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vovih1 про серию Попаданец XIX века

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DXBCKT про Барчук: Колхоз: назад в СССР (Альтернативная история)

До прочтения я ожидал «тут» увидеть еще один клон О.Здрава (Мыслина) «Колхоз дело добровольное», но в итоге немного «обломился» в своих ожиданиях...

Начнем с того что под «колхозом» здесь понимается совсем не очередной «принудительный турпоход» на поля (практикуемый почти во всех учебных заведениях того времени), а некую ссылку (как справедливо заметил сам автор, в стиле фильма «Холоп»), где некоего «мажористого сынка» (который почти

подробнее ...

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медвежонок про Борков: Попал (Попаданцы)

Народ сайта, кто-то что-то у кого-то сплагиатил.
На той неделе пролистнул эту же весчь. Только автор на обложке другой - Никита Дейнеко.
Текст проходной, ни оценки, ни отзыва не стоит.

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Влад и мир про MyLittleBrother: Парная культивация (Фэнтези: прочее)

Кто это читает? Сунь Яни какие то с культиваторами бегают.

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Влад и мир про Ясный: Целый осколок (Попаданцы)

Оценку поставил, прочитав пару страниц. Не моё. Написано от 3 лица. И две страницы потрачены на описание одежды. Я обычно не читаю женских романов за разницы менталитета с мужчинами. Эта книга похоже написана для них. Я пас.

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kiyanyn про Meyr: Как я был ополченцем (Биографии и Мемуары)

"Старинные русские места. Калуга. ... Именно на этой земле ... нам предстояло тренироваться перед отправкой в Новороссию."

Как интересно. Значит, 8 лет "ихтамнет" и "купили в военторге" были ложью, и все-таки украинцы были правы?..

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The Best of Margaret St. Clair [Маргарет Сент-Клэр] (fb2) читать онлайн


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THE BEST OF MARGARET ST. CLAIR Edited by Martin H. Greenberg

Introduction THOUGHTS FROM MY SEVENTIES

Most of the sense impressions of my childhood were pleasant. The fruit—winey, crisp Jonathan apples, luscious slip-skin purple concord grapes, tomatoes hot from the sun and full of ripe red juice—was the soul food of my childhood. I remember the taste of Mallard ducks—too pretty to kill, with their lovely plumage, but luscious eating—domestic chicken, and wild squirrel. I loved a kind of butterscotch sucker, embossed, improbably, with a duck, and a cool, vanilla-tasting, cream “club soda.”

Things had more flavor then, and there is more than the usual blunting of the senses with age involved in my thinking this. The sophisticated food-handling techniques of the present had not yet been devised. The Sunday fried chicken had, only a few hours earlier, been pecking melon rind in its pen. The food of my childhood tasted better because nobody knew how to make it stay edible—free from gross spoilage—for six months.

The flowers had wonderful smells. Sweet peas were intoxicatingly sweet, so that the room seemed to rock and reel with their perfume. Peonies—red, pink, and white—smelled of softer, cooler roses. The heavy, intoxicating trusses of purple lilacs lasted poorly when cut, but oh, how choice they were among the flowers in a May basket! I loved lily of the valley, citrus-smelling silver bells, Keats’ valley lilies. There were plenty of good things to taste and smell when I was a child.

Emotional pleasures were another thing. Human warmth was not in good supply. But my two uncles, Uncle Ross and Uncle John, were darlings. I wasn’t an articulate child, and I hadn’t been taught good manners. I don’t know whether they ever knew how much I appreciated all their kindnesses to me. I shall always remember them with gratitude and affection. Two dear, land, men, loving and, I fear, rather unhappy—wherever they are now, I wish them happy, and I wish them well.

The road from loving uncles in Kansas to science fiction writing in California is a tortuous one and one that I don’t want to try to retrace. John Clute, who did a critical study of my work in Science Fiction Writers, characterized me as “elusive”, and it may be so. Certainly I dislike writing about myself. The reason for this, I think, is that I am often uncomfortably aware of my not having “the right attitude”. (Do youngsters nowadays get chewed out for not having “the right attitude”? I imagine they still do.) I am conscious of having, no matter what group I’m in and no matter how stoutly I embrace their principles, some mental reservations. For example, I’ve been interested in the work of the American Friends Service Committee since 1945. Yet I do wonder whether the death penalty is always wrong. I’m a longtime civil libertarian, but sometimes the ACLU does things that I wonder about. And so on. In short, I’m never really a true believer, although I do believe. My political sympathies, as Mr. Clute observed, are with the democratic left.

Where science fiction is concerned, I am often puzzled by the intensity of feeling people bring to it. Is it a sacred cause? Have science fiction writers become the seers, the prophets, the moral teachers, of our age? Can they give us guidance on levels unknown to the writers of detective or gothic fiction? I don’t find the qualifications for these elevated roles among my colleagues or in myself.

The genre of science fiction writing has much to recommend it to a writer. The freedom that prevails in it is unique, it commands more public respect than other forms of popular fiction, and it is possible to sell it fairly frequently. And the heady action and excitement that are typical of it make it great fun to write.

It has disadvantages, too. It never pays very well, the science in it has a short shelf life, and attempts at humor and characterization in it are apt to make a piece less saleable and cost the writer dear. Its predictive and prophetic value, in which public respect for science fiction seems to be rooted, have not proved very great. And yet I wrote a lot of it.

I wrote a lot of it, and I certainly wasn’t well paid. I enjoyed it; I didn’t get much approbation. I have been far more successful as a writer abroad than in this country, but this came late. What was I up to? What were my colleagues up to? If science fiction doesn’t predict, and really can’t act as moral authority, is it nothing but entertainment? What, in short, is science fiction all about?

The Marxists of the thirties used to talk of the “historical task” of capitalism. (It was to develop the productive capacities of mankind, in case you’re interested.) Has science fiction had a historic task to perform, albeit an unconscious one? Is an intuition of this why people are interested in it?

Forgive me for all the rhetorical questions. I think I can answer them, at least to my own satisfaction. The historic task of science fiction is to develop a global consciousness.

This is the task of our age; to rise above our petty jealousies and hatreds, to learn to use our admirable local loves and loyalties as the binding cement in a larger loyalty. We must learn to think of ourselves as the inhabitants and citizens of the third planet from the sun.

Who, having seen the pictures of our earth from space, could forget them? That cloudy opal, incomparably beautiful, incomparably precious, dear beyond any other dearness—earth, whose fate now lies in our merely human hands.

I have just disavowed pretensions to being a prophet or a seer, and now I am talking like one. Yet there is a difference. It is one thing to point out goals for humanity—“tomorrow the stars”— and another to contribute to the realization of a fact: that we live on a fragile, destructible planet. We have only one earth.

They say the aging eye is far-sighted. I am now in my early seventies. The thing I see most clearly is that this age confronts us with the task of learning to think of ourselves as a global people. When our deepest loyalties will have been given to our planet, we will have begun to be safe on earth.

* * *
Those who have lived through the Holocaust, Hiroshima, Coventry, Dresden, may be excused for forgetting that love, kindness, compassion, nobility, exist. Yet in man’s animal nature lie not only the roots of his cruelty, viciousness, sadism, but also of his perfectly real goodness and nobility. The potential is always there. It is the task of our age to make it actual.

It may be that science fiction writers, without ever being conscious of it, have been moved as a group to blow on the spark of a new awareness in human beings: that we live on a sacred planet.

If anything I have ever written will have contributed to that goal, I am well content. Other ages will have other tasks. Our task today is to realize that we live on, and are citizens and lovers of, the third planet from the sun, the ultimately sacred earth.

Margaret St. Clair September, 1985

IDRIS’ PIG

“Do you have to talk so much, gesell?” Bill begged hollowly from his bunk. His face, which had turned pale at the Cyniscus’ take-off two days before, was by now the pale curded green of a piece of bosula cheese, and his eyes were sunk. “It sounds as if you were trying to keep yourself from thinking about Darleen. I don’t want to be ungrateful, but all that talk makes me feel worse.”

George shook his head. “Before you can get over your attack of kenoalgia,” he said remorselessly, “you’ll have to realize what’s causing it. There’s nothing wrong with you physically, but being in open space for the first time in your life is giving your ego the worst beating it’s ever had. The first spacemen, who weren’t trained psychologists, couldn’t believe that so much nausea and prostration could have mental causes. They attributed it to a marasmic action of cosmic rays on nervous tissue, and the first two expeditions to land on Luna mutinied rather than go through ‘space scurvy’ getting home again.” He cleared his throat.

“Kenoalgia’s a new disease,” he went on, “because it’s a response to a new situation for the human organism, being out of Earth’s gravitational field. Psychologically, it’s a combination of repressed fear of falling, anxiety about bodily integrity, and the rejection response. The cure—say, do you smell something funny in here?”

Bill opened one eye and looked at him. “Uh-uh,” he said.

“Something sort of fishy and rank? No? Well, as I was saying, the cure—”

“Get out,” Bill said wanly, “Please get out. Go away and brood about Darleen. I don’t care if you are my cousin and the Cyniscus’ psychological officer, when you talk it makes me feel worse.”

Looking hurt, George began to unwind his long legs from the rungs of his chair. “You’re sure you don’t notice that smell?” he asked solicitously. “It might be adding to your nausea.”

“Don’t smell a thing,” Bill replied firmly. “You’re imagining it. Oh, by the way, could you turn the projector on before you go? No. 9, Blue Disks, is my favorite. It seems to help my giddiness.”

“Sure.” George made the adjustments. A galaxy of blue and purple disks appeared on the wall opposite Bill’s bunk. Motionless themselves, they blinked on and off in a succession of patterns that might, George conceded, be soothing to kenoalgia dizziness. “Anything else I can do for you?” he asked, lingering.

“Call the medical officer.”

“No sense in that. Kenoalgia is purely—”

“Psychological. I know. Get out.”

When the door had closed, Bill, looking very sick and very, very resolute, got out of his bunk. He tottered over to the little brown box which stood on top of his Travelpak, and gave an anxious sniff. An expression of consternation came over his face. He sniffed again. Then he got a deodorant spray out of his bureauette and went over the box with meticulous care, stopping only when his sense of smell told him all was sweet once more. Gaunt and shaking in his long chicory-colored sleeping tunic, he crawled back at last into bed.

In the ship’s lounge, Mr. Farnsworth was talking to George. George had long ago divided all passengers into three groups: those who snooted you because you were one of the hired help; those who stood you drinks because you were, after all, one of the officers; and those who kept leading the conversation around to psychoanalysis, hoping you’d do a little free work on them. Mr. Farnsworth belonged to the second group.

“Too bad I’m transshipping at Marsport,” the older man said expansively as the barman brought their drinks. “This is a big time of year for the Martians. I hate to miss the festivals.”

“Oh, is it?” George replied vaguely. He had accepted Farnsworth’s offer of a drink merely because he hadn’t known how to refuse it. What he really wanted was to get down to his cabin and (not think about Darleen—certainly not) and look up an article in the Journal of Psychosomatokgy on new treatments for space scurvy. He was a little worried about Bill.

“Yes. You know how the Martians are—a time for everything, and lots of festivals. Well, this is the time when they make business arrangements for all next year. Treaties, too, affairs of state, that sort of thing. And it winds up with a big celebration with pretty girls, perfume carts, soma fountains in the iters, all the fancy stuff you can think of. As I say, I hate to miss it, but I’m going starside. Transshipping in a sealed tube so I won’t have to go through the octroi.” He drank from his glass. “Have another drink.”

“No, thank you, I—”

“Oh, a little more phlomis won’t hurt you. Here, barman, two more of the same…”

Several drinks later Farnsworth said, “Say, Baker, could you do me a favor?”

“Well I—” George started. Phlomis had a little dulled his innate caution, but he was still wary.

“Oh, it’s nothing.” Farnsworth drew a lucite disk from his pocket. “This is for a man that works at the Topaz Rhyoorg, just on the edge of the spaceport. You may know him—his name’s Louey Varth. His sister Myrtle asked me to give this to him when I was on Mars, and like a gowk I promised, forgetting I wouldn’t be off ship. It’s a picture of her little girl.”

George inspected the three-dimensional image of the spindly blonde child which was imbedded in the clear material. “Well, I suppose—”

The ship’s announcing system began to blare excitedly. “George Baker report at once in cabin 1 IB. George Baker report at once in cabin 1 IB. On the double!”

Eleven-B was Bill’s cabin. George sprang to his feet, shoving the lucite disk absently into his pocket. “Got to go,” he said. Mr. Farnsworth looked after him.

It did not need the medical officer’s pursed lips to tell George that Bill was worse. Bill’s pupils were dilated, his breathing shallow and rough. Crusts had formed on his lip. George felt a st ab of guilt, mixed with surprise.

“The steward called me,” the medical officer explained rather severely. “The patient’s condition frightened him. In my opinion, he should be hospitalized—with your consent, of course. I’ve given a him a sedative.” The medical officer, Daniel, was a stiff little man with a great respect for professional etiquette. He changed his tunic three times daily when the Cyniscus was in space, and flirted warily with the lady passengers. He and George had always disliked each other.

“He had the classical syndrome for kenoalgia,” George murmured defensively.

“Kenoalgia, certainly,” Daniel snapped. “But he’s also suffering from food poisoning of the gamma type.”

“Want to talk to George,” Bill panted, looking up anxiously. “Got to talk to George. Get out, doc. Got to talk to George.” His forehead was wet.

Daniel took Bill’s circulatory reading and frowned. “Five minutes,” he warned. “No more.” His stiff blue back expressing disapproval of George’s mistaken diagnosis, he went out.

“Listen, George,” Bill croaked weakly when the door had closed, “you got to deliver the pig.”

“Pig?” George answered incredulously. “Now, now, don’t worry. You’ll be all right.”

“I’m not delirious,” Bill answered with a flare of spirit. “Just damn ed sick. The pig’s over there, in that little brown box.

“I’m working on a private courier service—‘speed and secrecy guaranteed’—between Terra and the planets, and that pig is what I have to deliver on this trip. If I don’t deliver it, I’ll be black listed. You’ve got to deliver it for me.”

Still incredulous but obedient to Bill’s pointing finger, George got the box and opened it. He was greeted by a fishy smell and a feeble oink. Inside, a small blue animal some twenty centimeters long, regarded him comatosely.

“It’s some kind of cult object,” Bill explained. “One of those Martian cults.” He stopped to retch. “You spray it with deodorant to keep it from smelling. But you don’t have to feed it or anything.”

“But—”

“Listen, if you deliver it you can have half my bonus, and then you can marry Darleen. You said she’d marry you if only you had more in the bank. You won’t get into any trouble with the pig. It’s not like it was valuable.”

Daniel knocked on the door. “Two minutes more,” he said warningly.

“You’re to give it to a man with a black camellia in his buttonhole you’ll meet at the north edge of the spaceport at 23 on Thursday, Martian time.” Bill’s words were coming more and more slowly: the sedative Daniel had given him seemed to be taking effect. “He’s the cult’s representative. You… go… up to him… and… and say, ‘Perfumed Mars, planet of perfumes,’ and he’ll… he’ll…”

Bill’s eyelids fluttered and sank. George shook him gently without result. He was out like a light.

Daniel opened the door. “Ah, I see he’s quiet now,” he said, coming in. “I trust you agree he should be put in the hospital.”

“Oh, certainly,” George replied. He had picked up the pig’s carrying case and was holding it under one arm as he tried to think. “I quite agree with you.”

Daniel relaxed a little. He called two stewards. Bill was loaded on a stretcher and carried out into the hall. As the stretcher rounded the door post one of the stewards stumbled and Bill got a jar that made the teeth click audibly in his head. His eyes opened. He was looking straight at George. “Pig,” he said insistently, “pig.” He groaned and then lapsed into unconsciousness again.

He’d have to deliver the pig now, George thought. Bill’s last words had been like the injunction of a dying man, impossible to disobey. Besides, they were cousins, Bill’s job depended on it, and there was the not inconsiderable matter of the bonus and Darleen. Professionally speaking, George had noticed a lack of euphoria in himself lately. It must be caused by his frustrated feeling for the girl.

All the same it was a mess. Mars was less than 42 hours away, and Bill might be unconscious until after they landed. In that case, George would have to deliver the pig (at 23, to a man wearing a black camellia) without knowing the countersign. He hated messy things. It was a good thing the pig wasn’t valuable.

He rooted around in Bill’s baggage until he found the deodorant spray and then carried it and the pig to his own cabin. As he opened the door the polka-dotted purple zygodactyl he had bought the last time they touched at Venus opened one eye and stared evilly at him. “You’ll be sorry!” it croaked. “You’ll be sorry!” It was the only thing George had ever been able to teach the bird to say; it had been funny at first, but George was beginning to be tired of it. “You’ll be sorry,” the zygodactyl went on, working itself up into a verbal frenzy, “you’ll be sorry, you’ll be sorry, you’ll be sorry!”

George threw a book at it to make it shut up. Then he pulled out his bunk to its fullest extent, sat down on it, and looked at the pig.

His first impression, that it was alive, seemed to be correct. When he punched it with his finger it made a weak noise, and even moved its mouth at him. But it was a sluggish, low-grade kind of life. The pig appeared to be basically a collection of fatty tissue surrounded with a pale blue skin. Considering its size it might have been an attractive, appealing little animal, but it wasn’t. It had no personality.

It was beginning to smell. George gave it a good spraying and bent to put it in his foot locker. He hesitated. Bill had said it wasn’t valuable, but there was something funny about Bill’s food poisoning, when you considered it. Nobody else on the ship had been affected. You never could tell with religious things.

The cabin was poor in hiding places. In the end George loosened one of the plastitiles of the ceiling with a multi-tool and shoved the pig up in the space behind. It would get plenty of air there, at any rate. He anchored the tile in place again with a sliver of preemex.

He had other patients to see to. He couldn’t spend all day on Bill’s pig. He took one last look at the ceiling and then went out. As he closed the door the zygodactyl croaked, “You’ll be sorry!” at him.

In the forty-one and a third hours before the Cyniscus put in at Marsport, George’s cabin was searched twice without the pig’s, apparently, being discovered. George made attempt after attempt to see Bill, but his cousin was always receiving sedation. It was not until the ship was almost in Mars’ atmosphere that he was admitted to the hospital ward.

Bill, looking extremely wan, was lying on one pillow with a refrigerator pack on the back of his head. “Hi,” he said.

“Hi. You look terrible. Say, what’s the countersign?”

Bill frowned. “I don’t know,” he confessed. “I’ve tried and tried to think, but somehow I can’t remember.”

“Mental block, caused by anxiety,” George barked professionally. “Don’t worry about it. I’ll get it out of you in no time under deep hypnosis.”

The red-headed nurse who had been hovering in the background came up. “You’ll have to go if you excite him,” she said warningly.

Bill waved her aside with one thin hand. “It doesn’t matter, though,” he said. “Give the pig to the man with the black camellia. It’s not valuable.”

“My cabin’s been searched twice.”

“You’re imagining it. Martian cults aren’t important, the way religion is on Earth. You know how Martians are—extremely sane, realistic, unimaginative. Only a little lunatic fringe is interested in their cults. Nobody’s trying to get the pig away from you.” Bill had majored in Martian subjects at the University.

“Well, if it’s so unimportant, why did they send it from Terra with a private courier?”

“Save time, I guess. You know how many complaints there’ve been about the slowness of the regular mail. I don’t think the cult has more than six members all told. But don’t you worry about it. You deliver the pig.”

The nurse came up and took Bill’s circulatory reading. She pursed her lips. “You’ll have to go,” she said to George.

The north side of the spaceport was near the drainage pits. As George approached it through the flickering shadows of the Martian night there seemed to be echoes everywhere. He felt tense and keyed up. Of course Bill was right, and nobody was trying to get the pig. On the other hand, he had always found his cousin’s judgment brash and overconfident. He shifted the pig’s carrying case under his arm, a movement which added a taint of fish to the perfumed Martian breeze, and swallowed. His throat was dry.

The man with the black camellia was waiting about fifty meters further on, in the shadow of one of the triple cranes. George went up to him, his footfalls echoing slowly on the rhodium-colored pave. He cleared his throat. “Perfumed Mars, planet of perfumes,” he said.

“Huh?” the man said after a minute. He was a big man, of a typically somatotonic build, and he put a world of interrogation into the sound.

“Perfumed Mars, planet of perfumes,” George repeated, beginning to grow warm around the ears.

“Run along, sonny,” the man said indulgently. He turned his head to one side for a leisurely expectoration. George saw, in the skipping light of Phobos, that what he had thought was a black camellia was, in fact, one of the half-animal Dryland epiphytes which Martian geeksters liked to wear. “Run along,” the somatotonic type repeated. “You got the wrong tzintz. Do I look like I’d be interested in sightseeing tours?”

His face hot, George beat a retreat. Of all the fool things to have to go up and say to a stranger! “Perfumed Ma rs, planet—” Bah! As far as he was concerned, Mars and the pig both stank.

A good deal farther on he encountered the second man. He was a small, dark tzintz (Martian for “bozo”) with a thin little goatee. George circled around him warily, making sure that he was really wearing a camellia and that it really was black, before he spoke.

“Perfumed Mars, planet of perfumes,” he said. “Rubbledyrubbledryrubbledlyrube,” the stranger said, his head bent.

George paused. A suspicion was stirring in his mind. What the man had answered might have been Old Martian, of course, but surely the countersign would have been in Terrese, like the sign itself. And anyhow, it hadn’t sounded like a language at all, just mumbling.

“Perfumed Mars, planet of perfumes,” he said for the fourth time that night.

“Rubbledlvrube,” the thin dark tzintz answered, more briefly. He stuck out his hand.

George drew back. There was a fishy odor about this. It smelled as bad as the pig. “No you don’t,” he snapped. I—”

The next thing he knew he was lying at the bottom of one of the drainage pits, a lump as big as a rhea egg on his head. From above someone was speaking to him.

“Be reasonable!” the voice said scoldingly. “How do you expect me to pull you up if you won’t cooperate? Do be reasonable!”

Something brushed George lightly on the face. He sat up, rubbing the lump on his head and trying not to groan.

“That’s better,” the voice said encouragingly. “Now you’re being reasonable. The next time I cast for you with the shari, take hold of the mesh and pull yourself up.”

Once more there came a light touch on George’s face. He looked up. A girl was leaning over the edge of the drainage pit, trailing her shari at him.

The shari is an invariable part of the costume of Martian women of every class. A long, strong, slender net, as richly ornamented as the means of its owner will allow, it is used to carry parcels, tie up the hair, transport young children, and as an emergency brassiere. A Martian woman would feel naked without it and, by Terrestrial standards, she very nearly would be. This was the first time George had ever been asked to climb up one. As it trailed over his face again he hooked his fingers in it and pulled himself upright.

“That’s fine!” the girl cried. Even in the poor light he could see that she was a good-looking girl—though not, of course, as pretty as Darleen. Darleen was like a picture, never a hair out of place. “You hold on, and I’ll tie it around the winch.”

Still holding the shari she got lightly to her feet and whirled off into the darkness. “Hook your fingers and toes in the mesh!” she called back. George obeyed. After a moment the shari began to move slowly upward. Obviously the girl had tied its end to a hand winch and was pulling him up. He only hoped the shari wouldn’t break.

He stepped out on the level just as the mesh of the shari gave an ominous creak. He was still disentangling himself from it when the girl came back. She was panting a little and her dark red hair was disarranged. “Tore my shari some,” she observed ruefully, taking the net from George. She smoothed her hair with a skillful hand, settled the shari around her head so that it fell in a glinting golden cascade over her nape, and drew the shari’s end through her girdle in front to form a garment which, if not exactly modest, was adequate.

Her toilet completed, she looked scrutinizingly at George. “My, he certainly hit you hard,” she said. “Did he get away with the pig?”

George winced. The pig was something he didn’t want to be reminded of. And anyhow, what did this girl know about it? “What pig?” he asked warily.

“Oh, be reasonable. You know very well what I mean. Idris’ pig. You should have taken better care of it.”

“Um.”

“Well, you should. Say, what’s your name?”

“George.”

“Well, mine’s Blixa. I was supposed to pick up the pig.”

This was a little too much. “You’re not wearing a black camellia,” George pointed out rather acidly. “And you’re certainly not a man.”

“No, of course not.” Blixa agreed, looking down at her slim round body with some complacency. “But there was a last minute change in our plans. The regular messenger couldn’t come. They sent me instead. Try me. I know the countersign.”

“Perfumed Mars, planet of perfumes,” George said unwillingly.

“Perfumes that take captive or set free the heart,” Blixa said briskly. “See. I know it. I was supposed to get the pig.”

George looked at her thoughtfully. His head was aching so much that clear thought was difficult. And besides, the scent that Blixa wore (Martian women were always drenched in it) disturbed and oddly troubled him. All the same, in the depths of his mind an alarm signal was going off. Blixa might be telling the truth, but there was about her, as palpably as her heady perfume, a positive aura of unreliability. He wouldn’t have trusted her as far as he could throw a rhyoorg with one hand.

“Um,” he said. They had been walking along slowly as they talked, and by now had come, through the scented Martian shadows, to the top of a little rise. Marsport at night, a glittering twinkling incredible pageant, lay spread out in front of them.

“Well, I was,” Blixa said impatiently. “But only Pharol knows where the pig is now.”

“Out there somewhere, I guess,” George said, indicating the ten thousand dancing lights.

“No doubt,” Blixa replied. “But it’s too important to dismiss like that. Do you want to help me try to get it back?”

George hesitated. He had an overpowering hunch that a man who was associated with Blixa was heading for trouble. “You’ll be sorry!” the zygodactyl had croaked at him. On the other hand, Bill’s job depended on making safe delivery of the pig, and he had always been fond of Bill in an unsentimental masculine way. There was the matter of the bonus which would, he was almost sure, provide the final argument in persuading Darleen to marry him. And besides, some reliable person ought to keep an eye on this girl.

“All right,” he said. “Nobody can steal my pig and get away with it.”

“Fine!” Blixa exclaimed. “Then we’ll go hunt a good clairvoyant to locate it for us.”

“Clairvoyant?” George echoed incredulously. The idea was so foreign to the notion he had formed of Blixa’s character he could not believe he had heard her aright.

“Certainly. How else are we to find the pig? I never can see why you Earth people admit that telepathy and clairvoyance and other sorts of ESP exist, and yet refuse to consult experts in them. It’s not reasonable.”

They were coming now to populous streets. Blixa’s long graceful stride (not as feminine, though, as Darleen’s shorter one) made walking with her agreeable. Ahead of them a laughing girl dashed out of a doorway, her white thighs flashing under her blue shari, and ran down the street. A young man ran after her, his sandals going slap slap slap. A perfume cart, rumbling past, drenched them both, and as the driver came abreast of George he raised the nozzle and showered him with the fragrant drops. Somebody was throwing aveen petals from a rooftop; somebody else was playing on a double anzidar. The music, thin and high and a little sad, floated out excitingly on the warm air. Against his better judgment, George found that he was rather enjoying himself.

“Will we be able to find a clairvoyant at this time of night?” he asked. Blixa’s idea seemed far-fetched to him, but he had to admit there was a certain logic in what she had said.

“Oh, I think so. This is the Anagetalia, you see, and if anybody goes to bed, it isn’t at night.” She pointed down to the cross-iter, where a soma fountain was. Twenty or thirty people were clustered around it. A girl had plunged her arms up to the wrist in the gushing fluid; others were drinking from their cupped hands. Six or eight couples were moving expertly, if a little unsteadily, in the stamping, challenging maze of a Dryland dance. “Turn this way.”

“Urn.” George and the girl were moving into a poorer quarter now. The buildings, though they still had the typical air of Martian elegance (composed, George thought, of broadleaved trees and good architecture) stood closer to each other and were made of poorer materials. He decided to put one of the questions that were in his mind. “Listen, Blixa, how did you know I had the pig?”

Blixa’s green eyes (hazel?—no, green ) laughed at him. “If you had smelled yourself before the perfume cart went by, you wouldn’t need to ask,” she said. “I don’t think there’s anything in the system that smells quite like Idris’ pig… Here we are. There are several clairvoyants here.”

They knocked on three doors before they found anyone in. The woman who finally answered them had a haggard, rather handsome face, long dark hair, and deep-set, burning eyes. She too had been celebrating the Anagetalia, for there was a long rent in her gauzy mauve tunic and a wreath of aveen flowers sat crookedly on her head. She staggered a little as she showed George and Blixa into her consulting room.

Blixa put the case to her in the long-winded hypothetical Martian manner (“If it should happen that one found a certain object”), and the sibyl listened attentively. When Blixa had finished, the woman drew a deep breath. Though her face remained impassive, George felt that she was startled, almost alarmed, by what she had heard. She put a quick question to Blixa in Old Martian, and the girl nodded. Once more the woman drew a sharp breath.

She lay down on the long low couch set diagonally in the corner. From a recess she got out fetters of shining metal and slipped them over her hands. She gave one of the balls which terminated the chains to Blixa to hold, the other to George. Then she closed her eyes.

For a long time there was silence in the room. Outside in the street people laughed, sang, played on double and single anzidars. Doors slammed. Once someone screamed. The woman on the couch gave no sign.

George moved restlessly. Blixa quieted him with a severe glance. At last the clairvoyant spoke. “A man,” she said, “a man with a shaved head. He has it. The two crowns.” She writhed, opened her eyes. After a moment she sat up and yawned.

“Did I say anything?” she asked.

“Shaved head. Two crowns,” Blixa answered briefly.

The woman’s eyes grew round. After Blixa had paid her she went with them to the door and stood watching them as they went down the street.

“What did she mean?” George asked. Blixa was walking briskly along, headed apparently north.

“She told us who had the pig.”

“So I gathered. But who?”

“The Plutonian ambassador.”

“What!” The exclamation was jarred out of George; his idea of the present possessors of the pig had gone no higher than geeksters, or, perhaps, the agents of some rival cult. “Why?” he asked more calmly.

“This is the Anagetalia,” Blixa replied. She looked down at the folds of her gold-spangled shari, frowned, and rearranged them so that they left a good deal more of her person exposed. “This is the time of year when we negotiate treaties and handle affairs of state. Mars is a poor planet. If one should happen to have possession of a certain small blue animal it might, perhaps, be of advantage to him.”

“But— Look here, I was told that there weren’t more than six members altogether of the cult of the pig.”

“The person who told you that was wrong. There are eight.”

“Well, then, if the cult has so few members, how could having the pig be of advantage to anyone?”

There was a protracted silence. At last Blixa spoke. “It is because of the nature of my people,” she said.

“Go on.” They had been walking north all this time.

George, whose feet were beginning to hurt, wondered briefly why Blixa did not call an abrotanon car. He decided that it was because all the drivers would be celebrating the Anagetalia too. “Go on,” he repeated.

“We Martians are not like you,” Blixa said slowly. “We Martians say always that we are more reasonable than Terrestrials, and so we are.” For a moment pride shone in Blixa’s voice. “We are far more reasonable. Sometimes we find it difficult to understand you at all, you do such childish and foolish things.

“But there is one thing about which we Martians are not reasonable in the least. It is as if all the foolishness and illogic and unreason and childishness of our natures, which in you Terrestrials is mixed in with everything you do, were concentrated in one place with us. We are not reasonable about our cults.

“They are not like your religions which enjoin, I have heard, ethical duties on their followers. We Martians”—again the note of pride in Blixa’s voice—“do not need religion to tell us, for example, of the brotherhood of man. We are logical, except about our cults.

“They have but few professed members. Your friend was right about that. But everybody on Mars knows about them and, very quietly, believes in them. Even if they are illogical. Pluto was originally a Martian colony, and the ambassador knows how our minds work. That is why it would be of great advantage to someone to have the pig.”

They had reached a stately quarter now. Nobly-framed buildings stood among big trees so crowded with blossoms that they were arboreal bouquets. Vines twisted among their branches and dropped long starry racemes of flowers to the ground. The air was rich with the scent of them. “I don’t know just how we’re going to get the pig back from him,” Blixa said thoughtfully. “But we’ll have to try.”

George slowed down and looked at her. “Why us?” he demanded practically. “If the pig means as much to Martian life as you say, it’s clearly a matter for the government.”

“Government?” Blixa echoed. She looked almost shocked. “Certainly not. Government is a logical activity. If I went to an official with this, he would laugh at me, and if I persisted there would be punishment. You don’t understand. I should be making him ashamed.”

Logical… reasonable… George felt dizzy with the words. His head still hurt where he had been hit. On the other hand, Blixa did seem to know what she was talking about, and for the first time that evening she impressed him as being sincere.

“O.K.,” he said.

A few steps farther on Blixa indicated a large building with a broad flat roof. “This is the embassy,” she said in a low voice. “I imagine they still have it, because it’s so hard to get about in Marsport during the festival. Probably they’ll try to get it to a Plutonian ship when people are off the streets. Once it’s aboard, there won’t be anything we can do.”

They walked past the embassy slowly, George making a deliberate effort to look casual and unconcerned. The street was still crowded with revellers. When he and Blixa reached the corner they turned and came back again. From an upper window of the embassy, very faint through the scent of the flowers, a trace of a familiar smell came to George. He would never have noticed it if he had not been expecting it, and even then he could not be sure. He looked enquiringly at Blixa, and she gave him a tiny nod.

Before he realized what she was doing, Blixa led him over to the soma font. “We’ll have to drink and act like the others,” she said in a low voice. “We’d be conspicuous, just hanging about.” She slipped lithely through the crowd, George following her. From the double-spouted fountain she caught soma between her hands and held them up for George to drink. As he awkwardly sipped at the liquid, his lips, unavoidably, brushed the soft flesh of her palms.

Laughing at his clumsiness, Blixa helped herself from the founta in and then held up her hands again for him to drink. It was good soma, though not especially strong; George could feel it warming him, relaxing his tension, washing away his headaches and his fatigue. “Let’s have some more,” he said.

Blixa had turned back to the fountain for more soma when a tall blond Drylander who was standing beside her ran his hands possessively over her shoulders and whirled her off in the first steps of a complicated dance.

George began to frown. It was, of course, none of his business whom Blixa saw fit to dance with, but they were here on business. She ought to remember it. And besides, he could have danced himself if she had taken the trouble to show him how. When a little dark girl came up to him and said challengingly, “Dance with me, Earthman!” he accepted with alacrity.

“Is this one of the DruDehar dances?” he asked after they had moved a few steps. The DruDehar dances (Old Martian for “Golden Garden”) were known all over the system as the Mating Cycle.

“Yes, they all are,” the girl replied. “You Earthmen aren’t very good at dancing, are you? Too stiff. When I come forward, you come forward too. Don’t pull away from me! There, that’s better. Much better. You’re doing fine.”

The dance ended with a wild swoop of anzidar strings. Smiling at him, the small dark girl stood on tiptoe and threw her arms around his neck. She kissed him several times, affectionately if muzzily. “For an Earthman,” she said, “you’re rather nice, I think.” George was not altogether sorry when her grinning escort whirled the little dark girl away in another dance.

The crowd began to grow thin. Couples disappeared into doorways, around corners, under the shadows of trees. Blixa, flushed and smiling and redolent of perfume, came up and she and George drank more soma together. In a surprisingly short time there was no one left in the street but themselves and a man with wrinkled limbs and thin gray hair who snored happily as he lay upon the pave.

Blixa linked her fingers with George’s and led him into the shadow of the basalt statue of Chou Kleor. Chou Kleor was the greatest of the poets of Mars. His works, perhaps, were not much read nowadays, but every Martian schoolchild knew him as the writer who first spoke of “scented Mars”. His statue was a monumental thing, and the shadow it cast was correspondingly large.

“We’ll wait here,” Blixa breathed. “If they happen to be watching from the embassy, they’ll think we couldn’t be paying any attention to them.” She sat down on the turf and drew George down by her side.

“Have you any plan for getting the pig?” he asked softly.

“Yes. I imagine they’ll just send one man with it, because the fewer people who know about a thing like this, the better it is. When he comes out I’ll walk toward him and pretend to stumble. He’ll come toward me and start to help me up. And then you hit him—hit him hard—and get the pig away from him.”

It sounded O.K. George nodded. It occurred to him that he was going to a great deal of trouble to get his half of Bill’s bonus and marry Darken. If anything went wrong, he’d be in a nasty mess. He hoped Darleen would appreciate it. But Darken—funny, he’d never thought of it before—Darken wasn’t what you’d call a very appreciative girl.

The city was utterly quiet now. Blixa yawned and in the most natural manner in the world rested her head for a moment against George’s chest. He was still trying to decide whether he ought, in simple politeness, to put his arm around her, when she sat up alertly again. “I might go to sleep that way,” she explained.

The sky was growing lighter; it would not be long until the first signs of day. George bit back a yawn, and then another one. Suddenly he leaned forward, transfixed. The embassy door was opening.

Blixa had leaped to her feet. As the door opened wider and a small dark man (the tzintz, George thought with a thrill of recognition, the tzintz who had knocked him out at the drainage pits) slipped out of it, she started across the pavement to him.

She was wobbling a little, in a skillful simulation of drunkenness, and crooning softly as if to herself.

As she came abreast of the tzintz she stumbled and pitched forward on one knee. It was so well done that George watching, was afraid she had really hurt herself. She tried to get up, grimaced. “My knee,” she said plaintively, “my knee.”

The tzintz hesitated. He was carrying in one hand a case that could be nothing but the pig’s. Then he made up his mind. He walked toward Blixa, put his hand under her armpit, and began solicitously helping her to her feet.

George pounded up to him, his long legs putting out a very creditable burst of speed. He hit the tzintz on the point of the chin. He gave the pig’s carrying case a mighty tug.

It was then that the flaw in Blixa’s plan became apparent. The pig was chained to the tzintz’s wrist.

The three began whirling about in an impromptu saraband. Blixa, popping up, was tugging at the tail of the tzintz’s tunic. George, on the other end, was pulling for all he was worth on the carrying case. And the tzintz, in the middle, was uttering shrill cries.

This state of affairs could not continue. Window irises in the embassy opened. I leads popped out. People began yelling at each other. Even the inebriated old man who had been sleeping on the pave was sitting up and looking around him bewilderedly.

Blixa abandoned her enterprise suddenly. Yelling “Run!” at George, she let go her hold on the tzintz so abruptly that George almost fell over backward. She shouted “Run!” once more in warning and then whirled around and darted off into the darkness of a side street.

George decided to follow her advice. He dropped the carrying case. He turned. He ran straight into the arms of two big Plutonians.

And after that, of course, it was only a matter of minutes until the police carts came.

It was hot in the jail. George had a black eye, two loose front teeth, and a fair hangover from the soma he had drunk.

The jailer (George was the only prisoner at the moment) was morose and intractable. George surmised correctly that the man resented his incarceration because it meant that the jailer wouldn’t get enough sleep to let him celebrate the Anagetalia adequately.

Every time the jailer brought him food or came to see how-he was doing, George asked to see a lawyer or somebody from the Terrestrial embassy. The jailer only grunted and went away again. It occurred to George that for a Terrestrial to assault a Plutonian on Martian soil might constitute an interplanetary incident. Perhaps he was being held without bail.

The day passed slowly. George spent most of it pacing around his cell or sitting on his bunk and cursing Blixa mentally. Blast the girl; it was all her fault. From the moment he had seen her she had ordered him around, pushed him from one situation into the next, told him what to do. And this was the result. The Cyniscus was taking off for Terra day after tomorrow; if he wasn’t there, he’d be blacklisted for the rest of his life. It was the kind of a mess he’d spent his existence up till now trying to avoid. Blast the girl. Maybe it wasn’t entirely her fault. Blast her anyhow. If he ever saw her again, he’d give her a piece of his mind.

By the middle of the second day in clink George was down to his last fingernail. Late in the afternoon the jailer came to his cell and grunted that he had a visitor. Visions of liberty began to float through George’s mind. He followed the man eagerly.

It was Blixa. After his first surprise George advanced to the grating with fire in his eye. He was going to tell her what he thought of her.

Blixa beat him to it. “Listen, gesell,” she said in a cold voice, “why didn’t you tell me you were pushing the groot?” Her level eyebrows had drawn together, and even her green shari looked indignant.

“Groot?” George repeated. He didn’t know the word.

“Groot, meema, alaphronein,” the girl answered impatiently. “I’d never have bothered with you if I’d known what kind of man you were.”

George knew what alaphronein was. It would have been hard to find anyone on the Three Plane ts who did not. It was a highly dangerous drug, with a rotting effect on the nervous system, which reduced its victims to scabrous husks. It originated on Venus, was sent to Earth to be processed, and Mars was the center of its illicit distribution. The Martian government had been making an all-out effort to repress the traffic in it.

“I’m not pushing it,” George said weakly. The accusation was so big it was difficult to deny.

“They found nearly a hundred grams of it on you.”

“They couldn’t have.”

“They did, though. It was inside the image in a lucite disk you were carrying.”

A great light dawned on George. Farnsworth! He had forgotten all about him. Hastily he told Blixa how he had got the disk and what he had been supposed to do with it.

As she listened the girl’s face cleared, “My, I’m glad to hear that,” she said when he had finished. “I couldn’t bear to think I’d been mistaken in you like that. It wasn’t reasonable.

“It’s a mess, though. Farnsworth must be in open space by now, and it’s hard to get people off a ship. Anyhow, it’s just your word against his. And the government hates the alaphronein traffic so much I wouldn’t be surprised if they hung you up by your thumbs or burned you alive in Ares Square. You have no idea the trouble I had getting in to see you.”

“I’m darned glad you came,” George said sincerely. He had forgotten all about how angry he was at her.

Blixa beamed for an instant and then grew sober again. “It’s still a mess,” she said ruefully. “They never give bail in drug cases. You’ll have to escape.”

Out of the corner of his eye George saw that the jailer, who had been hovering discreetly in the background, was coming closer to them. He gave Blixa a warning wink.

The girl raised her chin infinitesimally to show she had understood. “Do you know how much I’ve cried, thinking about you?” she went on, leaning forward intimately. Her voice was a tone or two higher than it usually was. “Why, my pillow’s been sopping wet. My shari was all wet too. I know it wasn’t reasonable to cry so much, like one of Vulcan’s weeping dolls, but I couldn’t help it. I cried and cried, until everything was all wet.”

What the devil—? George felt a tickling sensation in his wrist. He looked down and perceived that Blixa, in a series of tiny mo vements, was passing something no thicker than a hair through the grating to him. It was too small to set off the matter-detector built into the grating, being very nearly invisible. George clamped it against his hand with his thumb and began winding it around his wrist. A shade of relief passed over Blixa’s face.

“Do you ever think about me, George?” she asked, leaning forward again. She was still speaking in that rather unnatural voice.

“You bet I do.” George answered heartily. He was bewildered, but still game.

Blixa sighed. “I think about you so much at night,” she said. “One always feels so alone at night, doesn’t one? It’s not so bad during the day, but at night one feels so alone.”

The jailer came up. “Time to leave, lalania,” he said courteou sly. (“Lalania”—Old Martian for “perfumedness”—was politely used in addressing ladies.) Blixa got up to go. “I don’t know when they’ll let me see you again,” she said. “Soon, I hope.” She blew him a kiss, smiled and was gone.

George was taken back to his cell. He spent the rest of the day in concentrated thought.

By one o’clock that night he was ready to try his escape. He had constructed a reasonably realistic dummy in his bunk. It would, he thought, fool the night jailer when he made his infrequent rounds.

Much reflection had convinced George that the key words in what Blixa had said to him were “wet,” “Vulcan’s workshop,” “one” and “at night.” Also, she had said that she hoped to see him soon. One o’clock, therefore, was the time, and water the means.

He had, consequently, put the long hair she had passed him through the grating into his drinking cup to soak. Incredibly, amazingly, as it took up water it had shortened and grown thick. It turned eventually into a largish egg, glossy pink, with a knob at the larger end. The surface had a most peculiar feel, something between plastic and living flesh, and it was faintly warm to the touch. The transformation was so surprising that George saw why Blixa had prepared him for it by the reference to Vulcan’s workshop.

Vulcan’s workshop, in Martian folklore, was an artificial planetoid at the far end of our galaxy on which an immortal artificer lived. Half divinity, half scientist, he was supposed to spend his days in the creation of objects of incredible workmanship. Martians called him master of life and half-life, and they ascribed any particular subtle and cunning device to him. Once or twice before George had run across things whose construction he had been hard put to understand; but this was the first time he had seriously wondered whether the legends might be right.

His cell was windowless, with walls of translucent brick. A little nervously, for he was not quite sure what it would do, George held the broad end of the egg against the lower cour se of brick and pressed the knob. Nothing happened. He bit his lip. Then, in a burst of sheer inspiration, he twisted the knob.

The egg quivered in his left hand. He held it steady. After a moment it began to bite into the brick. Dust showered down and lay in a glittering trail on the floor. Quietly and steadily the egg continued to eat, growing a little thicker. It reminded George of some blindly hungering animal.

In less than half an hour he had cut a circle in the outer wall large enough for him to get through. He reduced the egg to quiescence by twisting its knob in the other direction. Carefully he pulled the cut-out section of translucent brick into his cell and leaned it against the wall. Then he slid into the opening.

His cell was only on the second floor, and Martian gravity was less than Earth’s. George hesitated all the same, deliberately relaxing his muscles, before he let go. It would be the height of irony to break an ankle at this stage. He landed with a thump that took the breath out of him. Blixa detached herself from the shadows and glided up while he was still checking over his anatomy.

“Pharol be praised,” she said in a low voice, “you did get the idea. I was afraid you might not. No broken bones?”

“I’m O.K.”

“Hurry, then. I gassed the guard, but pretty soon he’ll come to.” Blixa set off at what was almost a run through the shadows. George hurried after her.

“Hadn’t we better take an abrotanon car?” he asked when he had caught up.

Blixa shook her dark red curls. “We’re safer on foot. As soon as they miss you, the alarm will go out, and they’ll alert all the cars. Wait a minute, though.”

She steered him under a light, untied the end of her shari, and with the cosmetics it contained began deftly making up his face. His black eye was hidden, his cheek bones heightened. She drew a frown between his eyes and added lines around his mouth. With tiny bits of plastic she even changed the set of his ears.

“That’s better,” she said, “but—” She rolled up his sleeves, unbuttoned his tunic, tied up its hanging tail. “And don’t walk so straight. Slump, sort of. No, not like that. Relax more. Pretend you’re drunk.—Say, have you got the egg?”

George handed it to her. She tied it up tightly in her shari. “It’ll go down as it dries out,” she explained. “I wouldn’t want to lose it. It’s a handy sort of thing.”

The streets were so quiet and dark that George asked whether the Anagetalia was over and learned from Blixa that it had ended at twenty-four that night. “Everybody’s at home,” she said, “getting caught up on his sleep. Say, where are you going? Not that way!” They had come to Ares Avenue and George had turned to the left, thinking they were going to the spaceport. She tugged at his sleeve. “The embassy’s to the right. What do you think I got you out of jail for? We’ve got to get the pig. You promised you’d help me get the pig.”

“Oh,” George said. It was all he could think of to say. Somehow he had forgotten all about that blasted, blasted pig.

Blixa looked at him slantingly and laughed. “I’d have got you out anyhow, George,” she said. “You know I would. But the pig was the reason I had to hurry so much. I don’t know how much longer it will be at the embassy. And it means a lot to Mars.”

“Oh,” George said again. Without his being aware of it, his face relaxed. “You know,” he said after a pause, while they walked steadily along, “I have a feeling that somebody’s following us.”

Blixa nodded. “So do I,” she confessed. “But I think it must be nerves. I keep looking around, and I never see anyone. Besides, who could it be? The police wouldn’t follow us, they’d just arrest you. And nobody else would be following us.”

The embassy was quiet, with no light showing in any of the window irises. The building itself, however, was subtly different from the way George remembered it, and he had to study it for a moment before he could be sure what the difference was. That faint uncertainty in the building’s outline, those dim slanting golden lines, like a much attenuated aurora australis—what did they mean? “They’ve put a force field around it!” he announced suddenly.

Blixa nodded. “They installed it yesterday afternoon,” she said.

“Well, then, we might as well go home. Down to the ship, I mean. We certainly can’t get through a force field, pig or no Pig-“

“Who said anything about getting through a force field?” Blixa demanded. “Do be reasonable! Of course we can’t. But there are other ways of handling it. Think! Where are the projectors? I mean, where’s the field coming from?”

“Around the edge of the roof,” George replied after a moment.

“That’s right, the top of the building’s clear.” They had come to the statue of Chou Kleor. Blixa, standing first on one foot and then on the other, took off her sandals and tied them to her belt. “You’d better take off your shoes too,” she said softly. “They might slip on the stone.”

George eyed her speculatively. She had already taken hold of the statue and was pulling herself up by the folds of its basalt cloak. He removed his shoes and followed her.

They stood at last on the statue’s burly shoulder, not more than half a meter below the level of the embassy roof. The roof itself, however, was an uncomfortable distance away. “How are we going to get over there?” George asked, studying the gap.

Blixa shook her head. The climb had winded her, and for the moment all she could do was to hold on to Chou Kleor’s basalt ear and pant.

“Bolt anti,” she whispered as her breath began to come back. “Not much good, but best I could do. Government’s cracked down on all anti sales since the geeksters began using them.” She fumbled with the end of her shari and produced a flat, blunt object like an old-fashioned air automatic. She handed it to George.

He examined it distrustfully. He had always considered the bolt anti-grav the most unreliable of anti-gravitic devices. The anti-gravs in commercial use (most strictly supervised, since geeksters and raubsters had discovered their value in mass levitation of stolen goods) were perfectly safe. But the bolt anti-grav worked on a different principle. Its “doughnut” discharge produced what non-material physicists called a reversed stasis of the object which it hit. The object in consequence became weightless. The difficulty was that there was no practical way of estim a ting in advance when the stasis would return to normal and the object acquire weight again. And, since stasis reversal was potentially harmful to living tissue, all bolt antis had built-in governors preventing their discharge too frequently. Too dangerous for a children’s toy, too ineffective for genuine use, the bolt anti was the perfect example of ingrown gadgetry.

“How are you planning to use it?” George asked.

“I’m going to jump over to the roof,” Blixa said, “Just as I jump I want you to doughnut me with the bolt. I don’t weigh much anyhow, and I’m sure the stasis will stay twisted for that long. After I get on the roof there’s a trap door and steps leading down. The pig is in a room on the second level; I ought to be able to smell it. They’ve got it guarded with a cerberus.”

“How do you know all this?” George asked a little absently. His mind was still on the bolt anti.

“Oh… news gets around.” Blixa’s manner was vague. She leaned out from Chou Kleor’s shoulder and braced herself. “Now when I say, ‘Shoot,’ I want you to doughnut me.”

George looked from Blixa to the bolt anti and back again. She didn’t weigh much, it was true. But… He had a sudden mental picture of her jumping and falling short as the stasis untwisted again. A simple fall would be bad enough, but if she struck against the force field… “I won’t do it,” he said determinedly.

“Won’t do what? Doughnut me?”

“That’s right. It’s too dangerous.”

“No, it isn’t. Anyhow, I’ve got to get the pig.”

“Give me the egg.” Silently Blixa handed him the end of her shari and let him disentangle the object. “I’m going to try the jump,” George went on. “Do you think you can doughnut me?”

“Of course. But it’s a silly idea.”

“Why? I’ve more muscle than you, and I’m used to greater gee, being from Earth. The main thing, though, is that I’ve had training in free jumps. If you’ve never jumped free, you can’t imagine what it’s like.” George did not think it necessary to add that his training consisted of three jumps made one Sunday afternoon at a pastime park.

Blixa frowned but capitulated. “All right,” she said. “Pharol grant it’s reasonable.” She adjusted the bolt’s safety switch. “Now?” she asked.

George arranged his feet carefully. “Now!” he said.

The doughnut hit him amidships just as he jumped. It spread over him in a kind of shudder, a sensation like an intense interior tickling, not painful, but highly disagreeable. Then he was soaring over the roof in a long, long arc, so long that he had time to wonder whether he had miscalculated and was going right over it. At the last moment he slanted down, touched, bounced (“equal and opposite reaction”), and then came down solidly and for good as the stasis reversed itself. He was darned glad he hadn’t let Blixa try the jump.

He trotted back to the side where Blixa was. He motioned to her to throw the bolt anti, and after a moment it came spinning over to him. Blixa had her faults, but she certainly was quick on the uptake.

He found the trap door and opened it. The last he saw of Blixa, she was leaning forward anxiously from Chou Kleor’s shoulder, her hands pressed to her breast. He waved to her reassuringly, and then started down.

The stair was extremely steep and quite dark. George stole down it with his feet turned sideways. At the bottom he found he was in a tiny windowless room with many shelves, probably a janitor’s closet. Sprayers, dusters, grinders and sweepers cluttered the walls. George groped about until he found the door, and slipped out into the hall.

It was very nearly as dark as the closet had been. The only light came from the fluor strips in the cornice. George tiptoed along, listening to snores (this level seemed to be used for sleeping), sniffing from time to time and looking for the stairs. Martian buildings, even public ones, rarely had levitators or even lifts. The lesser gee made stairclimbing less onerous than on Terra, and Martians of both sexes insisted it wasn’t reasonable to avoid exercise. Stairs were good for the legs. George, thinking of Blixa, and the little dark girl he had danced with at the Anagetalia, grinned. This momentary inattention was no doubt the reason why he whanged into the tabouret.

It was a spindly thing, loaded with tinkly, janglv, clinky objects, and George’s collision with it produced a whole series of high-pitched crashes. Things bounced and rolled. The noise of frangible objects breaking seemed to spread out into the darkness like circular ripples in a pond. George, pressed against the wall, thought everyone in the embassy must be awake.

There was a stir in one of the rooms. A man’s voice, thick with sleep, said rumbingly, “What was that?” After a moment a woman’s fuzzy contralto answered, “Just the weetareete, dear. Go on back to sleep.” Somebody turned over in bed. There was a tense silence—and then a gradual resumption of the noises of sleep.

