The Monster Show – Charles Beaumont

“Is it sock?” tilt Big Man inquired nervously, flicking a tablet into his mouth.

“It is sock,” the Official Coordinator of TV’ Production replied. “It is wham and boff. I give you my word.”

“I give it back to you. Words mean nothing. It’s pictures that count. Flap?” “Sure: flap, flap.” the Official Coordinator said, and slipped a small needle into a large vein. “But I tell you. B. P.. there is nothing to worry about. We have got thirty cameras regular and sixty in reserve. For every actor, two stand-ins. In fact, we have even got stand-ins for the stand-ins. Nothing can go wrong. Nothing-O.”

The Big Man collapsed into a chair and moved a handkerchief rhythmically across his neck. “I don’t know,” he said.

”I am worried.”

“What you should do. B. P..” the Official Coordinator said, “is, you should relax.”

The Big Man belched a picture off the wall. “Relax!” he shouted. “The most expensive TV production in history and he tells me to relax!”

“B. P., flap this. Everything is scatty-boo, A through Z. We absotively and posilutely cannot miss.”

“I just don’t know,” the Big Man said, shaking his head.

The Official Coordinator removed a red pellet from an onyx case and tossed it into his mouth. “Boss, listen to me for a double-mo. Listen. Close the eyes. Now: You are no longer the Chief and Commander of Production of the World’s Largest TV Studio — ”
The Big Man trembled slightly.

“You are, instead, Mr. Average World Family. 1976 A. D. Flap?”

“Flap, Hap.”

“Kay. You are sitting in front of your two-thirds-paid-for 150-inch non-curved wall TV Viewer. You are in your undershirt. The missus has poured you a beer and you are munching Cheese Drackles. Reety-O. Suddenly you see that it is two minutes to eight. You jab the auto-ray and switch channels right away, if you are sucker enough to be on another channel, which, thanks to those lousy feebs at OBC, maybe you are. But not for long! Because for six months you have been hearing about it. The biggest, the greatest, the most spectacular, the most expensive production ever to hit the screen. Said I biggest? Said I greatest? Said I most spectacular? Father-O, this is a veritybohble monster of a show! So what do we call it? Naicheroonv: The Monster Show! ‘EVERYBODY WILL BE WATCHING IT. WILL YOU?’ These words. Mr. Average World Family, are stamped into your brain. You’ve seen them everywhere: billboards, leaflets, skywriting, magazine ads, the regular 15-minute daily cominersh; and you’ve heard them everywhere, too: in busses and planes and cars, from your children — ”

“Meant to tell you.” the Big Man interrupted, “getting at the children was a good move.”

“What about the parrots?”

“The parrots was also a good move.”

“I blush, B. P. But hearken O: There you are. Are you there?”

“Proceed on. I am ears.”

“Kay. It is one minute to eight. You are shaking with excitement, just like all the rest of the Folks everywhere else. In the bars, in the theatres, in the homes. Some with two-foot curvo screens, some with modest 40-inchers, some even — like the cops anti all — with nothing but their wrist-peeps. But they’re with ya: you know that. Get the image, B. P. All over the world, everything stopped, everybody staring at their sets, waiting, waiting . . .”

“What about the competition?”

The Official Coordinator stuck his hands in his pockets and did a sort of dance. “B. P., Unde-O — there isn’t any!” He grinned widely. “And that is my surprise.”

The Big Man opened his eyes. He clutched the arms of the chair. “How’s that, how’s that?”

“You tell me no stories. I’ll tell you no untruths,” the Official Coordinator smirked. “Baby, they have scratched themselves. Us they do not choose to buck. They are offering to the folks in place of their usual maloop a kitty of our own show — which I got a hefty slap for which. Mother-O . . .”

“Now, now.” said the Big Man, smiling slyly, “you did not muscle the OBC boys a little. I hope?”

“Truth-O, Uncle. Nay. They plain quit. The eight spot is ours!” The Official Coordinator slapped his hands together. “And who’s to blame them? What The Monster Show has not got you can mount on the sharp end of an isotope. Flap this: We begin with a two-hour commerrial round-up, advertising the products of our 57 sponsors: General Turbines, Sleep-Neat Capsules. Chewey-Flakes, the Komfy-Kool TV Furniture line and ek-cetera. But are these ordinary commershes? Noo. We have them tricked out so they look prezactly like the show. Excavate?”

“Yo.”

“Kay. Then; into the show. And what a show! I ask you. Mr. Average World Family, at night when you’re all blasted out and ready for the old air-matt do you like to get spooned a lot of maloop you have got to think about, or do you like to get round?”

The Big Man made a solemn circle with his finger.

“And what is the roundest? Something long and complex and all drawn out? Nay. Variety: that’s what is the roundest. So we give you a variety show. Starting things off with a kronch, we have a half-hour trained dog art. Then right into fifteen minutes of old Western movie footage, with the middle reel of a British mystery for the capper. Then a full hour of wrestling, male and female. Ears?”

“Ears.”

“A mere startcroo. B. P. We punch ’em with twenty minutes of hillbilly-style Used Car coinmersh, and then we really start fighting. A right cross with Rev. Vincent Bell on How to Live Up to the Hilt: a left jab with the first installment of a new detergent-opera. Jill Jackson. Jet-Wife: an uppercut to the jaw with Who’s Zoo — keep moving; don’t give ’em a chance to think, see — followed by a flurry of lightning blows to the face and body: Chef Gaston Escargot’s School of Cookery’. Mike Tomelrist, Private Op! A Ten-Year Roundup of Sloth Turbo and Jaloppy Racing! A musical remake of the old motion picture Waterloo Bridge, now called London Derriere!” The Official Coordinator was warming to his topic: his eyes were wide and his lower lip moist. “Do we swing?”

The Big Man nodded. “Speaking as Mr. Average World Family.” he said, “I am getting slightly interested. Wing on.”

“Well, we got ’em dizzy now. flap? Kay. We ease off with a handcream commersh: you know, the voodoo dance routine? Thirty minutes. Then, quos! Right in the old schwanzola!”

“What do we do. what do we do?” the Big Man asked.

“We let ’em have it. POW!” The Official Coordinator needled a vein ecstatically, and exploded:    “The old haymaker. The slamboreeno. Twenty of the world’s greatest comedians onstage, going through their most famous routines, all at the same time!”

There was a pregnant pause.

Then the Big Man shot from his chair, extruded a hirsute hand and laid it gently on the Official Coordinator’s shoulder. “One thing,” he said, with genuine concern.

“Yes?” the Official Coordinator quavered.

“Do we have enough?”

“B. P., I think we do. I really and truly think we do.” The Coordinator quickly rolled three pellets into his mouth and grimaced.

“Then,” said the Big Man, “I feel that we ought to be mighty proud. And, Flap me, mighty humble, too. Because we are giving the world public the thing they want and need most: Entertainment.” He winked gravely. “Also, we are making for ourselves a few drachmae. Excavate?”

The Official Coordinator brushed a tear of satisfaction from his check. “Boss.” he said, in cathedral tones, “I promise you this. This I promise you. Everybody on Earth is going to be watching The Monster Show tonight. It is going to be an experience no one will forget. In fact, I will far-enough-go to say that it will be the most important moment in history!”
The Big Man squeezed the Coordinator’s fleshly digits and smiled. “Screech.” he said. “You’ve done poo-goo. Now powder: the mind must rest.” The Coordinator nodded, tugged at his forelock, and exited through the bullet-proof sliding door.

When it was firmly shut, the Big Man went over and locked it; then he removed from his pocket a flat disc with three knobs. He twiddled the knobs. There was a humming.

“As planned.” the Big Man said, and put the triple-knobbed disc back into his pocket.

His face was curiously devoid of expression. There was perhaps a trace of amusement about the mouth-ends as he went to the chromium bar and poured himself a shot of amber; perhaps not. He tilted the glass, swallowed, hiccoughed, set the glass down and punched the interoffice audiobox. “Miss Dove-coat,” he said, “please flap me good. I will see no one between now and the show. Out?”

“And over,” the voice of Miss Dove-coat crackled.

The Big Man sat in the chair, silent and unmoving, expressionless as a barracuda for four and a half hours.

At ten minutes to eight he pressed seventeen levers on his desk and listened to seventeen yessirs.

“Report?” he barked.

“Scatoreeny, sir,” came the answer like a celestial choir somewhat off-key. “Sure?”

“Absotive and posilute.”

“Everything moving?”

“With an ‘o’. With a ‘k’.”

“Unbad, gentlemen.”

“You snap the whip, we’ll take the voyage.”

“Ears out, now. Coverage?” “One-hundred-percent.”

“100% one-hundred-percent?”

“100% one-hundred-percent 100%!” “Kay. Gentlemen: Proceed on.”

The Big Man turned off all the levers and touched a concealed desk button. The three walls of the room seemed to shimmer and reshape themselves into a perfect curve; then they became clear. The image of a man fifty feet tall appeared. He was smiling and pouring a hundred gallons of beer into a gigantic glass.

“ … so gel those taste buds unlimbered, folksies, and treat yourselves to the world’s favorite brew: Rocky Mountain! Yes! That’s absotively right! I said Rocky Mountain! And…”

In moments the giant man faded, and there was a portentous pause.

Then, the sound of a thousand trumpets, and an aerial shot of 70 handpicked chorus girls, so arranged as to spell out:

THE

MONSTER

SHOW

The Big Man waited a moment, until the Emcee had come on-stage, then he snapped the concealed button and the walls became walls again.

He removed the triple-knobbed disc.

“Now.” he said, and slumped into a chair.

Hours passed, but he did not move.

Finally, there was a sharp knock at the bullet-proof sliding door.

The Big Man went to the door and opened it, cautiously. Eight lavender creatures with slimy skin and no noses at all were at the threshold.

“Well?” the Big Man said. “How did it go?”

One of the creatures, slightly more lavender than the rest, stepped forward. “Extremely well,” it said. “In fact, perfectly. The Earth people are all dead. Thanks, Volshak, to you.”

“Nonsense,” the Big Man said, turning into a lavender creature with slimy skin and no nose at all. “I have had quite enough idolatry. I prefer to think of myself merely as an agent who tried to do his job.”

“Volshak. Volshak,” the creature hissed, “such modesty is touching, and a credit to our race; but there is no getting around it. You are a hero. Why, if there had been the slightest resistance, we would have failed. We had few weapons, a bare handful of warriors — frankly, we were very nearly ready to descend into The Great Abyss. But even the gulfs are full of vanquished invaders: we did not have, so to speak, a pit to pass in. But now we may revel in the sunlight and enjoy the blessings of propagation on a new world without having lost a single thrimp.” The creature put a boneless tentacle forward. “How did you manage it? Volshak. how did you manage to put all the Earth people to sleep at the same time?”

But Volshak was blushing. He turned his unprohoscidean face to the wall and muttered, in a small, proud voice: It was easy.”

The Nail and the Oracle – Theodore Strugeon

Despite the improvements, the Pentagon in 1970 was still the Pentagon, with more places to walk than places to sit. Not that Jones had a legitimate gripe. The cubical cave they had assigned to him as an office would have been more than adequate for the two-three days he himself had estimated. But by the end of the third week it fit him like a size-6 hat and choked him like a size-12 collar. Annie’s phone calls expressed eagerness to have him back, but there was an edge to the eagerness now which made him anxious. His hotel manager had wanted to shift his room after the first week and he had been stubborn about it; now he was marooned like a rock in a mushroom patch, surrounded by a back-to-rhythm convention of the Anti-Anti-Population Explosion League. He’d had to buy shirts, he’d had to buy shoes, he’d needed a type-four common-cold shot, and most of all, he couldn’t find what was wrong with oracle.

Jones and his crew had stripped oracle down to its mounting bolts, checked a thousand miles of wiring and a million solid-state elements, everything but its priceless and untouchable memory banks. Then they’d rebuilt the monster, meticulously cross-checking all the way. For the past four days they had been running the recompleted computer, performance-matching with crash-priority time on other machines, while half the science boys and a third of the military wailed in anguish. He had reported to three men that the machine had nothing wrong with it, that it never had had anything wrong with it, and that there was no reason to believe there ever would be anything wrong with it. One by one these three had gone (again) into oracle’s chamber, and bolted the door, and energized the privacy field, and then one by one they had emerged stern and disappointed, to tell Jones that it would not give them an answer: an old admiral, an ageless colonel and a piece of walking legend whom Jones called to himself the civilian.

Having sent his crew home—for thus he burned his bridges—having deprived himself of Jacquard the design genius and the 23 others, the wiring team, all the mathematicians, everyone, Jones sighed in his little office, picked up the phone again and called the three for conference. When he put the instrument down again he felt a little pleased. Consistencies pleased Jones, even unpleasant ones, and the instant response of all three was right in line with everything they had done from the time they had first complained about oracle’s inability to answer their questions, all through their fiddling and diddling during every second of the long diagnostic operation. The admiral had had an open line installed to Jones’ office, the colonel had devised a special code word for his switchboard, the civilian had hung around personally, ignoring all firm, polite hints until he had turned his ankle on a cable, giving Jones a reason to get him out of there. In other words, these three didn’t just want an answer, they needed it. They came, the admiral with his old brows and brand-new steel-blue eyes, the colonel with starch in his spine and skin like a postmaneuver proving grounds, the civilian limping a bit, with his head tilted a bit, turned a bit, a captivating mannerism which always gave his audiences the feeling that history cared to listen to them. Jones let them get settled, this admiral whose whole career had consisted of greater and greater commands until his strong old hand was a twitch away from the spokes of the helm of the ship of state; this colonel who had retained his lowly rank as a mark of scorn for the academy men who scurried to obey him, whose luxurious quarters were equipped with an iron barracks bed; and this civilian with the scholarly air, with both Houses and a Cabinet rank behind him, whose political skills were as strong, and as deft, and as spiked as a logroller’s feet.

“Gentlemen,” said Jones, “this may well be our last meeting. There will, of course, be a written report, but I understand the—uh—practicalities of such a situation quite well, and I do not feel it necessary to go into the kind of detail in the report that is possible to us in an informal discussion.” He looked at each face in turn and congratulated himself. That was just right. This is just between us boys. Nobody’s going to squeal on you.

“You’ve dismissed your crew,” said the civilian, causing a slight start in the admiral and a narrowing of the colonel’s eyes and, in Jones, a flash of admiration. This one had snoopers the services hadn’t even dreamed up yet. “I hope this is good news.”

“Depends,” said Jones. “What it means primarily is that they have done all they can. In other words, there is nothing wrong with oracle in any of their specialties. Their specialties include everything the computer is and does. In still other words, there’s nothing wrong with the machine.”

“So you told us yesterday,” gritted the colonel, “but I got no results. And—I want results.” The last was added as an old ritual which, apparently, had always gotten results just by being recited.

“I followed the procedures,” said the admiral, intoning this as a cardinal virtue. “and also got no results.” He held up a finger and suspended operations in the room while he performed some sort of internal countdown. “Had I not done so, oracle would have responded with an ‘insufficient data’ signal. Correct?”

“Quite correct,” said Jones.

“And it didn’t.”

“That was my experience,” said the civilian, and the colonel nodded.

“Gentlemen,” said Jones, “neither I nor my crew—and there just is not a better one—have been able to devise a question that produced that result.”

“It was not a result,” snapped the colonel.

Jones ignored him. “Given the truth of my conclusion—that there is nothing wrong with the machine—and your reports. which I can have no reason to doubt, there is no area left to investigate but one, and that is in your hands, not mine. It’s the one thing you have withheld from me.” He paused. Two of them shifted their feet. The colonel tightened his jaw.

The admiral said softly, but with utter finality, “I can not divulge my question.”

The colonel and the civilian spoke together; “Security ” and “This is a matter ” and then both fell silent.

“Security.” Jones spread his hands. To keep from an enemy, real or potential, matters vital to the safety of the nation, that was security. And how easy it was to wrap the same blanket about the use of a helicopter to a certain haven, the presence of a surprising little package in a Congressional desk, the exact relations between a certain officer and his argh!

This, thought Jones, has all the earmarks of, not our security, but of three cases of my security . . . I’ll try just once more.

