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It Could Be Anything



It Could Be Anything







From: It Could Be Anything

Keith Laumer, well-known for his tales of adventure
and action, shows us a different side of his talent
in this original, exciting and thought-provoking
exploration of the meaning of meaning.



"She'll be pulling out in a minute, Brett," Mr. Phillips said. He tucked
his railroader's watch back in his vest pocket. "You better get
aboard--if you're still set on going."

"It was reading all them books done it," Aunt Haicey said. "Thick books,
and no pictures in them. I knew it'd make trouble." She plucked at the
faded hand-embroidered shawl over her thin shoulders, a tiny bird-like
woman with bright anxious eyes.

"Don't worry about me," Brett said. "I'll be back."



"The place'll be yours when I'm gone," Aunt Haicey said. "Lord knows it
won't be long."

"Why don't you change your mind and stay on, boy?" Mr. Phillips said,
blinking up at the young man. "If I talk to Mr. J.D., I think he can
find a job for you at the plant."

"So many young people leave Casperton," Aunt Haicey said. "They never
come back."

Mr. Phillips clicked his teeth. "They write, at first," he said. "Then
they gradually lose touch."

"All your people are here, Brett," Aunt Haicey said. "Haven't you been
happy here?"

"Why can't you young folks be content with Casperton?" Mr. Phillips
said. "There's everything you need here."

"It's that Pretty-Lee done it," Aunt Haicey said. "If it wasn't for that
girl--"

A clatter ran down the line of cars. Brett kissed Aunt Haicey's dry
cheek, shook Mr. Phillips' hand, and swung aboard. His suitcase was on
one of the seats. He put it up above in the rack, and sat down, turned
to wave back at the two old people.

It was a summer morning. Brett leaned back and watched the country slide
by. It was nice country, Brett thought; mostly in corn, some cattle, and
away in the distance the hazy blue hills. Now he would see what was on
the other side of them: the cities, the mountains, and the ocean. Up
until now all he knew about anything outside of Casperton was what he'd
read or seen pictures of. As far as he was concerned, chopping wood and
milking cows back in Casperton, they might as well not have existed.
They were just words and pictures printed on paper. But he didn't want
to just read about them. He wanted to see for himself.

* * *

Pretty-Lee hadn't come to see him off. She was probably still mad about
yesterday. She had been sitting at the counter at the Club Rexall,
drinking a soda and reading a movie magazine with a big picture of an
impossibly pretty face on the cover--the kind you never see just walking
down the street. He had taken the next stool and ordered a coke.

"Why don't you read something good, instead of that pap?" he asked her.

"Something good? You mean something dry, I guess. And don't call it ...
that word. It doesn't sound polite."

"What does it say? That somebody named Doll Starr is fed up with glamor
and longs for a simple home in the country and lots of kids? Then why
doesn't she move to Casperton?"

"You wouldn't understand," said Pretty-Lee.

He took the magazine, leafed through it. "Look at this: all about
people who give parties that cost thousands of dollars, and fly all over
the world having affairs with each other and committing suicide and
getting divorced. It's like reading about Martians."

"I still like to read about the stars. There's nothing wrong with it."

"Reading all that junk just makes you dissatisfied. You want to do your
hair up crazy like the pictures in the magazines and wear weird-looking
clothes--"

Pretty-Lee bent her straw double. She stood up and took her shopping
bag. "I'm very glad to know you think my clothes are weird--"

"You're taking everything I say personally. Look." He showed her a
full-color advertisement on the back cover of the magazine. "Look at
this. Here's a man supposed to be cooking steaks on some kind of
back-yard grill. He looks like a movie star; he's dressed up like he was
going to get married; there's not a wrinkle anywhere. There's not a spot
on that apron. There isn't even a grease spot on the frying pan. The
lawn is as smooth as a billiard table. There's his son; he looks just
like his pop, except that he's not grey at the temples. Did you ever
really see a man that handsome, or hair that was just silver over the
ears and the rest glossy black? The daughter looks like a movie starlet,
and her mom is exactly the same, except that she has that grey streak in
front to match her husband. You can see the car in the drive; the treads
of the tires must have just been scrubbed; they're not even dusty.
There's not a pebble out of place; all the flowers are in full bloom; no
dead ones. No leaves on the lawn; no dry twigs showing on the trees.
That other house in the background looks like a palace, and the man with
the rake, looking over the fence: he looks like this one's twin brother,
and he's out raking leaves in brand new clothes--"

Pretty-Lee grabbed her magazine. "You just seem to hate everything
that's nicer than this messy town--"

"I don't think it's nicer. I like you; your hair isn't always perfectly
smooth, and you've got a mended place on your dress, and you feel human,
you smell human--"

"Oh!" Pretty-Lee turned and flounced out of the drug store.

* * *

Brett shifted in the dusty plush seat and looked around. There were a
few other people in the car. An old man was reading a newspaper; two old
ladies whispered together. There was a woman of about thirty with a
mean-looking kid; and some others. They didn't look like magazine
pictures, any of them. He tried to picture them doing the things you
read in newspapers: the old ladies putting poison in somebody's tea; the
old man giving orders to start a war. He thought about babies in houses
in cities, and airplanes flying over, and bombs falling down: huge
explosive bombs. Blam! Buildings fall in, pieces of glass and stone fly
through the air. The babies are blown up along with everything else--

But the kind of people he knew couldn't do anything like that. They
liked to loaf and eat and talk and drink beer and buy a new tractor or
refrigerator and go fishing. And if they ever got mad and hit
somebody--afterwards they were embarrassed and wanted to shake hands....

The train slowed, came to a shuddery stop. Through the window he saw a
cardboardy-looking building with the words BAXTER'S JUNCTION painted
across it. There were a few faded posters on a bulletin board. An old
man was sitting on a bench, waiting. The two old ladies got off and a
boy in blue jeans got on. The train started up. Brett folded his jacket
and tucked it under his head and tried to doze off....

* * * * *

Brett awoke, yawned, sat up. The train was slowing. He remembered you
couldn't use the toilets while the train was stopped. He got up and went
to the end of the car. The door was jammed. He got it open and went
inside and closed the door behind him. The train was going slower,
clack-clack ... clack-clack ... clack; clack ... cuh-lack ...

He washed his hands, then pulled at the door. It was stuck. He pulled
harder. The handle was too small; it was hard to get hold of. The train
came to a halt. Brett braced himself and strained against the door. It
didn't budge.

He looked out the grimy window. The sun was getting lower. It was about
three-thirty, he guessed. He couldn't see anything but some dry-looking
fields.

Outside in the corridor there were footsteps. He started to call, but
then didn't. It would be too embarrassing, pounding on the door and
yelling, "Let me out! I'm stuck in the toilet ..."

He tried to rattle the door. It didn't rattle. Somebody was dragging
something heavy past the door. Mail bags, maybe. He'd better yell. But
dammit, the door couldn't be all that hard to open. He studied the
latch. All he had to do was turn it. He got a good grip and twisted.
Nothing.

He heard the mail bag bump-bump, and then another one. To heck with it;
he'd yell. He'd wait until he heard the footsteps pass the door again
and then he'd make some noise.

