It Could Be Anything

by Keith Laumer

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: 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.

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

“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.


He picked up another.


A third said:


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?”


“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.”


“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.

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