Carlson stood on the hill in the silent center of the city whose people
He stared up at the Building--the one structure that dwarfed every
hotel-grid, skyscraper-needle, or apartment-cheesebox packed into all the
miles that lay around him. Tall as a mountain, it caught the rays of the
bloody sun. Somehow it turned their red into golden halfway up its height.
Carlson suddenly felt that he should not have come back.
It had been over two years, as he figured it, since last he had been
here. He wanted to return to the mountains now. One look was enough. Yet
still he stood before it, transfixed by the huge Building, by the long
shadow that bridged the entire valley. He shrugged his thick shoulders then,
in an unsuccessful attempt to shake off memories of the days, five (or was
it six?) years ago, when he had worked within the giant unit.
Then he climbed the rest of the way up the hill and entered the high,
His fiber sandals cast a variety of echoes as he passed through the
deserted offices and into the long hallway that led to the belts.
The belts, of course, were still. There were no thousands riding them.
There was no one alive to ride. Their deep belly-rumble was only a noisy
phantom in his head as he climbed onto the one nearest him and walked ahead
into the pitchy insides of the place.
It was like a mausoleum. There seemed no ceiling, no walls, only the
soft _pat-pat_ of his soles on the flexible fabric of the belt.
He reached a junction and mounted a cross-belt, instinctively standing
still for a moment and waiting for the forward lurch as it sensed his
Then he chuckled silently and began walking again.
When he reached the lift, he set off to the right of it until his
memory led him to the maintenance stairs. Shouldering his bundle, he began
the long, groping ascent.
He blinked at the light when he came into the Power Room. Filtered
through its hundred high windows, the sunlight trickled across the dusty
acres of machinery.
Carlson sagged against the wall, breathing heavily from the climb.
After awhile he wiped a workbench clean and set down his parcel.
Then he removed his faded shirt, for the place would soon be stifling.
He brushed his hair from his eyes and advanced down the narrow metal stair
to where the generators stood, row on row, like an army of dead, black
beetles. It took him six hours to give them all a cursory check.
He selected three in the second row and systematically began tearing
them down, cleaning them, soldering their loose connections with the
auto-iron, greasing them, oiling them and sweeping away all the dust,
cobwebs, and pieces of cracked insulation that lay at their bases.
Great rivulets of perspiration ran into his eyes and down along his
sides and thighs, spilling in little droplets onto the hot flooring and
Finally, he put down his broom, remounted the stair and returned to his
parcel. He removed one of the water bottles and drank off half its contents.
He ate a piece of dried meat and finished the bottle. He allowed himself one
cigarette then, and returned to work.
He was forced to stop when it grew dark. He had planned on sleeping
right there, but the room was too oppressive. So he departed the way he had
come and slept beneath the stars, on the roof of a low building at the foot
of the hill.
It took him two more days to get the generators ready. Then he began
work on the huge Broadcast Panel. It was in better condition than the
generators, because it had last been used two years ago. Whereas the
generators, except for the three he had burned out last time, had slept for
over five (or was it six?) years.
He soldered and wiped and inspected until he was satisfied. Then only
one task remained.
All the maintenance robots stood frozen in mid-gesture. Carlson would
have to wrestle a three hundred pound power cube without assistance. If he
could get one down from the rack and onto a cart without breaking a wrist he
would probably be able to convey it to the Igniter without much difficulty.
Then he would have to place it within the oven. He had almost ruptured
himself when he did it two years ago, but he hoped that he was somewhat
stronger--and luckier--this time.
It took him ten minutes to clean the Igniter oven. Then he located a
cart and pushed it back to the rack.
One cube resting at just the right height, approximately eight inches
above the level of the cart's bed. He kicked down the anchor chocks and
moved around to study the rack. The cube lay on a downward-slanting shelf,
restrained by a two-inch metal guard. He pushed at the guard. It was bolted
to the shelf.
Returning to the work area, he searched the tool boxes for a wrench.
Then he moved back to the rack and set to work on the nuts.
The guard came loose as he was working on the fourth nut. He heard a
dangerous creak and threw himself back out of the way, dropping the wrench
on his toes.
The cube slid forward, crushed the loosened rail, teetered a bare
moment, then dropped with a resounding crash onto the heavy bed of the cart.
The bed surface bent and began to crease beneath its weight; the cart swayed
toward the outside. The cube continued to slide until over half a foot
projected beyond the edge. Then the cart righted itself and shivered into
Carlson sighed and kicked loose the chocks, ready to jump back should
it suddenly give way in his direction. It held.
