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by Chester S. Geier


The sun was rising above the towers and spires of the city to the west. It sent questing fingers of brightness through the maze of streets and avenues, wiping away the last, pale shadows of night. But in the ageless splendor of the dawn, the city dreamed on.

The ship came with the dawn, riding down out of the sky on wings of flame, proclaiming its arrival in a voice of muted thunder. It came out of the west, dropping lower and lower, to cruise finally in great, slow circles. It moved over the city like a vast, silver-gray hunting hawk, searching for prey. There was something of eagerness in the leashed thunder of its voice.

Still the city dreamed on. Nothing, it seemed, could disturb its dreaming. Nothing could. It was not a sentient dreaming. It was a part of the city itself, something woven into every flowing line and graceful curve. As long as the city endured, the dream would go on.

The voice of the ship had grown plaintive, filled with an aching disappointment. Its circling was aimless, dispirited. It rose high in the sky, hesitated, then glided down and down. It landed on an expanse of green in what had once been a large and beautiful park.

It rested now on the sward, a great, silver-gray ovoid that had a certain harsh, utilitarian beauty. There was a pause of motionlessness, then a circular lock door opened in its side. Jon Gaynor appeared in the lock and jumped to the ground. He gazed across the park to where the nearest towers of the city leaped and soared, and his gray eyes were narrowed in a frown of mystification.

"Deserted!" he whispered. "Deserted— But why?"

Jon Gaynor turned as Wade Harlan emerged from the lock. The two glanced at each other, then, in mutual perplexity, their eyes turned to the dreaming city. After a long moment, Wade Harlan spoke.

"Jon, I was thinking— Perhaps this isn't the right planet. Perhaps . . . perhaps old Mark Gaynor and the Purists never landed here at all—"

Jon Gaynor shook his brown head slowly. He was a tall, lean figure in a tight-fitting, slate-gray overall. "I've considered that possibility, Wade. No—this is the place, all right. Everything checks against the data given in that old Bureau of Expeditions report. Seven planets in the system—this the second planet. And this world fits perfectly the description given in the report—almost a second Earth. Then there's the sun. Its type, density, rate of radiation, spectrum—all the rest—they check, too."

Gaynor shook his head again. "Granted there could exist another system of seven planets, with the second habitable. But it's too much to suppose that the description of that second planet, as well as the description of its sun, would exactly fit the expedition report. And the report mentioned a deserted city. We're standing in the middle of it now. The only thing that doesn't check is that it's still deserted."

Harlan gave a slight shrug. "That may not mean anything, Jon. How can you be certain that Mark Gaynor and the Purists came back here at all? The only clue you have is that old Bureau of Expeditions report, describing this city and planet, which you found among the personal effects Mark Gaynor left behind. It may not have meant anything."

"Perhaps— But I'm pretty sure it did. You see, old Mark and the Purists wanted to live far from all others, somewhere where there would be none to laugh at them for their faith in the ancient religious beliefs. The only habitable planets which answered their purposes were a tremendously remote few. Of them all, this was the only one possessing a city—and a deserted city at that."

"So you think they must have come here because of the benefits offered by the city?"

"That's one reason. The other . . . well, old Mark had a pile of Bureau of Expedition reports dating back for two hundred years. The report relating to this planetary system was marked in red, as being of special interest. It was the only report so marked—"

Harlan smiled in friendly derision. "Add that to a misplaced hero-worship for a crackpot ancestor—and the answer is that we've come on a goose chase. Lord, Jon, even with the Hyperspacial Drive to carry us back over the immense distance, it's going to be a terrific job getting back to Earth. You know what a time we had, finding this planet. The Hyperspacial Drive is a wonderful thing—but it has its drawbacks. You go in here, and you come out there—millions of miles away. If you're lucky, you're only within a few million miles or so of your destination. If not—and that's most of the time—you simply try again. And again—"

"That's a small worry," Gaynor replied. "And as for old Mark, he was hardly a crackpot. It took one hundred and twenty years for the world to realize that. His ideas on how people should live and think were fine—but they just didn't fit in with the general scheme of things. On a small group, they could have been applied beautifully. And such a group, living and thinking that way, might have risen to limitless heights of greatness. Hero-worship? No—I never had such feelings for my great-great-uncle, Mark Gaynor. I just had a feverish desire to see how far the Purists had risen—to see if their way of life had given them an advantage over others."