Brett waited. It was quiet now. He rapped on the door anyway. No answer.
Maybe there was nobody left in the car. In a minute the train would
start up and he'd be stuck here until the next stop. He banged on the
door. "Hey! The door is stuck!"

It sounded foolish. He listened. It was very quiet. He pounded again.
The car creaked once. He put his ear to the door. He couldn't hear
anything. He turned back to the window. There was no one in sight. He
put his cheek flat against it, looked along the car. He saw only dry
fields.

He turned around and gave the door a good kick. If he damaged it, it was
too bad; the railroad shouldn't have defective locks on the doors. If
they tried to make him pay for it, he'd tell them they were lucky he
didn't sue the railroad ...

* * *

He braced himself against the opposite wall, drew his foot back, and
kicked hard at the lock. Something broke. He pulled the door open.

He was looking out the open door and through the window beyond. There
was no platform, just the same dry fields he could see on the other
side. He came out and went along to his seat. The car was empty now.

He looked out the window. Why had the train stopped here? Maybe there
was some kind of trouble with the engine. It had been sitting here for
ten minutes or so now. Brett got up and went along to the door, stepped
down onto the iron step. Leaning out, he could see the train stretching
along ahead, one car, two cars--

There was no engine.

Maybe he was turned around. He looked the other way. There were three
cars. No engine there either. He must be on some kind of siding ...

Brett stepped back inside, and pushed through into the next car. It was
empty. He walked along the length of it, into the next car. It was empty
too. He went back through the two cars and his own car and on, all the
way to the end of the train. All the cars were empty. He stood on the
platform at the end of the last car, and looked back along the rails.
They ran straight, through the dry fields, right to the horizon. He
stepped down to the ground, went along the cindery bed to the front of
the train, stepping on the ends of the wooden ties. The coupling stood
open. The tall, dusty coach stood silently on its iron wheels, waiting.
Ahead the tracks went on--

And stopped.

He walked along the ties, following the iron rails, shiny on top, and
brown with rust on the sides. A hundred feet from the train they ended.
The cinders went on another ten feet and petered out. Beyond, the fields
closed in. Brett looked up at the sun. It was lower now in the west, its
light getting yellow and late-afternoonish. He turned and looked back at
the train. The cars stood high and prim, empty, silent. He walked back,
climbed in, got his bag down from the rack, pulled on his jacket. He
jumped down to the cinders, followed them to where they ended. He
hesitated a moment, then pushed between the knee-high stalks. Eastward
across the field he could see what looked like a smudge on the far
horizon.

He walked until dark, then made himself a nest in the dead stalks, and
went to sleep.

* * *

He lay on his back, looking up at pink dawn clouds. Around him, dry
stalks rustled in a faint stir of air. He felt crumbly earth under his
fingers. He sat up, reached out and broke off a stalk. It crumbled into
fragile chips. He wondered what it was. It wasn't any crop he'd ever
seen before.

He stood, looked around. The field went on and on, dead flat. A locust
came whirring toward him, plumped to earth at his feet. He picked it up.
Long elbowed legs groped at his fingers aimlessly. He tossed the insect
in the air. It fluttered away. To the east the smudge was clearer now;
it seemed to be a grey wall, far away. A city? He picked up his bag and
started on.

He was getting hungry. He hadn't eaten since the previous morning. He
was thirsty too. The city couldn't be more than three hours' walk. He
tramped along, the dry plants crackling under his feet, little puffs of
dust rising from the dry ground. He thought about the rails, running
across the empty fields, ending ...

He had heard the locomotive groaning up ahead as the train slowed. And
there had been feet in the corridor. Where had they gone?

He thought of the train, Casperton, Aunt Haicey, Mr. Phillips. They
seemed very far away, something remembered from long ago. Up above the
sun was hot. That was real. The rest seemed unimportant. Ahead there was
a city. He would walk until he came to it. He tried to think of other
things: television, crowds of people, money: the tattered paper and the
worn silver--

Only the sun and the dusty plain and the dead plants were real now. He
could see them, feel them. And the suitcase. It was heavy; he shifted
hands, kept going.

There was something white on the ground ahead, a small shiny surface
protruding from the earth. Brett dropped the suitcase, went down on one
knee, dug into the dry soil, pulled out a china teacup, the handle
missing. Caked dirt crumbled away under his thumb, leaving the surface
clean. He looked at the bottom of the cup. It was unmarked. Why just one
teacup, he wondered, here in the middle of nowhere? He dropped it, took
up his suitcase, and went on.

* * *

After that he watched the ground more closely. He found a shoe; it was
badly weathered, but the sole was good. It was a high-topped work shoe,
size 10-1/2-C. Who had dropped it here? He thought of other lone shoes
he had seen, lying at the roadside or in alleys. How did they get
there...?

Half an hour later he detoured around the rusted front fender of an
old-fashioned car. He looked around for the rest of the car but saw
nothing. The wall was closer now; perhaps five miles more.

A scrap of white paper fluttered across the field in a stir of air. He
saw another, more, blowing along in the fitful gusts. He ran a few
steps, caught one, smoothed it out.

BUY NOW--PAY LATER!

He picked up another.

PREPARE TO MEET GOD

A third said:

WIN WITH WILLKIE

* * * * *

The wall loomed above him, smooth and grey. Dust was caked on his skin
and clothes, and as he walked he brushed at himself absently. The
suitcase dragged at his arm, thumped against his shin. He was very
hungry and thirsty. He sniffed the air, instinctively searching for the
odors of food. He had been following the wall for a long time, searching
for an opening. It curved away from him, rising vertically from the
level earth. Its surface was porous, unadorned, too smooth to climb. It
was, Brett estimated, twenty feet high. If there were anything to make a
ladder from--

Ahead he saw a wide gate, flanked by grey columns. He came up to it, put
the suitcase down, and wiped at his forehead with his handkerchief.
Through the opening in the wall a paved street was visible, and the
facades of buildings. Those on the street before him were low, not more
than one or two stories, but behind them taller towers reared up. There
were no people in sight; no sounds stirred the hot noon-time air. Brett
picked up his bag and passed through the gate.

For the next hour he walked empty pavements, listening to the echoes of
his footsteps against brownstone fronts, empty shop windows, curtained
glass doors, and here and there a vacant lot, weed-grown and desolate.
He paused at cross streets, looked down long vacant ways. Now and then a
distant sound came to him: the lonely honk of a horn, a faintly tolling
bell, a clatter of hooves.

He came to a narrow alley that cut like a dark canyon between blank
walls. He stood at its mouth, listening to a distant murmur, like a
crowd at a funeral. He turned down the narrow way.

It went straight for a few yards, then twisted. As he followed its
turnings the crowd noise gradually grew louder. He could make out
individual voices now, an occasional word above the hubbub. He started
to hurry, eager to find someone to talk to.

Abruptly the voices--hundreds of voices, he thought--rose in a roar, a
long-drawn Yaaayyyyy...! Brett thought of a stadium crowd as the home
team trotted onto the field. He could hear a band now, a shrilling of
brass, the clatter and thump of percussion instruments. Now he could see
the mouth of the alley ahead, a sunny street hung with bunting, the
backs of people, and over their heads the rhythmic bobbing of a passing
procession, tall shakos and guidons in almost-even rows. Two tall poles
with a streamer between them swung into view. He caught a glimpse of
tall red letters:

... For Our Side!

