The ship from the stars was coming down into the open mouth of the steeple, and Whing was excited because he was about to confront a spaceman. As far as he knew there hadn't been another of those specimens on Earth besides himself for a very long time.
He sped along a metal railing and hung out over the world to see if he alone was alerted to the impending landing. It seemed that he was. Earth looked like a big ball of yarn with a great many knitting needles sticking out of it. Loose yarn seemed to be strung from needle to needle, some of the strands so loose they nearly touched the land while others were so tight they were many thousands of miles up in the sky. Creatures great and greater made their nests on the bridges but none seemed to be aware that anything out of the ordinary was about to occur over their heads.
Whing had lost his wig while hanging from the side of the steeple as he hung now, had it fall from the little round knob back of his brow and drift away into the clouds. He took it from the head of a snape who somehow got onto one of the high bridges, and he missed the thing. For some reason he felt more intelligent when wearing it.
There were no clouds obstructing his view at the moment and he could look down at an ocean. It looked like a little piece of slate.
Back up the side rail he went to find admission into the laboratory through one of the vent tunnels. On his way he passed Odeeda but didn't wave or speak to her because he wasn't in the mood for a domestic battle. She would soon give birth to his child and it wasn't his intent that she become nervous or upset, at least not until the important moment. Then he would behave with her according to her performance.
The ship was a long cylinder from a planet called Laredo. All spacecraft were constructed in the same manner so that they would be able to dock in the tops of the steeples. Now the vehicle edged slowly down into the yawning mouth, blasting stardrive matter thousands of miles in every direction. Too high up to harm the planet, the material scattered on the solar wind and eventually dissipated light-years away.
With anxious anticipation Whing observed the monitoring screen inside the lab and waited for the spacemen to emerge from the lock into the pressurized confines of the steeple house. He considered it strange that the process was taking so long. There the lock was opening at last, and a pair of funny little objects moved from the ship into the corridor leading to the living quarters, but there were no men anywhere to be seen. As the lock suddenly closed, Whing experienced a stab of raw grief. He was lonely for his own kind, not the creatures living on the bridges between steeples but for those who plied the starpaths. Here one of the machines had docked in the maw but the pilot and his crew weren't being hasty about making themselves visible. Whing wondered how long they would remain in their machine. Were they going to come out?
For the sake of curiosity he clambered into a tunnel that led into the living rooms and began picking his way along the slippery steel flooring. His movements alerted the two little stalks, who resembled pink and brown worms now that they had removed their outer skins and were naked. Whing was astonished that they were living creatures. Perhaps they were a necessary part of the ship's complement, mechanics or some such, or they could be servants of the men. On second thought, they were probably entertainers.
All this was conjecture while the plain reality was that the worms displayed hostile reactions upon sight of the sentry coming through the large vent in their living room. All he had in mind at the moment was to find out if they were intelligent enough to communicate. Then he smelled them and realized how hungry he was.
One of the worms made him a small meal while the other ran into the elevator. Rather than chase the thing, Whing went back to the lab to watch the monitoring screen. Sooner or later the spacemen were bound to emerge from the ship.
He believed he was a man. In truth, he was a steeple sentry, not one of a kind but rare enough so that anyone coming onto the planet wouldn't be anticipating him. He had evolved in the nooks and crannies of the skyscraper embedded in the Earth's surface and jutting miles into space. His evolution had been rapid because the seepage from the chemical dump found its way into those same nooks and crannies. It was possible that one of his ancestors had been a beetle or a mite or some other leggy thing.
Somewhere along the way the lineage that eventually produced him lost its wings. The ultimate offspring of that lineage was too heavy to fly, but he could move like lightning in or out of the steeple parts. He was impervious to atmosphere or vacuum and possessed a brain pan that wasn't exactly stuffed to the brim.
At times when provisions were low and nothing came clambering across the strands at lower levels he had a tidbit or two from the cadaver depository, or he snacked on tubes and vials in the research lab. One day he butted a gleaming cabinet that broke into shards and buried a piece of material in his brain. Odd coincidence drove it through one of the few penetrable points in his head. Clinging to the silver wire were some frozen memory cells extracted from a long dead human and preserved in the cabinet for futurity. For a while the pierced part of Whing's brain was comatose but then it revived and absorbed the living cells. That was when he began thinking he was a man. His knowledge was sketchy because individual cells didn't hold much information and he had been inflicted with only a few.
