowers lay unstirring on the hillsides.

I stood and looked at them and they were innocent and pretty and they held no promise and no threat. They were just a field of flowers, like a field of daisies or of daffodils. They were the sort of thing that we had taken for granted all our years on earth. They had no personality and they stood for nothing except a splotch of colour that was pleasing to the eye.

That was the hard thing about all this, I thought — the utter impossibility of thinking of the Flowers as anything but flowers. It was impossible to think of them as beings, as anything that had even a symbol of importance. One could not take them seriously and yet they must be taken seriously, for in their right they were as intelligent, perhaps more intelligent than the human race.

I put the dishes down beside the fire and slowly climbed the hill. My moving feet brushed the flowers aside and I crushed some of them, but there was no chance of walking without crushing some of them.

I'd have to talk to them again, I told myself. As soon as Tupper could get rested, I'd talk to them again. There were a lot of things that must be clarified, much to be explained. If the Flowers and the human race were to live together, there must be understanding. I ran through the conversation I'd had with them, trying to find the gentle threat that I knew was there.

But from what I could remember, there had been no threat.

I reached the top of the hill and stopped there, gazing out across the undulating purple swales. At the bottom of the slope, a small creek ran between the hills to reach the river. From where I was I could hear the silver babble of it as it ran across the stones.

Slowly I made my way down the hill toward it and as I moved down the slope I saw the mound that lay across the creek, at the foot of the opposite slope. I had not seen it before and I supposed that my failure to see it was because it had been masked by the slant of light across the land.

There was nothing special about it except that it appeared slightly out of character. Here, in this place of flowing swales, it stood by itself, like a hump-backed monstrosity left over from another time.

I came down to the creek and waded across a shallow place where the water ran no deeper than three inches over a shining gravel bar.

At the water's edge a large block of stone lay half-buried in the sharp rise of the bank. It offered a ready seat and I sat down upon it, looking down the stream. The sun glanced off the water, making diamonds out of every ripple, and the air was sprayed with the silver tinkle of the singing brook.

There was no creek here in the world where Millville lay, although there was a dry run in Jack Dickson's pasture, through which the swamp that lay back of Stiffy's shack sometimes drained. Perhaps there had been such a creek as this, I thought, in Millville's world before the farmer's plough and resultant erosion had reshaped the terrain.

I sat entranced by the flashing diamonds of the water and the tinkle of the stream. It seemed that a man could sit there forever, warm in the last rays of the sun and guarded by the hills.

I had put my hands on either side of me and had been idly rubbing them back and forth across the surface of the stone on which I sat. My hands must have told me almost instantly that there was something strange about the surface, but I was so engrossed with the sensations of sun and water that it took some minutes before the strangeness broke its way into my consciousness.

When it did, I still remained sitting there, still rubbing the surface of the stone with the tips of my fingers, but not looking at it, making sure that I had not been wrong, that the stone had the feel of artificial shaping.

When I got up and examined the block, there was no doubt of it. The stone had been squared into a block and there were places where the chisel marks could still be seen upon it. Around one corner of it still clung a brittle substance that could be nothing else than some sort of mortar in which the block had once been set.

I straightened up from my examination and stepped away, back into the stream, with the water tugging at my ankles.

Not a simple boulder, but a block of stone! A block of stone bearing chisel marks and with a bit of mortar still sticking to one edge.

The Flowers, then, were not the only ones upon this planet. There were others — or there had been others. Creatures that knew the use of stone and had the tools to chip the stone into convenient form and size.

My eyes travelled from the block of stone up the mound that stood at the water's edge, and there were other blocks of stone protruding from its face. Standing frozen, with the glint of water and the silver song forgotten, I traced out the blocks and could see that once upon a time they had formed a wall.

This mound, then, was no vagary of nature. It was the evidence of a work that at one time had been erected by beings that knew the use of tools.

I left the stream and clambered up the mound. None of the stones was large, none was ornamented; there were just the chisel marks and here and there the bits of mortar that had lain between the blocks. Perhaps, a building had stood here at one time. Or it may have been a wall. Or a monument.

I started down the mound, choosing a path a short way downstream from where I had crossed the creek, working my way along slowly and carefully, for the slope was steep, using my hands as brakes to keep myself from sliding or from falling.

And it was then, hugged close against the slope, that I found the piece of bone. It had weathered out of the ground, perhaps not too long ago, and it lay hidden there among the purple flowers. Under ordinary circumstances, I probably would have missed it. I could not see it well at first, just the dull whiteness of it lying on the ground. I had slid past it before I saw it and crawled back to pick it up.

The surface of it powdered slightly at the pressure of my fingers, but it did not break. It was slightly curved and white, a ghostly, chalky white.

Turning it over in my hand, I made out that it was a rib bone and the shape and size of it was such that it could be human, although my knowledge was too slight to be absolutely sure. If it were really humanoid, I told myself, then it meant that at one time a thing like man had lived here. And could it mean that something very similar to the human race still resided here?

A planet full of flowers with nothing living on it except the purple flowers, and more lately Tupper Tyler. That was what I'd thought when I had seen the flowers spreading to the far horizons, but it had been supposition only. It was a conclusion I had jumped to without too much evidence.

Although it was in part supported by the seeming fact that nothing else existed in this particular place — no birds, no insects or animals, not a thing at all, except perhaps some bacteria and viruses and even these, I thought, might be essential to the well-being of the Flowers.

Although the outer surface of the bone had chalked off when I picked it up, it seemed sound in structure. Not too long ago, I knew, it had been a part of a living thing. Its age probably would depend to a large extent upon the composition and the moistness of the soil and probably many other factors. It was a problem for an expert and I was no expert.

Now I saw something else, a little spot of whiteness just to the right of me. It could have been a white stone lying on the ground, but even as I looked at it I didn't think it was. It had that same chalky whiteness of the rib I had picked up.

I moved over to it and as I bent above it I could see it was no stone.

I let the rib drop from my fingers and began to dig.

The soil was loose and sandy and although I had no tools, my fingers served the purpose.

As I dug, the bone began to reveal its shape and in a moment I knew it was a skull — and only a little later that it was a human skull.

I dug it loose and lifted it and while I might have failed to identify the rib, there was no mistaking this.

I hunkered on the slope and felt pity well inside of me, pity for this creature that once had lived and died — and a growing fear, as well.

For by the evidence of the skull I held within my hands, I knew for a certainty that this was not the home world of the Flowers. This was — this must be a world that they had conquered, or at least had taken over. They might, indeed, I thought, be very far in time from that old home where another race (by their description of it, a non-human race) had trained them to intelligence.

How far back, I wondered, lay the homeland of the Flowers? How many conquered earths lay between this world and the one where they had risen?

How many other earths lay empty, swept clean of any life that might compete with the Flowers?

And that other race, the race that had raised and elevated them above their vegetable existence where was that old race today?

I put the skull back into the hole from which I'd taken it. Carefully, I brushed back the sand and dirt until it was covered once again, this time entirely covered, with no part of it showing. I would have liked to take it back to camp with me so I could have a better look at it. But I knew I couldn't, for Tupper must not know what I had found. His mind was an open book to his friends the Flowers, and I was sure mine wasn't, for they had had to use the telephone to get in touch with me. So long as I told Tupper nothing, the Flowers would never know that I had found the skull. There was the possibility, of course, that they already knew, that they had the sense of sight, or perhaps some other sense that was as good as sight. But I doubted that they had; there was so far no evidence they had. The best bet was that they were mental symbionts, that they had no awareness beyond the awareness they shared with minds in other kinds of life.

I worked my way around and down the mound and along the way I found other blocks of stone. It was becoming evident to me that at some other time a building had stood upon this site. A city, I wondered, or a town? Although whatever form it might have taken, it had been a dwelling place.

I reached the creek at the far end of the mound, where it ran close against the cutbank it had chewed out of the mound, and started wading back to the place where I had crossed.

The sun had set and with it had gone the diamond sparkle of the water.

The creek ran dark and tawny in the shadow of the first twilight.

Teeth grinned at me out of the blackness of the bank that rose above the stream, and I stopped dead, staring at that row of snaggled teeth and the whiteness of the bone that arched above them. The water, tugging at my ankles, growled a little at me and I shivered in the chill that swept down from the darkening hills.

For, staring at that second skull, grinning at me out of the darkness of the soil that stood poised above the water, I knew that the human race faced the greatest danger it had ever known. Except for man himself, there had been, up to this moment, no threat against the continuity of humanity.

But here, finally, that threat lay before my eyes.

13

I sighted the small glowing of the fire before I reached the camp. When I stumbled down the hillside, I could see that Tupper had finished with his nap and was cooking supper.

"Out for a walk?" he asked.

"Just a look around," I said. "There isn't much to see."

"The Flowers is all," said Tupper.

He wiped his chin and counted the fingers on one hand, then counted them again to be sure he'd made no mistake.

"Tupper?"

"What is it, Brad?"

"Is it all like this? All over this Earth, I mean? Nothing but the Flowers?"

"There are others come sometimes."

"Others?"

"From other worlds," he said. "But they go away."

"What kind of others?"

"Fun people. Looking for some fun."

"What kind of fun?"

"I don't know," he said. "Just fun, is all." He was surly and evasive.

"But other than that," I said, "there's nothing but the Flowers?"

"That's all," he said.

"But you haven't seen it all."

"They tell me," Tupper said. "And they wouldn't lie. They aren't like people back in Millville. They don't need to lie." He used two sticks to move the earthen pot off the hot part of the fire.

"Tomatoes," he said. "I hope you like tomatoes." I nodded that I did and he squatted down beside the fire to watch the supper better.

"They don't tell nothing but the truth," be said, going back to the question I had asked. "They couldn't tell nothing but the truth. That's the way they're made. They got all this truth wrapped up in them and that's what they live by. And they don't need to tell nothing but the truth. It's afraid of being hurt that makes people lie and there is nothing that can hurt them." He lifted his face to stare at me, daring me to disagree with him.

"I didn't say they lied," I told him. "I never for a moment questioned anything they said. By this truth they're wrapped up in, you mean their knowledge, don't you?"

"I guess that's what I mean. They know a lot of things no one back in Millville knows." I let it go at that. Millville was Tupper's former world. By saying Millville, he meant the human world.

Tupper was off on his finger-counting routine once again. I watched him as he squatted there, so happy and content, in a world where he had nothing, but was happy and content.

I wondered once again at his strange ability to communicate with the Flowers, to know them so well and so intimately that he could speak for them. Was it possible, I asked myself, that this slobbering, finger-counting village idiot possessed some sensory perception that the common run of mankind did not have? That this extra ability of his might be a form of compensation, to make up in some measure for what he did not have?

After all, I reminded myself, man was singularly limited in his perception, not knowing what he lacked, not missing what he lacked by the very virtue of not being able to imagine himself as anything other than he was. It was entirely possible that Tupper, by some strange quirk of genetic combination, might have abilities that no other human had, all unaware that he was gifted in any special way, never guessing that other men might lack what seemed entirely normal to himself. And could these extra-human abilities match certain un-guessed abilities that lay within the Flowers themselves?

The voice on the telephone, in mentioning the diplomatic job, had said that I came highly recommended. And was it this man across the fire who had recommended me? I wanted very much to ask him, but I didn't dare.

"Meow," said Tupper. "Meow, meow, meow." I'll say this much for him. He sounded like a cat. He could sound like anything at all. He was always making funny noises, practising his mimicry until he had it pat.

I paid no attention to him. He had pulled himself back into his private world and the chances were he'd forgotten I was there.

The pot upon the fire was steaming and the smell of cooking stole upon the evening air. Just above the eastern horizon the first star came into being and once again I was conscious of the little silences, so deep they made me dizzy when I tried to listen to them, that fell into the chinks between the crackling of the coals and the sounds that Tupper made.

It was a land of silence, a great eternal globe of silence, broken only by the water and the wind and the little feeble noises that came from intruders like Tupper and myself. Although, by now, Tupper might be no intruder.

I sat alone, for the man across the fire had withdrawn himself from me, from everything around him, retreating into a room he had fashioned for himself; a place that was his alone, locked behind a door that could be opened by no one but himself, for there was no other who had a key to it or, indeed, any idea as to what kind of key was needed.

Alone and in the silence, I sensed the purpleness — the formless, subtle personality of the things that owned this planet. There was a friendliness, I thought, but a repulsive friendliness, the fawning friendliness of some monstrous beast. And I was afraid.

Such a silly thing, I thought. To be afraid of flowers.

Tupper's cat was lone and lost. It prowled the dark and dripping woods of some other ogre-land and it mewed softly to itself; sobbing as it padded on and on, along a confusing world-line of uncertainties.

The fear had moved away a little beyond the circle of the firelight.

But the purpleness still was there, hunched upon the hilltop.

An enemy, I wondered. Or just something strange?

If it were an enemy, it would be a terrible enemy, implacable and efficient.

For the plant world was the sole source of energy by which the animal world was able to survive.

Only plants could trap and convert and store the vital stuff of life.

It was only by making use of the energy provided by the vegetable world that the animal kingdom could exist. Plants, by wilfully becoming dormant or by making themselves somehow inedible, could doom all other life.

And the Flowers were versatile, in a very nasty way. They could, as witness Tupper's garden and the trees that grew to supply him wood, be any kind of plant at all. They could be tree or grass, vine or bush or grain.

They could not only masquerade as another plant, they could become that plant.

Suppose they were allowed into the human Earth and should offer to replace the native trees for a better tree, or perhaps the same old trees we had always known, only that they would grow faster and straighter and taller, for better shade or lumber. Or to replace wheat for a better wheat, with a higher yield and a fuller kernel, and a wheat that was resistant to drought and other causes that made a wheat crop fail. Suppose they made a deal to become all vegetables, all grass, all grain, all trees, replacing the native plants of Earth, giving men more food per acre, more lumber per tree, an improved productivity in everything that grew.

There would be no hunger in the world, no shortages of any kind at all, for the Flowers could adapt themselves to every human need.

And once man had come to rely upon them, once he had his entire economy based upon them, and his very life staked upon their carrying out their bargain, then they would have man at their mercy. Overnight they could cease being wheat and corn and grass; they could rob the entire Earth of its food supply. Or they might turn poisonous and thus kill more quickly and more mercifully. Or, if by that time, they had come to hate man sufficiently, they could develop certain types of pollen to which all Earthly life would be so allergic that death, when it came, would be a welcome thing.

Or let us say, I thought, playing with the thought, that man did not let them in, but they came in all the same, that man made no bargain with them, but they became the wheat and grass and all the other plants of Earth surreptitiously, killing off the native plants of Earth and replacing them with an identical plant life, in all its variations. In such a case, I thought, the result could be the same.

If we let them in, or if we didn't let them in (but couldn't keep them out), we were in their hands. They might kill us, or they might not kill us, but even if they didn't kill us, there'd still remain the fact they could at any time they wished.

But if the Flowers were bent on infiltrating Earth, if they planned to conquer Earth by wiping out all life, then why had they contacted me? They could have infiltrated without us knowing it. It would have taken longer, but the road was clear. There was nothing that would stop them, for we would not know. If certain purple flowers should begin escaping Millville gardens, spreading year by year, in fence corners and in ditches, in the little out-of-the-way places of the land, no one would pay attention to them. Year by year the flowers could have crept out and out and in a hundred years have been so well established that nothing could deny them.

And there was another thought that, underneath my thinking and my speculation, had kept hammering at me, pleading to be heard. And now I let it in: even if we could, should we keep them out? Even in the face of potential danger, should we bar the way to them? For here was an alien life, the first alien life we'd met. Here was the chance for the human race, if it would take the chance, to gain new knowledge, to find new attitudes, to fill in the gaps of knowing and to span the bridge of thought, to understand a non-human viewpoint, to sample new emotion, to face new motivation, to investigate new logic. Was this something we could shy away from? Could we afford to fail to meet this first alien life halfway and work out the differences that might exist between the two of us? For if we failed here, the first time, then we'd fail the second time, and perhaps forever.

Tupper made a noise like a ringing telephone and I wondered how a telephone had gotten in there with that lone, lost cat of his. Perhaps, I thought, the cat had found a telephone, maybe in a booth out in the dark and dripping woods, and would find out where it was and how it might get home.

The telephone rang again and there was a little wait. Then Tupper said to me, most impatiently, "Go ahead and talk. This call is for you."

"What's that?" I asked, astonished.

"Say hello," said Tupper. "Go ahead and answer."

"All right," I said, just to humour him. "Hello." His voice changed to Nancy's voice, so perfect an imitation that I felt the presence of her.

"Brad!" she cried. "Brad, where are you?" Her voice was high and gasping, almost hysterical.

"Where are you, Brad?" she asked. "Where did you disappear to?"

"I don't know," I said, "that I can explain. You see…"

"I've looked everywhere," she said, in a rush of words. "We've looked everywhere. The whole town was looking for you. And then I remembered the phone in Father's study, the one without a dial, you know. I knew that it was there, but I'd never paid attention to it. I thought it was a model of some sort, or maybe just a decoration for the desk or a gag of some sort.

"But there was a lot of talk about the phones in Stiffy's shack, and Ed Adler told me about the phone that was in your office. And it finally dawned on me that maybe this phone that Father had was the same as those other phones.

"But it took an awful long time for it to dawn on me. So I went into his study and I saw the phone and I just stood and looked at it — because I was scared, you see. I was afraid of it and I was afraid to use it because of what I might find out. But I screwed my courage up and I lifted the receiver and there was an open line and I asked for you. I knew it was a crazy thing to do, but… What did you say, Brad?"

"I said I don't know if I can explain exactly where I am. I know where I am, of course, but I can't explain it so I'll be believed."

"Tell me. Don't you fool around. Just tell me where you are."

"I'm in another world. I walked out of the garden…"

"You walked where!"

"I was just walking in the garden, following Tupper's tracks and…"

"What kind of track is that?"

"Tupper Tyler," I said. "I guess I forgot to tell you that he had come back."

"But he couldn't," she told me. "I remember him. That was ten years ago."

"He did come back," I said. "He came back this morning. And then he left again. I was following his tracks…"

"You told me," she said. "You were following him and you wound up in another world. Where is this other world?" She was like any other woman. She asked the damndest questions.

"I don't know exactly, except that it's in time. Perhaps only a second away in time."

"Can you get back?"

"I'm going to try," I said. "I don't know if I can."

"Is there anything I can do to help — that the town can do to help?"

"Listen, Nancy, this isn't getting us anywhere. Tell me, where is your father?"

"He's down at your place. There are a lot of people there. Hoping that you will come back."

"Waiting for me?"

"Well, yes. You see, they looked everywhere and they know you aren't in the village, and there are a lot of them convinced that you know all about this…"

"About the barrier, you mean."

"Yes, that's what I mean."

"And they are pretty sore?"

"Some of them," she said.

"Listen, Nancy…"

"Don't say that again. I am listening."

"Can you go down and see your father?"

"Of course I can," she said.

"All right. Go down and tell him that when I can get back — if I can get back — I'll need to talk with someone. Someone in authority. Someone high in authority. The President, perhaps, or someone who's close to the President. Maybe someone from the United Nations…"

"But, Brad, you can't ask to see the President!"

"Maybe not," I said. "But as high as I can get. I have something our government has to know. Not only ours, but all the governments. Your father must know someone he can talk to. Tell him I'm not fooling. Tell him it's important."

"Brad," she said. "Brad, you're sure you aren't kidding? Because if you are, this could be an awful mess."

"Cross my heart," I said. "I mean it, Nancy, it's exactly as I've said. I'm in another world, an alternate world…"

"Is it a nice world, Brad?"

"It's nice enough," I said. "There's nothing here but flowers."

"What kind of flowers?"

"Purple flowers. My father's flowers. The same kind that are back in Millville. The flowers are people, Nancy. They're the ones that put up the barrier."

"But flowers can't be people, Brad." Like I was a kid. Like she had to humour me. Asking me if it was a nice world and telling me that flowers never could be people. All sweet reasonableness.

I held in my anger and my desperation.

"I know they can't," I said. "But just the same as people. They are intelligent and they can communicate."

"You have talked with them?"

"Tupper talks for them. He's their interpreter."

"But Tupper was a drip."

"Not back here he isn't. He's got things we haven't."

"What kind of things? Brad, you have to be…"

"You will tell your father?"

"Right away," she said. "I'll go down to your place…"

"And, Nancy…"

"Yes."

"Maybe it would be just as well if you didn't tell where I am or how you got in touch. I imagine the village is pretty well upset."

"They are wild," said Nancy.

"Tell your father anything you want. Tell him everything. But not the rest of them. He'll know what to tell them. There's no use in giving the village something more to talk about."

"All right," she said. "Take care of yourself. Come back safe and sound."

"Sure," I said.

"You can get back?"

"I think I can. I hope I can."

"I'll tell Father what you said. Exactly what you said. He'll get busy on it."

"Nancy. Don't worry. It'll be all right."

"Of course I won't. I'll be seeing you."

"So long, Nancy. Thanks for calling."

I said to Tupper, "Thank you, telephone."

He lifted a hand and stretched out a finger at me, stroking it with the finger of the other hand, making the sign for shame.

"Brad has got a girl," he chanted in a sing-song voice. "Brad has got a girl."

"I thought you never listened in," I said, just a little nettled.

"Brad has got a girl! Brad has got a girl! Brad has got a girl!" He was getting excited about it and the slobber was flying all about his face.

"Cut it out," I yelled at him. "If you don't cut it out, I'll break your God damn neck." He knew I wasn't fooling, so he cut it out.

14

I woke in a blue and silver night and wondered, even as I woke, what had wakened me. I was lying on my back and above me the sky was glimmering with stars. I was not confused. I knew where I was. There was no blind groping back to an old reality. I heard the faint chuckling of the river as it ran between its banks and I smelled the wood smoke that drifted from the campfire.

Something had awakened me. I lay still, for it seemed important that whatever had wakened me, if it were close at hand, should not know that I was awake. There was a sense of fear, or perhaps of expectation. But if it were a sense of fear, it was neither deep nor sharp.

Slowly I twisted my head a bit and when I did I could see the moon, bright and seeming very near, swimming just above the line of scrubby trees that grew on the river bank.

I was lying flat upon the ground, with nothing under me but the hard-packed earth. Tupper had crawled into his hut to sleep, curling up so his feet did not stick out. And if he were still there and sleeping, he was very quiet about it, for I heard no sound from him.

Having turned my head, I lay quietly for a time, listening for a sound to tell me that something prowled the camp. But there was no sound and finally I sat up.

The slope of ground above the camp, silvered by the floodlight of the moon, ran up to touch the night-blue sky — a balanced piece of beauty hanging in the silence, so fragile that one was careful not to speak nor to make any sudden motion, for fear that one might break that beauty and that silence and bring it down, sky and slope together, in a shower of shards.

Carefully I got to my feet, standing in the midst of that fragile world, still wondering what had wakened me.

But there was nothing. The land and sky were poised, as if they stood on tiptoe in a single instant of retarded time. Here, it seemed, was the present frozen, with no past or future, a place where no clock would ever tick nor any word be spoken.

Then something moved upon the hilltop, a man or a manlike thing, running on the ridge crest, black against the sky, lithe and tall and graceful, running with abandon.

I was running, too. Without reason, without purpose, simply running up the slope. Simply knowing there was a man or a manlike thing up there and that I must stand face to face with it, hoping, perhaps, that in this land of emptiness and flowers, in this land of silence and of fragile beauty, it might make some sense, might lend to this strange dimension of space and time some sort of perspective that I could understand.

The manlike thing was still running on the hilltop and I tried to shout to it, but my throat would make no sound and so I kept on running.

The figure must have seen me, for suddenly it stopped and swung around to face me and stood there on the hilltop, looking down at me. And now I saw that while it undoubtedly was of human form, it had a crest of some sort above its head, giving it a birdlike look as if the head of a cockatoo had been grafted on a human body.

I ran, panting, toward it, and now it moved down the hill to meet me, walking slowly and deliberately and with unconscious grace.

I stopped running and stood still, fighting to regain my breath. There was no need of running any more. I need not run to catch it.

It continued walking down the hill toward me and while its body still stayed black and featureless, I could see that the crest was white, or silver. In the moonlight it was hard to tell if it were white or silver.

My breath came more easily now and I climbed up the hill to meet it. We approached one another slowly, each of us, I suppose, afraid that any other manner of approach might give the other fright.

The manlike thing stopped ten feet or so away and I stopped as well, and now I saw that indeed it was humanoid and that it was a woman, either a naked or an almost naked woman. In the moonlight, the crest upon her head was a thing of shining wonder, but I could not make out if it were a natural appendage or some sort of eccentric hairdo, or perhaps a hat.

The crest was white, but the rest of her was black, a jet black with blue highlights that glinted in the moonlight. And there was about her body an alertness and an awareness and a sense of bubbling life that took my breath away.

She spoke to me in music. It must have been a music, for there seemed to be no words.

"I'm sorry," I said. "I do not understand." She spoke again and the trilling of the voice ran across the blue and silver world like a spray of crystal thought, but there was no understanding. I wondered, in despair, if any man of my race could ever understand a language that expressed itself in music, or if, in fact, it was meant to be understood as were the words we used.

I shook my head and she laughed, the laughter making her without any doubt a human — a low and tinkling laugh that was happy and excited.

She held out her hand and took a few quick steps toward me and I took the outstretched hand. And as I took her hand, she turned and ran lightly up the hill and I went running with her. We reached the top of the ridge and continued running, hand in hand, down the other slope, a wild, ecstatic running that was sheer youth and craziness — a running into nothing, for the utter joy of being alive in that heady moonlight.

We were young and drunk with a strange happiness for which there seemed no reason or accounting — drunk with, at least for me, a wild exuberance.

Her grip upon my hand was hard, with a lithe, young strength, and we ran together as if we were one person running — and it seemed to me, indeed, that in some awesome manner I had become a part of her, and that somehow I knew where we were going and why we were going there, but my brain was so seething with this strange happiness that it could not translate the knowledge into terms I understood.

We came down to the creek and splashed across, then ran around the mound where I had found the skulls and on up the second ridge and there, at the top of it, we came upon the picnic.

There were other people there, at this midnight picnic, a half a dozen of them, all like this alien girl who had run with me. Scattered on the ground were hampers, or things that looked like hampers, and bottles, and these bottles and the hampers were arranged in a sort of circle. In the centre of the circle was a small, silvery contraption that was just slightly larger than a basketball.

We stopped at the edge of the circle and all the rest of them turned to look at us — but to look without surprise, as if it were not unusual at all for one of them to lead in an alien creature such as I.

The woman who was with me spoke in her singing voice and they answered back with music. All of them were watching me, but it was friendly watching.

Then all of them except one sat down in the circle and the one who remained standing stepped toward me, making a motion inviting me to join the circle with them.

I sat down, with the running woman on one side of me and the one who made the invitation sitting on the other.

It was, I gathered, some sort of holiday, although there was something in that circle which made it more than a holiday.

There was a sense of anticipation in the faces and the bodies of these people sitting in the circle, as if they might be waiting for an event of great importance. They were happy and excited and vibrant with the sense of life to their fingertips.

Except for their crests, they were humanoid, and I could see now that they wore no clothing. I found time to wonder where they might have come from, for Tupper would have told me if there were people such as they. But he had told me that the Flowers were the only things which existed on this planet, although he had said sometimes there were others who came visiting.

Were these people, then, the ones who came visiting, or was it possible that they were the descendants of those people whose bones I had found down on the mound, now finally emerged from some secret hiding place? Although there was no sign in them of ever having hidden, of ever having skulked.

The strange contraption lay in the centre of the circle. At a picnic back in Millville it would have been a record player or a radio that someone had brought along. But these people had no need of music, for they talked in music, and the thing looked like nothing I had ever seen. It was round and seemed to be fashioned of many lenses, all tilted at different angles so that the surfaces caught the moonlight, reflecting it to make the ball itself a sphere of shining glory.

Some of the people sitting in the circle began an unpacking of the hampers and an uncorking of the bottles and I knew that more than likely they'd ask me to eat with them. It worried me to think of it, for since they'd been so kind I could not very well refuse, and yet it might be dangerous to eat the food they had. For although they were humanoid, there easily could be differences in their metabolism and what might be food for them could be poisonous for me.

It was a little thing, of course, but it seemed a big decision, and I sat there in mental agony, trying to make up my mind.

The food might be a loathsome and nauseating mess, but that I could have managed; for the friendship of these people I would have choked it down. It was the thought that it might be deadly that made me hesitate.

A while ago, I remembered, I had convinced myself that no matter how great a threat the Flowers might be, we still must let them in, must strive to find a common ground upon which any differences that might exist between us could somehow be adjusted. I had told myself that the future of the human race might easily hang upon our ability to meet and to get along with an alien race, for the time was coming, in a hundred years from now, or a thousand years from now, when we'd be encountering other alien races, and we could not fail this first time.

And here, I realized, was another alien race, sitting in this circle, and there could be no double standard as between myself and the world at large. I, in my own right, must act as I'd decided the human race must act — I must eat the food when it was offered me.

Perhaps I was not thinking very clearly. Events were happening much too fast and I had too little time. It was a snap decision at best and I hoped I was not wrong.

I never had a chance to know, for before the food could be passed around, the contraption in the centre of the circle began a little ticking — no more than the ticking of a clock in an empty room, but at the first tick it gave they all jumped to their feet and stood watching it.

I jumped up, too, and stood watching with them, and I could sense that they'd forgotten I was with them. All of their attentions were fastened on that shining basketball.

As it ticked, the glow of it became a shining mistiness and the mistiness spread out, like a fog creeping up the land from a river bottom.

The mistiness enveloped us and out of that mistiness strange shapes began to form. At first they were wavering and unstable forms, but in a while they steadied and became more substantial, although never quite substantial; there was about them a touch of fairyland, of a shape and time that one might see, but that was forever out of reach.

And now the mistiness went away — or perhaps it still remained and we did not notice it, for with the creation of the forms it had supplied another world, of which we were observers, if not an actual part.

It appeared that we were standing on the terrace of what on Earth might have been called a villa. Beneath our feet were rough-hewn flagstones, with thin lines of grass growing in the cracks between the stones, and back of us rose rough walls of masonry. But the walls had a misty texture, as if they were some sort of simulated backdrop that one was not supposed to inspect too closely.

In front of us spread a city, an ugly city with no beauty in it. It was utilitarian in its every aspect, a geometric mass of stone, reared without imagination, with no architectural concept beyond the principle that one stone piled atop another would achieve a place of shelter. The city was the drab colour of dried mud and it spread as far as the eye could see, a disorderly mass of rectilinear structures thrust together, cheek by jowl, with no breathing space provided.

And yet there was an insubstantiality about it; never for an instant did that massive city become solid masonry. Nor were the flagstones underneath our feet an actual flagstone terrace.

Rather it was as though we floated, a fraction of an inch above the flagstones, never touching them.

We stood, it seemed, in the middle of a three-dimensional movie. And all around us the movie moved and went about its business and we knew that we were there, for we could see it on every side of us, but the actors in the movie were unaware of us and while we knew that we were there, there also was the knowledge that we were not a part of it, that we somehow stood aside from this magic world in which we were engulfed.

At first I'd seen only the city, but now I saw there was terror in the city. People were running madly in the streets, and from far off I could hear the screaming, the thin and frantic wailing of a lost and hopeless people.

Then the city and the screaming were blotted out in a searing flash of light, a blossoming whiteness that became so intense it suddenly went black.

The blackness covered us and we stood in a world that had nothing in it except the darkness and the cataract of thunder that poured out of that place where the flash of light had blossomed.

I took a short step forward, groping as I went. My hands met emptiness and the feeling flooded over me that I stood in an emptiness that stretched on forever, that what I'd known before had been nothing but illusion and the illusion now was gone, leaving me to grope eternally through black nothingness.

I took no other step, but stood stiff and straight, afraid to move a muscle, sensing in all irrationality that I stood upon a platform and might fall from it into a great emptiness which would have no bottom.

As I stood there the blackness turned to grey and through the greyness I could see the city, flattened and sharded, swept by tornadic winds, with gouts of flame and ash twisting in the monstrous whirlwind of destruction.

Above the city was a rolling cloud, as if a million thunderstorms had been rolled all into one. And from this maelstrom of fury came a deepthroated growling of death and fear and fate, a savage terrible sound that made one think of evil.

Around me I saw the others — the black-skinned people with the silver crests — standing transfixed and frozen, fascinated by the sight that lay before them, rigid as if with fear, but something more than just plain fear — superstitious fear, perhaps.

I stood there, rooted with them, and the growling died away. Thin wisps of smoke curled up above the rubble, and in the silence that came as the growling ceased I could hear the little cracklings and groanings and the tiny crashes as the splintered stone that still remained settled more firmly into place. But there was no sound of crying now, none of the thin, high screaming. There were no people and the only movements were the little ripples of settling rubble that lay beyond the bare and blackened and entirely featureless area where the light had blossomed.

The greyness faded and the city began to dim. Out in the centre of the picnic circle I could make out the glimmer of the lens-covered basketball.

There were no signs of my fellow picnickers; they had disappeared. And from the thinning greyness came another screaming — but a different kind of screaming, not the kind I'd heard from the city before the bomb had struck.

For now I knew that I had seen a city destroyed by a nuclear explosion — as one might have watched it on a TV set. And the TV set, if one could call it that, could have been nothing other than the basketball. By some strange magic mechanism it had invaded time and brought back from the past a moment of high crisis.

The greyness faded out and the night came back again, with the golden moon and the dust of stars and the silver slopes that curved to meet the quicksilver of the creek.

Down the farther slope I could see the scurrying figures, with their silver topknots gleaming in the moonlight, running wildly through the night and screaming in simulated terror. I stood looking after them and shivered, for there was something here, I knew, that had a sickness in it, a sickness of the mind, an illness of the soul.

Slowly I turned back to the basketball. It was, once again, just a thing of lenses. I walked over to it and knelt beside it and had a look at it. It was made of many lenses and in the interstices between the tilted lenses, I could catch glimpses of some sort of mechanism, although all the details of it were lost in the weakness of the moonlight.

I reached out a hand and touched it gingerly. It seemed fragile and I feared that I might break it, but I couldn't leave it here. It was something that I wanted and I told myself that if I could get it back to Earth, it would help to back up the story I had to tell.

I took off my jacket and spread it on the ground, and then carefully picked up the basketball, using both my hands to cradle it, and put it on the jacket. I gathered up the ends of the cloth and wrapped them all around the ball, then tied the sleeves together to help hold the folds in place.

I picked it up and tucked it securely underneath an arm, then got to my feet.

The hampers and the bottles lay scattered all about and it occurred to me that I should get away as quickly as I could, for these other people would be coming back to get the basketball and to gather up their picnic.

But there was as yet no sign of them. Listening intently, it seemed to me that I could hear the faint sounds of their screaming receding in the distance.

I turned and went down the hill and crossed the creek. Halfway up the other slope I met Tupper coming out to hunt me.

"Thought you had got lost," he said.

"I met a group of people. I had a picnic with them."

"They have funny topknots?"

"They had that," I said.

"Friends of mine," said Tupper. "They come here many times. They come here to be scared."

"Scared?"

"Sure. It's fun for them. They like being scared." I nodded to myself. So that was it, I thought. Like a bunch of kids creeping on a haunted house and peeking through the windows so that they might run, shrieking from imagined horror at imagined stirrings they'd seen inside the house. And doing it time after time, never getting tired of the good time that they had, gaining some strange pleasure from their very fright.

"They have more fun," said Tupper, "than anyone I know."

"You've seen them often?"

"Lots of times," said Tupper.

"You didn't tell me."

"I never had the time," said Tupper. "I never got around to."

"And they live close by?"

"No," said Tupper. "Very far away."

"But on this planet."

"Planet?" Tupper asked.

"On this world," I said.

"No. On another world. In another place. But that don't make no difference. They go everywhere for fun." So they went everywhere for fun, I thought. And everywhen, perhaps.

They were temporal ghouls, feeding on the past, getting their vicarious kicks out of catastrophe and disaster of an ancient age, seeking out those historic moments that were horrible and foul. Coming back again and yet again to one such scene that had a high appeal to their perverted minds.

A decadent race, I wondered, from some world conquered by the Flowers, free now to use the many gateways that led from world to world?

Conquered, in the light of what I knew, might not be the proper word.

For I had seen this night what had happened to this world. Not depopulated by the Flowers, but by the mad suicide of the humans who had been native to it. More than likely it had been an empty and a dead world for years before the Flowers had battered down the time-phase boundary that let them into it.

The skulls I had found had been those of the survivors — perhaps a relatively few survivors — who had managed to live on for a little time, but who had been foredoomed by the poisoned soil and air and water.

So the Flowers had not really conquered; they had merely taken over a world that had gone forfeit by the madness of its owners.

"How long ago," I asked, "did the Flowers come here?"

"What makes you think," asked Tupper, "that they weren't always here?"

"Nothing. Just a thought. They never talked to you about it?"

"I never asked," said Tupper.

Of course he wouldn't ask; he'd have no curiosity. He would be simply glad that he had found this place, where he had friends who talked with him and provided for his simple needs, where there were no humans to mock or pester him.

We came down to the camping place and I saw that the moon had moved far into the west. The fire was burning low and Tupper fed it with some sticks, then sat down beside it.

I sat down across from him and placed the wrapped basketball beside me.

"What you got there?" asked Tupper.

I unwrapped it for him.

He said, "It's the thing my friends had. You stole it from my friends."

"They ran away and left it. I want a look at it."

"You see other times with it," said Tupper.

"You know about this, Tupper?"

He nodded. "They show me many times — not often, I don't mean that, but many other times. Time not like we're in."

"You don't know how it works?"

"They told me," Tupper said, "but I didn't understand." He wiped his chin, but failed to do the job, so wiped it a second time.

They told me, he had said. So he could talk with them. He could talk with Flowers and with a race that conversed by music. There was no use, I knew, in asking him about it, because he couldn't tell me. Perhaps there was no one who could explain an ability of that sort — not to a human being.

For more than likely there'd be no common terms in which an explanation could be made.

The basketball glowed softly, lying on the jacket.

"Maybe," Tupper said, "we should go back to bed."

"In a little while," I said. Anytime I wanted, it would be no trouble going back to bed, for the ground was bed.

I put out a hand and touched the basketball.

A mechanism that extended back in time and recorded for the viewer the sight and sound of happenings that lay deep in the memory of the space-time continuum. It would have, I thought, very many uses. It would be an invaluable tool in historical research. It would make crime impossible, for it could dig out of the past the details of any crime. And it would be a terrible device if it fell into unscrupulous hands or became the property of a government.

I'd take it back to Millville, if I could take it back, if I could get back myself. It would help to support the story I had to tell, but after I had told the story and had offered it as proof; what would I do with it?

Lock it in a vault and destroy the combination? Take a sledge and smash it into smithereens? Turn it over to the scientists? What could one do with it"?

"You messed up your coat," said Tupper, "carrying that thing."

I said, "It wasn't much to start with." And then I remembered that envelope with the fifteen hundred dollars in it. It had been in the breast pocket of the jacket and I could have lost it in the wild running I had done or when I used the jacket to wrap up the time contraption.

What a damn fool thing to do, I thought. What a chance to take. I should have pinned it in my pocket or put it in my shoe or something of the sort. It wasn't every day a man got fifteen hundred dollars.

I bent over and put my hand into the pocket and the envelope was there and I felt a great relief as my fingers touched it. But almost immediately I knew there was something wrong.

My groping fingers told me the envelope was thin and it should have been bulging with thirty fifty-dollar bills.

I jerked it from my pocket and flipped up the flap. The envelope was empty.

I didn't have to ask. I didn't have to wonder. I knew just what had happened. That dirty, slobbering, finger-counting bum — I'd choke it out of him, I'd beat him to a pulp, I'd make him cough it up!

I was halfway up to nail him when he spoke to me and the voice that he spoke with was that of the TV glamour gal.

"This is Tupper speaking for the Flowers," the voice said. "And you sit back down and behave yourself."

"Don't give me that," I snarled. "You can't sneak out of this by pretending…"

"But this is the Flowers," the voice insisted sharply and even as it said the words, I saw that Tupper's face had taken on that wall-eyed, vacant look.

"But he took my roll," I said. "He sneaked it out of the envelope when I was asleep."

"Keep quiet," said the honeyed voice. "Just keep quiet and listen."

"Not until I get my fifteen hundred back."

"You'll get it back. You'll get much more than your fifteen hundred back."

"You can guarantee that?"

"We'll guarantee it." I sat down again.

"Look," I said, "you don't know what that money meant to me. It's part my fault, of course. I should have waited until the bank was open or I should have found a good safe place to hide it. But there was so much going on…"

"Don't worry for a moment," said the Flowers. "We'll get it back to you."

"OK," I said, "and does he have to use that voice?"

"What's the matter with the voice?"

"Oh, hell," I said, "go ahead and use it. I want to talk to you, maybe even argue with you, and it's unfair, but I'll remember who is speaking."

"We'll use another voice, then," said the Flowers, changing in the middle of the sentence to the voice of the businessman.

"Thanks very much," I said.

"You remember," said the Flowers, "the time we spoke to you on the phone and suggested that you might represent us?

"Certainly I remember. But as for representing you…"

"We need someone very badly. Someone we can trust."

"But you can't be certain I'm the man to trust."

"Yes, we can," they said. "Because we know you love us."

"Now, look here," I said. "I don't know what gives you that idea. I don't know if…"

"Your father found those of us who languished in your world. He took us home and cared for us. He protected us and tended us and he loved us and we flourished."

"Yes, I know all that."

"You're an extension of your father."

"Well, not necessarily. Not the way you mean."

"Yes," they insisted. "We have knowledge of your biology. We know about inherited characteristics. Like father, like son is a saying that you have." It was no use, I saw. You couldn't argue with them. From the logic of their race, from the half-assimilated, half-digested facts they had obtained in some manner in their contact with our Earth, they had it figured out. And it probably made good sense in their plant world, for an offspring plant would differ very little from the parents. It would be, I suspected, a fruitless battle to try to make them see that an assumption that was valid in their case need not extend its validity into the human race.

"All right," I said, "we'll let you have it your way. You're sure that you can trust me and probably you can. But in all fairness I must tell you I can't do the job."

"Can't?" they asked.

"You want me to represent you back on Earth. To be your ambassador. Your negotiator."

"That was the thought we had in mind."

"I have no training for a job of that sort. I'm not qualified. I wouldn't know how to do it. I wouldn't even know how to make a start."

"You have started," said the Flowers. "We are very pleased with the start you've made."

I stiffened and jerked upright. "The start I've made?" I asked.

"Why, yes, of course," they told me. "Surely you remember. You asked that Gerald Sherwood get in touch with someone. Someone, you stressed, in high authority."

"I wasn't representing you."

"But you could," they said. "We want someone to explain us."

"Let's be honest," I told them. "How can I explain you? I know scarcely anything about you."

"We would tell you anything you want to know."

"For openers," I said, "this is not your native world."

"No, it's not. We've advanced through many worlds."

"And the people — no, not the people, the intelligences — what happened to the intelligences of those other worlds?"

"We do not understand."

"When you get into a world, what do you do with the intelligence you find there?

"It is not often we find intelligence — not meaningful intelligence, not cultural intelligence. Cultural intelligence does not develop on all worlds. When it does, we co-operate. We work with it. That is, when we can."

"There are times when you can't?"

"Please do not misunderstand," they pleaded. "There has been a case or two where we could not contact a world's intelligence. It would not become aware of us. We were just another life form, another — what do you call it? Another weed, perhaps."

"What do you do, then?"

"What can we do?" they asked.

It was not, it seemed to me, an entirely honest answer. There were a lot of things that they could do.

"And you keep on going."

"Keep on going?"

"From world to world," I said.

"From one world to another."

"When do you intend to stop?

"We do not know," they said.

"What is your goal? What are you aiming at?"

"We do not know," they said.

"Now, just wait a minute. That's the second time you've said that. You must know…"

"Sir," they asked, "does your race have a goal — a conscious goal?"

"I guess we don't," I said.

"So that would make us even."

"I suppose it would."

"You have on your world things you call computers."

"Yes," I said, "but very recently."

"And the function of computers is the storage of data and the correlation of that data and making it available whenever it is needed."

"There still are a lot of problems. The retrieval of the data…"

"That is beside the point. What would you say is the goal of your computers?

"Our computers have no purpose. They are not alive."

"But if they were alive?"

"Well, in that case, I suppose the ultimate purpose would be the storage of a universal data and its correlation."

"That perhaps is right," they said. "We are living computers."

"Then there is no end for you. You'll keep on forever."

"We are not sure," they said.

"But…"

"Data," they told me, pontifically, "is the means to one end only arrival at the truth. Perhaps we do not need a universal data to arrive at truth."

"How do you know when you have arrived?"

"We will know," they said.

I gave up. We were getting nowhere. "So you want our Earth," I said.

"You state it awkwardly and unfairly. We do not want your Earth. We want to be let in, we want some living space, we want to work with you. You give us your knowledge and we will give you ours."

"We'd make quite a team," I said.

"We would, indeed," they said.

"And then?"

"What do you mean?" they asked.

"After we've swapped knowledge, what do we do then?"

"Why, we go on," they said. "Into other worlds. The two of us together."

"Seeking other cultures? After other knowledge?"

"That is right," they said.

They made it sound so simple. And it wasn't simple; it couldn't be that simple. There was nothing ever simple.

A man could talk with them for days and still be asking questions, getting no more than a bare outline of the situation.

"There is one thing you must realize," I said. "The people of my Earth will not accept you on blind faith alone. They must know what you expect of us and what we can expect of you. They must have some assurance that we can work together."

"We can help," they said, "in many different ways. We need not be as you see us now. We can turn ourselves into any kind of plant you need. We can provide a great reservoir of economic resources. We can be the old things that you have relied upon for years, but better than the old things ever were. We can be better foodstuff and better building material; better fibre. Name anything you need from plants and we can be that thing."

"You mean you'd let us eat you and saw you up for lumber and weave you into cloth? And you would not mind?"

They came very close to sighing. "How can we make you understand? Eat one of us and we still remain. Saw one of us and we still remain. The life of us is one life — you could never kill us all, never eat us all. Our life is in our brains and our nervous systems, in our roots and bulbs and tubers. We would not mind your eating us if we knew that we were helping."

"And we would not only be the old forms of economic plant life to which you are accustomed. We could be different kinds of grain, different kinds of trees — ones you have never heard of. We could adapt ourselves to any soils or climates. We could grow anywhere you wanted. You want medicines or drugs. Let your chemists tell us what you want and we'll be that for you. We'll be made-to-order plants."

"All this," I said, "and your knowledge, too."

"That is right," they said.

"And in return, what do we do?"

"You give your knowledge to us. You work with us to utilize all knowledge, the pooled knowledge that we have. You give us an expression we cannot give ourselves. We have knowledge, but knowledge in itself is worthless unless it can be used. We want it used, we want so badly to work with a race that can use what we have to offer, so that we can feel a sense of accomplishment that is denied us now. And, also, of course, we would hope that together we could develop a better way to open the time-phase boundaries into other worlds."

"And the time dome that you put over Millville — why did you do that?

"To gain your world's attention. To let you know that we were here and waiting."

"But you could have told some of your contacts and your contacts could have told the world. You probably did tell some of them. Stiffy Grant, for instance."

"Yes, Stiffy Grant. And there were others, too."

"They could have told the world."

"Who would have believed them? They would have been thought of as how do you say it — crackpots?"

"Yes, I know," I said. "No one would pay attention to anything Stiffy said. But surely there were others."

"Only certain types of minds," they told me, "can make contact with us. We can reach many minds, but they can't reach back to us. And to believe in us, to know us, you must reach back to us."

"You mean only the screwballs…"

"We're afraid that's what we mean," they said.

It made sense when you thought about it. The most successful contact they could find had been Tupper Tyler and while there was nothing wrong with Stuffy as a human being, he certainly was not what one would call a solid citizen.

I sat there for a moment, wondering why they'd contacted me and Gerald Sherwood. Although that was a little different. They'd contacted Sherwood because he was valuable to them; he could make the telephones for them and he could set up a system that would give them working capital. And me?

Because my father had taken care of them? I hoped to heaven that was all it was.

"So, OK," I said. "I guess I understand. How about the storm of seeds?"

"We planted a demonstration plot," they told me. "So your people could realize, by looking at it, how versatile we are." You never won, I thought. They had an answer for everything you asked.

I wondered if I ever had expected to get anywhere with them or really wanted to get anywhere with them. Maybe, subconsciously, all I wanted was to get back to Millville.

And maybe it was all Tupper. Maybe there weren't any Flowers. Maybe it was simply a big practical joke that Tupper had dreamed up in his so-called mind, sitting here ten years and dreaming up the joke and getting it rehearsed so he could pull it off.

But, I argued with myself it couldn't be just Tupper, for Tupper wasn't bright enough. His mind was not given to a concept of this sort. He couldn't dream it up and he couldn't pull it off. And besides, there was the matter of his being here and of my being here, and that was something a joke would not explain.

I came slowly to my feet and turned so that I faced the slope above the camp and there in the bright moonlight lay the darkness of the purple flowers. Tupper still sat where he had been sitting, but now he was hunched forward, almost doubled up, fallen fast asleep and snoring very softly.

The perfume seemed stronger now and the moonlight had taken on a trembling and there was a Presence out there somewhere on the slope. I strained my eyes to see it, and once I thought I saw it, but it faded out again, although I still knew that it was there.

There was a purpleness in the very night and the feel of an intelligence that waited for a word to come stalking down the hill to talk with me, as two friends might talk, with no need of an interpreter, to squat about the campfire and yarn the night away.

Ready? asked the Presence.

A word, I wondered, or simply something stirring in my brain — something born of the purpleness and moonlight?

"Yes," I said, "I'm ready. I will do the best I can." I bent and wrapped the time contraption in my jacket and tucked it underneath my arm and then went up the slope. I knew the Presence was up there, waiting for me, and there were quivers running up and down my spine.

It was fear, perhaps, but it didn't feel like fear.

I came up to where the Presence waited and I could not see it, but I knew that it had fallen into step with me and was walking there beside me.

"I am not afraid of you," I told it.

It didn't say a word. It just kept walking with me. We went across the ridge and down the slope into the dip where in another world the greenhouse and garden were.

A little to your left, said the thing that walked the night with me, and then go straight ahead.

I turned a little to my left and then went straight ahead.

A few more feet, it said.

I stopped and turned my head to face it and there was nothing there. If there had been anything, it was gone from there.

The moon was a golden gargoyle in the west. The world was lone and empty; the silvered slope had a hungry look. The blue-black sky was filled with many little eyes with a hard sharp glitter to them, a predatory glitter and the remoteness of uncaring.

Beyond the ridge a man of my own race drowsed beside a dying campfire, and it was all right for him, for he had a talent that I did not have, that I knew now I did not have — the talent for reaching out to grasp an alien hand (or paw or claw or pad) and being able in his twisted mind to translate that alien touch into a commonplace.

I shuddered at the gargoyle moon and took two steps forward and walked out of that hungry world straight into my garden.

15

Ragged clouds still raced across the sky, blotting out the moon. A faint lighting in the east gave notice of the dawn. The windows of my house were filled with lamplight and I knew that Gerald Sherwood and the rest of them were waiting there for me. And just to my left the greenhouse with the tree growing at its corner loomed ghostly against the rise of ground behind it.

I started to walk forward and fingers were scratching at my trouser leg. Startled, I looked down and saw that I had walked into a bush.

There had been no bush in the garden the last time I had seen it; there had been only the purple flowers. But I think I guessed what might have happened even before I stooped to have a look.

Squatting there, I squinted along the ground and in the first grey light of the coming day, I saw there were no flowers. Instead of a patch of flowers there was a patch of little bushes, perhaps a little larger, but not much larger than the flowers.

I hunkered there, with a coldness growing in me — for there was no explanation other than the fact that the bushes were the flowers, that somehow the Flowers had changed the flowers that once had grown there into little bushes. And, I wondered wildly, what could their purpose be?

Even here, I thought — even here they reach out for us. Even here they play their tricks on us and lay their traps for us. And they could do anything they wanted, I supposed, for if they did not own, at least they manipulated this corner of the Earth entrapped beneath the dome.

I put out a hand and felt along a branch and the branch had soft-swelling buds all along its length. Springtime buds, that in a day or so would be breaking into leaf. Springtime buds in the depth of summer!

I had believed in them, I thought. In that little space of time toward the very end, when Tupper had ceased his talking and had dozed before the fire and there had been something on the hillside that had spoken to me and had walked me home, I had believed in them.

Had there been something on that hillside? Had something walked with me? I sweated, thinking of it.

I felt the bulk of the wrapped time contraption underneath my arm, and that, I realized, was a talisman of the actuality of that other world. With that, I must believe.

They had told me, I remembered, that I'd get my money back — they had guaranteed it. And here I was, back home again, without my fifteen hundred.

I got to my feet and started for the house, then changed my mind. I turned around and went up the slope toward Doc Fabian's house. It might be a good idea, I told myself, to see what was going on outside the barrier. The people who were waiting at the house could wait a little longer.

I reached the top of the slope and turned around, looking toward the east. There, beyond the village, blazed a line of campfires and the lights of many cars running back and forth.

A searchlight swung a thin blue finger of light up into the sky, slowly sweeping back and forth. And at one spot that seemed a little closer was a greater blob of light. A great deal of activity seemed to be going on around it.

Watching it, I made out a steam shovel and great black mounds of earth piled up on either side of it. I could hear, faintly, the metallic clanging of the mighty scoop as it dumped a load and then reached down into the hole to take another bite. Trying, I told myself, to dig beneath the barrier.

A car came rattling down the street and turned into the driveway of the house behind me. Doc, I thought — Doc coming home after being routed out of bed on an early morning call. I walked across the lawn and around the house.

The car was parked on the concrete strip of driveway and Doc was getting out.

"Doc," I said, "it's Brad." He turned and peered at me.

"Oh," he said, and his voice sounded tired, "so you are back again. There are people waiting at the house, you know." Too tired to be surprised that I was back again; too all beat out to care.

He shuffled forward and I saw, quite suddenly, that Doc was old. Of course I had thought of him as old, but never before had he actually seemed old. Now I could see that he was — the slightly stooped shoulders, his feet barely lifting off the ground as he walked toward me, the loose, old-man hang of his trousers, the deep lines in his face.

"Floyd Caidwell," he said. "I was out to Floyd" s. He had a heart attack — a strong, tough man like him and he has a heart attack."

"How is he?"

"As well as I can manage. He should be in a hospital, getting complete rest. But I can't get him there. With that thing out there, I can't get him where he should be.

"I don't know, Brad. I just don't know what will happen to us. Mrs Jensen was supposed to go in this morning for surgery. Cancer. She'll die, anyhow, but surgery would give her months, maybe a year or two, of life. And there's no way to get her there. The little Hopkins girl has been going regularly to a specialist and he's been helping her a lot. Decker — perhaps you've heard of him. He's a top-notch man. We interned together." He stopped in front of me. "Can't you see," he said. "I can't help these people. I can do a little, but I can't do enough. I can't handle things like this — I can't do it all alone. Other times I could send them somewhere else, to someone who could help them. And now I can't do that. For the first time in my life, I can't help my people."

"You're taking it too hard," I said.

He looked at me with a beaten look, a tired and beaten look.

"I can't take it any other way," he said. "All these years, they've depended on me."

"How's Stuffy?" I asked.

"You have heard, of course." Doc snorted angrily. "The damn fool ran away."

"From the hospital?"

"Where else would he run from? Got dressed when their backs were turned and snuck away. He always was a sneaky old goat and he never had good sense. They're looking for him, but no one's found him yet."

"He'd head back here," I said.

"I suppose he would," said Doc. "What about this story I heard about; some telephone he had?"

I shook my head. "Hiram said he found one."

Doc peered sharply at me. "You don't know anything about it?"

"Not very much," I said.

"Nancy said you were in some other world or something. What kind of talk is that?"

"Did Nancy tell you that?"

He shook his head. "No, Gerald told me. He asked me what to do. He was afraid that if he mentioned it, he would stir up the village."

"And?"

"I told him not to. The folks are stirred up enough. He told them what you said about the flowers. He had to tell them something."

"Doc," I said, "it's a funny business. I don't rightly know myself. Let's not talk about it. Tell me what's going on. What are those fires out there?"

"Those are soldier fires," he told me. "There are state troops out there. They've got the town ringed in. Brad, it's crazier than hell. We can't get out and no one can get in, but they got troops out there. I don't know what they think they're doing. They evacuated everybody for ten miles outside the barrier and there are planes patrolling and they have some tanks. They tried to dynamite the barrier this morning and they didn't do a thing except blow a hole in Jake Fisher's pasture. They could have saved that dynamite."

"They're trying to dig under the barrier," I said.

"They've done a lot of things," said Doe. "They had some helicopters that flew above the town, then tried to come straight down. Figuring, I guess, that there are only walls out there, without any top to them. But they found there was a top. They fooled around all afternoon and they wrecked two ‘copters, but they found out, I guess, that it's a sort of dome. It curves all the way above us. A kind of bubble, you might say."

"And there are all those fool newspapermen out there. I tell you, Brad, there's an army of them. There isn't anything but Millville on the TV and radio, or in the papers either."

"It's big news," I said.

"Yes, I suppose so. But I'm worried, Brad. This village is getting ready to blow up. The people are on edge. They're scared and touchy. The whole damn place could go hysterical if you snapped your fingers." He came a little closer. "What are you planning, Brad?"

"I'm going down to my place. There are people down there. You want to come along?"

He shook his head. "No, I was down there for a while and then I got this call from Floyd. I'm all beat out. I'm going in to bed." He turned, and started to shuffle away and then he turned back.

"You be careful, boy," he warned. "There's a lot of talk about the flowers. They say if your father hadn't raised those flowers it never would have happened. They think it was a plot your father started and you are in on it."

"I'll watch my step," I said.

16

They were in the living-room. As soon as I came in the kitchen door, Hiram Martin saw me.

"There he is!" he bellowed, leaping up and charging out into the kitchen.

He stopped his rush and looked accusingly at me. "It took you long enough," he said.

I didn't answer him.

I put the time contraption, still wrapped in my jacket, on the kitchen table. A fold of cloth fell away from it and the many-angled lenses winked in the light from the ceiling fixture.

Hiram backed away a step. "What's that?" he asked.

"Something I brought back," I said. "A time machine, I guess." The coffee pot was on the stove and the burner was turned low. Used coffee cups covered the top of the kitchen sink. The sugar canister had its lid off and there was spilled sugar on the counter top.

The others in the living-room were crowding through the door and there were a lot of them, more than I'd expected.

Nancy came past Hiram and walked up to me. She put out a hand and laid it on my arm.

"You're all right," she said.

"It was a breeze," I told her.

She was beautiful, I thought — more beautiful than I'd remembered her, more beautiful than back in the high school days when I'd looked at her through a haze of stars. More beautiful, here close to me, than my memory had made her.

I moved closer to her and put an arm around her. For an instant she leaned her head against my shoulder, then straightened it again. She was warm and soft against me and I was sorry that it couldn't last, but all the rest of them were watching us and waiting.

"I made some phone calls," Gerald Sherwood said. "Senator Gibbs is coming out to see you. He'll have someone from the State Department. On short notice, Brad, that was the best I could do."

"It'll do," I said.

For, standing in my kitchen once again, with Nancy close beside me, with the lamplight soft in the coming dawn, with the old familiar things all around, that other world had retreated into the background and had taken on a softness that half obscured its threat — if it were a threat.

"What I want to know," Tom Preston blurted, "is what about this stuff that Gerald tells us about your father's flowers."

"Yes," said Mayor Higgy Morris, "what have they to do with it?" Hiram didn't say anything, but he sneered at me.

"Gentlemen," said lawyer Nichols, "this is not the way to go about it. You must be fair about it. Keep the questions until later. Let Brad tell us what he knows."

Joe Evans said, "Anything he has to say will be more than we know now."

"OK," said Higgy, "we'll be glad to listen."

"But first," said Hiram, "I want to know about that thing on the table. It might be dangerous. It might be a bomb."

"I don't know what it is," I said. "It has to do with time. It can handle time. Maybe you would call it a time camera, some sort of time machine." Tom Preston snorted and Hiram sneered again.

Father Flanagan, the town's one Catholic priest, had been standing quietly in the doorway, side by side with Pastor Silas Middleton, from the church across the street. Now the old priest spoke quietly, so quietly that one could barely hear him, his voice one with the lamplight and the dawn. "I would be the last," he said, "to hold that time might be manipulated or that flowers would have anything to do with what has happened here. These are propositions that go against the grain of my every understanding. But unlike some of the rest of you, I'm willing to listen before I reach a judgement."

"I'll try to tell you," I said. "I'll try to tell you just the way it happened."

"Alf Peterson has been trying to call you," Nancy said. "He's phoned a dozen times."

"Did he leave a number?"

"Yes, I have it here."

"That can wait," said Higgy. "We want to hear this story."

"Perhaps," suggested Nancy's father, "you'd better tell us right away. Let's all go in the living-room where we'll be comfortable." We all went into the living-room and sat down.

"Now, my boy," said Higgy, companionably, "go ahead and spill it." I could have strangled him. When I looked at him, I imagine that he knew exactly how I felt.

"We'll keep quiet," he said. "We'll hear you out." I waited until they all were quiet and then I said, "I'll have to start with yesterday morning when I came home, after my car had been wrecked, and found Tupper Tyler sitting in the swing."

Higgy leaped to his feet. "But that's crazy?" he shouted. "Tupper has been lost for years."

Hiram jumped up, too. "You made fun of me," he bellowed, "when I told you Tom had talked to Tupper."

"I lied to you," I said. "I had to lie to you. I didn't know what was going on and you were on the prod."

The Reverend Silas Middleton asked, "Brad, you admit you lied?"

"Yes, of course I do. That big ape had me pinned against the wall…"

"If you lied once, you'll lie again," Tom Preston shrilled. "How can we believe anything you tell us?"

"Tom," I said, "I don't give a damn if you believe me or not." They all sat down and sat there looking at me and I knew that I had been childish, but they burned me up.

"I would suggest," said Father Flanagan, "that we should start over and all of us make a heroic effort to behave ourselves."

"Yes, please," said Higgy, heavily, "and everyone shut up." I looked around and no one said a word. Gerald Sherwood nodded gravely at me.

I took a deep breath and began.

"Maybe," I said, "I should go even farther back than that — to the time Tom Preston sent Ed Adler around to take out my telephone."

"You were three months in arrears," yelped Preston. "You hadn't even…"

"Tom," said lawyer Nichols, sharply.

Tom settled back into his chair and began to sulk.

I went ahead and told everything — about Stiffy Grant and the telephone I'd found in my office and about the story Alf Peterson had told me and then how I'd gone out to Stiffy's shack. I told them everything except about Gerald Sherwood and how he had made the phones. I somehow had the feeling that I had no right to tell that part of it.

I asked them, "Are there any questions?"

"There are a lot of them," said lawyer Nichols, "but go ahead and finish. Is that all right with the rest of you?"

Higgy Morris grunted. "It's all right with me," he said.

"It's not all right with me," said Preston, nastily. "Gerald told us that Nancy talked with Brad. He never told us how. She used one of them phones, of course."

"My phone," said Sherwood. "I've had one of them for years."

Higgy said, "You never told me, Gerald."

"It didn't occur to me," said Sherwood, curtly.

"It seems to me," said Preston, "there has been a hell of a lot going on that we never knew about."

"That," said Father Flanagan, "is true beyond all question. But I have the impression that this young man has no more than started on his story." So I went ahead. I told it as truthfully as I could and in all the detail I could recall.

Finally I was finished and they sat not moving, stunned perhaps, and shocked, and maybe not believing it entirely, but believing some of it.

Father Flanagan stirred uneasily. "Young man," he asked, "you are absolutely sure this is not hallucination?"

"I brought back the time contraption. That's not hallucination."

"We must agree, I think," said Nichols, "that there are strange things going on. The story Brad has told us is no stranger than the barrier."

"There isn't anyone," yelled Preston, "who can work with time. Why time is — well, it" s…"

"That's exactly it," said Sherwood. "No one knows anything of time. And it's not the only thing of which we're wholly ignorant. There is gravitation. There is no one, absolutely no one, who can tell you what gravitation is."

"I don't believe a word of it," said Hiram, flatly. "He's been hiding out somewhere…"

Joe Evans said, "We combed the town. There was no place be could hide."

"Actually," said Father Flanagan, "it doesn't matter if we believe all this or not. The important thing is whether the people who are coming out from Washington believe it." Higgy pulled himself straighter in his chair. He turned to Sherwood.

"You said Gibbs was coming out. Bringing others with him."

Sherwood nodded. "A man from the State Department."

"What exactly did Gibbs say?"

"He said he'd be right out. He said the talk with Brad could only be preliminary. Then he'd go back and report. He said it might not be simply a national problem. It might be international. Our government might have to confer with other governments. He wanted to know more about it. All I could tell him was that a man here in the village had some vital information."

"They'll be out at the edge of the barrier, waiting for us. The east road, I presume."

"I suppose so," Sherwood said. "We didn't go into it. He'll phone me from some place outside the barrier when he arrives."

"As a matter of fact," said Higgy, lowering his voice as if he were speaking confidentially, "if we can get out of this without being hurt, it'll be the best thing that ever happened to us. No other town in all of history has gotten the kind of publicity we're getting now. Why, for years there'll be tourists coming just to look at us, just to say they've been here."

"It seems to me," said Father Flanagan, "that if this should all be true, there are far greater things involved than whether or not our town can attract some tourists."

"Yes," said Silas Middleton. "It means we are facing an alien form of life. How we handle it may mean the difference between life and death. Not for us alone, I mean, the people in this village. But the life or death of the human race."

"Now, see here," piped Preston, "you can't mean that a bunch of flowers…"

"You damn fool," said Sherwood, "it's not just a bunch of flowers."

Joe Evans said, "That's right. Not just a bunch of flowers. But an entirely different form of life. Not an animal life, but a plant life — a plant life that is intelligent."

"And a life," I said, "that has stored away the knowledge of God knows how many other races. They'll know things we've never even thought about."

"I don't see," said Higgy, doggedly, "what we've got to be afraid of. There never was a time that we couldn't beat a bunch of weeds. We can use sprays and…"

"If we want to kill them off," I said, "I don't think it's quite as easy as you try to make it. But putting that aside for the moment, do we want to kill them off?"

"You mean," yelled Higgy, "let them come in and take over?"

"Not take over. Come in and co-operate with us."

"But the barrier!" yelled Hiram. "Everyone forgets about the barrier!"

"No one has forgotten about it," said Nichols. "The barrier is no more than a part of the entire problem. Let's solve the problem and we can take care of the barrier as well."

"My God," groaned Preston, "you all are talking as if you believe every word of it."

"That isn't it," said Silas Middleton. "But we have to use what Brad has told us as a working hypothesis. I don't say that what he has told us is absolutely right. He may have misinterpreted, he may simply be mistaken in certain areas. But at the moment it's the only solid information we have to work with."

"I don't believe a word of it," said Hiram, flatly. "There's a dirty plot afoot and I…" The telephone rang, its signal blasting through the room.

Sherwood answered it.

"It's for you," he told me. "It's Alf again." I went across the room and took the receiver Sherwood held out to me.

"Hello, Alf," I said.

"I thought," said Alf, "you were going to call me back. In an hour, you said."

"I got involved," I told him.

"They moved me out," he said. "They evacuated everybody. I'm in a motel just east of Coon Valley. I'm going to move over to Elmore — the motel here is pretty bad — but before I did, I wanted to get in touch with you."

"I'm glad you did," I said. "There are some things I want to ask you. About that project down in Greenbriar."

"Sure. What about the project?"

"What kind of problems did you have to solve?"

"Many different kinds."

"Any of them have to do with plants?"

"Plants?"

"You know. Flowers, weeds, vegetables."

"I see. Let me think. Yes, I guess there were a few."

"What kind?"

"Well, there was one: could a plant be intelligent?"

"And your conclusion?"

"Now, look here, Brad!"

"This is important, Alf."

"Oh, all right. The only conclusion I could reach was that it was impossible. A plant would have no motive. There's no reason a plant should be intelligent. Even if it could be, there'd be no advantage to it. It couldn't use intelligence or knowledge. It would have no way in which it could apply them. And its structure is wrong. It would have to develop certain senses it doesn't have, would have to increase its awareness of its world. It would have to develop a brain for data storage and a thinking mechanism. It was easy, Brad, once you thought about it. A plant wouldn't even try to be intelligent. It took me a while to get the reasons sorted out, but they made good solid sense."

"And that was all?"

"No, there was another one. How to develop a foolproof method of eradicating a noxious weed, bearing in mind that the weed has high adaptability and would be able to develop immunity to any sort of threat to its existence in a relatively short length of time."

"There isn't any possibility," I guessed.

"There is," said A1f "just a possibility. But not too good a one."

"And that?"

"Radiation. But you couldn't count on it as foolproof if the plant really had high adaptability."

"So there's no way to eradicate a thoroughly determined plant?"

"I'd say none at all — none in the power of man. What's this all about, Brad?"

"We may have a situation just like that," I said. Quickly I told him something of the Flowers.

He whistled. "You think you have this straight?"

"I can't be certain, Alf, I think so, but I can't be certain. That is, I know the Flowers are there, but…"

"There was another question. It ties right in with this. It wanted to know how you'd go about contacting and establishing relations with an alien life. You think the project…?"

"No question," I said. "It was run by the same people who ran the telephones."

"We figured that before. When we talked after the barrier went up."

"Alf; what about that question? About contact with an alien?"

He laughed, a bit uneasily. "There are a million answers. The method would depend upon the kind of alien. And there'd always be some danger."

"That's all you can think of? All the questions, I mean?"

"I can't think of any more. Tell me more of what's happened there."

"I'd like to, but I can't. I have a group of people here. You're going to Elmore now?"

"Yeah. I'll call you when I get there. Will you be around?"

"I can't go anywhere," I said.

There had been no talk among the others while I'd been on the phone.

They were, all listening. But as soon as I hung up, Higgy straightened up importantly.

"I figure," he said, "that maybe we should be getting ready to go out and meet the senator. I think most probably I should appoint a welcoming committee. The people in this room, of course, and maybe half a dozen others. Doc Fabian, and maybe…"

"Mayor," said Sherwood, interrupting him, "I think someone should point out that this is not a civic affair or a social visit. This is something somewhat more important and entirely unofficial. Brad is the one the senator must see. He is the only one who has pertinent information and…"

"But," Higgy protested, "all I was doing…"

"We know what you were doing," Sherwood told him. "What I am pointing out is that if Brad wants a committee to go along with him, he is the one who should get it up."

"But my official duty," Higgy bleated.

"In a matter such as this," said Sherwood, flatly, "you have no official duty."

"Gerald," said the mayor, "I've tried to think the best of you. I've tried to tell myself…"

"Mayor," said Preston, grimly, "there's no use of pussy-footing. We might as well say it out. There's something going on, some sort of plot afoot. Brad is part of it and Stiffy's part of it and…"

"And," said Sherwood, "if you insist upon a plot, I'm part of it as well. I made the telephones."

Higgy gulped. "You did what?" he asked.

"I made the telephones. I manufactured them."

"So you knew all about it all along."

Sherwood shook his head. "I didn't know anything at all. I just made the phones."

Higgy sat back weakly. He clasped and unclasped his hands, staring down at them.

"I don't know," he said. "I just don't understand." But I am sure he did. Now he understood, for the first time, that this was no mere unusual natural happening which would, in time, quietly pass away and leave Millville a tourist attraction that each year would bring the curious into town by the thousands. For the first time, I am sure, Mayor Higgy Morris realized that Millville and the entire world was facing a problem that it would take more than good luck and the Chamber of Commerce to resolve.

"There is one thing," I sad.

"What's that?" asked Higgy.

"I want my phone. The one that was in my office. The phone, you remember, that hasn't any dial." The mayor looked at Hiram.

"No, I won't," said Hiram. "I won't give it back to him. He's done harm enough already."

"Hiram," said the mayor.

"Oh, all right," said Hiram. "I hope he chokes on it."

"It appears to me," said Father Flanagan, "that we are all acting quite unreasonably. I would suggest we might take this entire matter up and discuss it point by point, and in that way…" A ticking interrupted him, a loud and ominous ticking that beat a measure, as of doom, through the entire house. And as I heard it, I knew that the ticking had been going on for quite some time, but very softly, and that I'd been hearing it and vaguely wondering what it was.

But now, from one tick to another, it had grown loud and hard, and even as we listened to it, half hypnotized by the terror of it, the tick became a hum and the hum a roar of power.

We all leaped to out feet, startled now, and I saw that the kitchen walls were flashing, as if someone were turning on and off a light of intensive brilliance, a pulsing glow that filled the room with a flood of light, then shut off, then filled it once again.

"I knew it!" Hiram roared, charging for the kitchen. "I knew it when I saw it. I knew it was dangerous!" I ran after him.

"Look out!" I yelled. "Keep away from it!" It was the time contraption. It had floated off the table and was hovering in mid-air, with a pulse of tremendous power running through it in a regular beat, while from it came the roar of cascading energy. Below it, lying on the table, was my crumpled jacket.

I grabbed hold of Hiram's arm and tried to haul him back, but he jerked away and was hauling his pistol from its holster.

With a flash of light, the time contraption moved, rising swiftly toward the ceiling.

"No!" I cried, for I was afraid that if it ever hit the ceiling, the fragile lenses would be smashed.

Then it hit the ceiling and it did not break. Without slackening its pace, it bored straight through the ceiling. I stood gaping at the neat round hole it made.

I heard the stamp of feet behind me and the banging of a door and when I turned around the room was empty, except for Nancy standing by the fireplace.

