SOMETHING WENT WRONG...AND ED FLETCHER GOT MIXED UP IN THE BIGGEST THING IN HIS LIFE.
It was bright morning. The sun shone down on the damp lawns and sidewalks, reflecting off the sparkling parked cars. The Clerk came walking hurriedly, leafing through his instructions, flipping pages and frowning. He stopped in front of the small green stucco house for a moment, and then turned up the walk, entering the back yard.
The dog was asleep inside his shed, his back turned to the world. Only his thick tail showed.
"For Heaven's sake," the Clerk exclaimed, hands on his hips. He tapped his mechanical pencil noisily against his clipboard. "Wake up, you in there."
The dog stirred. He came slowly out of his shed, head first, blinking and yawning in the morning sunlight. "Oh, it's you. Already?" He yawned again.
"Big doings." The Clerk ran his expert finger down the traffic-control sheet. "They're adjusting Sector T137 this morning. Starting at exactly nine o'clock." He glanced at his pocket watch. "Three hour alteration. Will finish by noon."
"T137? That's not far from here."
The Clerk's lips twisted in contempt. "Indeed. You're showing astonishing perspicacity, my black-haired friend. Maybe you can divine why I'm here."
"We overlap with T137."
"Exactly. Elements from this sector are involved. We must make sure they're properly placed when adjustment begins." The Clerk glanced toward the small green stucco house. "Your particular task concerns the man in there. He is employed by a business establishment lying within Sector T137. It's essential he be there before nine o'clock.
The dog studied the house. The shades had been let up. The kitchen light was on. Beyond the lace curtains dim shapes could be seen, stirring around the table. A man and woman. They were drinking coffee.
"There they are," the dog murmured. "The man, you say? He's not going to be harmed, is he?"
"Of course not. But he must be at his office early. Usually he doesn't leave until after nine. Today he must leave at eight-thirty. He must be within Sector T137 before the process begins, or he won't be altered to coincide with the new adjustment."
The dog sighed. "That means I have to summon."
"Correct." The Clerk checked his instruction sheet. "You're to summon at precisely eight-fifteen. You've got that? Eight-fifteen. No later."
"What will an eight-fifteen summons bring?"
The Clerk flipped open his instruction book, examining the code columns. "It will bring A Friend with a Car. To drive him to work early." He closed the book and folded his arms, preparing to wait. "That way he'll get to his office almost an hour ahead of time. Which is vital."
"Vital," the dog murmured. He lay down, half inside his shed. His eyes closed. "Vital."
"Wake up! This must be done exactly on time. If you summon too soon or too late—"
The dog nodded sleepily. "I know. I'll do it right. I always do it right."
Ed Fletcher poured more cream in his coffee. He sighed, leaning back in his chair. Behind him the oven hissed softly, filling the kitchen with warm fumes. The yellow overhead light beamed down.
"Another roll?" Ruth asked.
"I'm full." Ed sipped his coffee. "You can have it."
"Have to go." Ruth got to her feet, unfastening her robe. "Time to go to work."
"Sure. You lucky bum! Wish I could sit around." Ruth moved toward the bathroom, running her fingers through her long black hair. "When you work for the Government you start early."
"But you get off early," Ed pointed out. He unfolded the Chronicle, examining the sporting green. "Well, have a good time today. Don't type any wrong words, any double-entendres."
The bathroom door closed, as Ruth shed her robe and began dressing.
Ed yawned and glanced up at the clock over the sink. Plenty of time. Not even eight. He sipped more coffee and then rubbed his stubbled chin. He would have to shave. He shrugged lazily. Ten minutes, maybe.
Ruth came bustling out in her nylon slip, hurrying into the bedroom. "I'm late." She rushed rapidly around, getting into her blouse and skirt, her stockings, her little white shoes. Finally she bent over and kissed him. "Goodbye, honey. I'll do the shopping tonight."
"Goodbye." Ed lowered his newspaper and put his arm around his wife's trim waist, hugging her affectionately. "You smell nice. Don't flirt with the boss."
Ruth ran out the front door, clattering down the steps. He heard the click of her heels diminish down the sidewalk.
She was gone. The house was silent. He was alone.
Ed got to his feet, pushing his chair back. He wandered lazily into the bathroom and got his razor down. Eight-ten. He washed his face, rubbing it down with shaving cream, and began to shave. He shaved leisurely. He had plenty of time.
The Clerk bent over his round pocket watch, licking his lips nervously. Sweat stood out on his forehead. The second hand ticked on. Eight-fourteen. Almost time.
"Get ready!" the Clerk snapped. He tensed, his small body rigid. "Ten seconds to go!"
"Time!" the Clerk cried.
The Clerk turned, eyes wide with horror. From the little shed a thick black tail showed. The dog had gone back to sleep.