* * *

He moved closer, edged up behind the grey-backed crowd. A phalanx of
yellow-tuniced men approached, walking stiffly, fez tassels swinging. A
small boy darted out into the street, loped along at their side. The
music screeched and wheezed. Brett tapped the man before him.

"What's it all about...?"

He couldn't hear his own voice. The man ignored him. Brett moved along
behind the crowd, looking for a vantage point or a thinning in the
ranks. There seemed to be fewer people ahead. He came to the end of the
crowd, moved on a few yards, stood at the curb. The yellow-jackets had
passed now, and a group of round-thighed girls in satin blouses and
black boots and white fur caps glided into view, silent, expressionless.
As they reached a point fifty feet from Brett, they broke abruptly into
a strutting prance, knees high, hips flirting, tossing shining batons
high, catching them, twirling them, and up again ...

Brett craned his neck, looking for TV cameras. The crowd lining the
opposite side of the street stood in solid ranks, drably clad, eyes
following the procession, mouths working. A fat man in a rumpled suit
and a panama hat squeezed to the front, stood picking his teeth.
Somehow, he seemed out of place among the others. Behind the spectators,
the store fronts looked normal, dowdy brick and mismatched glass and
oxidizing aluminum, dusty windows and cluttered displays of cardboard, a
faded sign that read TODAY ONLY--PRICES SLASHED. To Brett's left the
sidewalk stretched, empty. To his right the crowd was packed close, the
shout rising and falling. Now a rank of blue-suited policemen followed
the majorettes, swinging along silently. Behind them, over them, a piece
of paper blew along the street. Brett turned to the man on his right.

"Pardon me. Can you tell me the name of this town?"

The man ignored him. Brett tapped the man's shoulder. "Hey! What town is
this?"

The man took off his hat, whirled it overhead, then threw it up. It
sailed away over the crowd, lost. Brett wondered briefly how people who
threw their hats ever recovered them. But then, nobody he knew would
throw his hat ...

"You mind telling me the name of this place?" Brett said, as he took the
man's arm, pulled. The man rotated toward Brett, leaning heavily against
him. Brett stepped back. The man fell, lay stiffly, his arms moving, his
eyes and mouth open.

"Ahhhhh," he said. "Whum-whum-whum. Awww, jawww ..."

Brett stooped quickly. "I'm sorry," he cried. He looked around. "Help!
This man ..."

Nobody was watching. The next man, a few feet away, stood close against
his neighbor, hatless, his jaw moving.

"This man's sick," said Brett, tugging at the man's arm. "He fell."

The man's eyes moved reluctantly to Brett. "None of my business," he
muttered.

"Won't anybody give me a hand?"

"Probably a drunk."

Behind Brett a voice called in a penetrating whisper: "Quick! You! Get
into the alley...!"

He turned. A gaunt man of about thirty with sparse reddish hair,
perspiration glistening on his upper lip, stood at the mouth of a narrow
way like the one Brett had come through. He wore a grimy pale yellow
shirt with a wide-flaring collar, limp and sweat-stained, dark green
knee-breeches, soft leather boots, scuffed and dirty, with limp tops
that drooped over his ankles. He gestured, drew back into the alley. "In
here."

Brett went toward him. "This man ..."

"Come on, you fool!" The man took Brett's arm, pulled him deeper into
the dark passage. Brett resisted. "Wait a minute. That fellow ..." He
tried to point.

"Don't you know yet?" The red-head spoke with a strange accent. "Golems
... You got to get out of sight before the--"

* * *

The man froze, flattened himself against the wall. Automatically Brett
moved to a place beside him. The man's head was twisted toward the alley
mouth. The tendons in his weathered neck stood out. He had a three-day
stubble of beard. Brett could smell him, standing this close. He edged
away. "What--"

"Don't make a sound! Don't move, you idiot!" His voice was a thin hiss.

Brett followed the other's eyes toward the sunny street. The fallen man
lay on the pavement, moving feebly, eyes open. Something moved up to
him, a translucent brownish shape, like muddy water. It hovered for a
moment, then dropped on the man like a breaking wave, flowed around him.
The body shifted, rotating stiffly, then tilted upright. The sun struck
through the fluid shape that flowed down now, amber highlights
twinkling, to form itself into the crested wave, flow away.

"What the hell...!"

"Come on!" The red-head turned, trotted silently toward the shadowy bend
under the high grey walls. He looked back, beckoned impatiently, passed
out of sight around the turn--

Brett came up behind him, saw a wide avenue, tall trees with chartreuse
springtime leaves, a wrought-iron fence, and beyond it, rolling green
lawns. There were no people in sight.

"Wait a minute! What is this place?!"

His companion turned red-rimmed eyes on Brett. "How long have you been
here?" he asked. "How did you get in?"

"I came through a gate. Just about an hour ago."

"I knew you were a man as soon as I saw you talking to the golem," said
the red-head. "I've been here two months; maybe more. We've got to get
out of sight. You want food? There's a place ..." He jerked his thumb.
"Come on. Time to talk later."

* * *

Brett followed him. They turned down a side street, pushed through the
door of a dingy cafe. It banged behind them. There were tables, stools
at a bar, a dusty juke box. They took seats at a table. The red-head
groped under the table, pulled off a shoe, hammered it against the wall.
He cocked his head, listening. The silence was absolute. He hammered
again. There was a clash of crockery from beyond the kitchen door. "Now
don't say anything," the red-head said. He eyed the door behind the
counter expectantly. It flew open. A girl with red cheeks and untidy
hair, dressed in a green waitress' uniform appeared, swept up to the
table, pad and pencil in hand.

"Coffee and a ham sandwich," said the red-head. Brett said nothing. The
girl glanced at him briefly, jotted hastily, whisked away.

"I saw them here the first day," the red-head said. "It was a piece of
luck. I saw how the Gels started it up. They were big ones--not like the
tidiers-up. As soon as they were finished, I came in and tried the same
thing. It worked. I used the golem's lines--"

"I don't know what you're talking about," Brett said. "I'm going to ask
that girl--"

"Don't say anything to her; it might spoil everything. The whole
sequence might collapse; or it might call the Gels. I'm not sure. You
can have the food when it comes back with it."

"Why do you say 'when "it" comes back'?"

"Ah." He looked at Brett strangely. "I'll show you."

Brett could smell food now. His mouth watered. He hadn't eaten for
twenty-four hours.

"Care, that's the thing," the red-head said. "Move quiet, and stay out
of sight, and you can live like a County Duke. Food's the hardest, but
here--"

The red-cheeked girl reappeared, a tray balanced on one arm, a heavy cup
and saucer in the other hand. She clattered them down on the table.

"Took you long enough," the red-head said. The girl sniffed, opened her
mouth to speak--and the red-head darted out a stiff finger, jabbed her
under the ribs. She stood, mouth open, frozen.

Brett half rose. "He's crazy, miss," he said. "Please accept--"

"Don't waste your breath." Brett's host was looking at him triumphantly.
"Why do I call it 'it'?" He stood up, reached out and undid the top
buttons of the green uniform. The waitress stood, leaning slightly
forward, unmoving. The blouse fell open, exposing round white
breasts--unadorned, blind.