Harlan was sober. "Maybe we'll never learn what happened to them, Jon. The city is deserted. Either the Purists came here and left—or they never came here at all."

Gaynor straightened with purpose. "We'll learn which is the answer. I'm not leaving until we do. We'll—" Gaynor broke off, his eyes jerking toward the sky. High up and far away in the blue, something moved, a vast swarm of objects too tiny for identification. They soared and circled, dipped and swooped like birds. And as the two men from another planet watched, sounds drifted down to them—sweet, crystalline tinklings and chimings, so infinitely faint that they seemed to be sensed rather than heard.

"Life—" Harlan murmured. "There's life here of sorts, Jon."

Gaynor nodded thoughtfully. "And that may mean danger. We're going to examine the city—and I think we'd better be armed."

While Harlan watched the graceful, aimless maneuvers of the aerial creatures, Gaynor went back into the ship. In a moment, he returned with laden arms. He and Harlan strapped the antigravity flight units to their backs, buckled the positron blasters about their waists. Then they lifted into the air, soared with easy speed toward a cluster of glowing towers.

As they flew, a small cloud of the aerial creatures flashed past. The things seemed to be intelligent, for, as though catching sight of the two men, they suddenly changed course, circling with a clearly evident display of excited curiosity. The crystalline chimings and tinklings which they emitted held an elfin note of astonishment.

If astonishment it actually was, Gaynor and Harlan were equally amazed at close view of the creatures. For they were great, faceted crystals whose interiors flamed with glorious color—exquisite shades that pulsed and changed with the throb of life. Like a carillon of crystal bells, their chimings and tinklings rang out—so infinitely sweet and clear and plaintive that it was both a pain and a pleasure to hear.

"Crystalline life!" Harlan exclaimed. His voice became thoughtful. "Wonder if it's the only kind of life here."

Gaynor said nothing. He watched the circling crystal creatures with wary eyes, the positron blaster gripped in his hand. But the things gave no evidence of being inimical—or at least no evidence of being immediately so. With a last exquisite burst of chimings, they coalesced into a small cloud and soared away, glittering, flashing, with prismatic splendor in the sunlight.

On the invisible wings of their antigravity flight units, Gaynor and Harlan had approached quite close to the cluster of towers which was their goal. Gliding finally through the space between two, they found themselves within a snug, circular enclosure, about the circumference of which the towers were spaced. The floor of the enclosure was in effect a tiny park, for grass and trees grew here, and there were shaded walks built of the same palely glowing substance as the towers. In the exact center of the place was a fountain, wrought of some lustrous, silvery metal. Only a thin trickle of water came from it now.

Gaynor dipped down, landed gently beside the fountain. He bent, peering, then gestured excitedly to Harlan, who was hovering close.

"Wade—there's a bas-relief around this thing! Figures—"

Harlan touched ground, joined Gaynor in a tense scrutiny of the design. A procession of strange, lithe beings was pictured in bas-relief around the curving base of the fountain. Their forms were essentially humanoid, possessed of two arms, two legs, and large, well-formed head. Except for an exotic, fawnlike quality about the graceful, parading figures, Gaynor and Harlan might have been gazing at a depiction of garlanded, Terrestrial youths and maidens.

"The builders of the city," Gaynor said softly. "They looked a lot like us. Parallel evolution, maybe. This planet and sun are almost twins of ours. Wade—I wonder what happened to them?"

Harlan shook his shock of red hair slowly, saying nothing. His blue eyes were dark with somber speculation.

Gaynor's voice whispered on. "The city was already deserted when that government expedition discovered it some one hundred and thirty years ago. The city couldn't always have been that way. Once there were people on this planet—beings who thought and moved and dreamed, who built in material things an edifice symbolic of their dreaming. Why did they disappear? What could have been responsible? War, disease—or simply the dying out of a race?"

Harlan shrugged his great shoulders uncomfortably. His voice was gruff. "Maybe the answer is here somewhere. Maybe not. If it isn't, maybe we'll be better off, not knowing. When an entire race disappears for no apparent reason, as the people of this city seem to have done, the answer usually isn't a nice one."

