Wheels Within - Cover

Wheels Within

by Charles V. De Vet

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: Never ask "Who am I and where do I come from?" The answers may not be what you'd expect!

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

“When did the headaches first start?” asked the neurologist, Dr. Hall.

“About six months ago,” Bennett replied.

“What is your occupation, Mr. Bennett?”

“I am a contractor.”

“Are you happy in your work?”

“Very. I prefer it to any other occupation I know of.”

“When your headaches become sufficiently severe, you say that you have hallucinations,” Hall said. “Can you describe what you see during those hallucinations?”

“At first I had only the impression that I was in a place completely unlike anything I had ever known,” Bennett answered. “But each time my impressions became sharper, and I carried a fairly clear picture when my mind returned to normal the last time. I felt then that I had been in a room in a tall building that towered thousands of feet over a great city. I even remembered that the name of the city was Thone. There were other people in the room with me--one person especially. I remembered her very clearly.”

“Her?” Hall asked.


“Was there anything unusual about this woman?”

“Well, yes, there was,” Bennett said, after a brief and almost embarrassed pause. “This will sound pretty adolescent, but--”

Hall leaned forward attentively. “It may be relevant. You’re not here to be judged, you know; I’m trying to help you.”

Bennett nodded and spoke rapidly, as though trying to finish before he could stop himself. “She was a woman who exactly fitted an image I’ve had in mind for as long as I can remember. She was tall, fair--though brunette--very beautiful, very vivid, very well poised. I seem to have known her all my life, but only in my dreams, from my very earliest ones to the present. She’s never changed in all that time.”

He halted as suddenly as he had begun to talk, either having nothing more to say, or unwilling to say it.

“Have you ever married, Mr. Bennett?” Hall prodded gently.

“No, I never have.” Again, Bennett stopped, adding nothing more to his blunt answer.

“May I ask why not?”

Bennett turned his face away. “I was hoping you wouldn’t ask that. It makes me sound like a romantic kid.” He looked at the doctor almost in defiance. “I’ve always felt that some day I would meet this girl, or at least someone very much like her. I know it’s not a rational feeling--maybe I’ve even used it as an excuse not to get married--but it’s like spilling salt and throwing a pinch over our shoulder; we aren’t superstitious, yet we don’t take any chances.”

Dr. Hall didn’t comment. He ended the questioning period and put Bennett through a series of tests. Then they sat down again and Hall offered his diagnosis.

“The neurological examination is essentially negative, Mr. Bennett. In other words, there is no organic reason that I can find for your headaches. That leaves only one other possibility--an emotional disturbance. I’m a neurologist, remember, not a psychoanalyst. I can only give an opinion about the cause of your complaint.”

Bennett waited expectantly.

“Headaches without organic causes are generally the result of repressed anger,” Hall went on. “That anger can stem from any number of traumatic situations or attitudes, all deeply buried in the unconscious, of course, or they would not have the power to hurt us. From what we know of you, however, it seems to be the result of frustration. In other words, you have created a fantasy image of a completely unattainable woman, and therefore none of the women you meet can fulfill your expectations. Since she is unattainable, you naturally feel a sense of frustration.”

“But who could she be?” Bennett asked anxiously.

“Someone you knew in childhood, perhaps. A composite of real and imaginary women. Usually, it is an idealized image of your own mother.”

Bennett sat frowning. “All right, let’s say that’s so. But where do the hallucinations of the city of Thone fit in?”

“This is something that has to be tracked down in a series of analytical sessions, so all I can do is guess. If one is unable to reach a goal in a real environment, the obvious answer is to create a fantasy world. That’s what you appear to be doing. It’s a dangerous situation, Mr. Bennett. Potentially, at least.”

“How so?” Bennett asked, alarmed.

“The general tendency is toward greater and greater divorcement from reality. I suggest immediate treatment by a competent analyst. If you don’t know of one, I can recommend several.”

“I’d like to think it over.”

“Do that,” Hall said. “And call me when you’ve decided.”

The third day after he consulted the neurologist, Bennett’s headache returned. As before, drugs were of no help. When the pain became blinding, he lay back on his bed, placed a cold cloth on his forehead, and closed his eyes.

Suddenly the realities he knew were gone and he was back in the dream-city of Thone.

Persons and objects were much clearer now. Bennett saw that he lay in a receptacle shaped like a rectangular metal box. It was padded, reminding him unpleasantly of a coffin. The woman he had seen before was again with him, but now he knew that her name was Lima. Behind her stood a man; a tall, dark man whose eyebrows joined over the bridge of his nose, and whose forehead was creased in a permanent frown. The woman held out her arms to Bennett. Her lips moved, but no sound came from them.