“Thirty years ago, a writer named William Tenn wrote a brilliant story in which an Air Force moon landing was made, and the expedition found an inhabited pressure dome nearby. They sent out a scout, who was prepared to die at the hands of Russians or even Martians. He returned to the ship in a paroxysm, gentlemen, of laughter. The other dome belonged to the U. S. Navy.”

The admiral projected two loud syllables of a guffaw and said, “Of course.” The colonel looked pained. The civilian, bright-eyed, made a small nod which clearly said, One up for you, boy.

Jones put on his used-car-salesman face. “Honestly, gentlemen, it embarrasses me to draw a parallel like that. I believe with all my heart that each of you has the best interests of our nation foremost in his thoughts. As for myself—security? Why, I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t been cleared all the way back to Pithecanthropus erectus.

“So much for you. so much for me. Now, as for oracle, you know as well as I do that it is no ordinary computer. It is designed for computations, not of math, specifically, nor of strictly physical problems, though it can perform them, but for the distillation of human thought. For over a decade the contents of the Library of Congress and other sources have poured into that machine—everything: novels, philosophy, magazines, poetry, textbooks, religious tracts, comic books, even millions of personnel records.

There’s every shade of opinion, every quality of writing—anything and everything that an army of over a thousand microfilming technicians have been able to cram into it. As long as it’s printed and in English, German, Russian, French or Japanese, oracle can absorb it. Esperanto is the funnel for a hundred Oriental and African languages. It’s the greatest repository of human thought and thought-directed action the world has ever known, and its one most powerful barrier against error in human affairs is the sheer mass of its memory and the wide spectrum of opinion that has poured into it.

“Add to this its ability to extrapolate— to project the results of hypothetical acts —and the purposely designed privacy structure—for it’s incapable of recording or reporting who asked it what question— and you have oracle, the one place in the world where you can get a straight answer based, not in terms of the problem itself, but on every ideological computation and cross-comparison that can be packed into it.”

“The one place I couldn’t get a straight answer,” said the civilian gently.

“To your particular question, Sir, if you want that answer, you have got to give me that question.” He checked a hopeful stir in the other two by adding quickly, “and yours. And yours. You see, gentlemen, though I am concerned for your needs in this matter, my prime concern is oracle. To find a way to get one of the answers isn’t enough. If I had all three, I might be able to deduce a common denominator. I already have, of course, though it isn’t enough: you are all high up in national affairs, and very close to the center of things. You are all of the same generation” (translation: near the end of the road) “and, I’m sure, equally determined to do the best you can for your country” (to get to the top of the heap before you cash in). “Consider me,” he said, and smiled disarmingly. “To let me get this close to the answer I want; namely, what’s wrong with oracle, and then to withhold it—isn’t that sort of cruel and unusual punishment?”

“I feel for you,” said the civilian, not without a twinkle. Then, sober with a coldness that would freeze helium into a block, he said, “But you ask too much.”

Jones looked at him, and then at the others, sensing their unshakable agreement. “OK,” he said, with all the explosive harshness he could muster, “I’m done here. I’m sick of this place and my girl’s sick of being by herself, and I’m going home. You can’t call in anyone else, because there isn’t anyone else: my company built Oracle and my men were trained for it.”

This kind of thing was obviously in the colonel’s idiom. From far back in his throat, he issued a grinding sound that came out in words: “You’ll finish the job you were ordered to do, mister, or you’ll take the consequences.”

Jones shouted at him, “Consequences? What consequences? You couldn’t even have me fired, because I can make a damn good case that you prevented me from finishing the job. I’m not under your orders either. This seems a good time to remind you of the forgotten tradition that with this”—he took hold of the narrow lapel of his own sports jacket—“I outrank any uniform in this whole entire Pentagon.” He caught the swift smile of the civilian, and therefore trained his next blast on him. “Consequences? The only consequence you can get now is to deny yourself and your country the answer to your question. The only conclusion I can come to is that something else is more important to you than that. What else?” He stood up. So did the officers.

From his chair, the civilian said sonorously, “Now, now . . . gentlemen. Surely we can resolve this problem without raising our voices. Mr. Jones, would the possession of two of these questions help you in your diagnosis? Or even one?”

Breathing hard, Jones said, “It might.”

The civilian opened his long white hands. “Then there’s no problem after all. If one of you gentlemen ___”

“Absolutely not,” said the admiral instantly.

“Not me,” growled the colonel. “You want compromise, don’t you? Well, go ahead—you compromise.”

“In this area,” said the civilian smoothly, “I possess all the facts, and it is my considered judgment that the disclosure of my question would not further Mr. Jones’ endeavors.” (Jones thought, the admiral said the same thing in two words.) “Admiral, would you submit to my judgment the question of whether or not security would be endangered by your showing Mr. Jones your question?”

“I would not.”

The civilian turned to the colonel. One look at that rock-bound countenance was sufficient to make him turn away again, which, thought Jones, puts the colonel two points ahead of the admiral in the word-economy business.

Jones said to the civilian, “No use. sir, and by my lights, that’s the end of it. The simplest possible way to say it is that you gentlemen have the only tools in existence that would make it possible for me to repair this gadget, and you won’t let me have them. So fix it yourself, or leave it the way it is. I’d see you out,” he added, scanning the walls of the tiny room, “but I have to go to the john.” He stalked out, his mind having vividly and permanently photographed the astonishment on the admiral’s usually composed features, the colonel’s face fury-twisted into something like the knot that binds the lashes of a whip, and the civilian grinning broadly.

Grinning broadly?

Ah well, he thought, slamming the men’s-room door behind him—and infuriatingly, it wouldn’t slam. Ah well, we all have our way of showing frustration. Maybe I could’ve been just as mad more gently.

The door moved, and someone ranged alongside at the next vertical bathtub. Jones glanced, and then said aloud. “Maybe I could’ve been just as mad more gently.”

“Perhaps we all could have,” said the civilian, and then with his free hand he did four surprising things in extremely rapid succession. He put his finger to his lips, then his hand to the wall and then to his ear. Finally he whisked a small folded paper out of his breast pocket and handed it to Jones. He then finished what he was doing and went to wash up.

Shh. The walls have ears. Take this.

“All through history,” said the civilian from the sink, his big old voice booming in the tiled room, “we read about the impasse, and practically every time it’s mentioned, it’s a sort of preface to an explanation of how it was solved. Yet I’ll bet history’s full of impasses that just couldn’t be solved. They don’t get mentioned because when it happens, everything stops. There just isn’t anything to write down in the book anymore. I think we’ve just seen such an occasion, and I’m sorry for each of us.”

The old son of a gun! “Thanks for that much, anyway, sir,” Jones said, tucking the paper carefully away out of sight. The old man, wiping his hands, winked once and went out.

• • •

Back in his office, which seemed three limes larger than it had been before the conference, Jones slumped behind his desk and teased himself with the small folded paper, not reading it, turning it over and over. It had to be the old man’s question. Granted that it was, why had he been so willing to hand it over now, when three minutes earlier his refusal had been just about as adamant as—adamant? So, Jones, quit looking at the detail and get on the big picture. What was different in those three minutes?

Well, they were out of one room and into another. Out of one room that was damn well not bugged and into one which, the old man’s pantomime had informed him, may well be. Nope—that didn’t make sense. Then—how about this? In the one room there had been witnesses. In the second, none—not after the finger on the lips. So if a titan concluded that the civilian probably never had had an objection to Jones’ seeing and using the question, but wanted it concealed from anyone else—maybe specifically from those other two . . . why, the man had the big picture.

What else? That the civilian had not said this, therefore would not bring himself to say it in so many words, and would not appreciate any conversation that might force him to talk it over. Finally, no matter how reluctant he might be to let Jones see the paper, the slim chance Jones offered him of getting an answer outweighed every other consideration— except the chance of the other two finding out. So another part of the message was: I’m sitting on dynamite, Mr. Jones, and I’m handing you the detonator. Or: I trust you, Mr. Jones.

Sobeit, old man. I’ve got the message.

He closed his eyes and squeezed the whole situation to see if anything else would drip out of it. Nothing . . . except the faint conjecture that what worked on one might work on the other two. And as if on cue, the door opened and a blandfaced major came in a pace, stopped, said “Beg pardon, sir. I’m in the wrong room,” and before Jones could finish saying “That’s all right,” he was gone. Jones gazed thoughtfully at the door. That major was one of the colonel’s boys. That “wrong room” bit had a most unlikely flavor to it. So if the man hadn’t come in for nothing, he’d come in for something. He hadn’t taken anything and he hadn’t left anything, so he’d come in to find something out. The only thing he could find out was whether Jones was or was not here. Oh! and whether he was or was not alone.

All Jones had to do to check that out was to sit tight. You can find out if a man is alone in a room for now, but not for ten minutes from now, or five.

In two minutes the colonel came in.

He wore his ”I don’t like you, mister” expression. He placed his scarred brown hands flat on Jones’ desk and rocked forward over him like a tidal wave about to break.

“It’s your word against mine, and I’m prepared to call you a liar.” grated the colonel. “I want you to report to me and no one else.”

“All right,” said Jones, and put out his hand. The colonel locked gazes with him for a fair slice of forever, which made Jones believe that the Medusa legend wasn’t necessarily a legend after all. Then the officer put a small folded paper into Jones’ outstretched palm. “You get the idea pretty quick. I’ll say that, mister”, he straightened, about faced and marched out.

Jones looked at the two scraps of folded paper on the desk and thought, I will be damned.

And one to go.

He picked up the papers and dropped them again, feeling like a kid who forces himself to eat all the cake before he attacks the icing. He thought, maybe the old boy wants to but just doesn’t know how.

He reached for the phone and dialed for the open line, wondering if the admiral had had it canceled yet.

He had not, and he wasn’t waiting for the first ring to finish itself. He knew who was calling and he knew Jones knew, so he said nothing, just picked up the phone.

Jones said, “It was kind of crowded in here.”

“Precisely the point,” said the admiral with the grudging approval the colonel had shown. There was a short pause, and then the admiral said. “Have you called anyone else?”

Into four syllables Jones put all the outraged innocence of a male soprano accused of rape. “Certainly not.”

“Good man.”

The Britishism amused Jones, and he almost said Gung ho. what?; but instead he concentrated on what to say next. It was easy to converse with the admiral if you supplied both sides of the conversation. Suddenly it came to him that the admiral wouldn’t want to come here—he had somewhat farther to travel than the colonel had—nor would he like the looks of Jones’ visiting him at this particular moment. He said, “I wouldn’t mention this, but as you know. I’m leaving soon and may not see you. And I think you picked up my cigarette lighter.”

“Oh,” said the admiral.

“And me out of matches,” said Jones ruefully. “Well—I’m going down to oracle now. Nice to have known you. sir.” He hung up, stuck an unlit cigarette in his mouth, put the two folded papers in his left pants pocket, and began an easy stroll down the catacombs called corridors in the Pentagon.

Just this side of oracle’s dead-end corridor, and not quite in visual range of its security post, a smiling young ensign, who otherwise gave every evidence of being about his own business, said, “Light, sir?”

“Why, thanks.”

The ensign handed him a lighter. He didn’t light it and proffer the flame: he handed the thing over. Jones lit his cigarette and dropped the lighter into his pocket. “Thanks.”

“That’s all right,” smiled the ensign, and walked on.

At the security post, Jones said to the guard, “Whoppen?”

“Nothing and nobody, Mr. Jones.”

“Best news I’ve had all day.” He signed the book and accompanied the guard down the dead end. They each produced a key and together opened the door. “It shouldn’t take too long.”

“All the same to me.” said the guard, and Jones realized he’d been wishfully thinking out loud. He shut the door, hit the inner lock switch, and walked through the little foyer and the swinging door which unveiled what the crew called oracle’s “temple.”

He looked at the computer, and it looketl back at him. “Like I told you before,” he said conversationally, “for something that causes so much trouble, you’re awful little and awful homely.”

Oracle did not answer, because it was not aware of him. Oracle could read and do a number of more complex and subtle things, but it had no ears. It was indeed homely as a wall, which is what the front end mostly resembled, and the immense size of its translators, receptors and the memory banks was not evident here. The temple—other people called it Suburbia Delphi—contained nothing but that animated wall, with its one everblooming amber “on” light (for the machine never teased gulping its oceans of thought), a small desk and chair, and the mechanical typewriter with the modified Bodoni type face which was used for the reader. The reader itself was nothing more than a clipboard (though with machined guides to hold the paper exactly in place) with a large push button above it placed on a strut which extended from the front of the computer, and lined up with a lens set flush into it. It was an eerie experience to push that button after placing your query, for oracle scanned so quickly and “thought” so fast that it was rapping away on its writer before you could get your thumb off the button.

Usually.

Jones sat at the desk, switched on the light and took out the admiral’s lighter. It was a square one, with two parts which telescoped apart to get to the tank. The tight little roll of paper was there, sure enough, with the typescript not seriously blurred by lighter fluid. He smoothed it out, retrieved the other two, unfolded them, stacked them all neatly; and then, feeling very like Christmas morning, said gaily to the unresponsive oracle:

“Now!”

Seconds later, he was breathing hard. A flood of profanity welled upward within him—and dissipated itself as totally inadequate.

Wagging his head helplessly, he brought the three papers to the typewriter and wrote them out on fresh paper, staying within the guidelines printed there, and adding the correct code symbols for the admiral, the colonel and the civilian. These symbols had been assigned by oracle itself, and were crosschecked against the personnel records it carried in its memory banks. It was the only way in which it was possible to ask a question including that towering monosyllable “I.”

Jones clipped the first paper in place, held his breath and pushed the button.

There was a small flare of light from the hood surrounding the lens as the computer automatically brought the available light to optimum. A relay clicked softly as the writer was activated. A white tongue of paper protruded. Jones tore it off. It was blank.

He grunted, then replaced the paper with the second, then the third. It seemed that on one of them there was a half-second delay in the writer relay, but it was insignificant: the paper remained blank.

“Stick your tongue out at me. will you?” he muttered at the computer, which silently gazed back at him with its blank single eye. He went back to the typewriter and copied one of the questions, but with his own code identification symbols. It read:

THE ELIMINATION OF WHAT SINGLE MAN COULD RESULT IN MY PRESIDENCY?

He clipped the paper in place and pushed the button. The relay clicked, the writer rattled and the paper protruded. He tore it off. It read (complete with quotes):

“JOHN DOE”

“A wise guy,” Jones growled. He returned to the typewriter and again copied one of the queries with his own code;

IF I ELIMINATE THE PRESIDENT, HOW CAN I ASSURE PERSONAL CONTROL?

Wryly, oracle answered: don’t eat a bite until your execution.

It actually took Jones a couple of seconds to absorb that one, and then he uttered an almost hysterical bray of laughter.

The third question he asked, under his own identification, was:

CAN MY SUPPORT OF HENNY BRING PEACE?

The answer was a flat no, and Jones did not laugh one bit. “And you don’t find anything funny about it either.” he congratulated the computer, and actually, physically shuddered.

For Henny—the Honorable Oswaldus Deeming Henny—was an automatic nightmare to the likes of Jones. His weather-beaten saint’s face, his shoulder-length white hair (oh, what genius of a public relations man put him onto that?), his diapason voice, but most of all, his “Plan for Peace” had more than once brought Jones up out of a sound sleep into a told sweat. Now, there was once a mail who entranced a certain segment of the population with a slogan about the royalty in every man, but he could not have taken over the country, because a slogan is not a political philosophy. And there was another who was capable of turning vast numbers of his countrymen —for a while—against one another and toward him for protection: and he could not have taken over the country, because the manipulation of fear is not an economic philosophy. This Henny, however, was the man who had both, and more besides. His appearance alone gave him more nonthinking, vote-bearing adherents than Rudolph Valentino plus Albert Schweitzer. His advocacy of absolute isolation brought in the right wing, his demand for unilateral disarmament brought in the left wing, his credo that science could, with a third of munitions-size budgets, replace foreign trade through research, invention and ersatz, brought in the tech segment, and his dead certainty of lowering taxes had a thick hook in everyone else. Even the the most battle-struck of the war wanters found themselves shoulder to shoulder with the peace-at-any-price extremists, because of the high moral tone of    his disarmament plan, which was to turn our weapons on ourselves and present any aggressor with nothing but slag and cinders—the ultimate deterrent. It was the most marvelous blend of big bang and beneficence, able to cut chance and challenge together with openhanded Gandhiism, with an answer for everyone and a better life for all.