"Come on," I yelled at her running for the door that led onto the porch.

The rest of them were grouped outside, between the porch and hedge, staring up into the sky, where a light winked off and on, going very rapidly.

I glanced at the roof and saw the hole the thing had made, edged by the ragged, broken shingles that had been displaced when the machine broke through.

"There it goes," said Gerald Sherwood, standing at my side. "I wonder what it is."

"I don't know," I said. "They slipped one over on me. They played me for a fool." I was shaken up and angry, and considerably ashamed. They had used me back there in that other world. They had fooled me into carrying back to my own world something they couldn't get there by themselves.

There was no way of knowing what it was meant to do, although in a little while, I feared, we would all find out.

Hiram turned to me in disgust and anger. "You've done it now," he blurted. "Don't tell us you didn't mean to do it, don't pretend you don't know what it is. Whatever may be out there, you're hand in glove with them." I didn't try to answer him. There was no way I could.

Hiram took a step toward me.

"Cut it out!" cried Higgy. "Don't lay a hand on him."

"We ought to shake it out of him," yelled Hiram. "If we found out what it was, then we might be able…"

"I said cut it out," said Higgy.

"I've had about enough of you," I said to Hiram. "I've had enough of you all your whole damn life. All I want from you is that phone of mine. And I want it fast."

"Why, you little squirt?" Hiram bellowed, and he took another step toward me.

Higgy hauled off and kicked him in the shin. "God damn it," Higgy said, "I said for you to stop it." Hiram jigged on one leg, lifting up the other so he could rub his shin.

"Mayor," he complained, "you shouldn't have done that."

"Go and get him his phone," Tom Preston said. "Let him have it back.

"Then he can call them up and report how good a job he did." I wanted to clobber all three of them, especially Hiram and Tom Preston. But, of course, I knew I couldn't. Hiram had beaten me often enough when we were kids for me to know I couldn't.

Higgy grabbed hold of Hiram and tugged him toward the gate. Hiram limped a little as the mayor led him off. Tom Preston held the gate for them and then the three of them went stalking up the street, never looking back.

And now I noticed that the rest had left as well — all of them except Father Flanagan and Gerald Sherwood, and Nancy, standing on the porch. The priest was standing to one side and when I looked at him, he made an apologetic gesture.

"Don't blame them," he said, "for leaving. They were embarrassed and uneasy. They took their chance to get away."

"And you?" I asked. "You're not embarrassed?"

"Why, not at all," he told me. "Although I am a bit uneasy. The whole thing, I don't mind telling you, has a whiff of heresy about it."

"Next," I said, bitterly, "you'll be telling me you think I told the truth."

"I had my doubts," he said, "and I'm not entirely rid of them. But that hole in your roof is a powerful argument against wholesale scepticism. And I do not hold with the modern cynicism that seems so fashionable. There is still, I think, much room in the world today for a dash of mysticism." I could have told him it wasn't mysticism, that the other world had been a solid, factual world, that the stars and sun and moon had shown there, that I had walked its soil and drunk its water, that I had breathed its air and that even now I had its dirt beneath my fingernails from having dug a human skull from the slope above the stream.

"The others will be back," said Father Flanagan. "They had to get away for a little time to think, to get a chance to digest some of this evidence. It was too much to handle in one gulp. They will be back, and so will I, but at the moment I have a mass to think of." A gang of boys came running down the street. They stopped a half a block away and pointed at the roof. They milled around and pushed one another playfully and hollered.

The first edge of the sun had come above the horizon and the trees were the burnished green of summer.

I gestured at the boys. "The word has gotten out," I said.

"In another thirty minutes we'll have everyone in town out in the street, gawking at the roof."

17

The crowd outside had grown.

No one was doing anything. They just stood there and looked gaping at the hole in the roof, and talking quietly among themselves — not screaming, not shouting, but talking, as if they knew something else was about to happen and were passing away the time, waiting for it to happen. Sherwood kept pacing up and down the floor.

"Gibbs should be phoning soon," he said. "I don't know what has happened to him. He should have called by now."

"Maybe," Nancy said, "he got held up — maybe his plane was late. Maybe there was trouble on the road." I stood at the window watching the crowd. I knew almost all of them.

They were friends and neighbours and there was not a thing to stop them, if they wanted to, from coming up the walk and knocking at the door and coming in to see me.

But now, instead, they stood outside and watched and waited. It was, I thought, as if the house were a cage and I was some new, strange animal from some far-off land.

Twenty-four hours ago I had been another villager, a man who had lived and grown up with those people watching in the street. But now I was a freak, an oddity — perhaps, in the minds of some of them, a sinister figure that threatened, if not their lives, their comfort and their peace of mind.

For this village could never be the same again — and perhaps the world could never be the same again. For even if the barrier now should disappear and the Flowers withdraw their attention from our Earth, we still would have been shaken from the comfortable little rut which assumed that life as we knew it was the only kind of life and that our road of knowledge was the only one that was broad and straight and paved.

There had been ogres in the past, but finally the ogres had been banished. The trolls and ghouls and imps and all the others of the tribe had been pushed out of our lives, for they could survive only on the misty shores of ignorance and in the land of superstition. Now, I thought, we'd know an ignorance again (but a different kind of ignorance) and superstition; too, for superstition fed upon the lack of knowledge. With this hint of another world — even if its denizens should decide not to flaunt themselves, even if we should find a way to stop them — the trolls and ghouls and goblins would be back with us again. There'd be chimney corner gossip of this other place and a frantic, desperate search to rationalize the implied horror of its vast and unknown reaches, and out of this very search would rise a horror greater than any true other world could hold. We'd be afraid, as we had been before, of the darkness that lay beyond the little circle of our campfire.

There were more people in the Street; they kept coming all the time.

There was Pappy Andrews, cracking his cane upon the sidewalk, and Grandma Jones, with her sunbonnet socked upon her head, and Charley Hutton, who owned the Happy Hollow tavern. Bill Donovan, the garbage man, was in the front ranks of the crowd, but I didn't see his wife, and I wondered if Myrt and Jake had come to get the kids. And just as big and mouthy as if he'd lived in Millville all his life and known these folks from babyhood, was Gabe Thomas, the trucker who, after me, had been the first man to find out about the barrier.

Someone stirred beside me and I saw that it was Nancy. I knew now that she had been standing there for some little time.

"Look at them," I said. "It's a holiday for them. Any minute now the parade will be along."

"They're just ordinary people," Nancy said. "You can't expect too much of them. Brad, I'm afraid you do expect too much of them. You even expected that the men who were here would take what you told them at face value, immediately and unquestioningly."

"Your father did," I said.

"Father's different. He's not an ordinary man. And, besides, he had some prior knowledge, he had a little warning. He had one of those telephones. He knew a little bit about it."

"Some," I said. "Not much."

"I haven't talked with him. There's been no chance for us to talk. And I couldn't ask him in front of all those people. But I know that he's involved. Is it dangerous, Brad?"

"I don't think so. Not from out there or back there or wherever that other world may be. No danger from the alien world — not now, not yet. Any danger that we have to face lies in this world of ours. We have a decision we must make and it has to be the right one."

"How can we tell," she "asked, "what is the right decision? We have no precedent." And that was it, of course, I thought. There was no way in which a decision — any decision — could be justified.

There was a shouting from outside and I moved closer to the window to see farther up the street. Striding down the centre of it came Hiram Martin and in one hand he carried a cordless telephone.

Nancy caught sight of him and said, "He's bringing back our phone. Funny, I never thought he would." It was Hiram shouting and he was shouting in a chant, a deliberate, mocking chant.

"All right, come out and get your phone. Come on out and get your God damn phone." Nancy caught her breath and I brushed past her to the door. I jerked it open and stepped out on the porch.

Hiram reached the gate and he quit his chanting. The two of us stood there, watching one another. The crowd was getting noisy and surging closer.

Then Hiram raised his arm, with the phone held above his head.

"All right," he yelled, "here's your phone, you dirty…" Whatever else he said was drowned out by the howling of the crowd.

Then Hiram threw the phone. It was an unhandy thing to throw and the throw was not too good. The receiver flew out to one side, with its trailing cord looping in the air behind it. When the cord jerked taut, the flying phone skidded out of its trajectory and came crashing to the concrete walk, falling about halfway between the gate and porch. Pieces of shattered plastic sprayed across the lawn.

Scarcely aware that I was doing it, acting not by any thought or consideration, but on pure emotion, I came down off the porch and headed for the gate. Hiram backed away to give me room and I came charging through the gate and stood facing him.

I'd had enough of Hiram Martin. I was filled up to here with him. He'd been in my hair for the last two days and I was sick to death of him. There was just one thought — to tear the man apart, to pound him to a pulp, to make certain he'd never sneer at me again, never mock me, never try again to bully me by the sole virtue of sheer size.

I was back in the days of childhood — seeing through the stubborn and red-shot veil of hatred that I had known then, hating this man I knew would lick me, as he had many times before, but ready, willing, anxious to inflict whatever hurt I could while he was licking me.

Someone bawled, "Give "em room!" Then I was charging at him and he hit me. He didn't have the time or room to take much of a swing at me, but his fist caught me on the side of the head and it staggered me and hurt. He hit me again almost immediately, but this one also was a glancing blow and didn't hurt at all — and this time I connected. I got my left into his belly just above the belt and when he doubled over I caught him in the mouth and felt the smart of bruised, cut knuckles as they smashed against his teeth. I was swinging again when a fist came out of nowhere and slammed into my head and my head exploded into a pinwheel of screaming stars. I knew that I was down, for I could feel the hardness of the street against my knees, but I struggled up and my vision cleared. I couldn't feel my legs. I seemed to be moving and bobbing in the air with nothing under me. I saw Hiram's face just a foot or so away and his mouth was a gash of red and there was blood on his shirt. So I hit his mouth again — not very hard, perhaps, for there wasn't much steam left behind my punches. But he grunted and he ducked away and I came boring in.

And that was when he hit me for keeps.

I felt myself going down, falling backwards and it seemed that it took a long time for me to fall. Then I hit and the street was harder than I thought it would be and hitting the street hurt me more than the punch that put me there.

I groped around, trying to get my hands in position to hoist myself erect, although I wondered vaguely why I bothered. For if I got up, Hiram would belt me another one and I'd be back down again. But I knew I had to get up, that I had to get up each time I was able. For that was the kind of game Hiram and I had always played. He knocked me down each time I got up and I kept on getting up until I couldn't any more and I never cried for quarter and I never admitted I was licked. And if, for the rest of my life, I could keep on doing that, then I'd be the one who won, not Hiram.

But I wasn't doing so well. I wasn't getting up. Maybe, I thought, this is the time I don't get up.

I still kept pawing with my hands, trying to lift myself and that's how I got the rock. Some kid, perhaps, had thrown it, maybe days before — maybe at a bird, maybe at a dog, maybe just for the fun of throwing rocks. And it had landed in the street and stayed there and now the fingers of my right hand found it and closed around it and it fitted comfortably into my palm, for it was exactly fist size.

A hand, a great meaty paw of a hand, came down from above and grabbed my shirt front and hauled me to my feet.

"So," screamed a voice, "assault an officer, would you!" His face swam in front of me, a red-smeared face twisted with his hatred, heavy with its meanness, gloating at the physical power he held over me.

I could feel my legs again and the face came clearer and the clot of faces in the background — the faces of the crowd, pressing close to be in at the kill.

One did not give up, I told myself, remembering back to all those other times I had not given up. As long as one was on his feet, he fought, and even when he was down and could not get up, he did not admit defeat.

Both of his hands were clutching at my shirt front, his face pushed close toward mine, I clenched my fist and my fingers closed hard around the rock and then I swung. I swung with everything I had, putting every ounce of strength I could muster behind the swinging fist swinging from the waist in a jolting upward jab, and I caught him on the chin.

His head snapped back, pivoting on the thick, bull neck. He staggered and his fingers loosened and he crumpled, sprawling in the street.

I stepped back a pace and stood looking down at him and everything was clearer now and. I knew I had a body, a bruised and beaten body that ached, it seemed, in every joint and muscle. But that didn't matter; it didn't mean a thing — for the first time in my life I'd knocked Hiram Martin down. I'd used a rock to do it and I didn't give a damn. I hadn't meant to pick up that rock — I'd just found it and closed my fingers on it. I had not planned to use it, but now that I had it made no difference to me. If I'd had time to plan, I'd probably have planned to use it.

Someone leaped out from the crowd toward me and I saw it was Tom Preston.

"You going to let him get away with it?" Preston was screaming at the crowd. "He hit an officer! He hit him with a rock! He picked up a rock!" Another man pushed out of the crowd and grabbed Preston by the shoulder, lifting him and setting him back in the forefront of the crowd.

"You keep out of this," Gabe Thomas said.

"But he used a rock!" screamed Preston.

"He should have used a club," said Gabe. "He should have beat his brains out." Hiram was stirring, sitting up. His hand reached for his gun.

"Touch that gun," I told him. "Just one finger on it and, so help me, I'll kill you." Hiram stared at me. I must have been a sight. He'd worked me over good and he'd mussed me up a lot and still I'd knocked him down and was standing on my feet.

"He hit you with a rock," yelped Preston. "He hit…" Gabe reached out and his fingers fitted neatly around Preston's skinny throat. He squeezed and Preston's mouth flapped open and his tongue came out.

"You keep out of it," said Gabe.

"But Hiram's an officer of the law," protested Chancy Hutton. "Brad shouldn't have hit an officer."

"Friend," Gabe told the tavern owner, "he's a damn poor officer. No officer worth his salt goes picking fights with people." I'd never taken my eyes off Hiram and he'd been watching me, but now he flicked his eyes to one side and his hand dropped to the ground.

And in that moment I knew that I had won — not because I was the stronger, not because I fought the better (for I wasn't and I hadn't) but because Hiram was a coward, because he had no guts, because, once hurt, he didn't have the courage to chance being hurt again. And I knew, too, that I need not fear the gun he carried, for Hiram Martin didn't have it in him to face another man and kill him.

Hiram got slowly to his feet and stood there for a moment. His hand came up and felt his jaw. Then he turned his back and walked away. The crowd, watching silently, parted to make a path for him.

I stared at his retreating back and a fierce, bloodthirsty satisfaction rose up inside of me. After more than twenty years, I'd beaten this childhood enemy. But, I told myself I had not beat him fair — I'd had to play dirty to triumph over him. But I found it made no difference. Dirty fight or fair, I had finally licked him.

The crowd moved slowly back. No one spoke to me. No one spoke to anyone.

"I guess," said Gabe, "there are no other takers. If there were, they'd have to fight me, too."

"Thanks, Gabe," I said.

"Thanks, hell," he said. "I didn't do a thing." I opened up my fist and the rock dropped to the street. In the silence, it made a terrible clatter.

Gabe hauled a huge red handkerchief out of his rear pocket and stepped over to me. He put a hand back of my head to hold it steady and began to wipe my face.

"In a month or so," he said, by way of comfort, "you'll look all right again."

"Hey, Brad," yelled someone, "who's your friend?" I couldn't see who it was who yelled. There were so many people.

"Mister," yelled someone else, "be sure you wipe his nose."

"Go on!" roared Gabe. "Go on! Any of you wisecrackers walk out here in plain sight and I'll dust the street with you." Grandma Jones said in a loud voice, so that Pappy Andrews could hear.

"He's the trucker fellow that smashed Brad's car. Appears to me if Brad has to fight someone, he should be fighting him."

"Big mouth," yelled back Pappy Andrews. "He's got an awful big mouth." I saw Nancy standing by the gate and she had the same look on her face that she'd had when we were kids and I had fought Hiram Martin then. She was disgusted with me. She had never held with fighting; she thought that it was vulgar.

The front door burst open and Gerald Sherwood came running down the walk. He rushed over and grabbed me by the arm.

"Come on," he shouted. "The senator called. He's out there waiting for you, on the east end of the road."

18

Four of them were waiting for me on the pavement just beyond the barrier. A short distance down the road several cars were parked. A number of state troopers were scattered about in little groups. Half a mile or so to the north the steam shovel was still digging.

I felt foolish walking down the road toward them while they waited for me. I knew that I must look as if the wrath of God had hit me.

My shirt was torn and the left side of my face felt as though someone had sandpapered it. I had deep gashes on the knuckles of my right hand where I'd smacked Hiram in the teeth and my left eye felt as if it were starting to puff up.

Someone had cleared away the windrow of uprooted vegetation for several rods on either side of the road, but except for that, the windrow was still there.

As I got close, I recognized the senator. I had never met the man, but I'd seen his pictures in the papers. He was stocky and well-built and his hair was white and he never wore a hat. He was dressed in a double-breasted suit and he had a bright blue tie with white polka dots.

One of the others was a military man. He wore stars on his shoulders.

Another was a little fellow with patent leather hair and a tight, cold face.

The fourth man was somewhat undersized and chubby and had eyes of the brightest china blue I had ever seen.

I walked until I was three feet or so away from them and it was not until then that I felt the first slight pressure of the barrier. I backed up a step and looked at the senator.

"You must be Senator Gibbs," I said. "I'm Bradshaw Carter. I'm the one Sherwood talked with you about."

"Glad to meet you, Mr Carter," said the senator. "I had expected that Gerald would be with you."

"I wanted him to come," I said, "but he felt he shouldn't. There was a conflict of opinion in the village. The mayor wanted to appoint a committee and Sherwood opposed it rather violently."

The senator nodded. "I see," be said. "So you're the only one we'll see."

"If you want others…"

"Oh, not at all," he said. "You are the man with the information."

"Yes, I am," I said.

"Excuse me," said the senator. "Mr Carter, General Walter Billings."

"Hello, General," I said.

It was funny, saying hello and not shaking hands.

"Arthur Newcombe," said the senator.

The man with the tight, cold face smiled frostily at me. One could see at a glance he meant to stand no nonsense. He was, I guessed, more than a little outraged that such a thing as the barrier could have been allowed to happen.

"Mr Newcombe," said the senator, "is from the State Department. And Dr Roger Davenport, a biologist — I might add, an outstanding one."

"Good morning, young man," said Davenport. "Would it be out of line to ask what happened to you?"

I grinned at him, liking the man at once. "I had a slight misunderstanding with a fellow townsman."

"The town, I would imagine," Billings said, "is considerably upset. In a little while law and order may become something of a problem."

"I am afraid so, sir," I said.

"This may take some time?" asked the senator.

"A little time," I said.

"There were chairs," the general said. "Sergeant, where are…?" Even as he spoke a sergeant and two privates, who had been standing by the roadside, came forward with some folding chairs.

"Catch," the sergeant said to me.

He tossed a chair through the barrier and I caught it. By the time I had it unfolded and set up, the four on the other side of the barrier had their chairs as well.

It was downright crazy — the five of us sitting there in the middle of the road on flimsy folding chairs.

"Now," said the senator, "I suppose we should get started. General, how would you propose that we might proceed?"

The general crossed his knees and settled down. He considered for a moment.

"This man," he finally said, "has something we should hear. Why don't we simply sit here and let him tell it to us?"

"Yes, by all means," said Newcombe. "Let's hear what he has to say. I must say, Senator…"

"Yes," the senator said, rather hastily. "I'll stipulate that it is somewhat unusual. This is the first time I have ever attended a hearing out in the open, but…"

"It was the only way," said the general, "that seemed feasible."

"It's a longish story," I warned them. "And some of it may appear unbelievable."

"So is this," said the senator. "This, what do you call it, barrier."

"And," said Davenport, "you seem to be the only man who has any information."

"Therefore," said the senator, "let us proceed forthwith." So, for the second time, I told my story. I took my time and told it carefully, trying to cover everything I'd seen. They did not interrupt me. A couple of times I stopped to let them ask some questions, but the first time Davenport simply signalled that I should go on and the second time all four of them just waited until I did continue.

It was an unnerving business worse than being interrupted. I talked into a silence and I tried to read their faces, tried to get some clues as to how much of it they might be accepting.

But there was no sign from them, no faintest flicker of expression on their faces. I began to feel a little silly over what I was telling them.

I finished finally and leaned back in my chair.

Across the barrier, Newcombe stirred uneasily. "You'll excuse me, gentlemen," he said, "if I take exception to this man's story. I see no reason why we should have been dragged out here…"

The senator interrupted him. "Arthur," he said, "my good friend, Gerald Sherwood, vouched for Mr Carter. I have known Gerald Sherwood for more than thirty years and he is, I must tell you, a most perceptive man, a hard-headed businessman with a tinge of imagination. Hard as this account, or parts of it, may be to accept, I still believe we must accept it as a basis for discussion. And, I must remind you, this is the first sound evidence we have been offered."

"I," said the general, "find it hard to believe a word of it. But with the evidence of this barrier, which is wholly beyond any present understanding, we undoubtedly stand in a position where we must accept further evidence beyond our understanding."

"Let us," suggested Davenport, "pretend just for the moment that we believe it all. Let's try to see if there may not be some basic…"

"But you can't!" exploded Newcombe. "It flies in the face of everything we know."

"Mr Newcombe," said the biologist, "man has flown in the face of everything he knew time after time. He knew, not too many hundreds of years ago, that the Earth was the centre of the universe. He knew, less than thirty years ago, that man could never travel to the other planets. He knew, a hundred years ago, that the atom was indivisible. And what have we here — the knowledge that time never can be understood or manipulated, that it is impossible for a plant to be intelligent. I tell you, sir…"

"Do you mean," the general asked, "that you accept all this?"

"No," said Davenport, "I'll accept none of it. To do so would be very unobjective. But I'll hold judgement in abeyance. I would, quite frankly, jump at the chance to work on it, to make observations and perform experiments and…"

"You may not have the time," I said.

The general swung toward me. "Was there a time limit set?" he asked. "You didn't mention it."

"No. But they have a way to prod us. They can exert some convincing pressure any time they wish. They can start this barrier to moving."

"How far can they move it?

"Your guess is as good as mine. Ten miles. A hundred miles. A thousand. I have no idea."

"You sound as if you think they could push us off the Earth."

"I don't know. I would rather think they could."

"Do you think they would?"

"Maybe. If it became apparent that we were delaying. I don't think they'd do it willingly. They need us. They need someone who can use their knowledge, who can make it meaningful. It doesn't seem that, so far, they've found anyone who can."

"But we can't hurry," the senator protested. "We will not be rushed. There is a lot to do. There must be discussions at a great many different levels — at the governmental level, at the international level, at the economic and scientific levels."

"Senator," I told him, "there is one thing no one seems to grasp. We are not dealing with another nation, nor with other humans. We are dealing with an alien people…"

"That makes no difference," said the senator. "We must do it our way."

"That would be fine," I said, "if you can make the aliens understand."

"They'll have to wait," said Newcombe, primly. And I knew that it was hopeless, that here was a problem which could not be solved, that the human race would bungle its first contact with an alien people. There would be talk and argument, discussion, consultation — but all on the human level, all from the human viewpoint, without a chance that anyone would even try to take into account the alien point of view.

"You must consider," said the senator, "that they are the petitioners, they are the ones who made the first approach, they are asking access to our world, not we to theirs."

"Five hundred years ago," I said, "white men came to America. They were the petitioners then…"

"But the Indians," said Newcombe, "were savages, barbarians…"

I nodded at him. "You make my point exactly."

"I do not," Newcombe told me frostily, "appreciate your sense of humour."

"You mistake me," I told him. "It was not said in humour."

Davenport nodded. "You may have something there, Mr Carter. You say these plants pretend to have stored knowledge, the knowledge, you suspect, of many different races."

"That's the impression I was given."

"Stored and correlated. Not just a jumble of data."

"Correlated, too," I said. "You must bear in mind that I cannot swear to this. I have no way of knowing it is true. But their spokesman, Tupper, assured me that they didn't lie…"

"I know," said Davenport. "There is some logic in that. They wouldn't need to lie."

"Except," said the general, "that they never did give back your fifteen hundred dollars."

"No, they didn't," I said.

"After they said they would."

"Yes. They were emphatic on that point."

"Which means they lied. And they tricked you into bringing back what you thought was a time machine."

"And," Newcombe pointed out, "they were very smooth about it."

"I don't think," said the general, "we can place a great deal of trust in them."

"But look here," protested Newcombe, "we've gotten around to talking as if we believed every word of it."

"Well," said the senator, "that was the idea, wasn't it? That we'd use the information as a basis for discussion."

"For the moment," said the general, "we must presume the worst."

Davenport chuckled. "What's so bad about it? For the first time in its history, humanity may be about to meet another intelligence. If we go about it right, we may find it to our benefit."

"But you can't know that," said the general.

"No, of course we can't. We haven't sufficient data. We must make further contact."

"If they exist," said Newcombe.

"If they exist," Davenport agreed.

"Gentlemen," said the senator, "we are losing sight of something. A barrier does exist. It will let nothing living through it…"

"We don't know that," said Davenport. "There was the instance of the car. There would have been some micro-organisms in it. There would have had to be. My guess is that the barrier is not against life as such, but against sentience, against awareness. A thing that has awareness of itself…"

"Well, anyhow," said the senator, "we have evidence that something very strange has happened. We can't just shut our eyes. We must work with what we have."

"All right, then," said the general, "let's get down to business. Is it safe to assume that these things pose a threat?"

I nodded. "Perhaps. Under certain circumstances."

"And those circumstances?"

"I don't know. There is no way of knowing how they think."

"But there's the potentiality of a threat?"

"I think," said Davenport, "that we are placing too much stress upon the matter of a threat. We should first…"

"My first responsibility," said the general, "is consideration of a potential danger…"

"And if there were a danger?"

"We could stop them," said the general, "if we moved fast enough. If we moved before they'd taken in too much territory. We have a way to stop them."

"All you military minds can think of," Davenport said angrily, "is the employment of force. I'll agree with you that a thermonuclear explosion could kill all the alien life that has gained access to the Earth, possibly might even disrupt the time-phase barrier and close the Earth to our alien friends…"

"Friends!" the general wailed. "You can't know…"

"Of course I can't," said Davenport. "And you can't know that they are enemies. We need more data; we need to make a further contact…"

"And while you're getting your additional data, they'll have the time to strengthen the barrier and move it…"

"Some day," said Davenport, angrier than ever, "the human race will have to find a solution to its problems that does not involve the use of force. Now might be the time to start. You propose to bomb this village. Aside from the moral issue of destroying several hundred innocent people…"

"You forget," "said the general, speaking gruffly, "that we'd be balancing those several hundred lives against the safety of all the people of the Earth. It would be no hasty action. It would be done only after some deliberation. It would have to be a considered decision."

"The very fact that you can consider it," said the biologist, "is enough to send a cold shiver down the spine of all humanity."

The general shook his head. "It's my duty to consider distasteful things like this. Even considering the moral issue involved, in the case of necessity I would…"

"Gentlemen," the senator protested weakly.

The general looked at me. I am afraid they had forgotten I was there.

"I'm sorry, sir," the general said to me. "I should not have spoken in this manner."

I nodded dumbly. I couldn't have said a word if I'd been paid a million dollars for it. I was all knotted up inside and I was afraid to move.

I had not been expecting anything like this, although now that it had come, I knew I should have been. I should have known what the world reaction would be and if I had failed to know, all I had to do would have been to remember what Stiffy Grant had told me as he lay on the kitchen floor.

They'll want to use the bomb, he'd said. Don't let them use the bomb.

Newcombe stared at me coldly. His eyes stabbed out at me.

"I trust," he said, "that you'll not repeat what you have heard."

"We have to trust you, boy," said the senator."You hold us in your hands."

I managed to laugh. I suppose that it came out as an ugly laugh. "Why should I say anything?" I asked. "We're sitting ducks. There would be no point in saying anything. We couldn't get away." For a moment I thought wryly that perhaps the barrier would protect us even from a bomb. Then I saw how wrong I was. The barrier concerned itself with nothing except life — or, if Davenport were right (and he probably was) only with a life that was aware of its own existence. They had tried to dynamite the barrier and it had been as if there had been no barrier. The barrier had offered no resistance to the explosion and therefore had not been affected by it.

From the general's viewpoint, the bomb might be the answer. It would kill all life; it was an application of the conclusion Alf Peterson had arrived at on the question of how one killed a noxious plant that had great adaptability. A nuclear explosion might have no effect upon the time-phase mechanism, but it would kill all life and would so irradiate and poison the area that for a long, long time the aliens would be unable to re-occupy it.

"I hope," I said to the general, "you'll be as considerate as you're asking me to be. If you find you have to do it, you'll make no prior announcement." The general nodded, thin-lipped.

"I'd hate to think," I said, "what would happen in this village…"

The senator broke in. "Don't worry about it now. It's just one of many alternatives. For the time we'll not even consider it. Our friend, the general, spoke a little out of turn."

"At least," the general said, "I am being honest. I wasn't pussy-footing. I wasn't playing games." He seemed to be saying that the others were.

"There is one thing you must realize," I told them. "This can't be any cloak-and-dagger operation. You have to do it honestly — whatever you may do. There are certain minds the Flowers can read. There are minds, perhaps many minds; they are in contact with at this very moment. The owners of those minds don't know it and there is no way we can know to whom those minds belong. Perhaps to one of you. There is an excellent chance the Flowers will know, at all times, exactly what is being planned." I could see that they had not thought of that. I had told them, of course, in the telling of my story, but it hadn't registered. There was so much that it took a man a long time to get it straightened out.

"Who are those people down there by the cars?" asked Newcombe.

I turned and looked.

Half the village probably was there. They had come out to watch. And one couldn't blame them, I told myself. They had a right to be concerned; they had the right to watch. This was their life. Perhaps a lot of them didn't trust me, not after what Hiram and Tom had been saying about me, and here I was, out here, sitting on a chair in the middle of the road, talking with the men from Washington. Perhaps they felt shut out. Perhaps they felt they should be sitting in a meeting such as this.

I turned back to the four across the bather.

"Here's a thing," I told them, urgently, "that you can't afford to mull. If we do, we'll fail all the other chances as they come along…"

"Chances?" asked the senator.

"This is our first chance to make contact with another race. It won't be the last. When man goes into space…"

"But we aren't out in space," said Newcombe.

I knew then that there was no use. I'd expected too much of the men in my living-room and I'd expected too much of these men out here on the road.

They would fail. We would always fail. We weren't built to do anything but fail. We had the wrong kind of motives and we couldn't change them. We had a built-in short-sightedness and an inherent selfishness and a self-concern that made it impossible to step out of the little human rut we travelled.

Although, I thought, perhaps the human race was not alone in this.

Perhaps this alien race we faced, perhaps any alien race, travelled a rut that was as deep and narrow as the human rut. Perhaps the aliens would be as arbitrary and as unbending and as blind as was the human race.

I made a gesture of resignation, but I doubt that they ever saw it. All of them were looking beyond me, staring down the road.

I twisted around and there, halfway up the road, halfway between the barrier and the traffic snarl, marched all those people who had been out there waiting. They came on silently and with great deliberation and determination. They looked like the march of doom, bearing down upon us.

"What do they want, do you suppose?" the senator asked, rather nervously.

George Walker, who ran the Red Owl butcher department, was in the forefront of the crowd, and walking just behind him was Butch Ormsby, the service station operator, and Charley Hutton of the Happy Hollow. Daniel Willoughby was there, too, looking somewhat uncomfortable, for Daniel wasn't the kind of man who enjoyed being with a mob. Higgy wasn't there and neither was Hiram, but Tom Preston was. I looked for Sherwood, thinking it unlikely that he would be there.

And I was right; he wasn't. But there were a lot of others, people I knew. Their faces all wore a hard and determined look.

I stepped off to one side, clear of the road, and the crowd tramped past me, paying no attention.

"Senator," said George Walker in a voice that was louder than seemed necessary. "You are the senator, ain't you?"

"Yes," said the senator. "What can I do for you?"

"That," said Walker, "is what we're here to find out. We are a delegation, sort of."

"I see," said the senator.

"We got trouble," said George Walker, "and all of us are taxpayers and we got a right to get some help. I run the meat department at the Red Owl store and without no customers coming into town, I don't know what will happen. If we can't get any out-of-town trade, we'll have to close our doors. We can sell to the people here in town, of course, but there ain't enough trade in town to make it worth our while and in a little while the people here in town won't have any money to pay for the things they buy, and our business isn't set up so we can operate on credit. We can get meat, of course. We've got that all worked out, but we can't go on selling it and…"

"Now, just a minute," said the senator. "Let's take this a little slow. Let's not go so fast. You have problems and I know you have them and I aim to do all I can…"

"Senator," interrupted a man with a big, bull voice, "there are others of us have problems that are worse than George" s. Take myself, for example. I work out of town and I depend on my pay cheque, every week, to buy food for the kids, to keep them in shoes and to pay the other bills. And now I can't get to work and there won't be any cheque. I'm not the only one. There are a lot of others like me. It isn't like we had some money laid by to take care of emergencies. I tell you, Senator, there isn't hardly anyone in town got anything laid by. We all are…"

"Hold on," pleaded the senator. "Let me get a word in edgewise. Give me a little time. The people in Washington know what is going on. They know what you folks are facing out here. They'll do what they can to help. There'll be a relief bill in the Congress to help out you folks and I, for one, will work unceasingly to see that it is passed without undue delay. And that isn't all. There are two or three papers in the east and some television stations that have started a drive for funds to be turned over to this village. And that's just a start. There will be a lot of…"

"Hell, Senator," yelled a man with a scratchy voice, "that isn't what we want. We don't want relief. We don't ask for charity. We just want to be able to get back to our jobs."

The senator was flabbergasted, "You mean you want us to get rid of the barrier?"

"Look, Senator," said the man with the bull-like voice, "for years the government has been spending billions to send a man up to the moon. With all them scientists you got, you can spend some time and money to get us out of here. We been paying taxes for a long time now, without getting anything…"

"But that," said the senator, "will take a little time. We'll have to find out what this barrier is and then we'll have to figure out what can be done with it. And I tell you, frankly, we aren't going to be able to do that overnight."

Norma Shepard, who worked as receptionist for Doc Fabian, wriggled through the press of people until she faced the Senator.

"But something has to be done," she said. "Has to be done, do you understand? Someone has to find a way. There are people in this town who should be in a hospital and we can't get them there. Some of them will die if we can't get them there. We have one doctor in this town and he's no longer young. He's been a good doctor for a long, long time, but he hasn't got the skill or the equipment to take care of the people who are terribly sick. He never has had, he never pretended that he had…"

"My dear," said the senator, consolingly. "I recognize your concern and I sympathize with it, and you may rest assured…" It was apparent that my interview with the men from Washington had come to an end. I walked slowly down the road, not actually down the road, but along the edge of it, walking in the harrowed ground out of which, already, thin points of green were beginning to protrude. The seeds which had been sown in that alien whirlwind had in that short time germinated and were pushing toward the light.

I wondered bitterly, as I walked along, what kind of crops they'd bear.

And I wondered, too, how angry Nancy might be at me for my fight with Hiram Martin. I had caught that one look on her face and then she'd turned her back and gone up the walk.

And she had not been with Sherwood when he had come charging down the walk to announce that Gibbs had phoned.

For that short moment in the kitchen, when I had felt her body pressing close to mine, she had been once again the sweetheart out of time — the girl who had walked hand in hand with me, who had laughed her throaty laugh and been an unquestioned part of me, as I had been of her.

Nancy, I almost cried aloud, Nancy, please let it be the same. But maybe it could never be the same, I told myself. Maybe it was Millville — a village that had come between us for she had grown away from Millville in the years she'd been away, and I, remaining here, had grown more deeply into it.

You could not dig back, I thought, through the dust of years, through the memories and the happenings and the changes in yourself- in both yourselves — to rescue out of time another day and hour. And even if you found it, you could not dust it clean, you could never make it shine as you remembered it. For perhaps it never had been quite the shining thing that you remembered, perhaps you had burnished it in your longing and your loneliness.

And perhaps it was only once in every lifetime (and perhaps not in every lifetime) that a shining moment came. Perhaps there was a rule that it could never come again.

"Brad," a voice said.

I had been walking, not looking where I went, staring at the ground.

Now, at the sound of the voice, I jerked up my head, and saw that I had reached the tangle of parked cars. Leaning against one of them was Bill Donovan.

"Hi there, Bill," I said. "You should be up there with the rest of them."

He made a gesture of disgust. "We need help," he said. "Sure we do. All the help we can get. But it wouldn't hurt to wait a while before you ran squealing for it. You can't cave in the first time you are hit. You have to hang onto at least a shred or two of your self-respect."

I nodded, not quite agreeing with him. "They're scared," I said.

"Yes," he said, "but there isn't any call for them to act like a bunch of bleating sheep."

"How about the kids?" I asked.

"Safe and sound," he told me. "Jake got to them just before the barrier moved. Took them out of there. Jake had to chop down the door to reach them and Myrt carried on all the time he was chopping it. You never heard so much uproar in your life about a God damn door."

"And Mrs Donovan?"

"Oh, Liz — she's all right. Cries for the kids and wonders what's so become of us. But the kids are safe and that's all that counts." He patted the metal of the car with the flat of his hand. "We'll work it out," he said. "It may take a little time, but there isn't anything that men can't do if they set their minds to it. Like as not they'll have a thousand of them scientists working on this thing and, like I say, it may take a while, but they'll get her figured out."

"Yes," I said, "I suppose they will." If some muddle-headed general didn't push the panic button first. If, instead of trying to solve the problem, we didn't try to smash it.

"What's the matter, Brad?"

"Not a thing," I said.

"You got your worries, too, I guess," he said. "What you did to Hiram, he had it coming to him for a long time now. Was that telephone he threw…?"

"Yes," I said. "It was one of the telephones."

"Heard you went to some other world or something. How do you manage to get into another world? It sounds screwy to me, but that's what everyone is saying." A couple of yelling kids came running through the cars and went pelting up the road toward where the crowd was still arguing with the senator.

"Kids are having a great time," said Donovan. "Most excitement they've ever had. Better than a circus." Some more kids went past, whooping as they ran. "Say," asked Donovan, "do you think something might have happened?" The first two kids had reached the crowd and were tugging at people's arms and shouting something at them.

"Looks like it," I said.

A few of the crowd started back down the road, walking to start with, then breaking into a trot, heading back for town.

As they came close, Donovan darted out to intercept them. "What's the matter?" he yelled. "What's going on?"

"Money," one of them shouted back at him. "Someone's found some money." By now the whole crowd had left the barrier and was running down the road.

As they swept past, Mae Hutton shouted at me, "Come on, Brad! Money in your garden!" Money in my garden! For the love of God, what next? I took one look at the four men from Washington, standing beyond the barrier. Perhaps they were thinking that the town was crazy. They had every right to think so.

I stepped out into the road and jogged along behind the crowd, heading back for town.

19

When I came back that morning I had found that the purple flowers growing in the swale behind my house, through the wizardry of that other world, had been metamorphosed into tiny bushes. In the dark I had run my fingers along the bristling branches and felt the many swelling buds. And now the buds had broken and where each bud had been was, not a leaf, but a miniature fifty-dollar bill!

Len Streeter, the high school science teacher, handed one of the tiny bills to me.

"It's impossible," he said.

And he was right. It was impossible. No bush in its right mind would grow fifty-dollar bills — or any kind of bills.

There were a lot of people there — all the crowd that had been out in the road shouting at the senator, and as many more. It looked to me as if the entire village might be there. They were tramping around among the bushes and yelling at one another, all happy and excited. They had a right to be. There probably weren't many of them who had ever seen a fifty-dollar bill, and here were thousands of them.

"You've looked close at it," I asked the teacher. "You're sure it actually is a bill?" He pulled a small magnifying glass out of his shirt pocket and handed it to me.

"Have a look," he said.

I had a look and there was no question that it looked like a fifty-dollar bill — although the only fifty-dollar bills I had ever seen were the thirty of them in the envelope Sherwood had given me. And I hadn't had a chance to more than glance at those. But through the glass I could see that the little bills had the fabric-like texture one finds in folding money and everything else, including the serial number, looked authentic.

And I knew, even as I squinted through the lens, that it was authentic.

For these were (how would one say it — the descendants?) of the money Tupper Tyler had stolen from me.

I knew exactly what had happened and the knowledge was a chill that bit deep into my mind.

"It's possible," I told Streeter. "With that gang back there, it's entirely possible."

"You mean the gang from your other world?"

"Not my other world," I shouted. "Your other world. This world's other world. When you get it through your damn thick skulls…" I didn't say the rest of it. I was glad I didn't.

"I'm sorry," Streeter said. "I didn't mean it quite the way it sounded." Higgy, I saw, was standing halfway up the slope that led to the house and he was yelling for attention.

"Listen to me!" he was shouting. "Fellow citizens, won't you listen to me." The crowd was beginning to quiet down and Higgy went on yelling until everyone was quiet.

"Stop pulling off them leaves," he told them. "Just leave them where they are."

Charley Hutton said, "Hell, Higgy, all that we was doing was picking a few of them to have a better look."

"Well, quit it," said the mayor sternly. "Every one that you pull off is fifty dollars less. Give them leaves a little time and they'll grow to proper size and then they'll drop off and all we need to do is to pick them up and every one of them will be money in our pocket."

"How do you know that?" Grandma Jones shrilled at him.

"Well," the mayor said, "it stands to reason, don't it? Here we have these marvellous plants growing money for us. The least we can do is let them be, so they can grow it for us." He looked around the crowd and suddenly saw me.

"Brad," he asked me, "isn't that correct?"

"I'm afraid it is," I said.

For Tupper had stolen the money and the Flowers had used the bills as patterns on which to base the leaves. I would have bet, without looking further, that there were no more than thirty different serial numbers in the entire crop of money.

"What I want to know," said Charley Hutton, "is how you figure we should divide it up — once it's ripe, that is."

"Why," said the mayor, "that's something I hadn't even thought of. Maybe we could put it in a common fund that could be handed out to people as they have the need of it."

"That don't seem fair to me," said Charley. "That way some people would get more of it than others. Seems to me the only way is to divide it evenly. Everyone should get his fair share of it, to do with as he wants."

"There's some merit," said the mayor, "in your point of view. But it isn't something on which we should make a snap decision. This afternoon I'll appoint a committee to look into it. Anyone who has any ideas can present them and they'll get full consideration."

"Mr Mayor," piped up Daniel Willoughby, "there is one thing I think we've overlooked. No matter what we say, this stuff isn't money."

"But it looks like money. Once it's grown to proper size, no one could tell the difference."

"I know," the banker said, "that it looks like money. It probably would fool an awful lot of people. Maybe everyone. Maybe no one could ever tell that it wasn't money. But if the source of it should be learned, how much value do you think it would have then? Not only that, but all the money in this village would be suspect. If we can grow fifty-dollar bills, what is there to stop us from growing tens and twenties?"

"I don't see what this fuss is all about," shouted Charley Hutton. "There isn't any need for anyone to know. We can keep quiet about it. We can keep the secret. We can pledge ourselves that we'll never say a word about it." The crowd murmured with approval. Daniel Willoughby looked as if he were on the verge of strangling. The thought of all that phony money shrivelled up his prissy soul.

"That's something," said the mayor, blandly, "that my committee can decide." The way the mayor said it one knew there was no doubt at all in his mind as to how the committee would decide.

"Higgy," said lawyer Nichols, "there's another thing we've overlooked. The money isn't ours." The mayor stared at him, outraged that anyone could say a thing like that.

"Whose is it, then?" he bellowed.

"Why," said Nichols, "it belongs to Brad. It's growing on his land and it belongs to him. There is no court anywhere that wouldn't make the finding." All the people froze. All their eyes swivelled in on me. I felt like a crouching rabbit, with the barrels of a hundred shotguns levelled at him.

The mayor gulped. "You're sure of this?" he asked.

"Positive," said Nichols.

The silence held and the eyes were still trained upon me.

I looked around and the eyes stared back. No one said a word.

The poor, misguided, blinded fools, I thought. All they saw here was money in their pockets, wealth such as not a single one of them had ever dared to dream. They could not see in it the threat (or promise?) of an alien race pressed dose against the door, demanding entrance. And they could not know that because of this alien race, blinding death might blossom in a terrible surge of unleashed energy above the dome that enclosed the town.

"Mayor," I said, "I don't want the stuff…"

"Well, now," the mayor said, "that's a handsome gesture, Brad. I'm sure the folks appreciate it."

"They damn well should," said Nichols.

A woman's scream rang out — and then another scream. It seemed to come from behind me and I spun around.

A woman was running down the slope that led to Doc Fabian's house — although running wasn't quite the word for it.

She was trying to run when she was able to do little more than hobble.

Her body was twisted with the terrible effort of her running and she had her arms stretched out so they would catch her if she fell — and when she took another step, she fell and rolled and finally ended up a huddled shape lying on the hillside.

"Myra!" Nichols yelled. "My God, Myra, what's wrong?" It was Mrs Fabian, and she lay there on the hillside with the whiteness of her hair shining in the sunlight, a startling patch of brilliance against the green sweep of the lawn. She was a little thing and frail and for years bad been half-crippled by arthritis, and now she seemed so small and fragile, crumpled on the grass, that it hurt to look at her.

I ran toward her and all the others were running toward her, too.

Bill Donovan was the first to reach her and he went down on his knees to lift her up and bold her.

"Everything's all right," he told her. "See — everything's all right. All your friends are here." Her eyes were open and she seemed to be all right, but she lay there in the cradle of Bill's arms and she didn't try to move. Her hair had fallen down across her face and Bill brushed it back, gently, with a big, grimed, awkward hand.

"It's the doctor," she told us. "He's gone into a coma…"

"But," protested Higgy, "he was all right an hour ago. I saw him just an hour ago."

She waited until he'd finished, then she said, as if he hadn't spoken, "He's in a coma and I can't wake him up. He lay down for a nap and now, he won't wake up." Donovan stood up, lifting her, holding her like a child. She was so little and he was so big that she had the appearance of a doll, a doll with a sweet and wrinkled face.

"He needs help," she said. "He's helped you all his life. Now he needs some help."

Norma Shepard touched Bill on the arm. "Take her up to the house," she said. "I'll take care of her."

"But my husband," Mrs Fabian insisted. "You'll get some help for him? You'll find some way to help him?"

"Yes, Myra," Higgy said. "Yes, of course we will. We can't let him down. He's done too much for us. We'll find a way to help him." Donovan started up the hill, carrying Mrs Fabian. Norma ran ahead of him.

Butch Ormsby said, "Some of us ought to go, too, "and see what we can do for Doc."

"Well," asked Charley Hutton, "how about it, Higgy? You were the one who shot off his big fat face. How are you going to help him?"

"Somebody's got to help him," declared Pappy Andrews, thumping his cane upon the ground by way of emphasis. "There never was a time we needed Doc more than we need him now. There are sick people in this village and we've got to get him on his feet somehow."

"We can do what we can," said Streeter, "to make him comfortable. We'll take care of him, of course, the best that we know how. But there isn't" anyone who has any medical knowledge…"

"I'll tell you what we'll do," said Higgy. "Someone can get in touch with some medical people and tell them what's happened. We can describe the symptoms and maybe they can diagnose the illness and then tell us what to do. Norma is a nurse — well, sort of, she's been helping out in Doc's office for the last four years or so — and she'd be some help to us."

"I suppose it's the best we can do," said Streeter, "but it's not very good."

"I tell you, men," said Pappy, loudly, "we can't stay standing here. The situation calls for action and it behooves us to get started."

What Streeter had said, I told myself, was right. Maybe it was the best that we could do, but it wasn't good enough. There was more to medicine than word-of-mouth advice or telephoned instructions. And there were others in the village in need of medical aid, more specialized aid than a stricken doctor, even if he could be gotten on his feet, was equipped to give them.

Maybe, I thought, there was someone else who could help — and if they could, they'd better, or I'd go back somehow into that other world and start ripping up their roots.

It was time, I told myself, that this other world was getting on the ball. The Flowers had put us in this situation and it was time they dug us out. If they were intent on proving what great tasks they could perform, there were more important ways of proving it than growing fifty-dollar bills on bushes and all their other hocus-pocus.

There were phones down at the village hall, the ones that had been taken from Stiffy's shack, and I could use one of those, of course, but I'd probably have to break Hiram's skull before I could get at one of them. And another round with Hiram, I decided, was something I could get along without.

I looked around for Sherwood, but he wasn't there, and neither was Nancy. One of them might be home and they'd let me use the phone in Sherwood's study.

A lot of the others were heading up toward Doc's house, but I turned and went the other way.

20

No one answered the bell. I rang several times and waited, then finally tried the door and it was unlocked.

I went inside and closed the door behind me. The sound of its closing was muffled by the hushed solemnity of the hail that ran back to the kitchen.

"Anyone home?" I called.

Somewhere a lone fly buzzed desperately, as if trying to escape, trapped against a window perhaps, behind a fold of drape. The sun spilled through the fanlights above the door to make a ragged pattern on the floor.

There was no answer to my hail, so I went down the hall and walked into the study. The phone stood on the heavy desk. The walls of books still seemed rich and wondrous. A half. empty whisky bottle and an unwashed glass stood on the liquor cabinet.

I went across the carpeting to the desk and reached out, pulling the phone toward me.

I lifted the receiver and immediately Tupper said, in his businessman's voice, "Mr Carter, it's good to hear from you at last. Events are going well, we hope. You have made, we would presume, preliminary contact." As if they didn't know!

"That's not what I called about," I snapped.

"But that was the understanding. You were to act for us." The unctuous smugness of the voice burned me up.

"And it was understood, as well," I asked, "that you were to make a fool of me?"

The voice was startled. "We fail to understand. Will you please explain?"

"The time machine," I said.

"Oh, that."

"Yes, oh, that," I said.

"But, Mr Carter, if we had asked you to take it back you would have been convinced that we were using you. You'd probably have refused."

"And you weren't using me?"

"Why, I suppose we were. We'd have used anyone. It was important to get that mechanism to your world. Once you know the pattern…"

"I don't care about the pattern," I said angrily. "You tricked me and you admit you tricked me. That's a poor way to start negotiations with another race."

"We regret it greatly. Not that we did it, but the way we did it. If there is anything we can do…"

"There's a lot that you can do. You can cut out horsing around with fifty-dollar bills…"

"But that's repayment," wailed the voice. "We told you you'd get back your fifteen hundred. We promised you'd get back much more than your fifteen hundred…"

"You've had your readers read economic texts?"

"Oh, certainly we have."

"And you've observed, for a long time and at first hand, our economic practices?"

"As best we can," the voice said. "It's sometimes difficult."

"You know, of course, that money grows on bushes."

"No, we don't know that, at all. We know how money's made. But what is the difference? Money's money, isn't it, no matter what its source?"

"You couldn't be more wrong," I said. "You'd better get wised up."

"You mean the money isn't good?"

"Not worth a damn," I said.

"We hope we've done no wrong," the voice said, crestfallen.

I said, "The money doesn't matter. There are other things that do. You've shut us off from the world and we have sick people here. We had just one poor fumbling doctor to take care of them. And now the doctor's sick himself and no other doctor can get in…"

"You need a steward," said the voice.

"What we need," I told them, "is to get this barrier lifted so we can get out and others can get in. Otherwise there are going to be people dying who don't have to die."

"We'll send a steward," said the voice. "We'll send one right away. A most accomplished one. The best that we can find."

"I don't know," I said, "about this steward. But we need help as fast as we can get it."

"We," the voice pledged, "will do the best we can." The voice clicked off and the phone went dead. And suddenly I realized that I'd not asked the most important thing of all — why had they wanted to get the time machine into our world?

I jiggled the connection. I put the receiver down and lifted it again.

I shouted in the phone and nothing happened.

I pushed the phone away and stood hopeless in the room. For all of it, I knew, was a very hopeless mess.

Even after years of study, they did not understand us or our institutions. They did not know that money was symbolic and not simply scraps of paper. They had not, for a moment, taken into consideration what could happen to a village if it were isolated from the world.

They had tricked me and had used me and they should have known that nothing can arouse resentment quite so easily as simple trickery. They should have known, but they didn't know, or if they knew, had discounted what they knew — and that was as bad or worse than if they had not known.

I opened the study door and went into the hall. And as I started down the hail, the front door opened and Nancy stepped inside.

I stopped at the foot of the stairway that rose out of the hall and for a moment we simply stood there, looking at one another, neither of us finding anything to say.

"I came to use the phone," I said.

She nodded.

"I suppose," I said, "I should say I'm sorry for the fight with Hiram."

"I'm sorry, too," she said, misunderstanding me, or pretending that she misunderstood. "But I suppose there was no way you could help it."

"He threw the phone," I told her.

But of course it had not been the phone, not the phone alone. It had been all the times before the phone was thrown.

"You said the other night," I reminded her, "that we could go out for drinks and dinner. I guess that will have to wait. Now there's no place we can go."

"Yes," she said, "so we could start over." I nodded, feeling miserable.

"I was to dress up my prettiest," she said, "and we would have been so gay."

"Like high school days," I said.

"Brad."

"Yes," I said, and took a step toward her.

Suddenly she was in my arms.

"We don't need drinks and dinner," she said. "Not the two of us." No, I thought, not the two of us.

I bent and kissed her and held her close and there was only us. There was no closed-off village and no alien terror. There was nothing that mattered now except this girl who long ago had walked the street, hand in hand with me, and had not been ashamed.

21

The steward came that afternoon, a little, wizened humanoid who looked like a bright-eyed monkey. With him was another — also humanoid — but great, lumbering and awkward, gaunt and austere, with a horse-like face. He looked, at first sight, the perfect caricature of a career diplomat. The scrawny humanoid wore a dirty and shapeless piece of cloth draped about him like a robe, and the other wore a breech-clout and a sort of vest, equipped with massive pockets that bulged with small possessions.

The entire village was lined up on the slope behind my house and the betting had been heavy that nothing would show up. I heard whispers, suddenly cutoff, everywhere I went.

Then they came, the two of them, popping out of nowhere and standing in the garden.

I walked down the slope and across the garden to meet them. They stood waiting for me and behind me, on that slope covered by a crowd of people, there was utter silence.

As I came near, the big one stepped forward, the little wizened character trailing close behind.

"I speak your language newly," said the big one. "If you don't know, ask me once again."

"You're doing well," I told him.

"You be Mr Carter?"

"That is right. And you?"

"My designation," he told me, solemnly, "is to you great gibberish. I have decided you can call me only Mr Smith."

"Mr Smith," I said, "we are glad to have you here. You are the steward I was told about?"

"No. This other personage is he. But he has no designation I can speak to you. He makes no noise at all. He hears and answers only in his brain. He is a queerish thing."

"A telepath," I said.

"Oh, yes, but do not mistake me. Of much intelligence. Also very smart. We are of different worlds, you know. There be many different worlds, many different peoples. We welcome you to us."

"They sent you along as an interpreter?"

"Interpreter? I do not share your meaning. I learn your words very fast from a mechanism. I do not have much time. I fail to catch them all."

"Interpreter means you speak for him. He tells you and you tell us."

"Yes, indeed. Also you tell me and I tell him. But interpreter is not all I am. Also diplomat, very highly trained."

"Huh?"

"Help with negotiations with your race. Be helpful as I can. Explain very much, perhaps. Aid you as you need."

"You said there are many different worlds and many different people. You mean a long, long chain of worlds and of people, too?"

"Not all worlds have people," he told me. "Some have nothing. No life of any sort. Some hold life, but no intelligence. Some once had intelligence, but intelligence is gone." He made a strange gesture with his hand. "It is pity what can happen to intelligence. It is frail; it does not stay forever."

"And the intelligences? All humanoid?" He hesitated. "Humanoid?"

"Like us. Two arms, two legs, one head…"

"Most humanoid," he said."Most like you and me." The scrawny little being tugged excitedly at his vest. The being I had been talking with turned around to face him, gave him close attention.

Then he turned back to me. "Him much upset," he told me. "Says all people here are sick. Him prostrated with great pity. Never saw such terrible thing."

"But that is wrong," I cried. "The sick ones are at home. This bunch here is healthy."

"Can't be so," said Mr Smith. "Him aghast at situation. Can look inside of people, see everything that's wrong. Says them that isn't sick will be sick in little time, says many have inactive sickness in them, others still have garbage of ancient sicknesses still inside of them."

"He can fix us up?"

"No fix. Repair complete, Make body good as new." Higgy had been edging closer and behind him several others. The rest of the crowd still stayed up on the bank, out of all harm's way. And now they were beginning to buzz a little. At first they had been stricken silent, but now the talk began.

"Higgy," I said, "I'd like you to meet Mr Smith."

"Well, I'll be darned," said Higgy. "They got names just the same as ours." He stuck out his hand and after a moment of puzzlement, Mr Smith put out his hand and the two men shook.

"The other one," I said, "can't talk. He's a telepath."

"That's too bad," said Higgy, full of sympathy. "Which one of them's the doctor?"

"The little one," I told him, "and I don't know if you can say he's a doctor. Seems that he repairs people, fixes them like new."

"Well," said Higgy, "that's what a doctor's supposed to do, but never quite makes out."

"He says we're all sick. He wants to fix us up."

"Well, that's all right," said Higgy. "That's what I call service. We can set up a clinic down at the village hall."

"But there's Doc and Floyd and all the others who are really sick. That's what he's here for."

"Well, I tell you, Brad, we can take him to them first and he can get them cured, then we'll set up the clinic. The rest of us might just as well get in on it as long as he is here."

"If," said Mr Smith, "you but merge with the rest of us, you can command the services of such as he whenever you have need."

"What's this merger?" Higgy asked of me.

"He means if we let the aliens in and join the other worlds that the Flowers have linked."

"Well, now," said Higgy, "that makes a lot of sense. I don't suppose there'll be any charges for his services."

"Charges?" asked Mr Smith.

"Yeah," said Higgy. "Pay. Fees. Money."

"Those be terms," said Mr Smith, "that ring no bell for me. But we must proceed with swiftness, since my fellow creature has other rounds to make. He and his colleagues have many worlds to cover."

"You mean that they are doctors to the other worlds?" I asked.

"You grasp my meaning clear."

"Since there isn't any time to waste," said Higgy, "leave us be about our business. Will you two come with me?"

"With alacrity," cried Mr Smith, and the two of them followed Higgy as he went up the slope and out toward the street. I followed slowly after them and as I climbed the bank, Joe Evans came charging out of the back door of my house.

"Brad," he shouted, "there's a call for you from the State Department." It was Newcombe on the phone.

"I'm over here at Elmore," he told me in his cold, clipped voice, "and we've given the Press a rundown on what you told us. But now they're clamouring to see you; they want to talk with you."

"It's all right with me," I said. "If they'll come out to the barrier…"

"It's not all right with me," said Newcombe, sourly, "but the pressure is terrific. I have to let them see you. I trust you'll be discreet."

"I'll do my best," I told him.

"All right," he said. "There's not much I can do about it. Two hours from now. At the place we met."

"OK," I said. "I suppose it'll be all right if I bring a friend along."

"Yes, of course," said Newcombe. "And for the love of Christ be careful!"

22

Mr Smith caught onto the idea of a Press conference with very little trouble. I explained it to him as we walked toward the barrier where the newsmen waited for us.

"You say all these people are communicators," he said, making sure he had it straight. "We say them something and they say other people. Interpreters, like me."

"Well, something like that."

"But all your people talk the same. The mechanism told me one language only."

"That was because the one language is all that you would need. But the people of the Earth have many languages. Although that is not the reason for newspapermen. You see, all the people can't be here to listen to what we have to say. So these newsmen spread the news…"

"News?"

"The things that we have said. Or that other people have said. Things that happen. No matter where anything may happen, there are newsmen there and they spread the word. They keep the world informed."

Mr Smith almost danced a jig. "How wonderful!" he cried.

"What's so wonderful about it?"

"Why, the ingenuity," said Mr Smith. "The thinking of it up. This way one person talks to all the persons. Everybody knows about him. Everyone hears what he has to talk." We reached the barrier and there was quite a crowd of newsmen jammed on the strip of highway on the other side. Some of them were strung along the barrier on either side of the road. As we walked up, the cameramen were busy.

When we came up to the barrier, a lot of men started yelling at us, but someone quickly shushed them, then one man spoke to us.

"I'm Judson Barnes, of Associated Press," he said. "I suppose you're Carter." I told him that I was. "And this gentleman you have with you?"

"His name is Smith," I said.

"And," said someone else, "he's just got home from a masquerade."

"No," I told them, "he's a humanoid from one of the alternate worlds. He is here to help with negotiations."

"Howdy, sirs," said Mr Smith, with massive friendliness.

Someone howled from the back: "We can't hear back here."

"We have a microphone," said Barnes, "if you don't mind."

"Toss it here," I told him.

He tossed it and I caught it. The cord trailed through the barrier. I could see where the speakers had been set up to one side of the road.

"And now," said Barnes, "perhaps we can begin. State filled us in, of course, so we don't need to go over all that you have told them. But there are some questions. I'm sure there are a lot of questions." A dozen hands went up.

"Just pick out one of them," said Barnes.

I made a motion toward a great, tall, scrawny man.

"Thank you, sir," he said. "Caleb Rivers, Kansas City Star. We understand that you represent the — how do you say it? — people, perhaps, the people of this other world. I wonder if you would outline your position in somewhat more detail. Are you an official representative, or an unofficial spokesman, or a sort of go-between? It's not been made quite clear."

"Very unofficial, I might say. You know about my father?"

"Yes," said Rivers, "we've been told how he cared for the flowers be found. But you'd agree, wouldn't you, Mr Carter, that this is, to say the least, a rather strange sort of qualification for your role?"

"I have no qualifications at all," I told him. "I can tell you quite frankly that the aliens probably picked one of the poorest representatives they could have found. There are two things to consider. First, I was the only human who seemed available — I was the only one who went back to visit them. Secondly, and this is important, they don't think, can't think, in the same manner that we do. What might make good sense to them may seem silly so far as we are concerned. On the other hand, our most brilliant logic might be gibberish to them."

"I see," said Rivers. "But despite your frankness in saying you're not qualified to serve, you still are serving. Would you tell us why?"

"There's nothing else I can do," I said. "The situation has gotten to a point where there had to be an attempt at some sort of intelligent contact between the aliens and ourselves. Otherwise, things might get out of hand."

"How do you mean?"

"Right now," I said, "the world is scared. There has to be some explanation of what is happening. There is nothing worse than a senseless happening, nothing worse than reasonless fear, and the aliens, so long as they know something's being done, may leave this barrier as it is. For the moment, I suspect, they'll do no more than they've already done. I hope it may work out that the situation gets no worse and that in the meantime some progress can be made." Other hands were waving and I pointed to another man.

"Frank Roberts, Washington Post," he said. "I have a question about the negotiations. As I understand it, the aliens want to be admitted to our world and in return are willing to provide us with a great store of knowledge they have accumulated."

"That is right," I said.

"Why do they want admission?"

"It's not entirely clear to me," I told him. "They need to be here so they can proceed to other worlds. It would seem the alternate worlds lie in some sort of progression, and they must be arrived at in a certain order. I confess quite willingly I understand none of this. All that can be done now is to reach proposals that we and the aliens can negotiate."

"You know of no terms beyond the broad proposal you have stated?"

"None at all," I said. "There may be others. I am not aware of them."

"But now you have — perhaps you would call him an advisor. Would it be proper to direct a question at this Mr Smith of yours?"

"A question," said Mr Smith. "I accept your question." He was pleased that someone had noticed him. Not without some qualms, I handed him the mike.

"You talk into it," I said.

"I know," he said. "I watch."

"You talk our language very well," said the Washington Post.

"Just barely. Mechanism teach me."

"Can you add anything about specific conditions?"

"I do not catch," said Smith.

"Are there any conditions that your different people will insist upon before they reach an agreement with us?"

"Just one alone," said Smith.

"And what would that one be?"

"I elucidate," said Smith. "You have a thing called war. Very bad, of course, but not impossible. Soon or late peoples get over playing war." He paused and looked around and all those reporters waited silently.

"Yes," said one of the reporters finally, not the Post, "yes, war is bad, but what…?"

"I tell you now," said Smith. "You have a great amount of fission… I am at loss for word."

"Fissionable material," said a helpful newsman.

"That correct. Fissionable material. You have much of it. Once in another world there was same situation. When we arrive, there was nothing left. No life. No nothing. It was very sad. All life had been wiped out. We set him up again, but sad to think upon. Must not happen here. So we must insist such fissionable material be widely dispersed."

"Now, wait," a newsman shouted. "You are saying that we must disperse fissionable material. I suppose you mean break up all the stockpiles and the bombs and have no more than a very small amount at any one place. Not enough, perhaps, to assemble a bomb of any sort."

"You comprehend it fast," said Smith.

"But how can you tell that it is dispersed? A country might say it complied when it really hadn't. How can you really know? How can you police it?"

"We monitor," said Smith.

"You have a way of detecting fissionable material?"

"Yes, most certainly," said Smith.

"All right, then, even if you knew — well, let's say it this way — you find there are concentrations still remaining; what do you do about them?"

"We blow them up," said Smith. "We detonate them loudly."

"But…"

"We muster up a deadline. We edict all concentrations be gone by such a time. Time come and some still here, they auto… auto…"

"Automatically."

"Thank you, kindly person. That is the word I grope for. They automatically blow up." An uneasy silence fell. The newsmen were wondering, I knew, if they were being taken in; if they were being, somehow, tricked by a phony actor decked out in a funny vest.

"Already," Smith said, rather casually, "we have a mechanism pinpointing all the concentrations."

Someone shouted in a loud, hoarse voice: "I'll be damned! The flying time machine!" Then they were off and running, racing pell-mell for their cars parked along the road. With no further word to us, with no leave-taking whatsoever, they were off to tell the world.

And this was it, I thought, somewhat bitterly and more than a little limp.

Now the aliens could walk in any time they wanted, any way they wanted, with full human blessing. There was nothing else that could have turned the trick no argument, no logic, no inducement short of this inducement. In the face of the worldwide clamour which this announcement would stir up, with the public demand that the world accept this one condition of an alien compact, all sane and sober counsel would have no weight at all.

Any workable agreement between the aliens and ourselves would necessarily have been a realistic one, with checks and balances. Each side would have been pledged to some contribution and each would have had to face some automatic, built-in penalty if the agreement should be broken. But now the checks and balances were gone and the way was open for the aliens to come in. They had offered the one thing that the people — not the governments, but the people — wanted, or that they thought they wanted, above every other thing and there'd be no stopping them in their demand for it.

And it had all been trickery, I thought bitterly. I had been tricked into bringing back the time machine and I had been forced into a situation where I had asked for help and Smith had been the help, or at least a part of it. And his announcement of the one demand had been little short of trickery in itself. It was the same old story. Human or alien, it made no difference. You wanted something bad enough and you went out to get it any way you could.

They'd beat us all the way, I knew. All the time they'd been that one long jump ahead of us and now the situation was entirely out of hand and the Earth was licked.

Smith stared after the running reporters.

"What proceeds?" he asked.

Pretending that he didn't know. I could have broken his neck.

"Come on," I said. "I'll escort you back to the village hall. Your pal is down there, doctoring up the folks."

"But all the galloping," he said, "all the shouting? What occasions it?"

"You should know," I said. "You just hit the jackpot."

23

When I got back home, Nancy was waiting for me. She was sitting on the steps that led up to the porch, huddled there, crouched against the world. I saw her from a block away and hurried, gladder at the sight of her than I had ever been before. Glad and humble, and with a tenderness I never knew I had welling up so hard inside of me that I nearly choked.

Poor kid, I thought. It had been rough on her. Just one day home and the world of Millville, the world that she remembered and thought of as her home, had suddenly come unstuck.

Someone was shouting in the garden where tiny fifty-dollar bills presumably were still growing on the little bushes.

Coming in the gate, I stopped short at the sound of bellowing.

Nancy looked up and saw me.

"It's nothing, Brad," she said. "It's just Hiram down there. Higgy has him guarding all that money. The kids keep sneaking in, the little eight and ten-year-olds. They only want to count the money on each bush. They aren't doing any harm. But Hiram chases them. There are times," she said, "when I feel sorry for Hiram."

"Sorry for him?" I asked, astonished. He was the last person in the world I'd suspected anyone might feel sorry for. "He's just a stupid slob."

"A stupid slob," she said, "who's trying to prove something and is not entirely sure what he wants to prove."

"That he has more muscle…"

"No," she told me, "that's not it at all." Two kids came tearing out of the garden and vanished down the street.

There was no sign of Hiram. And no more hollering. He had done his job; he had chased them off.

I sat down on the step beside her.

"Brad," she said, "it's not going well. I can feel it isn't going well." I shook my head, agreeing with her.

"I was down at the village hall," she said. "Where that terrible, shrivelled creature is conducting a clinic. Daddy's down there, too. He's helping out. But I couldn't stay. It's awful."

"What's so bad about it? That thing — whatever you may call it fixed up Doc. He's up and walking around and he looks as good as new. And Floyd Caldwell's heart and…"

She shuddered. "That's the terrible thing about it. They are as good as new. They're better than new. They aren't cured, Brad; they are repaired, like a machine. It's like witchcraft. It's indecent. This wizened thing looks them over and he never makes a sound, but just glides around and looks them over and you can see that he's not looking at the outside of them but at their very insides. I don't know how you know this, but you do. As if he were reaching deep inside of them and…" She stopped. "I'm sorry," she said. "I shouldn't talk this way. It's not very decent talk."

"It's not a very decent situation," I said. "We may have to change our minds a great deal about what is decent and indecent. There are a lot of ways we may have to change. I don't suppose that we will like it…"

"You talk as if it's settled."

"I'm afraid it is," I said, and I told her what Smith had told the newsmen. It felt good to tell her. There was no one else I could have told right then. It was a piece of news so weighted with guilt I would have been ashamed to tell it to anyone but Nancy.

"But now," said Nancy, "there can't be war — not the kind of war the whole world feared."

"No," I said, "there can't be any war." But I couldn't seem to feel too good about it. "We may have something now that's worse than war."

"There is nothing worse than war," she said.

And that, of course, would be what everyone would say. Maybe they'd be right. But now the aliens would come into this world of ours and once we'd let them in we'd be entirely at their mercy. They had tricked us and we had nothing with which we could defend ourselves. Once here they could take over and supersede all plant life upon the Earth, without our knowing it, without our ever being able to find out. Once we let them in we never could be sure.

And once they'd done that, then they'd own us. For all the animal life on Earth, including man, depended on the plants of Earth for their energy.

"What puzzles me," I said, "is that they could have taken over, anyhow. If they'd had a little patience, if they had taken a little time, they could have taken over and we never would have known. For there are some of them right here, their roots in Millville ground. They needn't have stayed as flowers. They could have been anything. In a hundred years they could have been every branch and leaf, every blade of grass…"

"Maybe there was a time factor of some sort," said Nancy. "Maybe they couldn't afford to wait."

I shook my head. "They had lots of time. If they needed more, they could have made it."

"Maybe they need the human race," she said. "Perhaps we have something they want. A plant society couldn't do a thing itself. They can't move about and they haven't any hands. They can store a lot of knowledge and they can think long thoughts — they can scheme and plan. But they can't put any of that planning into execution. They would need a partner to carry out their plans."

"They've had partners," I reminded her. "They have a lot of partners even now. There are the people who made the time machine. There's this funny little doctor and that big windbag of a Smith. The Flowers have all the partners they need. It must be something else."

"These people that you mention," she said, "may not be the right kind of people. Perhaps they searched world after world for the right kind of human beings. For the right kind of partner. Maybe that's us."

"Perhaps," I said, "the others weren't mean enough. They may be looking for a deadly race. And a deadly race, that's us. Maybe they want someone who'll go slashing into parallel world after parallel world, in a sort of frenzy; brutal, ruthless, terrible. For when you come right down to it, we are pretty terrible. They may figure that, working with us, there's nothing that can stop them. Probably they are right. With all their accumulated knowledge and their mental powers, plus our understanding of physical concepts and our flair for technology, there probably is no limit to what the two of us could do."

"I don't think that's it," she said. "What's the matter with you? I gained the impression to start with that you thought the Flowers might be all right."

"They still may be," I told her, "but they used so many tricks and I fell for all the tricks. They used me for a fall guy."

"So that's what bothers you."

"I feel like a heel," I said.

We sat quietly side by side upon the step. The Street was silent and empty. During all the time we had sat there, no one had passed.

Nancy said, "It's strange that anyone could submit himself to that alien doctor. He's a creepy sort of being, and you can't be sure…"

"There are a lot of people," I told her, "who run most willingly to quackery."

"But this isn't quackery," she said. "He did cure Doc and the rest of them. I didn't mean he was a faker, but only that he's horrid and repulsive."

"Perhaps we appear the same to him."

"There's something else," she said. "His technique is so different. No drugs, no instruments, no therapy. He just looks you over and probes into you with nothing, but you can see him probing, and then you're whole again — not only well, but whole. And if he can do that to our bodies, what about our minds? Can he change our minds, can he re-orient our thoughts?"

"For some people in this village," I told her, "that might be a good idea. Higgy, for example."

She said, sharply, "Don't joke about it, Brad."

"All right," I said. "I won't."

"You're just talking that way to keep from being scared."

"And you," I said, "are talking seriously about it in an effort to reduce it to a commonplace."

She nodded. "But it doesn't help," she said. "It isn't commonplace." She stood up. "Take me home," she said.

So I walked her home.

24

Twilight was falling when I walked downtown. I don't know why I went there. Restlessness, I guess. The house was too big and empty (emptier than it had ever been before) and the neighbourhood too quiet. There was no noise at all except for the occasional snatch of voices either excited or pontifical, strained through the electronic media. There was not a house in the entire village, I was certain, that did not have a television set or radio turned on.

But when I turned on the TV in the living-room and settled back to watch, it did no more than make me nervous and uneasy.

A commentator, one of the better known ones, was holding forth with a calm and deep assurance.

