He was disturbed, but he did not know it. Murky, agitated waters crept up in his vast subconscious world, and sought the threshold, the mouth of the pit, the slope of the clean shore; little rainbows of light now and then flashed over the waters. They heaved, and against the sluice-gates they beat, sullenly. There was a yielding, but the great force was contained.
He left his Pad, curiously mopping his brow a little, and furrowing it between the eyes. It came to him that he was hungry. He stepped to the curb, pushed the button, and leaned against the post, as if waiting, or in thought. Almost immediately a Car appeared, in a cheery orange and green. He almost shuddered, and he almost knew that he did so. Then he brightened, stepped into the car, and voiced his desire.
He was carried at a moderate pace through clean, broad streets and past bright, shiny buildings and smiling parks and gardens. He came to the top of a high hill, saw the sparkling blue bay in the distance, and thought vaguely of sailing upon it. On his face he felt a brisk spray, and the air was tanged with salt. Then a warmed, faintly perfumed glow dried and composed him, and the Car shut off all its machinery and glided to a stop. He got out, ever so comfortable, and entered a luxurious Kitchen, in which he had not dined for several days.
The doors opened automatically, and a smiling android, gaily featured and clothed, conducted him to a table. She was a soothing sight: yes, that’s what it was. He ordered a sumptuous meal, rubbing his ample waistline in anticipation.
“Dig dig!” crooned the waitress.
He patted good-naturedly her well-moulded behind as she turned; she glowed sweetly back over her soft and delicate shoulder. He wondered if Meg was enough, and decided that, well, for the time being, he guessed she was. No use hurrying things. The waitress returned and served the meal. As always, it was excellent. He finished with a leisurely bottle of wine and a cigar, pinched the waitress’s firm yet ever so yielding thigh, and departed.
Then a deep stirring almost took hold upon him. Yes, that was what he needed. It had been several months now. He pushed another button, and a rosy pink Car appeared to his service. “Take me to a House, you know what I mean?” he said, as he arranged himself upon the pearl grey cushions. The Car glided away.
On and on along the shore of the ocean they pleasantly careened. At length they turned into a rich garden bower, and stopped in front of a great mansion overlooking the waves. He alighted; the Car departed. Profusely bloomed scarlet and golden and azure flowers, everywhere; succulent and bright was the lavish green. The doors opened, and a Woman received him. She was past child-bearing, motherly, and smiling.
He smiled back, and said, “You got one, huh?”
“Of course,” she answered.
He sat down to wait.
And while he waited, he almost thought. Meg was good, all right, but why wasn’t she enough, sometimes? He tapped his thumb-nail against his teeth in a few moments of near perplexity, and then desisted. Soon a bevy of charming Girls entered the room and paraded for him, laughing and smiling. He settled upon a petite brunette with cherry lips. She stripped him of his clothes, and they went walking in a private garden.
In an inner bower they sat down to a rustic table, and were served by robot with a heady aphrodisiac wine. On the grasses and the petals of flowers, overlooking the sea, they entwined their limbs and their bodies, and he nearly enjoyed her. He thought that once he had enjoyed this activity indeed, and wondered whether it were so.
He sat looking over the waters, trying to muse. The androids were physically perfect, flesh meeting flesh, clinging to it, thrilling with it. They were warm, they whispered, they strained and cried. They were freely available, for every man and woman. None need be unsatisfied.
But he did not know all of this, history and psychology were lost to him and he could never keep a connected train of thought; his being unsatisfied could not penetrate to his consciousness. He did not quite know that flesh cried out for something more than flesh, and had always done so. He did know, more or less, that there was the matter of population, and that real men and real women had, at mysterious intervals, to copulate. That was the way it was. He had once spent some time in a House himself, meeting the requirements of an endless variety of Girls. He supposed that some of them had borne the issue of his seed, though he did not suppose it in these terms. But it was better not to know these things for certain, and not to have anything to do with the rearing of children, after the early mother-feeling was over. The Schools could take care of that better than people could.
She snuggled against him.
