The Skull

by Phillip K. Dick

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: Conger agreed to kill a stranger he had never seen. He wasn't concerned about getting the wrong man. He knew what the man looked like. There was no way he could make a mistake about his target's identity -- he had the man's skull under his shoulder.

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

“What is this opportunity?” Conger asked. “Go on. I’m interested.”

The room was silent; all faces were fixed on Conger--still in the drab prison uniform. The Speaker leaned forward slowly.

“Before you went to prison your trading business was paying well--all illegal--all very profitable. Now you have nothing, except the prospect of another six years in a cell.”

Conger scowled.

“There is a certain situation, very important to this Council, that requires your peculiar abilities. Also, it is a situation you might find interesting. You were a hunter, were you not? You’ve done a great deal of trapping, hiding in the bushes, waiting at night for the game? I imagine hunting must be a source of satisfaction to you, the chase, the stalking--”

Conger sighed. His lips twisted. “All right,” he said. “Leave that out. Get to the point. Who do you want me to kill?”

The Speaker smiled. “All in proper sequence,” he said softly.

The car slid to a stop. It was night; there was no light anywhere along the street. Conger looked out. “Where are we? What is this place?”

The hand of the guard pressed into his arm. “Come. Through that door.”

Conger stepped down, onto the damp sidewalk. The guard came swiftly after him, and then the Speaker. Conger took a deep breath of the cold air. He studied the dim outline of the building rising up before them.

“I know this place. I’ve seen it before.” He squinted, his eyes growing accustomed to the dark. Suddenly he became alert. “This is--”

“Yes. The First Church.” The Speaker walked toward the steps. “We’re expected.”

“Expected? Here?

“Yes.” The Speaker mounted the stairs. “You know we’re not allowed in their Churches, especially with guns!” He stopped. Two armed soldiers loomed up ahead, one on each side.

“All right?” The Speaker looked up at them. They nodded. The door of the Church was open. Conger could see other soldiers inside, standing about, young soldiers with large eyes, gazing at the ikons and holy images.

“I see,” he said.

“It was necessary,” the Speaker said. “As you know, we have been singularly unfortunate in the past in our relations with the First Church.”

“This won’t help.”

“But it’s worth it. You will see.”

They passed through the hall and into the main chamber where the altar piece was, and the kneeling places. The Speaker scarcely glanced at the altar as they passed by. He pushed open a small side door and beckoned Conger through.

“In here. We have to hurry. The faithful will be flocking in soon.”

Conger entered, blinking. They were in a small chamber, low-ceilinged, with dark panels of old wood. There was a smell of ashes and smoldering spices in the room. He sniffed. “What’s that? The smell.”

“Cups on the wall. I don’t know.” The Speaker crossed impatiently to the far side. “According to our information, it is hidden here by this--”

Conger looked around the room. He saw books and papers, holy signs and images. A strange low shiver went through him.

“Does my job involve anyone of the Church? If it does--”

The Speaker turned, astonished. “Can it be that you believe in the Founder? Is it possible, a hunter, a killer--”

“No. Of course not. All their business about resignation to death, non-violence--”

“What is it, then?”

Conger shrugged. “I’ve been taught not to mix with such as these. They have strange abilities. And you can’t reason with them.”

The Speaker studied Conger thoughtfully. “You have the wrong idea. It is no one here that we have in mind. We’ve found that killing them only tends to increase their numbers.”

“Then why come here? Let’s leave.”

“No. We came for something important. Something you will need to identify your man. Without it you won’t be able to find him.” A trace of a smile crossed the Speaker’s face. “We don’t want you to kill the wrong person. It’s too important.”

“I don’t make mistakes.” Conger’s chest rose. “Listen, Speaker--”

“This is an unusual situation,” the Speaker said. “You see, the person you are after--the person that we are sending you to find--is known only by certain objects here. They are the only traces, the only means of identification. Without them--”

“What are they?”

He came toward the Speaker. The Speaker moved to one side. “Look,” he said. He drew a sliding wall away, showing a dark square hole. “In there.”

Conger squatted down, staring in. He frowned. “A skull! A skeleton!”

“The man you are after has been dead for two centuries,” the Speaker said. “This is all that remains of him. And this is all you have with which to find him.”

For a long time Conger said nothing. He stared down at the bones, dimly visible in the recess of the wall. How could a man dead centuries be killed? How could he be stalked, brought down?

Conger was a hunter, a man who had lived as he pleased, where he pleased. He had kept himself alive by trading, bringing furs and pelts in from the Provinces on his own ship, riding at high speed, slipping through the customs line around Earth.