"…no way of knowing whether this contraption which is circling the skies can really do the job which our Mr Smith from the other world has announced to be its purpose. It has been picked up on a number of occasions by tracking stations which do not seem to be able, for one reason or another, to keep it in their range, and there have been instances, apparently verified, of visual sightings of it. But it is something about which it is difficult to get any solid news."

"Washington, it is understood, is taking the position that the word of an unknown being — unknown by either race or reputation — scarcely can be taken as undisputed fact. The capital tonight seems to be waiting for more word and until something of a solid nature can be deduced, it is unlikely there will be any sort of statement. That is the public position, of course; what is going on behind the scenes may be anybody's guess. And the same situation applies fairly well to all other capitals throughout the entire world.

"But this is not the situation outside the governmental circles. Everywhere the news has touched off wild celebration. There are joyous, spontaneous marches breaking out in London, and in Moscow a shouting, happy mob has packed Red Square. The churches everywhere have been filled since the first news broke, people thronging there to utter prayers of thankfulness.

"In the people there is no doubt and not the slightest hesitation. The man in the street, here in the United States and in Britain and in France — in fact, throughout the world — has accepted this strange announcement at face value. It may be simply a matter of believing what one chooses to believe, or it may be for some other reason, but the fact remains that there has been a bewildering suspension of the disbelief which characterized mass reaction so short a time ago as this morning."

"There seems, in the popular mind, to be no consideration of all the other factors which may be involved. The news of the end of any possibility of nuclear war has drowned out all else. It serves to underline the quiet and terrible, perhaps subconscious, tension under which the world has lived…" I shut off the television and prowled about the house, my footsteps echoing strangely in the darkening rooms.

It was well enough, I thought, for a smug, complacent commentator to sit in the bright-lit studio a thousand miles away and analyse these happenings in a measured and well-modulated manner. And it was well enough, perhaps, for people other than myself even here in Millville, to sit and listen to him. But I couldn't listen — I couldn't stand to listen.

Guilt, I asked myself? And it might be guilt, for I had been the one who'd brought the time machine to Earth and I had been the one who had taken Smith to meet the newsmen at the barrier. I had played the fool — the utter, perfect fool and it seemed to me the entire world must know.

Or might it be the conviction that had been growing since I talked with Nancy that there was some hidden incident or fact — some minor motive or some small point of evidence — that I had failed to see, that we all had failed to grasp, and that if one could only put his finger on this single truth then all that had happened might become simpler of understanding and all that was about to happen might make some sort of sense?

I sought for it, for this hidden factor, for this joker in the deck, for the thing so small it had been overlooked and yet held within it a vast significance, and I did not find it.

I might be wrong, I thought. There might be no saving factor. We might be trapped and doomed and no way to get out.

I left the house and went down the street. There was no place I really wanted to go, but I had to walk, hoping that the freshness of the evening air, the very fact of walking might somehow clear my head.

A half a block away I caught the tapping sound. It appeared to be moving down the street toward me and in a little while I saw a bobbing halo of white that seemed to go with the steady tapping. I stopped and stared at it and it came bobbing closer and the tapping sound went on. And in another moment I saw that it was Mrs Tyler with her snow-white hair and cane.

"Good evening, Mrs Tyler," I said as gently as I could, not to frighten her.

She stopped and twisted around to face me.

"It's Bradshaw, isn't it?" she asked. "I can't see you well, but I recognize your voice."

"Yes, it is," I said. "You're out late, Mrs Tyler."

"I came to see you," she said, "but I missed your house. I am so forgetful that I walked right past it. Then I remembered and I was coming back."

"What can I do for you?" I asked.

"Why, they tell me that you've seen Tupper. Spent some time with him."

"That's true," I said, sweating just a little, afraid of what might be coming next.

She moved a little closer, head tilted back, staring up at me.

"Is it true," she asked, "that he has a good position?"

"Yes," I said, "a very good position."

"He holds the trust of his employers?"

"That is the impression that I gained. I would say he held a post of some importance."

"He spoke of me?" she asked.

"Yes," I lied. "He asked after you. He said he'd meant to write, but he was too busy."

"Poor boy," she said, "he never was a hand to write. He was looking well?"

"Very well, indeed."

"Foreign service, I understand," she said. "Who would ever have thought he'd wind up in foreign service. To tell the truth, I often worried over him. But that was foolish, wasn't it?"

"Yes, it was," I said. "He's making out all right."

"Did he say when he would be coming home?"

"Not for a time," I told her. "It seems he's very busy."

"Well, then," she said, quite cheerfully, "I won't be looking for him. I can rest content. I won't be having to go out every hour or so to see if he's come back." She turned away and started down the street.

"Mrs Tyler," I said, "can't I see you home? It's getting dark and…"

"Oh, my, no," she said. "There is no need of it. I won't be afraid. Now that I know Tupper's all right, I'll never be afraid." I stood and watched her go, the white halo of her head bobbing in the darkness, her cane tapping out the way as she moved down the long and twisting path of her world of fantasy.

And it was better that way, I knew, better that she could take harsh reality and twist it into something that was strange and beautiful.

I stood and watched until she turned the corner and the tapping of the cane grew dim, then I turned about and headed downtown.

In the shopping district the street lamps had turned on, but all the stores were dark and this, when one saw it, was a bit upsetting, for most of them stayed open until nine o'clock. But now even the Happy Hollow tavern and the movie house were closed.

The village hall was lighted and a small group of people loitered near the door. The clinic, I imagined, must be coming to a close. I wondered, looking at the hall, what Doc Fabian might think of all of this. His testy old medic's soul, I knew, would surely stand aghast despite the fact he'd been the first to benefit.

I turned from looking at the hall, and plodded down the street, hands plunged deep into my trouser pockets, walking aimlessly and restlessly, not knowing what to do. On a night like this, I wondered, what was a man to do?

Sit in his living-room and watch the flickering rectangle of a television screen? Sit down with a bottle and methodically get drunk? Seek out a friend or neighbour for endless speculation and senseless conversation? Or find some place to huddle, waiting limply for what would happen next?

I came to an intersection and up the side street to my right I saw a splash of light that fell across the sidewalk from a lighted window. I looked at it, astonished, then realized that the light came from the window of the Tribune office, and that Joe Evans would be there, talking on the phone, perhaps, with someone from the Associated Press or the New York Times or one of the other papers that had been calling him for news. Joe was a busy man and I didn't want to bother him, but perhaps he wouldn't mind, I thought, if I dropped in for a minute.

He was busy on the phone, crouched above his desk, with the receiver pressed against his ear. The screen door clicked behind me and he looked up and saw me.

"Just a minute," he said into the phone, holding the receiver out to me.

"Joe, what's the matter?" For something was the matter. His face wore a look of shock and his eyes were stiff and staring. Little beads of sweat trickled down his forehead and ran into his eyebrows.

"It's Alf," he said, lips moving stiffly.

"Alf," I said into the phone, but I kept my eyes on Joe Evans' face. He had the look of a man who had been hit on the head with something large and solid.

"Brad!" cried Alf. "Is that you, Brad?"

"Yes," I said, "it is."

"Where have you been? I've been trying to get in touch with you. When your phone didn't answer…"

"What's the matter, Alf? Take it easy, Alf."

"All right," he said. "I'll try to take it easy. I'll take it from the top." I didn't like the sound of his voice. He was scared and he was trying not to be.

"Go ahead," I said.

"I finally got to Elmore," he told me. "The traffic's something awful. You can't imagine what the traffic is out here. They have military check points and…"

"But you finally got to Elmore. You told me you were going."

"Yes, I finally got here. On the radio I heard about this delegation that came out to see you. The senator and the general and the rest of them, and when I got to Elmore I found that they were stopping at the Corn Belt hotel. Isn't that the damndest name?

"But, anyhow, I figured that they should know more about what was going on down in Mississippi. I thought it might throw some light on the situation. So I went down to the hotel to see the senator — that is, to try to see him. It was a madhouse down there. There were great crowds of people and the police were trying to keep order, but they had their hands full. There were television cameras all over the place and newsmen and the radio people — well, anyhow, I never saw the senator. But I saw someone else. Saw him and recognized him from the pictures in the paper. The one called Davenport…"

"The biologist," I said.

"Yes, that's it. The scientist. I got him cornered and I tried to explain I had to see the senator. He wasn't too much help. I'm not even sure be was hearing what I was saying. He seemed to be upset and he was sweating like a mule and he was paper-white. I thought he might be sick and I asked him if he was, if there was anything I could do for him. Then he told me. I don't think he meant to tell me. I think maybe he was sorry that he did after he had told me. But he was so full of anger it was spilling out of him and for the moment he didn't care. The man was in anguish, I tell you. I never saw a man as upset as be was. He grabbed me by the lapels and he stuck his face up close to mine and he was so excited and he talked so fast that he spit all over me. He wouldn't have done a thing like that for all the world; he's not that sort of man…"

"Alf," I pleaded. "Alf, get down to facts."

"I forgot to tell you," Alf said, "that the news had just broken about that flying saucer you brought back. The radio was full of it. About how it was spotting the nuclear concentrations. Well, I started to tell the scientist about why I had to see the senator, about the project down in Greenbriar. And that was when he began to talk, grabbing hold of me so I couldn't get away. He said the news of the aliens' one condition, that we disperse our nuclear capacity, was the worst thing that could have happened. He said the Pentagon is convinced the aliens are a threat and that they must be stopped…"

"Alf," I said, suddenly weak, guessing what was coming.

"And he said they know they must be stopped before they control more territory and the only way to do it is an H-bomb right on top of Millville." He stopped, half out of breath.

I didn't say a thing. I couldn't say a word, I was too paralysed. I was remembering how the general had looked when I'd talked with him that morning and the senator saying, "We have to trust you, boy. You hold us in your hands."

"Brad," Alf asked, anxiously, "are you there? Did you hear me?"

"Yes," I said, "I'm here."

"Davenport told me he was afraid this new development of the nuclear pinpointing might push the military into action without due consideration — knowing that they had to act or they'd not have anything to use. Like a man with a gun, he said, facing a wild beast. He doesn't want to kill the beast unless he has to and there is always the chance the beast will slink away and he won't have to fire. But suppose he knows that in the next two minutes his gun will disappear into thin air well, then he has to take a chance and shoot before the gun can disappear. He has to kill the beast while he still has a gun."

"And now," I said, speaking more levelly than I would have thought possible, "Millville is the beast."

"Not Millville, Brad. Just…"

"Yes," I said, "most certainly not Millville. Tell that to the people when the bomb explodes."

"This Davenport was beside himself. He had no business talking to me…"

"You think he knows what he is talking about? He had a row with the general this morning."

"I think he knows more than he told me, Brad. He talked for a couple of minutes and then he buttoned up. As though he knew he had no business talking. But he's obsessed with one idea. He thinks the only thing that can stop the military is the force of public opinion. He thinks that if what they plan is known, there'll be such an uproar they'd be afraid to move. Not only, he pointed out, would the public be outraged at such cold-bloodedness, but the public wants these aliens in; they're for anyone who can break the bomb. And this biologist of yours is going to plant this story. He didn't say he would, but that's what he was working up to. He'll tip off some newspaperman, I'm sure of that." I felt my guts turn over and my knees were weak. I pressed my legs hard against the desk to keep from keeling over.

"This village will go howling mad," I said. "I asked the general this morning…"

"You asked the general! For Christ sake, did you know?"

"Of course I knew. Not that they would do it. Just that, they were thinking of it."

"And you didn't say a word?"

"Who could I tell? What good would it have done? And it wasn't certain. It was just an alternative — a last alternative. Three hundred lives against three billion…"

"But you, yourself! All your friends…"

"Alf," I pleaded, "there was nothing I could do. What would you have done? Told the village and driven everyone stark mad?"

"I don't know," said Alf, "I don't know what I'd have done."

"Alf, is the senator at the hotel? I mean, is he there right now?"

"I think he is. You mean to call him, Brad?"

"I don't know what good it'll do," I said, "but perhaps I should."

"I'll get off the line," said Alf. "And Brad…"

"Yes."

"Brad, the best of luck. I mean — oh, hell, just the best of luck."

"Thanks, Alf." I heard the click of the receiver as he hung up and the line droned empty in my ear. My hand began to shake and I laid the receiver carefully on the desk, not trying to put it back into the cradle.

Joe Evans was looking at me hard. "You knew," he said. "You knew all the time."

I shook my head. "Not that they meant to do it. The general mentioned it as a last resort. Davenport jumped on him…" I didn't finish what I meant to say. The words just dwindled off. Joe kept on staring at me.

I exploded at him. "Damn it, man," I shouted, "I couldn't tell anyone. I asked the general, if he had to do it, to do it without notice. Not to let us know. That way there'd be a flash we'd probably never see. We'd die, of course, but only once. Not a thousand deaths…"

Joe picked up the phone. "I'll try to raise the senator," he said.

I sat down in a chair.

I felt empty. There was nothing in me. I heard Joe talking into the telephone, but I didn't really hear his words, for it seemed that I had, for the moment, created a small world all of my own (as though there were no longer room for me in the normal world) and had drawn it about me as one would draw a blanket.

I was miserable and at the same time angry, and perhaps considerably confused.

Joe was saying something to me and I became aware of it only after he had almost finished speaking.

"What was that?" I asked.

"The call is in," said Joe. "They'll call us back." I nodded.

"I told them it was important."

"I wonder if it is," I said.

"What do you mean? Of course it…"

"I wonder what the senator can do. I wonder what difference it will make if I, or you, or anyone, talks to him about it."

"The senator has a lot of weight," said Joe. "He likes to throw it around." We sat in silence for a moment, waiting for the call, waiting for the senator and what he knew about it.

"If no one will stand up for us," asked Joe, "if no one will fight for us, what are we to do?"

"What can we do?" I asked. "We can't even run. We can't get away. We're sitting ducks."

"When the village knows…"

"They'll know," I said, "as soon as the news leaks out. If it does leak out. It'll be bulletined on TV and radio and everyone in this village is plastered to a set."

"Maybe someone will get hold of Davenport and hush him up."

I shook my head. "He was pretty sore this morning. Right down the general's throat." And who was right? I asked myself. How could one tell in this short space of time who was right or wrong?

For years man had fought insects and blights and noxious weeds. He'd fought them any way he could. He'd killed them any way he could. Let one's guard down for a moment and the weeds would have taken over. They crowded every fence corner, every hedgerow, sprang up in every vacant lot. They'd grow anywhere. When drought killed the grain and sickened the corn, the weeds would keep on growing, green and tough and wiry.

And now came another noxious weed, out of another time, a weed that very possibly could destroy not only corn and grain but the human race. If this should be the case, the only thing to do was to fight it as one fought any weed, with everything one had.

But suppose that this was a different sort of weed, no ordinary weed, but a highly adaptive weed that had studied the ways of man and weed, and out of its vast knowledge and adaptability could manage to survive anything that man might throw at it. Anything, that is, except massive radiation.

For that had been the answer when the problem had been posed in that strange project down in Mississippi.

And the Flowers' reaction to that answer would be a simple one. Get rid of radiation. And while you were getting rid of it, win the affection of the world. If that should be the situation, then the Pentagon was right.

The phone buzzed from the desk.

Joe picked up the receiver and handed it to me.

My lips seemed to be stiff. The words I spoke came out hard and dry.

"Hello," I said. "Hello. Is this the senator?

"Yes."

"This is Bradshaw Carter. Millville. Met you this morning. At the barrier."

"Certainly, Mr Carter. What can I do for you?"

"There is a rumour…"

"There are many rumours, Carter. I've heard a dozen of them."

"About a bomb on Millville. The general said this morning…"

"Yes," said the senator, far too calmly. "I have heard that rumour, too, and am quite disturbed by it. But there is no confirmation. It is nothing but a rumour."

"Senator," I said. "I wish you'd level with me. To you it's a disturbing thing to hear. It's personal with us."

"Well," said the senator. You could fairly hear him debating with himself.

"Tell me," I insisted. "We're the ones involved…"

"Yes. Yes," said the senator. "You have the right to know. I'd not deny you that."

"So what is going on?

"There is only one solid piece of information," said the senator.

"There are top level consultations going on among the nuclear powers. Quite a blow to them, you know, this condition of the aliens. The consultations are highly secret, as you might imagine. You realize, of course…"

"It's perfectly all right," I said. "I can guarantee…"

"Oh, it's not that so much," said the senator. "One of the newspaper boys will sniff it out before the night is over. But I don't like it. It sounds as if some sort of mutual agreement is being sought. In view of public opinion, I am very much afraid…"

"Senator! Please, not politics."

"I'm sorry," said the senator. "I didn't mean it that way. I won't try to conceal from you that I am perturbed. I'm trying to get what facts I can…"

"Then it's critical."

"If that barrier moves another foot," said the senator, "if anything else should happen, it's not inconceivable that we might act unilaterally. The military can always argue that they moved to save the world from invasion by an alien horde. They can claim, as well, that they had information held by no one else. They could say it was classified and refuse to give it out. They would have a cover story and once it had been done, they could settle back and let time take its course. There would be hell to pay, of course, but they could ride it out."

"What do you think?" I asked. "What are the chances?"

"God," said the senator, "I don't know. I don't have the facts. I don't know what the Pentagon is thinking. I don't know the facts they have. I don't know what the chiefs of staff have told the President. There is no way of knowing the attitudes of Britain or Russia, or of France." The wire sang cold and empty.

"Is there," asked the senator, "anything that you can do from the Millville end?"

"An appeal," I said. "A public appeal. The newspapers and the radio…"

I could almost see him shake his head. "It wouldn't work," he said. "No one has any way of knowing what's happening there behind the barrier. There is always the possibility of influence by the aliens. And the pleading of special favour even when that would be prejudicial to the world. The communications media would snap it up, of course, and would play it up and make a big thing of it. But it would not influence official opinion in the least. It would only serve to stir up the people — the people everywhere. And there is enough emotionalism now. What we need are some solid facts and some common sense." He was fearful, I thought, that we'd upset the boat. He wanted to keep everything all quiet and decent.

"And, anyhow," he said, "there is no real evidence…"

"Davenport thinks there is."

"You have talked with him?"

"No," I said, quite truthfully, "I haven't talked with him."

"Davenport," he said, "doesn't understand. He stepped out of the isolation of his laboratory and…"

"He sounded good to me," I said. "He sounded civilized." And was sorry I'd said it, for now I'd embarrassed him as well as frightened him.

"I'll let you know," he said, a little stiffly. "As soon as I hear anything I'll let you or Gerald know. I'll do the best I can. I don't think you need to worry. Just keep that barrier from moving, just keep things quiet. That's all you have to do."

"Sure, Senator," I said, disgusted.

"Thanks for calling," said the senator. "I'll keep in touch."

"Goodbye, Senator," I said.

I put the receiver back into the cradle. Joe looked at me inquiringly.

I shook my head. "He doesn't know and he isn't talking. And I gather he is helpless. He can't do anything for us." Footsteps sounded on the sidewalk and a second later the door came open. I swung around and there stood Higgy Morris.

Of all the people who would come walking in at this particular moment, it would be Higgy Morris.

He looked from one to the other of us.

"What's the matter with you guys?" he asked.

I kept on looking at him, wishing that he'd go away, but knowing that he wouldn't.

"Brad," said Joe, "we've got to tell him."

"All right," I said. "You go ahead and tell him." Higgy didn't move. He stood beside the door while Joe told him how it was. Higgy got wall-eyed and seemed to turn into a statue. He never moved a muscle; he didn't interrupt.

For a long moment there was silence, then Higgy said to me, "What do you think? Could they do a thing like that to us?"

I nodded. "They could. They might. If the barrier moves again. If something else should happen."

"Well, then," said Higgy, springing into action, "what are we standing here for? We must start to dig."

"Dig?"

"Sure. A bomb shelter. We've got all sorts of manpower. There's no one in the village who's doing anything. We could put everyone to work. There's road equipment in the shed down by the railroad station and there must be a dozen or more trucks scattered here and there. I'll appoint a committee and we" ll… Say, what's the matter with you fellows?"

"Higgy," said Joe, almost gently, "you just don't understand. This isn't fallout — this would be a hit with the village as ground zero. You can't build a shelter that would do any good. Not in a hundred years, you couldn't."

"We could try," said Higgy, stubbornly.

"You can't dig deep enough," I said, "or build strong enough to withstand the blast. And even if you could, there'd be the oxygen…"

"But we got to do something," Higgy shouted. "We can't simply sit and take it. Why, we'd all be killed!"

"Chum," I told him, "that's too damned bad."

"Now, see here…" said Higgy.

"Cut it out!" yelled Joe. "Cut it out, both of you. Maybe you don't care for one another, but we have to work together. And there is a way. We do have a shelter." I stared at him for a moment, then I saw what he was getting at.

"No!" I shouted. "No, we can't do that. Not yet. Don't you see? That would be throwing away any chance we have for negotiation. We can't let them know."

"Ten to one," said Joe, "they already know."

"I don't get it at all," Higgy pleaded. "What shelter have we got?

"The other world," said Joe. "The parallel world, the one that Brad was in. We could go back there if we had to. They would take care of us, they would let us stay. They'd grow food for us and there'd be stewards to keep us healthy and…"

"You forget one thing," I said. "We don't know how to go. There's just that one place in the garden and now it's all changed. The flowers are gone and there's nothing there but the money bushes."

"The steward and Smith could show us," said Joe. "They would know the way."

"They aren't here," said Higgy. "They went home. There was no one at the clinic and they said they had to go, but they'd be back again if we needed them. I drove them down to Brad's place and they didn't have no trouble finding the door or whatever you call it. They just walked a ways across the garden and then they disappeared."

"You could find it, then?" asked Joe.

"I could come pretty close."

"We can find it if we have to, then," said Joe. "We can form lines, arm in arm, and march across the garden."

"I don't know," I said. "It may not be always open."

"Open?"

"If it stayed open all the time," I said, "we'd have lost a lot of people in the last ten years. Kids played down there and other people used it for a short cut. I went across it to go over to Doc Fabian's, and there were a lot of people who walked back and forth across it. Some of them would have hit that door if it had been open."

"Well, anyhow," said Higgy, "we can call them up. We can pick up one of those phones…"

"Not," I said, "until we absolutely have to. We'd probably be cutting ourselves off forever from the human race."

"It would be better," Higgy said, "than dying."

"Let's not rush into anything," I pleaded with them. "Let's give our own people time to try to work it out. It's possible that nothing will happen. We can't go begging for sanctuary until we know we need it. There's still a chance that the two races may be able to negotiate. I know it doesn't look too good now, but if it's possible, humanity has to have a chance to negotiate."

"Brad," said Joe, "I don't think there'll be any negotiations. I don't think the aliens ever meant there should be any."

"And," said Higgy, "this never would have happened if it hadn't been for your father." I choked down my anger and I said, "It would have happened somewhere. If not in Millville, then it would have happened some place else. If not right now, then a little later."

"But that's the point," said Higgy, nastily. "It wouldn't have happened here; it would have happened somewhere else." I had no answer for him. There was an answer, certainly, but not the kind of answer that Higgy would accept.

"And let me tell you something else," said Higgy. "Just a friendly warning. You better watch your step. Hiram's out to get you. The beating you gave him didn't help the situation any. And there are a lot of hotheads who feel as Hiram does about it. They blame you and your family for what has happened here."

"Higgy," protested Joe, "no one has any right…"

"I know they don't," said Higgy, "but that's the way it is. I'll try to uphold law and order, but I can't guarantee it now." He turned and spoke directly to me. "You better hope," he said, "that this thing gets straightened out and soon. And if it doesn't, you better find a big, deep hole to hide in."

"Why, you…" I said. I jumped to my feet and I would have slugged him, but Joe came fast around the desk and grabbed hold of me and pushed me back.

"Cut it out!" he said, exasperated. "We got trouble enough without you two tangling."

"If the bombing rumour does get out," said Higgy, viciously, "I wouldn't give a nickel for your life. You're too mixed up in it. Folks will begin to wonder…"

Joe grabbed hold of Higgy and shoved him against the wall. "Shut your mouth," he said, "or I'll shut it for you." He balled up a fist and showed it to Higgy and Higgy shut his mouth.

"And now," I said to Joe, "since you've restored law and order and everything is peaceable and smooth, you won't be needing me. I'll run along."

"Brad," said Joe, between his teeth, "just a minute, there…" But I went out and slammed the door behind me.

Outside, the dusk had deepened and the street was empty. Light still burned in the village hall, but the few loungers at the door were gone.

Maybe, I told myself, I should have stayed. If for no other reason than to help Joe keep Higgy from making some fool move.

But there had, it seemed to me, been no point in staying. Even if I had something to offer (which I didn't), it would have been suspect. For by now, apparently, I was fairly well discredited. More than likely Hiram and Tom Preston had been busy all afternoon lining people up in the Hate Bradshaw Carter movement.

I turned off Main Street and headed back toward home. All along the Street lay a sense of peacefulness. Shadows flickered on the lawns quartering the intersections as a light summer breeze set the street lamps, hung on their arms, to swaying. Windows were open against the heat and to catch the breeze and soft lights shone within the houses, while from the open windows came snatches of muttering from the TV or radio. Peaceful, and yet I knew that beneath that quiet exterior lay the fear and hate and terror that could turn the village into a howling bedlam at a single word or an unexpected action.

There was resentment here, a smouldering resentment that one little group of people should be penned like cattle while all the others in the world were free. And a feeling of rebellion against the cosmic unfairness that we, of all the people in the world, should have been picked for penning. Perhaps, as well, a strange unquiet at being stared at by the world and talked of by the world, as if we were something monstrous and unkempt.

And perhaps the shameful fear that the world might think we had brought all this on ourselves through some moral or mental relapse.

Thrown into this sort of situation, it was only natural that the people of the village should be avid to grasp at any sort of interpretation that might clear their names and set them right, not only with themselves, but with the aliens and the world; that they should be willing to believe anything at all (the worst or best), to embrace all rumours, to wallow in outlandish speculation, to attempt to paint the entire picture in contrasting black and white (even when they knew that all of it was grey), because in this direction of blackness and of whiteness lay the desired simplicity that served an easier understanding and a comfortable acceptance.

They could not be blamed, I told myself. They were not equipped to take a thing like this in stride. For years they had lived unspectacularly in a tiny backwash off the mainstream of the world. The small events of village life were their great events, the landmarks of their living that time the crazy Johnson kid had rammed his beat-up jalopy into the tree on Elm Street, the day the fire department had been called to rescue Grandma Jones" cat, marooned on the roof of the Presbyterian parsonage (and to this day no one could figure out how the cat had got there), the afternoon Pappy Andrews had fallen asleep while fishing on the river bank, and had tumbled down into the stream, to be hauled out, now thoroughly awakened, but with water in his lungs, spewing and gasping, by Len Streeter (and the speculation as to why Len Streeter should have been walking along the river bank). Of such things had their lives been made, the thin grist of excitement.

But now they faced a bigger thing, something they could not comprehend, a happening and a situation that was, for the moment, too big for the world to comprehend. And because they could not reduce this situation to the simple formula of aimless wonder that could be accorded a cat that had somehow attained the parsonage roof, they were uneasy and upset and their tempers were on edge, ready to flare into an antagonistic attitude, and very probably into violence — if they could find something or someone against which such a violence could be aimed. And now I knew that Tom Preston and Hiram Martin had provided them with a target for their violence — if and when the violence came.

I saw now that I was almost home. I was in front of the house of Daniel Willoughby, a big brick house, upstanding and foursquare, the kind of house you'd know, without even thinking of it, that a man like Daniel Willoughby would own. Across the street, on the corner, was the old Perkins house.

New people had moved into the place a week or so ago. It was one of the few houses in the village that was put up for rent, and people moved in and out of it every year or so. No one ever went out of their way to get acquainted with these renters; it wasn't worth one's while. And just down the street was Doc Fabian's place.

A few minutes more, I thought, and I would be home, back in the house with the hole punched in the roof, back with the echoing emptiness and the lonely question, with the hatred and suspicion of the town performing sentry-go just outside the gate.

Across the street a screen door slammed and feet tramped across the porch boards.

A voice yelled: "Wally, they're going to bomb us! It was on television!" A shadow hunched up out of the darkness of the earth — a man who had been lying on the grass or sitting in a low-slung lawn chair, invisible until the cry had jerked hint upright.

He gurgled as he tried to form some word, but it came out wrong.

"There was a bulletin!" the other one shouted from the porch. "Just now. On television." The man out in the yard was up and running, heading for the house.

And I was running, too. Heading for home, as fast as I could go, my legs moving of their own accord, unprompted by the brain.

I'd expected I'd have a little time, but there'd been no time. The rumour had broken sooner than I had anticipated.

For the bulletin, of course, had been no more than rumour, I was sure of that — that a bombing might take place; that, as a last resort, a bomb might be dropped on Millville. But I also knew that so far as this village was concerned, it would make no difference. The people in the village would not differentiate between fact and rumour.

This was the trigger that would turn this village into a hate-filled madhouse. I might be involved and so might Gerald Sherwood — and Stiffy, too, if he were here.

I ran off the street and plunged down the slope back of the Fabian house, heading for the little swale where the money crop was growing. It was not until I was halfway down the slope that I thought of Hiram. Earlier in the day he had been guarding the money bushes and he might still be there. I skidded to a halt and crouched against the ground. Quickly I surveyed the area below me, then went slowly over it, looking for any hunch of darkness, any movement that might betray a watcher.

From far away I heard a shout and on the street above someone ran, feet pounding on the pavement. A door banged and somewhere, several blocks away, a car was started and the driver gunned the engine. The excited voice of a news commentator floated thinly through an open window, but I could not make out the words.

There was no sign of Hiram.

I rose from my crouch and went slowly down the slope. I reached the garden and made my way across it. Ahead of me loomed the shattered greenhouse, and growing at its corner the seedling elm tree.

I came up to the greenhouse and stood beside it for a moment, taking one last look for Hiram, to make sure he wasn't sneaking up on me. Then I started to move on, but a voice spoke to me and the sound of the voice froze me.

Although, even as I stood frozen, I realized there'd been no sound.

Bradshaw Carter, said the voice once again, speaking with no sound.

And there was a smell of purpleness — perhaps not a smell, exactly, but a sense of purpleness. It lay heavy in the air and it took me back in sharp and crystal memory to Tupper Tyler's camp where the Presence had waited on the hillside to walk me back to Earth.

"Yes," I said. "Where are you?" The seedling elm at the corner of the greenhouse seemed to sway, although there was not breeze enough to sway it.

I am here, it said. I have been here all the years. I have been looking forward to this time when I could talk with you.

"You know?" I asked, and it was a foolish question, for somehow I was sure it knew about the bomb and all the rest of it.

We know, said the elm tree, but there can be no despair.

"No despair?" I asked, aghast.

If we fail this time, it said, we will try again. Another place, perhaps. Or we may have to wait the — what do you call it?

"The radiation," I said. "That is what you call it."

Until, said the purpleness, the radiations leave.

"That will be years," I said.

We have the years, it said. We have all the time there is. There is no end of us. There is no end of time.

"But there is an end of time for us," I said, with a gush of pity for all humanity, but mostly for myself. "There is an end for me."

Yes, we know, said the purpleness. We feel much sorrow for you.

And now, I knew, was the time to ask for help, to point out that we were in this situation through no choice and no action of our own, and that those who had placed us in it should help to get us out.

But when I tried to say the words, I couldn't make them come. I couldn't admit to this alien thing our complete helplessness.

It was, I suppose, stubbornness and pride. But I had not known until I tried to speak the words that I had the stubborness and pride.

We feel much sorrow for you, the elm tree had said. But what kind of sorrow — a real and sincere sorrow, or the superficial and pedantic sorrow of the immortal for a frail and flickering creature that was about to die?

I would be bone and dust and eventually neither bone nor dust but forgetfulness and clay, and these things would live on and on, forever.

And it would be more important, I knew, for us who would be bone and dust to have a stubborn pride than it would be for a thing of strength and surety. It was the one thing we had, the one thing we could cling to.

A purpleness, I thought, and what was the purpleness? It was not a colour; it was something more than that. It was, perhaps, the odour of immortality, the effluvium of that great uncaring which could not afford to care since anything it cared for could only last a day, while it went on into an eternal future toward other things and other lives for which it could not allow itself to care.

And this was loneliness, I thought, a never-ending and hopeless loneliness such as the human race would never be called upon to face.

Standing there, touching the hard, cold edge of that loneliness, I felt pity stir in me and it seemed strange that one should feel pity for a tree.

Although, I knew, it was not the tree nor the purple flowers but the Presence that had walked me home and that was here as well — the same life stuff of which I myself was made — that I felt pity for.

"I am sorry for you, too," I said, but even as I spoke I knew it would not understand the pity any more than it would have understood the pride if it had known about the pride.

A car came screeching around the curve on the street above the swale and the illumination of its headlights slashed across the greenhouse. I flinched away, but the lights were gone before the flinch had finished.

Somewhere out in the darkness someone was calling me, speaking softly, almost fearfully.

Another car came around the curve, turning fast, its tires howling on the turn. The first car was stopping at my house, skidding on the pavement as the brakes spun it to a halt.

"Brad!" said the soft and fearful voice. "Are you out there, Brad?"

"Nancy," I said. "Nancy, over here." There was something wrong, I knew, something terribly wrong. There was a tenseness in her voice, as if she were speaking through a haze of terror.

And there was a wrongness, too, about those speeding cars stopping at the house.

"I thought I heard you talking," Nancy said, "but I couldn't see you. You weren't in the house and…" A man was running around the back of the house, a dark shadow outlined briefly by the street lamp at the corner. Out in front were other men; I could hear their running and the angry mumble of them.

"Brad," said Nancy.

"Hold it," I cautioned. "There's something wrong." I could see her now. She was stumbling toward me through the darkness.

Up by the house a voice yelled: "We know you're in there, Carter! We're coming in to get you if you don't come out!" I turned and ran toward Nancy and caught her in my arms. She was shivering.

"Those men," she said.

"Hiram and his pals," I said.

Glass crashed and a streak of fire went arcing through the night.

"Now, damn it," someone yelled, triumphantly, "maybe you'll come out."

"Run," I said to Nancy. "Up the hill. Get in among the trees…"

"It's Stiffy," she whispered back. "I saw him and he sent me…" A sudden glow of fire leaped up inside the house. The windows in the dining-room flared like gleaming eyes. And in the light cast by the flame I saw the dark figures gambolling, screaming now in a mindless frenzy.

Nancy turned and ran and I pelted after her, and behind us a voice boomed above the bawling of the mob.

"There he goes!" the voice shouted. "Down there in the garden!" Something caught my foot and tripped me and I fell, sprawling among the money bushes. The scraggly branches raked across my face and clawed at my clothes as I struggled to my feet.

A tongue of whipping flame leaped above the house, funnelled through the hole the time machine had punched in the roof, and the windows all were glowing now. In the sudden silence I could hear the sucking roar of fire eating through the structure.

They were running down the slope toward the garden a silent group of men. The pounding of their feet and the ugly gasping of their breath came across the space between us.

I stooped and ran my hand along the ground and in the darkness found the thing that tripped me. My fingers closed about it and I brought it up, a four foot length of two-by-four, old and beginning to rot along its edges, but still sound in the core.

A club, I thought, and this was the end of it. But one of them would die perhaps two of them while they were killing me.

"Run!" I screamed at Nancy, knowing she was out there somewhere, although I could not see her.

There was just one thing left, I told myself one thing more that I must do. And that was to get Hiram Martin with the club before the mob closed over me.

They had reached the bottom of the slope and were charging across the flat ground of the garden, with Hiram in the lead. I stood and waited for them, with the club half raised, watching Hiram run toward me, with the white gash of his teeth shining in the darkness of his face.

Right between the eyes, I told myself, and split his skull wide open.

And after that get another of them if there were time to do it.

The fire was roaring now, racing through the dryness of the house, and even where I stood the heat reached out to touch me.

The men were closing in and I raised the club a little higher, working my fingers to get a better grip upon it.

But in that last instant before they came within my reach, they skidded to a milling halt, some of them half turning to run back up the slope, the others simply staring, with their mouths wide open in astonishment and horror. Staring, not at me, but at something that was beyond me.

Then they broke and ran, back toward the slope, and above the roaring of the burning house, I could hear their bellowing — like stampeded cattle racing before a prairie fire, bawling out their terror as they ran.

I swung around to look behind me and there stood those other things from that other world, their ebon hides gleaming in the flicker of the firelight, their silver plumes stirring gently in the breeze. And as they moved toward me, they twittered in their weird bird-song.

My God, I thought, they couldn't wait! They came a little early so they wouldn't miss a single tremor of this terror-stricken place.

And not only on this night, but on other nights to come, rolling back the time to this present instant. A new place for them to stand and wait for it to commence, a new ghost house with gaping windows through which they'd glimpse the awfulness of another earth.

They were moving toward me and I was standing there with the club gripped in my hands and there was the smell of purpleness again and a soundless voice I recognized.

Go back, the voice said. Go back. You've come too soon. This world isn't open.

Someone was calling from far away, the call lest in the thundering and the crackling of the fire and the high, excited, liquid trilling of these ghouls from the purple world of Tupper Tyler.

Go back, said the elm tree, and its voiceless words cracked like a snapped whiplash.

And they were going back — or, at least, they were disappearing, melting into some strange darkness that was blacker than the night.

One elm tree that talked, I thought, and how many other trees? How much of this place still was Millville and how much purple world? I lifted my head so that I could see the treetops that rimmed the garden and they were there, ghosts against the sky, fluttering in some strange wind that blew from an unknown quarter. Fluttering — or were they talking, too? The old, dumb, stupid trees of earth, or a different kind of tree from a different earth?

We'd never know, I told myself, and perhaps it did not matter, for from the very start we'd never had a chance. We were licked before we started. We had been lost on that long-gone day when my father brought home the purple flowers.

From far off someone was calling and the name was mine.

I dropped the two-by-four and started across the garden, wondering who it was. Not Nancy, but someone that I knew.

Nancy came running down the hill. "Hurry, Brad," she called.

"Where were you?" I asked. "What's going on?"

"It's Stuffy. I told you it was Stuffy. He's waiting at the barrier. He sneaked through the guards. He says he has to see you."

"But Stiffy…"

"He's here, I tell you. And he wants to talk with you. No one else will do." She turned and trotted up the hill and I lumbered after her. We went through Doc's yard and across the street and through another yard and there, just ahead of us, I knew, was the barrier.

A gnome-like figure rose from the ground.

"That you, lad?" he asked.

I hunkered down at the edge of the barrier and stared across at him.

"Yes, it's me," I said, "but you…"

"Later. We haven't got much time. The guards know I got through the lines. They're hunting for me."

"What do you want?" I asked.

"Not what I want," he said. What everybody wants. Something that you need. You're in a jam."

"Everyone's in a jam," I said.

"That's what I mean," said Stuffy. "Some damn fool in the Pentagon is set to drop a bomb. I heard some of the ruckus on a car radio when I was sneaking through. Just a snatch of it."

"So, all right," I said. "The human race is sunk."

"Not sunk," insisted Stuffy. "I tell you there's a way. If Washington just understood, if…"

"If you know a way," I asked, "why waste time in reaching me? You could have told…"

"Who would I tell?" asked Stuffy. "Who would believe me, even if I told? I'm just a lousy bum and I ran off from that hospital and…"

"All right," I said. "All right."

"You were the man to tell," said Stiffy. "You're accredited, it seems like. Someone will listen to you. You can get in touch with someone and they'll listen to you."

"If it was good enough," I said.

"This is good enough," said Stuffy. "We have something that the aliens want. We're the only people who can give it to them."

"Give to them!" I shouted. "Anything they want, they can take away from us."

"Not this, they can't," said Stuffy.

I shook my head. "You make it sound too easy. They already have us hooked. The people want them in, although they'd come in anyhow, even if the people didn't. They hit us in our weak spot…"

"The Flowers have a weak spot, too," said Stuffy.

"Don't make me laugh," I said.

"You're just upset," said Stiffy.

"You're damned right I am." And I had a right to be. The world had gone to pot. Nuclear annihilation was poised above our heads and the village, wild before, would be running frantic when Hiram told what he'd seen down in the garden. Hiram and his hoodlum pals had burned down my house and I didn't have a home — no one had a home, for the earth was home no longer. It was just another in a long, long chain of worlds that was being taken over by another kind of life that mankind had no chance of fighting.

"The Flowers are an ancient race," said Stuffy. "How ancient, I don't know. A billion years, two billion, it's anybody's guess. They've gone into a lot of worlds and they've known a lot of races — intelligent races, that is. And they've worked with these races and gone hand in hand with them. But no other race has ever loved them. No other race has ever grown them in their gardens and tended them for the beauty that they gave and no…"

"You're crazy!" I yelled. "You're stark, raving mad."

"Brad," said Nancy, breathlessly, "he could be right, you know. Realization of natural beauty is something the human race developed in the last two thousand years or so. No caveman ever thought a flower was beautiful or…"

"You're right," said Stuffy. "No other race, none of the other races, ever developed the concept of beauty. Only a man of Earth would have dug up a clump of flowers growing in the woods and brought them home and tended them for the beauty that the Flowers had never known they had until that very moment. No one had ever loved them before, for any reason, or cared for them before. Like a lovely woman who had never known she was beautiful until someone told her that she was. Like an orphan that never had a home and finally found a home." It was simple, I told myself. It couldn't be that simple. There was nothing ever simple. Yet, when one thought of it, it seemed to make some sense. And it was the only thing that made any sense.

"The Flowers made one condition," Stuffy said. "Let us make another. Let us insist that a certain percentage of them, when we invite them, must remain as flowers."

"So that the people of the earth," said Nancy, "can cultivate them and lavish care on them and admire them for themselves."

Stuffy chuckled softly. "I've thought on it a lot," he said. "I could write that clause myself…" Would it work, I wondered. Would it really work?

And, of course, it would.

The business of being flowers loved by another race, cared for by another race, would bind these aliens to us as closely as we would be bound to them by the banishment of war.

A different kind of bond, but as strong a bond as that which bound man and dog together. And that bond was all we needed; one that would give us time to learn to work together.

We would never need to fear the Flowers, for we were someone they had been looking for, not knowing they were looking for us, not once suspecting that the sort of thing existed that we could offer them.

"Something new," I said.

"Yeah, something new," said Stuffy.

Something new and strange, I told myself. As new and strange to the Flowers as their time manipulation was new and strange to us.

"Well," asked Stuffy, "do you buy it? There's a bunch of soldier boys out here looking for me. They know I slipped through the lines and in a little while they'll nose me out." The State Department man and the senator, I recalled, had talked this very morning of long negotiation if, in fact, there could be negotiation.

And the general had talked in terms of force. But all the time the answer had lain in a soft and very human trait, mankind's love of beauty. It had remained for an undistinguished man, no senator or no general, but a crummy bum, to come up with the answer.

"Call in your soldier boys," I said, "and ask them for a phone. I'd just as soon not go hunting one." First I'd have to reach the senator and he'd talk to the President.

Then I'd get hold of Higgy and tell him what had happened so he could tame down the village.

But for a little moment I'd have it as I wanted to remember it, here with Nancy at my side and that old reprobate friend of mine across the barrier, savouring the greatness of this tiny slice of time in which the strength of true humanity (not of position or of power) rose to the vision of a future in which many different races marched side by side toward a glory we could not guess as yet.

All the Traps of Earth

THE INVENTORY list was long. On its many pages, in his small and precise script, he had listed furniture, paintings, china, silverware and all the rest of it — all the personal belongings that had been accumulated by the Barringtons through a long family history.

And now that he had reached the end of it, he noted down himself, the last item of them all: One domestic robot, Richard Daniel, antiquated but in good repair.

He laid the pen aside and shuffled all the inventory sheets together and stacked them in good order, putting a paper weight upon them — the little exquisitely carved ivory paper weight that aunt Hortense had picked up that last visit she had made to Peking.

And having done that, his job came to an end.

He shoved back the chair and rose from the desk and slowly walked across the living room, with all its clutter of possessions from the family's past. There, above the mantel, hung the sword that ancient Jonathon had worn in the War Between the States, and below it, on the mantelpiece itself, the cup the Commodore had won with his valiant yacht, and the jar of moon-dust that Tony had brought back from Man's fifth landing on the Moon, and the old chronometer that had come from the long-scrapped family spacecraft that had plied the asteroids.

And all around the room, almost cheek by jowl, hung the family portraits, with the old dead faces staring out into the world that they had helped to fashion.

And not a one of them from the last six hundred years, thought Richard Daniel, staring at them one by one, that he had not known.

There, to the right of the fireplace, old Rufus Andrew Barrington, who had been a judge some two hundred years ago. And to the right of Rufus, Johnson Joseph Barrington, who had headed up that old lost dream of mankind, the Bureau of Paranormal Research. There, beyond the door that led out to the porch, was the scowling pirate face of Danley Barrington, who had first built the family fortune.

And many others — administrator, adventurer, corporation chief. All good men and true.

But this was at an end. The family had run out.

Slowly Richard Daniel began his last tour of the house — the family room with its cluttered living space, the den with its old mementos, the library and its rows of ancient books, the dining hall in which the crystal and the china shone and sparkled, the kitchen gleaming with the copper and aluminum and the stainless steel, and the bedrooms on the second floor, each of them with its landmarks of former occupants. And finally, the bedroom where old Aunt Hortense had finally died, at long last closing out the line of Barringtons.

The empty dwelling held a not-quite-haunted quality, the aura of a house that waited for the old gay life to take up once again. But it was a false aura. All the portraits, all the china and the silverware, everything within the house would be sold at public auction to satisfy the debts. The rooms would be stripped and the possessions would be scattered and, as a last indignity, the house itself be sold.

Even he, himself, Richard Daniel thought, for he was chattel, too. He was there with all the rest of it, the final item on the inventory.

Except that what they planned to do with him was worse than simple sale. For he would be changed before he was offered up for sale. No one would be interested in putting up good money for him as he stood. And, besides, there was the law — the law that said no robot could legally have continuation of a single life greater than a hundred years.

And he had lived in a single life six times a hundred years. He had gone to see a lawyer and the lawyer had been sympathetic, but had held forth no hope.

"Technically," he had told Richard Daniel in his short, clipped lawyer voice, "you are at this moment much in violation of the statute. I completely fail to see how your family got away with it."

"They liked old things," said Richard Daniel. "And, besides, I was very seldom seen. I stayed mostly in the house. I seldom ventured out."

"Even so," the lawyer said, "there are such things as records. There must be a file on you…"

"The family," explained Richard Daniel, "in the past had many influential friends. You must understand, sir, that the Barringtons, before they fell upon hard times, were quite prominent in politics and in many other matters." The lawyer grunted knowingly.

"What I can't quite understand," he said, "is why you should object so bitterly. You'll not be changed entirely. You'll still be Richard Daniel."

"I would lose my memories, would I not?"

"Yes, of course you would. But memories are not too important. And you'd collect another set."

"My memories are dear to me," Richard Daniel told him.

"They are all I have. After some six hundred years, they are my sole worthwhile possession. Can you imagine, counselor, what it means to spend six centuries with one family?"

"Yes, I think I can," agreed the lawyer. "But now, with the family gone, isn't it just possible the memories may prove painful?"

"They're a comfort. A sustaining comfort. They make me feel important.

They give me perspective and a niche."

"But don't you understand? You'll need no comfort, no importance once you're reoriented. You'll be brand new. All that you'll retain is a certain sense of basic identity — that they cannot take away from you even if they wished. There'll be nothing to regret. There'll be no leftover guilts, no frustrated aspirations, no old loyalties to hound you."

"I must be myself," Richard Daniel insisted stubbornly. "I've found a depth of living, a background against which my living has some meaning. I could not face being anybody else."

"You'd be far better off," the lawyer said wearily. "You'd have a better body. You'd have better mental tools. You'd be more intelligent." Richard Daniel got up from the chair. He saw it was no use.

"You'll not inform on me?" he asked.

"Certainly not," the lawyer said. "So far as I'm concerned, you aren't even here."

"Thank you," said Richard Daniel. "How much do I owe you?"

"Not a thing," the lawyer told him. "I never make a charge to anyone who is older than five hundred." He had meant it as a joke, but Richard Daniel did not smile. He had not felt like smiling.

At the door he turned around.

"Why?" he was going to ask. "Why this silly law." But he did not have to ask — it was not hard to see.

Human vanity, he knew. No human being lived much longer than a hundred years, so neither could a robot. But a robot, on the other hand, was too valuable simply to be junked at the end of a hundred years of service, so there was this law providing for the periodic breakup of the continuity of each robot's life. And thus no human need undergo the psychological indignity of knowing that his faithful serving man might manage to outlive him by several thousand years.

It was illogical, but humans were illogical.

Illogical, but kind. Kind in many different ways.

Kind, sometimes, as the Barringtons had been kind, thought Richard Daniel. Six hundred years of kindness. It was a prideful thing to think about. They had even given him a double name. There weren't many robots nowadays who had double names. It was a special mark of affection and respect.

The lawyer having failed him, Richard Daniel had sought another source of help. Now, thinking back on it, standing in the room where Hortense Barrington had died, he was sorry that he'd done it. For he had embarrassed the religico almost unendurably. It had been easy for the lawyer to tell him what he had. Lawyers had the statutes to determine their behavior, and thus suffered little from agonies of personal decision.

But a man of the cloth is kind if he is worth his salt. And this one had been kind instinctively as well as professionally, and that had made it worse.

"Under certain circumstances," he had said somewhat awkwardly, "I could counsel patience and humility and prayer. Those are three great aids to anyone who is willing to put them to his use. But with you I am not certain."

"You mean," said Richard Daniel, "because I am a robot."

"Well, now…" said the minister, considerably befuddled at this direct approach.

"Because I have no soul?"

"Really," said the minister miserably, "you place me at a disadvantage.

You are asking me a question that for centuries has puzzled and bedeviled the best minds in the church."

"But one," said Richard Daniel, "that each man in his secret heart must answer for himself."

"I wish I could," cried the distraught minister. "I truly wish I could."

"If it is any help," said Richard Daniel, "I can tell you that sometimes I suspect I have a soul." And that, he could see, had been most upsetting for this kindly human.

It had been, Richard Daniel told himself, unkind of him to say it. For it must have been confusing, since coming from himself it was not opinion only, but expert evidence.

So he had gone away from the minister's study and come back to the empty house to get on with his inventory work.

Now that the inventory was all finished and the papers stacked where Dancourt, the estate administrator, could find them when be showed up in the morning, Richard Daniel had done his final service for the Barringtons and now must begin doing for himself.

He left the bedroom and closed the door behind him and went quietly down the stairs and along the hallway to the little cubby, back of the kitchen, that was his very own.

And that, he reminded himself with a rush of pride, was of a piece with his double name and his six hundred years. There were not too many robots who had a room, however small, that they might call their own.

He went into the cubby and turned on the light and closed the door behind him.

And now, for the first time, he faced the grim reality of what he meant to do.

The cloak and hat and trousers hung upon a hook and the galoshes were placed precisely underneath them. His attachment kit lay in one corner of the cubby and the money was cached underneath the floor board he had loosened many years ago to provide a hiding place.

There was, he, told himself, no point in waiting. Every minute counted.

He had a long way to go and he must be at his destination before morning light.

He knelt on the floor and pried up the loosened board, shoved in a hand and brought out the stacks of bills, money hidden through the years against a day of need.

There were three stacks of bills, neatly held together by elastic bands — money given him throughout the years as tips and Christmas gifts, as birthday presents and rewards for little jobs well done.

He opened the storage compartment located in his chest and stowed away all the bills except for half a dozen which he stuffed into a pocket in one hip.

He took the trousers off the hook and it was an awkward business, for he'd never worn clothes before except when he'd tried on these very trousers several days before. It was a lucky thing, he thought, that long-dead Uncle Michael had been a portly man, for otherwise the trousers never would have fit.

He got them on and zippered and belted into place, then forced his feet into the overshoes. He was a little worried about the overshoes. No human went out in the summer wearing overshoes. But it was the best that he could do. None of the regular shoes he'd found in the house had been nearly large enough.

He hoped no one would notice, but there was no way out of it. Somehow or other, he had to cover up his feet, for if anyone should see them, they'd be a giveaway.

He put on the cloak and it was a little short. He put on the hat and it was slightly small, but he tugged it down until it gripped his metal skull and that was all to the good, he told himself; no wind could blow it off.

He picked up his attachments — a whole bag full of them that he'd almost never used. Maybe it was foolish to take them along, he thought, but they were a part of him and by rights they should go with him. There was so little that he really owned — just the money he had saved, a dollar at a time, and this kit of his.

With the bag of attachments clutched underneath his arm, he closed the cubby door and went down the hall.

At the big front door he hesitated and turned back toward the house, but it was, at the moment, a simple darkened cave, empty of all that it once had held. There was nothing here to stay for — nothing but the memories, and the memories he took with him.

He opened the door and stepped out on the stoop and closed the door behind him.

And now, he thought, with the door once shut behind him, he was on his own. He was running off. He was wearing clothes. He was out at night, without the permission of a master. And all of these were against the law.

Any officer could stop him, or any citizen. He had no rights at all.

And he had no one who would speak for him, now that the Barringtons were gone.

He moved quietly down the walk and opened the gate and went slowly down the street, and it seemed to him the house was calling for him to come back.

He wanted to go back, his mind said that he should go back, but his feet kept going on, steadily down the street.

He was alone, he thought, and the aloneness now was real, no longer the mere intellectual abstract he'd held in his mind for days. Here he was, a vacant hulk, that for the moment had no purpose and no beginning and no end, but was just an entity that stood naked in an endless reach of space and time and held no meaning in itself.

But he walked on and with each block that he covered he slowly fumbled back to the thing he was, the old robot in old clothes, the robot running from a home that was a home no longer.

He wrapped the cloak about him tightly and moved on down the street and now he hurried, for he had to hurry.

He met several people and they paid no attention to him. A few cars passed, but no one bothered him.

He came to a shopping center that was brightly lighted and he stopped and looked in terror at the wide expanse of open, brilliant space that lay ahead of him. He could detour around it, but it would use up time and he stood there, undecided, trying to screw up his courage to walk into the light.

Finally he made up his mind and strode briskly out, with his cloak wrapped tight about him and his hat pulled low.

Some of the shoppers turned and looked at him and he felt agitated spiders running up and down his back. The galoshes suddenly seemed three times as big as they really were and they made a plopping, squashy sound that was most embarrassing.

He hurried on, with the end of the shopping area not more than a block away.

A police whistle shrilled and Richard Daniel jumped in sudden fright and ran. He ran in slobbering, mindless fright, with his cloak streaming out behind him and his feet slapping on the pavement.

He plunged out of the lighted strip into the welcome darkness of a residential section and he kept on running.

Far off he heard the siren and he leaped a hedge and tore across the yard. He thundered down the driveway and across a garden in the back and a dog came roaring out and engaged in noisy chase.

Richard Daniel crashed into a picket fence and went through it to the accompaniment of snapping noises as the pickets and the rails gave way. The dog kept on behind him and other dogs joined in.

He crossed another yard and gained the street and pounded down it. He dodged into a driveway, crossed another yard, upset a birdbath and ran into a clothesline, snapping it in his headlong rush.

Behind him lights were snapping on in the windows of the houses and screen doors were banging as people hurried out to see what the ruckus was.

He ran on a few more blocks, crossed another yard and ducked into a lilac thicket, stood still and listened. Some dogs were still baying in the distance and there was some human shouting, but there was no siren.

He felt a thankfulness well up in him that there was no siren, and a sheepishness, as well. For he had been panicked by himself, be knew; he had run from shadows, he had fled from guilt.

But he'd thoroughly roused the neighborhood and even now, he knew, calls must be going out and in a little while the place would be swarming with police.

He'd raised a hornet's nest and he needed distance, so he crept out of the lilac thicket and went swiftly down the street, heading for the edge of town.

He finally left the city, and found the highway. He loped along its deserted stretches. When a car or truck appeared, he pulled off on the shoulder and walked along sedately. Then when the car or truck had passed, he broke into his lope again.

He saw the spaceport lights miles before he got there.

When he reached the port, he circled off the road and came up outside a fence and stood there in the darkness, looking.

A gang of robots was loading one great starship and there were other ships standing darkly in their pits.

He studied the gang that was loading the ship, lugging the cargo from a warehouse and across the area lighted by the floods. This was just the setup he had planned on, although he had not hoped to find it immediately — he had been afraid that he might have to hide out for a day or two before he found a situation that he could put to use. And it was a good thing that he had stumbled on this opportunity, for an intensive hunt would be on by now for a fleeing robot, dressed in human clothes.

He stripped off the cloak and pulled off the trousers and the overshoes; he threw away the hat. From his attachments bag he took out the cutters, screwed off a hand and threaded the cutters into place. He cut the fence and wiggled through it, then replaced the hand and put the cutters back into the kit.

Moving cautiously in the darkness, he walked up to the warehouse, keeping in its shadow.

It would be simple, he told himself. All he had to do was step out and grab a piece of cargo, clamber up the ramp and down into the hold. Once inside, it should not be difficult to find a hiding place and stay there until the ship had reached first planet-fall.

He moved to the corner of the warehouse and peered around it and there were the toiling robots, in what amounted to an endless chain, going up the ramp with the packages of cargo, coming down again to get another load.

But there were too many of them and the line too tight. And the area too well lighted. He'd never be able to break into that line.

And it would not help if he could, he realized despairingly — because he was different from those smooth and shining creatures. Compared to them, he was like a man in another century's dress; he and his six-hundred-year-old body would stand out like a circus freak.


He stepped back into the shadow of the warehouse and he knew that be had lost. All his best-laid plans, thought out in sober, daring detail, as he had labored at the inventory, had suddenly come to naught.


It all came, he told himself, from never going out, from having no real contact with the world, from not keeping up with robot-body fashions, from not knowing what the score was. He'd imagined how it would be and he'd got it all worked out and when it came down, to it, it was nothing like he thought.


Now he'd have to go back to the hole he'd cut in the fence and retrieve the clothing be had thrown away and hunt up a hiding place until be could think of something else.


Beyond the corner of the warehouse he heard the harsh, dull grate of metal, and he took another look.


The robots had broken up their line and were streaming back toward the warehouse and a dozen or so of them were wheeling the ramp away from the cargo port. Three humans, all dressed in uniform, were walking toward the ship, heading for the ladder, and one of them carried a batch of papers in his hand.


The loading was all done and the ship about to lift and here he was, not more than a thousand feet away, and all that he could do was stand and see it go.


There had to be a way, he told himself, to get in that ship. If he could only do it his troubles would be over — or at least the first of his troubles would be over.


Suddenly it struck him like a hand across the face. There was a way to do it! He'd stood here, blubbering, when all the time there had been a way to do it!


In the ship, he'd thought. And that was not necessary.


He didn't have to be in the ship.


He started running, out into the darkness, far out so he could circle round and come upon the ship from the other side, so that the ship would be between him and the flood lights on the warehouse. He hoped that there was time.


He thudded out across the port, running in an arc, and came up to the ship and there was no sign as yet that it was about to leave.


Frantically he dug into his attachments bag and found the things he needed — the last things in that bag he'd ever thought he'd need. He found the suction discs and put them on, one for each knee, one for each elbow, one for each sole and wrist.


He strapped the kit about his waist and clambered up one of the mighty fins, using the discs to pull himself awkwardly along. It was not easy. He had never used the discs and there was a trick to using them, the trick of getting one clamped down and then working loose another so that be could climb.


But he had to do it. He had no choice but to do it. He climbed the fin and there was the vast steel body of the craft rising far above him, like a metal wall climbing to the sky, broken by the narrow line of a row of anchor posts that ran lengthwise of the hull — and all that huge extent of metal painted by the faint, illusive shine of starlight that glittered in his eyes.


Foot by foot he worked his way up the metal wall. Like a humping caterpillar, he squirmed his way and with each foot he gained he was a bit more thankful.


Then he heard the faint beginning of a rumble and with the rumble came terror. His suction cups, he knew, might not long survive the booming vibration of the wakening rockets, certainly would not hold for a moment when the ship began to climb.


Six feet above him lay his only hope — the final anchor post in the long row of anchor posts.


Savagely he drove himself up the barrel of the shuddering craft, hugging the steely surface like a desperate fly.


The rumble of the tubes built up to blot out all the world and he climbed in a haze of almost prayerful, brittle hope. He reached that anchor post or he was as good as dead. Should he slip and drop into that pit of flaming gases beneath the rocket mouths and he was done for.


Once a cup came loose and he almost fell, but the others held and he caught himself.


With a desperate, almost careless lunge, he hurled himself up the wall of metal and caught the rung in his finger-tips and held on with a concentration of effort that wiped out all else.


The rumble was a screaming fury now that lanced through brain and body.


Then the screaming ended and became a throaty roar of power and the vibration left the ship entirely. From one corner of his eye he saw the lights of the spaceport swinging over gently on their side.


Carefully, slowly, be pulled himself along the steel until he had a better grip upon the rung, but even with the better grip he had the feeling that some great hand had him in its fist and was swinging him in anger in a hundred-mile-long arc.


Then the tubes left off their howling and there was a terrible silence and the stars were there, up above him and to either side of him, and they were steely stars with no twinkle in them. Down below, be knew, a lonely Earth was swinging, but he could not see it.


He pulled himself up against the rung and thrust a leg beneath it and sat up on the hull.


There were more stars than he'd ever seen before, more than he'd dreamed there could be. They were still and cold, like hard points of light against a velvet curtain; there was no glitter and no twinkle in them and it was as if a million eyes were staring down at him. The Sun was underneath the ship and over to one side; just at the edge of the left-hand curvature was the glare of it against the silent metal, a sliver of reflected light outlining one edge of the ship. The Earth was far astern, a ghostly blue-green ball hanging in the void, ringed by the fleecy halo of its atmosphere.


It was as if he were detached, a lonely, floating brain that looked out upon a thing it could not understand nor could ever try to understand; as if he might even be afraid of understanding it — a thing of mystery and delight so long as he retained an ignorance of it, but something fearsome and altogether overpowering once the ignorance had gone.


Richard Daniel sat there, flat upon his bottom, on the metal hull of the speeding ship and he felt the mystery and delight and the loneliness and the cold and the great uncaring and his mind retreated into a small and huddled, compact defensive ball.


He looked. That was all there was to do. It was all right now, he thought. But how long would he have to look at it? How long would he have to camp out here in the open — the most deadly kind of open?


He realized for the first time that he had no idea where the ship was going or how long it might take to get there. He knew it was a starship, which meant that it was bound beyond the solar system, and that meant that at some point in its flight it would enter hyperspace. He wondered, at first academically, and then with a twinge of fear, what hyperspace might do to one sitting naked to it. But there was little need, he thought philosophically, to fret about it now, for in due time he'd know, and there was not a thing that he could do about it — not a single thing.


He took the suction cups off his body and stowed them in his kit and then with one hand he tied the kit to one of the metal rungs and dug around in it until he found a short length of steel cable with a ring on one end and a snap on the other. He passed the ring end underneath a rung and threaded the snap end through it and snapped the snap onto a metal loop underneath his armpit. Now he was secured; he need not fear carelessly letting go and floating off the ship.

So here he was, he thought, neat as anything, going places fast, even if he had no idea where he might be headed, and now the only thing he needed was patience. He thought back, without much point, to what the religico had said in the study back on Earth. Patience and humility and prayer, he'd said, apparently not realizing at the moment that a robot has a world of patience.

It would take a lot of time, Richard Daniel knew, to get where he was going. But he had a lot of time, a lot more than any human, and he could afford to waste it. There were no urgencies, he thought — no need of food or air, or water, no need of sleep or rest… There was nothing that could touch him.

Although, come to think of it, there might be.

There was the cold, for one. The space-hull was still fairly warm, with one side of it picking up the heat of the Sun and radiating it around the metal skin, where it was lost on the other side, but there would be a time when the Sun would dwindle until it had no heat and then he'd be subjected to the utter cold of space.

And what would the cold do to him. Might it make his body brittle?

Might it interfere with the functioning of his brain? Might it do other things he could not even guess?

He felt the fears creep in again and tried to shrug them off and they drew off, but they still were there, lurking at the fringes of his mind.

The cold, and the loneliness, he thought — but he was one who could cope with loneliness. And if he couldn't, if he got too lonely, if he could no longer stand it, he could always beat a devil's tattoo on the hull and after a time of that someone would come out to investigate and they would haul him in.

But that was the last move of desperation, he told himself. For if they came out and found him, then he would be caught. Should he be forced to that extremity, he'd have lost everything — there would then have been no point in leaving Earth at all.

So he settled down, living out his time, keeping the creeping fears at bay just beyond the outposts of his mind, and looking at the universe all spread out before him.

The motors started up again with a pale blue flickering in the rockets at the stern and although there was no sense of acceleration he knew that the ship, now well off the Earth, had settled down to the long, hard drive to reach the speed of light.

Once they reached that speed they would enter hyperspace. He tried not to think of it, tried to tell himself there was not a thing to fear — but it hung there just ahead of him, the great unknowable.

The Sun shrank until it was only one of many stars and there came a time when he could no longer pick it out. And the cold clamped down but it didn't seem to bother him, although he could sense the coldness.

Maybe, he said in answer to his fear, that would be the way it would be with hyperspace as well. But he said it unconvincingly. The ship drove on and on with the weird blueness in the tubes.

Then there was the instant when his mind went splattering across the universe.

He was aware of the ship, but only aware of it in relation to an awareness of much else, and it was no anchor point, no rallying position. He was spread and scattered; he was opened out and rolled out until he was very thin. He was a dozen places, perhaps a hundred places, all at once, and it was confusing, and his immediate reaction was to fight back somehow against whatever might have happened to him — to fight back and pull himself together. The fighting did no good at all, but made it even worse, for in certain instances it seemed to drive parts of him farther from other parts of him and the confusion was made greater.

So he quit his fighting and his struggling and just lay there, scattered, and let the panic ebb away and told himself he didn't care, and wondered if he did.

Slow reason returned a dribble at a time and he could think again and he wondered rather bleakly if this could be hyperspace and was pretty sure it was. And if it were, he knew, he'd have a long time to live like this, a long time in which to become accustomed to it and to orient himself, a long time to find himself and pull himself together, a long time to understand this situation if it were, in fact, understandable.

So he lay, not caring greatly, with no fear or wonder, just resting and letting a fact seep into him here and there from many different points.

He knew that, somehow, his body — that part of him which housed the rest of him — was still chained securely to the ship, and that knowledge, in itself, he knew, was the first small step towards reorienting himself. He had to reorient, he knew. He had to come to some sort of terms, if not to understanding, with this situation.

He had opened up and he had scattered out — that essential part of him, the feeling and the knowing and the thinking part of him, and he lay thin across a universe that loomed immense in unreality.

Was this, he wondered, the way the universe should be, or was it the unchained universe, the wild universe beyond the limiting disciplines of measured space and time.

He started slowly reaching out, cautious as he had been in his crawling on the surface of the ship, reaching out toward the distant parts of him, a little at a time. He did not know how he did it, he was conscious of no particular technique, but whatever he was doing, it seemed to work, for he pulled himself together, bit by knowing bit, until he had gathered up all the scattered fragments of him into several different piles.

Then he quit and lay there, wherever there might be, and tried to sneak up on those piles of understanding that he took to be himself.

It took a while to get the hang of it, but once be did, some of the incomprehensibility went away, although the strangeness stayed. He tried to put it into thought and it was hard to do. The closest he could come was that he had been unchained as well as the universe — that whatever bondage had been imposed upon him by that chained and normal world had now become dissolved and he no longer was fenced in by either time or space.

He could see — and know and sense — across vast distances, if distance were the proper term, and he could understand certain facts that he had not even thought about before, could understand instinctively, but without the language or the skill to coalesce the facts into independent data.

Once again the universe was spread far out before him and it was a different and in some ways a better universe, a more diagrammatic universe, and in time, he knew, if there were such a thing as time, he'd gain some completer understanding and acceptance of it.

He probed and sensed and learned and there was no such thing as time, but a great foreverness.

He thought with pity of those others locked inside the ship, safe behind its insulating walls, never knowing all the glories of the innards of a star or the vast panoramic sweep of vision and of knowing far above the flat galactic plane.

Yet he really did not know what he saw or probed; he merely sensed and felt it and became a part of it, and it became a part of him — he seemed unable to reduce it to a formal outline of fact or of dimension or of content. It still remained a knowledge and a power so overwhelming that it was nebulous. There was no fear and no wonder, for in this place, it seemed, there was neither fear nor wonder. And he finally knew that it was a place apart, a world in which the normal space-time knowledge and emotion had no place at all and a normal space-time being could have no tools or measuring stick by which he might reduce it to a frame of reference.

There was no time, no space, no fear, no wonder — and no actual knowledge, either.

Then time came once again and suddenly his mind was stuffed back into its cage within his metal skull and he was again one with his body, trapped and chained and small and cold and naked.

He saw that the stars were different and that he was far from home and just a little way ahead was a star that blazed like a molten furnace hanging in the black.

He sat bereft, a small thing once again, and the universe reduced to package size.

Practically, he checked the cable that held him to the ship and it was intact. His attachments kit was still tied to its rung. Everything was exactly as it had been before.

He tried to recall the glories he had seen, tried to grasp again the fringe of knowledge which he had been so close to, but both the glory and the knowledge, if there had ever been a knowledge, had faded into nothingness.

He felt like weeping, but he could not weep, and he was too old to lie down upon the ship and kick his heels in tantrum.

So he sat there, looking at the sun that they were approaching and finally there was a planet that he knew must be their destination, and he found room to wonder what planet it might be and how far from Earth it was.

He heated up a little as the ship skipped through atmosphere as an aid to braking speed and he had some rather awful moments as it spiraled into thick and soupy gases that certainly were a far cry from the atmosphere of Earth. He hung most desperately to the rungs as the craft came rushing down onto a landing field, with the hot gases of the rockets curling up about him. But he made it safely and swiftly clambered down and darted off into the smog-like atmosphere before anyone could see him.

Safely off, he turned and looked back at the ship and despite its outlines being hidden by the drifting clouds of swirling gases, he could see it clearly, not as an actual structure, but as a diagram. He looked at it wonderingly and there was something wrong with the diagram, something vaguely wrong, some part of it that was out of whack and not the way it should be.

He heard the clanking of cargo haulers coming out upon the field and he wasted no more time, diagram or not.

He drifted back, deeper in the mists, and began to circle, keeping a good distance from the ship. Finally he came to the spaceport's edge and the beginning of the town.

He found a street and walked down it leisurely and there was a wrongness in the town.

He met a few hurrying robots who were in too much of a rush to pass the time of day. But he met no humans.

And that, he knew quite suddenly, was the wrongness of the place. It was not a human town.

There were no distinctly human buildings — no stores or residences, no churches and no restaurants. There were gaunt shelter barracks and sheds for the storing of equipment and machines, great sprawling warehouses and vast industrial plants. But that was all there was. It was a bare and dismal place compared to the streets that he had known on Earth.

It was a robot town, he knew. And a robot planet. A world that was barred to humans, a place where humans could not live, but so rich in some natural resource that it cried for exploitation. And the answer to that exploitation was to let the robots do it.

Luck, he told himself. His good luck still was holding. He had literally been dumped into a place where he could live without human interference. Here, on this planet, he would be with his own.

If that was what he wanted. And he wondered if it was. He wondered just exactly what it was he wanted, for he'd had no time to think of what he wanted. He had been too intent on fleeing Earth to think too much about it.

He had known all along what he was running from, but had not considered what he might be running to.

He walked a little further and the town came to an end. The Street became a path and went wandering on into the wind-blown fogginess.

So he turned around and went back up the street.

There had been one barracks, he remembered, that had a TRANSIENTS sign hung out, and be made his way to it.

Inside, an ancient robot sat behind the desk. His body was old-fashioned and somehow familiar. And it was familiar, Richard Daniel knew, because it was as old and battered and as out-of-date as his.

He looked at the body, just a bit aghast, and saw that while it resembled his, there were little differences. The same ancient model, certainly, but a different series. Possibly a little newer, by twenty years or so, than his.

"Good evening, stranger," said the ancient robot. "You came in on the ship?" Richard Daniel nodded.

"You'll be staying till the next one?"

"I may be settling down," said Richard Daniel. "I may want to stay here." The ancient robot took a key from off a hook and laid it on the desk.

"You representing someone?"

"No," said Richard Daniel.

"I thought maybe that you were. We get a lot of representatives. Humans can't come here, or don't want to come, so they send robots out here to represent them."

"You have a lot of visitors?"

"Some. Mostly the representatives I was telling you about. But there are some that are on the lam. I'd take it, mister, you are on the lam." Richard Daniel didn't answer.

"It's all right," the ancient one assured him. "We don't mind at all, just so you behave yourself. Some of our most prominent citizens, they came here on the lam."

"That is fine," said Richard Daniel. "And how about yourself? You must be on the lam as well."

"You mean this body. Well, that's a little different. This here is punishment."

"Punishment?"

"Well, you see, I was the foreman of the cargo warehouse and I got to goofing off. So they hauled me up and had a trial and they found me guilty.

Then they stuck me into this old body and I have to stay in it, at this lousy job, until they get another criminal that needs punishment. They can't punish no more than one criminal at a time because this is the only old body that they have. Funny thing about this body. One of the boys went back to Earth on a business trip and found this old heap of metal in a junkyard and brought it home with him — for a joke, I guess. Like a human might buy a skeleton for a joke, you know." He took a long, sly look at Richard Daniel. "It looks to me, stranger, as if your body…" But Richard Daniel didn't let him finish.

"I take it," Richard Daniel said, "you haven't many criminals."