Bennett’s spirit seemed to rise from the flesh--he could see his body still lying there--and he followed the woman. As he approached she retreated and, try as he would to reach her, she remained just beyond his grasp.

After what seemed hours of futile pursuit, a cloud formed between him and the woman. When it dissipated, he had left the world of Thone. He was in a trolley-bus, in his own world, and vaguely he recalled having left his room, gone down to the street, and boarded the trolley--during the time he had followed Lima, in his hallucination. It seemed that he had a definite destination then, but now he could not recall what it had been.

His attention was drawn to the outside by the flickering of lights that flashed in through the bus windows. Bennett looked out and saw that he was in the Pleasure Section of the city, traveling through the Street of Carnivals. He watched the fronts of the amusement buildings pass before him and he read their advertisements listlessly.

Suddenly one sign seemed to spring out from all the others:


He left the trolley at the next corner and made his way through the crowd to the brightly lit carnival building.

Inside, he found a chair and seated himself. The show’s act appeared about half over. It was pretty evidently charlatan stuff, Bennett decided, but the black-hooded mystic on the stage held his attention. She was a tall woman, with a slender figure and fair flesh. She was poised, or perhaps it was indifference to the crowd.

A runner went through the audience touching articles of clothing or ornaments, and the woman without hesitation named each one he touched. The act was slightly different from most Bennett had seen in that the runner said nothing, merely touching the articles to be named.

The next portion of the show consisted of a mind-reading act. Bennett expected the usual routine of writing a question on paper, which would be sealed in an envelope and placed in a container on the stage.

He was surprised when the runner returned to the crowd and asked for volunteers for thought-reading.

A short man with a bright yellow necktie raised his hand. The runner made his way through the crowd to the man and touched him on the shoulder before turning back to the mystic. He still said nothing.

“This man is thinking that he should have stayed at home tonight,” the mystic said. “There are wrestling matches on the teletone, and he would have enjoyed them more than this show. Besides, he would have spent less money that way than he has tonight. And he does not like to spend money unless he must.”

A titter of amusement went through the crowd as the man blushed a dull crimson.

The runner touched a second man.

“This man wishes to know the winner in the eighth race at the horse tracks tomorrow,” she said. “I am sorry, but, because of Public Law one thousand thirty-two, Section five-A, I am prohibited from answering a question of that nature.”

The third person contacted was a woman. She raised her hand, then half changed her mind when she saw that the runner was turning toward her. But then she defiantly tossed her brown hair back from her face and allowed him to touch her shoulder.

“This woman is wondering if her lover is true to her--and if her husband will find out about them.”

This time the crowd laughed when the embarrassed woman turned pale and rushed up the aisle toward the exit.

No further hands were raised and the show ended with a short address by the runner: “I hope you have enjoyed these truly marvelous and mysterious demonstrations. Now the mystic, Lima, is available for a short time for personal interviews. The fee is very reasonable--one dollar a minute. Anyone wishing an interview please step forward.”

The mystic pulled the hood from her head, smiled, bowed at the crowd, and left the stage.

Bennett gasped.

“The woman of the city of Thone!”

“You have paid in advance for twenty-five minutes of my time,” Lima said, as she smiled in amusement. “Perhaps you had better begin your questions, instead of merely staring at me.”

Bennett brought his thoughts back with an effort. “Your performance was exceptionally good,” he said very soberly. “I enjoyed it. And so, apparently did the other customers. It is a clever routine. I’ll admit I can’t figure out how you do it.”

“Remember what Barnum said,” Lima replied lightly.

“At least you do not take yourself too seriously,” Bennett observed.

“On the contrary.” Lima countered, “I take myself very seriously. You, however, do not. You are paying for my time and the customer is always right.”

“Tell me,” Bennett asked abruptly, “have we ever met before?”

“Not to my knowledge.”

“Have you any objections to telling me about yourself during our interview? Who are you? What is your background?”

“I will be glad to tell you about myself, if you think it will be interesting,” she replied, after a barely perceptible pause. “How I came by this exceptional ability of mine, I have no slightest conception. I only remember that when I was young, and still without the intellect to evaluate social mores and customs, I was often placed in positions of awkwardness by my ability to read minds. At an early age, however, through the council of my parents, I learned to keep this knowledge to myself.

“By the time I reached my twentieth birthday, my parents were both dead and I was alone in the world. I had never learned any occupation. I made some attempts to use my mind-reading to some advantage to myself, but soon found that I encountered the opposition of the medical associations as well as the law. As a consequence, I turned to show business as the one means of earning a legitimate livelihood. There is not much more to tell.”