“What say, Man?” she said: “What’s eatin yuh?”
He did not know how to answer. He tried to talk, tried to break through, to clarify.
“What’s it, huh?” he nearly pleaded. “All this, I mean. Like what’s it for?”
She stretched out on the grass and looked at him a moment.
“Search me,” she ventured. “I guess maybe what you need’s a Bed.”
He guessed she was right.
They went back to the mansion through the twilight, and established themselves in one of the rooms. The soft curtains were drawn, the Bed was large, the sheets were silky and creamy. She reclined on her back, and the mattress moulded itself perfectly to her form.
He lay down beside her, and caressed her. She clasped him tight to her breast. And he was clasped also by an invisible but very palpable field of energy, that directed his movements and charged him with an inexhaustible and ceaseless power. He held her tight, and the force entwined them. They were one throbbing ecstasy, and only at the very last endurable moment were they given release.
Then the Bed slowly soothed them, massaged them, and invigorated them once again. Throughout the night it continued, activity and repose, until toward the dawn he fell into a dead sleep, which lasted until the following morning.
He did not know that he dreamed. He did not consciously remember any of it. He only knew, as he ate his ample breakfast, that he was not so thoroughly at peace as he should have been. And he knew that it was useless to ask the Woman, or one of the Girls.
But the Woman’s androids did well by her, it seemed. Maybe he had better go home to Meg.
“What the square, anyhow?” he said to himself. A little more rest in his familiar surroundings, and he would be all right. A Bed always took a lot out of a man. He arose to go.
“Goodbye, dear,” the Woman said, as he came to the head of the main path. She was serene and smiling.
He adjusted his tunic, and smiled in reply. Yes sir, the old world was in good shape, just like always. He signaled for a Car. The bright ocean again passed by him, and the broad sands, and he dozed.
The dreams were more importunate, this time. When he awoke, with a blank start, the Car was cruising aimlessly. He looked around, and broke into a sweat. There was a button he had to push, somewhere, there was a handle he had to take hold of. He stammered out “Stop--now!” and stepped onto the curb. The car sped away, to another summons. He was before an Emporium, but he did not enter. Instead, he did an unprecedented thing: he went for a walk, through the streets of the City. This was not done, and none of the occupants of the passing cars observed him.
He was really wondering, now. Could something be wrong? This possibility, with all its full horror, had never entered his mind before; indeed, he did not even have the conceptions of rightness and wrongness, and yet there was the inescapable word, “wrong”. His agitation increased. He found himself with the hardly formulated idea that a school was a place where one learned something, and he did not know what this could mean.
He thought of the School that he had attended. All the young people of the District of Fransco attended it: they had been told that there were other Schools, in other districts, and that they were all the same. He had believed it, and forgotten about it. What did it matter? One district was as good as another. He had never travelled. He knew a Man who had gone to the District of Shasta, but he had not been interested in hearing about it. He remembered that the Man had said it was all the same thing, not worth the bother. One had everything he needed, in his own place. But now it seemed that he needed something more, something nobody had ever heard of. He walked on, thinking about the School.
Everybody was born in a House, and kept there till he was weaned, and could walk. Then he was taken to the School. There he grew up in an atmosphere of Group Living, and was gradually showed everything that he needed--everything that there was. The hes and shes played together; they were instructed in the Ways of Life.
As they grew older, they were taken around the City. They were showed the places that the Cars could take them; they were showed how to push the buttons. Of course the robots did a perfect job of instruction. There were Kitchens, in which one could eat. There were parks and gardens, in which one could stroll and lounge. There were Emporiums, in which one could get clothes and things. It was all--as it was.
When one reached puberty, he was taken from the School, and given a Pad. There he lived, listening to the soft music that came from the walls, eating and sleeping. And doing. He selected his android from an Emporium, and did her as he pleased. She was his company, the Warmth of his Pad. She shopped in the Emporium for him, she fixed him cozy little meals, and brought him his pipe or his cigar. She spread the depilatory cream upon his face in the morning, and wiped, with so soft a touch, his beard away; and she bathed him, in the scented waters.