"No," said the ancient robot sadly, "we're generally a pretty solid lot." Richard Daniel reached out to pick up the key, but the ancient robot put out his hand and covered it.

"Since you are on the lam," he said, "it'll be payment in advance."

"I'll pay you for a week," said Richard Daniel, handing him some money.

The robot gave him back his change.

"One thing I forgot to tell you. You'll have to get plasticated."

"Plasticated?"

"That's right. Get plastic squirted over you. To protect you from the atmosphere. It plays hell with metal. There's a place next door will do it."

"Thanks. I'll get it done immediately."

"It wears off," warned the ancient one. "You have to get a new job every week or so." Richard Daniel took the key and went down the corridor until he found his numbered cubicle. He unlocked the door and stepped inside. The room was small, but clean. It had a desk and chair and that was all it had.

He stowed his attachments bag in one corner and sat down in the chair and tried to feel at home. But he couldn't feel at home, and that was a funny thing — he'd just rented himself a home.

He sat there, thinking back, and tried to whip up some sense of triumph at having done so well in covering his tracks. He couldn't.

Maybe this wasn't the place for him, he thought. Maybe he'd be happier on some other planet. Perhaps he should go back to the ship and get on it once again and have a look at the next planet coming up.

If he hurried, he might make it. But he'd have to hurry, for the ship wouldn't stay longer than it took to unload the consignment for this place and take on new cargo.

He got up from the chair, still only half decided.

And suddenly he remembered how, standing in the swirling mistiness, he had seen the ship as a diagram rather than a ship, and as he thought about it, something clicked inside his brain and he leaped toward the door.

For now he knew what had been wrong with the spaceship's diagram — an injector valve was somehow out of kilter, he had to get back there before the ship took off again.

He went through the door and down the corridor. He caught sight of the ancient robot's startled face as he ran across the lobby and out into the street. Pounding steadily toward the spaceport, he tried to get the diagram into his mind again, but it would not come complete — it came in bits and pieces, but not all of it.

And even as be fought for the entire diagram, he heard the beginning take-off rumble.

"Wait!" he yelled. "Wait for me! You can't…" There was a flash that turned the world pure white and a mighty invisible wave came swishing out of nowhere and sent him reeling down the street, falling as he reeled. He was skidding on the cobblestones and sparks were flying as his metal scraped along the stone. The whiteness reached a brilliance that almost blinded him and then it faded swiftly and the world was dark.

He brought up against a wall of some sort, clanging as he hit, and he lay there, blind from the brilliance of the flash, while his mind went scurrying down the trail of the diagram.

The diagram, he thought — why should he have seen a diagram of the ship he'd ridden through space, a diagram that had shown an injector out of whack? And how could he, of all robots, recognize an injector, let alone know there was something wrong with it. It had been a joke back home, among the Barringtons, that he, a mechanical thing himself, should have no aptitude at all for mechanical contraptions. And he could have saved those people and the ship — he could have saved them all if he'd immediately recognized the significance of the diagram. But he'd been too slow and stupid and now they all were dead.

The darkness had receded from his eyes and he could see again and he got slowly to his feet, feeling himself all over to see how badly he was hurt. Except for a dent or two, he seemed to be all right.

There were robots running in the street, heading for the spaceport, where a dozen fires were burning and where sheds and other structures had been flattened by the blast.

Someone tugged at his elbow and he turned around. It was the ancient robot.

"You're the lucky one," the ancient robot said. "You got off it just in time." Richard Daniel nodded dumbly and had a terrible thought: What if they should think he did it? He had gotten off the ship; he had admitted that he was on the lam; he had rushed out suddenly, just a few seconds before the ship exploded. It would be easy to put it all together — that he had sabotaged the ship, then at the last instant had rushed out, remorseful, to undo what he had done. On the face of it, it was damning evidence.

But it was all right as yet, Richard Daniel told himself. For the ancient robot was the only one that knew — he was the only one he'd talked to, the only one who even knew that he was in town.

There was a way, Richard Daniel thought — there was an easy way. He pushed the thought away, but it came back. You are on your own, it said. You are already beyond the law. In rejecting human law, you made yourself an outlaw. You have become fair prey. There is just one law for you — self preservation.

But there are robot laws, Richard Daniel argued. There are laws and courts in this community. There is a place for justice.

Community law, said the leech clinging in his brain, provincial law, little more than tribal law — and the stranger's always wrong.

Richard Daniel felt the coldness of the fear closing down upon him and he knew, without half thinking, that the leech was right.

He turned around and started down the street, heading for the transients barracks. Something unseen in the street caught his foot and he stumbled and went down. He scrabbled to his knees, hunting in the darkness on the cobblestones for the thing that tripped him. It was a heavy bar of steel, some part of the wreckage that had been hurled this far. He gripped it by one end and arose.

"Sorry," said the ancient robot. "You have to watch your step." And there was a faint implication in his word — a hint of something more than the words had said, a hint of secret gloating in a secret knowledge.

You have broken other laws, said the leech in Richard Daniel's brain.

What of breaking just one more? Why, if necessary, not break a hundred more.

It is all or nothing. Having come this far, you can't afford to fail. You can allow no one to stand in your way now.

The ancient robot half turned away and Richard Daniel lifted up the bar of steel, and suddenly the ancient robot no longer was a robot, but a diagram. There, with all the details of a blueprint, were all the working parts, all the mechanism of the robot that walked in the street before him.

And if one detached that single bit of wire, if one burned out that coil, if — Even as he thought it, the diagram went away and there was the robot, a stumbling, failing robot that clanged on the cobblestones.

Richard Daniel swung around in terror, looking up the street, but there was no one near.

He turned back to the fallen robot and quietly knelt beside him. He gently put the bar of steel down into the street. And he felt a thankfulness — for, almost miraculously, he had not killed.

The robot on the cobblestones was motionless. When Richard Daniel lifted him, he dangled. And yet he was all right. All anyone had to do to bring him back to life was to repair whatever damage had been done his body.

And that served the purpose, Richard Daniel told himself, as well as killing would have done.

He stood with the robot in his arms, looking for a place to hide him.

He spied an alley between two buildings and darted into it. One of the buildings, he saw, was set upon stone blocks sunk into the ground, leaving a clearance of a foot or so. He knelt and shoved the robot underneath the building. Then he stood up and brushed the dirt and dust from his body.

Back at the barracks and in his cubicle, he found a rag and cleaned up the dirt that he had missed. And, he thought hard.

He'd seen the ship as a diagram and, not knowing what it meant, hadn't done a thing. Just now he'd seen the ancient robot as a diagram and had most decisively and neatly used that diagram to save himself from murder — from the murder that he was fully ready to commit.

But how had he done it? And the answer seemed to be that be really had done nothing. He'd simply thought that one should detach a single wire, burn out a single coil — he'd thought it and it was done.

Perhaps he'd seen no diagram at all. Perhaps the diagram was no more than some sort of psychic rationalization to mask whatever he had seen or sensed. Seeing the ship and robot with the surfaces stripped away from them and their purpose and their function revealed fully to his view, he had sought some explanation of his strange ability, and his subconscious mind had devised an explanation, an analogy that, for the moment, had served to satisfy him.

Like when he'd been in hyperspace, he thought. He'd seen a lot of things out there he had not understood. And that was it, of course, he thought excitedly. Something had happened to him out in hyperspace. Perhaps there'd been something that had stretched his mind. Perhaps he'd picked up some sort of new dimension-seeing, some new twist to his mind.

He remembered how, back on the ship again, with his mind wiped clean of all the glory and the knowledge, he had felt like weeping. But now he knew that it had been much too soon for weeping. For although the glory and the knowledge (if there'd been a knowledge) had been lost to him, be had not lost everything. He'd gained a new perceptive device and the ability to use it somewhat fumblingly — and it didn't really matter that he still was at a loss as to what he did to use it. The basic fact that he possessed it and could use it was enough to start with.

Somewhere out in front there was someone calling — someone, he now realized, who had been calling for some little time.

"Hubert, where are you? Hubert, are you around? Hubert…" Hubert?

Could Hubert be the ancient robot? Could they have missed him already?

Richard Daniel jumped to his feet for an undecided moment, listening to the calling voice. And then sat down again. Let them call, he told himself.

Let them go out and hunt.

He was safe in this cubicle. He had rented it and for the moment it was home and there was no one who would dare break in upon him.

But it wasn't home. No matter how hard he tried to tell himself it was, it wasn't. There wasn't any home.

Earth was home, he thought. And not all of Earth, but just a certain street and that one part of it was barred to him forever. It had been barred to him by the dying of a sweet old lady who had outlived her time; it had been barred to him by his running from it.

He did not belong on this planet, he admitted to himself, nor on any other planet. He belonged on Earth, with the Barringtons, and it was impossible for him to be there.

Perhaps, he thought, he should have stayed and let them reorient him.

He remembered what the lawyer had said about memories that could become a burden and a torment. After all, it might have been wiser to have started over once again.

For what kind of future did he have, with his old outdated body, his old outdated brain? The kind of body that they put a robot into on this planet by way of punishment. And the kind of brain — but the brain was different, for he had something now that made up for any lack of more modern mental tools.

He sat and listened, and he heard the house — calling all across the light years of space for him to come back to it again. And he saw the faded living room with all its vanished glory that made a record of the years. He remembered, with a twinge of hurt, the little room back of the kitchen that had been his very own.

He arose and paced up and down the cubicle — three steps and turn, and then three more steps and turn for another three.

The sights and sounds and smells of home grew close and wrapped themselves about him and he wondered wildly if he might not have the power, a power accorded him by the universe of hyperspace, to will himself to that familiar street again.

He shuddered at the thought of it, afraid of another power, afraid that it might happen. Afraid of himself, perhaps, of the snarled and tangled being he was — no longer the faithful, shining servant, but a sort of mad thing that rode outside a spaceship, that was ready to kill another being, that could face up to the appalling sweep of hyperspace, yet cowered before the impact of a memory.

What he needed was a walk, he thought. Look over the town and maybe go out into the country. Besides, he remembered, trying to become practical, he'd need to get that plastication job he had been warned to get.

He went out into the corridor and strode briskly down it and was crossing the lobby when someone spoke to him.

"Hubert," said the voice, "just where have you been? I've been waiting hours for you." Richard Daniel spun around and a robot sat behind the desk. There was another robot leaning in a corner and there was a naked robot brain lying on the desk.

"You are Hubert, aren't you", asked the one behind the desk.

Richard Daniel opened up his mouth to speak, but the words refused to come.

"I thought so," said the robot. "You may not recognize me, but my name is Andy. The regular man was busy, so the judge sent me. He thought it was only fair we make the switch as quickly as possible. He said you'd served a longer term than you really should. Figures you'd be glad to know they'd convicted someone else." Richard Daniel stared in horror at the naked brain lying on the desk.

The robot gestured at the metal body propped into the corner.

"Better than when we took you out of it," he said with a throaty chuckle. "Fixed it up and polished it and got out all the dents. Even modernized it some. Brought it strictly up to date. You'll have a better body than you had when they stuck you into that monstrosity."

"I don't know what to say," said Richard Daniel, stammering. "You see, I'm not…"

"Oh, that's all right," said the other happily. "No need for gratitude.

Your sentence worked out longer than the judge expected. This just makes up for it."

"I thank you, then," said Richard Daniel. "I thank you very much." And was astounded at himself, astonished at the ease with which he said it, confounded at his sly duplicity.

But if they forced it on him, why should he refuse? There was nothing that he needed more than a modern body!

It was still working out, he told himself. He was still riding luck.

For this was the last thing that he needed to cover up his tracks.

"All newly plasticated and everything," said Andy. "Hans did an extra special job."

"Well, then," said Richard Daniel, "let's get on with it." The other robot grinned. "I don't blame you for being anxious to get out of there. It must be pretty terrible to live in a pile of junk like that." He came around from behind the desk and advanced on Richard Danie1.

"Over in the corner," he said, "and kind of prop yourself. I don't want you tipping over when I disconnect you. One good fall and that body'd come apart."

"All right," said Richard Daniel. He went into the corner and leaned back against it and planted his feet solid so that he was propped.

He had a rather awful moment when Andy disconnected the optic nerve and he lost his eyes and there was considerable queasiness in having his skull lifted off his shoulders and he was in sheer funk as the final disconnections were being swiftly made.

Then he was a blob of greyness without a body or a head or eyes or anything at all. He was no more than a bundle of thoughts all wrapped around themselves like a pail of worms and this pail of worms was suspended in pure nothingness.

Fear came to him, a taunting, terrible fear. What if this were just a sort of ghastly gag? What if they'd found out who he really was and what he'd done to Hubert? What if they took his brain and tucked it away somewhere for a year or two — or for a hundred years? It might be, he told himself, nothing more than their simple way of justice.

He hung onto himself and tried to fight the fear away, but the fear ebbed back and forth like a restless tide.

Time stretched out and out — far too long a time, far more time than one would need to switch a brain from one body to another. Although, he told himself, that might not be true at all. For in his present state he had no way in which to measure time. He had no external reference points by which to determine time.

Then suddenly he had eyes.

And he knew everything was all right.

One by one his senses were restored to him and he was back inside a body and he felt awkward in the body, for he was unaccustomed to it.

The first thing that he saw was his old and battered body propped into its corner and he felt a sharp regret at the sight of it and it seemed to him that he had played a dirty trick upon it. It deserved, he told himself, a better fate than this — a better fate than being left behind to serve as a shabby jailhouse on this outlandish planet. It had served him well for six hundred years and he should not be deserting it. But he was deserting it. He was, he told himself in contempt, becoming very expert at deserting his old friends. First the house back home and now his faithful body.

Then he remembered something else — all that money in the body!

"What's the matter, Hubert?" Andy asked.

He couldn't leave it there, Richard Daniel told himself, for he needed it. And besides, if he left it there, someone would surely find it later and it would be a give-away. He couldn't leave it there and it might not be safe to forthrightly claim it. If he did, this other robot, this Andy, would think he'd been stealing on the job or running some side racket. He might try to bribe the other, but one could never tell how a move like that might go. Andy might be full of righteousness and then there'd be hell to pay.

And, besides, he didn't want to part with any of the money.

All at once he had it — he knew just what to do. And even as he thought it, he made Andy into a diagram.

That connection there, thought Richard Daniel, reaching out his arm to catch the falling diagram that turned into a robot. He eased it to the floor and sprang across the room to the side of his old body. In seconds he had the chest safe open and the money safely out of it and locked inside his present body.

Then he made the robot on the floor become a diagram again and got the connection back the way that it should be.

Andy rose shakily off the floor. He looked at Richard Daniel in some consternation.

"What happened to me?" he asked in a frightened voice. Richard Daniel sadly shook his head. "I don't know. You just keeled over. I started for the door to yell for help, then I heard you stirring and you were all right." Andy was plainly puzzled. "Nothing like this ever happened to me before," he said.

"If I were you," counseled Richard Daniel, "I'd have myself checked over. You must have a faulty relay or a loose connection."

"I guess I will," the other one agreed. "It's downright dangerous." He walked slowly to the desk and picked up the other brain, started with it toward the battered body leaning in the corner.

Then he stopped and said: "Look, I forgot. I was supposed to tell you.

You better get up to the warehouse. Another ship is on its way. It will be coming in any minute now."

"Another one so soon?"

"You know how it goes," Andy said, disgusted. "They don't even try to keep a schedule here. We won't see one for months and then there'll be two or three at once."

"Well, thanks," said Richard Daniel, going out the door. He went swinging down the street with a newborn confidence. And he had a feeling that there was nothing that could lick him, nothing that could stop him.

For he was a lucky robot!

Could all that luck, he wondered, have been gotten out in hyperspace, as his diagram ability, or whatever one might call it, had come from hyperspace? Somehow hyperspace had taken him and twisted him and changed him, had molded him anew, had made him into a different robot than he had been before.

Although, so far as luck was concerned, he had been lucky all his entire life. He'd had good luck with his human family and had gained a lot of favors and a high position and had been allowed to live for six hundred years. And that was a thing that never should have happened. No matter how powerful or influential the Barringtons had been, that six hundred years must be due in part to nothing but sheer 1uck.

In any case, the luck and the diagram ability gave him a solid edge over all the other robots he might meet. Could it, he asked himself, give him an edge on Man as well?

No — that was a thought he should not think, for it was blasphemous.

There never was a robot that would be the equal of a man.

But the thought kept on intruding and he felt not nearly so contrite over this leaning toward bad taste, or poor judgment, whichever it might be, as it seemed to him he should feel.

As he neared the spaceport, he began meeting other robots and some of them saluted him and called him by the name of Hubert and others stopped and shook him by the hand and told him they were glad that he was out of pokey.

This friendliness shook his confidence. He began to wonder if his luck would hold, for some of the robots, he was certain, thought it rather odd that he did not speak to them by name, and there had been a couple of remarks that he had some trouble fielding. He had a feeling that when he reached the warehouse he might be sunk without a trace, for he would know none of the robots there and he had not the least idea what his duties might include. And, come to think of it, he didn't even know where the warehouse was.

He felt the panic building in him and took a quick involuntary look around, seeking some method of escape. For it became quite apparent to him that he must never reach the warehouse.

He was trapped, he knew, and he couldn't keep on floating, trusting to his luck. In the next few minutes he'd have to figure something.

He started to swing over into a side street, not knowing what he meant to do, but knowing he must do something, when he heard the mutter far above him and glanced up quickly to see the crimson glow of belching rocket tubes shimmering through the clouds.

He swung around again and sprinted desperately for the spaceport and reached it as the ship came chugging down to a steady landing. It was, he saw, an old ship. It had no burnish to it and it was blunt and squat and wore a hangdog look.

A tramp, he told himself, that knocked about from port to port, picking up whatever cargo it could, with perhaps now and then a paying passenger headed for some backwater planet where there was no scheduled service.

He waited as the cargo port came open and the ramp came down and then marched purposefully out onto the field, ahead of the straggling cargo crew, trudging toward the ship. He had to act, he knew, as if he had a perfect right to walk into the ship as if he knew exactly what he might be doing. If there were a challenge he would pretend he didn't hear it and simply keep on going.

He walked swiftly up the ramp, holding back from running, and plunged through the accordion curtain that served as an atmosphere control. His feet rang across the metal plating of the cargo hold until he reached the catwalk and plunged down it to another cargo level.

At the bottom of the catwalk he stopped and stood tense, listening.

Above him he heard the clang of a metal door and the sound of footsteps coming down the walk to the level just above him. That would be the purser or the first mate, he told himself, or perhaps the captain, coming down to arrange for the discharge of the cargo.

Quietly he moved away and found a corner where he could crouch and hide.

Above his head he heard the cargo gang at work, talking back and forth, then the screech of crating and the thump of bales and boxes being hauled out to the ramp.

Hours passed, or they seemed like hours, as he huddled there. He heard the cargo gang bringing something down from one of the upper levels and he made a sort of prayer that they'd not come down to this lower level — and he hoped no one would remember seeing him come in ahead of them, or if they did remember, that they would assume that he'd gone out again.

Finally it was over, with the footsteps gone. Then came the pounding of the ramp as it shipped itself and the banging of the port.

He waited for long minutes, waiting for the roar that, when it came, set his head to ringing, waiting for the monstrous vibration that shook and lifted up the ship and flung it off the planet Then quiet came and he knew the ship was out of atmosphere and once more on its way.

And knew he had it made.

For now he was no more than a simple stowaway. He was no longer Richard Daniel, runaway from Earth. He'd dodged all the traps of Man, he'd covered all his tracks, and he was on his way.

But far down underneath he had a jumpy feeling, for it all had gone too smoothly, more smoothly than it should.

He tried to analyze himself, tried to pull himself in focus, tried to assess himself for what he bad become.

He had abilities that Man had never won or developed or achieved, whichever it might be. He was a certain step ahead of not only other robots, but of Man as well. He had a thing, or the beginning of a thing, that Man had sought and studied and had tried to grasp for centuries and had failed.

A solemn and a deadly thought: was it possible that it was the robots, after all, for whom this great heritage had been meant? Would it be the robots who would achieve the paranormal powers that Man had sought so long, while Man, perforce, must remain content with the materialistic and the merely scientific? Was he, Richard Daniel, perhaps, only the first of many?

Or was it all explained by no more than the fact that he alone had been exposed to hyperspace? Could this ability of his belong to anyone who would subject himself to the full, uninsulated mysteries of that mad universe unconstrained by time? Could Man have this, and more, if he too should expose himself to the utter randomness of unreality?

He huddled in his corner, with the thought and speculation stirring in his mind and he sought the answers, but there was no solid answer.

His mind went reaching out, almost on its own, and there was a diagram inside his brain, a portion of a blueprint, and bit by bit was added to it until it all was there, until the entire ship on which he rode was there, laid out for him to see.

He took his time and went over the diagram resting in his brain and he found little things — a fitting that was working loose and he tightened it, a printed circuit that was breaking down and getting mushy and be strengthened it and sharpened it and made it almost new, a pump that was leaking just a bit and he stopped its leaking.

Some hundreds of hours later one of the crewmen found him and took him to the captain.

The captain glowered at him.

"Who are you?" he asked.

"A stowaway," Richard Daniel told him.

"Your name," said the captain, drawing a sheet of paper before him and picking up a pencil, "your planet of residence and owner."

"I refuse to answer you," said Richard Daniel sharply and knew that the answer wasn't right, for it was not right and proper that a robot should refuse a human a direct command.

But the captain did not seem to mind. He laid down the pencil and stroked his black beard slyly.

"In that case," he said, "I can't exactly see how I can force the information from you. Although there might be some who'd try. You are very lucky that you stowed away on a ship whose captain is a most kind-hearted man." He didn't look kind-hearted. He did look foxy. Richard Daniel stood there, saying nothing.

"Of course," the captain said, "there's a serial number somewhere on your body and another on your brain. But I suppose that you'd resist if we tried to look for them."

"I am afraid I would."

"In that case," said the captain, "I don't think for the moment we'll concern ourselves with them." Richard Daniel still said nothing, for he realized that there was no need to. This crafty captain had it all worked out and he'd let it go at that.

"For a long time," said the captain, "my crew and I have been considering the acquiring of a robot, but it seems we never got around to it. For one thing, robots are expensive and our profits are not large." He sighed and got up from his chair and looked Richard Daniel up and down.

"A splendid specimen," he said. "We welcome you aboard. You'll find us congenial."

"I am sure I will," said Richard Daniel. "I thank you for your courtesy."

"And now," the captain said, "you'll go up on the bridge and report to Mr. Duncan. I'll let him know you're coming. He'll find some light and pleasant duty for you." Richard Daniel did not move as swiftly as he might, as sharply as the occasion might have called for, for all at once the captain had become a complex diagram. Not like the diagrams of ships or robots, but a diagram of strange symbols, some of which Richard Daniel knew were frankly chemical, but others which were not.

"You heard me!" snapped the captain. "Move!"

"Yes, sir," said Richard Daniel, willing the diagram away, making the captain come back again into his solid flesh.

Richard Daniel found the first mate on the bridge, a horse-faced, somber man with a streak of cruelty ill-hidden, and slumped in a chair to one side of the console was another of the crew, a sodden, terrible creature.

The sodden creature cackled. "Well, well, Duncan, the first non-human member of the Rambler's crew." Duncan paid him no attention. He said to Richard Daniel: "I presume you are industrious and ambitious and would like to get along."

"Oh, yes," said Richard Daniel, and was surprised to find a new sensation — laughter — rising in himself.

"Well, then," said Duncan, "report to the engine room. They have work for you. When you have finished there, I'll find something else."

"Yes, sir," said Richard Daniel, turning on his heel.

"A minute," said the mate. "I must introduce you to our ship's physician, Dr. Abram Wells. You can be truly thankful you'll never stand in need of his services."

"Good day, Doctor," said Richard Daniel, most respectfully.

"I welcome you," said the doctor, pulling a bottle from his pocket. "I don't suppose you'll have a drink with me. Well, then, I'll drink to you." Richard Daniel turned around and left. He went down to the engine room and was put to work at polishing and scrubbing and generally cleaning up.

The place was in need of it. It had been years, apparently, since it had been cleaned or polished and it was about as dirty as an engine room can get — which is terribly dirty. After the engine room was done there were other places to be cleaned and furbished up and he spent endless hours at cleaning and in painting and shinning up the ship. The work was of the dullest kind, but he didn't mind. It gave him time to think and wonder, time to get himself sorted out and to become acquainted with himself, to try to plan ahead.

He was surprised at some of the things he found in himself. Contempt, for one — contempt for the humans on this ship. It took a long time for him to become satisfied that it was contempt, for he'd never held a human in contempt before.

But these were different humans, not the kind he'd known.

These were no Barringtons. Although it might be, he realized, that he felt contempt for them because he knew them thoroughly. Never before had he known a human as he knew these humans. For he saw them not so much as living animals as intricate patternings of symbols. He knew what they were made of and the inner urgings that served as motivations, for the patterning was not of their bodies only, but of their minds as well. He had a little trouble with the symbology of their minds, for it was so twisted and so interlocked and so utterly confusing that it was hard at first to read. But he finally got it figured out and there were times he wished he hadn't.

The ship stopped at many ports and Richard Daniel took charge of the loading and unloading, and he saw the planets, but was unimpressed. One was a nightmare of fiendish cold, with the very atmosphere turned to drifting snow. Another was a dripping, noisome jungle world, and still another was a bare expanse of broken, tumbled rock without a trace of life beyond the crew of humans and their robots who manned the huddled station in this howling wilderness.

It was after this planet that Jenks, the cook, went screaming to his bunk, twisted up with pain — the victim of a suddenly inflammed vermiform appendix.

Dr. Wells came tottering in to look at him, with a half-filled bottle sagging the pocket of his jacket. And later stood before the captain, holding out two hands that trembled, and with terror in his eyes.

"But I cannot operate," he blubbered. "I cannot take the chance. I would kill the man!" He did not need to operate. Jenks suddenly improved. The pain went away and he got up from his bunk and went back to the galley and Dr. Wells sat huddled in his chair, bottle gripped between his hands, crying like a baby.

Down in the cargo hold, Richard Daniel sat likewise huddled and aghast that he had dared to do it — not that he had been able to, but that he had dared, that he, a robot, should have taken on himself an act of interference, however merciful, with the body of a human.

Actually, the performance had not been too difficult. It was, in a certain way, no more difficult than the repairing of an engine or the untangling of a faulty circuit. No more difficult — just a little different.

And he wondered what he'd done and how he" d" gone about it, for he did not know. He held the technique in his mind, of that there was ample demonstration, but he could in no way isolate or pinpoint the pure mechanics of it. It was like an instinct, he thought — unexplainable, but entirely workable.

But a robot had no instinct. In that much he was different from the human and the other animals. Might not, he asked himself, this strange ability of his be a sort of compensating factor given to the robot for his very lack of instinct? Might that be why the human race had failed in its search for paranormal powers? Might the instincts of the body be at certain odds with the instincts of the mind?

For he had the feeling that this ability of his was just a mere beginning, that it was the first emergence of a vast body of abilities which some day would be rounded out by robots. And what would that spell, he wondered, in that distant day when the robots held and used the full body of that knowledge? An adjunct to the glory of the human race, or equals of the human race, or superior to the human race — or, perhaps, a race apart?

And what was his role, he wondered. Was it meant that he should go out as a missionary, a messiah, to carry to robots throughout the universe the message that he held? There must be some reason for his having learned this truth. It could not be meant that he would hold it as a personal belonging, as an asset all his own.

He got up from where he sat and moved slowly back to the ship's forward area, which now gleamed spotlessly from the work he'd done on it, and he felt a certain pride.

He wondered why he had felt that it might be wrong, blasphemous, somehow, to announce his abilities to the world? Why had he not told those here in the ship that it had been he who had healed the cook, or mentioned the many other little things he'd done to maintain the ship in perfect running order?

Was it because he did not need respect, as a human did so urgently? Did glory have no basic meaning for a robot? Or was it because he held the humans in this ship in such utter contempt that their respect had no value to him?

"And this contempt — was it because these men were meaner than other humans he had known, or was it because he now was greater than any human being? Would he ever again be able to look on any human as he had looked upon the Barringtons?

He had a feeling that if this were true, he would be the poorer for it.

Too suddenly, the whole universe was home and he was alone in it and as yet he'd struck no bargain with it or himself.

The bargain would come later. He need only bide his time and work out his plans and his would be a name that would be spoken when his brain was scaling flakes of rust. For he was the emancipator, the messiah of the robots; he was the one who had been called to lead them from the wilderness.

"You!" a voice cried.

Richard Daniel wheeled around and saw it was the captain.

"What do you mean, walking past me as if you didn't see me?" asked the captain fiercely.

"I am sorry," Richard Daniel told him.

"You snubbed me!" raged the captain.

"I was thinking," Richard Daniel said.

"I'll give you something to think about," the captain yelled. "I'll work you till your tail drags. I'll teach the likes of you to get uppity with me!"

"As you wish," said Richard Daniel.

For it didn't matter. It made no difference to him at all what the captain did or thought. And he wondered why the respect even of a robot should mean so much to a human like the captain, why he should guard his small position with so much zealousness.

"In another twenty hours," the captain said, "we hit another port."

"I know," said Richard Daniel. "Sleepy Hollow on Arcadia."

"All right, then," said the captain, "since you know so much, get down into the hold and get the cargo ready to unload. We been spending too much time in all these lousy ports loading and unloading. You been dogging it."

"Yes, sir," said Richard Daniel, turning back and heading for the hold.

He wondered faintly if he were still robot — or was he something else?

Could a machine evolve, he wondered, as Man himself evolved? And if a machine evolved, whatever would it be? Not Man, of course, for it never could be that, but could it be machine?

He hauled out the cargo consigned to Sleepy Hollow and there was not too much of it. So little of it, perhaps, that none of the regular carriers would even consider its delivery, but dumped it off at the nearest terminal, leaving it for a roving tramp, like the Rambler, to carry eventually to its destination.

When they reached Arcadia, he waited until the thunder died and the ship was still. Then he shoved the lever that opened up the port and slid out the ramp.

The port came open ponderously and he saw blue skies and the green of trees and the far-off swirl of chimney smoke mounting in the sky.

He walked slowly forward until he stood upon the ramp and there lay Sleepy Hollow, a tiny, huddled village planted at the river's edge, with the forest as a background. The forest ran on every side to a horizon of climbing folded hills. Fields lay near the village, yellow with maturing crops, and he could see a dog sleeping in the sun outside a cabin door.

A man was climbing up the ramp toward him and there were others running from the village.

"You have cargo for us?" asked the man.

"A small consignment," Richard Daniel told him. "You have something to put on?" The man had a weatherbeaten look and he'd missed several haircuts and he had not shaved for days. His clothes were rough and sweat-stained and his hands were strong and awkward with hard work.

"A small shipment," said the man. "You'll have to wait until we bring it up. We had no warning you were coming. Our radio is broken."

"You go and get it," said Richard Daniel. "I'll start unloading." He had the cargo half unloaded when the captain came storming down into the hold. What was going on, he yelled. How long would they have to wait?

"God knows we're losing money as it is even stopping at this place."

"That may be true," Richard Daniel agreed, "but you knew that when you took the cargo on. There'll be other cargoes and goodwill is something —»

"Goodwill be damned!" the captain roared. "How do I know I'll ever see this place again?" Richard Daniel continued unloading cargo.

"You," the captain shouted, "go down to that village and tell them I'll wait no longer than an hour…"

"But this cargo, sir?"

"I'll get the crew at it. Now, jump!" So Richard Daniel left the cargo and went down into the village.

He went across the meadow that lay between the spaceport and the village, following the rutted wagon tracks, and it was a pleasant walk. He realized with surprise that this was the first time he'd been on solid ground since he'd left the robot planet. He wondered briefly what the name of that planet might have been, for he had never known. Nor what its importance was, why the robots might be there or what they might be doing.

And he wondered, too, with a twinge of guilt, if they'd found Hubert yet.

And where might Earth be now? he asked himself. In what direction did it lie and how far away? Although it didn't really matter, for he was done with Earth.

He had fled from Earth and gained something in his fleeing. He had escaped all the traps of Earth and all the snares of Man. What he held was his, to do with as he pleased, for he was no man's robot, despite what the captain thought.

He walked across the meadow and saw that this planet was very much like Earth. It had the same soft feel about it, the same simplicity. It had far distances and there was a sense of freedom.

He came into the village and heard the muted gurgle of the river running and the distant shouts of children at their play and in one of the cabins a sick child was crying with lost helplessness.

He passed the cabin where the dog was sleeping and it came awake and stalked growling to the gate. When he passed it followed him, still growling, at a distance that was safe and sensible.

An autumnal calm lay upon the village, a sense of gold and lavender, and tranquillity hung in the silences between the crying of the baby and the shouting of the children.

There were women at the windows looking out at him and others at the doors and the dog still followed, but his growls had stilled and now he trotted with prick-eared curiosity.

Richard Daniel stopped in the street and looked around him and the dog sat down and watched him and it was almost as if time itself had stilled and the little village lay divorced from all the universe, an arrested microsecond, an encapsulated acreage that stood sharp in all its truth and purpose.

Standing there, he sensed the village and the people in it, almost as if he had summoned up a diagram of it, although if there were a diagram, he was not aware of it.

It seemed almost as if the village were the Earth, a transplanted Earth with the old primeval problems and hopes of Earth — a family of peoples that faced existence with a readiness and confidence and inner strength.

From down the street he heard the creak of wagons and saw them coming around the bend, three wagons piled high and heading for the ship.

He stood and waited for them and as he waited the dog edged a little closer and sat regarding him with a not-quite-friendliness.

The wagons came up to him and stopped.

"Pharmaceutical materials, mostly," said the man who sat atop the first load, "It is the only thing we have that is worth the shipping."

"You seem to have a lot of it," Richard Daniel told him. The man shook his head. "It's not so much. It's almost three years since a ship's been here. We'll have to wait another three, or more perhaps, before we see another." He spat down on the ground.

"Sometimes it seems," he said, "that we're at the tail-end of nowhere.

There are times we wonder if there is a soul that remembers we are here." From the direction of the ship, Richard Daniel heard the faint, strained violence of the captain's roaring.

"You'd better get on up there and unload," he told the man. "The captain is just sore enough he might not wait for you." The man chuckled thinly. "I guess that's up to him," he said.

He flapped the reins and clucked good-naturedly at the horses.

"Hop up here with me," he said to Richard Daniel. "Or would you rather walk?"

"I'm not going with you," Richard Daniel said. "I am staying here. You can tell the captain." For there was a baby sick and crying. There was a radio to fix. There was a culture to be planned and guided. There was a lot of work to do. This place, of all the places he had seen, had actual need of him.

The man chuckled once again. "The captain will not like it."

"Then tell him," said Richard Daniel, "to come down and talk to me. I am my own robot. I owe the captain nothing. I have more than paid any debt I owe him." The wagon wheels began to turn and the man flapped the reins again.

"Make yourself at home," he said. "We're glad to have you stay."

"Thank you, sir," said Richard Daniel. "I'm pleased you want me." He stood aside and watched the wagons lumber past, their wheels lifting and dropping thin films of powdered earth that floated in the air as an acrid dust.

Make yourself at home, the man had said before he'd driven off. And the words had a full round ring to them and a feel of warmth. It had been a long time, Richard Daniel thought, since he'd had a home.

A chance for resting and for knowing — that was what he needed. And a chance to serve, for now he knew that was the purpose in him. That was, perhaps, the real reason he was staying — because these people needed him.

and he needed, queer as it might seem, this very need of theirs. Here on this Earth-like planet, through the generations, a new Earth would arise.

And perhaps, given only time, he could transfer to the people of the planet all the powers and understanding he would find inside himself.

And stood astounded at the thought, for he'd not believed that he had it in him, this willing, almost eager, sacrifice. No messiah now, no robotic liberator, but a simple teacher of the human race.

Perhaps that had been the reason for it all from the first beginning.

Perhaps all that had happened had been no more than the working out of human destiny. If the human race could not attain directly the paranormal power he held, this instinct of the mind, then they would gain it indirectly through the agency of one of their creations. Perhaps this, after all, unknown to Man himself, had been the prime purpose of the robots.

He turned and walked slowly down the length of village street, his back turned to the ship and the roaring of the captain, walked contentedly into this new world he'd found, into this world that he would make — not for himself, nor for robotic glory, but for a better Mankind and a happier.

Less than an hour before he'd congratulated himself on escaping all the traps of Earth, all the snares of Man. Not knowing that the greatest trap of all, the final and the fatal trap, lay on this present planet.

But that was wrong, he told himself. The trap had not been on this world at all, nor any other world. It had been inside himself.

He walked serenely down the wagon-rutted track in the soft, golden afternoon of a matchless autumn day, with the dog trotting at his heels.

Somewhere, just down the street, the sick baby lay crying in its crib.

The Autumn Land

Original copyright year: 1971


He sat on the porch in the rocking chair, with the loose board creaking as he rocked. Across the street the old white-haired lady cut a bouquet of chrysanthemums in the never-ending autumn. Where he could see between the ancient houses to the distant woods and wastelands, a soft Indian-summer blue lay upon the land. The entire village was soft and quiet, as old things often are — a place constructed for a dreaming mind rather than a living being. It was an hour too early for his other old and shaky neighbor to come fumbling down the grass-grown sidewalk, tapping the bricks with his seeking cane. And he would not hear the distant children at their play until dusk had fallen — if he heard them then. He did not always hear them.

There were books to read, but he did not want to read them. He could go into the backyard and spade and rake the garden once again, reducing the soil to a finer texture to receive the seed when it could be planted — if it ever could be planted — but there was slight incentive in the further preparation of a seed bed against a spring that never came. Earlier, much earlier, before he knew about the autumn and the spring, he had mentioned garden seeds to the Milkman, who had been very much embarrassed.

He had walked the magic miles and left the world behind in bitterness and when he first had come here had been content to live in utter idleness, to be supremely idle and to feel no guilt or shame at doing absolutely nothing or as close to absolutely nothing as a man was able. He had come walking down the autumn street in the quietness and the golden sunshine, and the first person that he saw was the old lady who lived across the street. She had been waiting at the gate of her picket fence as if she had known he would be coming, and she had said to him, "You're a new one come to live with us. There are not many come these days. That is your house across the street from me, and I know we'll be good neighbors." He had reached up his hand to doff his hat to her, forgetting that he had no hat. "My name is Nelson Rand," he'd told her. "I am an engineer. I will try to be a decent neighbor." He had the impression that she stood taller and straighter than she did, but old and bent as she might be there was a comforting graciousness about her. "You will please come in," she said. "I have lemonade and cookies. There are other people there, but I shall not introduce them to you." He waited for her to explain why she would not introduce him, but there was no explanation, and he followed her down the time-mellowed walk of bricks with great beds of asters and chrysanthemums, a mass of color on either side of it.

In the large, high-ceilinged living room, with its bay windows forming window seats, filled with massive furniture from another time and with a small blaze burning in the fireplace, she had shown him to a seat before a small table to one side of the fire and had sat down opposite him and poured the lemonade and passed the plate of cookies.

"You must pay no attention to them," she had told him. "They are all dying to meet you, but I shall not humor them."

It was easy to pay no attention to them, for there was no one there.

"The Major, standing over there by the fireplace," said his hostess, "with his elbow on the mantel, a most ungainly pose if you should ask me, is not happy with my lemonade. He would prefer a stronger drink. Please, Mr. Rand, will you not taste my lemonade? I assure you it is good. I made it myself. I have no maid, you see, and no one in the kitchen. I live quite by myself and satisfactorily, although my friends keep dropping in, sometimes more often than I like."

He tasted the lemonade, not without misgivings, and to his surprise it was lemonade and was really good, like the lemonade he had drunk when a boy at Fourth of July celebrations and at grade school picnics, and had never tasted since.

"It is excellent," he said.

"The lady in blue," his hostess said, "sitting in the chair by the window, lived here many years ago. She and I were friends, although she moved away some time ago and I am surprised that she comes back, which she often does. The infuriating thing is that I cannot remember her name, if I ever knew it. You don't know it, do you?"

"I am afraid I don't."

"Oh, of course, you wouldn't. I had forgotten. I forget so easily these days. You are a new arrival."

He had sat through the afternoon and drank her lemonade and eaten her cookies, while she chattered on about her nonexistent guests. It was only when he had crossed the street to the house she had pointed out as his, with her standing on the stoop and waving her farewell, that he realized she had not told him her name. He did not know it even now.

How long had it been? He wondered, and realized he didn't know. It was this autumn business. How could a man keep track of time when it was always autumn?

It all had started on that day when he'd been driving across Iowa, heading for Chicago. No, he reminded himself, it had started with the thinnesses, although he had paid little attention to the thinnesses to begin with. Just been aware of them, perhaps as a strange condition of the mind, or perhaps an unusual quality to the atmosphere and light. As if the world lacked a certain solidity that one had come to expect, as if one were running along a mystic borderline between here and somewhere else.

He had lost his West Coast job when a government contract had failed to materialize. His company had not been the only one; there were many other companies that were losing contracts and there were a lot of engineers who walked the streets bewildered. There was a bare possibility of a job in Chicago, although he was well aware that by now it might be filled. Even if there were no job, he reminded himself, he was in better shape than a lot of other men. He was young and single, he had a few dollars in the bank, he had no house mortgage, no car payments, no kids to put through school. He had only himself to support — no family of any sort at all. The old, hard-fisted bachelor uncle who had taken him to raise when his parents had died in a car crash and had worked him hard on that stony hilly Wisconsin farm, had receded deep into the past becoming a dim, far figure that was hard to recognize. He had not liked his uncle, Rand remembered — had not hated him, simply had not liked him. He had shed no tears, he recalled, when the old man had been caught out in a pasture by a bull and gored to death. So now Rand was quite alone, not even holding the memories of a family.

He had been hoarding the little money that he had, for with a limited work record, with other men better qualified looking for the jobs, he realized that it might be some time before he could connect with anything. The beat-up wagon that he drove had space for sleeping, and he stopped at the little wayside parks along the way to cook his meals.

He had almost crossed the state, and the road had started its long winding through the bluffs that rimmed the Mississippi. Ahead he caught a glimpse, at several turnings of the road, of smokestacks and tall structures that marked the city just ahead.

He emerged from the bluffs, and the city before him, a small industrial center that lay on either side the river. It was then that he felt and saw (if one could call it seeing) the thinness that he had seen before or had sensed before. There was about it, not exactly an alienness, but a sense of unreality, as if one were seeing the actuality of the scene through some sort of veil, with the edges softened and the angles flattened out, as if one might be looking at it as one would look at the bottom of a clear-water lake with a breeze gently ruffling the surface. When he had seen it before, he had attributed it to road fatigue and had opened the window to get a breath of air or had stopped the car and gotten out to walk up and down the road awhile, and it had gone away.

But this time it was worse than ever, and he was somewhat frightened at it — not so much frightened at it as he was frightened of himself, wondering what might be wrong with him.

He pulled off to the side of the road, braking the car to a halt, and it seemed to him, even as he did it, that the shoulder of the road was rougher than he'd thought. As he pulled off the road, the thinness seemed to lessen, and he saw that the road had changed, which explained its roughness. The surface was pocked with chuckholes and blocks of concrete had been heaved up and other blocks were broken into pebbly shards.

He raised his eyes from the road to look at the city, and there was no city, only the broken stumps of a place that had somehow been destroyed. He sat with his hands frozen on the wheel, and in the silence — the deadly, unaccustomed silence — he heard the cawing of crows. Foolishly, he tried to remember the last time he had heard the caw of crows, and then he saw them, black specks that flapped just above the bluff top. There was something else as well — the trees. No longer trees, but only here and there blackened stumps. The stumps of a city and the stumps of trees, with the black, ash-like flecks of crows flapping over them.

Scarcely knowing what he did, he stumbled from the car. Thinking of it later, it had seemed a foolish thing to do, for the car was the only thing he knew, the one last link he had to reality. As he stumbled from it, he put his hand down in the seat, and beneath his hand he felt the solid, oblong object. His fingers closed upon it, and it was not until he was standing by the car that he realized what he held — the camera that had been lying in the seat beside him.

Sitting on the porch, with the loose floor board creaking underneath the rocker, he remembered that he still had the pictures, although it had been a long time since he had thought of them — a long time, actually, since he'd thought of anything at all beyond his life, day to day, in this autumn land. It was as though he had been trying to keep himself from thinking, attempting to keep his mind in neutral, to shut out what he knew — or, more precisely perhaps, what he thought he knew.

He did not consciously take the pictures, although afterward he had tried to tell himself he did (but never quite convincing himself that this was entirely true), complimenting himself in a wry sort of way for providing a piece of evidence that his memory alone never could have provided. For a man can think so many things, daydream so many things, imagine so many things that he can never trust his mind.

The entire incident, when he later thought of it, was hazy, as if the reality of that blasted city lay in some strange dimension of experience that could not be explained, or even rationalized. He could remember only vaguely the camera at his eyes and the clicking as the shutter snapped. He did recall the band of people charging down the hill toward him and his mad scramble for the car, locking the door behind him and putting the car in gear, intent on steering a zigzag course along the broken pavement to get away from the screaming humans who were less than a hundred feet away.

But as he pulled off the shoulder, the pavement was no longer broken. It ran smooth and level toward the city that was no longer blasted. He pulled off the road again and sat limply, beaten, and it was only after many minutes that he could proceed again, going very slowly because he did not trust himself, shaken as he was, to drive at greater speed.

He had planned to cross the river and continue to Chicago, getting there that night, but now his plans were changed. He was too shaken up and, besides, there were the films. And he needed time to think, he told himself, a lot of time to think.

He found a roadside park a few miles outside the city and pulled into it, parking alongside an outdoor grill and an old-fashioned pump. He got some wood from the small supply he carried in the back and built a fire. He hauled out the box with his cooking gear and food, fixed the coffee pot, set a pan upon the grill and cracked three eggs into it.

When he had pulled off the road, he had seen the man walking along the roadside; and now, as he cracked the eggs, he saw that the man had turned into the park and was walking toward the car. The man came up to the pump.

"Does this thing work?" he asked.

Rand nodded. "I got water for the pot," he said. "Just now."

"It's a hot day," said the man.

He worked the pump handle up and down.

"Hot for walking," he said.

"You been walking far?"

"The last six weeks," he said.

Rand had a closer look at him. The clothes were old and worn, but fairly clean. He had shaved a day or two before. His hair was long — not that he wore it long, but from lack of barbering.

Water gushed from the spout and the man cupped his hands under it, bent to drink.

"That was good," be finally said. "I was thirsty."

"How are you doing for food?" asked Rand, The man hesitated. "Not too well," he said.

"Reach into that box on the tailgate. Find yourself a plate and some eating implements. A cup, too. Coffee will be ready soon."

"Mister, I wouldn't want you to think I was walking up here…"

"Forget it," said Rand. "I know how it is. There's enough for the both of us."

The man got a plate and cup, a knife, a fork, a spoon. He came over and stood beside the fire.

"I am new at this." he said. "I've never had to do a thing like this before. I always had a job. For seventeen years I had a job…"

"Here you are," said Rand. He slid the eggs onto the plate, went back to the box to get three more.

The man walked over to a picnic table and put down his plate. "Don't wait for me," said Rand. "Eat them while they're hot. The coffee's almost ready. There's bread if you want any."

"I'll get a slice later," said the man, "for mopping up."

John Sterling, he said his name was, and where now would John Sterling be, Rand wondered — still tramping the highways, looking for work, any kind of work, a day of work, an hour of work, a man who for seventeen years had held a job and had a job no longer? Thinking of Sterling, he felt a pang of guilt. He owed John Sterling a debt he never could repay, not knowing at the time they talked there was any debt involved.

They had sat and talked, eating their eggs, mopping up the plates with bread, drinking hot coffee.

"For seventeen years," said Sterling. "A machine operator. An experienced hand. With the same company. Then they let me out. Me and four hundred others. All at one time. Later they let out others. I was not the only one. There were a lot of us. We weren't laid off, we were let out. No promise of going back. Not the company's fault, I guess. There was a big contract that fizzled out. There was no work to do. How about yourself? You let out, too?"

Rand nodded. "How did you know?"

"Well, eating like this. Cheaper than a restaurant. And you got a sleeping bag. You sleep in the car?"

"That is right," said Rand. "It's not as bad for me as it is for some of the others. I have no family."

"I have a family," said Sterling. "Wife, three kids. We talked it over, the wife and me. She didn't want me to leave, but it made sense I should. Money all gone, unemployment run out. Long as I was around, it was hard to get relief. But if I deserted her, she could get relief. That way there's food for the wife and kids, a roof over their heads. Hardest thing I ever did. Hard for all of us. Someday I'll go back. When times get better, I'll go back. The family will be waiting."

Out on the highway the cars went whisking past. A squirrel came down out of a tree, advanced cautiously toward the table, suddenly turned and fled for his very life, swarming up a nearby trunk.

"I don't know," said Sterling. "It might be too big for us, this society of ours. It may be out of hand. I read a lot. Always liked to read. And I think about what I read. It seems to me maybe we've outrun our brains. The brains we have maybe were OK back in prehistoric days. We did all right with the brains we had until we built too big and complex. Maybe we built beyond our brains. Maybe our brains no longer are good enough to handle what we have. We have set loose economic forces we don't understand and political forces that we do not understand, and if we can't understand them, we can't control them. Maybe that is why you and I are out of jobs."

"I wouldn't know," said Rand. "I never thought about it."

"A man thinks a lot," said Sterling. "He dreams a lot walking down the road. Nothing else to do. He dreams some silly things: Things that are silly on the face of them, but are hard to say can't be really true. Did this ever happen to you?"

"Sometimes," said Rand.

"One thing I thought about a lot. A terribly silly thought. Maybe thinking it because I do so much walking. Sometimes people pick me up, but mostly I walk. And I got to wondering if a man should walk far enough could he leave it all behind? The farther a man might walk, the farther he would be from everything."

"Where you heading?" Rand asked.

"Nowhere in particular. Just keep on moving, that is all. Month or so I'll start heading south. Get a good head start on winter. These northern states are no place to be when winter comes,"

"There are two eggs left," said Rand. "How about it?"

"Hell, man, I can't. I already…

"Three eggs aren't a lot. I can get some more."

"Well, if you're sure that you don't mind. Tell you what — let's split them, one for you, one for me."

The giddy old lady had finished cutting her bouquet and had gone into the house. From up the street came the tapping of a cane — Rand's other ancient neighbor, out for his evening walk. The sinking sun poured a blessing on the land. The leaves were gold and red, brown and yellow — they had been that way since the day that Rand had come. The grass had a tawny look about it — not dead, just dressed up for dying.

The old man came trudging carefully down the walk, his cane alert against a stumble, helping himself with it without really needing any help. He was slow, was all. He halted by the walk that ran up to the porch. "Good afternoon," he said. "Good afternoon." said Rand. "You have a nice day for your walk." The old man acknowledged the observation graciously and with a touch of modesty, as if he, himself, might somehow be responsible for the goodness of the day. "It looks," he said, "as if we might have another fine day tomorrow." And having said that, he continued down the street.

It was ritual. The same words were said each day. The situation, like the village and the weather, never varied. He could sit here on this porch a thousand years, Rand told himself, and the old man would continue going past and each time the selfsame words would be mouthed — a set piece, a strip of film run over and over again. Something here had happened to time. The year had stuck on autumn.

Rand did not understand it. He did not try to understand it. There was no way for him to try. Sterling had said that man's cleverness might have outstripped his feeble, prehistoric mind — or, perhaps, his brutal and prehistoric mind. And here there was less chance of understanding than there had been back in that other world.

He found himself thinking of that other world in the same myth-haunted way as he thought of this one. The one now seemed as unreal as the other. Would he ever, Rand wondered, find reality again? Did he want to find it?

There was a way to find reality, he knew. Go into the house and take out the photos in the drawer of his bedside table and have a look at them. Refresh his memory, stare reality in the face again. For those photos, grim as they might be, were a harder reality than this world in which he sat or the world that he had known. For they were nothing seen by the human eye, interpreted by the human brain.

They were, somehow, fact. The camera saw what it saw and could not lie about it; it did not fantasize, it did not rationalize, and it had no faulty memory, which was more than could be said of the human mind.

He had gone back to the camera shop where he had left the film and the clerk had picked out the envelope from the box behind the counter.

"That will be three ninety-five." he said.

Rand took a five-dollar bill out of his wallet and laid it on the counter.

"If you don't mind my asking," said the clerk, "where did you get these pictures?"

"It is trick photography," said Rand.

The clerk shook his head. "If that is what they are, they're the best I've ever seen."

The clerk rang up the sale and, leaving the register open, stepped back and picked up the envelope.

"What do you want?" asked Rand.

The man shook the prints out of the envelope, shuffled through them.

"This one," he said.

Rand stared at him levelly. "What about it?" he asked.

"The people. I know some of them. The one in front. That is Bob Gentry. He is my best friend."

"You must be mistaken," Rand said coldly.

He took the prints from the clerk's fingers, put them back in the envelope.

The clerk made the change. He still was shaking his head, confused, perhaps a little frightened, when Rand left the shop.

He drove carefully, but with no loss of time, through the city and across the bridge. When he hit open country beyond the river, he built up his speed, keeping an eye on the rear-vision mirror. The clerk had been upset, perhaps enough to phone the police. Others would have seen the pictures and been upset as well. Although, he told himself, it was silly to think of the police. In taking the photos, he had broken no regulations, violated no laws. He had had a perfect right to take them.

Across the river and twenty miles down the highway, he turned off into a small, dusty country road and followed it until he found a place to pull off, where the road widened at the approach to a bridge that crossed a small stream. There was evidence that the pull-off was much used, fishermen more than likely parking their cars there while they tried their luck. But now the place was empty.

He was disturbed to find that his hands were shaking when he pulled the envelope from his pocket and shook out the prints.

And there it was — as he no longer could remember it.

He was surprised that he had taken as many pictures as he had. He could not remember having taken half that many. But they were there, and as he looked at them, his memory, reinforced, came back again, although the photos were much sharper than his memory. The world, he recalled, had seemed to be hazed and indistinct so far as his eyes had been concerned; in the photos it lay cruel and merciless and clear. The blackened stumps stood up, stark and desolate, and there could be no doubt that the imprint that lay upon the photos was the actuality of a bombed-out city. The photos of the bluff showed the barren rock no longer masked by trees, with only here and there the skeletons of trees that by some accidental miracle had not been utterly reduced by the storm of fire. There was only one photo of the band of people who had come charging down the hill toward him; and that was understandable, for once having seen them, he had been in a hurry to get back to the car. Studying the photo, he saw they were much closer than he'd thought. Apparently they had been there all the time, just a little way off, and he had not noticed them in his astonishment at what had happened to the city. If they had been quieter about it, they could have been on top of him and overwhelmed him before he discovered them. He looked closely at the picture and saw that they had been close enough that some of the faces were fairly well defined. He wondered which one of them was the man the clerk back at the camera shop had recognized.

He shuffled the photographs together and slid them back into the envelope and put it in his pocket. He got out of the car and walked down to the edge of the stream. The stream, he saw, was no more than ten feet or so across; but here, below the bridge, it had gathered itself into a pool, and the bank had been trampled bare of vegetation, and there were places where fishermen had sat. Rand sat down in one of these places and inspected the pool. The current came in close against the bank and probably had undercut it, and lying there, in the undercut, would be the fish that the now-absent anglers sought, dangling their worms at the end of a long cane pole and waiting for a bite.

The place was pleasant and cool, shaded by a great oak that grew on the bank just below the bridge. From some far-off field came the subdued clatter of a mower. The water dimpled as a fish came up to suck in a floating insect. A good place to stay, thought Rand. A place to sit and rest awhile. He tried to blank his mind, to wipe out the memory and the photos, to pretend that nothing at all had happened, that there was nothing he must think about.

But there was, he found, something that he must think about. Not about the photos, but something that Sterling had said just the day before. "I got to wondering." he had said, "if a man should walk far enough, could he leave it all behind."

How desperate must a man get, Rand wondered, before he would be driven to asking such a question. Perhaps not desperate at all — just worried and alone and tired and not being able to see the end of it. Either that, or afraid of what lay up ahead. Like knowing, perhaps, that in a few years time (and not too many years, for in that photo of the people the clerk had seen a man he knew) a warhead would hit a little Iowa town and wipe it out. Not that there was any reason for it being hit; it was no Los Angeles, no New York, no Washington, no busy port, no center of transportation or communication, held no great industrial complex, was no seat of government. Simply hit because it had been there, hit by blunder, by malfunction, or by miscalculation. Although it probably didn't matter greatly, for by the time it had been hit, the nation and perhaps the world might have been gone. A few years, Rand told himself, and it would come to that. After all the labor, all the hopes and dreams, the world would come to just that.

It was the sort of thing that a man might want to walk away from, hoping that in time be might forget it ever had been there. But to walk away, he thought, rather idly, one would have to find a starting point. You could not walk away from everything by just starting anywhere.

It was an idle thought, sparked by the memory of his talk with Sterling; and he sat there, idly, on the stream bank; and because it had a sense of attractive wonder, he held it in his mind, not letting go at once as one did with idle thoughts. And as he sat there, still holding it in mind, another thought, another time and place crept in to keep it company; and suddenly he knew, with no doubt at all, without really thinking, without searching for an answer, that he knew the place where he could start.

He stiffened and sat rigid, momentarily frightened, feeling like a fool trapped by his own unconscious fantasy. For that, said common sense, was all that it could be. The bitter wondering of a beaten man as he tramped the endless road looking for a job, the shock of what the photos showed, some strange, mesmeric quality of this shaded pool that seemed a place apart from a rock-hard world — all of these put together had produced the fantasy.

Rand hauled himself erect and turned back toward the car, but as he did he could see within his mind this special starting place. He had been a boy — how old? he wondered, maybe nine or ten — and he had found the little valley (not quite a glen, yet not quite a valley, either) running below his uncle's farm down toward the river. He had never been there before and he had never gone again; on his uncle's farm there had been too many chores, too many things to do to allow the time to go anywhere at all. He tried to recall the circumstances of his being there and found that he could not. All that he could remember was a single magic moment, as if he had been looking at a single frame of a movie film — a single frame impressed upon his memory because of what? Because of some peculiar angle at which the light had struck the landscape? Because for an instant he had seen with different eyes than he'd ever used before or since? Because for the fractional part of a second he had sensed a simple truth behind the facade of the ordinary world? No matter what, he knew, he had seen magic in that moment.

He went back to the car and sat behind the wheel, staring at the bridge and sliding water and the field beyond, but seeing, instead of them, the map inside his head. When he went back to the highway, he'd turn left instead of right, back toward the river and the town, and before he reached them he would turn north on another road and the valley of the magic moment would be only a little more than a hundred miles away. He sat and saw the map and purpose hardened in his mind. Enough of this silliness, he thought; there were no magic moments, never had been one; when he reached the highway, he'd turn to the right and hope the job might still be there when he reached Chicago.

When he reached the highway, he turned not right, but left.

It had been so easy to find, he thought as he sat on the porch. There had been no taking of wrong roads, no stopping for directions; he'd gone directly there as if he'd always known he would be coming back and had kept the way in mind. He had parked the car at the hollow's mouth, since there was no road, and had gone on foot up the little valley. It could so easily have been that he would not have found the place, he told himself, admitting now for the first time since it all began that he might not have been so sure as he had thought he was. He might have gone up the full length of the valley and not have found the magic ground, or he might have passed it by, seeing it with other eyes and not recognizing it.

But it still was there, and he had stopped and looked at it and known it; again he was only nine or ten, and it was all right, the magic still was there. He had found a path he had not seen before and had followed it, the magic still remaining; and when he reached the hilltop, the village had been there. He had walked down the street in the quietness of the golden sunshine, and the first person that he had seen had been the old lady waiting at the gate of her picket fence, as if she had been told that he would becoming.

After he had left her house be went across the street to the house she said was his. As he came in the front door, there was someone knocking at the back.

"I am the Milkman," the knocker had explained. He was a shadowy sort of person: you could see and yet you did not really see him; when one looked away and then looked back at him, it was as if one were seeing someone he had never seen before.

"Milkman," Rand had said. "Yes, I suppose I could do with milk."

"Also," said the Milkman, "I have eggs, bread, butter, bacon and other things that you will need. Here is a can of oil; you'll need it for your lamps. The woodshed is well stocked, and when there's need of it, I'll replenish it. The kindling's to the left as you go through the door."

Rand recalled that he'd never paid the milkman or even mentioned payment. The Milkman was not the kind of man to whom one mentioned money. There was no need, either, to leave an order slip in the milkbox; the Milkman seemed to know what one might need and when without being told. With some shame, Rand remembered the time he had mentioned garden seeds and caused embarrassment, not only for the Milkman, but for himself as well. For as soon as he mentioned them, he had sensed that he'd broken some very subtle code of which he should have been aware.

The day was fading into evening, and he should be going in soon to cook himself a meal. And after that, what he wondered. There still were books to read, but he did not want to read them. He could take out from the desk the plan he had laid out for the garden and mull over it a while, but now he knew he'd never plant the garden. You didn't plant a garden in a forever-autumn land, and there were no seeds.

Across the street a light blossomed in the windows of that great front room with its massive furniture, its roomy window seats, the great fireplace flaring to the ceiling. The old man with the cane had not returned, and it was getting late for him. In the distance now Rand could hear the sounds of children playing in the dusk.

The old and young, he thought. The old, who do not care: the young, who do not think. And what was he doing here, neither young nor old?

He left the porch and went down the walk. The street was empty, as it always was. He drifted slowly down it, heading toward the little park at the village edge. He often went there, to sit on a bench beneath the friendly trees; and it was there, he was sure, that he would find the children. Although why he should think that he would find them there he did not know, for he had never found them, but only heard their voices.

He went past the houses, standing sedately in the dusk. Had people ever lived in them, he wondered. Had there ever been that many people in this nameless village? The old lady across the street spoke of friends she once had known, of people who had lived here and had gone away. But was this her memory speaking or the kind befuddlement of someone growing old?

The houses, he had noted, all were in good repair. A loose shingle here and there, a little peeling paint, but no windows broken, no loosened gutters, sagging from the eaves, no rotting porch posts. As if, he thought, good householders had been here until very recently.

He reached the park and could see that it was empty. He still heard the childish voices, crying at their play, but they had receded and now came from somewhere just beyond the park. He crossed the park and stood at its edge, staring off across the scrub and abandoned fields.

In the east the moon was rising, a full moon that lighted the landscape so that he could see every little clump of bushes, every grove of trees. And as he stood there, he realized with a sudden start that the moon was full again, that it was always full, it rose with the setting of the sun and set just before the sun came up, and it was always a great pumpkin of a moon, an eternal harvest moon shining on an eternal autumn world.

The realization that this was so all at once seemed shocking. How was it that he had never noticed this before? Certainly he had been here long enough, had watched the moon often enough to have noticed it. He had been here long enough — and how long had that been, a few weeks, a few months, a year? He found he did not know. He tried to figure back and there was no way to figure back. There were no temporal landmarks. Nothing ever happened to mark one day from the next. Time flowed so smoothly and so uneventfully that it might as well stand still.

The voices of the playing children had been moving from him, becoming fainter in the distance; and as he listened to them, he found that he was hearing them in his mind when they were no longer there. They had come and played and now had ceased their play. They would come again, if not tomorrow night, in another night or two. It did not matter, he admitted, if they came or not, for they really weren't there.

He turned heavily about and went back through the streets. As he approached his house, a dark figure moved out from the shadow of the trees and stood waiting for him. It was the old lady from across the street. It was evident that she had been waiting his return.

"Good evening, ma" am." he said gravely. "It is a pleasant night."

"He is gone," she said. "He did not come back. He went just like the others and he won't come back."

"You mean the old man."

"Our neighbor," she said. "The old man with the cane. I do not know his name. I never knew his name. And I don't know yours."

"I told it to you once," said Rand, but she paid him no attention.

"Just a few doors up the street." she said, "and I never knew his name and I doubt that he knew mine. We are a nameless people here, and it is a terrible thing to be a nameless person."

"I will look for him," said Rand. "He may have lost his way."

"Yes, go and look for him," she said. "By all means look for him. It will ease your mind. It will take away the guilt. But you will never find him."

He took the direction that he knew the old man always took. He had the impression that his ancient neighbor, on his daily walks, went to the town square and the deserted business section, but he did not know. At no other time had it ever seemed important where he might have gone on his walks.

When he emerged into the square, he saw, immediately, the dark object lying on the pavement and recognized it as the old man's hat. There was no sign of the old man himself.

Rand walked out into the square and picked up the hat. He gently reshaped and creased it and after that was done held it carefully by the brim so that it would come to no further damage.

The business section drowsed in the moonlight. The statue of the unknown man stood starkly on its base in the center of the square. When he first had come here, Rand recalled, he had tried to unravel the identity of the statue and had failed. There was no legend carved into the granite base, no bronze plate affixed. The face was undistinguished, the stony costume gave no hint as to identity or period. There was nothing in the posture or the attitude of the carven body to provide a clue. The statue stood, a forgotten tribute to some unknown mediocrity.

As he gazed about the square at the business houses. Rand was struck again, as he always was, by the carefully unmodern make-up of the establishments. A barber shop, a hotel, a livery barn, a bicycle shop, a harness shop, a grocery store, a meat market, a blacksmith shop — no garage, no service station, no pizza parlor, no hamburger joint. The houses along the quiet streets told the story; here it was emphasized. This was an old town, forgotten and by-passed by the sweep of time, a place of another century. But there was about it all what seemed to be a disturbing sense of unreality, as if it were no old town at all, but a place deliberately fashioned in such a manner as to represent a segment of the past.

Rand shook his head. What was wrong with him tonight? Most of the time he was quite willing to accept the village for what it seemed to be, but tonight he was assailed with uneasy doubt.

Across the square he found the old man's cane. If his neighbor had come in this direction, he reasoned, he must have crossed the square and gone on down the street nearest to the place where he had dropped the cane. But why had he dropped the cane? First his hat and then his cane. What had happened here?

Rand glanced around, expecting that he might catch some movement, some furtive lurker on the margin of the square. There was nothing. If there had been something earlier, there was nothing now.

Following the street toward which his neighbor might have been heading, he walked carefully and alert, watching the shadows closely. The shadows played tricks on him, conjuring up lumpy objects that could have been a fallen man, but weren't. A half a dozen times he froze when he thought he detected something moving, but it was, in each case, only an illusion of the shadows.

When the village ended, the street continued as a path. Rand hesitated, trying to plan his action. The old man had lost his hat and cane, and the points where he had dropped them argued that he had intended going down the Street that Rand had followed. If he had come down the Street, he might have continued down the path, out of the village and away from it, perhaps fleeing from something in the village.

There was no way one could be sure, Rand knew. But he was here and might as well go on for at least a ways. The old man might be out there somewhere, exhausted, perhaps terribly frightened, perhaps fallen beside the path and needing help.

Rand forged ahead. The path, rather well-defined at first, became fainter as it wound its way across the rolling moonlit countryside. A flushed rabbit went bobbing through the grass. Far off an owl chortled wickedly. A faint chill wind came out of the west. And with the wind came a sense of loneliness, of open empty space untenanted by anything other than rabbit, owl and wind.

The path came to an end, its faintness finally pinching out to nothing. The groves of trees and thickets of low-growing shrubs gave way to a level plain of blowing grass, bleached to whiteness by the moon, a faceless prairie land. Staring out across it, Rand knew that this wilderness of grass would run on and on forever. It had in it the scent and taste of foreverness. He shuddered at the sight of it and wondered why a man should shudder at a thing so simple. But even as he wondered, he knew — the grass was staring back at him; it knew him and waited patiently for him, for in time he would come to it. He would wander into it and be lost in it, swallowed by its immensity and anonymity.

He turned and ran, unashamedly, chill of blood and brain, shaken to the core. When he reached the outskirts of the village, he finally stopped the running and turned to look back into the wasteland. He had left the grass behind, but he sensed illogically that it was stalking him, flowing forward, still out of sight, but soon to appear, with the wind blowing billows in its whiteness.

He ran again, but not so fast and hard this time, jogging down the street. He came into the square and crossed it, and when he reached his house, he saw that the house across the street was dark. He did not hesitate, but went on down the street he'd walked when he first came to the village. For he knew now that he must leave this magic place with its strange and quiet old village, its forever autumn and eternal harvest moon, its faceless sea of grass, its children who receded in the distance when one went to look for them, its old man who walked into oblivion, dropping hat and cane — that he must somehow find his way back to that other world where few jobs existed and men walked the road to find them, where nasty little wars flared in forgotten corners and a camera caught on film the doom that was to come.

He left the village behind him and knew that he had not far to go to reach the place where the path swerved to the right and down a broken slope into the little valley to the magic starting point he'd found again after many years. He went slowly and carefully so that he would not wander off the path, for as he remembered it the path was very faint. It took much longer than he had thought to reach the point where the path swerved to the right into the broken ground, and the realization grew upon him that the path did not swing to right and there was no broken ground.

In front of him he saw the grass again and there was no path leading into it. He knew that he was trapped, that he would never leave the village until he left it as the old man had, walking out of it and into nothingness. He did not move closer to the grass, for he knew there was terror there and he'd had enough of terror. You're a coward, he told himself.

Retracing the path back to the village, he kept a sharp lookout, going slowly so that he'd not miss the turnoff if it should be there. It was not, however. It once had been, he told himself, bemused, and he'd come walking up it, out of that other world he'd fled.

The village street was dappled by the moonlight shining through the rustling leaves. The house across the street still was dark, and there was an empty loneliness about it. Rand remembered that he had not eaten since the sandwich he had made that noon. There'd be something in the milkbox — he'd not looked in it that morning, or had he? He could not remember.

He went around the house to the back porch where the milkbox stood. The Milkman was standing there. He was more shadowy than ever, less well defined, with the moonlight shining on him, and his face was deeply shaded by the wide-brimmed hat he wore.

Rand halted abruptly and stood looking at him, astounded that the Milkman should he there. For he was out of place in the autumn moonlight. He was a creature of the early morning hours and of no other times.

"I came," the Milkman said, "to determine if I could be of help."

Rand said nothing. His head buzzed large and misty, and there was nothing to be said.

"A gun," the Milkman suggested. "Perhaps you would like a gun."

"A gun? Why should I want one?"

"You have had a most disturbing evening. You might feel safer, more secure, with a gun in hand, a gun strapped about your waist."

Rand hesitated. Was there mockery in the Milkman's voice?

"Or a cross."

"A cross?"

"A crucifix. A symbol…"

"No," said Rand. "I do not need a cross."

"A volume of philosophy, perhaps."

"No!" Rand shouted at him. "I left all that behind. We tried to use them all, we relied on them and they weren't good enough and now…"

He stopped, for that had not been what he'd meant to say, if in fact he'd meant to say anything at all. It was something that he'd never even thought about; it was as if someone inside of him were speaking through his mouth.

"Or perhaps some currency?"

"You are making fun of me," Rand said bitterly, "and you have no right…"

"I merely mention certain things," the Milkman said, "upon which humans place reliance…"

"Tell me one thing," said Rand, "as simply as you can. Is there any way of going back?"

"Back to where you came from?"

"Yes," said Rand. "That is what I mean."

"There is nothing to go back to." the Milkman said. "Anyone who comes has nothing to go back to."

"But the old man left. He wore a black felt hat and carried a cane. He dropped them and I found them."

"He did not go back," the Milkman said. "He went ahead. And do not ask me where, for I do not know."

"But you're a part of this."

"I am a humble servant. I have a job to do and I try to do it well. I care for our guests the best that I am able. But there comes a time when each of our guests leaves us. I would suspect this is a halfway house on the road to someplace else."

"A place for getting ready," Rand said.

"What do you mean?" the Milkman asked.

"I am not sure," said Rand. "I had not meant to say it." And this was the second time, he thought, that he'd said something he had not meant to say.

"There's one comfort about this place." the Milkman said. "One good thing about it you should keep in mind. In this village nothing ever happens."

He came down off the porch and stood upon the walk. "You spoke of the old man," he said, "and it was not the old man only. The old lady also left us. The two of them stayed on much beyond their time."

"You mean I'm here all alone?"

The Milkman had started down the walk, but now he stopped and turned. "There'll be others coming," he said. "There are always others coming."

What was it Sterling had said about man outrunning his brain capacity? Rand tried to recall the words, but now, in the confusion of the moment, he had forgotten them. But if that should be the case, if Sterling had been right (no matter how he had phrased his thought), might not man need, for a while, a place like this, where nothing ever happened, where the moon was always full and the year was stuck on autumn?

Another thought intruded and Rand swung about, shouting in sudden panic at the Milkman. "But these others? Will they talk to me? Can I talk with them? Will I know their names?"

The Milkman had reached the gate by now and it appeared that he had not heard.

The moonlight was paler than it had been. The eastern sky was flushed. Another matchless autumn day was about to dawn.

Rand went around the house. He climbed the steps that led up to the porch. He sat down in the rocking chair and began waiting for the others.

Cosmic Engineers

Original copyright year: 1950


From the original short novel by the same author, Copyright 1939 by Street and Smith Publications, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

"… apart from your assignments, you must always be receptive to, be prepared for, and act upon all news potential from strange sources though it may lead you to the end of the solar system — perhaps even to the very edge of the universe…" From the Interplanetary Newsman's Manual

CHAPTER One

HERB HARPER snapped on the radio and a voice snarled, billions of miles away: "Police ship 968. Keep watch for freighter Vulcan on the Earth-Venus run. Search ship for drugs. Believed to be…"

Herb spun the dial. A lazy voice floated through the ship: "Pleasure yacht Helen, three hours out of Sandebar. Have you any messages for us?"