"TIME!" the Clerk shrieked. He kicked wildly at the furry rump. "In the name of God—"
The dog stirred. He thumped around hastily, backing out of the shed. "My goodness." Embarrassed, he made his way quickly to the fence. Standing up on his hind paws, he opened his mouth wide. "Woof!" he summoned. He glanced apologetically at the Clerk. "I beg your pardon. I can't understand how—"
The Clerk gazed fixedly down at his watch. Cold terror knotted his stomach. The hands showed eight-sixteen. "You failed," he grated. "You failed! You miserable flea-bitten rag-bag of a wornout old mutt! You failed!"
The dog dropped and came anxiously back. "I failed, you say? You mean the summons time was—?"
"You summoned too late." The Clerk put his watch away slowly, a glazed expression on his face. "You summoned too late. We won't get A Friend with a Car. There's no telling what will come instead. I'm afraid to see what eight-sixteen brings."
"I hope he'll be in Sector T137 in time."
"He won't," the Clerk wailed. "He won't be there. We've made a mistake. We've made things go wrong!"
Ed was rinsing the shaving cream from his face when the muffled sound of the dog's bark echoed through the silent house.
"Damn," Ed muttered. "Wake up the whole block." He dried his face, listening. Was somebody coming?
A vibration. Then—
The doorbell rang.
Ed came out of the bathroom. Who could it be? Had Ruth forgotten something? He tossed on a white shirt and opened the front door.
A bright young man, face bland and eager, beamed happily at him. "Good morning, sir." He tipped his hat. "I'm sorry to bother you so early—"
"What do you want?"
"I'm from the Federal Life Insurance Company. I'm here to see you about—"
Ed pushed the door closed. "Don't want any. I'm in a rush. Have to get to work."
"Your wife said this was the only time I could catch you." The young man picked up his briefcase, easing the door open again. "She especially asked me to come this early. We don't usually begin our work at this time, but since she asked me, I made a special note about it"
"Okay." Sighing wearily, Ed admitted the young man. "You can explain your policy while I get dressed."
The young man opened his briefcase on the couch, laying out heaps of pamphlets and illustrated folders. "I'd like to show you some of these figures, if I may. It's of great importance to you and your family to—"
Ed found himself sitting down, going over the pamphlets. He purchased a ten-thousand-dollar policy on his own life and then eased the young man out. He looked at the clock. Practically nine-thirty!
"Damn." He'd be late to work. He finished fastening his tie, grabbed his coat, turned off the oven and the lights, dumped the dishes in the sink, and ran out on the porch.
As he hurried toward the bus stop he was cursing inwardly. Life insurance salesmen. Why did the jerk have to come just as he was getting ready to leave?
Ed groaned. No telling what the consequences would be, getting to the office late. He wouldn't get there until almost ten. He set himself in anticipation. A sixth sense told him he was in for it. Something bad. It was the wrong day to be late.
If only the salesman hadn't come.
Ed hopped off the bus a block from his office. He began walking rapidly. The huge clock in front of Stein's Jewelry Store told him it was almost ten.
His heart sank. Old Douglas would give him hell for sure. He could see it now. Douglas puffing and blowing, red-faced, waving his thick finger at him; Miss Evans, smiling behind her typewriter; Jackie, the office boy, grinning and snickering; Earl Hendricks; Joe and Tom; Mary, dark-eyed, full bosom and long lashes. All of them, kidding him the whole rest of the day.
He came to the corner and stopped for the light. On the other side of the street rose the big white concrete building, the towering column of steel and cement, girders and glass windows—the office building. Ed flinched. Maybe he could say the elevator got stuck. Somewhere between the second and third floor.
The street light changed. Nobody else was crossing. Ed crossed alone. He hopped up on the curb on the far side—
And stopped, rigid.
The sun had winked off. One moment it was beaming down. Then it was gone. Ed looked sharply up. Gray clouds swirled above him. Huge, formless clouds. Nothing more. An ominous, thick haze that made everything waver and dim. Uneasy chills plucked at him. What was it?
He advanced cautiously, feeling his way through the mist. Everything was silent. No sounds—not even the traffic sounds. Ed peered frantically around, trying to see through the rolling haze. No people. No cars. No sun. Nothing.
The office building loomed up ahead, ghostly. It was an indistinct gray. He put out his hand uncertainly—
A section of the building fell away. It rained down, a torrent of particles. Like sand. Ed gaped foolishly. A cascade of gray debris, spilling around his feet. And where he had touched the building, a jagged cavity yawned—an ugly pit marring the concrete.
Dazed, he made his way to the front steps. He mounted them. The steps gave way underfoot. His feet sank down. He was wading through shifting sand, weak, rotted stuff that broke under his weight.
He got into the lobby. The lobby was dim and obscure. The overhead lights flickered feebly in the gloom. An unearthly pall hung over everything.
He spied the cigar stand. The seller leaned silently, resting on the counter, toothpick between his teeth, his face vacant. And gray. He was gray all over.
"Hey," Ed croaked. "What's going on?"