He remembered that after a year or two, he had felt almost restless. From his touch, Meg had understood. She had whispered “House” to him, and he had gone out and instructed a Car. That had been his first experience of a Girl. He supposed that it had been the same with the others. He had never inquired. In the garden bower the idea of children had come to him, and his mind had been at rest. He had not tried a Bed until the fifth or sixth time. He had, he supposed, taken for granted that the Girls lived in the same way that he did. They had their own androids, their own Pads. They never associated with the Men, except in a House. Men got together sometimes, and ate and drank, and had android orgies; no doubt the Girls did likewise.
With a great effort, aided by hints from what he could remember of Life, he pieced an idea together, not knowing what he had done. Of course human copulation was too dangerous: it might make one unhappy. He had learned, in the bowers, that Man and Girl were not of the same temper, and that their union was not always perfect. Somehow it was better, even so, but it was too difficult. It tended to be--painful.
He did not know the word. He did not know any of the words for these strange thoughts of his, but they were now very palpable to him, and very urgent. His android was his, and was never dissatisfied; and so, neither was he. It was a perfect and complete system. And what was happening to him? The word “happiness” came upon him, and he shuddered, almost in terror. What did it mean? Too many things were happening, all at once.
He turned into a street, and stopped. He had never seen it before. But why should this disturb him? The District was a big place. But he thought he had better get out of this street. Maybe pick up another android, maybe even take her home: have a redhead for awhile, maybe. Meg wouldn’t mind. How could she? What was the matter with him? Other Men changed readily, or kept a whole Padful. The waitresses were much in demand. One did not even have to take them home: there were convenient rooms in every Kitchen.
Then suddenly all this was shaken from him. He was standing before a large building, and he did not know what it was.
He stood for a long time, looking at it. Now and then a Man seemed to pass, but he could not be sure. It was like a shadow, like the flickering of a breeze. He wondered what the building could be.
At length he seemed to hear a murmur as of the waters, and at last a voice broke upon him.
“This is a library,” it said. “There are books here, and teachers, from whom you can learn.”
It was too much. He screamed, and ran down the street.
After a few blocks he became calmer; forgetfulness rescued him. He pushed a button, and a Car conveyed him to his Pad.
Meg met him, all warmth and smiles. He sat down, and she brought him his slippers and a cold bottle of beer. He drank deeply. She sat on the arm of his chair, caressed him, and asked if he would like some dinner. She had--
He cut her short.
“Meg, honey,” he said, “I’m a little tired, that’s how. You go to bed now, huh, put on some of that jasmine perfume? You dig?”
“Sure, honey! Dig dig!” she replied.
The dark waters rose, and beat against him.
He finished his beer, and got himself another.
Meg whispered, “Say, honey!” The bed rustled softly.
He fought down his mind, and rapidly drank his beer. Almost as ever, he embraced the Warmth, and slid into a comfortable oblivion. Meg lay beside him in the darkness.
He awoke early, and she laid her hand upon him.
Abruptly, he squirmed away.
“Don’t do that!” His voice was loud. “It’s no good, all that stuff! Something’s--wrong!”
He jumped out of bed, and began rapidly to put on his clothes.
Meg lay still for a moment. Her circuits were not built for such things. There was nothing wrong, and nothing registered. Then the cheery morning music started out of the wall, soothing and bright, and she began to hum with it. She arose, went lightly to her dressing, freshly and sweetly tripped into the kitchen.
“Scrambled eggs, honey?” she asked, in the most caressive of tones.
He had all but forgotten his outburst.
“Yeh, sure honey”, he answered.
He ate copiously, and drank several cups of black coffee.
“Fine day!” he said, belching his appreciation.
He patted his companion good morning, exceptionally affectionately, and went out into the street.
There he met an old friend and drinking companion. He lived next door, it seemed. They were neighbors! He had seldom been so glad to see anyone, as this old friend.
