Ash, black and desolate, stretched out on both sides of the road. Uneven heaps extended as far as the eye could see -- the dim ruins of buildings, cities, a civilization -- a corroded planet of debris, wind-whipped black particles of bone and steel and concrete mixed together in an aimless mortar.
Allen Fergesson yawned, lit a Lucky Strike, and settled back drowsily against the shiny leather seat of his '57 Buick. "Depressing damn sight," he commented. "The monotony -- nothing but mutilated trash. It gets you down."
"Don't look at it," the girl beside him said indifferently.
The sleek, powerful car glided silently over the rubble that made up the road. His hand barely touching the power-driven wheel, Fergesson relaxed comfortably to the soothing music of a Brahms Piano Quintet filtering from the radio, a transmission of the Detroit settlement. Ash blew up against the windows -- a thick coat of black had already formed, though he had gone no more than a few miles. But it didn't matter. In the basement of her apartment, Charlotte had a green-plastic garden hose, a zinc bucket and a DuPont sponge.
"And you have a refrigerator full of good Scotch," he added aloud. "As I recall -- unless that fast crowd of yours has finished it off."
Charlotte stirred beside him. She had drifted into half-sleep, lulled by the purr of the motor and the heavy warmth of the air. "Scotch?" she murmured. "Well, I have a fifth of Lord Calvert." She sat up and shook back her cloud of blonde hair. "But it's a little puddinged."
In the back seat, their thin-faced passenger responded. They had picked him up along the way, a bony, gaunt man in coarse gray work-pants and shirt. "How puddinged?" he asked tautly.
"About as much as everything else," she said.
Charlotte wasn't listening. She was gazing vacantly through the ash-darkened window at the scene outside. To the right of the road, the jagged, yellowed remains of a town jutted up like broken teeth against the sooty midday sky. A bathtub here, a couple of upright telephone poles, bones and bleak fragments, lost amid miles of pocked debris. A forlorn, dismal sight. Somewhere in the moldy cave-like cellars a few mangy dogs huddled against the chill. The thick fog of ash kept real sunlight from reaching the surface.
"Look there," Fergesson said to the man in the back.
A mock-rabbit had bounded across the ribbon of road. He slowed the car to avoid it. Blind, deformed, the rabbit hurtled itself with sickening force against a broken concrete slab and bounced off, stunned. It crawled feebly a few paces, then one of the cellar dogs rose and crunched it.
"Ugh!" said Charlotte, revolted. She shuddered and reached to turn up the car heater. Slim legs tucked under her, she was an attractive little figure in her pink wool sweater and embroidered skirt. "I'll be glad when we get back to my settlement. It's not nice out here -- "
Fergesson tapped the steel box on the seat between them. The firm metal felt good under his fingers. "They'll be glad to get hold of these," he said, "if things are as bad as you say."
"Oh, yes," Charlotte agreed. "Things are terrible. I don't know if this will help -- he's just about useless." Her small smooth face wrinkled with concern. "I guess it's worth trying. But I can't see much hope."
"We'll fix up your settlement," Fergesson reassured her easily. The first item was to put the girl's mind to rest. Panic of this kind could get out of hand -- had got out of hand, more than once. "But it'll take a while," he added, glancing at her. "You should have told us sooner."
"We thought it was just laziness. But he's really going, Allen." Fear flicked in her blue eyes. "We can't get anything good out of him anymore. He just sits there like a big lump, as if he's sick or dead."
"He's old," Fergesson said gently. "As I recall, your Biltong dates back a hundred and fifty years."
"But they're supposed to go on for centuries!"
"It's a terrible drain on them," the man in the back seat pointed out. He licked his dry lips, leaned forward tensely, his dirt-cracked hands clenched. "You're forgetting this isn't natural to them. On Proxima they worked together. Now they've broken up into separate units -- and gravity is greater here."
Charlotte nodded, but she wasn't convinced. "Gosh!" she said plaintively. "It's just terrible -- look at this!" She fumbled in her sweater pocket and brought out a small bright object the size of a dime. "Everything he prints is like this, now -- or worse."