The seller did not answer. Ed reached out toward him. His hand touched the seller's gray arm—and passed right through.
"Good God," Ed said.
The seller's arm came loose. It fell to the lobby floor, disintegrating into fragments. Bits of gray fiber. Like dust. Ed's senses reeled.
"Help!" he shouted, finding his voice.
No answer. He peered around. A few shapes stood here and there: a man reading a newspaper, two women waiting at the elevator.
Ed made his way over to the man. He reached out and touched him.
The man slowly collapsed. He settled into a heap, a loose pile of gray ash. Dust. Particles. The two women dissolved when he touched them. Silently. They made no sound as they broke apart.
Ed found the stairs. He grabbed hold of the bannister and climbed. The stairs collapsed under him. He hurried faster. Behind him lay a broken path—his footprints clearly visible in the concrete. Clouds of ash blew around him as he reached the second floor.
He gazed down the silent corridor. He saw more clouds of ash. He heard no sound. There was just darkness—rolling darkness.
He climbed unsteadily to the third floor. Once, his shoe broke completely through the stair. For a sickening second he hung, poised over a yawning hole that looked down into a bottomless nothing.
Then he climbed on, and emerged in front of his own office: DOUGLAS AND BLAKE, REAL ESTATE.
The hall was dim, gloomy with clouds of ash. The overhead lights flickered fitfully. He reached for the door handle. The handle came off in his hand. He dropped it and dug his fingernails into the door. The plate glass crashed past him, breaking into bits. He tore the door open and stepped over it, into the office.
Miss Evans sat at her typewriter, fingers resting quietly on the keys. She did not move. She was gray, her hair, her skin, her clothing. She was without color. Ed touched her. His fingers went through her shoulder, into dry flakiness.
He drew back, sickened. Miss Evans did not stir.
He moved on. He pushed against a desk. The desk collapsed into rotting dust. Earl Hendricks stood by the water cooler, a cup in his hand. He was a gray statue, unmoving. Nothing stirred. No sound. No life. The whole office was gray dust—without life or motion.
Ed found himself out in the corridor again. He shook his head, dazed. What did it mean? Was he going out of his mind? Was he—?
Ed turned, peering into the gray mist. A creature was coming, hurrying rapidly. A man—a man in a white robe. Behind him others came. Men in white, with equipment. They were lugging complex machinery.
"Hey—" Ed gasped weakly.
The men stopped. Their mouths opened. Their eyes popped.
"Something's gone wrong!"
"One still charged."
"Get the de-energizer."
"We can't proceed until—"
The men came toward Ed, moving around him. One lugged a long hose with some sort of nozzle. A portable cart came wheeling up. Instructions were rapidly shouted.
Ed broke out of his paralysis. Fear swept over him. Panic. Something hideous was happening. He had to get out. Warn people. Get away.
He turned and ran, back down the stairs. The stairs collapsed under him. He fell half a flight, rolling in heaps of dry ash. He got to his feet and hurried on, down to the ground floor.
The lobby was lost in the clouds of gray ash. He pushed blindly through, toward the door. Behind him, the white-clad men were coming, dragging their equipment and shouting to each other, hurrying quickly after him.
He reached the sidewalk. Behind him the office building wavered and sagged, sinking to one side, torrents of ash raining down in heaps. He raced toward the corner, the men just behind him. Gray clouds swirled around him. He groped his way across the street, hands outstretched. He gained the opposite curb—
The sun winked on. Warm yellow sunlight streamed down on him. Cars honked. Traffic lights changed. On all sides men and women in bright spring clothes hurried and pushed: shoppers, a blue-clad cop, salesmen with briefcases. Stores, windows, signs ... noisy cars moving up and down the street ...
And overhead was the bright sun and familiar blue sky.
Ed halted, gasping for breath. He turned and looked back the way he had come. Across the street was the office building—as it had always been. Firm and distinct. Concrete and glass and steel.
He stepped back a pace and collided with a hurrying citizen. "Hey," the man grunted. "Watch it."
"Sorry." Ed shook his head, trying to clear it. From where he stood, the office building looked like always, big and solemn and substantial, rising up imposingly on the other side of the street.
But a minute ago—
Maybe he was out of his mind. He had seen the building crumbling into dust. Building—and people. They had fallen into gray clouds of dust. And the men in white—they had chased him. Men in white robes, shouting orders, wheeling complex equipment.
He was out of his mind. There was no other explanation. Weakly, Ed turned and stumbled along the sidewalk, his mind reeling. He moved blindly, without purpose, lost in a haze of confusion and terror.
The Clerk was brought into the top-level Administrative chambers and told to wait.
He paced back and forth nervously, clasping and wringing his hands in an agony of apprehension. He took off his glasses and wiped them shakily.
Lord. All the trouble and grief. And it wasn't his fault. But he would have to take the rap. It was his responsibility to get the Summoners routed out and their instructions followed. The miserable flea-infested Summoner had gone back to sleep—and he would have to answer for it.