“Hi there, Charlie!” he boomed. “How’s it all? Like Man, I’m glad to see you! What’s it, huh?”
Then he waited, with an expectant grin. He waited a considerable time after Charlie had sauntered past him and ridden off in a Car.
Then it came to him.
“He didn’t see me! Like as if I wasn’t here! Yeah!”
He hurried down the street, and did not think of a Car at all.
He slowed his pace, and walked for a long time. Nobody saw him. He tried to think. The effort was too much, and his mind was a strained blank, and almost pained him. This street: it seemed familiar. Yes, he had gone cruising here, several times. He began very nearly to regret his deficiency of memory. Wasn’t there a nice park, up here a little way? He quickened his pace, perspiring freely. It was right here--no, it couldn’t be! Not that again! He couldn’t be invisible to other people! There couldn’t be things all around him that he couldn’t see! It wasn’t right! What did that word mean? He fainted.
When he came to, the library was still there. He staggered to his feet, and stood still a moment, gazing. There was something cut in the stone over the large front doors. Why would anybody cut something like that in the stone? It didn’t make sense. It wasn’t comfy at all.
Then, in the back of his brain, a little light burst, and he heard the words, “All men by nature desire to know.”
There it was again. Hadn’t he dreamed it? What was this “know”? It wasn’t eating or drinking or doing or anything.
Then there floated into his pulsating areas this “Aristotle”.
No dig at all. But he knew that it was the inscription in the stone, and he walked up the broad front walk and entered the doors, which opened automatically for him.
He walked over the marble floor. Out of the corner of his eye he seemed almost to discern an occasional dim figure hurrying past. He walked up two flights of stairs, seemingly alone, and yet seemingly surrounded. It was strange, and it was perfectly natural. He had never felt so alive before. Not even in a Bed had he felt himself so much of a Man. And he did not think about doing. He had not the slightest interest in it. He wanted to know, whatever this might mean. He paused in front of a door. It opened, and he entered and eased himself into a chair.
“You must begin with the alphabet,” the voice began. “This is the letter A.”
It flashed upon the screen. He copied it on the plate before him. Over and over again he copied the letter, and heard its name repeated. He was on the way.
He remained for weeks, for months, in the library. His room was comfortable, his meals were tasty and well balanced. He lost weight, he gained continually an alert, aware sense of well-being and purpose. He was developing a mind, and beginning to know.
Throughout the day he studied consciously, or received hypnotic instruction; during the night, while his sleep was more keen and more restful than ever before, the instruction continued. He learned many things. He became aware of who Aristotle was, and what he had done. He developed an acquaintance with all the great men and cultures of the lost lands of Europa. He learned that he lived on the west coast of Ameru, and that this coast was one large City; he learned that the once large continent had dwindled greatly in the disasters, that the ocean waves now poured over the great plains, and all to the eastward. He felt occasionally a longing to see the mountains, and the further waters.
He learned and throve. He began to see other figures more distinctly: once in the corridor he met a Man face to face, and they smiled and bowed to each other. It had been a small Man, with a funny beard, and very bright eyes. It had not been like anybody he had ever seen in the City. But suddenly he knew that he was not like anybody in the City, and that it could no longer be his home. The shock of the fact that the City was not everything, that there was existence, and desirable existence, outside of it, came to him strongly; but now he was ready for it. When the tumult was over, his mind was at last born, and he was a human being, ready to aim for high goals, and to co-operate with destiny.
That night much of a strange nature, called “Sunrise”, came to him, and strange names, faces, and disciplines were vaguely lodged within him. He awoke with a most definite feeling of readiness, and with his breakfast he knew, beyond doubt, that “When the disciple is ready, the Master appears.”
When he had finished eating, he left the library, and walked in thought. How dismal everything was! Nobody knowing, or caring about anything really important; nobody seeing anything. And certainly they did not see him: but he saw them very clearly. And how much was there, still to be seen, all around him? And what was it, what did it mean? He had to get out, he had to find an answer.
