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Goblin Reservation by Simak Clifford Chapter 22

The past surrounded them, the cabineted and cased and pedestaled past, the lost and forgotten and unknown snatched out of time by the far-ranging field expeditions that had probed into the hidden corners of mankind's history. Art and folklore objects that had been undreamed of until men went back and found them; still new pottery that had heretofore been known only as scattered shards, if even that; bottles out of ancient Egypt with the salves and ointments still imprisoned, fresh, within them; ancient iron weapons new-taken from the forge; the scrolls from the Alexandrian library which should have burned, but didn't, because men had been sent back in time to snatch them from the flames at the moment before they would have been destroyed; the famed tapestry of Ely that had disappeared from the ken of man in a long-gone age-all these and many more, a treasure trove of articles, many of them no treasures in themselves, snatched from the bowels of time.

The place was misnamed, `Maxwell thought. Not Time Museum, but rather the Museum of No Time, a place where all ages came together, where there was no time distinction, a building where all the accomplishments and dreams of mankind might eventually be gathered, not aged things, but all fresh and new and shiny, fashioned only yesterday. And here one would not have to guess from old and scattered evidence what it had been like back there, but could pick up and hold and manipulate the tools and instruments and gadgets that had been made and used through all the days of his development.

Standing beside the pedestal which held the Artifact, he listened to the footsteps of the guard as he tramped away again on his regular rounds.

Carol had managed it, and there had been a time he had doubted she would be able to. But everything had gone OK. She'd phoned the guard and told him she and a couple of friends had wanted one last look at the Artifact before it was carted off and he had been waiting to let them in at the little entryway set into one of the large doors that were opened when the museum was open to the public.

"Don't take too long," he grumbled. "I'm not sure I should let you do this."

"It's all right," she'd told him. "There is no need for you to worry."

He had shuffled off, mumbling to himself.

A bank of overhead spotlights shone down on the black block that was the Artifact.

Maxwell ducked beneath the velvet rope that guarded the pedestal and clambered up beside the Artifact, crouching down beside it, fumbling in his pocket for the interpreting apparatus.

It was a crazy hunch, he told himself. It was no hunch at all. It simply was an idea born of desperation and he was wasting his time, more than likely making himself somewhat ridiculous. And even if this wild venture should prove to have some point, there was nothing that he could do, at this late hour, about it. Tomorrow the Wheeler would take possession of the Artifact and of the knowledge stored on the crystal planet and so far as the human race might be concerned that would be the end of fifty billion years of knowledge dredged most laboriously and devotedly from two universes-knowledge that should have belonged to the University of Earth, that could have belonged to the university, but that now would be lost forever to an enigmatic cultural bloc which might, in turn, prove to be that potential cosmic enemy Earth had always feared would be found in space.

His start had been too late, he knew. Given a bit more time and he could have turned the deal, could have found the people who would have listened to him, could have gained some backing. But everything had worked against him and now it was too late.

He slid the interpreter onto his head and fumbled with it, for somehow it didn't want to fit.

"Let me help," said Carol. He felt her fingers manipulating it deftly, straightening out the straps, sliding them into place.

Glancing down, he saw Sylvester, seated on the floor beside the pedestal, sneering up at Oop.

Oop caught Maxwell's look. "That cat doesn't like me," said the Neanderthaler. "He senses that I'm his natural enemy. Some day he'll work up his nerve to have a go at me."

"That's ridiculous," snapped Carol. "He's just a little putty cat."

"Not the way I see it," said Oop.

Maxwell reached up and pulled the assemblage of the interpreter down across his eyes.

And looked down at the Artifact.

There was something there, something in that block of black. Lines, forms, a strangeness. No longer just a block of unimaginable blackness, rejecting all influence from outside, tolerating nothing and giving up nothing, as if it might be a thing that stood apart, sufficient to itself within the universe.

He twisted his head to try to catch the angle from which it might be possible to untangle what he saw. No lines of writing, surely-it was something else. He reached up to the headpiece and pushed over the wheel that increased the power, fiddled for a moment with the adjustment for the sensor.

"What is it?" Carol asked.

"I don't..." Then, suddenly, he did know. Then he saw. Imprisoned in one corner of the block was a talon, with iridescent flesh or hide or scale and gleaming claws that looked as if they had been carved from diamonds. A talon that moved and struggled to be free so it could reach out for him.

