Carlson stood on the hill in the silent center of the city whose people
had died.
     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,
wide doorway.
     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
weight.
     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
vanishing quickly.
     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
steadiness.
     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 city.
     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
died.
     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
the wall.
     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.


Популярность: 14, Last-modified: Fri, 18 Sep 1998 16:10:15 GMT