The Skull (Dick)
Conger agreed to kill a stranger he had never seen. But he would make no mistakes because he had the stranger's skull under his arm.
By Philip K. Dick
"What is this opportunity?" Conger asked. "Go on. I'm interested."
The room was silent; all faces were fixed on Conger—still in the drab prison uniform. The Speaker leaned forward slowly.
"Before you went to prison your trading business was paying well—all illegal—all very profitable. Now you have nothing, except the prospect of another six years in a cell."
"There is a certain situation, very important to this Council, that requires your peculiar abilities. Also, it is a situation you might find interesting. You were a hunter, were you not? You've done a great deal of trapping, hiding in the bushes, waiting at night for the game? I imagine hunting must be a source of satisfaction to you, the chase, the stalking—"
Conger sighed. His lips twisted. "All right," he said. "Leave that out. Get to the point. Who do you want me to kill?"
The Speaker smiled. "All in proper sequence," he said softly.
The car slid to a stop. It was night; there was no light anywhere along the street. Conger looked out. "Where are we? What is this place?"
The hand of the guard pressed into his arm. "Come. Through that door."
Conger stepped down, onto the damp sidewalk. The guard came swiftly after him, and then the Speaker. Conger took a deep breath of the cold air. He studied the dim outline of the building rising up before them.
"I know this place. I've seen it before." He squinted, his eyes growing accustomed to the dark. Suddenly he became alert. "This is—"
"Yes. The First Church." The Speaker walked toward the steps. "We're expected."
"Yes." The Speaker mounted the stairs. "You know we're not allowed in their Churches, especially with guns!" He stopped. Two armed soldiers loomed up ahead, one on each side.
"All right?" The Speaker looked up at them. They nodded. The door of the Church was open. Conger could see other soldiers inside, standing about, young soldiers with large eyes, gazing at the ikons and holy images.
"I see," he said.
"It was necessary," the Speaker said. "As you know, we have been singularly unfortunate in the past in our relations with the First Church."
"This won't help."
"But it's worth it. You will see."
They passed through the hall and into the main chamber where the altar piece was, and the kneeling places. The Speaker scarcely glanced at the altar as they passed by. He pushed open a small side door and beckoned Conger through.
"In here. We have to hurry. The faithful will be flocking in soon."
Conger entered, blinking. They were in a small chamber, low-ceilinged, with dark panels of old wood. There was a smell of ashes and smoldering spices in the room. He sniffed. "What's that? The smell."
"Cups on the wall. I don't know." The Speaker crossed impatiently to the far side. "According to our information, it is hidden here by this—"
Conger looked around the room. He saw books and papers, holy signs and images. A strange low shiver went through him.
"Does my job involve anyone of the Church? If it does—"
The Speaker turned, astonished. "Can it be that you believe in the Founder? Is it possible, a hunter, a killer—"
"No. Of course not. All their business about resignation to death, non-violence—"
"What is it, then?"
Conger shrugged. "I've been taught not to mix with such as these. They have strange abilities. And you can't reason with them."
The Speaker studied Conger thoughtfully. "You have the wrong idea. It is no one here that we have in mind. We've found that killing them only tends to increase their numbers."
"Then why come here? Let's leave."
"No. We came for something important. Something you will need to identify your man. Without it you won't be able to find him." A trace of a smile crossed the Speaker's face. "We don't want you to kill the wrong person. It's too important."
"I don't make mistakes." Conger's chest rose. "Listen, Speaker—"
"This is an unusual situation," the Speaker said. "You see, the person you are after—the person that we are sending you to find—is known only by certain objects here. They are the only traces, the only means of identification. Without them—"
"What are they?"
He came toward the Speaker. The Speaker moved to one side. "Look," he said. He drew a sliding wall away, showing a dark square hole. "In there."
Conger squatted down, staring in. He frowned. "A skull! A skeleton!"
"The man you are after has been dead for two centuries," the Speaker said. "This is all that remains of him. And this is all you have with which to find him."
For a long time Conger said nothing. He stared down at the bones, dimly visible in the recess of the wall. How could a man dead centuries be killed? How could he be stalked, brought down?
Conger was a hunter, a man who had lived as he pleased, where he pleased. He had kept himself alive by trading, bringing furs and pelts in from the Provinces on his own ship, riding at high speed, slipping through the customs line around Earth.
He had hunted in the great mountains of the moon. He had stalked through empty Martian cities. He had explored—
The Speaker said, "Soldier, take these objects and have them carried to the car. Don't lose any part of them."
The soldier went into the cupboard, reaching gingerly, squatting on his heels.