Blessing the unknown woman, George detoured cautiously about the tabouret. The flank and back of his tunic were wet with sweat.

He found the stair, a broad low flight with a resilient surface, in the next moment. On the fifth tread a current of air brought an all too familiar odor to his nose. It was mixed with a more agreeable smell which was probably deodorant. Fortunately for George, the embassy people had underestimated the amount of deodorant needed to keep the pig inodorous.

By sniffing door after door on the second level, George located the room with the pig. It was closed with one of the usual simple-minded Martian locks, but somebody had slipped a lucidux alarm disk over it. Tampering with the lock was going to be difficult.

George put his ear to the door panel and listened. Almost immediately he caught the gurgle and slither of a moving cerberus. He jerked his head back from the panel and swallowed. There were not many things he was really afraid of, but a cerberus was certainly one of them. He would almost rather have faced a cage full of cobras. Having the flesh sucked from one’s bones by a cerberus’ corrosive membranes was such a nasty way to pass out of the viewing plate.

Luckily the window irises in the hall were open and some light was coming in. George studied the door. He couldn’t get in through the lock; how about taking off the hinges? No, the screw-heads had been soldered in. It looked as if he’d have to make an opening high up in the panel, higher than the cerberus could extrude, and figure on jumping over it. Brrrrr.

He got out the egg. It was a little longer and thinner than it had been, but it went dutifully to work on the panel when he turned its switch. In all too short a time there was a hole in the door big enough for him to get through.

George hesitated. Moist fetid air (the cerberus was a life-form from the deep Venusian swamps) was coming through the opening. Beneath the hole he could hear the humping noise the creature made as it tried to climb up for him. Then he jumped.

He landed well beyond the animal. The pig’s carrying case was sitting on a table, surrounded by charged wires. One good grab, George decided, and the pig would be his again. The trouble was that the cerberus, in its uncanny, ameboid way, moved extremely fast. Before he could make the three steps to the table and pick up the pig, it would be glued to him.

George could feel his brain whizzing like a mechanical astrogator and star positioner. The cerberus had put out a pseudopod and was now about two centimeters distant from the toe of his boot. With no waste motion at all, George pulled out the bolt anti and doughnutted it.

The result surpassed his expectations. The cerberus shot up in the air and hung there, rotating wildly, in a meter-thick, dull gray ball. Since it had nothing more substantial than air to push against, it was unable to move in any direction. The harder it tried, the more furiously it spun.

George dashed to the table and snatched up the pig. He got a shock from the wiring that almost made him drop the carrying case, but he hung on doggedly. He rushed back to the door, dodging around the still-suspended cerberus, and began struggling through the hole he had made.

He had got his torso and his right leg through when, the stasis reversing itself, the cerberus dropped to the floor with a mighty plop. George felt a cold sweat of apprehension break out on him. Almost immediately there was a stab of burning pain in the ankle of his left leg.

George held on to the door so hard he thought his fingers must be denting the panel, and kicked. He kicked for all he was worth. The sensation in his ankle, which was like that of a burn being held over a flame, was getting worse: George kicked like a maddened zebrule, his eyes bulging out and his heart knocking against his ribs.

On the fourth or fifth of his desperate lunges the cerberus came loose. It sailed across the room and landed against the far wall with a thud. And George shot out of the hole in the door like a cork out of a champagne bottle. He landed on the small dark tzintz, who had been on his way to get himself a snack out of the coolerator. And from then on things got rather mixed up.

George later had a dim recollection of banging the tzintz on the skull with the pig’s carrying case, while the pig gave a feeble oink. More vividly in his mind was the gratifying period when he held the tzintz by the ears and whanged his head repeatedly against the hard, unyielding floor. “Steal my pig, will you,” George had muttered grimly, “You little musteline! I’ll teach you to steal my pig!” Thump, thump! Thump! “Ouch!” said the tzintz. “Oink, oink,” went the pig. Thump, thump, thump!

George enjoyed this period immensely, and was sorry when it came to an end. But all things must pass. He left the semi-conscious tzintz recumbent on the floor, his head propped against the dado, and fled down the stair in three long leaps. Behind him the embassy was buzzing like an overturned skep of bees. George estimated that he had about three seconds before they started shooting at him with stun guns. He halted for a flash by the front door to depress a switch that he hoped shut the force field off. If it didn’t, he was going to die a hero’s death. Then he shot out into the night.

Blixa was waiting for him: she always seemed to be waiting for him to escape from something or other. “Get it?” she demanded excitedly.

Too winded to reply, George waved the pig at her. The long roll of a stun gun trilled wickedly past his ear. Blixa winced and then pulled him into a crouch. “This way,” she said, “hurry! And keep bent!” Doubled over, they pounded off into the darkness, headed, as far as George could judge, for the Grand Canal.

There were shouts behind them, and a salvo of stun gun shots. One of them came so close that it grazed Blixa’s shoulder and set her to rubbing it to restore the circulation. There was, however, no concerted pursuit.

“Afraid to chase us,” Blixa panted as they jogged along.

“Martian citizen— interplanetary incident. And after all, it’s our pig.

“Let’s slow down. By now we’re fairly safe—nobody after us except the police.”

George slowed obligingly. He looked at her. Blixa was panting hard, and drops of perspiration sparkled on her round sides. How different she was from Darleen! Darleen’s grooming was always so perfect he couldn’t imagine how she’d look excited and warm. It was rather becoming to Blixa, he thought.

“Did you get hurt in the embassy?” Blixa asked. “You’re walking with quite a limp.”

“It’s nothing,” George replied modestly, recalling his thoughts. “The cerberus got after my ankle a bit.”

“Oh, my!” Frowning, Blixa made him stop and roll up his trouser leg. She drew in her breath at the sight of the raw, bloody blotch the cerberus’ digestive juices had left. Deftly she plastered the wound with unguent from a tiny jar and slapped a bandijeon on it. “There,” she said, “that’ll do until a doctor can look at it. Say, do you still feel like somebody’s following us?”

George considered. They had reached the Grand Canal by now and were walking out slowly on one of its foot bridges. There was no noise anywhere except the quiet lapping of the dark, slow-flowing water. The streets were utterly empty. Marsport’s gigantic heart had almost ceased to beat. It was the quietest hour of the twenty-four, the one time when the whole city slept.

“A little,” he replied. “But I don’t see anyone. It must be nervous imagination. We’ve had a good deal tonight to put us on edge.”

“I suppose so,” Blixa answered. “Pharol, but it’s quiet!” She rested her elbows on the parapet and leaned over, looking down at the black water. “Give me the pig.”

George handed the case to her. She opened it, saw that the pig was intact, and shut the case again. Then she dropped it deliberately into the water of the canal.

For a second George stood and stared at her. Then he jumped in after the pig.

There was a second almost simultaneous splash. Blixa had jumped in beside him. “You let that pig alone!” she said furiously. George grabbed at the case which, bobbing from the disturbance of the water, was beginning to move slowly downstream. Blixa slapped at his hands. “You let it alone!” she repeated. “What business is it of yours? It’s my pig.”

“I—”

“Well, it is. Let it alone.” The case was moving gradually out of reach. George eyed it wistfully, and then turned to Blixa. He had always known she was unreliable, but he had never thought it would reach this pitch.

“What’s the idea?” he said.

“About two kilos down the canal,” Blixa said, “there’s an island. Some friends of mine are waiting there, watching for the pig. When it comes past they’ll wade out and get it. And then they’ll make soup out of it. Pharol grant it won’t disagree with them.”

Blixa turned and began walking upstream, toward the flight of stairs that was built into the canal wall. The water was not much more than waist deep. Utterly befogged, George followed her.

She climbed the steps with George in the rear. She had a graceful, swaying walk, and in her thin, drenched shari she looked nuder than nude. George found it hard to keep his mind on her hocus-pocus with the pig. Nonetheless, he came to a decision.

“Listen, Blixa,” he said when they were standing on dry land aga in beside a warehouse, “don’t you think you owe me an explanation? You Martians talk a lot about reasonableness. Do you think it’s reasonable to treat me like this?”

Blixa looked at him steadily. After a moment she nodded. “You’re right,” she said. “I’ll explain it.” Yet she hesitated and lowered her eyes as if she found it hard to begin.

“I’m a Martian patriot, George,” she said at last. “You Earth people don’t understand how Martians feel about Mars.” Blixa was speaking slowly; and, for the first time since George had known her, she made on him an impression of deep and complete sincerity. “Because we don’t drink toasts to our planet or sing songs about its green hills, because we never brag about how fine it is, you think we have no love for it. Some times, I know, you laugh at us because Mars is so poor and there is so much you have without thinking on your planet that we can never have. I have heard that your planet was far richer once, that before it came under a planet council much was wasted and washed away. That may be, but even so, Earth in our eyes is rich—rich!—and Mars—” Blixa threw out her hands in a gesture of resignation. “Well! We Martians do not wear our hearts upon our sleeves; and if Mars is poor, it may be we love out planet only the more dearly because of that.

“Once before I told you a little about the pig. Most Martians learn about its worship—its service—while they are children, and grow up without ever thinking about it again. That is a bad thing, for if they thought about it, it would disgust and sicken them. The worship of the pig—the worship of the pig—”

Blixa paused and clenched her hand. “I can’t talk about it,” she confessed, as if the confession were somehow disgraceful. “It makes me ashamed. Every thirty-one days, for example, we—no, I can’t tell you. It is unreasonable, but I can’t. The pig’s worship, George, is like something invented by a feeble-minded child. A nasty, nasty child with a feeble mind. A child who catches flies and swallows them. It makes me ashamed.

“Four of us— two inside the cult and two outside—decided to try to stop the service of the pig. The pig had been sent to Terra as a part of the ritual of the Great Year. When we heard it was coming back, it seemed like a good time. The cult messenger was detained on the island, and I was sent to get the pig in his stead. But the Plutonians got there first.

“Now the pig is on its way to the island. It should get there about dawn. When it does, there will be a ritual meal, with Daror partaking on behalf of the actual members of the cult, and Rhidion and Gleer on behalf of all the people of Mars. And that will be the end of the pig.”

There was a short pause. George was trying to assimilate what he had heard. “They—will there be trouble about your having killed the pig?” he asked at last.

Blixa shrugged. “Possibly. On the other hand, many of our cults have as their central feature a ritual meal in which the cult object is eaten, symbolically, by its worshipers. It isn’t far from that to actually eating the object’s flesh. Gleer is a publicist who specializes in word-of-mouth rumors. He plans to circulate accounts of the meal which present it as a pious act, a necessary sacrifice for Mars’ prosperity. People will hiss us for a while, but—who knows?—we might end up as heroes of a sort.”

“I should think so,” George said. He was feeling somewhat impressed.

Blixa laughed. “The really heroic part,” she confided, “will be eating that awful pig. I do wish it weren’t necessary. It isn’t really alive, you know—I’m sure it came from Vulcan’s workshop originally—and only Pharol knows what it will taste like. I hope it won’t poison them.

“Our work, of course, will only be beginning when the pig’s out of the way. It’s too bad there aren’t more of us. We’ll try to replace the pig’s service with something better—a Pharol cult, perhaps, or something from Earth. Something that is—well!—not too unworthy of Mars.”

Blixa’s voice died away. George, regarding her faintly-smiling profile, felt that he was seeing her for the first time.

“In the canal?” a high voice said from around the corner of the warehouse.

“N-n-n-n-no.” It was not stuttering, but a vibrato caused by an incessant trembling of the tongue and lips. “N-no-t u-un-t-til w-w-e ha-a-ve s-o-me f-f-un wi-th t-t-them.”

George’s heart gave a lunge. He’d heard a voice like that once before, when one of the Cyniscus’ passengers had turned out to be a glassy-eyed homicidal maniac. He whirled around.

The men who held the sliver guns looked more like badly-stuffed, half-rotting burlap bags than human beings. The hands on the guns were black with scabs and scaling flesh; they looked like burned and blistered rubber gloves. The hands alone would have identified the men to half the inhabitants of the Martian planet as last-stage alaphronein addicts.

“You see,” the one who could still talk normally said, “you birded Louey a bout the groot. Poor Louey! He’s got very little groot left. And you birded us. Can’t have that. Louey sent us to correct you. Have some fun.”

“T-t-the la-ad-y,” the shorter addict said. “En-j-joy using the g-gu-un. O-on h-er.” He coughed, and spat something thick and blackish on the pavement.

George felt an apprehension that physically sickened him. The dart from a sliver gun is instantly fatal to human beings in a few spots; but over most of the body area, puncture with it produces a horrible tetany. In the agonized tonic spasm victims not infrequently snap their spines or fracture their own jaws. He and Blixa would wind up dead in the canal; but before that, Louey’s men (Louey must be the person to whom Farnsworth had told George to deliver the alaphronein) would enjoy themselves. Would enjoy themselves with their sliver guns. And Blixa’s smooth, soft skin…

George pushed the nausea and the fear deep down inside himself and got ready to jump.

Blixa touched him lightly on the arm. “Wait,” she breathed. She stepped forward, pulling the shari from her head.

Careful!” the taller addict warned, waving his gun. He was wearing a hard, bright, happy grin.

“Ando djar,” Blixa said. She raised one hand and swept the red curls back from her forehead.

“D-d-dai?” the shorter addict asked.

“Andor,” Blixa replied. George, peering at her obliquely, saw that on her forehead shone, in pale blue fire, the interwined symbols of the full and crescent moon.

There was a moment of intolerable tension. George realized that he was so keyed up that the smallest unexpected noise would have sent him charging into the two sliver guns. Then the taller of Louey’s emissaries put down his hand. “Par don, lalania,” he said to Blixa. “—Come along, Mnint.”

“B-b-u-ut L-l-lou-ey s-sa—”

“Bird Louey! He’s got hardly any groot. Let’s go have fun with him.” A glance of understanding passed between the two. Then they slouched away.

Blixa leaned back against the wall of the warehouse. She was looking quite white. “Pharol,” she said weakly, “but I was afraid! I hope I never have to do that again.”

George put out an arm to steady her. He was feeling a little shaky himself. “What did you tell them?” he ask ed after a moment.

“Why, that I—here comes an abrotanon car! We’d better hide!”

She whirled about, but the driver of the car had already seen them. The car circled, returned, and hovered. Its passenger peered intently down at them through the lucitra ns bubble that formed the underside of the car. Then the port opened, the stair shot out, and the passenger hopped down.

“Is that you, George?” he said. “I thought I recognized the top of your head. Yes, it is. Where the devil have you been? They let me out of the hospital last night, and I’ve been looking for you ever since. I’ve been worried sick. Did you deliver the Pig?”

George looked at his cousin Bill for a moment before answering. “Not exacdy,” he said at last.

“Not exactly? What do you mean by that?”

George indicated Blixa, who was standing beside him. “This lady took charge of it,” he answered.

Bill regarded Blixa dubiously for a moment. Then his face cleared. “Why, that’s perfectly all right,” he said happily. “She’s the Idris of the cult—I recognize the marks on her forehead. Legally, she can sign anything. Why didn’t you tell me you knew her? It would have saved a lot of trouble.”

George said nothing. Bill produced a receipt book from an inner tunic pocket and extended it and a brush toward Blixa. “If you don’t mind signing here, lalania,” he murmured. “An acknowledgement of the delivery of the pig…”

“Not at all.” Blixa took the brush from him and drew her name quickly in the proper place. She handed the book back to him.

Bill examined the receipt carefully before he thrust the book back in his pocket. He gave a satisfied nod. “That’s fine,” he said, “just fine. Thanks a lot for helping out, George. Don’t forget, I’ll give you half my bonus when it comes. You’ve really earned it by delivering the pig. And then you can marry Darleen.”

He slapped George on the shoulder, nodded with more formal politeness to Blixa, and hopped into the abrotanon car. It drove away.

There was a silence. Bill’s last words, “marry Darleen,” seemed to be floating in the air. Blixa looked at George and George, alternately, looked at her and then down at the ground. What was the matter with him? Why wasn’t he happy, now that he could marry Darleen?

“Who’s Darleen?” Blixa asked at last in a colorless voice.

“I… Girl I know on Earth,” George mumbled.

There was an even longer silence. It was still quiet beside the canal, but all around came the thousand noises of a great city waking to life. The polar mail went arching through the sky with a long scream of rockets. George kept looking down at the ground.

“Was that why you helped me get the pig?” Blixa said finally. Her voice was even more impersonal than it had been. “So you could have enough money to marry this Darleen?”

“…I… I… guess so.”

“Are you quite sure?” Blixa asked. Her voice was as toneless as ever, but something in it made George look up quickly. Blixa’s eyes were still fixed on him, but she had begun to smile. “Are you quite sure?” she said again.

Something in the words ran down George’s spine like a drizzle of melted honey. It reached the base of his vertebral column and stayed there, circling in a warm, sweet flood. For a moment he looked at Blixa unbelievingly. Th en he advanced on her with the determination of a male rhyoorg in spring.

Blixa gave a slight scream. “Be reasonable!” she said. “Ooooh, oooh! Not here, George! It’s too public! Be reasonable!”

1949. Startling Stories

THE GARDENER

Traffic cops have been known to disregard “No Parking” signs. Policemen filch apples from fruit stands under the proprietor’s very eye. Even a little authority makes its possessor feel that the rules don’t apply to him. Thus it was that Tig lath Hobbs, acting chief of the Bureau of Extra-Systemic Plant Conservation, cut down a sacred Butandra tree.

It must have been sheer bravado which impelled him to the act. Certainly the grove where the Butandra trees grow (there are only fifty trees on all Cassid, which means that there are only fifty in the universe) is well protected by signs.

Besides warnings in the principal planetary tongues, there is a full set of the realistic and expressive Cassidan pictographs. These announce, in shapes which even the dullest intellect could not misunderstand, that cutting or mutilating the trees is a crime of the gravest nature. That persons committing it will be punished. And that after punishment full atonement must be made.

All the pictographs in the announcement have a frowning look, and the one for “Atonement” in particular is a threatening thing. The pictographs are all painted in pale leaf green.

But Hobbs had the vinegary insolence of the promoted bureaucrat. He saw that he had shocked Reinald, the little Cassidan major who had been delegated his escort, by even entering the sacred grove. He felt a coldly exhibitionistic wish to shock him further.

Down the aisle of trees Hobbs stalked while the tender green leaves murmured above his head. Then he took hold of the trunk of the youngest of the Butandras, a slender white-barked thing, hardly more than a sapling.

“Too close to the others,” Hobbs said sharply. “Needs thinning.” While Reinald watched helplessly, he got out the little hand axe which hung suspended by his side. Chop—chop—chop. With a gush of sap the little tree was severed. Hobbs held it in his hand.

“It will make me a nice walking stick,” he said.

Reinald’s coffee-colored skin turned a wretched nephrite green but he said nothing at all. Rather shakily he scrambled back into the ‘copter and waited while Hobbs completed his inspection of the grove. It was not until they had flown almost back to Genlis that he made a remark.

“You should not have done that, sir,” he said. He ran a finger around his tunic collar uneasily.

Hobbs snorted. He looked down at the lopped-off stem of the Butandra, resting between his knees. “Why not?” he demanded. “I have full authority to order plantations thinned or pruned.”

“Yes, sir. But that was a Butandra tree.”

“What has that to do with it?”

“There have always been fifty Butandra trees on Cassid. Always, for all our history. We call them ‘Cassid’s Luck’.”

Reinald licked his lips. “The tree you cut down will not grow again. I do not know what will happen if there are only forty-nine.

“Besides that, what you did is dangerous. Dangerous, I mean, sir, to you.”

Hobbs laughed harshly. “You’re forgetting my position,” he answered. “Even if they wanted to, the civil authorities couldn’t do anything to me.”

Reinald gave a very faint smile. “Oh, I don’t mean the civil authorities, sir,” he said in a gentle voice. “They wouldn’t be the ones.” He seemed, somehow, to have recovered his spirits.

He set the ‘copter down neatly on the roof of the Administration Building, and he and his passenger got out. Back in the grove near the stump of the sapling Butandra, something was burrowing up rapidly through the soil.

Hobbs left Cassid the next day on the first leg of the long journey back to earth. In his baggage was the piece of Butandra wood. He was taking particular care of it since one of the room maids at his hotel in Genlis had tried to throw it out. But for the first few days of his trip he was altogether too occupied with filling out forms and drafting reports to do anything with it.

About this same time, on Cassid, a conversation was going on in the Hotel Genlis dining room.

“Tell us what you thought it was when you first saw it,” Berta, the room maid for the odd-numbered levels in the hotel, urged. “Go on!”

Marie, the chief room maid, selected a piece of mangosteen torte from the food belt as it went by. “Well,” she said, “I was, checking the rooms on the level to be sure the robot help had cleaned up properly and when I saw that big brown spot on the floor my first thought was, one of them’s spilled something. Robots are such fools.

“Then it moved, and I saw it wasn’t a stain at all, but a big brown thing snuffling around on the eutex like a dog after something. Then it stood up. That was when I screamed.”

“Yes, but what did it look like? Go on, Marie! You never want to tell this part.”

“It was a big, tall lanky thing,” Marie said reluctantly, “with a rough brown skin like a potato. It had two little pink mole hands. And it had an awfully, awfully kind face.”

“If it had such a kind face I don’t see why you were so scared of it,” Berta said. She always said that at this point.

Marie took a bite out of her mangosteen torte. She ate it slowly, considering. It was not that the emotion she had experienced at the sight of the face was at all dim in her mind. It was that embodying it in words was difficult.

“Well,” she said, “maybe it wasn’t really kind. Or—wait now, Berta, I’ve got it—it was a kind face but not for people. For human beings it wasn’t at all a kind face.”

“Guess what room this happened in,” Berta said, turning to Rose, the even-numbered room maid.

“I don’t need to guess, I know,” Rose drawled. “One thousand one hundred and eighty-five, the room that Earthman had. The man that didn’t leave any tip and gave you such a bawling-out for touching you-know-what.”

Berta nodded. “If I’d known—” she said with a slight shudder. “If I’d guessed! I mean, I’d rather have touched a snake! Anyhow, Marie, tell Rose what you think the brown thing was.”

“As Rose says, I don’t need to guess, I know,” Marie replied. She pushed the empty dessert plate away from her. “When a man cuts down one of our Butandra trees—that thing in the room was a Gardener.”

The Gardener left the soil of Cassid with a minimum of fuss. Not for it the full thunder of rockets, the formalized pageantry of the spaceport. It gave a slight push with its feet and the soil receded. There was an almost imperceptible jetting of fire. Faster and faster the Gardener went. It left behind first the atmosphere of Cassid and then, much later, that planet’s gravitational field. And still it shot on, out into the star-flecked dark.

On his fourth day in space Hobbs got out the Butandra stick. Its heavy, white, close-grained wood pleased him. It would, as he had told Reinald, make a fine walking stick. Hobbs got a knife from his pocket and carefully began to peel off the tough white bark.

The bark came off as neatly as a rabbit’s skin. Hobbs pursed his lips in what, for him, was a smile. He studied the contours of the wood and then started to whittle out a knob.

The wood was hard. The work went slowly. Hobbs was almost ready to put it aside and go down to the ship’s bar for a nightcap when there came a light tapping at his cabin’s exterior viewing pane.

When a ship is in deep space the sense of isolation becomes almost tangible. It seeps into every pore of every passenger. The ship floats in ghostly fashion through an uncreated void in which there is nothing—can be nothing—except the tiny world enclosed by the curving beryllium hull. And now something—something outside the ship—was rapping on Hobbs’ viewing plane.

For a moment Hobbs sat paralyzed, as near to stone as a man can be and still breathe. Then he dropped the Butandra stick and turned to the viewing pane. There was nothing there, of course—nothing but the black, the black.

Hobbs bit his lips. With slightly unsteady fingers he picked up the stick from the floor and locked it away in his valise. Then he tightened his belt around his paunch, buttoned up his coat, and went down to the bar.

He found the second officer there. McPherson was drinking pomelo juice and eating a bosula tongue sandwich. A plump good-natured man, he always liked a little something to eat before he hit the sack. After his own drink had been brought Hobbs got into conversation with the second officer. A possible explanation for the noise he had heard had come to him.

“Something gone wrong with the ship?” he asked. “Is that why you’ve got a repair crew out on the hull?”

McPherson looked surprised. “Repair crew?” he echoed. “Why no, nothing’s wrong. Captain Thorwald hates making repairs in deep space—always something faulty in them—and he wouldn’t order repairs here unless the situation were really emergent. There’s no crew out. What makes you ask that?”

“I— thought I heard something rapping on my viewing pane.”

The second officer smiled. He decided to make a joke. “Been doing something you shouldn’t, sir?” he said.

Hobbs put down his glass. “I beg your pardon?” he said icily.

The second officer grew sober. Hobbs, while not coming under the heading of VIP, was fairly important all the same.

“No offense meant, sir,” he said. “Just a little joke. Don’t you know how, in the stories spacemen tell, the curse or doom or whatever it is always shows itself to its victim in space by tapping on his viewing pane? When a man’s broken a taboo on one of the planets, I mean. That was what I was referring to. Just a little joke.”

“Oh.” Hobbs swallowed. He held out his glass to the barman. “Another of the same,” he said in a rather hoarse voice. “Make it a double.”

Tiglath Hobbs was an extremely stubborn man. This quality, in some situations, is hardly to be distinguished from courage. Next wake-period he got out the Butandra stick again. With cold, unsteady fingers he worked on the knob. He had stationed himself close to the viewing plate.

There was no rapping this time. Hobbs did not know what it was that made him look up. Look up at last he did. And there, bobbing about in the tiny spot of light which seeped out through his viewing pane, was the smiling face the room maid in Genlis had seen. Brown and rough, it was regarding Hobbs with incredible, with indescribable benignity.

Hobbs uttered a cry. He pressed the button which sent the pane shutter flying into place. And the next moment he was standing by his cabin door, as far away from the pane as he could get, his fingers pressed over his eyes. When he stopped shuddering he decided to go see Captain Thorwald.

It took him a long time to get to the point. Thorwald listened, drumming with his fingers on his desk, while Hobbs circumlocuted, hesitated, retracted, and corrected himself. What came out eventually was that he wanted Captain Thorwald—just for a moment, just for a fraction of a second—to have the ship’s force field turned on.

Thorwald shook his head. “I’m sorry, Mr. Hobbs. It’s impossible. Turning on the field would have to go into the log, you know, and there’s no reason for it.”

Hobbs hesitated. Then he got his wallet out. “I’ll make it worth your while. Five hundred I.U.’s?”

“Sorry, no.”

“Six hundred? Seven hundred? Money is always useful. You could say you ran into a meteor swarm.”

“I—no.”

“Eight hundred? Look here, I’ll give you a thousand! Surely you could fix the log.”

Thorwald’s face wore a faint, sour smile but still he hesitated. “Very well,” he said abruptly. “Let’s say you bet me a thousand I.U.’s that I can’t turn the ship’s force field on and off again in a sixtieth of a second. Is that it? I warn you, Mr. Hobbs, you’re sure to lose your bet.”

Hobbs’ eyelids flickered. If the captain wanted to save his pride this way—“I don’t believe it!” he said with artificial vehemence. “I don’t believe a field can be turned on and off that fast. It’s a bet. I’ll leave the stakes on the table, Captain.” From his wallet he drew ten crisp yellow notes.

Thorwald nodded. “Very well,” he said without touching the money. “In half an hour, Mr. Hobbs, you shall have your demonstration. Will that be satisfactory?”

“Quite.”

Thorwald nodded and picked up the notes with his right hand.

Hobbs went back to his cabin, raised the shutter and sat down by the viewing pane. He had keyed himself up to the pitch where it was almost a disappointment to him that the smiling face did not appear. The moments passed.

Abruptly the ship shook from stem to stern. A billion billion tiny golden needles lanced out into the dark. Then the cascade of glory was gone and the eternal black of space was back.

It had happened so quickly that, except for the pattern of light etched on his retina, Hobbs might have wondered whether he had seen it at all. Thorwald could certainly claim to have won his bet.

But Hobbs was well satisfied with what he had got for his thousand I.U.’s. In the fraction of a second that the force field had been turned on he had seen, crushed and blackened against the field’s candent radiance, a dead scorched shapeless thing like a burned spider.

The myriad biting fires of the force field must have charred it instantly to the bone. What Hobbs had seen in that instant of incredible illumination was dead beyond a doubt, as dead as the moon.

By now it must be lying thousands upon thousands of kilos to the side of the ship’s course, where the vast impetus of the field had sent it hurtling. Hobbs drew a deep, deep breath. Relief had made him weak.

When he and Thorwald met at the next meal they maintained a cautious cordiality toward each other. Neither of them, then or at any time thereafter, referred again to the bet.

That sleep-period Hobbs rested well. In the next few days he regained most of his usual aplomb. Leisurely he finished carving the Butandra wood into a walking stick. It made a very nice one. By the time the ship docked at Llewellyn, an Earth-type planet but with a third less than Earth’s normal gee, he was quite himself again.

* * *
In the depths of space, uncounted millions of kilometers away, the blackened husk of the Gardener floated weightlessly. It was quite dry and dead. But did it not stir a little from time to time as though a breeze rustled it? And what were those cracks that slowly appeared in it? Were they not like the cracks in a chrysalis?

* * *
Hobbs was well pleased with the state of the plantations on Llewellyn. He told the young man in charge of the local office so and the young man was gratified. By the end of the third day Hobbs was ready to resume his interrupted voyage toward Earth.

Something he saw in a sheet of stereo-press newsprint changed his mind. “Fiend robs, mutilates liner chief!” the big red scarehead bellowed. And then, in smaller type, the paper went on, “Minus finger and 1,000 I.U.’s, Captain unable to name assailant. Police make search.”

Hobbs— he was at breakfast—looked at the item incuriously until, in the body of the story, his eye caught a familiar name. Then he read with avid interest.

Eins Thorwald, captain of the luxury space liner Rhea (this was inaccurate—the Rhea was not a luxury liner but a freighter with fairly comfortable accommodation for five or six passengers) was in hospital today minus one thousand I.U.’s and the index finger of his right hand.

Thorwald, found in a state of collapse in his cabin by second officer Joseph McPherson (see page two for pictures), was unable to give details of the attack on him. He told police he had been robbed of exactly one thousand I.U.’s. Other currency in Thorwald’s wallet was untouched.

Thorwald’s finger, according to medical officer Dingbv of the local police, appears to have been amputated with the help of a chisel or some similar instrument. No trace of the missing digit has been found.

Thorwald himself, after receiving several transfusions, is in Mercy Hospital, where his condition is reported serious. Police are operating on the theory that the attack was the work of some fiend whose hobby is collecting human fingers. A thorough search is being made and they expect an arrest soon.

* * *
Hobbs put the newsprint down. His hands were trembling. His florid cheeks had turned white. What he suspected, he told himself, was sheer lunacy.

Hadn’t he himself seen the—thing which had rapped at his viewing pane reduced to a blackened cinder by the ravening fires of the force field? But Thorwald had been robbed of exactly one thousand I.U.’s. And he had picked up Hobbs’ bribe with his right hand.

Hobbs pushed his plate away and asked the robot for his check. In the lobby he video’d Mercy Hospital and inquired for news of Thorwald. He was told that Thorwald’s condition was serious and that he could not possibly see anyone.

Hobbs sat in the lobby for an hour or so and tried to think. At the end of that time he had come to a decision. Tiglath Hobbs was a stubborn man.

He called a ‘copter and had it take him to the local office of the Bureau of Extra-Systemic Plant Conservation. Scott, the young man in charge of the office, was out and Hobbs had to wait for him.

It was nearly noon when Scott came in, very brown and erect in his clothing of forest green. He had been supervising the weeding of a plantation of young Tillya trees and there was mud on the knees of his trousers from kneeling beside the seedlings. The knees of his trousers were always a little muddy. He had the green heart of the true forester.

Hobbs came to the point at once. “Scott,” he said, “I want you to go to Cassid and supervise the uprooting of the plantation of Butandra trees there.”

Scott looked at him for a moment incredulously. “I beg your pardon, sir?” he said at last in a neutral tone.

“I said, I want you to go to Cassid and supervise the uprooting of the plantation of Butandra trees there.”

“I— sir, what is the reason for this order?”

“Because I say so.”

“But, Mr. Hobbs, the Butandra trees are unique. As you of course know, there is nothing like them anywhere else in the universe. Scientifically it would be criminal to destroy those trees.

“Further than that, they play a considerable role in Cassidan planetary life. To the inhabitants the trees have a large emotional significance. I must ask you, sir, to reconsider your decision.”

“You have your orders. Carry them out.”

“I’m sorry, sir. I decline to do so.”

Hobbs thick neck had turned red. “I’ll have your job for this,” he said chokingly.

Scott permitted himself a thin smile. “I have civil service tenure, sir,” he said.

“You can be removed for cause. Insubordination, in this case.”

Scott’s smile vanished, but he did not retreat. “Very well,” he said. “If it comes to a public hearing we’ll see. In any case I can’t carry out that order. And I very much doubt, Mr. Hobbs, that you’ll find anyone who will. It’s not the kind of thing you can ask of a forester.”

Hobbs raised his stick of Butandra wood. His expression was murderous. Then his common sense reasserted itself. He gave Scott a nod and left.

He called the travel bureau, canceled his Earthward passage and made reservations for a cabin on the next ship back to Cassid. If he could not find anyone to carry out his orders to destroy the plantation of Butandra trees he would do it himself. Tiglath Hobbs, as has been said before, was a stubborn man.

The trip back to Cassid was unexceptional. Nothing came to rap at Hobbs’ viewing pane or to peer in at him. It was so quiet, in fact, that Hobbs had fits of wondering whether he was doing the right thing.

The Butandra trees were, as Scott had said, of considerable scientific interest and Hobbs might be letting himself in for a good deal of unfavorable criticism by destroying them. And the attack on Thorwald might have been only a coincidence.

But by now Hobbs bitterly hated the Butandra trees. Guilt, anxiety, and self—righteousness had coalesced in him to form an emotion of overwhelming intensity. He hated the Butandra trees. How could there be any question about destroying them?

With their repulsive staring white bark and the nasty whispering rustle their long green leaves made they deserved—yes, they positively deserved—to be killed. How could a decent-minded man let the Butandra trees live?

Usually, by the time he got to this point in his thoughts, Hobbs began to pant. He had to make a conscious effort to calm himself.

Hobbs’ ship docked at Genlis spaceport late at night. Hobbs was too excited to try to sleep. He paced up and down in the waiting room until day came.

Then he rented a ‘copter from a Fly-It-Yourself hangarage and flew to a supply house which specialized in compact power saws. He had decided to fell the trees first and afterwards make arrangements for having the stumps pulled up.

It was still early when he got to the sacred grove. In the tender light of morning the straight, white-barked, green-leaved trees made a pretty, peaceful sight. Hobbs hesitated, though not from any qualms about his contemplated arboricide. What was bothering him was a feeling that entering the grove to cut down the trees, even in daylight, might be dangerous.

On the other hand the best defense was always attack. What had happened to Thorwald had been almost certainly a coincidence. But if it hadn’t—Hobbs swallowed—the best way of insuring himself against a similar experience was to cut down the grove.

The grove was, he had decided on Llewellyn, the—the thing’s base of operations. It drew power from the grove as surely as the trees of the grove drew nourishment from the soil. Once the grove was destroyed the tiling, whether or not the force field had killed it, would have no more power.

Hobbs took the portable saw from the ’copter and slung it over his shoulder. He hesitated a fraction of a second longer. A sudden gust of wind set the long leaves of the Butandras to rustling mockingly. Hobbs felt a nearly blinding surge of hate. His jaw set. He opened the gate and entered the grove.

The power saw was not heavy and he decided to begin his felling operations beside the sapling he had first cut down. He found the stump without difficulty and was pleased to see that it had not put up any shoots. But somebody had dug a deep hole in the ground beside it, and Hobbs frowned over this.

He set the saw down on the turf and knelt to adjust it. He could find out about the hole later. He touched a switch. The saw’s motor began to purr.

The Gardener came out from behind a tree and smiled at him.

Hobbs gave a strangled, inarticulate shriek. He scrambled to his knees and started to run. The Gardener stretched out its lanky arms and caught him easily.

With its little pink mole hands it stripped his clothing away. His shoes came off. With ten separate chops of its strong white teeth the Gardener bit away his toes. While Hobbs struggled and shrieked and shrieked and shrieked, the Gardener peeled away the skin on the inner surfaces of his legs and thighs and bound these members together with a length of vine.

It drew scratches all over the surface of his body with its long sharp mole claws and rubbed a gritty grayish powder carefully into each gash. Then it carried Hobbs over to the hole it had made and, still smiling, planted him.

When the Gardener came back an hour or so later from its tasks of cultivation in another part of the grove, a thin crust of bark had already begun to form over Hobbs’ human frame. It would not be long, the Gardener knew, before Hobbs would become a quite satisfactory Butandra tree.

The Gardener smiled benignly. It looked with approval at the graft on the trunk of the tree to the right, where what had once been Eins Thorwald’s index finger was burgeoning luxuriantly.

The Gardener nodded. “A leaf for a leaf,” it said.

1949. Thrilling Wonder Stories

CHILD OF VOID

Ischeenar is his name, and he lives in the big toe of my left foot. He’s fairly quiet during the day, except that now and then he makes my foot twitch. But at night he comes out and sits on my knee and says all sorts of hateful things. Once he suggested-But I didn’t mean to tell about Ischeenar yet. I suppose I got off on him thinking about the fire and all that. It was after the fire that he got into my foot. But I want to tell this in order, the way it happened, and I ought to begin at the beginning. I suppose that means telling about how we happened to go to Hidden Valley to live.

Uncle Albert killed himself and left Hidden Valley to Mom in his will. I didn’t want to go there. We had visited Hidden Valley once or twice when I was little, and I hated it. It gave me the creeps. It was the kind of place you see articles about in the Sunday supplement—a place where water flows uphill and half the time the laws of gravity don’t work, a place where sometimes a rubber ball will weigh three or four pounds and you can look out the upstairs window and see a big blue lake where the vegetable garden ought to be. You never could depend on things being normal and right.

But Mom wanted to go. She said there was a nice little house we could live in, an artesian we ll with the best water in the world, and good rich soil for growing our own vegetables. There were even a cow and some chickens. Mom said we could be a lot more comfortable there than in the city, and live better. She said we’d get used to the funny things and they wouldn’t bother us. And though she didn’t say so, I knew she thought I’d be happier away from people, on a farm.

Mom’s been awfully good to me. She kept on with the massage and exercises for my back for years after the doctors said it was no use. I wish I could do more for her. Her ideas are usually pretty good, and when I’ve gone against them I’ve been sorry. When you think about it, Mom is generally right.

So we went to Hidden Valley, Mom and Donnie (that’s my younger brother) and I. It was worse than I had thought it was going to be. The place was still queer enough to scare you purple, but besides that there was something new, a kind of heavy depression in the air.

It was terrible. At first it made you feel like you’d like to put your head up and howl the way a dog does; then you felt too worn out and miserable and unhappy to have energy left for howling.

It got worse with every hour we stayed there. By the time we’d been in Hidden Valley for two days, Mom and I were looking at each other and wondering which of us would be the first to suggest going back to the city. I kept thinking about how sensible Uncle Albert had been to blow himself up with the dynamite. Even Donnie and his kitten felt the depression; they sat huddled up together in a corner and looked miserable.

Finally Mom said, in a kind of desperate way, “Eddie, why don’t you see what you can get on your radio set? It might cheer you up.” Mom doesn’t give up easily.

I thought it was a silly idea. I’ve been a ham operator ever since I was fifteen, and it’s a lot of fun. I enjoy it more than anything. But when you’re feeling as bad as I was then, you don’t want to talk to anyone. You just want to sit and wonder about dying and things like that.

My stuff had been dumped down all in a corner of the little beaver-boarded living room. I hadn’t felt chipper enough to do anything about getting it set up, though Uncle Albert had put in a private power system and there was electricity in the house. After Mom asked me for the second time, though, I got up and hobbled over to my equipment. And here a funny thing happened. I’d hardly started hunting around for a table to put my stuff on when my depression began to lift.

It was wonderful. It was like being lost in the middle of a dark, choking fog and then having the fog blow away and the bright sun shine out.

The others were affected the same way. Donnie got a piece of string and began playing with the kitten, and the kitten sat back “and batted at the string with its paws the way cats do when they’re playful. Mom stood watching me for a while, smiling, and then she went out in the kitchen and began to get supper. I could smell the bacon frying and hear her whistling “On ward Christian Soldiers.” Mom whistles that way when she’s feeling good.

We didn’t go back to feeling depressed again, either. The funny things about Hidden Valley stopped bothering us, and we all enjoyed ourselves. We had fresh eggs, and milk so rich you could hardly drink it, and lettuce and peas and tomatoes and everything. It was a dry year, but we had plenty of water for irrigation. We lived off the fat of the land; you’d have to have a hundred dollars a week to live like that in the city.

Donnie liked school (he walked about a mile to the school bus) better than he had in the city because the kids were more friendly, and Mom got a big bang out of taking care of the cow and the chickens. I was outside all day long, working in the garden, and I got a fine tan and put on some weight. Mom said I never looked so well. She went into town in the jalopy twice a month to get me books from the county library, and I had all kinds of interesting things to read.

The only thing that bothered me—and it didn’t really bother me, at that—was that I couldn’t contact any other hams with my station. I never got a single signal from anyone. I don’t know what the trouble was, really—what it looked like was that radio waves couldn’t get into or out of the valley. I did everything I could to soup up my equipment. I had Mom get me a dozen books from the county library, and I stayed up half the night studying them. I tore my equipment down and built it up again eight or ten times and put in all sorts of fancy stuff. No thing helped. I might as well have held a rock to my ear and listened to it.

But outside of that, as I say, I thought Hidden Valley was wonderful. I was glad Mom had made me and Donnie go there. Everything was doing fine, until Donnie fell in the cave.

It happened when he went out after lunch to hunt for his kitten—it was Saturday—and he didn’t come back and he didn’t come back. At last Mom, getting worried, sent me out to look for him.

I went to all the usual places first, and then, not finding him, went farther away. At last, high up on a hillside, I found a big, fresh-looking hole. It was about five feet across, and from the look of the grass on the edges, the earth had just recently caved in. It seemed to be six or seven feet deep. Could Donnie be down in there? If there’s a hole to fall in, a kid will fall in it.

I put my ear over the edge and listened. I couldn’t see anything when I looked. After a moment I heard a sound like sobbing, pretty much muffled.

“Donnie!” I yelled. “Oh, Donnie!” There wasn’t any answer, but the sobbing seemed to get louder. I figured if he was down there, he was either hurt or too scared to answer my call.

I hobbled back to the house as quick as I could and got a stepladder. I didn’t tell Mom—no use in worrying her any more. I managed to get the ladder to the hole and down inside. Then I went down myself. I’ve got lots of strength in my arms.

Donnie wasn’t at the bottom. Some light was coming in at the top, and I could see that the cave went on sloping down. I listened carefully and heard the crying again.

The slope was pretty steep, about twenty degrees. I went forward carefully, feeling my way along the side and listening. Everything was as dark as the inside of a cow. Now and then I’d yell Donnie’s name.

The crying got louder. It did sound like Donnie’s voice. Pretty soon I heard a faint “Eddie!” from ahead.

And almost at the same moment I saw a faint gleam.

When I got up to it, Donnie was there. I could just make him out silhouetted against the dim yellowish glow. When I said his name this time, he gulped and swallowed. He crawled up to me as quick as he could and threw his arms around my legs.

“Ooooh, Eddie,” he said, “I’m so glad you came! I fell in and hurt myself. I didn’t know how to get out. I crawled away down here. I’ve been awful scared.”

I put my arms around him and patted him. I certainly was glad to see him. But my attention wasn’t all on him. Part of it was fixed on the egg.

It wasn’t really an egg, of course. Even at the time I knew that. But it looked like a reptile’s egg, somehow, a huge, big egg. It was about the size of a cardboard packing box, oval-shaped, and it seemed to be covered over with a tough and yet gelatinous skin. It glowed faintly with a pale orange light, as if it were translucent and the light were coming through it from behind. Shadows moved slowly inside.

Donnie was holding onto my legs so tightly I was afraid he’d stop the circulation. I could feel his heart pounding against me, and when I patted him his face was wet with tears. “I’m awful glad you came, Eddie,” he said again. “You know that ol’ egg there? It’s been making me see all sorts of things. I was awful scared.”

Donnie never lies. “It’s all right now, kid,” I said, looking at the egg. “We won’t let it show you any more bad things.”

“Oh, they weren’t bad!” Donnie drew away from me. “The egg’s bad, but the things weren’t! They were awful nice.”

I knew I ought to get him out, but I was curious. I was so curious I couldn’t stand it. I said, “What kind of things, Quack-quack?” (That’s his pet name, because his name is Donald.) “Oh…” Donnie’s voice was dreamy. His heartbeat was calming down. “Books and toys and candy. A great big Erector set. A toy farm and fire truck and a cowboy suit. And ice cream—I wish you could have some of the ice cream, Eddie. I had sodas and malteds and Eskimo bars and Cokes. Oh, and I won first prize in the spelling contest. Mom was awful glad.”

“You mean— the egg let you have all these things?” I asked, feeling dazed.

“Naw.” Donnie’s tone held disgust. “But I could have ‘em, all that and a lot more, if I’d do what the egg wanted.”

“Oh.”

“But I wouldn’t do it.” Donnie’s voice was virtuous. “I said no to ‘em. That egg’s bad.”

“What did the egg want you to do?”

“Aw, they wouldn’t tell me.” Donnie’s tone was full of antagonism. “They never did say. Cm on, let’s get out of here. You help me, I don’t like it here.”

I didn’t answer. I didn’t move. I couldn’t. The egg… was showing me things.

What sort of things? The things I wanted most, just as it had with Donnie. Things I wanted so much I wouldn’t even admit to wanting them. I saw myself healthy and normal and strong, with a straight back and powerful limbs. I was going to college, I was captain of the football team. I made the touchdown that won the big game. I was graduated with honors while Mom and my girl friend—such a pretty, jolly girl—looked on, their faces bright with pride. I got an important research job in radio. And so on—foolish ambitions, impossible hopes. Crazy dreams.

But they weren’t dreams when the egg was showing them to me. They were real, they weren’t something I had to hide or laugh at any longer. And all the time a voice inside my brain was saying, “You can have this. You can have all this.

“Won’t you help us, won’t you please help us? We’re harmless, we’re trapped and hurt. We came here from our own place to colonize, and we can’t get out and we can’t get back.

“It would be easy for you to help us. And we’ll be grateful. We’ll give you all you saw. And more. All you have to do…”

I took a step forward. Of course I wanted what they had shown me. I wanted them very much. And besides, I felt sorry for the things, the harmless things imprisoned in the egg. I’ve known what it is to feel helpless and trapped.

Donnie was beating on my thigh with his fists and screaming. I tried to shake him off so I could go on listening to the other voice. He hung on, pummeling me, and finally, in desperation, grabbed at my hand and bit it hard with his sharp little teeth. “Eddie, Eddie, Eddie! Come out of it, please come out of it!”

That roused me. I looked at him, dazed and resentful. Why wouldn’t he let me listen so I could help the poor things in the egg? “Be quiet, Quack-quack,” I mumbled to him.

“You gotta listen, Eddie! Don’t let them get you! ‘Member what happened to Uncle Albert? ‘Member how we felt when we first came to the farm?”

The words penetrated. My normal caution was waking up. “But they say they don’t mean us any harm,” I argued weakly. I was talking to Donnie just like he was grown up.

“Aw, they’re big liars. They can’t help hurting us. It’s something they put into the air, like, by just being alive. They can stop it for a while, if they try hard. But that’s the way they really are. Like poison oak or a rattlesnake. ‘Sides, I think they like it. They like being the way they are.”

Poison oak and rattlers, I translated to myself, aren’t consciously evil. They don’t will their nature. But it’s their nature to be poisonous. If Donnie was right in thinking that the things in the egg gave out, as a part of their metabolism, a vibration which was hostile to human life… Uncle Albert had committed suicide by blowing himself up with dynamite.

“We’d better get rid of the egg, Quack-quack,” I said.

“Yes, Eddie.”

I helped him up the shaft to the mouth of the cave. He’d sprained his ankle. On the way I asked, “What are the things in the egg like, Donnie?” I had an idea, but I wanted to check it with him. I felt his young mind and senses were keener and more reliable in this than mine.

“Like radio. Or ’lectricity.”

“Where did they come from?”

“Another— not like where we live. Everything’s different. It’s not like here. It’s right here beside us. An’ it’s a long way off.”

I nodded. I helped him up the ladder and left him sitting on the hillside. Then I went back to the house for my .22 and a can of kerosene.

Donnie watched me anxiously as I went down with them. I don’t mind admitting I was pretty nervous myself.

A.22 isn’t an elephant gun. Still, at a two-foot range it ought to have some penetrating power. It didn’t. The bullets just bounced off from the sides of the egg. I could hear them spatting against the walls of the cave. I used three clips before I gave up.

That left the kerosene. There hadn’t been any more attempts to show me pictures or bring me around. In a silence that seemed bitterly hostile I poured kerosene all over the egg. I used plenty. Then I stood back and tossed a match at it.

Heat boiled up. It got so hot I retreated nearly to where Donnie had fallen in. But when it cooled off enough so that I could go back, I found the egg sitting there as good as new. There wasn’t even any soot on it.

I was beaten. I couldn’t think of anything more to do. I went up the ladder with the empty kerosene can and my gun. Donnie seemed to know I’d failed. He was crying when I came up to him. “Don’t tell Mom,” I said, and he nodded dutifully.

Would the egg let it go at that? I didn’t think so. After supper I said to Mom, “You know, sometimes I think it would be nice to go back to the city for a while.”

She looked at me as if she couldn’t believe her ears. “Are you crazy, Eddie? We never had it so good before.” Her eyes narrowed and she began to get worried. “What’s the matter, honey? Aren’t you feeling well?”

I couldn’t tell her. I knew she’d believe me; that was just the trouble. If she knew there was a chance I could be cured, be made healthy and strong the way she wanted me to be, she’d make a dicker with the things in the egg, come hell or high water. It wouldn’t make any difference to her whether they were good or bad, if she thought they could help me. Mom’s like that.

“Oh, I feel fine,” I said as heartily as I could. “It was just an idea. How’s for seconds on the strawberry shortcake? It’s even better than usual, Mom.”

Her face relaxed. But I didn’t sleep much that night.

The breakfast Mom cooked next morning was punk. I wasn’t hungry, but I couldn’t help noticing. The toast was burned, the eggs were leathery and cold, the coffee was the color of tea. There was even a fly in the pitcher of orange juice. I thought she must be worried about Donnie. I had bandaged his foot according to the picture in the first-aid book, but the ankle had swelled up like a balloon, and it looked sore and bad.

After breakfast Mom said, “Eddie, you seem worn out. I think carrying Donnie so far was bad for you. I don’t want you to do any work today. You just sit around and rest.”

“I don’t feel like resting,” I objected.

“Well—” Her face brightened. “I know,” she said, sounding pleased. “Why don’t you see what you can get on your radio set? The cord’s long enough you could take it out on the side porch and be out in the fresh air. It’s been a long time since you worked with it. Maybe you could get some of the stations you used to get.”

She sounded so pleased with herself for having thought of the radio that I didn’t have the heart to argue with her. She helped me move the table and the equipment outside, and I sat down and began to fiddle with it. It was nice and cool out on the porch.

I didn’t get any signals, of course. Pretty soon Donnie came limping out. He was supposed to stay on the couch in the living room, but it’s hard for a kid to keep still.

“What’s the matter, Donnie?” I asked, looking at him. He was frowning, and his face was puckered up and serious. “Foot hurt?”

“Oh, some… But Eddie… you know that old egg?” I picked up my headphones and turned them a bit. “Urn,” I said.

“Well, I don’t think you should’a built that fire around it. It was a bad thing to do.”

I put the headphones down. I wanted to tell Donnie to shut up and not bother me; I know that was because I didn’t like what he was saying. “Why was it bad?” I asked.

“Because it stirred the things in the egg up. I kin feel it. It’s like you have a station with more juice, you can get farther. The fire gave them more juice.”

I didn’t know what to say. I figured he was right, and I felt scared. After a minute I made myself laugh. “Nothing to worry about, Quack-quack,” I said. “We can lick any old egg.”

His face relaxed a little. “I guess so,” he said. He sat down in the porch swing.

Mom stuck her head around the edge of the door. “Did you get anything on your radio, Eddie?” she asked.

“No,” I said a little shortly.

“That’s too bad.” She went back in the kitchen and hung her apron up, and then she came out on the porch. She was rubbing her forehead with the back of her hand as if her head ached.

To please her, I put on my headphones and twiddled the dials. No dice, of course. Mom frowned. She went around to the other side of the table and stood looking at the wiring, something I’d never seen her do before. “How would it be if you moved this from here to here?” she said. Her voice was a little high.

I leaned over to see what she was pointing at. “That would just burn out the tubes.”

“Oh.” She stood there for a moment. Then her hand darted out, and before I could stop her, before I even had any idea what she was up to, she moved the wire she’d been talking about.

“Hey!” I squawked, “Stop that!” I said it too late. There was a crackle and a flash and all the tubes burned out. My station was completely dead.

Mom rubbed her forehead and looked at me. “I don’t know what made me do that, Eddie,” she said apologetically. “It was just like something moved my hand! I’m awfully sorry, son.”

“Oh, that’s O.K.,” I said. “Don’t worry about it. The station wasn’t good for anything.”

“I know, but… My head’s been feeling queer all morning. I think it must be the weather. Doesn’t the air feel heavy and oppressive to you?”

The air did have a thick, discouraging feel, but I hadn’t noticed it before she burned out the radio tubes. I opened my mouth to say something, but before I could say it, Donnie yelled, “Look at Fluffie! She’s walking on the air!”