“All of which,” complained Jones to the featureless face of the computer, “doesn’t help me find out why you wouldn’t answer those three guys, though I must say. I’m glad you didn’t.” He went and got the desk chair and put it down front and center before the computer. He sat down and folded his arms and they stared silently at each other.

At length he said. “If you were a people instead of a thing, how would I handle you? A miserable, stubborn, intelligent snob of a people?”

Just how do I handle people? he wondered. I do—I know I do. I always seem to think of the right thing to say, or to ask. I’ve already asked Oracle what’s wrong, and Oracle says nothing is wrong. The way any miserable, stubborn, intelligent snob would.

What I do, he told himself, is to empathize. Crawl into their skins, feel with their fingertips, look out through their eyes.

Look out through their eyes.

He rose and got the admiral’s query— the one with the admiral’s own identification on it—clipped it to the board, then hunkered down on the floor with his back to the computer and his head blocking the lens.

He was seeing exactly what the computer saw.

Clipboard. Query. The small bare chamber, the far wall. The . . .

He stopped breathing. After a long astonished moment he said, when he could say anything, and because it was all he could think of to say: “Well I’ll. . . be . . . damned . . .”

• • •

The admiral was the first in. Jones had had a busy time of it for the 90 minutes following his great discovery, and he was feeling a little out of breath, but at the same time a little louder and quicker than the other guy, as if he had walked into the reading room after a rubdown and a needle-shower.

“Sit down. Admiral.”

“Jones, did you ___”

“Please, sir—sit down.”

“But surely ___”

“I’ve got your answer, Admiral. But there’s something we have to do first.” He made waving gestures. “Bear with me.”

He wouldn’t have made it, thought Jones, except for the colonel’s well-timed entrance. Boy oh boy, thought Jones, look at him, stiff as tongs. You come on the battlefield looking just like a target. On the other hand, that’s how you made your combat reputation, isn’t it? The colonel was two strides into the room before he saw the admiral. He stopped, began an about-face and said over his left epaulet, “I didn’t think ___”

“Sit down. Colonel,” said Jones in a pretty fair imitation of the man’s own brass gullet. It reached the officer’s muscles before it reached his brain and he sat. He turned angrily on the admiral, who said instantly. “This wasn’t my idea.” in a completely insulting way.

Again the door opened and old living history walked in, his head a little to one side, his eyes ready to see and understand and his famous mouth to smile, but when he saw the tableau, the eyes frosted over and the mouth also said: “I didn’t think ___”

“Sit down, sir,” said Jones, and began spieling as the civilian was about to refuse, and kept on spieling while he changed his mind, lowered himself guardedly onto the edge of a chair and perched his old bones on its front edge as if he intended not to stay.

“Gentlemen.” Jones began. “I’m happy to tell you that I have succeeded in finding out why Oracle was unable to perform for you—thanks to certain unexpected cooperation I received.” Nice touch. Jones. Each one of ’em will think he turned the trick, singlehandedly But not for long. “Now I have a plane to catch, and you all have things to do. and I would appreciate it if you would hear me out with as little interruption as possible.” Looking at these bright eager angry sullen faces. Jones let himself realize for the first time why detectives in whodunits assemble all the suspects and make speeches. Why they personally do it— why the author has them do it. It’s because it’s fun.

“In this package”—he lifted from beside his desk a brown paper parcel a yard long and 15 inches wide—“is the cause of all the trouble. My company was founded over a half century ago. and one of these has been an appurtenance of every one of the company’s operations, each of its major devices and installations, all of its larger utility equipment—cranes, trucks, bulldozers, everything. You’ll find them in every company office and in most company cafeterias.” He put the package down flat on his desk and fondled it while he talked. “Now. gentlemen. I’m not going to go into any part of the long argument about whether or not a computer can be conscious of what it’s doing, because we haven’t time and we’re not here to discuss metaphysics. I will, however, remind you of a childhood chant. Remember the one that runs: ‘For want of a nail the shoe was lost: for want of a shoe the horse was lost: for want of a horse the message was lost; for want of the message the battle was lost; for want of the battle the kingdom was lost—and all for the want of a horseshoe nail.’ ”

“Mr. Jones.” said the admiral, I—we —didn’t come here to ___”

“I just said that,” Jones said smoothly, and went right on talking until the admiral just stopped trying. “This”—he rapped the package—”is Oracle’s horseshoe nail. If it’s no ordinary nail, that’s because Oracle’s no ordinary computer, it isn’t designed to solve problems in their own context: there are other machines that do that, Oracle solves problems the way an educated man solves them—by bringing everything he is and has to bear on them. Lacking this one part”— he thumped the package again—”it can then answer your questions, and it accordingly did.” He smiled suddenly. “I don’t think oracle was designed this way,” he added musingly. “I think it . . . became . . . this way . . .” He shook him self. “Anyway. I have your answers.”

Now he could afford to pause, because he had them. At that moment, the only way any of them could have been removed was by dissection and haulage.

Jones lined up his sights on the colonel and said. “In a way, your question was the most interesting, Colonel. To me professionally, I mean. It shows to what detail oracle can go in answering a wide theoretical question. One might even make a case for original creative thinking, though that’s always arguable. Could a totally obedient robot think if you flatly ordered it to think? When does a perfect imitation of a thing become the thing itself?”

“You’re not going to discuss my question here.” said the colonel as a matter of absolute, incontrovertible fact.

“Yes I am,” said Jones, and raised his voice. “You listen to me. Before you stick that trigger finger of yours inside that tunic. Colonel. I’m in a corny mood right now and so I’ve done a corny thing. Two copies of a detailed report of this whole affair are now in the mail, and, I might add, in a mailbox outside this building. One goes to my boss, who is a very big wheel and a loyal friend, with as many contacts in business and government as there are company machines operating, and that puts him on the damn moon as well as all over the world. The other goes to someone else, and when you find out who that is it’ll be too late, because in two hours he can reach every paper, every wire service, every newscasting organization on earth. Naturally, consistent with the corn, I’ve sent these out sealed with orders to open them if I don’t phone by a certain time—and I assure you it won’t be from here. In other words, you can’t do anything to me and you’d better not delay me. Sit down, Admiral,” he roared.

“I’m certainly not going to sit here and ___”

“I’m going to finish what I started out to do whether you’re here or not.” Jones waved at the other two. “They’ll be here. You want that?”

The admiral sat down. The civilian said, in a tolling of mighty sorrow. “Mr. Jones, I had what seemed to be your faithful promise ___”

“There were overriding considerations,” said Jones. “You know what an overriding consideration is, don’t you, sir?” and he held up the unmistakable Oracle query form. The civilian subsided.

“Let him finish,” gritted the colonel. “We can—well, let him finish.”

Jones instantly, like Oracle, translated: We can take care of him later. He said to the colonel, “Cheer up. You can always deny everything, like you said.” He fanned through the papers before him and dealt out the colonel’s query. He read it aloud:

“ ‘IF I ELIMINATE THE PRESIDENT, HOW CAN I ASSURE PERSONAL CONTROL?’ ”

The colonel’s face could have been shipped out, untreated, and installed on Mount Rushmore. The civilian gasped and put his knuckles in his mouth. The admiral’s slitted eyes went round.

“The answer,” said Jones, “makes that case for creative thinking I was talking about, Oracle said: ‘DETONATE ONE BOMB WITHIN UNDERGROUND H. Q. SPEND YOUR SUBSEQUENT TENURE LOOKING FOR OTHERS.’ ”

Jones put down the paper and spoke past the colonel to the other two. “Get the big picture, gentlemen? ‘underground h. q.’ could only mean the centralized control for government in the mountains. Whether or not the President —or anyone else—was there at the time is beside the point. If not, he’d find another way easily enough. After that happened, our hero here would take the posture of the national savior, the only man competent to track down a second bomb, which could be anywhere. Imagine the fear, the witchhunts, the cordons, the suspicion, the ‘Emergency’ and ‘For the Duration’ orders and regulations.” Suddenly savage, Jones snarled, “I’ve got just one more thing to say about this warrior and his plans. All his own strength, and the entire muscle behind everything he plans for himself, derives from the finest esprit de corps the world has ever known. I told you I’m in a corny mood, so I’m going to say it just the way it strikes me. That kind of esprit is a bigger thing than obedience or devotion or even faith, it’s a species of love. And there’s not a hell of a lot of that to go around in this world. Butchering the President to make himself a little tin god is a minor crime compared to his willingness to take a quality like that and turn it into a perversion.”

The civilian, as if unconsciously, hitched his chair a half inch away from the colonel. The admiral trained a firing-squad kind of look at him.

“Admiral,” said Jones, and the man twitched, “I’d like to call your attention to the colonel’s use of the word ‘eliminate’ in his query. You don’t, you know, you just don’t eliminate a live President.” He let that sink in, and then said, “I mention it because you, too, used it, and it’s a fair conjecture that it means the same thing. Listen: “WHAT SINGLE MAN CAN I ELIMINATE TO BECOME PRESIDENT?”’

“There could hardly be any one man,” said the civilian thoughtfully, gaining Jones’ great respect for his composure. Jones said, “Oracle thinks so. It wrote your name, sir.”

Slowly the civilian turned to the admiral. “Why, you sleek old son of a bitch,” he enunciated carefully, “I do believe you could have made it.”

“Purely a hypothetical question,” explained the admiral, but no one paid the least attention.

“As for you,” said Jones, rather surprised that his voice expressed so much of the regret he felt, “I do believe that you asked your question with a genuine desire to see a world at peace before you passed on. But, sir—it’s like you said when you walked in here just now—and the colonel said it. too: ‘I didn’t think . . .’ You are sitting next to two certifiable first-degree murderers; no matter what their overriding considerations, that’s what they are. But what you planned is infinitely worse.”

He read, ” ‘CAN MY SUPPORT OF HENNY BING PEACE?’ You’ll be pleased to know —oh, you already know; you were just checking, right?—that the answer is Yes. Henny’s position is such right now that your support would bring him in. But— you didn’t think. That demagog can’t do what he wants to do without a species of thought policing the like of which the ant-heap experts in China never even dreamed of. Unilateral disarmament and high morality scorched-earth! Why, as a nation we couldn’t do that unless we meant it, and we couldn’t mean it unless every man, woman and child thought alike—and with Henny running things, they would. Peace? Sure we’d have peace! I’d rather take on a Kodiak bear with boxing gloves than take my chances in that kind of a world. These guys,” he said carelessly, “are prepared to murder one or two or a few thousand. You,” said Jones, his voice suddenly shaking with scorn, “are prepared to murder every decent free thing this country ever stood for.”

Jones rose. “I’m going now. All your answers are in the package there. Up to now it’s been an integral part of Oracle —it was placed exactly in line with the reader, and has therefore been a part of everything the machine has ever done. My recommendation is that you replace it, or Oracle will be just another computer, answering questions in terms of themselves. I suggest that you make similar installations in your own environment . . . and quit asking questions that must be answered in terms of yourselves. Questions which in the larger sense would be unthinkable.”

The civilian rose, and did something that Jones would always remember as a decent thing. He put out his hand and said. “You are right. I needed this, and you’ve stopped me. What will stop them?”

Jones took the hand. “They’re stopped. I know, because I asked Oracle and Oracle said this was the way to do it.” He smiled briefly and went out. His last glimpse of the office was the rigid backs of the two officers, and the civilian behind his desk, slowly unwrapping the package. He walked down the endless Pentagon corridors, the skin between his shoulder blades tight all the way: Oracle or not, there might be overriding considerations. But he made it, and got to the first outside phone booth still alive. Marvelously, wonderfully alive.

He heard Ann’s voice and said, “It’s a real wonderful world, you know that?”

“Jones, darling! . . . you certainly have changed your tune. Last time I talked to you it was a horrible place full of evil intentions and smelling like feet.”

“I just found out for sure three lousy kinds of world it’s not going to be,” Jones said. Ann would not have been what she was to him if she had not been able to divine which questions not to ask. She said, “Well, good,” and he said he was coming home.

“Oh, darling! You fix that gadget?”

“Nothing to it,” Jones said. “I just took down the THINK sign.”

She said, “I never know when you’re kidding.”

The Witch Door – Ray Bradbury

It was a pounding on a door, a furious, frantic, insistent pounding, born of hysteria and fear and a great desire to be heard, to be freed, to be let loose, to escape. It was a wrenching at hidden paneling, it was a hollow knocking, a rapping, a testing, a clawing. It was a scratching at hollow boards, a ripping at bedded nails. It was a muffled shouting, demanding, a call to be noticed, followed by silence.

The silence was the most empty and terrible of all.

Robert and Martha Webb sat up in their bed.

“Did you hear it?”

“Yes, again.”

“ Downstairs.”

Now, whatever it was that had pounded and rapped and wrenched and clawed had drawn into silence. Listening to hear if the cries and drumming had summoned help.

The winter night lay through the house, silence snowing into every room, drifting over tables and floors, banking up the stairwell.

Then the pounding started again. And then a sound of soft crying.

“Downstairs.”

“Someone’s in the house.”

“Lotte, do you think? The front door’s unlocked.”

“She would have knocked.”

“She’s the only one it could be. She phoned.”

They both glanced at the phone. It was dead. All the phones had died days ago with the riots in the towns and cities. Now in the receiver you heard only your own heartbeat. “Can you put me up?” Lotte had cried, from 600 miles away in the last phone call, just overnight?”

But before they could answer her, the phone had filled itself with long miles of silence.

—–

“That might be her!” said Martha Webb.

“No,” said Robert Webb. “Dear God.”

They lay in their cold room in this farmhouse in the Massachusetts wilderness, back from the main roads, away from the towns, near a bleak river and a black forest. It was the frozen middle of December. The white smell of snow cut the air.

They arose. With an oil lamp lit they sat on the edge of the bed as if dangling their legs over a precipice.

“Whoever it is sounds frightened.”

“We’re all frightened, damn it. That’s why we came out here, to be away from cities, riots, all that damned foolishness. Now when we find peace at last, people call and upset us. And tonight, this. Christ!” He glanced at his wife. “You afraid?”

“I don’t know. I don’t believe in ghosts. I’m sane. Or like to think I am. Where’s your gun?”

“We won’t need it. Don’t ask me why, but we won’t.”

They picked up the oil lamp. In another month the small power plant in the white barn behind the house would be finished and there would be power to spare. But now they came and went with dim lamps or candles.

They stood at the stairwell. The crying, the sadness and the plea came from below.

“She sounds so damned sad,” said Robert. “God, I’m sorry for her, whoever she is. Come on.”

They went downstairs.

As if someone had heard their footsteps, the crying grew louder. There was a dull thudding against a panel somewhere.

“The witch door,” said Martha, at last.

“Can’t be.”

“Is.”

They stood in the long hall looking at the place under the stairs where the panels trembled faintly. But now the cries faded, as if the crier were exhausted, or as if something had diverted her. Or perhaps their voices had startled her and she was listening for them to speak again. Now the house was silent and the man and woman waited, with the oil lamp quietly fuming in their hands.

Robert stepped to the witch door and touched it, probing for the hidden button, the secret spring. “There can’t be anyone in there,” he said. “My God, we’ve been here six months, and that’s just a cubby, isn’t that what the real estate agent said? No one could hide in there and we’d not know it. We ____   ”

“Listen!”

They listened.

Nothing.

“She’s gone, it’s gone, whatever it was, hell, that door hasn’t been opened in our lifetimes. Everyone’s forgotten where the spring is that unlocks it. I don’t think there is a door, only a loose panel and rats’ nests, that’s all. The walls, scratching. Why not?” He turned to look at his wife, who was staring at the panel.

“Rats don’t cry,” she said. “That was a voice, asking to be saved. Lotte, I thought. Now I know it wasn’t Lotte, but someone else in trouble.”

Martha reached out and trembled her fingertips along the beveled edge of ancient maple. “Can’t  we open it?” “With a crowbar and hammer, first thing tomorrow’.”

“Oh Robert.”

“Don’t ‘Oh Robert’ me, I’m tired.”

“You can’t leave her in there to ____   ”

“She’s quiet now”. Christ, I’m exhausted. I’ll come down at the crack of dawn and knock the damned thing apart, OK?”

“All right,” she said, and tears came to her eyes.

“Women,” said Robert. “Oh my God, you and Lotte, Lotte and you. If she gets here, if she makes it, I’ll have a houseful of lunatics.”

