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Chapter 2

Around the corner from the tiny room where he'd met with Drayton, Maxwell found a vacant row of seats and sat down in one of them, rather carefully, placing his single piece of luggage on the floor beside him. It was incredible, he told himself. Incredible that there should have been two Pete Maxwells and now one of those Maxwells dead. Incredible that the crystal planet could have had equipment that would reach out and copy a wave pattern traveling faster than the speed of light - much faster than the speed of light, for at no point in the galaxy so far linked by the matter transmitters was there any noticeable lag between the time of transmittal and arrival. Diversion-yes, perhaps there could be diversion, a reaching out and a snatching of the pattern, but the task of copying such a pattern would be something else entirely.

Two incredibles, he thought. Two things that should not have happened. Although if one of them had happened, the other surely followed. If the pattern had been copied, there would, quite necessarily, have been two of him, the one who went to the Coonskin system and the other who'd gone to the crystal planet. But if this other Peter Maxwell had really gone to Coonskin, he should still be there or only now returning. He had planned a six weeks' stay at least, longer if more time seemed necessary to run down the dragon business.

He found that his hands were shaking and, ashamed of this, he clasped them hard together and held them in his lap.

He couldn't go to pieces, he told himself. No matter what might be facing him, he had to see it through. And there was no evidence, no solid evidence. All that he had was what a member of Security had told him and he couldn't count on that. It could be no more than a clumsy piece of police trickery designed to shake him into talking. Although it could have happened. It just could have happened!

But even if it had happened, he still had to see it through. For he had a job to do and one he must not bungle.

Now the job might be made the harder by someone watching him, although he could not be sure there'd be someone watching. It might not, he told himself, make any difference. His hardest job, he realized, would be to get an appointment with Andrew Arnold. The president of a planetary university would not be an easy man to see. He would have more with which to concern himself than listening to what an associate professor had to say. Especially when that professor could not spell out in advance detail what he wished to talk about.

His hands had stopped the trembling, but he still kept them tightly clasped. In just a little while he'd get out of here and go down to the roadway, where he'd find himself a seat on one of the inner, faster belts. In an hour or so he'd be back on the old home campus and then he'd soon find out if what Drayton said was true. And he'd be back with friends again-with Alley Oop and Ghost, with Harlow Sharp and Allen Preston and all the rest of them. There'd be rowdy midnight drinking bouts at the Pig and Whistle and long, slow walks along the shaded malls and canoing on the lake. There'd be discussion and argument and the telling of old tales, and the leisurely academic routine that gave one time to live.

He found himself looking forward to the trip, for the roadway ran along the hills of Goblin Reservation. Not that there were only goblins there; there were many other of the Little Folk and they all were friends of his-or at least most of them were friends. Trolls at times could be exasperating and it was rough to build up any real and lasting friendship with a creature like a banshee.

This time of year, he thought, the hills would be beautiful. It had been late summer when he'd left for the Coonskin system and the hills still had worn their mantle of dark green, but now, in the middle of October, they would have burst into the full color of their autumn dress. There'd be the winy red of oak and the brilliant red and yellow of the maples and here and there the flaming scarlet of creeping vines would run like a. thread through all the other colors. And the air would smell like cider, that strange, intoxicating scent that came upon the woods only with the dying of the leaves.

He sat there, thinking of the time, just two summers past, when he and Mr. O'Toole had gone on a canoe trip up the river, into the northern wilderness, hoping that somewhere along the way they might make some sort of contact with the spirits recorded in the old Ojibway legends. They had floated on the glass-clear waters and built their fires at night on the edges of the dark pine forests; they had caught their fish for supper and hunted down the wild flowers hidden in the forest glades and spied on many animals and birds and had a good vacation. But they had seen no spirits, which was not surprising. Very few contacts had been made with the Little Folk of North America, for they were truly creatures of the wilds, unlike the semi civilized, human-accustomed sprites of Europe.

The chair in which he sat faced the west and through the towering walls of glass he could see across the river to the bluffs that rose along the border of the ancient state of Iowa-great, dark purple masses rimmed by a pale blue autumn sky. Atop one of the bluffs he could make out the lighter bulk of the College of Thaumaturgy, staffed in large part by the octopoid creatures from Centaurus. Looking at those faint outlines of the buildings, he recalled that he had often promised himself he'd attend one of their summer seminars, but had never got around to doing it.

