"This alteration is vital. And it is dependent on the purchase and clearing of the section of wilderness in Canada. The old Douglas would not have dared take the risk. But the altered Douglas, and his altered, more youthful staff, will pursue this work with wholehearted enthusiasm. And from this, the vital chain of widening events will come about. The beneficiaries will be you. Our methods may seem strange and indirect. Even incomprehensible. But I assure you we know what we're doing."
"I know that now," Ed said.
"So you do. You know a great deal. Much too much. No element should possess such knowledge. I should perhaps call an adjustment team in here..."
A picture formed in Ed's mind: swirling gray clouds, gray men and women. He shuddered. "Look," he croaked. "I'll do anything. Anything at all. Only don't de-energize me." Sweat ran down his face. "Okay?"
The Old Man pondered. "Perhaps some alternative could be found. There is another possibility..."
"What?" Ed asked eagerly. "What is it?"
The Old Man spoke slowly, thoughtfully. "If I allow you to return, you will swear never to speak of the matter? Will you swear not to reveal to anyone the things you saw? The things you know?"
"Sure!" Ed gasped eagerly, blinding relief flooding over him. "I swear!"
"Your wife. She must know nothing more. She must think it was only a passing psychological fit—retreat from reality."
"She thinks that already."
"She must continue to."
Ed set his jaw firmly. "I'll see that she continues to think it was a mental aberration. She'll never know what really happened."
"You are certain you can keep the truth from her?"
"Sure," Ed said confidently. "I know I can."
"All right." The Old Man nodded slowly. "I will send you back. But you must tell no one." He swelled visibly. "Remember: you will eventually come back to me—everyone does, in the end—and your fate will not be enviable."
"I won't tell her," Ed said, sweating. "I promise. You have my word on that. I can handle Ruth. Don't give it a second thought."
Ed arrived home at sunset.
He blinked, dazed from the rapid descent. For a moment he stood on the pavement, regaining his balance and catching his breath. Then he walked quickly up the path.
He pushed the door open and entered the little green stucco house.
"Ed!" Ruth came flying, face distorted with tears. She threw her arms around him, hugging him tight. "Where the hell have you been?"
"Been?" Ed murmured. "At the office, of course."