"It is my hope," the Speaker continued softly, to Conger, "that you will demonstrate your loyalty to us, now. There are always ways for citizens to restore themselves, to show their devotion to their society. For you I think this would be a very good chance. I seriously doubt that a better one will come. And for your efforts there will be quite a restitution, of course."
The two men looked at each other; Conger, thin, unkempt, the Speaker immaculate in his uniform.
"I understand you," Conger said. "I mean, I understand this part, about the chance. But how can a man who has been dead two centuries be—"
"I'll explain later," the Speaker said. "Right now we have to hurry!" The soldier had gone out with the bones, wrapped in a blanket held carefully in his arms. The Speaker walked to the door. "Come. They've already discovered that we've broken in here, and they'll be coming at any moment."
They hurried down the damp steps to the waiting car. A second later the driver lifted the car up into the air, above the house-tops.
The Speaker settled back in the seat.
"The First Church has an interesting past," he said. "I suppose you are familiar with it, but I'd like to speak of a few points that are of relevancy to us.
"It was in the twentieth century that the Movement began—during one of the periodic wars. The Movement developed rapidly, feeding on the general sense of futility, the realization that each war was breeding greater war, with no end in sight. The Movement posed a simple answer to the problem: Without military preparations—weapons—there could be no war. And without machinery and complex scientific technocracy there could be no weapons.
"The Movement preached that you couldn't stop war by planning for it. They preached that man was losing to his machinery and science, that it was getting away from him, pushing him into greater and greater wars. Down with society, they shouted. Down with factories and science! A few more wars and there wouldn't be much left of the world.
"The Founder was an obscure person from a small town in the American Middle West. We don't even know his name. All we know is that one day he appeared, preaching a doctrine of non-violence, non-resistance; no fighting, no paying taxes for guns, no research except for medicine. Live out your life quietly, tending your garden, staying out of public affairs; mind your own business. Be obscure, unknown, poor. Give away most of your possessions, leave the city. At least that was what developed from what he told the people."
The car dropped down and landed on a roof.
"The Founder preached this doctrine, or the germ of it; there's no telling how much the faithful have added themselves. The local authorities picked him up at once, of course. Apparently they were convinced that he meant it; he was never released. He was put to death, and his body buried secretly. It seemed that the cult was finished."
The Speaker smiled. "Unfortunately, some of his disciples reported seeing him after the date of his death. The rumor spread; he had conquered death, he was divine. It took hold, grew. And here we are today, with a First Church, obstructing all social progress, destroying society, sowing the seeds of anarchy—"
"But the wars," Conger said. "About them?"
"The wars? Well, there were no more wars. It must be acknowledged that the elimination of war was the direct result of non-violence practiced on a general scale. But we can take a more objective view of war today. What was so terrible about it? War had a profound selective value, perfectly in accord with the teachings of Darwin and Mendel and others. Without war the mass of useless, incompetent mankind, without training or intelligence, is permitted to grow and expand unchecked. War acted to reduce their numbers; like storms and earthquakes and droughts, it was nature's way of eliminating the unfit.
"Without war the lower elements of mankind have increased all out of proportion. They threaten the educated few, those with scientific knowledge and training, the ones equipped to direct society. They have no regard for science or a scientific society, based on reason. And this Movement seeks to aid and abet them. Only when scientists are in full control can the—"
He looked at his watch and then kicked the car door open. "I'll tell you the rest as we walk."
They crossed the dark roof. "Doubtless you now know whom those bones belonged to, who it is that we are after. He has been dead just two centuries, now, this ignorant man from the Middle West, this Founder. The tragedy is that the authorities of the time acted too slowly. They allowed him to speak, to get his message across. He was allowed to preach, to start his cult. And once such a thing is under way, there's no stopping it.
"But what if he had died before he preached? What if none of his doctrines had ever been spoken? It took only a moment for him to utter them, that we know. They say he spoke just once, just one time. Then the authorities came, taking him away. He offered no resistance; the incident was small."
The Speaker turned to Conger.
"Small, but we're reaping the consequences of it today."
They went inside the building. Inside, the soldiers had already laid out the skeleton on a table. The soldiers stood around it, their young faces intense.
Conger went over to the table, pushing past them. He bent down, staring at the bones. "So these are his remains," he murmured. "The Founder. The Church has hidden them for two centuries."
"Quite so," the Speaker said. "But now we have them. Come along down the hall."
They went across the room to a door. The Speaker pushed it open. Technicians looked up. Conger saw machinery, whirring and turning; benches and retorts. In the center of the room was a gleaming crystal cage.
