Goblin Reservation by Simak Clifford Chapter 14

"I'll take you around to the back," the driver said. "There is a swarm of newsmen hanging around out front. They'll be gone later on, but now they're there in droves. Miss Clayton suggested you might not want to meet them.

"Thank you," Maxwell said. "It is thoughtful of you."

Nancy, he told himself, had taken over, as was her usual practice, viewing it as her prerogative to order people's lives.

Her house stood on the low bluff that hemmed in the western edge of the lake. Off to the left the water gleamed softly in the early moonlight. The front of the house was ablaze with light, but the back was dark.

The car turned off the highway and climbed slowly along a narrow driveway lined by massive oaks. A startled bird flew, squawking, across the roadway, a flurry of desperately beating wings caught for a moment in the headlights. A pair of dogs came raging down the hollow tunnel of the drive, split and swung on either side of the car.

The driver chuckled. "If you were walking, they'd eat you alive."

"But why?" asked Maxwell. "Why, all at once, must Nancy be guarded by a dog pack?"

"Not Miss Clayton," the driver said. "It is someone else."

The question came to Maxwell's tongue, but he choked it back.

The driver swung the car into a curved driveway that ran beneath an open portico, and pulled up to a halt. "In the back door," the driver said. "You don't need to knock. Then straight down the hall past the curved staircase. The party's up in front."

Maxwell started to open the car door, then hesitated.

"You need not mind the dogs," the driver told him.

"They recognize the car. Anyone who steps out of it is OK with them."

There was, in fact, no sign of the dogs, and Maxwell went swiftly up the three steps of the stoop, opened the back door, and stepped into the hall.

The hall was dark, A little light filtered down the winding staircase-someone apparently had left on a light on the second story. But that was all; there were no other lights. From somewhere in the front of the house came the muffled sound of revelry.

He stood for a moment without moving and as his eyes became accustomed to the darkness, he could see that the hall ran for some distance toward the center of the house past the foot of the winding stairs and beyond. There was a door back there, or perhaps an abrupt turn in the hall that would take him party-ward.

It was strange, he told himself. If Nancy had instructed the driver to bring him to the back, she would have had someone there to greet him, or at least she would have seen that there was a light so he could find his way.

Strange, and very awkward, to arrive this way, to grope his way along the hall in search of the others who were there. For a moment he considered turning about and leaving, making his way back to Oop's place. Then he remembered the dogs. They would be out there and waiting and they looked like vicious brutes.

This whole business, he told himself, was not at all like Nancy. Nancy wouldn't do a thing like this. There was something very wrong and he did not like it.

He moved cautiously down the hall, alert for chair or table that might be there to trip him up. He could see a little better now, but the hall was still a tunnel without any details.

He passed the stairs, skirting around their base, and now, with the light from the stairway partially cut off, the hall became darker than it was before.

A voice asked, "Professor Maxwell? Is that you, Professor?"

Maxwell stopped in mid-stride, balancing on one leg, then carefully put his lifted foot down against the floor and stood, not stirring, while goose bumps prickled on his skin.

"Professor Maxwell," said the voice, "I know that you are out there."

It was not a voice, actually, or it didn't seem to be. There had been no sound, Maxwell could have sworn, yet he had heard the words, not so much, perhaps, in his ear, as somewhere in his brain.

He felt the terror mounting in him and he tried to fight it off, but it didn't go away. It stayed, crouched somewhere out there in the dark, ready to rush in.

He tried to speak and gulped instead. The voice said,

"I've waited here for you, Professor. I want to communicate with you. It is to your interest as much as it is to mine."

"Where are you?" Maxwell asked.

"Through the door just to your left."

"I do not see a door."

Good common sense hammered hard at Maxwell.

Break and run, it said. Get out of here as fast as you can go.

But he couldn't break and run. He couldn't bring himself to do it. And if he ran, which way should he run? Not I back to the door, for the dogs were waiting out there. Not clattering down the darkened hall, more than likely to bump into something and raise a terrible clatter, to alert the guests up there in front and to be found, when they investigated, disheveled and bruised and sweating with his fear. For if he ran, he knew, fear would pounce upon him and he'd give way to it.