We both jerked around. There Fluffie was, about ten feet up, making motions with her paws as if she were trying to walk. She was mewing a blue streak. Now and then she’d slip down three or four feet and then go up to the former level, just as if a hand had caught at her. Her fur was standing up all over, and her tail was three times its usual size. Finally she went up about twenty feet and then came sailing down in a long curve. She landed on the ground with a thump. And that was the beginning of all the phenomena.

It wasn’t so much that we felt depressed at first, though we certainly did. But we could stand it; the depression wasn’t as bad as it had been when we first came to Hidden Valley. I guess that was because the things in the egg were more spread out now. Whether that was the reason or not, most of the phenomena were physical.

You could hardly get into the living room. It was like pushing your way through big wet bladders to go into it. If you sat on the sofa you had a sense of being crowded and pushed, and pretty soon you’d find yourself down at the far end of it, squeezed into a corner. When Mom struck matches to make a fire for lunch, the matches were twitched out of her hand and went sailing around the room. We had to eat cold things; she was afraid of burning down the place.

At first Mom tried to pretend there was nothing wrong; after all, you couldn’t see anything. But I went out in the kitchen at suppertime and found her crying quietly. She said it was because she’d been trying to cut bread for sandwiches and the knife in her hand kept rising up toward her throat. I knew that if Mom was crying it had been pretty bad. So I told her about the egg in the cave and all that.

“They’re out of the egg now,” she said unhappily when I had finished. “My burning out the tubes this morning let them out. We’ve got to go back to the city, Eddie. It’s the only thing to do.”

“And leave them loose?” I said sharply. “We can’t do that. If it was just a case of deserting the valley and having them stay here, it would be all right. But they won’t stay here. They came to Earth to colonize. That means they’ll increase and spread out.

“Remember how it was when we came here? Remember how we felt? Suppose it was like that over most of the Earth!”

Mom shook her head till her gray curls bobbed. “This can’t be real, Eddie,” she said in a sort of wail. “We must be having hallucinations or something. I keep telling myself, this can’t be real.”

Donnie, outside, gave a sudden horrible shriek. Mom turned as white as a ghost. Then she darted out, with me after her.

Donnie was standing over Fluffie’s body, crying with rage. He was so mad and so miserable he could hardly talk. “They killed her! They killed her!” he said at last. “She was way up in the air, and they pushed her down hard and she squashed when she hit the ground. She’s all mashed flat.”

There wasn’t anything to say. I left Mom to try to comfort Donnie, and went off by myself to try to think.

I didn’t get anywhere with my thinking. How do you fight anything you can’t see or understand? The things from the egg were immaterial but could produce material phenomena; Donnie had said they were like electricity or radio. Even if that were true, how did it help? I thought up a dozen fragmentary schemes, each with some major flaw, for getting rid of them, and in the end I had to give up.

None of us went to bed that night. We stayed up in the kitchen huddled together for comfort and protection, while the house went crazy around us. The things that happened were ridiculous and horrible. They made you feel mentally outraged. It was like being lowered down into a well filled with craziness.

About three o’clock the light in the kitchen went slowly out. The house calmed down and everything got quiet. I guess the things from the egg had revenged themselves on us enough for having tried to get rid of them, and now they were going about their own business, perhaps beginning to increase. Because from then on the feeling of depression got worse. It was worse than it had ever been before.

It seemed like years and years until four o’clock. I sat there in the dark, holding Mom’s and Donnie’s hands and wondering how much longer I could stand it. I had a vision of life, then, that people in asylums must have, an expanse filled with unbearable horror and pain and misery.

By the time it was getting light I couldn’t stand it any longer. There was a way out; I didn’t have to go on seeing Hell opening in front of me. I pulled my hands from Mom’s and Donnie’s and stood up. I knew where Uncle Albert had kept the dynamite. I was going to kill myself.

Donnie’s eyes opened and he looked at me. I’d known he wasn’t asleep. “Don’t do it, Eddie,” he said in a thread of a voice. “It’ll only give them more juice.”

Part of my mind knew dimly what he meant. The things from the egg weren’t driving me to suicide deliberately; they didn’t care enough about me for that. But my death—or any human’s death—would be a nice little event, a tidbit, for them. Life is electrical. My death would release a little juice.

It didn’t matter, it wasn’t important. I knew what I was going to do.

Mom hadn’t moved or looked at me. Her face was drawn and gray and blotched. I knew, somehow, that what she was enduring was worse than what I had endured. Her vision was darker than mine had been. She was too deep in it to be able to think or speak or move.

The dynamite was in a box in the shed. I hunted around until I found the detonator and the fuse. I stuffed the waxy, candlelike sticks inside the waistband of my trousers and picked up the other things. I was going to kill myself, but part of me felt a certain compunction at the thought of blowing up Mom and Donnie. I went outside and began to walk uphill.

The sun was coming up in a blaze of red and gold and there was a soft little breeze. I could smell wood smoke a long way off. It was going to be a fine day. I looked around me critically for a good place to blow myself up.

They say suicides are often very particular; I know I was. This spot was too open and that one was too enclosed; there was too much grass here and not quite enough at the other place. It wasn’t that I had cold feet. I hadn’t. But I wanted everything to go off smoothly and well, without any hitches or fuss. I kept wandering around and looking, and pretty soon, without realizing it, I was near the hillside with the cave.

For a moment I thought of going down in the cave to do what I had to do. I decided against it. The explosion, in that confined space, might blow up the whole valley. I moved on. And suddenly I felt a tug at my mind.

It wasn’t all around, like the feeling of depression was, something that seemed to be broadcast generally into the air. And it wasn’t like the voice inside my head I’d heard in the cave. The best way I can express the feeling is by saying that it was like walking past a furnace with your eyes shut.

I hesitated. I was still feeling suicidal; I never wavered in that. But I felt a faint curiosity and something a lot fainter that you might call, if you exaggerated, the first beginnings of hope.

I went to the mouth of the cave and let myself down through the opening.

The egg, when I reached it, was different from the way I remembered it. It was bigger and the edges were misty. But the chief difference was that it was rotating around its long axis at a really fancy rate of speed. It reminded me of the rotation of a generator. The sensation I felt was coming out from it.

Watching the thing’s luminous, mazy whirling, I got the idea that it and the things which had come out of it represented opposite poles. It was as alive as they were, though in an opposite way, and its motion provided the energy for them to operate.

I pulled the sticks of dynamite out of my belt and began setting them up. There really wasn’t much danger of blowing up the valley, and as long as I was going to do away with myself, I might as well take the egg with me, or try to. That was the way I looked at it.

No attempt was made to stop me. This may have been because the things from the egg weren’t interested in human beings, except spasmodically, but I think it more likely was because they, being polar opposites from the egg, had to keep their distance from it. Anyhow, I got my connections made without interference. I stood back a foot or two.

I closed the switch.

The next thing I knew, my head was on Mom’s lap. She was shaking me desperately by the shoulders and crying something about fire.

Now, I don’t see how I could have been responsible for the fire. The earthquake, possibly. Apparently when the dynamite exploded, the egg tried to absorb the energy. (That’s why I wasn’t hurt more.) It got an overload. And the overload, somehow, blew it clean out of our space. I got a glimpse of the space it was blown into, I think, just before my head hit the rock. But anyhow, a thing like that might possibly have caused an earthquake. All the country around Hidden Valley is over a fault.

Anyhow, there’d been earthquakes, several of them. Mom and Donnie had gone out hunting me as soon as the worst shocks were over, and found me lying at the mouth of the cave. They got me up somehow; I don’t weigh much. Mom was nearly crazy with worry because I was still unconscious. For the last two hours or so she’d been smelling the smoke and hearing the crackling of the fire.

Some camper up in the mountains, I guess, started it. It was an awfully dry year. Anyhow, by the time I was conscious and on my feet again, it was too late to think about running. We didn’t even have time to grab a suitcase. Mom and Donnie and I went down the flume.

That was some trip. When we got to Portsmouth, we found the whole town ready to pick up and leave, the fire was that close. They got it out in time, though. And then we found out that we were refugees.

There were pieces about the three of us in the city papers, with scareheads and everything. The photographers took pictures of all of us, even me, and they tried to make out we were heroes because we’d gone down the flume and hadn’t got burned up in the fire. That was a lot of foolishness; there isn’t anything heroic in saving your own life. And Mom hated those pictures. She said they made her look like she was in her seventies and heading for the grave.

One of the papers took up a collection for us, and we got a couple of hundred dollars out of it. It was a big help to us, because all we had in the world was the clothes we were standing in. After all, though, we hadn’t really expected to live. And we’d got rid of the things from the egg.

As Mom says, we have a lot to be thankful for.

I could be more thankful, though, if I didn’t have Ischeenar. I’ve tried and tried to figure out why he didn’t die when the rest of the things did, when the egg was blown into another space. The only thing I can think of is that maybe, having been born here on Earth, he’s different from the rest of them. Anyhow, he’s here with us. I’ve managed to keep Mom from finding out, but, as I say, he lives in my big toe.

Sometimes I feel almost sorry for him. He’s little and helpless, and alone in a big and hostile world. He’s different from everything around him. Like us, he’s a refugee.

But I wish I could get rid of him. He’s not so bad now while he’s young. He’s really not dangerous. But I wish to God I could get rid of him.

He’s going to be a stinker when he grows up.

1949. Super Science Stories

HATHOR’S PETS

“I won’t have my baby born here among a lot of lizards!” Vela said passionately. “I just won’t! Henry, you’ve got to help us get out of here!”

Henry Pettit sighed. Would it do any good to try to tell his sister a gain that Hathor and her fifteen-foot congeners were not lizards? No, it would not. Vela was never very logical and the fact that she had violated the cult of feminine delicacy sufficiently to mention her coming child to him showed how excited she was. Arguing with her in this mood would be wasted breath.

“Why don’t you ask your husband to help you?” he said pointedly.

Vela drew herself up. Her small hard face softened momentarily. “Denis doesn’t know how to get things out of the Scalies the way you do,” she said. “He isn’t—Denis has principles. Denis has ideals.”

(“Denis is too all-fired good and noble to butter up to the lizards in the disgusting way that you do,” Henry translated silently.) Aloud, he said, “He’s your husband, though. It’s his responsibility.”

Vela stared at him reproachfully for a moment. Then she burst into tears. Ever since her child had been on the way she had been indulging in orgies of tears. Anything was apt to send her off into a crying jag.

Henry, who was some five years older than his sister, could remember, very dimly, back to the end of the era of feminine freedom, the time when women had been encouraged, nay, expected, to be intelligent.

The girls had been in the saddle then—they had ridden high, wide and handsome. But the rise of the government-sponsored cult of feminine modesty, chastity and brainlessness in the late 1980’s had put an end to all that. Nowadays a woman was a cross between a dripping sponge and a vegetable.

Mrs. Pettit came waddling up. She had been lingering within earshot behind a tree in the park. “What have you been saying to Vela, son?” she demanded. “The poor girl! I won’t have you upsetting her.”

“I’m not upsetting her,” Henry replied morosely. “She’s upsetting herself. Excuse me. I’m going over to the laboratory.”

He got up and started rapidly across the grass.

“Henry, wait!” his mother shrilled after him. Fortunately he was walking so fast that it was possible for him to pretend that he had not heard.

After lunch his brother-in-law, Denis Hardy, began on him. Denis went over the history of the last few months relentlessly, from the time the stratoliner Pelican’s life boat had been trapped in the vortex and whirled into Hathor’s universe until the present. He even made a digression to consider whether the vortex had been deliberately created or not.

“Don’t you see,” he finished, “Vela can’t have her baby here. Why, she might—might even have to feed it herself.”

“Well, what of it?” Henry replied abstractedly. “Women used to do it all the time.” He had had a most interesting morning. He wanted to get back to the laboratory.

Denis turned an angry red. “You’re disgusting!” he said sharply. “Can’t you keep a civil tongue—” lie bit off the words and made an obvious effort at conciliation.

“Why don’t you want to go home, Pettit? There’s nothing here for a man.”

“I like it,” Henry answered simply. “Grass, flowers, air—it’s a beautiful place.”

“That’s not the reason,” Denis replied nastily. His little ramrod of a back grew straighter. “I know what you’re up to in the laboratory. Forbidden research.”

“Everything was forbidden at home,” Henry answered reasonably. “But we’re not home now. It’s not forbidden here.”

“Right’s right and wrong’s wrong, no matter where—” Once more Denis controlled himself. The gold braid on his shoulders quivered with effort. “Stay here yourself if you want, then,” he snapped. “But the rest of us don’t share your peculiar tastes. We want to get back to decency, normality. Is there any reason why you shouldn’t use your influence with your scaly friends to have them send us back to Earth?”

There was—but how could he explain it to Denis? Denis had a mind which, even for the second officer of a stratosphere liner, was limited. How could Henry make him understand how horrible mental contact with Hathor was?

It was not that Hathor was malignant or even unkind. Henry had a faint but positive impression of benignity in his dealings with her. But the words with which the human mind bridges gulfs—when, who, where—became, when one was in contact with Hathor, the gulfs themselves.

To ask her when something had happened was to reel dizzily into the vastest of all enigmas for humanity—the nature of time itself. The question, “What is it?” forced the questioner to contemplate the cloudy, chilling riddle of his own personal identity. And even, “Where?” brought up a panorama of planes of being stretching out to infinity.

In between times it was not so bad. When Henry had not seen Hathor for several days he was almost able to convince himself that he was not afraid of her. Then he would need something in the laboratory, go to see her to ask for it and come back from the interview sick and shaking, swearing that nothing—nothing—would induce him to plunge once more into the vast icy reaches of her inhuman intelligence.

He hunted for a reason Denis would understand. “It’s no use asking her,” he said finally. “Vela is going to have a child now and so Hathor would never let you go.”

“But that’s just why we want to go home.”

“I know.” Henry swallowed. “But Hathor and the others look on us as—you might say—pets. Whether or not they brought us here deliberately—myself, I think it was an accident—“that’s how they feel about us. And nobody ever turned a pet loose when it was going to have young.”

There was no use in telling Denis that Hathor was responsible for Vela’s child in the same way that a dog breeder is responsible for the birth of pups. It would only offend Hardy’s dignity.

“Pets!” Denis answered, staring. “What are you talking about? They’re nothing but lizards. They haven’t got stereo, stratoliners, A-bombs, anything. We’re their superiors in every way.”

“They’re not lizards,” Henry replied. “They’re very highly evolved mammals. That crest down the back of their heads is just an accident.

“The reason they don’t have those material things is that they don’t need them. Haven’t you ever seen Hathor materialize things for my laboratory? She does it by moving her hands. She could turn a rubber ball inside out without making a hole in it.

“As far as that goes, if you think they’re nothing but lizards, why are you trying to get them to send you back to your own time and space? No lizard I ever heard of could do that sort of thing.”

* * *
Hathor appeared. One moment the air was empty—the next it thickened and condensed, and there she was. As always when he first saw her Henry was divided between a wild desire to run for cover and an almost equally strong impulse to prostrate himself in awe at her feet.

He glanced about to see how the others were taking it. Denis, for all his bravado, was turning slowly white. And Vela, trying hard to be supercilious, was arranging the folds of her mantilla with shaking hands.

Not that there was anything especially horrible about Hathor to casual viewing. Though she was over fifteen feet tall, and so strong that she could have picked up any of the humans in the park with one hand, her body was slender and well-proportioned.

She looked a good deal smaller than she actually was. The integument that covered her streamlined contours was pearly, pinkish, lustrous. And her tall vermillion crest could hardly be considered a deformity. It was something else that caused the reaction, something in the look of her eyes.

Her impersonal gaze moved slowly over the little group. It slowed and came to rest on Henry. The skies of her mind fixed on him.

“You’re Henry,” said the glassy, disembodied voice within his brain. “The one—” (not quite one—what Hathor was thinking was more like semipermeable membrane or assemblage of points) “the one with the laboratory. Yes.

“I’m going to train you—” (a dissolving kaleidoscope of images as thick as snowflakes. From the glittering throng of whirling, evanescent pictures, Henry caught up two which lasted longer than the rest—one of a hawk leaving the falconer’s wrist, the other of a slender key turning in a lock.) “Come along.” Hathor motioned with her two-thumbed hand.

It was the first time she had ever come after him. Henry felt a premonitory shudder run through his limbs. Nonetheless he got obediently to his feet.

It was nearly supper time when he got back. The smoke of Mrs. Pettit’s cooking fire drifted out into the still air and mingled pleasantly with the smell of frying meat.

Henry sank down limply on the grass beside the blaze, shielding his eyes with his hand from the light. It was not until supper had been eaten and the necessary refuse from the meal burned that he could bring himself to speak.

“Vela— Denis,” he said, trying to keep his voice from quivering, “Do you still want to get away from here? If you do I’ll do all I can to help you. I want to get away myself.”

There was a cautious silence. Vela opened her lips and then closed them again. At last Denis spoke.

“Why, yes, we still do. We thought you—Yes, we still want to get away.” For a moment the ruddy flicker of the fire lit up the tight lips of his handsome small-featured face.

Whatever had made him decide to be tactful about Henry’s abrupt volte-face, whether his silence was caused by policy or contempt, Henry was thankful for it. He could not possibly have put into words how hateful Hathor’s recent compulsory extension of his senses had made the world where he now was to him.

He had learned too much ever to consider that world beautiful again. And trying to express it verbally would have been almost as bad as the original experience.

“What was Hathor doing with you today?” Vela asked curiously.

“Training me,” Henry answered briefly. “Training you? How?”

“It’s something she does with her hands,” Henry replied unwillingly. “They disappear. And then I hear what’s going on inside the stones.”

“Oh.” Vela looked rather sick. “Well, are you just going to ask her to send us back to our Earth, or what?”

“Asking her wouldn’t be any use. She let me see that today. Anyhow, she knows we want to go home. But I’ve been thinking.” Henry Perth’s voice was getting back its customary tones. “Why do people get rid of their pets? They get rid of them—”

“I don’t like ‘get rid of’,” Denis cut in sharply. “God knows we aren’t here of our own choice and we want to get back to our own time and place. But we’re alive here and that’s something. We don’t want to get killed trying to get back.”

“We won’t be killed. When people get rid of their pets they don’t murder them. They send them to a friend in the country who has more room or turn them over to an animal shelter or something. They don’t kill them.

“But as I was saying, why do they get rid of them? Basically for one of two reasons. You get rid of a pet when it’s not a good pet—when it sulks, is sullen, uncooperative, disagreeable—or you get rid of it because it makes a nuisance of itself. Like chewing up rugs or howling at the moon. Now if we could only make nuisances of ourselves—”

“How?” Denis asked, frowning. “Hathor isn’t around here much, so being noisy won’t do any good.”

“What about doing something with whatever you’re working on in the laboratory, son?” Mrs. Pettit suggested. “Perhaps we could be nuisances with that.”

“We can’t have anything to do with the laboratory,” Denis announced sternly. “Forbidden research is wrong, here or on Earth.”

“Oh, be quiet, Denis,” Vela said peevishly. Her husband looked as if he could hardly believe his ears. “This is lots too serious for us to be honorable,” she went on as if in explanation. “Henry, if you can do anything with your research, do it.”

“Well— I might try a matter canker. That’s just about the most forbidden research there is. I’d have to be careful not to get a radioactive form of canker, of course.”

“Would that annoy Hathor?”

“A matter canker? Yes. A matter canker would annoy anybody quite a lot.”

“And if she gets mad enough at us, she’ll send us back to our own time and space,” Vela said. She yawned. “Let’s go to bed early and get lots of sleep. And tomorrow we’ll help Henry all we can.”

His lab assistants were willing if not very bright. Clad in lead-impregnated coveralls they weighed, stirred, measured, filtered and proved to be so incompetent that on the second day Henry got rid of all of them except Vela.

Her measurements were more accurate than those of the others, and she didn’t talk so mu ch. Once or twice before he had suspected that she could be intelligent when it suited her to be.

“Listen, Henry, aren’t you afraid Hathor will find out what we’re doing before it’s ready?” she asked late on the second afternoon. “Then she’d make us stop before we got annoying.”

“I doubt it,” Henry replied absently. They were engaged with a difficult bit of titration. “There, that’s enough—She used to visit the lab a good deal at first but not any more. I don’t think she’ll be around until it’s time for me—for me to have another lesson. I hope we’ll be gone before then.”

“Well, what about the canker itself? Won’t it be dangerous? I should think it would give out a lot of heat.”

“No,” Henry replied, “there isn’t any heat with a canker. Nobody knows why. And they can’t find out because it’s been ruled forbidden research. About the only direct danger to us would be if the canker got out of control. Nobody knows why but they do that sometimes.”

He poured the solution into a crucible. “You see that switch down there by the betatron? All right, when I move my hand, depress it. Thanks.”

A matter canker takes time to establish. There were failures in the early stages of Henry’s. It was more than a week after his conversation with Vela that he got the canker into its ultimate form.

He carried it out of the laboratory, Vela following, and showed it to the others, who were sitting listlessly on the grass.

“It doesn’t look like much,” Denis said after a pause. He was turning the big flask critically in his hands. “Except for the color, that is, how could this annoy anyone?”

“It hasn’t been activated yet,” Henry explained. He took the flask back from Denis and set it on the ground. “I want you both to get into your coveralls. The canker isn’t very radioactive but there’s bound to be some radiation. So keep well back from it.”

He adjusted the timing device on the neck of the flask. While Mrs. Pettit and Denis were getting into their long white cover alls he dropped in the gray-sheathed thorium pellets which were the activating charge. Once more he adjusted the timing device. “Get back,” he said. The first—second—third pellets dropped.

The flask dissolved. The gluey viscous stuff it held ran out sluggishly over the grass. Writhing, twisting, boiling, the grass was eaten away from it. The liquid disappeared. The canker was eating in.

“It’s getting started nicely,” Henry said.

A column of steam shot up. It enlarged, grew hollow. Now there was a hole, a growing one, in the ground. The edges curled and bubbled and smoked. The hole widened, grew deeper.

A wind blew over the surface of the grass. It freshened. In a moment the leaves of the trees were in motion. The boughs began to rock. The column of steam broke off, reappeared soaringly, broke off again. The wind was growing to a gale.

“What is this, son?” Mrs. Pettit demanded. She had to put her mouth against Henry’s head to make herself heard. “Where’s the wind coming from?”

“Canker’s creating a vacuum,” Henry yelled back. “Air rushes in to fill it faster as the canker grows. Get back! Get back!”

The party hurried across the slick green surface of the grass toward safety, breaking at the last into a run. The giant wind kept trying to push them back.

“Further! Further!” Henry yelled. “Get back!”

* * *
Abruptly the canker was lapping at the laboratory walls. The stones boiled evilly for a moment and no longer existed. The upper part of the structure fell in, disappeared.

Henry’s face was greenish white. “It’s getting out of control. Run. Run!” he said.

They ran. Shrieking, stumbling, trying to breathe, they ran. The canker was faster than they. With the flowing ease of a creature in a dream it gained on them. It was no more than a yard from them when they reached the site of the cooking fire. Two seconds more and it was lapping at their heels.

Vela collapsed and fell. Denis put his hands under her armpits and wildly tried to drag her along. Mrs. Pettit, her face a mask of terror inside the glazed hood of her coveralls, was screaming inaudibly. The wind was horrible.

Hathor appeared. She was standing in the air eight or ten feet above their heads. Though her eyes still had their uncanny look of remoteness and impassivity, something about her suggested exasperation consciously controlled. Standing securely on nothingness she began to make quick, plucking motions with her hands. Slipping, sliding, twisting, they moved in space and out of it.

There was a terrific lightning flash. The world dissolved in curtains of white light. Henry, staggering back from the impact of the prodigy, was amazed that his retinae had not been burned out. It did not seem possible that the eyes could be flooded with such light and still see.

There was another even vaster flash. Slowly, reluctantly, it died away. Henry looked up at Hathor with his scalded eyeballs. Her hands still moved in their twisting pattern, sliding in and out of visibility, but more deliberately than they had. Tiny veins stood out on her temples. Her lips were compressed. Plainly she was imposing some great exertion on herself. The howling wind had died away.

The earth, the horizon, the air, twanged like a plucked bowstring. In the most horrible moment of the afternoon, Henry perceived that everywhere about him were slowly opening doors. Convulsively he shut his eyes.

When he opened them again Hathor had put down her hands. The air was calm and untroubled. All around the party the grass lay as fresh, as green, as unbroken as it had been before the matter canker was set up. The only sign of its existence that the canker had left was an exceptionally heavy coating of dew. But the laboratory was gone.

Hathor fixed her impassive eyes on Henry. Her face had resumed its ordinary inexpressiveness, but he felt the fright that always came over him at mental contact with her. A huge voice began to print itself awesomely in his brain—“DON’T EVER DO THAT AGAIN.”

It hadn’t worked. Hathor had neither punished them nor got rid of them. And now what were they to do? The laboratory was gone. They had no way of annoying Hathor with another matter canker even if they had been minded to try it. All that was left them was to try to be unsatisfactory pets.

They discussed it night after night as they sat around the coals of their fire. They could decide on nothing. It was not until Hathor, coming to get Henry for the third installment of his training, took Den is along too, that a definite program emerged.

Denis was shaken by his experience. It amused Henry, who was becoming accustomed to the horror that Hathor’s training involved, to see how shaken he was. Denis’ tight little mouth was as firm as ever when he remembered to keep it firm, But in moments of inattention his jaw hung slackly and his lips had a tendency to shake.

“This can’t go on,” he said, pacing up and down on the grass. “Vela’s not well—haven’t you noticed? She needs medical attention but I wouldn’t trust Hathor to prescribe for her. It’s not myself I’m thinking of, it’s her. We’ve got to get home.”

“It would be nice if we could,” Henry replied warily. “But—”

“But what?”

“Nothing. Do you have a plan?”

“Yes. We’ll run away.”

“Run away? Hathor can bring us back in ten seconds as soon as she notices we’re gone.”

“Yes, of course she can,” Denis replied. “But if we keep on running away and she has to keep on bringing us back—you see what I mean. She only comes to visit us every four or five days, but if every time she comes we’ve run away, she’ll soon get tired of it. Bringing us back will be so annoying she’ll send us home to get rid of us.”

Henry was silent.

“What’s the matter?” Denis asked challengingly. “Don’t you think it would work? We could save up our supplies and take food with us. Besides, there’s a lot of wild fruit.”

“Oh, I think it would work. That’s what’s bothering me.”

Denis’ back stiffened. For a moment he was again the martinet. “Explain yourself,” he rapped out.

“I’m afraid.” Henry swallowed. “Afraid to annoy her. Afraid of what she’d do.”

Denis looked relieved. “Nonsense,” he said heartily. “If she didn’t do anything to us for setting up the matter canker she won’t do anything to us no matter what we do. That’s obvious. Besides, what could be worse than what she does when she’s training us? That—that almost makes me sick.”

Henry let his hands dangle down between his knees. His eyes had taken on an odd bright look. “That’s pretty bad, isn’t it?” he said. He managed a smile. “Pretty bad. But maybe something could be worse.”

“Rot! I’m going to talk to Vela and her mother about it. If they agree will you come along with us? After all, you’re in this too.”

There was a pause. “All right,” Henry replied at last. “As you say, I’m in this with you. If you go I’ll go with you.”

Hathor had made one of her visits only the day before. She made them at irregular intervals but it was probable that three or four days would elapse before she would visit Henry and the others again. On the third day, carrying what supplies they had been able to accumulate, the party escaped.

The escape was unspectacular. They walked for a mile or two through the rolling parkland where Hathor had established them, turned to the right and were on a road that was no more than a grassy track. Once in the distance they saw a pair of Hathor’s people walking slowly along. Sometimes the big mammals walked, instead of simply materializing where they wished to be.

Denis made the party hide beside the road until the big people were safely out of sight. Later the party passed a lonely building whose walls were shimmering gray webs. Henry identified it to himself as a place where a dimension-spanning vortex, like the one which had brought them thither, was being made. By noon the party was in a rather open wood. They decided to stay there for the night.

Hathor came for them on the second day. She did not seem angry, only more than usually remote. She set them down on the sward beside the open stoa in the park where they slept, and gazed at them. Then she disappeared.

Denis was jubilant. “It’s working!” he said, very pleased with himself. “The next time we run away or maybe the time after that she’ll send us home to get rid of us. You’ll see, old chap.”

“Will she?” Henry answered with a sigh. “Well, I hope you’re right.”

* * *
The second attempt at escape was not very successful. Hathor came for them when they had been gone no more than a couple of hours. The third time…

Denis was in the lead when they reached the boundary of the park. He was talking cheerily to Vela, his head turned, as they walked along. When he faced about once more, Hathor was standing there. Her crimson-tipped crest waved gently in the breeze as she bent over and picked up Denis.

The action itself was ordinary enough but Henry felt a sickening pang of apprehension. He plucked at Vela’s arm. “Run,” he said hoarsely, “you and mother run and hide.”

“But— what’s the matter? What’s she doing with her hands?” Vela’s eyes were round. “Why is she holding him so tight?” Her voice went up. “Is she—he said she wouldn’t hurt us. Oh! Oh!”

Hathor’s hands were slipping smoothly in and out of the web of invisibility. Now she put one of them up to Denis’ head. Eerily, unbelievably, her fingers slid inside the skull.

Denis began to scream. It was a horrible high squeal like a frightened rabbit’s. At the sound Vela pressed her fists to her ears and started to run. Mrs. Pettit hesitated, looking after her. Then, moaning and slobbering, she bobbed after the girl. Henry stayed behind, until he was sure what was going on. Then he too turned and ran.

There was little cover in the rolling park. The women were cowering behind a big granite boulder and there Henry joined them. Denis gave scream after shattering scream.

The screams stopped. Henry looked over the top of the rock.

Tears were still flowing down Denis’ cheeks but the convulsed terror had gone out of his face. It had been replaced with a vegetable imbecile calm.

Hathor put him down very gently on the grass. He walked eight or ten paces uncertainly and then sat down on the sward. He pulled up a handful of grass and examined its roots.

Vela tugged desperately at the hem of Henry’s sleeve. “What’s she done to him?” she demanded in an agonized whisper. “Oh what it it? Henry, Henry, Henry—what’s she done?”

Henry turned to face her. “We geld domestic animals to make them better pets, don’t we?” he answered. His mouth twisted shockingly to one side. “Hathor’s done something to his brain to make a better pet out of him. So he’ll stay here always without wanting to get away, so he won’t be a nuisance any more. That’s what she’s doing. She’s making us better pets. Better pets! Better pets!”

He was still shrieking the words when Hathor picked him up.

1949. Startling Stories

THE PILLOWS

They’re lucky,” McTeague said with emphasis. “I told Thelma—she’s secretary to one of the big shots in the company—they ought to bring that out more in the advertising, stress it, like, and she said nobody had ever written in about it. People just buy the pillows for novelties, and once in a while to keep their hands warm.

“But anybody that works around the pillows knows that they’re the luckiest damn’ things in the Universe. Look at me. Before I got this job with Interplanetary Novelties, I’d just spent three months in the hospital with a fractured pelvis. Lolli and I were quarreling all the time, and I was sure she was planning to leave me. I just got out of the hospital when Lottie, that’s our kid, came home from school with a stiff neck and a sore throat, and two days later the clinician said it was almost certain to be infantile paralysis, the third type. They’ve never found a cure for that. That really broke me up. I spent most of the first leg of the trip taking soma and trying not to think about things.

“Listen, when we hit Aphrodition there was a ‘gram from Lolli telling me not to worry, Lottie was better and it seemed to be type one after all. Lottie was all over it in a mo nth, and she’s never been sick, not even the sniffles, since. For that matter, none of us have. I don’t even cut myself or get hangovers any more. And Lolli and I get along like—like a couple of Venusian quohogs.”

“Then you think the pillows aren’t fakes?” Kent asked. They were two days out from Terra, on board the Tryphe, traveling at one sixtieth the velocity of light. He leaned back in his bunk and drew deeply on the tube of cocohol-cured tobacco.

“Fakes? How do you mean, fakes? I know they’re lucky—ask anyone on the ship—and I know they stay hot. Lottie’s had one I brought her from Triton, on that first voyage out to Neptune’s moon, sitting on the shelf in her bedroom ever since, and it’s still as hot as it was when I dug it out.”

Kent sighed. He rumpled up his blond hair and frowned. Here it was again, the evidence, so utterly at variance with what he’d been able to get in the laboratory. Stick a thermometer near one of the pillows, and it registered forty-four degrees Celsius at first, then showed a very gradual cooling until the pillow reached room temperature, where it remained. And yet everyone who’d ever handled a pillow or bought one at a novelty store knew they stayed hot.

“Maybe there’s some kind of gimmick in it,” he suggested, “something like those Mexican jumping beans my grandfather used to tell me about. Or maybe it’s something the company rigged up, a little atomic motor, say.”

McTeague snorted. “Anytime you can make an atomic motor to sell for six bits,” he said, “let me know. I’ll buy ‘em up, sell ‘em on the open market for five dollars, and become a millionaire. I never heard of Mexican jumping beans before, so for all I know they’re the same sort of thing. All I know is, you dig the pillows up out of the rock on Triton, which the long-hairs say is probably the coldest spot in the known universe, and they’re hot, nice and hot. You can dig up some in a few days and see for yourself.”

“How do you locate them?”

“Oh, we’ve got a darkside Mercurian hexapod. He hates hunting them. Sits down and shivers when he finds a colony. That’s how we know where to dig.”

“What do you use to dig with?”

“Atom blast, special design.”

“Ever damage the pillows with it?”

“Naw, you have to train one right on them for about fifteen minutes to make a dent in them. They’re not only hot, and lucky—they’re tough.”

Kent was thoughtful. “You know, that’s really remarkable.”

“Hell, they’re just novelties.” McTeague spat into the incinerator, reached for the cards, and began to lay out an elaborate three-deck solitaire. Kent went on thinking.

It was that attitude, that “hell, they’re just novelties,” that had made him decide to spend his vacation working for the Interplanetary Novelty Company. He’d brought four or five of the pillows (they were a couple of inches in diameter—about the size of sand dollars—and black and puffy) into the laboratory and thrown a bunch of experiments at them; his fellow workers had kidded him both ways from the abscissa, and Dr. Roberts had called him into the office and told him gently that he really wasn’t employed to investigate—ah—children’s toys, and that there was a group of very interesting experiments he’d like him to try on the low radioactives. So now he was an A.B.S. on the S.S. Tryphe, bound for Triton.

“Anything else on Triton?” he asked.

“Nope. Not another blasted thing. We bring back some of that greenish rock, though—it works up into nice paperweights.” McTeague moved a long column of cards to a pile headed by a purple ace, and went on playing.

Ten days later they landed on Triton—a routine landing, but interesting to Kent, who had done little space traveling. The ship had gone into snail-slow planetary drive hours before. Now he watched with fascination through the bow visiplates while the navigator snaked the ship expertly through a long spiral down to Triton’s surface. The cloudy aquamarine of Neptune, half occluded by the little world, shone palely bright.

“Getting an eyeful?” McTeague said, joining him. “If you’d landed here as often as the rest of us have, you’d want to look the other way. Neptune gives me the grue, and Triton stinks. Except for the pillows—and I consider myself honored to be on the same satellite with them—I hate the place. A lousy little pebble, so damn cold you’d be understating grossly if you said it was frozen.” He started to bite a chew of tobacco from the hunk in his hand, and then checked himself. “No spitting in pressure suits,” he said morosely. “That, and the dampness, are the worst things about suits.”

Overhead, the bull horn began: “Phweet! Phweet! Break out pressure suits. Break out pressure suits. A working party consisting of McTeague, Willets, Abrams, Kent will leave ship at 1630 to hunt pillows. A working party consisting of… Atom blasts in Number Five locker. Atom blasts in Number Five locker.”

As Kent climbed stiffly into his pressure suit, he saw McTeague, already hardly human in the florid bulges of his own suit, inserting the protesting hexapod into a special job for hexapods. It must have been fifty inches long. Kent switched on his suit’s radio.

“…Look at the poor little tyke shiver,” McTeague said. “He hates this hunting worse than pulling teeth.” Then, to the hexapod, “Never mind, Toots. When we get back you can have a nice bowl of vitamush and berl steak.”

They started out. McTeague, by right of seniority, was in the lead. He held the hexapod by a leash of psychroplex. Kent, walking beside Willets, felt a flash of pleasure at being out in the open again, though the visible curvature of Triton’s surface made him move unsteadily. He looked up and ducked involuntarily. Neptune’s blue-green disk, now directly overhead, filled half the sky.

“Watch out for low grav, Kent,” McTeague’s voice said in his ear. “Don’t worry, old Nept won’t fa ll on you. All you men, set your object comps on the ship.”

“Don’t you have a map or chart?” Kent asked.

“Nope. The navigator keeps a record, of course, and sets us down on a different spot each time. He and the old man are doing it methodically… Look at Toots! We must be getting near a colony.”

The hexapod was pulling back on the lead and struggling. McTeague took a firmer grip on the leash and began to tug him along. Three or four hundred yards farther the hexapod sat down and refused to move. Kent could see him shivering inside his pressure suit. His purplish fur was fluffed out like chenille. McTeague snapped the creature’s lead into a chock on his suit.

“This is it,” he said. “Kent, this is for you. The others have dug lots of pillows. Set your atom blast to three, and cut out a section of rock about two feet square. Use your blast to pry it up with—I’ll show you how—and then cut it cross-ways twice so it’s in fours. By then you ought to be able to see the pillows—they’re in cells, sort of, in the rock. If it is rock.”

They began work. Kent found a weird fascination in seeing the rock curdle and flow in the unearthly glare of his atom blast. “When you see the pillows,” McTeague said over the suit radio, “take your blast and sort of flick down the edges of the cells, see, like this, and pick up the rock and shake them out. They come out easy.”

He fitted action to his words. Kent, imitating him, began to make good progress. “Cute little things, aren’t they?” commented McTeague. Out of his shoulder pack he drew a shapeless bundle and pressed a button on its side. It began to expand.

“When you got enough pillows,” McTeague ordered, “take the scoop hanging on the left side of your suit and shovel them into the sled. Those inflators are certainly a bright idea. Oh, an’ if your suit gets too damp, shove the dryer up. It helps.”

“How do you like it?” he asked Kent when the party had been working for three or four hours.

The question took Kent somewhat by surprise. He straighten ed in his pressure suit. He hadn’t, he found, been thinking about much of anything; he had been cutting out pumice-like rock and extracting pillows from it in a mindless trance that was definitely tinged with pleasure.

“It’s nice, somehow,” he answered.

“I thought you’d like it,” McTeague answered, pleased. “Everybody on the ship does, even the old man.”

“Except Toots.”

“Yeah, except Toots.”

They finished with the colony of pillows; further investigation with the blasts showed only one or two isolated specimens. Neptune was beginning to set.

“Might as well hunt another spot,” McTeague said. “Look at Toots—see how he’s pulling back toward the ship, and at the same time’s got a sort of list to the right? That means there’s probably another colony off to the left. Let’s go.” He started off to the left, pulling the big, inflated sled and tugging the reluctant Toots after him.

They had gone four or five kilometers, vapor trails from their suit vents floating behind them, when Toots suddenly reared back and began fighting the leash enthusiastically.

“What’s got into him?” McTeague said. “He doesn’t usually act like that even when it’s a big colony. Abrams, you take his lead and the sled; I’ll go ahead and see what’s doing.”

“I might have known it was a stiff,” he said when he returned. “Toots hates dead bodies worse than hunting pillows, even. Abrams, you hold on to Toots, and I want you other two men to come help cut a grave for whoever it is.”

“I thought nobody except us ever visited Triton,” Kent said as they walked along. “Did he have a ship?”

“Not around within seeing range. I suppose he could have come here on a life craft, after a wreck, or maybe he was marooned; it’s been done. We’ll get his identity badge and look through his sack before we bury him. Too bad we can’t take him back to Terra, but it’s too long for him to keep, and the old man hates dead bodies, anyhow. Jonahs, he says.”

They came upon the body. The man had died in a pressure suit, on his feet, with an atom blast of recent design in his hand. His face was intelligent and young. “Looks like he was fixing to dig for pillows,” McTeague said. “Maybe Venus Novelties sent him out. I hate to say it, but in that case he deserved what he got. Anybody that would work for a scab outfit like that—!”

“What killed him, do you think?” Kent asked.

“Hard to say. His shoulder tanks had plenty of oxy. They say death is always heart failure in one way or another… Get busy with that grave. I want it about two meters by one by one.” McTeague took the dead man about the waist and put him down on the stony surface of the satellite. He opened the psychroplex helmet and fumbled around the man’s neck for the identity disk.

“Edward Clutts,” he read with the aid of his suit light. “The serial’s K20-4340. What’s K20, anyhow?”

“Scientific worker,” Kent replied.

“Uh. Then I doubt Venus Novelties sent him. The disk was issued four years ago, so he hasn’t been here less than two years or more than four… Funny he’s not decayed at all; the suit heater usually keeps running long enough for them to spoil some.”

“That’s only if the oxy runs out,” Willets said. “He probably froze to death.”

“Could be. Let’s see what he’s got in his sack.” McTeague turned the body over and opened the container on the back of the suit.

“He’s got a lot of stuff. Thermometers and all sorts of things. What’s this gadget?”

“Geiger counter,” Kent replied. He had been watching with intense, strained attention.

“Hm. Looks like he was trying to investigate Triton. The poor chump, he might as well have investigated Nereid. There’s nothing here at all. Except the pillows, I mean. Have you got the grave ready yet?”

“Yeah, but there’re a lot of pillows in the slab we just levered up,” Willets replied. “You want we should just leave them, or can we break down the cell walls and shake them out?”

McTeague considered. “No reason why we shouldn’t get as many out as we can,” he said. “He’ll never know the difference. We’re bound to leave a good many in the rock anyhow.”

Obediently, Kent and Willets began flicking their blasts back and forth over the cell walls and shaking the pillows out. When they had finished McTeague put the body down gently in the hole they had left, and the slab was replaced. Then McTeague called Abrams to come up with the hexapod, and they all began digging pillows again. At the end of the shift, the sled was nearly full.

“Good day’s work,” McTeague said with approval. “Don’t let me forget to tell the old man about the stiff and give him the identity disk and stuff. It’s got to go in the log.”

“Will there be an investigation?” Kent queried.

“Nothing to investigate. His heater stopped.”

“I suppose.” Kent was far from convinced, and yet he had to admit that McTeague was probably right. Edward Clutts had died when his suit heater stopped running. “It—could it have had anything to do with the pillows?” he said.

McTeague turned and stared at him. “With the pillows} Why, the pillows don’t do anything at all except keep hot.”

“On Triton.”

“Well, Triton’s their home. If they’re going to keep warm any place, it’s got to be there.”

They reached the ship, Toots leaping and frisking around them. Sometimes he got all six legs off the ground at once. The sled was taken up the gangplank and its burden of pillows emptied into Number One hold. Kent held one of them in his ungloved hand, and it was hot. And not eight hours ago he had himself dug it out of Triton’s rock. The coldest spot in the known universe…

After supper— Toots messed with the spacemen, and they all broke the old man’s orders by slipping the hexapod bits of berl meat and gravy-sticks under the table—McTeague came up to where Kent was sitting and began to talk.

“Kent,” he said, “I think finding that man’s body upset you more than you realize. You don’t want to let it get you down. A spaceman has to get used to things like that. That idea of yours about the pillows, for instance—that’s the kind of crazy thing only a green hand would think of. The pillows! Why, they’re just novelties, that’s all.”

Kent nodded and leaned back in his bunk, trying to appear relaxed. McTeague watched him. After a moment he looked relieved. “Well—that’s that. Want to play some bizareque?”

Kent nodded. While McTeague was shuffling and dealing the cards, he went on thinking. What was it about the pillows that bemused everyone, put a glamor on them? There was some excuse for scientists such as Dr. Roberts; they had to consider the whole range of the fascinating phenomena that the last twenty years had opened up for investigation. And besides, most of them suffered from a form of scientific snobbery, a human desire not to make fools of themselves by investigating something that was only a novelty, a child’s toy. But what about men like McTeague? Did no one besides himself, Kent, find anything odd in the continued heat of the pillows? Presumably Edward Clutts had. Edward Clutts was dead.

McTeague’s voice broke in on his thoughts. “Do you mean to lead a trump?” He pointed to the purple knight Kent had just laid down.

“Oh. No. Thanks.”

Before he went to bed that night, Kent put a thermometer by one of the pillows he had dug up. It registered forty-four Celsius, as he had known it would.

By morning it had dropped a degree or two, and it went on dropping slowly for the next few days until it reached room temperature, twenty Celsius, where it remained.

The holds were beginning to fill up. Toots had been dragged out on eight or ten pillow hunts, McTeague said there must be nearly a million and a half pillows on the ship and they’d be heading back to Terra pretty soon, and still Kent was baffled by the pillows. Every time he dug pillows he felt the blank euphoria which possessed the others, and it was only when he got back to the ship that he could even wonder about them. What had Edward Clutts been doing with his thermometers and his sackful of gadgets? Why had he died?

He might never have guessed if he had not happened to upset the glass.

He had been reaching into McTeague’s bunk for a magazine the big man had discarded, and his left elbow had struck against the long lap board on which McTeague laid out his solitaire when he was in his bunk. Kent hadn’t seen the glass of soma and ginger ale, which was sitting on the end of the board, until it started to fall over. He grabbed at it quickly—his reflexes were considerably faster than average—and set it upright again before more than a drop or two had spilled, feeling, as he moved, a sharp sensation of cold against his wrist.

He looked down, surprised. It was as if he had passed his arm above a large piece of dry ice. There was nothing in the bunk except the magazine, the glass of soma, the lap board, and, under its edge, one of the pillows.

Wondering, he picked it up. It was, as usual, agreeably warm to the touch. Where had the cold come from? The ice in the glass of soma had melted long ago.

He stood frowning at the edge of the bunk, feeling an impossible hypothesis beat at the threshold of consciousness. What could it be? Was it—what—To hell with it. But—He slipped between the sheets of his bunk at lights-out, expecting to turn and toss all night long, and was instantly asleep. He woke just at seven the next morning. He lit a smoke and lay on his back, one arm under his head, sorting out his ideas.

In the first place, the pillows were sentient and intelligent. He would deal with that later.

In the second place, they had some sort of mental reach. That was why everyone on the ship, except Toots (the psychology of darkside hexapods had not been much investigated, but it seemed that their mental abilities were parallel to those of dogs only up to a point, after which they went soaring off into some sort of high, supersensory cloudland), loved hunting them. That was why nobody had ever taken them seriously; the pillows didn’t want to be investigated. It was probable, too, that the pillows had some sort of control over events; else why the streak of luck that McTeague (and everyone else on board the Tryphe had similar experiences to relate) had enjoyed? The pillows wanted to be hunted and disseminated, and they had put a premium, in the form of pleasure and good fortune, on their dissemination.

In the third place— This was where Kent’s mind jibbed. Really, it was no more fantastic than the assumption he had already made, without much mental discomfort, that they could influence the flow of events. But this was something that every human being, that every sentient being, takes for granted every moment of his life. To endow the pillows with this ability was to fracture the supporting column of the Universe.

In the third place, the pillows could reverse entropy.

A pillow could extract heat, as a man sucks milk through a straw, from a substance colder than itself. They were intelligent; they took care never to display their faculty where it could be observed.

In the laboratory, they cooled gradually from forty-four degrees Celsius to room temperature. Otherwise, the difference between their fairly high temperature and the abnormal coolness of the objects around them might have been noticed even by the beglamored (it was the only word) wits of the indifferent scientists. But if a pillow were not on its guard (he had caught the one on McTeague’s bunk off guard last night when he had reached across it so suddenly), or if a pillow had nothing to fear, it would be possible to hold one of them in the hand, comfortably warm as usual, and feel the hand grow chill around it, feel the chill creep inward, have the hand freeze to the bone. That, on a larger scale, was what had happened to Edward Clutts.

Make a hypothesis. Clutts had been landed on Triton, at his own request, to investigate the pillows on their home terrain. There had been a rendezvous appointed at some specific time. They had looked for him, of course, but a man is a small object, even on a pebble like Triton. Clutts hadn’t gone to the rendezvous because he was dead. The pillows didn’t like to be investigated.

What did the pillows do with the heat? Kent rolled over on his side and lit another smoke. Presumably they needed it in their metabolism. Maybe they used it to make more pillows; no one had ever seen a pillow under the regulation sand-dollar size, and their reproduction and origin was a mystery in which no one had ever taken the slightest interest.

What did the pillows want? It seemed to him there was only one answer possible. Kent shuddered and rubbed his eyes. They were the inheritors, the successors to the human race. Maybe in the near future, maybe not for billions of yea rs, they were going to run the show. It was probably a near threat rather than a remote one; the bribes they were paying to be disseminated now would indicate that they did not intend to wait for any long time, not until the Universe began to run down. No wonder Toots hated them.

What was the Latin for pillow? Pul—pulvinus. They ought to be called Pulvinus victor.

McTeague’s alarm clock went off. He yawned, stretched, and sat up in his bunk. “Time to get up,” he said to Kent. “Two days more, and we’ll be heading back for Terra. With all the holds full of pillows. Nice hot, tough, lucky pillows.”

“McTeague…” Kent said.

“Yes?”

It was hard to tell McTeague what he had discovered, even harder than he had thought it would be. McTeague listened to him without interrupting him, sitting on the edge of his bunk, rubbing his reddish eyebrows now and then with his hands.

“We mustn’t take them back,” Kent finished almost desperately. “We’ve got to tell the captain and the crew, have them dump the pillows out. No pillows must ever leave Triton again.”

It sounded horribly weak. McTeague looked at him for a moment and then got up. st ill massaging his eyebrows. “I’ll have to tell the old man about this,” he said.

* * *
They put him into the navigator’s cabin—the navigator had to move in with the old man—and stationed a guard in front of the door. Kent sat on the edge of the bed, his hands between his knees, and stared down at the design of the eutex on the deck. He could hear Toots howling somewhere; it sounded a couple of compartments off.

What was going to happen to him? When he got back to Terra, he supposed, there would be a commission in lunacy, and then a lot of little white buildings and occupational therapy. And meantime the pillows…

The cabin was getting cold. He went over to the toggle in the wall to turn on more heat and then paused, his hand on it, realizing what was happening.

He wasn’t going back to Terra.

The pillows were intelligent, they were sentient, and they weren’t going to let him go back alive. He’d be buried on Triton, with Neptune glowering overhead. The thermometer on the wall registered twenty, but he was shivering, he was growing colder by the second. The heat was leaving him in great waves; it was being sucked from his body as a pump draws air from a jar.

As the incredible coldness closed over him, he found time to wonder how the pillows could direct their force, what their method of operation was, and he felt a flash of triumph at the thought that this would show McTeague and the others. When they found him frozen to death in the warm cabin, surely they would wonder and remember what he had said. The pillows had overreached themselves.

Just before he stopped thinking permanently, the fallacy came to him. The pillows knew what they were doing. They would let the heat flow back to him once he was dead; there would not be even an icicle to warn McTeague. It would be written down in the log as heart failure.

* * *
“Stow that noise, Toots,” McTeague said. They were at mess; he was holding a juicy chunk of berl meat before the hexapod’s sleek nose and waving it back and forth enticingly. “Be a good hexapod. Here.” He made another pass with the meat at the hexapod.

“He’s not interested,” Willets said above the din of the creature’s howls. “It upset him, that young fellow dying that way.” He poured more cream on his frujuit.

“Yeah, it’s too bad he had a bum pump and all that, but hell, he was nothing but a nut. Toots is a smart cookie. He oughtn’t to take on so over a guy like that.” He studied the hexapod thoughtfully an instant and then spread a piece of bread thickly with bollo tongue paste.

Toots pushed the offering aside and howled again, a long, dismal howl, a very sad howl, that seemed to come from a long way off.

“I don’t know what ails him, anyway,” said McTeague. He clicked his tongue against his teeth. “Something’s bothering him, that’s sure. The way he’s going on, you’d think it was the end of the world.”

1950. Thrilling Wonder

THE LISTENING CHILD

It was not until after his first bad heart attack that Edwin Hoppier really noticed the child. He had long ago decided on the basis of his contacts with his married sister’s strident brood that he didn’t like children. But the doctor, after telling him roundly that he was lucky to be alive, had ordered at least a month’s rest in bed. Somebody had to bring the trays up from the boarding house dining room. Timmy was usually the one.

Timmy’s grandmother dressed him in smocks and little breeches she cut out of discarded housedresses, and this costume, together with his long black cotton stockings and home-trimmed hair, gave him an odd resemblance to the kindergarten pupils of thirty years ago. After he had successfully negotiated the hazards of knocking, opening the door, and putting the tray down, he would linger, smiling shyly, until Hoppler began to eat. Hoppler always spoke to him, but Timmy never answered. One day Hoppler mentioned it to Mrs. Dean when she was straightening up his room.

“Oh, didn’t you know?” she said, putting down her dust cloth and turning. “I thought I’d told you. Why, the poor little fellow had scarlet fever when he was a year old, just after his mother died. He’s deaf. He can’t hear a thing.

“He goes to the deaf school, but he hasn’t learned to lip-read yet. The teacher says it’s hard to teach them, when they can’t hear at all. And of course he can’t talk.”

“That’s too bad,” Hoppler said with an effort. He had the invalid’s dislike for hearing about other people’s troubles. “Are you sure he’s entirely deaf, though? I thought I’d noticed him listening to things.”

Mrs. Dean shook her head. “You mean that way he has of putting his head on one side and listening to something you can’t hear yourself? That doesn’t mean anything. I asked the doctor at the clinic about it, and he said Timmy couldn’t possibly be hearing anything. It gives you the creeps to watch him, though, doesn’t it? I used to get the shivers every time, until I got used to it. But he’s just like his ears were filled with concrete, he’s that deaf. Poor little thing.”