Fergesson took the watch and examined it, one eye on the road. The strap broke like a dried leaf between his fingers into small brittle fragments of dark fiber without tensile strength. The face of the watch looked all right -- but the hands weren't moving.
"It doesn't run," Charlotte explained. She grabbed it back and opened it. "See?" She held it up in front of his face, her crimson lips tight with displeasure. "I stood in line half an hour for this, and it's just a blob!"
The works of the tiny Swiss watch were a fused, unformed mass of shiny steel. No separate wheels or jewels or springs, just a glitter of pudding.
"What did he have to go on?" the man in back asked. "An original?"
"A print -- but a good print. One he did thirty-five years ago -- my mother's, in fact. How do you think I felt when I saw it? I can't use it." Charlotte took the puddinged watch back and restored it to her sweater pocket. "I was so mad I --" She broke off and sat up straight. "Oh, we're here. See the red neon sign? That's the beginning of the settlement."
The sign read STANDARD STATIONS INC. Its colors were blue, red, and white -- a spotlessly clean structure at the edge of the road. Spotless? Fergesson slowed the car as he came abreast of the station. All three of them peered out intently, stiffening for the shock they knew was coming.
"You see?" said Charlotte in a thin, clipped voice.
The gas station was crumbling away. The small white building was old -- old and worn, a corroded, uncertain thing that sagged and buckled like an ancient relic. The bright red neon sign sputtered fitfully. The pumps were rusted and bent. The gas station was beginning to settle back into the ash, back into black, drifting particles, back to the dust from which it had come.
As Fergesson gazed at the sinking station, the chill of death touched him. In his settlement, there was no decay -- yet. As fast as prints wore out, they were replaced by the Pittsburgh Biltong. New prints were made from the original objects preserved from the War. But here, the prints that made up the settlement were not being replaced.
It was useless to blame anyone. The Biltong were limited, like any race. They had done the best they could -- and they were working in an alien environment.
Probably they were indigenous to the Centaurus system. They had appeared in the closing days of the War, attracted by the H-bomb flashes -- and found the remnants of the human race creeping miserably through radioactive black ash, trying to salvage what they could of their destroyed culture.
After a period of analysis, the Biltong had separated into individual units, begun the process of duplicating surviving artifacts humans brought to them. That was their mode of survival -- on their own planet, they had created an enclosing membrane of satisfactory environment in an otherwise hostile world.
At one of the gasoline pumps a man was trying to fill the tank of his '66 Ford. Cursing in futility, he tore the rotting hose away. Dull amber fluid poured on the ground and soaked into the grease-encrusted gravel. The pump itself spouted leaks in a dozen places. Abruptly, one of the pumps tottered and crashed in a heap.
Charlotte rolled down the car window. "The Shell station is in better shape, Ben!" she called. "At the other end of the settlement."
The heavyset man clumped over, red-faced and perspiring. "Damnl" he muttered. "I can't get a damn thing out of it. Give me a lift across town, and I'll fill me a bucket there."
Fergesson shakily pushed open the car door. "It's all like this here?"
"Worse." Ben Untermeyer settled back gratefully with their other passenger as the Buick purred ahead. "Look over there."
A grocery store had collapsed in a twisted heap of concrete and steel supports. The windows had fallen in. Stacks of goods lay strewn everywhere. People were picking their way around, gathering up armloads, trying to clear some of the debris aside. Their faces were grim and angry.
The street itself was in bad repair, full of cracks, deep pits and eroded shoulders. A broken water main oozed slimy water in a growing pool. The stores and cars on both sides were dirty and run-down. Everything had a senile look. A shoe-shine parlor was boarded up, its broken windows stuffed with rags, its sign peeling and shabby. A filthy cafe next door had only a couple of patrons, miserable men in rumpled business suits, trying to read their newspapers and drink the mud-like coffee from cups that cracked and dribbled ugly brown fluid as they lifted them from the worm-eaten counter.
"It can't last much longer," Untermeyer muttered, as he mopped his forehead. "Not at this rate. People are even scared to go into the theatre. Anyhow, the film breaks and half the time it's upside-down." He glanced curiously at the lean-jawed man sitting silently beside him. "My name's Untermeyer," he grunted.