He had hunted in the great mountains of the moon. He had stalked through empty Martian cities. He had explored--

The Speaker said, “Soldier, take these objects and have them carried to the car. Don’t lose any part of them.”

The soldier went into the cupboard, reaching gingerly, squatting on his heels.

“It is my hope,” the Speaker continued softly, to Conger, “that you will demonstrate your loyalty to us, now. There are always ways for citizens to restore themselves, to show their devotion to their society. For you I think this would be a very good chance. I seriously doubt that a better one will come. And for your efforts there will be quite a restitution, of course.”

The two men looked at each other; Conger, thin, unkempt, the Speaker immaculate in his uniform.

“I understand you,” Conger said. “I mean, I understand this part, about the chance. But how can a man who has been dead two centuries be--”

“I’ll explain later,” the Speaker said. “Right now we have to hurry!” The soldier had gone out with the bones, wrapped in a blanket held carefully in his arms. The Speaker walked to the door. “Come. They’ve already discovered that we’ve broken in here, and they’ll be coming at any moment.”

They hurried down the damp steps to the waiting car. A second later the driver lifted the car up into the air, above the house-tops.

The Speaker settled back in the seat.

“The First Church has an interesting past,” he said. “I suppose you are familiar with it, but I’d like to speak of a few points that are of relevancy to us.

“It was in the twentieth century that the Movement began--during one of the periodic wars. The Movement developed rapidly, feeding on the general sense of futility, the realization that each war was breeding greater war, with no end in sight. The Movement posed a simple answer to the problem: Without military preparations--weapons--there could be no war. And without machinery and complex scientific technocracy there could be no weapons.

“The Movement preached that you couldn’t stop war by planning for it. They preached that man was losing to his machinery and science, that it was getting away from him, pushing him into greater and greater wars. Down with society, they shouted. Down with factories and science! A few more wars and there wouldn’t be much left of the world.

“The Founder was an obscure person from a small town in the American Middle West. We don’t even know his name. All we know is that one day he appeared, preaching a doctrine of non-violence, non-resistance; no fighting, no paying taxes for guns, no research except for medicine. Live out your life quietly, tending your garden, staying out of public affairs; mind your own business. Be obscure, unknown, poor. Give away most of your possessions, leave the city. At least that was what developed from what he told the people.”

The car dropped down and landed on a roof.

“The Founder preached this doctrine, or the germ of it; there’s no telling how much the faithful have added themselves. The local authorities picked him up at once, of course. Apparently they were convinced that he meant it; he was never released. He was put to death, and his body buried secretly. It seemed that the cult was finished.”

The Speaker smiled. “Unfortunately, some of his disciples reported seeing him after the date of his death. The rumor spread; he had conquered death, he was divine. It took hold, grew. And here we are today, with a First Church, obstructing all social progress, destroying society, sowing the seeds of anarchy--”

“But the wars,” Conger said. “About them?”

“The wars? Well, there were no more wars. It must be acknowledged that the elimination of war was the direct result of non-violence practiced on a general scale. But we can take a more objective view of war today. What was so terrible about it? War had a profound selective value, perfectly in accord with the teachings of Darwin and Mendel and others. Without war the mass of useless, incompetent mankind, without training or intelligence, is permitted to grow and expand unchecked. War acted to reduce their numbers; like storms and earthquakes and droughts, it was nature’s way of eliminating the unfit.

“Without war the lower elements of mankind have increased all out of proportion. They threaten the educated few, those with scientific knowledge and training, the ones equipped to direct society. They have no regard for science or a scientific society, based on reason. And this Movement seeks to aid and abet them. Only when scientists are in full control can the--”

He looked at his watch and then kicked the car door open. “I’ll tell you the rest as we walk.”

They crossed the dark roof. “Doubtless you now know whom those bones belonged to, who it is that we are after. He has been dead just two centuries, now, this ignorant man from the Middle West, this Founder. The tragedy is that the authorities of the time acted too slowly. They allowed him to speak, to get his message across. He was allowed to preach, to start his cult. And once such a thing is under way, there’s no stopping it.

“But what if he had died before he preached? What if none of his doctrines had ever been spoken? It took only a moment for him to utter them, that we know. They say he spoke just once, just one time. Then the authorities came, taking him away. He offered no resistance; the incident was small.”

The Speaker turned to Conger.

“Small, but we’re reaping the consequences of it today.”

They went inside the building. Inside, the soldiers had already laid out the skeleton on a table. The soldiers stood around it, their young faces intense.

Conger went over to the table, pushing past them. He bent down, staring at the bones. “So these are his remains,” he murmured. “The Founder. The Church has hidden them for two centuries.”

“Quite so,” the Speaker said. “But now we have them. Come along down the hall.”