It was bad enough sneaking in from the back door on a party without being found in a condition such as that. If it had been just a voice, any kind of voice, it would not have been so frightening, but it was a strange kind of voice-there was no intonation to it and there was about it a certain raw, mechanical, almost rasping quality. It was not a human voice, Maxwell told himself. There was an alien in that room.

"There is a door," the flat, hard voice said. "Step slightly to your left and push against it."

The whole thing was becoming ridiculous, Maxwell told himself. Either he went through the door or he broke and ran. He might try to simply walk away, but he knew that the minute he turned his back upon that hidden door, he would run-not because he wanted to, but because he had to, running from the fear he had turned his back upon.

He stepped to the left, found the door, and pushed. The room was dark, but from a lamp somewhere in the yard outside, some light filtered through the windows, falling on a roly-poly creature that stood in the center of the room its pudgy belly gleaming with a writhing phosphorescence as if a group of luminescent sea-dwellers had been prisoner in a bowl.

"Yes," the creature said, "you are quite right. I am o of those beings that you call a Wheeler. For my visit here I have given myself a designation that falls easy on your mind. You may call be Mr. Marmaduke. For convenience only, I suspect you understand, for it's not my name. In fact, none of us have names. They are unnecessary. Our personal identity is achieved in another way."

"I am pleased to meet you, Mr. Marmaduke," said Maxwell, speaking slowly, the only way he could, since his lips had become, like the rest of him, slightly stiff and frozen.

"And I you, Professor."

"How did you know who I was?" asked Maxwell. "You seemed to have no doubt at all. You knew, of course, I'd be coming down the hall."

"Of course," the Wheeler said.

Now Maxwell could see the creature a bit more clearly the bloated body supported on two wheels, the lower part of the body gleaming and twisting like a pail of worms.

"You are Nancy's guest?" he asked.

"Yes," said Mr. Marmaduke, "certainly I am. The guest of honor, I believe, at this gathering she has."

"Then, perhaps, you should be out with the other guests."

"I pleaded tiredness," said Mr. Marmaduke. "A slight prevarication, I must admit, since I am never tired. So I went to rest a while-"

"And to wait for me?" "Precisely," said Mr. Marmaduke.

Nancy, Maxwell thought. No, Nancy, he was sure, wasn't in on it. She had a frothy brain and all she cared about were her everlasting parties and she'd be incapable of any kind of intrigue.

"There is a subject we can talk about," said Mr. Marmaduke, "with some profit, I presume, to the both of us. You are looking for a buyer, I believe, for a large commodity. I might have some passing interest in that commodity."

Maxwell moved back a step and tried to find an answer. But there was no ready answer. Although he should have known, he told himself, or at least have suspected.

"You say nothing," said Mr. Marmaduke. "I cannot be mistaken. You are, without fail, the agent for the sale?"

"Yes," said Maxwell. "Yes, I am the agent." There was no use denying it, he knew. Somehow or other, this creature in the room knew about the other planet and the hoard of knowledge. And he might know the price as well. Could it have been the Wheeler, he wondered, who had made the offer for the Artifact?

"Well, then," said Mr. Marmaduke, "let us proceed immediately to business and a discussion of the terms. Not forgetting, in the course of it, to mention the commission that will be coming to you."

"I am afraid," said Maxwell, "that is impossible at the moment. I do not know the terms. You see, I was first to find a potential buyer and then-"

"No trouble whatsoever," said Mr. Marmaduke, "for I have the knowledge that you lack. I am acquainted with the terms."

"And you will pay the price?"

"Oh, without any question," said the Wheeler. "It will take just a little time. There are certain negotiations which must be terminated. Once those are done, you and I can complete all business and the matter will be done, without any fuss or trouble. The only thing, it would appear to me, is a determination of the commission which you will have earned so richly."