He flinched away, moving back to get out of reach, and he lost his balance. He felt himself falling and tried to twist to one side so he wouldn't land fiat upon his back. One shoulder struck the velvet rope and the standards that held the rope in place went over with a clatter. The floor came up and smacked him hard. Striking the rope had served to twist him to one side and he came down heavily on one shoulder, but his head was protected from the floor. He struck at his forehead with an open hand, knocking the interpreter off to one side to free his eyes.

And there, above him, the Artifact was changing. Out of it something was rising-rearing up out of the oblong of blackness, jerking itself free. Something that was alive, a-throb with vitality and glittering in its beauty.

A slender, dainty head, with an elongated snout, and a sharp serrated crest that ran from the forepart of the head along the length of neck. A barrel-like chest and body, with a pair of wings half-folded, and shapely forelegs, armed with the diamond claws. It glittered blindingly in the spotlights that pointed at the Artifact, or, rather, where the Artifact had been, each gleaming scale a point of hard white light striking off the bronze and gold, the yellow and the blue.

A dragon! Maxwell thought. A dragon rising from the blackness of the Artifact! A dragon, finally risen, after long aeons of being imprisoned in that block of blackness.

A dragon! After all the years he'd hunted one, after all the years of wonder, here finally was a dragon. But not as he'd pictured it in his mind-no prosaic thing of flesh and scale, but a thing of glorious symbolism. A symbol of the heyday of the crystal planet, perhaps of the universe that had died so that this present universe could be born anew-ancient and fabulous, a fellow of those strange tribes of beings of which the trolls and goblins, the fairies and the banshees were the stunted and pitiful survivors. A thing the name of which had been handed down through generations that numbered into thousands, but never seen by any member of humanity until this very moment.

Oop stood out on the floor, beyond one of the tumbled standards that had held the velvet cord, his legs more bowed than ever, as if he'd started to sink into a crouch and had frozen there, with his hamlike hands hanging at his side, his fingers hooked like claws, while he stared upward at the terror and the wonder on the pedestal. In front of him, Sylvester crouched close against the floor, knotted muscles standing out along his furry legs, his great mouth agape, with the fangs exposed and ready for attack.

Maxwell felt a hand upon his shoulder and twisted around.

"A dragon?" Carol asked.

Her words were strange, as if she had been afraid to ask them, as if she'd forced them from her throat. She was not looking at him, but upward at the dragon, which now seemed to be complete.

The dragon switched its tail, which was long and sinuous, and out on the floor Oop tumbled down ungracefully to duck the sweep of it.

Sylvester squawled in anger and crept forward a foot or so.

"Cut it out, Sylvester," Maxwell said sharply to the cat.

Oop scrambled forward hastily on his hands and knees and grabbed Sylvester by one of his hind legs.

"Talk to him," Maxwell said to Carol. "If that fool cat tackles him, there'll be the devil to pay."

"Oop, you mean. He wouldn't tackle Oop."

"Not Oop," said Maxwell. "The dragon. If he takes off on the dragon-"

A bellow of rage came thundering out of the darkness, and the thump of running feet.

"What is going on in here?" howled the watchman, charging from the shadows.

The dragon spun upon the pedestal and came swiftly off it, switching around to face the running watchman.

"Look out," Oop yelled, still with a tight grip upon Sylvester's leg.

The dragon moved forward carefully, almost mincingly, its head canted at a questioning angle. It flourished its tail and the tail swept across the top of a display table, brushing off a half dozen bowls and jugs. The pottery thudded and gleaming shards went skating across the floor.

"Hey, you cut that out!" the watchman yelped and then, apparently for the first time, saw the dragon. The yelp turned into a howl of fear. The watchman turned and fled. The dragon trotted after him, not in any hurry, but very interested. His progress was marked by a series of thudding and splintering crashes.

"If we don't get him out of here," said Maxwell, "there'll be nothing left. At the rate he's going, there won't be a thing intact in less than fifteen minutes. He'll have the place wiped out. And, Oop, for the love of God, hang onto that cat. We don't want a full-fledged brawl breaking out in here."

Maxwell got to his feet, grabbed the interpreter off his head and stuffed it in his pocket.

"I could open the doors," Carol offered, "and we could shoo him out of here. The big doors, I mean. I think that I know how."

