Goblin Reservation by Simak Clifford Chapter 8

Oop was sitting in front of the fireplace, paring his toenails with a large jack-knife, when Maxwell returned, carrying his bag.

Oop gestured with his knife toward the bed. "Sling it over there and then come and sit down with me. I've just put a couple of new logs on the fire and I have a jug half finished and a couple more hid out."

"Where's Ghost?" asked Maxwell.

"Oh, he disappeared. I don't know where he went; he never tells me. But he'll be back again. He never is gone long."

Maxwell put the bag on the bed, went over to the fireplace and sat down, leaning against its rough stone face.

"You played the clown tonight," he said, "somewhat better than you usually, manage. What was the big idea?"

"Those big eyes of hers," said Oop, grinning. "And just begging to be shocked. I am sorry, Pete. I simply couldn't help it."

"All that talk about cannibalism and vomiting," said Maxwell. "That was pretty low."

"Well," said Oop, "I guess I just got carried away. That's the way folks expect a crummy Neanderthal to act."

"The girl's no fool," said Maxwell. "She planted that story about the Artifact as neatly as I have ever seen it done."

"Planted it?"

"Sure, planted it. You don't think it just slipped out, do you, the way she pretended that it did?"

"I hadn't thought of that," said Oop. "Maybe she did. But if she did, why do you think she did it?"

"I would guess she doesn't want it sold. Figured that if she told it to a blabbermouth like you it would be all over the campus before noon tomorrow. A lot of talk about it she might figure, would help to kill the deal."

"But you know, Pete, that I'm no blabbermouth."

"I know it. But you acted like one tonight."

Oop closed the jack-knife and slid it in his pocket, picked up the half-empty fruit jar and handed it to Maxwell. Maxwell put it to his mouth and drank. The fiery liquid slashed like a knife along his throat and he choked. He wished, he thought, that for once he could drink the stuff without choking on it. He took it down and sat there, gasping for breath, shivering just a little.

"Potent stuff," said Oop. "Best batch I've run off for quite a while. Did you see the bead on it?"

Maxwell, unable to speak, nodded.

Oop reached out and took the jar, tilted it up, lowered its level by an inch or more. He took it down and held it lovingly against his hairy chest. He let out his breath in a whoosh that made the flames in the fireplace dance. He patted the bottle with his free hand.

"First-rate stuff," he said.

He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and sat, staring at the fire.

"She couldn't, certainly, have taken you for a blabber- mouth," he finally said. "I notice that you did some fancy skating of your own tonight. All around the truth."

"Maybe because I don't entirely know the truth my-self," said Maxwell. "Or what to do about it. You set to do some listening?"

"Any time," said Oop. "If that is what you want. Although you don't need to tell me. Not out of friendship. You know we'll still be friends if you tell me nothing. We don't even need to talk about it. There are a lot of other things we could talk about."

Maxwell shook his head. "I have to tell you, Oop. I have to tell someone and you're the only one I would dare to tell. There's too much of it for me to go on carrying it alone."

Oop handed him the fruit jar. "Take another slug of that, then start any time you want. What I can't figure out is the goof by Transport. I don't believe it happened. I would make a guess that it was something else."

"And you'd be right," said Maxwell. "There's a planet out there somewhere. Fairly close, I'd guess. A free-wheeling planet, not tied to any sun, although I gather that it could insert itself into a solar system any time it wishes."

"That would take some doing. It would mess up the orbits of all the other planets."

"Not necessarily," said Maxwell. "It wouldn't have to take an orbit in the same plane as the other planets. That would hold down the effect of its being there."

He lifted the fruit jar, shut his eyes, and took a healthy gulp. The top of his head came off and his stomach bounced. He lowered the jar and leaned back against the roughness of the masonry. A wind was mewing in the chimney- a lonely sound, but a sound shut outside by the rough board walls. A log fell in the fireplace and sent up a: shower of sparks. The flames danced high and flickering' shadows chased one another all about the room.

