Loga had cracked like an egg.
At 10:02, his image had appeared on the wall-screens of the apartments of his eight fellow tenants. Their view was somewhat above him, and they could see him only from his naked navel to a point a few inches above his head. The sides of the desk almost met the edges of their field of vision, and some of the wall and floor behind him showed.
Loga looked like a red-haired, green-eyed Buddha who had lived for years in an ice-cream factory and had been unable to resist its product. Though he had lost twenty pounds in the last three weeks, he was still very fat.
He was, however, a very happy Buddha. Smiling, his pumpkin face seeming to glow, he spoke in Esperanto. “I’ve made quite a discovery! It’ll solve the problem of…”
He glanced to his right.
“Sorry. Thought I heard something.”
“You and Frigate,” Burton said. “You’re getting paranoid. We’ve searched every one of the thirty-five thousand, seven hundred and ninety-three rooms in the tower, and…”
The screens flickered. Loga’s body and face shimmered, elongated, then dwarfed. The interruption lasted for perhaps five seconds. Burton was surprised. This was the first time that any screen had displayed interference or malfunction.
The image steadied and became clear.
“Yaas?” Burton drawled. “What’s so exciting?”
The electronic vision blinked into enigma.
Burton started, and he clamped his hands on the arms of his chair. They were a hold on reality. What he was seeing certainly seemed to be unreal.
Zigzag cracks had run from the corners of Loga’s lips and curved up over his cheeks and into his hair. They were deep and seemed to go through his skin and the flesh to the mouth cavity and the bone.
Burton shot up from his chair.
“Loga! What is it?”
Cracks had now spread down across the Ethical’s face, chest, bulging belly, arms and hands.
Blood spurted onto his crazing skin and the desk.
Still smiling, he fell apart like a shattered egg, and he toppled sideways to the right from the armless chair. Burton heard a sound as of glass breaking. Now all he could see of Loga was the upper part of an arm, the fragments stained as if they were pieces of a broken bottle of wine.
The flesh and the blood melted. Only bright pools were left.
Burton had become rigid, but, when he heard Loga cry out, he jumped.
“I tsab u!”
The cry was followed by a thump, as if a heavy body had struck the floor.
Burton voice-activated other viewers in Loga’s room. There was no one there, unless the red puddles on the floor were Loga’s remains.
Burton sucked in his breath.
Seven screens sprang into light on Burton’s wall. Each held the image of a tenant. Alice’s big dark eyes were larger than normal, and her face was pale.
“Dick? That couldn’t have been Loga! But it sounded like him!”
“You saw him!” Burton said. “How could he have cried out? He was dead!”
The others spoke at once, so shaken that each had reverted to his or her native tongue. Even the unflappable Nur was speaking in Arabic.
“Quiet!” Burton shouted, raising his hands. Immediately thereafter, he realized that he had spoken in English. That did not matter; they understood him.
“I don’t know what happened any more than you do. Some of it couldn’t have happened, and so it didn’t. I’ll meet you all outside Loga’s apartment. At once. Bring your arms!”
He removed from a cabinet two weapons that he had thought he would never need again. Each had a butt like a pistol’s, a barrel three inches in diameter and a foot long, and at the firing end, a sphere the size of a large apple.
Alice’s voice came from her screen.
“Will the horrors never stop?”
“They never do for long,” he said. “In this life or that.”
Alice’s triangular face and large dark eyes were set in that withdrawn expression he disliked so much.
He said harshly, “Snap out of it, Alice!”
“I’ll be all right,” Alice said. “You know that.”
“Nobody is ever all right.”
He walked swiftly toward the door. Its sensory device would recognize him but would not open until he had spoken the code phrase, “Open, O sesame!” in the classical Arabic. Alice, in her apartment, would be saying in English, “ ‘Who are you?’ said the Caterpillar.”