They shook. "John Dawes," the gray-wrapped man answered. He volunteered no more information. Since Fergesson and Charlotte had picked him up along the road, he hadn't said fifty words.
Untermeyer got a rolled-up newspaper from his coat pocket and tossed it onto the front seat beside Fergesson. "This is what I found on the porch, this morning."
The newspaper was a jumble of meaningless words. A vague blur of broken type, watery ink that still hadn't dried, faint, streaked and uneven. Fergesson briefly scanned the text, but it was useless. Confused stories wandered off aimlessly, bold headlines proclaimed nonsense.
"Allen has some originals for us," Charlotte said. "In the box there."
"They won't help," Untermeyer answered gloomily. "He didn't stir all morning. I waited in line with a pop-up toaster I wanted a print of. No dice. I was driving back home when my car began to break down. I looked under the hood, but who knows anything about motors? That's not our business. I poked around and got it to run as far as the Standard station... the damn metal's so weak I put my thumb through it."
Fergesson pulled his Buick to a halt in front of the big white apartment building where Charlotte lived. It took him a moment to recognize it; there had been changes since he last saw it, a month before. A wooden scaffolding, clumsy and amateur, had been erected around it. A few workmen were poking uncertainly at the foundations; the whole building was sinking slowly to one side. Vast cracks yawned up and down the walls. Bits of plaster were strewn everywhere. The littered sidewalk in front of the building was roped off.
"There isn't anything we can do on our own," Untermeyer complained angrily. "All we can do is just sit and watch everything fall apart. If he doesn't come to life soon..."
"Everything he printed for us in the old days is beginning to wear out," Charlotte said, as she opened the car door and slid onto the pavement. "And everything he prints for us now is a pudding. So what are we going to do?" She shivered in the chill midday cold. "I guess we're going to wind up like the Chicago settlement."
The word froze all four of them. Chicago, the settlement that had collapsed! The Biltong printing there had grown old and died. Exhausted, he had settled into a silent, unmoving mound of inert matter. The buildings and streets around him, all the things he had printed, had gradually worn out and returned to black ash. "He didn't spawn," Charlotte whispered fearfully. "He used himself up printing, and then he just -- died."
After a time, Fergesson said huskily, "But the others noticed. They sent a replacement as soon as they could."
"It was too late!" Untermeyer grunted. "The settlement had already gone back. All that was left were maybe a couple of survivors wandering around with nothing on, freezing and starving, and the dogs devouring them. The damn dogs, flocking from everywhere, having a regular feast!"
They stood together on the corroded sidewalk, frightened and apprehensive. Even John Dawes' lean face had a look of bleak horror on it, a fear that cut to the bone. Fergesson thought yearningly of his own settlement, a dozen miles to the East. Thriving and virile -- the Pittsburgh Biltong was in his prime, still young and rich with the creative powers of his race. Nothing like this! The buildings in the Pittsburgh settlement were strong and spotless. The sidewalks were clean and firm underfoot. In the store windows, the television sets and mixers and toasters and autos and pianos and clothing and whiskey and frozen peaches were perfect prints of the originals -- authentic, detailed reproductions that couldn't be told from the actual articles preserved in the vacuum-sealed subsurface shelters.
"If this settlement goes out," Fergesson said awkwardly, "maybe a few of you can come over with us."
"Can your Biltong print for more than a hundred people?" John Dawes asked softly.
"Right now he can," Fergesson answered. He proudly indicated his Buick. "You rode in it -- you know how good it is. Almost as good as the original it was printed from. You'd have to have them side by side to tell the difference." He grinned and made an old joke. "Maybe I got away with the original."
"We don't have to decide now," Charlotte said curtly. "We still have some time, at least." She picked up the steel box from the seat of the Buick and moved toward the steps of the apartment building. "Come on up with us, Ben." She nodded toward Dawes. "You, too. Have a shot of whiskey. It's not too bad -- tastes a little like anti-freeze, and the label isn't legible, but other than that it's not too puddinged."
A workman caught her as she put a foot on the bottom step. "You can't go up, miss."