Gingerly, he guided it up the aisle and between the rows of generators,
until he stood before the Igniter. He anchored the cart again, stopped for
water and a cigarette, then searched up a pinch bar, a small jack and a
long, flat metal plate.
He laid the plate to bridge the front end of the cart and the opening
to the oven. He wedged the far end in beneath the Igniter's doorframe.
Unlocking the rear chocks, he inserted the jack and began to raise the
back end of the wagon, slowly, working with one hand and holding the bar
ready in his other.
The cart groaned as it moved higher. Then a sliding, grating sound
began and he raised it faster.
With a sound like the stroke of a cracked bell the cube tumbled onto
the bridgeway; it slid forward and to the left. He struck at it with the
bar, bearing to the right with all his strength. About half an inch of it
caught against the left edge of the oven frame. The gap between the cube and
the frame was widest at the bottom.
He inserted the bar and heaved his weight against it--three times.
Then it moved forward and came to rest within the Igniter.
He began to laugh. He laughed until he felt weak. He sat on the broken
cart, swinging his legs and chuckling to himself, until the sounds coming
from his throat seemed alien and out of place. He stopped abruptly and
slammed the door.
The Broadcast Panel had a thousand eyes, but none of them winked back
at him. He made the final adjustments for Transmit, then gave the generators
their last check-out.
There was still some daylight to spend, so he moved from window to
window pressing the "Open" button set below each sill.
He ate the rest of his food then, and drank a whole bottle of water and
smoked two cigarettes. Sitting on the stair, he thought of the days when he
had worked with Kelly and Murchison and Djinsky, twisting the tails of
electrons until they wailed and leapt out over the walls and fled down into
The clock! He remembered it suddenly--set high on the wall, to the left
of the doorway, frozen at 9:33 (and forty-eight seconds).
He moved a ladder through the twilight and mounted it to the clock. He
wiped the dust away from its greasy face with a sweeping, circular movement.
Then he was ready.
He crossed to the Igniter and turned it on. Somewhere the
ever-batteries came alive, and he heard a click as a thin, sharp shaft was
driven into the wall of the cube. He raced back up the stairs and sped
hand-over-hand up to the catwalk. He moved to a window and waited.
"God," he muttered, "don't let them blow! Please don't--"
Across an eternity of darkness the generators began humming. He heard a
crackle of static from the Broadcast Panel and he closed his eyes. The sound
He opened his eyes as he heard the window slide upward. All around him
the hundred high windows opened. A small light came on above the bench in
the work area below him, but he did not see it.
He was staring out beyond the wide drop of the acropolis and down into
the city. His city.
The lights were not like the stars. They beat the stars all to hell.
They were the gay, regularized constellation of a city where men made their
homes: even rows of streetlamps, advertisements, lighted windows in the
cheesebox-apartments, a random solitaire of bright squares running up the
sides of skyscraper-needles, a searchlight swivelling its luminous antenna
through cloudbanks that hung over the city.
He dashed to another window, feeling the high night breezes comb at his
beard. Belts were humming below; he heard their wry monologues rattling
through the city's deepest canyons. He pictured the people in their homes,
in theaters, in bars--talking to each other, sharing a common amusement,
playing clarinets, holding hands, eating an evening snack. Sleeping ro-cars
awakened and rushed past each other on the levels above the belts; the
background hum of the city told him its story of production, of function, of
movement and service to its inhabitants. The sky seemed to wheel overhead,
as though the city were its turning hub and the universe its outer rim.
Then the lights dimmed from white to yellow and he hurried, with
desperate steps, to another window.
"No! Not so soon! Don't leave me yet!" he sobbed.
The windows closed themselves and the lights went out. He stood on the
walk for a long time, staring at the dead embers. A smell of ozone reached
his nostrils. He was aware of a blue halo about the dying generators.
He descended and crossed the work area to the ladder he had set against
Pressing his face against the glass and squinting for a long time he
could make out the position of the hands.
"Nine thirty-five, and twenty-one seconds," Carlson read.
"Do you hear that?" he called out, shaking his fist at anything.
"Ninety-three seconds! I made you live for ninety-three seconds!"
Then he covered his face against the darkness and was silent.
After a long while he descended the stairway, walked the belt, and
moved through the long hallway and out of the Building. As he headed back
toward the mountains he promised himself--again--that he would never return.
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