“Lotte’s fine!”

“Sure, but she should keep her mouth shut. It doesn’t pay now to say you’re socialist. Democrat, libertarian, pro-life, abortionist, Sinn Fein, fascist. Commie, any damn thing. The towns are bombed out. People are looking for scapegoats and Lotte shoots from the hip, gets herself smeared and now!, hell, she’s on the run.”

“They’ll jail her if they catch her. Or kill her, yes, kill her. We’re lucky to be here with food. Thank God we planned ahead, we saw it coming, the starvation, the massacres. We helped ourselves. Now we’ll help Lotte if she makes it through.”

He turned to the stairs. “I’m dead on my feet. I’m tired of saving anyone. Even Lotte. But, hell, if she gets through the front door, she’s saved.”

—–

They went up the stairs, the lamp advancing in an aura of a trembling white glow. The house was as silent as snow falling. “God,” he whispered to himself. “Damn, I don’t like women crying like that.”

It had sounded like the whole world crying, he thought The whole world dying, needing help and lonely. But what can you do? Live like this? Far off the main highway, away from all the stupidity and death? What can you do?
They left the lamp lit and drew the covers over their bodies and lay listening to the wind hit the house and creak the beams and parquetry.

A moment later there was a cry from downstairs, a splintering crash, the sound of a door flung wide, a bursting out of air, footsteps echoing in all the rooms, sobbing almost in exultation. Then the front door banged open, the winter wind blowing wildly in. while footsteps rapped across the front porch and were gone.

With the lamp, they ran downstairs. Wind smothered their faces as they turned toward the witch door, open wide, still on its hinges, then toward the front door where they held the lamp out upon a snowing white and darkness, with no moon. Snowflakes fell from the sky to the mattressed yard. “Gone,” she whispered.

“Who?”

“We’ll never know, unless she comes back.”

“She won’t. Look.”

They moved the lamplight toward the white earth and the tiny footprints going off, across the softness, toward the dark forest.

“It was a woman, then. But why?” “God knows. Why anything?”

They stood looking at the footprints a long while until, shivering, they moved back through the hall to the open witch door. They poked the lamp into the hollow under the stairs.

“Lord, it’s just a cell, hardly a closet, and look ____   ”

Inside were a small rocking chair, a braided rug, a used candle in a copper holder and an old, worn Bible. The place smelled of must and moss and dead flowers.

“Is this where they used to hide people?”

“Yes. A long time back they hid the women people called witches. Trials, witch trials. They hanged or burned some of them.”

“Yes, yes,” they both murmured, staring into the tiny cell.

“And the witches hid here while the hunters searched the house and gave up and left?”

“Yes, oh my God, yes,” he whispered. “Rob?”

“Yes?”

She bent forward. Her face was pale as she stared at the small worn rocking chair and the faded Bible.

“Rob? How old? This house, how old?”

“Maybe 300 years.”

“That old?”

“Why?”

“Crazy. Stupid.”

“Crazy?”

“Houses, old like this. All the years.

And more years and more after that. God, feel! If you put your hand in, yes? Would you feel it change? What if I sat in that rocking chair and shut the door, what? That woman, how long was she in there? From way, way back. Wouldn’t it be strange?”

“Bull!”

“But if you wanted to run away badly enough, wished for it, prayed for it, and people ran after you and someone hid you in a place like this, a witch behind a door, and you heard the searchers run through the house, closer and closer, wouldn’t you want to get away? Anywhere? To another place? Why not another time? And then, in a house like this, a house so old nobody know’s, wouldn’t it be—if you wanted and asked for it enough—you could run to another time. Maybe,” she paused, “here?”

“No,” he said. “That’s stupid!”

But still, some quiet motion within the closeted space caused both, at almost the same instant, to hold their hands out in the air, curious, like people testing invisible waters. The air seemed to move one way and then another, now warm, now cold, with a pulsation of light and a sudden turning toward dark. All this they thought but could not say. There was weather here, now a quick touch of summer and then a winter cold, which could not be, of course, but there it was. Passing along their fingertips, but unseen by their eyes, a stream of shadows and sun ran as invisible as time itself, clear as crystal, but clouded by a shifting dark. Both felt that if they were to thrust their hands deep, they might be drawn in to drown in a storm of seasons within an incredibly small space. All this, too, they thought or almost felt but could not say.

They seized their frozen but sunburned hands back, to stare down and hold them against their breasts.

“Damn,” whispered Robert. “Oh damn!”

He backed off and went to open the front door again and look at the snowing night where the footprints had almost vanished.

“No,” he said. “No, no.”

Just then the yellow flash of headlights on the road braked in front of the house.

“Lotte!” cried Martha. “It must be! Lotte!”

The car lights went out. They ran to meet the running woman halfway up the front yard.

“Lotte!”

The woman, wild-eyed, hair wind-blown, threw herself at them.

“Martha, Bob! God, I thought I’d never find you! Lost! I’m being followed. Let’s get inside. Oh, I didn’t mean to get you up in the middle of the night. It’s good to see you! Jesus! Hide the car! Here are the keys!”

Robert ran to drive the car behind the house. When he came back around he saw that the heavy snowfall was already covering its tracks. Then the three of them were inside the house, talking, holding on to one another. Robert kept glancing at the front door.

“I can’t thank you enough,” cried Lotte, huddled in a chair. “You’re at risk! I won’t stay long, a few hours. Until it’s safe. Then ____  ”

“Stay as long as you want.”

“No. They’ll follow. In the cities, the fires, the murders, everyone starving, I stole gas. Do you have more? Enough to get me to Greenborough? I ____   ”

“Lotte?” said Robert.

“Yes?” Lotte stopped, breathless.

“Did you see anyone on your way up here? A woman? Running on the road?” “What? I was driving so fast. A woman? Yes! I almost hit her. Then, she was gone! Why?”

“Well ____   ’’

“She’s not dangerous?”

“No, no.”

“It is all right my being here?”

“Yes, fine, fine. Sit down. We’ll fix some coffee.”

“Wait! I’ll check!” Before they could stop her Lotte ran to the front door, opened it a crack and peered out. They stood with her and saw distant headlights flourish over a low hill and dip into a valley. “They’re coming,” said Lotte. “They might search here.”

Martha and Robert glanced at each other. No, no, thought Robert. God, no! Preposterous, unimaginable. No, none of this! Get off, circumstance! Come back, Lotte, in ten years, five years, maybe a year, a month, a week. Even tomorrow! But don’t come with coincidence in each hand like idiot children and ask, only half an hour after one terror, one miracle, to test our disbelief! “What’s wrong?” said Lotte.

“I ____   ” said Robert.

“No place to hide me?”

“Yes,” he said. “We have a place.”

“You do?”

“Here.” He turned slowly away, stunned.

They walked down the hall to the halfopen paneling.

“This?” Lotte said. “Secret? Did you ____   ?”

“No, it’s been here since the house was built long ago.”

Lotte touched and moved the door on its hinges. “Does it work? Will they know where to look and find it?”

“No. It’s beautifully made. Shut, you can’t tell it’s there.”

Outside in the winter night cars rushed closer, their beams flashing up the road, across the house windows.

Lotte peered into the witch door as if down a deep, lonely well.

A filtering of dust moved about her. The small rocking chair trembled.

Moving in silently, Lotte touched the half-burned candle.

“Why, it’s still warm!”

Martha and Robert said nothing. They held on to the witch door, smelling the odor of warm tallow.

Lotte stood rigidly in the little space, bowing her head beneath the beamed ceiling.

A horn blew in the snowing night. Lotte took a deep breath and said, “Shut the door.”

They shut the witch door. There was no way to tell that a door was there.

They blew out the lamp and stood in the cold dark house, waiting.

The cars rushed down the road, their noise loud, and their yellow headlights bright in the falling snow. The wind stirred the footprints in the yard, one pair going out, another coming in, and they watched the tracks of Lotte’s car, fast vanishing, and at last, gone.

“Thank God,” whispered Martha.

The cars, honking, whipped around the last bend and down the hill and stopped, waiting, looking in at the dark house. Then, at last, they started up away into the snow and the hills.

Soon their lights were gone and the sound gone with them.

“We were lucky,” said Robert.

“But she’s not.”

“She?”

“That woman, whoever she was, ran out of here. They’ll find her. Somebody’ll find her.”

“Christ, that’s right.”

“She has no ID, no proof of herself. She doesn’t know’ what has happened to her. When she tells them who she is and where she came from ____  ”

“Yes, yes.”

“God help her.”

They looked into the snowing night but saw nothing. Everything was still. “You can’t escape,” she said. “No matter what you do, you can’t escape.”

—–

They moved away from the window and down the hall to the witch door and touched it.

“Lotte,” they called.

The witch door did not tremble or move.

“Lotte, you can come out now.”

There was no answer, not a breath nor a whisper.

Robert tapped the door. “Hey, in there.”

“Lotte!”

He knocked at the paneling, agitated.

“Lotte!”

“Open it!”

“I’m trying, damn it!”

“Lotte, we’ll get you out, wait!    Everything’s all right!”

He beat with both fists, cursing. Then he shouted, “Watch out,” took a step back, raised his leg and kicked once, twice, three times, vicious kicks at the paneling that crunched holes and crumbled wood into kindling. He reached in and yanked the entire paneling free. “Lotte!”

They leaned together into the small place under the stairs. The candle flickered on the small table. The Bible was gone. The small rocking chair moved quietly back and forth, in little arcs, and then stood still.

“Lotte!”

They stared at the empty room. The candle flickered.

“Lotte,” they said.

“You don’t believe?”

“I don’t know. Old houses are old . . . old.”

“You think Lotte . . . she ____?”

“I don’t know, I don’t know.”

“Then she’s safe at least, safe! Thank God!”

“Safe? Where’s she gone? You really think that? A woman in new clothes, with red lipstick, high heels, short skirt, perfume, plucked brows, diamond rings and pantyhose, safe? Safe!” he said, staring deep into the open frame of the witch door.

“Why not?”

He drew a deep breath.

“A woman of that description who was lost in a town called Salem in the year 1692?”

He reached over and shut the splintered witch door.

They sat waiting by it for the rest of the long cold night.

Hitch Your Spaceship To A Star -Donald E. Westlake

Breakfast on the Hopeful consisted of ocher juice, parabacon, toastettes, mock omelet, papjacks, sausage (don’t ask) and Hester’s coffee. It was called Hester’s coffee because Hester made it and Hester drank it; the others had to draw the line somewhere.

This morning, all hands had gathered for the prelanding meal. At the head of the round table sat Captain Standforth himself, under the glassy eyes of nearly two score defunct birds mounted on the walls, the stuffing of which was his only true vocation. Descended from those Standforths, the ones who had so routinely over the past seven generations covered themselves with glory in the service of the Galactic Patrol, the captain had been compelled by both family and destiny to enlist when his turn came, just as the patrol had been compelled by family and history to take him, inadvertently and unhappily proving that sometimes neither nature nor nurture may create character. Taxidermy? A Standforth? Regrettably, yes.

Gathered around, scoffing down the fabrifood, were the rest of the expendable captain’s expendable crew, plus his lone expendable passenger, Councilman Morton Luthguster, as plump and pompous as a pouter pigeon crossed with a blimp. The crew consisted of second-in-command Lieutenant Billy Shelby, young and idealistic but not too awfully bright: Astrogator Pam Stokes, very bright and very beautiful but a stranger to passion; Knsign Kybee Benson, whose encyclopedic knowledge of human societies did not keep him from being personally antisocial; and stockily blunt Chief Engineer Hester (of the coffee) Hanshaw, proud mistress of the engine room.

The captain wiped his lips on a toastette, then ate it. “Well,” he said to his murky band, “we’ll be landing soon.” His mild eyes gleamed with visions of this unknown new planet and the unimaginable new birds he would soon disembowel.

Councilman Luthguster, swirling a forkful of papjack in pseudolco, said, “What is this place we’re coming to, Ensign Benson? What are its characteristics?”

“No one knows for sure about this one, Councilman,” the ensign told him. “The old records simply say the colonists were a group of like-minded people whose goal was a simple life free of surprises.”

“Well, we’ll be a surprise,” the council man said.

Jim Downey and Hank Carpenter stood gazing up into the clear green sky, where the sun—good old Ptolemy, nicknamed sun after the good old Sol from which their forebears had so long ago departed— poised midway up its morning arc. “They’re late,” Jim said.

“They’ll get here,” Hank assured him.

Councilman Luthguster said, “What’s the name of the place, Ensign Benson? I’ve noticed that the name the colonists give their settlement frequently offers a clue to their social structure.”

“It’s called Figulus,” Ensign Benson said.

“Figulus?”

Blank looks around the table. Billy Shelby said, “Wasn’t he one of the founders of ancient Rome? Figulus and Venus.”

“No, Billy,” said Ensign Benson.

Jim frowned skyward. “You don’t suppose they got the coordinates wrong? Landed someplace else on Figgy?” Behind them, on the knoll where they stood, the pleasant town dreamily awaited.

“They’re dawdling over their breakfast, like as not,” Hank replied. “In fact, there they come yonder.”

“Publius Nigidius Figulus,” Ensign Benson said. “He was the most learned Roman of his age, a writer and a statesman, died circa forty-five b.c.”

Billy looked sad. “Died at the circus?

That’s awful.”

“Terrible,” the ensign agreed. “Figulus was most noted for his books on religion and _____   ”

“We’re,” Pam Stokes said, her ancestral slide rule moving like a live thing in her slender-fingered hands, a subtle alteration simultaneously taking place in the faint aura of engine hum all about them, “here.”

Everyone jumped up to go look out the view ports at Figulus, third often planets in orbit around the Sollike star called Ptolemy. Only Ensign Benson remained at the table, draining his vial of ocher juice.

“And astrology,” he finished.

“People of Figulus _____”

“Hi, Senator,” Jim said.

Councilman Luthguster frowned across the top of his P.A.-system microphone at the two locals at the foot of the extruded stairs. He was on the platform at the top.

Both were middle-aged, mild-mannered,

Jim with a gray cardigan and a pipe, Hank with eyeglasses and a tweed jacket. All four elbows sported leather patches. “I am a councilman,” he informed them.

“Ha!” said flank. “That’s a five-buck you owe me, Jim.”

Jim scratched his head. “I would have sworn a plenipotentiary from Earth would be at least a senator.”

Councilman Luthguster stared. “I haven’t told you that yet,” he told the world through the P.A. system.

Just inside the ship where the others waited, Ensign Benson frowned and said, “What’s going on out there?” He edged closer to the open hatch, where he could hear both sides of the conversation.

“Well, in any event,” Hank was saying, while his pal Jim sadly produced a five-buck from his wallet and handed it over,

The councilman is not the one we have to talk to here. No, we want the man in charge.”

“You mean the captain?”

Hank said, “No, no, he’s just some sort of hobbyist along for the ride. We want the—what will you call him? Social scientist. Anthropologist.”

“Sociologist,” Jim suggested. “Ethnologist.”

Ensign Benson stepped out into the light. “Social engineer,” he said.

“How do you do, sir.” Hank said, smiling behind his glasses, coming up the ladder with hand outstretched. “I’m Hank Carpenter, mayor of Centerville.”

Back on the ground, Jim made a dang-it gesture with his pipe. “I knew he’d be a Scorpio! Dang it, that’s what we should have bet on.”

Ensign Benson accepted Hank’s firm but friendly handclasp. “Centerville?” “Well, sir,” Hank said, “it happens that this is the center of the universe. May not look like much, but that’s what it is and why our forebears came here. But let’s quit jawing. You and the councilman and the four inside the ship, come on to town and meet the folks.”

Ensign Benson held tight to the stair rail. “Four inside?”

“Well, there’s your captain,” Hank said. “Tall, skinny, distracted fella. A Pisces. And his number two, a nice young boy but not too quick upstairs—probably a Moon Child. Moony, anyway.”

“Show-off,” Jim said. He was still smarting over his fiver.

Hank went on, pretending not to notice. “Then there’s your navigator _____”

“Astrogator.”

“Same thing, just gussied up. A highly motivated young person, probably female.”

“Not yet,” Ensign Benson muttered.

“But definitely Virgo.”

“That I’ll go along with.”