Charlotte pulled away angrily, her face pale with dismay. "My apartment's up there! All my things -- this is where I live!"
"The building isn't safe," the workman repeated. He wasn't a real workman. He was one of the citizens of the settlement, who had volunteered to guard the buildings that were deteriorating. "Look at the cracks, miss."
"They've been there for weeks." Impatiently, Charlotte waved Fergesson after her. "Come on." She stepped nimbly up onto the porch and reached to open the big glass-and-chrome front door.
The door fell from its hinges and burst. Glass shattered everywhere, a cloud of lethal shards flying in all directions. Charlotte screamed and stumbled back. The concrete crumbled under her heels; with a groan the whole porch settled down in a heap of white powder, a shapeless mound of billowing particles.
Fergesson and the workman caught hold of the struggling girl. In the swirling clouds of concrete dust, Untermeyer searched frantically for the steel box; his fingers closed over it and he dragged it to the sidewalk.
Fergesson and the workman fought back through the ruins of the porch, Charlotte gripped between them. She was trying to speak, but her face jerked hysterically.
"My things!" she managed to whisper.
Fergesson brushed her off unsteadily. "Where are you hurt? Are you all right?"
"I'm not hurt." Charlotte wiped a trickle of blood and white powder from her face. Her cheek was cut, and her blonde hair was a sodden mass. Her pink wool sweater was torn and ragged. Her clothes were totally ruined. "The box -- have you got it?"
"It's fine," John Dawes said impassively. He hadn't moved an inch from his position by the car.
Charlotte hung on tight to Fergesson -- against him, her body shuddered with fear and despair. "Look!" she whispered. "Look at my hands." She held up her white-stained hands. "It's beginning to turn black."
The thick powder streaking her hands and arms had begun to darken. Even as they watched, the powder became gray, then black as soot. The girl's shredded clothing withered and shriveled up. Like a shrunken husk, her clothing cracked and fell away from her body.
"Get in the car," Fergesson ordered. "There's a blanket in there -- from my settlement."
Together, he and Untermeyer wrapped the trembling girl in the heavy wool blanket. Charlotte crouched against the seat, her eyes wide with terror, drops of bright blood sliding down her cheek onto the blue and yellow stripes of the blanket. Fergesson lit a cigarette and put it between her quivering lips.
"Thanks." She managed a grateful half-whimper. She took hold of the cigarette shakily. "Allen, what the hell are we going to do?"
Fergesson softly brushed the darkening powder from the girl's blonde hair. "We'll drive over and show him the originals I brought. Maybe he can do something. They're always stimulated by the sight of new things to print from. Maybe this'll arouse some life in him."
"He's not just asleep," Charlotte said in a stricken voice. "He's dead, Allen. I know it!"
"Not yet," Untermeyer protested thickly. But the realization was in the minds of all of them.
"Has he spawned?" Dawes asked.
The look on Charlotte's face told them the answer. "He tried to. There were a few that hatched, but none of them lived. I've seen eggs back there, but..."
She was silent. They all knew. The Biltong had become sterile in their struggle to keep the human race alive. Dead eggs, progeny hatched without life...
Fergesson slid in behind the wheel and harshly slammed the door. The door didn't close properly. The metal was sprung -- or perhaps it was misshapen. His hackles rose. Here, too, was an imperfect print -- a trifle, a microscopic element botched in the printing. Even his sleek, luxurious Buick was puddinged. The Biltong at his settlement was wearing out, too.
Sooner or later, what had happened to the Chicago settlement would happen to them all...
Around the park, rows of automobiles were lined up, silent and unmoving. The park was full of people. Most of the settlement was there. Everybody had something that desperately needed printing. Fergesson snapped off the motor and pocketed the keys.
"Can you make it?" he asked Charlotte. "Maybe you'd better stay here."
"I'll be all right," Charlotte said, and tried to smile.
She had put on a sports shirt and slacks that Fergesson had picked up for her in the ruins of a decaying clothing store. He felt no qualms -- a number of men and women were picking listlessly through the scattered stock that littered the sidewalk. The clothing would be good for perhaps a few days.