Oop reached out and took the jar out of Maxwell's hands, but did not drink immediately. He held it, cuddled, in his lap.

"So this other planet reached out and copied your wave pattern," he said, "and there were two of you."

"How did you know that?"

"Deduction. It was the most logical way for it to happen. I know there were two of you. There was this other one who came back before you did. I talked with him and he was you-he was as much Pete Maxwell as you are, sitting there. He said there was no dragon, that the Coonskin business had been a wild-goose chase, and so he came home ahead of his schedule."

"So that was it," said Maxwell. "I had wondered why he came back early."

"I'm hard put to it," said Oop, "to decide if I should, rejoice or mourn. Perhaps a bit of both, leaving some room for wonderment at the strange workings of human destiny. This other man was you and now he's dead and I have lost a friend-for he was a human being and a personality and that humanity and personality came to an end with death. But now there's you and if, before, I'd lost a friend, now I have regained that lost friend, for you are as truly Peter Maxwell as that other one."

"I was told an accident."

"I'm not sure," said Oop. "I've been doing some thinking about it. Since you came back, I'm not so sure at all. He was getting off a roadway and he tripped and fell, hit his head..."

"You don't trip when you're getting off a roadway. Unless you're drunk or crippled up or awkward. That outside belt is barely crawling."

"I know," said Oop. "That's what the police thought too. But there was no other explanation and the police, as you well know, require some sort of explanation, so they can close the file. It was in a lonely place. About halfway between here and Goblin Reservation. No one saw it. Must have happened when there was almost no one traveling. Maybe at night. He was found about ten o'clock in the morning. There would have been people traveling from six o'clock on, but probably they'd have been on the inner, faster belts. They wouldn't have seen too much on the outside of the belt. The body could have been lying there for a long time before it was found."

"You think it wasn't an accident? That it may have been a murder?"

"I don't know. The thought has occurred to me. There was one funny thing about it-something that never was explained. There was a funny smell about the body and the area. A strange sort of odor, like nothing anyone had ever smelled before. Maybe someone found out that there were two of you. For some reason, someone may not have wanted two of you."

"But who could have known there were two of me?"

"The people on that other planet. If there were people."

"There were people," Maxwell said. "It was a most amazing place..."

It all came back as he sat there talking, almost as if he were there again. A crystal place-or that had been what it had looked to be when he first had seen it. An extensive crystal plain that ran on and on and a crystal sky with crystal pillars reaching from the plain and upward, apparently to the sky, although the tops of them were lost in the milkiness of sky-pillars soaring upward to hold the sky in place. An empty place, to make one think of a deserted ballroom. of extensive size, all cleaned and polished for a ball, waiting for the music and the dancers who had never come and now would never come, leaving the ballroom empty through all eternity, shining in all its polished -glitter and its wasted graciousness.

A ballroom, but a ballroom without any walls, running on and on, not to a horizon, for there seemed to be no horizon, but to a point where the sky- that strange, milk-glass sky-came down to meet the crystal floor.

He stood astounded in the vast immensity, an immensity not of boundless sky, for the sky was far from boundless, nor from great distances, for the distances were not great, but immensity that was measured as a room would be, as if one were in a giant's house and lost and were looking for a door, and without a clue as to where a door might be. A place with no distinguishing features, with each pillar like the next, with no cloud in the sky (if it were a sky ), with each foot, each mile like every other foot and mile, level and paved with a crystal paving that stretched out in all directions.

He wanted to cry out, to ask if anyone were there, but was afraid to cry out-perhaps in the fear, although he did not realize it then and only thought it later, that a single sound would send all this cold and shining splendor shimmering into a cloud of frosty dust. For the place was silent, with no slightest whisper of a sound. Silent and cold and lonely, its entire splendor and its whiteness lost in the loneliness.