A vermin came snooping about outside the five-foot-thick window, banged on it until Whing finally gave up waiting for the men to come out of the ship. The airlock he always used was large; otherwise he would have kicked down the walls, thereby rendering the compartment useless to legitimate astronauts. By the time he reached the outside, the vermin had run away. He could see it climbing down the girders below him but only for a moment or so did he consider giving chase. It was time for him to go home.
Odeeda had given birth. So disgusted was he that she hadn't born a live child but only dropped a stupid egg that he kicked her out of the nest and all the way off the bridge. She fell several miles, fortunately landing on another set of strands. By the time she climbed back to her egg, Whing's temper had dissipated and he was willing to make up with her. He was certain there was a live manchild of his somewhere in their future.
No more eggs, he warned her and then later he was angered anew when she tried to eat him. Somewhere back in her genealogy a particularly virulent individual had been so nearsighted that when her mate retreated in her nest to rest and then made a few innocent movements she mistook him for an edible stranger. Now Whing had to beat Odeeda on the back of the head with his fists so she would recognize him and leave off trying to destroy him.
He went back up to the lab and the monitoring screen to watch for the spacemen to come out of the craft. While resting and observing, he heard a noise in another part of the area, climbed into the vent and retraced his steps of several hours before. The brown worm who escaped into the elevator earlier had sneaked back inside, donned his strange clothing and was now attempting to get to the ship.
There wasn't time for him to reach the airlock in the docking compound before Whing emerged from the vent, so he ran back into the elevator. Whing was annoyed enough to go outside and climb down a girder alongside the machine. He could see into the compartment through a window and the more intently he stared at the puny creature the more he came to realize that it had a head and a face, the latter being extremely unattractive and even silly looking. But the whole worm was tasty and it was worth it for the steeple sentry to speed down the girders and keep pace with the el. There was always the chance that the creature would come out and join him.
All of a sudden the machine changed direction and went back up toward the vacuum of outer space. Whing wasn't inconvenienced, being agile and strong. He began climbing upward once again. Inside the elevator the worm cringed and even seemed to swoon for a while, lay down on the floor of the cage and was quite motionless for several hours. Since Whing slept while he was awake, he didn't know what the worm was doing. Instead of having a monitor that shut down an entire section of his brain every so often, he blinked on and off all the time like a light. He was asleep one moment and awake the next moment and then asleep, et cetera. Consequently he was never tired or invigorated but rather steamed along at a pace sufficiently active for his life-style; or his life-style was determined by the fact that physical extremes were foreign to him. He could climb a thousand miles of steeple rail in a few minutes so he didn't consider that this was a shuffling species. However he didn't have a great many comparisons available since he was unsociable and hadn't had much to do with anyone other than Odeeda.
During the time he was lost in reverie concerning the finer qualities of himself and his ancestors, the worm rode skyward in still another attempt to get to the ship. The sentry knew the stranger's intent and stationed himself between the top of the el and the docking platform. Driven by hunger and perhaps other incentives, the worm forsook the elevator and ran through the living quarters to the frozen food cupboards. Gathering up an armload of items he raced back to the el and was safely on his journey downward before Whing could get through the lock.
Down the outside girders the large individual climbed at what seemed to him a slow pace. Through the window he spied on the worm who seemed to be doing the same thing to him. After staring for a time at the ball atop the creature, the steeple sentry could begin making out facial features of a sort. The foreigner had on his artificial suit but inside he was a brown body with four appendages, long yellow hair and brown eyes. A revolting little piece of life he was and Whing longed to know why he existed and what he was about. His longing wasn't intense, when he thought about it. Worms weren't essential in the schemes of the universe, and this one would terminate in the belly of a denizen in the reaches below.
Now and then the worm ate and occasionally lay down in a swoon, and all the while the machine slid rapidly and silently toward the planet's surface.
It didn't take more than a day or two for Whing to decide to leave the being in the elevator to its fate and returned to the dizzy heights of the steeple. The air below made him feel stifled and clumsy. Though he could survive there and would infrequently take a vacation on one of the lower strands, still, it wasn't his favorite environment, being too crowded with foliage and overpopulated with creatures who had more belligerence than sense. Most of the lowlife hadn't the intelligence to avoid the big blue sentry, with his nearly invulnerable hide and at least a portion of a man's brain.
At his leisure, Whing climbed back up the spires that had always been his home. The closer he approached the topmost part of the maw the better he felt, until at last he stood on a section of the opening into which the spaceship had inched. It was there now, about a hundred and fifty miles lower, sitting and throbbing like a heart, with its computers thinking and its motors waiting for someone to give them a command. Somewhere inside were surely large blue spacemen who would make an appearance and be amazed when their humble relative revealed himself to them.