The Speaker handed a Slem-gun to Conger. "The important thing to remember is that the skull must be saved and brought back—for comparison and proof. Aim low—at the chest."
Conger weighed the gun in his hands. "It feels good," he said. "I know this gun—that is, I've seen them before, but I never used one."
The Speaker nodded. "You will be instructed on the use of the gun and the operation of the cage. You will be given all data we have on the time and location. The exact spot was a place called Hudson's field. About 1960 in a small community outside Denver, Colorado. And don't forget—the only means of identification you will have will be the skull. There are visible characteristics of the front teeth, especially the left incisor—"
Conger listened absently. He was watching two men in white carefully wrapping the skull in a plastic bag. They tied it and carried it into the crystal cage. "And if I should make a mistake?"
"Pick the wrong man? Then find the right one. Don't come back until you succeed in reaching this Founder. And you can't wait for him to start speaking; that's what we must avoid! You must act in advance. Take chances; shoot as soon as you think you've found him. He'll be someone unusual, probably a stranger in the area. Apparently he wasn't known."
Conger listened dimly.
"Do you think you have it all now?" the Speaker asked.
"Yes. I think so." Conger entered the crystal cage and sat down, placing his hands on the wheel.
"Good luck," the Speaker said.
"We'll be awaiting the outcome. There's some philosophical doubt as to whether one can alter the past. This should answer the question once and for all."
Conger fingered the controls of the cage.
"By the way," the Speaker said. "Don't try to use this cage for purposes not anticipated in your job. We have a constant trace on it. If we want it back, we can get it back. Good luck."
Conger said nothing. The cage was sealed. He raised his finger and touched the wheel control. He turned the wheel carefully.
He was still staring at the plastic bag when the room outside vanished.
For a long time there was nothing at all. Nothing beyond the crystal mesh of the cage. Thoughts rushed through Conger's mind, helter-skelter. How would he know the man? How could he be certain, in advance? What had he looked like? What was his name? How had he acted, before he spoke? Would he be an ordinary person, or some strange outlandish crank?
Conger picked up the Slem-gun and held it against his cheek. The metal of the gun was cool and smooth. He practiced moving the sight. It was a beautiful gun, the kind of gun he could fall in love with. If he had owned such a gun in the Martian desert—on the long nights when he had lain, cramped and numbed with cold, waiting for things that moved through the darkness—
He put the gun down and adjusted the meter readings of the cage. The spiraling mist was beginning to condense and settle. All at once forms wavered and fluttered around him.
Colors, sounds, movements filtered through the crystal wire. He clamped the controls off and stood up.
He was on a ridge overlooking a small town. It was high noon. The air was crisp and bright. A few automobiles moved along a road. Off in the distance were some level fields. Conger went to the door and stepped outside. He sniffed the air. Then he went back into the cage.
He stood before the mirror over the shelf, examining his features. He had trimmed his beard—they had not got him to cut it off—and his hair was neat. He was dressed in the clothing of the middle-twentieth century, the odd collar and coat, the shoes of animal hide. In his pocket was money of the times. That was important. Nothing more was needed.
Nothing, except his ability, his special cunning. But he had never used it in such a way before.
He walked down the road toward the town.
The first things he noticed were the newspapers on the stands. April 5, 1961. He was not too far off. He looked around him. There was a filling station, a garage, some taverns, and a ten-cent store. Down the street was a grocery store and some public buildings.
A few minutes later he mounted the stairs of the little public library and passed through the doors into the warm interior.
The librarian looked up, smiling.
"Good afternoon," she said.
He smiled, not speaking because his words would not be correct; accented and strange, probably. He went over to a table and sat down by a heap of magazines. For a moment he glanced through them. Then he was on his feet again. He crossed the room to a wide rack against the wall. His heart began to beat heavily.
Newspapers—weeks on end. He took a roll of them over to the table and began to scan them quickly. The print was odd, the letters strange. Some of the words were unfamiliar.
He set the papers aside and searched farther. At last he found what he wanted. He carried the Cherrywood Gazette to the table and opened it to the first page. He found what he wanted:
An unidentified man, held by the county sheriff's office for suspicion of criminal syndicalism, was found dead this morning, by—
He finished the item. It was vague, uninforming. He needed more. He carried the Gazette back to the racks and then, after a moment's hesitation, approached the librarian.
"More?" he asked. "More papers. Old ones?"
She frowned. "How old? Which papers?"
"Months old. And—before."
"Of the Gazette? This is all we have. What did you want? What are you looking for? Maybe I can help you."
He was silent.