"How are you, Oop," Maxwell asked, "at dragon-herding?"

The dragon had blundered to the rear of the building and now had turned around and was coming back.

"Oop," said Carol, "help me with these doors. I need a man with muscle."

"What about this cat?"

"Leave him to me," said Maxwell. "He may behave himself. Maybe he'll mind me."

A long chain of crashes marked the progress of the dragon. Listening to them, Maxwell moaned. Sharp would have his scalp for this. Friend or not, he would be plenty sore. The whole museum wrecked and the Artifact transformed into rampaging tons of flesh.

He took a few tentative steps across the floor toward the crashing sounds. Sylvester slunk close against his heels. In the dimness, Maxwell could make out the dim outlines of the floundering dragon.

"Nice dragon," Maxwell said. "Take it easy, fellow."

It sounded rather silly and somehow inadequate. How in the world, he wondered, should one talk to a dragon?

Sylvester let out a hacking growl.

"You stay out of it," said Maxwell sharply. "Things are bad enough without you messing in."

He wondered what had happened to the watchman.

More than likely phoning the police and building up a storm.

Behind him he heard the creaking of the doors as they came open. If the dragon would only wait until those doors were open, then he could be shagged outdoors. And once the dragon had been gotten out, what would happen then? Maxwell shuddered, thinking of it-of the great beast blundering down the streets and across the malls. Maybe it would be better, after all, to keep him penned in here.

He stood indecisively for a moment, weighing the disadvantages of a dragon caged with a dragon on the loose. The museum was more or less wrecked now and perhaps the complete wrecking of it would be preferable to turning this creature loose upon the campus.

The doors still were creaking, slowly opening. The dragon had been ambling along, but now he burst into a gallop, heading for the opening portal.

Maxwell spun around. "Close those doors!" he shouted then ducked quickly to one side as the galloping dragon came charging down upon him.

The doors were partly open and they stayed partly open. Oop and Carol were racing off in different directions, intent on leaving plenty of room for the lumbering tons of flesh that were heading for the open.

Sylvester's thunderous roars boomed and echoed in the museum as he took off in pursuit of the running creature.

Off to one side, Carol was shrieking at him. "Cut it out, Sylvester! No, Sylvester, no!"

The dragon's sinuous tail flicked nervously from side to side as it ran. Cabinets and tables crashed, statues were sent spinning-a path of destruction marked the dragon's flight for freedom.

Groaning, Maxwell ran, following Sylvester and the dragon, although, for the life of him, he didn't know exactly why he should be running. He didn't, he was certain, want to catch the dragon.

The dragon reached the opening and went through it in a single leap, high into the air, and as it leaped, the wings unfolded and swept downward in a thrumming beat.

At the doorway Maxwell skidded to a stop. On the steps below the entrance, Sylvester also had spun to a sliding halt and now was straining upward, raging loudly at the flying dragon.

It was a sight to make one catch his breath. Moonlight on the beating wings, reflecting off the burnished scales of red and gold and blue, made a flashing rainbow that quivered in the sky.

Oop and Carol burst out of the door and stopped to stare into the sky.

"Beautiful!" said Carol.

"Yes, isn't it," said Maxwell.

And now, for the first time, he realized in full exactly what had happened here. There was no longer any Artifact and the Wheeler deal was dead. And, likewise, any deal that he could make in behalf of the crystal planet. The chain of events that had been started with the copying of his wave pattern when he had been launched for Coonskin had been canceled out. Now, except for that flashing rainbow in the sky, it was as if nothing at all had happened.

The dragon was higher now, wheeling in the sky, no longer anything more than the flashing of the rainbow colors.

"This tears it," Oop declared. "What do we do now?"

"It was my fault," said Carol.

"It was no one's fault," said Oop. "It's just the way things happen."

"Well, anyhow," said Maxwell, "we loused up Harlow deal."

"I'll say you did," a voice said behind them. "Will someone please tell me what is going on?"

They turned around.

Harlow Sharp stood in the doorway. Someone had turned on all the museum lights and he stood out sharply against the lighted oblong of the doors.

"The museum is wrecked," he said, "and the Artifact gone and here are the two of you and I might have known Miss Hampton, I'm astonished. I thought you had better sense than to become entangled in such low company, though that crazy cat of yours-"

"You leave Sylvester out of this," she said. "He never had a thing to do with it."

