Goblin Reservation by Simak Clifford Chapter 21

They sat dejectedly about Oop's rough-lumber table. Sylvester lay on his back on the hearthstone, with his front paws folded neatly on his chest, his back feet thrust up into the air. He wore a silly grin of satisfaction pasted on his face.

Oop shoved the fruit jar along the boards to Carol. She picked it up and sniffed. "It smells like kerosene," she said, "and, as I remember it, it tastes like kerosene." She lifted the jar with both her hands and drank, then pushed it across to Maxwell.

"I do believe," she said, "that after a time one could become accustomed to drinking kerosene."

"That is good booze," said Oop defensively. "Although," he admitted, "it could do with just a touch more aging. Seems that it gets drunk up quicker than I can get it made."

Maxwell lifted the jar and drank moodily. The hooch burned its way fiercely down his gullet and exploded in his stomach, but the explosion did no good. He still stayed moody and aware. There were times, he told himself, when there was no such thing as getting drunk. Pour it in two-fisted and you still stayed sober. And right now, he thought, he would dearly love to get sodden drunk and stay that way for a day or so. Maybe when he sobered up, life wouldn't seem so bad.

"What I can't understand," said Oop, "is why Old Bill should take this business of his ghost so bad. He did, of course. He was scared pink with purple spots. But the thing that bothers me is that he wasn't upset with Ghost. Oh, a little jittery at first, as one might expect of a sixteenth-century man. But once we had explained it to him, he seemed rather pleased with it. He accepted Ghost much more readily than would have been the case, say, with a twentieth-century man. In the sixteenth century they believed in ghosts and ghosts were something that could be accepted. He never got the wind up until he found that Ghost was his ghost and then..."

"He was quite intrigued," said Carol, "by our relations with the Little Folk. He made us promise we'd take him down to the reservation so he could get acquainted with them. As was the case with ghosts, he believed in them implicitly."

Maxwell took another hooker out of the jar and slid it across to Oop. He wiped his mouth on the back of his hand. "Being free and easy with a ghost, with just any ghost," he said, "would come under a different heading than meeting up with one particular ghost that turned out to be your ghost. It is impossible for a man to accept, to actually accept and believe in, his own death. Even knowing what a ghost is..."

"Oh, don't please start that up again," said Carol. Oop grinned. "He sure went out of there like a shot " he said. "Like you'd tied a firecracker to his tail. He went through that door without even touching the latch. He just busted through it."

"I didn't see," said Maxwell. "I had a bowl of gravy in my face."

"There wasn't anyone got anything out of the whole mess," said Oop, "except that saber-toother over there. He got a haunch of beef. Rare, the way he likes it."

"The cat's an opportunist," Carol observed. "He always comes out smelling pretty."

Maxwell stared at her. "I've been meaning to ask you. How do you come to be mixed up with us? I thought you washed your hands of us last night after the affair with the Wheeler."

Oop chuckled. "She was worried about you. Also, she is nosy."

"There's something else as well," said Maxwell. "How come you are mixed up in it at all? Let's take it from the first. You were the one who tipped us off about the Artifact-about it being sold."

"I didn't tip you off. I misspoke. It just-"

"You tipped us off," Maxwell declared. "I think you meant to do it. What do you know about the Artifact? You must have known something to not have wanted it sold."

"Yeah, that is right," said Oop. "Sister, you better start telling us what it is all about."

"A couple of bullies..."

"No," said Maxwell, "let's not turn it to a joke. This is something that's important."

"Well, I had heard about it being sold, as I told you. I wasn't supposed to know. And I was worried about it and I didn't like the sound of it. Not that there was anything really wrong with the sale of it, legally, I mean. I understood that Time had title to it and could sell it if it wished. But it didn't seem to me that a thing like the Artifact should be sold, even for umpteen billion dollars. Because I did know something about it-something that no one else knew about it and I was afraid to try to tell anyone what I knew. And when I mentioned how important the Artifact was to other people, I could see that they couldn't care less. Then, that night, when you two talked about it and were so interested-"

"You thought maybe we could help."

"Well, I don't know what I thought. But you were the first ones who had shown any interest in it. Although I couldn't tell you. I couldn't come right out and tell you, because, you see, I wasn't supposed to know it and there was a matter of being loyal to Time and I was all mixed up."

"Were you working with the Artifact? Is that how..."