Slowly, carefully, fearing that the scuff of his moving feet might bring this whole world into dust, he pivoted and out of the corner of his eye he caught a glimpse-not of motion, but the flickering sense of motion, as if something had been there, but had moved so fast that his eye had failed to catch it. He halted, the short hairs prickling on the back of his neck, engulfed by the sense of utter strangeness rather than of actual danger, apprehensive of a strangeness so distorted and so twisted out of the normal human context that a man gazing at it might go mad before he had a chance to jerk his eyes away.

Nothing happened and he moved again, pivoting inch by cautious inch, and now he saw that he had been standing with his back turned on what appeared to be an assemblage of some sort-an engine? an instrument? a machine?

And all at once he knew. Here was the strange contraption that had brought him here, this crazy crystal world's equivalent of a matter transmitter and receiver.

But this, he knew at once, was not the Coonskin system. It was no place he had ever heard of. Nowhere in the known universe was there a place like this. Something had gone wrong and he had been hurled, not to the Coonskin planet which had been his destination, but to some far, forgotten corner of the universe, to some area, perhaps, where man would not penetrate for another million years, so far away from Earth that the distances involved became unimaginable.

Now again there were flickering motions, as if living shadows moved against the crystal background. As he watched, the flickering flowed into shifting shape and form and he could see that there were many moving shapes, all of them, strangely, separate entities that seemed to hold, within the flicker of them, individual personalities. As if, he thought in horror, they were things that had once been people-as if they might be alien ghosts.

"And I accepted them," he said to Oop. "I accepted them-on faith, perhaps. It was either that or reject them and be left there, standing all alone upon that crystal plain. A man of a century ago, perhaps, would not have accepted them. He would have been inclined to sweep them out of his mind as pure imagination. But I had spent too many hours with Ghost to gag at the thought of ghosts. I had worked too long with supernatural phenomena to quibble at the idea of creatures and of circumstances beyond the human pale.

"And the strange thing about it, the comforting thing about it, is that they sensed that I accepted them."

"And that is it?" asked Oop. "A planet full of ghosts?"

Maxwell nodded, "Perhaps that's one way of looking at it: But let me ask you-what really is a ghost?"

"A spook," said Oop. "A spirit."

"But what do you mean by spook? Define a spirit for me."

"I know," said Oop regretfully. "I was being a bit facetious and there was no excuse for it. We don't know what a ghost is. Even Ghost doesn't know exactly what he is. He simply knows that he exists-and if anyone should know, he should. He has mulled over it a lot. He's thought about it deeply. He has communed with fellow ghosts and there is no evidence. So you fall back upon the supernatural..."

"Which is not understood," said Maxwell.

"A mutation of some sort," suggested Oop.

"Collins thought so," said Maxwell. "But he stood alone. I know I didn't agree with him, but that was before I was on the crystal planet. Now I'm not so sure. What happens when a race reaches an end, when, as a race, it has passed through childhood and middle age and now has reached old age? A race dying as a man does, dying of old age. What does it do, then? It could die, of course.. That's what one would expect of it. But suppose there was a reason that it couldn't die, suppose it had to hang on, had to stay alive for some overriding reason, that it could not allow itself to die?

"If ghostliness really is a mutation," said Oop, "if they knew it was a mutation, if they were so far advanced they could control mutation-"

He stopped and looked at Maxwell. "You think that's what might have happened?"

"I think it might," said Maxwell. "I am beginning to think very much it might."

Oop handed across the fruit jar. "You need a drink," he said. "And when you're through with it, I'll have one, myself."

Maxwell took the jar, holding it, not drinking right away. Oop reached out to the stack of wood, lifted a chunk in one massive fist and threw it on the fire. A spray of sparks gushed up the chimney. Outside the night wind moaned along the eaves.

Maxwell lifted the jar and drank. The splash of liquid ran down his gullet like a torrent of lava. He choked, wishing that he could drink the stuff, just once, without choking on it. He handed the jar back to Oop. Oop lifted it, then took it down again without drinking. He squinted across its rim at Maxwell.