"Well, Pete?" asked Sharp.

Maxwell shook his head. "I find it a bit hard to explain."

"I would think so," said Sharp. "Did you have all this in mind when you talked with me this evening?"

"No," said Maxwell. "It was a sort of accident."

"An expensive accident," said Sharp. "It might interest you to know that you've set Time's work back a century or more. Unless, of course, you somehow moved the Artifact and have it hidden out somewhere. In which case, my friend, I give you a fiat five seconds to hand it back to me."

Maxwell gulped. "I didn't move it, Harlow. In fact, I barely touched it. I'm not sure what happened. It turned into a dragon."

"It turned into a what?"

"A dragon. I tell you, Harlow "

"I remember now," said Sharp. "You always were blathering around about a dragon. You started out for Coonskin to find yourself a dragon. And now it seems you've found one. I hope that it's a good one."

"It's a pretty one," said Carol. "All gold and shimmery."

"Oh, fine," said Sharp. "Isn't that just bully. We can probably make a fortune, taking it around on exhibition. We can whomp up a circus and give top billing to the dragon. I can see it now in great big letters: THE ONLY DRAGON IN EXISTENCE."

"But it isn't here," said Carol. "It up and flew away."

"Oop," said Sharp, "you haven't said a word. What is going on? You are ordinarily fairly mouthy. What is going on?"

"I'm mortified," said Oop.

Sharp turned away from him and looked at Maxwell.

"Pete," he said, "you probably realize what you have done. The watchman phoned me and wanted to call the police. But I told him to hold up on calling the police and I'd come right down. I had no idea it would turn out as bad as it did turn out to be. The Artifact is gone and I can't deliver it and that means I'll have to hand back all that cash, and a lot of the exhibits have been smashed to smithereens-"

"The dragon did that," Maxwell said, "before we let him out."

"So you let him out? He didn't actually get away. You just let him out."

"Well, he was smashing all that stuff. I guess we weren't thinking."

"Tell me honest, Pete. Was there actually a dragon?"

"Yes, there was one. He was immobilized inside the Artifact. Perhaps he was the Artifact. Don't ask me how he got there. Enchantment, I would guess."


"Enchantment really happens, Harlow. I don't know how. I've spent years trying to find out and I don't know much more about it now than when I started out."

"It seems to me," said Sharp, "that there is someone missing. When all hell breaks loose, there usually is someone else who is tied into it. Can you tell me, Oop, where Ghost, that great, good friend of yours, might be?"

Oop shook his head. "He's a hard one to keep track of. Always slipping off."

"That isn't all of it," said Sharp. "There is still another situation that we should pay some heed to. Shakespeare has come up missing. I wonder if any of you could shed some light on his disappearance."

"He was with us for a while," said Oop. "We were just settling down to eat when he became quite frightened and lit out of there. It happened when Ghost remembered that he was Shakespeare's ghost. He's been wondering all these years, you know, who he is the ghost of."

Slowly, lowering himself one section at a time, Sharp sat down on the top step and looked slowly from one to the other of them.

"Not a thing," he said. "You didn't miss a thing when you started out to ruin Harlow Sharp. You made a job of it."

"We didn't start out to ruin you," said Oop. "We never had a thing against you. It seemed, somehow, that things started going wrong and they never stopped."

"By rights," said Sharp, "I should sue every one of you for every cent you have. I should ask a judgment-and don't fool yourself, I'd get it-that would keep all of you working for Time the rest of your natural lives. But the three of you together couldn't offset by a fraction, during your collective lifetimes, what you cost Time tonight. So there's no sense in doing it. Although I suppose the police will have to get into this ruckus. I don't see how they can be kept out of it. The three of you, I'm afraid, will have to answer a lot of questions."

"If someone would only listen to me," said Maxwell, "I could explain it all. That's what I've been trying to do ever since I got back-to find someone who would listen to me. I tried to talk to you this afternoon..."

"Then," said Sharp, "suppose you start right now by explaining it to me. I'll own to a slight curiosity. Let's go across the street to my office, where we can settle down and have a talk. Or might that inconvenience you? There's probably a thing or two you still have to do to finish up the job of bankrupting Time."

"No, I guess there isn't," said Oop. "I'd say, offhand, that we've done about everything we can."

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