"You might find older issues at the Gazette office," the woman said, taking off her glasses. "Why don't you try there? But if you'd tell me, maybe I could help you—"
He went out.
The Gazette office was down a side street; the sidewalk was broken and cracked. He went inside. A heater glowed in the corner of the small office. A heavy-set man stood up and came slowly over to the counter.
"What did you want, mister?" he said.
"Old papers. A month. Or more."
"To buy? You want to buy them?"
"Yes." He held out some of the money he had. The man stared.
"Sure," he said. "Sure. Wait a minute." He went quickly out of the room. When he came back he was staggering under the weight of his armload, his face red. "Here are some," he grunted. "Took what I could find. Covers the whole year. And if you want more—"
Conger carried the papers outside. He sat down by the road and began to go through them.
What he wanted was four months back, in December. It was a tiny item, so small that he almost missed it. His hands trembled as he scanned it, using the small dictionary for some of the archaic terms.
An unidentified man who refused to give his name was picked up in Cooper Creek by special agents of the sheriff's office, according to Sheriff Duff. It was said the man was recently noticed in this area and had been watched continually. It was—
Cooper Creek. December, 1960. His heart pounded. That was all he needed to know. He stood up, shaking himself, stamping his feet on the cold ground. The sun had moved across the sky to the very edge of the hills. He smiled. Already he had discovered the exact time and place. Now he needed only to go back, perhaps to November, to Cooper Creek—
He walked back through the main section of town, past the library, past the grocery store. It would not be hard; the hard part was over. He would go there; rent a room, prepare to wait until the man appeared.
He turned the corner. A woman was coming out of a doorway, loaded down with packages. Conger stepped aside to let her pass. The woman glanced at him. Suddenly her face turned white. She stared, her mouth open.
Conger hurried on. He looked back. What was wrong with her? The woman was still staring; she had dropped the packages to the ground. He increased his speed. He turned a second corner and went up a side street. When he looked back again the woman had come to the entrance of the street and was starting after him. A man joined her, and the two of them began to run toward him.
He lost them and left the town, striding quickly, easily, up into the hills at the edge of town. When he reached the cage he stopped. What had happened? Was it something about his clothing? His dress?
He pondered. Then, as the sun set, he stepped into the cage.
Conger sat before the wheel. For a moment he waited, his hands resting lightly on the control. Then he turned the wheel, just a little, following the control readings carefully.
The grayness settled down around him.
But not for very long.
The man looked him over critically. "You better come inside," he said. "Out of the cold."
"Thanks." Conger went gratefully through the open door, into the living-room. It was warm and close from the heat of the little kerosene heater in the corner. A woman, large and shapeless in her flowered dress, came from the kitchen. She and the man studied him critically.
"It's a good room," the woman said. "I'm Mrs. Appleton. It's got heat. You need that this time of year."
"Yes." He nodded, looking around.
"You want to eat with us?"
"You want to eat with us?" The man's brows knitted. "You're not a foreigner, are you, mister?"
"No." He smiled. "I was born in this country. Quite far west, though."
"No." He hesitated. "In Oregon."
"What's it like up there?" Mrs. Appleton asked. "I hear there's a lot of trees and green. It's so barren here. I come from Chicago, myself."
"That's the Middle West," the man said to her. "You ain't no foreigner."
"Oregon isn't foreign, either," Conger said. "It's part of the United States."
The man nodded absently. He was staring at Conger's clothing.
"That's a funny suit you got on, mister," he said. "Where'd you get that?"
Conger was lost. He shifted uneasily. "It's a good suit," he said. "Maybe I better go some other place, if you don't want me here."
They both raised their hands protestingly. The woman smiled at him. "We just have to look out for those Reds. You know, the government is always warning us about them."
"The Reds?" He was puzzled.
"The government says they're all around. We're supposed to report anything strange or unusual, anybody doesn't act normal."
They looked embarrassed. "Well, you don't look like a Red to me," the man said. "But we have to be careful. The Tribune says—"
Conger half listened. It was going to be easier than he had thought. Clearly, he would know as soon as the Founder appeared. These people, so suspicious of anything different, would be buzzing and gossiping and spreading the story. All he had to do was lie low and listen, down at the general store, perhaps. Or even here, in Mrs. Appleton's boarding house.
"Can I see the room?" he said.
"Certainly." Mrs. Appleton went to the stairs. "I'll be glad to show it to you."
They went upstairs. It was colder upstairs, but not nearly as cold as outside. Nor as cold as nights on the Martian deserts. For that he was grateful.
