ROBERT BENTON slowly spread his wings, flapped them several times and sailed majestically off the roof and into the darkness.
He was swallowed up by the night at once. Beneath him, hundreds of tiny dots of light betokened other roofs, from which other persons flew. A violet hue swam close to him, then vanished into the black. But Benton was in a different sort of mood, and the idea of night races did not appeal to him. The violet hue came close again and waved invitingly. Benton declined, swept upward into the higher air.
After a while he leveled off and allowed himself to coast on air currents that came up from the city beneath, the City of Lightness. A wonderful, exhilarating feeling swept through him. He pounded his huge, white wings together, flung himself in frantic joy into the small clouds that drifted past, dived at the invisible floor of the immense black bowl in which he flew, and at last descended toward the lights of the city, his leisure time approaching an end.
Somewhere far down a light more bright than the others winked at him: the Control Office. Aiming his body like an arrow, his white wings folded about him, he headed toward it. Down he went, straight and perfect. Barely a hundred feet from the light he threw his wings out, caught the firm air about him, and came gently to rest on a level roof.
Benton began to walk until a guide light came to life and he found his way to the entrance door by its beam. The door slid back at the pressure of his fingertips and he stepped past it. At once he began to descend, shooting downward at increasing speed. The small elevator suddenly stopped and he strode out into the Controller's Main Office.
"Hello," the Controller said, "take off your wings and sit down."
Benton did so, folding them neatly and hanging them from one of a row of small hooks along the wall. He selected the best chair in sight and headed toward it.
"Ah," the Controller smiled, "you value comfort."
"Well," Benton answered, "I don't want it to go to waste."
The Controller looked past his visitor and through the transparent plastic walls. Beyond were the largest single rooms in the City of Lightness. They extended as far as his eyes could see, and farther. Each was --
"What did you want to see me about?" Benton interrupted. The Controller coughed and rattled some metal paper-sheets.
"As you know," he began, "Stability is the watchword. Civilization has been climbing for centuries, especially since the twenty-fifth century. It is a law of nature, however, that civilization must either go forward or fall backward; it cannot stand still."
"I know that," Benton said, puzzled. "I also know the multiplication table. Are you going to recite that, too?"
The Controller ignored him.
"We have, however, broken that law. One hundred years ago --"
One hundred years ago! It hardly seemed as far back as that when Eric Freidenburg of the States of Free Germany stood up in the International Council Chamber and announced to the assembled delegates that mankind had at last reached its peak. Further progress forward was impossible. In the last few years, only two major inventions has been filed. After that, they had all watched the big graphs and charts, seen the lines going down and down, according to their squares, until they dipped into nothing. The great well of human ingenuity had run dry, and then Eric had stood up and said the thing everyone knew, but was afraid to say. Naturally, since it had been made known in a formal fashion, the Council would have to begin work on the problem.
There were three ideas of solution. One of them seemed more humane than the other two. This solution was eventually adopted. It was -- Stabilization!
There was great trouble at first when the people learned about it, and mass riots took place in many leading cities. The stock market crashed, and the economy of many countries went out of control. Food prices rose, and there was mass starvation. War broke out... for the first time in three hundred years! But Stabilization had begun. Dissenters were destroyed, radicals were carted off. It was hard and cruel but seemed to be the only answer. At last the world settled down to a rigid state, a controlled state in which there could be no change, either backward or forward.
Each year every inhabitant took a difficult, week-long examination to test whether or not he was backsliding. All youths were given fifteen years of intensive education. Those who could not keep up with the others simply disappeared. Inventions were inspected by Control Offices to make certain that they could not upset Stability. If it seemed that they might --
"And that is why we cannot allow your invention to be put into use," the Controller explained to Benton. "I am sorry."
He watched Benton, saw him start, the blood drain from his face, his hands tremble.
"Come now," he said kindly, "don't take it so hard; there are other things to do. After all, you are not in danger of the Cart!"
But Benton only stared. At last he said,
"But you don't understand: I have no invention. I don't know what you're talking about."
"No invention!" the Controller exclaimed. "But I was here the day you entered it yourself! I saw you sign the statement of ownership! You handed me the model!"
He stared at Benton. Then he pressed a stud on his desk and said into a small circle of light, "Send me up the information on number 34500-D, please."
