Outside, the shop roared.
And Amenth's travelers sped the rounds: Issue material; Shear to size; Form on brake; Weld per print; Miter, drill, inspect, stock. One by one, the strange details were being formed, finished, to lie inert in the stockroom, to await final assembly.
Tonight was project completion.
Vogel stood in darkness, leaning against the wall. He was tired. He had maintained this vigil for three hours. His right leg was numb and he started to shift position, then froze as he heard footsteps. Three aisles over, a light exploded, blindingly. He held his breath.
From outside in fabrication came the muffled clang of drill press and power brake, the sounds of the night shift. He waited. Three aisles over, something moved. Someone fumbled in the stock bins, collecting shaped pieces of metal, grunting with the effort of piling them on the salvage bench, now panting with impatience while assembling the parts. There was a hammering, a fitting together, a flash of light, a humming of power and finally a sob of relief.
Vogel's hand slipped into his coat pocket and grasped the gun. He moved silently.
Amenth stood at the salvage bench, adjusting studs and connecting terminals. Vogel stared at the final assembly.
It was a helmet. A large silvery helmet, connected to a nightmarish maze of wiring, mounted on a rectangular plastic base. It hummed, although there was no visible source of power. Amenth put on the helmet with a feverish haste. Vogel chuckled. Amenth stood motionless. Then as his hand darted toward a stand, Vogel said sharply, "Don't!"
Amenth stared at the gun.
"Take it off!" Vogel's voice was iron.
Amenth slowly took off the helmet. His eyes were golden with tears. "Please," he said.
"Mars or Venus?" Vogel said. "Which?"
"N-neither. You could not grasp the concept. Let me go. Please!"
"Where?" Vogel prodded. "Another dimension?"
"You would call it that," the alien whispered. Hope brightened his face. "You want something? Wealth? Power?"
It was the way he said the words, like a white trader offering his aborigine captors glass beads to set him free.
Vogel nodded toward the circuit. "That hookup--you tap the gravitational field direct? Cosmic rays?"
"Your planet's magnet force lines. Look, I'll leave you the schematic diagram. It's simple, really. You can use it to transmute--" He babbled on with a heartbreaking eagerness, and Vogel listened.
"In my own world," said Amenth brokenly, "I am a moron. A criminal moron. Once, out of a childish malice, I destroyed beauty. One of the singing crystals." He shuddered. "I was punished. They sent me here--to the snake pit. Sentence for felony. This--" he indicated the helmet--"would have fused three seconds after I used it. So, incidentally, would this entire shop. I had no time to construct a feedback dispersion."
"Tell me about your world," Vogel said.
Amenth told him.
Vogel's breath hissed softly between his teeth. All his life an unformed vision had tormented him, driven him toward perfection. Abruptly the vision was reality. He smiled, moved forward. "You shouldn't have told me."
Amenth saw the intent in his eyes and started to beg. Vogel clipped him behind the ear.
He put the helmet on, gingerly. The electrodes tingled against his temple and his grin was wry as he thought of Alice. Then he depressed the stud.
Color blinded him, rainbows blared in sweet, sparkling thunder. He whimpered, covering his eyes. The music drowned him in a fugue of weeping delight. Slowly he raised his head.
He stood ankle-deep in gold crystals that stretched out forever in a splendid sea of flame. The crystals sang softly, achingly, to a silver sun in an emerald sky. A grove of blue needle trees tinkled in ecstasy on his left. And beyond those trees....
The city sang.
White spires foamed skyward in impossible cataracts of glory. A glissando of joy burned his eardrums, and he could not face that living splendor. It was the city beyond dreams, beyond legend, the city where all dreams end. He strode toward it, raptly.
The crystals screamed. The blue needle forest lashed wildly, and terror shivered through the air in shrieking dissonance.
From the blue forest, people ran. Beautiful people, with great golden eyes and scarlet tunics. They could have been Amenth's brothers and sisters. They stared, horror and revulsion twisting their faces. They started toward him.
If destroying beauty on this world was a crime, then killing ugliness must be a duty.