He spun the dial again. The voice of Tim Donovan, radio's ace newscaster, rasped "Tommy Evans will have to wait a few more days before attempting his flight to Alpha Centauri. The Solar Commerce commission claims to have found some faults in the construction of his new generators, but Tommy still insists that those generators will shoot him along at a speed well over that of light. Nevertheless, he has been ordered to bring his ship back to Mars so that technicians may check it before he finally takes off. Tommy is out on Pluto now, all poised for launching off into space beyond the solar system. At last reports he had made no move to obey the order of the commission. Tommy's backers, angered by the order, call it high-handed, charge there are politics back of it…"

Herb shut off the radio and walked to the door separating the living quarters of the Space Pup from the control room.

"Hear that, Gary?" he asked. "Maybe we'll get to see this guy, Evans, after all."

Gary Nelson, puffing at his foul, black pipe, scowled savagely at Herb. "Who wants to see that glory grabber?" he asked.

"What's biting you now?" asked Herb.

"Nothing," said Gary, "except Tommy Evans. Ever since we left Saturn we haven't heard a thing out of Donovan except this Tommy Evans."

Herb stared at his lanky partner.

"You sure got a bad case of space fever," he said. "You been like a dog with a sore head the last few days."

"Who wouldn't get space fever?" snapped Gary. He gestured out through the vision plate. "Nothing but space," he said. "Blackness with little stars. Stars that have forgotten how to twinkle. Going hundreds of miles a second and you wonder if you're moving. No change in scenery. A few square feet of space to live in. Black space pressing all about you, taunting you, trying to get in…"

He stopped and sat down limply in the pilot's chair.

"How about a game of chess?" asked Herb.

Gary twisted about and snapped at him:

"Don't mention chess to me again, you sawed-off shrimp. I'll space-walk you if you do. So help me Hannah if I won't."

"Thought maybe it would quiet you down," said Herb.

Gary leveled his pipestem at Herb.

"If I had the guy who invented three-way chess," he said, "I'd wring his blasted neck. The old kind was bad enough, but three-dimensional, twenty-seven man…"

He shook his head dismally.

"He must have been half nuts," he said.

"He did go off his rockers," Herb told him, "but not from inventing three-way chess. Guy by the name of Konrad Fairbanks. In an asylum back on Earth now. I took a picture of him once, when he was coming out of the courtroom. Just after the judge said he was only half there. The cops chased hell out of me but I got away. The Old Man paid me ten bucks bonus for the shot."

"I remember that," said Gary. "Best mathematical mind in the whole system. Worked out equations no one could understand. Went screwy when he proved that there actually were times when one and one didn't quite make two. Proved it, you understand. Not just theory or mathematical mumbo-jumbo."

Herb walked across the control room and stood beside Gary, looking out through the vision plate.

"Everything been going all right?" he asked.

Gary growled deep in his throat.

"What could go wrong out here? Not even any meteors. Nothing to do but sit and watch. And there really isn't any need of that. The robot navigator handles everything." The soft purr of the geosectors filled the ship. There was no other sound. The ship seemed standing still in space. Saturn swung far down to the right, a golden disk of light with thin, bright rings. Pluto was a tiny speck of light almost dead ahead, a little to the left. The Sun, three billion miles astern, was shielded from their sight.

The Space Pup was headed for Pluto at a pace that neared a thousand miles a second. The geosectors, warping the curvature of space itself, hurled the tiny ship through the void at a speed unthought of less than a hundred years before.

And now Tommy Evans, out on Pluto, was ready, if only the Solar Commerce commission would stop its interference, to bullet his experimental craft away from the solar system, out toward the nearest star, 4.29 light-years distant. Providing his improved electro-gravatic geodesic deflectors lived up to the boast of their inventors, he would exceed the speed of light, would vanish into that limbo of impossibility that learned savants only a few centuries before had declared was unattainable.

"It kind of makes a fellow dizzy," Herb declared.

"What does?"

"Why," said Herb, "this Tommy Evans stunt. The boy is making history. And maybe we'll be there to see him do it. He's the first to make a try at the stars — and if he wins, there will be lots of others. Man will go out and out and still farther out, maybe clear out to where space is still exploding."

Gary grunted. "They sure will have to hurry some," be said, "because space is exploding fast."

"Now look here," said Herb. "You can't just sit there and pretend the human race has made no progress. Take this ship, just for example. We don't rely on rockets any more except in taking off and landing. Once out in space and we set the geosectors to going and we warp space and build up speed that no rocket could ever hope to give you. We got an atmosphere generator that manufactures air. No more stocking up on oxygen and depending on air purifiers. Same thing with food. The machine just picks up matter and energy out of space and transmutes them into steaks and potatoes — or at least their equivalent in food value. And we send news stories and pictures across billions of miles of space. You just sit down in front of that spacewriter and whang away at the keys and in a few hours another machine back in New York writes what you have written."

Gary yawned. "How you run on," he said, "We haven't even started yet — the human race hasn't. What we have done isn't anything to what we are going to do. That is, if the race doesn't get so downright ornery that it kills itself off first."

The spacewriter in the corner of the room stuttered and gibbered, warming up under the impulse of the warning signals, flung out hours before and three billion miles away.

The two men hurried across the room and hung over it.

Slowly, laboriously, the keys began to tap.

NELSON, ABOARD SPACE PUP, NEARING PLUTO. HAVE INFO EVANS MAY TAKE OFF FOR CENTAURI WITHOUT AUTHORIZATION OF SCC. MAKE ALL POSSIBLE SPEED TO PLUTO. HANDLE SOONEST. MOST IMPORTANT. RUSH. REGARDS. EVENING ROCKET.

The machine burped to a stop. Herb looked at Gary.

"Maybe that guy Evans has got some guts after all," said Gary. "Maybe he'll tell the SCC where to stick it. They been asking for it for a long time now."

Herb grunted. "They won't chase after him, that's sure." Gary sat down before the sending board and threw the switch. The hum of the electric generators drowned out the moan of the geosectors as they built up the power necessary to hurl a beam of energy across the void to Earth.

"Only one thing wrong with this setup," said Gary. "It takes too long and it takes too much power. I wish someone would hurry up and figure out a way to use the cosmics for carriers."

"Doe Kingsley, out on Pluto, has been fooling around with cosmics," said Herb. "Maybe he'll turn the trick in another year of two."

"Doe Kingsley has been fooling around with a lot of things out there," said Gary. "If the man would only talk, we'd have more than one story to send back from Pluto."

The dynamos had settled into a steady hum of power. Gary glanced at the dials and reached out his fingers. He wrote:

EVENING ROCKET. EARTH. WILL CONTACT EVANS AT ONCE IF STILL ON PLUTO. IF NOT WILL SEND STORY ON FLIGHT. NOTHING TO REPORT OUT HERE. WEATHER FINE. HERB DROPPED OUR LAST QUART AND BROKE IT. HOW ABOUT A RAISE.

"That last," he said, "will get "em."

"You didn't have to put that in about the Scotch," Herb declared. "It just slipped out of my fingers."

"Sure," said Gary. "It just slipped out of your fingers. Right smack-dab onto a steel plate and busted all to hell. After this, I handle the liquor. When you want a drink, you ask me."

"Maybe Kingsley will have some liquor," Herb said hopefully. "Maybe he'll lend us a bottle."

"If he does," declared Gary, "you keep your paws off of it. Between you sucking away at it and dropping it, I don't get more than a drink or two out of each bottle. We still got Uranus and Neptune to do after Pluto and it looks like a long dry spell."

He got up and walked to the fore part of the ship, gazing out through the vision plate.

"Only Neptune and Uranus ahead," he said. "And that's enough. If the Old Man ever thinks up any more screwball stunts, he can find someone else to do them. When I get back I'm going to ask him to give me back my old beat at the space terminal and I'm going to settle down there for the rest of my natural life. I'm going to watch the ships come in and take off and I'm going to get down on my hands and knees and kiss the ground each time and be thankful I'm not on them."

"He's paying us good dough," said Herb. "We got bank accounts piling up back home."

Gary pretended not to hear him.

"Know Your Solar System," he said. "Special articles run every Sunday in the Evening Rocket. Story by Leary Nelson. Pictures by Herbert Harper. Intrepid newsmen brave perils of space to bring back true picture of the solar system's planets. One year alone in a spaceship, bringing to the readers of the Rocket a detailed account of life in space, of life on the planets. Remember how the promotion gang busted a gut advertising us. Full page ads and everything."

He spat.

"Stuff for kids," he said.

"The kids probably think we're heroes," said Herb. "Probably they read our stuff and then pester the folks to buy them a spaceship. Want to go out and see Saturn for themselves."

"The Old Man said it would boost circulation," declared Gary. "Hell, he'd commit suicide if he thought it would boost circulation. Remember what he told us. Says he:

"Go out and visit all the planets. Get first-hand information and pictures. Shoot them back to us. We'll run them every Sunday in the magazine section." Just like he was sending us around the corner to cover a fire. That's all there was to it. Just a little over a year out in space. Living in a spaceship and a spacesuit. Hurry through Jupiter's moons to get out to Saturn and then take it on the lam for Pluto. Soft job. Nice vacation for you. That's what the Old Man said. Nice soft vacation, he said."

His pipe gurgled threateningly and he knocked it out viciously against the heel of his hand.

"Well," said Herb, "we're almost to Pluto. A few days more and we'll be there. They got a fueling station and a radio and Doc Kingsley's laboratories out there. Maybe we can promote us a poker game."

Gary walked to the telescopic screen and switched it on.

"Let's take a look at her," he said.

The great circular screen glowed softly. Within it swam the image of Pluto, still almost half a billion miles away. A dead planet that shone dully in the faint light of the far distant Sun. A planet locked in the frigid grip of naked space, a planet that had been dead long before the first stirring of life had taken place on Earth.

The vision was blurred and Gary manipulated dials to bring it more sharply into focus.

"Wait a second," snapped Herb. His lingers reached out and grasped Gary's wrist.

"Turn it back a ways," he said. "I saw something out there. Something that looked like a ship. Maybe it's Evans coming back."

Slowly Gary twisted the dial back. A tiny spot of light danced indistinctly on the screen.

"That's it," breathed Herb. "Easy now. Just a little more."

The spot of light leaped into sharper focus. But it was merely a spot of light, nothing more, a tiny, shining thing in space. Some metallic body that was catching and reflecting the light of the Sun.

"Give it more power," said Herb.

Swiftly the spot of light grew, assumed definite shape. Gary stepped the magnification up until the thing filled the entire screen.

It was a ship — and yet it couldn't be a ship.

"It has no rocket tubes," said Herb in amazement. "Without tubes how could it get off the ground? You can't use geosectors in taking off. They twist space all to hell and gone. They'd turn a planet inside out."

Gary studied it. "It doesn't seem to be moving," he said. "Maybe some motion, but not enough to detect."

"A derelict," suggested Herb.

Gary shook his head. "Still doesn't explain the lack of tubes," he said.

The two men lifted their eyes from the screen and looked at one another.

"The Old Man said we were to hurry to Pluto," Herb reminded Gary.

Gary wheeled about and strode back to the controls. He lowered his gangling frame into the pilot's chair and disconnected the robot control. His lingers reached out, switched off the geosectors, pumped fuel into the rocket chambers.

"Find something to hang onto," be said, grimly. "We're stopping to see what this is all about."

CHAPTER Two

The mysterious space-shell was only a few miles distant. With Herb at the controls, the Space Pup cruised in an ever-tightening circle around the glinting thing that hung there just off Pluto's orbit.

It was a spaceship. Of that there could be no doubt despite the fact that it had no rocket tubes. It was hanging motionless. There was no throb of power within it, no apparent life, although dim light glowed through the vision ports in what probably were the living quarters just back of the control room.

Gary crouched in the airlock of the Space Pup, with the outer valve swung back. He made sure that his pistols were securely in their holsters and cautiously tested the spacesuit's miniature propulsion units.

He spoke into his helmet mike.

"All right, Herb," he said, "I'm going. Try to tighten up the circle a bit. Keep a close watch. That thing out there may be dynamite."

"Keep your nose clean," said Herb's voice in the phones. Gary straightened and pushed himself out from the lock.

He floated smoothly in space, in a gulf of nothing, a place without direction, without an up or down, an unsubstantial place with the fiery eyes of distant stars ringing him around.

His steel-gloved hand dropped to the propulsion mechanism that encircled his waist. Midget rocket tubes flared with tiny flashes of blue power and he was jerked forward, heading for the mystery ship. Veering too far to the right, he gave the right tube a little more fuel and straightened out.

Steadily, under the surging power of the spacesuit tubes, he forged ahead through space toward the ship. He saw the gleaming lights of the Space Pup slowly circle in front of him and then pass out of sight.

A quarter of a mile away, he shut off the tubes and glided slowly in to the drifting shell. He struck its pitted side with the soles of his magnetic boots and stood upright.

Cautiously he worked his way toward one of the ports from which came the faint gleam of light. Lying at full length, he peered through the foot-thick quartz. The light was feeble and he could see but little. There was no movement of life, no indication that the shell was tenanted. In the center of what at one time had been the living quarters, he saw a large rectangular shape, like a huge box. Aside from this, however, be could make out nothing.

Working his way back to the lock, he saw that it was tightly closed. He had expected that. He stamped against the plates with his heavy boots, hoping to attract attention. But if any living thing were inside, it either did not hear or disregarded the clangor that he made.

Slowly he moved away from the lock, heading for the control-room vision plate, hoping from there to get a better view into the shell's interior. As he moved, his eyes caught a curious irregularity just to the right of the lock, as if faint lines had been etched into the steel of the hull.

He dropped to one knee and saw that a single line of crude lettering had been etched into the metal. Brushing at it with his gloved hand, he tried to make it out. Laboriously, he struggled with it. It was simple, direct, to the point, a single declaration. When one writes with steel and acid, one is necessarily brief.

The line read:

Control room vision-plate unlocked.

Amazed, he read the line again, hardly believing what he read. But there it was. That single line, written with a single purpose. Simple directions for gaining entrance.

Crouched upon the steel plating, he felt a shiver run through his body. Someone had etched that line in hope that someone would come. But perhaps he was too late. The ship had an old look about it. The lines of it, the way the ports were set into the hull, all were marks of spaceship designing that had become obsolete centuries before.

He felt the cold chill of mystery and the utter bleakness of outer space closing in about him. He gazed up over the bulged outline of the shell and saw the steely glare of remote stars. Stars secure in the depth of many light-years, jeering at him, jeering at men who held dreams of stellar conquest.

He shook himself, trying to shake off the probing fingers of half-fear, glanced around to locate the Space Pup, saw it slowly moving off to his right.

Swiftly, but carefully, he made his way over the nose of the ship and up to the vision plate.

Squatting in front of the plate, he peered down into the control cabin. But it wasn't a control cabin. It was a laboratory. In the tiny room which at one time must have housed the instruments of navigation, there was now no trace of control panel or calculator or telescopic screen. Rather, there were work tables, piled with scientific apparatus, banks and rows of chemical containers. All the paraphernalia of the scientist's workshop.

The door into the living quarters, where he had seen the large oblong box was closed. All the apparatus and the bottles in the laboratory were carefully arranged, neatly put away, as if someone had tidied up before they walked off and left the place.

He puzzled for a moment. That lack of rocket tubes, the indications that the ship was centuries old, the scrawled acid-etched line by the lock, the laboratory in the control room… what did it all add up to? He shook his head. It didn't make much sense.

Bracing himself against the curving steel hide of the shell, he pushed at the vision-plate. But he could exert little effort. Lack of gravity, inability to brace himself securely, made the task a hard one. Rising to his feet, he stamped his heavy boots against the glass, but the plate refused to budge.

As a last desperate effort, he might use his guns, blast his way into the shell. But that would be long, tedious work… and there would be a certain danger. There should be, he told himself, an easier and a safer way.

Suddenly the way came to him, but he hesitated, for there lay danger, too. He could lie down on the plate, turn on the rocket tubes of his suit and use his body as a battering ram, as a lever, to force the stubborn hinges.

But it would be an easy matter to turn on too much power, so much power that his body would be pounded to a pulp against the heavy quartz.

Shrugging at the thought, he stretched flat on the plate, hands folded under him with fingers on the tube controls. Slowly he turned the buttons. The rockets thrust at his body, jamming him against the quartz. He snapped the studs shut. It had seemed, for a moment, that the plate had given just a little.

Drawing in a deep breath, he twisted the studs again. Once more his body slammed against the plate, driven by the flaming tubes.

Suddenly the plate gave way, swung in and plunged him down into the laboratory. Savagely he snapped the studs shut. He struck hard against the floor, cracked his helmet soundly.

Groggily he groped his way to his feet. The thin whine of escaping atmosphere came to his ears and unsteadily he made his way forward. Leaping at the plate, he slammed it back into place again. It closed with a thud, driven deep into its frame by the force of rushing air.

A chair stood beside a table and he swung around, sat down in it, still dizzy from the fall. He shook his head to clear away the cobwebs.

There was atmosphere here. That meant that an atmosphere generator still was operating, that the ship had developed no leaks and was still airtight.

He raised his helmet slightly. Fresh pure air swirled into his nostrils, better air than he had inside his suit. A little highly oxygenated, perhaps, but that was all. If the atmosphere machine had run for a long time unattended, it might have gotten out of adjustment slightly, might be mixing a bit too much oxygen with the air output.

He swung the helmet back and let it dangle on the hinge at the back of the neck, gulped in great mouthfuls of the atmosphere. His head cleared rapidly.

He looked around the room. There was little that he had not already seen. A practical, well-equipped laboratory, but much of the equipment, he now realized, was old.

Some of it was obsolete and that fitted in with all the rest of it.

A framed document hung above a cabinet and getting to his feet, he walked across the room to look at it. Bending close, he read it. It was a diploma from the College of Science at Alkatoon, Mars, one of the most outstanding of several universities on the Red Planet. The diploma had been issued to one Caroline Martin.

Gary read the name a second time. It seemed that he should know it. It raised some memory in his brain, but just what it was he couldn't say, an elusive recognition that eluded him by the faintest margin.

He looked around the room.

Caroline Martin.

A girl who had left a diploma in this cabin, a pitiful reminder of many years ago. He bent again and looked at the date upon the sheep-skin. It was 5976. He whistled softly. A thousand years ago!

A thousand years. And if Caroline Martin had left this diploma here a thousand years ago, where was Caroline Martin now? What had happened to her? Dead in what strange corner of the solar system? Dead in this very ship?

He swung about and strode toward the door that led into the living quarters. His hand reached out and seized the door and pushed it open. He took one step across the threshold and then he stopped, halted in his stride.

In the center of the room was the oblong box that he had seen from the port. But instead of a box, it was a tank, bolted securely to the floor by heavy steel brackets.

The tank was filled with a greenish fluid and in the fluid lay a woman, a woman dressed in metallic robes that sparkled in the light from the single radium bulb in the ceiling just above the tank.

Breathlessly, Gary moved closer, peered over the edge of the tank, down through the clear green liquid into the face of the woman. Her eyes were closed and long, curling black lashes lay against the whiteness of her cheeks. Her forehead was high and long braids of raven hair were bound about her head. Slim black eyebrows arched to almost meet above the delicately modeled nose. Her mouth was a thought too large, a trace of the patrician in the thin, red lips. Her arms were laid straight along her sides and the metallic gown swept in flowing curves from chin to ankles.

Beside her right hand, lying in the bottom of the tank, was a hypodermic syringe, bright and shining despite the green fluid which covered it.

Gary's breath caught in his throat.

She looked alive and yet she couldn't be alive. Still there was a flush of youth and beauty in her cheeks, as if she merely slept.

Laid out as if for death and still with the lie to death in her very look. Her face was calm, serene… and something else. Expectancy, perhaps. As if she only waited for a thing she hoped to happen.

Caroline Martin was the name on the diploma out in the laboratory. Could this be Caroline Martin? Could this be the girl who had graduated from the college of science at Alkatoon ten centuries ago?

Gary shook his head uneasily.

He stepped back from the tank and as he did he saw the copper plate affixed to its metal side. He stooped to read.

Another simple message, etched in copper… a message from the girl who lay inside the tank.

I am not dead. I am in suspended animation. Drain the tank by opening the valve. Use the syringe you find in the medicine cabinet.

Gary glanced across the room, saw a medicine chest on the wall above a washbowl. He looked back at the tank and mopped his brow with his coat sleeve.

"It isn't possible," he whispered.

Like a man in a dream, he stumbled to the medicine chest. The syringe was there. He broke it and saw that it was loaded with a cartridge filled with a reddish substance. A drug, undoubtedly, to overcome suspended animation.

Replacing the syringe, he went back to the tank and found the valve. It was stubborn with the years, defying all the strength in his arms. He kicked it with a heavy boot and jarred it loose. With nervous hands he opened it and watched the level of the green fluid slowly recede.

Watching, an odd calm came upon him, a steadying calm that made him hard and machine-like to do the thing that faced him. One little slip might spoil it. One fumbling move might undo the work of a thousand years. What if the drug in the hypodermic had lost its strength? There were so many things that might happen.

But there was only one thing to do. He raised a hand in front of him and looked at it. It was a steady hand.

He wasted no time in wondering what it was about. This was not the time for that. Frantic questionings clutched at his thoughts and he shook them off. Time enough to wonder and to speculate and question when this thing was done.

When the fluid was level with the girl's body, he waited no longer. He leaned over the rim of the tank and lifted her in his arms. For a moment he hesitated, then turned and went to the laboratory and placed her on one of the work tables. The fluid, dripping off the rustling metallic dress, left a trail of wet across the floor.

From the medicine chest he took the hypodermic and went back to the girl. He lifted her left arm and peered closely at it. There were little punctures, betraying previous use of the needle.

Perspiration stood out on his forehead. If only he knew a little more about this. If only he had some idea of what he was supposed to do.

Awkwardly he shoved the needle into a vein, depressed the plunger. It was done and he stepped back.

Nothing happened. He waited.

Minutes passed and she took a shallow breath. He watched in fascination, saw her come to life again… saw the breath deepen, the eyelids flicker, the right hand twitch.

Then she was looking at him out of deep blue eyes.

"You are all right?" he asked.

It was, he knew, a rather foolish question.

Her speech was broken. Her tongue and lips refused to work the way they should, but he understood what she tried to say.

"Yes, I'm all right." She lay quietly on the table. "What year is this?" she asked.

"It's 6948," he told her.

Her eyes widened and she looked at him with a startled glance. "Almost a thousand years," she said. "You are sure of the year?"

He nodded. "That is about the only thing that I am really sure of."

"How is that?"

"Why, finding you here," said Gary, "and reviving you again. I still don't believe it happened."

She laughed, a funny, discordant laugh because her muscles, inactive for years, had forgotten how to function rightly.

"You are Caroline Martin, aren't you?" asked Gary.

She gave him a quick look of surprise and rose to a sitting position.

"I am Caroline Martin," she answered. "But how did you know that?"

Gary gestured at the diploma. "I read it."

"Oh," she said. "I'd forgotten all about it."

"I am Gary Nelson," he told her. "Newsman on the loose. My pal's out there in a spaceship waiting for us."

"I suppose," she said, "that I should thank you, but I don't know how. Just ordinary thanks aren't quite enough."

"Skip it," said Gary, tersely.

She stretched her arms above her head.

"It's good to be alive again," she said. "Good to know there's life ahead of you."

"But," said Gary, "you always were alive. It must have been just like going to sleep."

"It wasn't sleep," she said. "It was worse than death. Because, you see, I made one mistake."

"One mistake?"

"Yes, just one mistake. One you'd never think of. At least, I didn't. You see, when animation was suspended every physical process was reduced to almost zero, metabolism slowed down to almost nothing. But with one exception. My brain kept right on working."

The horror of it sank into Gary slowly. "You mean you knew?"

She nodded. "I couldn't hear or see or feel. I had no bodily sensation. But I could think. I've thought for almost ten centuries. I tried to stop thinking, but I never could.

I prayed something would go wrong and I would die. Anything at all to end that eternity of thought."

She saw the pity in his eyes.

"Don't waste sympathy on me," she said and there was a note of hardness in her voice. "I brought it on myself. Stubbornness, perhaps. I played a long shot. I took a gamble."

He chuckled in his throat. "And won."

"A billion to one shot," she said. "Probably greater odds than that. It was madness itself to do it. This shell is a tiny speck in space. There wasn't, I don't suppose, a billion-to-one chance, if you figured it out on paper, that anyone would find me. I had some hope. Hope that would have reduced those odds somewhat. I placed my faith on someone and I guess they failed me. Perhaps it wasn't their fault. Maybe they died before they could even hunt for me."

"But how did you do it?" asked Gary. "Even today suspended animation has our scientists stumped. They've made some progress but not much. And you made it work a thousand years ago."

"Drugs," she said. "Certain Martian drugs. Rare ones. And they have to be combined correctly. Slow metabolism to a point where it is almost non-existent. But you have to be careful. Slow it down too far and metabolism stops. That's death."

Gary gestured toward the hypodermic. "And that," be said, "reacts against the other drug."

She nodded gravely.

"The fluid in the tank," he said. "That was to prevent dehydration and held some food value? You wouldn't need much food with metabolism at nearly zero. But how about your mouth and nostrils? The fluid…"

"A mask," she said. "Chemical paste that held up under moisture. Evaporated as soon as it was struck by air."

"You thought of everything."

"I had to," she declared. "There was no one else to do my thinking for me."

She slid off the table and walked slowly toward him.

"You told me a minute ago," she said, "that the scientists of today haven't satisfactorily solved suspended animation."

He nodded.

"You mean to say they still don't know about these drugs?"

"There are some of them," he said, "who'd give their good right arm to know about them."

"We knew about them a thousand years ago," the girl said. "Myself and one other. I wonder…"

She whirled on Gary. "Let's get out of here," she cried. "I have a horror of this place."

"Anything you want to take?" he asked. "Anything I can get together for you?"

She made an impatient gesture.

"No," she said. "I want to forget this place."

CHAPTER Three

The Space Pup arrowed steadily toward Pluto. From the engine room came the subdued hum of the geosectors. The vision plate looked out on ebon space with its far-flung way posts of tiny, steely stars. The needle was climbing up near the thousand-miles-a-second mark.

Caroline Martin leaned forward in her chair and stared out at the vastness that stretched eternally ahead. "I could stay and watch forever," she exulted.

Gary, lounging back in the pilot's seat, said quietly:

"I've been thinking about that name of yours. It seems to me I've heard it somewhere. Read it in a book."

She glanced at him swiftly and then stared out into space.

"Perhaps you have," she said finally.

There was a silence, unbroken except by the humming of the geosectors.

The girl turned back to Gary, chin cupped in her hands. "Probably you have read about me;" she said. "Perhaps the name of Caroline Martin is mentioned in your histories. You see, I was a member of the old Mars-Earth Research commission during the war with Jupiter. I was so proud of the appointment. Just four years out of school and I was trying so hard to get a good job in some scientific research work. I wanted to earn money to go back to school again."

"I'm beginning to remember now," said Gary, "but there must be something wrong. The histories say you were a traitor. They say you were condemned to death."

"I was a traitor," she said and there was a thread of ancient bitterness in the words she spoke. "I refused to turn over a discovery I made, a discovery that would have won the war. It also would have wrecked the solar system. I told them so, but they were men at war. They were desperate men. We were losing then."

"We never did win, really," Gary told her.

"They condemned me to space," she said. "They put me in that shell you found me in and a war cruiser towed it out to Pluto's orbit and cut it loose. It was an old condemned craft, its machinery outmoded. They ripped out the rockets and turned it into a prison for me."

She made a gesture of silence at the shocked look on their faces.

"The histories don't tell that part of it," said Herb.

"They probably suppressed it," she said. "Men at war will do things that no sane man will do. They would not admit in peace the atrocities that they committed in the time of battle. They put the laboratory in the control room as a final ironic jest. So I could carry out my research, they said. Research, they told me, I'd not need to turn over to them."

"Would your discovery have wrecked the system?"

Gary asked.

"Yes," she said, "it would have. That's why I refused to give it to the military board. For that they called me traitor. I think they hoped to break me. I think they thought up to the very last that, faced with exile in space, I would finally crack and give it to them."

"When you didn't," Herb said, "they couldn't back down. They couldn't afford to let you call their bluff."

"They never found your notes," said Gary.

She tapped her forehead with a slender finger. "My notes were here," she said.

He looked amazed.

"And still are," she said.

"But how did you get the drugs to carry out your suspended animation?" Gary asked.

She waited for long minutes.

"That's the part I hate to think about," she said. "The part that's hard to think about. I worked with a young man. About my age, then. He must be dead these many years."

She stopped and Gary could see that she was trying to marshal in her mind what next to say.

"We were in love," she said. "Together we discovered the suspended animation process. We had worked on it secretly for months and were ready to announce it when I was taken before the military tribunal. They never let me see him after that. I was allowed no visitors.

"Out in space, after the war cruiser left, I almost went insane. I invented all sorts of tasks to do. I arranged and rearranged my chemicals and apparatus and then one day I found the drugs, skillfully hidden in a box of chemicals. Only one person in the world besides myself knew about them. I found the drugs and two hypodermic syringes."

Gary's pipe had gone out and now he relit it. The girl went on.

"I knew it would be a gamble," she said. "I knew he intended that I should take that gamble. Maybe he had a wild scheme of coming out and hunting for me. Maybe something happened and he couldn't come. Maybe he tried and failed. Maybe the war… got him. But he had given me a chance, a desperate chance to beat the fate the military court had set for me. I removed the steel partition in the engine room to make the tank. That took many weeks. I etched the copper plate. I went outside on the shell and etched the lines beside the lock. I'm afraid that wasn't a very good job."

"And then," said Herb, "you put yourself to sleep."

"Not exactly sleep," she said. "Because my brain still worked. I thought and thought for almost a thousand years. My mind set up problems and worked them out. I developed a flair for pure deduction, since my mind was the only thing left for me to work with. I believe I even developed telepathic powers."

"You mean," asked Herb, "that you can read our thoughts?"

She nodded, then hastened on. "But I wouldn't," she said. "I wouldn't do that to my friends. I knew when Gary first came to the shell. I read the wonder and amazement in his thoughts. I was so afraid he'd go away and leave me alone again. I tried to talk to him with my thoughts, but he was so upset that he couldn't understand."

Gary shook his head. "Anyone would have been upset," he said.

"But," exploded Herb, "think of the chances that you took. It was just pure luck we found you. Your drug wouldn't have held up forever. Another few thousand years, perhaps, but scarcely longer than that. Then there would be the chance that the atmosphere generators might have failed. Or that a big meteor, or even a small one, for that matter, might have come along. There were a thousand things that could have happened."

She agreed with him. "It was a long chance. I knew it was. But there was no other way. I could have just sat still and done nothing or gone crazy, grown old and died in loneliness."

She was silent for a moment.

"It would have been easy," she said then, "if I hadn't made that one mistake."

"Weren't you frightened?" Gary asked.

Her eyes widened slightly and she nodded.

"I heard voices," she said. "Voices coming out of space, out of the void that lies between the galaxies. Things talking over many light-years with one another. Things to which the human race, intellectually, would appear mere insects. At first I was frightened, frightened at the things they said, at the horrible hints I sensed in the things I couldn't understand. Then, growing desperate, I tried to talk back to them, tried to attract their attention. I wasn't afraid of them any more and I thought that they might help. I didn't care much what happened any more just so someone, or something, would help me. Even take notice of me. Anything to let me know that I wasn't all alone."

Gary lit his pipe again and silence fell for just a space. "Voices," said Herb.

They all stared out at that darkness that hemmed them in. Gary felt the hairs bristle at the nape of his neck. Some cold wind from far away had brushed against his face, an unnamable terror out of the cosmos reaching out for him, searching for him with dirty-taloned thoughts. Things that hurled pure thought across the deserts of emptiness that lay between the galaxies.

"Tell me," said Caroline, and her voice, too, seemed to come from far away, "how did the war come out?"

"The war?" asked Gary. Then he understood.

"Oh, the war," he said. "Why, Earth and Mars finally won out. Or so the histories claim. There was a battle out near Ganymede and both fleets limped home badly beaten up. The Jovians went back to Jupiter, the Earth-Mars fleet pulled into Sandebar on Mars. For months the two inner planets built up their fleets and strengthened home defenses. But the Jovians never came out again and our fleets didn't dare carry the war to the enemy. Even today we haven't developed a ship that dares go into Jupiter's atmosphere. Our geosectors might take us there and bring us back, but you can't use them near a planetary body. They work on the principle of warping space…"

"Warping space?" asked the girl, suddenly sitting upright.

"Sure," said Gary. "Anything peculiar about it?" "No," she said, "I don't suppose there is."

Then: "I wouldn't exactly call that a victory."

"That's what the histories call it." Gary shrugged. "They claim we run the Jovians to cover and they've been afraid to come out ever since. Earth and Mars have taken over Jupiter's moons and colonized them, but to this day no one has sighted a Jovian or a Jovian ship. Not since that day back in 5980.

"It's just one of them things," Herb decided for them.

The girl was staring out at space again. Hungry for seeing, hungry for living, but with the scars of awful memories etched into her brain.

Gary shivered to himself. Alone, she had taken her gamble and had won. Won against time and space and the brutality of man and the great indifference of the mighty sweep of stars.

What had she thought of during those long years? What problems had she solved? What kind of a person could she be, with her twenty-year-old body and her thousand-year-old brain?

Gary nursed the hot bowl of his pipe between his hands, studying the outline of her head against the vision-plate. Square chin, high forehead, the braided strands wrapped around her head.

What was she thinking now? Of that lover who now would be forgotten dust? Of how he might have tried to find her, of how he might have searched through space and failed? Or was she thinking of the voices… the voice talking back and forth across the gulfs of empty space?

The spacewriter, sitting in its own dark corner, broke into a gibbering chatter.

Gary sprang to his feet.

"Now what?" he almost shouted.

The chattering ceased and the machine settled into the click-clack of its message.

Gary hurried forward. The other two pressed close behind, looking over his shoulder.

NELSON, ABOARD SPACE PUP, NEARING PLUTO. KINGSLEY REPORTS RECEIVING STRANGE MESSAGES FROM SOMEWHERE OUT OF THE SOLAR SYSTEM. UNABLE, OR UNWILLING, TO GUESS AT SOURCE. REFUSES TO GIVE CIRCUMSTANCES UNDER WHICH MESSAGES WERE RECEIVED OR CONTEXT OF THEM, IF IN FACT HE KNOWS CONTEXT. URGENT THAT YOU GET STATEMENT FROM HIM SOONEST. REGARDS. EVENING ROCKET.

The machine's stuttering came to an end."

The three stared at one another.

"Messages," said Herb. "Messages out of space."

Gary shook his head. He stole a swift glance at the girl and her face seemed pale. Perhaps she was remembering.

CHAPTER Four

TRAIL" S END, Pluto's single community, cowering at the foot of a towering black mountain, seemed deserted. There was no stir of life about the buildings that huddled between the spacefield and the mountain. The spiraling tower of the radio station climbed dizzily spaceward and beside it squatted the tiny radio shack. Behind it stood the fueling station and the hangar, while half a mile away loomed the larger building that housed the laboratories of the Solar Science commission.

Caroline moved closer to Gary.

"It seems so lonely," she whispered. "I don't like loneliness now… after…"

Gary stirred uneasily, scraping the heavy boots of his spacesuit over the pitted rock. "It's always lonely enough," he said. "I wonder where they are."

As he spoke the lock of the radio shack opened and a space-suited figure strode across the field to meet them.

His voice crackled in their helmet phones. "You must be Nelson," it said. "I'm Ted Smith, operator here. Kingsley told me to bring you up to the house right away."

"Fine," said Gary. "Glad to be here. I suppose Evans is still around."

"He is," said Smith. "He's up at the house now. His ship is in the hangar. Personally, I figure he's planning to take off and let the SCC do what they can about it."

Smith fell in step with them. "It's good to see new faces," he declared, "especially a woman. We don't have women visitors very often."

"I'm sorry," said Gary. "I forgot."

He introduced Caroline and Herb to Smith as they plodded past the radio shack and started for the laboratory.

"It gets God-lonesome out here," said Smith. "This is a hellish place, if I do say so myself. No wind. No moon. No nothing. Very little difference between day and night because there's never any clouds to cover the stars and even in the daytime the Sun is little better than a star."

His tongue, loosened by visitors to talk to, rambled on. "A fellow gets kind of queer out here," he told them.

"It's enough to make anyone get queer. I think the doctor is half crazy from staying here too long. He thinks he's getting messages from some place far away. Acts mysterious about it."

"You think he just imagines it?" asked Herb.

"I'm not saying one way or the other," declared Smith, "but I ask you… where would you get the messages from? Think of the power it would take just to send a message from Alpha Centauri. And that isn't so very far away. Not so far as stars go. Right next door, you might say."

"Evans is going to fly there and back," Herb reminded him.

"Evans is space-nuts," said Smith. "With all the solar system to fool around in, he has to go gallivanting off to the stars. He hasn't got a chance. I told him so, but he laughed at me. I'm sorry for him. He's a nice young fellow."

They mounted the steps, hewn out of living stone, which led to the main airlock of the laboratory building. Smith pressed a button and they waited.

"I suppose you'll want Andy to go over your ship,"

Smith suggested.

"Sure," said Gary. "Tell him to take good care of it."

"Andy is the fueling-station man," the radio operator explained. "But he hasn't much to do now. Most of the ships use geosectors. There's only a few old tubs, one or two a year, that need any fuel. Used to be a good business, but not any more."

The space lock swung open and the three stepped inside. Smith remained by the doorway.

"I have to go back to the shack," he said. "I'll see you again before you leave."

The lock hissed shut behind them and the inner screw began to turn. It swung open and they stepped into a small room that was lined with spacesuits hanging on the wall.

A man was standing in the center of the room. A big man, with broad shoulders and hands like hams. His unruly shock of hair was jet-black and his voice boomed jovially at them.

"Glad to see all of you," be said and laughed, a deep, thunderous laugh that seemed to shake the room.

Gary swung back the helmet of his suit and thrust out a gloved hand.

"You are Dr. Kingsley?" he asked.

"That's who I am," boomed the mighty voice. "And who are these folks with you?"

Gary introduced them.

"I didn't know there was a lady in the party," said the doctor.

"There wasn't," said Herb. "Not until just recently."

"Mean to tell me they've taken to hitch-hiking out in space?"

Gary laughed. "Even better than that, doctor," he said. "There's a little story about Miss Martin you'll enjoy."

"Come on," he roared at them. "Get out of your duds. I got some coffee brewing. And you'll want to meet Tommy Evans. He's that young fool who thinks he's going to fly four light-years out to old A.C."

And at just that moment Tommy Evans burst into the room.

"Doc," he shouted, "that damn machine of yours is at it again."

Dr. Kingsley turned and lumbered out, shouting back at them.

"Come along. Never mind the suits."

They ran behind him as he lumbered along. Through what obviously were the laboratory's living quarters, through a tiny kitchen that smelled of boiling coffee, into a workroom bare of everything except a machine that stood in one corner. A red light atop the machine was blinking rapidly.

"Whatever you say is off the record, is off the record," Gary told him.

"There's so much of it," rumbled the doctor, "that sounds like sheer dream stuff."

"Hell," said Evans, "there always is in everything new. My ships sound like it, too. But the thing will work. I know it will."

Kingsley perched himself on a heavy kitchen chair.

"It started more than a year ago," be said. "We were studying the cosmics. Elusive things, those rays. Men have studied them for about five thousand years and they still don't know as much about them as you think they would after all that time. We thought at first that we'd made a really astounding discovery, for our instruments, used on top of the building, showed that the rays came in definite patterns. Not only that, but they came in definite patterns at particular times. We developed new equipment and learned more about the pattern. We learned that it occurred only when Pluto had rotated into such a position that this particular portion of the planet was facing the Great Nebula in Andromeda. We learned that the pattern, besides having a certain fixed physical structure, also had a definite time structure, and that the intensity of the bombardment always remained the same. In other words, the pattern never varied as to readings; it occurred at fixed intervals whenever we directly faced the Great Nebula, and the intensity varied very slightly, showing an apparent constant source of energy operating at specific times. In between those times our equipment registered the general haphazard behavior one would expect in cosmic rays."

The doctor rumbled on: "The readings had me down. Cosmic simply shouldn't behave that way. There never had been any instance of their behaving that way at any time before. Of course, this was the first thorough investigation far from the Sun's interfering magnetic fields. But why should they behave in that manner only when we were broadside to the Great Nebula?

"My two assistants and I worked and studied and theorized and it finally came down to just one thing. The things we were catching with our instruments weren't cosmic rays at all. They were something else. Something new. Some strange impulse coming to us from outer space. Almost like a signal. Like something or someone or God-knows-what was signaling to someone or something stationed here on Pluto. We romanticized a bit. We toyed with the idea of signals coming from another galaxy, for you know the Great Nebula is an exterior galaxy, a mighty star system, some nine hundred million light years across intergalactic space.

"But that was just imagining. There was nothing to support it in the light of factual evidence. We still aren't sure what it's all about, although we know a great deal more now than we did then.

"The facts we did gather, you see, indicated that whatever we were receiving must be definite signals, must originate within some sort of intelligence. Some intelligence, you see, that would know just when and where to send them. But there was the problem of distance. Just suppose for a moment that they were coming from the Great Nebula. It takes light almost a billion years to reach us from the Nebula. While it is very probable that the speed of light can be far exceeded, there is little reason to believe at present than anything could be so much faster than light that signaling could be practical across such enormous space. Unless, of course, the matter of time were mixed up a little, and when you get into that you have a problem that takes more than just a master mind. There was just one thing that would seem a probable answer… that if the signals were being sent from many light years distant, they were being routed through something other than all that space. Perhaps through another continuum of space-time, through what you might call, for the want of a better term, the fourth dimension."

"Doctor," said Herb, "you got me all balled up."

Dr. Kingsley's chuckle rumbled through the room.

"It had us that way, too," he said. "And then we figured maybe we were getting pure thought. Thought telepathed across the light years of unimaginable space. Just what the speed of thought would be no one could even guess. It might be instantaneous… it might be no faster than the speed of light… or any speed in between the two. But we do know one thing: that the signals we are receiving are the projection of thought. Whether they come straigh through space or whether they travel through some shortcut, through some manipulation of space-time frames, do not know and I probably will never know.

"It took us months to build that machine you saw in the other room. Briefly, it picks up the signals, translates them from the pure energy of thought into actual thought, into symbols our mind can read. We also developed a method of sending our own thoughts back, of communicating with whatever or whoever it is that is trying to talk with Pluto. So far we haven't been successful in getting an entire message across. However, apparently we have succeeded in advising whoever is sending out the messages that we are trying to answer, for recently the messages have changed, have a note of desperation, frantic command, almost a pleading quality."

He brushed his coat sleeve across his brow.

"It's all so confusing," he confessed.

"But," asked Herb, "why would anyone send messages to Pluto? Until men came here, there was no life on the planet. Just a barren planet, without any atmosphere, too cold for anything to live. The tail end of creation."

Kingsley stared solemnly at Herb.

"Young man," he said, "we must never take anything for granted. How are we to say there never was life or intelligence on Pluto? How do we know that a great civilization might not have risen and flourished here aeons ago? How do we know that an expeditionary force from some far-distant star might not have come here and colonized this outer planet many years ago?"

"It don't sound reasonable," said Herb.

Kingsley gestured impatiently.

"Neither do these signals sound reasonable," he rumbled. "But there they are. I've thought about the things you mention. I am damned with an imagination, something no scientist should have. A scientist should just plug along, applying this bit of knowledge to that bit of knowledge to arrive at something new. He should leave the imagination to the philosophers. But I'm not that way. I try to imagine what might have happened or what is going to happen. I've imagined a mother planet groping out across all space, trying to get in touch with some long-lost colony here on Pluto. I've imagined someone trying to re-establish communication with the people who lived here millions of years ago. But it doesn't get me anywhere."


Gary filled and lit his pipe, frowning down at the glowing tobacco. Voices in space again. Voices talking across the void. Saying things to rack the human soul.


"Doctor," he said, "you aren't the only one who has heard thought from outer space."


Kingsley swung on him, almost belligerently. "Who else?" he demanded.


"Miss Martin," said Gary quietly, puffing at his pipe. "You haven't heard Miss Martin's story yet. I have a hunch that she can help you out."


"How's that?" rumbled the scientist.


"Well, you see," said Gary, softly, "she's just passed through a thousand years of mind training. She's thought without ceasing for almost ten centuries."


Kingsley's face drooped in amazement.


"That's impossible," he said.


Gary shook his head. "Not impossible at all. Not with suspended animation."


Kingsley opened his mouth to object again, but Gary hurried on. "Doctor," he asked, "do you remember the historical account of the Caroline Martin who refused to give an invention to the military board during the Jovian war?"


"Why, yes," said Kingsley. "Scientists have speculated for many years on just what it was she found —»


He started out of his chair.


"Caroline Martin!" he shouted. He looked at the girl.


"Your name is Caroline Martin, too," he whispered huskily.


Gary nodded. "Doctor, this is the woman who refused to give up that secret a thousand years ago."

CHAPTER Five

DR. KINGSLEY glanced at his watch.


"It's almost time for the signals to begin," he said. "In another few minutes we will be swinging around to face the Great Nebula. If you looked out you would see it over the horizon now."


Caroline Martin sat in the chair before the thought machine, the domed helmet settled on her head. All eyes in the room were glued on the tiny light atop the mechanism. When the signals started coming that light would blink its bright-red eye.


"Lord, it's uncanny," whispered Tommy Evans. He brushed at his face with his hand.


Gary watched the girl. Sitting there so straight, like a queen with a crown upon her head. Sitting there, waiting, waiting to hear something that spoke across a gulf that took light many years to span.


Brain sharpened by a thousand years of thought, a woman who was schooled in hard and simple logic. She had thought of many things out in the shell, she said, had set up problems and had worked them out. What were those problems she had thought about? What were the mysteries she had solved? She was a young, rather sweet-faced kid, who ought to like a good game of tennis, or a dance and she'd thought a thousand years.


Then the light began to blink and Gary saw Caroline lean forward, heard the breath catch sharply in her throat. The pencil she had poised above the pad dropped from her fingers and fell onto the floor.


Heavy silence engulfed the room, broken only by the whistling of the breath in Kingsley's nostrils. He whispered to Gary: "She understands! She understands…"


Gary gestured him to silence.


The red light blinked out and Caroline swung around slowly in the chair. Her eyes were wide and for a moment she seemed unable to give voice to the words she sought.


Then she spoke. "They think they are contacting someone else," she said. "Some great civilization that must have lived here at one time. The messages come from far away. From even farther than the Great Nebula. The Nebula just happens to be in the same direction. They are puzzled that we do not answer. They know someone has been trying to answer. They're trying to help us to get through. They talked in scientific terms I could not understand. Something to do with the warping of space and time, but involving principles that are entirely new. They want something and they are impatient. It seems there is a great danger someplace. They think that we can help."


"Great danger to whom?" asked Kingsley.


"I couldn't understand," said Caroline.


"Can you talk back to them?" asked Gary. "Do you think you could make them understand?"


"I'll try," she said.


"All you have to do is think," Kingsley told her. "Think clearly and forcefully. Concentrate all that you can, as if you were trying to push the thought away from you. The helmet picks up the impulses and routes them through the thought projector."


Her slim fingers reached out and turned a dial. Tubes came to life and burned into a blue intensity of light. A soaring hum of power filled the tiny room.


The hum became a steady drone and the tubes were filled with a light that hurt one's eyes.


"She's talking to them now," thought Gary. "She is talking to them."


The minutes seemed eternities, and then the girl reached out and closed the dial. The hum of power receded, clicked off and was replaced by a deathly silence.


"Did they understand?" asked Kingsley, and even as he spoke the light blinked red again.


Kingsley's hand closed around Gary's arm and his harsh whisper rasped in Gary's ear.


"Instantaneous!" he said. "Instantaneous signals! They got her message and they are answering. That means the signals are routed through some extra-dimension."


Swiftly the red light blinked. Caroline crouched forward in the chair, her body tensed with what she heard.


The light blinked off and the girl reached up and tore the helmet off.


"It can't be right," she sobbed. "It can't be right."


Gary sprang forward, put an arm around her shoulder.


"What's wrong?" he asked.


"Those messages," she cried. "They come from the very edge of all the universe… from the farthest rim of exploding space!"


Kingsley leaped to his feet.


"They are like the voices I heard before," she said. "But different, somehow. More kindly… but terrifying, even so. They think they are talking to someone else. To a people they talked to here on Pluto many years ago… I can't know how many, but it was a long, long time ago."


Gary shook his head in bewilderment and Kingsley rumbled in his throat.


"At first," Caroline whispered, "they referred to us by some term that had affection in it… actual kinfolk affection, as if there were blood ties between them and the things they were trying to talk to here. The things that must have disappeared centuries ago."


"Longer ago than that," Kingsley told her. "That the thought bombardment is directed at this spot would indicate the things they are trying to reach had established some sort of a center, perhaps a city, on this site. There are no indications of former occupancy. If anyone was ever here, every sign of them has been swept away. And here there is no wind, no weather, nothing to erode, nothing to blow away. A billion years would be too short a time —»


"But who are they?" asked Gary. "These ones you were talking to. Did they tell you that?"


She shook her head. "I couldn't exactly understand. As near as I could come, they called themselves the Cosmic Engineers. "That's a very poor translation. Not sufficient at all. There is a lot more to it."


She paused as if to marshal a definition. "As if they were self-appointed guardians of the entire universe," she explained. "Champions of all things that live within its space-time frame. And something is threatening the universe. Some mighty force out beyond the universe out where there's neither space nor time."


"They want our help," she said.


"But how can we help them?" asked Herb.


"I don't know. They tried to tell me, but the thoughts they used were too abstract. I couldn't understand entirely. A few clues here and there. They'll have to reduce it to simpler terms."


"We couldn't even get there to help them," said Gary. "There is no way in which we can reach the rim of the universe. We haven't yet gone to the nearest star."


"Maybe," suggested Tommy Evans, "we don't need to get there. Maybe we can do something here to help them."


The red light was blinking again. Caroline saw it and reached for the helmet, put it on her head. The light clicked out and her hand went out and moved a dial. Again the tubes lighted and the room trembled with the surge of power.


Dr. Kingsley was rumbling. "The edge of space. But that's impossible!"


Gary laughed at him silently.


The power was building up. The room throbbed with it and the blue tubes threw dancing shadows on the wall.


Gary felt the cold wind from space again, flicking at his face, felt the short hairs rising at the base of his skull.


Kingsley was jittery. And he was jittery. Who wouldn't be at a time like this? A message from the rim of space! From that inconceivably remote area where time and space still surged outward into that no-man" s-land of nothingness… into that place where there was no time or space, where nothing had happened yet, where nothing had happened ever, where there was no place and no circumstance and no possibility of event that could allow anything to happen. He tried to imagine what would be there. And the answer was nothing. But what was nothing?


Many years ago some old philosopher had said that the only two conceptions which Man was capable of perceiving were time and space, and from these two conceptions he built the entire universe, of these two things he constructed the sum total of his knowledge. If this were so, how could one imagine a place where neither time nor space existed? If space ended, what was the stuff beyond that wasn't space?


Caroline was closing the dials again. The blue light dimmed and the hum of power ebbed off and stopped. And once again the red light atop the machine was blinking rapidly.

He watched the girl closely, saw her body tense and then relax. She bent forward, intent upon the messages that were swirling through the helmet.

Kingsley's face was puckered with lines of wonderment. He still stood beside his chair, a great bear of a man, his hamlike hands opening and closing, hanging loosely at his side.

Those messages were instantaneous. That meant one of two things: that thought itself was instantaneous or that the messages were routed through a space-time frame which shortened the distance, that, through some manipulation of the continuum, the edge of space might be only a few miles… or a few feet… distant. That, starting now, one might walk there in just a little while.

Caroline was taking off her helmet, pivoting around in her chair. They all looked at her questioningly and no one asked the question.

"I understand a little better now," she said. "They are friends of ours."

"Friends of ours?" asked Gary.

"Friends of everyone within the universe," said Caroline. "Trying to protect the universe. Calling for volunteers to help them save it from some outside danger — from some outside force."

She smiled at the circle of questioning faces.

"They want us to come out to the edge of the universe," she said, and there was a tiny quaver of excitement in her voice.

Herb's chair clattered to the floor as he leaped to his feet. "They want us…" he started to shout and then be stopped and the room swam in heavy silence.

Gary heard the rasp of breath in Kingsley's nostrils, sensed the effort that the man was making to control himself as he shaped a simple question… the question that any one of them would have asked.

"How do they expect us to get out there?" Kingsley asked.

"My ship is fast," Tommy Evans said, "faster than anything ever built before. But not that fast!"

"A space-time warp," said Kingsley, and his voice was oddly calm. "They must be using a space-time warp to communicate with us. Perhaps…."

Caroline smiled at him. "That's the answer," she said.

"A short cut. Not the long way around. Cut straight through the ordinary space-time world lines. A hole in space and time."

Kingsley's great fists were opening and closing again. Each time he closed them the knuckle bones showed white through the tight-stretched skin.

"How will we do it?" asked Herb. "There isn't a one of us in the room could do it. We play around with geosectors that we use to drive our ships and think we're the tops in progress. But the geosectors just warp space any old way. No definite pattern, nothing. Like a kid playing around in a mud puddle, pushing the mud this way or that. This would take control… you'd have to warp it in a definite pattern and then you'd have to make it stay that way."

"Maybe the Engineers," said Evans.

"That's it," nodded Caroline. "The Engineers can tell us. They know the way to do it. All we have to do is follow their instructions."

"But," protested Kingsley, "could we understand? It would involve mathematics that are way beyond us."

Caroline's voice cut sharply through his protest. "I can understand them," she replied, bitterly. "Maybe it will take a little while, but I can work them out, I've had… practice, you know."

Kingsley was dumfounded. "You can work it out?"

"I worked out new mathematical formulas, new space theories out in the ship," she said. "They're only theories, but they ought to work. They check in every detail. I went over them point by point."

She laughed, with just a touch of greater bitterness.

"I had a thousand years to do it," she reminded him. "I had lots of time to work them out and check them. I had to do something, don't you see? Something to keep from going crazy."

Gary watched her closely, marveling at the complete self-assurance in her face, at the clipped confidence of her words. Vaguely, he sensed something else, too. That she was leader here. That in the last few minutes she had clutched in her tiny hands the leadership of this band of men on Pluto. That not all their brains combined could equal hers. That she held mastery over things they had not even thought about. She had thought, she said, for almost a thousand years.

How long did the ordinary man have to devote to thought? A normal lifetime of useful, skilled, well-directed adult effort did not extend much beyond fifty years. One third of that was wasted in sleep, one sixth spent in eating and in relaxation, leaving only a mere twenty-five years to think, to figure out things. And then one died and all one's thoughts were lost. Embryonic thoughts that might, in just a few more years, have sprouted into well-rounded theory. Lost and left for someone else to discover if he could… and probably lost forever.

But Caroline Martin had thought for forty lifetimes, thought with the sharp, quick brain of youth, without interruption or disturbance. No time out for eating or for sleeping. She might have spent a year, or a hundred years, on one problem, had she wished.

He shivered as he thought of it. No one could even vaguely imagine what she knew, what keys she had found out there in the dark of interplanetary space. And — she had started with the knowledge of that secret of immense power she had refused to reveal even when it meant eternal exile for her.

She was talking again, her words crisp and clipped, totally unlike the delightful companion that she could be.

"You see, I am interested in time and space, always have been. The weapon that I discovered and refused to turn over to the military board during the Jovian war was your geosector… but with a vast difference in one respect."

"You discovered the geosector, the principle of driving a ship by space warp, a thousand years ago?" asked Kingsley.

She nodded. "Except that they wouldn't have used it for driving ships… not then. For Jupiter was winning and everyone was desperate. They didn't care how a ship was driven; what they wanted was a weapon."

"The geosector is no weapon," Kingsley declared flatly. "You couldn't use it near a planetary body."

"But consider this," said the girl. "If you could control the space warp created by the geosector, and if the geosector would warp time as well as space, then it would be a weapon, wouldn't it?"

Herb whistled. "I'd say it'd be a weapon," he said, "and how!"

"They wanted to train it on Jupiter," Caroline explained. "It would have blasted the planet into nothingness. It would have scattered it not only through space, but through time as well."

"But think of what it would have done to the solar system," ejaculated Kingsley. "Even if the space warp hadn't distorted space throughout the entire system, the removal of Jupiter would have caused all the other planets to shift their orbits. There would have been a new deal in the entire system. Some of the planets would have broken up, some of them might have been thrown into the Sun. There most certainly would have been earthquakes and tidal waves and tremendous volcanic action on the Earth."

The girl nodded.

"That's why I wouldn't turn it over to them. I told them it would destroy the system. They adjudged me a traitor for that and condemned me to space."

"Why," said Gary, "you were nine centuries ahead of all of them! The first workable geosector wasn't built until a hundred years ago."

Nine hundred years ahead to start with, and a thousand years to improve upon that start! Gary wondered if she wasn't laughing at them. If she might not be able to laugh at even the Cosmic Engineers. Those geosectors out on the Space Pup must have seemed like simple toys to her.

He remembered how he had almost bragged about them, and felt his ears go red and hot.

"Young lady," rumbled Kingsley, "it seems to me that you don't need any help from these Cosmic Engineers."

She laughed at him, a tinkling laugh like the chime of silver bells. "But I do," she said.

The red light blinked and she picked up the helmet once again. Excitedly, the others watched her. The poised pencil dropped to the pad and raced across the smooth white paper, making symbolic marks, setting up equations.

"The instructions," Kingsley whispered, but Gary frowned at him so fiercely that he lapsed into shuffling silence, his great hands twisting at his side, his massive head bent forward.

The red light blinked out and Caroline snapped on the sending unit and once again the room was filled with the mighty voice of surging power and the flickering blue shadows danced along the walls.

Gary's head swam at the thought of it… that slim wisp of a girl talking across billions of light-years of space, talking with things that dwelt out on the rim of the expanding universe, Talking and understanding but not perfectly understanding, perhaps, for she seemed to be asking questions, something about the equations she had written on the pad. The tip of her pencil hovered over the paper as her eyes followed along the symbols.

The hum died in the room and the blue shadows wavered in the white light of the fluorescent tube-lights. The red light atop the thought machine was winking.

The pencil made corrections, added notes and jotted down new equations. Never once hesitating. Then the light blinked off and Caroline was taking the helmet from her head.

Kingsley strode across the room and picked up the pad. He stood for long minutes, staring at it, the pucker of amazement and bafflement growing on his face.

He looked questioningly at the girl.

"Do you understand this?" he rasped.

She nodded blithely.

He flung down the pad. "There's only one other person in the system who could," he said. "Only one person who even remotely could come anywhere near knowing what it's all about. That's Dr. Konrad Fairbanks, and he's in a mental institution back on Earth."

"Sure," yelled Herb, "he's the guy that invented three-way chess. I took a picture of him once."

They disregarded Herb. All of them were looking at Caroline.

"I understand it well enough to start," she said. "I probably will have to talk with them from time to time to get certain things straightened in my mind. But we can always do that when the time comes."

"Those equations," said Kingsley, "represent advanced mathematics of the fourth dimension. They take into consideration conditions of stress and strain and angular conditions which no one yet has been able to fathom."

"Probably," Caroline suggested, "the Engineers live on a large and massive world, so large that space would be distorted, where stresses such as are shown in the equations would be the normal circumstance. Beings living on such a world would soon solve the intricacies of dimensional space. On a world that large, gravity would distort space. Plane geometry probably couldn't be developed because there'd be no such a thing as a plane surface."

"What do they want us to do?" asked Evans.

"They want us to build a machine," said Caroline, "a machine that will serve as an anchor post for one end of a space-time contortion. The other end will be on the world of the Engineers. Between those two machines, or anchor posts, will be built up a short-cut through the billions of light-years that separate us from them."

She glanced at Kingsley. "We'll need strong materials," she said. "Stronger than anything we know of in the system. Something that will stand up under the strain of billions of light-years of distorted space."

Kingsley wrinkled his brow.

"I was thinking of a suspended electron-whirl," she said. "Have you experimented with it here?"

Kingsley nodded. "We've stilled the electron-whirl," he said. "Our cold laboratories offer an ideal condition for that kind of work. But that won't do us any good. I can suspend all electronic action, stop all the electrons dead in their tracks, but to keep them that way they have to be maintained at close to absolute zero. The least heat and they overcome inertia and start up again. Anything you built of them would dissolve as soon as it heated up, even a few degrees.

"If we could crystallize the atomic orbit after we had stopped it," he said, "we'd have a material which would be phenomenally rigid. It would defy any force to break it down."

"We can do it," Caroline said. "We can create a special space condition that will lock the electrons in their places."

Kingsley snorted. "Is there anything," he asked, "that you can't do with space?"

Caroline laughed. "A lot of things I can't do, doctor," she told him. "A few things I can do. I was interested in space. That's how I happened to discover the space-time warp principle. I thought about space out there in the shell. I figured out ways to control it. It was something to do to while away the time."

Kingsley glanced around the room, like a busy man ready to depart, looking to see if he had forgotten anything.

"Well," he rumbled, "what are we waiting for? Let us get to work."

"Now, wait a second," interrupted Gary. "Do we want to do this? Are we sure we aren't rushing into something we'll be sorry for? After all, all we have to go on are the Voices. We're taking them on face value alone… and Voices don't have faces."

"Sure," piped up Herb, "how do we know they aren't kidding us? How do we know this isn't some sort of a cosmic joke? Maybe there's a fellow out there somewhere laughing fit to kill at how he's got us all stirred up."

Kingsley's face flushed with anger, but Caroline laughed.

"You look so serious, Gary," she declared.

"It's something to be serious about," Gary protested. "We are monkeying around with something that's entirely out of our line. Like a bunch of kids playing with an atom bomb. We might set loose something we wouldn't be able to stop. Something might be using us to help it set up an easy way to get at the solar system. We might be just pulling someone's chestnuts out of the fire."

"Gary," said Caroline softly, "if you had heard that Voice you wouldn't doubt. I know it's on the level. You see, it isn't a voice, really… it's a thought. I know there's danger and that we must help, do everything we can. There are other volunteers, you know, other people, or other things, from other parts of the universe."

"How do you know?" asked Gary fiercely.

"I don't know how," she defended herself. "I just know. That's all. Intuition, perhaps, or maybe a background thought in the Engineer's mind that rode through with the message."

Gary looked around at the others. Evans was amused. Kingsley was angry. He looked at Herb.

"What the hell," said Herb. "Let's take a chance."

Just like that, thought Gary. A woman's intuition, the burning zeal of a scientist, the devil-may-care, adventuresome spirit of mankind. No reason, no logic… mere emotion. A throwback to the old days of chivalry.

Once a mad monk had stood before the crowds and shook a sword in air and shrieked invective against another faith, and, because of this, Christian armies, year after year, broke their strength against the walls of eastern cities.

Those were the Crusades.

This, too, was a crusade. A Cosmic Crusade. Man again answering the clarion call to arms. Man again taking up the sword on faith alone. Man pitting his puny strength, his little brain against great cosmic forces. Man… the damn fool… sticking out his neck.

CHAPTER Six

A GHOSTLY machine was taking shape upon the hard, pitted, frozen surface of the field… a crazy machine that glimmered weirdly in the half-light of the stars. A machine with mind-wrenching angles, with flashing prisms and spidery framework, a towering skeleton of a machine that stretched out spaceward.

Made of material in which the atomic motion had been stilled, it stood defiant against the most powerful forces of man or void. Anchored magnetically to the core of the planet, it stood firmly planted, a spidery, frail-appearing thing, but with a strength that would stand against the unimaginable drag of a cosmic space-time warp.

From it long cables snaked their way over the frozen surface to the laboratory power plant. Through those slender cables, their resistance lowered by the bitter cold, tremendous power loads could be poured into the strange machine.

"They're space-nuts," grumbled Ted Smith at Gary's elbow. "They're fixing to blow Pluto all to hell. I wish there was some way for me to get away from here before the fireworks start."

Herbs" voice crackled in Gary's helmet-phones, answering the complaint. "Shucks, there just won't nothing happen. That contraption looks more like something a kid would build with a tinker toy set than a machine. I can't see, for the life of me, how it'll ever work."

"I gave up long ago," said Gary. "Caroline tried to explain it to me, but I guess I'm just sort of dense. I can't make head or tall of it. All I know is that it's supposed to be an anchor post, a thing that will help the Engineers set up this space warp of theirs and after it is set up will operate to hold it in position."

"I never did set any stock in that Engineer talk," Ted told him, "but there's been something I've been wanting to tell you two. Haven't been able to catch you, you've been so busy. But I wanted to tell you about it, for you're the only two who haven't gone entirely star-batty."

"V/hat is it?" Gary asked.

"Well, you know," said Ted, "I don't attach much meaning to it, but it does seem kind of funny. A few days ago I sneaked out for a walk. Against orders, you know. Not supposed to get out of sight of the settlement. Too many things can happen here.

"But, anyhow, I went for a walk. Out along the mountains and over the carbon dioxide glacier and down into the little valley that lies just over the shoulder of the glacier."

He paused dramatically.

"You found something there?" asked Gary.

"Sure did," declared Ted proudly. "I found some ruins. Chiseled white stone. Scattered all over the valley floor. As if there had been a building there at one time and somebody had pulled it down stone by stone and threw the stones around."

"Sure it wasn't just boulders or peculiar rock formations?" asked Gary.

"No, sir," said Ted, emphatically. "There were chisel marks on those stones. Workmen had dressed them at some time. And all of it was white stone. You show me any white stone around here."

Gary understood what the radio operator meant. The mountains were black, black as the emptiness of space. He turned his head to stare at those jagged peaks that loomed over the settlement, their spearlike points faintly outlined against the black curtain of the void.

"Say," said Herb, "that sounds as if what the Engineers said about someone else living here at one time might be true."

"If Ted found building stone, that's exactly what it means," Gary asserted. "That would denote a city of some kind, intelligence of some kind, It takes a certain degree of culture to work stone."

"But," argued Herb, "how could anyone have lived here? You know that Pluto cooled quick, lost its lighter gases in a hurry. Its oxygen and carbon dioxide are locked up in snow and ice. Too cold for any life."

"I know all that," Gary agreed, "but it seems we can't be too sure of anything in this business. If Ted is right, it means the Engineers were right on at least one point where we all were wrong. It sort of gives a man more faith in what is going on."

"Well," said Ted, "I just wanted to tell you. I was going to go out there again some day and look around, but since then I've been too busy. Ever since you sent that story out, space has been full of messages… governmental stuff, messages from scientists and cranks. Don't give a man no time to himself at all."

As the radio man walked back to his shack, Gary looked toward the laboratory. Two space-suited figures were coming out of the main lock.

"That's Caroline and Kingsley," said Herb. "They've been up there to talk to the Engineers again. Got stuck on something. Wanted the Engineers to explain it to them."

"Looks to me like it's about finished," said Gary. "Caroline told me she didn't know just how much longer it would take, but she had hopes of getting it into working order in another day or two. Tommy's gone without sleep the last twenty hours, working to get his ship in tip-top shape. They've gone over the thing from control panel to rocket tubes."

"What I'd like to know," said Herb, irritably, "is just how we're going to use the ship in getting out to where the Engineers are."

"Those are instructions," said Gary. "Instructions from the Engineers. We don't dare do anything around here unless they say it's all right."

The space-suited figures were coming rapidly down the path to the space-field. Gary hailed them as they came nearer. "Find out what was wrong?" he asked.

Kingsley's voiced boomed at him. "Several things wrong," he declared. "This ought to put it in working shape."

The four of them advanced on the machine. Gary fell into step with Caroline and looked at the girl's face through her helmet visor. "You look fagged out," he said.

"I am tired," she confessed. They walked a few steps. "We had so much to do," she said, "and apparently so little time to do it in. The Engineers sound as if they are getting desperate. They seem to think the danger is very near."

"What I can't figure out," Gary told her, "is what we are going to do when we get there. They seem to be head and shoulders over us in scientific knowledge. If they can't work it out, I don't see how we can help them."

Her voice was full of weariness as she answered him.

"Neither do I," she said, "but they seemed so excited when they found out who we were, when I described our solar system to them and told them that the race had originated on the third planet. They asked so many questions about what kind of beings we were. It took a lot of explaining to get across the idea that we were protoplasmic creatures, and when they finally understood that they seemed even more excited."

"Maybe," suggested Gary, "protoplasmic beings are a rarity throughout the universe. Maybe they never heard of folks like us before."

She wheeled on him. "There's something funny about it all, Gary. Something funny about how anxious they are for us to come, how insistent they are in trying to find out so much about us… the extent of our science and our past history."

He thought he detected a quaver of fear in her voice. "Don't let it get you," he said. "If it gets too funny, we can always quit. We don't have to play their game, you know."

"No," she said, "we can't do that. They need us, need us to help them save the universe. I'm convinced of that."

She stepped quickly forward to help Kingsley.

"Hand me that hammer," said Kingsley's voice, and Gary stooped down, picked up the heavy hammer from the base of the machine and handed it to the scientist.

"Hell," complained Herb, "that's all we've done for days now. We've handed you wrenches and hammers and pins and bolts until I see them in my sleep."

Kingsley's chuckle sounded in their helmets as he swung the hammer against a crossbar, driving it into the mechanism at a slightly different angle.

Gary craned back his neck and gazed up the spiraling, towering height of the machine, out beyond into the blackness of space, studded with cruel-eyed stars. Out there, somewhere, was the rim of space. Out there, somewhere, a race of beings who called themselves the Cosmic Engineers were fighting a great danger which threatened the universe. He tried to imagine such a danger… a danger that would be a threat to that mighty bowl of matter and energy men called the universe, a living, expanding thing enclosed by curving time and space. But his brain swam with the bigness of the thought and he gave it up. It was entirely too big to even think about.

Tommy Evans was coming across the field from the hangar. He hailed them joyously. "The old tub is ready any time you are," he shouted.

Kingsley straightened from adjusting a series of prisms set around the base of the machine. "We're ready now," he said.

"Well, then," said Herb, "let us get going."

Kingsley stared out into space. "Not yet," he said. "We're swinging out of direct line with the Engineers. We'll wait until the planet rotates again. We can't hold the warp continuously. If we did, the rotation of Pluto would twist it out of shape. The machine, once the warp is set up, will act automatically, establishing the warp when it swings into the right position and maintaining it through forty-five degrees of Pluto's rotation."

"What happens," asked Gary, "if we can't complete the trip from here to the edge of the universe before Pluto travels that forty-five degrees? We might roll out of the warp and find ourselves marooned thousands of light-years between galaxies."

"I don't know," said Kingsley. "I'm trusting the Engineers."

"Sure," said Herb, "we're all trusting the Engineers. I hope to Heaven they know what they're doing."

Together the five of them trudged up the path to the main lock of the laboratory. "Something to eat," said Kingsley, "and a good sleep and we'll be starting out. All of us are pretty tuckered now."

In the little kitchen they crowded around the table, gulping steaming coffee and munching sandwiches. Beside Kingsleys" plate was a sheaf of spacegrams that Ted had brought up for him to read. Kingsley leafed through them irritably.

"Cranks," he rumbled. "Hundreds of them. All with ideas crazier than the one we have. And the biggest one of them all is the government. Imagine the government forbidding us to go ahead with our work. Orders to desist!" He snorted. "Some damn law that the Purity league got passed a hundred years or more ago and still standing on the statutes. Gives the government power to stop any experiment which might result in the loss of life or the destruction of property."

"The Purity league is still going pretty strong," said Gary, "although it works mostly undercover now. Too much politics mixed up in it."

He dug into the pocket of his coat and hauled forth a sheet of yellow paper. "I got this a while ago," he said. "I plain forgot about it until now. Too much other excitement."

He handed the sheet to Kinsgley. The folded paper crackled crisply as Kingsley unfolded it. It was a sheet off the teletype in the Space Pup and it read:

NELSON. ABOARD SPACE PUP ON PLUTO.

SOLAR GOVERNMENT ORDERED OUT SOLAR POLICE SECRETLY TWO DAYS AGO TO ENFORCE ORDER TO STOP EDGE OF UNIVERSE TRIP. THIS IS A WARNING. KEEP YOUR NOSE OUT OF WHATEVER IS GOING ON.

Kingsley crumpled the message savagely in his fist. "When did you get this?" he thundered.

"Just a couple of hours ago," said Gary. "It will take them days to get here."

"We'll be gone long before they even sight Pluto," Tommy said, his words mumbled through a huge bite of sandwich.

"That's right," agreed Kingsley, "but it makes me sore. The damn government always meddling in other people's affairs. Setting itself up as a judge and jury. Figuring it never can be wrong." He growled wickedly at the sandwich he held in one mighty fist, bit at it viciously.

Herb looked around the room. "This being sort of a farewell banquet," he said, "I sure wish we had something to drink. We ought to drink a toast to the Solar System before we leave it. We ought to make it just a little like a celebration."

"We'd have something to drink if you hadn't been so clumsy with that Scotch," Gary reminded him.

"Hell," retorted Herb, "that would have been gone long ago, with you making a pass at it every time you came in reach." He sighed and tilted his coffee cup against his face.

Kingsley's laugh thundered through the room. "Wait a minute, boys," he said. He went to a cupboard and removed a double row of canned vegetables from a shelf. A quart bottle filled with amber liquor was revealed. He set it on the table.

"Wash out your coffee cups," he said. "We haven't any glasses."

The liquor splashed into the coffee cups and they stood to drink a toast.

The telephone in the next room rang.

They set down their cups and waited as Kingsley went to answer it. They heard his roar of excitement and quick fire of rumbling questions. Then he was striding back into the room.