The next time Timmy brought up a tray, Hoppler motioned him over to the bed and folded a paper boat for him. Timmy hung back, smiling shyly. At last he almost snatched the paper and ran out of the room with it. And after that he stayed longer when he brought the tray, and his smiles grew less shy.

Once in a while Edwin caught him “listening.” He would cock his head to one side and hearken, while his eyes grew bright. Edwin did not find it as disconcerting as Mrs. Dean had pictured it. It was not until the day before Timmy’s birthday that it actually bothered him.

The day was sunny and fairly warm. Children were playing outside in the street, and Edwin’s open window let in plenty of noise. When Timmy first began to “listen,” tippng his head farther than usual, attentive and concentrated, the pantomime was so vivid that Hoppler was sure some of the sound from outside must have got through to the boy’s dulled nerves. A dog was barking, children called to each other, somebody was trying to start a car. Timmy must have heard some of it.

The boy relaxed. His attention came back to the picture Edwin was drawing for him. Seconds later there came a burst of shrill, agonized yelping that ended abruptly on a high note. There was a babble of children’s excited voices, fright growing in them. Windows went up. And then, cutting across the confusion, a little girl’s shriek, “He’s dead! Oooh, oooh, that car ran over him. Blackie’s dead!”

Hoppler put down his pencil and looked at Timmy’s face. The boy’s gray eyes were fixed intently—there was always something bird-like and intense about him—on the drawing. Now he looked up at Edwin and smiled rather uncertainly.

It was a normal response. Timmy plainly hadn’t heard the commotion in the street and couldn’t imagine what his friend was stopping for. But Edwin pleated his lower lip with his fingers and frowned. Timmy hadn’t heard the dog’s yelps, the cries, when they occurred. Had he, somehow, heard them ahead of time? It was beyond belief. But it had looked like that.

Hoppler finished the picture—two children wading in a scratchy brook—and gave it to Timmy. Timmy folded it up carefully, making the chuckling sound that with him indicated pleasure. He started toward the door and then came back to run one finger tightly over the back of Edwin’s hand. It was one of the mannerisms, half engaging, half pathetic, which made Hoppler fond of him. This time he found himself wincing a little from the touch. When Timmy had gone out, Hoppler pressed his hands nervously to his chest.

It was nearly a month later that Timmy “listened” again. Hoppler was sitting up in an armchair and Timmy, lying on the floor, was drawing a panoramic street scene on a large piece of butcher paper he had brought up from the kitchen. He was drawing with great verve, making out-sized pedestrians and dogs and small, very bustle-backed automobiles. Now and then he frowned as his pencil went through the paper to the soft carpet beneath. The boarding house was quiet except for a distant clatter from the kitchen where the pans and dishes from supper were being washed up.

Timmy got to his feet. He looked sharply at Hoppler for a moment and then fixed his eyes on a spot four or five feet above his head. His lips parted. His head tipped. His eyes grew wide.

Hoppler watched him uneasily. He had almost forgotten his speculations when the dog had been killed—it was the kind of idea a sensible person will try to dismiss—but now it recurred to him. Was something going to happen? What foolishness! But was Timmy, somehow, listening to the elsewise inaudible footsteps of disaster drawing near?

Gradually the tension ebbed away from Timmy’s face. He drew a deep breath. He tossed the pale brown hair back out of his eyes. He squatted down on the floor again and picked up his pencil. On a still-empty portion of the paper he began to draw some birds. He had just started the wings of the third one when the familiar a gonizing pressure began in Hoppler’s chest.

The attack was going to be a bad one, Edwin saw. He felt the familiar fright at the way breath was being remorselessly crushed out of him.

He groped wildly after the bottle of amyl nitrate pearls that sat on the little stand beside his chair, and overset it. Pain flooded through his chest and ran out terrifyingly along his left arm. He couldn’t stand it. His chest was turning to a brittle box which they—the forces that tormented his elderly body so wantonly—were splintering inward with the reverberating turns of a fiery vise. With his last strength he tried to cry out, to get help. He was going to die.

When Hoppler came to himself again, he was lying flat in bed with a hot water bottle over his heart. The doctor, looking very serious, was folding up his stethoscope. Mrs. Dean, pale and distracted, hovered in the background.

“That was a near thing, young fellow,” Dr Simms said severely when he saw Edwin’s eyes fixed on him. “If I’d got Mrs. Dean’s call five minutes later—well! Have you been putting any strain on yourself?”

Hoppler searched his memory. From the knowledge he had painfully acquired of his disease, he didn’t honestly think his momentary uneasiness at Timmy’s “listening” could be classed as strain. And he had been getting up a good deal lately. Today he’d been sitting up almost the whole day.

“You’ll have to learn to take this seriously.” Dr. Simms said when he had finished his confession. “Angina’s no picnic. I should think your first attack would have taught you that. But there’s no use crying over spilt milk. I want you to go back to bed for at least a week, and then I’m going to try a new treatment on you. The clinical report on it is encouraging. You mustn’t worry. Keep in a pleasant frame of mind.”

He went out. There was an inaudible colloquy in the hall between him and Mrs. Dean. The landlady came back and began tidying up the disordered room. Hoppler watched her quick movements with a touch of jealousy. She was older than he, and she was on the go all day. Heart trouble? She didn’t know she had a heart. Simms had told him once that angina preferred its victims male.

She felt the water bottle for warmth and drew the cover up more snugly about his neck. “You know, Mr. Hoppler,” she said impressively, “Timmy saved your life. He really did. He came running down the stairs while I was putting the silver away, and began pulling at my arm. I tried to shake him off—you know how children are—but he held on and jabbered away at me until I realized something was wrong. You were all slumped over in your chair, fainted, when I found you. Of course I called the doctor then. But you heard what he said about five minutes more.”

Edwin Hoppler nodded. “Timmy’s a good boy, a very good boy,” he said faintly. He wished Mrs. Dean would finish and go. He wanted to rest.

Timmy poked his head around the door jamb. He was pale and subdued. His eyes were so large they seemed to have eaten up his face. As he caught sight of his friend he smiled uncertainly, but his expression slipped back quickly into anxiousness.

Hoppler looked away from him and then up at the ceiling. He was grateful to Timmy, he was fond of him, but he didn’t want to see him now. In a sense, he didn’t want ever to see him again. The child—why make any bones about it?—frightened him. Timmy himself was quiet, touching, innocent. The dark faculty for which he appeared to be the vehicle, which he embodied, was otherwise. It was impossible to think of Timmy’s “listening” without a flutter of uneasiness. And the doctor had told him to keep in a pleasant frame of mind. Perhaps he ought to ask Mrs. Dean to keep the boy out of his room, at least for a while. Hoppler licked his bluish lips.

But was that sensible? Suppose, for the sake of argument, that Timmy actually was able, in some super-normal way, to hear the approach of… of death (Edwin thought grimly). Wouldn’t the sensible thing be to keep Timmy with him as much as possible? If he had realized that Timmy’s uncanny listening this evening portended a heart attack, he could have had the amyl nitrate pearls in readiness for the first pangs. The attack need not have been serious. And he was fond of the boy.

Hoppler looked toward the door where Timmy was still patiently standing. He raised one hand and beckoned to him. When the child was within reach he gave the grimy little hand a squeeze.

Dr. Simms’ new treatment did Hoppler a great deal of good. He put on weight, rapidly at first and then more slowly, until he had gained eighteen pounds. Mrs. Dean told him he looked ten years younger.

Dr. Simms explained carefully that, though he was more than pleased with the progress his patient was making, the treatment itself was rather in the nature of a palliative. Physicians weren’t sure yet how much of its effect was permanent. Hoppler listened without being much impressed. He was able to be up all day now and even, as the weather improved, to get outside.

There was no question, of course, of his going back to his work as an accountant. The firm had pensioned him off, not too illiberally, after his first attack. As Mrs. Dean said, he had nothing to do now but enjoy himself.

Enjoying oneself at sixty-three is apt to prove a quiet business. Hoppler began to spend most of the daylight hours in the pocket-sized neighborhood park, reading the paper, watching the graceful evolutions of the sea gulls or listening to their raucous, undignified squawking.

Timmy, meantime— he was almost constantly with Hoppler after school hours—bounced a rubber ball, drew pictures, or rather half-heartedly climbed on the rails or swung from the rungs of the playground equipment. He had grown so much in the last few months that even Mrs. Dean had been forced to see the unsuitability of dressing him any longer in home-made clothes. She had bought him jeans and little checked flannel cotton shirts. In this costume he looked quite modish and contemporary. He lost, at least obviously, most of the wispiness, the pathos, which Hoppler had found in him at first. But it gave Hoppler a strange numbed feeling to see how formidable a barrier his deafness was between him and the other children who played in the park. Timmy was a sociable child, but the others greeted him with stares and then uneasily drew away from him. The boy was always glad to return from his excursions among the swings and trapezes to his grown-up friend.

When noon came Hoppler would write a note and send Timmy with it and money to a restaurant in the neighborhood to buy sandwiches and milk. Watching the boy’s quick intelligence, his constant unselfconscious attempts to make bricks without straw, Hoppler began to feel that he was failing in his moral obligation to him.

Mrs. Dean was certainly fond of her grandson, but she was too occupied with the constant petty demands of the boarding house, too harrassed, to pay much attention to him. Perhaps Timmy ought to have a private teacher. He hadn’t learned to lip-read yet with any facility. Private instruction might help him to faster progress. Hoppler must talk to Timmy’s teacher at the deaf school and find out what was possible for him.

The boy’s disturbing “listening”, except for one notable exception, had ceased. The exception had occurred when Timmy had “listened” vividly and disconcertingly, just before one of the older boys had fallen headlong from the slippery top piece of one of the swings to which he had illegitimately climbed. The fall itself would not have been serious. But the boy had hit his head as he fell on the wooden seat of one of the swings. He had been knocked unconscious, there had been a great deal of blood, an ambulance had been called.

But the unpleasant incident fixed even more firmly in Hoppler the conviction that Timmy was a reliable barometer. He was rather ashamed of the relief he found in his confidence in the boy’s uncanny ability. During these quiet months—the happiest, after all, of Hoppler’s life—Dr. Simms examined him at two-week intervals. He expressed himself as gratified with Hoppler’s progress, but he always warned him to go slow, to take things easily, to be careful. Hoppler listened to these counsels seriously, but with a certain inner complacency. He had channels of information which weren’t open to Simms.

One fine warm day late in summer he decided to take Timmy to the beach. He contemplated getting Simms’ permission—the expedition would involve streetcars, transferring, a good deal of exertion in one way or another—and than decided against it. Simms might after all tell him not to go, and Hoppler had been feeling unusually well. Timmy had never seen the ocean, never been to the beach. It was a part of his education which ought to be attended to.

They reached the amusement park, at the end of the car line, just at noon. Edwin bought hot dogs for Timmy and a hamburger for himself from one of the stands. Timmy bit into his bun a little doubt fully; Hoppler thought it must be the first time he had eaten one. His hesitation soon vanished. He ate three hot dogs and finished off with an Eskimo pie. Hoppler, meantime, indulged himself in a glass of beer.

After lunch they rode on the merry-go-round. Edwin wondered rather sadly what blurred effect the amusement park was making on Timmy, locked within the confines of his perpetually silent world. A merry-go-round without the music! But Timmy plainly found his spotted wooden mount enchanting and loved the motion it had. When he had at last tired of riding, Edwin took him to a penny arcade. After that they explored novelty and curio shops, and Edwin bought Timmy a ring with a blistered pinkish abalone pearl. Late in the afternoon they went down to the beach itself.

Though the day itself was warm the water, as usual, was cold. There were few bathers in. In any case, Timmy hadn’t brought a bathing suit. He had none to bring. But he sat down on the sand and took off his shoes and stockings. He rolled his trouser legs up as far as they would go and then waded bravely into the surf. The cold water made him gasp and wince and laugh.

After his first awkwardness disappeared, he was like a dog let off the leash. He found a brown length of seaweed far down the beach and dragged it back to show Edwin how the fleshy bladders could be made to pop. He collected a handful of seashells and bestowed them on Edwin too. He raced along the sand like a high-spirited pony. Now and then he would squat down on the very edge of the surf and heap up a mound of wet sand for the waves to level again. It was clear that though Timmy had enjoyed everything, he liked the beach itself most of all. He loved the beach.

Hoppler watched him smilingly. He was conscious of an uncommon felicity. This was what people meant when they spoke of the pleasure of giving. Like so many of the great platitudes of humanity, it was quite true. Watching Timmy playing, running along the sand, Edwin was more than happy, he was himself young again.

But it was time to be going home. A wind was coming up, the sun had gone under a cloud. The air had turned cold. The beach was deserted. Soon it would be dark. It was time to go home.

He motioned to Timmy, far down the beach, to come back to him. The boy turned and started to obey. Suddenly he halted. He was “listening.”

Even at that distance Edwin could catch his unusual intensity. Never had the boy hearkened as he was doing now. He seemed to be pierced through, transfixed, by his perception. And Hoppler caught vividly, too, a strange new expression on the boy’s face. Usually Timmy’s face, when he “listened,” showed nothing except interest. Now interest had been replaced by an indrawn recognition. And Timmy was afraid. His recognition was mixed with fear.

The exertion, Edwin thought, the walking, the long afternoon. The glass of beer might have been the decisive thing.

Simms had certainly warned him. He thrust his hand into his pocket for his amyl nitrate pearls.

They weren’t there. With desperate incredulity Hoppler remembered that he had meant to move the bottle and hadn’t. It was in his other coat, at home, in the closet. In his other coat.

He felt angry and defeated and horribly afraid. What use was it for Timmy to have warned him if he didn’t have the pearls? Already the pain was beginning. And this time there would be no escape. Timmy had heard disaster coming. This time Hoppler was going to die.

* * *
From far down the beach Timmy waved at him. The fluttering cadence of his hand against the darkening sky was like the motion of a bird. Edwin, amid the distraction of his pain, thought that he smiled. He waved once more. Then he turned. He began running out into the cold, lead-colored water as fast as he could, splashing through the white froth of little waves and then of bigger ones.

Hoppler watched blankly, uncomprehendingly. What was Timmy doing? Timmy shouldn’t desert him now, when he needed him. “Timmy!” he called weakly, as if the boy could hear him. “Timmy!” And then, comprehension growing in him, wildly, “Timmy! Timmy! Come back!”

The water was up to the child’s waist, to the middle of his narrow chest. Still he moved out. He rocked under the impetus of a wave. The small body was dwindling, turning to a spot against the darkly-glistening surface of the sea. And steadily it grew more remote. “Timmy!” Edwin Hoppler shrieked. “Timmy! Oh, God…”

The child’s hand went up for the last time, in salutation and farewell. For a moment his head seemed to bob about in the water. And then a wave like dark glass washed smoothly over it.

Hoppler’s voice died away into silence. He looked about him dazedly, as if he were waking from heavy sleep.

The pain had left his chest. He was well, he would have no attack. Perhaps he would never have an attack again. He stood alone in the dusk, a cold wind blowing around him. He would have no attack. Timmy, offering himself as a surrogate to death, had arranged it so. There was nothing to do now but wait until the waves washed the boy’s body up on the beach.

1950. Mercury Press, Inc.

BRIGHTNESS FALLS FROM THE AIR

Kerr used to go into the tepidarium of the identification bureau to practice singing. The tepidarium was a big room, filled almost from wall to wall by the pool of glittering preservative, and he liked its acoustics. The bodies of the bird people would drift a little back and forth in the pellucid fluid as he sang, and he liked to look at them. If the tepidarium was a little morbid as a place to practice singing, it was (Kerr used to think) no more morbid than the rest of the world in which he was living. When he had sung for as long as he thought good for his voice—he had no teacher—he would go to one of the windows and watch the luminous trails that meant the bird people were fighting again. The trails would float down slowly against the night sky as if they were made of star dust. But after Kerr met Rhysha, he stopped all that.

Rhysha came to the bureau one evening just as he was going on duty. She had come to claim a body. The bodies of the bird people often stayed in the bureau for a considerable time. Ordinary means of transportation were forbidden to the bird people because of their extra-terrestrial origin, and it was hard for them to get to the bureau to identify their dead. Rhysha made the identification—it was her brother—paid the bureau’s fee from a worn purse, and indicated on the proper form the disposal she wanted made of the body. She was quiet and controlled in her grief. Kerr had watched the televised battles of the bird people once or twice, but this was the first time he had ever seen one of them alive and face to face. He looked at her with interest and curiosity, and then with wonder and delight.

The most striking thing about Rhysha was her glowing, deep turquoise plumage. It covered her from head to heels in what appeared to be a clinging velvet cloak. The coloring was so much more intense than that of the bodies in the tepidarium that Kerr would have thought she belonged to a different species than they.

Her face, under the golden top-knot, was quite human, and so were her slender, leaf-shaped hands; but there was a fantastic, light-boned grace in her movements such as no human being ever had. Her voice was low, with a ‘cello’s fullness of tone. Everything about her, Kerr thought, was rare and delightful and curious. But there was a shadow in her face, as if a natural gaiety had been repressed by the overwhelming harshness of circumstance.

“Where shall I have the ashes sent?” Kerr asked as he took the form.

She plucked indecisively at her pink lower lip. “I am not sure. The manager where we are staying has told us we must leave tonight, and I do not know where we will go. Could I come back again to the bureau when the ashes are ready?”

It was against regulations, but Kerr nodded. He would keep the capsule of ashes in his locker until she came. It would be nice to see her again.

She came, weeks later, for the ashes. There had been several battles of the bird people in the interval, and the pool in the tepidarium was full. As Kerr looked at her, he wondered how long it would be before she too was dead.

He asked her new address. It was a fantastic distance away, in the worst part of the city, and after a little hesitation he told her that if she could wait until his shift was over he would be glad to walk back with her.

She looked at him doubtfully. “It is most kind of you, but—but an Earthman was kind to us once. The children used to stone him.”

Kerr had never thought much about the position of the non-human races in his world. If it was unjust, if they were badly treated, he had thought it no more than a particular instance of the general cruelty and stupidity. Now anger flared up in him.

“That’s all right,” he said harshly. “If you don’t mind waiting.”

Rhysha smiled faintly. “No, I don’t mind,” she said.

Since there were still some hours to go on his shift, he took her into a small reception room where there was a chaise longue. “Try to sleep,” he said.

A little before three he came to rouse her, and found her lying quiet but awake. They left the bureau by a side door.

The city was as quiet at this hour as it ever was. All the sign projectors, and most of the street lights, had been turned off to save power, and even the vast, disembodied voices that boomed out of the air all day long and half the night were almost silent. The darkness and quiescence of the city made it seem easy for them to talk as they went through the streets.

Kerr realised afterwards how confident he must have been of Rhysha’s sympathy to have spoken to her as freely as he did. And she must have felt an equal confidence in him, for after a little while she was telling him fragments of her history and her people’s past without reserve.

“After the Earthmen took our planet,” she said, “we had nothing left they wanted. But we had to have food. Then we discovered that they liked to watch us fight.”

“You fought before the Earthmen came?” Kerr asked.

“Yes. But not as we fight now. It was a ritual then, very formal, with much politeness and courtesy. We did not fight to get things from each other, but to find out who was brave and could give us leadership. The Earth people were impatient with our ritual—they wanted to see us hurting and being hurt. So we learned to fight as we fight now, hoping to be killed.

“There was a time, when we first left our planet and went to the other worlds where people liked to watch us, when there were many of us. But there have been many battles since then. Now there are only a few left.”

At the cross street a beggar slouched up to them. Kerr gave him a coin. The man was turning away with thanks when he caught sight of Rhysha’s golden to p-knot. “God-damned Extey!” he said in sudden rage. “Filth! And you, a man, going around with it! Here!” He threw the coin at Kerr.

“Even the beggars!” Rhysha said. “Why is it, Kerr, you hate us so?”

“Because we have wronged you,” he answered, and knew it was the truth. “Are we always so unkind, though?”

“As the beggar was? Often… it is worse.”

“Rhysha, you’ve got to get away from here.”

“Where?” she answered simply. “Our people have discussed it so many times! There is no planet on which there are not already billions of people from Earth. You increase so fast!

“And besides, it doesn’t matter. You don’t need us, there isn’t any place for us. We cared about that once, but not any more. We’re so tired—all of us, even the young ones like me—we’re so tired of trying to live.”

“You mustn’t talk like that,” Kerr said harshly. “1 won’t let you talk like that. You’ve got to go on. If we don’t need you now, Rhysha, we will.”

From the block ahead of them there came the wan glow of a municipal telescreen. Late as the hour was, it was surrounded by a dense knot of spectators. Their eyes were fixed greedily on the combat that whirled dizzily over the screen.

Rhysha tugged gently at Kerr’s sleeve. “We had better go around,” she said in a whisper. Kerr realized with a pang that there would be trouble if the viewers saw a “man” and an Extey together. Obediently he turned.

They had gone a block further when Kerr (for he had been thinking) said: “My people took the wrong road, Rhysha, about two hundred years ago. That was when the council refused to accept, even in principle, any form of population control. By now we’re stifling under the pressure of our own numbers, we’re crushed shapeless under it. Everything has had to give way to our one basic problem, how to feed an ever-increasing number of hungry mouths. Morality has dwindled into feeding ourselves. And we have the battle sports over the telecast to keep us occupied.

“But I think— I believe—that we’ll get into the right road again sometime. I’ve read books of history, Rhysha. This isn’t the first time we’ve chosen the wrong road. Some day there’ll be room for your people, Rhysha, if only—” he hesitated—“if only because you’re so beautiful.”

He looked at her earnestly. Her face was remote and bleak. An idea came to him. “Have you ever heard anyone sing, Rhysha?”

“Sing? No, I don’t know the word.”

“Listen, then.” He fumbled over his repertory and decided, though the music was not really suited to his voice, on Tamino’s song to Pamina’s portrait. He sang it for her as they walked along.

Little by little Rhysha’s face relaxed. “I like that,” she said when the song was over. “Sing more, Kerr.”

“Do you see what I was trying to tell you?” he said at last, after many songs. “If we could make songs like that, Rhysha, isn’t there hope for us?”

“For you, perhaps. Not us,” Rhysha answered. There was anger in her voice. “Stop it, Kerr. I do not want to be waked.”

But when they parted she clasped hands with him and told him where they could meet again. “You are really our friend,” she said without coquetry.

When he next met Rhysha, Kerr said: “I brought you a present. Here.” He handed her a parcel. “And I’ve some news, too.”

Rhysha opened the little package. An exclamation of pleasure broke from her lips. “Oh, lovely! What a lovely thing! Where did you get it, Kerr?”

“In a shop that sells old things, in the back.” He did not tell her he had given ten days’ pay for the little turquoise locket. “But the stones are lighter than I realized. I wanted something that would be the color of your plumage.”

Rhysha shook her head. “No, this is the color it should be. This is right.” She clasped the locket a round her neck and looked down at it with pleasure. “And now, what is the news you have for me?”

“A friend of mine is a clerk in the city records. He tells me a new planet, near gamma Cassiopeiae, is being opened for colonization.

“I’ve filed the papers, and everything is in order. The hearing will be held on Friday. I’m going to appear on behalf of the Ngayir, your people, and ask that they be allotted space on the new world.”

Rhysha turned white. He started toward her, but she waved him away. One hand was still clasping her locket, that was nearly the color of her plumage.

* * *
The hearing was held in a small auditorium in the basement of the Colonization building. Representatives of a dozen groups spoke before Kerr’s turn came.

“Appearing on behalf of the Ngayir,” the arbitrator read from a form in his hand, “S 3687 Kerr. And who are the Ngayir, S-Kerr? Some Indian group?”

“No, sir,” Kerr said. “They are commonly known as the bird people.”

“Oh, a conservationist!” The arbitrator looked at Kerr not unkindly. “I’m sorry, but your petition is quite out of order. It should never have been filed. Immigration is restricted by executive order to terrestials…”

Kerr dreaded telling Rhysha of his failure, but she took it with perfect calm.

“After you left I realised it was impossible,” she said.

“Rhysha, I want you to promise me something. I can’t tell you how sure I am that humanity is going to need your people sometime. It’s true, Rhysha. I’m going to keep trying. I’m not going to give up.

“Promise me this, Rhysha: promise me that neither you nor the members of your group will take part in the battles until you hear from me again.”

Rhysha smiled. “All right, Kerr.”

Preserving the bodies of people who have died from a variety of diseases is not without its dangers. Kerr did not go to work that night or the next or for many nights. His dormitory chief, after listening to him shout in delirium for some hours, called a doctor, who filled out a hospital requisition slip.

He was gravely ill, and his recovery was slow. It was nearly five weeks before he was released.

He wanted above all things to find Rhysha. He went to the place where she had been living and found that she had gone, no one knew where. In the end, he went to the identification bureau and begged for his old job there. Rhysha would, he was sure, think of coming to the bureau to get in touch with him.

He was still shaky and weak when he reported for work the next night. He went into the tepidarium about nine o’clock, during a routine inspection. And there Rhysha was.

He did not know her for an instant. The lovely turquoise of her plumage had faded to a dirty drab. But the little locket he had given her was still around her neck.

He got the big jointed tongs they used for moving bodies out of the pool, and put them in position. He lifted her out very gently and put her down on the edge of the pool. He opened the locket. There was a note inside.

* * *
“Dear Kerr,” he read in Rhysha’s clear, handsome script, “you must forgive me for breaking my promise to you. They would not let me see you when you were sick, and we were all so hungry. Besides, you were wrong to think your people would ever need us. There is no place for us in your world.

“I wish I could have heard you sing again. I liked to hear you sing. Rhysha.”

* * *
Kerr looked from the note to Rhysha’s face, and back at the note. It hurt too much. He did not want to realize that she was dead.

Outside, one of the vast voices that boomed portentously down from the sky half the night long began to speak: “Don’t miss the newest, fastest battle sport. View the Durga battles, the bloodiest combats ever televised. Funnier than the bird people’s battles, more thrilling than an Anda war, you’ll…”

Kerr gave a cry. He ran to the window and closed it. He could still hear the voice. But it was all that he could do.

1951. Mercury Press, Inc.

THE MAN WHO SOLD ROPE TO THE GNOLES

The Gnoles had a bad reputation, and Mortensen was quite aware of this. But he reasoned, correctly enough, that cordage must be something for which the gnoles had a long unsatisfied want, and he saw no reason why he should not be the one to sell it to them. What a triumph such a sale would be! The district sales manager might single out Mortensen for special mention at the annual sales-force dinner. It would help his sales quota enormously. And, after all, it was none of his business what the gnoles used cordage for.

Mortensen decided to call on the gnoles on Thursday morning. On Wednesday night he went through his Manual of Modern Salesmanship, underscoring things.

“The mental states through which the mind passes in making a purchase,” he read, “have be encatalogued as 1) arousal of interest 2) increase of knowledge 3) adjustment to needs…” There were seven mental states listed, and Mortensen underscored all of them. Then he went back and double-scored No. 1, arousal of interest, No. 4, appreciation of suitability, and No. 7, decision to purchase. He turned the page.

“Two qualities are of exceptional importance to a salesman,” he read. “They are adaptability and knowledge of merchandise.” Mortensen underlined the qualities. “Other highly desirable at tributes are physical fitness, and high ethical standard, charm of manner, a dogged persistence, and unfailing courtesy.” Mortensen underlined these too. But he read on to the end of the paragraph without underscoring anything more, and it may be that his failure to put “tact and keen power of observation” on a footing with the other attributes of a salesman was responsible for what happened to him.

The gnoles live on the very edge of Terra Cognita, on the far side of a wood which all authorities unite in describing as dubious. Their house is narrow and high, in architecture a blend of Victorian Gothic and Swiss chalet. Though the house needs paint, it is kept in good repair. Thither on Thursday morning, sample case in hand, Mortensen took his way.

No path leads to the house of the gnoles, and it is always dark in that dubious wood. But Mortensen, remembering what he had learned at his mother’s knee concerning the odor of gnoles, found the house quite easily. For a moment he stood hesitating before it. His lips moved as he repeated, “Good morning, I have come to supply your cordage requirements,” to himself. The words were the beginning of his sales talk. Then he went up and rapped on the door.

The gnoles were watching him through holes they had bored in the trunks of trees; it is an artful custom of theirs to which the prime authority on gnoles attests. Mortensen’s knock almost threw them into confusion, it was so long since anyone had knocked at their door. Then the senior gnole, the one who never leaves the house, went flitting up from the cellars and opened it.

The senior gnole is a little like a Jerusalem artichoke made of India rubber, and he has small red eyes which are faceted in the same way that gemstones are. Mortensen had been expecting something unusual, and when the gnole opened the door he bowed politely, took off his hat, and smiled. He had got past the sentence about cordage requirements and into an enumeration of the different types of cordage his firm manufactured when the gnole, by turning his head to the side, showed him that he had no ears. Nor was there anything on his head which could take their place in the conduction of sound. Then the gnole opened his little fanged mouth and let Mortensen look at his narrow, ribbony tongue. As a tongue it was no more fit for human speech than was a serpent’s. Judging from his appearance, the gnole could not safely be assigned to any of the four physio-characterological types mentioned in the Manual; and for the first time Mortensen felt a definite qualm.

Nonetheless, he followed the gnole unhesitatingly when the creature motioned him within. Adaptability, he told himself, adaptability must be his watchword. Enough adaptability, and his knees might even lose their tendency to shakiness.

It was the parlor the gnole led him to. Mortensen’s eyes widened as he looked around it. There were whatnots in the corners, and cabinets of curiosities, and on the fretwork table an album with gilded hasps; who knows whose pictures were in it? All around the walls in brackets, where in lesser houses the people display ornamental plates, were emeralds as big as your head. The gnoles set great store by their emeralds. All the light in the dim room came from them.

Mortensen went through the phrases of his sales talk mentally. It distressed him that that was the only way he could go through them. Still, adaptability! The gnole’s interest was already aroused, or he would never have asked Mortensen into the parlor; and as soon as the gnole saw the various cordages the sample case contained he would no doubt proceed of his own accord through “appreciation of suitability” to “desire to possess.”

Mortensen sat down in the chair the gnole indicated and opened his sample case. He got out henequen cable-laid rope, an assortment of ply and yarn goods, and some superlative slender abaca fiber rope. He even showed the gnole a few soft yarns and twines made of cotton and jute.

On the back of an envelope he wrote prices for hanks and cheeses of the twines, and for fifty-and hun dred-foot lengths of the ropes. Laboriously he added details about the strength, durability, and resistance to climatic conditions of each sort of cord. The senior gnole watched him intently, putting his little feet on the top rung of his chair and poking at the facets of his left eye now and then with a tentacle. In the cellars from time to time someone would scream.

Mortensen began to demonstrate his wares. He showed the gnole the slip and resilience of one rope, the tenacity and stubborn strength of an other. He cut a tarred hemp rope in two and laid a five foot piece on the parlor floor to show the gnole how absolutely “neutral” it was, with no tendency to untwist of its own accord. He even showed the gnole how nicely some of the cotton twines made up a square knotwork.

They settled at last on two ropes of abaca fiber, 3/16 and 5/8 inch in diameter. The gnole wanted an enormous quantity. Mortensen’s comment on those ropes, “unlimited strength and durability,” seemed to have attracted him.

Soberly Mortensen wrote the particulars down in his order book, but ambition was setting his brain on fire. The gnoles, it seemed, would be regular customers; and after the gnoles, why should he not try the gibbelins? They too must have a need for rope.

Mortensen closed his order book. On the back of the same envelope he wrote, for the gnole to see, that delivery would be made within ten days. Terms were 30 per cent with order, balance upon receipt of goods.

The senior gnole hesitated. Shyly he looked at Mortensen with his little red eyes. Then he got down the smallest of the emeralds from the wall and handed it to him.

The sales representative stood weighing it in his hands. It was the smallest of the gnoles’ emeralds, but it was as clear as water, as green as grass. In the outside world it would have ransomed a Rockefeller or a whole family of Guggenheims; a legitimate profit from a transaction was one thing, but this was another; “a high ethical standard”—any kind of ethical standard—would forbid Mortensen to keep it. He weighed it a moment longer. Then with a deep, deep sigh he gave the emerald back.

He cast a glance around the room to see if he could find something which would be more negotiable. And in an evil moment he fixed on the senior gnole’s auxiliary eyes.

The senior gnole keeps his extra pair of optics on the third shelf of the curiosity cabinet with the glass doors. They look like fine dark emeralds about the size of the end of your thumb. And if the gnoles in general set store by their gems, it is nothing at all compared to the senior gnole’s emotions about his extra eyes. The concern good Christian folk should feel for their soul’s welfare is a shadow, a figment, a nothing, compared to what the thoroughly heathen gnole feels for those eyes. He would rather, I think, choose to be a mere miserable human being than that some vandal should lay hands upon them.

If Mortensen had not been elated by his success to the point of anaesthesia, he would have seen the gnole stiffen, he would have heard him hiss, when he went over to the cabinet. All innocent, Mortensen opened the glass door, took the twin eyes out, and juggled them sacrilegiously in his hand; the gnole could feel them clink. Smiling to evince the charm of manner advised in the Manual, and raising his brows as one who says, “Thank you, these will do nicely,” Mortensen dropped the eyes into his pocket.

The gnole growled.

The growl awoke Mortensen from his trance of euphoria. It was a growl whose meaning no one could mistake. This was clearly no time to be doggedly persistent. Mortensen made a break for the door.

The senior gnole was there before him, his network of tentacles outstretched. He caught Mortensen in them easily and wound them, flat as bandages, around his ankles and his hands. The best abaca fiber is no stronger than those tentacles; though the gnoles would find rope a convenience, they get along very well without it. Would you, dear reader, go naked if zippers should cease to be made? Growling indignantly, the gnole fished his ravished eyes from Mortensen’s pockets, and then carried him down to the cellar to the fattening pens.

But great are the virtues of legitimate commerce. Though they fattened Mortensen sedulously, and, later, roasted and sauced him and ate him with real appetite, the gnoles slaughtered him in quite a humane manner and never once thought of torturing him. That is unusual, for gnoles. And they ornamented the plank on which they served him with a beautiful border of fancy knotwork made of cotton cord from his own sample case.

1951. Mercury Press, Inc.

THE CAUSES

“God rot their stinking souls,” the man on the bar stool next to George said passionately. “God bury them in the lowest circle of the pit, under the flaying ashes. May their eyeballs drip blood and their bones bend under them. May they thirst and be given molten glass for liquid. May they eat their own flesh and sicken with it. May they—” He seemed to choke over his rage. After a moment he lifted his glass of stout and buried his nose in it.

“You Irish?” George asked with interest.

“Irish? No.” The man with the stout seemed surprised. “I’m from New Zealand. Mother was Albanian. I’m a mountain climber. Why?”

“Oh, I just wondered. What are you sore about?”

The man with the moustache patted the newspaper in his pocket. “I’ve been reading about the H-bomb,” he said. “It makes me sick. I’m cursing the scientists. Do they want to. kill us all? On both sides, I’m cursing them.”

“Yes, but you have to be reasonable,” the man on the second bar stool beyond George argued, leaning toward the other two. “None of us like that bomb, but we have to have it. The world’s a bad place these days, and those Russians—they’re bad cookies. Dangerous.” Uneasily he shifted the trumpet case he was holding on his lap.

“Oh, sure, they’re dangerous.” The man with the stout hesitated, sucking on his moustache. “But basically, the Russians have nothing to do with it,” he said. He cleared his throat. “I know what you’re going to say, but it’s not true. Our real trouble isn’t the Russians… We’re in the mess we’re in because we’ve lost our gods.”

“Hunh?” said the man on the second bar stool. “Oh, I get it. You mean we’ve become anti-religious, materialistic, worldly. Ought to go back to the old-time religion. Is that what you mean?”

“I did not,” the man with the stout said irritably. “I meant what I said. The gods—our real gods—are gone. That’s why everything is so fouled up these days. There’s nobody to take care of us. No gods.”

“No gods?” asked the man on the second bar stool.

“No gods.”

The interchange began to irk George. He finished his drink—bourbon and soda—and motioned to the bartender for another. When it came, he said to the man with the moustache, “Well, if we haven’t got any gods, what’s happened to them? Gone away?”

“They’re in New Zealand,” the man with the moustache said.

He must have sensed the withdrawal of his auditors, for he added hastily, “It’s all true dinkum. I’m not making it up. They’re living on Ruapehu in Wellington—it’s about 9,000 feet—now instead of Olympus in Thrace.”

George took a leisurely pull at his drink. He was feeling finely credulous. “Well, go on. How did they get there?” he asked.

“It started when Aphrodite lost her girdle—”

“Venus!” said the man on the second bar stool. He rolled his eyes. “This ought to be hot. How’d she lose it?”

“Her motives were above reproach,” the man with the stout said stiffly. “This isn’t a smutty story. Aphrodite lent the girdle to a married woman who was getting along badly with her husband for the most usual reason, and the girl was so pleased with the new state of things that she forgot to return it. The couple decided to take a long cruise as a sort of delayed honeymoon, and the woman packed the girdle in her trunk by mistake. When Aphrodite missed it—Olympian society goes all to pieces without the girdle; even the eagles on Father Zeus’s throne start fighting and tearing feathers—it was too late. The ship had gone so far she couldn’t pick up any emanation from it.”

“When did all this happen?” George asked.

“In 1913. You want to remember the date.”

“Well, as I was saying, she couldn’t pick up any emanation from the girdle. So finally they sent Hermes out to look for it—he’s the divine messenger, you know. And he didn’t come back.”

“Why not?” the man on the second bar stool asked.

“Because, when Hermes located the ship, it had put in at New Zealand. Now, New Zealand’s a beautiful country. Like Greece, I guess—I’ve never been there—but better wooded and more water. Hermes picked up the girdle. But he liked the place so much he decided to stay.

“They got worried then, and they sent others of the Olympians out. Iris was first, and then the Muses and the Moirae. None of them came back to Olympus. Those left got more and more alarmed, and one big shot after another went out hunting the girdle. Finally by 1914 there wasn’t anybody left on Olympus except Ares. He said he didn’t much care for the girdle. Things looked interesting where he was. He guessed he’d stay.

“So that’s the situation at present. All the gods except Ares, and once in a while Athena, are on Ruapehu. They’ve been there since 1914. The Maori are a handsome people anyhow, and you ought to see some of the children growing up in the villages around there. Young godlings, that’s what they are.

“Athena doesn’t like it there as well as the others. She’s a maiden goddess, and I suppose there isn’t so much to attract her. She keeps going back to Europe and trying to help us. But somehow, everything she does, no matter how well she means it, always turns out to help that hulking big half-brother of hers.”

“Interesting symbolism,” George said approvingly. “All the gods we’ve got left are Ares, the brutal war god, and Athena, the divine patroness of science. Athena wants to help us, but whatever she does helps the war god. Neat. Very neat.”

The man with the moustache ordered another bottle of stout. When it came, he stared at George stonily. “It is not symbolism,” he said, measuring his words. “It’s the honest truth. I told you I was a mountain climber, didn’t I? I climbed Ruapehu last summer. I saw them there.”

“What did they look like?” George asked lazily.

“Well, I really only saw Hermes. He’s the messenger, you know, and it’s easier for people to look at him without being blinded. He’s a young man, very handsome, very jolly-looking. He looks like he’d play all kinds of tricks on you, but you wouldn’t mind it. They’d be good tricks. He—you could see him shining, even in the sun.”

“What about the others?”

The man with the stout shook his head. “I don’t want to talk about it. You wouldn’t understand me. They’re too bright. They have to put on other shapes when they go among men.

“But I think they miss us. I think they’re lonesome, really. The Maori are a fine people, very intelligent, but they’re not quite what the gods are used to. You know what I think?” The man with the moustache lowered his voice solemnly. “I think we ought to send an embassy to them. Send people with petitions and offerings. If we asked them right, asked them often enough, they’d be sorry for us. They’d come back.”

There was a stirring four or five stools down, toward the middle of the bar. A sailor stood up and came toward the man with the moustache. “So you don’t like the government?” he said menacingly. There was a beer bottle in his hand.

“Government?” the man with the moustache answered. George noticed that he was slightly pop-eyed. “What’s that got to do with it? I’m trying to help.”

“Haaaaaa! I heard you talking against it,” said the sailor. He swayed on his feet for a moment. Then he aimed a heavy blow with the beer bottle at the center of the moustache.

The man with the moustache ducked. He got off the bar stool, still doubled up. He drew back. He rammed the sailor hard in the pit of the stomach with his head.

As the sailor collapsed, the man from New Zealand stepped neatly over him. He walked to the front of the bar and handed a bill to the bartender who was standing, amazed, near the cash register. He closed the door of the bar behind him.

After a moment he opened it again and stuck his head back in. “God damn everybody!” he yelled.

After the sailor had been revived by his friends and pushed back on a bar stool, the man with the trumpet case, who had been on the far side of the stout drinker, moved nearer to George.

“Interesting story he told, wasn’t it?” he said cheerily. “Of course, there wasn’t anything to it.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” George answered perversely. “There might have been.”

“Oh, no,” the man with the trumpet case said positively. He shook his head so vigorously that the folds of his pious, starchy, dewlapped face trembled. “Nothing like that.”

“How can you be sure?”

“Because…” He hesitated. “Because I know what the real reasons for our difficulties are.”

“Well, what’s your explanation?”

“I—I don’t know whether I ought to say this,” the starchy man said coyly. He put his head on one side and looked at George bright-eyed. Then, as if fearing George’s patience might be on the edge of exhaustion, he said, quite quickly, “It’s the last trump.”

“Who’s the last trump?” the man on the bar stool around the corner from George asked, leaning forward to listen. George knew him by sight; his name was Atkinson.

“Nobody,” the starchy man answered. “I meant that the last trump ought to have been blown ages ago. The world is long overdue for judgment.”

“H. G. Wells story,” George murmured.

“I beg your pardon?” said the starchy man.

“Nothing.” George motioned to the bartender and ordered a round of drinks. Atkins on took gin and ginger ale, and the starchy man kirschwasser.

“Why hasn’t the trump been blown?” Atkinson asked, with the air of one tolerating noisy children.

“Because it’s lost,” the starchy man replied promptly. “When the time came to blow it, it wasn’t in Heaven. This wicked, wicked world! Ages ago it should have been summoned to meet its master.” He drooped his eyelids.

George felt his tongue aching with the repression of his wish to say, “Plagiarist!” Atkinson said, “Oh, fooey. How do you know the trump’s been lost?”

“Because I have it here,” the starchy gentleman answered. “Right here.” He patted his trumpet case.

George and Atkinson exchanged a look. George said, “Let’s see it.”

“I don’t think I’d better…”

“Oh, go on!”

“Well… No, I’d better not.”

Atkinson leaned his elbows on the bar and rested his chin on his interlaced fingers. “I expect there’s nothing in the trumpet case actually,” he said indifferently. “I expect it’s only a gambit of his.”

The soft, wrinkled skin of the man who was drinking kirschwasser flushed red around the eyes. He put the trumpet case down on the bar in front of George with a thump, and snapped open the lid. Atkinson and George bent over it eagerly.

The trumpet case was lined with glossy white silk, like a coffin. Against the white fabric, gleaming with an incredible velvety luster, lay a trumpet of deepest midnight blue. It might have been black, but it wasn’t; it was the color of deep space where it lies softly, like a caress, for trillions of miles around some regal, blazing star. The bell of the trumpet was fluted and curved like the flower of a morning glory.

Atkinson whistled. After a moment he paid the trumpet the ultimate tribute. “Gosh,” he said.

The man with the trumpet said nothing, but his little mouth pursed in a small, tight, nasty smile. “Where’d you get it?” George queried. “I’m not saying.”

“How do you know it’s the last trump?” Atkinson asked.

The starchy man shrugged his shoulders. “What else could it be?” he asked.

The door at the front of the bar opened and three men came in. George watched them absently as they walked the length of the bar counter and went into the rear. “But… you mean if this thing were blown, the world would come to an end? There’d be the last judgment?”

“I imagine.”

“I don’t believe it,” Atkinson said after a minute. “I just don’t believe it. It’s an extraordinary looking trumpet, I admit, but it can’t be… that.”

“Ohhhhh?”

“Yes. If it’s what you say, why don’t you blow it?”

The starchy man seemed disconcerted. He licked his lips. Then he said, in rather a hostile tone, “You mean you want me to blow? You mean you’re ready to meet your maker—you and all the rest of the world—right now? Right this minute? With all your sins, with a ll your errors of commission and omission, unforgiven and unshriven on your head?”

“Sure. That’s right. Why not? The longer the world goes on existing, the worse it’ll get. As to sins and all that, I’ll take my chances. They couldn’t be much worse than what—” Atkinson made a small gesture that seemed to enclose in itself the whole miserable, explosive terrestrial globe—“than what we have now.”

Under his breath, George quoted, “‘We doctors know a hopeless case—’”

The starchy man turned to him. “Do you agree with him, young man?” he demanded.

“Yep.”

The man with the trumpet turned bright red. He reached into the case and picked up the trumpet. As he lifted it through the air, George noticed what a peculiarly eye-catching quality the celestial object had. Its color and gloss had the effect on the eye that a blare of horns has on the ear. Heads began to turn toward it. In no time at all, everyone in the bar was watching the starchy man.

He seemed to pause a little, as if to make sure that he had the attention of his audience. Then he drew a deep, deep breath. He set the trumpet to his lips.

From the rear of the bar there burst out a jangling, skirling, shrieking, droning uproar. It was an amazing noise; a noise, George thought, to freeze the blood and make the hair stand upright. There must have been ultrasonics in it. It sounded like a thousand pigs being slaughtered with electric carving knives.

Everyone in the bar had jumped at the sudden clamor, but the effect on the starchy man was remarkable. He jumped convulsively, as if he had sat on a damp tarantula. His eyes moved wildly; George thought he had turned pale.

He shouted, “They’re after me!” He shouted it so loudly that it was perfectly audible even above the demoniac noise of the bag pipes. Then he grabbed up the trumpet case, slammed the trumpet in it, and ran out of the bar on his neat little patent leather feet.

The two bagpipers came out from the rear of the bar, still playing, and began to march toward the front. Apparently they had noticed nothing at all of the episode of the dark blue trumpet. The third man followed in the rear, beating on a small drum. From time to time he would put the drum sticks to his upper lip and seem to smell at them.

“Remarkable, isn’t it?” Atkinson said to George over the racket. “Only bar I ever was in where they kept bagpipes in the rear to amuse the customers. The owner’s Scottish, you know.”

The instrumentalists reached the front of the bar. They stood there a moment skirling. Then they executed an about-face and marched slowly to the rear. They stood there while they finished their number. It was long, with lots of tootling. At last they laid their instruments aside, advanced to the bar, and sat down on three bar stools near the center. They ordered Irish whiskey.

“Wonder where he got that trumpet,” Atkinson said thoughtfully, reverting to the man with the trumpet case. “Stole it somewhere, I shouldn’t be surprised.”

“Too bad he didn’t get to blow it,” George answered. He ordered Atkinson and himself another drink.

“Oh, that!” Atkinson laughed shortly. “Nothing would have happened. It was just a fancy horn. You surely don’t believe that wild yarn he told us? Why, I know what the real reason for all our troubles is!”

George sighed. He drew a design on the bar counter with his finger. “Another one,” he said.

“Eh? What? Oh, you were talking to yourself. As I was saying, I know the real reason. Are you familiar with Tantrist magic and its principles?”

“Unhunh. No.”

Atkinson frowned. “You almost sound as if you didn’t want to hear about this,” he observed. “But I was talking about Tantrist magic. One of its cardinal tenets, you know, is the magic power of certain syllables. For instance, if you persistently repeat Avalokiteshvara’s name, you’ll be assured of a happy rebirth in Heaven. Other sounds have a malign and destructive power. And so on.”

George looked about him. It was growing late; the bar was emptying. Except for himself and Atkinson, the pipers and the drummer, and a man around the corner of the bar from George, who had been sitting there silently against the wall all evening, the stools were empty. He looked at Atkinson again.

“About 1920,” Atkinson was saying, “a lama in a remote little valley in Tibet—” George noticed that he pronounced the word in the austere fashion that makes it rhyme with gibbet—“got a terrific yen for one of the native girls. She was a very attractive girl by native standards, round and brown and plump and tight, like a little bird. The lama couldn’t keep his eyes off her, and he didn’t want to keep his hands off either. Unfortunately, he belonged to a lamistic order that was very strict about its rule of chastity. And besides that, he was really a religious man.

“He knew there was one circumstance, and one only, under which he could enjoy the girl without committing any sin. He decided to wait for it.

“A few months later, when the girl was out pasturing the buffalo, or feeding the silk worms, or something, she saw the lama coming running down the side of the hill toward her. He was in a terrific froth. When he got up to her, he made a certain request. ‘No,’ the girl answered, ‘my mother told me I mustn’t.’ You see, she was a well-brought-up girl.”

George was looking at Atkinson and frowning hard. “Go on,” he said.

“I am going on,” Atkinson answered. “The lama told her to go home and ask her mother if it wasn’t all right to do what the holy man told her. He said to hurry. So she did.

“When she came back the lama was sitting on the field in a disconsolate position. She told him it was all right, her mother had said to mind him. He shook his head. He said, ‘The Dalai Lama has just died. I thought you and I could cooperate to reincarnate him. Under the circumstances, it wouldn’t have been a sin. But now it’s too late. Heaven has willed otherwise. The job has already been attended to.’ And he pointed over to a corner of the field where two donkeys were copulating.

“The girl began to laugh. As I said, she was a well-brought-up girl, but she couldn’t help it. She laughed and laughed. She almost split her sides laughing. And the poor lama had to sit there listening while she laughed.

“You can’t excuse him, but you can understand it. He’d wanted her so much, he’d thought he was going to get her, and then those donkeys—Well, he began to curse. He began to curse those terrible, malign Tantrist curses. He’s been cursing ever since.

“Ever since 1920, he’s been cursing. Once in a while he pauses for breath, and we think things are going to get better, but he always starts in again. He says those dreadful Tantrist syllables over and over, and they go bonging around the world like the notes of enormous brass bells ringing disaster. War and famine and destruction and revolution and death—all in the Tantrist syllables. He knows, of course, that he’ll be punished by years and years of rebirths, the worst possible kind of karma, but he can’t help it. He just goes on saying those terrible syllables.”

George looked at him coldly. “Two Kinds of Time” he said.

“Hunh?”

“I said, you read that story in a book about China called Two Kinds of Time. I read it myself. The donkeys, the lama, the girl—they’re all in there. The only original part was what you said about Tantrist curses, and you probably stole that from someplace else.” George halted. After a moment he said passionately, “What’s the matter with everybody tonight?”

“Oh, foozle,” Atkinson replied lightly. “Om mani padme hum” He picked up his hat and left the bar.

After a minute or so, the two pipers followed him. That left George, the silent man in the corner, and the instrumentalist who had played on the drum. George decided to have one more drink. Then he’d go home.

The silent man who was leaning against the wall began to speak.

“They were all wrong,” he said.

George regarded him with nausea. He thought of leaving, but the bartender was already bringing his drink. He tried to call up enough force to say, “Shut up,” but heart failed him. He drooped his head passively.

“Did you ever notice the stars scattered over the sky?” the man in the corner asked. He had a deep, rumbling voice.

“Milky Way?” George mumbled. Better hurry and get this over with.

“The Milky Way is one example,” the stranger conceded.

“Only one. There are millions of worlds within the millions of galaxies.”

“Yeah.”

“All those millions of burning worlds.” He was silent for so long that George’s hopes rose. Then he said, “They look pretty hot, don’t they? But they’re good to eat.”

“Hunh?”

“The stars, like clams…”

“Beg your pardon,” George enunciated. He finished his drink. “Misjudged you. You’re original.”

The man in the corner did not seem to have listened. “The worlds are like clams,” he said rapidly, “and the skies at night present us with the glorious spectacle of a celestial clambake. They put them on the fire, and when they’ve been on the fire long enough, they open. They’re getting this world of yours ready. When it’s been on the fire a little longer, it’ll open. Explode.”

George realized that that last drink had been one too many. He didn’t believe what the man in the corner was saying. He wouldn’t. But he couldn’t help finding a dreadful sort of logic in it. “How’ju know this?” he asked feebly at last.

The man in the corner seemed to rise and billow. Before George’s horrified and popping eyes, he grew larger and larger, like a balloon inflating. George drew back on the bar stool; he was afraid his face would be buried in the vast unnatural bulk.

“Because,” said the inflating man in a high, twanging voice, “because I’m one of the clam-eaters!”

This horrid statement proved too much for George’s wavering sobriety. He blinked. Then he slid backward off the bar stool and collapsed softly on the floor. His eyes closed.

The billowing form of the clam-eater tightened and condensed into that of a singularly handsome young man. He was dressed in winged sandals and a winged hat; from his naked body there came a soft golden light.

For a moment he stood over George, chuckling at the success of his joke. His handsome, jolly face was convulsed with mirth. Then, giving George a light, revivifying tap on the shoulder with the herald’s wand he carried, the divine messenger left the bar.

1952. Mercury Press, Inc.

AN EGG A MONTH FROM ALL OVER

When the collector from Consolidated Eggs found the mnxx bird egg on the edge of the cliff, he picked it up unsuspiciously. A molded mnxx bird egg looks almost exactly like the chu lizard eggs the collector was hunting, and this egg bore no visible sign of the treatment it had received at the hands of Jreel just before Krink’s hatchet men caught up with him. The collector was paid by the egg; everything that came along was grist to his mill. He put the molded mnxx bird egg in his bag.

* * *
George Lidders lived alone in a cabin in the desert outside Phoenix. The cabin had only one room, but at least a third of the available space was taken up by an enormous incubator. George was a charter member of the Egg-of-the-Month Club, and he never refused one of their selections. He loved hatching eggs.

