Authors: Damon Knight
Tags: #Short Story Collection, #Science Fiction
And farther down:
The solution finally adopted was three-fold.
—the only sanction possible to our humane, permissive society. Excommunication: not to speak to him, touch him willingly, or acknowledge his existence.
. Taking advantage of a mild predisposition to epilepsy, a variant of the so-called Kusko analog technique was employed, to prevent by an epileptic seizure any future act of violence.
. A careful alteration of his body chemistry was affected to make his exhaled and exuded wastes emit a strongly pungent and offensive odor. In mercy, he himself was rendered unable to detect this smell.
Fortunately, the genetic and environmental accidents which combined to produce this atavism have been fully explained and can never again…
The words stopped meaning anything, as they always did at that point. I didn’t want to read any farther; it was all nonsense, anyway. I was the king of the world.
I got up and went away, out into the night, blind to the dulls who thronged the rooms I passed.
Two squares away was the commerce area. I found a clothing outlet and went in. All the free clothes in the display cases were drab: those were for worthless floaters, not for me. I went past them to the specials, and found a combination I could stand—silver and blue, with a severe black piping down the tunic. A dull would have said it was “nice.” I punched for it. The automatic looked me over with its dull glassy eye, and croaked, “Your contribution book, please.”
I could have had a contribution book, for the trouble of stepping out into the street and taking it away from the first passer-by; but I didn’t have the patience. I picked up the one-legged table from the refreshment nook, hefted it, and swung it at the cabinet door. The metal shrieked and dented, opposite the catch. I swung once more to the same place, and the door sprang open. I pulled out clothing in handfuls till I got a set that would fit me.
I bathed and changed, and then went prowling in the big multi-outlet down the avenue. All those places are arranged pretty much alike, no matter what the local managers do to them. I went straight to the knives, and picked out three in graduated sizes, down to the size of my fingernail. Then I had to take my chances. I tried the furniture department, where I had had good luck once in a while, but this year all they were using was metal. I had to have seasoned wood.
I knew where there was a big cache of cherry wood, in goodsized blocks, in a forgotten warehouse up north at a place called Kootenay. I could have carried some around with me—enough for years—but what for, when the world belonged to me?
It didn’t take me long. Down in the workshop section, of all places, I found some antiques—tables and benches, all with wooden tops. While the dulls collected down at the other end of the room, pretending not to notice, I sawed off a good oblong chunk of the smallest bench, and made a base for it out of another.
As long as I was there, it was a good place to work, and I could eat and sleep upstairs, so I stayed.
I knew what I wanted to do. It was going to be a man, sitting, with his legs crossed and his forearms resting down along his calves. His head was going to be tilted back, and his eyes closed, as if he were turning his face up to the sun.
In three days it was finished. The trunk and limbs had a shape that was not man and not wood, but something in between: something that hadn’t existed before I made it.
Beauty. That was the old word.
I had carved one of the figure’s hands hanging loosely, and the other one curled shut. There had to be time to stop and say it was finished. I took the smallest, knife, the one I had been using to scrape the wood smooth, and cut away the handle and ground down what was left of the shaft to a thin spike. Then I drilled a hole into the wood of the figurine’s hand, in the hollow between thumb and curled finger. I fitted the knife blade in there; in the small hand it was the sword.
I cemented it in place. Then I took the sharp blade and stabbed my thumb, and smeared the blade.
I hunted most of that day, and finally found the right place—a niche in an outcropping of striated brown rock, in a little triangular half-wild patch that had been left where two roads forked. Nothing was permanent, of course, in a community like this one that might change its houses every five years or so, to follow the fashion; but this spot had been left to itself for a long time. It was the best I could do.
I had the paper ready: it was one of a hatch I had printed up a year ago. The paper was treated, and I knew it would stay legible a long time. I hid a little photo capsule in the back , of the niche, and ran the control wire to a staple in the base of the figurine. I put the figurine down on top of the paper, and anchored it lightly to the rock with two spots of all-cement. I had done it so often that it came naturally; I knew just how much cement would hold the figurine steady against a casual hand, but yield to one that really wanted to pull it down.