“Now, your engineer,” Hank went on, “a solid Taurus, but we just can’t decide if it’s a man or a woman.”

“Nobody can,” Ensign Benson said.

“I heard that,” Hester said, coming out onto the platform to shake a wrench at the ensign. “I’m a woman, and don’t you forget it.”

“Why not?”

“Come on, folks,” Hank said, gesturing toward town. “You’ve had a long, hard journey; come along and relax.”

The captain, the lieutenant and the astrogator joined the three other Earthlings on the platform and they all looked off toward town. A pretty little place with peaked roofs, a traditional white steeple and a sports ground alive with running, yelling children, it nestled in a setting of low hills where neat farms mingled with elm groves, the whole area very much like certain bits of Devon and Kent—the parts beyond commuting distance from London. “What a nice place,” Pam said, her slide rule for one instant forgotten.

“You’ll learn to love it,” Hank assured them, “in time.”

“Chick, chick, Nero,” Jim said as Hank explained to the Earthers, “Our energy sources are really very slender. No oil, no coal. Hydropower and solar power give us enough electricity to run our homes and businesses, but there was no way we could keep powered transportation. Fortunately, there were several indigenous animals capable of domestication, including the like of old Nero here.”

Nero, a gray-and-white creature that might very well pass for a horsy steed in the dusk with the light behind it, was apparently quite strong; without effort it pulled this ten-seater surrey and its eight passengers along the gently up-and-down crushed-stone road toward town. A farmer in a nearby field, plowing behind another Nero, waved; Hank and Jim and Billy and Hester waved back.

“Have many birds here?” the captain asked.

“Oh, all sorts.”

Ensign Benson had been deeply frowning, intensely brooding, acutely staring into the middle distance, but now, all at once he nodded and said, “Hyperradio.” Jim frowned around his pipe. “Say what?”

“You must be in hyperradio contact with one of the colonies we already visited.” “Not us,” Jim said. “Never heard of hyperradio.”

“Then someone else has come here from off planet. Recently.”

“No, sir.” Jim shook his head and Nero’s reins.

Hank said, “You’re our first visitors in five hundred years. You’ll be starting the guestbook.”

Ensign Benson gave him the old gimlet eye. “You knew we were coming. You knew how many of us and where we were from and our mission. Somebody had to tell you all that.”

“Easy,” Hank said, grinning. “The stars told us.”

The town was small but busy, with a bustling, shop-filled main street, Nero-powered surreys and wagons everywhere, and an aura of prosperity and contentment.

“What’s that?” the captain asked as they made their way around a white-stone obelisk in its own little center-of-the-street garden.

“The peace memorial,” Hank said. “We’ve never had anybody to have a war with, but the town plan called for a memorial there—our ancestors’ original town back on Earth had one at that spot—so about a hundred years ago, they just went ahead and put up a peace memorial.”

People waved as they went by, and a dressed-up reception committee waited out front of the Grange hall. “I know you’ve all had breakfast,” Hank said, “but you could probably tuck into some real food. Come on.”

Everybody climbed out of the surrey. Billy Shelby, a happy and innocent smile on his face, said to Ensign Benson. “Golly, Kybee, isn’t this place nice?”

“I’m not so sure,” the ensign muttered, glowering at all those happy people. “Keep your eyes open, Billy. There’s something wrong here.”

It was a gala breakfast, laid on just for the visitors and with nearly 50 of the most prominent local citizens in attendance. The Terrans were introduced to, among many others, the principals of both high schools, three ministers, one priest, four doctors, both judges, the police chief, the editors of both newspapers. . . . Oh, the list went on and on. Then they all sat at long trencher tables under crepe-paper decorations of umber and sienna—Earth colors—and happy chitchat filled the hall as the food came out.

Real eggs. Real homemade bread with real butter. Real bacon. “Hester,” Councilman Luthguster said, “this is what coffee tastes like.”

“Not my coffee,” said Hester.

“I know,” said the councilman.

“How do you like breakfast?” Hank asked.

“Fine,” said Ensign Benson, though, in fact, it was all as ashes in his mouth. Looking up, he noticed the designs painted high on the walls, just under the ceiling, 12 on each side, six along each end. Beginning at the front left, three designs incorporated rams’ heads, three involved bulls, then… “Thezodiac,” Ensign Benson said.

“You know it, then.” Hank Carpenter seemed pleased.

“Astrology. Publius Nigidius Figulus wrote on astrology.”

“One of the great early scholars in the science.”

Ensign Benson raised such a skeptical brow: “Science?”

Hank offered such an indulgent chuckle: “You’re from Earth, of course,” he said, “where it doesn’t operate as efficiently.”

“Oh, really?”

“If you were to take an ordinary chemistry-lab experiment,” Hank suggested, “and try it underwater, the results wouldn’t please you. Would that disprove the science or reflect the surroundings?”

“So what makes this place better surroundings than Earth?”

“To begin with,” Hank said, “our being at the center of the universe means there’s no distortion. Then, our year is precisely three hundred sixty days long, so we don’t have to keep eternally adjusting things. And Ptolemy’s system includes ten planets, and our planet has two moons. That means that from here, we can observe nine planets, two moons and our sun; twelve. One heavenly body per house.”

“Oh. but you can’t seriously _____”

“As the bumblebee said to the physicist,” Hank said. “ ‘All I know is, it works.’ ”

The extremely beautiful blonde girl to Billy’s left said, “Hi. I’m Linda. What’s your sign?”

“Billy.”

“Billy? No, that’s your name. When were you born?”

“About three-thirty in the morning,” Billy said. “Mom said everybody’s born at three-thirty in the morning. Can that be right?”

Linda thought about that. She had beautiful violet eyes. “You were born in July,” she decided and turned to talk to the person on her other side.

Ensign Benson ate toast, eggs, bacon, waffles; but he did not, in fact, taste a thing. He was thinking too hard. “If astrology works,” he said, “it rules out free will.”

“Not at all.” said Hank. “The heavens don’t say certainly thus and so will happen, or everybody born at the same time in the same general area would be identical. Astrology deals in probabilities. For instance, the astral alignment so strongly suggested that Earth would make fresh contact with its Lost Colonies now that we pretty well discounted any other possibility, but as to the exact make-up of the crew, there were some details we couldn’t be sure of.”

“Still,” Ensign Benson said, “you’re telling me you people can read the future.”

“The probabilities,” Hank corrected.

“Of course,” Pam Stokes said, an actual real piece of bacon in one hand and her ever-present slide rule in the other, “there are many ways to define the center of the universe.” She bit off a piece of crunchy bacon.

“Oh, sure,” Jim Downey agreed. “And they all work out to be right here.”
Pam frowned. “This doesn’t taste like bacon.”

“Something wrong?”

“No, it’s _____. Actually, it’s better.”

Putting the slide rule down, she picked up a fork and had at the scrambled eggs.

Pointing, Jim said. “What is that little stick, anyway?”

“This slide rule? It’s a sort of calculator, used before the computer came in.”

“Like the abacus?” Jim picked it up, pushed the inner pieces back and forth, watched the little lines and numbers join and separate.

“I guess so,” Pam said, reaching for the toast, pausing in amazement when the toast flexed. “It was my mother’s,” she explained, “and my mother’s mother’s, and my mother’s mother’s mother’s, and my mo _____”

“Very interesting,” Jim said and put it down.

Ensign Benson, lost in thought, had stopped eating. “If you’re done,” Hank said, “we’ll show you to your house.”

The ensign looked at him. “My house?”

“You and your friends. We thought you’d probably all want to live together at first until you get to know the town, make friends, find employment _____”

“Wait, wait a minute.” Ensign Benson was almost afraid to phrase the question. “How long do you expect us to stay?”

“I’m sorry,” Hank said. “You haven’t read your chart, of course. You’ll be here forever.”

Give Councilman Morton Luthguster a crowd, he’ll make you a speech. “Earth can do much for the people of Figulus,” he declaimed to the local citizens assembled at his table. “Technology, trade agreements. A chicken in every pot; a, a, a, a horse thingy in every stable. Peace, prosperity _____”

“We’ve got all that,” said a citizen.

And a stable buck,” said another.

Councilman Luthguster paused in mid-flight. “Buck? A stable buck?” Visions of deer, all with symmetrical antlers, leaped in his head.

“That’s our unit of currency,” a citizen explained. “We have the quarter-buck, half-buck, buck, five-buck, sawbuck, all the way up to the C-buck and the grand-buck.”

“And it’s stable,” another said. “Been a long time since there was a drop in the buck.”

“It’s entered the language idiomatically,” said a citizen who happened to be a high school principal. “Pass the buck, for instance, meaning to pay a debt.”

“Buck the tide.” offered another.

“That’s to throw good money after bad.”

“Buck and wing.”

“To buy your way out of a difficult situation.”

The councilman stared, popeyed. “But that’s all wrong!.”
A friendly citiecness patted his hand.

“You’ll learn them,” she assured him.

“Won’t take long—a strong-willed Leo like you.”

Ig “Oh, no.” The councilman was firm on that. “How happy I am I’ll never have to learn such gibberish.”

His audience just smiled.

“If your stars tell you we’re staying here,” Ensign Benson said, “they’re crazy.”

“Look, friend,” Hank said. “What if the billions and billions of human beings scattered across the Galaxies were to learn that right here, smack in the middle of it all, was a place where they could find out almost everything about the future? What would happen?”

“You could do a great mail-order business.”

“They would come here,” Hank said. “In their billions. Our town would be destroyed; our way of life would simply come to an end.”

Reluctantly, Ensign Benson nodded. “It could get difficult.”

“And that’s why the stars say you’ll remain here and never expose us to the rest of the human race.”

“Sorry,” the ensign said. “I understand your feelings, but we have our own jobs to do. We just can’t stay.”

“But you will,” Hank said apologetically but firmly. “You see, there’s an armed guard at your ship right now, and there will be for the rest of your lives.”

Odd how easily the next month flowed by. Billy Shelby got a paper route and a job delivering for the supermarket. Pam became a substitute math teacher at one of the high schools, where the male students could never figure out what she was talking about but flocked to her class anyway. Captain Standforth, roaming the countryside with his stun gun, brought back many strange and—to him—interesting new birds to stuff Councilman Luthguster took to hanging around down at city hall, and Hester Hanshaw became a sort of unofficial apprentice at the neighborhood smithy.

Socially, the local belief that “those who sign together combine together” made it easy to meet folks of similar interests. Herds of hefty Taurians took Hester away for camping trips, Billy joined a charitable organization called Caring Cancers, a Piscean gardening-and-water-polo club enrolled Captain Standforth, Pam linked up with the Friends of the Peace Memorial (an organization devoted to maintaining the patch of flowers and lawn around said memorial) and Councilman Luthguster joined the local branch of Lions Club Intergalactical.

Only Ensign Kybee Benson failed to make the slightest adjustment. Only he sat brooding on the porch of their nice white-clapboard house with the green shutters. Only he resisted the overtures of his sign’s organization (the Scorpio Swinging Singles Club). Only he failed to learn the local idioms, take an interest in the issues raised by the morning and evening newspapers (which gave the following day’s weather with perfect accuracy), involve himself in the community. Only he refused to accept the reality of the local saying that meant the end of negotiation, parley, haggling: The buck stops here.

“Buck up. Kybee,” Billy said, coming up the stoop.

“What?” Ensign Benson, in his rocking chair on the porch, glared red-eyed at the returning delivery boy. “What is that supposed to mean in this miserable place?”

“Gee, Kybee,” Billy said, backing away a little, “the same as it does on Earth. It means ‘Be cheerful; look on the sunny side.’”

“What sunny side? We’re trapped here, imprisoned in this small town for the rest of our  _____”

“It’s really not that bad, Kybee,” Billy told him. “The folks are real nice. And I do like my jobs. I’m not making big bucks yet, but  _____ ”

“Garr-rraaaghhh!” Ensign Benson announced, leaped to his feet and chased Billy three times around the block before his wind gave out.

Somehow, the second month was less fun. The area round about Centerville had shown to Captain Standforth its full repertory of birds; the board of aldermen would let Councilman Luthguster neither deliver a speech to them nor (as a noncitizen) run for office against them; the high school boys, having grown used to Pam’s useless beauty and having realized none of them would ever either claim her or understand her, now flocked away from her classes; at the supermarket, Billy was passed over for promotion to assistant produce manager; and a Nero kicked Hester in the rump down at the smithy, causing her to limp.

On the social side, things weren’t much better. Hester found her hiking Taurians too bossy and quit. Caring Cancers met every week in a different member’s home to discuss, over milk and gingersnaps, possible recipients for its good works but so far hadn’t found any, which made Billy feel silly. The captain’s gardening-and-water-polo club kept postponing its meetings, necessitating constant rounds of messages and plan reshufflings. No two Friends of the Peace Memorial, including Pam, could agree on a flower arrangement. And Councilman Luthguster, after a hard-fought campaign in which he had taken an extremely active part, had been blackballed at the Lions Club.

More and more, the former space rovers hung around the house, vaguely fretful. The bilious green sky, the nasty sun (color of ocher juice), the two mingy little marble moons in their eccentric orbits all pressed down on the landscape, on the town, on their own little gabled house, with its squeaking floors and doors that stuck. The local citizens had brought from the Hopeful all their personal possessions— clothes, tools, video camera and monitor, the captain’s birds, Pam’s sky charts, Billy’s collection of The Adventures of Space Cadet Hooper and His Pals Fatso and Chang, Ensign Benson’s folders of Betelgeusean erotica, the bound cassettes of Councilman Luthguster’s speeches to the Galactic Council (with the boos edited out), even Hester’s coffee mug—but all these things simply reminded them of their former lives, made their present stale less rather than more bearable.

Centerville was a small town in no nation. Distractions were few and local. No movies or video, only the Morning Bugle and the Afternoon Independent for reading matter, very little variety in clothing or food (all good, all stolid) and no real use for any of their skills or talents. In 500 years, the population had grown from the original 63 to just over 11,000, but 11,000 people aren’t very many when that’s all there are.

Even the news that both high school bands would march in next month’s Landing Day parade didn’t lift their spirits a hell of a lot. That’s how bad things were.

Ensign Benson brooded alone in his rocking chair on the front porch, watching the world (hah!) go by, when a bit of the world in the person of Mayor Hank Carpenter came up onto the stoop to say, “Hidy, Kybee.”

The ensign gave him a look from under lowered brows. Hank cleared his throat, a bit uncomfortable. “We’re sending an ambulance,” he said.

“You’re what?”

“Sorry,” Hank said, looking truly sorry, “but we’ll be taking the captain over to the hospital for a while.”

“What for?”

“Well, uh, he’s about to try to commit suicide.”

Ensign Benson stared. He knew these people now; they didn’t lie and weren’t wrong. But the captain? He said, “I thought I’d be the first to snap.”

“Oh, no,” Hank assured him. “In fact, you’ll, uh, be the last.”

“That’s it,” Ensign Benson said. Rising, he pointed a stem finger at Hank. “Keep your ambulance. We’ll take care of our owrn.”

“Well, if you’re sure you  _____”

But the ensign had gone into the house and slammed the door.

He found the captain upstairs in his room, fooling with a rope. “Come down-224 stairs,” he said. “Now.”

In the kitchen, Billy and Hester were making cofFee—separately, in different pots. The ensign and the captain entered and the ensign said, “Watch him. If he starts drinking anything funny, stop him.”

Billy said, “You mean, like Hester’s coffee?” But the ensign was gone.

Soon he was back, with Pam and the councilman. “It’s time.” he told them all, “to quit fooling around and get out of here.”

“But, Kybee,” Billy said, “we can’t. These people know the future, and they say we’ll never leave.”

“Probabilities,” the ensign corrected him. “The future is not fixed, remember? There’s still free will. The probabilities are caused by our narrowing free will. Things will probably happen in this way or that way because we are who we are, not because the stars force us into anything.” Hester said, “I don’t see how that helps.”

“We have to break out of the probabilities. Somehow or other—I don’t see it clearly yet, but somehow or other—if we do what we wouldn’t do, we’ll get out of here.”

Pam said, “But what wouldn’t we do?” The ensign gave her a jaundiced look. “I know what you wouldn’t do,” he said. “But I would do it, so that’s that. No, we need something that’s so far from the probabilities that, that…”

The others watched him. Ensign Benson seemed to be reaching down far inside himself, willing a solution where there was none. “Take it easy, Kybee,” Billy said.