In a kind of salute he extended a horny finger toward the blazing lamp that was the sun. Streamers played out from its edges, tugged and strained as if they were being held captive by what looked like a solid rim. Now and then there was a belching movement that sent gobs of flame hurtling away into dark reaches.
The sentry felt a touch of loneliness as he stared at the void. What he needed was the scalp he had taken from the snape. It made him feel good but was gone now, having fallen down through the clouds. To retrieve it he must make the long trip to the lower strands or perhaps even all the way to the ground. With a sigh, he looked back at the splashing sun. It wasn't worth going after; it wouldn't be there when he arrived. Only up here was reality changeless. Down there it was a mad jungle.
Creed teetered on the brink of the flesh pool, too dazed to resist the shoves of the assassin who puffed and grunted and seemed to grow anxious because his intended victim clung so tenaciously to life. That wasn't it. Creed clung more to an idea than anything else. It crept around in his brain, coming into view, disappearing for a moment and then coming back where he could see it. What was the idea? He couldn't remember, but he clutched it while teetering on the brass rim high above the bowl of protoplasm.
The pool looked like a giant bowl of bread dough that had been punched in the middle. Forty feet below the struggling pair, never fully exposed to the sun, it was protected by colored metal wings that reached out to shade it. Thin and moving in a circular motion, the wings caught sun, wind and atmosphere and directed measured particles downward at deliberate angles. The pool was both a scientific and natural marvel, expensive to maintain but done so with care and even love.
Creed didn't think about what was below him as he battled for existence on the rim. He remembered the idea. "Abool!" he gasped, causing the assassin to tighten his grip.
"Die!" said Garba.
Creed's moccasins had picked up oil and grit from the graveled path below the compound and now they betrayed him, made him slip on the brass and lose his balance. As he fell, he grabbed Garba while at the same time he bent backward and tried to roll sideways rather than head over heels. He and the assassin tumbled down the sloping wall to pause on a ledge mere inches from the bubbling fluid. Garba tipped his head back as he strained to escape and inadvertently touched the pale stuff. A part of his skull disappeared, along with a portion of his brain. He had been intending to shriek but he forgot everything. Not knowing where he was, he gripped Creed and whimpered.
Creed struggled to his hands and knees on the narrow ledge and, with the other man hanging onto his neck, crawled to a bridge just wide enough to accommodate them. The material beneath the bridge gurgled and sent a drop or two to strike him on the arm. Immediately upon touching his skin the substance vanished, having leaped into him and merged with him like water poured into water. It was raw protoplasm in the bowl and as Creed inched forward larger drops hit him on the back and head.
Garba's arms drew tight around his neck. The pool chuckled and flung particles of itself at them. Flesh soaked into flesh, filtered like oil, found safety in niches and crannies, created patterns among ridges and valleys.
He grunted and crawled and by and by the side of his head was glued to Garba's. The other man had hugged him too tightly and some droplets of life got between them.
Creed flopped about for the longest time, not really aware of what was happening, only knowing he needed to get away from the spray. A few times he tried to push Garba away, intending to change position and drag his burden by the hair, but they were held fast together at the temples.
In the distance a gleaming corridor beckoned, and it was toward this that he moved and hauled his would-be murderer. The pool had attendants who roved the corridors and checked equipment, read messages on dials and computer faces, monitored life levels and densities. They rarely walked on the bridges above the tributaries and then only while wearing protective suits. The pool was the prime source of food for the city and its contents were dangerous to the touch, even its fine spray. One might find his fingers webbed or even sealed after a naked jaunt in the living mist, or his eyelids might grow closed, or his nostrils, or even his pores.
Some degree of awareness began returning and Creed looked about for attendants. He didn't want to meet any of them or have them see him going down the hall like a double-bodied frog.
In desperation he paused. He wouldn't find any help or relief in the hospital. What did the medics know? They would place him and Garba in a bed, X-ray their heads a dozen times and then ask him which should be killed with the separating knife. He and the other man would be better off in the forest with one of the big trees.
It took him a while to find a phone to the outside, and then it took him longer to lift Garba so that he could stand on his own two feet. He called Tedron. Sitting in the booth with Garba on his lap, he listened to the muffled sounds of machinery and people in the complex.
He felt strange. He felt mad. Standing, he shook his head to clear it of fog. What was he doing here, anyway? He didn't know anyone named Tedron, and why would he think medics didn't know anything or that a big tree in the forest could help him? Swiftly he hung up the phone, went out into the corridor and allowed an attendant to find him.
