"After we what?" Mary was looking more than merely alarmed.
"After we blew the lights out. You know, when the switch at the head of the stairs stuck. I went down to the cellar and--"
Mary sat up in bed. "Guy, the switch didn't stick. I turned out the lights myself last night."
Burckhardt glared at his wife. "Now I know you didn't! Come here and take a look!"
He stalked out to the landing and dramatically pointed to the bad switch, the one that he had unscrewed and left hanging the night before....
Only it wasn't. It was as it had always been. Unbelieving, Burckhardt pressed it and the lights sprang up in both halls.
Mary, looking pale and worried, left him to go down to the kitchen and start breakfast. Burckhardt stood staring at the switch for a long time. His mental processes were gone beyond the point of disbelief and shock; they simply were not functioning.
He shaved and dressed and ate his breakfast in a state of numb introspection. Mary didn't disturb him; she was apprehensive and soothing. She kissed him good-by as he hurried out to the bus without another word.
Miss Mitkin, at the reception desk, greeted him with a yawn. "Morning," she said drowsily. "Mr. Barth won't be in today."
Burckhardt started to say something, but checked himself. She would not know that Barth hadn't been in yesterday, either, because she was tearing a June 14th pad off her calendar to make way for the "new" June 15th sheet.
He staggered to his own desk and stared unseeingly at the morning's mail. It had not even been opened yet, but he knew that the Factory Distributors envelope contained an order for twenty thousand feet of the new acoustic tile, and the one from Finebeck & Sons was a complaint.
After a long while, he forced himself to open them. They were.
By lunchtime, driven by a desperate sense of urgency, Burckhardt made Miss Mitkin take her lunch hour first--the June-fifteenth-that-was-yesterday, he had gone first. She went, looking vaguely worried about his strained insistence, but it made no difference to Burckhardt's mood.
The phone rang and Burckhardt picked it up abstractedly. "Contro Chemicals Downtown, Burckhardt speaking."
The voice said, "This is Swanson," and stopped.
Burckhardt waited expectantly, but that was all. He said, "Hello?"
Again the pause. Then Swanson asked in sad resignation, "Still nothing, eh?"
"Nothing what? Swanson, is there something you want? You came up to me yesterday and went through this routine. You--"
The voice crackled: "Burckhardt! Oh, my good heavens, you remember! Stay right there--I'll be down in half an hour!"
"What's this all about?"
"Never mind," the little man said exultantly. "Tell you about it when I see you. Don't say any more over the phone--somebody may be listening. Just wait there. Say, hold on a minute. Will you be alone in the office?"
"Well, no. Miss Mitkin will probably--"
"Hell. Look, Burckhardt, where do you eat lunch? Is it good and noisy?"
"Why, I suppose so. The Crystal Cafe. It's just about a block--"
"I know where it is. Meet you in half an hour!" And the receiver clicked.
The Crystal Cafe was no longer painted red, but the temperature was still up. And they had added piped-in music interspersed with commercials. The advertisements were for Frosty-Flip, Marlin Cigarettes--"They're sanitized," the announcer purred--and something called Choco-Bite candy bars that Burckhardt couldn't remember ever having heard of before. But he heard more about them quickly enough.
While he was waiting for Swanson to show up, a girl in the cellophane skirt of a nightclub cigarette vendor came through the restaurant with a tray of tiny scarlet-wrapped candies.
"Choco-Bites are tangy," she was murmuring as she came close to his table. "Choco-Bites are tangier than tangy!"
Burckhardt, intent on watching for the strange little man who had phoned him, paid little attention. But as she scattered a handful of the confections over the table next to his, smiling at the occupants, he caught a glimpse of her and turned to stare.
"Why, Miss Horn!" he said.
The girl dropped her tray of candies.
Burckhardt rose, concerned over the girl. "Is something wrong?"
But she fled.
The manager of the restaurant was staring suspiciously at Burckhardt, who sank back in his seat and tried to look inconspicuous. He hadn't insulted the girl! Maybe she was just a very strictly reared young lady, he thought--in spite of the long bare legs under the cellophane skirt--and when he addressed her, she thought he was a masher.
Ridiculous idea. Burckhardt scowled uneasily and picked up his menu.
"Burckhardt!" It was a shrill whisper.