He was walking slowly around the store, looking at the cans of vegetables, the frozen packages of fish and meats shining and clean in the open refrigerator counters.
Ed Davies came toward him. "Can I help you?" he said. The man was a little oddly dressed, and with a beard! Ed couldn't help smiling.
"Nothing," the man said in a funny voice. "Just looking."
"Sure," Ed said. He walked back behind the counter. Mrs. Hacket was wheeling her cart up.
"Who's he?" she whispered, her sharp face turned, her nose moving, as if it were sniffing. "I never seen him before."
"I don't know."
"Looks funny to me. Why does he wear a beard? No one else wears a beard. Must be something the matter with him."
"Maybe he likes to wear a beard. I had an uncle who—"
"Wait." Mrs. Hacket stiffened. "Didn't that—what was his name? The Red—that old one. Didn't he have a beard? Marx. He had a beard."
Ed laughed. "This ain't Karl Marx. I saw a photograph of him once."
Mrs. Hacket was staring at him. "You did?"
"Sure." He flushed a little. "What's the matter with that?"
"I'd sure like to know more about him," Mrs. Hacket said. "I think we ought to know more, for our own good."
"Hey, mister! Want a ride?"
Conger turned quickly, dropping his hand to his belt. He relaxed. Two young kids in a car, a girl and a boy. He smiled at them. "A ride? Sure."
Conger got into the car and closed the door. Bill Willet pushed the gas and the car roared down the highway.
"I appreciate a ride," Conger said carefully. "I was taking a walk between towns, but it was farther than I thought."
"Where are you from?" Lora Hunt asked. She was pretty, small and dark, in her yellow sweater and blue skirt.
"From Cooper Creek."
"Cooper Creek?" Bill said. He frowned. "That's funny. I don't remember seeing you before."
"Why, do you come from there?"
"I was born there. I know everybody there."
"I just moved in. From Oregon."
"From Oregon? I didn't know Oregon people had accents."
"Do I have an accent?"
"You use words funny."
"I don't know. Doesn't he, Lora?"
"You slur them," Lora said, smiling. "Talk some more. I'm interested in dialects." She glanced at him, white-teethed. Conger felt his heart constrict.
"I have a speech impediment."
"Oh." Her eyes widened. "I'm sorry."
They looked at him curiously as the car purred along. Conger for his part was struggling to find some way of asking them questions without seeming curious. "I guess people from out of town don't come here much," he said. "Strangers."
"No." Bill shook his head. "Not very much."
"I'll bet I'm the first outsider for a long time."
"I guess so."
Conger hesitated. "A friend of mine—someone I know, might be coming through here. Where do you suppose I might—" He stopped. "Would there be anyone certain to see him? Someone I could ask, make sure I don't miss him if he comes?"
They were puzzled. "Just keep your eyes open. Cooper Creek isn't very big."
"No. That's right."
They drove in silence. Conger studied the outline of the girl. Probably she was the boy's mistress. Perhaps she was his trial wife. Or had they developed trial marriage back so far? He could not remember. But surely such an attractive girl would be someone's mistress by this time; she would be sixteen or so, by her looks. He might ask her sometime, if they ever met again.
The next day Conger went walking along the one main street of Cooper Creek. He passed the general store, the two filling stations, and then the post office. At the corner was the soda fountain.
He stopped. Lora was sitting inside, talking to the clerk. She was laughing, rocking back and forth.
Conger pushed the door open. Warm air rushed around him. Lora was drinking hot chocolate, with whipped cream. She looked up in surprise as he slid into the seat beside her.
"I beg your pardon," he said. "Am I intruding?"
"No." She shook her head. Her eyes were large and dark. "Not at all."
The clerk came over. "What do you want?"
Conger looked at the chocolate. "Same as she has."
Lora was watching Conger, her arms folded, elbows on the counter. She smiled at him. "By the way. You don't know my name. Lora Hunt."
She was holding out her hand. He took it awkwardly, not knowing what to do with it. "Conger is my name," he murmured.
"Conger? Is that your last or first name?"
"Last or first?" He hesitated. "Last. Omar Conger."
"Omar?" She laughed. "That's like the poet, Omar Khayyam."
"I don't know of him. I know very little of poets. We restored very few works of art. Usually only the Church has been interested enough—" He broke off. She was staring. He flushed. "Where I come from," he finished.
"The Church? Which church do you mean?"
"The Church." He was confused. The chocolate came and he began to sip it gratefully. Lora was still watching him.
"You're an unusual person," she said. "Bill didn't like you, but he never likes anything different. He's so—so prosaic. Don't you think that when a person gets older he should become—broadened in his outlook?"