"A doll," said the red-head. "A puppet; a golem."

* * *

Brett stared at her, the damp curls at her temple, the tip of her tongue
behind her teeth, the tiny red veins in her round cheeks, and the white
skin curving ...

"That's a quick way to tell 'em," said the red-head. "The teat is
smooth." He rebuttoned the uniform, then jabbed again at the girl's
ribs. She straightened, patted her hair.

"No doubt a gentleman like you is used to better," she said carelessly.
She went away.

"I'm Awalawon Dhuva," the red-head said.

"My name's Brett Hale." Brett took a bite of the sandwich.

"Those clothes," Dhuva said. "And you have a strange way of talking.
What county are you from?"

"Jefferson."

"Never heard of it. I'm from Wavly. What brought you here?"

"I was on a train. The tracks came to an end out in the middle of
nowhere. I walked ... and here I am. What is this place?"

"Don't know." Dhuva shook his head. "I knew they were lying about the
Fire River, though. Never did believe all that stuff. Religious hokum,
to keep the masses quiet. Don't know what to believe now. Take the roof.
They say a hundred kharfads up; but how do we know? Maybe it's a
thousand--or only ten. By Grat, I'd like to go up in a balloon, see for
myself."

"What are you talking about?" Brett said. "Go where in a balloon? See
what?"

"Oh, I've seen one at the Tourney. Big hot-air bag, with a basket under
it. Tied down with a rope. But if you cut the rope...! But you can bet
the priests will never let that happen, no, sir." Dhuva looked at Brett
speculatively. "What about your county: Fession, or whatever you called
it. How high do they tell you it is there?"

"You mean the sky? Well, the air ends after a few miles and space just
goes on--millions of miles--"

Dhuva slapped the table and laughed. "The people in Fesseron must be
some yokels! Just goes on up; now who'd swallow that tale?" He chuckled.

"Only a child thinks the sky is some kind of tent," said Brett. "Haven't
you ever heard of the Solar System, the other planets?"

"What are those?"

"Other worlds. They all circle around the sun, like the Earth."

"Other worlds, eh? Sailing around up under the roof? Funny; I never saw
them." Dhuva snickered. "Wake up, Brett. Forget all those stories. Just
believe what you see."

"What about that brown thing?"

"The Gels? They run this place. Look out for them, Brett. Stay alert.
Don't let them see you."

* * *

"What do they do?"

"I don't know--and I don't want to find out. This is a great place--I
like it here. I have all I want to eat, plenty of nice rooms for
sleeping. There's the parades and the scenes. It's a good life--as long
as you keep out of sight."

"How do you get out of here?" Brett asked, finishing his coffee.

"Don't know how to get out; over the wall, I suppose. I don't plan to
leave though. I left home in a hurry. The Duke--never mind. I'm not
going back."

"Are all the people here ... golems?" Brett said. "Aren't there any more
real people?"

"You're the first I've seen. I spotted you as soon as I saw you. A live
man moves different than a golem. You see golems doing things like
knitting their brows, starting back in alarm, looking askance, and
standing arms akimbo. And they have things like pursed lips and knowing
glances and mirthless laughter. You know: all the things you read about,
that real people never do. But now that you're here, I've got somebody
to talk to. I did get lonesome, I admit. I'll show you where I stay and
we'll fix you up with a bed."

"I won't be around that long."

"What can you get outside that you can't get here? There's everything
you need here in the city. We can have a great time."

"You sound like my Aunt Haicey," Brett said. "She said I had everything
I needed back in Casperton. How does she know what I need? How do you
know? How do I know myself? I can tell you I need more than food and a
place to sleep--"

"What more?"

"Everything. Things to think about and something worth doing. Why, even
in the movies--"

"What's a movie?"

"You know, a play, on film. A moving picture."

"A picture that moves?"

"That's right."

"This is something the priests told you about?" Dhuva seemed to be
holding in his mirth.

"Everybody's seen movies."

Dhuva burst out laughing. "Those priests," he said. "They're the same
everywhere, I see. The stories they tell, and people believe them. What
else?"

"Priests have nothing to do with it."

Dhuva composed his features. "What do they tell you about Grat, and the
Wheel?"

"Grat? What's that?"

"The Over-Being. The Four-eyed One." Dhuva made a sign, caught himself.
"Just habit," he said. "I don't believe that rubbish. Never did."

"I suppose you're talking about God," Brett said.

"I don't know about God. Tell me about it."

"He's the creator of the world. He's ... well, superhuman. He knows
everything that happens, and when you die, if you've led a good life,
you meet God in Heaven."

"Where's that?"

"It's ..." Brett waved a hand vaguely, "up above."

"But you said there was just emptiness up above," Dhuva recalled. "And
some other worlds whirling around, like islands adrift in the sea."

"Well--"

"Never mind," Dhuva held up his hands. "Our priests are liars too. All
that balderdash about the Wheel and the River of Fire. It's just as bad
as your Hivvel or whatever you called it. And our Grat and your Mud, or
Gog: they're the same--" Dhuva's head went up. "What's that?"

"I didn't hear anything."

* * *

Dhuva got to his feet, turned to the door. Brett rose. A towering brown
shape, glassy and transparent, hung in the door, its surface rippling.
Dhuva whirled, leaped past Brett, dived for the rear door. Brett stood
frozen. The shape flowed--swift as quicksilver--caught Dhuva in
mid-stride, engulfed him. For an instant Brett saw the thin figure, legs
kicking, upended within the muddy form of the Gel. Then the turbid wave
swept across to the door, sloshed it aside, disappeared. Dhuva was gone.

Brett stood rooted, staring at the doorway. A bar of sunlight fell
across the dusty floor. A brown mouse ran along the baseboard. It was
very quiet. Brett went to the door through which the Gel had
disappeared, hesitated a moment, then thrust it open.

He was looking down into a great dark pit, acres in extent, its sides
riddled with holes, the amputated ends of water and sewage lines and
power cables dangling. Far below light glistened from the surface of a
black pool. A few feet away the waitress stood unmoving in the dark on a
narrow strip of linoleum. At her feet the chasm yawned. The edge of the
floor was ragged, as though it had been gnawed away by rats. There was
no sign of Dhuva.

Brett stepped back into the dining room, let the door swing shut. He
took a deep breath, picked up a paper napkin from a table and wiped his
forehead, dropped the napkin on the floor and went out into the street,
his suitcase forgotten now. At the corner he turned, walked along past
silent shop windows crowded with home permanents, sun glasses,
fingernail polish, suntan lotion, paper cartons, streamers, plastic
toys, vari-colored garments of synthetic fiber, home remedies, beauty
aids, popular music, greeting cards ...

At the next corner he stopped, looking down the silent streets. Nothing
moved. Brett went to a window in a grey concrete wall, pulled himself up
to peer through the dusty pane, saw a room filled with tailor's forms,
garment racks, a bicycle, bundled back issues of magazines without
covers.

He went along to a door. It was solid, painted shut. The next door
looked easier. He wrenched at the tarnished brass nob, then stepped back
and kicked the door. With a hollow sound the door fell inward, taking
with it the jamb. Brett stood staring at the gaping opening. A fragment
of masonry dropped with a dry clink. Brett stepped through the breach in
the grey facade. The black pool at the bottom of the pit winked a
flicker of light back at him in the deep gloom.