"I would imagine," said Maxwell bleakly, "that it might be a good commission."

"We had in mind," said Mr. Marmaduke, "of naming you-shall we say librarian?-of the commodity we purchase. There will be much to do working out the various commodities and codifying them. For work of this sort we will need a creature such as you, and I imagine that you might find the work highly interesting. And the salary- Professor Maxwell, we pray you name the salary and the conditions of employment."

"I would have to think about it."

"By all means," said Mr. Marmaduke. "In a procedure such as this, a little thought is good. You will find us most disposed to generosity."

"That's not what I meant," said Maxwell. "I'll have to think about the deal. Whether I'd be willing to arrange a sale for you."

"You doubt, perhaps, our worthiness to purchase the commodity?"

"That might be it," said Maxwell.

"Professor Maxwell," said the Wheeler, "it would be advisable for you to lay aside your doubts. It is for the best that you entertain no doubt of us at all. For we are most determined that we shall obtain what you have to offer. So, in the best of grace, you should deal with us."

"Whether I want to or not?" asked Maxwell.

"I," said Mr. Marmaduke, "would have not put it quite so bluntly. But you state it most correctly."

"You are not in the best position;" Maxwell told him, "to speak in that tone of voice."

"You are not aware of the position that we hold," the Wheeler said. "Your knowledge goes out to only a certain point in space. You cannot know what lies beyond that point."

There was something in the words, something in the way that they were said, that sent a chill through Maxwell, as if from some unknown quarter of the universe a sharp, frigid blast of wind had blown through the room.

Your knowledge goes only to a certain point in space, Mr. Marmaduke had said, and what lay beyond that point? No one could know, of course, except that in certain areas beyond the shadowy frontier of man's probing it was known the Wheelers had staked out an empire. And seeping across that frontier came horror stories, such tales as any frontier might inspire, stemming from man's wonder concerning that unknown which lay just a little way ahead.

There had been little contact with the Wheelers and there was almost nothing known of them-and that in itself was bad. There was no thrusting out of hands, no gestures of goodwill, either from the Wheelers or from the humans and their friends and allies. The frontier lay there, in that one great sector out in space, a silent, sullen line that neither side had crossed.

"I would be better able to come to some decision " Maxwell said, "if my knowledge did extend, if we could know more about you."

"You know that we are bugs," said Mr. Marmaduke, and the words fairly dripped with scorn. "You are intolerant "

"Not intolerant," said Maxwell angrily, "and we do not think of you as bugs. We know you are what we would call hive mechanisms. We know each of you is a colony of creatures similar to the life forms that here on Earth we think of as insects, and that sets us apart from you, of course, but no more distant from us than many other creatures from many other stars. I do not like the word `intolerant,' Mr. Marmaduke, because it implies that there is ground for tolerance and there is no such thing-not for you, nor me, nor any other creature in the universe."

He found that he was shaking with his anger and he wondered why he should suddenly become so angry at a single word. He could remain calm at the thought of the Wheeler buying the knowledge of the crystal planet, then flare with sudden anger at one specific word. Perhaps because, he told himself, with so many different races who must live together, both tolerance and intolerance had become dirty words.

"You argue well and amiably," said Mr. Marmaduke, "and you may not be intolerant "

"Even were there such a thing as intolerance," said Maxwell, "I cannot understand why you'd resent it so. It would be a reflection upon the one who had exhibited it rather than upon the one toward whom it was directed. Not only a reflection upon good manners, but upon one's basic knowledge. There can be nothing quite so stupid as intolerance."

"Then if not intolerance," asked the Wheeler, "what makes you hesitate?"

"I would have to know how you meant to use the commodity. I would want to know your purpose. I would need to know a great deal more about you."

"So that you could judge?"

"I don't know," said Maxwell bitterly. "How can one judge a situation such as this?"

"We talk too much," said Mr. Marmaduke. "And the talk is meaningless. I perceive you have no intention to make a deal with us."

"At the moment," Maxwell told him, "I would say that you were right."