On this world, he was ugly--
THE SKY IS FALLING.
by Lester del Rey Dave stared around the office. He went to the window and stared upwards at the crazy patchwork of the sky. For all he knew, in such a sky there might be cracks. In fact, as he looked, he could make out a rift, and beyond that a ... hole ... a small patch where there was no color, and yet the sky there was not black. There were no stars there, though points of light were clustered around the edges, apparently retreating.
"Dave Hanson! By the power of the true name be summoned cells and humors, ka and id, self and--"
Dave Hanson! The name came swimming through utter blackness, sucking at him, pulling him together out of nothingness. Then, abruptly, he was aware of being alive, and surprised. He sucked in on the air around him, and the breath burned in his lungs. He was one of the dead--there should be no quickening of breath within him!
He caught a grip on himself, fighting the fantasies of his mind, and took another breath of air. This time it burned less, and he could force an awareness of the smells around him. But there was none of the pungent odor of the hospital he had expected. Instead, his nostrils were scorched with a noxious odor of sulfur, burned hair and cloying incense.
He gagged on it. His diaphragm tautened with the sharp pain of long-unused muscles, and he sneezed.
"A good sign," a man's voice said. "The followers have accepted and are leaving. Only a true being can sneeze. But unless the salamander works, his chances are only slight."
There was a mutter of agreement from others, before an older voice broke in. "It takes a deeper fire than most salamanders can stir, Ser Perth. We might aid it with high-frequency radiation, but I distrust the effects on the prepsyche. If we tried a tamed succubus--"
"The things are untrustworthy," the first voice answered. "And with the sky falling, we dare not trust one."
The words blurred off in a fog of semiconsciousness and half-thoughts. The sky was falling? Who killed Foxy Loxy? I, said the spider, who sat down insider, I went boomp in the night and the bull jumped over the moon....
"Bull," he croaked. "The bull sleeper!"
"Delirious," the first voice muttered.
"I mean--bull pusher!" That was wrong, too, and he tried again, forcing his reluctant tongue around the syllables. "Bull dosser!"
Damn it, couldn't he even pronounce simple Engaliss?
The language wasn't English, however. Nor was it Canadian French, the only other speech he could make any sense of. Yet he understood it--had even spoken it, he realized. There was nothing wrong with his command of whatever language it was, but there seemed to be no word for bulldozer. He struggled to get his eyes open.
The room seemed normal enough, in spite of the odd smells. He lay on a high bed, surrounded by prim white walls, and there was even a chart of some kind at the bottom of the bedframe. He focused his eyes slowly on what must be the doctors and nurses there, and their faces looked back with the proper professional worry. But the varicolored gowns they wore in place of proper clothing were covered with odd designs, stars, crescents and things that might have been symbols for astronomy or chemistry.
He tried to reach for his glasses to adjust them. There were no glasses! That hit him harder than any other discovery. He must be delirious and imagining the room. Dave Hanson was so nearsighted that he couldn't have seen the men, much less the clothing, without corrective lenses.
The middle-aged man with the small mustache bent over the chart near his feet. "Hmm," the man said in the voice of the first speaker. "Mars trines Neptune. And with Scorpio so altered ... hmm. Better add two cc. of cortisone to the transfusion."
Hanson tried to sit up, but his arms refused to bear his weight. He opened his mouth. A slim hand came to his lips, and he looked up into soothing blue eyes. The nurse's face was framed in copper-red hair. She had the transparent skin and classic features that occur once in a million times but which still keep the legend of redheaded enchantresses alive. "Shh," she said.
He began to struggle against her hand, but she shook her head gently. Her other hand began a series of complicated motions that had a ritualistic look about them.
"Shh," she repeated. "Rest. Relax and sleep, Dave Hanson, and remember when you were alive."
There was a sharp sound from the doctor, but it began to blur out before Hanson could understand it. He fought to remember what he'd heard the nurse say--something about when he was alive--as if he'd been dead a long time.... He couldn't hold the thought. At a final rapid motion of the girl's hand his eyes closed, the smell faded from his nose and all sounds vanished. Once there was a stinging sensation, as if he were receiving the transfusion. Then he was alone in his mind with his memories--mostly of the last day when he'd still been alive. He seemed to be reliving the events, rethinking the thoughts he'd had then.