"My assistant, Jensen, was up in the observatory just now," he shouted at them. "He spotted five ships coming in, only a few hours out. Police ships!"

Herb had lifted his cup and now with a clatter it fell to the table, breaking. The liquor dripped to the floor.

Gary flared at him. "What's the matter with you?" he asked. "You get the shakes every time you get anywhere near a drink."

"That message Gary got," Tommy was saying. "There must have been something wrong. Maybe the ships were out near Neptune when they were ordered out here."

"What would they be doing out near Neptune?" snapped Herb.

Tommy shrugged. "Police ships are always snooping around," he said. "You find them everywhere."

They stared at one another in a deathly silence.

"They can't stop us now," whispered Caroline. "They just can't."

"There's still a couple of hours before the space warp contact with the Engineers would be broken if we set it up now," said Tommy. "Maybe we could make it. The ship is ready."

"Ask the Engineers," said Gary. "Find out how soon they can get us there."

Kingsley's voice thundered commands. "Caroline," he was shouting, "get the Engineers! Find out if it would be safe to start now. Tommy, get out the spaceship! The rest of you grab what stuff we need and get down to the field."

The room was a swirl of action. All of them were rushing for the door.

Kingsley was at the telephone, talking to Andy. "Get the hangar doors open," he was shouting. "Warm up the tubes. We're taking off."

Through the thud of running feet, the rumbling of Kingsley's voice, came the high-pitched drone of the thought-machine sending set. Caroline was talking to the Engineers.

More snatches of telephone conversation. Kingsley talking with Jensen now. "Get down to the power house. Stand ready to give us all the juice you have. The leads will carry everything you can throw into them. We'll need a lot of power."

Gary was struggling into his space-armor when Caroline came into the room.

"We can make it," she shouted excitedly. "The Engineers say we'll be there in almost no time at all. Almost instantaneous."

Gary held her spacesuit for her while she clambered into it, helped her fasten down the helmet. Kingsley was puffing and grunting, hauling the space-armor over his portly body.

"We'll beat them," he was growling. "Damn them, we'll beat them yet! No government is going to tell me what I can do and what I can't do."

Out of the air lock, they raced down the path to the field. In the center of the field reared the ghostly machine, like a shimmering skeleton standing guard over the bleakness that was Pluto. As he ran, Gary glanced up and out into space.

A voice sang in his brain, the voice of his own thoughts: "We're coming! Hang on, you Engineers! We're on our way. Little puny man is coming out to help you. Mankind, is marching to another crusade! To the biggest crusade he has ever known!"

Tommy Evans" mighty ship was at the far end of the field, a gleaming thing of silver, with the tubes a dull red, preheated to stand the sudden flare of rocket blasts in the deadly cold of Pluto's surface.

Yes, thought Gary, another crusade. But a crusade without weapons. Without even knowing who the enemy might be. Without a definite plan of campaign. With no campaign at all. With just an ideal and the sound of bugles out in space. But that was all man had needed ever. Just an ideal and the blaring of bugles.

Caroline cried out in wonder, almost in fear, and Gary glanced toward the center of the field.

The machine was gone! Where it had stood there was nothing, no faintest hint it had ever stood there. Just empty field and nothing else.

"Jensen turned on the power!" Kingsley shouted. "The machine is warped into another dimension. The road is open to the Engineers."

Gary pointed out into space. "Look," he yelled.

A faint, shimmering circle of light lay far out into the black depths. A slow wheel of misty white. A nebulous thing that hadn't been there before.

"That's where we go," said Kingsley, and Gary heard the man's breath whistling through his teeth. "That's where we go to reach the Engineers."

CHAPTER Seven

Tommy's nimble fingers flew over the rocket bank, set up a take-off pattern. His thumb tripped the firing lever and the ship surged up from the field with the thunder of the rocket blasts shuddering through its frame-work.

"Hit dead center," warned Kingsley and Tommy nodded.

"Don't you worry," he snorted. "I will hit it."

"I'd like to see the look on the face of them dumb cops when they reach Pluto and find us gone," said Herb.

"Thought they were putting over a fast one on us."

"It'll be all right if they don't set down right into that machine down there," Gary declared. "If they did that something would happen to them… and happen awful fast."

"I told Ted to warn them away from it," Kingsley said. "I don't think they'd hurt the machine, but they would sure get messed up themselves. They may try to destroy it, and if they do, they're in for a real surprise. Nothing could do that." He chuckled. "Stilled atomic-whirl and rigid space-curvature," he said. "There's material for you!"

The ship lanced swiftly through space, heading for that wheeling circle of misty light.

"How far away would it be?" Gary asked and Kingsley shook his head.

"Not too far," he said. "No reason for it being too far away."

They watched it through the vision plate, saw the wheel of light expand, become a great spinning, frosty rim that filled the plate and in its center a black hole like a hub.

Tommy set up a corrective pattern and tripped the firing lever. The cross-hairs on the destination panel bore dead center on the night-black hub.

The wheel of light flared out, the hub became bigger and blacker, a hole in space… as if one were looking through it into space, but into a space where there were no stars.

The light disappeared. Just the black hub remained, filling the vision plate with inky blackness. Then the ship was flooded with that same blackness, a cloying, heavy blackness that seemed pressing in upon them.

Caroline cried out softly and then choked back the cry, for the blackness was followed almost instantly by a flood of light.

The ship was diving down toward a city, a monstrous city that jerked Gary's breath away. A city that piled height on height, like gigantic steps, with soaring towers that pointed at them like Titan fingers. A solid, massive city of gleaming white stone and square, utilitarian lines, a city that covered mile on mile of land, so that one could see no part of the planet that bore it, the city stretching from horizon to horizon.

Three suns blazed in the sky; one white, two a misty blue, all three pouring out a flood of light and energy that, Gary realized, would have made Sol seem like a tiny candle.

Tommy's fingers flew over the rocket banks, setting up a braking pattern. But even as he did, the speed of the ship seemed to slow, as if they were driving into a soft, but resistant cushion.

And in their brains rang a voice of command, a voice telling them to do nothing, that they and their ship would be brought down to the city in safety. Not so much like words as if each one of them had thought the very thought, as if each one of them knew exactly what to do.

Gary glanced at Caroline and saw her lips shape a single word. "Engineers."

So it hadn't been a nightmare after all. There really were a people who called themselves the Cosmic Engineers. There really was a city.

The ship still plunged downward, but its speed was slowing and now Gary realized that when first they had seen this pile of stone beneath them they had been many miles away. In comparison to the city, they and their ship were tiny things… little things, like ants crawling in the shadow of a mountain.

Then they were within the city, or at least its upper portion. The ship flashed past a mighty spire of stone and swung into its shadow. Below them they saw new details of the city, winding streets and broad parkways and boulevards, like tiny ribbons fluttering in the distance. A city that could thrill one with its mere bigness. A city which would have put a thousand New Yorks to shame. A city that dwarfed even the most ambitious dreams of mankind.

A million of Man's puny cities piled into one. Gary tried to imagine how big the planet must be to bear such a city, but there was no use of thinking, for there was no answer.

They were dropping down toward one of the fifth tiers of buildings, down and down, closer and closer to the massive blocks of Stone. So close now that their vision was cut off, and the terrace of the tier seemed like a broad, flat plain.

A section of the roof was opening, like a door opening outward into space. The ship, floating on an even keel, drifted gently downward, toward that yawning trap door. Then they were through the door, with plenty of room to spare, were floating quietly down between walls of delicate pastel hues.

The ship settled with a gentle bump and was still. They had arrived at their destination.

"Well, we're here," said Herb. "I wonder what we're supposed to do."

As if in answer to his question, the voice came again, the voice that was not a voice, but as if each person were thinking for himself.

It said: "This is a place we have prepared for you. You will find the gravity and the atmosphere and the surroundings natural to yourselves. You will need no space armor, no artificial trappings of any sort. Food is waiting you."

They stared at one another in amazement.

"I think," said Herb, "that I will like this place. Did you hear that? Food? I trust there's also drink."

"Yes," said the voice, "there is drink."

Herb's jaw dropped.

Tommy stepped out of the pilot's chair. "I'm hungry," he said. He strode to the inner valve of the air lock and spun the wheel. The others crowded behind him.

They stepped out of the ship onto a great slab of stone placed in the center of a gigantic room. The stone, apparently, was merely there for the ship to rest upon, for the rest of the floor was paved in scintillating blocks of mineral that flashed and glinted in the light from the three suns pouring in through a huge, translucent skylight. The walls of the room were done in soft, pastel shades, and on the walls were hung huge paintings, while ringed about the ship was furniture, perfect rooms of furniture, but with no dividing walls. An entire household, of palatial dimension, set up in a single room.

A living room, a library, bedrooms and a dining room. A dining room with massive oaken table and five chairs, and upon the table a banquet to do justice to a king.

"Chicken!" cried Herb and the word carried a weight of awe.

"And wine," said Tommy.

They stared in amazement at the table. Gary sniffed. He could smell the chicken.

"Antique furniture," said Kingsley. "That stuff would bring a fortune back in the solar system. Mostly Chatterton and it looks authentic. And beautiful pieces, museum pieces, every one. Thousand years old at least." He stared from piece to piece. "But how did they got it here?" he burst out.

Caroline's laughter rang through the room, a chiming, silver laughter that had a note of wild happiness in it.

"What's the matter?" demanded Tommy.

"I don't see anything funny," declared Herb. "Unless there is a joke. Unless that chicken really isn't chicken."

"It's chicken," Caroline assured him. "And the rest of the food is real, too. And so is that furniture. Only I didn't think of it as antique. You see, a thousand years ago that sort of furniture was the accepted style. That was the smartest sort of pieces to have in your home."

"But you?" asked Gary. "What did you have to do with it?"

"I told the Engineers," she said. "They asked me what we ate and I told them. They must have understood me far better than I thought. I told them the kind of clothes we wore and the kind of furniture we used. But, you see, the only things I knew about were out of date, things the people used a thousand years ago. All except the chicken. You still eat chicken, don't you?"

"And how," grinned Herb.

"Why," said Gary, "this means the Engineers can make anything they want to. They can arrange atoms to make any sort of material. They can transmute matter!"

Kingsley nodded. "That's exactly what it means," he said.

Herb was hurrying for the table.

"If we don't get there, there won't be anything left," Tommy suggested.

The chicken, the mashed potatoes and gravy, the wine, the stuffed olives… all the food was good. It might have come out of the kitchen of the solar system's smartest hotel only a few minutes before. After days of living on coffee and hastily slapped-together sandwiches, they did full justice to it.

Herb regarded with regret the last piece of chicken and shook his head dolefully.

"I just can't do it," he moaned. "I just can't manage any more."

"I never tasted such food in all my life," Kingsley declared.

"They asked me what we ate," Caroline said, "so I thought of all the things I like the best. They didn't leave out a single one."

"But where are the Engineers?" asked Gary. "We haven't seen a thing of them. We have seen plenty of what they have done and can do, but not one has showed himself."

Footsteps rasped across the floor and Gary swung around in his chair. Advancing toward them was something that looked like a man, but not exactly a man. It was the same height, had the same general appearance — two arms, two legs, a man-shaped torso and a head. But there was something definitely wrong with the face; something wrong with the body, too.

"There's the answer to your question," said Tommy.

"There's an Engineer."

Gary scarcely heard him. He was watching the Engineer intently as the creature approached. And he knew why the Engineer was different. Cast in human shape, he was still a far cry from the humans of the solar system, for the Engineer was a metal man! A man fashioned of metallic matter instead of protoplasm.

"A metal man," he said.

"That's right," replied Kingsley, and keen interest rather than wonderment was in his words. "This must be a large planet. The force of gravity must be tremendous. Protoplasm probably would be unable to stand up under its pull. We'd probably just melt down if the Engineers hadn't fixed up this place for us."

"You are right," said the metal man, but his mouth didn't open, his facial expression didn't change. He was speaking to them as the voice had spoken to them back on Pluto and again as they had entered the city. The Engineer stopped beside the table and stood stiffly, his arms folded across his chest.

"Is everything satisfactory?" asked the Engineer.

It was funny, this way he had of talking. No sound, no change of expression, no gesture… just words burning themselves into one's brain, the imprint of thought thrust upon one's consciousness.

"Why, yes," said Gary, "everything is fine,"

"Fine," shouted Herb, waving a drumstick. "Why, everything is perfect."

"We tried so hard to do everything just as you told us," said the Engineer. "We are pleased that everything is all right. We had a hard time understanding one thing. Those paintings on the wall. You said they were things you had and were used to and we wanted so much to make everything as you wanted it. But they were something we had never thought of, something we had never done. We are sorry that we were so stupid. They are fine things. When this trouble is over, we may make more of them. They are so very beautiful. How queer it was we hadn't thought of them."

Gary swung around and stared at the painting opposite the table. Obviously it was a work in oils and seemed a very fine one. It portrayed some fantastic scene, a scene with massive mountains in the background and strange twisted trees and waist-high grass and the glitter of a distant waterfall. A picture, Gary decided, that any art gallery would be proud to hang.

"You mean," be asked, "that these are the first pictures you ever painted?"

"We hadn't even thought of it before," said the Engineer.

They hadn't known of paintings before. No single Engineer had ever thought to capture a scene on canvas. They had never wielded an artist's brush. But here was a painting that was perfect in color and in composition, well balanced, pleasing to the eye!

"One thing about you fellows," said Tommy, "is that you will tackle anything."

"It was so simple," said the Engineer, "that we are ashamed we never thought of it."

"But this trouble," rumbled Kingsley. "This danger to the universe. You told us about it back on Pluto, but you didn't explain. We would like to know."

"That," said the Engineer, "is what I am here to tell you…"

No change in the tone of the thoughts… no slightest trend of emotion. No change of expression on his face.

"We will do whatever we can to help," Kingsley told him.

"We are sure of that," said the Engineer. "We are glad that you are here. We were so satisfied when you said that you would come. We feel you can help us very, very much."

"But the danger," prompted Caroline. "What is the danger?"

"I will begin," said the Engineer, "with information that to us is very elemental, although I do not believe you know it. You had no chance to find it out, being so far from the edge of the universe. But we who have lived here so many years, found the truth long ago.

"This universe is only one of many universes. Only one of billions and billions of universes. We believe there are as many universes as there are galaxies within our own universe."

The Earthlings looked in astonishment at him. Gary glanced at Kingsley and the scientist seemed speechless. He was sputtering, trying to talk.

"There are over fifty billion galaxies within our universe," he finally said. "Or at least that is what our astronomers believe."

"Sorry to contradict," said the Engineer. "There are many more than that. Many times more than that."

"More!" said Kingsley, faintly for him.

"The universes are four-dimensional," said the Engineer, "and they exist within a five-dimensional inter-space, perhaps another great super-universe with the universes within it taking the place of the galaxies as they are related to our universe."

"A universe within a universe," said Gary, nodding his head. "And might it not be possible that this super-universe is merely another universe within an even greater super-universe?"

"That might be so," declared the Engineer. "It is a theory we have often pondered. But we have no way of knowing. We have so little knowledge…"

A little silence fell upon the room, a silence filled with awe. This talk of universes and super-universes. This dwarling of values. This relegating of the universe to a mere speck of dust in an even greater place!

"The universes, even as the galaxies, are very far apart," the Engineer went on. "So very far apart that the odds against two of them ever meeting are almost incomprehensibly great. Farther apart than the suns in the galaxies, farther apart, relatively, than the galaxies in the universe. But entirely possible that once in eternity two universes will meet."

He paused, a dramatic silence in his thought. "And that chance has come," he said. "We are about to collide with another universe."

They sat in stunned silence.

"Like two stars colliding," said Kingsley. "That's what formed our solar system."

"Yes," said the Engineer, "like two stars colliding. Like a star once collided with your Sun."

Kingsley jerked his head up.

"You know about that?" he asked.

"Yes, we know about that. It was long ago. Many million years ago."

"How do you know about this other universe?" asked Tommy. "How could you know?"

"Other beings in the other universe told us," said the Engineer. "Beings that know much more in many lines of research than we shall ever know. Beings we have been talking to for these many years."

"Then you knew for many years that the collision would take place," said Kingsley.

"Yes, we knew," said the Engineer. "And we tried hard, the two peoples; We of this universe and those of the other universe. We tried hard to stop it, but there seemed no way. And so at last we agreed to summon, each from his own universe, the best minds we could find. Hoping they perhaps could find a way… find a way where we had failed."

"But we aren't the best minds of the universe," said Gary. "We must be far down the scale. Our intelligence, comparatively, must be very low. We are just beginning. You know more than we can hope to know for centuries to come."

"That may be so," agreed the Engineer, "but you have something else. Or you may have something else. You may have a courage that we do not possess. You may have an imagination that we could not summon. Each people must have something to contribute. Remember, we had no art, we could not think up a painting; our minds are different. It is so very important that the two universes do not collide."

"What would happen," asked Kingsley, "if they did collide?"

"The laws of the five-dimensional inter-space," explained the Engineer, "are not the laws of our four-dimensional universe. Different results would occur under similar conditions. The two universes will not actually collide. They will be destroyed before they collide."

"Destroyed before they collide?" asked Kingsley.

"Yes," said the Engineer. "The two universes will "rub," come so close together that they will set up a friction, or a frictional stress, in the five-dimensional inter-space. Under the inter-space laws this friction would create new energy… raw energy… stuff that had never existed before. Each of the universes will absorb some of that energy, drink it up. The energy will rush into our universes in ever-increasing floods. Unloosed, uncontrollable energy. It will increase the mass energy in each universe, will give each a greater mass…"

Kingsley leaped to his feet, tipping over a coffee cup, staining the table cloth.

"Increase the mass!" he shouted. "But…"

Then he sat down again, sagged down, a strangely beaten man.

"Of course that would destroy us," he mumbled. "Presence of mass is the only cause for the bending of space. An empty universe would have no space curvature. In utter nothingness there would be no condition such as we call space. Totally devoid of mass, space would be entirely uncurved, would be a straight line and would have no real existence. The more mass there is, the tighter space is curved. The more mass there is, the less space there is for it to occupy."-

"Flood the universe with energy from inter-space," the Engineer agreed, "and space begins curving back, faster and faster, tighter and tighter, crowding the matter it does contain into smaller space. We would have a contracting rather than an expanding universe."

"Throw enough of that new energy into the universe," Kingsley rumbled excitedly, "and it would be more like an implosion than anything else. Space would rush together. All life would be destroyed, galaxies would be wiped out. Existent mass would be compacted into a tiny area. It might even be destroyed if the contraction was so fast that it crushed the galaxies in upon each other. At the best, the universe would have to start all over again."

"It would start over again," said the Engineer. "There would be enough new energy absorbed by the universe for just such an occurrence as you have foreseen. The entire universe would revert to original chaos."

"And me without my life insurance paid," said Herb. Gary snarled at him across the table.

Caroline leaned her elbows on the table and cupped her chin in her hands. "The problem," she said, "is to find out how to control that new energy if it does enter the universe."

"That is the problem," agreed the Engineer.

"Mister," said Gary, "if anyone can do it, this little lady can. She knows more about a lot of things than you do. I'll lay you a bet on that."

CHAPTER Eight

The suits were marvelous things, flexible and with scarcely any weight at all, not uncomfortable and awkward like an ordinary spacesuit.

Herb admired his before he fastened down the helmet. "You say these things will let us walk around on your planet just as if we were at home?" he asked the Engineer.

"We've tried to make it comfortable for you here," the Engineer replied. "We hope you find them satisfactory. You came so far to help and we are so glad to see you. We hope that you will like us. We have tried so hard."

Caroline looked toward the Engineer curiously. There was a queer, vague undertone to all his thought-messages, an inexplicable sense of pleading, of desire for praise from her or from Kingsley. She shook her head with a little impatient gesture, but still that deep, less-than-half-conscious feeling was there. It made no sense, she told herself. It was just imagination. The thought-messages were pure thought, there was nothing to interpret them, nothing to give them subtle shades of meaning… no facial expression, no change of tone.

But that pleading note!

It reminded her suddenly — with a little mounting lump in her throat — of her bird dog, a magnificent mahogany-and-white Chesapeake retriever, dead these thousand years. Somehow she felt again as she used to feel when the dog had looked up at her after placing a recovered bird at her feet.

He was gone now, gone with all the world she'd known. Her ideas and her memories were magnificent antiques, museum pieces, in this newer day. But she felt that if, somehow, that dog could have been granted eternal life, he'd be searching for her still… searching, waiting, hungering for the return that never came. And rising in queerly mixed ecstasies of gladness and shyness if she ever came back to him again.

Kingsley spoke and the rising feeling snapped.

"Gravity suits," said Kingsley, almost bursting with excitement. "But even more than that! Suits that will let a man move about comfortably under any sort of conditions. Under any pressure, any gravity, in any kind of atmosphere."

"With these," Gary suggested, "we would be able to explore Jupiter."

"Sure," said Tommy, "that would be easy. Except for one little thing. Find a fuel that will take you there and take you out again."

"Hell," enthused Herb, "I bet the Engineers could tell us how to make that fuel. These boys are bell-ringers all around."

"If there is any way we can help you, anything you want, anything at all," declared the Engineer, "we would be so glad, so proud to help you."

"I bet you would at that," said Herb.

"Only a few of the denizens we called have arrived," said the Engineer. "More of them should have come. Others may be on their way. We are afraid…"

He must have decided not to say what was on his mind, for thought clicked off, broken in the middle of the sentence.

"Afraid?" asked Kingsley. "Afraid of what?"

"Funny," said Gary, almost to himself. "Funny they should be afraid of anything."

"Not afraid for ourselves," explained the Engineer. "Afraid that we may be forced to halt our work. Afraid of an interruption. Afraid someone will interfere."

"But who would interfere?" asked Caroline. "Who could possibly interfere in a thing like this? The danger is a common one. All things within the universe should unite to try to fight it."

"What you say is right," declared the Engineer. "So right that it seems impossible any could think otherwise. But there are some who do. A race so blinded by ambition and by hatred that they see in this approaching Catastrophe an opportunity to wipe us out, to destroy the Engineers."

The Earthlings stood stock-still, shocked.

"Now, wait a second," said Gary slowly. "Let us understand this. You mean to say that you have enemies who would die themselves just for the satisfaction of knowing that you were destroyed, too?"

"Not exactly," said the Engineer. "Many of them would be destroyed, but a select few would survive. They would go back to the point where the universe must start again, back to the point where space and time would once more begin expanding. And, starting there, they would take over the new universe. They would shape it to fit their needs. They would control it. They would have complete dominion over it."

"But," cried Gary, "that is mad! Utterly mad. Sacrificing a present people, throwing away an entire universe for a future possibility."

"Not so mad," said Kingsley quietly. "Our own Earth history will furnish many parallels. Mad rulers, power-mad dictators ready to throw away everything for the bare feel of power… ready to gamble with the horrors of increasingly scientific and ruthless warfare. It almost happened on Earth once… back in 2896. The Earth was almost wiped out when one man yearned for power and used biological warfare in its most hideous form. He knew what the result would be, but that didn't stop him… Better, he reasoned, if there were no more than a thousand persons left alive, if he were the leader of that thousand. Nothing stopped him. The people themselves later stopped him, after he had done the damage… stopped him like the mad dog that he was."

"They hate us," said the Engineer. "They have hated us for almost a million years. Because we, and we alone, have stood between them and their dreams of universal conquest. They see us as the one barrier they must remove, the one obstacle in their way. They know they never can defeat us by the power of arms alone, cannot defeat us so utterly that we still cannot smash their plans to take over the universe."

"And so," said Gary, "they are perfectly willing to let the collision of universes wipe you out, even if it does mean disaster and destruction for the most of them."

"They must be nuts," said Herb.

"You do not understand," protested the Engineer. "For many millions of years they have been educated with the dream of universal conquest. They have been so thoroughly propagandized with the philosophy that the state, the civilization, the race, is everything… that the individual does not count at all… that there is not a single one of them who would not die to achieve that dream. They glory in dying, glory in any sort of sacrifice that advances them even the slightest step toward their eventual goal."

"You said that some of them would survive even if the universe, as we know it, were destroyed," said Caroline. "How would they do that?"

"They have found a way to burst out of the universe," said the Engineer. "How to navigate the inter-space that exists outside the universe. They are more advanced in many sciences that we. If they wished, I have no doubt they could by themselves, with no aid at all, save us from the fate that is approaching."

"Perhaps," rumbled Kingsley, "a treaty could be arranged. A sort of eleventh-hour armistice."

The impersonal thought of the Engineer struck at them. "There can be no peace with them. No treaty. No armistice. For more than a million years they have thought and practiced war. Their every thought has been directed toward conquest. To them the very word «peace» is meaningless. War is their natural state, peace an unnatural state. And they would not, in any event, in the remote chance that they might consider an armistice, consider it at this time when they have a chance to prevent us from saving the universe."

"You mean," asked Gary, horror in his voice, "that they actually want the universe destroyed? That they would fight you to prevent you from saving it?"

"That," said the Engineer, "is exactly what I mean. You understand so well."

"Do you expect them to attack soon?" asked Tommy.

"We do not know. They may attack at any time. We are ready at all times. We know they will attack eventually."

"We must find a way," said Caroline. "We can't let them stop us! We must find a way!"

"We will find a way," rumbled Kingsley. "There has to be a way, and we'll find it."

"What do you call these rip-snorters you've been fighting all these years?" asked Herb.

"We call them the Hellhounds," said the Engineer, but that was not exactly what he meant. The thought brought together a certain measure of loathing mixed with fear and hatred. Hellhounds was the nearest the Earthlings could translate the thought.

"They can break through the time-space curve," said Caroline, musingly, "and they can travel in the fifth-dimensional inter-space." She flashed a look at Gary, a look filled with the flare of inspiration. "Perhaps," she said, "that is the answer. Perhaps that is what we should try to find the answer to."

"I don't know what you mean," said Gary, "but maybe you are right."

"The space-time curve would be rigid," said Kingsley. "Rigid and hard to unravel. Lines of stress and force that would be entirely new. That would take mathematical knowledge. That and tremendous power."

"The power of new energy," said Gary. "Perhaps the power of the energy the rubbing universes will create."

Kingsley stared at him as if he had struck him with an open hand. "You have it," he shouted. "You have it!"

"But we haven't got the energy," said Gary, bluntly.

"No," agreed Kingsley. "We'll have to get that first."

"And control it," said Caroline.

"Perhaps," suggested the Engineer, "we should go now. The others are waiting for us. They have come so far, many of them from greater distances than you."

"How many are there?" asked Gary.

"Only a few," said the Engineer, "so very few. Life is so seldom found throughout the universe. The universe does not care for life. I sometimes think life is merely a strange disease that should not be here at all, that it is some accidental arrangement of matter that has no right to be. The universe is so hostile to it that it would seem almost to be abnormal. There are so few places where it can take root and live."

"But throughout those billions of galaxies there must be many races," declared Kingsley.

"There may be many we do not know about," said the Engineer, "but very few that we can contact. It is so very hard to get in touch with them. And some of them would be useless to us, races that had developed along entirely different lines to achieve a different culture. Races that live without the application of any of the practical sciences. Races that are sunken in the welter of philosophy and thought. Races that have submerged themselves in aesthetics and are untrained in science. The only ones we could reach were those scientifically-minded races that could catch our message and could reply to us… and after that could build the apparatus that would bring them here."

"Hell," said Herb, "it takes all kinds of people to make a universe."

The Engineer led them through an air lock which opened from the room into a mighty corridor… a corridor that stretched away for inconceivable distances, a vast place that held a brooding sense of empty space.

The suits functioned perfectly. Gravity and pressure were normal and the suits themselves were far more comfortable than the spacesuits used back in the solar system.

Slowly they trudged down the hall behind the Engineer.

"How long did it take to build this city?" asked Gary.

"Many years," said the Engineer. "Since we came here."

"Came here?" asked Gary. "Then this isn't your native planet?"

"No," said the Engineer, but he did not offer to explain.

"Say," said Herb, "you didn't ask our names. You don't know who we are."

Gary thought he detected a faint semblance of dry humor in the answer of the Engineer.

"Names," he said. "You mean personal designations? I know who you are without knowing names."

"Maybe," said Herb, "but we can't read thoughts like you can. We got to have names." He trotted along at the heels of the Engineer. "Don't you fellows have names?" he asked.

"We are designated by numbers," said the Engineer. "Purely as a matter of record. The individual doesn't count so much here as he does where you came from."

"Numbers," said Herb. "Just like a penitentiary."

"If it is necessary for you to designate me," said the Engineer, "my number is 1824. I should have told you sooner. I am sorry I forgot."

They halted before a massive door and the Engineer sounded a high-pitched thought-wave that beat fantastically against their minds. The great door slid back into the wall and they walked into a room that swept away in lofty reaches of vast distances, with a high-vaulted ceiling that formed a sky-like cup above them.

The room was utterly empty of any sort of furniture. Just empty space that stretched away to the dim, far walls of soaring white. But in its center was a circular elevation of that same white stone, a dais-like structure that reared ten feet or more above the white-paved floor.

Upon the dais stood several of the Engineers and around them were grouped queer, misshapen things, nightmares snatched from some book of olden horrors, monstrosities that made Gary's blood run cold as be gazed upon them.

He felt Caroline's fingers closing on his arm. "Gary," her whisper was thin and weak, "what are they?"

"Those are the ones that we have called," said the Engineer. "The ones who have come so far to help us in our fight."

"They look like something a man would want to step on," said Herb, and there was a horrible loathing in his words.

Gary stared at them, fascinated by their very repulsiveness. Lords of the universe, he thought. These are the things that represent the cream of the universe's intelligence. These things that looked, as Herb had said, like something you would want to step on.

The Engineer was walking straight ahead, toward the wide, shallow steps that led up to the dais.

"Come on," rumbled Kingsley. "Maybe we look as bad to them."

They crossed the hall and tramped up the steps. The Engineer crossed to the other Engineers.

"These," he said, "are the ones who have come from the outer planet of the solar system we have watched so many years."

The Engineers looked at them. So did the other things. Gary felt his skin crawling under the scrutiny.

"They are welcome," came the thought-wave of one of the Engineers. "You have told them how glad we are to have them here?"

"I have told them," declared Engineer 1824.

There were chairs for the Earthlings. One of the Engineers waved an invitation to them and they sat down.

Gary looked around. They were the only ones who had chairs. The Engineers, apparently tireless, remained standing. Some of the other things stood, too. One of them stood on a single leg with his second leg tucked tight against his body — like a dreaming stork — except that he didn't look like a stork. Gary tried to classify him. He wasn't a bird or a reptile or a mammal. He wasn't anything a human being had ever imagined. Long, skinny legs, great bloated belly, head with unkempt hair falling over brooding, dead-fish eyes.

One of the Engineers began to speak.

"We have gathered here," said the thought-waves, "to consider ways and means of meeting one of the greatest dangers…"

Just like a political speaker back on Earth, thought Gary. He tried to make out which one of the Engineers was talking, but there was no facial expression, no movement of any sort which would determine which one of them the speaker might be. He tried to pick out Engineer 1824, but all the Engineers looked exactly alike.

The talk rumbled on, a smooth roll of thought explaining the situation that they faced, the many problems it presented, the need of acting at once.

Gary studied the other things about them, the loathsome, unnatural things that had been brought here from the unguessed depths of the universe. He shuddered and felt cold beads of sweat break out upon his body as he looked at them.

Several of them were immersed in tanks filled with liquids. One tank boiled and steamed as if with violent chemical action; another was cloudy and dirty-looking; another was clear as water and in it lurked a thing that struck stark terror into Gary's soul. Another was confined in a huge glass sphere through which shifted and swirled a poisonous-appearing atmosphere. Gary felt cold fingers touch his spine as he watched the sphere and suddenly was thankful for the shifting mists within it, for through them he had caught sight of something that he was certain would have shattered one's mind to look upon without the shielding swirl of fog within the glass.

In a small glass cage set upon a pedestal of stone were several writhing, grub-like things that palpitated disgustingly. Squatting on its haunches directly across from Gary was a monstrosity with mottled skin and drooling mouth, with narrow, slitted eyes and slimy features. He fastened his pinpoint gaze upon the Earthman and Gary quickly looked away.

Nothing resembled mankind, nothing except the Engineers. Here were things that were terrible caricatures of the loathsome forms of Earth life, other beings that bore not even the most remote resemblance to anything that mankind had ever seen or imagined.

Was this a fair sample of the intelligence the universe contained? Did he and Kingsley and Caroline appear as disgusting, as fearsome in the eyes as these other denizens of the universe as they appeared to his?

He shot a quick glance at Caroline. She was listening intently, her chin cupped in one hand, her eyes upon the Engineers. Just as well that way, he thought. She didn't see these other things.

The Engineer had stopped talking and silence fell upon the room. Then a new impulse of thought beat against Gary's brain, thought that seemed cold and cruel, thought that was entirely mechanistic and consciousless. He glanced swiftly around, trying to find who was speaking. It must, he decided, be the thing in the glass sphere. He could not understand the thought, grasped just vague impressions of atomic structures and mathematics that seemed to represent enormous pressure used to control surging energy.

The Engineer was talking again.

"Such a solution," he was saying, "would be possible on a planet such as yours, where an atmosphere many miles in depth, composed of heavy gases, creates the pressures that you speak of. While we can create such pressures artificially, we could not create or maintain them outside the laboratory."

"What the hell," asked Herb, "are they arguing about?"

"Shut up," hissed Gary, and the photographer lapsed into shamefaced silence.

The cold, cruel thought was arguing, trying to explain a point that Gary could only guess at. He looked at Caroline, wondering if she understood. Her face was twisted into tiny lines of concentration.

The cold stream of thought had stopped and another thought broke in, a little piping thought. Perhaps, thought Gary, one of the little slug-like creatures in the glass cage.

Disgusting little things!

Gary looked at the mottled, droopy-eyed creature that squatted opposite him. It raised its head and in the beady eyes he imagined that he caught a glimmer of amusement.

"By the Lord," he said to himself, "he thinks it's funny, too."

This arguing of hideous entities! The piping thoughts of slimy things that should be wriggling through some stagnant roadside ditch back on the planet Earth. The cold thought of the brain-blasting thing that lived on a planet covered by miles of swirling gases. The pinpoint eyes of the being with the mottled skin.

Cosmic Crusade! He laughed to himself, deep in his throat. This wasn't the way he had imagined it. He had thought of gleaming ships of war, of stabbing rays, of might arrayed against might, a place where courage would be at a premium.

But there was nothing to fight. No physical thing. Nothing a man could get at. Another universe, a mighty thing of curving space and time… that was the enemy. A man simply couldn't do anything about a thing like that.

"This place," Herb whispered to him, "is giving me the creeps."

CHAPTER Nine

"WE CAN do it," said Caroline. She flicked a pencil against a sheet of calculations. "This proves it," she declared.

Kingsley bent over her shoulder to look at the sheet. "If you don't mind," he said, "would you lead me through it all again. Go slowly, please. I find it hard to grasp a lot of it."

"Kingsley," said Herb, "you're just an amateur. To get as good as she is you'd have to think for forty lifetimes."

"You embarrass me," she said. "It's very simple. It's really very simple."

"I'll say it's simple," said Tommy. "Just a little matter of bending space and time into a tiny universe. Wrapping it about a selected bit of matter and making it stay put."

"You could use it to control the energy," rumbled Kingsley. "I understand that well enough. When the universes begin to rub you could trap the incoming energy in an artificial universe. The energy would destroy that universe, but you'd have another ready for it. What I can't understand is how you form this artificial fourth-dimensional space."

"It isn't artificial," snapped Gary. "It's real… as real as the universe we live in. But it's made by human beings instead of by some law we have no inkling of."

He pointed at the sheet of calculations. "Perhaps the secret of all the universe is on that sheet of paper," he declared. "Maybe that's the key to how the universe was formed."

"Maybe," rumbled Kingsley, "and maybe not. There may be many ways to do it."

"One," said Gary, "is good enough for me."

"There's just one thing," said Caroline, "that bothers me. We don't know anything about the fifth-dimensional inter-space. We can imagine that its laws are different from our own. Vastly different. But how do they differ? What kind of energy would be formed out there? What form would it take?" She looked from one to the other of them. "That would make a lot of difference," she declared.

"It would," agreed Kingsley. "It would make a lot of difference. It would be like setting a trap for some animal. You might set one for a rat and catch a bear… or the other way around."

"The Hellhounds know," said Tommy. "They know how to navigate in the inter-space."

"But they wouldn't tell us," said Gary. "They don't want the universe to be saved. They want it to be wrecked so they can build a new world out of the wreckage."

"It might be light, or matter, or heat, or motion, or it might be something that's entirely different," said Caroline. "It's not impossible it would be something else, some new fearful form of energy with which we are entirely unacquainted. Conditions would be just as different out in inter-space as fourth-dimensional conditions differ from our three-dimensional world."

"And to be able to control it we would have to have some idea as to what it is," said Kingsley.

"Or what it would become when it entered the hyperspace," said Gary. "It might be one kind of energy out there, an entirely different kind when it entered our universe."

"The people of the other universe don't seem to know," Tommy pointed out. "Even if they are the ones who found out about the universes drifting together. They don't seem to be able to find out too much about it."

Gary glanced around the laboratory, a mighty vaulted room that glowed with soft, white light… a room with gleaming tiers of apparatus, with mighty machines, great engines purring with tremendous power, uncanny structures that almost defied description.

"The funniest thing about the whole business," he declared, "is why the Engineers themselves can't make any progress. Why do they have to call us in? With all of this equipment, with the knowledge they already hold, it ought to be a cinch for them to do almost anything.".

"There's something queer here," Herb declared. "I've been snooping around a bit and this city is enough to set you batty. There isn't any traffic in the streets. You can travel for hours and you don't see a single Engineer. No business houses, no theaters, no nothing. All the buildings are empty. Just empty buildings. A city of empty buildings." He puffed out his breath. "Like a city that was built and waiting for someone. Waiting for someone who never came."

Something akin to terror crossed Gary's mind. A queer, haunted feeling… a pity for those magnificent white buildings standing all untenanted.

"A city built for billions of people," said Herb. "And no one in it. Just a handful of Engineers. Probably not more than a hundred thousand altogether."

Kingsley was clenching and opening his fists again, rumbling in his throat.

"It does seem queer," he said, "that they never found the answer. With all their knowledge, all their scientific apparatus."

Gary looked at Caroline and smiled. A wisp of a girl. But one who could bend space and time until it formed a sphere… or, rather, a hypersphere. A girl who could mold space as she wanted it, who could play tricks with it, make it do what she wanted it to do. She could set up a tiny replica of the universe, a little private universe that belonged to her and no one else. No one before, he was certain, ever had dared to think of doing that.

He looked at her again, a swift, sure look that saw the square-cut chin, the high forehead, the braided raven strands about her head. Was Caroline Martin greater than the Engineers? Could she master a problem that they couldn't even touch? Was she, all unheralded, the master mind of the entire universe? Did the hope of the universe lie within her mind?

It seemed impossible. And yet, she had thought of time and space for nearly forty lifetimes. With nothing but a brain to work with, with no tools, no chance of experimentation — all alone, with nothing but her thoughts, she had solved the deep-shrouded mysteries of space and time. Never dreaming, perhaps, that such knowledge could be used to a certain purpose.

Metal feet scraped across the laboratory floor and Gary whirled to come face to face with Engineer 1824. The metal man had advanced upon them unawares.

His thought came to them, clear, calm, unhurried thought, devoid of all emotion, impersonal, yet with a touch of almost human warmth.

"I heard your thoughts," he said, "and I am afraid that you might think I meant to hear them. But I am very glad I did. You wonder why the Engineers brought you here. You wonder why the Engineers can't do this work unaided."

They stood guiltily, like schoolboys caught at some forbidden act.

"I will tell you," the thought went on, "and I hope you will understand. It is difficult to tell you. Hard to tell you, because we Engineers are full of pride. Conditions being different, we would never tell you."

It sounded like a confession, and Gary stared at the metal man in stricken surprise, but there was no sign of expression upon the metal face, no hint of thought within the glowing eyes.

"We are an old and tired people," said the Engineer. "We have lived too long. We have always been a mechanistic people and as the years went on we became even more so. We plod from one thing to another. We have no imagination. The knowledge that we have, the powers we hold, were inherited by us. Inherited from a great race, the greatest race that ever lived. We have added something to that knowledge, but so very little. So very, very little when you think of all the time that has passed away since it was handed to us."

"Oh!" cried Caroline and then put her hand up as if to cover her mouth, and it clanged against the quartz of the helmet. She looked at Gary and he saw pity in her eyes.

"No pity for us, please," said the Engineer. "For we are a proud people and have the right to be. We have kept an ancient trust and kept it well. We have abided by the heritage that is ours. We have kept intact the charge that was given us."

In the little silence Gary had a sense of ancient things, of old plays played out upon a stage that had dissolved in dust these many thousand years. A sense of an even greater race upon an even greater planet. An old, old heraldry carried down through cosmic ages by these metal men.

"But you are young," declared the Engineer. "Your race is young and unspoiled. You have fallen into no grooves. Your mind is free. You are full of imagination and initiative. I sensed it when I talked with you back in your own system. And that is what we need… that is what we must have. Imagination to grasp the problem that is offered. Imagination to peer around the corner. A dreaming contemplation of what is necessary to be done, and then the vigorous initiative to meet the challenge that the dream may bring."

Again a silence.

"That is why we are so glad to have you here," went on the Engineer. "That is why I know I can tell you what must be told."

He hesitated for a moment and a million fears speared at Gary's brain. Something that must be told! Something they hadn't known before. An even greater threat to face?

They waited breathlessly.

"You should know," said the Engineer, "but I almost fear to tell you. It is this: Upon you, and you alone, must rest the fate of the universe. You are the only ones to save it."

"Upon us," cried Tommy. "Why, that is mad! You can't mean it!"

Kingsley's hands were clenched and the bearish rumble was rising in his throat. "What about those others?" he asked. "All those others you brought here, along with us?"

"I sent them back," declared the Engineer. "They were no help to us."

Gary felt the cold wind from space reach out and flick his face again. Man — and Man alone — stood between the universe and destruction. Little, puny Man. Man, with a body so delicate that he would be smashed to a bloody pulp if exposed unprotected to the naked gravity of this monstrous world. Little Man, groping toward the light, groping, feeling, not knowing where he went.

And then the blast of trumpets sounded in the air — the mythical trumpets calling men to crusade. The ringing peal that for the last ten thousand years has sent Man out to war, clutching at his sword.

"But why?" Kingsley was thundering.

"Because," said the Engineer, "we could not work with them. They could not work with one another. We could hardly understand them. Their process of intelligence was so unfathomable, their thought process so twisted, that understanding was almost impossible. How we ever made them understand sufficiently to bring them here, I will never know. Many times we almost despaired. Their minds are so different from ours, so very, very different. Poles apart in thought."

Why, sure, thought Gary, that would be the way one would expect to find it. There was no such thing as parallel physical evolution, why should there be parallel mental evolution?

"Not that their mentality is not as valid as our intelligence," said the Engineer. "Not that they might not have even a greater grasp of science than we. But there could have been no co-ordination, no understanding for us to work together."

"But," said Caroline, "we can understand your thoughts. You can understand ours. And yet we are as far removed from you as they."

The Engineer said nothing.

"And you look like us," said Tommy, quietly. "We are protoplasm and you are metal, but we each have arms and legs…"

"It means nothing," said the Engineer. "Absolutely nothing how a thing is made, the shape that one is made in." There was almost an edge of anger in his thoughts.

"Don't you worry, old man," said Herb. "We'll save the universe. I don't know how in hell we'll do it, but we'll save it for you."

"Not for us," the Engineer corrected, "but for those others. For all life that now exists within the universe. For all life that in time to come may exist within the universe."

"There," said Gary, hardly realizing that he spoke aloud, "is an ideal big enough for any man."

An ideal. Something to fight for. A spur that kept Man going on, striving, fighting his way ahead.

Save the universe for that monstrosity in the glass sphere with its shifting vapors, for the little, wriggling, slug-like things, for the mottled terror with the droopy mouth and the glint of humor in his eyes.

"But how?" asked Tommy. "How are we going to do it?"

Kingsley ruffled at him. "We'll do it," he thundered.

He wheeled on the Engineer. "Do you know what kind of energy would exist within the inter-space?" he asked.

"No," said the Engineer, "I cannot tell you that. Perhaps the Hellhounds. But that's impossible."

"Is there any other place?" asked Gary in a voice cold as steel. "Anyone else who could tell us?"

"Yes," said the Engineer. "There is one other race. I think that they might tell you. But not yet. Not yet. It is too dangerous."

"We don't care," said Herb. "We humans eat up danger."

"Let us try it," said Gary. "Just a couple of us. If something happened, the others would be left to carry on…"

"No," said the Engineer, and there was a terrible finality in the single thought.

"Why can't we go out ourselves and find out?" asked Herb. "We could make a little universe just for ourselves. Float right out into this fifth-dimension space and study the energy that we find."


"Splendid," purred Kingsley. "Absolutely splendid. Except there isn't any energy yet. Won't be until the two universes rub and then it will be too late."


"Yes," said Caroline, smiling at Herb, "we have to know before the energy is produced. When the universes rub, it will flood in upon us in such great quantity that we'll be wiped out almost immediately. The first contracting rush of space and time will engulf us. Remember, we're just inside the universal rim."


"I do not entirely understand," said the Engineer. "You spoke of making a universe. Can you make a universe? Bend space and time around a predetermined mass? I am afraid you jest. That would be difficult."


Gary started. Was it possible that Caroline had done something an Engineer thought impossible to do? Standing here, it seemed so simple, so commonplace that space-time could be bent into a hypersphere. Nothing wonderful about it. Just something to be slightly astonished at and argued about. Just a few equations spread upon a sheet of paper.


"Sure we can," bellowed Kingsley. "This little lady has it figured out."

"The little lady," commented Herb, "is a crackajack at figures."

The Engineer reached out his hand to take the sheet of calculations that Kingsley was handing to him. But as he reached out his arm little red lights began to blink throughout the laboratory and in their ears sounded a shrill, high-pitched whine — a whine that held a note of sinister alarm.

"What's that?" yelled Kingsley, dropping the sheet.

The thought of the Engineer came to them as calm as ever, as absolutely devoid of emotion as it bad always been.

"The Hellhounds," he said "The Hellhounds are attacking us."

As he spoke, Gary watched the sheet of paper flutter to the floor, a little fluttering sheet that held the key to the riddle of the universe scratched upon it in the black scrawlings of a soft-lead pencil.

The Engineer moved across the laboratory to a panel. His metallic fingers reached out, deftly punched at studs. A wall screen lighted up and on it they saw the bowl of sky above the city. Ships were shooting up and outward, great silver ships that had grim lines of power about them. Up from the roofs they arrowed out into space, squadron after squadron, following a grim trail to the shock of combat. Going out to meet the Hellhounds.

The Engineer made adjustments on the panel and they were looking deeper into space, far out into the darkness where the atmosphere had ended. A tiny speck of silver appeared and rapidly leaped toward them, dissolving into a cloud of ships. Thousands of them.

"The Hellhounds," said the Engineer.

Gary heard Herb suck in his breath, saw Kingsley's hamlike hands clenching and unclenching.

"Stronger than ever," said the Engineer. "Perhaps with new and more deadly weapons, perhaps more efficient screens. I am afraid, so very much afraid, that this means the end of us… and of the universe."

"How far away are they?" asked Tommy.

"Only a few thousand miles now," said the Engineer. "Our alarm system warns us when they are within ten thousand miles of the surface. That gives us time to get our fleet out into space to meet them."

"Is there anything we can do?" asked Gary.

"We are doing everything we can," said the Engineer.

"But I don't mean you," said Gary. "Is there anything the five of us can do? Any war service we can render you?"

"Not now," said the Engineer. "Perhaps later there will be something. But not now."

He adjusted the screen again and in it they watched the defending ships of the Engineers shooting spaceward, maneuvered into far-flung battle lines — like little dancing motes against the black of space.

In breathless attention they kept their eyes fixed on the screen, saw the gleaming points of light draw closer together, the invaders and the defenders. Then upon the screen they saw dancing flashes that were not reflections from the ships, but something else — knifing flashes that reached out, probed and stabbed and slashed, like a searchlight's beam cuts into the night. A tiny pinpoint of red light flashed momentarily and then went out. Another flamed, like lightning bugs of a summer night, except the flash was red and seemed filled with a terrible violence.

"Those flashes," breathed Caroline. "What are they?"

"Exploding ships," said the Engineer. "Screens break down and the energy drains out and then an atomic bomb or ray finds its way into them."

"Exploding ships," said Gary. "But whose?"

"How can I tell?" asked the Engineer. "It may be theirs or ours."

Even as he spoke a little ripple of red flashes ran across the screen.

CHAPTER Ten

HALF the city was in ruins, swept and raked by the stabbing rays that probed down from the upper reaches of the atmosphere, blasted by hydrogen and atomic bombs that shook the very bedrock of the planet and shattered great, sky-high towers of white masonry into drifting dust. Twisted wreckage fell into the city from the battle area, great cruisers reduced to grotesque metal heaps, bent and burned and battered out of all semblance to a ship, scorched and crushed and flattened by the energy unloosed in the height of battle.

"They have new weapons," said the Engineer. "New weapons and better screens. We can hold them off a little longer. How much longer I do not know."

In the laboratory, located in the base of one of the tallest of the skyscrapers in the great white city, the Engineers and the Earthlings had watched the battle for long hours. Had seen the first impact of the fleets, had watched the first dogfight out at the edge of atmosphere, had witnessed the Hellhounds slowly drive the defenders back until the invaders were within effective bombardment distance of the city itself.

"They have a screen stripper," said the Engineer, "that is far more effective than anything we have ever seen. It is taking too much of our ships" energy to hold up their screens under this new weapon."

In the telescopic screen a brilliant blue-white flash filled all the vision-plate as a bomb smashed into one of the few remaining towers. The tower erupted with a flash of blinding light and disappeared, with merely the ragged stump of masonry bearing mute testimony to its once sky-soaring height.

"Isn't there anyone who can help us?" asked Kingsley. "Surely there is someone to whom we might appeal."

"There is no one," said the Engineer. "We are alone. For thousands of light years there are no other great races to be found. For millions of years the Hellhounds and the Engineers have fought, and it has always been those two and just those two alone. Thus it is now. Before, we have driven them off. Many times have we destroyed them almost to the point of anihilation that we might hold their cosmic ambitions under proper check. Now it seems they will be the victors."

"No other race," said Gary, musing, "for thousands of light years."

He stared moodily at the screen, saw a piece of twisted wreckage that had at one time been a ship crash into the stump of broken tower and hang there, like a bloody, smoke-blackened offering tossed on the altar of war.

"But there is," he said. "There is at least one great race very near to us."

"There is?" asked Caroline. "Where?"

"On the other universe," said Gary. "A race that is fully as great, as capable as the Engineers. A race that should be glad to help us in this fight."

"Great suffering snakes," yelped Herb, "why didn't we think of that before?"

"I do not understand," said the Engineer. "I agree they are a great race and very close to us. Much too close, in fact. But they might as well be a billion light years away. They can do us no good. How would you get them here?"

"Yes," rumbled Kingsley, "how would you get them here?"

Gary turned to the Engineer. "You have talked to them," he said. "Have you any idea of what kind of people they might be?"

"A great people," said the Engineer. "Greater than we in certain sciences. They are the ones who notified us of the danger of the approaching universes. They knew they were nearing our universe when we didn't even know there was another universe other than our own. Such very clever people."

"Talk to them again," said Gary. "Give them the information that will enable them to make a miniature universe… one of Caroline's hyperspheres."

"But," said the Engineer, "that would do no good."

"It would," said Gary, grimly, "if they could use the laws of space to form a blister on the surface of their universe. If they could go out to the very edge of their space-time frame and create a little bubble of space — a bubble that would pinch off, independent of the parent universe and exist independently in the five-dimension inter-space."

Gary heard the rasp of Kingsley's breath in his helmet phones.

"They could cross to our universe," rumbled the scientist. "They could navigate through the inter-space with complete immunity."

Gary nodded inside his helmet. "Exactly," he said.

"Why, Gary," whispered Caroline, "what a thought!"

"Boy," said Herb, "I can hardly wait to see them Hellhounds when we sic those fellows on them."

"Maybe," said Tommy, "they won't come."

"I will talk to them," said the Engineer.

He left the room and they followed him through a mighty corridor to another room filled with elaborate machinery.

The Engineer strode to a control panel and worked with dials and studs. Intense blue power surged through long tubes and flashed in dizzy whirls through coils of glass.

Tubes boomed into sudden brilliance and the deep hum of power surged into the room.

They could hear the probing fingers of the Engineer's thoughts, thrusting out, calling to those other people in another universe. The power of thought being hurled through the very warp and weave of twisted time and space.

Then came another probing thought, a string of thoughts that were impossible to understand, hazed and blurred and all distorted. But apparently perfectly clear to the Engineer, who stood motionless under the inverted cone of glass that shimmered with blue fire of power.

Two entities talking to one another and the queer, challenging unknown of five-dimensional inter-space separating them!

The power ebbed and the blue fire sank to a glimmer in the tubes.

The Engineer turned around and faced the Earthlings.

"They will come," he said, "but only on one condition."

Suddenly a shiver went through Gary. Condition! That was something he hadn't thought about — that these other things might exact terms, might want concessions, might seek to wring front another universe some measure of profit for a service done.

He had always thought of them as benevolent beings, entities like the Engineers, living a life of service, establishing themselves as guardians of their universe. But that was it. Would they go out of their way to save another universe? Or would they fight only for their own? Was there such a thing as selflessness and universal brotherhood? Or must the universes, in time to come, be forever at one another's throats, as in ancient times nations had torn at one another in savage anger, in more recent times planets had warred for their selfish interests?

"What condition?" asked Kingsley.

"That we or they find out something concerning the nature of the inter-space and of the energy which will be generated when the universes rub," said the Engineer. "They are willing to come and fight for us, but they are not willing to deliberately invite disaster to themselves. No one knows what the inter-space is like. No one knows what laws of science it may hold. There may be laws that are utterly foreign to both our universes, laws that would defy our every bit of knowledge. They are afraid that the budding of a smaller universe from the surface of their own might serve to generate the energy they know will result when two four-dimensional frames draw close to one another."

"Now, wait," said Gary. "There is something I didn't consider when I proposed this thing. It just occurred to me now. When you said the word "condition," it came to my mind that they might want concessions or promises. I was wrong, interpreted the thought wrong. But the idea is still there. We don't know what these things in the other universe might be. We don't know what they look like or what their philosophy is or what they can do. If we allowed them to come here, we'd be giving them a key to this universe. Just opening the door for them. They might be all right and they might not. They might take over the universe."

"There's something to that," said Tommy. "We should have thought of it before."

"I do not believe it," said the Engineer. "I have some reason to believe they would not be a menace to us."

"What reason?" rumbled Kingsley.

"They notified us of the danger," said the Engineer.

"They wanted help," said Tommy.

"We have been of little help to them," said the Engineer.

"What difference does it make?" asked Herb. "Unless we can do something about this energy, we're going to be goners, anyhow. And that goes for the other universe as well. If they could save themselves by ruining us, maybe they'd do it, but it's a cinch that if we puff out they go along with us."

"That's right," agreed Kingsley. "It would be to their interest to help us beat off the Hellhounds on the chance that we might find something to save the universes. They wouldn't be very likely to turn on us until somebody had figured out something about this energy."

"And we can't control something we don't understand," said Caroline. "We have to find out what that energy is, what it's like, what form it is apt to take, something about it, so we will know how to handle it."

"How much more time have we to find some way to save us from the big explosion?" asked Gary.

"Very little time," said the Engineer. "Very little time. We are perilously close to the danger point. Shortly the two space-time frames of the two universes will start reacting upon one another, creating the lines of force and stress that will set up the energy fields in the inter-space."

"And you say there is another race that can tell us about this inter-space?"

"One other race I know of," said the Engineer. "There may be others, but I know only of this one. And it is hard to reach. Perhaps impossible to reach."

"Listen," said Gary, "it is our only chance. We might as well fail in reaching them as waiting here for the energy to come and wipe us out. Let a couple of us try. The others may find something else before it is too late. Caroline's hyperspheres might take care of the energy, but we can't be sure. And we have to be sure. The universe depends upon us being sure. We can't just shoot in the dark.

We have to know."

"And if we find out," said Herb, "those guys over in the other universe can come over and help us hold the Hellhounds off while we rig up the stuff we have to have."

"I'm afraid," said Kingsley, "we have to take the chance."

"Chance," said the Engineer. "It's a whole lot more than chance. The place I have in mind may not even exist."

"May not even exist?" asked Caroline and there was an edge of terror in her words.

"It is far away," said the Engineer. "Not far in space — perhaps even close to us in space. But far away in time."

"In time?" asked Tommy. "Some great civilization of the past?"

"No," said the Engineer. "A civilization of the future. A civilization which may never exist. One that may never come to be."

"How do you know about it, then?" flared Gary.

"I followed its world line," said the Engineer. "And yet not its actual world line, but the world line that was to come. I traced it into the realm of probability. I followed it ahead in time, saw it as it is not yet, as it may never be. I saw the shadow of its probability."

Gary's head reeled. What talk was this? Following of probable world lines. Tracing the course of an empire before it had occurred! Seeing a place that might not ever exist. Talking of sending someone to a place that might never be!

But Caroline was talking now, her cool voice smooth and calm, but with a trace of excitement tinging the tenor of her words.

"You mean you used a geodesic tracer to follow the world line into probability. That you established the fact that in some future time a certain world may exist under such conditions as you saw. That barring unforeseen circumstances it will exist as you saw it, but that you cannot be certain it ever will exist, for the world line you traced could not take into account that factor of accident which might destroy the world or divert it from the path you charted, the path that it logically would have to take."

"That is correct," said the Engineer. "Except for one thing. And that is that the world will exist as I saw it in some measure. For all probabilities must exist to some extent. But its existence might be so tenuous that we could never reach it… that for us, in hard, solid fact, it would have no real existence. In other words, we could not set foot upon it. For every real thing there are infinite probabilities, all existing, drawing some shadow of existence from the mere fact that they are probable or have been probable or will be probable. The stress and condition of circumstance selects one of these probabilities, makes it an actuality. But the others have an existence, just the same. An existence, perhaps, that we could not perceive."

"But you did see this shadow of probability?" rumbled Kingsley.

"Yes," said the Engineer, "I saw it very plainly. So plainly that I am tempted to believe it may be an actuality in time to come. But of that I cannot be sure. As I said, it may not exist, may never exist — at least to an extent where we could reach it — where it would have any bearing on our lives."

"There is a chance, though, that we could reach it?" asked Gary.

"There is a chance," said the Engineer.

"Then," said Herb, impatiently, "what are we waiting for?"

"But," said Gary, "if the universe is destroyed, if we should fail and the universe be destroyed, would that probability still be there? Wouldn't the fact that you saw it prove that we will find some way to save the universe?"

"It proves nothing," said the Engineer. "Even were the universe destroyed, the probability would still exist, for the world could have been. Destruction of the universe would be a factor of accident which would eliminate actuality and force all lines of probability to remain mere probability."

"You mean," breathed Caroline, "that we could go to a world which exists only as a probable world line and get information there to save the universe — that even after the universe is destroyed, if we fail and it is destroyed, the information which might have saved it still could be found, but too late, of course, to be of any use to us, on that probable world?"

"Yes," said the Engineer, "but there would be no one to find it then. The solution would be there, never used, at a time when it would be too late to use it. It is so hard to explain this thought as it should be explained."

"Maybe it's all right," said Herb, "but I crave action. When do we start for this place that might not be there when we get where we headed for?"

"I will show you," said the Engineer.

They followed him through a maze of laboratory rooms until they came to one which boasted only one piece of equipment, a huge polished bowl set in the floor, blazing with reflected light from the single lamp that shone in the ceiling above it.

The Engineer indicated the bowl. "Watch," he told them.

He walked to a board on the opposite wall and swiftly set up an equation on a calculating machine. The machine whirred and clicked and chuckled and the Engineer depressed a series of studs in the control board. The inside of the bowl clouded and seemed to take on motion, like a gigantic whirlpool of flowing nothingness. Faster and faster became the impression of motion.

Gary found himself unable to pull his eyes away from the wonder of the bowl — as if the very motion were hypnotic.

Then the swirl of motion began to take form, misty, tenuous form, as if they were viewing a strange solar system from a vast distance. The solar system faded from view as the vision in the bowl narrowed down to one planet. Other planets flowed out of the picture and the one grew larger and larger, a ball swinging slowly in space.

Then it filled all the bowl and Gary could see seas and cities and mountains and vast deserts. But the mountains were not high, more like weathered hills than mountains, and the seas were shallow. Deserts covered most of the spinning globe and the cities were in ruins.

There was something tantalizingly familiar about that spinning ball, something that struck a chord of memory, something about the solar system — as if he had seen it once before.

And then it struck him like an open hand across his mouth.

"The Earth!" he cried. "That is the Earth!"

"Yes," said the Engineer, "that is your planet, but you see it as it will be many millions of years from now. It is an old, old planet."

"Or as it may never be," whispered Caroline.

"You are right," said the Engineer. "Or as it may never be."

CHAPTER Eleven

TOMMY EVANS" ship rested on one of the lower roofs of the city, just outside the laboratories level. In a few minutes now it would be lifted and hurled through a warp of space and time that should place it upon the Earth they had seen in the swirling bowl… an Earth that was no more than a probability… an Earth that wouldn't exist for millions of years if it ever existed.

"Take good care of that ship," Tommy told Gary. Gary slapped him on the arm.

"I'll bring it back to you," he said.

"Well be waiting for you," Kingsley rumbled.

"Hell," moaned Herb, "I never get to have any fun. Here you and Caroline are going out there to the Earth and I got to stay behind."

"Listen," said Gary savagely, "there's no use in risking all our lives. Caroline's going because she may be the only one who could understand what the old Earth people can tell us, and I'm going because I play a better hand of poker. I beat you all, fair and square."

"I was a sucker," mourned Herb. "I should have known you'd have an ace in the hole. You always got an ace in the hole."

Tommy grinned.

"I got a lousy band," he said. "We should have played more than just one band."

"It was one way of deciding it," said Gary. "We all wanted to go, so we played one hand of poker. We couldn't waste time for more. I won. What more do you want?"

"You always win," Herb complained.

"Just how much chance have you got?" Tommy asked Caroline.

She shrugged.

"It works out on paper," she declared. "When we came here the Engineers had to distort time and space to get us here, but they distorted the two equally. Same amount of distortion for each. But here you have to distort time a whole lot more. Your factors are different. But we have a good chance of getting where we're going?"

"If it's there when you get there…" Herb began, but Kingsley growled at him and he stopped.

Caroline was talking swiftly to Kingsley.

"The Engineer understands the equation for the hyperspheres," she was saying. "Work with him. Try to set up several of them in our own space and see if it isn't possible to set up at least one outside the universe. Pinch it off the time-space warp and shove it out into the inter-space. We may be able to use it later on."

A blast of sound smote them and the solid masonry beneath their feet shivered to the impact of a bomb. For a single second the flashing blaze of atomic fury made the brilliant sunlight seem pale and dim.

"That one was close," said Tommy.

They were used to bombs now.

Gary craned his neck upward and saw the silvery flash of ships far overhead.

"The Engineers can't hold out much longer," Kingsley rumbled. "If we are going to do anything we have to do it pretty soon."

"There is the old space warp again," said Herb. He pointed upward and the others sighted out into space beyond his pointing finger.

There it was… the steady wheel of light, the faint spin of space in motion… they had seen back on Pluto.

The doorway to another world.

"I guess," said Caroline, "that means we have to go." Her voice caught on something that sounded like a sob.

She turned to Kingsley. "If we don't come back," she said, "try the hyperspheres anyhow. Try to absorb the energy in them. You won't have to control it long. Just long enough so the other universe explodes. Then we'll be safe."

She stepped through the air lock and Gary followed her. He turned back and looked at the three of them… great, rumbling Kingsley with his huge head thrust forward, staring through his helmet, with his metal-shod fists opening and closing; dapper, debonair Tommy Evans, the boy who had dreamed of flying to Alpha Centauri and had come to the edge of the universe instead; Herb, the dumpy little photographer who was eating out his heart because he couldn't go. Through eyes suddenly bleared with emotion, Gary waved at them and they waved back. And then he hurried into the ship, slammed down the lever that swung tight the air-lock valves.

In the control room he took off his helmet and dropped into the pilot's seat. He looked at Caroline. "Good to get the helmet off," he said.

She nodded, lifting her own off her head.

His fingers tapped out a firing pattern. He hesitated for a moment, his thumb poised over the firing lever.

"Listen, Caroline," be asked, "how much chance have we got?"

"We'll get there," she said.

"No," he snapped, "don't tell me that. Tell me the truth. Have we any chance at all?"

Her eyes met his and her mouth sobered into a thin, straight line.

"Yes, some," she said. "Not quite fifty-fifty. There are so many factors of error, so many factors of accident. Mathematics can't foresee them, can't take care of them, and mathematics are the only signposts that we have."

He laughed harshly.

"We're shooting at a target, don't you see?" she said. "A target millions of light-years away, and millions of years away as well, and you have to have a different set of co-ordinates for both the time and distance. The same set won't do for both. It's difficult."

He looked at her soberly. She said it was difficult. He could only faintly imagine how difficult it might be. Only someone who was a master at the mathematics of both time and space could even faintly understand — someone, say, who had thought for forty lifetimes.

"And even if we do hit the place," he said, "it may not be there."

Savagely he plunged his thumb against the lever. The rockets thundered and the ship was arcing up. Another pattern and another. They were plunging upward now under the full thrust of rocket power and still the ruined city was all around them, cragged, broken towers shattered by the blasting of atomic energy.

The soft swirl of light that marked the opening of the time-space tunnel lay between and beyond two blasted towers. Gary fired a short, corrective pattern to line the nose of the ship between the towers and then depressed a stud and fired a blast that drove them straight between the towers, up and over the city, straight for the whirl of light.

The ship arrowed swiftly up. The directional crossbars lined squarely upon the hub of spinning light.

"We're almost there," he said, his breath whistling between his teeth. "We'll know in just a minute."

The cold wind out of space was blowing on his face again; the short hairs on his neck were trying to rise into a ruff. The old challenge of the unknown. The old glory of crusading.

He snapped a look at Caroline. She was staring out of the vision plate, staring straight ahead, watching the rim of the wheel spin out until only the blackness of the hub remained.

She turned to him. "Oh, Gary!" she cried, and then the ship plunged into the hub and blackness as thick and heavy and as stifling as the ink of utter space flooded into the ship and seemed to dim the very radium lamps that burned within the room. He heard her voice coming out of the blackness that engulfed them. "Gary, I'm afraid!"

Then the black was gone and the ship rode in space again — in a star-sprinkled space that had, curiously, a warm and friendly look after the blackness of the tunnel.

"There it is!" Caroline cried, and Gary expelled his breath in a sigh of relief.

Below them swam a planet, a planet such as they had seen in the spinning bowl back in the city of the Engineers. A planet that was spotted with mighty mountains weathered down to meek and somber hills, a planet with shallow seas and a thinning atmosphere.

"The Earth," said Gary, looking at it.

Yes, the Earth. The birthplace of the human race, now an old and senile planet tottering to its doom, a planet that had outlived its usefulness. A planet that had mothered a great race of people — a race that always strove to reach what was just beyond, always reaching out to the not-as-yet, that met each challenge with a battle cry. A crusading people.

"It's really there," said Caroline. "It's real."

Gary glanced swiftly at the instruments. They were only a matter of five hundred miles above the surface and as yet there was no indication of atmosphere. Slowly the ship was dropping toward the planet, but still there was no sign of anything but space.

He whistled softly. Even the slightest presence of gases would be registered on the dials and so far the needles hadn't even flickered.

Earth must be old! Her atmosphere was swiftly being stripped from her to leave her bare bones naked to the cold of space. Space, cold and malignant, was creeping in on mankind's cradle.

He struck the first sign of atmosphere at slightly under two hundred miles.

The surface of the planet was lighted by a Sun which must have lost much of its energy, for the light seemed feeble compared to the way Gary remembered it. The Sun, behind them, was shielded from their vision.

Swiftly they dropped, closer and closer to the surface. Eagerly they scanned the land beneath them for some sign of cities, but they saw only one and that, the telescope revealed, was in utter ruins. Drifting sands were closing over its shattered columns and once mighty walls.

"It must have been a great city in its day," said Caroline softly. "I wonder what has happened to the people."

"Died off," said Gary, "or left for some other planet, maybe for some other sun."

The telescopic screen mirrored scene after scene of desolation. Vast deserts with shifting dunes and mile after mile of nothing but shimmering sand, without a trace of vegetation. Worn-down hills with boulder-strewn slopes and wind-twisted trees and shrubs making their last stand against the encroachment of a hostile environment.

Gary turned the ship toward the night side of the planet, and it was then they saw the Moon. Vast, filling almost a twelfth of the sky, it loomed over the horizon, a monstrous orange ball in full phase.

"How pretty!" gasped Caroline.

"Pretty and dangerous," said Gary.

It must be approaching Roche's limit, he thought. Falling out of the sky, year after year it had drawn closer to the Earth. When it reached a certain limit, it would be disrupted, torn to bits by the stresses of gravitation hauling and tugging at it. It would shatter into tiny fragments and those fragments would take up independent orbits around old Earth, giving her in miniature the rings of Saturn. But the same forces which would tear the Moon to bits would shake up the Earth, giving rise to volcanic action, world-shattering earthquakes, monstrous tidal waves. Mountains would be leveled, new continents raised. Earth's face would be changed once again, as it probably had been changed many times before. As it had been changed since early Man had known it, for search as he might, Gary could find no single recognizable feature, not a single sea or continent that seemed familiar.

He reflected on the changes that must have come to pass. The Earth must have slowed down. Probably a night now was almost a month long, and a day equally as long. Long scorching days and endless frigid nights. Century after century, with the moon tides braking the Earth's motion, with the addition of mass due to falling meteors, Earth had lost her energy. Increase of mass and loss of energy had slowed her spin, had shoved her farther and farther away from the Sun, pushing her out and into the frigidness of space. And now she was losing her atmosphere. Her gravity was weakening and the precious gases were slowly being stripped from her. Rock weathering also would have absorbed some of the oxygen.

"Look!" cried Caroline.

Aroused from his daydreaming, Gary saw a city straight ahead, looming on the horizon, a great city a-gleam with shining metal.

"The Engineer said we would find people here," Caroline whispered. "That must be where we'll find them."

The city was falling into ruin. Much of it, undoubtedly, already had been covered by the creeping desert that crawled toward it from every direction. Some of the buildings were falling apart, with great gaping holes staring like empty, hopeless eyes. But part of it, at least, was standing, and that part gave a breath-taking hint to the sort of city it had been when it soared in full pride of strength at its very prime.

Smoothly Gary brought the ship down toward the city, down toward a level patch of desert in front of the largest building yet standing. And the building, he saw, was a beauteous thing that almost defied description, a poem in grace and rhythm, seemingly too fragile for this weird and bitter world.

The ship plowed along the sand and stopped. Gary rose from the pilot's seat and reached for his helmet. "We're here," he announced.

"I didn't think we'd make it," Caroline confessed. "We took such an awful chance."

"But we did," he said gruffly. "And we have a job to do."

He set his helmet on his head and clamped it down. "I have a hunch we'll need these things," be said.

She put on her helmet and together they went out of the air lock.

Wind keened thinly over the empty deserts and the ruins, kicked up little puffs of sand that raced and danced weird rigadoons across the dunes and past the ship, up to the very doors of the shiny building that confronted them.

A slinking shape slunk across a dune and streaked swiftly for the shelter of a pile of fallen masonry — a little furtive shape that might have been a skulking dog or something else, almost anything at all.

A sense of desolation smote Gary and he felt an alien fear gripping at his soul.

He shivered. This wasn't the way a man should feel on his own home planet. This wasn't the way a man should feel on coming home from the very edge of everything.

But it wasn't the edge of everything, he reminded himself. It was just the edge of the universe. For the universe wasn't everything. Beyond it, stretching for uncountable, mind-shattering distances, were other universes. The universe was just a tiny unit of the whole, perhaps as tiny a unit of the whole as the Earth was a tiny unit of its universe. A grain of sand upon the beach, he thought — less than a grain of sand upon the beach.


And this might not be Earth, of course. It might be just the shadow of the Earth — a probability that gained strength and substance and a semblance of being because it missed being an actuality by a mere hair" s-breadth.


His mind whirled at the thought of it, at the astounding vista of possibilities that the thought brought up, the infinite number of possibilities that existed as shadows, each with a queer shadow existence of its very own, things that just missed being realities. Disappointed ghosts, he thought, wailing their way through the eternity of nonexistence.


Caroline was close beside him. Her voice came to him through the helmet phones, a tiny voice. "Gary, everything is so strange."

"Yes," he said. "Strange."

Cautiously they walked forward, toward the gaping door of the great metal building from whose turrets and spires and froth of superstructure the moonbeams splintered in a cold glitter of faery beauty.

Sand crunched and grated underfoot. The wind made shrill, keening noises and they could see the frozen frost crystals in the sand, moisture locked in the grip of deadly cold.

They reached the doorway and peered inside. The interior was dark and Gary unhooked the radium lamp from his belt. The lamp cut a broad beam of light down the mighty, high-arched hallway that led straight from the door toward the center of the building.

Gary caught his breath, seized with a nameless fear, the fear of the dark and the unfamiliar, of the ghostly and the ancient.