"He says foreign people ought to stay where they belong, not come here. But you're not so foreign. He means orientals; you know."
The screen door opened behind them. Bill came into the room. He stared at them. "Well," he said.
Conger turned. "Hello."
"Well." Bill sat down. "Hello, Lora." He was looking at Conger. "I didn't expect to see you here."
Conger tensed. He could feel the hostility of the boy. "Something wrong with that?"
"No. Nothing wrong with it."
There was silence. Suddenly Bill turned to Lora. "Come on. Let's go."
"Go?" She was astonished. "Why?"
"Just go!" He grabbed her hand. "Come on! The car's outside."
"Why, Bill Willet," Lora said. "You're jealous!"
"Who is this guy?" Bill said. "Do you know anything about him? Look at him, his beard—"
She flared. "So what? Just because he doesn't drive a Packard and go to Cooper High!"
Conger sized the boy up. He was big—big and strong. Probably he was part of some civil control organization.
"Sorry," Conger said. "I'll go."
"What's your business in town?" Bill asked. "What are you doing here? Why are you hanging around Lora?"
Conger looked at the girl. He shrugged. "No reason. I'll see you later."
He turned away. And froze. Bill had moved. Conger's fingers went to his belt. Half pressure, he whispered to himself. No more. Half pressure.
He squeezed. The room leaped around him. He himself was protected by the lining of his clothing, the plastic sheathing inside.
"My God—" Lora put her hands up. Conger cursed. He hadn't meant any of it for her. But it would wear off. There was only a half-amp to it. It would tingle.
Tingle, and paralyze.
He walked out the door without looking back. He was almost to the corner when Bill came slowly out, holding onto the wall like a drunken man. Conger went on.
As Conger walked, restless, in the night, a form loomed in front of him. He stopped, holding his breath.
"Who is it?" a man's voice came. Conger waited, tense.
"Who is it?" the man said again. He clicked something in his hand. A light flashed. Conger moved.
"It's me," he said.
"Who is 'me'?"
"Conger is my name. I'm staying at the Appleton's place. Who are you?"
The man came slowly up to him. He was wearing a leather jacket. There was a gun at his waist.
"I'm Sheriff Duff. I think you're the person I want to talk to. You were in Bloom's today, about three o'clock?"
"The fountain. Where the kids hang out." Duff came up beside him, shining his light into Conger's face. Conger blinked.
"Turn that thing away," he said.
A pause. "All right." The light flickered to the ground. "You were there. Some trouble broke out between you and the Willet boy. Is that right? You had a beef over his girl—"
"We had a discussion," Conger said carefully.
"Then what happened?"
"I'm just curious. They say you did something."
"Did something? Did what?"
"I don't know. That's what I'm wondering. They saw a flash, and something seemed to happen. They all blacked out. Couldn't move."
"How are they now?"
There was silence.
"Well?" Duff said. "What was it? A bomb?"
"A bomb?" Conger laughed. "No. My cigarette lighter caught fire. There was a leak, and the fluid ignited."
"Why did they all pass out?"
Silence. Conger shifted, waiting. His fingers moved slowly toward his belt. The Sheriff glanced down. He grunted.
"If you say so," he said. "Anyhow, there wasn't any real harm done." He stepped back from Conger. "And that Willet is a trouble-maker."
"Good night, then," Conger said. He started past the Sheriff.
"One more thing, Mr. Conger. Before you go. You don't mind if I look at your identification, do you?"
"No. Not at all." Conger reached into his pocket. He held his wallet out. The Sheriff took it and shined his flashlight on it. Conger watched, breathing shallowly. They had worked hard on the wallet, studying historic documents, relics of the times, all the papers they felt would be relevant.
Duff handed it back. "Okay. Sorry to bother you." The light winked off.
When Conger reached the house he found the Appletons sitting around the television set. They did not look up as he came in. He lingered at the door.
"Can I ask you something?" he said. Mrs. Appleton turned slowly. "Can I ask you—what's the date?"
"The date?" She studied him. "The first of December."
"December first! Why, it was just November!"
They were all looking at him. Suddenly he remembered. In the twentieth century they still used the old twelve-month system. November fed directly into December; there was no Quartember between.
He gasped. Then it was tomorrow! The second of December! Tomorrow!
"Thanks," he said. "Thanks."
He went up the stairs. What a fool he was, forgetting. The Founder had been taken into captivity on the second of December, according to the newspaper records. Tomorrow, only twelve hours hence, the Founder would appear to speak to the people and then be dragged away.