It began with the sight of his uncle's face leering at him. Uncle David Arnold Hanson looked like every man's dream of himself and every woman's dreams of manliness. But at the moment, to Dave, he looked more like a personal demon. His head was tilted back and nasty laughter was booming through the air of the little office.
"So your girl writes that your little farewell activity didn't fare so well, eh?" he chortled. "And you come crawling here to tell me you want to do the honorable thing, is that it? All right, my beloved nephew, you'll do the honorable thing! You'll stick to your contract with me."
"But--" Dave began.
"But if you don't, you'd better read it again. You don't get one cent except on completion of your year with me. That's what it says, and that's what happens." He paused, letting the fact that he meant it sink in. He was enjoying the whole business, and in no hurry to end it. "And I happen to know, Dave, that you don't even have fare to Saskatchewan left. You quit and I'll see you never get another job. I promised my sister I'd make a man of you and, by jumping Jupiter, I intend to do just that. And in my book, that doesn't mean you run back with your tail between your legs just because some silly young girl pulls that old chestnut on you. Why, when I was your age, I already had...."
Dave wasn't listening any longer. In futile anger, he'd swung out of the office and gone stumbling back toward the computer building. Then, in a further burst of anger, he swung off the trail. To hell with his work and blast his uncle! He'd go on into town, and he'd--he'd do whatever he pleased.
The worst part of it was that Uncle David could make good on his threat of seeing that Dave got no more work anywhere. David Arnold Hanson was a power to reckon with. No other man on Earth could have persuaded anyone to let him try his scheme of building a great deflection wall across northern Canada to change the weather patterns. And no other man could have accomplished the impossible task, even after twelve countries pooled their resources to give him the job. But he was doing it, and it was already beginning to work. Dave had noticed that the last winter in Chicago had definitely shown that Uncle David's predictions were coming true.
Like most of the world, Dave had regarded the big man who was his uncle with something close to worship. He'd jumped at the chance to work under Uncle David. And he'd been a fool. He'd been doing all right in Chicago. Repairing computers didn't pay a fortune, but it was a good living, and he was good at it. And there was Bertha--maybe not a movie doll, but a sort of pretty girl who was also a darned good cook. For a man of thirty who'd always been a scrawny, shy runt like the one in the "before" pictures, he'd been doing all right.
Then came the letter from his uncle, offering him triple salary as a maintenance man on the computers used for the construction job. There was nothing said about romance and beauteous Indian maids, but Dave filled that in himself. He would need the money when he and Bertha got married, too, and all that healthy outdoor living was just what the doctor would have ordered.
The Indian maids, of course, turned out to be a few fat old squaws who knew all about white men. The outdoor living developed into five months of rain, hail, sleet, blizzard, fog and constant freezing in tractors while breathing the healthy fumes of diesels. Uncle David turned out to be a construction genius, all right, but his interest in Dave seemed to lie in the fact that he was tired of being Simon Legree to strangers and wanted to take it out on one of his own family. And the easy job turned into hell when the regular computer-man couldn't take any more and quit, leaving Dave to do everything, including making the field tests to gain the needed data.
Now Bertha was writing frantic letters, telling him how much he'd better come back and marry her immediately. And Uncle David thought it was a joke!
Dave paid no attention to where his feet were leading him, only vaguely aware that he was heading down a gully below the current construction job. He heard the tractors and bulldozers moving along the narrow cliff above him, but he was used to the sound. He heard frantic yelling from above, too, but paid no attention to it; in any Hanson construction program, somebody was always yelling about something that had to be done day before yesterday. It wasn't until he finally became aware of his own name being shouted that he looked up. Then he froze in horror.
The bulldozer was teetering at the edge of the cliff as he saw it, right above him. And the cliff was crumbling from under it, while the tread spun idiotically out of control. As Dave's eyes took in the whole situation, the cliff crumbled completely, and the dozer came lunging over the edge, plunging straight for him. His shout was drowned in the roar of the motor. He tried to force his legs to jump, but they were frozen in terror. The heavy mass came straight for him, its treads churning like great teeth reaching for him.
Then it hit, squarely on top of him. Something ripped and splattered and blacked out in an unbearable welter of agony.
Dave Hanson came awake trying to scream and thrusting at the bed with arms too weak to raise him. The dream of the past was already fading. The horror he had thought was death lay somewhere in the past.