* * *

Around him, the high walls of the block of buildings loomed in
silhouette; the squares of the windows were ranks of luminous blue
against the dark. Dust motes danced in shafts of sunlight. Far above,
the roof was dimly visible, a spidery tangle of trusswork. And below was
the abyss.

At Brett's feet the stump of a heavy brass rail projected an inch from
the floor. It was long enough, Brett thought, to give firm anchor to a
rope. Somewhere below, Dhuva--a stranger who had befriended him--lay in
the grip of the Gels. He would do what he could--but he needed
equipment--and help. First he would find a store with rope, guns,
knives. He would--

The broken edge of masonry where the door had been caught his eye. The
shell of the wall, exposed where the door frame had torn away, was
wafer-thin. Brett reached up, broke off a piece. The outer face--the
side that showed on the street--was smooth, solid-looking. The back was
porous, nibbled. Brett stepped outside, examined the wall. He kicked at
the grey surface. A great piece of wall, six feet high, broke into
fragments, fell on the sidewalk with a crash, driving out a puff of
dust. Another section fell. One piece of it skidded away, clattered down
into the depths. Brett heard a distant splash. He looked at the great
jagged opening in the wall--like a jigsaw picture with a piece missing.
He turned and started off at a trot, his mouth dry, his pulse thumping
painfully in his chest.

Two blocks from the hollow building, Brett slowed to a walk, his
footsteps echoing in the empty street. He looked into each store window
as he passed. There were artificial legs, bottles of colored water,
immense dolls, wigs, glass eyes--but no rope. Brett tried to think. What
kind of store would handle rope? A marine supply company, maybe. But
where would he find one?

Perhaps it would be easiest to look in a telephone book. Ahead he saw a
sign lettered HOTEL. Brett went up to the revolving door, pushed inside.
He was in a dim, marble-panelled lobby, with double doors leading into
a beige-carpeted bar on his right, the brass-painted cage of an elevator
directly before him, flanked by tall urns of sand and an ascending
staircase. On the left was a dark mahogany-finished reception desk.
Behind the desk a man stood silently, waiting. Brett felt a wild surge
of relief.

"Those things, those Gels!" he called, starting across the room. "My
friend--"

He broke off. The clerk stood, staring over Brett's shoulder, holding a
pen poised over a book. Brett reached out, took the pen. The man's
finger curled stiffly around nothing. A golem.

* * *

Brett turned away, went into the bar. Vacant stools were ranged before a
dark mirror. At the tables empty glasses stood before empty chairs.
Brett started as he heard the revolving door thump-thump. Suddenly soft
light bathed the lobby behind him. Somewhere a piano tinkled More Than
You Know. With a distant clatter of closing doors the elevator came to
life.

Brett hugged a shadowed corner, saw a fat man in a limp seersucker suit
cross to the reception desk. He had a red face, a bald scalp blotched
with large brown freckles. The clerk inclined his head blandly.

"Ah, yes, sir, a nice double with bath ..." Brett heard the unctuous
voice of the clerk as he offered the pen. The fat man took it, scrawled
something in the register. "... at fourteen dollars," the clerk
murmured. He smiled, dinged the bell. A boy in tight green tunic and
trousers and a pillbox cap with a chin strap pushed through a door
beside the desk, took the key, led the way to the elevator. The fat man
entered. Through the openwork of the shaft Brett watched as the elevator
car rose, greasy cables trembling and swaying. He started back across
the lobby--and stopped dead.

A wet brown shape had appeared in the entrance. It flowed across the rug
to the bellhop. Face blank, the golem turned back to its door. Above,
Brett heard the elevator stop. Doors clashed. The clerk stood poised
behind the desk. The Gel hovered, then flowed away. The piano was silent
now. The lights burned, a soft glow, then winked out. Brett thought
about the fat man. He had seen him before ...

He went up the stairs. In the second floor corridor Brett felt his way
along in near-darkness, guided by the dim light coming through transoms.
He tried a door. It opened. He stepped into a large bedroom with a
double bed, an easy chair, a chest of drawers. He crossed the room,
looked out across an alley. Twenty feet away white curtains hung at
windows in a brick wall. There was nothing behind the windows.

There were sounds in the corridor. Brett dropped to the floor behind the
bed.

"All right, you two," a drunken voice bellowed. "And may all your
troubles be little ones." There was laughter, squeals, a dry clash of
beads flung against the door. A key grated. The door swung wide. Lights
blazed in the hall, silhouetting the figures of a man in black jacket
and trousers, a woman in a white bridal dress and veil, flowers in her
hand.

"Take care, Mel!"

"... do anything I wouldn't do!"

"... kiss the bride, now!"

The couple backed into the room, pushed the door shut, stood against it.
Brett crouched behind the bed, not breathing, waiting. The couple stood
at the door, in the dark, heads down ...

* * *

Brett stood, rounded the foot of the bed, approached the two unmoving
figures. The girl looked young, sleek, perfect-featured, with soft dark
hair. Her eyes were half-open; Brett caught a glint of light reflected
from the eyeball. The man was bronzed, broad-shouldered, his hair wavy
and blond. His lips were parted, showing even white teeth. The two
stood, not breathing, sightless eyes fixed on nothing.

Brett took the bouquet from the woman's hand. The flowers seemed
real--except that they had no perfume. He dropped them on the floor,
pulled at the male golem to clear the door. The figure pivoted, toppled,
hit with a heavy thump. Brett raised the woman in his arms and propped
her against the bed. Back at the door he listened. All was quiet now. He
started to open the door, then hesitated. He went back to the bed, undid
the tiny pearl buttons down the front of the bridal gown, pulled it
open. The breasts were rounded, smooth, an unbroken creamy white ...

In the hall, he started toward the stair. A tall Gel rippled into view
ahead, its shape flowing and wavering, now billowing out, then rising
up. The shifting form undulated toward Brett. He made a move to run,
then remembered Dhuva, stood motionless. The Gel wobbled past him,
slumped suddenly, flowed under a door. Brett let out a breath. Never
mind the fat man. There were too many Gels here. He started back along
the corridor.

Soft music came from double doors which stood open on a landing. Brett
went to them, risked a look inside. Graceful couples moved sedately on a
polished floor, diners sat at tables, black-clad waiters moving among
them. At the far side of the room, near a dusty rubber plant, sat the
fat man, studying a menu. As Brett watched he shook out a napkin, ran it
around inside his collar, then mopped his face.

Never disturb a scene, Dhuva had said. But perhaps he could blend with
it. Brett brushed at his suit, straightened his tie, stepped into the
room. A waiter approached, eyed him dubiously. Brett got out his wallet,
took out a five-dollar bill.

"A quiet table in the corner," he said. He glanced back. There were no
Gels in sight. He followed the waiter to a table near the fat man.

* * *

Seated, he looked around. He wanted to talk to the fat man, but he
couldn't afford to attract attention. He would watch, and wait his
chance.

At the nearby tables men with well-pressed suits, clean collars, and
carefully shaved faces murmured to sleekly gowned women who fingered
wine glasses, smiled archly. He caught fragments of conversation:

"My dear, have you heard ..."

"... in the low eighties ..."