A moment passed, and then a tube appeared in the circle of light. The Controller lifted the cylindrical object out and passed it to Benton.
"You'll find your signed statement there," he said, "and it has your fingerprints in the print squares. Only you could have made them."
Numbly, Benton opened the tube and took out the papers inside. He studied them a few moments, and then slowly put them back and handed the tube to the Controller.
"Yes," he said, "that's my writing, and those are certainly my prints. But I don't understand, I never invented a thing in my life, and I've never been here before! What is this invention?"
"What is it!" the Controller echoed, amazed. "Don't you know?"
Benton shook his head. "No, I do not," he said slowly.
"Well, if you want to find out about it, you'll have to go down to the Offices. All I can tell you is that the plans you sent us have been denied rights by the Control Board. I'm only a spokesman. You'll have to take it up with them."
Benton got up and walked to the door. As with the other, this one sprang open to his touch and he went on through into the Control Offices. As the door closed behind him the Controller called angrily, "I don't know what you're up to, but you know the penalty for upsetting Stability!"
"I'm afraid Stability is already upset," Benton answered and went on.
The Offices were gigantic. He stared down from the catwalk on which he stood, for below him a thousand men and women worked at whizzing, efficient machines. Into the machines they were feeding reams of cards. Many of the people worked at desks, typing out sheets of information, filling charts, putting cards away, decoding messages. On the walls stupendous graphs were constantly being changed. The very air was alive with the vitalness of the work being conducted, the hum of the machines, the tap-tap of the typewriters, and the mumble of voices all merged together in a quiet, contented sound. And this vast machine, which cost countless dollars a day to keep running so smoothly, had a word: Stability!
Here, the thing that kept their world together lived. This room, these hard working people, the ruthless man who sorted cards into the pile marked "for extermination" were all functioning together like a great symphony orchestra. One person off key, one person out of time, and the entire structure would tremble. But no one faltered. No one stopped and failed at his task. Benton walked down a flight of steps to the desk of the information clerk.
"Give me the entire information on an invention entered by Robert Benton, 34500-D," he said. The clerk nodded and left the desk. In a few minutes he returned with a metal box.
"This contains the plans and a small working model of the invention," he stated. He put the box on the desk and opened it. Benton stared at the contents. A small piece of intricate machinery sat squatly in the center. Underneath was a thick pile of metal sheets with diagrams on them. "Can I take this?" Benton asked.
"If you are the owner," the clerk replied. Benton showed his identification card, the clerk studied it and compared it with the data on the invention. At last he nodded his approval, and Benton closed the box, picked it up and quickly left the building via a side exit.
The side exit let him out on one of the larger underground streets, which was a riot of lights and passing vehicles. He located his direction, and began to search for a communications car to take him home. One came along and he boarded it. After he had been traveling for a few minutes he began to carefully lift the lid of the box and peer inside at the strange model. "What have you got there, sir?" the robot driver asked.
"I wish I knew," Benton said ruefully. Two winged flyers swooped by and waved at him, danced in the air for a second and then vanished. "Oh, fowl," Benton murmured, "I forgot my wings." Well, it was too late to go back and get them, the car was just then beginning to slow down in front of his house. After paying the driver he went inside and locked the door, something seldom done. The best place to observe the contents was in his "consideration" room, where he spent his leisure time while not flying. There, among his books and magazines he could observe the invention at ease.
The set of diagrams was a complete puzzle to him, and the model itself even more so. He stared at it from all angles, from underneath, from above. He tried to interpret the technical symbols of the diagrams, but all to no avail.
There was but one road now open to him. He sought out the "on" switch and clicked it.
For almost a minute nothing happened. Then the room about him began to waver and give way. For a moment it shook like a quantity of jelly. It hung steady for an instant, and then vanished.
He was falling through space like an endless tunnel, and he found himself twisting about frantically, grasping into the blackness for something to take hold of. He fell for an interminable time, helplessly, frightened. Then he had landed, completely unhurt. Although it had seemed so, the fall could not have been very long. His metallic clothes were not even ruffled. He picked himself up and looked about.