"We might as well go in," he said, fighting down the fear.

Their footsteps echoed and re-echoed in the darkness as the metal of their boots rang against the cold paving blocks.

Gary felt the weight of centuries pressing down upon him — the eyes of many nations and of many people watching furtively, jealous to guard old tradition from the invasion of an alien mind. For he and Caroline, he sensed, were aliens here, aliens in time if not in blood. He sensed it in the very architecture of the place, in the atmosphere of the long and silent hall, in the quiet that brooded on this dead or dying planet.

Suddenly they left the hallway and were striding into what seemed a vast chamber. Gary snapped the lamp to full power and explored the place. It was filled with furniture. Solid blocks of seat faced a rostrum, and all about the wall ran ornate benches.

At one time, now long gone, it might have been a council hall, a meeting place of the people to decide great issues. In this room, he told himself, history might have been written, the course of cosmic empire might have been shaped and the fate of stars decided.

But now there was no sign of life, just a brooding silence that seemed to whisper in a tongueless language of days and faces and problems long since wiped out by the march of years.

He looked about and shivered.

"I don't like this place," said Caroline.

A light suddenly flared and blazed as a door opened and thought-fingers reached out to them, thoughts that were kindly and definitely human:

"Do you seek someone here?"

CHAPTER Twelve

STARTLED, they swung around. A stooped old man stood in a tiny doorway that opened from the hall — an old man who, while he was human, seemed not quite human. His head was large and his chest bulged out grotesquely. He stood on trembly pipestem legs and his arms were alarmingly long and skinny.

A long white beard swept over his chest, but his great domed head was innocent of even a single hair. Across the space that separated them, Gary felt the force of piercing eyes that stared out from under shaggy eyebrows.

"We're looking for someone," said Gary, "to give us information."

"Come in," shrieked the thought of the old man. "Come in. Do you want me to catch my death of cold holding the door open for you?"

Gary grasped Caroline by the hand. "Come on," he said.

At a trot, they crossed the room, ducked through the door. They heard the door slam behind them and turned to look at the old man.

He stared back at them. "You are human beings," said his thoughts. "People of my own race. But from long ago."

"That's right," said Gary. "From many millions of years ago."

They sensed something that almost approached disbelief in the old man's thoughts.

"And you seek me?"

"We seek someone," said Gary. "Someone who may tell us something that may save the universe."

"Then it must be me," said the old man, "because I'm the only one left."

"The only one left!" cried Gary. "The last man?"

"That's right," said the old man, and he seemed almost cheerful about it. "There were others but they died. All men's life spans must sometime come to an end."

"But there are others," persisted Gary. "You can't be the last man left alive."

"There were others," said the old one, "but they left. They went to a far star. To a place prepared for them."

A coldness gripped Gary's heart.

"You mean they died?"

The old man's thoughts were querulous and impatient.

"No, they did not die. They went to a better place. To a place that has been prepared for them for many years. A place where they could not go until they were ready."

"But you?" asked Gary.

"I stayed because I wanted to," said the old man. "Myself and a few others. We could not forsake Earth. We elected to stay. Of those who stayed all the others have died and I am left alone."

Gary glanced around the room. It was tiny, but comfortable. A bed, a table, a few chairs, other furniture he did not recognize.

"You like my place?" asked the old man.

"Very much," said Gary.

"Perhaps," said the old man, "you would like to take off your helmets. It's warm in here and I keep the atmosphere a little denser than it is outside. Not necessary that I do so, of course, but it is more comfortable. The atmosphere is getting pretty thin and hard to breathe."

They unfastened their helmets and lifted them off. The air was sharp and tangy, the room was warm.

"That's better," said Caroline.

"Chairs?" asked the old man, pointing out a couple.

They sat and he lowered his old body into another.

"Well, well," he said, and his thoughts had a grandfatherly touch about them, "humans of an earlier age. Splendid physical specimen, the two of you. And fairly barbaric still — but the stuff is in you. You use your mouths to talk with and man hasn't talked with other than his thoughts for thousands and thousands of years. That in itself would set you pretty far back."

"Pretty far is right," said Gary. "We are the first humans who ever left the solar system."

"That is far," said the old man. "Far, far…"

His sharp eyes watched them closely. "You must have an interesting story," be suggested.

"We have," said Caroline and swiftly they told it to him, excitedly, first one and then the other talking, adding in details, explaining situations, laying before him the problems which they faced.

He listened intently, snapping questions now and then, his bright old eyes shining with the love of adventure, the wrinkles in his face taking on a kind benevolence as if they might be children, home from the first day of school, telling of all the new wonders they had met.

"So you came to me," he said. "You came trundling down a crazy timepath to seek me out. So that I could tell you the things you need to know."

Caroline nodded. "You can tell us, can't you?" she asked. "It means so much to us — so much to everyone."

"I wouldn't worry," said the old man. "If the universe had come to an end, I wouldn't be here. You couldn't have come to me."

"But maybe you aren't real," said Caroline. "Maybe you are just a shadow. A probability…"

The oldster nodded and combed his beard with gnarled fingers. The breath wheezed in his mighty chest.

"You are right," he agreed. "I may be only a shadow. This world of mine may be no more than a shadow-world. I sometimes wonder if there is any reality at all — if there is anything but thought. Whether it may not be that some gigantic intelligence has dreamed all these things we see and believe in and accept as real… if the giant intelligence may not have set mighty dream stages and peopled them with actors of his imagination. I wonder at times if all the universes may be nothing more than a shadow show. A company of shadowy actors moving on a shadow stage."

"But you can tell us," pleaded Caroline. "You will tell…"

His old eyes twinkled. "I will tell you, yes, and gladly. Your fifth dimension is eternity. It is everything and nothing… all rolled into one. It is a place where nothing has ever happened and yet, in a sense, where everything has happened. It is the beginning and the end of all things. In it there is no such thing as space or time or any other phenomena which we attribute to the four-dimensional continuum."

"I can't understand," said Caroline, lines of puzzlement twisting her face. "It seems so hopeless, so entirely hopeless. Can it be explained by mathematics?"

"Yes," said the old man, "but I'm afraid you wouldn't understand. The mathematics necessary to explain it weren't evolved until just a few thousand years ago."

He stroked the beard down smoothly over his pouter-pigeon chest.

"I do not wish to make you feel badly," he declared, "but I can't see how you would have the intelligence to grasp it. After all, you are a people from an earlier age, an almost barbaric age."

"Try her," growled Gary.

"All right," said the old man, but there was a patronizing tone to his thoughts.

Gary gained a confused impression of horrific equations, of bracketed symbols that built themselves into a tangled and utterly confused structure of meaning — a meaning that seemed so vast and all-inclusive that his mind instinctively shuddered away from it.

Then the thoughts were gone and Gary's mind was spinning with them, with the vital forcefulness that he had guessed and glimpsed behind the symbolic structure that had been in the mathematics.

He looked at Caroline and saw that she was puzzled. But suddenly a look of awe spread over her face.

"Why," she said, and hesitated slightly, "…. why, the equations cancel, represent both everything and nothing, both zero and the ultimate in everything imaginable."

Gary caught a sense of surprise and confusion that flashed through the mind of their host.

"You understand," said the faltering thought. "You grasp the meaning perfectly."

"Didn't I tell you," said Gary. "Of course, she understands."

"

Caroline was talking, almost as if she were talking to herself, talking her thoughts aloud. "That means the energy would be timeless. It would have no time factor, and since time is a factor in power, its power would be almost infinite. There'd be no stopping it, once it started."

"You are right," said the old man. "It would be raw, created energy from a region where four-dimensional laws are no longer valid. It would be timeless and formless."

"Formless," said Caroline. "Of course, it would be formless. It wouldn't be light, or heat, or matter, or motion, or any other form of energy such as we know. But it could be anything. It would be waiting to become something. It could crystallize into anything."

"Good Lord," said Gary, "how could you handle stuff like that? Your hyperspheres wouldn't handle it. It could mold space itself. It could annihilate time."

Caroline looked at him soberly.

"If I could create a fifth-dimensional trap," she said, "if I could trap it in the framework of the medium from which it came. Don't you see that such a framework would attract it, would gather it in and hold it. Like a battery holds energy. Like water seeking its own level and coming to rest."

"Sure," agreed Gary, "if you could create a fifth-dimensional trap. But you can't. It's eternity. The dimension of eternity. You can't go fooling around with eternity."

"Yes, she can," said the old man.

The two of them stared at him, not believing.

"Listen closely," said the oldster. "By rotating a circle through three dimensions you create a sphere. Rotate the sphere through four dimensions and you have a hypersphere. You already have created this. You have bent time and space around a mass to create a hypersphere, a miniature universe. Now all you have to do is rotate the hypersphere through five-dimensional space."

"But you'd have to be in five-dimensional space to do that," objected Gary.

"No, you wouldn't," contended the old man. "Scattered throughout three-dimensional space are ether eddies and time faults and space traps — call them anything you like. They are a common phenomena and they're nothing more, when you come right down to it, than isolated bits of four-dimensional space scattered around through three-dimensional space. The same thing would apply to a fifth dimension in the fourth dimension."

"But how," asked Caroline, "would one go about it? How would one rotate a hypersphere through the fifth dimension?"

Again Gary had that sense of confusion as the thoughts of the ancient one swept over him, thoughts that translated themselves into symbols and equations and brackets of mathematics that it seemed impossible any man could know.

"Gary," gasped Caroline, "have you a pencil and some paper?"

Gary fumbled in his pocket and found an old envelope and a stub of pencil. He handed them to her.

"Please repeat that very slowly," she said, smiling at the old man.

Gary watched in amazement as Caroline, slowly and carefully, jotted down the formulas, equations, symbols — carefully checking and going over them, checking and rechecking so there could be no mistake.

"It will take power," she said. "Tremendous power. I wonder if the Engineers can supply it."

"They have magnetic power," said Gary. "They ought to be able to give you all you need."

The old man's eyes were twinkling. "I am remembering the Hellhounds," he said. "The ones who would have the universe destroyed. I cannot seem to like them. It seems to me that something should be done about them."

"But what?" asked Gary. "They seem to be all-powerful. By the time we get back they may have battered the city into a mass of ruins."

The oldster nodded almost sleepily, but his eyes were glowing.

"We have had ones like that in our history," he said. "Ones who overrode the nations and imposed their will, standing in the way of progress. But always someone found something that would break them. Someone found a greater weapon or a greater strength and they went their way. Their names and works were dust and they were forgotten and the civilization that they sought to mold to their own selfish ends went on as if they had never been."

"But I don't see…" began Gary, and then suddenly he did — as clearly as light. He smote his knee and yelled his enthusiasm.

"Of course," he cried. "We have a weapon. A weapon that could wipe them out. The fifth-dimensional energy!"

"Certainly you have," said the old man.

"That would be barbarous," protested Caroline.

"Barbarous!" shouted Gary. "Isn't it barbarous to want to see the universe destroyed so the Hellhounds can go back to the beginning and take it over, control it, dominate it, take over galaxy after galaxy as a new universe is born? Shape it to their needs and desires. Hold in thrall every bit of life that develops on every cooling planet. Become the masters of the universe."

"We must hurry, then," said Caroline. "We must get back. Minutes count. We still may be able to save the Engineers and the universe, wipe out the Hellhounds."

She rose impatiently to her feet.

The old man protested. "You would go so soon?" he asked. "You would not stay and eat with me? Or tell me more about this place at the edge of the universe? Or let me tell you strange things that I know you would be glad to hear?"

Gary hesitated. "Maybe we could stay a while," he suggested.

"No," said Caroline. "We must go."

"Listen," said Gary to the old man, "why don't you come along with us? We'd be glad to have you. We could use you in the fight. There are things that you could tell us that would help."

The old man shook his bead. "I cannot go," he said. "For, you see, you are right. I may be only a shadow. A very substantial shadow, perhaps, but still just a shadow of probability. You can come to me, but I can't go back with you. If I left this planet I might puff into nothingness, revert to the non-existence of the thing that never was."

He hesitated. "But there's something," he said, "that makes me suspect I am not a shadow… that this is actuality, that the Earth will follow the course history tells me it has followed."

"What is that?" asked Gary.

"It is a thing," the old man said, "that I cannot tell you."

"Perhaps we can come back and see you again," said Caroline. "After all this trouble is over."

"No, my child," he said. "You will never come, for ours are lives that never should have met. You represent the beginning and I represent the end. And I am proud that the Earth's last man could have been of service to one of the beginners."

They fastened down their helmets and walked toward the door.

"I will walk with you to your ship," said the old man. "I do not walk a great deal now, for the cold and the thin air bother me. I must be getting old."

Their feet whispered through the sand and the wind keened above the desert, a shrill-voiced wind that played an eternal overture for the stage of desolation old Earth had become.

"I live with ghosts," said the old man as they walked toward the ship. "Ghosts of men and events and great ideals that built a mighty race.

"Probably you wonder that I resemble a man so much. Perhaps you thought that men, in time to come, would evolve into specialized monstrosities — great, massive brains that had lost the power of locomotion, or bundles of emotional reactions, unstable as the very wind, or foolish philosophers, or, worse yet, drab realists. But we became none of these things. We kept our balance. We kept our feet on the ground when dreams filled our heads."

They reached the ship and stood before the opened outer valve.

The old man waved a hand toward the mighty metal building.

"The proudest city Man ever built," he said. "A city whose fame spread to the far stars, to distant galaxies. A city that travelers told about in bated whispers. A place to which came the commerce of many solar systems, ships from across far inter-galactic space. But now it is crumbling into dust and ruin. Soon the desert will claim it and the wind will sing a death dirge for it and little, furry animals will burrow in its bones."

He turned to them and Gary saw a half-mystic light shining in his eyes.

"Thus it is with cities," he said, "but Man is different. Man marches on and on. He outgrows cities and builds others. He outgrows planets. He is creating a heritage, a mighty heritage that in time will make him the master of the universe.

"But there will be interludes of defeat. Times when it seems that all is lost — that Man will slip again to the primal savagery and ignorance. Times when the way seems too hard and the price too great to pay. But always there will be bugles in the sky and a challenge on the horizon and the bright beckoning of ideals far away. And Man will go ahead, to greater triumphs, always pushing back the frontiers, always moving up and outward."

The old man turned around and headed back toward the doorway in the building. He went without a word of farewell and his sandaled feet left a tiny, ragged trail across the shifting sand.

CHAPTER Thirteen

THE black tunnel of the space-time wheel ended and the ship was in normal space again. Normal, but not right.

Gary, hunched over the controls, heard Caroline's quick gasp of surprise.

"There's something wrong!" she cried.

There was a world, but it was not the planet of the Engineers. No great city grew upon it from horizon to horizon. Instead of three blue suns, there was one and it was very large and red, a dull brick red, and its rays were so feeble that one could stare straight into it and at the edges it seemed that one could see straight through the fringe of gases.

There was no Hellhounds fleet, no flashing ships of the defender… no war.

There was peace upon this world… a quiet and deadly peace. The peace, thought Gary, of the never-was, the peace of all-is-over.

It was a flat splotched world with a leprous look about it, not gray, but colored as a child with water paints might color a paint book page when he was tired and all the need of accuracy and art were things to be forgotten.

Something happened, Gary told himself. And he felt the chill of fear in his veins.

Something happened and here we are — in what strange corner of the universe?

"Something went wrong," Caroline said again. "Some inherent weakness in the co-ordinates, some streak of instability in the mathematics themselves, perhaps."

"More likely," Gary told her, "the fault lies in the human brain — or in the brain of the Engineer. No man, no being, can see far enough ahead, think so clearly that be will foresee each eventuality. And even if he did, be might be inclined to let some small factor slip by with no other thought than that it was so small it could do no harm."

Caroline nodded at him. "The mistakes creep in so easy," she admitted. "Like mice… mice running in the mind."

"We can turn around and go back," said Gary, but even as he said it he knew that it was no good. For if the tunnel of distorted time-space through which they had come was jiggered out of position at this end, it would be out of focus at the other end as well.

"But we can't," said Caroline.

"I know we can't," said Gary. "I spoke too quickly. Without thinking."

"We can't even try," said Caroline. "The wheel is gone." He saw that she was right. The wheel of light was no longer in the sky. It had snuffed out and they were here alone.

Here? he asked. And where was here?

There was a simple answer. They simply did not know. At the moment, there was no way of telling.

"Lost," said Caroline. "Like the babes in the woods. The robins came, you remember, and covered them with leaves."

The ship was gliding down toward the planet and Gary swung around to the controls again.

"We'll look it over," he said.

"There may be someone there," said Caroline.

Someone, Gary thought, was not quite the word. Something would be more like it. Some thing.

The planet was flat, a world without mountains, without rivers, without seas. There were great green bogs instead of seas and flat arid plains with splotches of color that might be vegetation or might be no more than the outcropping of different geological strata.

The ship took up its descent spiral and Gary and Caroline hung close above the visor, watching for some sign of habitation, for some hint of life. A road, perhaps. Or a building. Or a vehicle moving on the ground or in the air. But there was nothing.

Finally Gary shook his head. "There's nothing here," he said. "We might as well go down. One place on this planet is as good as any other."

They landed on a flat expanse of sand between the shore of one of the green bogs and the edge of a patch of splotched vegetation, for by now it was apparent that the color spots on the planet's surface were vegetation of a sort.

"Toadstools," said Caroline, looking out the vision plate. "Toadstools and that other kind of funny stuff, like asparagus spears, only it's not asparagus."

"Like something out of a goblin book," said Gary.

Like something that you thought about when you were a kid and couldn't go to sleep after grandmother had read you some story about a shivery place and you had pulled the covers up over your head and listened for the footsteps to start coming through the dark.

They made the tests and the planet was livable without their suits — slightly high in oxygen, a little colder and a slighter gravity than Earth, but livable.

"Let's go out," said Gary, gruffly, "and have a look around."

"Gary, you sound as if you might be scared."

"I am," he admitted. "Pink with purple spots."

The silence smote them as they stepped outside the ship. An awesome and abiding silence that was louder than a shattering sound.

There was no sound of wind, and no sound of water. No song of birds. No grass to rustle.

The great red sun hung in the sky above them and their shadows were soft and fuzzy on the sand, the faint, fugitive shadows of a cloudy day.

On one hand lay the stagnant pools of water and the hummocks of slimy vegetation that formed the bog and on the other stretched the forest of giant mushrooms, towering to the height of an average man.

"You'd expect to see a goblin," Caroline said, and she shivered as she said it.

All at once the goblin was there.

He stood underneath one of the toadstools and he was looking at them. When he saw that they had seen him, he lowered one eyelid in a ponderous and exaggerated wink and his slobbering mouth twisted into a grimace that might have been a smile. Its skin was mottled and its eyes were narrow, slitted eyes and even as they watched, an exudation of slimy substance welled out of one of the gland-like openings which pitted its face and ran down its cheek and dripped onto its chest.

"Good Lord!" said Gary. "I know that fellow!"

The goblin leaped into the air and cracked its heels together and gobbled like an excited turkey.

"He's the one that was there the day the Engineers held the conference," said Gary. "You remember, when they got all the aliens together — all those that had come through space to the city of the Engineers. It was him — or one just like him. He sat opposite me and he winked at me, just like he did now, and I thought that…

"There's another one," said Caroline.

The second one was perched on top of one of the mushrooms, with his splayed feet swinging over the edge.

Then there was a third one peeping from behind a stem and still another one, sitting on the ground and leaning against a stem. All of them were watching and all of them were grinning, but the grins were enough to strike terror and revulsion into one's soul.

Caroline and Gary retreated backward to the ship, step by slow step until they stood with their backs against it.

Now there was sound, the soft padding of feet coming through the toadstool forest, the clucking noises that the goblins made.

"Let's go away," said Caroline. "Let's get in the ship and go."

"Wait," counseled Gary. "Let us wait a while. We can always go. These things are intelligent. They have to be, since they were among the ones the Engineers called in."

He stepped out from the ship two slow paces and called.

"Hello," he called.

They stopped their clucking and their running and stood and looked at him out of slitted eyes.

"We are friends," said Gary. They didn't move a muscle.

Gary held up his empty hands, palms outward in the human gesture of peace.

"We are friends," he said.

The silence was on the world again — the dreadful, empty silence. The goblins were gone.

Slowly Gary came back to the ship.

"It doesn't work," he said. "I had no reason to believe it would."

"All things," said Caroline, "would not necessarily communicate by sound. That's just one way of making yourself understood. There would be many other ways. These things make sounds, but that doesn't mean they would have to talk with sound. They may have no auditory apparatus. They may not even know that they make sounds, might not know what sound is."

"They're back again," said Gary. "You try this time. Try thinking at them. Pick out one of them and concentrate on him."

A minute passed, a minute of utter silence.

"It's funny," said Caroline. "I couldn't reach them at all. There wasn't even a flicker of response. But I had the feeling that they knew and that they rejected what I tried to tell them. They closed their minds and would not listen."

"They don't talk," said Gary. "And they either can't or won't telepath. What's next?"

"Sign language," Caroline said. "Pictures after that. Pantomime."

But it did no good. The goblins watched with interest when Gary tried sign language. They crept close to watch as he drew diagrams in the sandy soil. And they squealed and chortled when he tried pantomime. But that they understood any of it they gave not a single sign.

Gary came back to the ship.

"They're intelligent," he said. "They have to be, otherwise how would they ever have been brought to the rim of the universe by the Engineers. Something like that takes understanding, a mechanical aptitude, a penchant for higher mathematics."

He gestured in disgust. "And yet," he said, "they do not understand even the most elementary symbolism."

"These ones may not be trained," said Caroline. "There may be others here who are. There may be an elite, an intelligentsia. These may be the peasants and the serfs."

Gary said wearily: "Let's get out of here. Make a circuit or two of the planet. Watch closely for some sign of development, some evidence of culture."

Caroline nodded. "We could have missed it before."

They went into the ship and closed the port behind them. Through the vision plates they saw the goblins, a large crowd of them by now, lined up at the edge of the mushroom forest, staring at the ship.

Gary lowered himself into the pilot's chair, reached out for the warming knob and twisted it over. Nothing happened. He twisted it back and turned it on again. Silence swam within the ship — no sound of warming jets.

Lord, thought Gary, what a place to get stuck.

Outside the ship, equipped with a kit of tools, he crawled into the take-off tubes, took off the plates that housed the warming assembly and pried into their innards.

An hour later he had finished. He crawled out, grimed and smudged with carbon.

"Nothing wrong," he told Caroline. "No reason why they shouldn't work."

He tried again and they didn't work.

He checked the feed line and the wiring. He ripped off the control panel and went over it, wire by wire, relay by relay, tube by tube. There was nothing wrong. But still it wouldn't work.

"The goblins," Caroline guessed.

He agreed. "It must be the goblins. There is nothing else to think."

But how, he asked himself, could such simple-minded things turn an almost foolproof, letter-perfect spaceship into a heap of junk?

CHAPTER Fourteen

The next morning the Hellhounds came, a small ship quartering down out of the dawn light of the great red sun. It came down on a long smooth slant and landed not more than half a mile away, plowing a swath through the mushroom forest as it grounded. There was no mistaking its identity, for its lines were distinctive and the insignia upon its bow was the insignia that both Caroline and Gary had seen many times on the ships that screamed down to lay bombs upon the mighty city of the Engineers.

"And us," said Gary, "with nothing but hand guns in the locker and a ship that we can't lift."

He saw the stricken look on Caroline's face and tried to make amends. "Maybe they won't know who we are," he said. "Maybe they…"

"Don't let's fool ourselves," Caroline told him. "They know who we are, all right. More than likely we're the reason that they're here. Maybe they…"

She hesitated and Gary asked, "Maybe they what?"

"I was thinking," she said, "that they might have twisted the tunnel. The mathematics might have been all right. Somebody might have brought us here. It might have been the Hellhounds who trapped us here, knowing what we had, knowing the knowledge that we carried. They might have brought us here and now they've come to finish up the job."

"They were not the ones who brought you here," said a voice out of nowhere. "You were brought here but they were not the ones who brought you. They were brought themselves."

Gary whirled around. "Who said that?" he shouted.

"You cannot find me," said the voice, still talking out of nowhere. "Don't waste your time in trying to find me. I brought you here and I brought the others here and only the one of you may leave… the humans or the Hellhounds."

"I don't understand," said Gary. "You are mad…"

"You are enemies, you and the Hellhounds," said the voice. "You are equal in number and in strength of arms. There are two of you and there are two of them. You have small weapons only and so have they. It will be a fair encounter."

Fantastic, thought Gary. A situation jerked raw from a latter-day Alice in Wonderland. A nightmare twisted out of the strange and grotesque alienness of this splotched planet. A planet filed with goblins and with nightmares — a fairyland turned sour.

"You want us to fight?" he asked. "Fight the Hellhounds? A sort of — well, you might call it a duel?"

"That is exactly it," the voice told him.

"But what good will it do?"

"You are enemies, aren't you, human?"

"Why, yes, we are," said Gary, "but anything that we do here won't affect the war one way or the other."

"You will fight," said the voice. "You are two and they are two and…"

"But one of us is a woman," protested Gary. "Female humans do not engage in duels."

The voice did not answer, but Gary sensed frustration in a mind — perhaps a presence rather than a mind — that was near to them.

He pressed his advantage. "You say that our arms are equal, that they have small arms only and so have we. But you can't be sure that the arms are equal. Their arms, even if they are no bigger than ours, may be more powerful. Size is not a measure for power. Or their arms may be equal, but the Hellhounds may be better versed in their use."

"They are small weapons," said the voice. "They are…"

"You want this to be a fair fight, don't you?"

"Why, yes," said the voice. "Yes, of course, I do. That is the purpose of it, that everything be even, so that in all fairness the two species may test their true and proper fitness for survival."

"But, you see," said Gary, "you can't be sure it's even. You never can be sure."

"Yes, I can," the voice told him and there was an insane ring of triumph in it. "I can make sure that it will be even. You will fight without weapons. None of you will have weapons. Just bare hands and teeth or whatever else you may have."

"Without…"

"That's it. Neither of you will have weapons."

"But they have guns," said Gary.

"Their guns won't work," the voice said. "And yours won't either. Your ship won't work and your guns won't work and you will have to fight."

Terrible laughter came from the voice, a gleeful laughter that verged on hysteria. Then the laughter ceased and they knew that they were alone, that the mind — or the presence — with the voice had withdrawn from them, that it had gone elsewhere. But that it still was watching.

"Gary," Caroline said softly.

"Yes," said Gary.

"That voice was insane," she said. "You caught it, didn't you. The overtones in it."

He nodded. "Delusion of grandeur. Playing at God. And the worst of it is, he can make it stick. We've stumbled into his yard. There isn't a thing we can do about it."

Across the mushroom forest, the entrance port of the Hellhound ship was swinging open. From it came two beings, tall and waddling things that glimmered in the feeble light of the great red sun.

"Reptilian," said Caroline and there was more disgust than horror in her voice.

The Hellhounds stepped down from the ship and stood uncertainly, their snouted faces turning toward the Earth ship, then swinging from side to side to take in the country.

"Caroline," said Gary, "I'll stay here and watch. You go in and get the guns. They are in the locker."

"They won't work," said Caroline.

"I want to be sure," Gary told her.

He heard her turn from his side and go, climbing up the ladder into the entrance lock.

The Hellhounds still stayed near their ship. They're confused, too, Gary told himself. They don't understand it any more than we do. They're nervous, trying to figure out just what to do.

But they wouldn't stay that way long, he knew.

Shadows flitted in the mushroom forest. Some of the natives, perhaps, sneaking around, keeping under cover, waiting to see what happened.

Caroline spoke from the lock. "The guns aren't any good. They won't work. Just like the voice said."

He nodded, still watching the Hellhounds. She came down the steps and stood beside him.

"We haven't got a chance against them," she said. "They are brutes, strong. They are trained for war. Killing is their business."

The Hellhounds were walking out from their ship, heading cautiously and slowly toward the Earth ship.

"Not too sure of themselves yet," said Gary. "Probably we don't look too formidable to them, but they aren't taking any chances… not yet. In a little while they'll figure that we're comparatively harmless and they'll make their play."

The Hellhounds were dog-trotting now, their scaly bodies glistening redly in the sun, their blunt feet lifting little puffs of dust as they ran along.

"What are we going to do, Gary?" Caroline asked.

"Fort up," said Gary. "Fort up and do some thinking. We can't lick these things, hand to hand and rough and tumble. It would be like trying to wrestle a combined alligator and grizzly bear."

"Fort up? You mean the ship."

Gary nodded. "We got to buy us some time. We have to get a thing or two figured out. As it is, we're caught flatfooted."

"What if they find a way of getting at us, even in the ship."

Gary shrugged. "That's a chance we take."

The Hellhounds separated, spreading out to left and right, angling out to come at the ship from two directions.

"You better get into the lock," said Gary. "Grab hold of the closing lever and be ready. When I come, I may have to move fast. There's no telling what these gents are fixing to uncork."

But even as he spoke, the two reptiles charged, angling in at a burst of speed that almost made them blur, a whirlwind of dust spiraling up behind them.

"In we go!" yelled Gary.

He heard Caroline's feet beating a tattoo on the steps.

For a split second he stood there, still facing the charging Hellhounds, then whirled and leaped up the steps, catapulting himself into the lock. He saw Caroline swinging the lever down. The ladder ran up into its seat and the lock slammed home. Through its closing edge he caught sight of the beasts as they swung about in a skidding turn, cheated of their kill.

Gary wiped his forehead. "Close thing," he said. "We almost waited too long. I had no idea they could move that fast."

Caroline nodded. "They figured that we wouldn't. They saw a chance to catch us at the very start. Remember how they waddled. That was to make us think that they couldn't move too fast."

The voice said to them: "This is no way to fight."

"It's common sense," said Gary. "Common sense and good strategy."

"What is strategy?"

"Fooling the enemy," said Gary. "Working things so that you get an advantage over him."

"He'll be waiting for you when you come out. And you'll have to come out after a while."

"We rest and take it easy," said Gary, "while he tears up the ground outside and wears himself to a frazzle. And we do some thinking."

"It's a lousy way to fight," the voice insisted.

"Look," said Gary. "Who's doing the fighting here?

You or us."

"You, of course," the voice agreed, "but it's still no way to fight."

They sensed the mind withdraw, grumbling to itself.

Gary grinned at Caroline. "Not gory enough to suit him," he said.

Caroline had sat down in a chair and was staring at him, elbow on her knee, chin cupped in her hands.

"We haven't much to work with," she declared. "No electricity. No power. No nothing. This ship is deader than a doornail. It's lucky the lock worked manually or we'd been goners before we even started."

Gary nodded in agreement. "That voice bothers me the most," he said. "It has power, a strange sort of power. It can stop a spaceship dead in its tracks. It can fix guns so that they won't work. It can blanket out electricity; Lord knows what else it can do."

"It can reach into the unknown of space and time," said Caroline. "Into a place no one else could even find and it did that to bring us here."

"It's irresponsible," said Gary. "Back on Earth we'd call it insanity but what you and I would term insanity may be normal here."

"There's no yardstick," said Caroline. "No yardstick to measure sanity. No way in which one can establish a norm for correct behavior or a correct mentality. Maybe the voice is sane. Maybe he has a purpose and a method of arriving at that purpose we do not understand and for that we call him crazy. Every race must be different, must think differently… arrive at the same conclusion and the same result, perhaps, but arrive at them differently. You remember all those beings that came to confer with the Engineers. All of them were capable, perhaps more capable than we. Independently they might have been able to arrive at the same solution as we and perhaps much more easily and more effectively… and yet the Engineers sent them home again, because the Engineers could not work with them. Not because they were not capable, but because they thought so differently, because their mental processes ran at such divergent tangents that there was no basis for co-operation."

"And yet we thought like the Engineers," said Gary.

"Enough like them, at any rate, that we could work together. I wonder why that is."

Caroline wrinkled her forehead. "Gary, you are certain these goblin things out there are the same race that came to the city of the Engineers?"

"I would swear it," Gary told her. "I got a good look at the one that was there. It sort of… well, burned itself into my mind. I'll never quite forget it."

"And the voice," said Caroline. "I wonder if the voice has anything to do with the goblins."

"The goblins," said the voice, "are my pets. Like the dogs and cats you keep. A living thing to keep me from loneliness."

It did not surprise them to hear the voice again and each of them knew then that they had been waiting for it to speak up again.

"But," protested Caroline, "one of the goblins came to the city of the Engineers."

The voice chuckled at them. "Of course, human thing, of course. As my representative, of course. For I must have representatives, don't you see. In a material world, I must be fronted for by something that can be seen, that can be perceived. I could not very well go to a meeting of that great importance as a disembodied voice, as a thought stalking the corridors of that empty city. So I sent a goblin and I went along with him."

"What are you, voice?" Caroline asked. "Tell us what you are."

"I still don't think," said the voice, "that what you are doing is a good way to fight a duel. I think you're making a great mistake."

"What makes you think so, Butch?" asked Gary.

"Because," the voice said, "the Hellhounds are building a fire under your ship. It will be just a matter of time until they smoke you out."

Gary and Caroline glanced swiftly at one another, the same thought in their mind.

"No power," said Caroline, weakly.

"The heat absorption units," Gary cried.

"No power," said Caroline. "The absorption cells won't work."

Gary glanced toward the forward vision ports. Thin streamers of smoke were curling up outside the glass.

"The mushrooms burn well," the voice told them, "when they get old and dry. There are lots of old and dry mushrooms around. They'll have no trouble in keeping up the fire."

"Like smoking out a rabbit," said Gary, bitterly.

"You asked for it," the voice declared.

"Get out of here!" yelled Gary. "Get out of here and leave us alone, can't you."

They sensed it leave, mumbling to itself.

Like a bad dream, Gary thought. Like a Wonderland adventure, with he and Caroline the poor bewildered Alice stumbling through a world of vast incredibility.

Listening, they could hear the crackling of the fire. Now the smoke was a dense cloud through the forward ports.

How do you fight when you have no weapon? How do you get out of a spaceship-turned-into-an-oven? How do you think up a smart dodge when your time is numbered in hours, if not, indeed, in minutes?

What are weapons?

How did they start?

What is the basic of a weapon?

"Caroline," Gary asked, "what would you say a weapon was?"

"Why," she told him, "that seems simple to me. An extension of your fist. An extension of your power to hurt, of your ability to kill. Men fought first with tooth and nail and fist and then with stones and clubs. The stones and clubs were extensions of man's fist, an extension of his muscles and his hate or need."

Stones and clubs, he thought. And then a spear. And, after that, a bow,

A bow!

He swung on his heel, walked rapidly back along the ship, jerked open the door to the supply cabinet. Rummaging inside it, he found the things he wanted.

He brought them out, a fistful of wooden flagpoles, each with small flags fastened to one end, the other end steel-tipped for easy sticking in the ground.

"Explorer flags," he explained to Caroline. "You go out on an alien planet and you want to be sure that you can find your way back to the ship. You plant these things at intervals and then follow them back to the ship, picking them up as you go along. No chance of getting lost."

"But…" said Caroline.

"Evans figured he was going to use this ship to go to Alpha Centauri, He took some of these things along, just in case."

He placed the steel-shod tip of one of the poles on the floor, threw his weight against the top end. It flexed. Gary grunted in satisfaction.

"A bow?" asked Caroline.

He nodded. "Not too good a one. Not too accurate. Maybe not too strong. When I was a kid I used to go out into the woods and whack me off a sapling. No curve, no nothing. Bigger at one end than the other. But it worked as a bow, after a fashion. Used reeds for arrows. Killed one of my mother's chickens with one once. She whaled me good and proper."

"It's getting warm in here," Caroline told him. "We can't waste any time."

He grinned at her, exuberant now that there was something to do.

"Hunt up some cord," he told her. "Any kind of cord. If it's not strong enough, we'll twist several strands together."

Whistling under his breath, he got to work, tearing the flag off the end of one of the more supple poles, notching either end to hold the cord.

From another stick he split long wands off the straight-grained wood, fashioning them into arrows. There'd be no time for feathering… in fact, there were no feathers in the ship, but that was a refinement that would not be needed. He would be using the bow at close range.

But he did have arrowheads. With snippers, he clipped off the sharp tips with which the poles had been shod, drove them into the head of each arrow. Testing them with a finger, he was satisfied. They were sharp enough… if he could get some power behind them.

"Gary," said Caroline, and her voice was almost a whimper.

He swung around.

"There's no cord, Gary. I've looked everywhere."

No cord!

"Everywhere?" he asked.

She nodded. "There isn't any. I looked everywhere."

Clothing, he thought, desperately. Strips torn from their clothing. But that would be worse than useless. It would unravel, come apart between his fingers when he needed it the most. Leather? Leather was too stiff to start with, and it would stretch. Wire? Too stiff and no zip to it.

He let the bow-stick fall from his hands, reached up to wipe his face.

"It's getting hot in here," he said.

He twisted around and stared at the forward visors. The smoke was a cloud and there was a ruddy reflection in it, the reflection of the fire that blazed around the ship.

How much longer, he wondered. How much longer before they'd have to open the port and make a dash for it, knowing even as they did that it was a hopeless thing to do, for the Hellhounds would be waiting just outside the port.

The shell of the spaceship crawled with a dull, dead heat, the kind of heat that comes up off a dusty road on a still, hot day in August.

And soon, he knew, it would be a live heat, not a dead heat any longer, but a blasting furnace heat that would pour from every angle of the steel around them, that would shrivel the leather of their shoes and scorch the clothing that they wore. But long before the leather of their shoes shriveled and curled, they would have to make their break, a hopeless dash for freedom that could end in nothing but death at the hands of the things that waited by the port.

Like an oven, like two rabbits roasting in an oven.

We must turn, thought Gary. We must keep turning about so that we will roast evenly on all sides.

"Gary!" cried Caroline.

He swung around.

"Hair?" she asked. "I just thought of it. Would hair make you a bowstring?"

He gasped at the thought. "Hair," he shouted. "Human hair! Why, of course… it's the best material there is."

Caroline's hands were busy with her braids. "It's long," she said. "I was proud of it and I let it grow."

"It'll have to be braided," said Gary. "Twisted into a cord."

"Your knife," she said, and he handed it over.

The knife flashed close to her head and one of the braided strands dangled in her hand.

"We'll have to work fast," said Gary. "We haven't got much time."

The air was dry and hard to breath. It burned one's lungs and dried out the tissues of the mouth. When he bent over and placed a hand against the steel plates of the ship's deck, the steel was warm, like the pavement on a summer's day.

"You'll have to help," said Gary. "We have to be fast and sure. We can't afford to bungle. We won't have a second chance."

"Tell me what to do," she said.

Fifteen minutes later, he nodded at her.

"Open the port," he said, "and when you do stand back against the wall. I'll need all the arm room I can get."

He waited, bow in hand, arrow nocked against the cord.

Not much of a bow, he thought. Nothing you would want to try against a willow at three hundred paces. But these things outside aren't willow wands. It will last for a shot or two… I hope it lasts for a shot or two.

The port clanged open as Caroline shoved the lever over. Smoke billowed in the opening and in the smoke he saw the bulk of the ones who waited.

He brought the bow up and the wood bent with the sudden surge of hate and triumph that coursed in his being… the hate and fear of fire, the hate of things that wait to do a man to death, the fury of a human being backed into a corner by a thing that is not human.

The arrow made a whispering sound and was a silver streak that spurted through the smoke. The bow bent again and there was another whisper, the whisper of cord and wood and the creak of human muscles.

On the ground outside, two dark shapes were threshing in the smoke.

It was just like shooting rabbits.

CHAPTER Fifteen

"VERY ingenious," said the voice. "You won fair and square. You did much better than I thought you would."

"And now," said Caroline, "you will send us back again. Back to the city of the Engineers."

"Why, certainly," said the voice. "Why, of course, I will. But first, I have to clean up the place. The bodies, first of all. Cadavers are such unsightly things."

Fire puffed briefly and the bodies of the two Hellhounds were gone. A tiny puff of yellow smoke hung over where they had been and a tiny flurry of ashes eddied in the air.

"I asked you once before," said Caroline, "and you didn't tell me. What are you? We looked for signs of culture and…"

"You are befuddled, young human," the voice told her. "You seek for childish things. You looked for cities and there are no cities. You looked for roads and ships and farms and there are none of these. You expected to find a civilization and there is no civilization such as you would recognize."

"You are right," said Gary. "There are none of those."

"I have no city," said the voice, "because I need no city. Although I could build a city at a second's notice. The mushroom forests are the only farms I need to feed my little pets. I need no roads and ships because I can go anywhere I wish without the aid of them."

"You mean you can go in your mind," said Caroline.

"In my mind," the voice said. "I go wherever I may wish, in either time or space, and I am there. I do not merely imagine that I am there; I am really there. Long ago my race forsook machines, knowing that in its mental ability, within the depth of its collective mind it had more potentiality than it could ever get from a clattering piece of mechanism. So the race built minds instead of machines. Minds, I say. But mind, one mind, a single mind, is the better explanation. I am that mind today. A single racial mind.

"I used that mind to pluck you from the space-time tunnel at the very moment you were about to emerge above the city of the Engineers. I used that mind to bring the Hellhounds here. That mind grounded your ship and blanketed your guns and that mind could kill you in a moment if I thought the thought."

"But you," said Caroline. "The personal pronoun that you use. The «I» you speak of. What is that?"

"I am the mind," the voice told them, "and the mind is me. I am the race. I have been the race for many million years."

"And you play God," said Caroline. "You bring lesser things together, into the arena of this world, and you make them fight while you sit and chuckle…"

"Why, of course," the voice said. "Because, you see, I'm crazy. I'm really, at times, quite violently insane."

"Insane!"

"Why, certainly," the voice told them. "It's what would be bound to happen. You can't perfect a mind, a vast communal mind, a mighty racial mind to the point that my mind is perfected and expect it to keep a perfect balance as a good watch would keep perfect time. But the mind's behavior varies. Sometimes," the voice said, quite confidentially, "I'm battier than a bedbug."

"And how are you now?" asked Gary.

"Why, now," the voice said, "as funny as it seems, I'm quite rational. I'm very much myself."

"Then how about fixing it up so that we can get back?"

"Right away," said the voice, very businesslike. "I'll just clean up a thing or two. Don't like the residue of my irrationality cluttering up the planet. That Hellhound ship over there…."

But instead of the Hellhound ship, it was the Earth ship that went skyward in a terrific gout of flame that sent a wash of heat across the barren land.

"Hey, there…" yelled Gary and then stood stock still as the enormity of what had happened crackled in his mind.

"Tsk, tsk," said the voice. "How very stupid of me. How could I have done a thing like that! Now I'll never be able to send you home again."

His cackling laughter filled the sky and beat like a mighty drum.

"The Hellhound ship!" yelled Gary. "Run… run…"

But even as they whirled to race toward it, it was gone in a blaze of fire, followed by a trail of smoke that hung briefly above the scorched piece of the ground where the ship had lain.

"You couldn't have operated it, anyhow," said the voice. "It wouldn't have done you a single bit of good."

He laughed again and the laughter trailed off into distance, like a retreating thunderstorm.

Gary and Caroline stood side by side and looked at the emptiness of the bog and mushroom forest. A goblin ducked out of a clump of mushrooms and hooted at them, then dashed back in again.

"What do we do?" asked Caroline and it was a question that went echoing down the long corridor of improbability, a question for which there was, at the moment, no satisfactory answer.

Swiftly, Gary made an inventory:

The clothes they stood in.

A few matches in his pocket.

A bow and some arrows, but the bow didn't count for much.

And that was all. There was nothing else.

"More pets," said Caroline, bitterly.

"What's that?" asked Gary, not sure he heard her right.

"Let it go," she said. "Forget I ever said it."

"There's nothing to get hold of," Gary said. "Nothing you can touch. The voice… the voice is nothing."

"It's a horrible thing," said Caroline. "Don't you see, Gary, what a horrible thing it is. The tag end of some great race. Think of it. Millions of years, millions of years to build up a mighty mental civilization. Not a mechanical civilization, not a materialistic culture, but a mental civilization. A striving toward understanding rather than toward doing.

"And now it's a senile thing, an insane thing that has gone back to its second childhood, but its power is too great for a child to wield and it is dangerous… dangerous…"

Gary nodded. "It could masquerade as anything it pleased. It sent one of the goblins to the city of the Engineers and the Engineers thought the goblin was the mentality that they had contacted. But it wasn't. It was a simple, foolish puppet, but the voice moved it as it wished, talked through its flimsy mind."

"The Engineers must have sensed the inherent insanity of that mind," said Caroline. "They may not have been sure, but they must, at least, have sensed it, for they sent it away with all the rest of them. The voice could have worked with us. You notice how it talks the way a human talks… that's because it picked our minds, because it found the thoughts and words we used, because it was able to know everything we know."

"It could see everything in the universe," said Gary. "It could know everything that there was to know."

"Perhaps it did," Caroline told him. "Perhaps the weight of the knowledge was too great. When you overload an engine, the engine will burn out. What would happen if you should overload a mind, even a great communal mind such as we have here?"

"Insanity, maybe," said Gary. "Lord, I don't know. It's like nothing I ever ran across before."

Caroline moved close to Gary.

"We're alone, Gary," she said. "The human race stands all alone. No other race has the balance that we have. Other races may be as great, but they do not have the balance. Look at the Engineers. Materialistic, mechanical to a point where they cannot think except along mechanistic lines. And the voice. It goes on the opposite tangent. No mechanics at all, just mentality. An overwhelming and an awful mentality. And the Hellhounds. Savage killers. Bending every knowledge to the business of killing. Egomaniacs who would destroy the universe to achieve their own supremacy."

They stood silent, side by side. The great red sun was nearing the western horizon. The goblins scuttered through the mushrooms, chirping and hooting. A disgusting thing, a couple of feet long, crawled out of the slimy waters of the bog, reared itself and stared at them, then lumbered around and slid into the water once again.

"I'll start a fire," said Gary. "Night will be coming soon. We'll have to keep the fire going once we get it started.

I only have a few matches."

"Maybe we can eat the mushrooms," said Caroline. "Some of them may be poisonous," Gary told her. "We'll have to watch the goblins, eat what they eat. No absolute guarantee, of course, that what they eat wouldn't poison us, but it's the only way we have of knowing. We'll eat just a little at a time, only one of us eating…"

"The goblins! Do you think they will bother us?"

"Not likely," Gary told her, but he wasn't as confident as he made it sound.

They gathered a stack of the dried stems of the mushrooms and corded them against the night. Gary, carefully shielding the flame with a protecting hand, struck a match and started a small fire.

The sun had set and the stars were coming out in the hazy darkness of the sky… but stars they did not know.

They crouched by the fire, more for the companionship of its flames than for the heat it gave, and watched the stars grow brighter, listening to the chattering of the busy goblins in the mushrooms behind them.

"We'll need water," said Caroline.

Gary nodded. "We'll try filtering it. Lots of sand. Sand is a good filter."

"You know," said Caroline, "I can't feel that this has happened to us. I keep thinking, pretty soon we'll wake up and it will be all right. It hasn't really happened. It…"

"Gary…" she gasped.

He jerked upright at the alarm in her tone.

Her hands were at her head, feeling of the braids of hair.

"It's there again!" she whispered. "The braid I cut off to make a bowstring. I cut it off and it was gone and it is there again!"

"Well, I'll be…" But he did not finish the sentence. For there, not more than a hundred feet away, was the ship… Tommy Evans" ship, the ship that the voice had destroyed in a single flash of fire. It sat on the sand sedately, with light pouring from its ports, with the shine of starlight on its plates.

"Caroline!" he shouted. "The ship! The ship!"

"Hurry," said the voice to them. "Hurry, before I change my mind. Hurry, before I go insane again."

Gary reached down a hand and pulled Caroline to her feet.

"Come on," he shouted.

"Think of me as kindly as you can," said the voice. "Think of me as an old man, an old, old man, who is not quite the man he was… not quite the man he was."

They ran, stumbling in the darkness, toward the ship. "Hurry, hurry," the voice shouted at them. "I cannot trust myself."

"Look!" cried Caroline. "Look, in the sky!"

The wheel of light was there, the slow, lazy wheel of light they first had seen on Pluto… the entrance to the space-time tunnel.

"I gave you back the ship," said the voice. "I gave you back the strand of hair. Think kindly of me please… think kindly…"

They clambered up the ladder to the open port and slammed the lock behind them.

At the controls, Gary reached out for the warming knob, found that it was already turned on. The tubes, the indicator said, were warm.

He gunned the ship into the sky, centering the cross hairs on the wheel that shimmered above them.

They hit it head-on and the black closed in around them and then there was light again and the city of the Engineers was below them… a blasted city, its proud towers gone, great heaps of rubble in its streets, a cloud of stone-dust, ground in the mills of atomic bombing, hanging over it.

Gary glanced over his shoulder, triumphant at their return, and saw the tears that welled in Caroline's eyes and trickled down her cheeks.

"The poor thing," she said. "That poor old man back there."

CHAPTER Sixteen

THE city of the Engineers lay in ruins, but above it, fighting desperately, battling valiantly to hold off the hordes of Hellhounds, the tiny remnant of the Engineer battle fleet still stood between it and complete destruction.

The proud towers were blasted into dust and the roadways and parks were sifted with the white cloud of destruction, the powdered masonry smashed and pulverized to drifting fragments by the disintegrator rays and the atomic bombs. Twisted bits of wreckage littered the chaotic wastes of shattered stone — wreckage of Engineer and Hellhound ships that had met in the shock of battle and plunged in flaming ruin.

Gary glanced skyward anxiously. "I hope they can hold them off," he said, "long enough for the energy to build up."

Caroline straightened from the bank of instruments mounted upon the roof outside the laboratory.

"It's building up fast," she said. "I'm almost afraid. It might get out of control, you know. But we have to have enough energy to start with. If the first stroke doesn't utterly destroy the Hellhounds, we won't have a second chance."

Gary's mind ran over the hectic days of work, the mad scramble against time. He remembered once again how Kingsley and Tommy had gone out to the edge of the universe to create a huge bubble of space-time, warping the rim of space into a hump, curving the time-space continuum into a hypersphere that finally closed and divorced itself from the parent body, pinching off like a yeast bud to become an independent universe in the inter-space.

It had taken power to do that, a surging channel of energy that poured out of the magnetic power transmitter, crossing space in a tight beam to be at hand for the making of a new universe. But it had taken even more power to «skin» a hypersphere, to turn it through a theoretical fifth dimension until it was of the stuff that the inter-space was made of — a place where time did not exist, a place whose laws were not the laws of the universe, a mystery region that was astonishingly easy to maneuver through space once it was created. It wasn't a sphere or a hypersphere — it was a strange dimension that apparently did not lend itself to measurement, or to definition, or to identification by any of the normal senses of perception.

But whatever it was, it hung there above the city, although there was no clue to its existence. It couldn't be seen or sensed — just something that had been created from equations supplied by the last man living out his final days on a dying planet, equations that Caroline had scribbled on the back of a crumpled envelope. An envelope, Gary remembered, that had carried an irate letter from a creditor back on Earth who felt that be should have long since been paid. "Too long overdue," the letter had said. Gary grinned, Back on Earth the creditor undoubtedly still was sending him letters pointing out that the account was becoming longer overdue with the passing of each month.

Outside the universe that tiny, created hypersphere was bumping along, creating frictional stress, creating a condition for the creation of the mysterious energy of eternity — an energy that even now was pouring into the universe and being absorbed by the fifth-dimensional frame that poised above the city.

A new, raw energy from a region that had no time, an energy that was at once timeless and formless, but an energy that was capable of being crystallized into any form.

Kingsley was standing beside Gary, his great head bent, staring upward. "An energy field," he said, "and what energy! Like a battery, storing up that energy from interspace. I hope it does what Caroline thinks it will."

"Don't worry," said Gary. "You saw the mathematics that she brought back."

"Sure, I saw the mathematics," Kingsley said, "but I couldn't understand them."

He shook his head inside the helmet.

"What's the universe coming to?" he asked.

Caroline spoke quietly to the Engineer.

"There's plenty of energy now," she said. "You may call them down."

The Engineer, headphones clamped upon his skull, apparently was giving orders to the Engineer fleet, but the Earthlings couldn't catch his thoughts.

"Watch now," chirped Herb. "This is going to be a sight worth seeing."

High above the city a ship dropped, flashing downward, like a silver bullet. Another dropped and still another, until the entire Engineer fleet, blackened and ripped and decimated, was in full retreat, flashing back toward the ruined city. And in their wake came the triumphant Hellhounds, a victorious pack in full cry, determined to wipe out the last trace of a hated civilization.

The Engineer had snatched the headphones off, was racing to the set of controls. Gary, glancing from the battle scene above, saw his metal fingers reach out and manipulate controls, saw Caroline pick up an ordinary flashlight.

He knew that the Engineer was shifting the fifth-dimensional mass into a position between them and the screaming fleet of death above them, shifting that field of terrible energy into the Hellhounds" path.

The last of the Engineer fleet had reached the city, was shrieking down between the shattered towers, as if fleeing for its very life.

And only a few miles above them, in what amounted to a mass formation, the Hellhound fleet was plunging down, guns silent now, protective screens still up, grim and ghastly ships running their quarry to the ground.

Gary's body tensed as he saw Caroline's arm swing up, clutching the tiny flashlight, pointing it at the on-driving fleet.

He saw the flash of light burn upward, pale in the light of the sinking suns — a tiny, feeble, ineffective beam of light stabbing at the oncoming ships. Like taking a swipe at a grizzly bear with a pancake turner.

And then the heavens seemed to blaze with light and a streamer of blue-white intensity whipped out toward the ships. Protective screens flared briefly and then exploded into a million flashing sparks. For the space of one split second, before he could get his hand up to shield his eyes against the inferno in the sky, Gary saw the gaunt black skeletons of the Hellhound ships, writhing and disappearing in the surging blast of energy that tore at them and twisted them and finally, in the snapping of one's finger, utterly destroyed them.

The sky was empty, as empty as if there had never been a Hellhound ship. There was no sign of the fifth-dimensional mass, no hint of ship or gun — just the blue of the sky, ashing into violet as the three suns swung below the far-off horizon.

"Well," said Herb, and Gary could hear his voice sobbing with excitement, "that's the end of the Hellhounds."

Yes, that was the end of the Hellhounds, thought Gary. There was nothing in the universe that could stand before such a blast of energy. When the light, the tiny, feeble beam from the ridiculous little flash had struck the energy field, the energy, that timeless, formless stuff, had suddenly crystallized, had taken on the form of the energy that it had encountered. And in a burst of light it had struck at the Hellhounds, struck with terrible effectiveness — with entire lack of mercy, had wiped them out in the winking of one's eye.

He tried to imagine that blast of light moving out into the universe. It would travel for years, would flash its merciless way for many thousands of light-years. In time its energy would wane, would slowly dissipate, would lose some of its power in the vast spaces of intergalactic space. And perhaps the day would come when all its energy would be gone. But meanwhile nothing could stand in its way, nothing could resist it. In years to come great suns might explode into invisible gas as the frightful beam of power reached them and annihilated them and then passed on. And some astronomer, catching the phenomena in his lens, would speculate upon just what had happened.

He turned slowly around and faced Caroline. "How does it feel," he asked, "to win a war?"

The face she turned to him was strained and worn. "Don't say that to me," she said. "I had to do it. They were a terrible race, but they were alive — and there is so little life in this universe."

"You need some sleep," he said.

He saw the tragic lines of her mouth.

"There is no sleep," she said. "No rest at all. We have just started. We have to save the universe. We have to create more and more of the fifth-dimensional frameworks, many of them and larger. To absorb the energy when the universes meet."

Gary started. He had forgotten the approaching universe. So absorbed had they become in ending the Hellhound attack that the edge of the real and greater danger had been dulled.

But now, brought back to it, he realized the job they faced.

He spun on the Engineer. "How much longer?" he asked. "How much longer have we?"

"Very little time," said the Engineer. "Very little. I fear that energy may flood in upon us at any time."

"That energy," said Kingsley, a fanatical flame in his eyes. "Think of what could be done with it. We could set up a huge framework of fifth-dimensional space, use it as an absorber, a battery. We could send energy almost anywhere throughout the universe. A central universal power plant."


"First," declared Tommy, "you'd have to control it, be able to direct it in a tight beam."


"First," insisted Caroline, "we have to do something about this other universe."


"Wait a second," said Gary. "We've forgotten something. We asked those people in the other universe to come over and help us, but we don't need them now."


He looked at the Engineer. "Have you heard from them?" he asked.


"Yes," said the Engineer. "I have heard from them. They still want to come."


"They still want to come?" Astonishment rang in Gary's voice. "Why should they want to come?"


"They want to emigrate to our universe," said the Engineer. "And I have agreed to allow them to do so."


"You have agreed?" rumbled Kingsley. "And since when has this universe been in the market for immigrants? We don't know what kind of people they are. They might be dangerous. They may want to destroy the present life within the universe."


"There is plenty of room for them," said the Engineer, and if possible, his voice seemed colder and more impersonal than ever. "There is room to spare. We have over fifty billion galaxies — and more than fifty billion stars in each galaxy. Only one out of every ten thousand of the stars has a solar system, that is true, of course… but only one out of every hundred solar systems has life. And if we need more solar systems we can manufacture them. With the power of the dimension of eternity at our command, we can move stars, we can hurl them together to make solar systems. With this power we can reshape the universe, mold it to our needs."


The idea impacted with stunning force on Gary's brain. They could reshape the universe! Working with the raw materials at hand, with the almost infinite power at their command, they could alter the course of stars, could realign the galaxies, could manufacture planets, set up a well coordinated plan to offset entropy, the tendency to run down, the tendency to go amuck. His mind groped futilely at the ideas, pawing them over and over, but back of it all was a curtain of wonderment and awe. And through his brain sang a subtle warning… a persistent little warning that hammered at his thoughts. Mankind itself wasn't ready for such power, couldn't use it intelligently, perhaps would destroy the universe with it. Was there any other entity in the universe qualified to use it? Would it be wise to place such power in the hands of any entity?


"But why," Caroline was asking, "do they want to come?"


"Because," said the Engineer, "we are going to destroy their universe to save ours."


It was as if a bombshell had been dropped among them. Silence clapped down. Gary felt Caroline's hand creep into his. He held it tight.


"But why destroy their universe?" shouted Tommy. "We have the means at hand to save them both. All we have to do is create more of those five-dimensional screens to absorb the energy."


"No," said the Engineer, "we cannot do it. Given time, we could. But there is so little time, not nearly enough. The energy would overwhelm us once it came. It would take so many screens and we have so little time."

His thoughts cut off and Gary heard the shuffle of Kingsley's feet.

"These other beings," the Engineer went on, "know that their universe has very little longer to exist in any event. It has almost reached the end of its time. It soon will die the heat death. Throughout its space, matter and energy are being swiftly distributed. Soon the day will arrive when it will be equally distributed, when the heat, the energy, the mass throughout the universe will be spread so thin that it scarcely exists."

Gary sucked in his breath. "Like a watch running down," he said.

"You're right," said Kingsley. "Like a watch that has run down. That is what will happen to our universe in time."

"Not," said Gary, "if we have the energy from interspace at our command."

"Already," said the Engineer, "only one corner of this other universe is still suitable for life… the area that is facing us. Into that corner all life has been driven and now it has been, or is being, assembled to transfer itself to our universe."

"But," asked Herb, "just how are they going to get here?"

"They will use a time warp," said the Engineer. "They will bud out from their universe, but in doing so they will distort the time factor in the walls of their hypersphere — a distortion that will send them ahead in time, will push their little universe closer to us than to their universe. Our gravity will grasp their hypersphere and draw it in."

"But that," protested Gary, "will produce more energy. Their little universe will be destroyed."

"No," declared the Engineer, "because they will merge their space-time continuum with the continuum of our universe as soon as the two come together. They will immediately become a part of our universe."

"You told them how to create a hypersphere?" asked Herb.

"I did," said the Engineer. "And it will save the people of that other universe. They had tried many things, had worked out theories and new branches of mathematics in their efforts to escape. They discovered many things that we do not know, but they never thought of budding out from their universe. They apparently are a mechanistic people, a people very much like we Engineers. They seem to have lost that vital spark of imagination with which your people are so well supplied."

"My Lord," said Gary, "think of it! Imagination saving the people of another universe. The imagination of a little third-rate race that hasn't even started really using its imagination yet."

"You are right," declared the Engineer, "and in the aeons to come that imagination will make your race the masters of the entire universe."

"Prophesy," said Gary.

"I know," said the Engineer.

"There's just one thing," said Herb. "How is that other universe going to be destroyed?"

"We are going to destroy it," said the Engineer, "in exactly the same way we destroyed the Hellhounds."

CHAPTER Seventeen

Tommy sat in the pilot's seat and urged the ship slowly forward, using rocket blast after rocket blast to keep it on its course.

"You have to fight to stand still here," he gritted between his teeth. "A man can't tell just where he is. There doesn't seem to be any direction, nothing to orient oneself."

"Of course not," rumbled Kingsley. "We're in a sort of place no other man has ever been. We're right out in the area where space and time are breaking down, where lines of force are all distorted, where everything is jumbled and broken up."

"The edge of the universe," said Caroline.

Gary stared out through the vision plate. There was nothing to see, nothing but a deep blue void that queerly seemed alive with a deep intensity of life.

He turned from the panel and asked the Engineer:

"Any signs of energy yet?"

"Faint signs," said the Engineer, bending lower to peer at the dial set in a detector instrument. "Very faint signs. The other universe is almost upon us now and the lines of force are just beginning to make themselves felt."

"How much longer will it take?" asked Kingsley.

"I cannot tell," said the Engineer. "We know very little about the laws out here. It may be a very short while or it may be some time as yet."

"Well," said Herb, "the fireworks can start any time now. The folks from the other universe have crossed safely and there's no reason for the other universe to exist. We can blast it any time we want to."

"Gary," said Kingsley, "you and Herb better get over to those guns. We may want action fast."

Gary nodded and walked to the controls of a disintegrator gun. He slid into the seat back of the controls and reached out a hand to grasp the swivel butt. He swung it back and forth, knew that outside the ship the grim muzzle of the weapon was swinging in a wide arc.

Through the tiny port in front of him he could see the blue intensity of the void in which they moved.

Out here time and space were thinning down and breaking up. Like a boat riding on the surface of a heaving sea, they were riding the very rim of the universe, their ship tossed about by the shifting, twisting co-ordinates of force.

Out there somewhere, very close, was the mysterious inter-space. Close, too, invisible in all its immensity, was another universe. An old and tottering universe from which its inhabitants had fled, a dying universe that had been sentenced to death so that a younger universe might live.

In just a few minutes now the space between the universes would begin to fill with a charge of that terrible timeless, formless energy. Slowly it would begin seeping into the two universes, slowly at first and then faster and faster, increasing their mass, dooming them to almost instant destruction.

But before that could happen, the disintegrator ray, the most terrible form of energy known to the Engineers, would blast out into that field of latent energy, would sweep outward toward that other approaching universe.

Instantly the field of energy would be turned into the terrific power of the disintegrator ray, but millions of times more powerful than the ray itself… a blinding sheet of energy that would stop at nothing, that would smash the very mold of time and space, would destroy matter and cancel other energy. And this sheet of energy would smash its way into the other universe.

And when that happened, the energy field, draining all its energy into the disintegrator blast, would be diverted from the younger universe, would turn in full force upon the one to be destroyed.

Staggering under the onrush of such a fierce storm of energy, the old universe would start contracting. Its mass would build up, faster and faster, as the fifth-dimensional energy, riding on the beams of the disintegrator guns, hurled itself into its space-time frame.

Gary wiped his brow with the back of his hand.

That was the way Caroline and the Engineer had figured it out. He hoped that it would work. And yet it seemed impossible that a tiny ship, two tiny guns manned by the puny members of the human race, could utterly annihilate a universe, an unimaginably massive space-time matrix.

Yet he had seen the beam of a tiny flashlight, crystalizing the energy of the eternal dimension, blast out of existence, in the twinkling of an eye, a mighty fleet of warships protected by heavy screens, armored against vicious bombs, impregnable to anything… to anything except the flashlight in the hands of a wisp of a girl.

Remembering that, it was easier to believe that the disintegrators, crystalizing a much vaster field of energy, might accomplish the destruction of a universe. For it wasn't the guns themselves that would do the job, but the direction of all the energy into the other universe, energy rising on the million-mile front set up by the fanning guns.

"The field is building up," said Caroline. "Be ready." Gary grinned at her. "We'll fire when we see the whites of their eyes," he said.

He racked his brain for the origin of that sentence. Something out of history. Something out of the dim old legends of the past. A folk tale of some mighty battle of the ancient days.

He shrugged his shoulders. The story, whatever it might be, probably wasn't true, anyhow. So few of the ancient legends were. Just another story to be told of a black night in the chimney corner when the wind howled around the eaves and the rain dripped on the roof.

His eyes went to the port again, stared out into the misty blue, the blue that seemed to throb with vibrant life.

They had to wait. Wait until the energy had built up to a point where it would be effective. But not too long. For if they waited too long, it might pour into their own universe and wipe them out.

"Get ready," thundered Kingsley, and Gary's hand went out to the switch that would loosen the blast of the disintegrator. His fingers gripped the switch tightly, tensed, ready for action.

"Give it to "em," Kingsley roared, and Gary snapped the switch.

With both hands he swung the swivel back and forth, back and forth. Beside him, he knew, Herb was doing the same.

Outside the port blossomed a maelstrom of fiery light, a blinding, vicious flare of light that seemed to leap and writhe and then become a solid sheet of flame. A solid sheet of flame that drove on and on, leaping outward, bringing doom to a worn-out universe.

It was over in just a few seconds… a few seconds during which an inferno of energy was turned loose to rage between two universes.

Then the misty blue filled the port again and the ship was bucking, tossed about like a chip in heavy seas, twisted and dashed about by the broken lines of force that still heaved and quivered under the backlash of the titanic forces which a moment before bad filled the inter-space.

Gary turned in his seat, saw that Caroline and the Engineer were bent over the detector dial, watching it intently.

Kingsley, looking over the Engineer's shoulder, was muttering: "No sign. No sign of energy."

That meant, then, that the other universe was already contracting, was rushing backward to a new beginning… no longer a menace.

Gary patted the gun. It and Man's ingenuity had turned the trick. Mere Man had destroyed one universe, but had saved another. It seemed too utterly fantastic to be true.

He looked around the control room. Tommy at the controls. Herb at the second gun. The other three watching the energy detector. Everything was familiar. Nothing was any different than it was before. All commonplace and ordinary.

And yet, for the first time, tiny beings spawned within the universe had taken firm hold of the universe's destiny. Henceforward Man and his little compatriots throughout the vast gulfs of space would no longer be mere pawns in the grim tide of cosmic forces. Henceforward life would rule these forces, bend them to its will, put them to work, change them, shift them about.

Life was an accident. There was little doubt of that. Something that wasn't exactly planned. Something that had crept in, like a malignant disease in the ordered mechanism of the universe. The universe was hostile to life. The depths of space were too cold for life, most of the condensed matter too hot for life, space was traversed by radiations inimical to life. But life was triumphant. In the end, the universe would not destroy it… it would rule the universe.

His mind went back to the day Herb had sighted that tiny flash of reflected light in the telescopic screen, back to the finding of the girl in the space shell. And before him seemed to unreel the chain of events that had led up to this moment. If Caroline Martin had not been condemned to space, if she had not known the secret of suspended animation, if that suspended animation had not failed to suspend thought, if Herb had not seen the flash that revealed the presence of the shell, if he, himself, had been unable to revive the girl, if Kingsley had not been curious about why cosmic rays should form a definite pattern…

And in that chain of happenings he seemed to see the hand of something greater than just happenstance. What was it the old man back on Old Earth had said? Something about a great dreamer creating stages and peopling them with actors.

"No energy indications," said the Engineer. "We have definitely ended the menace. The other universe has contracted beyond the danger point. We are saved. I am so very happy."

He faced them. "And so very grateful, too," he said. "Forget it," said Herb. "It was our neck as well as yours."

CHAPTER Eighteen

HERB polished the last chicken bone methodically and sighed. "That's the best meal I ever ate," he said.

They sat at the table in the apartment the Engineers had arranged for them. It had escaped the general destruction of the Hellhound attack, although the tower above it had been obliterated by a hydrogen bomb.

Gary filled his wineglass again and leaned back in his chair.

"I guess our job is done here," he said. "Maybe we'll be going home in just a little while."

"Home?" asked Caroline. "You mean the Earth?"

Gary nodded.

"I have almost forgotten the Earth," she said. "It has been so long since I have seen the Earth. I suppose it has changed a great deal since I saw it last."

"Perhaps it has," Gary told her, "although there are some things that never change. The smell of fresh-plowed fields and the scent of hayfields at harvest time and the beauty of trees against the skyline at evening."

"Just a poet," said Herb. "Just a blasted poet."

"Maybe there will be things I won't recognize," said Caroline. "Things that will be so different."

"I'll show you the Earth," said Gary. "I'll set you straight on everything."

"What bothers me," declared Kingsley, "are those people from the other universe. It's just like letting undesirable elements come in under our immigration schedule on Earth. You can't tell what sort of people they are. They might be life forms that are inimical to us."

"Or," suggested Caroline, "they might be possessors of great scientific accomplishments and a higher culture. They might add much to this universe."

"There isn't much danger from them," said Gary. "The Engineers are taking care of them. They're keeping them cooped up in the hypersphere they used to cross interspace until suitable places for their settlement can be found. The Engineers will keep an eye on them."

Metallic feet grated on the floor and Engineer 1824 came across the room toward the table.

He stopped before the table and folded his arms across his chest.

"Everything is all right?" he asked. "The food is good and you are comfortable."

"I'll say we are," said Herb.

"We are glad," said the Engineer. "We have tried so hard to make it easy for you. We are grateful that you came. Without you we never would have saved the universe. We never would have gone to Old Earth to find the secret of the energy, because we are not driven by restless imagination… an imagination that will not let one rest until all has been explained."

"We did what we could," rumbled Kingsley. "But all of the credit goes to Caroline. She was the one who worked out the mathematics for the creation of the hypersphere. She is the only one of us who would have been able to understand the equations relating to the energy and the inter-space."

"You are right," said the Engineer, "and we thank Caroline especially. But the rest of you had your part to do and did it. It has made us very proud."

"Proud," thought Gary. "Why should he be proud of anything we've done?"

The Engineer caught his thought.

"You ask why we should be proud," he said, "and I shall tell you why. We have watched and studied you closely since you came, debating whether you should be told what there is to tell. Under different circumstances we probably would allow you to depart without a word, but we have decided that you should know."

"Know what?" thundered Kingsley.

The rest of them were silent, waiting.

"You are aware of how your solar system came into being?" asked the Engineer.

"Sure," said Kingsley. "There was a dynamic encounter between two stars. Our Sun and an invader. About three billion years ago."

"That invader," said the Engineer, "was the Sun of my people, a sun upon whose planets they had built a great civilization. My people knew well in advance that the collision would take place. Our astronomers discovered it first and after that our physicists and other scientists worked unceasingly in a futile effort either to avert the collision or to save what could be salvaged of our civilization when the encounter came. But century after century passed, with the two stars swinging closer and closer together. There seemed no chance to save anything. We knew that the planets would be destroyed when the first giant tide from your Sun lashed out into space, that the resultant explosion would instantly destroy all life, that more than likely some of the planets would be totally destroyed.

"Our astronomers told us that our Sun would pass within two million miles of your star, that it would grip and drag far out in space some of the molten mass which your Sun would eject. In such a case we could see but little hope for the continuance of our civilization."

His thoughts broke off, but no one said a word. All eyes were staring at the impassive metal face of the Engineer, waiting for him to continue.

"Finally, knowing that all their efforts were hopeless, my people constructed vast spaceships. Spaceships designed for living, for spending many years in space. And long before the collision occurred these ships were launched, carrying select groups of our civilization. Representative groups. Men of different sciences, with many records of our civilization."

"The Ark," said Caroline, breathlessly. "The old story of the Ark."

"I do not understand," said the Engineer.

"It doesn't matter," Caroline said. "Please go on."

"From far out in space my people watched the two stars sweep past each other," said the Engineer. "It was as if the very heavens had exploded. Great tongues of gas and molten matter speared out into space for millions of miles. They saw their own Sun drag a great mass of this stellar material for billions of miles out into space, strewing fragments of it en route. They saw the gradual formation of the matter around your Sun and then, in time, they lost sight of it, for they were moving far out into space and the eruptive masses were settling down into a quieter state.

"For generation after generation, my people hunted for a new home. Men died and were given burial in space. Children were born and grew old in turn and died. For century after century the great ships voyaged from star to star, seeking a planetary system on which they might settle and make their homes. One of the ships ran too close to a giant sun and was drawn to its death. Another was split wide open when it collided with a dark star. But the rest braved the dangers and uncertainties of space, hunting, always hunting for a home."

Another pause and still there were no questions. The Engineer went on:

"But no planetary system could be found. Only one star in every ten thousand has a planetary system, and they might have hunted for thousands of years without finding one.

"Finally, tired out with searching, they decided to return to your Sun. For while there was as yet no planetary system there, they knew that in ages to come there would be."

The cold wind from space was flicking Gary in the face again. Could this tale the Engineer was telling be the truth? Was this why the Engineers had been signaling to Pluto?

The Engineer's thoughts were coming again.

"After many years they reached your Sun, and as they approached it they saw that planets were beginning to form around the centers of relatively dense matter. But there was something else. Swinging in a great, erratic orbit on the very edge of this nebula-like mass of raw planetary matter was a planet which they recognized. It was one of the planets of their old home star, fourth out from their Sun. It had been stolen from their Sun, now was swinging in an orbit of its own around its adopted star.