"... quite impossible. One must ..."

"... for this time of year."

The waiter returned with a shallow bowl of milky soup. Brett looked at
the array of spoons, forks, knives, glanced sideways at the diners at
the next table. It was important to follow the correct ritual. He put
his napkin in his lap, careful to shake out all the folds. He looked at
the spoons again, picked a large one, glanced at the waiter. So far so
good ...

"Wine, sir?"

Brett indicated the neighboring couple. "The same as they're having."
The waiter turned away, returned holding a wine bottle, label toward
Brett. He looked at it, nodded. The waiter busied himself with the cork,
removing it with many flourishes, setting a glass before Brett, pouring
half an inch of wine. He waited expectantly.

Brett picked up the glass, tasted it. It tasted like wine. He nodded.
The waiter poured. Brett wondered what would have happened if he had
made a face and spurned it. But it would be too risky to try. No one
ever did it.

Couples danced, resumed their seats; others rose and took the floor. A
string ensemble in a distant corner played restrained tunes that seemed
to speak of the gentle faded melancholy of decorous tea dances on
long-forgotten afternoons. Brett glanced toward the fat man. He was
eating soup noisily, his napkin tied under his chin.

The waiter was back with a plate. "Lovely day, sir," he said.

"Great," Brett agreed.

The waiter placed a covered platter on the table, removed the cover,
stood with carving knife and fork poised.

"A bit of the crispy, sir?"

Brett nodded. He eyed the waiter surreptitiously. He looked real. Some
golems seemed realer than others; or perhaps it merely depended on the
parts they were playing. The man who had fallen at the parade had been
only a sort of extra, a crowd member. The waiter, on the other hand, was
able to converse. Perhaps it would be possible to learn something from
him ...

"What's ... uh ... how do you spell the name of this town?" Brett asked.

"I was never much of a one for spelling, sir," the waiter said.

"Try it."

"Gravy, sir?"

"Sure. Try to spell the name."

"Perhaps I'd better call the headwaiter, sir," the golem said stiffly.

From the corner of an eye Brett caught a flicker of motion. He whirled,
saw nothing. Had it been a Gel?

"Never mind," he said. The waiter served potatoes, peas, refilled the
wine glass, moved off silently. The question had been a little too
unorthodox, Brett decided. Perhaps if he led up to the subject more
obliquely ...

* * *

When the waiter returned Brett said, "Nice day."

"Very nice, sir."

"Better than yesterday."

"Yes indeed, sir."

"I wonder what tomorrow'll be like."

"Perhaps we'll have a bit of rain, sir."

Brett nodded toward the dance floor. "Nice orchestra."

"They're very popular, sir."

"From here in town?"

"I wouldn't know as to that, sir."

"Lived here long yourself?"

"Oh, yes, sir." The waiter's expression showed disapproval. "Would there
be anything else, sir?"

"I'm a newcomer here," Brett said. "I wonder if you could tell me--"

"Excuse me, sir." The waiter was gone. Brett poked at the mashed
potatoes. Quizzing golems was hopeless. He would have to find out for
himself. He turned to look at the fat man. As Brett watched he took a
large handkerchief from a pocket, blew his nose loudly. No one turned to
look. The orchestra played softly. The couples danced. Now was as good a
time as any ...

Brett rose, crossed to the other's table. The man looked up.

"Mind if I sit down?" Brett said. "I'd like to talk to you."

The fat man blinked, motioned to a chair. Brett sat down, leaned across
the table. "Maybe I'm wrong," he said quietly, "but I think you're
real."

The fat man blinked again. "What's that?" he snapped. He had a high
petulant voice.

"You're not like the rest of them. I think I can talk to you. I think
you're another outsider."

The fat man looked down at his rumpled suit. "I ... ah ... was caught a
little short today. Didn't have time to change. I'm a busy man. And what
business is it of yours?" He clamped his jaw shut, eyed Brett warily.

"I'm a stranger here," Brett said. "I want to find out what's going on
in this place--"

"Buy an amusement guide. Lists all the shows--"

"I don't mean that. I mean these dummies all over the place, and the
Gels--"

"What dummies? Jells? Jello? You don't like Jello?"

"I love Jello. I don't--"

"Just ask the waiter. He'll bring you your Jello. Any flavor you like.
Now if you'll excuse me ..."

"I'm talking about the brown things; they look like muddy water. They
come around if you interfere with a scene."

The fat man looked nervous. "Please. Go away."

"If I make a disturbance, the Gels will come. Is that what you're afraid
of?"

"Now, now. Be calm. No need for you to get excited."

"I won't make a scene," Brett said. "Just talk to me. How long have you
been here?"

"I dislike scenes. I dislike them intensely."

"When did you come here?"

"Just ten minutes ago. I just sat down. I haven't had my dinner yet.
Please, young man. Go back to your table." The fat man watched Brett
warily. Sweat glistened on his bald head.

"I mean this town. How long have you been here? Where did you come
from?"

"Why, I was born here. Where did I come from? What sort of question is
that? Just consider that the stork brought me."

"You were born here?"

"Certainly."

"What's the name of the town?"

* * *

"Are you trying to make a fool of me?" The fat man was getting angry.
His voice was rising.

"Shhh," Brett cautioned. "You'll attract the Gels."

"Blast the Jilts, whatever that is!" the fat man snapped. "Now, get
along with you. I'll call the manager."

"Don't you know?" Brett said, staring at the fat man. "They're all
dummies; golems, they're called. They're not real."

"Who're not real?"

"All these imitation people at the tables and on the dance floor. Surely
you realize--"

"I realize you're in need of medical attention." The fat man pushed back
his chair and got to his feet. "You keep the table," he said. "I'll dine
elsewhere."

"Wait!" Brett got up, seized the fat man's arm.

"Take your hands off me--" The fat man went toward the door. Brett
followed. At the cashier's desk Brett turned suddenly, saw a fluid brown
shape flicker--

"Look!" He pulled at the fat man's arm--

"Look at what?" The Gel was gone.

"It was there: a Gel."

The fat man flung down a bill, hurried away. Brett fumbled out a ten,
waited for change. "Wait!" he called. He heard the fat man's feet
receding down the stairs.

"Hurry," he said to the cashier. The woman sat glassy-eyed, staring at
nothing. The music died. The lights flickered, went off. In the gloom
Brett saw a fluid shape rise up--

He ran, pounding down the stairs. The fat man was just rounding the
corner. Brett opened his mouth to call--and went rigid, as a translucent
shape of mud shot from the door, rose up to tower before him. Brett
stood, mouth half open, eyes staring, leaning forward with hands
outflung. The Gel loomed, its surface flickering--waiting. Brett caught
an acrid odor of geraniums.

A minute passed. Brett's cheek itched. He fought a desire to blink, to
swallow--to turn and run. The high sun beat down on the silent street,
the still window displays.

Then the Gel broke form, slumped, flashed away. Brett tottered back
against the wall, let his breath out in a harsh sigh.

Across the street he saw a window with a display of camping equipment,
portable stoves, boots, rifles. He crossed the street, tried the door.
It was locked. He looked up and down the street. There was no one in
sight. He kicked in the glass beside the latch, reached through and
turned the knob. Inside he looked over the shelves, selected a heavy
coil of nylon rope, a sheath knife, a canteen. He examined a Winchester
repeating rifle with a telescopic sight, then put it back and strapped
on a .22 revolver. He emptied two boxes of long rifle cartridges into
his pocket, then loaded the pistol. He coiled the rope over his shoulder
and went back out into the empty street.