The place where he had arrived was strange to him. It was a field... such as he had supposed no longer to exist. Waving acres of grain waved in abundance everywhere. Yet, he was certain that in no place on earth did natural grain still grow. Yes, he was positive. He shielded his eyes and gazed at the sun, but it looked the same as it always had. He began to walk.
After an hour the wheat fields ended, but with their end came a wide forest. He knew from his studies that there were no forests left on earth. They had perished years before. Where was he, then?
He began to walk again, this time more quickly. Then he started to run. Before him a small hill rose and he raced to the top of it. Looking down the other side he stared in bewilderment. There was nothing there but a great emptiness. The ground was completely level and barren, there were no trees or any sign of life as far as his eyes could see, only the extensive bleached out land of death.
He started down the other side of the hill toward the plain. It was hot and dry under his feet, but he went forward anyway. He walked on, the ground began to hurt his feet -- unaccustomed to long walking -- and he grew tired. But he was determined to continue. Some small whisper within his mind compelled him to maintain his pace without slowing down.
"Don't pick it up," a voice said.
"I will," he grated, half to himself, and stooped down.
Voice! From where! He turned quickly, but there was nothing to be seen. Yet the voice had come to him and it had seemed -- for a moment -- as if it were perfectly natural for voices to come from the air. He examined the thing he was about to pick up. It was a glass globe about as big around as his fist.
"You will destroy your valuable Stability," the voice said.
"Nothing can destroy Stability," he answered automatically. The glass globe was cool and nice against his palm. There was something inside, but heat from the glowing orb above him made it dance before his eyes, and he could not tell exactly what it was.
"You are allowing your mind to be controlled by evil things," the voice said to him. "Put the globe down and leave."
"Evil things?" he asked, surprised. It was hot, and he was beginning to feel thirsty. He started to thrust the globe inside his tunic.
"Don't," the voice ordered, "that is what it wants you to do."
The globe was nice against his chest. It nestled there, cooling him off from the fierce heat of the sun. What was it the voice was saying?
"You were called here by it through time," the voice explained. "You obey it now without question. I am its guardian, and ever since this time-world was created I have guarded it. Go away, and leave it as you found it."
Definitely, it was too warm on the plain. He wanted to leave; the globe was now urging him to, reminding him of the heat from above, the dryness in his mouth, the tingling in his head. He started off, and as he clutched the globe to him he heard the wail of despair and fury from the phantom voice.
That was almost all he remembered. He did recall that he made his way back across the plain to the fields of grain, through them, stumbling and staggering, and at last to the spot where he had first appeared. The glass globe inside his coat urged him to pick up the small time machine from where he had left it. It whispered to him what dial to change, which button to press, which knob to set. Then he was falling again, falling back up the corridor of time, back, back to the graying mist from whence he had fallen, back to his own world.
Suddenly the globe urged him to stop. The journey through time was not yet complete: there was still something that he had to do.
"You say your name is Benton? What can I do for you?" the Controller asked. "You have never been here before, have you?"
He stared at the Controller. What did he mean? Why, he had just left the office! Or had he? What day was it? Where had he been? He rubbed his head dizzily and sat down in the big chair. The Controller watched him anxiously.
"Are you all right?" he asked. "Can I help you?"
"I'm all right," Benton said. There was something in his hands.
"I want to register this invention to be approved by the Stability Council," he said, and handed the time machine to the Controller.
"Do you have the diagrams of its construction?" the Controller asked.
Benton dug deeply into his pocket and brought out the diagrams. He tossed them on the Controller's desk and laid the model beside them.
"The Council will have no trouble determining what it is," Benton said. His head ached, and he wanted to leave. He got to his feet.
"I am going," he said, and went out the side door through which he had entered. The Controller stared after him.
"Obviously," the First Member of the Control Council said, "he had been using the thing. You say the first time he came he acted as if he had been there before, but on the second visit he had no memory of having entered an invention, or even having been there before?"
"Right," the Controller said. "I thought it was suspicious at the time of the first visit, but I did not realize until he came the second time what the meaning was. Undoubtedly, he used it."
"The Central Graph records that an unstabilizing element is about to come up," the Second Member remarked. "I would wager that Mr. Benton is it."
"A time machine!" the First Member said. "Such a thing can be dangerous. Did he have anything with him when he came the -- ah -- first time?"