He pushed the nearest button, and slid into the suave black Car that noiselessly approached. He had never seen a black Car before. He wondered if his eyes were still playing tricks upon him, if he would ever see anything aright. Then he dismissed it from his mind.
“Take me out of the City”, he said.
There was a slight hesitation; then they were moving, slowly and quietly, in a northeasterly direction.
It was a long ride, past all the familiar features of the City, multiplied many fold. At length the Car shuddered slightly, and the virtue seemed to go out of it in a gentle rush: it stopped, utterly still, and the silent door slid open with an eloquent finality. He got out, and the Car seemed to hasten away as from an undesired doom.
But his weird was upon him; he thought so, in the transfixing old terms; and he turned and beheld an open field, with mountains in the distance. And it came to him that he had ridden this way before, and seen nothing but City all around him. He thought then of enigmatic things that he had heard and read in the library: of how certain Tibetans rendered themselves invisible, or at least passed unseen, by shielding their thought waves--by giving out no handle for perception to grasp. So had this landscape hidden itself, it seemed: shielded itself from desecration.
Or perhaps there were beings, perhaps there was existence, that gave continual indication, bristled with handles, as it were: but handles that could not be grasped or made use of by an organism insufficiently developed. It seemed more of a truism, the more he thought of it.
But it did not seem to matter, on this bright new day. He dismissed the question and stepped forward, into the yielding grass.
What a great thing it was to have a mind, to feel alive on such a day! He tried to remember how dim, how crippled he had been; it seemed impossible. Could he have been only one poor, flickering candle, he who now blazed with the light of a hundred, or a thousand? Could he have rattled on one cylinder, he who now moved smoothly and noiselessly on sixteen or twenty? It was too marvelous for words, or for thoughts.
For a long time he walked, perspiring freely, then puffing, limping and laboring. It was hot, with no breezes from the sea. An occasional rill was refreshing, and a glade was cooling: the leaves rustled gently in the now and then quickened air, and the birds were sweet with song. But there was no sign of human life. At length he sat down on a fallen log, and rested.
He sat long, thinking and dozing. The sun was low in the sky when he arose, and followed some prompting to a ridge not too greatly in the distance. He had come without provision of any kind, and with no fear for his welfare: he would see. The ground seemed soft enough, if he had to sleep there; he took off his shoes and socks, and enjoyed the cool grass.
He walked on toward the ridge, slowly and confidently, his shoes and socks in his hand. He had not eaten for many hours, but he did not seem hungry. Food was not the tremendously important thing that it used to be. He thought of his old esurience, and smiled. Whatever his god was, it was not his belly, it was not his body at all. He still had enough flab to live on for some time without inconvenience, and it would be better to live on it, than to keep stuffing himself. There were no women either, and no androids. They were tiresome, and tiring, things. He sighed almost with contentment.
Soon he crossed the ridge, and saw the smiling farmland in the valley not far below. This was where the old food supplies had come from: this had been the life of all but a few, for many centuries. There was a great peace over it all. With a sense as of treading on hallowed ground, he descended steadily, and soon came upon a large and rambling wooden house, unpainted, and comfortable. Really comfortable, in a human way, not in the sham way of the City. There was an elderly woman on the porch, serenely rocking. As he approached, she smiled.
“Welcome, stranger!” she said. “Come on up and rest awhile.”
He was glad of the invitation, and he mounted the generous and solid steps with his shoes and socks still in his hand. He sat down and redonned them, under her friendly smile.
“It feels good, doesn’t it?” she asserted. “The real earth, under real feet. Maybe you read the poet Hopkins before you got out. I did, right at the last. One poem has always stuck with me, and especially this one line of it:
Neither can feet feel, being shod.
I wanted to feel things; I was tired of being shod, and insulated, and deadened. I was just a young girl, then. I felt charged with the grandeur of God, as Hopkins put it, and I had to get out. I’ve seen a lot of God’s grandeur, and a lot of His blessing, through a long life. It’s been good, here in the real world.