"Then," said Mr. Marmaduke, "we must find another way. You will cause us, by your refusal, a great deal of time and trouble and we'll be most ungrateful to you."

"I have a feeling," Maxwell said, "that I can bear up under your ingratitude."

"There is a certain advantage, sir," warned Mr. Marmaduke, "in being on the winning side."

Something big and moving swiftly brushed past Maxwell and out of the corner of his eye he caught the sudden flash of gleaming teeth and the streak of tawny body.

"No, Sylvester!" Maxwell shouted. "Leave him alone Sylvester!"

Mr. Marmaduke moved swiftly. His wheels blurred as he spun and swept in a quick half-circle, skirting Sylvester's rushing charge and heading for the door. Sylvester's claws screeched as he turned, swapping end for end. Maxwell, seeing the Wheeler bearing down upon him, ducked out of the way, but a wheel grazed his shoulder and brushed him roughly to one side. With a swish, Mr. Marmaduke went streaking out the door. Behind him came Sylvester, long and lithe, a tawny shape that seemed to flow smoothly through the air.

"No Sylvester!" Maxwell screamed, flinging himself through the door and making a quick turn in the hall, his legs pumping rapidly as he skidded on the turn. Ahead of him the Wheeler was rolling smoothly down the hall, with Sylvester close behind him. Maxwell wasted no more breath in yelling at the cat, but drove his body forward in pursuit.

At the far end of the hall, Mr. Marmaduke swung smoothly to the left and Sylvester, almost on top of him, lost precious seconds as he fought, and failed, to make as smooth a turn. Warned of the turning in the hall, Maxwell took it in his stride and ahead of him he saw a lighted corridor that led to a short marble staircase and beyond the staircase a crowd of people standing about in little knots, with glasses in their hands.

Mr. Marmaduke was heading for the staircase, going very fast. Sylvester was one leap ahead of Maxwell, perhaps three leaps behind the Wheeler.

Maxwell tried to yell a warning, but he didn't have the breath and, in any case, events were moving much too fast.

The Wheeler hit the top step of the staircase and Maxwell launched his body through the air, arms out-stretched. He came down on top of the saber-tooth and wrapped his arms around its neck. The two of them sprawled to the floor and out of the corner of his eye, as he and Sylvester cartwheeled down the corridor, Maxwell saw the Wheeler bouncing high on the second step and beginning to tip over.

And then, suddenly, there was the screaming of frightened women and the yells of startled men and the crash of breaking glasses. For once, thought Maxwell grimly, Nancy was getting a bigger boot out of her party than she had bargained for.

He piled up against a wall, at the far edge of the staircase, and somehow or other, Sylvester was perched on top of him and reaching down to lap fondly at his face.

"Sylvester," he said, "this was the time you did it. You got us in a mess."

Sylvester went on lapping and a rasping purr rumbled in his chest.

Maxwell pushed the cat away and managed to slide up the wall to a sitting position.

Out on the floor of the room beyond the staircase, Mr. Marmaduke lay upon his side, both wheels spinning crazily, the friction of the wheel that was bottom-most making him rotate lopsidedly.

Carol came running up the steps and stopped, with fists firmly on her hips, to stare down at Maxwell and the cat.

"The two of you!" she cried, then choked with anger.

"We're sorry," Maxwell said.

"The guest of honor," she screamed at them, almost weeping. "The guest of honor and you two hunting him down the halls as if he were a moose."

"Apparently we didn't hurt him much," said Maxwell. "I see he is intact. I wouldn't have been surprised if his belly broke and all those bugs of his were scattered on the floor. "What will Nancy think?" Carol asked accusingly.

"I imagine," Maxwell told her, "that she'll be delighted. There hasn't been this much ruckus at one of her parties since the time the fire-breathing amphibian out of the Nettle system set the Christmas tree on fire."

"You make those things up," said Carol. "I don't believe it happened."

"Cross my heart," said Maxwell. "I was here and saw it. Helped put out the fire."