"Well, no," she said, "not working with it. But one day when I stopped to look at it-like any tourist, you under stand, just walking through the inner court of the museum and stopping to have a look at it, because it was an interesting object and a mysterious one as well-and I saw something, or thought I saw something. I don't know now. I can't be sure. Although at the time, I remembered I was sure, I was absolutely certain that I saw this thing about it no one had ever noticed, or if they had noticed..."

She stopped and looked from one to the other of them. Neither spoke. They sat silent, waiting for her to go on. "I can't be sure," she said. "Not now. Now I can't be sure."

"Go ahead," said 0op. "Tell us the best you can."

She nodded soberly. "It was just for an instant. So quick so fast, and yet at the time there was no doubt I had really seen it. The sun was shining through the windows and the sunlight was falling on the Artifact. Maybe no one had ever looked at the Artifact before when the sunlight had been shining on it at precisely the angle it shone on it that day. I don't know. That could be the explanation, I suppose. But it seemed to me I saw something inside the Artifact. Well, really not inside of it, either. Rather, as if the Artifact was something that had been pressed or shaped into an oblong block, but you couldn't know this except when the sun shone just right upon it. It seemed to me that I could see an eye, and for just an instant, when I saw that eye, I knew that it was alive and that it was watching me and-"

"But that can't be!" yelled Oop. "The Artifact is like a stone. Like a piece of metal."

"A funny piece of metal," said Maxwell. "Something that you can't pry into, something that-" "

It's only fair to say," Carol reminded them, "that now I can't be sure. It might have been only my imagination."

"We'll never know," said Maxwell. "The Wheeler will haul off the Artifact tomorrow."

"And buy the crystal planet with it," said Oop. "It seems to me we shouldn't just be sitting here. If we could have held onto Shakespeare..."

"It wouldn't have done a bit of good," Maxwell told him. "This business of kidnapping Shakespeare."

"We never kidnapped him," said Oop, outraged at the thought. "He came along with us very peaceably. He was glad to come. He'd been figuring all the time how he could lose this escort that Time had sent along. It was really his own idea. We only helped a little."

"Like clunking the escort on the head?"

"No, never," declared Oop. "We were genteel about it. We created what you might have called a mild diversion."

"Well, anyhow," said Maxwell, "it was a bum idea. There was too much money involved. You could have kidnapped a dozen Shakespeares and you'd never got Harlow Sharp to give up his deal for the Artifact."

"But even so," said Carol, "there should be something that we could be doing. Like rousting Arnold out of bed."

"The only way," said Maxwell, "that Arnold could help us is by giving Time the kind of money the Wheeler is paying Sharp. I can't see that, can you?"

"No, I can't," said Oop.

He picked up the jar, put it to his mouth and drained it, got up and went to the hideout in the floor and got another jar. Ponderously, he unscrewed the lid and handed the jar to Carol.

"Leave us settle down," he suggested, "to building up a hangover. The newsmen will be here by morning and I got to build up the strength for throwing them all out."

"Now, wait a second," said Maxwell. "I feel an idea coming on."

They sat and waited for the idea to come on.

"The translator," said Maxwell. "The one I used to read the records on the crystal planet. I found it in my bag."

"Yes?" asked Oop.

"What if the Artifact were simply another record?"

"But Carol says..."

"I know what Carol says. But she can't be sure. She only thinks she saw that eye staring out at her. And it seems improbable."

"That's right," said Carol. "I can't be absolutely sure. And what Pete says does make a crooked sort of sense. If he's right, it would have to be a very important record- and a rather massive one. Perhaps a whole new world of knowledge. Maybe something the crystal planet left here on Earth, believing that no one would ever think of looking for it here. A sort of hidden record."

"Even if that should be the case," said Oop, "what good will it do us. The museum is locked and Harlow Sharp is not about to open it for us."

"I could get us in," said Carol. "I could phone the guard and say I had to get in and do some work. Or that I had left something there and wanted to pick it up. I have clearance for that sort of thing."

"And lose your job," suggested Oop.

She shrugged. "There are other jobs. And if we worked it right..."

"But there's so little point to it," protested Maxwell. "It's no better than a million-to-one shot. Maybe less than that. I don't deny I'd like to have a try at it, but-"

"What if you found that it was really something important?" asked Carol. "Then we could get hold of Sharp and explain it to him and maybe..."

"I don't know;" said Maxwell. "I would doubt that we could find anything so important that Harlow would renege upon the deal."

"Well," said Oop, "let's not waste time sitting here and talking about it. Let us be about it."

Maxwell looked at Carol. "I think so, Pete," she said. "I think it's worth the chance."

Oop reached out and took the jar of moonshine from in front of her and screwed on the cap.