“Can you actually read minds?” Bennett asked insistently.

“I can.”

“Then what am I thinking now?”

“You are thinking,” Lima said, with no semblance of a trance or any of the other usual antics of professional mystics, “that I look exactly like a woman you have never seen, but whose image you have carried in your mind since your childhood.”

For just a moment, the startling accuracy disconcerted Bennett.

“I have a problem which is quite annoying,” he pushed on almost frantically. “Can you tell me what my problem is?”

“You have been subject to extremely severe headaches, which you have been unable to remedy, either by sedatives or with the help of a neurologist. Am I correct?”

“More than you could possibly know! Look, I came here believing you were a fake. That didn’t matter--it was the fact that you looked like this other woman that counted. I’m convinced now. I want your help. Can you help me, or at least tell me whether the neurologist is right about the cause of my headaches?”

“He is wrong,” Lima said. “I can tell you what causes them, but I am afraid that I will have to ask for another hundred dollars for that extra service.”

Bennett was momentarily irritated at this evidence that their relationship, at least as far as she was concerned, was strictly business. But he shrugged off the feeling. He drew five twenty-dollar bills from his pocketbook and placed them on the table before her.

“If you remember,” Lima said, folding the money carefully and tucking it into the neck of her dress, “five months ago a building which you had contracted to build fell, when it was nearly completed, and two workmen were killed.”

“I remember very well.”

“You found that the collapse of the building was caused by faulty material which you had bought through a subcontractor. You are still investigating to determine where to place the blame, and are on the point of doing so.”

“Go on,” Bennett breathed softly.

“You are quite certain that the person responsible is John Tournay, ostensibly a reputable contractor, but actually an unscrupulous scoundrel. You have a choice of exposing him, with great personal danger to yourself--Tournay is a dangerous and ruthless man--or remaining silent and knowing that you are a coward. The difficulty of that choice is causing your headaches.”

“You may be right,” Bennett admitted without hesitation. “I haven’t had time to think the matter through quite that far. What would you advise me to do?”

“That is something which cannot be advised. The answer lies within yourself. You are either a big enough man to do the right thing--which you yourself recognize--or you are a small man and will take the safer, less honorable course. The decision and the integrity lie within yourself.”

Bennett slumped. “I see that. Then there’s nothing more that you can do for me?”

“But there is,” Lima replied. “I can cure your headaches, if you wish--for an additional hundred dollars.”

“That would be a cheap price.” Bennett drew his wallet from his pocket. “My cash is rather low. Would you accept a personal check?”

“Certainly,” Lima said. “But, first, let me explain about my cure. There is some mental unpleasantness involved which you may consider worse than the ailment.”

“I doubt that. I can’t imagine anything worse than this agony.”

“Your mind will be placed under my control and led through a dream sequence. I will follow a logical progression of events, using your actual past as background. While you are under my control, your experiences will be far from pleasant. I will allow your mind to follow its own anticipated course of events, influencing your thoughts only slightly--directing them into as unpleasant channels as possible. In fact, to make the cure certain, at least the culmination must be quite devastating. Do you agree to undergo such rigorous mental punishment?”

“But why do I have to?” Bennett asked, astonished and worried.

“That pattern will act in the manner of a counter-irritant. Your mind is like a spoiled child, rejecting anticipated unpleasantness. Under my influence it is subjected to possible alternative experiences, which are so much worse than the one it originally feared that it will gratefully accept the lesser evil.”

“That sounds reasonable,” Bennett agreed. “When could we begin this treatment?”

“Immediately, if you are willing.”

“I see no reason for waiting.”

“Then, if you are ready,” Lima told him, “lie on this couch. Keep your eyes on mine.” She spoke slowly, evenly. “Remember that you are doing this of your own free will, that you trust me. I am your friend and would do you no harm.”

Her voice droned on as Bennett looked into her eyes. They merged until they became one large, placid pool of restfulness, and he found himself drawn into them.

He sank peacefully, quietly--completely.

When the telephone rang, Bennett knew it was the district attorney returning his call, and that the die was cast. Until this ugly business was brought to a conclusion, his life would be in constant danger.

“Leroy Bennett speaking,” he said. “I have had collected some information that I think will be of very great interest to your office.”

“Information about what?” the voice at the other end asked briskly.

“I have proof that John Tournay is responsible for the death of two men, in an action involving criminal collusion.”

“If what you say is true, I will be glad to see your evidence,” the district attorney said. “Could you deliver it in person? There may be some questions I would like to ask you about it.”

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