Burckhardt looked up over the top of his menu, startled. In the seat across from him, the little man named Swanson was sitting, tensely poised.
"Burckhardt!" the little man whispered again. "Let's get out of here! They're on to you now. If you want to stay alive, come on!"
There was no arguing with the man. Burckhardt gave the hovering manager a sick, apologetic smile and followed Swanson out. The little man seemed to know where he was going. In the street, he clutched Burckhardt by the elbow and hurried him off down the block.
"Did you see her?" he demanded. "That Horn woman, in the phone booth? She'll have them here in five minutes, believe me, so hurry it up!"
Although the street was full of people and cars, nobody was paying any attention to Burckhardt and Swanson. The air had a nip in it--more like October than June, Burckhardt thought, in spite of the weather bureau. And he felt like a fool, following this mad little man down the street, running away from some "them" toward--toward what? The little man might be crazy, but he was afraid. And the fear was infectious.
"In here!" panted the little man.
It was another restaurant--more of a bar, really, and a sort of second-rate place that Burckhardt had never patronized.
"Right straight through," Swanson whispered; and Burckhardt, like a biddable boy, side-stepped through the mass of tables to the far end of the restaurant.
It was "L"-shaped, with a front on two streets at right angles to each other. They came out on the side street, Swanson staring coldly back at the question-looking cashier, and crossed to the opposite sidewalk.
They were under the marquee of a movie theater. Swanson's expression began to relax.
"Lost them!" he crowed softly. "We're almost there."
He stepped up to the window and bought two tickets. Burckhardt trailed him in to the theater. It was a weekday matinee and the place was almost empty. From the screen came sounds of gunfire and horse's hoofs. A solitary usher, leaning against a bright brass rail, looked briefly at them and went back to staring boredly at the picture as Swanson led Burckhardt down a flight of carpeted marble steps.
They were in the lounge and it was empty. There was a door for men and one for ladies; and there was a third door, marked "MANAGER" in gold letters. Swanson listened at the door, and gently opened it and peered inside.
"Okay," he said, gesturing.
Burckhardt followed him through an empty office, to another door--a closet, probably, because it was unmarked.
But it was no closet. Swanson opened it warily, looked inside, then motioned Burckhardt to follow.
It was a tunnel, metal-walled, brightly lit. Empty, it stretched vacantly away in both directions from them.
Burckhardt looked wondering around. One thing he knew and knew full well: No such tunnel belonged under Tylerton.
There was a room off the tunnel with chairs and a desk and what looked like television screens. Swanson slumped in a chair, panting.
"We're all right for a while here," he wheezed. "They don't come here much any more. If they do, we'll hear them and we can hide."
"Who?" demanded Burckhardt.
The little man said, "Martians!" His voice cracked on the word and the life seemed to go out of him. In morose tones, he went on: "Well, I think they're Martians. Although you could be right, you know; I've had plenty of time to think it over these last few weeks, after they got you, and it's possible they're Russians after all. Still--"
"Start from the beginning. Who got me when?"
Swanson sighed. "So we have to go through the whole thing again. All right. It was about two months ago that you banged on my door, late at night. You were all beat up--scared silly. You begged me to help you--"
"Naturally you don't remember any of this. Listen and you'll understand. You were talking a blue streak about being captured and threatened, and your wife being dead and coming back to life, and all kinds of mixed-up nonsense. I thought you were crazy. But--well, I've always had a lot of respect for you. And you begged me to hide you and I have this darkroom, you know. It locks from the inside only. I put the lock on myself. So we went in there--just to humor you--and along about midnight, which was only fifteen or twenty minutes after, we passed out."
Swanson nodded. "Both of us. It was like being hit with a sandbag. Look, didn't that happen to you again last night?"
"I guess it did," Burckhardt shook his head uncertainly.
"Sure. And then all of a sudden we were awake again, and you said you were going to show me something funny, and we went out and bought a paper. And the date on it was June 15th."
"June 15th? But that's today! I mean--"
"You got it, friend. It's always today!"
It took time to penetrate.
Burckhardt said wonderingly, "You've hidden out in that darkroom for how many weeks?"
"How can I tell? Four or five, maybe. I lost count. And every day the same--always the 15th of June, always my landlady, Mrs. Keefer, is sweeping the front steps, always the same headline in the papers at the corner. It gets monotonous, friend."