The doors opened. "All right," a voice murmured, preoccupied. It was a tired, care-worn voice. The Clerk trembled and entered slowly, sweat dripping down his neck into his celluloid collar.
The Old Man glanced up, laying aside his book. He studied the Clerk calmly, his faded blue eyes mild—a deep, ancient mildness that made the Clerk tremble even more. He took out his handkerchief and mopped his brow.
"I understand there was a mistake," the Old Man murmured. "In connection with Sector T137. Something to do with an element from an adjoining area."
"That's right." The Clerk's voice was faint and husky. "Very unfortunate."
"What exactly occurred?"
"I started out this morning with my instruction sheets. The material relating to T137 had top priority, of course. I served notice on the Summoner in my area that an eight-fifteen summons was required."
"Did the Summoner understand the urgency?"
"Yes, sir." The Clerk hesitated. "But—"
The Clerk twisted miserably. "While my back was turned the Summoner crawled back in his shed and went to sleep. I was occupied, checking the exact time with my watch. I called the moment—but there was no response."
"You called at eight-fifteen exactly?"
"Yes, sir! Exactly eight-fifteen. But the Summoner was asleep. By the time I managed to arouse him it was eight-sixteen. He summoned, but instead of A Friend with a Car we got a—A Life Insurance Salesman." The Clerk's face screwed up with disgust. "The Salesman kept the element there until almost nine-thirty. Therefore he was late to work instead of early."
For a moment the Old Man was silent. "Then the element was not within T137 when the adjustment began."
"No. He arrived about ten o'clock."
"During the middle of the adjustment." The Old Man got to his feet and paced slowly back and forth, face grim, hands behind his back. His long robe flowed out behind him. "A serious matter. During a Sector Adjustment all related elements from other Sectors must be included. Otherwise, their orientations remain out of phase. When this element entered T137 the adjustment had been in progress fifty minutes. The element encountered the Sector at its most de-energized stage. He wandered about until one of the adjustment teams met him."
"Did they catch him?"
"Unfortunately no. He fled, out of the Sector. Into a nearby fully energized area."
"What—what then?"The Old Man stopped pacing, his lined face grim. He ran a heavy hand through his long white hair. "We do not know. We lost contact with him. We will reestablish contact soon, of course. But for the moment he is out of control."
"What are you going to do?"
"He must be contacted and contained. He must be brought up here. There's no other solution."
"It is too late to de-energize him. By the time he is regained he will have told others. To wipe his mind clean would only complicate matters. Usual methods will not suffice. I must deal with this problem myself."
"I hope he's located quickly," the Clerk said.
"He will be. Every Watcher is alerted. Every Watcher and every Summoner." The Old Man's eyes twinkled. "Even the Clerks, although we hesitate to count on them."
The Clerk flushed. "I'll be glad when this thing is over," he muttered.
Ruth came tripping down the stairs and out of the building, into the hot noonday sun. She lit a cigarette and hurried along the walk, her small bosom rising and falling as she breathed in the spring air.
"Ruth." Ed stepped up behind her.
"Ed!" She spun, gasping in astonishment. "What are you doing away from—?"
"Come on." Ed grabbed her arm, pulling her along. "Let's keep moving."
"I'll tell you later." Ed's face was pale and grim. "Let's go where we can talk. In private."
"I was going down to have lunch at Louie's. We can talk there." Ruth hurried along breathlessly. "What is it? What's happened? You look so strange. And why aren't you at work? Did you—did you get fired?"
They crossed the street and entered a small restaurant. Men and women milled around, getting their lunch. Ed found a table in the back, secluded in a corner. "Here." He sat down abruptly. "This will do." She slid into the other chair.
Ed ordered a cup of coffee. Ruth had salad and creamed tuna on toast, coffee and peach pie. Silently, Ed watched her as she ate, his face dark and moody.
"Please tell me," Ruth begged.
"You really want to know?"
"Of course I want to know!" Ruth put her small hand anxiously on his. "I'm your wife."
"Something happened today. This morning. I was late to work. A damn insurance man came by and held me up. I was half an hour late."
Ruth caught her breath. "Douglas fired you."
"No." Ed ripped a paper napkin slowly into bits. He stuffed the bits in the half-empty water glass. "I was worried as hell. I got off the bus and hurried down the street. I noticed it when I stepped up on the curb in front of the office."
Ed told her. The whole works. Everything.
When he had finished, Ruth sat back, her face white, hands trembling. "I see," she murmured. "No wonder you're upset." She drank a little cold coffee, the cup rattling against the saucer. "What a terrible thing."
Ed leaned intently toward his wife. "Ruth. Do you think I'm going crazy?"
Ruth's red lips twisted. "I don't know what to say. It's so strange..."
"Yeah. Strange is hardly the word for it. I poked my hands right through them. Like they were clay. Old dry clay. Dust. Dust figures." Ed lit a cigarette from Ruth's pack. "When I got out I looked back and there it was. The office building. Like always."
