The fat man looked down at his rumpled suit. "I ... ah ... was caught a little short today. Didn't have time to change. I'm a busy man. And what business is it of yours?" He clamped his jaw shut, eyed Brett warily.
"I'm a stranger here," Brett said. "I want to find out what's going on in this place--"
"Buy an amusement guide. Lists all the shows--"
"I don't mean that. I mean these dummies all over the place, and the Gels--"
"What dummies? Jells? Jello? You don't like Jello?"
"I love Jello. I don't--"
"Just ask the waiter. He'll bring you your Jello. Any flavor you like. Now if you'll excuse me ..."
"I'm talking about the brown things; they look like muddy water. They come around if you interfere with a scene."
The fat man looked nervous. "Please. Go away."
"If I make a disturbance, the Gels will come. Is that what you're afraid of?"
"Now, now. Be calm. No need for you to get excited."
"I won't make a scene," Brett said. "Just talk to me. How long have you been here?"
"I dislike scenes. I dislike them intensely."
"When did you come here?"
"Just ten minutes ago. I just sat down. I haven't had my dinner yet. Please, young man. Go back to your table." The fat man watched Brett warily. Sweat glistened on his bald head.
"I mean this town. How long have you been here? Where did you come from?"
"Why, I was born here. Where did I come from? What sort of question is that? Just consider that the stork brought me."
"You were born here?"
"What's the name of the town?"
"Are you trying to make a fool of me?" The fat man was getting angry. His voice was rising.
"Shhh," Brett cautioned. "You'll attract the Gels."
"Blast the Jilts, whatever that is!" the fat man snapped. "Now, get along with you. I'll call the manager."
"Don't you know?" Brett said, staring at the fat man. "They're all dummies; golems, they're called. They're not real."
"Who're not real?"
"All these imitation people at the tables and on the dance floor. Surely you realize--"
"I realize you're in need of medical attention." The fat man pushed back his chair and got to his feet. "You keep the table," he said. "I'll dine elsewhere."
"Wait!" Brett got up, seized the fat man's arm.
"Take your hands off me--" The fat man went toward the door. Brett followed. At the cashier's desk Brett turned suddenly, saw a fluid brown shape flicker-- "Look!" He pulled at the fat man's arm-- "Look at what?" The Gel was gone.
"It was there: a Gel."
The fat man flung down a bill, hurried away. Brett fumbled out a ten, waited for change. "Wait!" he called. He heard the fat man's feet receding down the stairs.
"Hurry," he said to the cashier. The woman sat glassy-eyed, staring at nothing. The music died. The lights flickered, went off. In the gloom Brett saw a fluid shape rise up-- He ran, pounding down the stairs. The fat man was just rounding the corner. Brett opened his mouth to call--and went rigid, as a translucent shape of mud shot from the door, rose up to tower before him. Brett stood, mouth half open, eyes staring, leaning forward with hands outflung. The Gel loomed, its surface flickering--waiting. Brett caught an acrid odor of geraniums.
A minute passed. Brett's cheek itched. He fought a desire to blink, to swallow--to turn and run. The high sun beat down on the silent street, the still window displays.
Then the Gel broke form, slumped, flashed away. Brett tottered back against the wall, let his breath out in a harsh sigh.
Across the street he saw a window with a display of camping equipment, portable stoves, boots, rifles. He crossed the street, tried the door. It was locked. He looked up and down the street. There was no one in sight. He kicked in the glass beside the latch, reached through and turned the knob. Inside he looked over the shelves, selected a heavy coil of nylon rope, a sheath knife, a canteen. He examined a Winchester repeating rifle with a telescopic sight, then put it back and strapped on a .22 revolver. He emptied two boxes of long rifle cartridges into his pocket, then loaded the pistol. He coiled the rope over his shoulder and went back out into the empty street.
The fat man was standing in front of a shop in the next block, picking at a blemish on his chin and eyeing the window display. He looked up with a frown, started away as Brett came up.