Then I stepped back to look: and the power and the pity of it made my breath come short, and tears start to my eyes.
Reflected light gleamed fitfully on the dark-stained blade that hung from his hand. He was sitting alone in that niche that closed him in like a coffin. His eyes were shut, and his head tilted back, as if he were turning his face up to the sun.
But only rock was over his head. There was no sun for him.
Hunched on the cool bare ground under a pepper tree, I was looking down across the road at the shadowed niche where my figurine sat.
I was all finished here. There was nothing more to keep me, and yet I couldn’t leave.
People walked past now and then—not often. The community seemed half deserted, as if most of the people had flocked off to a surf party somewhere, or a contribution meeting, or to watch a new house being dug to replace the one I had wrecked… There was a little wind blowing toward me, cool and lonesome in the leaves.
Up the other side of the hollow there was a terrace, and on that terrace, half an hour ago, I had seen a brief flash of color—a boy’s head, with a red cap on it, moving past and out of sight.
That was why I had to stay. I was thinking how that boy might come down from his terrace and into my road, and passing the little wild triangle of land, see my figurine. I was thinking he might not pass by indifferently, but stop: and go closer to look: and pick up the wooden man: and read what was written on the paper underneath.
I believed that sometime it had to happen. I wanted it so hard that I ached.
My carvings were all over the world, wherever I had wandered. There was one in Congo City, carved of ebony, dusty-black; one on Cyprus, of bone; one in New Bombay, of shell; one in Chang-teh, of jade.
They were like signs printed in red and green, in a color-blind world. Only the one I was looked for would ever pick one of them up, and read the message I knew by heart.
TO YOU WHO CAN SEE, the first sentence said, I OFFER YOU A WORLD…
There was a flash of color up on the terrace. I stiffened. A minute later, here it came again, from a different direction: it was the boy, clambering down the slope, brilliant against the green, with his red sharp-billed cap like a woodpecker’s head.
I held my breath.
He came toward me through the fluttering leaves, ticked off by pencils of sunlight as he passed. He was a brown boy, I could see at this distance, with a serious thin face. His ears stuck out, flickering pink with the sun behind them, and his elbow and knee pads made him look knobby.
He reached the fork in the road, and chose the path on my side. I huddled into myself as he came nearer.
Let him see it, let him not see me
, I thought fiercely.
My fingers closed around a stone.
He was nearer, walking jerkily with his hand in his pockets, watching his feet mostly.
When he was almost opposite me, I threw the stone.
It rustled through the leaves below the niche in the rock. The boy’s head turned. He stopped, staring. I think he saw the figurine then. I’m sure he saw it.
He took one step.
“Risha !” came floating down from the terrace.
And he looked up. “Here,” he piped.
I saw the woman’s head, tiny at the top of the terrace. She called something I didn’t hear; I was standing up, tight with anger.
Then the wind shifted. It blew from me to the boy. He whirled around, his eyes big, and clapped a hand to his nose.
“Oh, what a stench!” he said.
He turned to shout, “Coming!” and then he was gone, hurrying back up the road, into the unstable blur of green.
My one chance ruined. He would have seen the image, I knew if it hadn’t been for that damned woman and the wind shifting… They were all against me, people, wind and all.
And the figurine still sat, blind eyes turned up to the rocky sky.
There was something inside me that told me to take my disappointment and go away from there, and not come back.
I knew I would be sorry. I did it anyway: took the image out of the niche, and the paper with it, and climbed the slope. At the top I heard his clear voice laughing.
There was a thing that might have been an ornamental mound, or the camouflaged top of a buried house. I went around it, tripping over my own feet, and came upon the boy kneeling on the turf. He was playing with a brown and white puppy.