He reached out and shifted his luggage, preparing to get up, but he stayed on sitting there. He still was a little short of breath and his legs seemed weak. What Drayton had told him, he realized, had hit him harder than he'd thought, and still was hitting him in a series of delayed reactions. He'd have to take it easy, he told himself. He couldn't get the wind up. It might not be true; it probably wasn't true. There was no sense in getting too concerned about it until he'd had the chance to find out for himself.

Slowly he got to his feet and reached down to pick up his luggage, but hesitated for a moment to plunge into the hurried confusion of the waiting room. People-alien and human-were hurrying purposefully or stood about in little knots and clusters. An old, white-bearded man, dressed in stately black-a professor by the looks of him, thought Maxwell-was surrounded by a group of students who had to come to see him off. A family of reptilians sprawled in a group of loungers set aside for people such as they, not equipped for sitting. The two adults lay quietly, facing one another and talking softly, with much of the hissing overtones that marked reptilian speech, while the youngsters crawled over and under the loungers and sprawled on the floor in play. In one corner of a tiny alcove a beer-barrel creature, lying on its side, rolled gently back and forth, from one wall to the other, rolling back and forth in the same spirit, and perhaps for the same purpose, a man would pace the floor. Two spidery creatures, their bodies more like grotesque matchstick creations than honest flesh and, blood, squatted facing one another. They had marked off upon the floor, with a piece of chalk, some sort of crude gameboard and had placed about upon it a number of strangely shaped pieces, which they were moving rapidly about, squeaking in excitement as the game developed.

Wheelers? Drayton had asked. Was there any tie-up with the crystal planet and the Wheelers?

It always was the Wheelers, thought Maxwell. An obsession with the Wheelers. And perhaps with reason, although one could not be sure. For there was little known of them. They loomed darkly, far in space, another great cultural group pushing out across the galaxy, coming into ragged contact along a far-flung frontier line with the pushing human culture.

Standing there, he recalled that first and only time he had ever seen a Wheeler-a student who had come from the College of Comparative Anatomy in Rio de Janeiro for a two-week seminar at Time College. Wisconsin Campus, he remembered, had been quietly agog and there had been a lot of talk about it, but very little opportunity, apparently, to gain a glimpse of the fabled creature since it stayed closely within the seminar confines. He had met it, trundling along a corridor, when he'd gone across the mall to have lunch with Harlow Sharp, and he recalled that he'd been shocked.

It had been the wheels, he told himself. No other creature in the known galaxy came equipped with wheels. It had been a pudgy creature, a roly-poly suspended between two wheels, the hubs of which projected from its body somewhere near its middle. The wheels were encased in fur and the rims of them, he saw, were horny calluses. The downward bulge of the roly-poly body sagged beneath the axle of the wheels like a bulging sack. But the worst of it, he saw when he came nearer, was that this sagging portion of the body was transparent and filled with a mass of writhing things which made one think of a pail of gaily colored worms.

And those writhing objects in that obscene and obese belly, Maxwell knew, were, if not worms, at least some kind of insect, or a form of life which could equate with that form of life on Earth which men knew as insects. For the Wheelers were a hive mechanism, a culture made up of many such hive mechanisms, a population of colonies of insects, or at least the equivalent of insects.

And with a population of that sort, the tales of terror which came from the far and rough frontier about the Wheelers were not hard to understand. And if these horror tales were true, then man here faced, for the first time since his drive out into space, that hypothetical enemy which it always had been presumed would be met somewhere in space.

Throughout the galaxy man had met many other strange and, at times, fearsome creatures, but none, thought Maxwell, could match fearsomeness with a creature that was a wheel-driven hive of insects. There was something about the whole idea that made one want to gag.

Today outlandish creatures flocked to the Earth in thousands, to attend the many colleges, to staff the faculties that made up that great galactic university which had taken over Earth. And in time, perhaps, thought Maxwell, the Wheelers might be added to this galactic population which swarmed the colleges of Earth-if only there could be some kind of understanding contact. But so far there hadn't been.