Out on the floor some of the guests had laid hold of Mr. Marmaduke and were pulling him over to stand upright on his wheels. Little serving robotics were scurrying about, picking up the broken glass and mopping up the floor where the drinks had spilled.

Maxwell got to his feet and Sylvester moved over close beside him, rubbing against his legs and purring. Nancy had arrived from somewhere and was talking with Mr. Marmaduke. A large circle of guests stood around and listened to the talk.

"If I were you," suggested Carol, "I'd skin out of here the best way that I could. I can't imagine that you'll be welcome here."

"On the contrary," Maxwell told her, "I'm always welcome here."

He started walking down the staircase, with Sylvester pacing regally beside him. Nancy turned and saw him, broke through the circle and came across the floor to meet him.

"Pete!" she cried. "Then it's really true. You are back again."

"Why, of course," said Maxwell.

"I saw it in the papers, but I didn't quite believe it. I thought it was a hoax or a gag of some sort."

"But you invited me," said Maxwell.

"Invited you?"

She wasn't kidding him. He could see she wasn't kidding.

"You mean you didn't send the Shrimp..."

"The Shrimp?"

"Well, a thing that looked like an overgrown shrimp."

She shook her head and, watching her face, Maxwell saw, with something of a shock, that she was growing old. There were many tiny wrinkles around the corners of her eyes that cosmetics failed to hide.

"A thing that looked like a shrimp," he said. "Said it was running errands for you. It said I was invited to the party. It said a car would be sent to fetch me. It even brought me clothes, because it said-"

"Pete," said Nancy, "please believe me. I did none of this. I did not invite you, but I'm glad you're here."

She moved closer and lay a hand upon his arm. Her face crinkled in a giggle. "And I'll be interested in hearing about what happened between you and Mr. Marmaduke."

"That I'm sorry about," said Maxwell.

"No need to be. He's my guest, of course, and one must be considerate of guests, but he's a really terrible person. Pete, he's basically a bore and a snob and-"

"Not now," Maxwell warned her softly.

Mr. Marmaduke had disengaged himself from the circle of guests and was wheeling across the floor toward them. Nancy turned to face him.

"You're all right?" she asked. "You really are all right?"

"Very right," said Mr. Marmaduke.

He wheeled close to Maxwell and an arm extruded from the top of his roly-poly body-a ropelike, flexible arm more like a tentacle than arm, with three clawlike fingers on the end of it. He reached out with it and draped it around Maxwell's shoulders. At the pressure of it, Maxwell had the instinct to shrink away, but with an exercise of conscious will, forced himself not to stir.

"I thank you, sir," said Mr. Marmaduke. "I am most grateful to you. You saved my life perhaps. Just as I fell I saw you leap upon the beast. It was most heroic."

Pressed tight against Maxwell's side, Sylvester lifted his head, dropped his lower jaw, exhibiting his fangs in a silent snarl.

"He would not have hurt you, sir," said Carol. "He's as gentle as a kitten. If you had not run, he'd not have chased you. He had the fool idea that you were playing with him. Sylvester likes to play."

Sylvester yawned, with a fine display of teeth.

"This play," said Mr. Marmaduke, "I do not care about."

"When I saw you fall," said Maxwell, "I was fearful for you. I thought for a moment you would burst wide open."

"Oh, no need of fear," said Mr. Marmaduke. "I am extremely resilient. The body is made of excellent material. It is strong and has a bouncing quality."

He removed his arm from Maxwell's shoulder and it ran like an oily rope, writhing in the air, to plop back into his body. There was no mark on the body surface, Maxwell noticed, to indicate where it might have disappeared.

"You'll excuse me, please," said Mr. Marmaduke. "There's someone I must see." He wheeled about and rolled rapidly away.

Nancy shuddered. "He gives me the creeps," she said. "Although I must admit he is a great attraction. It isn't every hostess who can snag a Wheeler. I don't mind telling you, Pete, that I pulled a lot of wires to get him for a house guest and now I wish I hadn't. There's a slimy feel about him."