"I saw nothing, except that he walked as if he were carrying something under his coat," the Controller replied.
"Then we must act at once. He will have been able to set up a chain of circumstance by this time that our Stabilizers will have trouble in breaking. Perhaps we should visit Mr. Benton."
Benton sat in his living room and stared. His eyes were set in a kind of glassy rigidness and he had not moved for some time. The globe had been talking to him, telling him of its plans, its hopes. Now it stopped suddenly.
"They are coming," the globe said. It was resting on the couch beside him, and its faint whisper curled to his brain like a wisp of smoke. It had not actually spoken, of course, for its language was mental. But Benton heard.
"What shall I do?" he asked.
"Do nothing," the globe said. "They will go away." The buzzer sounded and Benton remained where he was. The buzzer sounded again, and Benton stirred restlessly. After a while the men went down the walk again and appeared to have departed.
"Now what?" Benton asked. The globe did not answer for a moment.
"I feel that the time is almost here," it said at last. "I have made no mistakes so far, and the difficult part is past. The hardest was having you come through time. It took me years -- the Watcher was clever. You almost didn't answer, and it was not until I thought of the method of putting the machine in your hands that success was certain. Soon you shall release us from this globe. After such an eternity --"
There was a scraping and a murmur from the rear of the house, and Benton started up.
"They are coming in the back door!" he said. The globe rustled angrily. The Controller and the Council Members came slowly and warily into the room. They spotted Benton and stopped.
"We didn't think that you were at home," the First Member said. Benton turned to him.
"Hello," he said. "I'm sorry that I didn't answer the bell; I had fallen asleep. What can I do for you?"
Carefully, his hand reached out toward the globe, and it seemed almost as if the globe rolled under the protection of his palm.
"What have you there?" the Controller demanded suddenly. Benton stared at him, and the globe whispered in his mind.
"Nothing but a paperweight," he smiled. "Won't you sit down?" The men took their seats, and the First Member began to speak. "You came to see us twice, the first time to register an invention, the second time because we had summoned you to appear, as we could not allow the invention to be issued."
"Well?" Benton demanded. "Is there something the matter with that?"
"Oh, no," the Member said, "but what was for us your first visit was for you your second. Several things prove this, but I will not go into them just now. The thing that is important is that you still have the machine. This is a difficult problem. Where is the machine? It should be in your possession. Although we cannot force you to give it to us, we will obtain it eventually in one way or another."
"That is true," Benton said. But where was the machine? He had just left it at the Controller's Office. Yet he had already picked it up and taken it into time, whereupon he had returned to the present and had returned it to the Controller's Office!
"It has ceased to exist, a non-entity in a time-spiral," the globe whispered to him, catching his thoughts. "The time-spiral reached its conclusion when you deposited the machine at the Office of Control. Now these men must leave so that we can do what must be done."
Benton rose to his feet, placing the globe behind him. "I'm afraid that I don't have the time machine," he said. "I don't even know where it is, but you may search for it if you like."
"By breaking the laws, you have made yourself eligible for the Cart," the Controller observed. "But we feel that you have done what you did without meaning to. We do not want to punish anyone without reason, we only desire to maintain Stability. Once that is upset, nothing matters."
"You may search, but you won't find it," Benton said. The Members and the Controller began to look. They overturned chairs, searched under the carpets, behind pictures, in the walls, and they found nothing.
"You see, I was telling the truth," Benton smiled, as they returned to the living room.
"You could have hidden it outside someplace," the Member shrugged. "It doesn't matter, however."
The Controller stepped forward.
"Stability is like a gyroscope," he said. "It is difficult to turn from its course, but once started it can hardly be stopped. We do not feel that you yourself have the strength to turn that gyroscope, but there may be others who can. That remains to be seen. We are going to leave now, and you will be allowed to end your own life, or wait here for the Cart. We are giving you the choice. You will be watched, of course, and I trust that you will make no attempt to flee. If so, then it will mean your immediate destruction. Stability must be maintained, at any cost."
Benton watched them, and then laid the globe on the table. The Members looked at it with interest.
"A paperweight," Benton said. "Interesting, don't you think?" The Members lost interest. They began to prepare to leave. But the Controller examined the globe, holding it up to the light.