He looked up with the laughter going out of his face. There was no wind, and he could smell me. I knew it was bad. No wind, and the puppy to distract him—everything about it was wrong. But I went to him blindly anyhow, and fell on one knee, and shoved the figurine at his face.
“Look—” I said.
He went over backwards in his hurry: he couldn’t even have seen the image, except as a brown blur coming at him. He scrambled up, with the puppy whining and yapping around his heels, and ran for the mound.
I was up after him, clawing up moist earth and grass as I rose. In the other hand I still had the image clutched, and the paper with it.
A door popped open and swallowed him and popped shut again in my face. With the flat of my hand I beat the vines around it until I hit the doorplate by accident and the door opened. I dived in, shouting, “Wait,” and was in a spiral passage, lit pearl-gray, winding downward. Down I went headlong, and came out at the wrong door—an underground conservatory, humid and hot under the yellow lights, with dripping rank leaves in long rows. I went down the aisle raging, overturning the tanks, until I came to a vestibule and an elevator.
Down I went again to the third level and a labyrinth of guest rooms, all echoing, all empty. At last I found a ramp leading upward, past the conservatory, and at the end of it voices.
The door was clear vitrin, and I paused on the near side of it looking and listening. There was the boy, and a woman old enough to be his mother, just—sister or cousin, more likely—and an elderly woman in a hard chair holding the puppy. The room was comfortable and tasteless, like other rooms.
I saw the shock grow on their faces as I burst in: it was always the same, they knew I would like to kill them, but they never expected that I would come uninvited into a house. It was not done.
There was that boy, so close I could touch him, but the shock of all of them was quivering in the air, smothering, like a blanket that would deaden my voice. I felt I had to shout.
“Everything they tell you is lies!” I said. “See here—here, this is the truth! ” I had the figurine in front of his eyes, but he didn’t see.
“Risha, go below,” said the young woman quietly. He turned to obey, quick as a ferret, I got in front of him again. “Stay,” I said, breathing hard. “Look—”
“Remember, Risha, don’t speak,” said the woman.
I couldn’t stand any more. Where the boy went I don’t know; I ceased to see him. With the image in one hand and the paper with it, I leaped at the woman. I was almost quick enough; I almost reached her; but the buzzing took me in the middle of a step, louder, louder, like the end of the world.
It was the second time that week. When I came to, I was sick and too faint to move for a long time.
The house was silent. They had gone, of course… the house had been defiled, having me in it. They wouldn’t live here again, but would build elsewhere.
My eyes blurred. After a while I stood up and looked around the room. The walls were hung with a gray close-woven cloth that looked as if it would tear, and I thought of ripping it down in strips, breaking furniture, stuffing carpets and bedding into the oubliette… But I didn’t have the heart for it. I was too tired. Thirty years… They had given me all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory thereof, thirty years ago. It was more than one man alone could bear, for thirty years.
At last I stooped and picked up the figurine, and the paper that was supposed to go under it—crumpled now, with the forlorn look of a message that someone has thrown away unread.
I sighed bitterly.
I smoothed it out and read the last part.
YOU CAN SHARE THE WORLD WITH ME. THEY CAN’T STOP YOU. STRIKE NOW-PICK UP A SHARP THING AND STAB, OR A HEAVY THING AND CRUSH. THAT’S ALL. THAT WILL MAKE YOU FREE. ANYONE CAN DO IT.
Anyone. Someone. Anyone.
Richard Falk was a sane man. Up until three months ago he had been, so far as he could discover, the only sane man left in a world of lunatics.
Now he was a dead man.
He lay in a metal coffin twenty yards long by three wide, airless, soundless. Behind the faceplate of his helmet, under the rime of frozen air, his lips were bright blue, his cheeks, nose, forehead a lighter color, almost violet. The flesh was stiff as frozen leather. He did not move, breathe, or think: he was dead.
Beside him, strapped to the bulging torso of his suit, was a metal box labeled: SCATO HEART PROBE. SEE INSTRUCTIONS INSIDE.