They went across the room to a door. The Speaker pushed it open. Technicians looked up. Conger saw machinery, whirring and turning; benches and retorts. In the center of the room was a gleaming crystal cage.

The Speaker handed a Slem-gun to Conger. “The important thing to remember is that the skull must be saved and brought back--for comparison and proof. Aim low--at the chest.”

Conger weighed the gun in his hands. “It feels good,” he said. “I know this gun--that is, I’ve seen them before, but I never used one.”

The Speaker nodded. “You will be instructed on the use of the gun and the operation of the cage. You will be given all data we have on the time and location. The exact spot was a place called Hudson’s field. About 1960 in a small community outside Denver, Colorado. And don’t forget--the only means of identification you will have will be the skull. There are visible characteristics of the front teeth, especially the left incisor--”

Conger listened absently. He was watching two men in white carefully wrapping the skull in a plastic bag. They tied it and carried it into the crystal cage. “And if I should make a mistake?”

“Pick the wrong man? Then find the right one. Don’t come back until you succeed in reaching this Founder. And you can’t wait for him to start speaking; that’s what we must avoid! You must act in advance. Take chances; shoot as soon as you think you’ve found him. He’ll be someone unusual, probably a stranger in the area. Apparently he wasn’t known.”

Conger listened dimly.

“Do you think you have it all now?” the Speaker asked.

“Yes. I think so.” Conger entered the crystal cage and sat down, placing his hands on the wheel.

“Good luck,” the Speaker said.

“We’ll be awaiting the outcome. There’s some philosophical doubt as to whether one can alter the past. This should answer the question once and for all.”

Conger fingered the controls of the cage.

“By the way,” the Speaker said. “Don’t try to use this cage for purposes not anticipated in your job. We have a constant trace on it. If we want it back, we can get it back. Good luck.”

Conger said nothing. The cage was sealed. He raised his finger and touched the wheel control. He turned the wheel carefully.

He was still staring at the plastic bag when the room outside vanished.

For a long time there was nothing at all. Nothing beyond the crystal mesh of the cage. Thoughts rushed through Conger’s mind, helter-skelter. How would he know the man? How could he be certain, in advance? What had he looked like? What was his name? How had he acted, before he spoke? Would he be an ordinary person, or some strange outlandish crank?

Conger picked up the Slem-gun and held it against his cheek. The metal of the gun was cool and smooth. He practiced moving the sight. It was a beautiful gun, the kind of gun he could fall in love with. If he had owned such a gun in the Martian desert--on the long nights when he had lain, cramped and numbed with cold, waiting for things that moved through the darkness--

He put the gun down and adjusted the meter readings of the cage. The spiraling mist was beginning to condense and settle. All at once forms wavered and fluttered around him.

Colors, sounds, movements filtered through the crystal wire. He clamped the controls off and stood up.

He was on a ridge overlooking a small town. It was high noon. The air was crisp and bright. A few automobiles moved along a road. Off in the distance were some level fields. Conger went to the door and stepped outside. He sniffed the air. Then he went back into the cage.

He stood before the mirror over the shelf, examining his features. He had trimmed his beard--they had not got him to cut it off--and his hair was neat. He was dressed in the clothing of the middle-twentieth century, the odd collar and coat, the shoes of animal hide. In his pocket was money of the times. That was important. Nothing more was needed.

Nothing, except his ability, his special cunning. But he had never used it in such a way before.

He walked down the road toward the town.

The first things he noticed were the newspapers on the stands. April 5, 1961. He was not too far off. He looked around him. There was a filling station, a garage, some taverns, and a ten-cent store. Down the street was a grocery store and some public buildings.

A few minutes later he mounted the stairs of the little public library and passed through the doors into the warm interior.

The librarian looked up, smiling.

“Good afternoon,” she said.

He smiled, not speaking because his words would not be correct; accented and strange, probably. He went over to a table and sat down by a heap of magazines. For a moment he glanced through them. Then he was on his feet again. He crossed the room to a wide rack against the wall. His heart began to beat heavily.

Newspapers--weeks on end. He took a roll of them over to the table and began to scan them quickly. The print was odd, the letters strange. Some of the words were unfamiliar.

He set the papers aside and searched farther. At last he found what he wanted. He carried the Cherrywood Gazette to the table and opened it to the first page. He found what he wanted:


An unidentified man, held by the county sheriff’s office for

suspicion of criminal syndicalism, was found dead this morning, by--

He finished the item. It was vague, uninforming. He needed more. He carried the Gazette back to the racks and then, after a moment’s hesitation, approached the librarian.

“More?” he asked. “More papers. Old ones?”