The two men took to one of the paths radiating away from the fountain, followed it to a great, arching entranceway at the base of a tower-building. Slowly they entered—the sunlight dimmed and they moved through a soft gloom. Presently they found themselves in a vast foyer—if such it was. In the middle of the place was a circular dais, with steps leading to a small platform at the top.

They mounted the steps, gained the platform. Of a sudden, a faint whispering grew, and without any other warning, they began to rise slowly into the air. Harlan released a cry of surprise and shock. Gaynor ripped his positron blaster free, sought desperately to writhe from the influence of the force that had gripped him.

And then Gaynor quieted. His eyes were bright with a realization. "An elevator!" he gasped. "Wade—we stepped into some kind of elevating force."

They ceased struggling and were borne gently up and up. They passed through an opening in the ceiling of the foyer, found themselves within a circular shaft, the top of which was lost in the dimness above. Vertical handrails lined the shaft. It was only after passing two floors that they divined the purpose of these. Then, reaching the third floor, each gripped a handrail, and they stepped from the force.

They found themselves within a vast, well-lighted apartment. The source of illumination was not apparent, seeming to emanate from the very walls. Room opened after spacious room—and each was as utterly barren of furnishings as the last. Barren, that is, except for two things. The first was that the walls were covered with murals or paintings—life-sized, rich with glowing color, and almost photographic in detail. The second was that one wall of each room contained a tiny niche. Gaynor and Harlan investigated a niche in one room they entered. Within it was a solitary object—a large jewel, or at least what seemed to be a jewel.

"This is screwy," Harlan muttered. "It doesn't make sense. How could anyone have lived in a place like this?"

Gaynor's eyes were dark with thought. He answered slowly, "Don't make the mistake of judging things here according to our standard of culture. To the builders of this city, Wade, these rooms might have been thoroughly cozy and comfortable, containing every essential necessary to their daily lives."

"Maybe," Harlan grunted. "But I certainly don't see those essentials."

"This thing—" Gaynor lifted the jewel from its niche. "Maybe this thing holds an answer of some kind." Gaynor balanced the jewel in his palm, gazing down at it frowningly. His thoughts were wondering, speculative. Then the speculation faded—he found himself concentrating on the thing, as though by sheer force of will he could fathom its purpose.

And then it happened—the jewel grew cold in his hand—a faint, rose-colored glow surrounded it like an aura. A musical tinkling sounded. Harlan jumped, a yell bursting full-throated from his lungs. Gaynor spun about, surprised, uncomprehending.

"I . . . I saw things!" Harlan husked. "Objects, Jon— The room was full of them—angular ghosts!"

Gaynor stared at the other without speaking. His features were lax with a dawning awe.

Harlan said suddenly, "Try it again, Jon. Look at that thing. Maybe—"

Gaynor returned his gaze to the jewel. He forced his mind quiet, concentrated. Again the jewel grew cold, and again the tinkling sounded. Harlan was tense, rigid, his narrowed eyes probing the room. Within the room, outlines wavered mistily—outlines of things which might have been strange furniture, or queer, angular machines.

"Harder, Jon! Harder!" Harlan prompted.

Gaynor was sweating. He could feel the perspiration roll down his temples. His eyes seemed to be popping from their sockets.

Harlan strained with his peering. The outlines grew stronger, darkened—but only for a moment. The next they wavered mistily again, thinned, and were gone.

Gaynor drew a sobbing breath, straightened up. He asked, "Wade—what did you see?"

"I don't know for sure. Things—or the ghosts of things. Here—give me that. I'm going to see what I can do."

Gaynor relinquished the jewel. Holding it in his palm, Harlan gathered his thoughts, poised them, focused them. And, watching, Gaynor saw the ghostly outlines for the first time—misty suggestions of angles and curves, hints of forms whose purpose he could not guess. Alien ghosts of alien objects, summoned by will from some alien limbo.

Abruptly, the outlines faded and were gone. The tinkling of the jewel thinned and died.

Harlan drew a shuddering breath. "Jon—you saw them?"

"Yes. Dimly."

"We . . . we haven't got the strength, Jon. We haven't got the power necessary to materialize the objects—whatever they are."

"Maybe that's the drawback. Or—maybe we've got the strength, but simply can't materialize things—objects—whose size, shape, and purpose we do not know and cannot guess."