All around him, strapped tight to the walls by broad loops of webbing, were boxes, canisters, canvas bags, kegs. Cargo. His coffin was a freighter, going to Mars.
In his frozen brain the memories were neatly stacked, just as he had left them. Not coupled now, each cell isolated, the entropy of his mind fallen to zero, But uppermost among them, waiting for the thaw that might never come, were the memories of his last few hours of life.
Once the ship was launched and free, he had had to wait until its dancing molecules had stilled, their heat all radiated away into space. Then to wait again, heater turned off, listening to the silence while his own life’s heat drained away: fingers and toes numb first, ears and nose following, then lips, cheeks, and all his flesh; shivering in an agony of cold, watching his breath fill the helmet with cloud, the cold drops beading on the colder faceplate.
Tricky, that, and a thing that demanded courage. Act too soon, and the last drop into stillness would be too slow—the freezing liquids in his body would crystallize, gashing his cells with a million tiny stabs. Wait too long, and the cold would stead his ability to act at all.
He had waited until the false warmth of the dying had crept over him, the subtle destroyer, cumbering his limbs not with harshness but with too much peace. Twisting then in the dead center where he floated, he had drawn himself into the lane between two looped bundles of cargo, forcing them aside, until he reached the naked hull. There, spread-eagled against the chill metal, embracing it as one who crucifies himself gladly, he had died.
The ship, stillest of sepulchers, hung fixed in the center of the starry globe. So it might have remained for time without end, changeless, knowing no time; for there was no time here, no “events”—the ship and all its contents—except its robot control, inactive now but warmed by a minute trickle of electrons—now being very nearly at zero Absolute.
But a relay clicked, communicating its tremor through support frame and girder and hull. Time had begun again. The radar assembly in the prow began to emit timed clusters of radiation; presently other relays snapped over, and then the engine awoke, whispered to itself an instant, and was silent. For an instant the ship had become once more a thing in motion, a pebble flung between the stars. Another such instant came, then another; then, at long last, the hull shuddered to the whip and carom of atmospheric molecules. Lightly it dipped into Martian air, out again, in again, making a great circuit of the globe. A final relay clicked, and Falk’s coffin hurled itself groundward, free of the skeletal ship whose rockets now flamed again, driving it back into the timeless deep.
A parachute opened as the cargo hull hurtled downward: a preposterous parasol that would not have held the weight a minute against Earth’s gravity, in Earth’s air; but here it slowed that plummeting fall until the box met Martian sand at not quite killing speed.
In the shell, Falk’s corpse slowly thawed.
His heart was beating. That was Falk’s first conscious realisation, and he listened to the tiny sound thankfully. His chest was rising and falling in a deep, slow rhythm; he heard the hiss and whisper of breath in his nostrils and felt the veins twitch at his temples.
Then came a prickling, half pain, in his arms and legs; then he saw a ruddy haze of light on his closed lids.
Falk opened his eyes.
He saw a pale glow that turned itself into a face. It went away briefly, and came back. Falk could see it a little better now. Young—about thirty—pale-skinned, with a blue beard shadow. Black straight hair, a little untidy. Black-rimmed spectacles. Ironic lines on either side of the thin mouth.
“All right now?” said the face.
Falk murmured, and the face bent closer. He tried again. “Think so.”
The young man nodded. He picked up something from the bed and began taking it apart, fitting the components into the cushioned troughs of a metal box. It was the heart probe, Falk saw: the bulky control, box and the short, capillary-thin needle.
“Where did you get this?” the young man asked. “And what the devil were you doing aboard that freighter?”
“Stole the probe,” said Falk. “And the suit, and the rest of the stuff. Dumped enough cargo to match my weight. Wanted to get to Mars. Only way.”
The young man let his hands fall into his lap. “You
it,” he repeated incredulously. “Then you never had the analogue treatment?”
Falk smiled. “Had it, all right. Dozen times. Never took.” He felt very tired. “Let me rest a minute, will you?”