"You were afraid Mr. Douglas would bawl you out, weren't you?"
"Sure. I was afraid—and guilty." Ed's eyes flickered. "I know what you're thinking. I was late and I couldn't face him. So I had some sort of protective psychotic fit. Retreat from reality." He stubbed the cigarette out savagely. "Ruth, I've been wandering around town since. Two and a half hours. Sure, I'm afraid. I'm afraid like hell to go back."
"No! The men in white." Ed shuddered. "God. Chasing me. With their damn hoses and—and equipment."
Ruth was silent. Finally she looked up at her husband, her dark eyes bright. "You have to go back, Ed."
"To prove something."
"Prove it's all right." Ruth's hand pressed against his. "You have to, Ed. You have to go back and face it. To show yourself there's nothing to be afraid of."
"The hell with it! After what I saw? Listen, Ruth. I saw the fabric of reality split open. I saw—behind. Underneath. I saw what was really there. And I don't want to go back. I don't want to see dust people again. Ever."
Ruth's eyes were fixed intently on him. "I'll go back with you," she said.
"For God's sake."
"For your sake. For your sanity. So you'll know." Ruth got abruptly to her feet, pulling her coat around her. "Come on, Ed. I'll go with you. We'll go up there together. To the office of Douglas and Blake, Real Estate. I'll even go in with you to see Mr. Douglas."
Ed got up slowly, staring hard at his wife. "You think I blacked out. Cold feet. Couldn't face the boss." His voice was low and strained. "Don't you?"
Ruth was already threading her way toward the cashier. "Come on. You'll see. It'll all be there. Just like it always was."
"Okay," Ed said. He followed her slowly. "We'll go back there—and see which of us is right."
They crossed the street together, Ruth holding on tight to Ed's arm. Ahead of them was the building, the towering structure of concrete and metal and glass.
"There it is," Ruth said. "See?"
There it was, all right. The big building rose up, firm and solid, glittering in the early afternoon sun, its windows sparkling brightly.
Ed and Ruth stepped up onto the curb. Ed tensed himself, his body rigid. He winced as his foot touched the pavement—
But nothing happened: the street noises continued; cars, people hurrying past; a kid selling papers. There were sounds, smells, the noises of the city in the middle of the day. And overhead was the sun and the bright blue sky.
"See?" Ruth said. "I was right."
They walked up the front steps, into the lobby. Behind the cigar stand the seller stood, arms folded, listening to the ball game. "Hi, Mr. Fletcher," he called to Ed. His face lit up good-naturedly. "Who's the dame? Your wife know about this?"
Ed laughed unsteadily. They passed on toward the elevator. Four or five businessmen stood waiting. They were middle-aged men, well dressed, waiting impatiently in a bunch. "Hey, Fletcher," one said. "Where you been all day? Douglas is yelling his head off."
"Hello, Earl," Ed muttered. He gripped Ruth's arm. "Been a little sick."
The elevator came. They got in. The elevator rose. "Hi, Ed," the elevator operator said. "Who's the good-looking gal? Why don't you introduce her around?"
Ed grinned mechanically. "My wife."
The elevator let them off at the third floor. Ed and Ruth got out, heading toward the glass door of Douglas and Blake, Real Estate.
Ed halted, breathing shallowly. "Wait." He licked his lips. "I—"
Ruth waited calmly as Ed wiped his forehead and neck with his handkerchief. "All right now?"
"Yeah." Ed moved forward. He pulled open the glass door.
Miss Evans glanced up, ceasing her typing. "Ed Fletcher! Where on earth have you been?"
"I've been sick. Hello, Tom."
Tom glanced up from his work. "Hi, Ed. Say, Douglas is yelling for your scalp. Where have you been?"
"I know." Ed turned wearily to Ruth. "I guess I better go in and face the music."
Ruth squeezed his arm. "You'll be all right. I know." She smiled, a relieved flash of white teeth and red lips. "Okay? Call me if you need me."
"Sure." Ed kissed her briefly on the mouth. "Thanks, honey. Thanks a lot. I don't know what the hell went wrong with me. I guess it's over."
"Forget it. So long." Ruth skipped back out of the office, the door closing after her. Ed listened to her race down the hall to the elevator.
"Nice little gal," Jackie said appreciatively.
"Yeah." Ed nodded, straightening his necktie. He moved unhappily toward the inner office, steeling himself. Well, he had to face it. Ruth was right. But he was going to have a hell of a time explaining it to the boss. He could see Douglas now, thick red wattles, big bull roar, face distorted with rage—
Ed stopped abruptly at the entrance to the inner office. He froze rigid. The inner office—it was changed.
The hackles of his neck rose. Cold fear gripped him, clutching at his windpipe. The inner office was different. He turned his head slowly, taking in the sight: the desks, chairs, fixtures, file cabinets, pictures.