* * *

The fat man was standing in front of a shop in the next block, picking
at a blemish on his chin and eyeing the window display. He looked up
with a frown, started away as Brett came up.

"Wait a minute," Brett called. "Didn't you see the Gel? the one that
cornered me back there?"

The fat man looked back suspiciously, kept going.

"Wait!" Brett caught his arm. "I know you're real. I've seen you belch
and sweat and scratch. You're the only one I can call on--and I need
help. My friend is trapped--"

The fat man pulled away, his face flushed an even deeper red. "I'm
warning you, you maniac: get away from me...!"

Brett stepped close, rammed the fat man hard in the ribs. He sank to his
knees, gasping. The panama hat rolled away. Brett grabbed his arm,
steadied him.

"Sorry," he said. "I had to be sure. You're real, all right. We've got
to rescue my friend, Dhuva--"

The fat man leaned against the glass, rolling terrified eyes, rubbing
his stomach. "I'll call the police!" he gasped.

"What police?" Brett waved an arm. "Look. Not a car in sight. Did you
ever see the street that empty before?"

"Wednesday afternoon," the fat man gasped.

"Come with me. I want to show you. It's all hollow. There's nothing
behind these walls--"

"Why doesn't somebody come along?" the fat man moaned.

"The masonry is only a quarter-inch thick," Brett said. "Come on; I'll
show you."

"I don't like it," said the fat man. His face was pale and moist.
"You're mad. What's wrong? It's so quiet ..."

"We've got to try to save him. The Gel took him down into this pit--"

"Let me go," the man whined. "I'm afraid. Can't you just let me lead my
life in peace?"

"Don't you understand? The Gel took a man. They may be after you next."

"There's no one after me! I'm a business man ... a respectable citizen.
I mind my own business, give to charity, go to church. All I want is to
be left alone!"

* * *

Brett dropped his hands from the fat man's arms, stood looking at him:
the blotched face, pale now, the damp forehead, the quivering jowls. The
fat man stooped for his hat, slapped it against his leg, clamped it on
his head.

"I think I understand now," said Brett. "This is your place, this
imitation city. Everything's faked to fit your needs--like in the hotel.
Wherever you go, the scene unrolls in front of you. You never see the
Gels, never discover the secret of the golems--because you conform. You
never do the unexpected."

"That's right. I'm law-abiding. I'm respectable. I don't pry. I don't
nose into other people's business. Why should I? Just let me alone ..."

"Sure," Brett said. "Even if I dragged you down there and showed you,
you wouldn't believe it. But you're not in the scene now. I've taken you
out of it--"

Suddenly the fat man turned and ran a few yards, then looked back to see
whether Brett was pursuing him. He shook a round fist.

"I've seen your kind before," he shouted. "Troublemakers."

Brett took a step toward him. The fat man yelped and ran another fifty
feet, his coat tails bobbing. He looked back, stopped, a fat figure
alone in the empty sunny street.

"You haven't seen the last of me!" he shouted. "We know how to deal with
your kind." He tugged at his vest, went off along the sidewalk. Brett
watched him go, then started back toward the hollow building.

* * * * *

The jagged fragments of masonry Brett had knocked from the wall lay as
he had left them. He stepped through the opening, peered down into the
murky pit, trying to judge its depth. A hundred feet at least. Perhaps a
hundred and fifty.

He unslung the rope from his shoulder, tied one end to the brass stump,
threw the coil down the precipitous side. It fell away into darkness,
hung swaying. It was impossible to tell whether the end reached any
solid footing below. He couldn't waste any more time looking for help.
He would have to try it alone.

There was a scrape of shoe leather on the pavement outside. He turned,
stepped out into the white sunlight. The fat man rounded the corner,
recoiled as he saw Brett. He flung out a pudgy forefinger, his
protruding eyes wide in his blotchy red face.

"There he is! I told you he came this way!" Two uniformed policemen came
into view. One eyed the gun at Brett's side, put a hand on his own.

"Better take that off, sir."

"Look!" Brett said to the fat man. He stooped, picked up a crust of
masonry. "Look at this--just a shell--"

"He's blasted a hole right in that building, officer!" the fat man
shrilled. "He's dangerous."

The cop ignored the gaping hole in the wall. "You'll have to come along
with me, sir. This gentleman registered a complaint ..."

Brett stood staring into the cop's eyes. They were pale blue eyes,
looking steadily back at him from a bland face. Could the cop be real?
Or would he be able to push him over, as he had other golems?

"The fellow's not right in the head," the fat man was saying to the cop.
"You should have heard his crazy talk. A troublemaker. His kind have got
to be locked up!"

The cop nodded. "Can't have anyone causing trouble."

"Only a young fellow," said the fat man. He mopped at his forehead with
a large handkerchief. "Tragic. But I'm sure that you men know how to
handle him."

"Better give me the gun, sir." The cop held out a hand. Brett moved
suddenly, rammed stiff fingers into the cop's ribs. He stiffened,
toppled, lay rigid, staring up at nothing.

"You ... you killed him," the fat man gasped, backing. The second cop
tugged at his gun. Brett leaped at him, sent him down with a blow to the
ribs. He turned to face the fat man.

"I didn't kill them! I just turned them off. They're not real, they're
just golems."

"A killer! And right in the city, in broad daylight."

"You've got to help me!" Brett cried. "This whole scene: don't you see?
It has the air of something improvised in a hurry, to deal with the
unexpected factor; that's me. The Gels know something's wrong, but they
can't quite figure out what. When you called the cops the Gels
obliged--"

* * *

Startlingly the fat man burst into tears. He fell to his knees.

"Don't kill me ... oh, don't kill me ..."

"Nobody's going to kill you, you fool!" Brett snapped. "Look! I want to
show you!" He seized the fat man's lapel, dragged him to his feet and
across the sidewalk, through the opening. The fat man stopped dead,
stumbled back--

"What's this? What kind of place is this?" He scrambled for the opening.

"It's what I've been trying to tell you. This city you live in--it's a
hollow shell. There's nothing inside. None of it's real. Only you ...
and me. There was another man: Dhuva. I was in a cafe with him. A Gel
came. He tried to run. It caught him. Now he's ... down there."

"I'm not alone," the fat man babbled. "I have my friends, my clubs, my
business associates. I'm insured. Lately I've been thinking a lot about
Jesus--"

He broke off, whirled, and jumped for the doorway. Brett leaped after
him, caught his coat. It ripped. The fat man stumbled over one of the
cop-golems, went to hands and knees. Brett stood over him.

"Get up, damn it!" he snapped. "I need help and you're going to help
me!" He hauled the fat man to his feet. "All you have to do is stand by
the rope. Dhuva may be unconscious when I find him. You'll have to help
me haul him up. If anybody comes along, any Gels, I mean--give me a
signal. A whistle ... like this--" Brett demonstrated. "And if I get in
trouble, do what you can. Here ..." Brett started to offer the fat man
the gun, then handed him the hunting knife. "If anybody interferes, this
may not do any good, but it's something. I'm going down now."