"A model of a city, eh?" he said. "Such fine detail." Benton watched him.
"Why, it seems amazing that a person could ever carve so well," the Controller continued. "What city is it? It looks like an ancient one such as Tyre or Babylon, or perhaps one far in the future. You know, it reminds me of an old legend."
He looked at Benton intently as he went on.
"The legend says that once there was a very evil city, it was so evil that God made it small and shut it up in a glass, and left a watcher of some sort to see that no one came along and released the city by smashing the glass. It is supposed to have been lying for eternity, waiting to escape.
"And this is perhaps the model of it." the Controller continued.
"Come on!" the First Member called at the door. "We must be going; there are lots of things left to do tonight."
The Controller turned quickly to the Members. "Wait!" he said. "Don't leave."
He crossed the room to them, still holding the globe in his hand. "This would be a very poor time to leave," he said, and Benton saw that while his face had lost most of its color, the mouth was set in firm lines. The Controller suddenly turned again to Benton.
"Trip through time; city in a glass globe! Does that mean anything?" The two Council Members looked puzzled and blank. "An ignorant man crosses time and returns with a strange glass," the Controller said. "Odd thing to bring out of time, don't you think?" Suddenly the First Member's face blanched white. "Good God in Heaven!" he whispered. "The accursed city! That globe?" He stared at the round ball in disbelief. The Controller looked at Benton with an amused glance.
"Odd, how stupid we may be for a time, isn't it?" he said. "But eventually we wake up. Don't touch it!"
Benton slowly stepped back, his hands shaking.
"Well?" he demanded. The globe was angry at being in the Controller's hand. It began to buzz, and vibrations crept down the Controller's arm. He felt them, and took a firmer grip on the globe.
"I think it wants me to break it," he said, "it wants me to smash it on the floor so that it can get out." He watched the tiny spires and building tops in the murky mistiness of the globe, so tiny that he could cover them all with his fingers.
Benton dived. He came straight and sure, the way he had flown so many times in the air. Now every minute that he had hurtled about the warm blackness of the atmosphere of the City of Lightness came back to help him. The Controller, who had always been too busy with his work, always too piled up ahead to enjoy the airsports that the City was so proud of, went down at once. The globe bounced out of his hands and rolled across the room. Benton untangled himself and leaped up. As he raced after the small shiny sphere, he caught a glimpse of the frightened, bewildered faces of the Members, of the Controller attempting to get to his feet, face contorted with pain and horror.
The globe was calling to him, whispering to him. Benton stepped swiftly toward it, and felt a rising whisper of victory and then a scream of joy as his foot crushed the glass that imprisoned it.
The globe broke with a loud popping sound. For a time it lay there, then a mist began to rise from it. Benton returned to the couch and sat down. The mist began to fill the room. It grew and grew, it seemed almost like a living thing, so strangely did it shift and turn.
Benton began to drift into sleep. The mist crowded about him, curling over his legs, up to his chest, and finally milled about his face. He sat there, slumped over on the couch, his eyes closed, letting the strange, aged fragrance envelop him.
Then he heard the voices. Tiny and far away at first, the whisper of the globe multiplied countless times. A concert of whispering voices rose from the broken globe in a swelling crescendo of exultation. Joy of victory! He saw the tiny miniature city within the globe waver and fade, then change in size and shape. He could hear it now as well as see it. The steady throbbing of the machinery like a gigantic drum. The shaking and quivering of squat metal beings.
These beings were tended. He saw the slaves, sweating, stooped, pale men, twisting in their efforts to keep the roaring furnaces of steel and power happy. It seemed to swell before his eyes until the entire room was full of it, and the sweating workmen brushed against him and around him. He was deafened by the raging power, the grinding wheels and gears and valves. Something was pushing against him, compelling him to move forward, forward to the City, and the mist gleefully echoed the new, victorious sounds of the freed ones.
When the sun came up he was already awake. The rising bell rang, but Benton had left his sleeping-cube some time before. As he fell in with the marching ranks of his companions, he thought he recognized familiar faces for an instant -- men he had known someplace before. But at once the memory passed. As they marched toward the waiting machines, chanting the tuneless sounds their ancestors had chanted for centuries, and the weight of his bonus if the Machines saw fit -- For had he not been tending his machine faithfully?