"That might be it." Harlan's voice grew sharp. "But, great space, Jon, what possibly could be the idea behind it? Why did they—that other race—construct buildings in which the rooms were left unfurnished, or which could be furnished merely by concentrating on . . . on these jewels? What could have been the reason behind it?"

Gaynor shook his head. "We'll never know that, perhaps. At least, we'll never know if we persist in thinking in terms of our own culture. The builders of this city were humanoid, Wade—but mentally they were alien. Don't forget that. These rooms may not have been living quarters at all. They may have been repositories for valuable things, of which the jewels were the means of materializing. Only those who knew how could materialize them. Thus, perhaps, those things were kept safe."

"That might be it," Harlan muttered. "It makes sense."

"These pictures"—Gaynor gestured at the paintings on the walls—"might contain the answer. If we knew how to read them, they might tell us the purpose of these empty rooms—why the furnishings or machines had to be materialized. I wonder, Wade . . . I wonder if each of these pictures is complete in itself, or if each is part of a greater series. You know—like a book. You read one page, and it doesn't make sense. You read the whole thing—and it does."

"The beginning, Jon," Harlan whispered. "We'd have to start at the beginning."

"Yes—the beginning."

Harlan replaced the jewel in its niche, and on the invisible wings of their antigravity flight units, they glided back to the force shaft. Here they switched off their units, allowed the force to carry them up. But the apartments on the upper floors contained nothing new or illuminating. Like the first they had visited, these were empty, save for the wall paintings and the jewels in their niches. They returned to the shaft again, this time to meet a complication.

"Say—how do we get down?" Harlan puzzled. "This thing has been carrying us up all the time, and there doesn't seem to be another one for descending."

"Why, you simply will yourself to go down," Gaynor said. Then he looked blankly surprised.

Harlan nodded gravely. "Of course," he said. "That's the answer. I should have thought of it myself."

They descended. Outside, the sun was bright and warm. Under its light the city dreamed on.

Gaynor and Harlan soared through the warmth. The city was very bright and still. Far away and high in the blue, glittering swarms of the crystal creatures darted. Their tinkling and chiming drifted down to the two men.

Gaynor and Harlan descended several times to investigate tower buildings, but these were very much like the first they had visited. The spacious apartments seemed to echo in their strange emptiness, each one seemingly louder than the last. Twice they took turns, attempted to materialize the unguessable furnishings of the rooms. Each time they failed. And afterward they did not disturb the jewels in their niches. They merely gazed at the flaming wall paintings, and came away.

Again they glided through the air, though slowly and thoughtfully, now. They were silent. Beneath them, the city dreamed. Once a cloud of crystal creatures flashed past, sparkling, chiming, but the two did not seem to notice.

"Jon—?" Harlan's voice was hesitant.


"I don't know how to put it into words, but—well, don't you feel that you are beginning to know?"

"Yes—there's the ghost of something in my mind. Those pictures, Wade—"

"Yes, Jon, the pictures."

Again they were silent. Gaynor broke the silence.

"Wade—all my life I've been reading primers. Someone just gave me a college textbook, and I glanced through several pages. Naturally, I did not understand, but here and there I found words familiar to me. They left a ghost in my mind—"

"You've got to go back to the beginning, Jon. You've got to read all the books which will help you to understand that college textbook."

"Yes, Wade, the beginning—"

They drifted on while the city dreamed beneath them. The sun was a swaddling blanket of brightness. Like memory-sounds, faint chimings and tinklings wafted on the air.

And then Gaynor was grasping Harlan's arm. "Wade—down there. Look!" He pointed tensely.

Harlan stiffened as he saw it. The ship was a tiny thing, almost lost amid the greenery of the park. Almost in unison, the two touched the controls of their antigravity flight units, arrowed down in a swift, gentle arc.

The ship was very big, like no ship they had ever seen before. It was a thing of harsh angles, built of some strange red metal or alloy that gleamed in the sunlight with the hue of blood. A square opening gaped in its side. Slowly, Gaynor and Harlan entered it.

It was as though they entered the gloom of another world. Little of what they saw was familiar to them, and they had to guess the purpose of the rest. There were passageways and corridors, and rooms opened from these. A few they were able to identify, but the rest, filled with queer, angular furniture and sprawling machines, escaped classification. They left the ship—and the sunlight felt good.