"You said something to live for. Some reason that they couldn't die-that they had to keep on existing, any way they could."

"That's right," said Maxwell. "Information. Knowledge. A planet crammed with knowledge. A storehouse of knowledge- and I would doubt that a tenth of it duplicates our own. The rest of it is new, unknown. Some of it material we have never dreamed of. Knowledge that we may not ferret out short of a million years, if we ever ferret it. It is stored, electronically I suppose-arranging atoms in such a manner that each atom carries a bit of information. Stored in metal sheets, like the pages of a book, stacked in great heaps and piles and each layer of atoms-yes, they are arranged in layers- carries separate information. You read the first layer and then go down to the second layer. Again, like pages in a book, each layer of atoms a page, one stacked atop the other. Each sheet of metal-don't ask me, I can't even guess, how many layers of atoms in each metal sheet. Hundreds of thousands, I would suspect."

Oop lifted the jar hastily, took a tremendous gulp, part of the liquor spraying out across his woolly chest. He let out his breath in a lusty belch.

"They can't abandon this knowledge," said Maxwell.

"They have to pass it on to someone who can use it. They have to stay alive, somehow, until they pass it on. And that, for the love of God, is where I come in. They commissioned me to sell it for them."

"Sell it for them! A bunch of ghosts, hanging on by their very toenails! What would they want? What's the price they ask?"

Maxwell put up his hand and wiped his forehead, which had sprouted a sudden mist of sweat. "I don't know," he said.

"Don't know? How can you sell a thing if you don't know what it's worth, if you don't have an asking price?" "They said they would tell me later. They said to get someone interested and they'd get word to me on what the price would be."

"That," said Oop, disgusted, "is a hell of a way to make a business deal."

"Yes, I know," said Maxwell.

"You have no hint of price?"

"Not the faintest. I tried to explain to them and they couldn't understand, maybe they refused to understand. And since then I have gone over it and over it and there's no way I can know. It all boils down, of course, to what a gang like that might want. And for the life of me, I can't think of a thing they'd want."

"Well," said Oop, "they picked the right place to make their sales pitch. How do you plan to go about it?"

"I'll go up and talk to Arnold."

"You pick them tough," said Oop.

"Look, I have to talk with Arnold and to no one else. This can't go up through channels. There can't a word of it leak out. On the surface, it sounds harebrained. If the communications media or the gossip-mongers got hold of it, the university wouldn't dare to touch it. If it were known and they did consider it and the deal fell through- and, believe me, working in the dark, as I have to work, the deal could well fall through- there'd be just one loud guffaw all the way from here clear out to the Rim. It would be Arnold's neck and my neck and..."

"Pete, Arnold is nothing but a big stuffed shirt. You know that as well as I do. He's an administrator. He's running the business end of this university. I don't care if he has the title of president or not, he's just the manager. He doesn't give a damn about the academic end of it. He won't stick out his neck for three planets full of knowledge."

"The president of the university has to be an administrator... ."

"If it could have come at any other time," mourned Oop, "you might have had a chance. But as it stands right now, Arnold is walking on a crate of eggs. Moving the administration from New York to this jerkwater campus."

"A campus," put in Maxwell, "with a great liberal tradition and-"

"University politics," declared Oop, "doesn't care about liberal traditions or any other kind of traditions."

"I suppose not," said Maxwell, "but Arnold's the man I have to see: I could wish it were someone else. I have no admiration for the man, but he's the one I have to work with."

"You could have turned it down."

"The job of negotiator? No, I couldn't, Oop. No man could have. They'd have had to find someone else and they might get someone who'd bungle it. Not that I'm sure I won't bungle it, but at least I'll try. And it's not only for us, it's for them as well."

"You got to like these people?"

