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CHAPTER FIFTY-ONE

At least the Scarecrows were no longer going to the trouble of faking the face of a human being to deliver their little homilies. The creature displayed on the screen was unquestionably a Dopey. He was squatting comfortably on a gold-colored cushion, his little hands busy in his belly bag. Behind his head was a pretty background landscape, distant hills and fleecy white clouds in a blue, blue and very Earthly sky. All faked, no doubt. The Dopey was doing his best to look amiable and trustworthy, not an easy job for a Dopey. When he spoke his voice had the cajoling quality of a late-night, golden-oldie disk jockey.

"You know who I am," he said, the little cat eyes gleaming, his fan spread in glorious iridescence. "I have spoken to you before, bearing the generous messages of our Beloved Leaders, who know what is best for all of us and whose patience is great-but not without limit."

His plume darkened and his voice became sorrowful. "But you are a willful species," he scolded. "You have betrayed the trust of the Beloved Leaders. You have wickedly stolen a vehicle which is their property. You have begun the construction of armed spacecraft. And you have done even worse. You have brought to your planet a representative of the despicable Horch.

"The Beloved Leaders cannot permit this to go on.

"Therefore they command you to take two steps. Within the next four days you must broadcast an invitation for representatives of the Beloved Leaders to come to your planet. And, as a token of good faith, you must rid yourself of this evil monster, the Horch. Kill him. Do so in a public place. Broadcast his execution. And when he is dead amputate all of his limbs and head. Let it be seen that this is done, so there can be no question of the sort of trickery you have shown yourself capable of."

He raised himself on his little legs and peered sternly into the camera. "Four days!" he said sternly. "If you have not complied by that time, at that hour you and your entire race will die."

He stood silent for a moment, then sank back on his cushion. The colors of his peacock tail brightened into soft pastels and his tone became wheedling.

"You must understand," he said, "that the Beloved Leaders seek no personal gain from you. It is for your own good-indeed, if you force them to put an end to your lives, even that is for your good, since it will speed your way to the Eschaton.

"The Beloved Leaders know that, in your present primitive state, this is frightening to you, for it is what you call 'death.' But death is only an incident. It will come sooner or later to each of you-the temporary death which all organisms experience. It is not to be feared. It is only the way which we must all pass, in order to reach that great eternity of the Eschaton.

"Yet the Beloved Leaders do not wish to take this step unless you force them to it. It would be tragic if your entire species went prematurely to the Eschaton. You are a young race. You have not attained full development. You cannot ever achieve that on your own. That can only happen to you under the wise and benevolent guidance of the Beloved Leaders. That generous proposal is still open to you, but you must act now. Destroy that vile Horch. Invite our people to come to you. Accept the great gift that is offered you.

"Remember, four days! And if you have not done as instructed, at the very moment of the end of that time you and all your species will immediately perish."

And the Dopey curled his lipless little mouth into what he might have thought of as a friendly smile, and his image faded from the screen.


Next to me Dan M. was wearing the strangest expression I'd ever seen on his face, part anger, a lot confusion; mostly he looked as though he were either going to laugh or cry. "But, Dan," he complained, "how? The Pats guarantee that there's absolutely nothing in orbit that can get here in four days! Do you think he's bluffing?"

I was staring at the blank screen, hardly hearing him. "No," I said, "I think it's worse than that. I think maybe we've been worrying about the wrong thing. I'd better talk to Hilda right away."


CHAPTER FIFTY | The Far Shore of Time | CHAPTER FIFTY-TWO



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