Gaynor's voice rustled dryly. "They were humanoid, Wade, the people who built that ship. If nothing else made sense, the things we saw showed that. But the people who made that ship were not of the city. They were spawned on some planet circling another sun."

"They came here," Harlan rasped. "They came—and they left that ship behind—Jon . . . they came . . . and they never left this world—"

"Wade—I'm thinking. There might have been other ships—"

Harlan touched the butt of his positron blaster, and his face was pale. "We've got to look, Jon. That's something we've got to know."

They lifted into the air. Circling and dipping, they searched. The sun was at zenith when they found the second ship. By mid-afternoon they had found a third and a fourth. The fourth was the Ark, the hyperspacial cruiser in which old Mark Gaynor and his band of Purists had left the Earth some one hundred and twenty years before.

The four ships which Gaynor and Harlan had found had two things in common. Each had been built by a different humanoid people, and each was completely deserted. Other than this, there was no basis of comparison between them. Each was separate and distinct, unique in its alienness. Even the Ark, long outmoded, seemed strange.

In the Ark, Gaynor and Harlan found nothing to indicate what had happened to its passengers. Everything was orderly and neat—more, even in the most excellent condition. Nothing written had been left behind, not the slightest scrap of rotting paper.

Gaynor whispered, "They did come here, then. And the same thing happened to them that happened to all the rest of the people who landed here. The same thing, I'm sure, that happened to the builders of the city. Why did they leave these ships behind? Where did they go? What could have happened to them?"

Harlan shook his red head somberly. "We'd better not know that. If we stay and try to find out, the same thing will happen to us. The government expedition which discovered this planet encountered the same mystery—but they didn't try to find out. They returned to Earth. Jon—we'd better get back to the Paragon. We'd better leave while we can."

"And in time more people would come to settle here. And there would be more empty ships." Gaynor's lips tightened to a stubborn line. "Wade—I'm not leaving until I crack the mystery of this place. I'm going to find what happened to old Mark and the Purists. We've been warned—we'll be on the alert."

Harlan met Gaynor's determined gaze, and then he looked away. He moistened his lips. After a long moment he gave a stiff nod. His voice was very low.

"Then we've got to start at the beginning, Jon. Those pictures—"

"Yes, Wade, the pictures. I'm sure they hold the answer to the whole thing. We've got to find that beginning. You've noticed how the city is strung out. At one end is the beginning, at the other—"

"The end!" Harlan said abruptly.

"No. Wade. The answer."

They returned first to the Paragon, to satisfy pangs of hunger too intense to be ignored any longer. Then, donning their antigravity flight units once more, they took to the air. They circled several times, set out finally for a point on the horizon where the city thinned out and finally terminated.

Their flight ended at a single, slender tower set in the midst of a parklike expanse. That they had reached the end of the city, they knew, for ahead of them no other building was in sight. They floated to the ground, stared silently at the tower. It glowed with a chaste whiteness in the late afternoon light—serene, somewhat aloof, lovely in its simplicity and solitariness.

Harlan spoke softly. "The beginning? Or—the end?"

"That's what we have to find out," Gaynor responded. "We're going in there, Wade."

The interior of the tower was dark and cool, filled with the solemn hush of a cathedral. It consisted solely of one great room, its ceiling lost in sheerness of height. And except for the ever-present wall paintings, it was empty—utterly bare.

Gaynor and Harlan gazed at the paintings, and then they looked at each other, and slowly they nodded. Silently they left.

"That . . . that wasn't the beginning," Harlan stated slowly.

"No, Wade. That was—the end. The beginning lies on the opposite side of the city. But we'll have to postpone our investigation until morning. We wouldn't reach the other end of the city until dark."

They returned to the Paragon. The sun was setting behind the towers of the city to the east, sinking into a glory of rose and gold. Slowly the paling fingers of its radiance withdrew from the city. Night came in all its starry splendor.

Gaynor and Harlan were up with the dawn. Eagerness to be back at their investigations fired them. They hurried impatiently through breakfast. Then, attaching kits of emergency ration concentrates to their belts and donning their antigravity flight units, they took to the air.