Fergesson had taken his time picking Charlotte's wardrobe. He had found a heap of sturdy-fibered shirts and slacks in the back storeroom, material still a long way from the dread black pulverization. Recent prints? Or, perhaps -- incredible but possible -- originals the store owners had used for printing. At a shoe store still in business, he found her a pair of low-heeled slippers. It was his own belt she wore -- the one he had picked up in the clothing store rotted away in his hands while he was buckling it around her.
Untermeyer gripped the steel box with both hands as the four of them approached the center of the park. The people around them were silent and grim-faced. No one spoke. They all carried some article, originals carefully preserved through the centuries or good prints with only minor imperfections. On their faces were desperate hope and fear fused, in a taut mask.
"Here they are," said Dawes, lagging behind. "The dead eggs."
In a grove of trees at the edge of the park was a circle of gray-brown pellets, the size of basketballs. They were hard, calcified. Some were broken. Fragments of shell were littered everywhere.
Untermeyer kicked at one egg; it fell apart, brittle and empty. "Sucked dry by some animal," he stated. "We're seeing the end, Fergesson. I think dogs sneak in here at night, now, and get at them. He's too weak to protect them."
A dull undercurrent of outrage throbbed through the waiting men and women. Their eyes were red-rimmed with anger as they stood clutching their objects, jammed in together in a solid mass, a circle of impatient, indignant humanity ringing the center of the park. They had been waiting a long time. They were getting tired of waiting.
"What the hell is this?" Untermeyer squatted down in front of a vague shape discarded under a tree. He ran his fingers over the indistinct blur of metal. The object seemed melted together like wax -- nothing was distinguishable. "I can't identify it."
"That's a power lawnmower," a man nearby said sullenly.
"How long ago did he print it?" Fergesson asked.
"Four days ago." The man knocked at it in hostility. "You can't even tell what it is -- it could be anything. My old one's worn out. I wheeled the settlement's original up from the vault and stood in line all day -- and look what I got." He spat contemptuously. "It isn't worth a damn. I left it sitting here -- no point taking it home."
His wife spoke up in a shrill, harsh wail. "What are we going to do? We can't use the old one. It's crumbling away like everything else around here. If the new prints aren't any good, then what --"
"Shut up," her husband snapped. His face was ugly and strained. His long-fingered hands gripped a length of pipe. "We'll wait a little longer. Maybe he'll snap out of it."
A murmur of hope rippled around them. Charlotte shivered and pushed on. "I don't blame him," she said to Fergesson. "But..." She shook her head wearily. "What good would it do? If he won't print copies for us that are any good..."
"He can't," John Dawes said. "Look at him!" He halted and held the rest of them back. "Look at him and tell me how he could do better."
The Biltong was dying. Huge and old, it squatted in the center of the settlement park, a lump of ancient yellow protoplasm, thick, gummy, opaque. Its pseudopodia were dried up, shriveled to blackened snakes that lay inert on the brown grass. The center of the mass looked oddly sunken. The Biltong was gradually settling, as the moisture was burned from its veins by the weak overhead sun.
"Oh, dear!" Charlotte whispered. "How awful he looks!"
The Biltong's central lump undulated faintly. Sickly, restless heavings were noticeable as it struggled to hold onto its dwindling life. Flies clustered around it in dense swarms of black and shiny blue. A thick odor hung over the Biltong, a fetid stench of decaying organic matter. A pool of brackish waste liquid had oozed from it.
Within the yellow protoplasm of the creature, its solid core of nervous tissue pulsed in agony, with quick, jerky movements that sent widening waves across the sluggish flesh. Filaments were almost visibly degenerating into calcified granules. Age and decay -- and suffering.
On the concrete platform, in front of the dying Biltong, lay a heap of originals to be duplicated. Beside them, a few prints had been commenced, unformed balls of black ash mixed with the moisture of the Biltong's body, the juice from which it laboriously constructed its prints. It had halted the work, pulled its still-functioning pseudopodia painfully back into itself. It was resting -- and trying not to die.
"The poor damn thing!" Fergesson heard himself say. "It can't keep on."
