The World of Null-A

A. E. van Vogt

Orb Books


Chapter 1
 
Common sense, do what it will, cannot avoid being surprised occasionally. The object of science is to spare it this emotion and create mental habits which shall be in such close accord with the habits of the world as to secure that nothing shall be unexpected.
B. R.
 
The OCCUPANTS of each floor of the hotel must as usual during the games form their own protective groups.…”
Gosseyn stared somberly out of the curving corner window of his hotel room. From its thirty-story vantage point, he could see the city of the Machine spread out below him. The day was bright and clear, and the span of his vision was tremendous. To his left, he could see a blue-black river sparkling with the waves whipped up by the late-afternoon breeze. To the north, the low mountains stood out sharply against the high backdrop of the blue sky.
That was the visible periphery. Within the confines of the mountains and the river, the buildings that he could see crowded along the broad streets. Mostly, they were homes with bright roofs that glinted among palms and semitropical trees. But here and there were other hotels, and more tall buildings not identifiable at first glance.
The Machine itself stood on the leveled crest of a mountain.
It was a scintillating, silvery shaft rearing up into the sky nearly five miles away. Its gardens, and the presidential mansion nearby, were partially concealed behind trees. But Gosseyn felt no interest in the setting. The Machine itself overshadowed every other object in his field of vision.
The sight of it was immensely bracing. In spite of himself, in spite of his dark mood, Gosseyn experienced a sense of wonder. Here he was, at long last, to participate in the games of the Machine—the games which meant wealth and position for those who were partially successful, and the trip to Venus for the special group that won top honors.
For years he had wanted to come, but it had taken her death to make it possible. Everything, Gosseyn thought bleakly, had its price. In all his dreams of this day, he had never suspected that she would not be there beside him, competing herself for the great prizes. In those days, when they had planned and studied together, it was power and position that had shaped their hopes. Going to Venus neither Patricia nor he had been able to imagine, nor had they considered it. Now, for him alone, the power and wealth meant nothing. It was the remoteness, the unthinkableness, the mystery of Venus, with its promise of forgetfulness, that attracted. He felt himself aloof from the materialism of Earth. In a completely unreligious sense, he longed for spiritual surcease.
A knock on the door ended the thought. He opened it and looked at the boy who stood there. The boy said, “I’ve been sent, sir, to tell you that all the rest of the guests on this floor are in the sitting room.”
Gosseyn felt blank. “So what?” he asked.
“They’re discussing the protection of the people on this floor, sir, during the games.”
“Oh!” said Gosseyn.
He was shocked that he had forgotten. The earlier announcement coming over the hotel communicators about such protection had intrigued him. But it had been hard to believe that the world’s greatest city would be entirely without police or court protection during the period of the games. In outlying cities, in all other towns, villages, and communities, the continuity of law went on. Here, in the city of the Machine, for a month there would be no law except the negative defensive law of the groups.
“They asked me to tell you,” the boy said, “that those who don’t come are not protected in any way during the period of the games.”
“I’ll be right there,” smiled Gosseyn. “Tell them I’m a newcomer and forgot. And thank you.”
He handed the boy a quarter and waved him off. He closed the door, fastened the three plasto windows, and put a tracer on his videophone. Then, carefully locking the door behind him, he went out along the hall.
As he entered the sitting room, he noticed a man from his own town, a store proprietor named Nordegg, standing near the door. Gosseyn nodded and smiled a greeting. The man glanced at him curiously, but did not return either the smile or the nod. Briefly, that seemed odd. The un-usualness of it faded from Gosseyn’s mind as he saw that others of the large group present were looking at him.
Bright, friendly eyes, curious, friendly faces with just a hint of calculation in them—that was the impression Gosseyn had. He suppressed a smile. Everybody was sizing up everybody else, striving to determine what chance his neighbors had of winning in the games. He saw that an old man at a desk beside the door was beckoning to him. Gosseyn walked over. The man said, “I’ve got to have your name and such for our book here.”
“Gosseyn,” said Gosseyn. “Gilbert Gosseyn, Cress Village, Florida, age thirty-four, height six feet one inch, weight one hundred eighty-five, no special extinguishing marks.”
The old man smiled up at him, his eyes twinkling. “That’s what you think,” he said. “If your mind matches your appearance, you’ll go far in the games.” He finished, “I notice you didn’t say you were married.”
Gosseyn hesitated, thinking of a dead woman. “No,” he said finally, quietly, “not married.”
“Well, you’re a smart-looking man. May the games prove you worthy of Venus, Mr. Gosseyn.”
“Thanks,” said Gosseyn.
As he turned to walk away, Nordegg, the other man from Cress Village, brushed past him and bent over the ledger on the desk. When Gosseyn looked back a minute later, Nordegg was talking with animation to the old man, who seemed to be protesting. Gosseyn watched them, puzzled, then forgot them as a small, jolly-looking man walked to an open space in the crowded room and held up his hand.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he began, “I would say that we should now begin our discussions. Everybody interested in group protection has had ample time to come here. And therefore, as soon as the challenging period is over, I will move that the doors be locked and we start.