Why was it, Maxwell wondered, that the very idea of the Wheelers went against the grain, when man and all the other creatures in the galaxy contacted by the humans had learned to live with one another?

Here, in this waiting room, one could see a cross section of them-the hoppers, the creepers, the crawlers, the wrigglers, and rollers that came from the many planets, from so many stars. Earth was the galactic melting pot, he thought, a place where beings from the thousand stars met and mingled to share their thoughts and cultures.

"Number Five-six-nine-two," shrilled the loudspeaker. "Passenger Number Five-six nine two, your departure time is only five minutes from now. Cubical Thirty-seven. Passenger- Five-six-nine-two, please report immediately to Cubical Thirty-seven."

And where, Maxwell wondered, might No. 5692 be bound? To the jungles of Headache No. 2, to the grim, windswept glacial cities of Misery IV, to the desert planets of the Slaughter Suns, or to any of the other of the thousands of planets, all less than a heartbeat away from this very spot where he stood, now linked by the transmitter system, but representing in the past long years of exploratory effort as discovery ships beat through the dark of everlasting space. As they were beating out there even now, slowly and painfully expanding the perimeter of man's known universe.

The sound of the waiting room boomed and muttered, with the frantic paging of late or missing passengers, with the hollow buzz of a hundred different tongues spoken in a thousand different throats, with the shuffling or the clicking or the clop of feet across the floor. He reached down, picked up his luggage, and turned toward the entrance.

After no more than three steps, he was halted to make way for a truck carrying a tank filled with a murky liquid. Through the cloudiness of the liquid, he caught a suggestion of the outrageous shape that lurked within the tank- some creature from one of the liquid planets, perhaps, and one where the liquid was not water. Here, more than likely, as a visiting professor, perhaps to one of the colleges of philosophy, or maybe one of the science institutes.

The truck and its tank out of the way, he went on and reached the entrance, stepped through the opening onto the beautifully paved and terraced esplanade, along the bottom of which ran the roadway belts. He was gratified to notice that there were no waiting lines, as often was the case.

He drew a deep breath of air into his lungs-clean, pure air with the sharp tang of frosty autumn in it. It was a welcome thing after the weeks of dead and musty air up on the crystal planet.

He turned to go down the steps and as he did he saw the signboard just beyond the gate to the roadway belts. The sign was large and the lettering was in Old English, screaming with solid dignity:

WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE, ESQ.

Of Stratford-on-Avon, England

"How It Happened I Did Not Write The Plays"

Under the sponsorship of Time College

Oct. 22, 8 P.M: Time Museum Auditorium

Tickets available at all agencies

"Maxwell," someone shouted and he swung around. A man was running from the entrance, toward him.

Maxwell put down his luggage, half-raised his hand in greeting and acknowledgment, then slowly dropped it, for he realized that he did not recognize the man.

The man slowed to a trot, then a rapid walk.

"Professor Maxwell, isn't it?" he asked as he came up. "I'm sure I'm not mistaken."

Maxwell nodded stiffly, just a bit embarrassed. "Monty Churchill," said the man, thrusting out his hand. "We met, a year or so ago. At one of Nancy Clayton's bashes."

"How are you, Churchill?" Maxwell asked, a little frostily.

For now he did recognize the man, the name at least if not the face. A lawyer, he supposed, but he wasn't sure. Doing business, if he recalled correctly, as a public relations man, a fixer. One of that tribe that handled things for clients, for anyone who could put up a fee.

"Why, I'm fine," said Churchill happily. "Just back from a trip. A short one. But it's good to be back again. There's nothing quite like home. That's why I yelled out at you. First familiar face I've seen for several weeks."

"I'm glad you did," said Maxwell.

"You going back to the campus?"

"Yes. I was heading for the roadway."

"No need of that," said Churchill. "I have my flier here. Parked on the strip out back. There's room for both of us. Get there a good deal faster."

Maxwell hesitated. He didn't like the man, but what Churchill said was true; they would get there faster. And he was anxious to get back as quickly as he could, for there were things that needed checking out.

"That's very kind of you," he said. "If you're sure you have the room."


Chapter 1 | Goblin Reservation | Chapter 3



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