"He's been sitting like that for six solid hours," a woman snapped sharply in Fergesson's ear. "Just sitting there! What does he expect us to do, get down on our hands and knees and beg him?"
Dawes turned furiously on her. "Can't you see it's dying? For God's sake, leave it alone!"
An ominous rumble stirred through the ring of people. Faces turned toward Dawes -- he icily ignored them. Beside him, Charlotte had stiffened to a frightened ramrod. Her eyes were pale with fear.
"Be careful," Untermeyer warned Dawes softly. "Some of these boys need things pretty bad. Some of them are waiting here for food."
Time was running out. Fergesson grabbed the steel box from Untermeyer and tore it open. Bending down, he removed the originals and laid them on the grass in front of him.
At the sight, a murmur went up around him, a murmur blended of awe and amazement. Grim satisfaction knifed through Fergesson. These were originals lacking in this settlement. Only imperfect prints existed here. Printing had been done from defective duplicates. One by one, he gathered up the precious originals and moved toward the concrete platform in front of the Biltong. Men angrily blocked his way -- until they saw the originals he carried.
He laid down a silver Ronson cigarette lighter. Then a Bausch and Lomb binocular microscope, still black and pebbled in its original leather. A high-fidelity Pickering phonograph cartridge. And a shimmering Steuben crystal cup.
"Those are fine-looking originals," a man nearby said enviously. "Where'd you get them?"
Fergesson didn't reply. He was watching the dying Biltong. The Biltong hadn't moved. But it had seen the new originals added to the others. Inside the yellow mass, the hard fibers raced and blurred together. The front orifice shuddered and then split open. A violent wave lashed the whole lump of protoplasm. Then from the opening, rancid bubbles oozed. A pseudopodium twitched briefly, struggled forward across the slimy grass, hesitated, touched the Steuben glass.
It pushed together a heap of black ash, wadded it with fluid from the front orifice. A dull globe formed, a grotesque parody of the Steuben cup. The Biltong wavered and drew back to gather more strength. Presently it tried once more to form the blob. Abruptly, without warning, the whole mass shuddered violently, and the pseudopodium dropped, exhausted. It twitched, hesitated pathetically, and then withdrew, back into the central bulk. "No use," Untermeyer said hoarsely. "He can't do it. It's too late." With stiff, awkward fingers, Fergesson gathered the originals together and shakily stuffed them back in the steel box. "I guess I was wrong," he muttered, climbing to his feet. "I thought this might do it. I didn't realize how far it had gone."
Charlotte, stricken and mute, moved blindly away from the platform. Untermeyer followed her through the coagulation of angry men and women, clustered around the concrete platform.
"Wait a minute," Dawes said. "I have something for him to try." Fergesson waited wearily, as Dawes groped inside his coarse gray shirt. He fumbled and brought out something wrapped in old newspaper. It was a cup, a wooden drinking cup, crude and ill-shaped. There was a strange wry smile on his face as he squatted down and placed the cup in front of the Biltong.
Charlotte watched, vaguely puzzled. "What's the use? Suppose he does make a print of it." She poked listlessly at the rough wooden object with the toe of her slipper. "It's so simple you could duplicate it yourself."
Fergesson started. Dawes caught his eye -- for an instant the two men gazed at each other, Dawes smiling faintly, Fergesson rigid with burgeoning understanding.
"That's right," Dawes said. "I made it."
Fergesson grabbed the cup. Trembling, he turned it over and over. "You made it with what? I don't see how! What did you make it out of?"
"We knocked down some trees." From his belt, Dawes slid something that gleamed metallically, dully, in the weak sunlight. "Here -- be careful you don't cut yourself."
The knife was as crude as the cup -- hammered, bent, tied together with wire. "You made this knife?" Fergesson asked, dazed. "I can't believe it. Where do you start? You have to have tools to make this. It's a paradox!" His voice rose with hysteria. "It isn't possible!"
Charlotte turned despondently away. "It's no good -- you couldn't cut anything with that." Wistfully, pathetically, she added, "In my kitchen I had that whole set of stainless steel carving knives -- the best Swedish steel. And now they're nothing but black ash."