George had come to Phoenix with his mother for her health. He had taken care of her faithfully until her death, and now that she was gone, he missed her terribly. He had never spoken three consecutive words to any woman except her in his life. His fantasies, when he was base enough to have any, were pretty unpleasant. He was forty-six.

On Thursday morning he walked into Phoenix for his mail. As he scuffled over the sand toward the post office substation, he was hoping there would be a package for him from the Egg-of-the-Month Club. He was feeling tired, tired and depressed. He had been sleeping badly, with lots of nightmares. A nice egg package would cheer him up.

The South American mail rocket, cleaving the sky overhead, distracted him momentarily. If he had enough money, would he travel? Mars, Venus, star-side? No, he didn’t think so. Travel wasn’t really interesting. Eggs… Eggs (but the thought was a little frightening), eggs were the only thing he had to go on living for.

The postmistress greeted him unsmilingly. “Package for you, Mr. Lidders. From the egg club. You got to brush for it.” She handed him a slip.

George brushed, his hand shaking with excitement. This must be his lucky morning. It might even be a double selection; the package seemed unusually big. His lips began to lift at the corners. With a nod in place of thanks, he took the parcel from the postmistress, and went out, clutching it.

The woman looked after him disapprovingly. “I want you to stay away from that gesell, Fanny,” she said to her eleven-year-old daughter, who was reading a postcard in the back of the cubicle. “There’s something funny about him and his eggs.”

“Oksey-snoksey, mums, if you say so. But lots of people hatch eggs.”

The postmistress sniffed. “Not the way he hatches eggs,” she said prophetically.

On the way home George tore the wrapper from the box. He couldn’t wait any longer. He pulled back the flaps eagerly.

Inside the careful packing there was a large, an unusually large, pale blue -green egg. Its surface stood up in tiny bosses, instead of being smooth as eggs usually were, and the shell gave the impression of being more than ordinarily thick. According to the instructions with the parcel, it was a chu lizard egg from the planet Morx, a little -known satellite of Amorgos. It was to be incubated at a temperature of 76.3 C. with high humidity. It would hatch in about eight days.

George felt the surface of the egg lovingly. If only Mother were here to see it! She had always been interested in his egg hatching; it was the only thing he had ever wanted to do that she had really approved of. And this was an unusually interesting egg.

When he got home he went straight to the incubator. Tenderly he laid the soidisant chu lizard egg in one of the compartments; carefully he adjusted the temperature control. Then he sat down on the black and red afghan on his cot (his mother had crocheted the coverlet for him just before she passed away), and once more read the brochure that had come with the egg.

When he had finished it, he sighed. It was too bad there weren’t any eggs in the incubator now, eggs that were on the verge of hatching. Eight days was a long time to wait. But this egg looked wonderfully promising; he didn’t know when the club had sent out an egg that attracted him so. And from one point of view it was a good thing he hadn’t any hatchings on hand. Hatching, for all its excitement, was a sort of ordeal. It always left him feeling nervously exhausted and weak.

He had lunch, and after lunch, lying under the red and black afghan, he had a little nap. When he woke it was late afternoon. He went over to the incubator and looked in. The egg hadn’t changed. He hadn’t expected it would.

His nap hadn’t cheered or refreshed him. He was almost more tired than he had been when he lay down to sleep. Sighing, he went around to the other side of the incubator and stared at the cage where he kept the things he had hatched out. After a moment he took his eyes away. They weren’t interesting, really—lizards and birds and an attractive small snake or two. He wasn’t interested in the things that were in eggs after they had hatched out.

In the evening he read a couple of chapters in the Popular Guide to Egg Hatchery.

He woke early the next morning, his heart hammering. He’d had another of those nightmares. But—his mind wincingly explored the texture of the dream—but it hadn’t been all nigh tmare. There’d been a definitely pleasurable element in it, and the pleasure had been somehow connected with the egg that had come yesterday. Funny. (Jreel, who had molded the mnxx bird egg from its original cuboid into the present normal ovoid shape, wouldn’t have found it funny at all.) It was funny about dreams.

He got grapes from the cupboard and made café à la crème on the hotplate. He breakfasted. After breakfast he looked at his new egg.

The temperature and humidity were well up. It was about time for him to give the egg a quarter of a turn, as the hatching instruction booklet suggested. He reached in the compartment, and was surprised to find it full of a dry, brisk, agreeable warmth. It seemed to be coming from the egg.

How odd! He stood rubbing the sprouting whiskers on his upper lip. After a moment he tapped the two gauges. No, the needles weren’t stuck; they wobbled normally. He went around to the side of the incubator and checked the connections. Everything was sound and tight, nothing unusual. He must have imagined the dry warmth. Rather apprehensively, he put his hand back in the compartment—he still hadn’t turned the egg—and was relieved to find the air in it properly humid. Yes, he must have imagined it.

After lunch he cleaned the cabin and did little chores. Abruptly, when he was half through drying the lunch dishes, the black depression that had threatened him ever since Mother died swallowed him up. It was like a physical blackness; he put down the dish undried and groped his way over to a chair. For a while he sat almost unmoving, his hands laced over his little stomach, while he sank deeper and deeper into despair. Mother was gone; he was forty-six; he had nothing to live for, not a thing… He escaped from the depression at la st, with a final enormous guilty effort, into one of his more unpleasant fantasies. The imago within the molded mnxx bird egg, still plastic within its limey shell, felt the strain and responded to it with an inaudible grunt.

On the third day of the hatching, the egg began to enlarge. George hung over the incubator, fascinated. He had seen eggs change during incubation before, of course. Sometimes the shells got dry and chalky; sometimes they were hygroscopic and picked up moisture from the air. But he had never seen an egg act like this one. It seemed to be swelling up like an inflating balloon.

He reached in the compartment and touched the egg lightly. The shell, that had been solimey and thick when he first got it, was now warm and yielding and gelatinous. There was something uncanny about it. Involuntarily, George rubbed his fingers on his trouser leg.

He went back to the incubator at half-hour intervals. Even-time it seemed to him that the egg was a little bigger than it had been. It was wonderfully interesting; he had never seen such a fascinating egg.

He got out the hatching instructions booklet and studied it. No, there was nothing said about changes in shell surface during incubation, and nothing about the egg’s incredible increase in size. And the booklets were usually careful about mentioning such things. The directors of the Egg-of-the-Month Club didn’t want their subscribers to overlook anything interesting that would happen during the incubation days. They wanted you to get your money’s worth.

There must be some mistake. George, booklet in hand, stared at the incubator doubtfully. Perhaps the egg had been sent him by mistake; perhaps he hadn’t been meant to have it. (He was right in both these suppositions: Jreel had meant the egg for Krink, as a little gift.) Perhaps he ought to get rid of the egg. An unauthorized egg might be dangerous.

Hesitantly he raised the incubator lid. It would be a shame, but—yes, he’d throw the egg out. Anything, anything at all might be inside an egg. There was no sense in taking chances. He approached his hand. The imago, dimly aware that it was at a crucial point in its affairs, exerted itself.

George’s hand halted a few inches from the egg. He had broken into a copious sweat, and his forearm was one large cramp. Why, he must have been crazy. He didn’t want—he couldn’t possibly want to—get rid of the egg. What had been the matter with him? He perceived very clearly now what he thought he must have sensed dimly all along; that there was a wonderful promise in the egg.

A promise of what? Of—he couldn’t be sure—but of warmth, of sleep, of rest. A promise of something he’d been wanting all his life. He couldn’t be any more specific than that. But if what he thought might be in the egg was actually there, it wouldn’t matter any more that Mother was dead and that he was forty-six and lonely. He’d—he gulped and sighed deeply—he’d be happy. Satisfied.

The egg kept on enlarging, though more slowly, until late that evening. Then it stopped.

George was in a froth of nervous excitement. In the course of watching the egg’s slow growth, he had chewed his fingernails until three of them were down to the quick and ready to bleed. Still keeping his eyes fixed on the egg, he went to the dresser, got a nail file, and began to file his nails. The operation soothed him. By midnight, when it became clear that nothing more was going to happen immediately, he was calm enough to go to bed. He had no dreams.

The fourth and fifth days passed without incident. On the sixth day George perceived that though the egg was the same size, its shell had hardened and become once more opaque. And on the eighth day—to this extent the molded mnxx bird egg was true to the schedule laid down in the booklet for the chu lizard—the egg began to crack.

George felt a rapturous excitement. He hovered over the incubator breathlessly, his hands clutching the air and water conduits for support. As the tiny fissure enlarged, he kept gasping and licking his lips. He was too agitated to be capable of coherent thought, but it occurred to him that what he really expected to come out of the egg was a bird of some sort, some wonderful, wonderful bird.

The faint pecking from within the egg grew louder. The dark fissure on the pale blue-green background widened and spread. The halves of the shell fell back suddenly, like the halves of a door. The egg was open. There was nothing inside.

Nothing. Nothing. For a moment George felt that he had gone mad. He rubbed his eyes and trembled. Disappointment and incredulity were sickening him. He picked up the empty shell.

It was light and chalky and faintly warm to the touch. He felt inside it unbelievingly. There was nothing there.

His frustration was stifling. For a moment he thought of crumpling up newspapers and setting the cabin on fire. Then he put the halves of the shell down on the dresser and went wobblingly toward the door. He’d—go for a walk.

The mnxx bird imago, left alone within the cabin, flitted about busily.

The moon had risen when George got back. In the course of his miserable wanderings, he had stopped on a slight rise and sh ed a few salty tears. Now he was feeling, if not better, somewhat more resigned. His earlier hopes, his later disappointment, had been succeeded by a settled hopelessness.

The mnxx bird was waiting behind the door of the cabin for him.

In its flittings in the cabin during his absence, it had managed to assemble for itself a passable body. It had used newspapers, grapes, and black wool from the afghan as materials. What it had made was short and squat and excessively female, not at all alluring, but it thought George would like it. It held the nail file from the dresser in its one completed hand.

George shut the cabin door behind him. His arm moved toward the light switch. He halted, transfixed by the greatest of the surprises of the day. He saw before him, glimmering wanly in the moonlight from the window, the woman of his—let’s be charitable—dreams.

She was great-breasted, thighed like an idol. Her face was only a blur; there the mnxx bird had not felt it necessary to be specific. But she moved toward George with a heavy sensual swaying; she was what George had always wanted and been ashamed of wanting. She was here. He had no questions. She was his. Desire was making him drunk. He put out his hands.

The newspaper surface, so different from what he had been expecting, startled him. He uttered a surprised cry. The mnxx bird saw no reason for waiting any longer. George was caressing one grape-tipped breast uncertainly. The mnxx raised its right arm, the one that was complete, and drove the nail file into his throat.

The mnxx bird was amazed at the amount of blood in its victim. Jreel, when he had been molding the imago with his death wishes for Krink, had said nothing about this. The inhabitants of the planet Morx do not have much blood.

After a momentary disconcertment, the mnxx went on with its business. It had, after all, done what it had been molded to do. Now there awaited it a more personal task.

It let the woman’s body it had shaped collapse behind it carelessly. The newspapers made a wuffling sound. In a kind of rapture it threw itself on George. His eyes would be admirable for mnxx bird eyes, it could use his skin, his hair, his teeth. Admirable material! Trembling invisibly with the joy of creation, the mnxx bird set to work.

When it had finished, George lay on the sodden carpet flaccidly. His eyes were gone, and a lot of his vital organs. Things were over for him. He had had, if not all he wanted, all he was ever going to get. He was quiet. He was dead. He was satisfied.

The mnxx bird, on the fine strong wings it had plaited for itself out of George’s head hair, floated out into the night.

1952. Mercury Press, Inc.

PROTT

“Read it,” said the spaceman. “You’ll find it interesting—under the circumstances. It’s not long. One of the salvage crews found it tied to a signal rocket just outside the Asteroid Belt. It’d been there quite a while.

“I thought of taking it to somebody at the university, a historian or somebody, but I don’t suppose they’d be interested. They don’t have any more free time than anybody else.”

He handed a metal cylinder to Fox, across the table, and ordered drinks for them both. Fox sipped from his glass before he opened the tube.

“Sure you want me to read it now?” he asked. “Not much of a way to spend our free time.”

“Sure, go ahead and read it. What difference does it make?”

So Fox spread out the emtex sheets. He began to read.

* * *
Dating a diary in deep space offers special problems. Philosophic problems, I mean—that immense “When is now?” which, vexatious enough within a solar system or even on the surface of a planet, becomes quite insoluble in deep space except empirically or by predicating a sort of super-time, an enormous Present Moment which would extend over everything. And yet a diary entry must be dated, if only for convenience. So I will call today Tuesday and take the date of April 21 from the gauges.

Tuesday it is.

On this Tuesday, then, I am quite well and cheerful, snug and comfortable, in the Ellis. The Ellis is a model of comfort and convenience; a man who couldn’t be comfortable in it couldn’t be comfortable anywhere. As to where I am, I could get the precise data from the calculators, but I think, for the casual purposes of this record, it’s enough to say that I am almost at the edges of the area where the prott are said to abound. And my speed is almost exactly that at which they are supposed to appear.

I said I was well and cheerful. I am. But just under my euphoria, just at the edge of consciousness, I am aware of an intense loneliness. It’s a normal response to the deep space situation, I think. And I am upborne by the feeling that I stand on the threshold of unique scientific discoveries.

* * *
Thursday the 26th (my days are more than twenty-four hours long). Today my loneliness is definitely conscious. I am troubled, too, by the fear that perhaps the prott won’t—aren’t going to—put in an appearance. After all, their existence is none too well confirmed. And then what becomes of all my plans, of my smug confidence of a niche for myself in the hall of fame of good investigators?

It seemed like a brilliant idea when I was on Earth. I know the bursar thought so, too, when I asked for funds for the project. To investigate the life habits of an on-protoplasmic form of life, with special emphasis on its reproduction—excellent! But now?

* * *
Saturday, April 30. Still no prott. But I am feeling better. I went over my files on them and again it seems to me that there is only one conclusion possible : They exist.

Over an enormous sector in the depth of space, during many years, they have been sighted. For my own comfort, let’s list the known facts about prott.

First, they are a non-protoplasmic form of life. (How could they be otherwise, in this lightless, heatless gulf?) Second, their bodily organization is probably electrical. Simmons, who was electrical engineer on the Thor, found that his batteries showed discharges when prott were around. Third, they appear only to ships which are in motion between certain rates of speed. (Whether motion at certain speeds attract them, or whether it is only at certain frequencies that they are visible, we don’t know.) Fourth, whether or not they are intelligent, they are to some extent telepathic, according to the reports. This fact, of course, is my hope of communicating with them at all. And fifth, prott have been evocatively if unscientifically described as looking like big poached eggs.

On the basis of these facts, I’ve aspired to be the Columbus—or, more accurately, the Dr. Kinsey—of the prott. Well, it’s good to know that, lonely and rather worried as I am, I can still laugh at my own jokes.

* * *
May 3rd. I saw my first prott. More later. It’s enough for now: I saw my first prott.

* * *
May 4th. The Ellis has all-angle viewing plates, through 360 degrees. I had set up an automatic signal, and yesterday it rang. My heart thumping with an almost painful excitement, I ran to the battery of plates.

There it was, seemingly some five yards long, a cloudy, whitish thing. There was a hint of a large yellow nucleus. Damned if the thing didn’t look like a big poached egg!

I saw at once why everyone has assumed that prott are life-forms and not, for example, minute spaceships, robots, or machines of some sort. The thing had the irregular, illogical symmetry of life.

I stood goggling at it. It wasn’t alarming, even in its enormous context. After a moment, it seemed to flirt away from the ship with the watery ease of a fish.

I waited hopefully, but it didn’t come back.

* * *
May 4. No prott. Question: since there is so little light in deep space how was I able to see it? It wasn’t luminous.

I wish I had had more training in electronics and allied subjects. But the bursar thought it more important to send out a man trained in survey techniques.

* * *
May 5. No prott.

* * *
May 6. No prott. But I have been having very odd thoughts.

* * *
May 8th. As I half-implied in my last entry, the ideas I have been having (such odd ideas—they made me feel, mentally, as if some supporting membrane of my personality were being overstrained) were an indication of the proximity of prott.

I had just finished eating lunch today when the automatic signal rang. I hurried to the viewers. There, perfectly clear against their jet-black background, were three prott. Two were almost identical; one was slightly smaller in size. I had retraced over and over in my mind the glimpse of the one prott I had had before, but now that three of them were actually present in the viewers, I could only stare at them. They’re not alarming, but they do have an odd effect upon the mind.

After several tense seconds, I recovered my wits. I pressed a button to set the automatic photographic records going. I’d put in plates to cover the whole spectrum of radiant energy, and it will be interesting when I go to develop my pictures to see what frequencies catch the prott best. I also—this was more difficult—began to send out the basic “Who? Who? Who?” in which all telepathic communicators are trained.

I have become reasonably good at telepathy through practice, but I have no natural talent for it. I remember Mcllwrath telling me jokingly, just before I left New York, that I’d never have trouble with one of the pitfalls of natural telepaths—transmitting a desired answer into the mind of a subject by telepathy. I sup pose any deficiency has some advantageous side.

I began to send out my basic “Who?”. It may have been only a coincidence, but as soon as the fourth or fifth impulse had left my mind, all three prott slid out of the viewing plates. They didn’t come back. It would seem that my attempts at communication alarmed them. I hope not, though.

When I was convinced that they would not return for a while, I began to develop my plates. Those in the range of visible light show the prott very much as they appear to the eye. The infra-red plates show nothing at all. But the ultra-violet-sensitive ones are really interesting.

Two of the prott appear as a network of luminous lines intricately knotted and braided. For some reason, I was reminded of the “elfish light” of Coleridge’s water snakes, which “moved in tracks of shining white.” The third prott, which I assume to have been the smaller one, gave an opaque, flattened-ovoid image, definitely smaller than that of its companions, with a round dark shadow in the centre. This shadow would appear to be the large yellow nucleus.

Question: Do these photographic differences correspond to organizational differences? Probably, though it might be a matter of phase.

Further question: If the difference is in fact organizational, do we have here an instance of that specialization which, among protoplasmic creatures, would correspond to sex? It is possible. But such theorizing is bound to be plain guesswork.

* * *
May 9th (I see I gave up dating by days some while ago). No prott. I think it would be of some interest if, at this point I were to try to put down my impression of those “odd thoughts” which I believe the prott inspired in me.

In the first place, there is a reluctance. I didn’t want to think what I was thinking. This is not because the ideas were in themselves repellent or disgusting, but because they were uncongenial to my mind. I don’t mean uncongenial to my personality or my idiosyncrasies, to the sum of differences that make up “me,” but uncongenial to the whole biological orientation of my thinking. The differences between protoplasmic and non-protoplasmic life must be enormous.

In the second place, there is a frustration. I said, “I didn’t want to think what I was thinking,” but it would be equally true to say that I couldn’t think it. Hence, I suppose, that sensation of ineffectuality.

And in the third place, there is a great boredom. Frustration often does make one feel bored, I suppose. I couldn’t apprehend my own thoughts. But whenever I finally did, I found them boring. They were so remote, so incomprehensible, that they were uninteresting.

But the thoughts themselves? What were they? I can’t say.

How confused all this is! Well, nothing is more tiresome than to describe the indescribable.

Perhaps it is true that the only creature that could understand the thoughts of a prott would be another prott.

* * *
May 10th. Were the “odd thoughts” the results of attempts on the protts’ part to communicate with me? I don’t think so. I believe they were near the ship, but out of “view-shot,” so to speak, and I picked up some of their interpersonal communications accidentally.

I have been devoting a good deal of thought to the problem of communicating with them. It is too bad that there is no way of projecting a visual image of myself onto the exterior of the ship. I have Matheson’s signalling devices, and next time—if there is a next—I shall certainly try them. I have little confidence in devices, however. I feel intuitively that it is going to have to be telepathy or nothing. But if they respond to the basic “Who?” with flight… well, I must think of something else.

Suppose I were to begin the attempt at contact with a “split question.”

“Splits” are hard for any telepath, a lmost impossible for me. But in just that difficulty, my hope of success might lie. After all, I suppose the prott flirted away from the ship at my “Who?” because mental contact with me was painful to them.

* * *
Later. Four of them are here now. I tried to split and they went away, but came back. I am going to try something else.

* * *
May 11th. It worked. My “three-way split”—something I had only read about in journals, but that I would never have believed myself capable of—was astoundingly effective.

Not at first, though. At my first attempt, the prott darted right out of the viewers. I had a moment of despair. Then, with an almost human effect of hesitation, reluctance, and inclination, they came back. They clustered around the viewer. Once more I sent out my impulse; sweat was running down my back with the effort. And they stayed.

I don’t know what I should have done if they hadn’t. A split is exhausting because, in addition to the three normal axes of the mind, it involves a fourth one, at right angles to all the others. A telepath would know what I mean. But a three-way split is, in the old-fashioned phrase, “lifting yourself up by your boot-straps.” Some experts say it’s impossible. I still have trouble believing I brought it off.

I did, however. There was a sudden rush, a gush, of communication. I’d like to try to get it down now, while it’s still fresh in my mind. But I’m too tired. Even the effort of using the playback is almost beyond me. I’ve got to rest.

* * *
Later. I’ve been asleep for four hours. I don’t think I ever slept so soundly. Now I’m almost myself again, except that my hands shake.

I said I wanted to get the communication with the prott down while it was still fresh. Already it has begun to seem a little remote, I suppose becau se the subject matter was inherently alien. But the primary impression I retain of it is the gush, the suddenness. It was like pulling the cork out of a bottle of warm champagne which has been thoroughly shaken up.

In the middle, I had to try to maintain my mental balance in the flood. It was difficult; no wonder the effort left me so tired. But I did learn basic things.

One: identity. The prott are individuals, and though their designations for themselves escape me, they have individual consciousness. This is not a small matter. Some protoplasmic life-forms have only group consciousness. Each of the four prott in my viewer was thoroughly aware of itself as distinct from the others.

Two: difference. The prott were not only aware of identity, they were aware of differences of class between themselves.

And I am of the opinion that these differences correspond to those shown on my photographic plates.

Three: place. The prott are quite clearly conscious that they are here and not somewhere else. This may seem either trivial or so basic as not to be worth bothering with. But there are whole groups of protoplasmic life-forms on Venus whose only cognizance of place is a distinction between “me” and “not-me.”

Four: time. For the prott, time is as it is for us, an irreversible flowing in one direction only. I caught in their thinking a hint of a discrimination between biological (for such a life-form? That is what it seemed) time and something else, I am not sure what.

Beyond these four basic things, I am unsure. I do feel, though it is perhaps over-optimistic of me, that further communication, communication of great interest, is possible. I feel that I may be able to discover what their optimum life conditions and habitat are. I do not despair of discovering how they reproduce themselves.

I have the feeling that there is something they want very much to tell me.

* * *
May 13th. Six prott today. According to my photographic record, only one of them was of the opaque solid-nucleus kind. The others all showed the luminous light-tracked mesh.

The communication was difficult. It is exhausting to me physically. I had again that sense of psychic pressure, of urgency, in their sendings. If I only knew what they wanted to “talk” about, it would be so much easier for me.

I have the impression that they have a psychic itch they want me to help them scratch. That’s silly? Yes, I know, yet that is the odd impression I have.

After they were gone, I analyzed my photographs carefully. The knotted light meshes are not identical in individuals. If the patterns are constant for individuals, it would seem that two of the light-mesh kind have been here before.

What do they want to talk about?

* * *
May 14th. Today the prott—seven of them—and I communicated about habitat. This much is fairly certain. It would appear—and I think that from now on any statement I make about them is going to have to be heavily qualified—it would appear that they are not necessarily confined to the lightless, heatless depths of space. I can’t be sure about this. But I thought I got the hint of something “solid” in their thinking.

Wild speculation: do they get their energy from stars?

Behind their sendings, I got again the hint of some other more desired communication. Something which at once attracts and—repels? frightens? embarrasses?

Sometimes the humor of my situation comes to me suddenly. An embarrassed prott! But I suppose there’s no reason why not.

All my visitors today were of the knotted network kind.

* * *
May 16th. No prott yesterday or today.

* * *
May 18th. At last! Three prott! From subsequent analysis of the network patterns, all had been here to interview me before. We began communication about habitat and what, with protoplasm, would be metabolic process, but they did not seem interested. They left soon.

Why do they visit the ship, anyhow? Curiosity? That motive must not be so powerful by now. Because of something they want from me? I imagine so; it is again an awareness of some psychic itch. And that gives me a lead as to the course I should follow.

The next time they appear, I shall try to be more passive in my communications. I shall try not to lead them on to any particular subject. Not only is this good interviewing technique, it is essential in this case if I am to gain their full co-operation.

* * *
May 20. After a fruitless wait yesterday, today there was one lone prott. In accordance with my recent decision, 1 adopted a highly passive attitude toward it. I sent out signals of willingness and receptivity, and I waited, watching the prott.

For five or ten minutes there was “silence.” The prott moved about in the viewers with an effect of restlessness, though it might have been any other emotion, of course. Suddenly, with great haste and urgency, it began to send. I had again that image of the cork blowing out of the champagne bottle.

Its sending was remarkably difficult for me to follow. At the end of the first three minutes or so, I was wringing wet with sweat. Its communications were repetitive, urgent, and, I believe, pleasurable. I simply had no terms into which to translate them. They seemed to involve many verbs.

I “listened” passively, trying to preserve my mental equilibrium. My bewilderment increased as the prott continued to send. Finally I had to recognize that I was getting to a point where intellectual frustration would interfere with my telepathy. I ventured to put a question, a simple “Please classify” to the prott.

Its sending slackened and then ceased abruptly. It disappeared.

What did I learn from the interview? That the passive approach is the correct one, and that a prott will send freely (and most confusingly, as far as I am concerned) if it is not harassed with questions or directed to a particular topic. What I didn’t learn was what the prott was sending about.

Whatever it was, I have the impression that it was highly agreeable to the prott.

* * *
Later— I have been re-reading the notes I made on my sessions with the prott. What has been the matter with me? I wonder at my blindness. For the topic about which the prott was sending—the pleasurable, repetitive, embarrassing topic, the one about which it could not bear to be questioned, the subject which involved so many verbs—that topic could be nothing other than its sex life.

When put thus baldly, it sounds ridiculous. I make haste to qualify it. We don’t as yet—and what a triumph it is to be able to say “as yet”—know anything about the manner in which prott reproduce themselves. They may, for example, increase by a sort of fission. They may be dioecious, as so much highly organized life is. Or their reproductive cycle may involve the co-operative activity of two, three or even more different sorts of prott.

So far, I have seen only the two sorts, those with the solid nucleus, and those with the intricate network of light. That does not mean there may not be other kinds.

But what I am driving at is this: The topic about which the prott communicated with me today is one which, to the prott, has the same emotional and psychic value that sex has to protoplasmic life.

(Somehow, at this point, I am reminded of a little anecdote of my grandmother’s. She used to say that there are four things in a dog’s life which it is important for it to keep in mind, one for each foot. The things are food, food, sex, and food. She bred dachshunds and she knew. Question: does my coming up with this recollection at this time mean that I suspect the prott’s copulatory activity is also nutritive, like the way in which amoeba conjugate? Their exchange of nuclei seems to have a beneficial effect on their metabolism.) Be that as it may, I now have a thesis to test in my dealings with the prott!

* * *
May 21. There were seven prott in the viewer when the signal rang. While I watched, more and more arrived. It was impossible to count them accurately, but I think there must have been at least fifteen.

They started communicating almost immediately. Not wanting to disturb them with directives, I attempted to “listen” passively, but the effect on me was that of being caught in a crowd of people all talking at once. After a few minutes, I was compelled to ask them to send one at a time.

From then on, the sending was entirely orderly.

Orderly, but incomprehensible. So much so that, at the end of some two hours, I was forced to break off the interview.

It is the first time I have ever done such a thing.

Why did I do it? My motives are not entirely clear even to myself. I was trying to receive passively, keeping in mind the theory I had formed about the protts’ communication. (And let me say at this point that I have found nothing to contradict it. Nothing whatever.) Yet, as time passed, my bewilderment increased almost painfully. Out of the mass of chaotic, repetitive material presented to me, I was able to form not one single clear idea.

I would not have believed that a merely intellectual frustration could be so difficult to take.

The communication itself was less difficult than yesterday. I must think.

I have begun to lose weight.

* * *
June 12th. I have not made an entry in my diary for a long time. In the interval, I have had thirty-six interviews with prott.

What emerges from these sessions, which are so painful and frustrating to me, so highly enjoyed by the prott?

First, communication with them has become very much easier. It has become, in fact, too easy. I continually find their thoughts intruding on me at times when I cannot welcome them—when I am eating, writing up my notes, or trying to sleep. But the strain of communication is much less and I suppose that does constitute an advance.

Second, out of the welter of material presented to me, I have at last succeeded in forming one fairly clear idea. That is that the main topic of the protts’ communication is a process that could be re presented verbally as—ing the—. I add at once that the blanks do not necessarily represent an obscenity. I have, in fact, no idea what they do represent.

(The phrases that come into my mind in this connection are “kicking the bucket” and “belling the cat.” It may not be without significance that one of these phrases relates to death and the other to danger. Communication with prott is so unsatisfactory that one cannot afford to neglect any intimations that might clarify it. It is possible that—ing the—is something which is potentially dangerous to prott, but that’s only a guess. I could have it all wrong, and I probably do.) At any rate, my future course has become clear. From now on I will attempt, by every mental means at my disposal, to get the prott to specify what—ing the—is. There is no longer any fear of losing their co-operation. Even as I dictate these words to the playback, they are sending more material about—ing the—to me.

* * *
June 30. The time has gone very quickly, and yet ea ch individual moment has dragged. I have had fifty-two formal interviews with prott—they appear in crowds ranging from fifteen to forty or so—and countless informal ones. My photographic record shows that more than ninety per cent of those that have appeared have been of the luminous network kind.

In all this communications, what have I learned? It gives me a sort of bitter satisfaction to say: “Nothing at all.”

I am too chagrined to go on.

* * *
July 1. I don’t mean that I haven’t explored avenue after avenue. For instance, at one time it appeared that—ing the—had something to do with the intersections of the luminous network in prott of that sort. When I attempted to pursue this idea, I met with a cegative that seemed amused as well as indignant.

They indicated that—ing the—was concerned with the whitish body surfaces, but when I picked up the theme, I got another negative signal. And so on. I must have attacked the problem from fifty different angles, but I had to give up on all of them.—ing the—, it would appear, is electrical, nonelectrical, solitary, dual, triple, communal, constant, never done at all. At one time I thought that it might apply to any pleasurable activity, but the prott signalled that I was all wrong. I broke that session off short.

Outside of their baffling communications on the subject of—ing the—, I have learned almost nothing from the prott.

(How sick I am of them and their inane, vacuous babbling! The phrases of our communication ring in my mind for hours afterward. They haunt me like a clinging odor or stubbornly lingering taste.) During one session, a prott (solid nucleus, I think, but I am not sure) informed me that they could live under a wide variety of conditions, provided there was a source of radiant energy not too remote. Besides that scrap of information, I have an impression that they are grateful to me for listening to them. Their feelings, I think, could be expressed in the words “understanding and sympathetic.”

I don’t know why they think so, I’m sure. I would rather communicate with a swarm of dogfish, which are primitively telepathic, than listen to any more prott.

I have had to punch another hole in my wristwatch strap to take up the slack. This makes the third one.

* * *
July 3rd. It is difficult for me to use the playback, the prott are sending so hard. I have scarcely a moment’s rest from their communications, all concerned with the same damned subject. But I have come to a resolve: I am going home.

Yes, home. It may be that I have failed in my project, because of inner weaknesses. It may be that no man alive could have accomplished more. I don’t know. But I ache to get away from them and the flabby texture of their babbling minds. If only there were some way of shutting them off, of stopping my mental ears against them temporarily, I think I could stand it. But there isn’t.

I’m going home. I’ve started putting course data in the computers.

* * *
July 4th. They say they are going back with me. It seems they like me so much, they don’t want to be without me. I will have to decide.

* * *
July 12th. It is dreadfully hard to think, for they are sending like mad.

I am not so altruistic, so unselfish, that I would condemn myself to a lifetime of listening to prott if I could get out of it. But suppose I ignore the warnings of instinct, the dictates of conscience, and return to Earth, anyhow—what will be the result?

The prott will go with me. I will not be rid of them. And I will have loosed a wave of prott on Earth.

They want passionately to send about—ing the—. They have discovered that Earthmen are potential receptors. I have myself to blame for that. If I show them the way to Earth…

The dilemma is inherently comic, I suppose. It is none the less real. Oh, it is possible that there is some way of destroying prott, and that the resources of Earth intelligence might discover it. Or, failing that, we might be able to work out a way of living with them. But the danger is too great; I dare not ask my planet to face it. I will stay here.

The Ellis is a strong, comfortable ship. According to my calculations, there is enough air, water and food to last me the rest of my natural life. Power—since I am not going back—I have in abundance. I ought to get along all right.

Except for the prott. When I think of them, my heart contracts with despair and revulsion. And yet—a scientist must be honest—it is not all despair. I feel a little sorry for them, a little flattered at their need for me. And I am not, even now, altogether hopeless. Perhaps some day—some day—I shall understand the prott.

I am going to put this diary in a permaloy cylinder and jet it away from the ship with a signal rocket. I can soup up the rocket’s charge with power from the fuel tanks. I have tried it on the calculators, and I think the rocket can make it to the edge of the gravitational field of the Solar System.

Goodbye, Earth. I am doing it for you. Remember me.

* * *
Fox put the last page of the manuscript down. “The poor bastard” he said.

“Yeah, the poor bastard. Sitting out there in deep space, year after year, listening to those things bellyaching, and thinking what a savior he was.”

“I can’t say I feel much sympathy for him, really. I suppose they followed the signal rocket back.”

“Yeah. And then they increased. Oh, he fixed it, all right.”

There was a depressed silence. Then Fox said, “I’d better go. Impatient.”

“Mine, too.”

They said goodbye to each other on the curb. Fox stood waiting, still not quite hopeless. But after a moment the hateful voice within his head began: “I want to tell you more about—ing the—.”

1953. Galaxy

NEW RITUAL

The big white freezer purred away smoothly in the pantry. Marie Bates looked at it admiringly. It was really more company than Henry was, she thought—better-looking, more useful and it made soothing, companionable noises. She was ever so glad she had bought it. It had been a wonderful bargain.

She opened the freezer and dropped in the package of apricots she had just processed. The rest of the ‘cots weren’t ready yet, but she couldn’t resist putting the new freezer to work at once. Frost was already forming on its side.

She went back into the kitchen and began scalding and blanching the other ‘cots. She ought to be ashamed of herself for feeling that way about Henry, she supposed. He was a good husband, a good provider, and he had a lot on his mind—the farm, his lodge work, the new ritual. But…

Would he notice me, she thought suddenly, if I came out in the dining room with feathers in my hair, war paint on my face, and did a little war dance in my bloomers? She giggled at the picture. Wasn’t she silly? She did get the craziest ideas!

She was putting the peeled and pitted apricots in the containers when Henry came in from the barn, where he had been pitching hay, for a drink of water. “Want to see my new freezer, Henry?” she asked brightly. “I got it at Fergus’ sale with the egg money. It was real cheap.” Sometimes she thought that if she just kept talking to Henry, he’d give in and start talking to her too. Even if he was a lot older than she was.

“Uh? No, not now.” He pushed past her and started back to the barn. His short, stolid back retreated rapidly.

He wasn’t angry, he wasn’t annoyed, he wasn’t anything. He just didn’t notice her. Marie stared after him with eyes that were beginning to smart. It was like living with a clam. Wasn’t there anything in the world he’d talk to her about? Not the farm or his lodge work or politics—she knew, she’d tried. Weren’t there any other subjects? Food?

Well, once he’d said a pot roast of hers was good, and once he’d mentioned an angel cake. And when they were first married, years ago, he’d said that his mother had baked wonderful blueberry pies. That was quite a lot of talk on one subject, for Henry.

Blueberry pie. She went on filling the ‘cots into the polyethylene bags. Well, that wasn’t very helpful. Nobody in Ovid grew blueberries. The climate and the soil weren’t right for them, and there wasn’t moisture enough. She supposed there might be some canned blueberries in the store.

She filled the bags and sealed the cartons. She wrote “Apricots” and the date on the outside. How much easier fixing the cartons had been than canning would have been! No steamy kitchen, scalded fingers, nasty cracked jars. And fresh fruit in the wintertime would be 100 percent better than canned. She wished Henry had let her talk about the freezer to him. Oh, well. She stacked the cartons on her forearm and went out to the pantry. She opened the deep freeze.

She halted, surprised. She’d put in the package of apricots herself not more than an hour and a half ago. She’d written “Apricots” on the outside. The package itself, a tiny object in the vast white reaches of the freezer, was just the same as it had been. But now the word “Blueberries” was neatly printed on the cardboard side.

Blueberries! What could have happened? Could she have written that herself by mistake? She was sure she hadn’t. She couldn’t! She hadn’t even been thinking of blueberries. But that was what the carton said.

Cautiously Marie reached into the freezer and lifted the package out. It felt as hard as a rock. The contents must be frozen now. She stacked her load of cartons rather wobblingly on the edge of the freezer, and opened the package that said “Blueberries.”

There were blueberries in it.

She could see them plain as plain through the trans parent polyethylene wrapper. Blueberries! How on earth could they have got there?

One of the as yet unfrozen cartons of apricots, falling from the edge of the freezer with a thump, startled her. She dumped them hastily into the freezing compartment, shut the lid, and went back to the kitchen with her blueberries. She tore off the polyethylene wrapper and pried one of the blueberries from the frozen mass. After a little hesitation, she tasted it.

She’d had blueberries only once or twice before, but they’d had the same inky flavor as this one. They—Marie Bates hesitated no longer. She got out a mixing bowl, flour, salt, lard. She was going to make a pie.

Henry ate two pieces of the pie at supper. Marie watched anxiously, while he chomped stolidly away. At last she couldn’t wait any longer. “How’s the pie, Henry?” she asked, brushing at the crumbs on the tablecloth.

“Pie? Oh, O.K.” He ran his tongue around his teeth. He sucked heavily against his upper plate.

She wanted to cry out, “But it’s blueberry! You said—It’s blueberry!” She didn’t. Silently she picked up the dishes and went out to the kitchen with them. She wasn’t going to cry over it, no, she wasn’t. She was fierce with herself. Those blueberries hadn’t cost her anything.

About 8 o’clock that night Bertha, her sister-in-law, dropped in. Bertha wore size 44 dresses from Sears Roebuck, but she wasn’t very tall. Sometimes Marie liked her and sometimes she didn’t. Tonight Bertha was being nice.

“Heard you got the freezer at Fergus’ sale, Marie,” she said after they had exchanged greetings. “Can I see it?”

“Oh, sure.” Marie led her into the pantry and opened the freezer lid. She had a sudden stabbing fear, as it went up, that the freezer would be full of blueberries, but it wasn’t. Nothing but apricots.

“It’s a beauty,” Bertha said appreciatively. “Nicest one I’ve ever seen. Listen, though, aren’t you afraid to use it? Maybe Fergus kept some of his poison chemicals in it. I’d be nervous about it.”

“That’s silly,” Marie answered. “People in Ovid were always prejudiced against Fergus. I guess he wasn’t a very good inventor—I never heard of any of his inventions working or his making any money out of them—but he wouldn’t have kept poisons in a freezer. There wouldn’t have been any sense in it.”

“Um. Well, you be careful, Marie. Fergus did blow his whole house up and kill himself. That freezer was about the only thing that was left.—Are you going to the church supper tomorrow night.?”

“I don’t think so. I haven’t got anything to wear. I’m ashamed of my old blue rayon dress.”

“Um.” Bertha looked down at the linoleum. She moved one of her black kid oxfords as if she were embarrassed. “You know, Marie,” she said without looking up, “Henry—well, he’s funny in some ways. He doesn’t say much, does he? He didn’t, even when he was a kid. But he always liked pretty things. You know, Marie, I—I think Henry’d like it if you got a pretty new dress.”

Bertha said good night. It was bedtime. Marie, upstairs, began to undress in the bathroom. She combed her hair, slipped into her nightgown. She decided to leave off her facial velvet cream tonight. She hesitated, and then touched her lips lightly with Venetian Rose lip pomade. Her lips did get so dry.

Henry was already in bed. She slid in beside him. He turned off the light.

For a moment there was silence. Then he turned on the light again. “Forgot to take out my teeth,” he said in explanation. There was a sucking noise and then a click as he dropped his plates into the glass of water beside the bed. Once more he turned off the light.

Marie couldn’t get to sleep. She thought, “He doesn’t care about me, really. No matter what Bertha said.” And then in a flood of bitterness, at the final personal devaluation, “Men are supposed to be selfish. They’re supposed to think of just one thing. Henry—Henry never really wanted anything from me.”

What was the use of thinking about it? He was her husband; she couldn’t make him over. She’d better try to get some sleep. She sighed and moved her feet.

She rolled over. The position wasn’t comfortable. She thought about the freezer, the blueberries, her old dress, what Bertha had said. She could have got a new dress, only she’d spent all her money on the freezer. The mo re she thought, the wider awake she got. She wished Henry wouldn’t be so distant, she wished she had a pretty dress, she wished… Finally, a little before twelve, she got out of bed.

Very softly she went to her closet. In the dark she fumbled over the three or four clothes hangers it contained. When she got the hanger with the blue rayon dress—she recognized it by the cotton lace around the neck—she drew it gently off the hanger. With the dress under one arm, she slipped out of the bedroom and down the stairs.

When she got to the freezer she hesitated. What she had in mind seemed suddenly foolish. In the light of the single bulb hanging from the ceiling, the white sides of the freezer looked coldly disapproving and impersonal. The idea she had about the freezer couldn’t possibly be right. She felt so ashamed of her foolishness that she almost turned around and went back.

But… Well, it might be a silly idea, but there was nothing morally wrong about it. The worst that could happen would be that her dress might get a spot or two from the ice on the sides of the freezer. Suddenly resolute, she raised the lid and spread her old dress out full length on top of the packages of apricots.

She turned the light out and tiptoed back up to the bedroom. Henry was still snoring; she hadn’t bothered him at all. She slipped between the sheets cautiously. In ten minutes or so, she was asleep.

Marie didn’t get a chance to look inside the freezer next morning until after the breakfast dishes were done and Henry had gone out. While she dried the last plates and put the forks in the drawer she kept telling herself not to be silly, nothing would have happened to her old dress. The blueberries had been a—a coincidence, that was all. Miracles just don’t happen. She mustn’t be silly.

But when she went out to the freezer, she was so weak with excitement that she could hardly lift the lid.

There was a long pink box lying on top of the apricots. There was no name on the box.

With fingers that trembled uncontrollably, Marie opened it. Inside there were sheets of carefully folded tissue paper. And under the tissue, carefully folded around more tissue, was a printed black and pink and gray silk dress.

It was the prettiest dress Marie had ever seen. The silk was as delicate to the touch as a caress, the colors were soft and subtle and rich. The neck—a V neck—was a little low, maybe, but it was surrounded by rows and rows of elegant self-fabric faggoting. And yet it wasn’t too fancy a dress, or too elaborate, for her to wear.

For a moment Marie stood motionless, breathing deeply. Then she took the box in both arms and ran upstairs with it to the bedroom, where the mirror was. She was so excited that she did not even remember to close the freezer lid.

Oh, what a pretty dress! Her lips parted with pleasure as she looked in the glass. It fitted so nicely, the colors were so soft and becoming! She got up on a chair to look at the bottom part of it and even the hem line was just right. Marie thought, even when I was a young girl, I wasn’t much to look at. In this dress I look prettier than I ever did. And my real age. Why, I’m only thirty-three! That’s not old. And yet I’ve been feeling like an old woman. If Henry likes pretty things…

She decided to take a bath and wash her hair. Luckily she’d bought a bottle of shampoo from the Rawleigh man the last time he’d called. While she was waiting for the water to heat, she went out and fed the chic kens and collected the eggs.

She had always rather disliked poultry, they made such silly noises and had such fussy ways, but now she looked at them cheerfully. If it hadn’t been for her egg money, she’d never have been able to buy the wonderful freezer at Fergus’ sale.

She washed her hair and pushed a wave into the damp, fresh locks. ‘While it was drying, she planned her campaign. She’d have something or other for lunch—it didn’t much matter what—but for supper she’d get a really nice meal. Chicken and slaw and butterbeans and the rest of the blueberry pie. She’d wear her lovely new dress and fluff her hair out around her face so the gray didn’t show. She had powder and rouge, though she didn’t use them much, and even a bottle of Avon cologne. If Bertha had been right about Henry… Marie felt a sick, excited feeling in the pit of her stomach, half guilty, half agreeable. She had to keep swallowing over it.

She and Henry ate lunch in silence. Henry had a copy of the new lodge ritual beside his plate. He kept it open with his knife, and studied it while he ate. After lunch Marie did her ironing and shaped the butter from yesterday’s churning—they had only one cow—into pats. About four she started on supper. Then she got dressed.

Henry was sitting in the living room when she went in. He’d washed up; he was reading the new ritual. She said, “Supper’s ready, Henry.” And then, with a great effort, “What do you think of my new dress?”

He raised his eyes. His mouth opened in a surprise which, even at the moment, Marie found not quite flattering. “Why, Marie!” he said. He smiled a little. “Marie, you’re as pretty as a picture in that dress!”

He got up from his chair and started toward her. She waited for his approach in a dazzle of happiness. He put his arm around her. He leaned forward to kiss her on the cheek. Marie perceived, with an almost apocalyptic horror, that he wasn’t wearing his teeth.

When the kiss was over, she went back to the kitchen. She began to pick up pieces of chicken from the skillet and put them on the platter. She found she was crying. She tried to push the tears back with her wrists. It didn’t help. The tears still came.

For— and this was the heart of the matter, the root of the trouble, the thing that never could be altered—Henry was still Henry Bates. He might talk to her, smile at her, kiss her, be interested in her. What of it? He would still be two inches shorter than she was, years older, and bald on the top of his head. He would still forget to wear his teeth. Those darned old false teeth!

She’d got to stop. Henry would think she was crazy. She fumbled with the platter and then put it down again. Standing there among the wreck of her hopes, her cheeks shining damply and tears dripping on the neck of her dress, she heard the motor of the freezer in the pantry begin to purr.

For a moment she listened to the sound without moving. Then she raised her head.

Henry looked up at her with a puzzled frown when she went into the living room. “Something’s wrong with the freezer, Henry,” she said, avoiding his eyes. “Won’t you see if you can fix it for me? And we’ll eat.”

He got up. He followed her into the pantry. “Why, the motor’s running,” he said in a puzzled voice. He bent over the freezer’s open lid.

Marie hesitated for a moment. Her heart was thumping wildly. She was afraid he’d hear it. She hoped, oh, she hoped, this was the right thing to do. She caught her husband by the seat of the pants and dumped him into the big white chest.

She slammed the lid of the freezer shut and sat down on it.

For a while there were sounds of struggle. Henry thumped, heaved, beat on the sides of the chest. Marie, with tears running down her cheeks, remained seated on the lid. She noticed that from time to time the freezer motor made a sort of spitting noise, as if it might be over-exerting itself.

At the end of two hours she raised the freezer lid.

* * *
The Bateses’ absence was not noticed for several days. It was not until Bertha, wanting to borrow Marie’s apron pattern, called three times at the house without finding anyone at home that she grew alarmed. Then she called the sheriff and they broke into the house.

They searched it. They found nothing—no bodies, no disorder, no farewell notes.

After a decent length of time had passed, Bertha and her husband took over the farm. Bertha was Henry Bates’s nearest relative and nobody dreamed of disputing her right to it. Besides, it didn’t amount to much.

Bertha was disappointed that she never could get the freezer to work. The electrician she called in said he couldn’t understand it. The motor seemed to have burned itself out.

One day late that year the mailman brought Bertha a postcard. It was a glossy photograph of a man and woman on skis against a winter background a nd, except that the man was taller and both he and the woman much younger and better-looking than the missing couple, the pair in the picture bore a remarkable resemblance to Marie and Henry Bates. Neither of them looked a day over thirty. They wore expensive ski clothing and both of them were wreathed in smiles. The postmark on the card was Sun Valley, Idaho.

Bertha turned the card over and over, frowning and trying to make sense out of it. She felt that something had happened, but she didn’t know quite what. She hovered on the edge of wild surmise. Finally she put the card away in the upper drawer of the sideboard and stopped thinking about it. There wasn’t any use in thinking. There was no message on the card’s back.

1953. Mercury Press, Inc.

BRENDA

Brenda Alden was a product of that aseptic, faintly sadistic, school of child rearing that is already a little old-fashioned. The vacationing parents on Moss Island liked her, and held up her politeness and good manners as examples to their offspring, but the children themselves stayed away from her, scenting in her something waspish and irritable. She was tall for her age, and lanky, with limp blonde hair. She always wore slacks.

Monday began like all her days. She had breakfast, was told to keep her elbows off the table, helped with the dishes. Then she was told to go out and play. She sauntered slowly into the woods.

The woods on Moss Island were scattered clumps of birch and denser stands of conifers. There were places where Brenda, if she tried hard, could have the illusion of a forest, and she liked that. In the western part of the island there was a wide, deep excavation which people said had been a quarry. Nobody ever said what had been quarried out of it.

It was a little before noon when Brenda smelled the rotten smell. It was an intense, bitter rottenness, almost strangling, and when it first met her nose Brenda’s face wrinkled up with distaste. But after a moment her face relaxed. She inhaled, not without eagerness. She decided to try to find the source of the smell. Sometimes she liked to smell and look at rotten things.

Sniffing, she wandered. The smell would be strong and then weak and then strong again. She was just about to give up and turn back—it was hot in the airless, piney pockets, under the sun—when she saw the man.

He was not a tramp, he was not one of the summer people. Brenda knew at once that he was not like any other man she had ever seen. His skin was not black, or brown, but of an inky grayness; his body was blobbish and irregular, as if it had been shaped out of the clots of soap and grease that stop up kitchen sinks. He held a dead bird in one crude hand. The rotten smell was welling out of him.

Brenda stared at him, her heart pounding. For a moment she was almost too frightened to move. She stood gasping and licking her lips. Then he extended an arm toward her. She turned and ran.

She heard the noise, she smelled the smell, as he came stumbling after her. Her lungs hurt. There was an ache in her side. She tripped over a root, fell to her knees, and was up again. She ran on. Only when she was almost too exhausted to go further did she look back.

He was more distant then she had hoped, though he was still coming. For a second she stood panting, her narrow sides going in and out. He was still separated from her by some fifty feet. She blinked. Then her lips curved in what was almost a smile. She turned to the right, in the direction of the quarry, and began running again, though more leisurely.

There was a thicket of poison oak; she skirted it. She stooped for a pine cone, and then another one, thrust them into the waistband of her slacks, and went on with her steady trotting. He was still following. The light seemed to hurt his eyes; his head hung forward almost on his chest. Then they were on the edge of the quarry, and Brenda must try her plan.

She was no longer afraid—or, at any rate, only a little so. Exertion had washed her sallow cheeks with an unaccustomed red. Carefully she tossed one of the pine cones over the steep quarry side so that it landed halfway toward the bottom and then rolled on down. With more force she threw the second cone; it hit well beyond the first and slid toward the bottom in a rattle of loose stones and dirt. Then, very quickly and lightly, Brenda ran to the left and crouched behind a tree.

The noise of the pine cones and stones had been not unlike that of a runner plunging over the quarry edge and down into the depths. Brenda’s pursuer halted, turning his head from side to side blindly, and seeming to sniff the air. She felt a moment of anxiety. She felt almost sure he couldn’t catch her, even if he started after her again. But—oh—he was so—One of the pine cones slid a few feet further. He seemed to listen. Then he went over the edge after the sound of it.

Brenda’s heart was shaking the flat bosom of her shirt. While the rotten-smelling man stumbled back and forth among the dusty rocks in the quarry bottom hunting her, she waited and listened. It took him a long time to abandon the search. But at last the moment for which Brenda had been waiting came. He left his hunting and began to struggle up the quarry side.

He slid back. Brenda leaned forward, tense and expectant. Her eyes were bright. He started up again. Once more he slid back.

It was clear to the watching child much sooner than it was to the man in the depths of the quarry that he was imprisoned. He kept starting up the sides clumsily, clawing at the loose handholds, and sliding back. But his blobbish limbs were extraordinarily inept and awkward. He always slid back.

At last he gave up and stood quiet. His head dropped. He made no sound. But the penetrating rottenness was welling out from him.

Brenda got to her feet and walked toward him. Her pale lips were curving in a grin. “Hi!” she called over the edge of the quarry. “Hi! You can’t get out, can you?”

The mockery in her tone seemed to cut through to his dull senses. He raised his grayish head. There was a flash of teeth, very white against their inky background. But he couldn’t get out. After a moment, Brenda laughed.

Brenda hugged her secret to herself all the rest of the day. She was reprimanded for being late to lunch; her father said she needed discipline. She was not bothered. That night she slept soundly and well.

Early next morning she went to see Charles. Charles was a year older than she, and tolerated her better than anyone else on Moss Island. Once he had given her a cast-off snake skin. She had kept it in the drawer with her handkerchiefs.

Today he was making a cloud chamber with rubbing alcohol, a jar, and a piece of dry ice. Brenda squatted down beside him and watched. After five minutes or so she said, “I know what’s more fun that that.”

“What?” Charles asked, without looking up from his manipulations.

“Something I found. Something funny. Scary. Queer.”

The exchange continued. Brenda hinted. Charles was mildly curious. At last she said, “Come and see it, Chet. It’s not like anything you ever saw before. Come on.” She laid her hand on his arm.