“Of course. Sorry.”
The young man went away, and Falk closed his eyes, returning to the slow surge of memory that moved in his mind. He went through those last hours, painful as they were, and then again. There was trauma there; mustn’t let it get buried to cause him trouble later. Accept it, know the fear, live with it.
After a while the young man came back, carrying broth that steamed in a cup, and Falk drank it gratefully. Then he fell unknowing into sleep.
When he awoke he was stronger. He tried to sit up, and found to his mild surprise that he could. The other, who had been sitting in an armchair across the room, put down his pipe and came over to thrust pillows behind Falk’s back. Then he sat down again. The room was cluttered and had a stale odor. Floor, walls and ceiling were enameled metal. There were books and rolls of tape, records, in shelves; more piled on the floor. A dirty shirt was hanging from the doorknob.
“Want to talk now?” the young man asked. “My name’s Wolfert.”
“Glad to know you. Mine’s Falk… You want to know about the analogue business first, I suppose.”
“And why you’re here.”
“It’s the same thing,” Falk told him. “I’m immune to analogue treatment. I didn’t know it for sure till I was ten, but I think I was born that way. From seven on, I remember the other kids talking about their Guardians, and me pretending I had one too. You know how kids are—anything to run with the mob.
“But for a long time, years, I wasn’t certain whether everyone else was pretending like me, or whether I really was the only one without an invisible Guardian to talk to. I was pretty sure the kids were lying when they said they could see theirs, but whether they were there at all or not was another question. I didn’t know; actually it didn’t bother me much.
“When I was ten, I stole something. It was a book I wanted that my father wouldn’t let me have. The clerk was looking the other way—I put it under my jacket. Funny, I was halfway through it before it struck me that I’d just proved I had no Guardian. By that time, you see, I’d decided that I’d just never seen mine because I’d never done anything bad. I was proud of that, a little prissy about it if you want the truth—only I wanted this book…
“I had sense enough, thank God, to burn that book after I’d finished it. If I hadn’t, I don’t suppose I would have lived to grow up.”
Wolfert grunted. “Should think not,” he said. His eyes were fixed on Falk, interested, alert, wary. “One man without any control could turn the whole applecart over. But I thought immunity was theoretically impossible?”
“I’ve thought about that a good deal. According to classic psychology, it is. I’m not unusually resistant to hypnotic drugs; I go under all right. But the censor mechanism just doesn’t respond. I’ve had the fanciful notion that I may be a mutation, developed in response to the analogue treatment as an anti-survival factor. But I don’t know. As far as I’ve ever been able to find out, there are no more like me.”
“Umm,” said Wolfert, puffing at his pipe. “Should think your next move would be to get married, have children, see if they were immune too.”
Falk stared at him soberly. “Wolfert—no offense, but can you imagine yourself settling down happily in a community of maniacs?”
The other’s face flushed slowly. He took his pipe out of his mouth, looked down at it. Finally he said, “All right, I know what you mean.”
“Maybe you don’t,” said Falk, thinking,
I’ve offended him. Couldn’t help it
. “You’ve been out here ten years, haven’t you?”
“Things are getting worse,” Falk told him. “I’ve taken the trouble to look up some statistics. They weren’t hard to find; the damned fools are proud of them. The number of persons in mental institutions has gone steadily down since 1980, when the world-wide analogue program got under way. Extension of analogue program, steadily up. The two curves cancel out perfectly.
“There are fewer and fewer people that have to be put away in madhouses—not because of any improvement in therapy, but because the analogue techniques are getting better and better. The guy who would have been hopelessly insane fifty years ago now has a little man inside his head, steering him around, making him act normal. On the outside he
normal; inside, he’s a raving madman. Worse still, the guy who would have been just a little bit cracked fifty years ago—and gotten treatment for it—is now just as mad as the first guy. It doesn’t matter any more. We could all be maniacs, and the world would go on just as before.”
Wolfert grimaced wryly. “Well? It’s a peaceful world, anyhow.”