There were a million questions bursting in Fergesson's mind. "This cup, this knife -- there's a group of you? And that material you're wearing -- you wove that?"
"Come on," Dawes said brusquely. He retrieved the knife and cup, moved urgently away. "We'd better get out of here. I think the end has about come."
People were beginning to drift out of the park. They were giving up, shambling wretchedly off to forage in the decaying stores for food remnants. A few cars muttered into life and rolled hesitantly away.
Untermeyer licked his flabby lips nervously. His doughy flesh was mottled and grainy with fear. "They're getting wild," he muttered to Fergesson. "This whole settlement's collapsing -- in a few hours there won't be anything. No food, no place to stay!" His eyes darted toward the car, then faded to opaqueness.
He wasn't the only one who had noticed the car.
A group of men were slowly forming around the massive dusty Buick, their faces dark. Like hostile, greedy children, they poked at it intently, examining its fenders, hood, touching its headlights, its firm tires. The men had clumsy weapons -- pipes, rocks, sections of twisted steel ripped from collapsing buildings.
"They know it isn't from this settlement," Dawes said. "They know it's going back."
"I can take you to the Pittsburgh settlement," Fergesson said to Charlotte. He headed toward the car. "I'll register you as my wife. You can decide later on whether you want to go through with the legalities."
"What about Ben?" Charlotte asked faintly.
"I can't marry him, too." Fergesson increased his pace. "I can take him there, but they won't let him stay. They have their quota system. Later on, when they realize the emergency..."
"Get out of the way," Untermeyer said to the cordon of men. He lumbered toward them vengefully. After a moment, the men uncertainly retreated and finally gave way. Untermeyer stood by the door, his huge body drawn up and alert.
"Bring her through -- and watch it!" he told Fergesson.
Fergesson and Dawes, with Charlotte between them, made their way through the line of men to Untermeyer. Fergesson gave the fat man the keys, and Untermeyer yanked the front door open. He pushed Charlotte in, then motioned Fergesson to hurry around to the other side.
The group of men came alive.
With his great fist, Untermeyer smashed the leader into those behind him. He struggled past Charlotte and got his bulk wedged behind the wheel of the car. The motor came on with a whirr. Untermeyer threw it into low gear and jammed savagely down on the accelerator. The car edged forward. Men clawed at it crazily, groping at the open door for the man and woman inside.
Untermeyer slammed the doors and locked them. As the car gained speed, Fergesson caught a final glimpse of the fat man's sweating, fear-distorted face.
Men grabbed vainly for the slippery sides of the car. As it gathered momentum, they slid away one by one. One huge red-haired man clung maniacally to the hood, pawing at the shattered windshield for the driver's face beyond. Untermeyer sent the car spinning into a sharp curve; the red-haired man hung on for a moment, then lost his grip and tumbled silently, face-forward, onto the pavement.
The car wove, careened, at last disappeared from view beyond a row of sagging buildings. The sound of its screaming tires faded. Untermeyer and Charlotte were on their way to safety at the Pittsburgh settlement.
Fergesson stared after the car until the pressure of Dawes' thin hand on his shoulder aroused him. "Well," he muttered, "there goes the car. Anyhow, Charlotte got away."
"Come on," Dawes said tightly in his ear. "I hope you have good shoes -- we've got a long way to walk."
Fergesson blinked. "Walk? Where...?"
"The nearest of our camps is thirty miles from here. We can make it, I think." He moved away, and after a moment Fergesson followed him. "I've done it before. I can do it again."
Behind them, the crowd was collecting again, centering its interest upon the inert mass that was the dying Biltong. The hum of wrath sounded -- frustration and impotence at the loss of the car pitched the ugly cacophony to a gathering peak of violence. Gradually, like water seeking its level, the ominous, boiling mass surged toward the concrete platform.
On the platform, the ancient dying Biltong waited helplessly. It was aware of them. Its pseudopodia were twisted in one last decrepit action, a final shudder of effort.