As they flew, Gaynor and Harlan had to remind themselves that this was the second day of their visit and not the first, so closely did the new day resemble the one preceding. Nothing had changed. The city beneath them still dreamed on. And far away and high in the blue, glittering clouds of the crystal creatures darted and danced, their chimings and tinklings sounding like echoes of melody from an elfin world.

The sun was bright and warm when Gaynor and Harlan reached the end of the city opposite the one which they had investigated the day before. Here they found no slender tower. There was nothing to show that this part of the city was in any way different from the rest. The general plan of tower-encircled courts was the same as everywhere else. The city merely terminated—or looking at it the other way, merely began.

Gaynor and Harlan glided down into one of the very first of the tower-encircled courts. They touched ground, switched off their flight units, stood gazing slowly about them.

Gaynor muttered, "The beginning? Or— Maybe we were wrong, Wade. Maybe there is no beginning."

"Those towers should tell us," Harlan said. "Let's have a look inside them, Jon."

They entered an arching doorway, strode into a great foyer. Within this they had their first indication that this part of the city actually was different from the rest. For within the foyer was no dais and force shaft as they had found previously. Instead, a broad stairway led to the floors above.

They mounted the stairs. The walls of the first apartment they investigated were covered with paintings, as everywhere else, but this time the spacious rooms were not empty. They were furnished. Gaynor and Harlan gazed upon softly gleaming objects which very clearly were tables and chairs, deep, luxurious couches, and cabinets of various sizes and shapes. At first everything seemed strange to them, and as they glanced about, they found themselves comparing the furniture to that which they had seen in homes on Earth. And after a while things no longer seemed strange at all.

Gaynor blinked his eyes rapidly several times. He frowned puzzledly. "Wade—either I'm crazy, or this room has changed."

Harlan was gazing at the wall paintings. His voice came as from far away. "Changed? Why, yes. Things are as they should be—now."

Gaynor gazed at the walls, and then he nodded. "That's right, Wade. Of course."

Gaynor walked over to a low cabinet. Somewhere before he had seen a cabinet like this one. He felt that he should know its purpose, yet it eluded him. He stared at it musingly. And then he remembered something—his eyes lifted to the paintings on the wall. No. The other wall? Yes.

Gaynor looked at the cabinet again—and now a slow murmur of melody arose within the room. Hauntingly familiar, poignantly sweet, yet formless. Gaynor looked at the walls again. The melody shaped itself, grew stronger, and the lilting strains of a spaceman's song flooded richly through the room.

I'm blasting the far trails,
Following the star trails,
Taking the home trails,
Back, dear, to you— 


"The Star Trails Home to You," Gaynor whispered. Sudden nostalgia washed over him in a wave. Home. The Earth— His eyes lifted to the walls, and he was comforted.

Gaynor looked around for Harlan. He found the other standing before a second cabinet across the room. Gaynor approached him, noting as he did so that Harlan stood strangely rigid and still. In alarm, Gaynor ran the remaining distance. Harlan did not seem to notice. His face was rapt, trance-like.

Gaynor grasped Harlan's arm, shook him. "Wade! Wade—what is it? Snap out of it!"

Harlan stirred. Expression came back into his features—his eyes sharped upon Gaynor's face. "What . . . what— Oh, it's you, Jon. She . . . she had red hair, and . . . and her arms were around me, and—" Harlan broke off, flushing.

Investigation of the cabinets in the other rooms produced still more interesting results. One had a spigot projecting from its front, with a catchbasin below, much like a drinking fountain. Gaynor looked at the wall paintings, and then he looked at the spigot, and suddenly liquid jetted from it. He tasted it cautiously, nodded approvingly, not at all surprised.

"Scotch," he said. "I'll have it with soda."

"Hurry up, then," Harlan prompted impatiently.

There was another cabinet that they found particularly interesting. This one had a foot-square opening in its front, and after Gaynor and Harlan had gotten their proper instructions from the paintings, they moved on—each munching at a delicious leg of roast chicken.

Not all the cabinets produced things which were edible or audible, but all opened up new vistas of thought and experience. Gaynor and Harlan learned the purpose of each, and already in their minds they were devising new methods of test and application. The wall paintings were very extensive, and they were learning rapidly.