“But it’s no use chattering,” she continued. “That doesn’t really express or communicate anything. Nature has got a bigger and better voice than any of us, and the best thing to do is just to listen for it. I hope you’ll stay with us awhile. The longer the better. We like to help people who’ve just escaped. But I still talk too much. Supper’ll be ready pretty soon, and I have to go tend to it for a few minutes. Just you sit there and be calm: listen for the still voices.”
He was glad to do so, and gladder still to see the men of the family returning from the fields. There were three of them, tall and strong, real human beings, healthy and alive, and little marked by unprofitable care. They had a faith, it seemed, a communion, a divine assurance, more or less fulfilled.
The older man, the father, welcomed him again, and they were soon seated at the supper table. He noticed that the men ate heartily, and had yet not an ounce of excess flesh. He rued his own bulk, and ate but sparingly, only out of politeness. But food had never tasted so good before.
The two sons were already approaching middle age, and were still unmarried. This occasioned their mother some concern. But, as she said, they didn’t seem to care, and God or nature could take care of these things better than people could. There was no use straining.
“And there aren’t so many young women around,” she mused. “There aren’t many people. Whatever love-making there may be, there’s very little breeding. It’s like the City, in that respect. It seems this just isn’t a very good world these days, comparatively speaking, and people are being held back till it gets better. There seems to be a sort of a cloud over everything. I don’t know. Anyway, we’re contented. At least we have our minds and hearts, and our patience.”
He stayed a week, a month: into the natural influences he vigorously and gratefully plunged. He helped with the farm work, and grew lean and hard, and mentally as well as physically strong. He stayed on, through the winter.
Then, with the spring, his own fertile ground began to burst and ache, and he was no longer satisfied. He was not nature itself, to endure unmoved the countless cycles of diversified sameness; he was rather a flower that faded with a season, a leaf that would soon fall. He was like a single wave of the vast ocean, and like that wave he must forever be moving on, questioning.
And so he left the farm very early one morning, and walked north, as he could tell by the stars. They would not be surprised, and it was better this way, without farewells. They would know that, for him, they had served their purpose, and would be glad. And so he walked north, before sunrise. For this direction he was conscious of no particular reason; but he felt it to be as good as any other.
He passed a farm or two, skirting them carefully, and breakfasted on the sunrise alone. It was so beautiful, thus breaking, rose and golden, over the hills. He remembered the last poet that he had read, before his deliverance: the great Sidney Lanier. “The Georgia gold mine,” he thought facetiously; and was at once sorry, for his shallowness. No more would successive suns blaze upon the soft southern beauty. The warm blue Atlantic waves rolled over the home of this poet-prophet; whose promise, he fervently hoped, was not yet drowned. He also would be Lit with the Sun. He stretched out his arms to the streaming gold, and then walked on vigorously, with a new purpose not yet defined.
He was getting into ruggeder country, and the going was more difficult. But yet he felt no inclination to break his fast, or to slacken his pace. The air was fresh, and good. He climbed around the spur of a hill, and found himself entering a wild valley with no sign of human habitation. There was a small stream close by, rippling down from the solitudes. He went to it, and knelt to drink.
As he arose, two ropes descended upon him, from opposite sides, and his arms were firmly pinioned. He looked around, and saw two bearded young men, of not unprepossessing aspect. Each wore tight-fitting clothing and a peaked hat with a long feather, and was armed with knife and sword. One of them motioned into the valley.
“Come on, thou varlet!” he said.
They proceeded, and were soon immersed in the rippling and jutting hills.
Near the head of the valley, and up a hollow to the side, they came to an expansive and well populated clearing. Many men, bearded and heavily armed, were lounging about, dressed fancifully, but for action. There were women also, sturdy and for the most part quite attractive. He found himself speculating briefly on the fierce joy of their dalliance in these invigorating wilds. Then his attention was abruptly drawn ahead, and he was forced to his knees before one who was obviously the leader.
He was in his middle years, and bore a long flaxen beard and leonine mane of hair; his eyes were large, and of a piercing but softly reassuring green. He sat, still and lordly, and surveyed his captive.