"Wait a minute," Brett called. "Didn't you see the Gel? the one that cornered me back there?"
The fat man looked back suspiciously, kept going.
"Wait!" Brett caught his arm. "I know you're real. I've seen you belch and sweat and scratch. You're the only one I can call on--and I need help. My friend is trapped--"
The fat man pulled away, his face flushed an even deeper red. "I'm warning you, you maniac: get away from me...!"
Brett stepped close, rammed the fat man hard in the ribs. He sank to his knees, gasping. The panama hat rolled away. Brett grabbed his arm, steadied him.
"Sorry," he said. "I had to be sure. You're real, all right. We've got to rescue my friend, Dhuva--"
The fat man leaned against the glass, rolling terrified eyes, rubbing his stomach. "I'll call the police!" he gasped.
"What police?" Brett waved an arm. "Look. Not a car in sight. Did you ever see the street that empty before?"
"Wednesday afternoon," the fat man gasped.
"Come with me. I want to show you. It's all hollow. There's nothing behind these walls--"
"Why doesn't somebody come along?" the fat man moaned.
"The masonry is only a quarter-inch thick," Brett said. "Come on; I'll show you."
"I don't like it," said the fat man. His face was pale and moist. "You're mad. What's wrong? It's so quiet ..."
"We've got to try to save him. The Gel took him down into this pit--"
"Let me go," the man whined. "I'm afraid. Can't you just let me lead my life in peace?"
"Don't you understand? The Gel took a man. They may be after you next."
"There's no one after me! I'm a business man ... a respectable citizen. I mind my own business, give to charity, go to church. All I want is to be left alone!"
Brett dropped his hands from the fat man's arms, stood looking at him: the blotched face, pale now, the damp forehead, the quivering jowls. The fat man stooped for his hat, slapped it against his leg, clamped it on his head.
"I think I understand now," said Brett. "This is your place, this imitation city. Everything's faked to fit your needs--like in the hotel. Wherever you go, the scene unrolls in front of you. You never see the Gels, never discover the secret of the golems--because you conform. You never do the unexpected."
"That's right. I'm law-abiding. I'm respectable. I don't pry. I don't nose into other people's business. Why should I? Just let me alone ..."
"Sure," Brett said. "Even if I dragged you down there and showed you, you wouldn't believe it. But you're not in the scene now. I've taken you out of it--"
Suddenly the fat man turned and ran a few yards, then looked back to see whether Brett was pursuing him. He shook a round fist.
"I've seen your kind before," he shouted. "Troublemakers."
Brett took a step toward him. The fat man yelped and ran another fifty feet, his coat tails bobbing. He looked back, stopped, a fat figure alone in the empty sunny street.
"You haven't seen the last of me!" he shouted. "We know how to deal with your kind." He tugged at his vest, went off along the sidewalk. Brett watched him go, then started back toward the hollow building.
The jagged fragments of masonry Brett had knocked from the wall lay as he had left them. He stepped through the opening, peered down into the murky pit, trying to judge its depth. A hundred feet at least. Perhaps a hundred and fifty.
He unslung the rope from his shoulder, tied one end to the brass stump, threw the coil down the precipitous side. It fell away into darkness, hung swaying. It was impossible to tell whether the end reached any solid footing below. He couldn't waste any more time looking for help. He would have to try it alone.
There was a scrape of shoe leather on the pavement outside. He turned, stepped out into the white sunlight. The fat man rounded the corner, recoiled as he saw Brett. He flung out a pudgy forefinger, his protruding eyes wide in his blotchy red face.
"There he is! I told you he came this way!" Two uniformed policemen came into view. One eyed the gun at Brett's side, put a hand on his own.
"Better take that off, sir."
"Look!" Brett said to the fat man. He stooped, picked up a crust of masonry. "Look at this--just a shell--"
"He's blasted a hole right in that building, officer!" the fat man shrilled. "He's dangerous."
The cop ignored the gaping hole in the wall. "You'll have to come along with me, sir. This gentleman registered a complaint ..."