Hester said, “Do you want some coffee? Billy’s coffee.”

Slowly, the ensign exhaled; it had been some time since he’d breathed. “I know what w’e’re going to do.” he said.

“No!” said the captain. “I won’t!” “That’s the point,” Ensign Benson said. Hester said, “There’s no way you’re going to get me to do a thing like that.” Pam said, “Kybee, this is just a scheme of yours; I can tell.”

“Gosh, Kybee,” said Billy.

“My dignity,” said the councilman. “Precisely!” Ensign Benson said. “Your dignity is what keeps the probabilities all lined up in a neat and civilized and predictable row. It’s the only way we’re ever going to get back onto the Hopeful. Think about it.”

They thought about it. They hated it. But that, of course, was the whole point.

“Hidy, Kybee. The captain feeling better?”

“Oh, we all adapt. Hank.”

“What’s that you’re watching?”

“Just a little video I made of the captain shooting birds. Never saw one of these machines?”

“No, sir, can’t say I have.”

“They’re easy to operate. Come here. I’ll show you.”

One nice thing about knowing the future, you never have to worry about a rain date for your big parade. The sun shone bright, the bands and the marchers were resplendent, and this year, thanks to the Earthpeople, there would be a permanent record of the whole affair! Hank Carpenter, armed with the video camera, stood atop a wagon right down by the peace memorial, ready to tape the whole show.

And a real nice show it was. The South Side High School band led off, in uniforms of scarlet and white, and the North Side High School band, in blue and gold, brought up the rear. In between were contingents of the Four-H, the Grange, the police department, bowling leagues, volunteer firemen, a giggle of beauty-contest winners in a bedecked surrey; oh, all sorts of interesting things.

Including the crew of the Hopeful. Naked.

“Keep taping!” Ensign Benson yelled at Hank Carpenter. “Tape! Tape!” And he did, and they all looked at the tape later, and it was still impossible to believe.

What an array of uncomfortable-looking people. What a variety of flesh was here on display. What an embarrassment all the way around.

Captain Standforth and Hester appeared first, side by side but determinedly separate. The captain sort of vaguely squinted and blinked, pretending to do difficult math problems in his head, while Hester marched along like an angry rhinoceros, daring anyone to tell her she was naked. The captain in the buff looked more mineral than animal: an angular, gawky armature, a scarecrow that wouldn’t scare a wren, an espalier framework for no known tree. Hester, on the other hand, merely became more Hester: chunky, blocky, squared-off.

A rosy astrogator came next: Pam Stokes blushing from nipple to eyebrow, accompanied by an ashen legislator. Councilman Luthguster, shaped very much like the balloons being carried by some of the younger spectators, appeared to have been drained by a vampire before leaving the house that morning. Upon this pallid sausage casing, the hobnails of embarrassed perspiration stood out in bold relief. Would he faint, or would he make it to Main Street? He suffered from the loss of his pomposity much more severely than from the simple loss of his clothes.

Pam suffered from the loss of clothes. She was beautiful, but she didn’t want to be beautiful; she was graceful, but she didn’t want to be graceful; she was a treat, but the last thing on Earth—or Figulus—that Pam Stokes wanted to be was a treat. Her expression was like that sometimes seen in dentists’ offices.

Finally there came Billy and the ensign, and here the mark of the ensign’s determination really showed itself. Although it would certainly be embarrassing for him or for Billy to appear naked in public, it wouldn’t, in truth, be quite the horror it clearly was for the others, so for himself and Billy the ensign had escalated the attack.

They were dancing.

Arm in arm, the ensign leading, Billy following pretty well, they turned and turned in great loops, waltzing to John Philip Sousa’s The Thunderer—not impossible but not easy.

Nobody stopped them; nobody knew what to do but stand and gape. For two blocks past the astounded populace, down Broadway from Elm past Church to Main—that being the reach of the video camera—the captain paced, the chief engineer plodded, the councilman trudged, the astrogator inadvertently and unwillingly promenaded and the lieutenant and the ensign waltzed. At Main, surrounded by a populace still immobilized by disbelief, they broke and ran for it, around behind the crowd, through back yards and alleys and away. With many a hoarse cry and broken gasp, this unlikely herd thundered all the way home, up the stoop, across the porch, into the house and slammed the door.

Knock, knock.

“Who’s there?”

“Hank Carpenter, Miss Hanshaw. You folks all right in there?”

“Go away.”

“It’s been five days; you can’t just    ”

“Then wait a minute.”

Hank waited. He went over and sat on the porch railing and looked out at the sunny day. The rubbernecks who had filled this street at first had given up by now, and everything was back to normal. But what had it all been about, anyway?

This was one of those rare moments when the charts didn’t help. If it were simple madness, of course, that would explain a lot, since insanity can play merry hob with your probabilities, but somehow’ Hank didn’t believe lunacy was the answer.

The front door opened and Ensign Benson came out, carrying a thin folder. He shut the door behind himself, gave Hank a quick, nervous smile, then frowned out at the street.

“They’re all gone,” Hank assured him.

“I didn’t know it would be quite that bad,” the ensign said. “It does something to your nervous system to be naked in front of that many people.” He had a twitchy look to him and didn’t quite meet Hank’s eye.

“What we can’t figure out is why you did it.”

“So you could let us go, of course.”

Hank smiled in confusion. “You mean, we’d take pity on you because you lost your minds?”

“We didn’t lose our minds, just our clothes. You’ve got it all on tape, right?”

“I don’t know’ why you’d want such a thing,” Hank said, “but yes, we do.”

“Look at this,” Ensign Benson said, extending the folder.

Hank took it, opened it, found himself reading a report to the Galactic Council about the lost colony known as Figulus. “Says here, the settlement was abandoned. Colonists long dead. Some unanticipated poison in the atmosphere.”

“Not suited for human life,” the ensign said. “As soon as we’re aboard ship, that’s the report we’ll send.”

“Why?”

“You’re keeping us here because you’re afraid we’ll spread the news about you and a lot of people will show up to learn all about the future.”

Hank nodded. “Destroying our future in the process.”

“If anybody did arrive,” the ensign said, “you’d blame us. You’d probably be mad enough to show that tape.”

“I’m beginning to see the light,” Hank said. “You were looking for a way to bust loose from the probabilities.”

“That’s right. What could we do that we wouldn’t do?”

“Walk down Broadway at high noon, naked, with a brass band.”

“As long as you have that tape,” Ensign Benson said, “we’ll do anything— anything—to keep the rest of the human race away from here.” Wanly he smiled. “And if this doesn’t work,” he said, “if you still won’t let us go, we’ll just have to get more improbable.”

“How?” Hank asked, a bit wide-eyed.

“I don’t know’ yet,” the ensign told him. “I hope I never know. How about you?”

Out, out, out across the illimitable void soared the Hopeful. Its crew, garbed in every piece of clothing they owned and not looking one another in the eye, had left Figulus without even having their charts done. They knew nothing of the future.

Just as well.

Burnt Toast – Mack Reynolds

“We have here a table bearing thirteen cocktails,” the demon said. “And now into one I add a touch from this vial.”
“What tat?”
“Poison. Now I switch the glasses about. Truly, you couldn’t remember into which glass I emptied the vial, could you?”
“What’s the gag, buddy?”
“The proposition,” the demon said, “is quite simple. You take your pick and drink it. For your first choice I give you exactly one hundred dollars.”
Alan Sheriff shook his head in an attempt to clear away the fog. “You said, minute ago, you put poison . .
“In just one. There are thirteen in all. You choose a glass, you drink it and I award you with a hundred dollars. If you wish to try again, you receive two hundred, next award is four hundred, and so on.. If you lose, the forfeit is your life and your . . . soul.”
It took a long moment to assimilate that. “Let’s see the century,” Sheriff muttered.
The demon brought forth a wallet and selected a bill which he laid on the table then looked at the other in anticipation.
Sheriff said thickly, “Nothing to lose anyway.” He took up the nearest glass, fished the olive out and threw it aside.
The demon smiled politely.
“Bottoms up!” Sheriff said, tossing it off with the practiced stiff-wristed motion of the drinker. He put the glass down, stood swaying in silence.
“Not bad liquor,” he said finally. “I needed that.”
“The hundred dollars is yours. Would you like to try for two hundred?”
Sheriff looked at the bill. “This is good, eh?”
The demon shifted his shoulders in impatience. “Of course.”
Sheriff said, “Suppose I could ask you what this is all about, but the hell with it. So long, sucker.”
“I’ll still be here tomorrow. Alan Sheriff.”

• • •

There was a knock and the demon said, “Come in.”
Sheriff closed the door behind him. His blood-veined eyes went about the barren hotel room: magnet-drawn, they came to the small table. Twelve cocktail glasses, sweated with cold, sat upon it.
He said tentatively, “I was tight last night . .
“The night before last,” the demon corrected.
“. . . but I wasn’t that tight. I couldn’t have dreamed it, especially the hundred bucks.”
“Already gone, I assume,” the demon said. “You came to try again?”
“Why’d you give me that hundred? Listen, you haven’t got a drink around the place have you?”
The other seated himself in the room’s sole chair, put the tips of his fingers together. “You won the hundred dollars on a wager. As far as a drink is concerned, I am afraid all I have is there.” He indicated the table with its burden of twelve glasses.
Sheriff’s eyes went from him to the table, back again. He hadn’t shaved since last he had been here and the pallor and odor of long weeks of alcohol were on him. He wavered. “I don’t remember too well.”
“Briefly,” the demon said, ”I represent interests that desire your immortal soul.” He made again the proposition of the previous evening while Sheriff stared at him. When he was finished, his visitor’s eyes went again to the table with its twelve glasses.
“Let’s see your money,” Sheriff said, shaky and unbelieving.
The demon brought forth his wallet, extracted two bills.
Sheriff stepped to the table, reached for a drink. “Prosit!” he grunted, bolting it. He waited, then with satisfaction, “Wrong one.”
The demon shrugged.
Sheriff said, “If I take another one, how much do I get?”
“Four hundred dollars. You wish to try again?”
“There’s eleven glasses left. One poison, eh?”
“That is correct. The odds are with you.”
Sheriff grinned sourly, two broken front teeth becoming evident. “Best odds I ever had.” He reached out quickly, took up another glass, held it in his hand for a moment then drank it as he had the other one with one quick motion. “Four hundred more,” he demanded. and received it.
“And now for eight?” the demon prodded.
“Not till I get this spent,” Sheriff chortled. “Then I’ll be back, sucker.” He held up the six hundred dollars he had    won, stared at it unbelievingly, clenched it in his fist and stumbled from the room.
The demon looked after him.

• • •

“Eight hundred this time,” the demon said, the sum ready in his hand, “and the odds are one in ten.”
“Here’s to glory!” Sheriff toasted.

• • •

When Alan Sheriff returned, four days later, he was shaven, bathed, attired in gray flannel, his teeth had known a dentist’s attention and the shaking of his hands was all but imperceptible.
“You’re sober.” the demon said.
Sheriff looked at him. The other was medium sized, dressed conservatively. Sheriff said, “You don’t look like the devil.”
“How am I supposed to look?” Sheriff scowled at him. “Listen, I sobered myself up, but it’s temporary.
Jfust long enough to find out what the hell’s going on. What’d you give me that money for?”
The demon explained, still again, the wagers they had made.
Afterward Sheriff said, wonderingly, “My soul, eh? Tell the truth, I didn’t think there was any such thing.”
“It has been greatly debated,” the demon agreed.
“What I can’t understand,” Sheriff said, “is all this trouble you’re going to. You picked me out of the gutter. You would’ve got my . . . soul . . . anyway.” “You underestimate the efforts of our opposition,” the demon sighed. “And you must realize victory is never absolutely assured until the last second of life. Ten minutes after I approached you. you might have decided upon reform.” He twisted his mouth sardonically.
Sheriff shook his head while saying. “I still don’t get this . . . this system of trying to get my . . . soul.”
The demon had seated himself in the arm chair, now he shrugged. “Each person in his time is confronted with his decision. Most, admittedly, not quite so directly as this.”
“But all that dough for a down and out bum. Already I’ve got fifteen hundred. and the next chance more than doubles it.”
The demon nodded. “Your next try is for one thousand, six hundred. But the amount is meaningless. The, ah. commodity cannot be evaluated in terms of money. One of our most prized specimens cost but thirty pieces of silver.” He added absently, “In that particular case he didn’t know it was his soul he was selling.”
Alan Sheriff looked down at the table. There were nine glasses remaining He said. “For sixteen hundred bucks, eh?”
The demon nodded, his eyes shining. Sheriff’s hand snaked out. took up a glass and brought it half way to his lips. His eyes went to the demon’s.
The other smiled.
Alan Sheriff put the glass down quickly, took up another. He held it for a moment. The demon still smiled.
Sheriff’s mouth tightened. “Salud!” he said, bolting the cocktail. He dosed his eyes and waited. When he opened them, the other was extending a sheaf of bills.
Sheriff said, “You’ll still lie here later in the week?”
“For you I shall always be here, night or day. There are eight glasses left. Your next wager will involve three thousand, two hundred.”
Sheriff said flatly, “I gave up two weeks ago. Lots of dough for liquor, good food, gambling, makes the going easier but I’m not changing my mind about calling life quits. I’ll be bark when I’ve spent this.”
“Very sound judgement.” the demon nodded. “Until then.”

• • •

“So soon?” the demon said. “However, the wager is now three thousand, two hundred.”
Sheriff said, “This is the last time.”
“Ah?”
“This time I’m using the dough for a new start. I’m getting a job.”
“Admirable motive, I understand — from the human viewpoint. However, we shall see.” The demon changed the subject. “If I understand correctly the Laws of Chance, this is your crucial test.”
“How’s that?” Sheriff’s eyes came up from the glasses to the other’s face.
“When we began, there were thirteen glasses, one of which was poisoned. However, we are nearly half through now and your good luck cannot last forever. Taking the averages, you should miss this time.”
Sheriff shook his head. “Each time is a separate time. You don’t use up your luck, there is no such thing. The odds aren’t as good as they were, but they’re still seven to one in my favor.”
“Very well, let us see.”
Alan Sheriff, sweat on his forehead, reached out slowly for one of the Martinis. “Here’s looking at you,” he said.

• • •

The demon answered the door and smiled to see his visitor. “Alan Sheriff! But I thought your last visit was to be just that.”
Sheriff’s face was tight. “I’m not here for myself, damn you. It’s for somebody else.”
“Somebody else?” the demon said. “I don’t understand.”
“A girl,” Sheriff snapped. “It’s none of your business. You wouldn’t ever have seen me again except for Muriel. She needs five thousand; medical bills for her old lady, sanitarium. Never mind. The thing is I’ll take another one of those drinks.”
The demon pinched his lip thoughtfully. “I don’t know.”
“Damn it, what difference does it make what I want the dough for?”
“Ummm. Your motive for taking the wager disturbs me. Some centuries ago a somewhat similar case precipitated a cause celebre. Chap named Johann Faust. Matter had to be taken to the, ah. higher authorities. However, let us see what develops. There are seven glasses and your odds are six to one with the prize amounting to exactly six thousand, four hundred dollars.”
Sheriff took up a glass at random, toasted defiantly, “Here’s lo the ladies!”
“Very sentimental,” the demon nodded.

• • •

Sheriff banged on the door heavily, and. before it could be answered, banged again.
The demon opened it, his face quizzical. “Ah, our Alan Sheriff.”
Sheriff lurched to the table. The Martini glasses stood as before, six of them remaining. They appeared chill and as fresh as the first time he had seen them, months ago.
“What’s the bet now?” he slurred.
“The wager is twelve thousand, eight hundred against your life and soul.” The demon’s voice was soft.
“Okay. Here’s how!”
The demon nodded pleasantly.
“Beat you again,” Sheriff sneered. “Give me the dough. I’m on my way to show up a wise guy. Show him what a real spender can do for a girl.” The alcohol was heavy on his breath. “What’d he a classy present for Muriel? Show her what a real guy does for a dame . .
The demon ran a thoughtful thumbnail along his trimmed mustache. “I understand mink is highly thought of.” he murmured.

