She smiled dazzlingly. And for one flash of an instant I knew who she was. I knew why my eyes had been drawn back in puzzled surprise to Letta Essen lying with curious unexpected grace on the cavern floor.
I met this girl’s shining gaze and for that one instant knew I was looking straight into the keen gray eyes of Letta Essen.
The moment of certainty passed in a flash. The girl’s eyes shifted from gray to luminous blue, the long lashes fell and the unmistakable identity of a woman I knew vanished. But the likeness remained. The familiarity remained. This girl was Letta Essen.
My mind, groping for similes, seized at first on the theory that in some fantastic way Dr. Essen herself stood here before me masked by some science of beauty beyond the sciences I knew, in a shell of youth and loveliness through which only her keen gaze showed.
It was all a trick, I thought—this is Letta Essen who did wake before me, somehow leaving her simulacrum there in the cave, as I had. This is Letta Essen in some amazingly lovely disguise for purposes of her own and she’ll speak in a moment and confess. But it couldn’t have been a disguise. This soft young loveliness was no mask. It was the girl herself. And her features were the features Letta Essen might have had twenty years ago if she had lived a wholly different life, a life as dedicated to beauty as Dr. Essen’s had been to science.
Then I caught a bewildering gray flash again and I knew it was Letta Essen—no disguise, no variation on the features such as kinship or remote descent might account for. The mind is individual and unique. There are no duplications of the personality. I knew I was looking into the eyes of Letta Essen herself, no matter how impossible it seemed.
“Dr. Essen?” I said softly. “Dr. Essen?”
She laughed. “You’re still dreaming,” she said. “Do you feel better now? Lord Paynter—the old fool—is waiting for us. We should hurry.”
I only gaped at her. What could I say? If she wasn’t ready to explain how could I force her to speak? And yet I knew.
“I’m here to welcome you, of course,” she said lightly, speaking exactly as if I were some stranger to whom she must be polite, but who was of no real interest to her. “I was trained for work like this—to make people feel at ease. All this is a great mystery but—well, Lord Paynter will have to explain. I’m only an entertainer. But a very good one. Oh, very good.
“Lord Paynter sent for me when he knew you would awaken. He thought his own ugly face might put you into such a mood you’d never answer any questions.” She giggled. “At least, I hope he thought so.” She paused, regarding me with exactly the cool keen speculative stare I had so often met when the woman before me was Letta Essen. Then she shrugged.
“He’ll tell you as much as you ought to know, I suppose. It’s all much too mystifying for me.” Her glance shifted to the cavern where the sleepers lay motionless and I thought there was bewilderment in her eyes as she looked uneasily from face to sleeping face. Again she shrugged.
“Well, we should go. If we’re late Lord Paynter will have me beaten.” She seemed very unconcerned about the prospect. “And please don’t ask questions,” she added, “for I’m not allowed to answer. Even if I knew the answers. Even if I cared.”
I was watching her with such urgent attention that my eyes ached with the effort of trying to be more than eyes, trying to pierce through her unconcern and see into the depths of the mind which I was certain was Letta Essen’s. She smiled carelessly at me and turned away.
“Come along,” she said.
There was nothing for me to do but obey. Clearly I was expected to play the same game her actions indicated. With some irony I said, “You can tell me your name, can’t you?”
“I am Topaz—this week,” she said. “Next week, perhaps—something else. But you may think of me until then as Topaz.”
“Thanks,” I said dryly. “And what year are you Topaz in? What country? Where am I, anyhow?”
“The Lord Paynter will tell you that. I don’t care to be beaten.”
“But you speak English. I can’t be very far from home.”
“Oh, everyone who matters knows English. It’s the court language of the Mother Planet, you see. The whole galaxy operates on an English basic. There has to be some common language. I—oh dear, I will be beaten! Come along.”
She turned away, tugging me by the arm. There was a button on the opposite wall and the way she walked beside me toward it, the way she reached to touch the button, followed so definite a pattern of graceful motion that it seemed like dancing.
In the wall a shutter widened. Topaz turned. “This is the City,” she told me.
I had seen the beginnings of such places in my own time. In the second level under Chicago, by the canal—at Hoover Dam—in the great bridges and the subways of Manhattan. Those had been the rudiments, ugly, crude, harsh. This was a city of machines, a city of metal with blood of invisible energy.