That was the beginning—

After the cabinets, which supplied every possible physical or mental want, came the machines. Simple things at first, for Gaynor and Harlan were still in the equivalent of kindergarten. But they were humanoid—and, therefore, inquisitive. The machines were delightful and of absorbing interest. Once their purpose and function became known, however, their novelty died, and Gaynor and Harlan quested on for new fields to conquer. Thus, in a very few days, they moved to the next unit.

Here was the same plan of tower-encircled court, but the cabinets and machines had become more complicated, more difficult of operation. But Gaynor and Harlan had become quite adept at reading the wall paintings which were their primers. They learned—

Instruction followed application, and in a very few days again, Gaynor and Harlan moved on. Thus they went, from unit to unit, and always the wall paintings pointed out the way.

The sun rose and the sun set, and the city dreamed on. And always, high in the sky, the crystal creatures circled and soared, tinkling and chiming. The days passed gently, mere wraiths of sunlight.

The machines grew larger, more intricate, ever more difficult of solution. Each was a new test upon the growing knowledge of Gaynor and Harlan. And each test was harder than the last, for the wall paintings no longer pointed out the way, but merely hinted now.

Gaynor and Harlan progressed more slowly, though none the less steadily. They were not impatient. They had no sense of restless striving toward a future goal. They lived for the present. They were submerged heart and soul in the never-ending fascinations of their environment to the exclusion of all else.

The machines continued to grow larger. At one point they were so huge, that a single machine filled an entire apartment. But that was the climax, for afterward the machines grew smaller, ever smaller, until at last they came to a unit the apartments of which were empty. Empty, that is, except for the wall paintings and the jewels in their niches.

Harlan peered about him, frowning. "I seem to remember this place."

"It is familiar," Gaynor said. His brows drew together, and after a time he nodded. "We were here before, I think. But that was many toree ago, when we were children."

"Yes—when we were children. I recall it, now." Harlan smiled reminiscently. "It is strange we knew so little as children that it should be so easily forgotten."

"Yes, we have grown. The memories of childhood are very dim. I can recall some things, but they are not very clear. There was a purpose that brought us to the city. A purpose— But what else could it have been than to learn? And there was a mystery. But there is nothing mysterious about the city, nothing strange at all. Mere imaginings of childhood perhaps—meaningless trifles at best. We will not let them concern us now. We have grown."

Harlan nodded gravely, and his blue eyes, deep with an ocean of new knowledge, lifted to the painting-covered walls. "Events of the past should no longer concern us. We have entered upon the Third Stage. The tasks of this alone should occupy our thoughts."

"Yes—the past has been left behind." Gaynor was looking at the walls. "The Third Stage. The tasks will be very difficult, Wade—but interesting. We'll be putting our knowledge into practice—actually creating. This means we'll have to deal directly with the powers of the various soldani and varoo. As these are extradimensional, control will be solely by cholthening at the six level, through means of the taadron. We'll have to be careful, though—any slightest relaxation of the sorran will have a garreling effect—"

"I guessed that. But there must be some way to minimize the garreling effect, if it should occur."

"A field of interwoven argroni of the eighth order should prevent it from becoming overpowering."

"We can try it. You're working on the woratis patterns?"

"Yes. I've managed to cholthen them into the fifth stage of development."

"Mine's the vandari patterns. I've found them more interesting than those of the woratis. Fourth stage of development. I'm starting at once. I'll use the next room."

Harlan left, and Gaynor took the jewel from its niche—the taadron, that is—and set his cholthening power at the sixth level. The thing flamed gloriously in his hand—light pulsed out in great, soft waves, washed over the wall paintings, made them glow with exquisite richness. Unearthly melody filled the room, tuneless, silver-sweet. Gaynor was creating. And as he did so, things began to take on form and substance within the room—things which might have been machines, but weren't machines, because they were intelligent and alive in a way no machine can ever be. Finally, Gaynor and his creations communicated. It was somewhat difficult at first, but he was well along now, and took the difficulty in his stride.

Gaynor learned things—just as, in the other room, Harlan was learning, too. And then he took up the taadron again and cholthened. The things which he had created vanished. He began to develop the woratis patterns into the fifth stage—

Bright day blended into bright day, gently, unnoticeably. The city floated on the gentle, green swells of the planet, and floating, dreamed.