It was Burckhardt's idea and Swanson despised it, but he went along. He was the type who always went along.
"It's dangerous," he grumbled worriedly. "Suppose somebody comes by? They'll spot us and--"
"What have we got to lose?"
Swanson shrugged. "It's dangerous," he said again. But he went along.
Burckhardt's idea was very simple. He was sure of only one thing--the tunnel went somewhere. Martians or Russians, fantastic plot or crazy hallucination, whatever was wrong with Tylerton had an explanation, and the place to look for it was at the end of the tunnel.
They jogged along. It was more than a mile before they began to see an end. They were in luck--at least no one came through the tunnel to spot them. But Swanson had said that it was only at certain hours that the tunnel seemed to be in use.
Always the fifteenth of June. Why? Burckhardt asked himself. Never mind the how. Why?
And falling asleep, completely involuntarily--everyone at the same time, it seemed. And not remembering, never remembering anything--Swanson had said how eagerly he saw Burckhardt again, the morning after Burckhardt had incautiously waited five minutes too many before retreating into the darkroom. When Swanson had come to, Burckhardt was gone. Swanson had seen him in the street that afternoon, but Burckhardt had remembered nothing.
And Swanson had lived his mouse's existence for weeks, hiding in the woodwork at night, stealing out by day to search for Burckhardt in pitiful hope, scurrying around the fringe of life, trying to keep from the deadly eyes of them.
Them. One of "them" was the girl named April Horn. It was by seeing her walk carelessly into a telephone booth and never come out that Swanson had found the tunnel. Another was the man at the cigar stand in Burckhardt's office building. There were more, at least a dozen that Swanson knew of or suspected.
They were easy enough to spot, once you knew where to look--for they, alone in Tylerton, changed their roles from day to day. Burckhardt was on that 8:51 bus, every morning of every day-that-was-June-15th, never different by a hair or a moment. But April Horn was sometimes gaudy in the cellophane skirt, giving away candy or cigarettes; sometimes plainly dressed; sometimes not seen by Swanson at all.
Russians? Martians? Whatever they were, what could they be hoping to gain from this mad masquerade?
Burckhardt didn't know the answer--but perhaps it lay beyond the door at the end of the tunnel. They listened carefully and heard distant sounds that could not quite be made out, but nothing that seemed dangerous. They slipped through.
And, through a wide chamber and up a flight of steps, they found they were in what Burckhardt recognized as the Contro Chemicals plant.
Nobody was in sight. By itself, that was not so very odd--the automatized factory had never had very many persons in it. But Burckhardt remembered, from his single visit, the endless, ceaseless busyness of the plant, the valves that opened and closed, the vats that emptied themselves and filled themselves and stirred and cooked and chemically tasted the bubbling liquids they held inside themselves. The plant was never populated, but it was never still.
Only--now it was still. Except for the distant sounds, there was no breath of life in it. The captive electronic minds were sending out no commands; the coils and relays were at rest.
Burckhardt said, "Come on." Swanson reluctantly followed him through the tangled aisles of stainless steel columns and tanks.
They walked as though they were in the presence of the dead. In a way, they were, for what were the automatons that once had run the factory, if not corpses? The machines were controlled by computers that were really not computers at all, but the electronic analogues of living brains. And if they were turned off, were they not dead? For each had once been a human mind.
Take a master petroleum chemist, infinitely skilled in the separation of crude oil into its fractions. Strap him down, probe into his brain with searching electronic needles. The machine scans the patterns of the mind, translates what it sees into charts and sine waves. Impress these same waves on a robot computer and you have your chemist. Or a thousand copies of your chemist, if you wish, with all of his knowledge and skill, and no human limitations at all.
Put a dozen copies of him into a plant and they will run it all, twenty-four hours a day, seven days of every week, never tiring, never overlooking anything, never forgetting....
Swanson stepped up closer to Burckhardt. "I'm scared," he said.
They were across the room now and the sounds were louder. They were not machine sounds, but voices; Burckhardt moved cautiously up to a door and dared to peer around it.
It was a smaller room, lined with television screens, each one--a dozen or more, at least--with a man or woman sitting before it, staring into the screen and dictating notes into a recorder. The viewers dialed from scene to scene; no two screens ever showed the same picture.