Brett stood staring into the cop's eyes. They were pale blue eyes, looking steadily back at him from a bland face. Could the cop be real? Or would he be able to push him over, as he had other golems?
"The fellow's not right in the head," the fat man was saying to the cop. "You should have heard his crazy talk. A troublemaker. His kind have got to be locked up!"
The cop nodded. "Can't have anyone causing trouble."
"Only a young fellow," said the fat man. He mopped at his forehead with a large handkerchief. "Tragic. But I'm sure that you men know how to handle him."
"Better give me the gun, sir." The cop held out a hand. Brett moved suddenly, rammed stiff fingers into the cop's ribs. He stiffened, toppled, lay rigid, staring up at nothing.
"You ... you killed him," the fat man gasped, backing. The second cop tugged at his gun. Brett leaped at him, sent him down with a blow to the ribs. He turned to face the fat man.
"I didn't kill them! I just turned them off. They're not real, they're just golems."
"A killer! And right in the city, in broad daylight."
"You've got to help me!" Brett cried. "This whole scene: don't you see? It has the air of something improvised in a hurry, to deal with the unexpected factor; that's me. The Gels know something's wrong, but they can't quite figure out what. When you called the cops the Gels obliged--"
Startlingly the fat man burst into tears. He fell to his knees.
"Don't kill me ... oh, don't kill me ..."
"Nobody's going to kill you, you fool!" Brett snapped. "Look! I want to show you!" He seized the fat man's lapel, dragged him to his feet and across the sidewalk, through the opening. The fat man stopped dead, stumbled back-- "What's this? What kind of place is this?" He scrambled for the opening.
"It's what I've been trying to tell you. This city you live in--it's a hollow shell. There's nothing inside. None of it's real. Only you ... and me. There was another man: Dhuva. I was in a cafe with him. A Gel came. He tried to run. It caught him. Now he's ... down there."
"I'm not alone," the fat man babbled. "I have my friends, my clubs, my business associates. I'm insured. Lately I've been thinking a lot about Jesus--"
He broke off, whirled, and jumped for the doorway. Brett leaped after him, caught his coat. It ripped. The fat man stumbled over one of the cop-golems, went to hands and knees. Brett stood over him.
"Get up, damn it!" he snapped. "I need help and you're going to help me!" He hauled the fat man to his feet. "All you have to do is stand by the rope. Dhuva may be unconscious when I find him. You'll have to help me haul him up. If anybody comes along, any Gels, I mean--give me a signal. A whistle ... like this--" Brett demonstrated. "And if I get in trouble, do what you can. Here ..." Brett started to offer the fat man the gun, then handed him the hunting knife. "If anybody interferes, this may not do any good, but it's something. I'm going down now."
The fat man watched as Brett gripped the rope, let himself over the edge. Brett looked up at the glistening face, the damp strands of hair across the freckled scalp. Brett had no assurance that the man would stay at his post, but he had done what he could.
"Remember," said Brett. "It's a real man they've got, like you and me ... not a golem. We owe it to him." The fat man's hands trembled. He watched Brett, licked his lips. Brett started down.
The descent was easy. The rough face of the excavation gave footholds. The end of a decaying timber projected; below it was the stump of a crumbling concrete pipe two feet in diameter. Brett was ten feet below the rim of floor now. Above, the broad figure of the fat man was visible in silhouette against the jagged opening in the wall.
Now the cliff shelved back; the rope hung free. Brett eased past the cut end of a rusted water pipe, went down hand over hand. If there were nothing at the bottom to give him footing, it would be a long climb back ...
Twenty feet below he could see the still black water, pockmarked with expanding rings where bits of debris dislodged by his passage peppered the surface.
There was a rhythmic vibration in the rope. Brett felt it through his hands, a fine sawing sensation ...
He was falling, gripping the limp rope ...
He slammed on his back in three feet of oily water. The coils of rope collapsed around him with a sustained splashing. He got to his feet, groped for the end of the rope. The glossy nylon strands had been cleanly cut.