“I’m not going to take no for an answer.”
Albin stood in the doorway of his room, slouching against the metal lintel and looking even more like a gnome. Dodd sighed softly and got up from the single chair. “I’m not anxious for a party,” he said. “All I want to do is go to sleep.”
“At nine o’clock?” Albin shook his head.
“Maybe I’m tired.”
“You’re not tired,” Albin said. “You’re scared. You’re scared of what you might find out there in the cold, cruel world, friend. You’re scared of parties and strange people and noise. You want to be left alone to brood, right?”
“But I’m not going to leave you alone to brood,” Albin said. “Because I’m your friend. And brooding isn’t good for you. It’s brooding that’s got you into such a state—where you worry about growing things, for God’s sake, and about freedom and silly things like that.” Albin grinned. “What you’ve got to do is stop worrying, and I know how to get you to do that, kiddo. I really do.”
“Sure you do,” Dodd said, and his voice began to rise. He went to the bed, walked along its length to the window, as he talked, never facing Albin. “You know how to make me feel just fine, no worries at all, no complications, just a nice, simple life. With nothing at all in it, Albin. Nothing at all.”
“Now, come on—” Albin began.
“Nothing,” Dodd said. “Go to parties, drink, meet a girl, forget, go right on forgetting, and then one day you wake up and it’s over and what have you got?”
“Parties,” Albin said. “Girls. Drinks. What else is there?”
“A lot,” Dodd said. “I want—oh, God, I don’t know what I want. Too much. Too many ideas ... trapped here being a master, and that’s no good.”
“Dodd,” Albin said, in what was almost a worried tone, “what the hell are you talking about?”
“Being a master,” Dodd said. “There shouldn’t be masters. Or slaves. Just—beings, able to do what they want to do ... what makes me any better than the Alberts, anyhow?”
“The Belbis beam, for one thing,” Albin said. “Position, power, protection, punishment. What makes anybody better than anybody else?”
“But that’s the point—don’t you see?”
Albin stood upright, massaging his arm. “What I see is a case of worry,” he said, “and as a doctor I have certain responsibilities. I’ve got to take care of that case of worries, and I’m not going to take no for an answer.”
“Leave me alone,” Dodd said. “Just do me a favor. Leave me alone.”
“Come with me,” Albin said. “This once. Look—what can you lose? Just once can’t hurt you—you can do all the brooding you want to do some other time. Give me a present. Come to the party with me.”
“I don’t like parties.”
“And I don’t like going alone,” Albin said. “So do me a favor.”
“Where is it?” Dodd asked after a second.
Albin beamed. “Psych division,” he said. “Come on.”
The metal door was festooned with paper drapery in red and blue. Dodd turned before they got to it, standing about five feet down the corridor. “How did you find out about a party in Psych division?” he asked.
Albin shrugged. “I’m an active type,” he said. “I’ve got friends all over. You’d be surprised how many friends a man can have, Dodd, if he goes to parties. If he meets people instead of brooding.”
“All right,” Dodd said. “I’m here, aren’t I? You’ve convinced me—stop the propaganda.”
“Sure.” Albin went up to the door and knocked. From inside they could hear a dim babel of voices. After a second he knocked again, more loudly.
A voice rose above the hum. “Who’s there?”
“A friend,” Albin said. “The password is Haenlingen-on-fire.”
The voice broke into laughter. “Oh,” it said. It was now distinguishingly a female voice. “It’s you, Cendar. But hold it down on the Haenlingen stuff: she’s supposed to be arriving.”
“At a party?” Albin said. “She’s a hundred and twelve—older than that. What does she want with parties? Don’t be silly.”
The door opened. A slim, blonde girl stood by it, her mouth still grinning. “Cendar, I mean it,” she said. “You watch out. One of these days you’re going to get into trouble.”
Behind her the hum had risen to a chorus of mad clatter, conversation, laughter, song—the girl dragged Albin and Dodd inside and shut the door. “I’m always in trouble,” Albin was saying. “It keeps life interesting.” But it was hard to hear him, hard to hear any single voice in the swell of noise.
“Thank God for soundproofing,” the girl said. “We can do whatever we like and there’s no noise out there.”
“The drapes give you away,” Albin said.
“Let the drapes give us away,” the girl said. “We’re entitled to have quiet little gatherings, right? And who knows what goes on behind the drapes?”
“Right,” Albin said. “You are right. You are absolutely, incredibly, stunningly right. And to prove how right you are I’m going to do you a favor.”
“What kind of favor?” the girl said with mock suspicion.
“Greta,” Albin said, “I’m going to introduce you to a nice young man.”
“You don’t know any nice young men.”
“I know this one,” Albin said. “Greta Forzane, Johnny Dodd. Take good care of him, kiddo—he needs it.”
“What do you mean, good care of him?” she said. But Albin was gone, into the main body of the party, a melee confused enough so that he was lost in twenty steps. Greta turned back almost hopeless eyes.
A second passed.
“You a friend of Cendar’s?” Greta asked.
Johnny blinked and came back to her. “Oh, Albin?” he said. “We’re—acquaintances.”
“Friends,” Greta said firmly. “That’s nice. He’s such a nice guy—I bet you are, too.” She smiled and took his arm. Her hand was slightly warm and very dry. Johnny took his first real look at her: she seemed shining, somehow, as if the hair had been lacquered, the face sprayed with a clear polish. The picture she made was vaguely unpleasant, and a little threatening.
“A nice guy?” he said. “I wouldn’t know, Miss Forzane.”
“Oh, come on, now,” she said. “The name is Greta. And you’re Johnny—right?”
“ ... Right.”
“You know,” Greta said, “you’re cute.”
Behind her the party was still going on, but its volume seemed to have diminished a little. Or maybe, Johnny thought, he was getting used to it. “You’re cute too,” he said awkwardly, not knowing any more what he did want to do, or where he wanted to be. Her grasp on his arm was the main fact in the world.
“Thanks,” she said. “Here.”
And as suddenly as that she was in his arms, plastered up against him, pressed to him as tightly as he could imagine, her mouth on his, her hands locked behind his neck: he was choking, he couldn’t breathe, he couldn’t move...
The door behind him opened and shoved him gently across his back.
He fell, and he fell on top of her.
It seemed as if the entire party had stopped to watch him. There was no noise. There was no sound at all. He climbed to his feet to face the eyes and found they were not on him, but behind him.
A tiny white-haired woman stood there, her mouth one thin line of disapproval. “Well,” she said. “Having a good time?”
In Dodd’s mind, then and later, the sign began.
That was, as far as he could ever remember, the first second he had even seen it. It was there, behind his eyes, blinking on and off, like a neon sign. Sometimes he paid no attention to it, but it was always there, always telling him the same thing.
This is the end.
This is the end.
This is the end.
He looked into that ancient grim face and the sign began. And from then on it never stopped, never stopped at all—
Until, of course, the end.
PUBLIC OPINION ONE