Goblin Reservation by Simak Clifford Chapter 13

Maxwell expected that he might find newsmen lying in wait for him at Oop's shack, but there was no one there. Apparently the word hadn't spread that he was staying there.

The shack stood in the drowsiness of late afternoon, with the autumn sunlight pouring like molten gold over the weather-beaten lumber scraps of which it had been built. A few bees buzzed lazily in a bed of asters that grew outside the door, and down the stretch of hillside above the roadway a few yellow butterflies drifted in the hazy afternoon.

Maxwell opened the door and stuck in his head. There was no one, there. Oop was off prowling somewhere and there was no sign of Ghost. A banked fire glowed redly in the fireplace. Maxwell shut the door and sat down on the bench that stood before the shack.

Far to the west one of the campus' four lakes shone as a thin blue lens. The countryside was painted brown and yellow by dead sedges and dying grasses. Here and there little islands of color flared in scattered groups of trees.

Warm and soft, thought Maxwell. A land that one could dream in. Unlike those violent, gloomy landscapes that Lambert had painted so many years ago.

He sat wondering why those landscapes should stick so tightly, like a bur against his mind. Wondering, too, how the artist could have known how the ghostly inhabitants of the crystal planet flickered. It could not be merely happenstance; it was not the sort of thing a man might readily imagine. Reason said that Lambert must have known about those ghostly people, reason just as plainly said it was impossible.

And what about all those other creatures, all those other grotesque monstrosities Lambert had spread with an insane, vicious brush across the canvasses? Where did they fit in? Where might they have come from? Or were they simply mad figments of imagination, torn raw and bleeding from a strangely tortured mind? Were the people of the crystal planet the only authentic creatures Lambert had depicted? It did not seem too likely. Somewhere or other, somehow or other, Lambert must have seen these other creatures, too. And was the landscape pure imagination, brushed in to maintain the mood established by the creatures, or might it have been the landscape of the crystal planet at some other time, before it had been fixed forever in the floor and roof that shut it in against the universe? But that, he told himself, was impossible, for the planet had been enclosed before the present universe was born. Ten billion years at least, perhaps as much as fifty billion.

Maxwell stirred uneasily. It made no sense at all. None of it made any sort of sense. He had trouble enough, he told himself, without worrying about Lambert's paintings. He had lost his job, his estate was locked in probate, he didn't have a legal standing as a human being.

But none of that mattered too much, not right now, anyhow. First came the matter of the hoard of knowledge on the crystal planet. It was a knowledge the university must have-a body of knowledge that most certainly was greater than' the total of all knowledge in the known galaxy. Some of it would duplicate what was already known, of course, but there would be, he was certain, other huge areas of understanding which were yet un-thought of. The little that he had had the time to see bolstered that belief.

Once again, it seemed, he was hunkered down before the table, almost like a coffee table, on which he'd piled the metal sheets he had taken from the shelves, and with the contraption that was a reader, an interpreter, call it what one might, fastened to his head.

There had been the sheet of metal that talked about the mind, not in metaphysical or philosophic terms, but as a mechanism, employing terms and concepts that he could not grasp. He had struggled with the terminology, he remembered, for he knew that here was a treatise on an area of understanding no one yet had touched, but after a time had put it to one side, for it was beyond him. And there was that other piece of metal, that other book, which appeared to be a basic text on the application of certain mathematical principles to the social sciences, although some of the social sciences that were mentioned he could only guess at, groping after the concepts as a blind man might grope after flitting butterflies. There had been histories, he recalled, not of one universe, but two, and natural history which had told of life forms so fantastic in their basic principles and their functions that they seemed unbelievable, and a very thin sheet of metal, so thin it bent and twisted, like a sheet of paper, when he handled it, that had been so far beyond his understanding that he could not quite be sure what it was about. And a thicker piece of metal, a much thicker piece, wherein he read the thoughts and philosophies of creatures and of cultures long since gone to dust that had sent him reeling back, frightened, disgusted, outraged and dismayed, but still full of a fearful wonder, at the utter inhumanity expressed in those philosophies.

All that and more, much more, a trillion times more, was waiting out there on the crystal planet.

It was important, he reminded himself, that he carry out the assignment that he had been given. It was vital that the library of the crystal planet be attained and, probably, although no time limit had been placed, that it be done quickly. For if he failed there was, he felt sure, a good possibility that the planet would go elsewhere to seek another market, to offer what it had, out into another sector of the galaxy, perhaps out of the galaxy entirely.