Changes. Little changes. Subtle. Ed closed his eyes and opened them slowly. He was alert, breathing rapidly, his pulse racing. It was changed, all right. No doubt about it.
"What's the matter, Ed?" Tom asked. The staff watched him curiously, pausing in their work.
Ed said nothing. He advanced slowly into the inner office. The office had been gone over. He could tell. Things had been altered. Rearranged. Nothing obvious—nothing he could put his finger on. But he could tell.
Joe Kent greeted him uneasily. "What's the matter, Ed? You look like a wild dog. Is something—?"
Ed studied Joe. He was different. Not the same. What was it?
Joe's face. It was a little fuller. His shirt was blue-striped. Joe never wore blue stripes. Ed examined Joe's desk. He saw papers and accounts. The desk—it was too far to the right. And it was bigger. It wasn't the same desk.
The picture on the wall. It wasn't the same. It was a different picture entirely. And the things on top of the file cabinet—some were new, others were gone.
He looked back through the door. Now that he thought about it, Miss Evans' hair was different, done a different way. And it was lighter.
In here, Mary, filing her nails, over by the window—she was taller, fuller. Her purse, lying on the desk in front of her—a red purse, red knit.
"You always...have that purse?" Ed demanded.
Mary glanced up. "What?"
"That purse. You always have that?"
Mary laughed. She smoothed her skirt coyly around her shapely thighs, her long lashes blinking modestly. "Why, Mr. Fletcher. What do you mean?"
Ed turned away. He knew. Even if she didn't. She had been redone—changed: her purse, her clothes, her figure, everything about her. None of them knew—but him. His mind spun dizzily. They were all changed. All of them were different. They had all been remolded, recast. Subtly—but it was there.
The wastebasket. It was smaller, not the same. The window shades—white, not ivory. The wall paper was not the same pattern. The lighting fixtures...
Endless, subtle changes.
Ed made his way back to the inner office. He lifted his hand and knocked on Douglas' door.
Ed pushed the door open. Nathan Douglas looked up impatiently. "Mr. Douglas—" Ed began. He came into the room unsteadily—and stopped.
Douglas was not the same. Not at all. His whole office was changed: the rugs, the drapes. The desk was oak, not mahogany. And Douglas himself...
Douglas was younger, thinner. His hair, brown. His skin not so red. His face smoother. No wrinkles. Chin reshaped. Eyes green, not black. He was a different man. But still Douglas—a different Douglas. A different version!
"What is it?" Douglas demanded impatiently. "Oh, it's you, Fletcher. Where were you this morning?"
Ed backed out. Fast.
He slammed the door and hurried back through the inner office. Tom and Miss Evans glanced up, startled. Ed passed by them, grabbing the hall door open.
"Hey!" Tom called. "What—?"
Ed hurried down the hall. Terror leaped through him. He had to hurry. He had seen. There wasn't much time. He came to the elevator and stabbed the button.
He ran to the stairs and started down. He reached the second floor. His terror grew. It was a matter of seconds.
The public phone. Ed ran into the phone booth. He dragged the door shut after him. Wildly, he dropped a dime in the slot and dialed. He had to call the police. He held the receiver to his ear, his heart pounding.
Warn them. Changes. Somebody tampering with reality. Altering it. He had been right. The white-clad men...their equipment...going through the building.
"Hello!" Ed shouted hoarsely. There was no answer. No hum. Nothing.
Ed peered frantically out the door.
And he sagged, defeated. Slowly, he hung up the telephone receiver.
He was no longer on the second floor. The phone booth was rising, leaving the second floor behind, carrying him up, faster and faster. It rose floor by floor, moving silently, swiftly.
The phone booth passed through the ceiling of the building and out into the bright sunlight. It gained speed. The ground fell away below. Buildings and streets were getting smaller each moment. Tiny specks hurried along, far below, cars and people, dwindling rapidly.
Clouds drifted between him and the earth. Ed shut his eyes, dizzy with fright. He held on desperately to the door handles of the phone booth.
Faster and faster the phone booth climbed. The earth was rapidly being left behind, far below.
Ed peered up wildly. Where? Where was he going? Where was it taking him?
He stood gripping the door handles, waiting.
The Clerk nodded curtly. "That's him, all right. The element in question."
Ed Fletcher looked around him. He was in a huge chamber. The edges fell away into indistinct shadows. In front of him stood a man with notes and ledgers under his arm, peering at him through steel-rimmed glasses. He was a nervous little man, sharp-eyed, with celluloid collar, blue-serge suit, vest, watch chain. He wore black shiny shoes.
And beyond him—
An old man sat quietly, in an immense modern chair. He watched Fletcher calmly, his blue eyes mild and tired. A strange thrill shot through Fletcher. It was not fear. Rather it was a vibration, rattling his bones—a deep sense of awe, tinged with fascination.
"Where—what is this place?" he asked faintly. He was still dazed from his quick ascent.