“For the benefit,” he went on, “of those new to the games who do not know what I mean by challenging period, I will explain the procedure. As you know, everybody here present will be required to repeat into the lie detector the information he or she gave to the doorkeeper. But before we begin with that, if you have any doubts about the legitimacy of anybody’s presence, please state them now. You have the right to challenge anybody present. Please voice any suspicions you have, even though you possess no specific evidence. Remember, however, that the group meets every week and that challenges can be made at each meeting. But now, any challenges?”
“Yes,” said a voice behind Gosseyn. “I challenge the presence here of a man calling himself Gilbert Gosseyn.”
“Eh?” said Gosseyn. He whirled and stared incredulously at Nordegg.
The man looked at him steadily, then his gaze went out to the faces beyond Gosseyn. He said, “When Gosseyn first came in, he nodded to me as if he knew me, and so I went over to the book to find out his name, thinking it might recall him to me. To my amazement I heard him give his address as Cress Village, Florida, which is where I come from. Cress Village, ladies and gentlemen, is a rather famous little place, but it has a population of only three hundred. I own one of the three stores, and I know everybody, absolutely everybody, in the village and in the surrounding countryside. There is no person residing in or near Cress Village by the name of Gilbert Gosseyn.”
For Gosseyn, the first tremendous shock had come and gone while Nordegg was still speaking. The after-feeling that came was that he was being made ridiculous in some obscure way. The larger accusation seemed otherwise quite meaningless.
He said, “This all seems very silly, Mr. Nordegg.” He paused. “That is your name, is it not?”
“That’s right,” Nordegg nodded, “though I’m wondering how you found it out.”
“Your store in Cress Village,” Gosseyn persisted, “stands at the end of a row of nine houses, where four roads come together.”
“There is no doubt,” said Nordegg, “that you have been through Cress Village, either personally or by means of a photograph.”
The man’s smugness irritated Gosseyn. He fought his anger as he said, “About a mile westward from your store is a rather curiously shaped house.”
“‘House,’ he calls it!” said Nordegg. “The world-famous Florida home of the Hardie family.”
“Hardie,” said Gosseyn, “was the maiden name of my late wife. She died about a month ago. Patricia Hardie. Does that strike any chord in your memory?”
He saw that Nordegg was grinning gleefully at the intent faces surrounding them.
“Well, ladies and gentlemen, you can judge for yourselves. He says that Patricia Hardie was his wife. That’s a marriage I think we would all have heard about if it had ever taken place. And as for her being the late Patricia Hardie, or Patricia Gosseyn, well”—he smiled—“all I can say is, I saw her yesterday morning, and she was very, very much alive, and looking extremely proud and beautiful on her favorite horse, a white Arabian.”
It wasn’t ridiculous anymore. None of this fitted. Patricia didn’t own a horse, white or colored. They had been poor, working their small fruit farm in the daytime, studying at night. Nor was Cress Village world-famous as the country home of the Hardies. The Hardies were nobodies. Who the devil were they supposed to be?
The question flashed by. With a simple clarity he saw the means that would end the deadlock.
“I can only suggest,” he said, “that the lie detector will readily verify my statements.”
But the lie detector said, “No, you are not Gilbert Gosseyn, nor have you ever been a resident of Cress Village. You are—” It stopped. The dozens of tiny electronic tubes in it flickered uncertainly.
“Yes, yes,” urged the pudgy man. “Who is he?”
There was a long pause, then: “No knowledge about that is available in his mind,” said the detector. “There is an aura of unique strength about him. But he himself seems to be unaware of his true identity. Under the circumstances, no identification is possible.”
“And under the circumstances,” said the pudgy man with finality, “I can only suggest an early visit to a psychiatrist, Mr. Gosseyn. Certainly you cannot remain here.”
A minute later, Gosseyn was out in the corridor. A thought, a purpose, lay on his brain like a cake of ice. He reached his room and put through a call on the videophone. It took two minutes to make the connection with Cress Village. A strange woman’s face came onto the plate. It was a rather severe face, but distinctive and young.
“I’m Miss Treechers, Miss Patricia Hardie’s Florida secretary. What is it you wish to speak to Miss Hardie about?”
For a moment the existence of such a person as Miss Treechers was staggering. Then: “It’s private,” said Gosseyn, recovering. “And it’s important that I speak to her personally. Please connect me at once.”
He must have sounded or looked or acted authoritative. The young woman said hesitantly, “I’m not supposed to do this, but you can reach Miss Hardie at the palace of the Machine.”
Gosseyn said explosively, “She’s here, in the great city!”
He was not aware of hanging up. But suddenly the woman’s face was gone. The video was dark. He was alone with his realization: Patricia was alive!
He had known, of course. His brain, educated in accepting things as they were, had already adjusted to the fact that a lie detector didn’t lie. Sitting there, he felt strangely satiated with information. He had no impulse to call the palace, to talk to her, to see her. Tomorrow, of course, he would have to go there, but that seemed far away in space-time. He grew aware that someone was knocking loudly at his door. He opened it to four men, the foremost of whom, a tall young man, said, “I’m the assistant manager. Sorry, but you’ll have to leave. We’ll check your baggage downstairs. During the policeless month, we can take no chances with suspicious individuals.”
It took about twenty minutes for Gosseyn to be ejected from the hotel. Night was falling as he walked slowly along the almost deserted street.
 
Copyright © 1945, 1948 by A. E. van Vogt