The door closed behind him. In the corridor was a large chair made of gray metal and a soft scarlet-dyed material. Burton sat down on it. The seat and back flowed to fit the contour of his body. He pressed a finger on the black center of a white disc on the massive left arm of the chair. A long thin metal rod slid up out of the white disc on the right arm. Burton pulled the rod back, a white light spread out from under the chair, and it rose, stopping two feet above the floor when he eased the rod into the dead center position. He turned the rod; the chair rotated to face the opposite direction. Using the rod to control vertical movement, and pressing on the central black spot of the left disc to control speed, he moved the chair down the corridor.
Presently, floating swiftly past walls displaying animated murals, he joined the others. They hovered in their chairs until Burton had taken the lead, then followed him. Burton slowed the chair slightly when he entered a huge vertical shaft at the end of the corridor. With the ease of much practice, he curved the path of the chair up the shaft to the next level and out into another corridor. A hundred feet beyond the shaft, he halted the chair at the door to Loga’s apartment. The chair sank down onto the floor, and Burton got out. The others were only a few seconds behind him. Babbling, though they were not easily upset, they got out of their chair-vehicles.
The wall extended for three hundred feet from the shaft to an intersecting corridor. Its entire surface displayed a moving picture in what seemed to be three dimensions. The sky was clear. Far away was a dark mountain range. In the foreground was a jungle clearing in which was a village of dried-mud huts. Dark Caucasians in the garments worn by Hindus circa 500 B.C. moved among the huts. A slim, dark young man clad only in a loincloth sat under a bo tree. Around him squatted a dozen men and women, all intently listening to him. He was the historical Buddha, and the scene was not a reconstruction. It had been filmed by a man or woman, an Ethical agent who had passed for one of them, and whose camera and sound equipment were concealed in a ring on a finger. At the moment, their conversation was a slight murmur, but a codeword from a viewer could make it audible. If the viewer did not understand Hindustani, he could use another codeword to switch the language to Ethical.
Another codeword would make the picture emit the odors abounding near the photographer, though the viewer was usually better off without these.
Directly in front of Burton was a treestump on which someone had painted a symbol, a green eye inside a pale yellow pyramid. This had not been in the original film; it marked the entrance to Loga’s apartment.
“If he’s got the door set for his codeword only, we’re screwed,” Frigate said. “We’ll never get in.”
“Somebody got in,” Burton said.
“Perhaps,” Nur said.
Burton spoke loudly, too loudly, as if he could activate the opening mechanism by force of voice.
A circular crack ten feet in diameter appeared in the wall. The section moved inward a trifle, then the section became a wheel and rolled into the wall recess. The scene on it did not fade out but turned with the surface.
“It was set for anyone who wanted to enter!” Alice said.
“Which was not the right thing to do,” Burton said.
Nur, the little, dark, and big-nosed Moor, said, “The intruder may have overridden the codeword and then reset the mechanism.”
“How could he have done that?” Burton said. “And why?”
“How and why was any of this done?”
They went cautiously through the opening, Burton leading. The room was a forty-foot cube. The wall behind the desk was a pale green, but the others displayed moving scenes, one from that planet called the Gardenworld, one of a tropical island as seen from a great distance, and one, which Loga must have been facing, of a daytime thunderstorm at a high altitude. Dark angry clouds roiled, and lightning spat brightly but silently from cloud to cloud.
Incongruous in the clouds, the active screens hung glowing, still displaying the rooms of the tenants.
Red pools glistened on the desk and the hardwood floor.
“Get a sample of the liquid,” Burton said to Frigate. “The computer over there can analyze it.”
Frigate grunted and went to a cabinet to look for something with which to take a specimen. Burton walked around the room but saw nothing that looked like a clue. It was too bad that the other viewers had not been on. However, whoever had done this must have made sure that they were not active.
Nur, Behn, and Turpin went to search nearby rooms. Burton activated the screens that would display these rooms. Doubtless, none but the three would be in them, but he wanted to keep an eye on them. If one person could be turned into a liquid, why not others?
He stooped and passed a finger through the wetness on the floor. When he straightened up, he held the tip of the finger a few inches from his eyes.