"Don't ask questions!" the nervous little man snapped angrily, tapping his pencil against his ledgers. "You're here to answer, not ask."
The Old Man moved a little. He raised his hand. "I will speak to the element alone," he murmured. His voice was low. It vibrated and rumbled through the chamber. Again the wave of fascinated awe swept Ed.
"Alone?" The little fellow backed away, gathering his books and papers in his arms. "Of course." He glanced hostilely at Ed Fletcher. "I'm glad he's finally in custody. All the work and trouble just for—"
He disappeared through a door. The door closed softly behind him. Ed and the Old Man were alone.
"Please sit down," the Old Man said.
Ed found a seat. He sat down awkwardly, nervously. He got out his cigarettes and then put them away again.
"What's wrong?" the Old Man asked.
"I'm just beginning to understand."
"That I'm dead."
The Old Man smiled briefly. "Dead? No, you're not dead. You're...visiting. An unusual event, but necessitated by circumstances." He leaned toward Ed. "Mr. Fletcher, you have got yourself involved in something."
"Yeah," Ed agreed. "I wish I knew what it was. Or how it happened."
"It was not your fault. You're the victim of a clerical error. A mistake was made—not by you. But involving you."
"What mistake?" Ed rubbed his forehead wearily. "I—I got in on something. I saw through. I saw something I wasn't supposed to see."
The Old Man nodded. "That's right. You saw something you were not supposed to see—something few elements have been aware of, let alone witnessed."
"An official term. Let it pass. A mistake was made, but we hope to rectify it. It is my hope that—"
"Those people," Ed interrupted. "Heaps of dry ash. And gray. Like they were dead. Only it was everything: the stairs and walls and floor. No color or life."
"That Sector had been temporarily de-energized. So the adjustment team could enter and effect changes."
"Changes." Ed nodded. "That's right. When I went back later, everything was alive again. But not the same. It was all different."
"The adjustment was complete by noon. The team finished its work and re-energized the Sector."
"I see," Ed muttered.
"You were supposed to have been in the Sector when the adjustment began. Because of an error you were not. You came into the Sector late—during the adjustment itself. You fled, and when you returned it was over. You saw, and you should not have seen. Instead of a witness you should have been part of the adjustment. Like the others, you should have undergone changes."
Sweat came out on Ed Fletcher's head. He wiped it away. His stomach turned over. Weakly, he cleared his throat. "I get the picture." His voice was almost inaudible. A chilling premonition moved through him. "I was supposed to be changed like the others. But I guess something went wrong."
"Something went wrong. An error occurred. And now a serious problem exists. You have seen these things. You know a great deal. And you are not coordinated with the new configuration."
"Gosh," Ed muttered. "Well, I won't tell anybody." Cold sweat poured off him. "You can count on that. I'm as good as changed."
"You have already told someone," the Old Man said coldly.
"Me?" Ed blinked. "Who?"
Ed trembled. The color drained from his face, leaving it sickly white. "That's right. I did."
"Your wife knows." The Old Man's face twisted angrily. "A woman. Of all the things to tell—"
"I didn't know." Ed retreated, panic leaping through him. "But I know now. You can count on me. Consider me changed."
The ancient blue eyes bored keenly into him, peering far into his depths. "And you were going to call the police. You wanted to inform the authorities."
"But I didn't know who was doing the changing."
"Now you know. The natural process must be supplemented—adjusted here and there. Corrections must be made. We are fully licensed to make such corrections. Our adjustment teams perform vital work."
Ed plucked up a measure of courage. "This particular adjustment. Douglas. The office. What was it for? I'm sure it was some worthwhile purpose."
The Old Man waved his hand. Behind him in the shadows an immense map glowed into existence. Ed caught his breath. The edges of the map faded off in obscurity. He saw an infinite web of detailed sections, a network of squares and ruled lines. Each square was marked. Some glowed with a blue light. The lights altered constantly.
"The Sector Board," the Old Man said. He sighed wearily. "A staggering job. Sometimes we wonder how we can go on another period. But it must be done. For the good of all. For your good."
"The change. In our—our Sector."
"Your office deals in real estate. The old Douglas was a shrewd man, but rapidly becoming infirm. His physical health was waning. In a few days Douglas will be offered a chance to purchase a large unimproved forest area in western Canada. It will require most of his assets. The older, less virile Douglas would have hesitated. It is imperative he not hesitate. He must purchase the area and clear the land at once. Only a younger man—a younger Douglas—would undertake this.
"When the land is cleared, certain anthropological remains will be discovered. They have already been placed there. Douglas will lease his land to the Canadian Government for scientific study. The remains found there will cause international excitement in learned circles.
"A chain of events will be set in motion. Men from numerous countries will come to Canada to examine the remains. Soviet, Polish, and Czech scientists will make the journey.
"The chain of events will draw these scientists together for the first time in years. National research will be temporarily forgotten in the excitement of these non-national discoveries. One of the leading Soviet scientists will make friends with a Belgian scientist. Before they depart they will agree to correspond—without the knowledge of their governments, of course.