The day was warm and bright. Conger's shoes crunched the melting crust of snow. On he went, through the trees heavy with white. He climbed a hill and strode down the other side, sliding as he went.
He stopped to look around. Everything was silent. There was no one in sight. He brought a thin rod from his waist and turned the handle of it. For a moment nothing happened. Then there was a shimmering in the air.
The crystal cage appeared and settled slowly down. Conger sighed. It was good to see it again. After all, it was his only way back.
He walked up on the ridge. He looked around with some satisfaction, his hands on his hips. Hudson's field was spread out, all the way to the beginning of town. It was bare and flat, covered with a thin layer of snow.
Here, the Founder would come. Here, he would speak to them. And here the authorities would take him.
Only he would be dead before they came. He would be dead before he even spoke.
Conger returned to the crystal globe. He pushed through the door and stepped inside. He took the Slem-gun from the shelf and screwed the bolt into place. It was ready to go, ready to fire. For a moment he considered. Should he have it with him?
No. It might be hours before the Founder came, and suppose someone approached him in the meantime? When he saw the Founder coming toward the field, then he could go and get the gun.
Conger looked toward the shelf. There was the neat plastic package. He took it down and unwrapped it.
He held the skull in his hands, turning it over. In spite of himself, a cold feeling rushed through him. This was the man's skull, the skull of the Founder, who was still alive, who would come here, this day, who would stand on the field not fifty yards away.
What if he could see this, his own skull, yellow and eroded? Two centuries old. Would he still speak? Would he speak, if he could see it, the grinning, aged skull? What would there be for him to say, to tell the people? What message could he bring?
What action would not be futile, when a man could look upon his own aged, yellowed skull? Better they should enjoy their temporary lives, while they still had them to enjoy.
A man who could hold his own skull in his hands would believe in few causes, few movements. Rather, he would preach the opposite—
A sound. Conger dropped the skull back on the shelf and took up the gun. Outside something was moving. He went quickly to the door, his heart beating. Was it he? Was it the Founder, wandering by himself in the cold, looking for a place to speak? Was he meditating over his words, choosing his sentences?
What if he could see what Conger had held!
He pushed the door open, the gun raised.
He stared at her. She was dressed in a wool jacket and boots, her hands in her pockets. A cloud of steam came from her mouth and nostrils. Her breast was rising and falling.
Silently, they looked at each other. At last Conger lowered the gun.
"What is it?" he said. "What are you doing here?"
She pointed. She did not seem able to speak. He frowned; what was wrong with her?
"What is it?" he said. "What do you want?" He looked in the direction she had pointed. "I don't see anything."
"They? Who? Who are coming?"
"They are. The police. During the night the Sheriff had the state police send cars. All around, everywhere. Blocking the roads. There's about sixty of them coming. Some from town, some around behind." She stopped, gasping. "They said—they said—"
"They said you were some kind of a Communist. They said—"
Conger went into the cage. He put the gun down on the shelf and came back out. He leaped down and went to the girl.
"Thanks. You came here to tell me? You don't believe it?"
"I don't know."
"Did you come alone?"
"No. Joe brought me in his truck. From town."
"Joe? Who's he?"
"Joe French. The plumber. He's a friend of Dad's."
"Let's go." They crossed the snow, up the ridge and onto the field. The little panel truck was parked half way across the field. A heavy short man was sitting behind the wheel, smoking his pipe. He sat up as he saw the two of them coming toward him.
"Are you the one?" he said to Conger.
"Yes. Thanks for warning me."
The plumber shrugged. "I don't know anything about this. Lora says you're all right." He turned around. "It might interest you to know some more of them are coming. Not to warn you—just curious."
"More of them?" Conger looked toward the town. Black shapes were picking their way across the snow.
"People from the town. You can't keep this sort of thing quiet, not in a small town. We all listen to the police radio; they heard the same way Lora did. Someone tuned in, spread it around—"
The shapes were getting closer. Conger could, make out a couple of them. Bill Willet was there, with some boys from the high school. The Appletons were along, hanging back in the rear.
"Even Ed Davies," Conger murmured.
The storekeeper was toiling onto the field, with three or four other men from the town.
"All curious as hell," French said. "Well, I guess I'm going back to town. I don't want my truck shot full of holes. Come on, Lora."
She was looking up at Conger, wide-eyed.
"Come on," French said again. "Let's go. You sure as hell can't stay here, you know."
"There may be shooting. That's what they all came to see. You know that don't you, Conger?"
"You have a gun? Or don't you care?" French smiled a little. "They've picked up a lot of people in their time, you know. You won't be lonely."