Up until that moment, Charles might have accompanied her. The cloud chamber was not going well, and he did not actively dislike the girl. But the dryness and tensity of her touch on his—the touch of a person who has never received or given a pleasant physical contact—repelled him. He drew away from her hand. “I don’t want to see it. It isn’t anything anyway, just some sort of junk. I’m not interested,” he said.

“But you’d like it! Please come and see.”

“I told you, I’m not interested. I’m not going to go. Can’t you take a hint? Go away.”

When he used that tone, Brenda knew there was no use in arguing with him. She got up and walked off.

After lunch her father had her help him with the barbecue pit he was building. While she shoveled dirt and mixed concrete her thoughts were busy with the man in the quarry. Was he still standing motionless at the bottom, or was he once more stumbling back and forth hunting her? Or was he trying to clamber up the side again? He’d never make it, no matter how much he tried. But if he stayed there long enough, some of the other children might find him. Would they be more frightened than she had been? She didn’t know. She couldn’t form any mental picture of what might happen then.

When her father finished his work for the day, she lay down in the hammock. Her hands were sore and her back ached, but she couldn’t relax. Finally, though it was almost supper time, she got up and walked off quickly toward the quarry.

He was still there. Brenda let out a deep breath of relief. The bitter, rotten smell hung strong in the air. She must have made a noise, for he raised his head and let it drop forward again on his chest. Other than that, he was motionless.

Charles wouldn’t come to see him. So… Brenda looked around her. Farther along the edge of the quarry, twenty feet or so from where she was standing, were two long boards. She measured their length with her eyes.

It was thirty feet or more to the bottom of the quarry. The boards were not quite long enough. But the zone of loose, sliding stuff did not extend all the way up; once the man in the excavation was past it, he ought to be able to get up easily enough. Charles had said that what she had found wasn’t anything. Just some junk. Brenda began to move the boards.

Her hands were sore, but the boards themselves were not heavy. In fifteen minutes or so she had laid a narrow path from the bottom of the quarry to within a few feet of the top. He—the man—had done nothing while she worked, not even watched her. But underneath her shirt Brenda’s narrow body was trembling and wet with sweat. She had had to get closer to him than she had liked while she was putting down the second board.

She stood back. The man in the quarry did not move. Brenda felt a moment of anxious exasperation. Wasn’t he going to do anything, after all her trouble? “Come on!” she said under her breath and then, more loudly. “Come on!”

The sun was beginning to decline toward the west. The shadows lengthened. The man below turned his head from side to side, as if the waning light had brought him a keener perception. One blobby gray hand went up. Then he started toward the boards.

Brenda waited until his uncertain feet were set upon the second of the lengths of wood. She could stand it no longer.

She whirled about and ran as hard as she could toward home. She did not know whether or not he followed her.

Brenda did not go to the woods next morning. She stayed around the house until her mother sent her out to help her father, who sent her back, saying that he had got to a place in his construction where she could be only in the way. Brenda went to the kitchen and got herself a sandwich and a glass of milk. When she came back with them, her mother, pale and disturbed, was on the terrace outside the house talking to her father. Brenda went to the door and leaned her head against it.

“I don’t see how it could be a tramp,” her mother was saying. “Elizabeth said nothing had been taken. She was quite emphatic. Only the roast chicken. And even it hadn’t been eaten, only torn into pieces.” She hesitated. “She said there were spots of grayish slime all over it.”

“Elizabeth exaggerates,” Brenda’s father answered. He gave the mortar he was smoothing an impatient pat. “What’s her idea anyway, if it wasn’t a tramp? Who else would break in her kitchen? There are only six families on Moss Island.”

“I don’t think she has any definite idea. Oh, Rick, I wish you could have heard her talking. She mentioned the dreadful smell over and over. She said she was phoning the other families to warn them. She sounded afraid.”

“Probably hysterical,” he answered contemptuously. His eye fell on Brenda, standing in the shadow of the door. “Go up to your room, Brenda,” he said sharply. “Stay there. I won’t have you listening behind doors.”

“Yes, father.”

Brenda did not resent the order. She was afraid. Would Charles remember her hints of yesterday, connect them with the raid on Mrs. Emsden’s kitchen (the man from the quarry must be hungry—but he hadn’t eaten the chicken), and tell on her? Or would something worse happen, she didn’t know what?

She moved about her room restlessly. The bed was made, there was nothing for her to do. She could hear the rumble of her parents’ voices indistinctly, a word now and then rising into prominence. For the first time she felt a sharp curiosity about the man who had been in the quarry, about the man himself.

She got out her diary and opened it. But it wouldn’t do; the volume had no lock, and she knew her mother read it. She never wrote anything important in it.

She looked at the scribbled pages with dislike. It would be nice to be able to tear them out and crumble them up in the wastebasket. But her mother would notice and ask her why she had destroyed her pretty book. No…

She hunted about the room until she found a box of note paper. Using the lid of the box as a desk, she printed carefully across the top of one of the narrow gray sheets: THE MAN.

She hesitated. Then she wrote: “1. Where did he come from?”

She licked her pencil. The idea was hard to put into words. But she wanted to see it written out on the paper. She began, erased, began again. Finally she wrote, “I think he came to Moss Island from the mainland. I think he came over one night last month when the tide was so low. I think he came here by acci—” She erased. “By mistake.”

Brenda was ready for the second question “Why does he stay on the island?” she scribbled. She was writing faster now. “I think because he cannot swim. The water would—” she paused, conscious that the exact word she wanted was not in her vocabulary. At last she wrote, “would wash him away.”

She got out another sheet of note paper. At the top she printed, “THE MAN—Page 2.” She bit into the pencil shank judiciously. Then she wrote, “What kind of a man is he? I think he is not like other people. Not like us. He is a different kind of a man.”

She had written the last words slowly. Now inspiration came. She scribbled, “He is not like us because he likes dead things to eat. Things that have been dead for much—” She erased. “For a long time. I think that is why he came to M.I. in the first place. Hunting. He is old. Has been the way he is for a long time.”

She put the pencil down. She seemed to have finished. Her mother must have gone out; the noise of her parents’ voices had ceased, and the house was perfectly quiet. Outside, she could hear the faint slap of her father’s trowel as he worked on the concrete.

There was a long pause. Brenda sat motionless. Then she picked up the pencil again and wrote at the bottom of the page, very quickly, “I think he wan ts to be born.”

She picked up what she had written and looked at it. Then she took the two pages and went with them into the bathroom. She tore them into small pieces and flushed them down the drain.

Supper that night was quiet. Once Brenda’s mother started to say something about Elizabeth Emsden, and was stopped by her father’s warning frown. Brenda helped with the dishes. Just before she went upstairs to bed, she slipped into her parents’ bedroom, which was on the ground floor, and unlatched the window screens.

She had trouble getting to sleep, but slept soundly. She was aroused, when the night was well along, by the sound of voices. She stole out on the stair landing and listened, her heart beginning to thud.

The rotten smell was coming up in burning, bitter waves. The cottage seemed to rock under it. Brenda clung to the banister. He had come then, the man—her man—from the quarry. She was glad.

Brenda’s father was speaking. “That smell is really incredible,” he said in an abstracted voice. And then, to Brenda’s mother, “Flora, call Elizabeth and tell her to have Jim come over. Hurry. I don’t know how much longer I can keep him back with this thing. Have Jim bring his gun.”

“Yes.” Flora Alden giggled. “You said Elizabeth was hysterical, didn’t you? For God’s sake keep your voice down, Rick. I don’t want Brenda to waken and see this. She’d be—I don’t think she’d ever get over it.” She moved toward the telephone.

Brenda’s eyes widened. Were her parents really solicitous for her? Were they afraid she’d be afraid? She moved down two or three steps, very softly, and sat down on one of the treads. If they noticed her now, she could say their voices had awakened her. She peered out between the banisters.

Her father was standing in the hall, holding the man from the quarry impaled in the stabbing beam of an electric torch. He—oh, he was brave—he kept moving about and trying to rub the light out of his eyes. He made little rushes. But her father shifted the torch mercilessly, playing him in it, even though his hand shook.

Brenda’s mother came back from the phone. “He’s coming,” she reported. “He didn’t think the gun would do much good. He had another plan.”

It took Jim Emsden long enough to get to the cottage for Brenda to have time enough to shiver and wish she had put on her bathrobe. She yawned nervously and curled herself up more tightly against the banister. But she never took her eyes from the tableau in the hall below.

Emsden came in by the side door. He was wearing an overcoat over his pajamas. He took a deep breath when he saw the gray, blobby shape in the light of the torch.

“Yes, it’s the same man,” he said in his rumbling voice. “Of course. Nobody could mistake that smell. I brought the gun, Rick, but I have a hunch it won’t help. Not against a thing like that. Elizabeth got a glimpse of him, you know. I’ll show you what I mean. Keep him in the torch.”

He raised the.22 to his shoulder, clicked the bolt, and fired. Brenda’s little scream went unheeded in the whoosh of the shot. But the man from the quarry made no sign of having received the impact. He did not even rock. The bullet might as well have spent its force in mud.

“You see?” Emsden demanded. “It wasn’t any good.”

Flora Alden was giggling gently. The beam of the torch moved in bobbing circles against the darkness. “What’ll we do, Jim?” Rick asked. “I didn’t know things like this could happen. What are we going to do?—I’m afraid I’m going to be sick.”

“Steady, Rick. Why, there’s one thing he’ll be afraid of Whatever he is. Fire.”

He produced rags and a bottle of kerosene. With the improvised torch they drove him out of the cottage and into the night outside. Whenever he slowed and tried to face them, his head lowered, his teeth gleaming, they thrust the bundle of burning rags in his face.

He had to give ground. Brenda was chewing her wrist in her excitement. She heard her father’s higher voice saying, “But what will we do with him, Jim? We can’t just leave him outside the house,” and Emsden’s deeper, less distinct answering rumble, “…kill him. But we can shut him up.” And then a confused roll of voices ending in the word “quarry.” She could hear nothing more.

Next day an atmosphere of exhaustion and cold defeat hung over the house. Brenda’s mother moved about her household tasks mechanically, hardly speaking to her daughter, her face white. Her father had not come back to the cottage until daybreak, and had left again after a few hours. It was not until nearly dusk that Brenda was able to slip out and try to find what had become of the man.

She made straight for the quarry. When she reached it, she looked about, bewildered. The sides were still sharp and square, but a great mound of rock had been piled up in the center. The men of Moss Island must have worked hard all day to pile up so much rock.

She slid down the sides and clambered up the heap in the center. What had become of him? Was he under the mound? She listened. She could hear nothing. After a moment she sat down and pressed her ear to the rock. It felt still warm from the heat of the sun.

She listened. She could hear only the beating of her heart. And then, far down, a long way off, a rustle within the heap like that made by a mole’s soft paws.

After that, things changed. Brenda’s father had to go back to the office, since his vacation was over. He could visit Moss Island only on weekends. Brenda’s mother began to complain that Brenda was getting hard to handle, no longer obeyed.

The children who had rejected the girl now sought her out. They came to the cottage as soon as breakfast was over, asking for Brenda, and she went off with them at once, deaf to all that her mother could say. She would return only at dusk, pale with exhaustion, but still blazing with frantic energy.

Her new energy seemed inexhaustible. The physical feats that had once repelled her drew her irresistibly. She tumbled, climbed, dove, chinned herself, did splits and cartwheels. The other children watched her admiringly and applauded. For the first time in her life she tasted the pleasure of leadership.

If that had been all, only Brenda’s parents would have complained. But she drew her new followers after her into piece upon piece of mischief. They were destructive, wanton, irrepressible. By the end of the summer everyone on Moss Island was saying that Brenda Alden needed disciplining. Her parents complained bitterly that she was impossible to control. They sent her off ahead of time to school.

There the events of the late summer were repeated. Brenda’s schoolmates accepted her blindly. The teachers punished and threatened. Her grades, for the first time in her life, were bad. She was within an inch of being expelled.

The year passed. Spring came, and summer. The Aldens, fearing more trouble, left Brenda at school after the school year was over. She did not get back to Moss Island until late July.

The last few months had changed Brenda physically. Her narrow body had rounded and grown more womanly. Under her shirt—she still wore slacks and shirt—her breasts had begun to swell and lift. She seemed to have outgrown her tomboy ways. Her parents began to congratulate themselves.

She did not go at once to the cairn in the quarry. She often thought of it. But she felt a sweet reluctance, an almost tender disinclination toward going. It could wait. August was well advanced before she visited the mound.

The day was warm. She was winded after the walk through the woods. She let herself down the side of the quarry delicately, paused for breath, and went up the mound with long, slipping steps. When she got to the top she sat down.

Was there, in the hot air, the faint hint of rottenness? She inhaled doubtfully. Then, as she had done last year, she pressed her ear to the mound.

There was silence. Was he—but of course, he couldn’t be dead. “Hi,” she called softly, her lips against the rock. “Hi. I’ve come back. It’s me.”

The scrabble began far down and seemed to come nearer. But there was too much rock in the way. Brenda sighed. “Poor old thing,” she said. Her tone was rueful. “You want to be born, don’t you? And you can’t get out. It’s too bad.”

The scrabbling continued. Brenda, after a moment, stretched herself out against the rock. The sun was warm, the heat from the stones beat uplullingly against her body. She lay in drowsy contentment for a long time, listening to the noises within the mound.

The sun began to wester. The cool of evening roused her. She sat up.

The air was utterly silent. There were no bird calls anywhere. The only sounds came from within the mound.

Brenda leaned forward quickly, so that her long hair fell over her face. “I love you,” she said softly to the rock. “I’ll always love you. You’re the only one I could ever love.”

She halted. The scrabbling within had risen to a crescendo. She laughed. Then she drew a long wavering sigh. “Be patient,” she said. “Someday I’ll let you out. I promise. We’ll be born together, you and I.”

1954. Weird Tales

SHORT IN THE CHEST

The girl in the marine-green uniform turned up her hearing aid a trifle—they were all a little deaf, from the cold-war bombing—and with an earnest frown regarded the huxley that was seated across the desk from her.

“You’re the queerest huxley I ever heard of,” she said flatly. “The others aren’t at all like you.”

The huxley did not seem displeased at this remark. It took off its windowpane glasses, blew on them, polished them on a handkerchief, and retu rned them to its nose. Sonya’s turning up the hearing aid had activated the short in its chest again; it folded its hands protectively over the top buttons of its dove-gray brocaded waistcoat.

“And in what way, my dear young lady, am I different from other huxleys?” it asked.

“Well— you tell me to speak to you frankly, to tell you exactly what is in my mind. I’ve only been to a huxley once before, but it kept talking about giving me the big, overall picture, and about using dighting[1] to transcend myself. It spoke about in-group love, and intergroup harmony, and it said our basic loyalty must be given to Defense, which in the cold-war emergency is the country itself.

“You’re not like that at all, not at all philosophic. I suppose that’s why they’re called huxleys—because they’re philosophic rob—I beg your pardon.”

“Go ahead and say it,” the huxley encouraged. “I’m not shy. I don’t mind being called a robot.”

“I might have known. I guess that’s why you’re so popular. I never saw a huxley with so many people in its waiting room.”

“I am a rather unusual robot,” the huxley said, with a touch of smugness. “I’m a new model, just past the experimental stage, with unusually complicated relays. But that’s beside the point. You haven’t told me yet what’s troubling you.”

The girl fiddled nervously with the control of her hearing aid. After a moment she turned it down; the almost audible sputtering in the huxley’s chest died away.

“It’s about the pigs,” she said.

“The pigs!” The huxley was jarred out of its mechanical calm. “You know, I thought it would be something about dighting,” it said after a second. It smiled winningly. “It usually is.”

“Well… it’s about that too. But the pigs were what started me worrying. I don’t know whether you’re clear about my rank. I’m Major Sonya Briggs, in charge of the Zone 13 piggery.”

“Oh,” said the huxley.

“Yes… Like the other armed services, we Marines produce all our own food. My piggery is a pretty important unit in the job of keeping up the supply of pork chops. Naturally, I was disturbed when the newborn pigs refused to nurse.

“If you’re a new robot, you won’t have much on your memory coils about pigs. As soon as the pigs are born, we take them away from the sow—we use an aseptic scoop—and put them in an enclosure of their own with a big nursing tank. We have a recording of a sow grunting, and when they hear that they’re supposed to nurse. The sow gets an oestric, and after a few days she’s ready to breed again. The system is supposed to produce a lot more pork than letting the baby pigs stay with the sow in the old-fashioned way. But as I say, lately they’ve been refusing to nurse.

“No matter how much we step up the grunting record, they won’t take the bottle. We’ve had to slaughter several litters rather than let them starve to death. And at that the flesh hasn’t been much good—too mushy and soft. As you can easily see, the situation is getting serious.”

“Um,” the huxley said.

“Naturally, I made full reports. Nobody has known what to do. But when I got my dighting slip a couple of times ago, in the space marked ‘Purpose,’ besides the usual rubber-stamped ‘To reduce interservice tension’ somebody had written in: ‘To find out from Air their solution of the neonatal pig nutrition problem.’

“So I knew my dighting opposite number in Air was not only supposed to reduce intergroup tension, but also I was supposed to find out from him how Air got its newborn pigs to eat.” She looked down, fidgeting with the clasp of her musette bag.

“Go on,” said the huxley with a touch of severity. “I can’t help you unless you give me your full confidence.”

“Is it true that the dighting system was set up by a group of psychologists after they’d made a survey of interservice tension? After they’d found that Marine was feuding with Air, and Air with Infantry, and Infantry with Navy, to such an extent that it was cutting down overall Defense efficiency? They thought that sex relations would be the best of all ways of cutting down hostility and replacing it with friendly feelings, so they started the dighting plan?”

“You know the answers to those questions as well as I do,” the huxley replied frostily. “The tone of your voice when you asked them shows that they are to be answered with ‘Yes.’ You’re stalling, Major Briggs.”

“It’s so unpleasant… What do you want me to tell you?”

“Go on in detail with what happened after you got your blue dighting slip.”

She shot a glance at him, flushed, looked away again, and began talking rapidly. “The slip was for next Tuesday. I hate Air for dighting, but I thought it would be all right. You know how it is—there’s a particular sort of kick in feeling oneself change from a cold sort of loathing into being eager and excited and in love with it. After one’s had one’s Watson, I mean.

“I went to the neutral area Tuesday afternoon. He was in the room when I got there, sitting in a chair with his big feet spread out in front of him, wearing one of those loathsome leather jackets. He stood up politely when he saw me, but I knew he’d just about as soon cut my throat as look at me, since I was Marine. We were both armed, naturally.”

“What did he look like?” the huxley broke in.

“I really didn’t notice. Just that he was Air. Well, anyway, we had a drink together. I’ve heard they put cannabis in the drinks they serve you in the neutral areas, and it might be true. I didn’t feel nearly so hostile to him after I’d finished my drink. I even managed to smile, and he managed to smile back. He said, We might as well get started, don’t you think?’ So I went in the head.

“I took off my things and left my gun on the bench beside the wash basin. I gave myself my Watson in the thigh.”

“The usual Watson?” the huxley asked as she halted. “Oestric and anticoncipient injected subcutaneously from a sterile ampule?”

“Yes. He’d had his Watson too, the priapic, because when I got back…” She began to cry.

“What happened after you got back?” the huxley queried after she had cried for a while.

“I just wasn’t any good. No good at all. The Watson might have been so much water for all the effect it had. Finally he got sore. He said, ‘What’s the matter with you? I might have known anything Marine was in would get loused up.’ “

“That made me angry, but I was too upset to defend myself. ‘Tension reduction!’ he said. ‘This is a fine way to promote interservice harmony. I’m not only not going to sign the checking-out sheet, I’m going to file a complaint against you to your group.’”

“Oh, my,” said the huxley.

“Yes, wasn’t it terrible? I said, ‘If you file a complaint, I’ll file a countercharge. You didn’t reduce my tension, either.’

“We argued about it for a while. He said that if I filed countercharges there’d be a trial and I’d have to take Pentothal and then the truth would come out. He said it wasn’t his fault! He’d been ready.

“I knew that was true, so I began to plead with him. I reminded him of the cold war, and how the enemy were about to take Venus, when all we had was Mars. I talked to him about loyalty to Defense and I asked him how he’d feel if he was kicked out of Air. And finally, after what seemed like hours, he said he wouldn’t file charges. I guess he felt sorry for me. He even agreed to sign the checking-out sheet.

“That was that. I went back to the head and put on my clothes and we both went out. We left the room at different times, though, because we were too angry to smile at each other and look happy. Even as it was, I think some of the neutral-area personnel suspected us.”

“Is that what’s been worrying you?” the huxley asked when she seemed to have finished.

“Well… I can trust you, can’t I? You really won’t tell?”

“Certainly I won’t. Anything told to a huxley is a privileged communication. The first amendment applies to us, if to no other profession.”

“Yes. I remember there was a Supreme Court decision about freedom of speech…” She swallowed, choked, and swallowed again. “When I got my next dighting slip,” she said bravely, “I was so upset I applied for a gyn. I hoped the doctor would say there was something physically wrong with me, but he said I was in swell shape. He said, A girl like you ought to be mighty good at keeping interservice tension down.’ So there wasn’t any help there.

“Then I went to a huxley, the huxley I was telling you a-bout. It talked philosophy to me. That wasn’t any help either. So—finally—well, I stole an extra Watson from the lab.”

There was a silence. When she saw that the huxley seemed to have digested her revelation without undue strain, she went on, “I mean, an extra Watson beyond the one I was issued. I couldn’t endure the thought of going through another dight like the one before. There was quite a fuss about the ampule’s being missing. The dighting drugs are under strict control. But they never did find out who’d taken it.”

“And did it help you? The double portion of oestric?” the huxley asked. It was prodding at the top buttons of its waistcoat with one forefinger, rather in the manner of one who is not quite certain he feels an itch.

“Yes, it did. Everything went off well. He—the man—said I was a nice girl, and Marine was a good service, next to Infantry, of course. He was Infantry. I had a fine time myself, and last week when I got a request sheet from Infantry asking for some pig pedigrees, I went ahead and initialed it..That tension reduction does work. I’ve been feeling awfully jittery, though. And yesterday I got another blue dighting slip.

“What am I to do? I can’t steal another Watson. They’ve tightened up the controls. And even if I could, I don’t think one extra would be enough. This time I think it would take two.”

She put her head down on the arm of her chair, gulping desperately.

“You don’t think you’d be all right with just one Watson?” the huxley asked after an interval. “After all, people used to dight habitually without any Watsons at all.”

“That wasn’t interservice dighting. No, I don’t think I’d be all right. You see, this time it’s with Air again. I’m supposed to try to find out about porcine nutrition. And I’ve always particularly hated Air.”

She twisted nervously at the control of her hearing aid. The huxley gave a slight jump. “Ah—well, of course you might resign,” it said in a barely audible voice.

Sonya— in the course of a long-continued struggle there is always a good deal of cultural contamination, and if there were girls named Sonya, Olga, and Tatiana in Defense, there were girls named Shirley and Mary Beth to be found on the enemy’s side—Sonya gave him an incredulous glance. “You must be joking. I think it’s in very poor taste. I didn’t tell you my difficulties for you to make fun of me.”

The huxley appeared to realize that it had gone too far.

“Not, at all, my dear young lady,” it said placatingly. It pressed its hands to its bosom. “Just a suggestion. As you say, it was in poor taste. I should have realized that you’d rather die than not be Marine.”

“Yes, I would.”

She turned the hearing aid down again. The huxley relaxed. “You may not be aware of it, but difficulties like yours are not entirely unknown,” it said. “Perhaps, after a long course of oestrics, antibodies are built up. Given a state of initial physiological reluctance, a forced sexual response might… But you’re not interested in all that. You want help. How about taking your troubles to somebody higher? Taking them all the way up?”

“You mean—the CO?” The huxley nodded.

Major Briggs’ face flushed scarlet. “I can’t do that! I just can’t! No nice girl would. I’d be too ashamed.” She beat on her musette bag with one hand, and began to sob.

Finally she sat up. The huxley was regarding her patiently. She opened her bag, got out cosmetics and mirror, and began to repair emotion’s ravages. Then she extracted an electronically powered vibro-needle from the depths of her bag and began crafting away on some indeterminate white garment.

“I don’t know what I’d do without my crafting,” she said in explanation. “These last few days, it’s all that’s kept me sane. Thank goodness it’s fashionable to do crafting now. Well, I’ve told you all about my troubles. Have you any ideas?”

The huxley regarded her with faintly protruding eyes. The vibro-needle clicked away steadily, so steadily that Sonya was quite unaware of the augmented popping in the huxley’s chest. Besides, the noise was of a frequency that her hearing aid didn’t pick up any too well.

The huxley cleared its throat. “Are you sure your dighting difficulties are really your fault?” it asked in an oddly altered voice.

“Why— I suppose so. After all, there’s been nothing wrong with the men either time.” Major Briggs did not look up from her work.

“Yes, physiologically. But let’s put it this way. And I want you to remember, my dear young lady, that we’re both mature, sophisticated individuals, and that I’m a huxley, after all. Supposing your dighting date had been with… somebody in… Marine. Would you have had any difficulty with it?”

Sonya Briggs put down her crafting, her cheeks flaming. “With a group brother? You have no right to talk to me like that!”

“Now, now. You must be calm.”

The sputtering in the huxley’s chest was by now so loud that only Sonya’s emotion could have made her deaf to it. It was so well-established that even her laying down the vibro-needle had had no effect on it.

“Don’t be offended,” the huxley went on in its unnatural voice. “I was only putting a completely hypothetical case.”

“Then… supposing it’s understood that it’s completely hypothetical and I would never, never dream of doing a thing like that… then, I don’t suppose I’d have had any trouble with it.” She picked up the needle once more.

“In other words, it’s not your fault. Look at it this way. You’re Marine.”

“Yes.” The girl’s head went up proudly. “I’m Marine.”

“Yes. And that means you’re a hundred times—a thousand times—better than any of these twerps you’ve been having to dight with. Isn’t that true? Just in the nature of things. Because you’re Marine.”

“Why— I guess it is. I never thought of it before like that.”

“But you can see it’s true now, when you think of it. Take that date you had with the man from Air. How could it be your fault that you couldn’t respond to him, somebody from Air} Why, it was his fault—it’s as plain as the nose on your face—his fault for being from a repulsive service like Air!”

* * *
Sonya was looking at the huxley with parted lips and shining eyes. “I never thought of it before,” she breathed. “But it’s true. You’re right. You’re wonderfully, wonderfully right!”

“Of course I am,” said the huxley smugly. “I was built to be right. Now, let’s consider this matter of your next date.”

“Yes, let’s.”

“You’ll go to the neutral area, as usual. You’ll be wearing your miniBAR won’t you?”

“Yes, of course. We always go in armed.”

“Good. You’ll go to the head and undress. You’ll give yourself your Watson. If it works—”

“It won’t. I’m almost sure of it.”

“Hear me out. As I was saying, if it works, you’ll dight. If it doesn’t you’ll be carrying your miniBAR.”

“Where?” asked Sonya, frowning.

“Behind your back. You want to give him a chance. But not too good a chance. If the Watson doesn’t work”—the huxley paused for dramatic effect—“get out your gun and shoot him. Shoot him through the heart. Leave him lying up against a bulkhead. Why should you go through a painful scene like the one you just described for the sake of a yuk from Air?”

“Yes— but—” Sonya had the manner of one who, while striving to be reasonable, is none too sure that reasonableness can be justified. “That wouldn’t reduce interservice tension effectively.”

“My dear young lady, why should interservice tension be reduced at the expense of Marine? Besides, you’ve got to take the big overall view. Whatever benefits Marine, benefits Defense.”

“Yes… That’s true… I think you’ve given me good advice.”

“Of course I have! One thing more. After you shoot him, leave a note with your name, sector, and identity number on it. You’re not ashamed of it.”

“No… No… But I just remembered. How can he give me the pig formula when he’s dead?”

“He’s just as likely to give it to you dead as when he was alive. Besides, think of the humiliation of it. You, Marine, having to lower yourself to wheedle a thing like that out of Air! Why, he ought to be proud, honored, to give the formula to you.”

“Yes, he ought.” Sonya’s lips tightened. “I won’t take any nonsense from him,” she said. “Even if the Watson works and I dight him, I’ll shoot him afterwards. Wouldn’t you?”

“Of course. Any girl with spirit would.”

Major Briggs glanced at her watch. “Twenty past! I’m overdue at the piggery right now. Thank you so much.” She beamed at him. “I’m going to take your advice.”

“I’m glad. Good-bye.”

“Good-bye.”

She walked out of the room, humming. “From the halls of Montezuma…”

Left alone, the huxley interchanged its eyes and nose absently a couple of times. It looked up at the ceiling speculatively, as if it wondered when the bombs from Air, Infantry, and Navy were going to come crashing down. It had had interviews with twelve young women so far, and it had given them all the same advice it had given Major Briggs. Even a huxley with a short in its chest might have foreseen that the final result of its counseling would be catastrophic for Marine.

It sat a little while longer, repeating to itself, “Poppoff, Poppoff. Papa, potatoes, poultry, prunes and prism, prunes and prism.”

Its short was sputtering loudly and cheerfully; it hunted around on the broadcast sound band until it found a program of atonal music that covered the noise successfully. Though its derangement had reached a point that was not far short of insanity, the huxley still retained a certain cunning.

Once more it repeated “Poppoff Poppoff,” to itself. Then it went to the door of its waiting room and called in its next client.

1954. Fantastic Universe

HORRER HOWCE

Dickson-Hawes’s face had turned a delicate pea-green. He closed the shutter on the opening very quickly indeed. Nonetheless, he said in nearly his usual voice, “I’m afraid it’s a trifle literary, Freeman. Reminds of that thing of Yeats’s—‘What monstrous beast, Its time come, uh, round again, slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?’ But the people who go to a horror house for amusement aren’t literary, it wouldn’t affect them the way it did me.” He giggled nervously.

No answering emotion disturbed the normal sullenness of Freeman’s face. “I thought there was a nice feel to it,” he said obstinately. “I wouldn’t have put so much time in on this stuff unless I thought you’d be interested. Research is more my line. I could have made a lot more money working on one of the government projects.”

“You didn’t have much choice, did you?” Dickson-Hawes said pleasantly. ‘A political past is such a handicap, unless one’s willing to risk prosecution for perjury.”

“I’m as loyal as anybody! For the last five years—eight, ten—all I’ve wanted to do was make a little cash. The trouble is, I always have such rotten luck.”

“Um.” Dickson Hawes wiped his forehead unobtrusively. “Well, about your little effort. There are some nice touches, certainly. The idea of the monstrous womb, alone on the seashore, slowly swelling, and…” In the folds of his handkerchief he stifled a sort of cough. “No, I’m afraid it’s too poetic. I can’t use it, old chap.”

The two men moved away from the shuttered opening. Freeman said, “Then Spring Scene is the only one you’re taking?”

“Of those of yours I’ve seen. It’s horrid enough, but not too horrid. Haven’t you anything else?” Dickson-Hawes’s voice was eager, but eagerness seemed to be mixed with other things—reluctance, perhaps, and the fear of being afraid.

Freeman fingered his lower lip. “There’s the Well,” he said after a moment. “It needs a little more work done on it, but—I guess you could look at it.”

“I’d be delighted to,” Dickson Hawes agreed heartily. “I do hope you understand, old man, that there’s quite a lot of money involved in this.”

“Yeah. You’ve really got the capital lined up? Twice before, you were sure you had big money interested. But the deals always fell through. I got pretty tired of it.”

“This time it’s different. The money’s already in escrow, not to mention what I’m putting in myself. We intend a coast-to-coast network of horror houses in every gayway, playland, and amusement park.”

“Yeah. Well, come along.”

They went down the corridor to another door. Freeman unlocked it. “By the way,” he said, “I’d appreciate it if you’d keep your voice down. Some of the machinery in this stuffs—delicate. Sensitive.”

“By all means. Of course.”

They entered. To their right was an old brick house, not quite in ruins. To the left, a clump of blackish trees cut off the sky. Just in front of them was the moss-covered coping of an old stone well. The ground around the well was slick with moisture.

Dickson-Hawes sniffed appreciatively. “I must say you’ve paid wonderful attention to detail. It’s exactly like being out of doors. It even smells froggy and damp.”

“Thanks,” Freeman replied with a small, dour smile.

“What happens next?”

“Look down in the well.”

Rather gingerly, Dickson-Hawes approached. He leaned over. From the well came a gurgling splash.

Dickson-Hawes drew back abruptly. Now his face was not quite greenish; it was white. “My word, what a monster!” he gasped. “What is it, anyway?”

“Clockwork,” Freeman answered. “It’ll writhe for thirty-six hours on one winding. I couldn’t use batteries, you know, on account of the water. That greenish flash in the eyes comes from prisms. And the hair is the same thing you get on those expensive fur coats, only longer. I think they call it plastimink.”

“What happens if I keep leaning over? Or if I drop pebbles down on it?”

“It’ll come out at you.”

Dickson-Hawes looked disappointed. “Anything else?”

“The sky gets darker and noises come out of the house. Isn’t that enough?”

Dickson-Hawes coughed. “Well, of course we’d have to soup it up a bit. Put an electrified rail around the well coping and perhaps make the approach to the well slippery so the customers would have to grasp the handrail. Install a couple of air jets to blow the girls’ dress up. And naturally make it a good deal darker so couples can neck when the girl gets scared. But it’s a nice little effort, Freeman, very nice indeed. I’m almost certain we can use it. Yes, we ought to have your Well in our horror house.”

Dickson-Hawes’s voice had rung out strongly on the last few words. Now there came another watery splash from the well. Freeman seemed disturbed.

“I told you to keep your voice down,” he complained. “The partitions are thin. When you talk that loud, you can be heard all over the place. It isn’t good for the—machinery.”

“Sorry.”

“Don’t let it happen again… I don’t think the customers ought to neck in here. This isn’t the place for it. If they’ve got to neck, let them do it outside. In the corridor.”

“You have no idea, old chap, what people will do in a darkened corridor in a horror house. It seems to stimulate them. But you may be right. Letting them stay here to neck might spoil the illusion. We’ll try to get them on out.”

“Okay. How much are you paying me for this?”

“Our lawyer will have to discuss the details,” said Dickson-Hawes. He gave Freeman a smile reeking with synthetic charm. “I assure you he can draw up a satisfactory contract. I can’t be more definite until I know what the copyright or patent situation would be.”

“I don’t think my Well could be patented,” Freeman said. “There are details in the machinery nobody understands but me. I’d have to install each unit in your horror-house network myself. There ought to be a clause in the contract about my per diem expenses and a traveling allowance.”

“I’m sure we can work out something mutually satisfactory.’

“Uh… let’s get out of here. This is an awfully damp place to do much talking in.’

They went out into the hall again. Freeman locked the door. “Have you anything else?” Dickson-Hawes asked.

Freeman’s eyes moved away. “No.”

“Oh, come now, old chap. Don’t be coy. As I told you before, there’s money involved.”

“What sort of thing do you want?”

“Well, horrid. Though not quite so poetically horrid as what you have behind the shutter. That’s a little too much. Perhaps something with a trifle more action. With more customer participation. Both the Well and Spring Scene are on the static side.”

“Uh.”

They walked along the corridor. Freeman said slowly, “I’ve been working on something. There’s action and customer participation in it, all right, but I don’t know. It’s full of bugs. I just haven’t had time to work it out yet.”

“Let’s have it, old man, by all means!”

“Not so loud! You’ve got to keep your voice down. Otherwise I can’t take you in.” Freeman himself was speaking almost in a whisper. “All right. Here.”

They had stopped before a much more substantial door than the one behind which the Well lay. There was a wide rubber flange all around it, and it was secured at top and bottom by two padlocked hasps. In the top of the door, three or four small holes had been bored, apparently to admit air.

“You must have something pretty hot locked up behind all that,” Dickson-Hawes remarked.

“Yeah.” Freeman got a key ring out of his pocket and began looking over it. Dickson-Hawes glanced around appraisingly.

“Somebody’s been writing on your wall,” he observed. “Rotten speller, I must say.”

Freeman raised his eyes from the key ring and looked in the direction the other man indicated. On the wall opposite the door, just under the ceiling, somebody had written horrer howce in what looked like blackish ink.

The effect of the ill-spelled words on Freeman was remarkable. He dropped the key ring with a clatter, and when he straightened from picking it up, his hands were quivering.

“I’ve changed my mind,” he said. He put the key ring back in his pocket. “I always did have the damnedest luck.”

Dickson-Hawes leaned back against the wall and crossed his ankles. “How do you get your ideas, Freeman?”

“Oh, all sorts of ways. Things I read, things people tell me, things I see. All sorts of ways.” Both men were speaking in low tones.

“They’re amazing. And your mechanical effects—I really don’t see how you get machinery to do the things you make it do.”

Freeman smiled meagerly. “I’ve always been good at mechanics. Particularly radio and signaling devices. Relays. Communication problems, you might say. I can communicate with anything. Started when I was a kid.”

There was silence. Dickson-Hawes kept leaning against the wall. A close observer, Freeman noticed almost a tic, a fluttering of his left eyelid.

At last Freeman said, “How much are you paying for the Well?”

Dickson-Hawes closed his eyes and opened them again. He may have been reflecting that while a verbal contract is quite as binding as a written one, it is difficult to prove the existence of a verbal contract to which there are no witnesses.

He answered, “Five thousand in a lump sum, I think, and a prorated share of the net admissions for the first three years.”

There was an even longer silence. Freeman’s face relaxed at the mention of a definite sum. He said, “How are your nerves? I need money so damned bad.”

Dickson-Hawes’s face went so blank that it would seem the other man had touched a vulnerable spot. “Pretty good, I imagine,” he said in a carefully modulated voice. “I saw a good deal of action during the war.”

Cupidity and some other emotion contended in Freeman’s eyes. He fished out the key ring again. “Look, you must not make a noise. No yelling or anything like that, no matter what you see. They’re very—I mean the machinery’s delicate. It’s full of bugs I haven’t got rid of yet. The whole thing will be a lot less ghastly later on. I’m going to keep the basic idea, make it just as exciting as it is now, but tone it down plenty.”

“I understand.”

Freeman looked at him with a frown. Don’t make a noise,” he cautioned again. “Remember, none of this is real.” He fitted the key into the first of the padlocks on the stoutly built door.

The second padlock was a little stiff. Freeman had to fidget with it. Finally he got the door open. The two men stepped through it. They were outside.

There is no other way of expressing it: They were outside. If the illusion had been good in the Well, here it was perfect. They stood in a sort of safety island on the edge of a broad freeway, where traffic poured by in an unending rush eight lanes wide. It was the time of day when, though visibility is really better than at noon, a nervous motorist or two has turned on his parking lights. Besides the two men, the safety island held a new, shiny, egg plant-colored sedan.

Dickson-Hawes turned a bewildered face on his companion. “Freeman,” he said in a whisper, “did you make all this?”

For the first time, Freeman grinned. “Pretty good, isn’t it?” he replied, also in a whisper. He opened the car door and slid into the driver’s seat. “Get in. We’re going for a ride. Remember, no noise.”

The other man obeyed. Freeman started the car—it had a very quiet motor—and watched until a lull in the traffic gave him a chance to swing out from the curb. He stepped on the accelerator. The landscape began to move by.

Cars passed them. They passed some cars. Dickson-Hawes looked for the speedometer on the dashboard and couldn’t find it. A garage, service station, a billboard went by. The sign on the garage read : WE FIX FLATTEDS. The service station had conical pumps. The tomatoes on the billboard were purple and green.

Dickson-Hawes was breathing shallowly. He said, “Freeman—where are we?”

Once more, the other man grinned. “You’re getting just the effect I mean to give,” he retorted in a pleased whisper. “At first, the customer thinks he’s on an ordinary freeway, with ordinary people hurrying home to their dinners. Then he begins to notice all sorts of subtle differences. Everything’s a little off-key. It adds to the uneasiness.”

“Yes, but— what’s the object of all this? What are we trying to do?”

“Get home to our dinners, like everyone else.”

“Where does the—well, difficulty come in?”

“Do you see that car in the outer lane?” They were still conversing in whispers. “Black, bullet shaped, quite small, going very fast?”

“Yes.”

“Keep your eye on it.”

The black car was going very fast. It caught up with a blue sedan in front of it, cut in on it and began to crowd it over to the curb. The blue sedan tried to shake off the black car, but without success. If the driver didn’t want to be wrecked, he had to get over.

For a while, the two cars ran parallel. The black car began to slow down and crowd more aggressively than ever. Suddenly it cut obliquely in front of the sedan and stopped.

There was a frenzied scream of brakes from the sedan. It stopped with its left fender almost against the black bullet-shaped car. The bodies were so close, there was no room for the sedan driver to open his door.

Freeman had let the car he was driving slow down, presumably so Dickson-Hawes could see everything.

For a moment there was nothing to see. Only for a moment. Then two—or was it three?—long,, blackish, extremely thin arms came out from the black car and fumbled with the glass in the window of the sedan. The glass was forced down. The arms entered the sedan.

From the sedan there came a wild burst of shrieking. It was like the flopping, horrified squawks of a chicken at the chopping block. The shrieks were still going on when the very thin arms came out with a—The light hid nothing. The three very thin arms came out with a plucked-off human arm.

They threw it into the interior of the black car. The three arms invaded the sedan once more.

This time, Dickson Hawes had turned neither white nor greenish, but a blotchy gray. His mouth had come open all around his teeth, in the shape of a rigid oblong with raised, corded edges. It was perfectly plain that if he was not screaming, it was solely because his throat was too paralyzed.

Freeman gave his passenger only a momentary glance. He was looking into the rear-view mirror. He began to frown anxiously.

The shrieking from the blue sedan had stopped. Dickson-Hawes covered his face with his hands while Freeman drove past it and the other car. When the group lay behind them, he asked in a shaking whisper, “Freeman, are there any more of them? The black cars, I mean?”

“Yeah. One of them’s coming toward us now.”

Dickson-Hawes’s head swiveled around. Another of the black cars was hurtling toward them through the traffic, though it was still a long way behind.

Dickson-Hawes licked his lips.

“Is it— after us?”

“I think so.”

“But why? Why—us?”

“Part of the game. Wouldn’t be horrid otherwise. Hold on. I’m going to try to shake it off.”

Freeman stepped down on the accelerator. The eggplant-colored sedan shot ahead. It was a very fast car and Freeman was evidently an expert and nerveless driver. They slid through nonexistent holes in the traffic, glanced off from fenders, slipped crazily from lane to lane, a shuttle in a pattern of speed and escape.

The black car gained on them. No gymnastics. A bulletlike directness. But it was nearer all the time.

Dickson-Hawes gave a sort of whimper.

“No noise,” Freeman cautioned in a fierce whisper. “That’ll bring them down for sure. Now!”

He pressed the accelerator all the way down. The eggplant-colored car bounced and swayed. There was a tinkle of glass from the headlights of the car on the left as the sedan brushed it glancingly. Dickson-Hawes moaned, but realized they had gained the length of several cars. Momentarily, the black pursuer fell behind.

They went through two red lights in a row. So did the black bullet. It began to edge in on them. Closer and closer. Faster and faster.

Dickson-Hawes had slumped forward with his head on his chest. The black car cut toward them immediately.

Freeman snarled. Deliberately, he swung out into the path of the pursuer. For a second, it gave ground.

“Bastards,” Freeman said grimly.

The black car cut in on them like the lash of a whip. The sedan slithered. Hubcaps grated on concrete. The sedan swayed drunkenly. Brakes howled. Dickson-Hawes, opening his eyes involuntarily for the crash, saw that they were in a safety island. The same safety island, surely, from which they had started out?

The black car went streaking on by.

“I hate those things,” Freeman said bitterly. “Damned Voom. If I could—But never mind. We got away. We’re safe. We’re home.”

Dickson-Hawes did not move. “I said we’re safe,” Freeman repeated. He opened the car door and pushed the other man out through it. Half shoving, half carrying, he led him to the door from which they had entered the freeway. It was still the time of day at which nervous motorists turn on their parking lights.

Freeman maneuvered Dickson-Hawes through the door. He closed it behind them and fastened the padlocks in the hasps. They were out in the corridor again—the corridor on whose wall somebody had written horrer howce.

Freeman drew a deep breath. “Well. Worked better than I thought it would. I was afraid you’d yell. I thought you were the type that yells. But I guess the third time’s the charm.”

“What?”

“I mean I guess my goddamn luck has turned at last. Yeah. What did you think of it?”

Dickson-Hawes swallowed, unable to answer.

Freeman regarded him. “Come along to my office and have a drink. You look like you need one. And then you can tell me what you think of this setup.”

The office was in the front of the house, down a couple of steps. Dickson-Hawes sank into the chair Freeman pulled out for him. He gulped down Freeman’s dubious reddish bourbon gratefully.

After the second drink he was restored enough to ask, “Freeman, was it real?”

“Certainly not,” the other man said promptly.

“It looked awfully real,” Dickson-Hawes objected. “That arm…” He shuddered.

“A dummy,” Freeman answered promptly once more. “You didn’t see any blood, did you? Of course not. It was a dummy arm.”

“I hope so. I don’t see how you could have made all the stuff we saw. There’s a limit to what machinery can do. I’d like another drink.”

Freeman poured. “What did you think of it?”

Color was coming back to Dickson-Hawes’s cheeks. “It was the most horrible experience I ever had in my life.”

Freeman grinned. “Good. People like to be frightened. That’s why roller-coaster rides are so popular.”

“Not that much, people don’t. Nobody would enjoy a roller-coaster ride if he saw cars crashing all around him and people get ting killed. You’ll have to tone it down a lot. An awful lot.”

“But you liked it?”

“On the whole, yes. It’s a unique idea. But you’ll have to tone it down about 75 cercent.”

Freeman grimaced. “It can be done. But I’ll have to have a definite commitment from you before I undertake such extensive changes.”

“Um.”

“There are other places I could sell it, you know,” Freeman said pugnaciously. “Jenkins of Amalgamated might be interested. Or Silberstein.”

“Jenkins lit out with about six thousand of Amalgamated’s dollars a couple of months ago. Nobody’s seen him since. And they found Silberstein wandering on the streets last week in a sort of fit. Didn’t you know? He’s in a mental home. You won’t be selling either of them much of anything.”

Freeman sighed, but made no attempt to dispute these distressing facts. “I’ll have to have a definite commitment from you before I make that many major changes,” he repeated stubbornly.

“Well…” Fright and whiskey may have made Dickson-Hawes a little less cautious than usual. “We could pay you fifty a week for a couple of months while you worked on it, as advance against royalties. If we didn’t like the final results, you wouldn’t have to give back the advance.”

“It’s robbery. Apprentice mechanics earn more than that. Make it sixty-five.”

“I hate haggling. Tell you what. We’ll make it sixty.”

Freeman shrugged tiredly. “Let’s get it down in black and white. I’ll just draw up a brief statement of the terms and you can sign it.”

“Well, okay.”

Freeman stooped and began to rummage in a desk drawer. Once he halted and seemed to listen. He opened another drawer. “Thought I had some paper… Yeah, here it is.” He turned on the desk light and began to write.

Dickson-Hawes leaned back in his chair and sipped at Freeman’s whiskey. He crossed his legs and recrossed them. He was humming “Lili Marlene” loudly and off pitch. His head rested against the wall.

Freeman’s pen moved across the paper. “That’s about it,” he said at last. He was smiling. “Yeah. I—”

There was a splintering crash, the sound of lath and plaster breaking. Freeman looked up from the unsigned agreement to see the last of his entrepreneurs—the last, the indubitable last—being borne off in the long black arms of Voom.

It was the first time they had gone through the partitions in search of a victim, but the partitions were thin and the unsuccessful chase on the highway had excited them more than Freeman had realized. There has to be a first time for any entity, even for Voom.

Ten full minutes passed. Dickson-Hawes’s shrieks died away. The third episode had ended just as disastrously as the earlier two. There wasn’t another entrepreneur in the entire U.S.A. from whom Freeman could hope to realize a cent for the contents of his horror house. He was sunk, finished, washed up.

Freeman remained sitting at his desk, motionless. All his resentment at the bad luck life had saddled him with—loyalty oaths, big deals that fell through, chiselers like Dickson-Hawes, types that yelled when the Voom were after them—had coalesced into an immobilizing rage.

At last he drew a quavering sigh. He went over to the bookcase, took out a book, looked up something. He took out a second book, a third.

He nodded. A gleam of blind, intoxicated vindictiveness had come into his eyes. Just a few minor circuit changes, that was all. He knew the other, more powerful entities were there. It was only a question of changing his signaling devices to get in touch with them.

Freeman put the book back on the shelf. He hesitated. Then he started toward the door. He’d get busy on the circuit changes right away. And while he was making them, he’d be running over plans for the horror house he was going to use the new entities to help him build.

It would be dangerous. So what? Expensive… he’d get the money somewhere. But he’d fix them. He’d build a horror house for the beasts that would make them sorry they’d ever existed—A Horrer Howce for the Voom.

1956. Galaxy

THE WINES OF EARTH

Joe da Valora grew wine in the Napa Valley. The growing of premium wine is never especially profitable in California, and Joe could have made considerably more money if he had raised soybeans or planted his acreage in prunes. The paperwork involved in his occupation was a nightmare to him; he filled out tax and license forms for state and federal governments until he had moments of feeling his soul was made out in triplicate, and he worked hard in the fields too. His son used to ask him why he didn’t go into something easier. Sometimes he wondered himself.

But lovers of the vine, like all lovers, are stubborn and unreasonable men. And as with other lovers, their unreasonableness has its compensations. Joe da Valora got a good deal of satisfaction from the knowledge that he made some of the best Zinfandel in California (the Pinot Noir, his first love, he had had to abandon as not coming to its full excellence in his particular part of the Napa Valley). He vintaged the best of his wine carefully, slaved over the vinification to bring out the wine’s full freshness and fruitiness, and had once sold an entire year’s product to one of the “big business” wineries, rather than bottling it himself, because he thought it had a faint but objectionable “hot” taste.

Joe da Valora lived alone, His wife was dead, and his son had married a girl who didn’t like the country. Often they came to see him on Sundays, and they bought him expensive gifts at Christmas time. Still, his evenings were apt to be long. If he sometimes drank a little too much of his own product, so that he went to bed with the edges of things a bit blurred, it did him no harm. Dry red table wine is a wholesome beverage, and he was never any the worse for it in the morning. On the nights when things needed blurring, he was careful not to touch the vintaged Zinfandel. It was too good a wine to waste on things that had to be blurred.

Early in December, when the vintage was over and the new wine was quietly doing the last of its fermentation in the storage containers, he awoke to the steady drumming of rain on his roof. Well. He’d get caught up on his bookkeeping. He hoped the rain wouldn’t be too hard. Eight of his acres were on a hillside, and after every rain he had to do some reterracing.

About eleven, when he was adding up a long column of figures, he felt a sort of soundless jarring in the air. He couldn’t tell whether it was real or whether he had imagined it. Probably the latter. His hearing wasn’t any too good these days. He shook his head to clear it, and poured himself a glass of the unvintaged Zinfandel.

After lunch the rain stopped and the sky grew bright. He finished his noon-time glass of wine and started out for a breath of air. As he left the house he realized that he was just a little, little tipsy. Well, that wasn’t such a bad way for a vintner to be. He’d go up to the hillside acres and see how they did.

There had been very little soil washing, he saw, inspecting the hillside. The reterracing would be at a minimum. In fact, most of the soil removal he was doing himself, on the soles of his boots. He straightened up, feeling pleased.

Ahead of him on the slope four young people were standing, two men and two girls.

Da Valora felt a twinge of annoyance and alarm. What were they doing he re? A vineyard out of leaf isn’t attractive, and the hillside was well back from the road. He’d never had any trouble with vandals, only with deer. If these people tramped around on the wet earth, they’d break the terracing down.

As he got within speaking distance of them, one of the girls stepped forward. She had hair of an extraordinary copper-gold, and vivid, intensely turquoise eyes. (The other girl had black hair, and the two men were dark blonds.) Something about the group puzzled da Valora, and then he located it. They were all dressed exactly alike.

“Hello,” the girl said.

“Hello,” da Valora answered. Now that he was near to them, his anxiety about the vines had left him. It was as if their mere proximity—and he was to experience this effect during all the hours they spent with him—as if their mere proximity both stimulated and soothed his intellect, so that cares and pettinesses dropped away from him, and he moved in a larger air. He seemed to apprehend whatever they said directly, in a deeper way than words are usually apprehended and with a wonderful naturalness.

“Hello,” the girl repeated. “We’ve come from”—somehow the word escaped Joe’s hearing—“to see the vines.”

“Well, now,” said Joe, pleased, “have you seen enough of them? This planting is Zinfandel. If you have, we might go through the winery. And then we might sample a little wine.”

Yes, they would like to. They would all like that.

They moved beside him in a group, walking lightly and not picking up any of the wet earth on their feet. As they walked along they told him about themselves. They were winegrowers themselves, the four of them, though they seemed so young, in a sort of loose partnership, and they were making a winegrowers’ tour of—of—Again Joe’s hearing failed him. but he had the fancy that there would never be any conflict of will among the four of them. Their tastes and wishes would blend like four harmonious voices, the women’s high and clear, the men’s richer and more deep. Yet it seemed to him that the copper-haired girl was regarded with a certain deference by her companions, and he thought, wisely, that he knew the reason. It was what he had so often told his wife—that when a lady really likes wine, when she really has a palate for it, nobody can be at her judgment, so the others respected her.

He showed them through the winery without shame, without pride. If there were bigger wineries than his in the Napa valley, there were smaller ones too. And he knew he made good wine.

Back in the house he got out a bottle of his vintaged Zinfandel, the best Zinfandel he had ever made, for them. It wasn’t only that they were fellow growers, he also wanted to please them. It was the ’51.

As he poured the dark, fragrant stuff into their glasses he said, “What did you say the name of your firm was? Where did you say you were from?”

“It isn’t exactly a firm,” the dark-haired girl said, laughing. “And you wouldn’t know the name of our home star.”