"The circle will widen. Other scientists on both sides will be drawn in. A society will be founded. More and more educated men will transfer an increasing amount of time to this international society. Purely national research will suffer a slight but extremely critical eclipse. The war tension will somewhat wane.
"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."
Ruth pulled back abruptly. "No, you haven't."
Vague tendrils of alarm plucked at Ed. "Of course I have. Where else—?"
"I called Douglas about three. He said you left. You walked out, practically as soon as I turned my back. Eddie—"
Ed patted her nervously. "Take it easy, honey." He began unbuttoning his coat. "Everything's okay. Understand? Things are perfectly all right."
Ruth sat down on the arm of the couch. She blew her nose, dabbing at her eyes. "If you knew how much I've worried." She put her handkerchief away and folded her arms. "I want to know where you were."
Uneasily, Ed hung his coat in the closet. He came over and kissed her. Her lips were ice cold. "I'll tell you all about it. But what do you say we have something to eat? I'm starved."
Ruth studied him intently. She got down from the arm of the couch. "I'll change and fix dinner."
She hurried into the bedroom and slipped off her shoes and nylons. Ed followed her. "I didn't mean to worry you," he said carefully. "After you left me today I realized you were right."
"Oh?" Ruth unfastened her blouse and skirt, arranging them over a hanger. "Right about what?"
"About me." He manufactured a grin and made it glow across his face. "About...what happened."
Ruth hung her slip over the hanger. She studied her husband intently as she struggled into her tight-fitting jeans. "Go on."
The moment had come. It was now or never. Ed Fletcher braced himself and chose his words carefully. "I realized," he stated, "that the whole darn thing was in my mind. You were right, Ruth. Completely right. And I even realize what caused it."
Ruth rolled her cotton T-shirt down and tucked it in her jeans. "What was the cause?"
"I need a vacation. I haven't had a vacation in years. My mind isn't on my job. I've been daydreaming." He said it firmly, but his heart was in his mouth. "I need to get away. To the mountains. Bass fishing. Or—" He searched his mind frantically. "Or—"
Ruth came toward him ominously. "Ed!" she said sharply. "Look at me!"
"What's the matter?" Panic shot through him. "Why are you looking at me like that?"
"Where were you this afternoon?"
Ed's grin faded. "I told you. I went for a walk. Didn't I tell you? A walk. To think things over."
"Don't lie to me, Eddie Fletcher! I can tell when you're lying!" Fresh tears welled up in Ruth's eyes. Her breasts rose and fell excitedly under her cotton shirt. "Admit it! You didn't go for a walk!"
Ed stammered weakly. Sweat poured off him. He sagged helplessly against the door. "What do you mean?"
Ruth's black eyes flashed with anger. "Come on! I want to know where you were! Tell me! I have a right to know. What really happened?"
Ed retreated in terror, his resolve melting like wax. It was going all wrong. "Honest. I went out for a—"
"Tell me!" Ruth's sharp fingernails dug into his arm. "I want to know where you were—and who you were with!"
Ed opened his mouth. He tried to grin, but his face failed to respond. "I don't know what you mean."
"You know what I mean. Who were you with? Where did you go? Tell me! I'll find out, sooner or later."
There was no way out. He was licked—and he knew it. He couldn't keep it from her. Desperately he stalled, praying for time. If he could only distract her, get her mind on something else. If she would only let up, even for a second. He could invent something—a better story. Time—he needed more time. "Ruth, you've got to—"
Suddenly there was a sound: the bark of a dog, echoing through the dark house.
Ruth let go, cocking her head alertly. "That was Dobbie. I think somebody's coming."
The doorbell rang.
"You stay here. I'll be right back." Ruth ran out of the room, to the front door. "Darn it." She pulled the front door open.
"Good evening!" The young man stepped quickly inside, loaded down with objects, grinning broadly at Ruth. "I'm from the Sweep-Rite Vacuum Cleaner Company."
Ruth scowled impatiently. "Really, we're about to sit down at the table."
"Oh, this will only take a moment." The young man set down the vacuum cleaner and its attachments with a metallic crash. Rapidly, he unrolled a long illustrated banner, showing the vacuum cleaner in action. "Now, if you'll just hold this while I plug in the cleaner—"
He bustled happily about, unplugging the TV set, plugging in the cleaner, pushing the chairs out of his way.
"I'll show you the drape scraper first." He attached a hose and nozzle to the big gleaming tank. "Now, if you'll just sit down I'll demonstrate each of these easy-to-use attachments." His happy voice rose over the roar of the cleaner. "You'll notice—"
Ed Fletcher sat down on the bed. He groped in his pocket until he found his cigarettes. Shakily he lit one and leaned back against the wall, weak with relief.
He gazed up, a look of gratitude on his face. "Thanks," he said softly. "I think we'll make it—after all. Thanks a lot." * * *
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