"Do you know why he'd be here-here on Earth, I mean?"

"No, I don't. I get the impression that he's a simple tourist. Although I don't imagine such a creature could be a simple tourist."

"I think you're right," said Maxwell.

"Pete," she said, "tell me about yourself. The papers say-"

He grinned. "I know. That I came back from the dead." "But you didn't, really. I know that's not possible. Who was that we buried? Everyone, you must understand, simply everyone, was at the funeral and we all thought it was you. But it couldn't have been you. Whatever could have-"

"Nancy," said Maxwell, "I came back only yesterday. I found that I was dead and that my apartment had been rented and that I had lost my job and-"

"It seems impossible," said Nancy. "Such things just don't happen. I don't see how this happened."

"I'm not entirely clear about it all myself," Maxwell told her. "Later, I suppose, I'll find out more about it."

"Anyway," said Nancy, "you are here and everything's all right and if you don't want to talk about it, I'll circulate the word that you would rather not."

"That's kind of you," said Maxwell, "but it wouldn't work."

"You don't need to worry about newspapermen," said Nancy. "There are no newspaper people here. I used to let them come. A handpicked few, ones I thought that I could trust. But you can't trust any of them. I found that out the hard way. So you won't be bothered with them."

"I understand you have a painting..."

"You know about the painting, then. Let's go and look at it. It's the proudest thing I have. Imagine it, a Lambert! And one that had dropped entirely out of sight. I'll tell you later how it happened to be found, but I won't tell you what it cost me. I won't tell anyone. I'm ashamed of what it cost me."

"Much or little?"

"Much," said Nancy, "and you have to be so careful. It's so easy to be swindled. I wouldn't even talk of buying it until I had it examined by an expert. In fact, two experts. One to check against the other, although I suppose that was unnecessary."

"But there's no doubt it is a Lambert?" ever painted quite like Lambert. But he could be copied, of course, and I had to be sure."

"What do you know about Lambert?" Maxwell asked.

"Something more than the rest of us? Something that's not found its way into books?"

"No. Really not a great deal. Not about the man himself. Why do you ask?"

"Because you are so excited."

"Well, really! Just finding an unknown Lambert is enough, of course. I have two other paintings of his, but this one is something special because it had been lost. Well, actually I don't know if lost is the word or not. Never known, perhaps, would be better. No record of his ever painting it. No record that survived, at least. And it is one of his so-called grotesques. You would hardly think one of them could be lost or mislaid or whatever happened to it. One of his earlier ones, that might be understandable."

They worked their way across the floor, skirting the little clustered groups of guests.

"Here it is," said Nancy.

They had pushed their way through a crowd that had been grouped in front of the wall on which the painting hung. Maxwell tilted his head to stare up at it.

It was somehow different than the color plates he had seen in the library that morning. This was because, he told himself, of the larger size of the painting, the brilliance and the clarity of color, some of which had been lost in the color plates. But this, he realized, was not all of it. The landscape was different and the creatures in it. A more Earth-like landscape-the sweep of gray hills and the brown of the shrubby vegetation that lay upon the land, the squatty fernlike trees. A troop of creatures that could be gnomes wended their way across a distant hill; a goblinlike creature sitting at the base of a tree leaned back against the bole, apparently asleep, with some sort of hat pulled down across his eyes. And others-fearsome, leering creatures, with obscene bodies and faces that made the blood run cold.

On the crest of a distant, flat-topped hill, about the base of which clustered a large crowd of many kinds of creatures, a small black blob stood outlined against the grayness of the sky. "

Maxwell drew in his breath in a startled gasp, took a quick step closer, then halted and stood stiff and straight, afraid to give himself away.

It seemed impossible that no one else could have noticed it, he told himself. Although, perhaps, someone had and had not thought it worth the mention, or had been unsure and thus reluctant to say anything about it. But for Maxwell there could be no doubt. He was sure of what he saw. That small black blob on the distant hilltop was the Artifact!