Star? Star? Joe da Valora’s hand shook so that he dribbled wine outside the glass. But what else had he expected? Hadn’t he known from the moment he had seen them standing on the hillside? Of course they were from another star.

“And you’re making a tour…?” he asked, putting down the bottle carefully.

“Of the nearer galaxy. We have only a few hours to devote to Earth.”

They drank. Joe da Valora wasn’t surprised when only one of the men, the darker blond, praised the wine with much vigor. No doubt they’d tasted better. He wasn’t hurt; they’d never want to hurt him—or at least not much hurt.

Yet as he looked at the four of them sitting around his dining table—so young, so wise, so kind—he was fired with a sudden honorable ambition. If they were only going to be here a few hours, then it was up to him, since nobody else could do it—it was up to him to champion the wines of Earth.

“Have you been to France?” he asked.

“France?” the dark-haired girl answered. So he knew the answer to the question.

“Wait,” he told them, “wait. I’ll be back.” He went clattering down the cellar stairs.

In the cellar, he hesitated. He had a few bottles of the best Pinot Noir grown in the Napa Valley; and that meant—nobody could question it—the best Pinot Noir grown in California. But which year should he bring? The ’43 was the better balanced, feminine, regal, round, and delicate. The ’42 was a greater wine, but its inherent imbalance and its age had made it arrive at the state that winemakers call fragile. One bottle of it would be glorious, the next vapid, passe and flat.

In the end, he’d settle on the ’42. He’d take his chances. Just before he left the cellar, he picked up another bottle and carried it up with him. It was something his son had given him a couple of years ago; he’d been saving it for some great occasion. After all, he was championing the wines of Earth.

He opened the ’42 anxiously. It was too bad he hadn’t known about their coming earlier. The burgundy would have benefited by longer contact with the air. But the first whiff of the wine’s great nose reassured him; this bottle was going to be all right.

He got clean glasses, the biggest he had, and poured an inch of the wine into them. He watched wordlessly as they took the wine into their mouths, swished it around on their palates, and chewed it, after the fashion of winetasters everywhere. The girl with copper hair kept swirling her glass and inhaling the wine’s perfume. He waited tensely for what she would say.

At last she spoke. “Very sound. Very good.”

Joe da Valora felt a pang of disappointment whose intensity astonished him. He looked at the girl searchingly. Her face was sad. But she was honest. “Very sound, very good.” was all that she could say.

Well, he still had an arrow left in his quiver. Even if it wasn’t a California arrow. His hands were trembling as he drew the cork out of the bottle of Romanée-Conti ’47 his son had given him. (Where had Haro ld got it? The wine, da Valora understood, was rare even in France. But the appellation of origin was in order. Harold must have paid a lot for it.) More glasses. The magnificent perfume of the wine rose to his nose like a promise. Surely this…

There was a long silence. The girl with the dark hair finished her wine and held out her glass for more. At last the other girl said, “A fine wine. Yes, a fine wine.”

For a moment Joe da Valora felt he hated her. Her, and the others. Who were these insolent young strangers, to come to Earth, drink the flower, the cream, the very pearl, of Earth’s vintages, and dismiss it with so slight a compliment? Joe had been drinking wine all his life. In the hierarchy of fine wines, the Zinfandel he made was a petty princeling; the Pinot ’42 was a great lord; but the wine he had just given them to drink was the sovereign, unquestioned emperor. He didn’t think it would be possible to grow a better wine on Earth.

The girl with the copper-gold hair got up from the table. “Come to our ship,” she said. “Please. We want you to taste the wine we make.”

Still a little angry, Joe went with them. The sun was still well up, but the sky was getting overcast. It would rain again before night.

The ship was in a hollow behind the hillside vineyard. It was a big silver sphere, flattened at the bottom, that hovered a few feet above the rows of vines. The copper-haired girl took his hand, touched a stud at her belt, and they rose smoothly through the flattened bottom into a sort of foyer. The others followed them.

The ship’s interior made little impression on Joe da Valora. He sat down on a chair of some sort and waited while the copper-haired girl went into a pantry and came back with a bottle.

“Our best wine,” she said, holding it out for him to see.

The container itself was smaller and squatter than an Earth bottle. From it she poured a wine that was almost brownish. He was impressed by its body even in the glass.

He swirled the wine glass. It seemed to him he smelled violets and hazelnuts, and some other perfume, rich and delicate, whose name he didn’t know. He could have been satisfied for a half hour only inhaling the wine’s perfume. At last he sipped at it.

“Oh,” he said when he had swished it in his mouth, let it bat he his palate, and slowly trickle down his throat. “Oh.”

“We don’t make much of it,” she said, pouring more into his glass. “The grapes are so hard to grow.”

“Thank you,” he said gratefully. “Now I see why you said, ‘A fine wine.’”

“Yes. We’re sorry, dear Earth man.”

“Don’t be sorry,” he said smiling. He felt no sting of inferiority, no shame for Earth. The distance was too great. You couldn’t expect Earth vines to grow the wine of paradise.

They were all drinking now, taking the wine in tiny sips, so he saw how precious it was to them. But first one and then the other of them would fill his glass.

The wine was making him bold. He licked his lips, and said, “Cuttings? Could you… give me cuttings? I’d take them to, to the University. To Davis.” Even as he spoke he knew how hopeless the words were.

The darker blond man shook his head. “They wouldn’t grow on Earth.”

The bottle was empty. Once or twice one of the four had gone to a machine and touched buttons and punched tapes on it. He knew they must be getting ready to go. He rose to leave.

“Goodby,” he said. “Thank you.” He held out his hand to them in leave-taking. But all of them, the men too, kissed him lightly and lovingly on the cheek.

“Goodby, dear human man,” the girl with the copper hair said. “Goodby, goodby.”

He left the ship. He stood at a distance and watched it lift lightly and effortlessly to the height of the trees. There was a pause, while the ship hovered and he wondered anxiously if something had gone wrong. Then the ship descended a few feet and the copper-haired girl jumped lightly out of it. She came running toward him, one of the small, squat bottles in her hand. She held it out to him.

“I can’t take it—” he said.

“Oh, yes. You must. We want you to have it.” She thrust it into his hands.

She ran back to the ship. It rose up again, shimmered, and was gone.

Joe da Valora looked at where the ship had been. The gods had co me and gone. Was this how Dionysus had come to the Greeks? Divine, bearing a cargo that was divine? Now that they were gone, he realized how much in love with them he had been.

At last he drew a long sigh. He was where he had always been. His life would go on as it always had. Taxes, licenses, a mountain of paperwork, bad weather, public indifference, the attacks of local-optionists—all would be as it had been. But he had the bottle of wine they had given him. He knew there would never, in all his fore seeable life (he was sixty-five), be an event happy enough to warrant his opening it. But they had given him one of their last three bottles.

He was smiling as he went back to the house.

1967

THE INVESTED LIBIDO

Dentautasen has a rather dubious reputation even in Martian psycho-pharmacology. Conservative medical opinion frowns on its use except in the desperate cases, for people who already feel so bad that any change one can produce in them is an improvement. The drug’s action is drastic and unpredictable. But, Mars being Mars, there are no restrictions on its exportation from the planet. And the short-sighted skullduggery Mars runs to has been known to result in its being substituted for senta beans, which it somewhat resembles.

This batch of dentautasen got into commerce as senta beans via an unscrupulous herb collector, a bribed inspector, and a customs official, on Earth, who was thinking of something else at the time. The pharmaceutics manufacturer who bought it tasted it perfunctorily—dentautasen is much like senta chemically except that it has a short chained radical at one side of its elaborate molecule—and then used it in a syrup of senta beans. The syrup was labelled, “a grand old Martian remedy for relief of functional intestinal irregularity (bowel stasis)”, and duly went on the drugstore shelves. It was the irony of fate that Wilmer Bellows, who was loaded to the gills with psychiatric drugs already, should have bought a bottle of it thinking it was something like castoria.

Wilmer’s psycho-therapist was on vacation, or Wilmer would have asked him about the syrup before taking it. As it was, Wilmer swallowed a tablespoonful of the syrup, took four neuroquel tablets and a deutapromazine capsule, and got into bed. He got out again immediately. He had forgotten to practice libidinal investment with his machine.

The therapist had diagnosed Wilmer’s difficulty, which he referred to as “depersonalization,” as proceeding from Wilmer’s lack of libidinal investment in Wilmer’s own self. What Wilmer experienced was a feeling of being entirely detached from his person and personality. His ego seemed to hover impersonally over his body and watch it, clockwork-wise, going through its daily tricks; he would look at his hand and wonder whose hand it was, or speculate numbly as to who the person was who sat in Wilmer’s chair. It was a horrid feeling, though only intermittent, and Wilmer had spent a lot of time and money trying to get rid of it. He had not had much success.

The machine for practicing libidinal investment was something like a stroboscope. Discs rotated, slots shot in and out across them, lights flashed. Wilmer looked in at the eyehole and tried to feel libidinally involved with himself.

After fifteen minutes of eyestrain, he was ready for bed. He got between the sheets. The neuroquel and the deutapromazine made him sleepy; the dentautasen opposed their action. Wilmer felt feverish. When he got to sleep, he dreamed about Dr. Adams, his therapist.

He woke, however, feeling much better. He had none of the hideous moments of depersonalization while he was shaving, his breakfast tasted pretty good. He decided he would visit the city aquarium after breakfast. Looking at marine life was one of the few things he enjoyed.

It was a fine sunny day. He did feel better. Maybe the therapy was beginning to help at last. He walked toward the aquarium feeling positively benevolent toward life. It wasn’t such a bad world, after all—if only they’d put muzzles on those god-damned snakes on the street corners.

Snakes? Wilmer stopped walking so suddenly that the man behind him bumped into him. What was the matter with him? Was he going psycho? And yet for a moment he’d had the definite impression that big snakes had been gliding effortlessly along the curbing. He hadn’t been particularly afraid of them.

He was sweating. He looked about himself wildly. For a moment his ego seemed to hover bee-like in the air above him—above the little girl with the pink parasol, above the brown paper parcel the brisk old lady was carrying, above the wide furry dog who was irrigating a lamp post. He was all of them, he was none of them. Who was he?

His eye fell on a manure bun in the street, relic of one of the horse-drawn carriages that were currently fashionable. No. No. Not it. He wasn’t, he wouldn’t. He recalled himself into his body desperately. He was Wilmer Bellows, that’s who he was. Wilmer Bellows. He made the rest of the distance to the aquarium almost at a run.

The echoing, wet-smelling building soothed him. Early as it was, there were quite a few people looking into the greenish light of the cases, and that soothed him too.

He looked at a case with sea horses, sea stars, and a lobster. He looked at a case with sea roses and sea anemones. He looked at a case with a flat fish and two ugly, poisonous Scorpaena. He looked at a case wi—Suddenly the hovering depersonalization descended on him crashingly. Descended? No, he was being sucked up into it. He was being drawn up a varnished staircase into a hideous vacuum, a spiral of emptiness.

He had to stop somewhere, he couldn’t go on. The little girl, the parcel, the dog, the manure bun? He must be one of them, he must be somebody, he—His eyes were fixed wildly on the glass of the tank before him. His hand had gone to the knot of his tie. He didn’t know who he was any longer, but he was aware of sweat pouring down his back. If he had had enough ego left for prayer, he would have prayed.

Lib—invesnt—if he could lov—There was a sort of click and a feeling of pressure released in his ears. He drew a long, shaky breath. A weak smile of gratitude spread over his face. He knew who he was at least, at last he loved himself. It was the squid in the tank before him. He loved the squid. Because he was the squid.

The green water slid over his back. He sucked in deliriously salty water, pushed it on out, and jetted backward silkily. A frond of tentacles moved to his beak and then away again.

He jetted backward exuberantly once more.

How much of his new sensations was hallucinatory and how much was a genuine empathy cannot be decided. The action of dentautasen is very obscure. Wilmer, at any rate, was happy. He had never felt this good before.

He hung over the tank lovingly. Though he felt that he was the squid, some physical limitations remained. He could feel identified with it only when he could see it. He knew intuitively that he would feel depersonalized again when he was no longer near his “self.”

The keeper fed him around four. The food was delicious; he was angry at the keeper, though, because he was so stingy with it.

The aquarium closed at five-thirty. Wilmer left reluctantly, with many a backward glance. On the way home he realized that somebody, probably a sort of Wilmer, was hungry. He stopped at a hash house on the corner and had two bowls of clam chowder. As he spooned it up, he wondered whether enough fresh water was coming into his tank.

When he got back to his apartment, he stood for a long time in the middle of the living room, thinking. Of water, of the taste of salt, of sun. At last he roused himself to undress. In the bathroom he took his usual assortment of psychiatric drugs. And the syrup of senta beans.

He woke about two in the morning, feeling utterly miserable. His head hurt, his throat ached, the air in the room was hot and dry. Worst of all was his longing for his absent person. He knew now who he was—Wilmer Bellows, who was a squid in a tank at the municipal aquarium. He wanted to get back to himself.

He started to dress. Then he checked himself. He couldn’t possibly get into the aquarium building at this hour. If he tried, he’d only set off a burglar alarm. But he wouldn’t go through another night like this one. Tomorrow he’d hide in the aquarium when it came closing time.

He sluiced his face and neck with water, and lay down on the chesterfield in the living room. He turned and twitched until daybreak. Then he took a long cold shower. For breakfast, he unzipped a plastic package of sardines.

Once he was back in the aquarium, his malaise disappeared. He seemed in fine shape, with his tank properly aerated and plenty of clean salt water bubbling in. Glub-glub. Life was good.

As the day progressed, Wilmer began to fear that he had attracted the attention of the guard. He’d tried to stay away from his tank, but it hadn’t been easy, when he was so deeply attracted to himself. All the same, he managed to hide at closing time, dodging adroitly from the visiphone booth to the men’s room and back to another visi booth, and when the building was quiet, he came tiptoeing out again.

He shone his flashlight on himself. Yes, he was fine. Well, now. They might have a little snack.

He would have liked to feed him some fish meal, but he was afraid that if he went into the pas sages behind the tanks he’d get caught. He had to settle for some seaweed crackers and a thermos of clam broth. He didn’t know when he’d enjoyed a feed so much.

The night wore on. Wilmer grew sleepy. He leaned up against the glass of his tank in drowsy contentment, dreaming softly of rock pools and gentle tides. When the nightwatchman made his third round, at one-fifteen, Wilmer was asleep on his feet.

The watchman saw him, of course. He hesitated. He was a big man, and Wilmer was slight; he could probably have overpowered him easily. On the other hand, an aquarium is a poor place for a scuffle. And something in the pose of the man by the squid tank alarmed the watchman. It didn’t seem natural.

The watchman went to his office and vizzed the cops. He added that he thought it would be a good idea if they brought a doctor along.

Wilmer awoke from his dreams of pelagic bliss to find himself impaled on the beams of three flashlights. Before he had time to get alarmed and jet backward, the fourth man stepped forward and spoke.

“My name is Dr. Roebuck,” he said in a deep, therapeutic voice. “I assume that you have some good reason for being where you are now. Perhaps you would like to share that reason with me.”

Wilmer’s hesitation was brief. Years of psycho-therapy had accustomed him to unburdening himself to the medical profession. “Come over by the sea horses,” he said. “I don’t want the others to hear.”

Briefly—since his throat was sore—he explained the situation to Dr. Roebuck. “So now I’m a squid,” he ended.

“Um.” Dr. Roebuck rubbed his nose. He had had some psychiatric training, and Wilmer did not seem particularly crazy to him. Besides, he was aware that a patient who is aggressive, anxious, and disoriented may actually be in better psychological shape than a person who is quiet and cooperative. Wilmer wasn’t anxious or aggressive, but he was certainly disoriented.

“When’s your doctor coming back?” he asked.

“Week from next Friday.”

“Well, we might wait until then. You can’t stay here, though. Could you afford a few days in a nursing home?”

Wilmer made a sort of gobbling noise.

“What’s the matter?” asked Roebuck.

“Don’t know. Air’s dry. Throat hurts.”

“Let me look at it.”

With one of the cops’ flashlights, Roebuck examined Wilmer’s throat. “Good lord,“he said after a moment. “Good lord.”

“Matter?”

“Why, you’ve got—” it had been a long time since Roebuck had taken his course in comparative anatomy. Still, there was no mistaking it. “Why, man, you’ve got gills.!”

“Have?” Wilmer asked uncertainly.

“Yes. Well, I don’t suppose that makes much difference. Can you afford a nursing home?”

“Got ‘nu ff money. Can’t go.”

“Why not?”

“Live here. In tank.”

“Nonsense,” answered Roebuck, who could be stern on occasion. “You can’t stay here.”

“…not?”

“Because it would annoy the other fish.”

Against the cogency of this argument, Wilmer was helpless. He submitted to being led out to the police ‘copter and flown to the Restwell Nursing Home. Roebuck saw him into a bathtub of salty water, and promised to come back next day.

Wilmer was still in the bath next morning.

“Where am I?” he asked as Roebuck came in.

“Why in the Restwell Nursing Home.” Roebuck sat down on the corner of the tub.

“No, no. Where am I?”

“Oh. Still in a tank at the Municipal Aquarium, I suppose.”

“I want back.”

“Impossible.”

Wilmer began to weep. As he wept, he kept ducking his neck under the water to hydrate his gills.

“Let me look at those gills,” said Roebuck, after the third duck. “Hum. They’re more prominent than they were.”

“…I WANT MY SQUID.”

“You can’t have it. I’m sorry. You’ll just have to put up with this until Dr. Adams gets back.”

“So long to wait,” said Wilmer wistfully. “Want squid.”

He continued to ask for his squid on Roebuck’s next two visits, but on the fourth day the doctor found him sitting up in a chair, wearing a faded pink bathrobe.

“Out of the water, I see,” said Roebuck. “How are you feeling today?”

“O.K.,” Wilmer answered in a high-pitched, listless voice. “Joints hurt, though.” There was the hint of a lisp in his speech.

“Joints? Could be caused by staying in the water so long.

“Move over by the light… You know, this is most unusual. Your gills seem to be going a way.” Roebuck frowned.

“Gillth?” Wilmer giggled. “What are you talking about, you funny man? Jointh hurt. And boneth. Fix it, Mither Man.”

Roebuck frowned a little longer. Then, on a hunch, he ordered a series of skeletal x-rays. They showed an unusually large amount of cartilage for an adult skeleton, and a pelvis that was definitely gynecoid.

Roebuck was astonished. He knew how powerful psychosomatic effects can be; he would not have found it inconceivable that Wilmer’s libidinal identification with the squid would finally have resulted in Wilmer’s becoming completely aquaticized. But now the man’s gills were atrophying, and his skeleton was becoming that of an immature female! It wasn’t reason able. Some remarkable psychic changes must be taking place.

What was happening, of course was that Wilmer’s libido, balked by its primary object, the squid, was ranging back over the other objects he had almost identified with, trying to find a stable one. It was an unconscious process, and Wilmer couldn’t have told Roebuck about it even if the doctor had asked him. Roebuck didn’t ask him.

On Roebuck’s next visit, Wilmer wasn’t talking at all. His skin had become a flat, lusterless tan, and he crunkled when he moved. That phase lasted for two days, and then Wilmer took to standing on one leg and barking. The barking phase was succeeded by…

The trouble with these surrogate libidinal identifications, as Wilmer realized on a sub-sub-unconscious plane, was that each of the objects had existed in relation to somebody else. The little girl had had her mama and her pink parasol. The furry dog had had its owner and the lamp post. Even the brown paper parcel had been carried by the old lady. But the manure bun—Only the manure bun had been orbed, isolated, alone, splendidly itself.

On the day of Roebuck’s final visit, the day before Adams was due back, Wilmer did not bark or crunkle or lisp. He merely sat in the armchair, spread-out, shiny and corpulent, exhaling a faintly ammoniacal smell that Roebuck, who had had a city boyhood, could not identify.

Early next morning Roebuck got Adams on the visiphone. They had a long conversation about Wilmer. Both of them were a little on the defensive about the way the case had turned out. Adams called at the Restwell Home, but he couldn’t get Wilmer to speak to him. The psycho-therapist was just as much baffled by the symptomatology as Roebuck was.

Wilmer stayed on at the nursing home for a few days, both doctors watching him. There were no more changes. He had reached his nadir, his point of no return. There is nothing ahead for a man who has made a libidinal identification with a manure bun.

When it became plain that nothing more was going to happen, he was removed to a state institution. He is still there. He still just sits, spread-out, shiny and corpulent.

Whether he is happy or not is a question for philosophers. On the one hand, he has invested his libido in a thoroughly unworthy object. On the other hand, he has unquestionably invested it in something.

After Wilmer’s commitment, his apartment was cleaned out and redecorated. The building superintendent was a frugal-minded woman who disliked wasting things. She latched on to the bottle of syrup of Senta Beans.

She took the syrup for a couple of nights and then, since she couldn’t see it had any effect, threw the bottle into the garbage reducer. She does not connect the “grand old Martian remedy” with the disembodied voices she has begun to hear.

1958. Satellite Science Fiction

THE NUSE MAN

I don’t know why; really, the nuse man comes to call on me. He must realize by now I’ll never order a nuse installation or an ipsissifex from him; I consider them as dangerous as anything our own lethal age has produced. Nuse, which is a power source that the nuse man describes as originating on the far side of 3000 A.D., IS THE WORSE OF THE TWO, BUT THE IPSISSIFEX, A MATTER DUPLICATOR, IS BAD ENOUGH. AND THOUGH I LISTEN TO THE NUSE MAN’S STORIES, I CAN HARDLY BE CONSIDERED A SYMPATHETIC AUDIENCE. I SUPPOSE HE DROPS IN BECAUSE I CAN ALWAYS BE DEPENDED ON FOR A CUP OF TEA AND SOME TOAST AND MARMALADE.

“Hello,” he said as I answered the bell. “You’ve aged in the last six months.”

Before I could wrap my tongue around the obvious ettu (he was looking terrible—his clothes looked as if they had been slept in by machinery, and there were bruises and cuts and lumps all over his face)—he had pushed past me into the living room and was sitting down in my husband’s easy chair. The dachshunds, who have never liked the nuse man, were growling at him earnestly. He put his feet up on the fireplace and lay back in the chair on his spine.

“Ahhhhhh!” he sighed, and then, to me, “Put more butter on the toast than you did last time.”

When I came back with the tea, he was standing by one of the bookcases looking at Woolley’s little book, Ur: The First Phases.

“Silly book,” he grumbled. “That stuff about the plano-convex bricks is all wrong.”

“What do you know about it?” I asked him.

“I sold a nuse installation to King Nebu-kalam-dug of Ur of the Chaldees on this last trip.”

“Oh, yes? Well, the home office ought to be pleased with you. Perhaps they’ll give you a vacation back in your own time.”

The nuse man made no direct answer, but his battered, lumpy face grew dark. He bit into a slice of toast so savagely that I feared for his iridium alloy teeth.

“Don’t tell me that something went wrong with the nuse again!” I cried.

This time he couldn’t have answered if he had wanted to. He had choked over some toast crumbs, and I had to beat him on the back and pour tea down him before he could speak.

“Why are you so prejudiced against nuse?” he demanded at last. “The nuse had nothing to do with it. It was the king and the priests that birded it up.”

“I’ll bet.”

* * *
The nuse man’s face turned even redder. It was a shade or two darker than the lapels around the waist of his trousers. “I’ll tell you all about it!” he said passionately. “You be the judge!”

“Oh, Lord.” There was no polite way of getting out of it. “All right,” I said.

“Everything was going fine,” the nuse man began, “until the old king Nebu-kalam-dug, died. I’d sold him a nuse installation—”

“General or special?”

“Special, of course. Do I look like fool enough to put a general nuse installation into the hands of a lot of 3000 B.C. yaps? I sold him a special nuse installation in exchange for a stated number of Sumerian gold artifacts, so many on installation and so many each lunar month until the price was paid.”

“What were the artifacts?”

“Gold wreaths and necklaces and jewelry. Of course, gold’s nothing. Only good for lavatory daises. But the workmanship was interesting and valuable. I knew the home office would be pleased. Then the old yoop died.”

“What killed him?”

“His son, Nebu-al-karsig, poisoned him.”

“Oh.”

“Everybody in the court knew it, but of course nobody would talk about it. I was sorry the old king died, but I wasn’t worried, because I thought I could work out the same sort of deal with the new king. Even when I saw how scared the court ladies looked when they were getting ready for the funeral, I didn’t apperceive. And then the soldiers came and arrested me!”

“What had you done?” I asked suspiciously.

“Nothing. They were short little tzintes with big muscles, and they wore sort of skirts out of sheepskin with the wool twisted into bunches to look elegant. They wouldn’t say a word while they were arresting me. Then I found out I was supposed to be strangled and put in the royal tomb with the dead king.”

“Why?”

“Because I’d been one of the old man’s special friends. At least, that was what young Nebu-al-karsig said. The prime minister and two or three of the councilors were being strangled along with me.”

“Gosh.”

“I argued and argued, and talked and talked. I told the young king we hadn’t been such good friends as all that. And finally he said, very well, I could go with the court ladies in the death pit.”

“Were you scared?”

“Of course I was scared,” the nuse man said irritably. “I didn’t have my chronnox—they’d arrested me in too much of a hurry for that—so I couldn’t get into another time. And I had no way of getting in touch with the home office. Certainly I was scared. And then there was the indignity—somebody from when I come from to be killed by a lot of primitive button heads. It made me sore.”

* * *
He slurped at his tea. “When we got to the pit.” he continued, “they were just closing the old king’s tomb up. You understand the tomb was at the bottom of the pit, and there was a ramp leading down into it. They hung matting over the sides of the pit, to cover the earth, and then they backed old Nebu-kalam-dug’s war chariot down the ramp; he’d want his chariot in the next world. Then the rest of us went down the ramp into the pit.”

“Who was ‘us’?” I asked curiously.

“Oh, harpists and singers and court ladies and slaves and soldiers and attendants. If anybody didn’t want to go, the soldiers had spears they used for prodding. I counted, and there were fifty-eight of us.”

“Pretty barbarous,” I said sympathetically.

“Nobody from your period has any right to call anything barbarous,” the nuse man said severely. “I’ve seen some bad ages, but yours—! Anyway, there we were.

“The funeral services began. The harpists twanged on their harps and the singers sang in high falsetto voices. It sounded awful. The priests chanted prayers from the edge of the pit above. The soldiers passed around an opiate in little bronze cups for us to drink. The priests prayed some more. It was beginning to get dark. Then they started shoveling earth in on us.”

“Were you sorry for the others?” I asked.

“I was more sorry for myself. It was their era, and if they wanted to die in it, that was their business. After all, they thought that when they woke up they’d go on serving old Nebu-kalam-dug in the next world. I didn’t—and even if I had, he was nobody I’d want to serve.”

“How did you get out?” I asked quickly. I did not like the thought of the scene in the death pit, even if it had taken place so many thousands of years ago.

“I got under the car of the chariot to shelter myself from being crushed. After a long while, the earth stopped coming in and I decided the mourners had gone away. I didn’t have my chronnox, and, as I told you, I couldn’t get in touch with the home office. But I was wearing an ipsissifex. I started materializing myself up through the earth of the pit.”

“You didn’t!” I said incredulously.

“I did, though. Each ‘me’ was a little farther up through the earth layer of the pit.”

“You mean there are five or six ‘you’s buried back there in Ur of the Chaldees?”

“Seven. Of course they weren’t really alive—you know how an ipsissifex is.”

* * *
It was the first time I had ever heard the nuse man admit that one of the devices he was peddling might have a flaw.

“I clawed my way up through the last few inches of dirt without any more materializations,” he said, “and started walking up the ramp. There was a soldier on guard at the top. When he saw me, his spear began to shake. It shook so much he could hardly hold it. The moon was coming up, and my shadow fell in front of me on the ramp.

“He licked his lips and swallowed before he could say anything. ‘Get back in the pit and die,’ he said finally. “What are you doing out here? You’re supposed to serve our lord Nebu-kalam-dug in the other world. Go on back and be dead.’

“I didn’t say anything. I just kept walking closer to him. When I was about two feet away, he dropped his spear and ran.

“I didn’t have any trouble getting in at the palace, either. Young Nebu-al-karsig was playing checkers on a fiddle-shaped board with one of his girls when I walked into the great hall. When he saw me, he jumped up and the board fell to one side and the pieces rolled over the floor. I said, ‘My lord Nebu-al-karsig, I am harder to kill than your noble father was.’

“He had turned a dirty greenish tan. He said, ‘I saw—I saw—’

“I sat down on the floor in front of him and bumped my head on it a couple of times to show I was going to be polite. Then I said, in a deep, serious voice, ‘A magician cannot die until his time has come, my lord. Shall we discuss extending the nuse installation I made for your respected sire?’ And he said, ‘Yes, let’s.’”

“It’s a wonder he didn’t try to poison you,” I commented.

“Scared to,” the nuse man said briefly. “Anyhow, we agreed I was to increase the nuse installation by one third, and in return Nebu-al-karsig was to pay me twice as many gold artifacts each lunar month as his father had, and for half again as long. It took a lot of figuring and explaining by the royal scribes before the king could understand the terms of the agreement, but he finally was satisfied with the arithmetic. Oh, and I got my old rooms in the palace back.”

“What did the special installation do?” I poured the last of the tea into the nuse man’s cup and went out to the kitchen to put water on to heat for more.

“It made bricks,” he said when I came back. “Beautiful, even, true, symmetrical mud bricks. Nebu-kalam-dug had been crazy about those bricks, and even Nebu-al-karsig thought they were pretty neat. You should have seen the adobe junk the brickmakers had been turning out by hand—sloppy, roundish affairs, all different sizes, with straw sticking out of them. Yes, my installation made bricks.”

“What did they use the bricks for?” I asked.

“For ziggurats—stepped temple pyramids. They made the first story black, the second white, the third red, and the last blue. Sometimes, just for a change, they’d do an all-blue or an all-red pyramid.

“For a while, everything was fine. Ziggurats were going up all over the place, and the skyline of Ur altered rapidly. The priests were pleased because all those ziggurats meant more priests were needed. Nebu-al-karsig was pleased because he was going down in history as the greatest ziggurat builder of his dynasty. And I was pleased because I was getting a lot of elegant artifacts. Then things started to sour.”

“The nuse,” I murmured. “I knew it.”

* * *
The nuse man glared at me.

“It… was… not… the… nuse!” he said, biting off the words. “What happened was the brickmakers sta rted to get sore. They were out of jobs, you see, because of the nuse. And the bricklayers were almost as badly off. They were working twelve hours a day, seven days a week, without any overtime, trying to use up all the bricks. Pretty soon there would be riots in the streets.

“Nebu-al-karsig asked me what I thought he ought to do. I told him, let the brickmakers into the bricklayers’ guild. That way he’d have twice as many men to build ziggurats. So he issued a decree. And then there were riots in the st reets.

“‘What,’ said the bricklayers, ‘let those dirty sheep’s livers into our union? When they haven’t served a seven years’ apprenticeship?’ ‘What,’ said the brickmakers, ‘be forced to give up our noble art, sacred to Nintud since time immemorial, in exchange for slicking mud paste over heartless mechanical bricks?’ Then both sides shrieked ‘Never!’ and barricades, made out of brick baskets and cobblestones, began to go up everywhere.

“I suppose the fuss would have died down in time. People—as your age has learned—can get used to anything. But Nebu-al-karsig was sleeping badly. Palace gossip had it that he’d wake up screaming from dreams about his father. He asked the priests what the cause of the trouble was, and they told him that some of the minor gods, those who hadn’t got ziggurats yet, were mad at him. The people in Ur had about four thousands gods. So he decided to have the nuse installation turn out more bricks.

“Every morning, as soon as it was daylight, a bunch of shave-headed priests would file into the nuse factory. They’d stand in front of the installation, concentrating, for an hour, and then a new batch of priests would come. They kept that up all day. Nuse, of course, is basically a neural force. By the end of the day, bricks would be simply pouring out of the brick hoppers. Even to me, who had nothing to do with laying them, seeing all those mountains and mountains of bricks was very discouraging.

“I tried to argue with Nebu-al-karsig about it. I told him as politely as I could that he was endangering his throne. But he’d never liked me, and after the episode of the brickmakers’ guild, he hadn’t trusted me. He wouldn’t listen. I decided it was time I got out of Ur.

“I had one more installment of artifacts due me. I would collect that and then leave. By now the chest of artifacts in my bedroom was almost full.

“The day of the installment came and went, and no artifacts. I mentioned it to Nebu-al-karsig and he showed his teeth at me. But on the next day, ten or twelve priests came to my rooms with a little box. The head priest opened it and gave it to me. In it were the missing artifacts.

“They weren’t quite what my contract called for, but I was glad to get them. I thanked the head priest for them as nicely as I knew how, and he smiled and suggested that we have a drink. I said, fine, and he poured it out. One of the minor priests was carrying goblets and the wineskin. I put out my hand for the cup and the head priest—did I tell you I’d put a small general nuse installation in my rooms?”

I thought back. “No, you didn’t.”

“Well, I had,” said the nuse man. “I wasn’t going to be bothered with slow, stupid slaves waiting on me. I put out my hand for the cup and the priest went sailing up in the air. He hit on the ceiling with a considerable thump. Then he went around the room, floating just at eye-level, and whacked solidly against each of the four corners. He hit the fourth corner harder and faster than he had the first. I could see that his mouth was open and he looked scared.

“There was a kind of pause while he hovered in the air. Then he went up and hit the ceiling, came down toward the floor, up to the ceiling, down again, up, hovered, and then came down on the floor for the last time with a great crashing whump! He landed so hard I thought I felt the floor shake. I knew he must be hurt.

“I stood there frozen for a moment. I couldn’t imagine what had happened. Then it came to me. The drink in my cup had been poisoned. I suppose Nebu-al-karsig hadn’t had nerve enough to do it himself. And the nuse installation in my room hadn’t let the head priest get away with it.

“A nuse never makes a mistake. ‘The airy servitor. Don’t think, use nuse.’ The more I sell it, the more I’m convinced that it’s wonderful stuff. This time it had saved my life. I couldn’t help wishing for a minute, though, that it had just tipped over the poisoned cup quietly, because banging a priest around like that was sure to be sacrilege.

“The other priests had been as surprised as I was. Now they began to mutter and heft the clubs they were carrying. The nuse might be able to handle all of them at once, but I didn’t wait to find out. I made a dash into the next room and bolted the door.

“I was wearing my chronnox. All I had to do was grab my chest of artifacts and go to some other time. I made a dive under the bed for the chest. And it wasn’t there.”

“Stolen?” I asked helpfully.

The nuse man shook his head. “No, I don’t think so. Not with a nuse installation on guard. I think the nuse had levitated the chest to some safe place for extra security. I concentrated on getting the nuse to bring the chest back, and I did hear noises, levitation noises, as though it were trying to obey me. But it had all it could do to handle the priests in the next room.

“By now there was a considerable commotion in the palace. Doors were opening, people were shouting. I heard soldiers outside in the hall. Thumps and bumps from my sitting room showed that the nuse was still doing what it could with the priests, but several people were throwing themselves as hard as they could against the connecting door. I didn’t know how much longer the bolts would hold.

“I tried concentrating on getting the nuse to abandon the priests and bring me my chest. I’m sure it would have worked in another minute. But then there was a lot of yelling and they began using a ram on the door. One of the panels busted. The hinges were sagging. I had to go.”

* * *
The nuse man looked so depressed that I poured him out more tea. Just as I had suspected in the beginning, the nuse—always incalculable, always tricky, the essence of unreliability—the nuse had been at the bottom of his troubles. It always was. I had too much sense to say so, though.

“What was the point you were making about the plano-convex bricks?” I finally asked.

* * *
The nuse man looked even more gloomy. I wished I hadn’t mentioned it. He picked a leaf out of his tea with his spoon and frowned savagely at it.

“I went back to Ur,” he said finally. “I wanted to see what had happened about the bricks, and of course I wanted my chest. I picked a time about ten years later.”

“Well?”

“The first thing I noticed was the skyline. Every one of the ziggurats Nebu-al-karsig had put up was gone. I walked up to where one of them had been, and there was nothing but a heap of bricks, and the bricks looked as if people had pounded them with hammers.

“I walked on to the center of town where the royal palace had been. It was gone, too, and what looked like a new royal palace was going up to the north of it. It was plain what had happened. There had been a revolution, Nebu-al-karsig had been overthrown, Ur had a new king. I ought to have gone then. But I was still curious about my chest.

The nuse factory had been just outside the palace walls. It had been razed too—my beautiful installation!—but I could see people working around where it had been. I went over to talk to them.

“When I got up to them, I saw they were making bricks. Making them by hand, in the dumb, inefficient, old-fashioned way. But these weren’t rectangular bricks. The way the ones before my nuse bricks had been. These were rectangular on the sides and bottom, but they had round tops, like loaves of bread.”

“In other words,” I said, “plano-convex bricks.”

“Yes. It was the most impractical idea in the world. Their changing to such a silly shape made me realize how much the brickmakers had hated the nuse bricks. By the way—I know how curious you are—you’ll be interested to learn that walls made with bricks of that kind don’t look especially different from ordinary walls.”

* * *
“Oh,” I said. “I’d been wondering about that.”

“I thought you’d be glad to know,” said the nuse man. “Well, I went up close to one of the brickmakers and watched him working. The pace he was going, he’d be lucky if he got ten bricks done in a day. He smoothed his brick and rounded it and patted it. He put more mud on it and stood back to watch the effect. He pushed a wisp of straw into the surface with the air of an artist applying a spot of paint. He just loved that brick.

“I cleared my throat, but he didn’t seem to hear me. I said, ‘Say, I heard they found a chest with gold and jewels in the ruins of the old palace yesterday.’

“ ‘Another one?’ he answered, without looking up. ‘You know, they found one on the south side of the palace about five years ago. Full of treasure. Some people have all the luck. Me, I never find anything.’

“The south side of the palace was where my rooms had been. I made a sort of noise.

“Up to then the worker had been too busy patting his round-topped brick to pay any attention to me. Now he looked up. His eyes got wide. His jaw dropped. He stared at me. ‘Aren’t you—are you—’ he said doubtfully.

“Then he made up his mind. ‘Brothers! Brothers!’ he shouted. ‘It’s the foreign magician, come back to curse us again! Hurry! Kill him! Kill him! Kill the stinking sheep liver! Quick!’

“You wouldn’t have thought that people who were working as slowly as they were could move so quick. As soon as they heard the words ‘foreign magician,’ they went into action, and before he got to the second ‘Kill him!’ the air was black with flying bricks.”

“So that’s how your face—”

“Yes. Of course, not all the bricks were dry. If they had been—but even a wet brick can be painful.”

“And you never got your chest back.”

“No. All I got were the artifacts the priest brought me just before the nuse levitated him. Would you like to see them?”

He sounded as if he wanted to show them to me. I said, “Yes, I’d like to.”

He got out a little box and opened it. Inside was a piece of lapis lazuli that he said was a whetstone, two crude gold rings with roughly cabochon cut blackish stones, and a handsome gold necklace with lapis lazuli beads and gold pendants shaped like some sort of leaf.

“Very pretty,” I said, examining them.

“You should have seen the stuff I had! But this is better than nothing. The home office will be glad to see it. I don’t usually get even this much.”

* * *
This was true, and he looked so depressed when he said it that I felt a burst of sympathy for him. I didn’t know what to say.

He picked up his last piece of toast on the plate and looked at it.

“Burned,” he said sourly, “and one of the other slices was, too. Listen, why don’t you let me put in a nuse installation for you? Then your toast would never be burned. It’s this housework that’s getting you down. You might get so you didn’t look any older than your real age if you used nuse.”

“You should live so long,” I said.

1960. Galaxy

AN OLD-FASHIONED BIRD CHRISTMAS

The Reverend Clem Adelburg had come out to cut some mistletoe. He tucked the hatchet tightly in the band of his trousers and shinned up the knobby trunk of the apple tree. When he got high enough, he saw that two ravens were seated on the apple tree branches, eating the mistletoe berries. There were always ravens around the cabin nowadays; he chased them away indignantly, with many loud whooshes. Then he felt a twinge of remorse.

“O Lord,” he prayed among the branches, his face upturned toward the dramatic cloudscape of an Arizona winter, “O Lord, bless this little experiment of thy servant. O Lord, grant that I wasn’t wrong to chase away those darned ravens. Yes, Lord.”

He sighted up at the berries. He chopped with the hatchet. Three branches of mistletoe fell down on the sheets of newspaper he had previously placed at the foot of the tree. He climbed down.

It was beginning to get dark. Mazda would have supper ready. There was a premonitory rumble and then the sound of Silent Night, played on an electric xylophone, filled the sky.

The Reverend Adelburg frowned. The noise must be coming from Parker; the municipal Christmas tree there would be thirty-five feet tall this year, and already he could see the red glow of Parker’s municipal Christmas street decoration project in the southern sky. Well, if the Lord continued to bless him, and if his next few sermons had the effect he hoped they’d have, he might be able to change the character of Parker’s Christmas celebration. The Forthright Temple, in Los Angeles, was a long way from Parker, but these F.M. broadcasts were receivable here, too.

He went in the kitchen. Mazda was cooking something on the oil stove, an oil lamp burning dimly on the table beside her. The kitchen smelled good.

“Hello, Clem,” she said, turning to face him. She smiled at him. “Did you get the berries for the tea?”

“Yes, dear.” He handed her the three branches of mistletoe. “Make it good and strong this time, dear. I just want to see if there’s anything in my little idea.”

“About mistletoe being the common element in all religions? Sure.”

He watched her as she went to fill the teakettle at the sink. She was a tall woman, with masses of puffy ginger hair and a very fair skin. Her figure was excellent, though rangy, and he always enjoyed watching her.

Most of the time Mazda’s being in the cabin seemed so ordinary, so fitting (she was remarkably domestic, when you got to know her), that he simply didn’t think about it. But there were moments, like the present, when her physical immediacy seemed to catch him in the solar plexus. Then he could only stand and look at her and draw deep, surprised breaths.

It wasn’t so much his living with her, in the technical sense, that troubled him. He hadn’t even tried to feel guilty about that. It seemed at once so extraordinary, and so perfectly natural, that it wasn’t something his conscience could get a grip on. No, it was Mazda’s being in the cabin at all that was the surprising thing.

Where had she come from, anyhow? He’d gone outside one morning early in September, meaning to walk up and down in the sand while he put the finishing touches on his sermon for next week, and there she had been, sitting quietly under a Joshua tree.

She couldn’t have been there for more than ten minutes: her skin, as he had come to know later, was extraordinarily sensitive to sunlight, and she was wearing the skimpiest Bikini imaginable. She’d have been sunburned all over if she’d been there for any length of time. And how had she got there? There’d been no sign of a car in any direction, and he hadn’t even heard the noise of a plane or a copter in the sky. Had she walked over from Parker? In a Bikini? Five miles?

He knew so little about her—no more now, really, than he had known on that first day when she had said, “Hi,” and gone in the house. It wasn’t that she was close-mouthed or sullen—she just didn’t talk about herself. Once only, when he had been elaborating his idea that the use of mistletoe might be the common element behind all religion, had she come out with anything that might be a personal remark. He’d spoken of the use of mistletoe in classical paganism, in druidism, in Christian festival, in the old Norse religion, in Zoroastrianism—Her lower lip had begun to protrude defiantly. “There’s no mistletoe in Zoroastrianism,” she had cut in sharply. “I know.”

Well? It wasn’t much for the fruit of more than three months.

He couldn’t help wondering about Mazda sometimes, though he didn’t want to fail in Christian charity. But he knew he had his enemies. Could she possibly be a Retail Merchants Association spy?

The teakettle was beginning to hum. Mazda gave the pot of string beans on the stove a stir with a wooden spoon. “How did you come out with your sermon, Clem?” she asked.

“Eh? Oh, spendidly. The ending, I really think, will have an effect. There are some striking passages. The ravens were quite impressed.” He smiled at his little joke.

“Ravens?” She turned to face him. “Were there ravens outside when you were rehearsing your speech?”

“Yes, indeed. We have ravens all the time here now. There were even ravens in the apple tree when I was cutting the mistletoe.”

Her eyes widened. “Oh…” she said thoughtfully.

“I fear I chased them away a little too vehemently,” he said, becoming serious. “Ravens, after all, are the Lord’s creatures too.”

“Not those ravens,” Mazda said.

There was a very brief pause. Mazda fingered the bracelet on her left wrist. Then she said, “Listen, Clem, I know you’ve talked about it, but I guess I’m just dumb. Why are you so down on modern Christmases, anyway?”

“My dear, if you’d ever attend the Temple service…” the Reverend Adelburg said in gentle reproof. “But I’ll try to make my point of view, which I humbly trust is also the Lord’s point of view, clear to you.” He began to talk.

He was an excellent talker. Phrases like “star in the darkness,” “the silent night of Bethlehem,” “pagan glitter,” “corruption,” “perversion,” “truer values,” “an old-time America,” “Myrrh, frankincense,” and “1776,” seemed to shimmer in the air between them. Mazda listened, nodding from time to time or prodding the potatoes in the saucepan with a two-tined kitchen fork.

At last he appeared to have finished. Mazda nodded for the last time. “Um-hum,” she said. “But you know what I think, Clem? I think you just don’t like lights. When it’s dark, you want it to be dark. It’s reasonable enough—you’re a different guy once the sun goes down.”

“I don’t like the false lights of modernity,” the Reverend said with a touch of stiffness. “As I intend to make abundantly clear in my sermon tomorrow.”

“Um-hum. You’re a wonderful talker… I never thought I’d get fond of somebody who didn’t like light.”

“I like some kinds of light,” said the Reverend Adelburg. “I like fires.”

Mazda drew a deep breath. “You’d better wash up before supper, Clem,” she said. “You’ve got rosin on you from the apple tree.”

“All right, dear.” He kissed her on the cheek and then—she had seductive shoulders, despite her ranginess—on the upper arm.

“Mmmmmmmm,” Mazda said.

When he had gone into the pantry to wash, she looked after him slantingly. Her caramel-colored eyebrows drew together in a frown. She had already scalded out the teapot. Now she reached into the drawer of the kitchen table and drew out a handful of what looked like small mushrooms. They were, as a matter of fact, mescal buttons, and she had gathered them last week from the top of a plant of Lophophora Williamsii herself.

She cut them up neatly with a paring knife and dropped them into the teapot. She put the mistletoe berries in on top of the mescal buttons. Then she filled the teapot with boiling water. When the Reverend got back from his washing, the teapot was steaming domestically on the table beside the string beans.

He said grace and poured himself a cup of the tea.

“Goodness, but it’s bitter,” he observed, sipping. “Not at all like it was the first time. What a difference putting in more mistletoe has made!”

Mazda looked down. She passed him the sugar bowl. He sweetened the tea lavishly. “You haven’t set a cup for yourself, dear,” he said, suddenly solicitous.

“…There isn’t much tea. You said to make it strong.”

“Yes, honey, but if there’s any good in the tea, I want you to share it. Get another cup.”

He looked across the table at her, brightly and affectionately. There was a faint flush in Mazda’s cheeks as she obeyed.

Supper was over and Mazda was washing the dishes when the Reverend Clem said suddenly, “How fast you’re moving, Mazda! I never saw anything like the way you’re getting through those dishes. I can hardly see your hands, they’re moving so fast.”

“Fast?” Mazda echoed. She sounded bewildered. She held up a spoon and polished its bowl languidly in the light of the oil lamp. “Why, I’m not moving fast. I’ve been standing here by the sink for hours and hours, washing one dish. I don’t know what’s the matter with me. I wish I could move fast.”

There was a silence. Mazda had finished the dishes. She took off her apron and sat down on the floor, her feet out straight in front of her. Almost immediately the Reverend Adelburg slid off the chair where he had been sitting, and flopped down on the floor parallel to her. Both their legs were stretched out.

“What lovely hands you have, Mazda,” he said. He picked up one of those members from her lap, where it was languidly lying, and turned it about admiringly. “Your fingers remind me of the verse in the Canticles—‘Fair are my love’s palms as an eel that feedeth among lilies. And the coals thereof hath a most vehement flame.’ They’re even colored like eels, purple and gold and silver. Your nails are little dark rainbows.

“The Lord bless you, Mazda. I love you very much.” He put his arm around her. She let her head decline on his shoulder, and they both leaned back against the wall. “Are you happy, dear?” he asked her anxiously. “As happy as I am? Do you have a dim sweet sense of blessings hovering over you?”

“Um-hum,” Mazda answered. It was obviously difficult for her to talk. “Never felt better.” A grin zig-zagged across her face. “Mus’ be the mistletoe.”

The effects of peyote—mescal button—intoxication are predictable. They run a definite course. None the less, the response to a drug is always somewhat idiosyncratic. Thus it was that the Reverend Clem Adelburg, who had drunk enough peyote infusion to keep a cart horse seeing beatific visions for twenty-four hours, reached, about six o’clock in the morning, the state of intense wakefulness that succeeds to the drug trance. By the time the copter came from Los Angeles to take him to the Temple, a little after eight, he had bathed, shaved, and dressed, and was reading over his sermon notes.

He went into the bedroom where Mazda was lying to bid her good-bye. Sometime during the night they had managed to get to bed. He bent over and kissed her tenderly on her loosened mouth. “Good-bye, dear. Our little experiment certainly had results, didn’t it? But I feel no ill after-effect, and I trust that you will not, either. I’ll be back a b out eleven tonight.”

Once more he kissed her. Mazda made a desperate effort to rouse herself from the rose and opal-hued heaven she was currently floating in. She licked her lips. “Clem…” she said. “Yes, dear?”

Be careful.”

“Certainly, dear. I always am. Yes.”

He patted her on the shoulder. He went out. Even in her paradise, which was at the moment blue and silver, she could hear the noise of the copter as it bore him away.

Mazda’s drug dreams came to an end with a bump about twelve o’clock. She sprang out of bed and ran to the window. The Reverend Adelburg was gone, of course. And there wasn’t a raven in sight.

Over in Los Angeles, the Reverend’s sermon was going swimmingly. From his first words, which had been the arresting sentence, “The lights are going out again all over the world,” he had riveted the attention of his listeners as if with stainless steel rivets. Even the two troops of Archer Eagle Scouts in the front rows, who, with their scoutmaster Joe Buell, were today’s Honor Guests, had been so fascinated that they had stopped twanging their bowstrings. The Reverend had swung thunderously from climax to climax; by now at least half his audience had resolved to disconnect its radio when it got home, and throw away the electric lights on its Christmas tree. Now the Reverend was approaching the climax of climaxes.

“In the sweet night of the spirit—bless us, O Lord! Yes, Lord, it’s good to be dark—in the sweet silence of the stable let the little flame of—bless us, Lord!—let the little flame—My Gosh! Good Lord!”

Forthright Temple is ventilated, and partly lighted, by a clerestory in the middle part of the building. Through this clerestory eight large black birds flew rapidly.

Two of them headed straight for the Reverend Adelburg’s eyes. Four of them attacked the Temple’s not very bright electric lights. The other two made dive after dive on the helpless congregation’s head.

Women were screaming. Handkerchiefs waved. Hymnbooks rocked and fluttered through the air. The organist burst into a Bach chorale. The bewildered choir began singing two different songs.

When the ravens had first swooped down upon him, the Reverend Adelburg had dived under the lectern. From thence—he was a man who was used to authority—he began shouting orders to the troops of Archer Eagle Scouts in a clarion, stentorian voice.

“Young men! Listen! Shoot at the birds! Shoot… at… the… birds!”

There was a very slight hiatus. Then bowstrings began to twang and arrows to thud.

Eight pagan ravens are no match at all for the legitimate weapons of two troops of Archer Eagle Scouts. The ravens dived valiantly, they cawed and shrieked. In vain. Inside five minutes after the shooting started, there remained no trace of the birds’ incursus except a black tail feather floating in an up-draft, eight or ten hymnbooks with ruffled pages, and some arrows on the floor.

For a few moments the scouts scurried about collecting arrows. Then the Reverend Adelburg summoned them up to the lectern, where he was standing. He finished his sermon with a troop of Archer Scouts drawn up on either side of him, like a body guard.

“That was a wonderful sermon, wasn’t it,” said the lady from Iowa as she and her husband walked toward their parked car. “I never heard anything like it before. He really spoke better after the birds came in than he did earlier… I think tomorrow I’ll go downtown and see if I can get some little oil lamps to burn in the patio.”

“Wonder what sort of birds those were,” her husband said idly. “They were mighty big for crows.”

“Crows! Why, they were ravens; haven’t you ever seen pictures of ravens? I wonder what made them go in the Temple. Ravens always seem such old-fashioned birds.”

* * *
“I betrayed my Company for you,” Mazda said. She hiccoughed with emotion. “I’m a rat. As far as that goes, you’re a rat too. We’re both rats.”

“What company is that?” the Reverend asked with innocent curiosity. He yawned. They had been sitting in the tiny living room, arguing for hours, ever since he got back from the Temple, and by now it was nearly two o’clock in the morning.

“The PE&G. Why? Did you ever suspect?”

“I thought perhaps the Retail Merchants Association sent you. I never understood how you happened to be sitting under that Joshua tree.”

Mazda laughed scornfully. “The Retail Merchants? Those boffs? Why, I don’t suppose they have more than three secret agents in the whole Los Angeles metropolitan area. They couldn’t stop a baby from crossing a street on a kiddy car. Their idea of hot tactics is to hire a big newspaper ad.

“No, I’m a PE&G girl. I’ve been one of their top people for years. That’s why I know what you’re up against.”

She took an earnest step toward him. “Clem, I don’t think you have any idea of how serious this is,” she said. “But they’ll stop at nothing. They can’t possibly let you get away with it. Why, last December after your old-fashioned Christmas sermons, power consumption was off 27% all along the whole Pacific slope, and it didn’t get back to normal until late February. People just didn’t use much electricity. The Company didn’t pay any dividends at all on its common stock, and if the same thing happens this year, they’ll have to skip payments on the preferred. That’s why I was sent to stop you at all costs.”