Trying to be a dictator hadn't been a good experience for Drago. His servants neglected and finally abandoned him; it got so nobody would obey his slightest order and occasionally someone turned hostile and knocked him down. Feeling useless, he wandered into Fog Valley where he dipped in one of the deformed trees.
The tree's name was Grange. Paranoid, pitiful and self-pitying, he extracted pleasure from Drago while giving pain in return. Once upon a time Grange communicated with senior trees living in the valley of illusion. They relayed the conversations to other growths living in the wilderness to the west, who in turn kept the talk going by passing it on. Somewhere far away lived the great patriarchs of the world, the rulers of all trees, Tedron and Krake the First. Once or twice they condescended to send a word to Grange.
Life had been worth living in those days. Gradually the fog in the valley thickened. Grange's health failed and and he and others like him were ostracized by their kind who didn't want to fraternize with wizened little deformities. The crippled ones were forbidden to keep the traditional names by which nearly every tree in the world was known. To make certain Grange and his ugly neighbors were cut off from fraternal conversation, great Tedron and Krake ordered the trees in the valley of illusion to commit suicide.
It probably wasn't a wise order. After the growths self-destructed by refusing to eat, communication with that entire section of the continent ceased. There was no one to serve as relay. Grange was left alone for centuries with his own defective kind who were so bitter and full of suspicion that any type of socializing was out of the question.
Grange longed to inform on the Neons and Deons, wanted desperately to get in touch with the patriarchs in the west and get back into their good graces by telling them of the two secret cities.
"You're important, I know!" he had cried to Drago who was caught in the position of having everything but his hind end safely inside the wood. "I get rumbles from the big folk beyond these valleys and I hear them talking about Abool. I know they'll want to know about that. Take that, you inferior, and that, and that!"
Bruised and wounded, Drago asked Creed for the privilege of executing Grange. A few days later and with a snivel in his tone he said, "Take me to Fog Valley and tie me to him. His sick personality lures me, like the juice has been known to do. When I'm done with him I'll kill him for you."
Turner squirmed in his chair. "I think we're assuming a lot. We're in an uproar because of some photographs. They could be phony."
"So Justice has taken pictures of things that happened three and four decades ago with a camera invented eleven years ago?"
"He has a time machine?"
Turner persisted. "A big one that produces the power and a little hook-up that he carries around with him to go on trips?"
Again Daniel didn't answer.
"You know how outlandish that sounds?"
"Who else do you know that can travel in time?"
"Who else is near to cracking the barrier?"
"Nobody," said Daniel wearily.
"Yet you're confident Mr. Justice can do it."
"He can be anywhere. Once a moment is past it is completely open to him."
Resting his chin on his hand, Burgess murmured, "A madman with a power like that."
"There's another possibility," said Daniel, and they looked at him with angry eyes. "There may not be any machine."
to reviews index
Mister Justice, from Chapter III. (In this passage Daniel tries to track down Mr. Justice, who inexplicably takes photos of crimes committed in the past, by studying the work of seven photographers who might fit his profile.)
The first photographer captured his subjects a moment after some action had taken place. His people experienced letdowns. Their eyelids were lowered, their bodies were twisted in relaxed angles and in a moment they would go to sleep.
Another liked to see things that were in retreat. His subjects drifted away with liquid motions. Everything in reality came and then passed onward. Only the passing was significant.
Flowers were popular with the third photographer. They were his symbol of life, and he saw their shapes and colors in buildings. Sunflowers clustered around boulevards, smokestacks in the shape of weeds threatened delicate, violet-like cottages. The ecologist protested the destruction of his symbol.
Quo Vadis piqued the mind of the fourth. Always there were two travelers, on a road, in a boat, climbing a mountain, ascending stairs, two going somewhere. One deliberately stayed a brief distance behind the other. His expression was one of curiosity. He wondered which way his companion would go when he reached the fork ahead.
Nihilism was evident in the work of the fifth. He saw the aged and marred. Skulls with burning eyes in them, imbeciles with drooling mouths, coffins filled with skeletons, and always in each picture was a slap in the face in the form of something newly born. Sometimes this was an infant, at other times it was the ghost of a smile on the dead.
The sixth was in love with love. Couples, joy, sadness, parting, reuniting, the pictures told and retold the oldest story in the world.
The seventh was the youngest. In plastic, from flesh, he reincarnated the work of Michelangelo, but where the ancient master had seen nobility, this modern artist beheld sensuality. His men and women were mighty in body but weak in spirit.