“Sure,” said Falk. “No war or possibility of war, no murders, no theft, no crime at all. That’s because every one of them has a policeman inside his skull. But action begets reaction, Wolfert, in psychiatry as well as in physics. A prison is a place to get out of, if it takes you a lifetime. Push one plunger down, another will rise. Just a few years more, I think—ten or twenty, say—and you’ll see that madhouse curve rise again. Because there’s no escape from the repression of the Guardians except a further retreat into insanity. And eventually a point is reached where no amount of treatment can help. What are they going to do then?”
Wolfert tamped his pipe out slowly and stood up, sucking absently at the stem. “You say
,” he said, “meaning the psychiatrists who really govern Earth, I suppose. You’ve evidently figured out what you’re going to do.”
Falk smiled. “Yes. With your help—I’m going to the stars.”
The other stood frozen a moment. “So you know about that,” he said. “Well—Come into the next room. I’ll show it to you.”
Falk had known about the Doorway, but not that it looked like this. It was a cubicle of something that looked like slick brown glass. Ten feet high, six wide and deep. Inside, at waist level on the far wall, a lever—curiously shaped, like the head of an old-fashioned walking stick, the slightly curved bar of the L parallel to the wall. Nothing more than that. The floor of Wolfert’s hut had been assembled around it. It was the reason for the hut’s existence, for Wolfert’s dearly bought presence on Mars.
“So that’s it,” said Falk. He took a step toward it.
“Stay where you are,” Wolfert said sharply. “The area in front of the entrance is booby-trapped.”
Falk stopped and looked at Wolfert, then at the metal cabinets bolted to the floor on either side of the Doorway, Now that he looked at them Closely, he could see the lenses of blacklight beams and, above them, metal cones that he supposed were discharge points.
Wolfert confirmed it. “If anything ever comes out, the current is supposed to get him. If it doesn’t, I’m here.” He put his hand on the rapid-fire automatic at his belt.
Falk sat down slowly on a bench next to the wall. “Why?” he asked. “Why are they so afraid of whatever might come out of the Doorway?”
The other leaned awkwardly against the wall and began refilling his pipe. “You don’t know the whole story, then,” he said. “Tell me what you do know, and I’ll fill in the gaps.”
Falk said slowly, “I was able to find out that the Doorway existed—that the first Mars expedition, in ’76 had found it here. Apparently it was known to be an interstellar transportation system, but as far as I could learn nobody had ever actually tried it out. I knew that a caretaker had been left here—your predecessor, I take it—after the idea of colonising Mars was abandoned. But I didn’t know any of the reasons.”
Wolfert grinned briefly and straightened away from the wall. As he talked, he paced back and forth across the room, glancing at Falk only occasionally. “It’s a transportation system, all right. Put an object in that cubicle, press the lever down—the object vanishes. So does most of the crowbar or whatever you use to work the lever.
“We don’t know how old it is and have no way of telling. The material it’s made of is harder than diamond. About half of it is underground. That was the way it was found—sitting perfectly level on the surface of the desert. I believe it must have some sort of self-leveling mechanism built into it so that it’s always available no matter what happens to the surface.
“Other ruins have been found on Mars, but they’re all stone, and quite primitive; nothing like this. The first expedition tried to get into its innards and find out what made it go, of course, but they couldn’t. You can see in, but there’s nothing to see.” He gave his quick, bitter smile. “It’s frustrating. Makes a physicist feel like a backward student in a kindergarten.
“We know that it’s part of an interstellar network. One man did try it out—a member of the first expedition, one of the group that found the Doorway in the first place. He saw the cubicle and the lever—stepped in and pressed it to find out what would happen. He found out, all right, but I don’t suppose the rest of us will ever know. The second expedition brought along a batch of powerful all-wave senders and sent them through. They picked up the first signal five years later, from the general direction of Regulus. Two more after seven years, then four during the thirteenth year, all from different directions. The other eight have yet to be heard from.”