He cared, all right! He had to stay here, on the field. He couldn't afford to let them take him away. Any minute the Founder would appear, would step onto the field. Would he be one of the townsmen, standing silently at the foot of the field, waiting, watching?
Or maybe he was Joe French. Or maybe one of the cops. Anyone of them might find himself moved to speak. And the few words spoken this day were going to be important for a long time.
And Conger had to be there, ready when the first word was uttered!
"I care," he said. "You go on back to town. Take the girl with you."
Lora got stiffly in beside Joe French. The plumber started up the motor. "Look at them, standing there," he said. "Like vultures. Waiting to see someone get killed."
The truck drove away, Lora sitting stiff and silent, frightened now. Conger watched for a moment. Then he dashed back into the woods, between the trees, toward the ridge.
He could get away, of course. Anytime he wanted to he could get away. All he had to do was to leap into the crystal cage and turn the handles. But he had a job, an important job. He had to be here, here at this place, at this time.
He reached the cage and opened the door. He went inside and picked up the gun from the shelf. The Slem-gun would take care of them. He notched it up to full count. The chain reaction from it would flatten them all, the police, the curious, sadistic people—
They wouldn't take him! Before they got him, all of them would be dead. He would get away. He would escape. By the end of the day they would all be dead, if that was what they wanted, and he—
He saw the skull.
Suddenly he put the gun down. He picked up the skull. He turned the skull over. He looked at the teeth. Then he went to the mirror.
He held the skull up, looking in the mirror. He pressed the skull against his cheek. Beside his own face the grinning skull leered back at him, beside his skull, against his living flesh.
He bared his teeth. And he knew.
It was his own skull that he held. He was the one who would die. He was the Founder.
After a time he put the skull down. For a few minutes he stood at the controls, playing with them idly. He could hear the sound of motors outside, the muffled noise of men. Should he go back to the present, where the Speaker waited? He could escape, of course—
He turned toward the skull. There it was, his skull, yellow with age. Escape? Escape, when he had held it in his own hands?
What did it matter if he put it off a month, a year, ten years, even fifty? Time was nothing. He had sipped chocolate with a girl born a hundred and fifty years before his time. Escape? For a little while, perhaps.
But he could not really escape, no more so than anyone else had ever escaped, or ever would.
Only, he had held it in his hands, his own bones, his own death's-head.
They had not.
He went out the door and across the field, empty handed. There were a lot of them standing around, gathered together, waiting. They expected a good fight; they knew he had something. They had heard about the incident at the fountain.
And there were plenty of police—police with guns and tear gas, creeping across the hills and ridges, between the trees, closer and closer. It was an old story, in this century.
One of the men tossed something at him. It fell in the snow by his feet, and he looked down. It was a rock. He smiled.
"Come on!" one of them called. "Don't you have any bombs?"
"Throw a bomb! You with the beard! Throw a bomb!"
"Let 'em have it!"
"Toss a few A Bombs!"
They began to laugh. He smiled. He put his hands to his hips. They suddenly turned silent, seeing that he was going to speak.
"I'm sorry," he said simply. "I don't have any bombs. You're mistaken."
There was a flurry of murmuring.
"I have a gun," he went on. "A very good one. Made by science even more advanced than your own. But I'm not going to use that, either."
They were puzzled.
"Why not?" someone called. At the edge of the group an older woman was watching. He felt a sudden shock. He had seen her before. Where?
He remembered. The day at the library. As he had turned the corner he had seen her. She had noticed him and been astounded. At the time, he did not understand why.
Conger grinned. So he would escape death, the man who right now was voluntarily accepting it. They were laughing, laughing at a man who had a gun but didn't use it. But by a strange twist of science he would appear again, a few months later, after his bones had been buried under the floor of a jail.
And so, in a fashion, he would escape death. He would die, but then, after a period of months, he would live again, briefly, for an afternoon.
An afternoon. Yet long enough for them to see him, to understand that he was still alive. To know that somehow he had returned to life.
And then, finally, he would appear once more, after two hundred years had passed. Two centuries later.
He would be born again, born, as a matter of fact, in a small trading village on Mars. He would grow up, learning to hunt and trade—
A police car came on the edge of the field and stopped. The people retreated a little. Conger raised his hands.
"I have an odd paradox for you," he said. "Those who take lives will lose their own. Those who kill, will die. But he who gives his own life away will live again!"
They laughed, faintly, nervously. The police were coming out, walking toward him. He smiled. He had said everything he intended to say. It was a good little paradox he had coined. They would puzzle over it, remember it.
Smiling, Conger awaited a death foreordained.