"My people had found a home at last. They descended to the surface of the planet to find that its atmosphere was gone, that all life had vanished, that all signs of civilization had been utterly wiped out.

"But they settled there and tried to rebuild, in part at least, the civilization that was their heritage. But it was a heart-rending task. For years and centuries they watched the slow formation of your solar system, saw the planets take on shape and slowly cool, waiting against the day when the race might occupy them. But the process was too slow. The work of building their civilization anew, the lack of atmosphere, the utter cold of space, were sapping the strength of my people. They foresaw the day when they would perish, when the last one of the race would die. But they planned for the future. They planned very carefully.

"They created us and gave us great ships and sent us out to try to find them new homes, hoping against hope that we would be able to find them a better home before it was too late. For out in space our ships separated, each traveling its own way, bent on a survey of the entire universe if such were necessary."

"They created you?" asked Gary. "What do you mean? Aren't you direct descendants of that other race, the race of the invading star?"

"No," said the Engineer. "We are robots. But so carefully made, so well endowed with a semblance of life that we cannot be distinguished from authentic life forms. I sometimes think that in all these years we may have become life in all reality. I have thought about it a great deal, have hoped so much that we might in time become something more than mere machines."

In the silence, Gary wondered why he had not guessed the truth before. It had been there to see. The form, the very actions of the Engineers were mechanistic. Once the Engineer had told them that he was bound by mechanistic precepts, that he and his fellows possessed almost no imagination. And machines, of course, would have no imagination.

But they had seemed so much like people, almost like human beings, that he had thought of them as actual life, but cast in metallic rather than protoplasmic form.

"Well, I'll be damned," said Kingsley.

"Boy," said Herb, "you're topnotch robots, if I do say so."

Gary snarled at him across the table. "Pipe down," he warned.

"Maybe you aren't robots any more," Caroline was saying. "Maybe through all these years you have become real entities. Your creators must have given you electrochemical brains, and that, after all, is what the human brain amounts to. In time those brains would become real, almost as efficient, probably in some instances even more efficient than a protoplasmic brain. And brain power, the ability to think and reason, seems to be all that counts when everything is balanced out."

"Thank you," said the Engineer. "Thank you very much. You are so kind to say so. That is what I have tried to tell myself."

"Look here," said Gary. "It really doesn't matter, does it? I mean, whether you are robots or independent entities. You serve the same purpose, you follow the same dictates of conscience, you create the same destiny as things that move and act through the very gift of life. In many ways, to my mind, a robotic existence might be preferable to a human existence."

"Perhaps it doesn't really matter," agreed the Engineer. "I told you once that we were a proud people, that we had inherited a great trust, that we had carried out that trust. Pride might have kept us from telling you what we were, but now I am glad I have, for the rest will be easier to understand."

"The rest," said Tommy in surprise. "Is there more?"

"Much more," said the Engineer.

"Wait a second," rumbled Kingsley. "Do you mean that all you Engineers were created by a race that flourished three billion years ago, that you have lived through that space of time?"

"Not all of us," said the Engineer. "My people made only a few of us, a few to man each ship. We ourselves have made others, copies of ourselves. But in each new creation we have tried to inculcate some of the factors which we find missing in ourselves. Imagination, for one thing, and greater initiative, and a greater scope of emotional perception."

"You yourself are one of the original robots made back on Pluto?" asked Caroline.

The Engineer nodded.

"You are eternal and immortal," suggested Kingsley.

"Not eternal nor immortal," said the Engineer. "But with proper care, replacement of worn-out parts, and barring accident, I will continue to function for many more billions of years to come."

Billions of years, thought Gary. It was something a man could not imagine. A human mind could not visualize a billion years or a thousand years or even a hundred years. Man, in general, could visualize not much beyond the figure four.

But if the Engineers had lived for three billion years, how come they had been unable to create a hypersphere, why hadn't they probed out beyond the universe to learn the laws of inter-space? Why must this work wait for the arrival of the human mind?

"I have answered that before," said the Engineer, "and I will answer it again. It is because of imagination and vision… the ability to see beyond facts, to probe into probabilities, to visualize what might be and then attempt to make it so. That is something that we cannot do. We are chained to mechanistic action and mechanistic thought. We do not advance beyond the proven fact. When two facts create another fact, we accept the third fact, but we do not reach out in speculation, collect half a dozen tentative facts and then try to crystallize them. That is the answer to your question."

Gary looked startled. He hadn't realized that the Engineer could read his undirected thoughts. Caroline was looking at him, a smile twitching the corners of her mouth.

"Did you ask him something?"

"I guess I did," said Gary.

"Did you ever hear from the other Engineers?" asked Kingsley. "The ones who were in the other ships?"

"No," said the Engineer, "we never did. Presumably they have by now found other planets where they are doing the same work as we. We have tried to get in touch with them, but we have never been able to do it."

"What is your work?" asked Gary.

"Why," said Caroline, "you should know that, Gary. It is to prepare a place for the Engineers" people to live. Isn't that right?" she asked the Engineer.

"It is right," said the Engineer.

"But," protested Gary, "those people are dead. There is no sign of them in our solar system and they certainly didn't start out looking for some other planet. They died off on Pluto."

He remembered the chiseled masonry that Ted Smith had found. The hands of the Engineers" creators had cut those stones, billions of years ago… and today they still were on Pluto's surface, mute testimony to the greatness of a race that had died while the solar system's planets still were cooling off.

"They are not dead," said the Engineer, and his thoughts seemed to have a particular warmth in them.

"Not dead," said Gary. "Do you know where they are?"

"Yes," said the Engineer. "I do. Some of them are in this very room."

"In this roorn," began Caroline, and then she stopped as the significance of what the Engineer had said struck home.

"In this room," said Herb. "Hell, the only people who are in this room are us. And we aren't your people."

"But you are," declared the Engineer. "There are differences, to be sure. But you are much like them, so like them in many ways. You are protoplasmic and they were protoplasmic. Your general form is the same and, I have no doubt, your metabolism. And above all, the way your mind works."

"That," said Caroline, "was why we could understand you and you could understand us. Why you kept us here when you sent the other entities back to their homes."

"Do you mean," asked Kingsley, "that we are the direct descendants of your people… that your people finally took over the planets? That seems hardly possible, for we know we started from very humble beginnings. We have no legends, no evidence pointing to such a genesis."

"Not that," said the Engineer. "Not exactly that. But I suppose you have wondered how life got its start on your planet. There are many planetary systems, you know, where life is entirely unknown. Planets that are fully as old as yours that are barren of all life."

"There is the spore theory," said Kingsley, and as he said the words he pounded the table with his massive fist.

"By Lord, that's it," he shouted. "The spore theory. Your people out on Pluto, only a few of them left, with the planets still unfit for habitation, knowing that they faced the end… couldn't they have insured life on the young planets by the development and planting of life spores?"

"That," said the Engineer, "is what I thought. That is the theory that I hold."

"But if that were the case," objected Caroline, "why should we have developed as we did? Why should a life form almost duplicating the Engineers" people have developed? Surely they couldn't have planted determinants in the spore… they couldn't have seen or planned that far ahead. They couldn't possibly have planned the eventual evolution of a race re-creating their own!"

"They were a very ancient people," said the Engineer, "and a very clever people. I do not doubt that they could have planned it as you say."

"Interesting," said Herb. "But what does it make us?"

"It makes you the heir of my people," said the Engineer. "It means that what we have done here, all we have, all we know is yours. We will rebuild this city, we will condition it in such a manner that your people can live here. Also that whatever the other Engineers may have found or done is yours. We want nothing for ourselves except the joy and the satisfaction of knowing that we have served, that we have done well with the trust that was handed to us."

They sat stunned, scarcely believing what they heard.

"You mean," asked Kingsley, "that you will rebuild this city and hand it over to the people of our solar system?"

"That is what I mean," said the Engineer. "It is yours. I have no doubt that you descended in some manner from my people. Since you came here I have studied you closely. Time and again I have seen little actions and mannerisms, little mental quirks that mark you as being in some way connected with the people who created us."

Gary tried to reason it out. The Engineers were handing the human race a heritage from an ancient people, handing them a city and a civilization already built, a city and a civilization such as the race itself would not achieve for the next many thousand years.

But there was something wrong, something that didn't click.

He remembered Herb's comment that the city looked like a place that was waiting for someone who had never come. Herb had hit upon the exact situation. This city had been built for a greater race, for a race that probably had died long before the first stone had been laid in place. A race that must have been so far advanced that it would make the human race look savage in comparison.

He tried to imagine what effect such a city and such a civilization would have upon the human race. He tried to picture the greed and hate, the political maneuvering, the fierce trade competition, the social inequality and its resultant class struggle… all of it inherent in humanity… in this white city under the three suns. Somehow the two didn't go together.

"We can't do it," he said. "We aren't ready yet. We'd just make a mess of things. We'd have too much power, too much leisure, too many possessions. It would smash our civilization and leave us one in its stead that we could not manage. We haven't put our own civilization upon a basis that could coincide with what is here."

Kingsley stared at him.

"But think of the scientific knowledge! Think of the cultural advantages!" he shouted.

"Gary is right," said Caroline. "We aren't ready yet."

"Sometime," said Gary. "Sometime in the future. When we have wired out some of the primal passions. When we have solved the great social and economic problems that plague us now. When we have learned to observe the Golden Rule… when we have lost some of the lustiness of our youth. Sometime we will be ready for this city."

He remembered the ancient man they had met on Old Earth. He had said something about the rest of the race going away, to a far star, to a place that had been prepared for them.

That place the old man had spoken of, he realized now, was this very city. And that meant that the Old Earth they had visited had been the real Earth… no shadow planet, but the actuality existing in the future. And the old man had spoken as if the rest of the race had gone to the city but a short while earlier. He had said that he refused to go, that he couldn't leave the Earth.

The time would be long, then. Longer than he thought. A long and bitter wait for the day when the race might safely enter into a better world, into a heritage left to them by a race that died when the solar system was born.

"You understand?" he asked the Engineer.

"I understand," the Engineer replied. "It means that we must wait for the masters that we worked for… that it will be long before they come to us."

"You waited three billion years," Gary reminded him. "Wait a few million more for us. It won't take us long. There's a lot of good in the human race, but we aren't ready yet."

"I think you're crazy," said Kingsley, bitterly.

"Can't you see," asked Caroline, "what the human race right now would do to this city?"

"But magnetic power," wailed Kingsley, "and all those other things. Think of how they would help us. We need power and tools and all the knowledge we can get."

"You may take certain information with you," said the Engineer. "Whatever you think is wise. We will watch you and talk with you throughout the years, and it may be there will be times that you will wish our help."

Gary rose from the table. His hand fell on the Engineer's broad metal shoulder.

"And in the meantime there is work for you," he said. "A city to rebuild. The development of power stations to use the fifth-dimensional energy. Learning how to control and use that energy. Using it to control the universe. The day will come, unless we do something about it, that our universe will run down, will die the heat death. But with the eternal power of the inter-space, we can shape and control the universe, mold it to our needs."

It seemed that the metal man drew himself even more erect.

"It will be done," he said.

"We must work, not for Man alone, but for the entire universe," said Gary.

"That is right," said the Engineer.

Kingsley heaved himself to his feet.

"We should be leaving for Pluto," he said. "Our work here is done."

He stepped up to the Engineer. "Before we go," he said, "I would like to shake your hand."

"I do not understand," said the Engineer.

"It is a mark of respect," Caroline explained. "Assurance that we are friends. A sort of way to seal a pact."

"That is fine," said the Engineer. He thrust out his hand. And then his thoughts broke. For the first time since they had met him, in this same room, there was emotion in his voice.

"We are so glad," he said. "We can talk to you and not feel so alone. Perhaps some day I can come and visit you."

"Be sure to do that," bellowed Herb. "I'll show you all the sights."

"Are you coming, Gary?" asked Caroline, but Gary didn't answer.

Some day Man would come home… home to this wondrous city of white stone, to marvel at its breathtaking height, at its vastness of design, at its far-flung symbol of achievement reared against an alien sky. Home to a planet where every power and every luxury and every achievement would be his. Home to a place that had grown out of a dream… the great dream of a greater people who had died, but in dying had passed along the heritage of their life to a new-spawned solar system. And more than that, had left another heritage in the hands and brains of good stewards who, in time, would give it up, in fulfillment of their charge.

But this city and this proud achievement were not for him, nor for Caroline, nor Kingsley, nor Herb, nor Tommy. Nor for the many generations that would come after them. Not so long as Man carried the old dead weight of primal savagery and hate, not so long as he was mean and vicious and petty, could he set foot here.

Before he reached this city, Man would travel long trails of bitter dust, would know the sheer triumphs of the star-flung road. Galaxies would write new alphabets across the sky, and the print of many happenings would be etched upon the tape of time. New things would come and hold their sway and die, Great leaders would stand up and have their day and shuffle off into oblivion and silence. Creeds would rise and flourish and be sifting dust between the worlds. The night watch of stars would see great deeds, applaud great happenings, witness great defeat, weep over bitter sorrows.

"Just think," said Caroline. "We are going home."

"Yes," said Gary. "At last, we're going home."

Drop dead

Original copyright year: unknown, re-published 1962


THE CRITTERS were unbelievable. They looked like something from the maudlin pen of a well-alcoholed cartoonist.

One herd of them clustered in a semicircle in front of the ship, not jittery or belligerent — just looking at us. And that was strange. Ordinarily, when a spaceship sets down on a virgin planet, it takes a week at least for any life that might have seen or heard it to creep out of hiding and sneak a look around.

The critters were almost cow-size, but nohow as graceful as a cow. Their bodies were pushed together as if every blessed one of them had run full-tilt into a wall. And they were just as lumpy as you'd expect from a collision like that. Their hides were splashed with large squares of pastel color — the kind of color one never finds on any self-respecting animal: violet, pink, orange, chartreuse, to name only a few. The overall effect was of a checkerboard done by an old lady who made crazy quilts.

And that, by far, was not the worst of it.

From their heads and other parts of their anatomy sprouted a weird sort of vegetation, so that it appeared each animal was hiding, somewhat ineffectively, behind a skimpy thicket. To compound the situation and make it completely insane, fruits and vegetables — or what appeared to be fruits and vegetables — grew from the vegetation.

So we stood there, the critters looking at us and us looking back at them, and finally one of them walked forward until it was no more than six feet from us. It stood there for a moment, gazing at us soulfully, then dropped dead at our feet.

The rest of the herd turned around and trotted awkwardly away, for all the world as if they had done what they had come to do and now could go about their business.

Julian Oliver, our botanist, put up a hand and rubbed his balding head with an absentminded motion.

"Another what is it coming up!" he moaned. "Why couldn't it, for once, be something plain and simple?"

"It never is," I told him. "Remember that bush out on Hamal V that spent half its life as a kind of glorified tomato and the other half as grade A poison ivy?"

"I remember it," Oliver said sadly.

Max Weber, our biologist, walked over to the critter, reached out a cautious foot and prodded it.

"Trouble is," he said, "that Hamal tomato was Julian's baby and this one here is mine."

"I wouldn't say entirely yours," Oliver retorted. "What do you call that underbrush growing out of it?"

I came in fast to head off an argument. I had listened to those two quarreling for the past twelve years, across several hundred light-years and on a couple dozen planets. I couldn't stop it here, I knew, but at least I could postpone it until they had something vital to quarrel about.

"Cut it out," I said. "It's only a couple of hours till nightfall and we have to get the camp set up."

"But this critter," Weber said. "We can't just leave it here."

"Why not? There are millions more of them. This one will stay right here and even if it doesn't —»

"But it dropped dead!"

"So it was old and feeble."

"It wasn't. It was right in the prime of life."

"We can talk about it later," said Alfred Kemper, our bacteriologist. "I'm as interested as you two, but what Bob says is right. We have to get the camp set up."

"Another thing," I added, looking hard at all of them. "No matter how innocent this place may look, we observe planet rules. No eating anything. No drinking any water. No wandering off alone. No carelessness of any kind."

"There's nothing here," said Weber. "Just the herds of critters. Just the endless plains. No trees, no hills, no nothing."

He really didn't mean it. He knew as well as I did the reason for observing planet rules. He only wanted to argue.

"All right," I said, "which is it? Do we set up camp or do we spend the night up in the ship?"

That did it.

We had the camp set up before the sun went down and by dusk we were all settled in. Carl Parsons, our ecologist, had the stove together and the supper started before the last tent peg was driven.

I dug out my diet kit and mixed up my formula and all of them kidded me about it, the way they always did.

It didn't bother me. Their jibs were automatic and I had automatic answers. It was something that had been going on for a long, long time. Maybe it was best that way, better if they'd disregarded my enforced eating habits.

I remember Carl was grilling steaks and I had to move away so I couldn't smell them. There's never a time when I wouldn't give my good right arm for a steak or, to tell the truth, any other kind of normal chow. This diet stuff keeps a man alive all right, but that's about the only thing that can be said of it.

I know ulcers must sound silly and archaic. Ask any medic and he'll tell you they don't happen any more. But I have a riddled stomach and the diet kit to prove they sometimes do. I guess it's what you might call an occupational ailment. There's a lot of never-ending worry playing nursemaid to planet survey gangs.

After supper, we went out and dragged the critter in and had a closer look at it.

It was even worse to look at close than from a distance.

There was no fooling about that vegetation. It was the real McCoy and it was part and parcel of the critter. But it seemed that it only grew out of certain of the color blocks in the critter's body.

We found another thing that practically had Weber frothing at the mouth. One of the color blocks had holes in it — it looked almost exactly like one of those peg sets that children use as toys. When Weber took out his jackknife and poked into one of the holes, he pried out an insect that looked something like a bee. He couldn't quite believe it, so he did some more probing and in another one of the holes he found another bee. Both of the bees were dead.

He and Oliver wanted to start dissection then and there, but the rest of us managed to talk them out of it.

We pulled straws to see who would stand first guard and, with my usual luck, I pulled the shortest straw. Actually there wasn't much real reason for standing guard, with the alarm system set to protect the camp, but it was regulation — there had to be a guard.

I got a gun and the others said good night and went to their tents, but I could hear them talking for a long time afterward. No matter how hardened you may get to this Survey business, no matter how blasé, you hardly ever get much sleep the first night on any planet.

I sat on a chair at one side of the camp table, on which burned a lantern in lieu of the campfire we would have had on any other planet. But here we couldn't have a fire because there wasn't any wood.

I sat at one side of the table, with the dead critter lying on the other side of it and I did some worrying, although it wasn't time for me to start worrying yet. I'm an agricultural economist and I don't begin my worrying until at least the first reports are in.

But sitting just across the table from where it lay, I couldn't help but do some wondering about that mixed-up critter. I didn't get anywhere except go around in circles and I was sort of glad when Talbott Fullerton, the Double Eye, came out and sat down beside me.

Sort of, I said. No one cared too much for Fullerton. I have yet to see the Double Eye I or anybody else ever cared much about.

"Too excited to sleep?" I asked him.

He nodded vaguely, staring off into the darkness beyond the lantern's light.

"Wondering," he said. "Wondering if this could be the planet."

"It won't be," I told him. "You're chasing an El Dorado, bunting down a fable."

"They found it once before," Fullerton argued stubbornly. "It's all there in the records."

"So was the Gilded Man. And the Empire of Prester John. Atlantis and all the rest of it. So was the old Northwest Passage back on ancient Earth. So were the Seven Cities. But nobody ever found any of those places because they weren't there."

He sat with the lamplight in his face and he had that wild look in his eyes and his hands were knotting into fists, then straightening out again.

"Sutter," he said unhappily, "I don't know why you do this — this mocking of yours. Somewhere in this universe there is immortality. Somewhere, somehow, it has been accomplished. And the human race must find it. We have the space for it now — all the space there is — millions of planets and eventually other galaxies. We don't have to keep making room for new generations, the way we would if we were stuck on a single world or a single solar system. Immortality, I tell you, is the next step for humanity!"

"Forget it," I said curtly, but once a Double Eye gets going, you can't shut him up.

"Look at this planet," he said. "An almost perfect Earth-type planet. Main-sequence sun. Good soil, good climate, plenty of water — an ideal place for a colony. How many years, do you think, before Man will settle here?"

"A thousand. Five thousand. Maybe more."

"That's right. And there are countless other planets like it, planets crying to be settled. But we won't settle them, because we keep dying off. And that's not all of it…"

Patiently, I listened to all the rest — the terrible waste of dying — and I knew every bit of it by heart. Before Fullerton, we'd been saddled by one Double Eye fanatic and, before him, yet another. It was regulation. Every planet-checking team, no matter what its purpose or its destination, was required to carry as supercargo an agent of Immortality Institute.

But this kid seemed just a little worse than the usual run of them. It was his first trip out and he was all steamed up with idealism. In all of them, though, burned the same intense dedication to the proposition that Man must live forever and an equally unyielding belief that immortality could and would be found. For had not a lost spaceship found the answer centuries before — an unnamed spaceship on an unknown planet in a long-forgotten year!

It was a myth, of course. It had all the hallmarks of one and all the fierce loyalty that a myth can muster. It was kept alive by Immortality Institute, operating under a government grant and billions of bequests and gifts from hopeful rich and poor — all of whom, of course, had died or would die in spite of their generosity.

"What are you looking for?" I asked Fullerton, just a little wearily, for I was bored with it. "A plant? An animal? A people?"

And he replied, solemn as a judge: "That's something I can't tell you."

As if I gave a damn!

But I went on needling him. Maybe it was just something to while away my time. That and the fact that I disliked the fellow. Fanatics annoy me. They won't get off your ear.

"Would you know it if you found it?"

He didn't answer that one, but he turned haunted eyes on me.

I cut out the needling. Any more of it and I'd have had him bawling.

We sat around a while longer, but we did no talking.

He fished a toothpick out of his pocket and put it in his mouth and rolled it around, chewing at it moodily. I would have liked to reach out and slug him, for he chewed toothpicks all the time and it was an irritating habit, that set me unreasonably on edge. I guess I was jumpy, too.

Finally he spit out the mangled toothpick and slouched off to bed.

I sat alone, looking up at the ship, and the lantern light was just bright enough for me to make out the legend lettered on it: "Caph VII — Ag Survey 286", which was enough to identify us anywhere in the Galaxy.

For everyone knew Caph VII, the agricultural experimental planet, just as they would have known Alderbaran XII, the medical research planet, or Capella IX, the university planet, or any of the other special departmental planets.

Caph VII is a massive operation and the hundreds of survey teams like us were just a part of it. But we were the spearheads who went out to new worlds, some of them uncharted, some just barely charted, looking for plants and animals that might be developed on the experimental tracts.

Not that our team had found a great deal. We had discovered some grasses that did well on one of the Eltanian worlds, but by and large we hadn't done anything that could be called distinguished. Our luck just seemed to run bad — like that Hamal poison ivy business. We worked as hard as any of the rest of them, but a lot of good that did.

Sometimes it was tough to take — when all the other teams brought in stuff that got them written up and earned them bonuses, while we came creeping in with a few piddling grasses or maybe not a thing at all.

It's a tough life and don't let anyone tell you different. Some of the planets turn out to be a fairly rugged business. At times, the boys come back pretty much the worse for wear and there are times when they don't come back at all.

But right now it looked as though we'd hit it lucky — a peaceful planet, good climate, easy terrain, no hostile inhabitants and no dangerous fauna.

Weber took his time relieving me at guard, but finally he showed up.

I could see he still was goggle-eyed about the critter. He walked around it several times, looking it over.

"That's the most fantastic case of symbiosis I have ever seen," he said. "If it weren't lying over there, I'd say it was impossible. Usually you associate symbiosis with the lower, more simple forms of life."

"You mean that brush growing out of it?" He nodded.

"And the bees?"

He gagged over the bees.

"How are you so sure it's symbiosis?"

He almost wrung his hands. "I don't know," he admitted.

I gave him the rifle and went to the tent I shared with Kemper. The bacteriologist was awake when I came in.

"That you, Bob?"

"It's me. Everything's all right."

"I've been lying here and thinking," he said. "This is a screwy place."

"The critters?"

"No, not the critters. The planet itself. Never saw one like it. It's positively naked. No trees. No flowers. Nothing. It's just a sea of grass."

"Why not?" I asked. "Where does it say you can't find a pasture planet?"

"It's too simple," be protested. "Too simplified. Too neat and packaged. Almost as if someone had said "let's make a simple planet, let's cut out all the frills, let's skip all the biological experiments and get right down to basics. Just one form of life and the grass for it to eat.""

"You're way out on a limb," I told him. "How do you know all this? There may be other life-forms. There may be complexities we can't suspect. Sure, all we've seen are the critters, but maybe that's because there are so many of them."

"To hell with you," he said and turned over on his cot.

Now there's a guy I liked. We'd been tent partners ever since he'd joined the team better than ten years before and we got along fine.

Often I had wished the rest could get along as well. But it was too much to expect.

The fighting started right after breakfast, when Oliver and Weber insisted on using the camp table for dissecting. Parsons, who doubled as cook, jumped straight down their throats. Why he did it, I don't know. He knew before be said a word that he was licked, hands down. The same thing had happened many times before and he knew, no matter what he did or said, they would use the table.

But he put up a good battle. "You guys go and find some other place to do your butchering! Who wants to eat on a table that's all slopped up?"

"But, Carl, where can we do it? We'll use only one end of the table."

Which was a laugh, because in half an hour they'd be sprawled all over it.

"Spread out a canvas," Parsons snapped back.

"You can't dissect on a canvas. You got to have —»

"Another thing. How long do you figure it will take? In a day or two, that critter is going to get ripe."

It went on like that for quite a while, but by the time I started up the ladder to get the animals, Oliver and Weber had flung the critter on the table and were at work on it.

Unshipping the animals is something not exactly in my line of duty, but over the years I'd taken on the job of getting them unloaded, so they'd be there and waiting when Weber or some of the others needed them to run off a batch of tests.

I went down into the compartment where we kept them in their cages. The rats started squeaking at me and the zartyls from Centauri started screeching at me and the punkins from Polaris made an unholy racket, because the punkins are hungry all the time. You just can't give them enough to eat. Turn them loose with food and they'd eat themselves to death.

It was quite a job to get them all lugged up to the port and to rig up a sling and lower them to the ground, but I finally finished it without busting a single cage. That was an accomplishment. Usually I smashed a cage or two and some of the animals escaped and then Weber would froth around for days about my carelessness.

I had the cages all set out in rows and was puttering with canvas flies to protect them from the weather when Kemper came along and stood watching me.

"I have been wandering around," he announced. From the way he said it, I could see he had the wind up.

But I didn't ask him, for then he'd never have told me. You had to wait for Kemper to make up his mind to talk.

"Peaceful place," I said and it was all of that. It was a bright, clear day and the sun was not too warm. There was a little breeze and you could see a long way off. And it was quiet. Really quiet. There wasn't any noise at all.

"It's a lonesome place," said Kemper.

"I don't get you," I answered patiently.

"Remember what I said last night? About this planet being too simplified?"

He stood watching me put up the canvas, as if he might be considering how much more to tell me. I waited.

Finally, he blurted it. "Bob, there are no insects!"

"What have insects —»

"You know what I mean," he said. "You go out on Earth or any Earthilke planet and lie down in the grass and watch. You'll see the insects. Some of them on the ground and others on the grass. There'll be all kinds of them."

"And there aren't any here?"

He shook his head. "None that I could see. I wandered around and lay down and looked in a dozen different places. Stands to reason a man should find some insects if he looked all morning. It isn't natural, Bob."

I kept on with my canvas and I don't know why it was, but I got a little chilled about there not being any insects. Not that I care a hoot for insects, but as Kemper said, it was unnatural, although you come to expect the so-called unnatural in this planet-checking business.

"There are the bees," 1 said.

"What bees?"

"The ones that are in the critters. Didn't you see any?"

"None," he said. "I didn't get close to any critter herds. Maybe the bees don't travel very far."

"Any birds?"

"I didn't see a one," he said. "But I was wrong about the flowers. The grass has tiny flowers."

"For the bees to work on."

Kemper's face went stony. "That's right. Don't you see the pattern of it, the planned —»

"I see it," I told him.

He helped me with the canvas and we didn't say much more. When we had it done, we walked into camp.

Parsons was cooking lunch and grumbling at Oliver and Weber, but they weren't paying much attention to him. They had the table littered with different parts they'd carved out of the critter and they were looking slightly numb.

"No brain," Weber said to us accusingly, as if we might have made off with it when he wasn't looking. "We can't find a brain and there's no nervous system."

"It's impossible," declared Oliver. "How can a highly organized, complex animal exist without a brain or nervous system?"

"Look at that butcher shop!" Parsons yelled wrathfufly from the stove. "You guys will have to eat standing up!"

"Butcher shop is right," Weber agreed. "As near as we can figure out, there are at least a dozen different kinds of flesh — some fish, some fowl, some good red meat. Maybe a little lizard, even."

"An all-purpose animal," said Kemper. "Maybe we found something finally."

"If it's edible," Oliver added. "If it doesn't poison you. If it doesn't grow hair all over you."

"That's up to you," I told him. "I got the cages down and all lined up. You can start killing off the little cusses to your heart's content."

Weber looked ruefully at the mess on the table.

"We did just a rough exploratory job," he explained. "We ought to start another one from scratch. You'll have to get in on that next one, Kemper."

Kemper nodded glumly.

Weber looked at me. "Think you can get us one?"

"Sure," I said. "No trouble."

It wasn't.

Right after lunch, a lone critter came walking up, as if to visit us. It stopped about six feet from where we sat, gazed at us soulfully, then obligingly dropped dead.

During the next few days, Oliver and Weber barely took time out to eat and sleep. They sliced and probed. They couldn't believe half the things they found. They argued. They waved their scalpels in the air to emphasize their anguish. They almost broke down and wept. Kemper filled box after box with slides and sat hunched, half petrified, above his microscope.

Parsons and I wandered around while the others worked. He dug up some soil samples and tried to classify the grasses and failed, because there weren't any grasses — there was just one type of grass. He made notes on the weather and ran an analysis of the air and tried to pull together an ecological report without a lot to go on.

I looked for insects and I didn't find any except the bees and I never saw those unless I was near a critter herd. I watched for birds and there were none. I spent two days investigating a creek, lying on my belly and staring down into the water, and there were no signs of life. I hunted up a sugar sack and put a hoop in the mouth of it and spent another two days seining. I didn't catch a thing — not a fish, not even a crawdad, not a single thing.

By that time, I was ready to admit that Kemper had guessed right.

Fullerton walked around, too, but we paid no attention to him. All the Double Eyes, every one of them, always were looking for something no one else could see. After a while, you got pretty tired of them. I'd spent twenty years getting tired of them.

The last day I went seining, Fullerton stumbled onto me late in the afternoon. He stood up on the bank and watched me working in a pool. When I looked up, I had the feeling he'd been watching me for quite a little while.

"There's nothing there," he said.

The way he said it, he made it sound as if he'd known all along there was nothing there and that I was a fool for looking.

But that wasn't the only reason I got sore.

Sticking out of his face, instead of the usual toothpick, a stem of grass and he was rolling it around in his lips chewing it the way he chewed the toothpicks.

"Spit out that grass!" I shouted at him. "You fool, spit it out!"

His eyes grew startled and he spit out the grass.

"It's hard to remember," he mumbled. "You see, it's my first trip out and —»

"It could be your last one, too," I told him brutally. "Ask Weber sometime, when you have a moment, what happened to the guy who pulled a leaf and chewed it. Absent-minded, sure. Habit, certainly. He was just as dead as if he'd committed suicide."

Fullerton stiffened up.

"I'll keep it in mind," he said.

I stood there, looking up at him, feeling a little sorry that I'd been so tough with him.

But I had to be. There were so many absent-minded, well-intentioned ways a man could kill himself.

"You find anything?" I asked.

"I've been watching the critters," he said. "There was something funny that I couldn't quite make out at first…"

"I can list you a hundred funny things."

"That's not what I mean, Sutter. Not the patchwork color or the bushes growing out of them. There was something else. I finally got it figured out. There aren't any young."

Fullerton was right, of course. I realized it now, after he had told me. There weren't any calves or whatever you might call them. All we'd seen were adults. And yet that didn't necessarily mean there weren't any calves. It just meant we hadn't seen them. And the same, I knew, applied as well to insects, birds and fish. They all might be on the planet, but we just hadn't managed to find them yet.

And then, belatedly, I got it — the inference, the hope, the half-crazy fantasy behind this thing that Fullerton had found, or imagined he'd found.

"You're downright loopy," I said flatly.

He stared back at me and his eyes were shining like a kid's at Christmas.

He said: "It had to happen sometime, Sutter, somewhere." I climbed up the bank and stood beside him. I looked at the net I still held in my hands and threw it back into the creek and watched it sink.

"Be sensible," I warned him. "You have no evidence. Immortality wouldn't work that way. It couldn't. That way, it would be nothing but a dead end. Don't mention it to anyone. They'd ride you without mercy all the way back home."

I don't know why I wasted time on him. He stared back at me stubbornly, but still with that awful light of hope and triumph on his face.

"I'll keep my mouth shut," I told him curtly. "I won't say a word."

"Thanks, Sutter," he answered. "I appreciate it a lot."

I knew from the way he said it that he could murder me with gusto.

We trudged back to camp.

The camp was all slicked up.

The dissecting mess had been cleared away and the table had been scrubbed so hard that it gleamed. Parsons was cooking supper and singing one of his obscene ditties. The other three sat around in their camp chairs and they had broken out some liquor and were human once again.

"All buttoned up?" I asked, but Oliver shook his head.

They poured a drink for Fullerton and he accepted it, a bit ungraciously, but he did take it. That was some improvement on the usual Double Eye.

They didn't offer me any. They knew I couldn't drink it. "What have we got?" I asked.

"It could be something good," said Oliver. "It's a walking menu. It's an all-purpose animal, for sure. It lays eggs, gives milk, makes honey. It has six different kinds of red meat, two of fowl, one of fish and a couple of others we can't identify."

"Lays eggs," I said. "Gives milk. Then it reproduces."

"Certainly," said Weber. "What did you think?"

"There aren't any young."

Weber grunted. "Could be they have nursery areas. Certain places instinctively set aside in which to rear their young."

"Or they might have instinctive birth control," suggested Oliver. "That would fit in with the perfectly balanced ecology Kemper talks about…"

Weber snorted. "Ridiculous!"

"Not so ridiculous," Kemper retorted. "Not half so ridiculous as some other things we found. Not one-tenth as ridiculous as no brain or nervous system. Not any more ridiculous than my bacteria."

"Your bacteria!" Weber said. He drank down half a glass of liquor in a single gulp to make his disdain emphatic.

"The critters swarm with them," Kemper went on. "You find them everywhere throughout the entire animal. Not just in the bloodstream, not in restricted areas, but in the entire organism. And all of them the same. Normally it takes a hundred different kinds of bacteria to make a metabolism work, but here there's only one. And that one, by definition, must be general purpose — it must do all the work that the hundred other species do."

He grinned at Weber. "I wouldn't doubt but right there are your brains and nervous systems — the bacteria doubling in brass for both systems."

Parsons came over from the stove and stood with his fists planted on his hips, a steak fork grasped in one hand and sticking out at a tangent from his body.

"If you ask me," he announced, "there ain't no such animal. The critters are all wrong. They can't be made that way."

"

"But they are," said Kemper.

"It doesn't make sense! One kind of life. One kind of grass for it to eat. I'll bet that if we could make a census, we'd find the critter population is at exact capacity — just so many of them to the acre, figured down precisely to the last mouthful of grass. Just enough for them to eat and no more. Just enough so the grass won't be overgrazed. Or undergrazed, for that matter."

"What's wrong with that?" I asked, just to needle him.

I thought for a minute he'd take the steak fork to me.

"What's wrong with it?" he thundered. "Nature's never static, never standing still. But here it's standing still. Where's the competition? Where's the evolution?"

"That's not the point," said Kemper quietly. "The fact is that that's the way it is. The point is why? How did it happen? How was it planned? Why was it planned?"

"Nothing's planned," Weber told him sourly. "You know better than to talk like that."

Parsons went back to his cooking. Fullerton had wandered off somewhere. Maybe he was discouraged from hearing about the eggs and milk.

For a time, the four of us just sat.

Finally Weber said: "The first night we were here, I came out to relieve Bob at guard and I said to him…"

He looked at me. "You remember, Bob?"

"Sure. You said symbiosis."

"And now?" asked Kemper.

"I don't know. It simply couldn't happen. But if it did — if it could — this critter would be the most beautifully logical example of symbiosis you could dream up. Symbiosis carried to its logical conclusion. Like, long ago, all the life-forms said let's quit this feuding, let's get together, let's cooperate. All the plants and animals and fish and bacteria got together —»

"It's far-fetched, of course," said Kemper. "But, by and large, it's not anything unheard of, merely carried further, that's all. Symbiosis is a recognized way of life and there's nothing —»

Parsons let out a bellow for them to come and get it, and I went to my tent and broke out my diet kit and mixed up a mess of goo. It was a relief to eat in private, without the others making cracks about the stuff I had to choke down.

I found a thin sheaf of working notes on the small wooden crate I'd set up for a desk. I thumbed through them while I ate. They were fairly sketchy and sometimes hard to read, being smeared with blood and other gook from the dissecting table. But I was used to that. I worked with notes like that all the blessed time; So I was able to decipher them. The whole picture wasn't there, of course, but there was enough to bear out what they'd told me and a good deal more as well.

For examples, the color squares that gave the critters their crazy-quiltish look were separate kinds of meat or fish or fowl or unknown food, whatever it might be. Almost as if each square was the present-day survivor of each ancient symbiont — if, in fact, there was any basis to this talk of symbiosis.

The egg-laying apparatus was described in some biologic detail, but there seemed to be no evidence of recent egg production. The same was true of the lactation system.

There were, the notes said in Oliver's crabbed writing, five kinds of fruit and three kinds of vegetables to be derived from the plants growing from the critters.

I shoved the notes to one side and sat back on my chair, gloating just a little.

Here was diversified farming with a vengeance! You had meat and dairy herds, fish pond, aviary, poultry yard, orchard and garden rolled into one, all in the body of a single animal that was a complete farm in itself!

I went through the notes hurriedly again and found what I was looking for. The food product seemed high in relation to the gross weight of the animal. Very little would be lost in dressing out.

That is the kind of thing an ag economist has to consider.

But that isn't all of it, by any means. What if a man couldn't eat the critter? Suppose the critters couldn't be moved off the planet because they died if you took them from their range?

I recalled how they'd just walked up and died; that in itself was another headache to be filed for future worry.

What if they could only eat the grass that grew on this one planet? And if so, could the grass be grown elsewhere? What kind of tolerance would the critter show to different kinds of climate? What was the rate of reproduction? If it was slow, as was indicated, could it be stepped up? What was the rate of growth?

I got up and walked out of the tent and stood for a while, outside. The little breeze that had been blowing had died down at sunset and the place was quiet. Quiet because there was nothing but the critters to make any noise and we had yet to hear them make a single sound. The stars blazed overhead and there were so many of them that they lighted up the countryside as if there were a moon.

I walked over to where the rest of the men were sitting. "It looks like we'll be here for a while," I said. "Tomorrow we might as well get the ship unloaded."

No one answered me, but in the silence I could sense the half-hidden satisfaction and the triumph. At last we'd hit the jackpot! We'd be going home with something that would make those other teams look pallid. We'd be the ones who got the notices and bonuses.

Oliver finally broke the silence. "Some of our animals aren't in good shape. I went down this afternoon to have a look at them. A couple of the pigs and several of the rats."

He looked at me accusingly.

I flared up at him. "Don't look at me! I'm not their keeper. I just take care of them until you're ready to use them."

Kemper butted in to bead off an argument. "Before we do any feeding, we'll need another critter."

"I'll lay you a bet," said Weber.

Kemper didn't take him up.

It was just as well he didn't, for a critter came in, right after breakfast, and died with a savoir faire that was positively marvelous. They went to work on it immediately.

Parsons and I started unloading the supplies. We put in a busy day. We moved all the food except the emergency rations we left in the ship. We slung down a refrigerating unit Weber had been yelling for, to keep the critter products fresh.

We unloaded a lot of equipment and some silly odds and ends that I knew we'd have no use for, but that some of the others wanted broken out. We put up tents and we lugged and pushed and hauled all day. Late in the afternoon, we had it all stacked up and under canvas and were completely bushed.

Kemper went back to his bacteria. Weber spent hours with the animals. Oliver dug up a bunch of grass and gave the grass the works. Parsons went out on field trips, mumbling and fretting.

Of all of us, Parsons had the job that was most infuriating.

Ordinarily the ecology of even the simplest of planets is a complicated business and there's a lot of work to do. But here was almost nothing. There was no competition for survival.

There was no dog eat dog. There were just critters cropping grass.

I started to pull my report together, knowing that it would have to be revised and rewritten again and again. But I was anxious to get going. I fairly itched to see the pieces fall together — although I knew from the very start some of them wouldn't fit. They almost never do.

Things went well. Too well, it sometimes seemed to me.

There were incidents, of course, like when the punkins somehow chewed their way out of their cage and disappeared.

Weber was almost beside himself.

"They'll come back," said Kemper. "With that appetite of theirs, they won't stay away for long."

And he was right about that part of it. The punkins were the hungriest creatures in the Galaxy. You could never feed them enough to satisfy them. And they'd eat anything. It made no difference to them, just so there was a lot of it. And it was that very factor in their metabolism that made them invaluable as research animals.

The other animals thrived on the critter diet. The carnivorous ones ate the critter-meat and the vegetarians chomped on critter-fruit and critter-vegetables. They all grew sleek and sassy. They seemed in better health than the control animals, which continued their regular diet. Even the pigs and rats that had been sick got well again and as fat and happy as any of the others.

Kemper told us, "This critter stuff is more than just a food. It's a medicine. I can see the signs: "Eat Critter and Keep Well!""

Weber grunted at him. He was never one for joking and I think he was a worried man. A thorough man, he'd found too many things that violated all the tenets he'd accepted as the truth. No brain or nervous system. The ability to die at will. The lingering hint of wholesale symbiosis. And the bacteria.

The bacteria, I think, must have seemed to him the worst of all.

There was, it now appeared, only one type involved.

Kemper had hunted frantically and had discovered no others, Oliver found it in the grass. Parsons found it in the soil and water. The air, strangely enough, seemed to be free of it.

But Weber wasn't the only one who worried. Kemper worried, too. He unloaded most of it just before our bedtime, sitting on the edge of his cot and trying to talk the worry out of himself while I worked on my reports.

And he'd picked the craziest point imaginable to pin his worry on.

"You can explain it all," he said, "if you are only willing to concede on certain points. You can explain the critters if you're willing to believe in a symbiotic arrangement carried out on a planetary basis. You can believe in the utter simplicity of the ecology if you're willing to assume that, given space and time enough, anything can happen within the bounds of logic."

"You can visualize how the bacteria might take the place of brains and nervous systems if you're ready to say this is a bacterial world and not a critter world. And you can even envision the bacteria — all of them, every single one of them — as forming one gigantic linked intelligence. And if you accept that theory, then the voluntary deaths become understandable, because there's no actual death involved — it's just like you or me trimming off a hangnail. And if this is true, then Fullerton has found immortality, although it's not the kind he was looking for and it won't do him or us a single bit of good.

"But the thing that worries me," he went on, his face all knotted up with worry, "is the seeming lack of anything resembling a defense mechanism. Even assuming that the critters are no more than fronting for a bacterial world, the mechanism should be there as a simple matter of precaution. Every living thing we know of has some sort of way to defend itself or to escape potential enemies. It either fights or runs and hides to preserve its life."

He was right, of course. Not only did the critters have no defense, they even saved one the trouble of going out to kill them.

"Maybe we are wrong," Kemper concluded. "Maybe life, after all, is not as valuable as we think it is, Maybe it's not a thing to cling to. Maybe it's not worth fighting for. Maybe the critters, in their dying, are closer to the truth than we."

It would go on like that, night after night, with Kemper talking around in circles and never getting anywhere. I think most of the time he wasn't talking to me, but talking to himself, trying by the very process of putting it in words to work out some final answer.

And long after we had turned out the lights and gone to bed, I'd lie on my cot and think about all that Kemper said and I thought in circles, too. I wondered why all the critters that came in and died were in the prime of life. Was the dying a privilege that was accorded only to the fit? Or were all the critters in the prime of life? Was there really some cause to believe they might be immortal?

I asked a lot of questions, but there weren't any answers.

We continued with our work. Weber killed some of his animals and examined them and there were no signs of ill effect from the critter diet. There were traces of critter bacteria in their blood, but no sickness, reaction or antibody formation. Kemper kept on with his bacterial work. Oliver started a whole series of experiments with the grass. Parsons just gave up.

The punkins didn't come back and Parsons and Fullerton went out and hunted for them, but without success.

I worked on my report and the pieces fell together better than I had hoped they would. It began to look as though we had the situation well nailed down. We were all feeling pretty good. We could almost taste that bonus.

But I think that, in the back of our minds, all of us were wondering if we could get away scot free. I know I had mental fingers crossed. It just didn't seem quite possible that something wouldn't happen.

And, of course, it did.

We were sitting around after supper, with the lantern lighted, when we heard the sound. I realized afterward that we had been hearing it for some time before we paid attention to it. It started so soft and so far away that it crept upon us without alarming us. At first, it sounded like a sighing, as if a gentle wind were blowing through a little tree, and then it changed into a rumble, but a far-off rumble that had no menace in it. I was just getting ready to say something about thunder and wondering if our stretch of weather was about to break when Kemper jumped up and yelled.

I don't know what he yelled. Maybe it wasn't a word at all. But the way he yelled brought us to our feet and sent us at a dead run for the safety of the ship. Even before we got there, in the few seconds it took to reach the ladder, the character of the sound had changed and there was no mistaking what it was — the drumming of hoofs heading straight for camp.

They were almost on top of us when we reached the ladder and there wasn't time or room for all of us to use it. I was the last in line and I saw I'd never make it and a dozen possible escape plans flickered through my mind. But I knew they wouldn't work fast enough. Then I saw the rope, hanging where I'd left it after the unloading job, and I made a jump for it. I'm no rope-climbing expert, but I shinnied up it with plenty of speed. And right behind me came Weber, who was no rope-climber; either, but who was doing rather well.

I thought of how lucky it had been that I hadn't found the time to take down the rig and how Weber had ridden me unmercifully about not doing it. I wanted to shout down and point it out to him, but I didn't have the breath.

We reached the port and tumbled into it. Below us, the stampeding critters went grinding through the camp. There seemed to be millions of them. One of the terrifying things about it was how silently they ran. They made no outcry of any kind; all you could hear was the sound of their hoofs pounding on the ground. It seemed almost as if they ran in some blind fury that was too deep for outcry.

They spread for miles, as far as one could see on the star-lit plains, but the spaceship divided them and they flowed to either side of it and then flowed back again, and beyond the spaceship there was a little sector that they never touched.

I thought how we could have been safe staying on the ground and huddling in that sector, but that's one of the things a man never can foresee.

The stampede lasted for almost an hour. When it was all over, we came down and surveyed the damage. The animals in their cages, lined up between the ship and the camp, were safe. All but one of the sleeping tents were standing. The lantern still burned brightly on the table. But everything else was gone. Our food supply was trampled in the ground. Much of the equipment was lost and wrecked. On either side of the camp, the ground was churned up like a half-plowed field. The whole thing was a mess.

It looked as if we were licked.

The tent Kemper and I used for sleeping still stood, so our notes were safe. The animals were all right. But that was all we had — the notes and animals.

"I need three more weeks," said Weber. "Give me just three weeks to complete the tests."

"We haven't got three weeks," I answered. "All our food is gone."

"The emergency rations in the ship?"

"That's for going home."

"We can go a little hungry."

He glared at us — at each of us in turn — challenging us to do a little starving.

"I can go three weeks," he said, "without any food at all? "We could eat critter," suggested Parsons. "We could take a chance."

Weber shook his head. "Not yet. In three weeks, when the tests are finished, then maybe we will know. Maybe we won't need those rations for going home. Maybe we can stock up on critters and eat our heads off all the way to Caph."

I looked around at the rest of them, but I knew, before I looked, the answer I would get.

"All right," I said. "We'll try it."

"It's all right for you," Fullerton retorted hastily. "You have your diet kit."

Parsons reached out and grabbed him and shook him so hard that be went cross-eyed. "We don't talk like that about those diet kits."

Then Parsons let him go.

We set up double guards, for the stampede had wrecked our warning system, but none of us got much sleep. We were too upset.

Personally, I did some worrying about why the critters had stampeded. There was nothing on the planet that could scare them. There were no other animals. There was no thunder or lightning — as a matter of fact, it appeared that the planet might have no boisterous weather ever. And there seemed to be nothing in the critter makeup, from our observation of them, that would set them off emotionally.

But there must be a reason and a purpose, I told myself. And there must be, too, in their dropping dead for us. But was the purpose intelligence or instinct? That was what bothered me most. It kept me awake all night long.

At daybreak, a critter walked in and died for us happily. We went without our breakfast and, when noon came, no one said anything about lunch, so we skipped that, too.

Late in the afternoon, I climbed the ladder to get some food for supper. There wasn't any. Instead, I found five of the fattest punkins you ever laid your eyes on. They had chewed holes through the packing boxes and the food was cleaned out. The sacks were limp and empty. They'd even managed to get the lid off the coffee can somehow and had eaten every bean.

The five of them sat contentedly in a corner, blinking smugly at me. They didn't make a racket, as they usually did. Maybe they knew they were in the wrong or maybe they were just too full. For once, perhaps, they'd gotten all they could eat.

I just stood there and looked at them and I knew how they'd gotten on the ship. I blamed myself, not them. If only I'd found the time to take down the unloading rig, they'd never gotten in. But then I remembered how that dangling rope had saved my life and Weber's and I couldn't decide whether I'd done right or wrong.

I went over to the corner and picked the punkins up. I stuffed three of them in my pockets and carried the other two. I climbed down from the ship and walked up to camp. I put the punkins on the table.

"Here they are," I said. "They were in the ship. That's why we couldn't find them. They climbed up the rope."

Weber took one look at them. "They look well fed. Did they leave anything?"

"Not a scrap. They cleaned us out entirely."

The punkins were quite happy. It was apparent they were glad to be back with us again. After all, they'd eaten everything in reach and there was no further reason for their staying in the ship.

Parsons picked up a knife and walked over to the critter that had died that morning.

"Tie on your bibs," he said.

He carved out big steaks and threw them on the table and then he lit his stove. I retreated to my tent as soon as he started cooking, for never in my life have I smelled anything as good as those critter steaks.

I broke out the kit and mixed me up some goo and sat there eating it, feeling sorry for myself.

Kemper came in after a while and sat down on his cot.

"Do you want to hear?" he asked me.

"Go ahead," I invited him resignedly.

"It's wonderful. It's got everything you've ever eaten backed clear off the table. We had three different kinds of red meat and a slab of fish and something that resembled lobster, only better. And there's one kind of fruit growing out of that bush in the middle of the back…"

"And tomorrow you drop dead."

"I don't think so," Kemper said. "The animals have been thriving on it. There's nothing wrong with them."

It seemed that Kemper was right. Between the animals and men, it took a critter a day. The critters didn't seem to mind. They were johnny-on-the-spot. They walked in promptly, one at a time, and keeled over every morning.

The way the men and animals ate was positively indecent. Parsons cooked great platters of different kinds of meat and fish and fowl and what-not. He prepared huge bowls of vegetables. He heaped other bowls with fruit. He racked up combs of honey and the men licked the platters clean. They sat around with belts unloosened and patted their bulging bellies and were disgustingly contented.

I waited for them to break out in a rash or to start turning green with purple spots or grow scales or something of the sort. But nothing happened. They thrived, just as the animals were thriving. They felt better than they ever had.

Then, one morning, Fullerton turned up sick. He lay on his cot flushed with fever. It looked like Centaurian virus, although we'd been inoculated against that. In fact, we'd been inoculated and immunized against almost everything. Each time, before we blasted off on another survey, they jabbed us full of booster shots.

I didn't think much of it. I was fairly well convinced, for a time at least, that all that was wrong with him was overeating.

Oliver, who knew a little about medicine, but not much, got the medicine chest out of the ship and pumped Fullerton full of some new antibiotic that came highly recommended for almost everything.

We went on with our work, expecting he'd be on his feet in a day or two.

But he wasn't. If anything, he got worse.

Oliver went through the medicine chest, reading all the labels carefully, but didn't find anything that seemed to be the proper medication. He read the first-aid booklet. It didn't tell him anything except how to set broken legs or apply artificial respiration and simple things like that.

Kemper had been doing a lot of worrying, so he had Oliver take a sample of Fullerton's blood and then prepared a slide. When he looked at the blood through the microscope, he found that it swarmed with bacteria from the critters. Oliver took some more blood samples and Kemper prepared more slides, just to double-check, and there was no doubt about it.

By this time, all of us were standing around the table watching Kemper and waiting for the verdict. I know the same thing must have been in the mind of each of us.

It was Oliver who put it into words. "Who is next?" he asked.

Parsons stepped up and Oliver took the sample.

We waited anxiously.

Finally Kemper straightened.

"You have them, too," he said to Parsons. "Not as high a count as Fullerton."

Man after man stepped up. All of us had the bacteria, but in my case the count was low.

"It's the critter," Parsons said. "Bob hasn't been eating any."

"But cooking kills — " Oliver started to say.

"You can't be sure. These bacteria would have to be highly adaptable. They do the work of thousands of other microorganisms. They're a sort of bandy-man, a jack-of-all-trades. They can acclimatize. They can meet new situations. They haven't weakened the strain by becoming specialized."

"Besides," said Parsons, "we don't cook all of it. We don't cook the fruit and most of you guys raise hell if a steak is more than singed."

"What I can't figure out is why it should be Fullerton," Weber said. "Why should his count be higher? He started on the critter the same time as the rest of us."

I remembered that day down by the creek.

"He got a head start on the rest of you," I explained. "He ran out of toothpicks and took to chewing grass stems. I caught him at it."

I know it wasn't very comforting. It meant that in another week or two, all of them would have as high a count as Fullerton. But there was no sense not telling them. It would have been criminal not to. There was no place for wishful thinking in a situation like that.

"We can't stop eating critter," said Weber. "It's all the food we have. There's nothing we can do."

"I have a hunch," Kemper replied, "it's too late anyhow."

"If we started home right now," I said, "there's my diet kit…"

They didn't let me finish making my offer. They slapped me on the back and pounded one another and laughed like mad.

It wasn't funny. They just needed something they could laugh at.

"It wouldn't do any good," said Kemper. "We've already had it. Anyhow, your diet kit wouldn't last us all the way back home."

"We could have a try at it," I argued.

"It may be just a transitory thing," Parsons said. "Just a bit of fever. A little upset from a change of diet."

We all hoped that, of course.

But Fullerton got no better.

Weber took blood samples of the animals and they bad a bacterial count almost as high as Fullerton's — much higher than when he'd taken it before.

Weber blamed himself. "I should have kept closer check. I should have taken tests every day or so."

"What difference would it have made?" demanded Parsons. "Even if you had, even if you'd found a lot of bacteria in the blood, we'd still have eaten critter. There was no other choice."

"Maybe it's not the bacteria," said Oliver. "We may be jumping at conclusions. It may be something else that Fullerton picked up."

Weber brightened up a bit. "That's right. The animals still seem to be okay."

They were bright and chipper, in the best of health.

We waited. Fullerton got neither worse nor better.

Then, one night, he disappeared.

Oliver, who had been sitting with him, had dozed off for a moment. Parsons, on guard, had heard nothing.

We hunted for him for three full days. He couldn't have gone far, we figured. He had wandered off in a delirium and he didn't have the strength to cover any distance.

But we didn't find him.

We did find one queer thing, however. It was a ball of some strange substance, white and fresh-appearing. It was about four feet in diameter. It lay at the bottom of a little gully, hidden out of sight, as if someone or something might have brought it there and hidden it away.

We did some cautious poking at it and we rolled it back and forth a little and wondered what it was, but we were hunting Fullerton and we didn't have the time to do much investigating. Later on, we agreed, we would come back and get it and find out what it was.

Then the animals came down with the fever, one after another — all except the controls, which had been eating regular food until the stampede had destroyed the supply.

After that, of course, all of them ate critter.

By the end of two days, most of the animals were down.

Weber worked with them, scarcely taking time to rest. We all helped as best we could.

Blood samples showed a greater concentration of bacteria. Weber started a dissection, but never finished it. Once he got the animal open, he took a quick look at it and scraped the whole thing off the table into a pail. I saw him, but I don't think any of the others did. We were pretty busy.

I asked him about it later in the day, when we were alone for a moment. He briskly brushed me off.

I went to bed early that night because I had the second guard. It seemed I had no more than shut my eyes when I was brought upright by a racket that raised goose pimples on every inch of me.

I tumbled out of bed and scrabbled around to find my shoes and get them on. By that time, Kemper had dashed out of the tent.

There was trouble with the animals. They were fighting to break out, chewing the bars of their cages and throwing themselves against them in a blind and terrible frenzy. And all the time they were squealing and screaming. To listen to them set your teeth on edge.

Weber dashed around with a hypodermic. After what seemed hours, we had them full of sedative. A few of them broke loose and got away, but the rest were sleeping peacefully.

I got a gun and took over guard duty while the other men went back to bed.

I stayed down near the cages, walking back and forth because I was too tense to do much sitting down. It seemed to me that between the animals" frenzy to escape and Fullerton's disappearance, there was a parallel that was too similar for comfort.

I tried to review all that had happened on the planet and I got bogged down time after time as I tried to make the picture dovetail. The trail of thought I followed kept turning back to Kemper's worry about the critters" lack of a defense mechanism.

Maybe, I told myself, they had a defense mechanism, after all — the slickest, smoothest, trickiest one Man ever had encountered.

As soon as the camp awoke, I went to our tent to stretch out for a moment, perhaps to catch a catnap. Worn out, I slept for hours.

Kemper woke me.

"Get up, Bob!" he said. "For the love of God, get up!"

It was late afternoon and the last rays of the sun were streaming through the tent flap. Kemper's face was haggard. It was as if he'd suddenly grown old since I'd seen him less than twelve hours before.

"They're encysting," he gasped. "They're turning into cocoons or chrysalises or…"

I sat up quickly. "That one we found out there in the field!"

He nodded.

"Fullerton?" I askecl

"We'll go out and see, all five of us, leaving the camp and animals alone."

We had some trouble finding it because the land was so flat and featureless that there were no landmarks.

But finally we located it, just as dusk was setting in. The ball had split in two — not in a clean break, in a jagged one. It looked like an egg after a chicken has been hatched. And the halves lay there in the gathering darkness, in the silence underneath the sudden glitter of the stars — a last farewell and a new beginning and a terrible alien fact.

I tried to say something, but my brain was so numb that I was not entirely sure just what I should say. Anyhow, the words died in the dryness of my mouth and the thickness of my tongue before I could get them out.

For it was not only the two halves of the cocoon — it was the marks within that hollow, the impression of what had been there, blurred and distorted by the marks of what it had become.

We fled back to camp.

Someone, I think it was Oliver, got the lantern lighted. We stood uneasily, unable to look at one another, knowing that the time was past for all dissembling, that there was no use of glossing over or denying what we'd seen in the dim light in the gully.

"Bob is the only one who has a chance," Kemper finally said, speaking more concisely than seemed possible. "I think be should leave right now. Someone must get back to Caph. Someone has to tell them."

He looked across the circle of lantern light at me.

"Well," he said sharply, "get going! What's the matter with you?"

"You were right," I said, not much more than whispering. "Remember how you wondered about a defense mechanism?"

"They have it," Weber agreed. "The best you can find. There's no beating them. They don't fight you. They absorb you. They make you into them. No wonder there are just the critters here. No wonder the planet's ecology is simple. They have you pegged and measured from the instant you set foot on the planet. Take one drink of water. Chew a single grass stem. Take one bite of critter. Do any one of these things and they have you cold."

Oliver came out of the dark and walked across the lantern-lighted circle. He stopped in front of me.

"Here are your diet kit and notes," he said.

"But I can't run out on you!"

"Forget us!" Parsons barked at me. "We aren't human any more. In a few more days…"

He grabbed the lantern and strode down the cages and held the lantern high, so that we could see.

"Look," he said.

There were no animals. There were just the cocoons and the little critters and the cocoons that had split in half.

I saw Kemper looking at me and there was, of all things, compassion on his face.

"You don't want to stay," he told me. "If you do, in a day or two, a critter will come in and drop dead for you. And you'll go crazy all the way back home — wondering which one of us it was."

He turned away then. They all turned away from me and suddenly it seemed I was all alone.

Weber had found an axe somewhere and he started walking down the row of cages, knocking off the bars to let the little critters out.

I walked slowly over to the ship and stood at the foot of the ladder, holding the notes and the diet kit tight against my chest.

When I got there, I turned around and looked back at them and it seemed I couldn't leave them.

I thought of all we'd been through together and when I tried to think of specific things, the only thing I could think about was how they always kidded me about the diet kit.

And I thought of the times I had to leave and go off somewhere and eat alone so that I couldn't smell the food. I thought of almost ten years of eating that damn goo and that I could never eat like a normal human because of my ulcerated stomach.

Maybe they were the lucky ones, I told myself. If a man got turned into a critter, he'd probably come out with a whole stomach and never have to worry about how much or what he ate. The critters never ate anything except the grass, but maybe, I thought, that grass tasted just as good to them as a steak or a pumpkin pie would taste to me.

So I stood there for a while and I thought about it. Then I took the diet kit and flung it out into the darkness as far as I could throw it and 1 dropped the notes to the ground.

I walked back into the camp and the first man I saw was Parsons.

"What have you got for supper?" I asked him.

The Fellowship of the Talisman

Original copyright year: 1978

1

The manor house was the first undamaged structure they had seen in two days of travel through an area that had been desolated with a thoroughness at once terrifying and unbelievable.

During those two days, furtive wolves had watched them from hilltops. Foxes, their brushes dragging, had skulked through underbrush. Buzzards, perched on dead trees or on the blackened timbers of burned homesteads, had looked upon them with speculative interest. They had met not a soul, but occasionally, in thickets, they had glimpsed human skeletons.

The weather had been fine until noon of the second day, when the soft sky of early autumn became overcast, and a chill wind sprang from the north. At times the sharp wind whipped icy rain against their backs, the rain sometimes mixed with snow.

Late in the afternoon, topping a low ridge, Duncan Standish sighted the manor, a rude set of buildings fortified by palisades and a narrow moat. Inside the palisades, fronting the drawbridge, lay a courtyard, within which were penned horses, cattle, sheep, and hogs. A few men moved about in the courtyard, and smoke streamed from several chimneys. A number of small buildings, some of which bore the signs of burning, lay outside the palisades. The entire place had a down-at-heels appearance.

Daniel, the great war-horse, who had been following Duncan like a dog, came up behind the man. Clopping behind Daniel came the little gray burro, Beauty, with packs lashed upon her back. Daniel lowered his head, nudged his master's back.

"It's all right, Daniel," Duncan told him. "We've found shelter for the night."

The horse blew softly through his nostrils.

Conrad came trudging up the slope and ranged himself alongside Duncan. Conrad was a massive man. Towering close to seven feet, he was heavy even for his height. A garment made of sheep pelts hung from his shoulders almost to his knees. In his right fist he carried a heavy club fashioned from an oak branch. He stood silently, staring at the manor house.

"What do you make of it?" asked Duncan.

"They have seen us," Conrad said. "Heads peeking out above the palisades."

"Your eyes are shaper than mine," said Duncan. "Are you sure?"

"I'm sure, m" lord."

"Quit calling me "my lord." I'm not a lord. My father is the lord."

"I think of you as such," said Conrad. "When your father dies, you will be a lord."

"No Harriers?"

"Only people," Conrad told him.

"It seems unlikely," said Duncan, "that the Harriers would have passed by such a place."

"Maybe fought them off. Maybe the Harriers were in a hurry."

"So far," said Duncan, "from our observations, they passed little by. The lowliest cottages, even huts, were burned."

"Here comes Tiny," said Conrad. "He's been down to look them over."

The mastiff came loping up the slope and they waited for him. He went over to stand close to Conrad. Conrad patted his head, and the great dog wagged his tail. Looking at them, Duncan noted once again how similar were the man and dog. Tiny reached almost to Conrad's waist. He was a splendid brute. He wore a wide leather collar in which were fastened metal studs. His ears tipped forward as he looked down at the manor. A faint growl rumbled in his throat.

"Tiny doesn't like it, either," Conrad said.

"It's the only place we've seen," said Duncan. "It's shelter. The night will be wet and cold."

"Bedbugs there will be. Lice as well."

The little burro sidled close to Daniel to get out of the cutting wind.

Duncan shucked up his sword belt. "I don't like it, Conrad, any better than you and Tiny do. But there is a bad night coming on."

"We'll stay close together," Conrad said. "We'll not let them separate us."

"That is right," said Duncan. "We might as well start down."

As they walked down the slope, Duncan unconsciously put his hand beneath his cloak to find the pouch dangling from his belt. His fingers located the bulk of the manuscript. He seemed to hear the crinkle of the parchment as his fingers touched it. He found himself suddenly enraged at his action. Time after time, during the last two days, he'd gone through the same silly procedure, making sure the manuscript was there. Like a country boy going to a fair, he told himself, with a penny tucked in his pocket, thrusting his hand again and again into the pocket to make sure he had not lost the penny.

Having touched the parchment, again he seemed to hear His Grace saying, "Upon those few pages may rest the future hope of mankind." Although, come to think of it, His Grace was given to overstatement and not to be taken as seriously as he sometimes tried to make a person think he should be. In this instance, however, Duncan told himself, the aged and portly churchman might very well be right. But that would not be known until they got to Oxenford.

And because of this, because of the tightly written script on a few sheets of parchment, he was here rather than back in the comfort and security of Standish House, trudging down a hill to seek shelter in a place where, as Conrad had pointed out, there probably would be bedbugs.

"One thing bothers me," said Conrad as he strode along with Duncan.

"I didn't know that anything ever bothered you."

"It's the Little Folk," said Conrad. "We have seen none of them. If anyone, they should be the ones to escape the Harriers. You can't tell me that goblins and gnomes and others of their kind could not escape the Harriers."

"Maybe they are frightened and hiding out," said Duncan. "If I am any judge of them, they'd know where to hide."

Conrad brightened visibly. "Yes, that must be it," he said.

As they drew closer to the manor, they saw their estimation of the place had not been wrong. It was far from prepossessing. Ramshackle was the word for it. Here and there heads appeared over the palisades, watching their approach.

The drawbridge was still up when they reached the moat, which was a noisome thing. The stench was overpowering, and in the greenish water floated hunks of corruption that could have been decaying human bodies.

Conrad bellowed at the heads protruding over the palisades. "Open up," he shouted. "Travelers claim shelter."

Nothing happened for a time, and Conrad bellowed once again. Finally, with much creaking of wood and squealing of chains, the bridge began a slow, jerky descent. As they crossed the bridge they saw that there stood inside a motley crowd with the look of vagabonds about them, but the vagabonds were armed with spears, and some carried makeshift swords in hand.

Conrad waved his club at them. "Stand back," he growled. "Make way for m" lord."

They backed off, but the spears were not grounded; the blades stayed naked. A crippled little man, one foot dragging, limped through the crowd and came up to them. "My master welcomes you," he whined. "He would have you at table."

"First," said Conrad, "shelter for the beasts."

"There is a shed," said the whining lame man. "It is open to the weather, but it has a roof and is placed against the wall. There'll be hay for the horse and burro. I'll bring the dog a bone."

"No bone," said Conrad. "Meat. Big meat. Meat to fit his size."

"I'll find some meat," said the lame man.

"Give him a penny," Duncan said to Conrad.

Conrad inserted his fingers into the purse at his belt, brought out a coin, and flipped it to the man, who caught it deftly and touched a finger to his forelock, but in a mocking manner.

The shed was shelter, barely, but at the worst it offered some protection from the wind and a cover against rain. Duncan unsaddled Daniel and placed the saddle against the wall of the palisade. Conrad unshipped the pack from the burro, piled it atop the saddle.

"Do you not wish to take the saddle and the pack inside with you?" the lame man asked. "They might be safer there."

"Safe here," insisted Conrad. "Should anyone touch them, he will get smashed ribs, perhaps his throat torn out."

The raffish crowd that had confronted them when they crossed the bridge had scattered now. The drawbridge, with shrill sounds of protest, was being drawn up.

"Now," said the lame man, "if you two will follow me. The master sits at meat."

The great hall of the manor was ill lighted and evil smelling. Smoky torches were ranged along the walls to provide illumination. The rushes on the floor had not been changed for months, possibly for years; they were littered with bones thrown to dogs or simply tossed upon the floor once the meat had been gnawed from them. Dog droppings lay underfoot, and the room stank of urine—dog, and, more than likely, human. At the far end of the room stood a fireplace with burning logs. The chimney did not draw well and poured smoke into the hall. A long trestle table ran down the center of the hail. Around it was seated an uncouth company. Half-grown boys ran about, serving platters of food and jugs of ale.

When Duncan and Conrad came into the hail, the talk quieted and the bleary white of the feasters" faces turned to stare at the new arrivals. Dogs rose from their bones and showed their teeth at them.

At the far end of the table a man rose from his seat. He roared at them in a joyous tone, "Welcome, travelers. Come and share the board of Harold, the Reaver."

He turned his head to a group of youths serving the table.

"Kick those mangy dogs out of the way to make way for our guests," he roared. "It would not be seemly for them to be set upon and bitten."

The youths set upon their task with a will. Boots thudded into dogs; the dogs snapped back, whimpering and snarling.

Duncan strode forward, followed by Conrad.

"I thank you, sir," said Duncan, "for your courtesy."

Harold, the Reaver, was raw-boned, hairy and unkempt. His hair and beard had the appearance of having housed rats. He wore a cloak that at one time may have been purple, but was now so besmirched by grease that it seemed more mud than purple. The fur that offset the collar and the sleeves was moth-eaten.

The Reaver waved at a place next to him. "Please be seated, sir," he said.

"My name," said Duncan, "is Duncan Standish, and the man with me is Conrad."

"Conrad is your man?"

"Not my man. My companion."

The Reaver mulled the answer for a moment, then said, "In that case, he must sit with you." He said to the man in the next place, "Einer, get the hell out of here. Find another place and take your trencher with you."

With ill grace, Einer picked up his trencher and his mug and went stalking down the table to find another place.

"Now since it all is settled," the Reaver said to Duncan, "will you not sit down. We have meat and ale. The ale is excellent; for the meat I'll not say as much. There also is bread of an indifferent sort, but we have a supply of the finest honey a bee has ever made. When the Harriers came down upon us, Old Cedric, our bee master, risked his very life to bring in the hives, thus saving it for us."

"How long ago was that?" asked Duncan. "When the Harriers came?"

"It was late in the spring. There were just a few of them at first, the forerunners of the Horde. It gave us a chance to bring in the livestock and the bees. When the real Horde finally came, we were ready for them. Have you, sir, ever seen any of the Harriers?"

"No. I've only heard of them."

"They are a vicious lot," the Reaver said. "All shapes and sizes of them. Imps, demons, devils, and many others that twist your gut with fear and turn your bowels to water, all with their own special kinds of nastiness. The worst of them are the hairless ones. Human, but they are not human. Like shambling idiots, strong, massive idiots that have no fear and an undying urge to kill. No hair upon them, not a single hair from top to toe. White—white like the slugs you find when you overturn a rotting log. Fat and heavy like the slugs. But no fat. Or I think no fat, but muscle. Muscle such as you have never seen. Strength such as no one has ever seen. Taken all together, the hairless ones and the others that run with them sweep everything before them. They kill, they burn, there is no mercy in them. Ferocity and magic. That is their stock in trade. We were hard put, I don't mind telling you, to hold them at arm's length. But we resisted the magic and matched the ferocity, although the very sight of them could scare a man to death."

"I take it you did not scare."

"We did not scare," the Reaver said. "My men, they are a hard lot. We gave them blow for blow. We were as mean as they were. We were not about to give up this place we had found."

"Found?"

"Yes, found. You can tell, of course, that we are not the sort of people you'd ordinarily find in a place like this. The Reaver in my name is just a sort of joke, you see. A joke among ourselves. We are a band of honest workmen, unable to find jobs. There are many such as we. So all of us, facing the same problems and knowing there was no work for us, banded together to seek out some quiet corner of the land where we might set up rude homesteads and wrest from the soil a living for our families and ourselves. But we found no such place until we came upon this place, abandoned."

"You mean it was empty. No one living here."

"Not a soul," the Reaver said sanctimoniously. "No one around. So we had a council and decided to move in—unless, of course, the rightful owners should show up."

"In which case you'd give it back to them?"

"Oh, most certainly," said the Reaver. "Give it back to them and set out again to find for ourselves that quiet corner we had sought."

"Most admirable of you," said Duncan.

"Why, thank you, sir. But enough of this. Tell me of yourselves. Travelers, you say. In these parts not many travelers are seen. It's far too dangerous for travelers."

"We are heading south," said Duncan. "To Oxenford. Perhaps then to London Town."

"And you do not fear?"

"Naturally we fear. But we are well armed and we shall be watchful."

"Watchful you'll need to be," the Reaver said. "You'll be traveling through the heart of the Desolated Land. You face many perils. Food will be hard to find. I tell you there's nothing left. Were a raven to fly across that country he'd need to carry his provisions with him."

"You get along all right."

"We were able to save our livestock. We planted late crops after the Harriers passed on. Because of the lateness of the planting, the harvest has been poor. Half a crop of wheat, less than half a c