Ugly? No. But frightening—yes.
Topaz led me across a strip of pavement to a cushioned car like a big cup and we sat down in it and the car started, whether or not on wheels I can’t say. It moved in three dimensions, rising sharply in the air sometimes to avoid collisions, to thread its intricate pattern through that singing city.
The sound was, perhaps, the strangest part. I kept watching and listening with the automatic attention of the reporter, senselessly making mental notes for articles I would never write. A single note hummed through the city, clear and loud as a trumpet, sliding up and down the scale. Not music, for there was no pattern, but much like a clarinet, varied every changing second.
I asked Topaz about it. She gave me a glance from Letta.
Essen’s eyes and said, “Oh, that’s to make the noise bearable. You can’t get rid of the noise, you know, without sacrificing the effect but you can transform it into harmonious sound that does convey the proper things. There’s—what do you call it—frequency modulation. I think that’s it.
“All the noises of the City every second add up to one key vibration, a non-harmonic, and that’s simply augmented by a machine so the audible result isn’t so unpleasant. The only alternative would be to blanket it completely and that would mean sacrificing a good part of the total effect, you know.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “What do you mean, effect?”
She turned in the car to look at me. Suddenly she dimpled.
“No, I see you don’t understand. Well, I won’t explain. I’ll save it for a surprise.”
I didn’t argue with her. I was too busy staring around me at the City. I can’t describe it. I won’t try and I don’t need to. You’ve read about such places, maybe pictured them for yourself. Precision, perfect functionalism, all one mighty machine made up of machines.
There were no humans, no life, except for us under the dome of steel sky. The light was gray, clear, oddly compact, and through that steel-colored air the city trumpeted its wailing cry of a world that was not my world, a time that was yet to come.
Where was the red twilight of the world’s end? Where was the Face of Ea, from which the call for help had come.
Or did that world lie somewhere just outside the city? Something had gone strangely wrong in the time-axis—that much was certain. If I let myself think about it I’d probably start gibbering. Things had been taken out of my control and all I could do was ride along.
We drew up before a towering steel and plastic building. Topaz jumped briskly out of the car, took my hand confidently and led me into the low door before us. We had stepped straight into an elevator apparently, for a panel sighed shut behind us and I felt the familiar pressure underfoot and the displaced air that means a rapid rising up a shaft.
The panel opened. We stepped out into a small room similar to the one in which I had awakened.
“Now,” Topaz said with relief. “We’re here. You were very good and didn’t ask too many questions, so before we go I’ll show you something.”
She touched another button in the wall, and a plate of metal slid downward out of sight. There was thick glass behind it. Topaz fingered the button again and the glass slid down in turn. A gust of sweet-smelling air blew in upon us. I caught my breath and leaned forward to stare.
We were very high up in the city but we were looking out over a blossoming countryside, bright in the season of late spring. I saw meadows deep in grass and yellow flowers, far below. Streams winked in the bright, clear sunlight, here and there fruit-trees were in blossom. Bird-song rose and fell in the sunshine.
“This of course,” Topaz said, “is the world we live in. There’s only one museum.”
“Museum?” I echoed almost absently, “What museum?”
“The City. There’s only one. All machines and robots. Isn’t it horrible? They built like that, you know, back in barbarous times. We keep it in operation to show what it was like. That’s why they can’t blanket the noises altogether, it would spoil the effect. But no one lives here. Only students come sometimes. Our world is out there.”
“But where do people live?” I asked. “Not in—well, villages, communities?”
“Oh no. Not any more. Not since the dark ages. We have transmission now, you see, so we don’t need to live huddled up together.”
“This is a transmitter.” She waved at the room behind us. “That other place, where you woke, was a receiver.”
“Receiver of what? Transmitter of what?” I felt like Alice talking to the Caterpillar,
“Of matter, naturally. Much easier than walking.” She pressed the stud again and the glass and metal slid up to shut out that glowing springtime world. “Now,” she said, “We’ll go—wherever it is we’re going. I don’t know. Lord Paynter—”
“I know—the old fool.”
Topaz giggled. “Lord Paynter’s orders are already on record. In a moment we’ll see.” She did domething with the buttons on the wall. “Here we go,” she said.
Vertigo spun through my mind. The wailing of that ancient, wonderful, monstrous City died away.