"I'm not sure just how much I liked them. Admired them, maybe. Felt sorry for them, maybe. They're doing what they can. They hunted for so long to find someone they could pass the knowledge on to."

"Pass it on? You said it was for sale."

"Only because there is something that they want or need. I wish I could figure out what it is. It would make everything easier for everyone concerned."

"Minor question-you talked with them. How did you go about it?"

"The tablets," said Maxwell. "I told you about the tablets. The sheets of metal that carried information. They talked with me with tablets and I talked with them the same way."

"But how could you read... ?"

"They gave me a contraption, like a pair of glasses, a pair of goggles, really, but bigger than a pair of goggles. It was a sort of bulky thing. I suppose it had a lot of mechanisms in it. I'd put it on and then I could read the tablets. No script, just little jiggles in the metal. It's hard to explain. But you looked at the jiggles through the contraption that you wore and you knew what the jiggles said. It was adjustable, I found out later, so you could read the different atomic layers. But to start with, they only wrote me messages, if wrote is the word to use. Like kids writing back and forth to one another on slates. I wrote back to them by thinking into another contraption that was tied into the pair of goggles that I wore."

"A translator," said Oop.

"I suppose that's what it was. A two-way translator."

"We've tried to work one out," said Oop. "By we I mean the combined ingenuity not only of the Earth, but of what we laughingly call the known galaxy."

"Yes, I know," said Maxwell.

"And these folks had one. These ghosts of yours."

"They have a whole lot more," said Maxwell. "I don't know what they have. I sampled some of what they had. At random. Just enough to convince myself they had what they said."

"One thing still bugs me," said Oop. "You said a planet. What about the star."

"The planet is roofed over. There was a star, I gather, but you couldn't see it, not from the surface. The point is, of course, that there needn't be a star. You are acquainted, I think, with the concept of the oscillating universe."

"The yo-yo universe," said Oop. "The one that goes bang, and then bang, bang again."

"That's right," said Maxwell. "And now we can quit wondering about it. It happens to be true. The crystal planet comes from the universe that existed before the present universe was formed. They had it figured out, you see. They knew the time would come when all the energy would be gone and all the dead matter would start moving slowly back to form another cosmic egg, so that the egg could explode again and give birth to yet another universe. They knew they were approaching the death of the universe and that unless something were done, it would be death for them as well. So they launched a project. A planetary project. They sucked in energy and stored it- don't ask me how they extracted it from wherever they extracted it or how they stored it. Stored somehow in the very material of the planet, so that when the rest of the universe went black and dead, they still had energy. They roofed the planet in, they made a house of it. They worked out propulsion mechanisms so they could move their planet, so that they would be an independent body moving independently through space. And before the inward drifting of the dead matter of the universe began, they left their star, a dead and blackened cinder by this time, and set out on their own. That's the way they have been since then, a holdover population riding on a planetary spaceship. They saw the old universe die, the one before this one. They were left alone in space, in space that had no hint of life, no glint of light, no quiver of energy. It may be-I don't know=that they saw the formation of the brand-new cosmic egg. They could have been very far from it and seen it. And if they saw it, they saw the explosion that marked the beginning of this universe we live in, the blinding flash, far off, that sent the energy streaking into space. They saw the first stars glow red, they saw the galaxies take shape. And when the galaxies had formed, they joined this new universe. They could go to any galaxy they chose, set up an orbit about any star they wished. They could move anytime they wanted to. They were universal gypsies. But the end is nearing now. The planet, I suppose, could keep on and on, for the energy machinery must still be operative. I imagine there might even be a limit to the planet, but they're not even close to that. But the race is dying out and they have stored in their records the knowledge of two universes."

"Fifty billion years," said Oop. "Fifty billion years of learning."

"At least that much," said Maxwell. "It could be a great deal more."

They sat, silent, thinking of those fifty billion years. The fire mumbled in the chimney's throat. From far off came the chiming of the clock in Music Hall, counting off the time.