After a time, Gaynor and Harlan moved on to the next unit. Then the next—and the next. Soon it came to pass that they entered the Fourth Stage. This, they knew, was the last one, but what came afterward did not worry them. They had reached a level of mind which was beyond all worrying.

The Third Stage had changed them greatly, though they were not aware of it. They would not have been concerned even if they had. They no longer used their natural vocal apparatus, now, for they had come to think in terms which simply could not have been put into words. They had become telepathic, conversing in pure ideas of the highest order. And they no longer materialized their food from the atoms of the air. A simple rearrangement of their body cells—simple, when understood as they understood it—now enabled them to feed directly upon certain nourishing extradimensional subatomic energies. And the antigravity flight units, which they had reduced to the size of peas for convenience, were now discarded entirely. They had learned to fly without the aid of any device.

The Fourth Stage changed them still further. They created now—the word does not quite describe their activities—without the aid of the taadron, for they had learned to ennathen, which was as great an advancement over cholthening as telepathy is over speech. Thus is came about that Gaynor and Harlan—or the beings who once had been Gaynor and Harlan—found their bodies an annoying encumbrance. For arms and legs, heart and lungs, and the senses and nerves which use of these required, had become quite unnecessary to them. They had outgrown these impedimenta of their childhood.

They spoke of this now by a telepathic means that was not quite telepathy, and they wondered what to do. For though they had mastered well the wall paintings which were their college textbooks, there was no clear answer. Their discussion of the problem could not have been made understandable, however roughly it might have been put, but suffice it to say that at last they reached a decision.

They had progressed from one end of the city to the edge of the other. Not quite the edge, though—for there was one building in which they had not yet narleened. They had examined it before, of course, but that was when they had been children—in those dim, pale days when they did not understand.

They decided to vogelar to this very last building. Here, perhaps, every question would be answered.

It was dawn when they vogelared through the arching doorway. The first feeble rays of morning crept through the opening—the interior of the Temple was very dark and cool. All the dreaming of the city seemed to be concentrated here in one vast stillness.

The beings who once had been Gaynor and Harlan narleened the paintings on the walls of the Temple, gazed upon them with this new, all-embracing sense which went far beyond the limited realms of mere vision—so that almost the paintings spoke to them and they answered back. They narleened the paintings.

Their every question was answered—for all eternity.

And thus it came about, after a time, that two great, faceted crystals emerged from the doorway of the Temple, and lifted, pulsing with a vibrant new life, flashing in rainbow splendor, into the sky. Higher, they lifted, and higher, chiming and tinkling, soaring to join the others of their kind.

The sun shone brightly in the sky. High and far away in the blue, glittering clouds of crystal creatures darted and danced, sending wave after exquisite wave of crystalline melody upon the gentle shores of air. Among them now were two who had still to learn the intricacies of flight.

And the city dreamed on.

A perfect environment, the city. Ideal for the inquisitive humanoid.




Afterword by David Drake

When I read "Environment" in Groff Conklin's The Omnibus of Science Fiction I didn't know who Chester S. Geier was. At the time I barely knew who Heinlein was, so that isn't surprising. Geier wrote quite a lot of SF in the '40s, during the Golden Age—but not of the Golden Age, because he wrote mostly for the Ziff-Davis magazines, Amazing and Fantastic Adventures, which were then edited by Ray Palmer. These magazines were and are widely reviled as the worst kind of juvenile trash . . . but issue for issue, they outsold John W. Campbell's Astounding by more than three to one.

Geier did sell four stories to Campbell, though: this story and another to Astounding, and two more to Unknown, Astounding's fantasy companion. "Environment" is the only one that stands out, but it stands very far out.

When I first read "Environment," I thought it was about a trap of the most subtle and effective kind, one which the victim can't resist even when he sees it clearly. And you know, maybe that is what the story's about: you start with human beings and at the end they've been destroyed.

But consider another way of describing the action: you start with animals, and at the end all their animal nature has been polished away.

When I reread "Environment," I remembered the time I looked into the back of a second-year Latin book before I'd started taking the language. "How could anyone make sense of this?" I thought. But a few years later I was sight-reading those passages from Caesar easily; and now I translate far more difficult Latin authors for the pleasure of keeping my mind supple.

"Environment" is a story about education.


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