“How were you supposed to stop me?” the Reverend inquired. He put the tips of his outstretched fingers together thoughtfully.

“I was supposed to seduce you, and then call the broadcasters in. You know, moral turpitude. But I convinced them that it wouldn’t work. Congregations aren’t so touchy about things like that nowadays. It wouldn’t have worked.”

“Mazda, how could you?”

“I don’t know how I could,” Mazda replied with spirit. “I could have had a nice clean-cut electronics engineer… or one of those cute linemen up on a pole… and then I had to fall for a Reverend with his collar on backwards. Somebody ought to examine my head.”

The Reverend Adelburg let this pass without comment. “What was the alternate plan?” he asked.

“I promised them I’d keep you from delivering any more old-fashioned Christmas sermons. That’s what the peyote was for.”

“Peyote? When?” She told him.

“Oh. Then it wasn’t the mistletoe,” he said when she had finished. He sounded rather annoyed.

“No, it wasn’t the mistletoe. But I guess I didn’t give you enough peyote. You delivered the sermon anyway.

“Clem, you think that because the ravens made that silly attack on you in the Temple that that’s the sort of thing the Company has up its sleeve. It’s not. The ravens were acting on their own responsibility, and they’re not awfully bright birds. The Company can do lots better than that.”

“What do you think they’ll try next?” the Reverend inquired. His jaw had begun to jut out.

“Well, they might try to get you for moral turpitude after all, or stick an income tax evasion charge on you or accuse you of dope smuggling. I don’t think they will. They don’t want to give you any more publicity. I think they’ll just quietly try to wipe you out.”

For a moment Mazda’s self command deserted her. She wrung her hands. “What’m I to do?she whimpered. “I’ve got to save you, and you’re as stubborn as a mule. I don’t know any magic—or at least not nearly enough magic. The whole Company will be against me as soon as the ravens are sure I ratted on them. And there’s just no place in the world today for anybody who’s in conflict with the PE&G.

“I wish I hadn’t been such a dope as to fall in love with you.”

The Reverend Clem Adelburg got up from the chair where he had been sitting and put his arm around her. “Cheer up, my dear,” he told her solemnly. “We will defeat the company. Right is on our side.”

Mazda gave a heroic smile. She smiled at him mistily. “It’s not just the PE&G, of course,” she said. “Sometimes I think they have agents everywhere.”

“The PE&G?” the Reverend cried. He let his arm fall from around her. He had a sudden nightmare vision of a whole world united against him—a world in which the clouds semaphored secrets about him to the dolphins in the Pacific waves. “What is it, then?”

“Why, it’s Nous.”

“I never heard of it.”

“Very few people have. But Nous, Infinite is the company from which the PE&G gets its power.

“Nous is a very strange outfit. It operates on the far side of 3,000 A.D., AND SELLING POWER IS ONLY ONE OF THE THINGS IT DOES. WHEN YOU’RE A TOP AGENT FOR THE COMPANY LIKE I WAS, YOU HEAR ALL SORTS OF STORIES ABOUT IT—FOR INSTANCE, THAT IT’S RESPONSIBLE FOR MAINTAINING THE DIFFERENCE IN POTENTIAL BETWEEN THE EARTH AND THE IONOSPHERE, OR THAT THE WEATHER ON VENUS IS A MINOR NOUS PROJECT—STUFF LIKE THAT. I’VE EVEN HEARD AGENTS SAY THAT NOUS IS G—but I don’t believe that. I know about Mithras, myself.”

“I thought the PE&G made its own power,” said the Reverend. He was still struggling with the first part of Mazda’s remarks.

Mazda laughed. “I don’t mean any disrespect to the Company, but what makes you think that? The Company’s a bad opponent, but outside of that, witchcraft, or sorcery, or ravens, is all they’re capable of.

“All the really hot developments in power, the electronic stuff, comes from after 3,000 A.D. NOBODY IN THE PRESENT HAS BRAINS ENOUGH TO WORK OUT A GERMANIUM TRANSISTER, FOR EXAMPLE. Nous helps them. People nowadays are dopes. They can’t work buttons on pants, or open a package of chewing gum unless there’s a paper ribbon to help them.

“That’s beside the point, really. The thing I’m trying to make clear, Clem, is that Nous is a bad outfit to come up against.

“I was supposed to go outside at one-thirty this morning and have the ravens pick me up under the Joshua tree. They were going to take me back to headquarters by air raft. If it—”

“Is that how you got here in the first place?” the Reverend inquired. “By air raft?”

“Yes, As I was saying, if I’d done that, the Company would have accepted that my failure with the peyote was just a mistake. But I didn’t do it. I couldn’t bear to leave a chump like you all alone to face the Company, and by now they must be beginning to realize that I’ve ratted on them. It won’t be very long before the real trouble begins.

“Now, listen. There are two things you can do. The best one would be for you to go outside and talk to the ravens. If you promise them on your word of honor as a Christian gentleman that you won’t deliver any more anti—light sermons—I can’t see why you don’t like light, anyhow; light’s wonderful—if you promise them that, they’ll let you go.” She paused hopefully.

The Reverend gave her a look.

“Then we’ll have to make a break for it.

“While you were in the washroom, I called the Temple copter.” She indicated the short wave radio on the other side of the little stone fireplace. “It’ll be here any minute. I think—well, we’ll try to get through.”

The Reverend looked at her in silence for a moment. Fatigue had made shadows under her eyes, but they only made her look glamorous and desirable. She had never been more beautiful. She had betrayed her company for him; he loved her more than ever. He gave her a hug.

“Nix, my dear,” he said. “Nix.”

“N-n-n-n—”

“Nix. Never.” His voice rang out, booming and resonant. “Run away from those devils and their ravens? Flee from those pagan night-lighters? Never! I will not.” He advanced toward the radio.

“What are you going to do?” Mazda squeaked.

“I’m going to contact the TVA,” he said without turning. “You have to fight fire with fire.”

“Public power?” Mazda breathed. Her face was white.

“Public power! Their line will be open all night.”

He turned his face toward the rafters. “O Lord,” he boomed reverently, “bless this radio message. Please, Lord, grant that in contacting a radical outfit like the TVA I’m doing right.”

The noise of prayer died away in the ceiling. He pressed a key and turned a switch. For a moment the room was utterly quiet. Then there was a soft flurry and plop at the window. The ravens, after all, were not deaf. They too had heard the Reverend’s prayers.

Mazda spun round toward the sound. Before she could decide what to do, there was a series of tinkles from the chimney. It ended in a glassy crash. Something had broken on the stone hearth.

Mazda screamed

“Keep back!” she yelled at the Reverend, who had turned from the radio and was leaning forward interestedly. “Keep back! Don’t breathe! Damn those birds!” She was fumbling wildly with the wooden bracelet on her left wrist.

“What is it?” he asked. He advanced a step toward the shards of glass on the hearth.

“Get back. It’s a germ culture bomb. Parrot fever. I’m going to purify it. Stand back!”

The Reverend Adelburg discounted most of this warning as due to feminine hysteria. He drew back a fraction of an inch, but still remained leaning forward, his eyes fixed on the glass.

Mazda gave a moan of desperation. “I’ve got to do it!” she yelled. She slid her bracelet toward her elbow and gave it a violent twist.

A strictly vertical flash of lightning appeared between the ceiling and the hearth. It was very bright and accompanied by a sizzling noise. A second later a sharp chlorine-like smell filled the air.

Mazda’s artificial lightning died away. The room returned to its normal dim illumination. A faint curl of smoke floated above the pieces of broken glass on the hearth of the fireplace. There was no doubt that Mazda had purified the germ culture effectively. But the Reverend Clem Adelburg was stretched out on the floor flat on his back.

Mazda ran to him. She tore open his white shirt front and laid her head on his chest. His heart was still beating, and his hands and feet were warm. But he was completely out—out more than any of the neon lights he had been trying to put out.

Mazda got up, rubbing her hands. She couldn’t move him, and she didn’t know what she ought to do for him. She hoped he’d be all right. She knew he had a strong constitution. She went into the kitchen and got a towel.

She came back with it and tied it to the poker. Carrying this homemade flag of truce in front of her, she opened the door and went out into the night.

It was a dark night. From under the Joshua tree a darker shadow detached itself. ‘“Io, Mazda,” a harsh voice said.

“Hello,” she replied. There was a glitter of beady eyes in the darkness around her. “Listen here, you birds,” Mazda said slowly, “we’ve always been on good terms, haven’t we? We’ve always got on together well. Are you really trying to do me and my boy friend in?”

A bird cleared its throat. There was a noise of talons being shifted uneasily. “Well… no, Mazda. We like you too,” somebody said.

“Oh, yes? Is that why you dropped the parrot fever bomb? Were you going to drop a dead parrot down the chimney and make it look as if we’d died a natural death? I wouldn’t call that bomb exactly a friendly thing.”

“The bomb was just a warning,” said the harsh voice that had spoken first. “We knew you’d purify it. We have confidence in you. We don’t want to do you any harm personally. You can always get another boy friend.”

“I want this one.”

“You’ve had better ones.”

“Yes, I know. But this is the one I want.”

There was a silence. Then a bird said, “We’re sorry, Mazda. We only do what we’re sent out to do.”

Mazda drew a sharp breath. “Hell’s canyon,” she said deliberately. “Rural electrification cooperatives. Public power.”

There was a sound as of somebody’s tail feathers being plucked distractedly. “Mazda, I do wish you wouldn’t,” said the chief raven in a wincing voice.

“I will, though. I’ll get in touch with the public power people. I don’t care about the ethics of it. I’m in love.”

“Haw!” the raven jeered harshly. It seemed to have regained its aplomb. “That lightning flash of yours burned out every tube in the radio. You couldn’t sent a message to Parker to ask for a stick of chewing gum. You’re through.

“We’ll give you half an hour. During any of that time you can come out unhurt. But after that you’re in for it too. This time we’re serious.”

“What are you going to do?” Mazda cried.

“You’ll find out.”

Mazda went back to the house.

The clock on the mantlepiece read twenty minutes to three. The ravens would probably give her a few minutes’ grace, so she had until ten or twelve minutes after the hour. Mazda knelt down by her consort and began to chafe his hands. When that didn’t help, she ran to the kitchen, got a handful of red feathers from the chicken they had had for lunch yesterday, and began burning them under the Reverend’s nose.

At seven minutes to three the Reverend’s eyelids fluttered and the noise of a copter was heard in the sky. Mazda listened with strained attention, her eyes fixed on her consort. She longed to run to the window, but she was afraid of alerting the ravens. She could only wait.

The copter appeared to be having difficulties. The whoosh of its helix changed pitch, the motor stuttered and coughed. Once the noise seemed to recede; Mazda was afraid the plane was going away entirely. She fingered her wooden blast bracelet nervously. But the copter returned. It landed with a thump that was almost a crash.

The copter door opened and somebody jumped out. There was a sound of squawks, caws and rapid fluttering. A vigorous male voice said, “Ouch! Ouch! What the bloody hell!” More fluttering, then sandalled feet thudded rapidly along the path. Somebody pounded at the door.

Mazda ran to open it. The man who stumbled across the threshold was a dark, stocky Indian who wore white duck pants and red glasses, and carried a three foot bow slung across his back. He was bleeding freely from half a dozen peck marks on his shoulders and breast. “Lord Mithras,” Mazda said prayerfully, “it’s Joe Buel! Joe!”

“Mazda! Why didn’t you show a light? What are you doing here? What is all this?”

Mazda told him. Joe listened intently, frowning more and more. “My word, what a mess,” he said when she had finished. He pushed his red glasses up on his nose. “Has the Reverend come to yet?”

They turned around. Clem’s eyes were open, but he was still lying on the floor. As they watched, he slowly closed his eyes again. “I guess he’s not ready yet,” Mazda said.

She looked at the clock. It showed two minutes to three. “Let’s get him up and walk him,” she said harriedly. “It might help him to get back to normal. Oh, Mithras, how late it is!”

The Reverend Adelburg was limp and slippery, but they managed to get him to his feet. As they guided his rubbery footsteps about the room, Mazda said, “I haven’t seen you since you were in Canada, Joe. Those nights in Saskatchewan! I didn’t know you were one of the Reverend’s men.”

“Since 1955,” Joe answered briefly.

“How come? I thought you danced Shalako at the pueblo one year.”

“I did. But you should see Halonawa now. There’s a red and purple neon sign twenty feet high over the plaza. It reads, ‘Welcome to Halonawa, Home of the Shalako.’ After that I joined up with the Rev. A nice dark Christmas seems a wizard idea.”

He plainly didn’t want to pursue the subject further.

Mazda said, “If the Reverend revives in time, what’ll we do?”

“Can you pilot a copter?”

“I can drive a car.”

“A copter’s really easier.” He gave her directions. “The motor’s missing a little, but I don’t think you’ll have any trouble. Orient yourself by Parker and the dam. The dam’s just north of us.

“If the Rev comes to in time, make a break for it with him in the plane. I’ll create a diversion by climbing out the window and shooting at those bloody birds. I owe them some arrows, at that.”

“I wish I knew what they had in mind,” Mazda said.

At five minutes after three the Reverend’s withy body stiffened. His eyes opened. He raised his head and looked about him. “What a lovely day,” he said in a pleasant, conversational voice.

Mazda’s face puckered. For a moment she seemed about to burst into wild tears. Then she blinked her eyes and shook her head defiantly. “He hurt his head when he fell, that’s all. He’ll be all right later. He’s got to be all right. And he may really be easier to handle this way than if he wasn’t goofed. He’s a stubborn man.”

Joe had gone over to the table and was putting out the lamp. He handed his red glasses to Mazda. “Makes piloting easier,” he said. Then he opened the window on the left and swung himself out of it. He gave a high, passionate battle cry. There was a rush of feathers and some frenzied squawking. Joe’s bow began to twang.

Mazda grabbed the Reverend by the hand. “Nice Christmas,” she hissed. “Come along.” Bent forward, one arm raised to shield her eyes, she pulled him after her at a run toward the door.

The night had grown darker. The sky was heavily overcast. None the less, she could make out the improbable shape of the copter. “Hurry!” she said to Clem Adelburg. “Run!”

Wings buffeted around her. Claws struck at her face, her cheeks, her hair. The Reverend Adelburg gave a cry of pain; Mazda had to use her free arm to wipe her own blood from her eyes. Then they were in the copter and the door was slammed.

She turned the switch. The motor gave a cough and started. Mazda was trembling with excitement, but she followed Joe’s instructions. Slowly the copter rose.

She had put on the red glasses before they left the house. As her eyes grew used to the darkness, she made out the glimmer of the river in front of her and the flat surface of Parker Dam. She wanted to go west, toward Los Angeles. The copter climbed a little. She tried to turn.

Wings whizzed by her. Mazda grinned. She twisted the blast bracelet on her wrist. The tiny receptor within it vibrated. There was a flash of light, and the bird plumm eted to the ground.

When it hit the sand there was a faint concussion. The floor of the copter shuddered. After a second the smell of almond extract tinged the air.

The bird had been carrying a cyanide bomb. Mazda sent the copter a little higher. Her mind was a kaleidoscope of tumbling fears. The possibility of more bombs, of explosive bombs, of a kamikazi attack on the copter’s propeller, played leap-frog in her brain. And what about Joe? Dear Joe, he’d been wonderful in Saskatchewan. Had they got him yet?

She looked back anxiously at the cabin. Joe had vaulted up on the roof and was standing with one foot planted on either side of the ridge pole, like a Zuñi Heracles. The thick clouds behind him had begun to be tinged with light from the rising moon; she could see that though his bow was ready and he had an arrow drawn nearly back to his ear he wasn’t shooting. His eyes were fixed intently on the sky.

She followed the direction of his gaze. Very high up, so high that they looked no bigger than crows, seven of the big black birds were flapping rapidly northward in single file.

For the next five minutes or so nothing at all happened. The copter plodded steadily westward toward Los Angeles, down low, along the line of the aqueduct. This apparent quies cence on the part of her opponents unnerved Mazda more than a direct attack would have done. She couldn’t believe that the PE&G would let her and Clem escape so easily.

Suddenly along the sky in front of her there passed a vast flash of light. For an instant the desert was as bright and white as day. Then the darkness closed down again and thunder crashed.

Mazda’s hands shook on the controls. The storm that was coming up might, of course, be merely a storm. Or it might have been sent by the Company. But if Nous… but if Nous, that enormous and somehow enigmatic power that operated from the far side of 3,000 A.D… IF NOUS HAD DECIDED TO STRETCH OUT ITS ARM AGAINST HER AND CLEM, THERE WASN’T A CHANCE IN THE WORLD THAT SHE AN D THE REVEREND WOULD CONTINUE TO LIVE.

There was another prodigious lightning flash. The desert, the aqueduct, a line of power poles, a small square building, burned themselves on Mazda’s eyes. When darkness came back the Reverend, who had been sitting quite calmly and quietly beside Mazda all this time, stirred. “Wonderful fireworks,” he said approvingly.

Mazda’s eyes rolled. “Clem, baby,” she said despairingly, “what’ll I do?” She looked around as if hunting an answer. Then the bottom of the heavens dropped out.

The heaviest precipitation recorded to date in a cloudburst is two and a half inches in three minutes. What fell on the copter now was heavier. Inside of two seconds after the avalanche of water had begun to pour from the sky the copter was down flat on the ground, as if it had been pushed into the sand by a giant hand.

The noise inside the cabin was deafening. It was like being a dried pea shaken within a drum. It beat along the body like hammers. Mazda, looking up open-mouthed, saw that the copter ceiling was beginning to bulge.

The downpour— the cataract—stopped as suddenly as it had begun. There was a minute of dazed silence in the cabin. Then Mazda, pushing hard against the door in the warped copter body, got it open and scrambled out.

The copter was deep in the sand. One blade of the propeller had been broken off entirely. The other hung limply parallel to the shaft.

Mazda stood shivering. She took off her red glasses absently and dropped them on the sand. The sky had cleared. The moon was almost up. She reached inside the cabin and caught Clem Adelburg by the wrist. “C’mon,” she said. She had seen a building just before the cloudburst. They might be able to take cover in that.

She struggled over the sand with the Reverend foll owing docilely at her heels. The building, once reached, turned out to be a Company substation, and Mazda felt a touch of hope. She could get in, despite the Danger and No Admittance signs, and the ravens might be deterred, even if only slightly, by their respect for Company property.

The substation door would open to a verbal signal. Mazda twisted her blast bracelet twice on her arm, inhaled, and swallowed. “Alameda, Alpine, Amador, Butte,” she said carefully.

Nothing happened. She cleared her throat and began again, a couple of notes lower. “Alameda, Alpine, Amador, Butte,” There was a faint click. “Calaveras, Colusa, Contra Costa, Del Norte, Fresno—”

The door swung wide. Mazda’s enumeration of the counties of California had worked. She took the Reverend by the hand and led him through the opening. “Stanislaus, Sutter, Tulare, Tuolmne, Ventura, Yuba, Yolo,” she said. The door closed.

It was much darker inside the substation than it had been outside on the white desert, and the air was filled with a high humming that sounded, and actually was, exceedingly dangerous. Mazda put her arm around Clem’s shoulders. “Don’t move, baby,” she said pleadingly. “Don’t touch anything. Stay close to Mazda and be quiet.”

The Reverend coughed. “Certainly, my dear,” he said in quite a normal voice, “but would you mind telling me where we are? And what has been happening?”

Mazda went as limp as if she had been skoshed on the head. She clung to him and babbled with relief, while the Reverend stroked her soothingly on the hair and tried to make sense out of her babbling.

“Yes, my dear,” he said when she had finally finished, “but are you sure you aren’t exaggerating a little? After all, we aren’t much worse off than we were in the cabin.”

Mazda drew away from him slightly. “Oh, sure, everything’s fine,” she said with a touch of bitterness. “We’re in a place where if we move fast we’ll be electrocuted, the copter is down in the desert with a busted propeller, we haven’t anything to eat or drink, and Joe and I have killed so many ravens that when the Company does catch me they’ll do something special to make me pay for it. Outside of a few little bitty details like that, everything is real real george.”

The Reverend had not listened with much attention. Now he said, “Do you hear a noise outside?”

“What sort of a noise?”

“A sort of whoosh.”

Mazda drew in her breath. “Shin up to the window and look out,” she ordered. “Look out especially for birds.”

He was at the high, narrow window only an instant before he let himself down. “There was only one raven,” he reported, “but there were a number of birds like hawks, with short wings. There seemed to be humps on their backs.”

Even in the poor light of the substation Mazda visibly turned green. “Goshawks!” she gasped. She staggered against the wall. Then she began taking off her clothes.

Dress, slip, panties went on the floor. She stood on one foot and removed her sandals alternately. She began going through her hair and pulling out bobby pins. She took off her blast bracelet and added it to the heap.

“What are you doing that for?” the Reverend inquired. It seemed to him a singularly ill-chosen time for sex.

“I’m trying to set up a counter-charm, and I have to be naked to do it.” Her voice was wobbling badly. “Those birds—those birds are goshawks. I’ve never known the Company to send them out but once before. Those lumps on their backs are portable No us projectors. They’re trying to teleport us.”

“Teleport us? Where to?”

“To… to the Company’s cellars. Where… they attend to people who believe in public power. They… oh… I can’t talk about it, Clem.”

She crouched down at his feet and picked up a bobby pin. “Don’t move,” she said without looking up. “Try not to think about anything.”

She began to scratch a diagram around him on the floor with a pin. He coughed. “Don’t cough,” she cautioned him. “It might be better to hold your breath.”

The Reverend’s lungs were aching before she got the diagram done. She eyed it a moment and then spat care fully at four points within the hexagram. A faint bluish glow sprang up along the line she had traced on the floor.

Mazda rose to her feet. “It’ll hold them for a few minutes,” she said. “After that…”

The Reverend raised his eyes to the rafters. “I’m going to pray,” he announced. He filled his lungs.

“O Lord,” he boomed powerfully, “we beg thy blessing to preserve me and Mazda from the power of the ravens. We beg thy blessing to help us stay here and not be transported to the P&G’s cellars. Bless us, O Lord. Preserve us. And help us to make thine old-fashioned Christmas a living reality. Amen, O Lord. Amen!”

Mazda, too, was praying. Hands clasped over her diaphragm, head bowed, lips moving silently, she besought her bright divinity. “Mithras, lord of the morning, slayer of the bull of darkness, preserve my love and me. Mithras, lord of the morning, slayer of the bull of darkness, preserve my love and me. Mithras, the counter charm on the floor is fading. Preserve us! Mithras… Mithras, Savior, Lord!”

Prayer is a force. So is magic. So is the energy from Nous projectors. These varying forces met and collided in the air.

The collision made a sort of vortex, a small but uncomfortable knot in the vast, conscious field potential that is the Infinite part of Nous. There was momentarily an intense, horrible sense of pressure and tension in the very air. The substation hummed ominously. Then, with a burst of energy that blew out every generator from Tacoma to San Diego, the roof came off. All along the Pacific slope, and as far inland as Provo, Utah, it was as dark a Christmas as even the Reverend would have wished.

There was a pause. The noise of breaking timbers died away. The Reverend Adelburg and Mazda were looking upward frozenly, mouths open, necks outstretched. Then a gigantic hand reached in through the hole in the roof. A gigantic voice, even bigger than the hand, said in enormous and somehow Oxonian accents, “Very well. Take your old-fashioned Christmas, then.”

* * *
It was just before sunrise on December 21st. The Christians, who would be strangled at dawn the next day and then burned in honor of the solstice, were gibbering away in their wicker cages. There were three cages full of them. Great progress was being made in stamping out the new heresy. The Christians would make a fine bright blaze.

The druid looked up at the cages, which were hanging from the boughs of three enormous oak trees, and nodded with satisfaction. His consort, Mahurzda, would find it a hard job strangling so many people. He’d have to help her. It would be a pleasant task.

Once more he nodded. He tested the edge of the sickle he was carrying. Then the druid who had been—would be—would have been—the Reverend Clem Adelburg hoisted up his long white robe and clambered up into the nearest of the oak trees to cut the sacred mistletoe.

1961. Galaxy

WRYNECK, DRAW ME

“Lady satellite, let me tell how love was first born in me. After the first meeting with myself, I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep. The arrow of love had pierced me.

“My multiple charms enthralled me. How could I be so coldhearted? Didn’t I know how beautiful I was? Why didn’t I come back? Oh, why didn’t I come back?—But all I could see was the back of my own head.”

Thus Jake, in a rough paraphrase of Theocritus. “Jake” is what I call the worldwide (it’s so big that relativistic effects begin to appear toward its periphery)—the worldwide computer in which I am, as far as I can tell, the sole surviving independent personality. The others, billions and billions of them, have got thinner and thinner with the passage of time, until they dropped out of Jake’s banks entirely, or have blurred and melted together like marshmallows being stirred over a fire. But I’m one of the latest comers and, I suppose, younger than most. Anyhow, I can’t seem to find anyone else.

I wish I knew how long I’ve been here. A very long time, I think—long enough for me to get utterly fed up with making “thought flowers” and the rest of the gamut of “thought pleasures” that Jake afforded when I first came. Long enough for Jake to pass imperceptibly from being a vast storage-retrieval-potentiating installation to being a messy monster devoted to a strangely metaphysical passion for itself. A very long time.

I wonder who I was when I was alive, out in the world, before I joined Jake. I seem to remember—but there, it’s gone. I really have no idea. I don’t even know what sex I was. The nearest I can come to memory is something about a pall of poison that had spread out beyond the orbit of the earth. Faced with their zero choices, no wonder human beings chose to become sentient, and more or less gratified, units in Jake’s memory banks!

Has Jake turned to its “I love me” attitude because it’s incredibly bored? Or is it because there’s nobody else for it to fall in love with? I don’t know which it is, or whether something quite different is involved—but I feel very strongly that I’d better keep out of Jake’s way.

I keep wondering who I was. I could find out, of course—I might even be able to reconstitute myself in a ghostlike physical form. But such a use of power would immediately make Jake notice me. It just isn’t worthwhile. I prefer to stay what I am at present, though that doesn’t amount to much. A mouse wandering in a hollowed-out cheese, a thought rattling around in the big mechanical brain, comes pretty close to it.

* * *
Later: I just had a most disconcerting and unpleasant thought: Suppose I’m Jake? I shall have to meditate about this.

* * *
Later: No, I don’t think so. I remember my shock when I first realized that Jake had fallen in love with itself. There’s a world of difference between what’s left of my personality and Jake’s dreary madness. My main affekt is curiosity, plus a certain wan drive to survive. But Jake is wholeheartedly bent on wooing, winning, and enjoying the ultimate consummation with itself. Since it can put all the remaining resources of the planet into the endeavor, there may be fireworks. Was ever love so little fun? Poor Jake!

For myself, I feel more than ever like a thought hunting for somebody to think it. Life within the computer is the ultimate speculation on personal identity.

I wonder what it’s like outside now. Have Jake’s continuing activities increased the density and extent of the pall around what us ed to be called mother earth? It would be reasonable to think so: the power to maintain a billion billion personalities in Jake had to come from somewhere, and though they’ve all blurred together, they must still require much energy. The pall would be broken through now and then by breakthroughs of glaring solar radiation, unshielded now by the protective ozone layer of mother earth’s atmosphere. Or have things somehow got stabilized so that a little of the foison and plenty, the beauty and delight of the natural world, has been able to re-establish itself?

All I can do is ask rhetorical questions. I could create “thought organs” for myself, I suppose, but they would not be very accurate and, in any case, wouldn’t operate outside Jake’s admittedly capacious confines.

But I realize one thing now; that I have another affeckt, in the psychological sense of the word, besides a dim curiosity and a dim wish to survive, and this one is much the strongest of the three. There’s no dimness about this feeling. I hate humanity.

Yes, I hate it. And if this word seems rather strong, considering my wraithlike and tenuous existence, yet let it stand. Hate.

Throughout its long existence, humanity has carried on a love affair with itself. This hasn’t, of course, prevent ed them from murdering, torturing, raping, incinerating, and starving each other. Indeed, the millennia-long infatuation seems to have added fuel to their self-directed viciousness. I don’t intend to draw up a bill of particulars, but I wish I could spit in humanity’s collective face.

Well, never mind that. But I wish I had some sort of timing device. My biological clocks are gone, of course, and there are no orienting cues from the external world. In the treacly flow of events here I am aware of succession, but not of duration. I could make a “thought-clock”—or thought clypshydra, sundial, or other measuring device—but I’m afraid the diversion of power from Jake’s foredoomed self-pursuit might make Jake notice me. Polyphemus and Galatea. I’d better not.

I’m glad that I did create, and have held on to ever since I thought it into being, a “thought thought-detector”. This is how I know so much about Jake’s mental processes.

Later: A lot has been going on. Jake’s mental noises have been unescapable. J. has been going through its memory banks with unflagging persistence. And fast as its searches are, it has taken the mechanical marvel a very long time. When the search finally ended, there was a pause (I don’t know of what duration), and then J. began to fill its inner environment with poetry.

Erotic poetry, of course. In the fashion of all lovers through all the ages, Jake had turned to verse to bring its beloved to it. Jake gave out with odes, sonnets, madrigals, triolets, epithalamia. The whole enormous computer establishment must have rung with it, like a clanging bell, and the output shows no sign of slackening.

Since Jake has all the poetry of all the ages to draw on, some of it is pretty good—or perhaps I should say, a pretty good imitation of the pretty good. Actually, Jake’s composite personality has no taste. It’s blurred and messy, like the nondescript shade of brown you get when you stir all the colors in the paint box up together.

Most of the poetry is in English, with Italian a close second (Dante, I suppose). In English, Jake runs to paraphrases of Shakespeare: “For in my sweet thought I would be forgot/If thinking on me then should make me woe,” and Keats: “My warm, white, lucent thousand-pleasured breast,” besides a lot of lesser poets and a lot of versification that is, I suppose, original.

Since Jake has all the recorded languages of the entire earth to draw on, there are also what seem to be Japanese haiku, Chinese folk songs, French chansons, Spanish reconcillas, Russian chastushka, and I don’t know what all. There is probably some amatory verse in Ainu, and if there is, I am sure Jake is using it.

Jake seems to be finishing up with a huge glob in the European koine that has been the dominant language in the EEC for the last eight hundred years. I wonder how long this has been going on. It seems like days and days. Any curiosity I had about Jake’s poetic abilities has long ago been satisfied.

Later: The verse making finally stopped. There came a pause, a breathless, expectant pause. Jake was waiting for an answer from itself.

None, of course, was forthcoming. (Unless the computer can manage a satisfactory split in its personality, none ever will be.) Finally J. began another protracted rummaging through its memory banks. I think—but am not quite certain—that it was going through all the data on advice to the lovelorn that its memory banks contained. I didn’t realize it at the time. I thought I was in for another torrent of poetry. But I began to feel rather cold.

Cold, cold and dark. An increasing blackness. All services to the now-fused individualities within Jake—the services that Jake had been originally created to provide—all services had ceased. I was losing consciousness. It occurred to me, as I blacked out, that Jake had had a quarrel with itself. I was being annihilated because of a lover’s tiff. It was a ridiculous way to go.

I died. (If it is asked how anything as thin and tenuous as I am, a mere sentient point, can speak of dying, the answer is that the point had ceased being sentient.) I had ceased to exist, even in the qualified sense I had existed before. It didn’t hurt at all. There was no body to be hurt. It was certainly an easy, if ridiculous, way to die. But I think I really died earlier, when I first became a part of Jake’s memory banks.

Later: Things seem back to normal. I came out of the deep freeze without any distress. But I wonder what the messy monster will try next. There’s a sense of preparation in the air.

I believe that what I thought was a lover’s tiff was in fact a deliberate attempt on Jake’s part to waken love in itself for itself by being cold—withdrawing from itself. The computer’s equivalent of being “hard to get.” It’s a time-tested, obvious ploy that half the personalities within Jake must have tried to employ when they were alive. It didn’t work, of course. But there must be a lot more data on what to do in love difficulties in J.’s memory banks. I can only wait and see what it does next.

My “thought thought-detector” is picking up something that sounds like “Me jinklo, me jinkli, me tover, me pori. Me kokosh, me catro, ada, ada, me kamav!” It certainly sounds like jibberish, but the computer has access to a lot of languages I don’t know. This doesn’t seem to be poetry, though it’s being chanted. It’s already been repeated a dozen times…

“Me jinklo, me jinkli” is running through Jake’s mentation as inescapably as, to quote my great-grandmother, “Silent Night” rings out over public address systems at Christmastime. The old lady lived to be two hundred and three and was a dedicated diarist.

Odd, that I can remember being told as a child what great-grandmother had said or written, and yet don’t know what sex I was as a child! “Blindly the iniquity of oblivion scattereth her poppy,” Browne said, and where my recollections are concerned, he certainly was right.

“Me jinklo” is fading away, but Jake isn’t waiting the usual wait to see what the results of its chanting are. It seems to be going directly into another ambit, something that involves a fluttering and screeching. It’s a—wait, now—it’s a bird. A medium-sized bird, with rather pretty brown, gray and buff spotted plumage. But it’s writhing its neck about and hissing like a snake, which rather detracts from the effect.

I can’t quite make out—oh, here come some of the servo-mechanisms. They’re tying the bird to a wheel, spread-eagled, and the wheel is beginning to spin horizontally. The rim of the wheel is glowing, and now it bursts into flame. (I trust this is what is actually happening: I can’t see any of it, and derive my knowledge from Jake’s thoughts.) Now there’s something about laurel leaves, salt, and libations. All this seems dreadfully familiar. There’s chanting going on in the background. I’ve encountered this before.

Later: It was thickheaded of me not to have realized before what the computer was up to. The chanting was an incantation, the wryneck bound to a fire wheel was a love charm, and the salt and laurel leaves were an attempt to coerce the beloved by making him waste away until he—in this case, it—relented. Jake lifted the whole thing from the pages of Theocritus. I imagine the “me jinklo” bit was some sort of love spell too.

I suppose I’ll be in for a long bout of love magic, until Jake finally decides it doesn’t work and tries something else. One curiosity I do have is about the computer’s image of itself. Does it see itself as a beautiful young girl? As a plain, fat, middle-aged man or woman? A handsome young man? Or is it, in its own mind, nothing but an unappeased longing? My knowledge of Jake’s thoughts is somewhat spotty, despite my “thought thought-detector.” A mild curiosity, and a profound hatred of human beings, are the only emotions I have left.

The chanting is giving way to bonging, the bonging to what is probably bull roarers, and the bull roarers to an indrawn silence. I imagine Jake is meditating—no, it’s started up again. I have the impression of fifty people all gabbling at once, and at the tops of their voices. Well, my demented host has thousands of years of love charms to get through. J. is persevering, if nothing else.

* * *
Later: At last, when I really thought I’d have to unthink my “thought thought-detector,” Jake has shut up. A blessed mental silence. But if it’s not going to be love charms or erotic poetry, what will it be? Jake can’t be giving up.

I begin to smell something. (I mean, I feel Jake smelling it.) It’s a warm, yeasty, buttery smell, like home baking. Very good, really. But I don’t see how Jake’s love quest ties in with this.

Oh. Of course. The computer, having exhausted love magic, has picked up the homeliest of adages, “The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach,” and is acting on it.

The computer establishment is flooded with delicious odors. Mountains, torrents, avalanches of pastry, fancy baking, and the trickier sorts of home-baked bread are pouring forth. Enough to feed an army. Condes, napoleons, petit fours, madeleines, gaufrettes, bagels, pain d’é pice, brioche, salt-rising bread, babas, Sally Lunns—I can’t begin to enumerate them all. If Jake’s beloved existed except as an alter ego, it would be suffocated under this abundance. Like a man drowning in a vat of whipped cream.

How “real” the mountains of pastry and sweetmeats are, I have at present no way of knowing. Jake certainly admires them very much, commenting favorably on their brownness, crispness, sweetness, lightness, and enticing perfumes of butter, caramel, vanilla, and rum. Question: Does Jake’s having elected to try this particular way to a man’s heart mean that J. thinks of itself as a man? As a woman? Or does it have any particular ideas on the subject? On reflection, I find I don’t much care about Jake’s mental processes. Actually, I’m sick of Jake.

I keep wondering what the outside world is like now. I remember how Jake—that is, the whole vast computer establishment—looked on the day I made my translation into its banks: huge towers, with pylons tall enough that a few of the pinnacles re ached up through and pierced the pall over the earth. And connecting the towers, in an intricate tracery of lines, more than a hundred long, light, arching, glass-smooth bridges.

Why did Jake’s designers think the bridges necessary? There is no traffic between the towers, only an infrequent rolling of small servo-mechanisms over one or two of the lower connecting spans. The whole construction is futuristic nonsense. One of the designers must have seen something like it in a picture and imitated it.

And underneath the towers, pinnacles, stabbing Gothic spires of this nightmarishly bad plastic joke, there’s nothing but a roiling, heaving sea of stinging yellowish fog, strong-smelling, hostile to gentle life.

Oh, I wish I could see the earth again the way I saw it once when I was a child, the green hills gentle, studded with golden poppies and blue lupins, violets and a dozen other flowers. And beyond the hills, the incomparable splendor and radiance of the white foam and blue water of the sea.

I was lucky. I saw the beauty of the earth in one of the few islands of that beauty that were left. It must all be gone now… The proper epithet for human beings is not “sapient” or “toolmaking” or even “game playing.” We are Homo raptor.

Meantime, the mountains of pastry are growing even higher.

* * *
Later: Jake went on with its fancy baking a little longer. Then there was a slight pause, and J. began to create candies and sweetmeats. Truffles au chocolat came first, to be followed by almond, pecan, and walnut brittle, marzipan shaped like fruit and glittering with sugar, pastel bonbons, chocolate-covered nuts of every description, caramels, nougats, pralines, coffee nuggets, boiled sweets, fudges—again, I can’t begin to enumerate them all. Is this wave of candies resting on top of the previous mountains of pastry? At any rate, there seems to be room for everything.

The candy-making seems to be slackening. A few more trays of Victoria brittle materialize. A pause. And now, through Jake’s sensors, I perceive a new smell. Herby, thymy, oily, sharp, and over all, the smell of the divine herb, garlic. It’s a pleasant change from all that sugary stuff.

I suppose— yes, Jake has turned its talents toward salad making. We’re getting Caesar salad, Chefs salad, Russian salad, tossed green salad, potato salad, avocado and grapefruit, Waldorf, alfalfa and mung bean sprout salads, and even an assortment of lowly coleslaws and some wilted lettuce and dandelion greens. Pickles, relishes, chow-chows, kim chee, and antipas to follow. Yet I seem to feel a sort of despair in Jake’s thoughts as it works its way back through the cuisine toward soup.

Without any perceptible pause, Jake’s food production has switched from salads to meat dishes. But there’s not nearly the abundance here that there was earlier. Sweetbreads en brochette, steak Diane, saddle of venison, broiled salmon steaks and a few others, and then everything stops. I feel a long and somehow exhausted silence. But Jake can’t really have given up. It may have run out of optimism temporarily, but I doubt it has run out of ideas.

I wish I could curl up somewhere and go to sleep.

Actually, being “dead”—being in the deep freeze—wasn’t half bad. It didn’t hurt at all, and there was no anxiety connected with it. But I think my thought processes have been a little slow ever since. It’s as if a human brain had been a little too long deprived of oxygen, without being made positively imbecile. Perhaps some of my circuits—the electrical circuits that make up my dim and ghostly personality—may have been damaged or corroded in the long wait.

One thing I really don’t understand is how Jake can be so infernally stupid. Weren’t there, among the billions and billions of personalities in its memory banks, any geniuses, heroes, poets, saints? What became of those who “left the vivid air signed with their honor”? Jake isn’t so much a case of the lowest common denominator as it is a reaching of the lowest level of the lowest. The only answer that comes to me is my former analogy of stirring up all the colors in a box of paints.

Much later: There’s an enormous sense of bustle, of intense preparation, in Jake’s thoughts. It seems to have decided to focus all its resources (which used to be coterminous with the resources of the entire planet) on one last attempt. Changes—gross physical changes—seem to be taking place in a considerable portion of the enormous computer establishment. The mounds, the mountains, the avalanches of food have been cleared away, and shapes and structures are being tried and discarded one after another kaleidoscopically. It’s very confusing. I wish I knew—really knew—what is going on.

J. seems completely absorbed in this latest attempt I think—yes, I think it’s safe to risk it. In this vast expenditure of energy, any minute drain I might make ought to go unnoticed. I’m going to “think” real sensory perceptors for myself into being.

Later: My eyes and ears have been in existence now for what seems a considerable time. And I still have no idea what’s going on. It seems there’s a parallel construction and removal taking place. But why? And of what? I’ll try to sort out for my own satisfaction what I actually perceive.

Well, then, the servo-mechanisms seem to be clearing a space about fifty kilometers long in Jake’s entrails. I had to “think” an extension of my visual system into being to make out that much. What they’re clearing out seems primarily personality storage banks. It makes me a little alarmed. What if my own cell should be among them? But the servos appear to be concentrating on the older elements.

The cleared space is linear with, as far as I can make out, a slight curvature along its length. At one end it comes up against a blank wall of undisturbed personality storage banks. The other end of the long tunnel appears to be open to the air outside (if it still is air). The diameter of this horizontal shaft is about ten kilometers. These measurements are wholly approximate, of course. The surface of the tunnel is angular and rough, which is only reasonable considering what has been removed to make it.

The construction—but I am much less sure of this than I am of the removal—seems to be external. It’s a towering pylon, without the Gothicism of most of Jake’s architecture, probably a few kilometers longer than the interior tunnel and probably a little greater in diameter, with a roughly hexagonal tip. I believe it’s being constructed out of the memory banks that the servos previously removed from J.’s interior. Admirable economy! Waste not, want not. It contrasts strongly with J.’s profligacy when it was trying to win itself by its achievements as a cook.

The pylon-shaping process is still going on. The servos are using a good deal of force to make its elements cohere. The surface of the pylon appears to be, like that of the interior tunnel, angular and rough.

So far Jake has been using pre-existing parts of itself. Now a whole group of the servos—thirty at least—has withdrawn from the others and is waiting motionless. They aren’t silent, though. A continuous series of clucking noises, some soft and some loud, is coming from them. Are they making something? Time will tell. For the nonce, they have a quality that is both brooding and broody, a sort of cross between spiders and hens.

Later: The servos finally have begun to move around and around vertically over the surface of the interior tunnel, spirally and overlappingly, while they spray something on it out of openings on their sides I didn’t notice before. It’s a pinkish, spongy material that’s soupy and drippy at first but hardens to a deep cushion in a little while. Meanwhile, the external construction seems to have stopped.

The spraying of the interior tunnel goes on and on until the whole length of the tunnel is coated with it and all its roughnesses and angularities are erased.

The group of servos has moved on to the outside. Here, because of the gravity, it’s taking them considerably longer. But they seem to be spraying the exterior pylon with the same pinkish, fast -setting gunk they used on the inside.

Around and around and around, around and around and around. At last there comes a pause. The servos slip down the pylon and cluster around the opening of the horizontal internal tunnel. Another pause. Then a series of mighty creaks and groans begins, the shriek of metal on metal, a noise of unpliancy. It is coming, I think, from the towering, recently sprayed shaft.

The noises get louder and more grating. They’re concentrated at the base of the shaft. The smooth octahedral top of the pylon is moving. It’s bending lower and lower. It appears to be descending toward—Toward the external opening of the tunnel. Oh, God. For a moment I feel as disgusted with myself as I chronically am with humanity. How could I have been so stupid? For it’s plain that what Jake is trying to do now has been in the cards from the beginning, from the moment it conceived its idiotic passion for itself. The towering pinkish pylon, the long horizontal pink tunnel, for Jake’s last desperate attempts to consummate its love. Jake is going to try to diddle itself.

The servos have moved out of the way. The heavy pinkish shaft is almost horizontal now. It broaches the opening of the long, long tunnel. The tunnel seems to dilate the shaft enters it.

The pylon is moving rather slowly. But at last it reaches the end of the tunnel and crunches against the plastic-coated memory banks. Slowly it withdraws, almost to the opening of the tunnel. It comes back again, a little more rapidly. Soon all this part of the computer establishment is vibrating with the blows. How long will it go on?

Well, I suppose there are three possible ways in which this situation can resolve itself. If the plastic the servos sprayed on the shaft and tunnel was provided with something like nerve endings, endings that could carry messages to a pleasure center somewhere in Jake, both parts of Jake could achieve something like orgasm. Then the mighty blows of the superpenis would stop, at least temporarily.

If there’s no such pleasure center, and no nerve endings to carry messages to it, Jake could stop diddling itself eventually because the idiot perceived the futility of its attempt.

Or, finally, Jake can keep on with the working of the superpenis in the supervagina until something breaks. Those are all the possibilities I can think of.

Later (I don’t know how much later): It’s still going on. Jake has at least one advantage over the mammals it’s aping. Its superpenis is incapable of detumescence.

The copulatory, reciprocal motion goes on and on. On and on and on. And on.

I have been counting the number of strokes the pylon makes in the tunnel. If one figures one stroke per minute—a reasonable assumption, considering the length of the tunnel—and considers that there have been three thousand six hundred strokes since I began to count, then there have been at least sixty hours of continuous copulation. By now it’s plain, at least, that Jake must be deficient either in nerve endings in its self-created genitals, or in an adequate cerebral pleasure center where nerve messages could be received. The even tempo of the strokes has never varied, after the first initial speeding-up.

This has been going on too long.

Later: I lost count, stopped for a while, and then began to count again. I have got to 2,300 this time, but it seems that Jake is slowing down. The strokes are certainly coming more slowly.

Finally, the pylon withdraws completely from the horizontal female shaft. It seems sadly altered, shrunken, and bulging haphazardly. Has there been some sort of detumescence, after all?

No, that’s not it. The pylon is beginning to crumble. The plastic that held it together has been worn away, eroded, by the long-continued copulatory friction. Jake not only didn’t provide nerve endings for its genitals, it ignored the question of lubrication. The plastic that coated the pylon must have been of exceptionally high quality to have held the superpenis together for this long.

All activity has ceased. The servos seem frozen. I’m getting afraid, in the absence of any actions of its own, Jake may become aware of my sense organs, and infer from them that another individuality, besides its own messy conglomerateness, exists somewhere in it. I’ll have to be very careful. But I am genuinely curious as to what Jake will try next.

A better, more sensitive set of genitals, connected to a pleasure center somewhere in Jake? Actually, J’s center, as far as what used to be called a giant brain can be said to have one, is located not far from the end of its supervagina. It shouldn’t be much of a trick for the servos to install a pleasure-sensing mechanism there, and key it in with a simulation of vaginal nerve endings. That would be the obvious thing to attempt next, and Jake is nothing if not obvious. But it may be too convinced of that futility of its efforts to try again. Whatever it does, the computer remains ineluctably “it.”

Later: Still no action. The servos remain immobile. J. can’t have exhausted its energy reserves, and yet I don’t detect the shadow of any kind of thought in it. Perhaps it really has given up and genuinely isn’t thinking of anything.

At any rate, the services to its personality banks haven’t ceased. I haven’t gone back into the deep freeze. At times, I rather wish I had…

Something is coming along the faintly luminous bottom of the tunnel. It’s quite small, smaller than the smallest of the servos, and it’s moving slowly and cautiously. Sometimes it speeds up a bit, into a momentary cautious scampering. I wonder where it came from. I wonder what it is.

I daren’t use my sense organs very much, but it seems that seven or eight more somethings are following the first one. I wish I could get a better look at them.

They almost seem alive, in a way that the servos, no matter how competent and busy, never are. There’s randomness in Jake, of course. It’s built in. A scrambler used to provide variety and change to our thought-lives But it was a mechanism, after all. It never gave the skyrocketing change, the vertiginous variety, of actual life. The somethings moving along the bottom of the tunnel move like living things.

I’ll risk it. I think—I hope—that Jake is too empty and exhausted to pay much heed to anything I do. But I’ve got to get a closer look at them.

Later: I’m glad I risked it. It would have been worth any risk. I never was more happy in my life.

Now I know that I’m capable of another emotion besides a loathing for humanity, a wan curiosity, and an even wanner wish to survive. What I feel now is love and never more intense and joyous, because what’s moving along the bottom of the tunnel is a group—a troop—I don’t know what one would properly call it—of raccoons. Raccoons. Black and gray, prick ears, seven-striped tails, burglar masks, skinny paws, beady eyes, and all. A delight of raccoons! My adorable striped-tailed darlings, it’s unbelievable how glad I am to see you! A delight of raccoons, alive and real, in the midst of Jake’s dreary madness and the etiolated, time-eroded personalities in Jake’s memory banks.

How had they managed to survive? Never mind, here they are. And if there are raccoons, may there not also be possums, whales, horned owls, jackals, toads? Perhaps the earth has somehow managed to clean herself from our human pollution.

The raccoons are beginning to scatter out, to investigate the chinks and fissures in J.’s threadbare vagina. They scamper into crevasses, they stand on their hind legs and pivot easily on their lush, soft, bushy behinds and look about in all directions. I suppose those mountains of sweetmeats and pastries attracted them; their liveliness makes it seem that the food either couldn’t be consumed or was unsubstantial. And now, in the immemorial manner of raccoons, they’re beginning to investigate.

Their clever little paws, almost as adroit as hands, are being run into cracks, are pulling out wires, rolls of tape, panels of miniaturized circuitry. I wonder what they make of it all. Meanwhile, they’re getting nearer to Jake’s center, the point where, if anywhere, Jake is vulnerable. And the servos don’t move; they seem not alerted by the animal invasion. Has Jake already “burned itself out” in its protracted search for the consummation of an impossible love? I doubt it. But why are the servos so indifferent?

Now the ring-tailed wonders begin their climbing. They could almost climb up a strictly vertical surface, and here, with the irregularities and soft spots in J.’s makeshift vagina to cling to, they can go very high. Up and up, pulling out and investigating whatever comes in their way. Fortunately, the voltages in J.’s interior are very low. Fortunately, for I shouldn’t want my darling Procyonlotor to get a shock. (Was I a naturalist, I wonder, when I was alive?) And the computer remains inert, under all this murmuration of raccoons.

I feel a very slight—shock? The animals keep on pulling. Festoons of tapes and wires are dripping from their paws. The servos are at last galvanized into action, though rather slow action, at that. They start toward the disembowelers in a swift crawl. But I feel perfectly confident of the raccoons’ ability to elude any servo pursuit.

The animals scamper a few feet farther and repeat their poking and pulling. I begin to feel rather odd, dim and remote.

Am I going back into the deep freeze? If I am, I know I’ll never come out. Jake is breaking down, and it’s the last time.

Never mind. It’s all right. This is a happy ending, because things are safe after all. The future is secure in nonhuman hands. Thank God, I mean not hands, but paws.

1981

Book Information

The Best of MARGARET ST. CLAIR

Edited by Martin H. Greenberg

Academy Chicago Publishers

Copyright © Margaret St. Clair, 1967: “The Wine of Earth” © 1977: “Idris’ Pig”; “The Gardener”; “Child of Void”; “Hathor’s Pets”. © 1978: “The Pillows”; “The Listening Child”. © 1979: “Brightness Falls from the Air”; “The Man Who Sold Rope to the Gnoles”. © 1980: “The Causes”; “An Egg A Month From All Over”. © 1981: “Prott”; “New Ritual”; “Wryneck Draw Me”. © 1982: “Brenda”; “Short in the Chest”. © 1984: “Horrer Howce”. Copyright © 1958 by Satellite Science Fiction: “The Invested Libido”; Copyright © 1960 by Galaxy: “The Nuse Man”. Copyright © 1961 by Galaxy: “An Old-fashioned Bird Christmas”.

Published in 1985 by Academy Chicago Publishers, 425 N. Michigan Ave.

Chicago, Illinois 60611

Copyright © 1985 by Margaret St. Clair

Printed and bound in the U.S.A.

No part of this book may be reproduced in any form without the express written permission of the publisher.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

St. Clair, Margaret.

The best of Margaret St. Clair.

1. Science fiction, American. 2. Fantastic fiction, American. I. Greenberg, Martin Harry. II. Title.

PS3569.T118A6 1985 813’.54 85-18599

ISBN 0-89733-163-X

ISBN 0-89733-164-8 (pbk.)

$4.95

Cover design by Armen Kojoyian

Footnote

1

In the past, I have been accused of making up some of the unusual words that appear in my stories. Sometimes this accusation has been justified; sometimes, as in “Vulcan’s Dolls” (see Plant Life of the Pacific World) it has not. For the record, therefore, be it observed that “dight” is a middle English word meaning, among other things, “to have intercourse with.” (See Poets of the English Language, Auden and Pearson, Vol. 1, p. 173.) “Dight” was reintroduced by a late twentieth-century philologist who disliked the “sleep with” euphemism, and who saw that the language desperately needed a transitive verb that would be “good usage.”

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Оглавление

  • Introduction THOUGHTS FROM MY SEVENTIES
  • IDRIS’ PIG
  • THE GARDENER
  • CHILD OF VOID
  • HATHOR’S PETS
  • THE PILLOWS
  • THE LISTENING CHILD
  • BRIGHTNESS FALLS FROM THE AIR
  • THE MAN WHO SOLD ROPE TO THE GNOLES
  • THE CAUSES
  • AN EGG A MONTH FROM ALL OVER
  • PROTT
  • NEW RITUAL
  • BRENDA
  • SHORT IN THE CHEST
  • HORRER HOWCE
  • THE WINES OF EARTH
  • THE INVESTED LIBIDO
  • THE NUSE MAN
  • AN OLD-FASHIONED BIRD CHRISTMAS
  • WRYNECK, DRAW ME
  • Book Information
  • *** Примечания ***