She frowned. “How old? Which papers?”

“Months old. And--before.”

“Of the Gazette? This is all we have. What did you want? What are you looking for? Maybe I can help you.”

He was silent.

“You might find older issues at the Gazette office,” the woman said, taking off her glasses. “Why don’t you try there? But if you’d tell me, maybe I could help you--”

He went out.

The Gazette office was down a side street; the sidewalk was broken and cracked. He went inside. A heater glowed in the corner of the small office. A heavy-set man stood up and came slowly over to the counter.

“What did you want, mister?” he said.

“Old papers. A month. Or more.”

“To buy? You want to buy them?”

“Yes.” He held out some of the money he had. The man stared.

“Sure,” he said. “Sure. Wait a minute.” He went quickly out of the room. When he came back he was staggering under the weight of his armload, his face red. “Here are some,” he grunted. “Took what I could find. Covers the whole year. And if you want more--”

Conger carried the papers outside. He sat down by the road and began to go through them.

What he wanted was four months back, in December. It was a tiny item, so small that he almost missed it. His hands trembled as he scanned it, using the small dictionary for some of the archaic terms.


An unidentified man who refused to give his name was picked up in

Cooper Creek by special agents of the sheriff’s office, according to

Sheriff Duff. It was said the man was recently noticed in this area

and had been watched continually. It was--

Cooper Creek. December, 1960. His heart pounded. That was all he needed to know. He stood up, shaking himself, stamping his feet on the cold ground. The sun had moved across the sky to the very edge of the hills. He smiled. Already he had discovered the exact time and place. Now he needed only to go back, perhaps to November, to Cooper Creek--

He walked back through the main section of town, past the library, past the grocery store. It would not be hard; the hard part was over. He would go there; rent a room, prepare to wait until the man appeared.

He turned the corner. A woman was coming out of a doorway, loaded down with packages. Conger stepped aside to let her pass. The woman glanced at him. Suddenly her face turned white. She stared, her mouth open.

Conger hurried on. He looked back. What was wrong with her? The woman was still staring; she had dropped the packages to the ground. He increased his speed. He turned a second corner and went up a side street. When he looked back again the woman had come to the entrance of the street and was starting after him. A man joined her, and the two of them began to run toward him.

He lost them and left the town, striding quickly, easily, up into the hills at the edge of town. When he reached the cage he stopped. What had happened? Was it something about his clothing? His dress?

He pondered. Then, as the sun set, he stepped into the cage.

Conger sat before the wheel. For a moment he waited, his hands resting lightly on the control. Then he turned the wheel, just a little, following the control readings carefully.

The grayness settled down around him.

But not for very long.

The man looked him over critically. “You better come inside,” he said. “Out of the cold.”

“Thanks.” Conger went gratefully through the open door, into the living-room. It was warm and close from the heat of the little kerosene heater in the corner. A woman, large and shapeless in her flowered dress, came from the kitchen. She and the man studied him critically.

“It’s a good room,” the woman said. “I’m Mrs. Appleton. It’s got heat. You need that this time of year.”

“Yes.” He nodded, looking around.

“You want to eat with us?”


“You want to eat with us?” The man’s brows knitted. “You’re not a foreigner, are you, mister?”

“No.” He smiled. “I was born in this country. Quite far west, though.”


“No.” He hesitated. “In Oregon.”

“What’s it like up there?” Mrs. Appleton asked. “I hear there’s a lot of trees and green. It’s so barren here. I come from Chicago, myself.”

“That’s the Middle West,” the man said to her. “You ain’t no foreigner.”

“Oregon isn’t foreign, either,” Conger said. “It’s part of the United States.”

The man nodded absently. He was staring at Conger’s clothing.

“That’s a funny suit you got on, mister,” he said. “Where’d you get that?”

Conger was lost. He shifted uneasily. “It’s a good suit,” he said. “Maybe I better go some other place, if you don’t want me here.”

They both raised their hands protestingly. The woman smiled at him. “We just have to look out for those Reds. You know, the government is always warning us about them.”

“The Reds?” He was puzzled.

“The government says they’re all around. We’re supposed to report anything strange or unusual, anybody doesn’t act normal.”

“Like me?”

They looked embarrassed. “Well, you don’t look like a Red to me,” the man said. “But we have to be careful. The Tribune says--”

Conger half listened. It was going to be easier than he had thought. Clearly, he would know as soon as the Founder appeared. These people, so suspicious of anything different, would be buzzing and gossiping and spreading the story. All he had to do was lie low and listen, down at the general store, perhaps. Or even here, in Mrs. Appleton’s boarding house.

“Can I see the room?” he said.

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