• • •

“Ah,” the demon said. “Here we are, once again.”
Sheriff looked about the room, unchanged from the last time he had been here except there were but five glasses on the small table. He wondered vaguely what had happened to the eight glasses he had emptied in turn.
“You know,” he said, “each time I come here I have to be convinced all over again that it’s true.”’
“Indeed? As I recall, on your last visit you were in the midst of a somewhat feverish romantic situation. Did you take my advice as to the desirability of mink?”
Sheriff was gazing in fascination at the glasses. He said. “What? Oh. yeah. This here wise guy boy friend of hers, old high school sweetheart kind of crap, was trying to beat my time.” He chuckled thickly. “But I gave her the old rush job, wound up in Miami Beach for a week. Quite a town.”
“Isn’t it though? And where is Muriel these days?”
Sheriff was tired of the subject. “She’s around somewhere. Got on my nerves finally. What’s the bet now? I’m thinking of going into the restaurant business — with my kid brother, he needs the dough to get started.”
“Twenty-five thousand, six hundred,” the demon said briefly.
“Well, here’s mud in your eye” Sheriff said.

• • •

“Fifty-one thousand, two hundred,” the demon said. “The new business doesn’t seem to prosper?”
“The kid doesn’t realize there’s angles to every business. He’s too slow for me. We need this dough to put in a bar and maybe a few tables and some slots in the back, maybe some rooms upstairs where a guy can take a dame or maybe throw a little reefer party.”
“There are now four glasses,” the demon said.
“Skoal!”

• • •

The demon opened the door at the knock and admitted the burly, heavy faced man. “It’s been a long time,” he said simply.
“Yeah,” Sheriff said. He looked about the small room. “But you haven’t changed much. Neither has this room. I wasn’t sure it’d still be here.”
“Some things are changeless.” the demon said.
“Three glasses left, eh? My luck’s really been with me so far. You know, it’s been so long since I been here. What’s the bet now?”
“You would win one hundred and two thousand, four hundred dollars, my friend.”
“Two chances out of three. It’s still a good percentage and I’m branching out into new territory and need the dough.” He stared down at the identical glasses, still retaining their appearance of chill freshness.
“And how is your brother these days?”
“Bill? The hell with him. I had to bounce him out. Too square for the business I’m in. You know,” he bragged. “I’m a pretty big shot in some of the rackets these days.”
“Ah? I see.”
Sheriff took up one of the glasses, looked over its edge at his opponent. “Well, first one today with this hand.” he muttered, downing it. He waited fora moment then took up the money, stuffed it into his overcoat pocket and left without a backward glance.

• • •

The knock at the door was hurried, anxious.
The demon opened it and said, “Yes?”
Sheriff hastened in. looked about quickly. “I’m safe here?”
The demon chuckled. “Really. Alan Sheriff !”
“They’re after me. The cops . . .”
“Ah?”
Sheriff’s eyes went to the small table. “Two glasses left.” he muttered. “I could hire Liber for a lawyer, grease a few palms. With more than two hundred grand I could beat this rap, or, for that matter, I could go on down to Mexico, live there the rest of my life.”
“It’s been done,” the demon agreed.
“Fifty-fifty chance.” Sheriff hissed in sudden decision. He lifted one of the glasses from the table, said “Cheers,” clowned it and stood back to wait, his face empty and white. Nothing happened.
He turned to the other. “Give me the money.” he said triumphantly. “You know what, sucker? It’s like you once said. It’s never too late to change. I beat you all the way down the line, but I know when I’ve pushed my luck as far as it’ll go. After I’ve got myself out of this jam. I’m going to straighten up, see?”
“I doubt it.” the demon murmured.
“Yes I am. buster. You’ve lost this boy.”
The demon said, “I suggest you drink the other Martini.”
The other stared at him. “That’s the one with the poison.”
The demon shook his head gently. “I suggest you take the thirteenth glass, Alan Sheriff. It might help you somewhat in the tribulations that lie ahead. After all’, it is the very best of gin anti vermouth.”
Sheriff chuckled his contempt. “Give me my dough, sucker. I’m getting out.” The demon said, “What gave you the impression that the poison was a quick acting one, Alan Sheriff?”
Sheriff blinked at him. “Huh?”
“I don’t remember informing you that death was to be instantaneous following your choice of the wrong glass.””I … I don’t get it . .
“But of course you got it,” the demon said smoothly. “The poison was odorless and tasteless and you got it on your eighth try. Since then your life and soul have been mine to collect at will. The fact that I haven’t done so sooner was my own whim — and excellent business, as it developed. Surely in the past few years you have done more for the, ah, cause I serve than you would have had I collected my wager immediately.” After a long moment Sheriff picked up the last glass. “Maybe you’re right. I might be needing this, and they are good Martinis.
“One for the road,” he toasted with attempted bravado.
“Down the hutch,” the demon corrected.

The Most Horrible Story In The World – John W. Jakes

The room was a very plain room. It had four walls, a ceiling. a floor. But it was new to Thompson because he had never seen it before. He stood in a relaxed fashion, studying it. There was a desk in the center of the room. It was gray, but Thompson could not identify the material from which it was made. A very old man with a clipped beard sat behind the tlesk. A candle flickered in a brass holder on top of the desk.
“Pardon me,” said Thompson.
The old man looked at him. He had been looking at Thompson for a long time. In fact, Thompson could not remember a time when the old man had not been looking at him.
“You like horror stories. I take it,” the old man said, “That’s why you’re here. Everybody in the world like a good horror story, at least once in their lives.”
“Yes,” said I hompson, filled with vague relief, “I guess that’s why I’m here.”
“Fine.” said the old man. He reached into the desk. Where, Thompson couldn’t tell. Just out of sight. No drawers slid. But his hands came out. and they held a white card. Again they vanished. This time they held a metal-pointed pen. There was ink in the pen. It shone with a night-blue luster in the candle flame.
“Name,” said the old man.
“James Thompson.”
“Born.”
Thompson thought a minute. “March third, nineteen oh two. Is all this necessary?”
The old man seemed annoyed. “Of course. We must have all the records, in order that you may become a fulltime member.”
“Full time member of what?” Thompson asked. He noted that the pen seemed always full of ink.
“The Horror Book Club, of course,” the old man replied. He scratched on the card, writing down the information Thompson had given him. Then he put both card and pen out of sight under the desk. His hands came back up, empty.
“Everything has been taken care of,” he said, smiling. “You’ve been admitted.”
“Is that right.” Thompson said aloud. He had begun to wonder whether membership in this club was exclusive. The candle kept on burning, but it stayed the same size.
“Er . . . what kind of books do you have? I mean, could you let me have an idea of some of your titles? Dracula, Frankenstein, The Turn of the Screw, things like that?”
The old man laughed again, this time like he was chiding a small and extremely foolish child. “Oh no, Mr. Thompson. We deal in actual, stark horror. We never use second-rate products.”
The hands dipped down again. Thompson wondered if it was some kind of game. They came back up. They put a book on the desk. It was a thin book, roughly a foot square. It had a whitish cover. The old man’s fingers rasped on the cover when he put it down on the desk.
“Human skin,” the old man said cheerfully. “Very good binding.”
‘Um . . . yes,” said Thompson. He glanced at the cover. In square letters the cover said, The Most Horrible Story in the World. Smaller type down near the lower right hand corner, said. “James Thompson, February 3, 1955.”
“Why, that’s today,” Thompson said.
The old man waved. “A formality. We always record on the books when a new member enters the club. Keeps the records straight.”
“Oh,” Thompson said. “Do I . . . just start reading?”
The old man shook his head and got up. He took the book in one hand, the candle in the other. “I’ll conduct you to one of our reading rooms. We provide special reading rooms for the use of members.”
Thompson did not comment. He followed the old man. They went through an opening in the wall that he had not seen before. But it was in a dim corner, difficult to see clearly.
They walked down a long hall. On each side of the hall were closed doors. The candle made shapes move on the walls.
“What’s that screaming?” Thompson asked, a bit puzzled. “It seems to come from behind these doors.”
“That’s right,” the old man said over his shoulder. “This is the Horror Book Club, you know. All of our members take an active interest in their reading. They participate. They get horrified. It’s really a horrible book, you know.”
“Is it?” Thompson felt a slight tingle of expectancy run along his back. He felt somewhat masochistic at the moment. A new thought struck him. “Is that the only book you carry?”
“Yes,” said the old man. “We’ve had many editions made. It’s the most horrible story in the world, you understand. The most horrible one ever conceived. That’s why all our members read it.”
The hall seemed to stretch on endlessly. Doors marched by. Screams faded, new screams took their place. “How late are you open?” Thompson asked.
“I stay here all the time,” the old man said. “Members are always coming in. They usually stay for a long time. The book is irresistible.”
“Must be,” Thompson said.
Finally they came to a door. The old man stopped. He seemed to pull at the door and it opened, although there was no handle on it. He motioned Thompson inside.
The reading room had one chair and one table. An unlit candle stood on the table. The old man applied flame from his candle.
“Severe,” he said, indicating the room, “but functional. All you really need to enjoy a good horror story.”
“Well, thanks,” Thompson stammered. The old man put the book down on the table. “Do … er … is it customary to pay, or tip?” Thompson said awkwardly.
“Ob no. Tlte Founders take care of that.”
“Um. Founders. Still alive, eh?”
“Oh, certainly.”
“Must like horror stories, to set up a place like this.”
“They do,” the old man assured him. “Well, I hope you like the book.”
He walked out and closed the door. Thompson said, “Well,” a couple of times, saw that no one was listening, laughed foolishly and sat down on the chair. He picked up the book, feeling the tingle on his spine once more. Ne opened the book. He began to read.
It was a very short story. He finished it almost immediately. And it certainly was horrible. Almost too horrible. He closed the book and got up. His face felt very pale. He went to the door. He tried to open it. It would not open.
“Old man,” he yelled. “Old man, old man.” He was so insistent in his yelling that he did not stop to think about the other screaming out in the hall. He expected the old man to come, and he did.
The old man’s voice said through the door, “Yes?”
“I don’t like this book,” Thompson said.
The old man said nothing.
“And the door’s locked. I want to leave.”
“You can’t.”
“What do you mean I can’t? What kind of a place is this anyway?” His tone was threatening, belligerent. And weak.
“You’re a member now.” It was very final.
Thompson felt that the old man was gone. He shouted, “Old man, old man.” There was no answer. He went back to the table. His stomach seemed to be gone. He opened the book. He read the story again. He couldn’t help reading it. It had a kind of fascination. He began to see the true horror in the tale.
When he had re-read it for the fifth time, he started to scream. Everybody else screamed, why shouldn’t he? After all, he was in the mood, his stomach felt icy. The candle kept on burning, but it stayed the same size.
He alternated between periods ot screaming and reading. And each time he read the book, it became more horrible. The infinity of horrible horror was something too vast to contemplate.
He felt no need for food or water or sleep, the story was so horrible. Thompson stopped screaming again and opened the book, perhaps for the thousandth time. He anticipated it now, anticipated the screaming it would cause.
The candle kept on burning. Thompson read the story from the book of skin with his name on it. He read it rapidly. It was a very short story:
You’re dead.

Always Home – David Ely

When would it stop? How long would that hideous tape go on broadcasting angry voices from within the wall?