The Artifact, he told himself, could be the price, although he could not be sure of that. The fact that an offer had been made for it, and that Churchill somehow was involved in it, made that seem reasonable. But at the moment he could not be sure. The Artifact might be wanted by someone for some other purpose, perhaps by someone who might finally have figured out exactly what it was. He tried to imagine exactly what they might have found, but he had no facts to go on, and he failed.

A flight of blackbirds came swirling down out of the sky, skimming just above the roof of the shack, sailing over the roadway. Maxwell watched them settle into the dying vegetation of a stretch of marsh, balancing their bodies delicately on the bending stems of rank-growing weeds, come there to feed for an hour or so before flying off to roost in some secluded woodland they had picked as a bivouac on their migration southward.

Maxwell got up and stretched. The peace and the quiet of the tawny afternoon had soaked into his body. He'd like a nap, he thought. After a time Oop would come back home and wake him and they'd have something to eat and talk for a while before he went off to Nancy's.

He opened the door and went into the shack, crossing the floor to sit upon the bed. Maybe, he thought, he ought to see if he still had a clean shirt and an extra pair of socks to don before the party. He reached out and hauled his bag off the floor and dumped it on the bed.

Opening the catches, he threw back the lid and took out a pair of trousers to get at the shirts that were packed beneath them. The shirts were there and so was something else, a contraption with a headband and two eyepieces folded up against it.

He stared at it in wonder, recognizing it. It was the translator which he had used on the crystal planet to read the metal tablets. He lifted it out and let it dangle in hi hand. Here was the band to clamp around the head, with the power pack in the back, and the two eyepieces one flipped down into position once the device was fastened on the head.

He must have packed it by mistake, he thought, although he could not, for the life of him, remember packing it. But there it was and perhaps no harm was done. It might even be used at some future time to help substantiate his claim he had been on the planet. Although, he realized, it was not good evidence. It was just a gadget that had an ordinary look about it, although it might not, he reminded himself, seem so ordinary if someone poked around in the mechanism of it.

A light tapping came from somewhere and Maxwell surprised by so small a noise, stiffened and held himself rigid, listening. Perhaps a windblown branch, he though tapping on the roof, although it had a slightly different sound than a branch against the roof.

The tapping stopped and then began again, this time not a steady rapping, but rather like a code. Three quick taps and then a pause, followed by two rapid taps and then another pause, with the pattern of the tapping repeated once again.

It was someone at the door.

Maxwell got up from the bed and stood undecided. It might be newsmen who had finally tracked him down, or thought they'd tracked him down, and if that should be the case, it might be best to leave the door unanswered. But the tapping at the door, it seemed to him, was not boisterous enough, not demanding enough, for a newsman, or several newsmen, who had finally run him to his lair. The taps were soft, almost tentative, the kind of tapping that might be done by someone who did not want to advertise their presence, or who, for one reason or another, was not quite sure of purpose. And if it were newsmen, Maxwell realized, it would do no good not to let them in, for in a little while they'd try the door and find it open and then come bursting in.

The tapping, which had stopped for a moment, took up again. Maxwell trudged to the door and threw it open. Outside stood the Shrimp, a ghostly, gleaming white in the wash of sunlight. Beneath one of his limbs, which now served as an arm rather than a leg, he clutched a paper- wrapped bundle tight against his body.

"For the love of God, come in," said Maxwell sharply, "before someone sees you here."

The Shrimp came in and Maxwell closed the door, wondering what it was that had caused him to urge it in.

"You need no apprehension," said the Shrimp, "about news harvesters. I was careful and I noticed. No one followed me. I'm such a foolish-looking creature no one ever follows me. No one ever accords to me any purpose whatsoever."

"That is a fortunate thing to have," said Maxwell. "I think that it is called protective coloration."

"I appear again," said Shrimp, "on behalf of Miss Nancy Clayton. She knows you carried little on your trip, have had no chance to shop or have laundry done. No wish to embarrass-charging me to say this with goodly emphasis-but wish to send you clothes to wear."

He took the bundle from underneath his arm and handed it to Maxwell.

"That is nice of Nancy."

"She is thoughtful person. She commissioned me to say further."

"Go ahead," said Maxwell.

"There will be wheeled vehicle to take you to the house."

"There is no need of that," said Maxwell. "The roadway runs right past her place."

"Once again apology," said the Shrimp, with firmness, "but she thinks it best. There is much hithering and thithering, by many types of creatures, to learn your whereabouts."

"Can you tell me," asked Maxwell, "how Miss Clayton knows my whereabouts?"

Said the Shrimp, "I truly do not know."

"All right, then. You'll thank Miss Clayton for me?"

"With gladness," said the Shrimp.