Then Fergesson saw a terrible thing -- a thing that made shame rise inside him until his humiliated fingers released the metal box he carried, let it fall, splintering, to the ground. He retrieved it numbly, stood gripping it helplessly. He wanted to run off blindly, aimlessly, anywhere but here. Out into the silence and darkness and driving shadows beyond the settlement. Out in the dead acres of ash.
The Biltong was trying to print himself a defensive shield, a protective wall of ash, as the mob descended on him...
When they had walked a couple of hours, Dawes came to a halt and threw himself down in the black ash that extended everywhere. "We'll rest awhile," he grunted to Fergesson. "I've got some food we can cook. We'll use that Ronson lighter you have there, if it's got any fluid in it."
Fergesson opened the metal box and passed him the lighter. A cold, fetid wind blew around them, whipping ash into dismal clouds across the barren surface of the planet. Off in the distance, a few jagged walls of buildings jutted upward like splinters of bones. Here and there dark, ominous stalks of weeds grew.
"It's not as dead as it looks," Dawes commented, as he gathered bits of dried wood and paper from the ash around them. "You know about the dogs and the rabbits. And there's lots of plant seeds -- all you have to do is water the ash, and up they spring."
"Water? But it doesn't -- rain. Whatever the word used to be."
"We have to dig ditches. There's still water, but you have to dig for it." Dawes got a feeble fire going -- there was fluid in the lighter. He tossed it back and turned his attention to feeding the fire.
Fergesson sat examining the lighter. "How can you build a thing like this?" he demanded bluntly.
"We can't." Dawes reached into his coat and brought out a flat packet of food -- dried, salted meat and parched corn. "You can't start out building complex stuff. You have to work your way up slowly."
"A healthy Biltong could print from this. The one in Pittsburgh could make a perfect print of this lighter."
"I know," Dawes said. "That's what's held us back. We have to wait until they give up. They will, you know. They'll have to go back to their own star-system -- it's genocide for them to stay here."
Fergesson clutched convulsively at the lighter. "Then our civilization goes with them."
"That lighter?" Dawes grinned. "Yes, that's going -- for a long time, at least. But I don't think you've got the right slant. We're going to have to re-educate ourselves, every damn one of us. It's hard for me, too."
"Where did you come from?"
Dawes said quietly, "I'm one of the survivors from Chicago. After it collapsed, I wandered around -- killed with a stone, slept in cellars, fought off the dogs with my hands and feet. Finally, I found my way to one of the camps. There were a few before me -- you don't know it, my friend, but Chicago wasn't the first to fall."
"And you're printing tools? Like that knife?"
Dawes laughed long and loud. "The word isn't print -- the word is build. We're building tools, making things." He pulled out the crude wooden cup and laid it down on the ash. "Printing means merely copying. I can't explain to you what building is; you'll have to try it yourself to find out. Building and printing are two totally different things."
Dawes arranged three objects on the ash. The exquisite Steuben glassware, his own crude wooden drinking cup and the blob, the botched print the dying Biltong had attempted.
"This is the way is was," he said, indicating the Steuben cup. "Someday it'll be that way again... but we're going up the right way -- the hard way -- step by step, until we get back there." He carefully replaced the glassware back in its metal box. "We'll keep it -- not to copy, but as a model, as a goal. You can't grasp the difference now, but you will."
He indicated the crude wooden cup. "That's where we are right now. Don't laugh at it. Don't say it's not civilization. It is -- it's simple and crude, but it's the real thing. We'll go up from here."
He picked up the blob, the print the Biltong had left behind. After a moment's reflection, he drew back and hurled it away from him. The blob struck, bounced once, then broke into fragments.
"That's nothing," Dawes said fiercely. "Better this cup. This wooden cup is closer to that Steuben glass than any print."
"You're certainly proud of your little wooden cup," Fergesson observed.
"I sure as hell am," Dawes agreed, as he placed the cup in the metal box beside the Steuben glassware. "You'll understand that, too, one of these days. It'll take awhile, but you'll get it." He began closing the box, then halted a moment and touched the Ronson lighter.
He shook his head regretfully. "Not in our time," he said, and closed the box. "Too many steps in between." His lean face glowed suddenly, a flicker of joyful anticipation. "But by God, we're moving that way!"