The house in the suburbs was roomy and hail spacious grounds, but to Peter its major attraction was the fact that it was well equipped with security devices. As he explained to the real-estate agent, he had to make frequent business trips and was uneasy about leaving Teresa alone in their city apartment.
“You wouldn’t worry about your wife if you took this place.” the agent assured him. “It’s as safe as Fort Knox.”
He took Peter and Teresa around to look at the various systems of protection. There were triple locks on the doors and alarm buzzers in the window frames. The entire lawn could be illuminated by powerful floodlights. In addition, trip wires had been concealed in the shrubbery; if a prowler stumbled over one of them, it would set off a siren. The approach to the back door, moreover, was guarded by the invisible beam of an electric eye, which, when interrupted, activated the tape recording of a viciously barking dog.
The agent reserved the most sophisticated installation for last. “Nothing attracts criminals like an empty house,” he said, “and so if you folks go out for the evening, you just need to punch the Always Home button right here in the front hall. Step outside and you’ll see how it works.”
The Always Home mechanism, wired into the electrical system, created the illusion that the house was occupied. It switched lights on and off at random in different rooms, just as though people, were moving about inside, while a concealed projector beamed lifelike human shadows against the window shades in the living room. Most ingenious of all, a sound system produced the recorded babble of voices, easily heard from outside.
“Well, what do you think of the house, folks?” the agent asked, when Peter and Teresa returned inside.
“Oh, it’s simply beyond words,” ‘Teresa said enthusiastically. She was dark and slender and still seemed girlish, even though her hair was touched with gray. She turned eagerly to her husband. “Don’t you agree, Peter? Don’t you think it’s nice?”
Peter, a stout and florid man, was by nature more cautious. “You might be lonely out here,” he said.
Teresa laughed. “Lonely? Why, with all this to take care of, I wouldn’t have time to be lonely!”
So Peter agreed to buy the house (the price was quite reasonable, since the people who owned it were getting a divorce and wanted a quick sale). Within a month, all the paperwork had been completed, the city apartment had been disposed of and Peter and Teresa took possession of their new home.
Teresa knew she would be happy there. She and Peter had lived for 15 years in apartments, and although each had been larger than the one before, she had felt cramped in them. But now she had a house, a lawn, trees, everything. She could do whatever she wanted there in peace and privacy.
When Peter was home, she’d run down early every morning to make him a nice breakfast, and while he ate, she would tell him all the interesting things she could think of about the birds she’d seen and the television programs she’d watched and the new products she’d seen advertised. She would have liked to go out with him to the car to see him off, but he preferred that she remained in the house, so she would merely wave to him from the doorway. “Have a nice day,” she would call out, or (as was frequently the case, in view of the travel demands of his job). “Have a nice trip!”
They had no children. Teresa had never learned what the problem was, for Peter hadn’t found the time to arrange visits to a clinic. Whenever she had brought up the question of adopting a baby. Peter had made vague promises to look into the matter, but he had never managed to get around to it. Finally. Teresa decided that children were a burden and a responsibility and tied people down. “I’m really glad there are just the two of us,” she would remark, knowing that this pleased Peter. “Anyway. I’m too old for a baby now.”
To which Peter would gallantly respond: “Don’t be silly. You’re hardly more than a child yourself.”
Once they had a cat, but its fur made Peter sneeze, and so the cat had to be given away. The goldfish and canaries Teresa acquired didn’t live long. “Get a dog,” Peter said she didn’t see how that could be, with all the entertaining Teresa did. Entertaining? Teresa was about to explain that she hadn’t had a single guest, when she realized that Mrs. Myer must have heard the recorded party noises of the Always Home device. Was it really that loud?
“Oh, we sometimes have a few people in,” Teresa found herself saying casually, and then she remembered that she often left the system on all night. Good heavens, she thought, Mrs. Myer would suppose that they gave parties that lasted until dawn! What must the woman think of her?
“We lead a very simple existence out here. I’m afraid.” Mrs. Myer was saying, with a rather grim expression that confirmed Teresa’s misgivings. The whole neighltorhood would have written her off already as a frivolous madcap from the city! She tried to think how she could correct this impression. She might invite Mrs. Myer over to show her what the Always Home device was and to explain how it worked. But Mrs. Myer would still think her rather peculiar for using it night alter night. Teresa finally concluded that Mrs. Myer wouldn’t be very congenial under any circumstances: if she wanted a friend, she would have to look elsewhere. So she merely said goodbye as cordially as possible and made her departure.
As she neared her house, she heard voices inside. Had she pressed the button before she left? She didn’t think so. Then she remembered that she had let the thing run on front the night before, and she realized that she kept it going almost all the time now, except when Peter was home.
Teresa assumed that the Always Home voices were recorded on a single tape that was played over and over again. But what she heard never seemed to be completely familiar, even though the voices of the men and women were, as far as she could tell, the same. “It must be a very long tape,” she told herself, and she reasoned that this was a wise precaution, for if the tape were a short one. a burglar listening from the lawn might detect the repetition and realize that there was actually no one in the house.
The taped conversations were quite ordinary. The men spoke mostly of golf and politics, while the women gossiped and talked about fashions. Teresa often found it difficult to make out the words, for, as at a real party, three or four people would be talking at once against background noises of footsteps and laughter.
Frequently, however, there were only two voices, a man’s and a woman’s. They addressed each other rather frostily and said such things as “Do we have to have the Vogels over again?” and “We’re spending a damned fortune on booze,” which didn’t sound like party talk at all. By listening attentively, Teresa was able to pick out the names that were assigned to these two principal voices. The man was called Chris and the woman, Carla. Teresa assumed that they and the others were professional actors hired to make standard tapes used in the thousands of other homes throughout the country equipped with Always Home systems. But when Carla complained once about the color scheme of the master bathroom- -“that ghastly pink and those hideous green fish” — Teresa blinked in surprise, for her master-bathroom walls were pink and the bath tiles had a motif of greenish fish, too. And then the actor called Chris grumbled about the warped panels in the dining room and the bedroom window that rattled in the wind . . . and all these and other things he and Carla mentioned were also true about Teresa’s house, so that Teresa could only suppose that the script for the Always Home tape had been written specifically for that particular place.
One day she learned something that forced her to make a drastic alteration in her suppositions about what she was hearing. The tape produced the familiar ring of the doorbell. A man’s voice announced the delivery of a package and asked: “Is this the Woodling residence?”
To which Carla’s voice replied: ” That’s right. I’m Mrs. Woodling. . . .” Mrs. Woodling? Teresa was astonished. Why, the Woodlings were the previous owners of the house! It seemed incredible to her. That meant the tape wasn’t simulated. It was real. Chris and Carla weren’t actors at all. They were actually Mr. and Mrs. Woodling and the other voices were those of their friends. The Always Home device must have been set up to record its own tape automatically, activated by the sound of voices. But hadn’t the Woodlings realized that? Wouldn’t they have heard it playing, too? Well, no, Teresa reasoned. They might not have, for presumably they punched the button only when they were leaving the house and then turned it off again once they returned. They might not even have bothered using it at all.
But the recording part of it must have been on all the time, faithlully storing up each word uttered within its transcription range.
Teresa resolved not to listen any longer. It would be shameful to do so now that she knew what she was hearing. It would be like spying on someone else’s marriage. Still, it occurred to her that the conversations were in the past, perhaps even years ago, and as for the marriage, the Woodlings were divorced bv now. Beyond that, the tape was her property, strictly speaking, since it was part of the house . . . and, anyway, if she just listened and said nothing about it to anyone, not even to Peter, what harm could there be?
She went on listening in fascination. It was like a radio serial, this day-by-day story of the Woodlings’ marriage — but it was true! And it was disturbing, too. The voices became harder. They snapped at each other. They made sneering and sarcastic remarks. There were fewer parties, and finally none at all, just endless bickering exchanges. Teresa could hardly believe what she heard. How could they go on hour after hour that way? And then she remembered that the Always Home recorder would have registered only the voices, not the silences in between, so that it joined together in a single scene the domestic disputes that would have taken place over a period of weeks and months.
At first, Teresa was sorry for Carla. She built up a nasty picture in her mind of Chris, imagining him to be brutish in appearance, for he had a coarse voice that was often slurred, as if he drank a lot, and it seemed not unlikely that, as Carla charged, he was having affairs with other women. But then Teresa was confronted with evidence of Carla’s misbehavior too — a man named Joe came to the house frequently, and the cooing and giggling that went on left no doubt as to what he and Carla were up to — so Teresa had to admit that Carla was no better than Chris and it was a good thing that they had no children.
Thus, Teresa sat in her living room hour after hour, listening with rapt disapproval to Carla’s vicious tones and to Chris’s snarls and roars, occasionally accompanied by the slamming of doors or the shattering of glass, while all the time the rest of the Always Home apparatus continued to perform its duties, flicking a light on or off and calmly projecting shadows on the window shades.
Teresa was shocked by the terrible things she heard on the tape, but somehow she couldn’t prevent herself from listening. She fell as though the tape were poisoned and that the poison had to come out. After a particularly disgusting scene, she would fling open the windows to air the rooms. It was her house now. Carla and Chris had no business there any longer.
She became even more solicitous of Peter and was glad she had decided not to tell him about the tape back in the days when it had been nothing more than an amusing diversion. How he would disapprove of the Woodlings, if he knew about them! She appreciated him all the more now. His quietness was in such contrast to Chris’s loud vulgarity. And Peter worked so hard. He’d come back from his trips absolutely exhausted. She always had fresh flowers on the table, and a drink to put in his hand, and a nice supper, and then he’d go to bed while she took his dirty clothes out of his suitcase and packed clean things in their place for his next trip. Whenever she’d pass through the front hall, she’d glance at the Always Home button and give a little shudder of revulsion, thinking of the Woodlings, that hideous couple who dwelt, so to speak, in the walls, and whose spirits could be exorcised only by the completion of that monstrous tape. But when would it stop? How much longer would it go on?
“It must be terrible when married people fight?, she said once to Peter. He seemed surprised by that. “Oh, not that I know any who do.” she added quickly, “but you hear about these awful cases and — well, the main thing is, we don’t fight.”
Peter yawned, “We don’t have anything to fight about.” he remarked sleepily, and although Teresa had been about to suggest that they go out to a movie, she decided not to mention it. Sometimes he would rouse himself with an effort and ask if she’d care to go to a restaurant or just drive around, but she knew he really didn’t want to, so she’d say. “Oh. no. I’d rather stay home with you. I don’t want to go out.” Now, the bizarre thought crossed her mind that if they did go out and if, in leaving, they switched on the Always Home device. Chris and Carla, unchecked by her presence, might go out of control. Their shadows would spring loose from the window shades and they would, in their fury, tear the house apart.
But one day the Woodlings vanished from the tape so suddenly that Teresa didn’t realize it until she heard strange voices speaking in ordinary tones and deduced, from what was said, that the real-estate agent was showing prospective buyers through the house. So … it was over at last. Chris and Carla were gone forever.
“Well, what do you think of the house, folks-’’ she heard the real-estate agent’s recorded voice inquire, and immediately came a woman’s response:
“Oh, it’s simply beyond words. Don’t you agree, Peter? Don’t you think it’s nice?”
Teresa was startled. Why, that was her voice. And now there was Peter’s, replying to her. Of course — why hadn’t she thought of that before? The Always Home device was bound to have gone on recording. That meant she could listen to everything she and Peter had said months ago, when they first came to the house. At least that would be a pleasant change from the frightful quarrels of the Woodlings’.
She let the tape go on playing while she went about her household chores, dusting and straightening and putting things to rights. Even from upstairs, she could hear her voice and Peter’s conversing below, and although it was nice, in a way, it was a little strange, having her voice in one place and herself in another. It was as if she didn’t have control over what she was saying.
“Of course I’m not lonely,’’ she heard her voice remark as she came down the stairs. “Being by myself doesn’t mean I’m lonely. Why, there’s so much to do, I couldn’t be lonely if I tried!”
Peter was returning from a trip the following morning, so Teresa went out in back to choose the flowers she would cut for the dining room. She could hear the tape out there, too. “Have a nice day.” her voice said brightly, and Peter’s voice said: “No, don’t come out. Stay in the house. Be sure it’s locked.” To inspect the gladiolas, Teresa forgetfully stepped the wrong way, breaking the electric-eye beam. The unexpected burst of barks and snarls from the dog made her leap back as though stung. “Oh, Lord!” she exclaimed, momentarily frightened. From the house, her recorded voice cried out cheerfully: “Don’t worry about me. I’m safe. See? I’m inside. And I’ll be right here waiting when you come home again!”
Teresa went back into the kitchen, her heart still pounding. The invisible dog was snapping and grunting, as though straining against its chain. “Hello, darling,” she heard Peter say from the front hall. “I’m back early . . . where are you?”
Teresa was astonished. Why, he’d left only an hour ago. “Peter!” she cried out, hurrying to greet him. But the front hall was empty. She sloped short in alarm. Then, as she heard her own voice sing out gaily. “Oh, Peter, what a wonderful surprise,” she realized it was only the Always Home tape. She felt betrayed, as though she’d been the victim of a practical joke — and someone was laughing at her. But it was her own laughter that came pealing out . . . her recorded laughter from some forgotten moment in the past. It sounded mocking to her, as if it were the laughter of the tape itself.
“My plane leaves at four o’clock,” Peter’s voice was saying, and Teresa’s voice replied: “So soon? Oh, you poor dear. No, no — let me get your things together for you. . . .’’ The voices were fading out of recording range. But there were no silences on the tape. Teresa’s voice resumed immediately, fresh and clear: “Here we are — all packed and ready. I put a nice new tube of tooth paste in your shaving kit.”
Teresa, standing alone in the hallway, thought she heard footsteps around her and the dutiful smack of a hasty kiss. She stared at the front door. She heard it open — but it remained closed. “Have a nice trip!” her recorded voice called out.
Teresa turned, bewildered, and headed toward the kitchen. The dog was still barking out in back. Its tape usually ran for about five minutes before it went off. “Hello, Peter!” her voice exclaimed behind her. “Oh, just try to guess what I’ve got for supper!” Teresa resisted the impulse to turn around and look. There was no Peter back there. Oh, that barking was making her head throb. Why wouldn’t it stop? “I’m not afraid,” her voice said from the hall. “Why would I be afraid?”
Peter’s voice said: “Get a dog.” Teresa tried not to pay attention to them. She looked in the refrigerator, wondering what she would have for her lunch. “Hello, darling.” said Peter’s voice.
“Oh, my goodness,” Teresa muttered. It was too confusing, all those hellos and goodbyes. She went to the hall and punched the Always Home button, silencing the voices. She had to. Suppose Peter actually came back early? She might think it was just the tape again and not go to greet him. Besides, she was awfully tired. That idiotic barking had gotten on her nerves. But now it had stopped; the house was quiet at last. She didn’t bother eating lunch but went upstairs to lie down and rest.
She was awakened at dusk by a terrible racket. It was one of the sirens in the shrubbery, wailing like a banshee. Teresa leaped from bed in a fright and hurried downstairs to switch on the floodlights. But she saw nothing move outside. The lawn was empty. The bushes could hide nothing in the light that drenched them. It must have been a cat, Teresa thought. The trip wires were too delicately set. Once, a squirrel had touched one off. She’d watched it streak up the nearest tree and turn to chatter angrily at the howling siren. How funny that had been!
But it wasn’t funny now. Even after the siren stopped, its echo rang in her head and she noticed that her breath still came quick. “I’m really a bit nervous today,” she remarked aloud, although she hardly ever talked to herself — and then she broke off with a strained little laugh, realizing that the Always Home would have taped her words. “I’m not nervous,” she added, as if to correct the record. “Not nervous at all!”
Still, as she went back to the kitchen to make a sandwich and a cup of tea, she wondered about the siren. How long had it taken her to run downstairs and switch on the floodlights? If there had been a burglar, he would have had time to retreat out of range of the lights. And suppose he were hidden out there now, watching the house?
She hastened around the downstairs rooms to make sure that all the windows were closed and locked. Was someone whistling in the kitchen? Ah … it was only the kettle boiling. When she poured the water for her tea, her hand shook. “Don’t be such a silly goose,” she told herself sternly — and then she stopped to listen, as though unsure whether it had been her real voice that had spoken.
The house was silent. She thought of turning on the television. That would give her a little company.
But, instead, she returned to the front hall and pressed the Always Home button. That would project Peter’s voice, she knew. Anyone outside would realize that there was a man in the house; she would be safe.
“Glad I didn’t get a job,” she heard her taped voice say. “How could I commute to it from here? There isn’t a bus and I can’t drive.”
Peter’s voice said: “You don’t need a job. You don’t have to work.”
Teresa’s voice went on: “It’s a good thing I don’t have a job. If I did. I’d have to give it up. But I don’t want a job, anyway. I’m much better off the way things are. . . .’’
It was quite dark now. Having finished her tea and eaten her sandwich, Teresa went upstairs to her bedroom to read. But no sooner had she opened her book than the Always Home switched off her lamp. It had happened a few times before, of course, but it was particularly unsettling now. The trouble was that she couldn’t turn the lamp back on, since the Always Home, when in operation, controlled the whole electrical system. It usually took about 15 minutes for the cycle to be completed. She thought of going into Peter’s room, but that was the one where the panes rattled, so she remained where she was in the darkness, waiting for her lamp to light again, and she couldn’t help listening to the conversation of the recorded voices below.
“Glad I didn’t have a baby. Why would I need a baby? We have each other, don’t we? That’s quite enough for me, Peter!”
Teresa got to her feet and felt her way through the dark room. Had she heard a key turn in the lock down below? That alarmed her. And now the door clicked open. She heard that distinctly. “Hello, darling!’’ Oh, God, she thought, it was Peter. Peter’s voice. She stood trembling at the top of the stairs, peering down into the empty front hall. The opening of the door had been on the tape, of course, it was Peter’s ghost that had entered, to be greeted by her own.
“To Denver this time? For a week, really? Oh. you poor darling!”
Teresa came down the stairs, gripping the banister. She had to be careful. The Always Home might flick off the light at any moment, “Have a nice trip!” her voice cried out. and then, in an instant, the week in Denver had passed. “Hello, darling …”
The voices were loud at the bottom of the stairs and louder still in the living room, where the Always Home projector sent the lifelike shadows marching across the shades. “What? Bored? Am I bored? Why, I’m never bored!” Her taped voice seemed high and tense and its laughter was piercing. Teresa knew the sound had to be kept high, so that the voices could be heard outside. But why so loud? They were virtually shouting.
“Get a dog,” boomed Peter’s voice, and Teresa’s voice, replying, had a hysterical, keening edge to it:
“I don’t need a dog! I don’t need anything!”
Teresa edged through the living room as if there were people there she mustn’t bump into. “I really don’t care to meet anyone out here, Peter,” her voice screeched at her. “Why would I need friends when I’ve got you …?’’ Teresa pulled one shade aside to glance out at the lawn. It glittered like crystal in the glare of the floodlights. The projector sent a shadowy form across her arm. She jumped back to avoid its touch.
“Stay in the house,” commanded Peter’s voice. She shuddered. Why did he have to roar?
“Don’t worry,” her voice shrilled. “I’m right here inside — always home!”
Teresa hurried out of the living room. She wanted to turn the voices off. She didn’t want to hear them anymore. But when she reached the hall, the light there went off. She couldn’t find the Always Home button in the dark. Her hands were shaking. She was clawing at the wall. Oh, where was it? She heard the front door open. Now she couldn’t see whether it was really open or not. “Hello, darling!” shouted Peter’s voice,
and Teresa’s gasp of fright was drowned by her taped shriek of welcome:
“Oh, Peter … I”
Teresa ran unsteadily through the hall to the kitchen. She could still hear the voices. They were following her. “We don’t fight,” her voice cried out.
And Peter’s voice rumbled: “We don’t have anything to fight about.”
Teresa shut the kitchen door, but she could hear them anyway. “I don’t want a baby,” her voice said. “Why would I need a baby? I’m too old for a baby. . . .” Teresa shrank against the wall. She put her hands over her ears, but it didn’t do any good. “I’m glad I don’t have a job,” her voice said. “I don’t need a job … I don’t need friends. I’d rather stay home. I don’t want to go out. . . . Have a nice trip! Hello, darling!”
Teresa was weeping now. “Please don’t,” she whispered. The light in the kitchen went off. “I’m not lonely,” her voice declared cheerfully. “The very idea — lonely!”
Peter’s voice said: “Stay in the house.” Pulling the door open, Teresa stumbled out of the kitchen. The light in the hall was back on now, but she didn’t go to the Always Home to turn it off. She didn’t want to touch it ever again.
It was just after ten o’clock the next morning when Peter drove in from the airport. He was surprised and annoyed to find the front door open and was even more surprised and annoyed when he couldn’t find Teresa anywhere, although he could hear her voice. In her bedroom, he discovered evidence of her hasty departure — the closet door open, half her clothes gone from the rack and the yellow telephone directory left open at the taxicab listings. He was quite put out by her behavior, but he reasoned that there must have been some family emergency. She had a sister in St. Paul, he remembered, and he was about to look up the sister’s number when the fact that Teresa’s voice was still speaking below caused him to go back down.
It took him a few minutes to discover the reason for this strange phenomenon. “Don’t worry about me: I’m safe here at home,” Teresa’s voice was saying gaily, happily. “Have a nice day!”
Peter pressed the button. Teresa’s voice was stilled.