“You aren’t going to taste it?” Alice said.
“I shouldn’t. In some respects, Loga was rather poisonous. It’d be a strange form of cannibalism. Or of Christian communion.”
He licked the finger, made a face, and said, “The mass of the Mass is inversely proportional to the faith of the square.”
Alice should not have been shocked, not after what she had gone through on this world. She did look repulsed, though whether it was by his act or his words he did not know.
“Tastes like blood, vintage human,” he said.
Nur, Behn, and Li Po came into the living room. “There is no one there,” the Chinese said. “Not even his ghost.”
Aphra Behn said, “Dick, what did Loga say?”
“I don’t think he could have said anything. You saw him crack and melt. How could he have spoken after that?”
“It was his voice,” Behn said. “Whoever said it, what did it mean?”
“I tsab u. That’s Ethical for ‘Who are you?’ ”
“That’s what the Caterpillar said,” Alice murmured.
“And Alice in Wonderland couldn’t tell him,” Burton said. “The whole event is crazy.”
Frigate called them to the console in the corner.
“I put the specimen in the slot and asked for identification. There you are. You couldn’t identify an individual by his blood in A.D. 1983, but now…”
The console screen displayed, in English, as Frigate had requested: INDIVIDUAL IDENTIFIED: LOGA.
Beneath that was the analysis. The liquid was composed of those elements which made up the human body, and they were in the proper proportions. Flesh had indeed turned into liquid.
“Unless the Computer is lying,” Nur said.
Burton swung around to face him. “What do you mean by that?”
“The Computer may have an override command. It could have been told to give this report.”
“By whom? Only Loga could do that!”
Nur shrugged thin, brown, and bony shoulders.
“Perhaps. An unknown could be in the tower. Remember what Pete thought he heard when we were celebrating our victory.”
“Footsteps in the corridor outside the room!” Burton said. “Frigate said he thought it was his imagination!”
“Ah, but was it?”
It was not necessary to use the console. Burton asked the Computer—as distinguished from the small auxiliary computers—a few questions. A circular section of the wall glowed, and words on it indicated that no unauthorized person had entered Loga’s room. It denied that Loga’s commands had been overridden.
“Which it would, I must admit, if this mysterious stranger had told it to do so,” Burton said. “If that’s happened … well, by God, we are in trouble!”
He asked for a rerun of the scene they had witnessed through their viewers. There was none. Loga had not directed the Computer to record it.
“I thought everything was going to be clear, unmysterious, straightforward from now on,” Frigate said. “I should have known better. It never is.”
He paused, then said softly, “He cracked open like Humpty Dumpty, except that Humpty Dumpty broke after he fell, not before. And then he turned to water like the Wicked Witch of the West.”
Burton, who had died in 1890, did not understand the last reference. He made a mental note to ask the American about it when there was time.
Burton was going to ask the Computer to send in a robot to clean up the liquid. He decided, after some thought, to leave the room as it had been found. He would lock the door to the apartment with a codeword that only he knew. And then, if someone unlocked it …
What could he do?
Nothing. But he would at least know that there was an intruder.
Nur said, “We’ve been assuming that what we thought we saw take place here actually did take place.”
“You think that what we saw was computer-simulation?” Frigate said.
“But what about the liquid?” Burton said. “That’s not simulated.”
“It could be synthetic, a false clue. Loga’s voice could have been reproduced to deceive and confuse us.”
Alice said, “Wouldn’t it be more logical just to abduct Loga? We might have thought that Loga had just gone away for some reason or another.”
“Why in the world would he do that, Alice?” Burton said.
“We were to return to The Valley day after tomorrow,” Li Po said. “If Loga wanted to get rid of us, he’d have it done in two days. No, that liquid … the whole thing … there’s someone else in the tower.”
“That makes ten in the tower then,” Nur said.
“Ten?” Burton said.
“The eight of us. Plus the unknown who did away with Loga, though more than one might have done that. Plus Fear. That makes at least ten.”
Copyright © 1983 by the Estate of Philip José Farmer