Now he was here--wherever here was.
The obvious answer was that he was in a normal hospital, somehow still alive, being patched up. The things he seemed to remember from his other waking must be a mixture of fact and delirium. Besides, how was he to judge what was normal in extreme cases of surgery?
He managed to struggle up to a sitting position in the bed, trying to make out more of his surroundings. But the room was dark now. As his eyes adjusted, he made out a small brazier there, with a cadaverous old man in a dark robe spotted with looped crosses. On his head was something like a miter, carrying a coiled brass snake in front of it. The old man's white goatee bobbed as he mouthed something silently and made passes over the flame, which shot up prismatically. Clouds of white fire belched up.
Dave reached to adjust his glasses, and found again that he wasn't wearing them. But he'd never seen so clearly before.
At that moment, a chanting voice broke into his puzzled thoughts. It sounded like Ser Perth. Dave turned his head weakly. The motion set sick waves of nausea running through him, but he could see the doctor kneeling on the floor in some sort of pantomime. The words of the chant were meaningless.
A hand closed over Dave's eyes, and the voice of the nurse whispered in his ear. "Shh, Dave Hanson. It's the Sather Karf, so don't interrupt. There may be a conjunction."
He fell back, panting, his heart fluttering. Whatever was going on, he was in no shape to interrupt anything. But he knew that this was no delirium. He didn't have that kind of imagination.
The chant changed, after a long moment of silence. Dave's heart had picked up speed, but now it missed again, and he felt cold. He shivered. Hell or heaven weren't like this, either. It was like something out of some picture--something about Cagliostro, the ancient mystic. But he was sure the language he somehow spoke wasn't an ancient one. It had words for electron, penicillin and calculus, for he found them in his own mind.
The chant picked up again, and now the brazier flamed a dull red, showing the Sather Karf's face changing from some kind of disappointment to a businesslike steadiness. The red glow grew white in the center, and a fat, worm-like shape of flame came into being. The old man picked it up in his hand, petted it and carried it toward Dave. It flowed toward his chest.
He pulled himself back, but Ser Perth and the nurse leaped forward to hold him. The thing started to grow brighter. It shone now like a tiny bit of white-hot metal; but the older man touched it, and it snuggled down into Dave's chest, dimming its glow and somehow purring. Warmth seemed to flow from it into Dave. The two men watched for a moment, then picked up their apparatus and turned to go. The Sather Karf lifted the fire from the brazier in his bare hand, moved it into the air and said a soft word. It vanished, and the two men were also gone.
"Magic!" Dave said. He'd seen such illusions created on the stage, but there was something different here. And there was no fakery about the warmth from the thing over his chest. Abruptly he remembered that he'd come across something like it, called a salamander, in fiction once; the thing was supposed to be a spirit of fire, and dangerously destructive.
The girl nodded in the soft glow coming from Dave's chest. "Naturally," she told him. "How else does one produce and control a salamander, except by magic? Without, magic, how can we thaw a frozen soul? Or didn't your world have any sciences, Dave Hanson?"
Either the five months under his uncle had toughened him, or the sight of the bulldozer falling had knocked him beyond any strong reaction. The girl had practically told him he wasn't in his own world. He waited for some emotion, felt none, and shrugged. The action sent pain running through him, but he stood it somehow. The salamander ceased its purring, then resumed.
"Where in hell am I?" he asked. "Or when?"
She shook her head. "Hell? No, I don't think so. Some say it's Earth and some call it Terah, but nobody calls it Hell. It's--well, it's a long--time, I guess--from when you were. I don't know. In such matters, only the Satheri know. The Dual is closed even to the Seri. Anyhow, it's not your space-time, though some say it's your world."
"You mean dimensional travel?" Dave asked. He'd seen something about that on a science-fiction television program. It made even time travel seem simple. At any event, however, this wasn't a hospital in any sane and normal section of Canada during his time, on Earth.
"Something like that," she agreed doubtfully. "But go to sleep now. Shh." Her hands came up in complicated gestures. "Sleep and grow well."
"None of that hypnotism again!" he protested.
She went on making passes, but smiled on him kindly. "Don't be superstitious--hypnotism is silly. Now go to sleep. For me, Dave Hanson. I want you well and true when you awake."