The fat man watched as Brett gripped the rope, let himself over the
edge. Brett looked up at the glistening face, the damp strands of hair
across the freckled scalp. Brett had no assurance that the man would
stay at his post, but he had done what he could.

"Remember," said Brett. "It's a real man they've got, like you and me
... not a golem. We owe it to him." The fat man's hands trembled. He
watched Brett, licked his lips. Brett started down.

* * * * *

The descent was easy. The rough face of the excavation gave footholds.
The end of a decaying timber projected; below it was the stump of a
crumbling concrete pipe two feet in diameter. Brett was ten feet below
the rim of floor now. Above, the broad figure of the fat man was visible
in silhouette against the jagged opening in the wall.

Now the cliff shelved back; the rope hung free. Brett eased past the cut
end of a rusted water pipe, went down hand over hand. If there were
nothing at the bottom to give him footing, it would be a long climb back
...

Twenty feet below he could see the still black water, pockmarked with
expanding rings where bits of debris dislodged by his passage peppered
the surface.

There was a rhythmic vibration in the rope. Brett felt it through his
hands, a fine sawing sensation ...

He was falling, gripping the limp rope ...

He slammed on his back in three feet of oily water. The coils of rope
collapsed around him with a sustained splashing. He got to his feet,
groped for the end of the rope. The glossy nylon strands had been
cleanly cut.

* * *

For half an hour Brett waded in waist-deep water along a wall of damp
clay that rose sheer above him. Far above, bars of dim sunlight crossed
the upper reaches of the cavern. He had seen no sign of Dhuva ... or the
Gels.

He encountered a sodden timber that projected above the surface of the
pool, clung to it to rest. Bits of flotsam--a plastic pistol, bridge
tallies, a golf bag--floated in the black water. A tunnel extended
through the clay wall ahead; beyond, Brett could see a second great
cavern rising. He pictured the city, silent and empty above, and the
honey-combed earth beneath. He moved on.

An hour later Brett had traversed the second cavern. Now he clung to an
outthrust spur of granite directly beneath the point at which Dhuva had
disappeared. Far above he could see the green-clad waitress standing
stiffly on her ledge. He was tired. Walking in water, his feet
floundering in soft mud, was exhausting. He was no closer to escape, or
to finding Dhuva, than he had been when the fat man cut the rope. He had
been a fool to leave the man alone, with a knife ... but he had had no
choice.

He would have to find another way out. Endlessly wading at the bottom of
the pit was useless. He would have to climb. One spot was as good as
another. He stepped back and scanned the wall of clay looming over him.
Twenty feet up, water dripped from the broken end of a four-inch water
main. Brett uncoiled the rope from his shoulder, tied a loop in the end,
whirled it and cast upward. It missed, fell back with a splash. He
gathered it in, tried again. On the third try it caught. He tested it,
then started up. His hands were slippery with mud and water. He twined
the rope around his legs, inched higher. The slender cable was smooth as
glass. He slipped back two feet, then inched upward, slipped again,
painfully climbed, slipped, climbed.

After the first ten feet he found toe-holds in the muddy wall. He worked
his way up, his hands aching and raw. A projecting tangle of power cable
gave a secure purchase for a foot. He rested. Nearby, an opening two
feet in diameter gaped in the clay: a tunnel. It might be possible to
swing sideways across the face of the clay and reach the opening. It was
worth a try. His stiff, clay-slimed hands would pull him no higher.

He gripped the rope, kicked off sideways, hooked a foot in the tunnel
mouth, half jumped, half fell into the mouth of the tunnel. He clung to
the rope, shook it loose from the pipe above, coiled it and looped it
over his shoulder. On hands and knees he started into the narrow
passage.

* * *

The tunnel curved left, then right, dipped, then angled up. Brett
crawled steadily, the smooth stiff clay yielding and cold against his
hands and sodden knees. Another smaller tunnel joined from the left.
Another angled in from above. The tunnel widened to three feet, then
four. Brett got to his feet, walked in a crouch. Here and there, barely
visible in the near-darkness, objects lay imbedded in the mud: a
silver-plated spoon, its handle bent; the rusted engine of an electric
train; a portable radio, green with corrosion from burst batteries.

At a distance, Brett estimated, of a hundred yards from the pit, the
tunnel opened into a vast cave, green-lit from tiny discs of frosted
glass set in the ceiling far above. A row of discolored concrete piles,
the foundations of the building above, protruded against the near wall,
their surfaces nibbled and pitted. Between Brett and the concrete
columns the floor was littered with pale sticks and stones, gleaming
dully in the gloom.

Brett started across the floor. One of the sticks snapped underfoot. He
kicked a melon-sized stone. It rolled lightly, came to rest with hollow
eyes staring toward him. A human skull.

* * * * *

The floor of the cave covered an area the size of a city block. It was
blanketed with human bones, with here and there a small cat skeleton or
the fanged snout-bones of a dog. There was a constant rustling of rats
that played among the rib cages, sat atop crania, scuttled behind
shin-bones. Brett picked his way, stepping over imitation pearl
necklaces, zircon rings, plastic buttons, hearing aids, lipsticks,
compacts, corset stays, prosthetic devices, rubber heels, wrist watches,
lapel watches, pocket watches with corroded brass chains.

Ahead Brett saw a patch of color: a blur of pale yellow. He hurried,
stumbling over bone heaps, crunching eyeglasses underfoot. He reached
the still figure where it lay slackly, face down. Gingerly he squatted,
turned it on its back. It was Dhuva.

Brett slapped the cold wrists, rubbed the clammy hands. Dhuva stirred,
moaned weakly. Brett pulled him to a sitting position. "Wake up!" he
whispered. "Wake up!"

Dhuva's eyelids fluttered. He blinked dully at Brett.

"The Gels may turn up any minute," Brett hissed. "We have to get away
from here. Can you walk?"

"I saw it," said Dhuva faintly. "But it moved so fast ..."

"You're safe here for the moment," Brett said. "There are none of them
around. But they may be back. We've got to find a way out!"

Dhuva started up, staring around. "Where am I?" he said hoarsely. Brett
seized his arm, steadied him on his feet.

"We're in a hollowed-out cave," he said. "The whole city is undermined
with them. They're connected by tunnels. We have to find one leading
back to the surface."

Dhuva gazed around at the acres of bones. "It left me here for dead."

"Or to die," said Brett.

"Look at them," Dhuva breathed. "Hundreds ... thousands ..."

"The whole population, it looks like. The Gels must have whisked them
down here one by one."

"But why?"

"For interfering with the scenes. But that doesn't matter now. What
matters is getting out. Come on. I see tunnels on the other side."

They crossed the broad floor, around them the white bones, the rustle of
rats. They reached the far side of the cave, picked a six-foot tunnel
which trended upward, a trickle of water seeping out of the dark mouth.
They started up the slope.

* * *

"We have to have a weapon against the Gels," said Brett.

"Why? I don't want to fight them." Dhuva's voice was thin, frightened.
"I want to get away from here ... even back to Wavly. I'd rather face
the Duke."

"This was a real town, once," said Brett. "The Gels have taken it over





Next: Junior Achievement

Previous: The Great Potlatch Riots



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