(About two years ago, the Little Men planned to put out a fiction quarterly to supplement the Digest. All of the material was gathered but shortage of funds and time made the project impractical. The Digest, with all this fine material on hand, will now present one fiction story each issue. To start the series, we have picked a story by Jack Vance, who wrote this one several years ago, long before he was so well-known in the science fiction field. It is, we think, typical of the quality of story that frequently is unsellable because it transgresses one or two taboos. DF)



To the shrouded shape in the back of the car, Nicholas Trasek said, "You understand, then? Three buzzes means come in."

The Figure moved.

Trasek turned away slowly, hesitated, looked back. "You're sure you can make it? It's about twenty yards, along a gravel path."

A whirring sound came from the huddled shape.

"Very well," said Trasek. "I'm going in."

But he paused another moment, listening.

Everything was breathlessly quiet. The house stood ghostly white in the moonlight among old trees, three stories of archaic elegance, with lights showing dim yellow along the bottom floor.

Trasek walked up the path, the gravel crunching under his feet. He stopped at the marble porch, and the entry light shone on his face - a harsh tense face with brooding black eyes, a peculiar leaden skin. He mounted the steps gingerly, like a cat on a strange roof, pressed the button.

Presently the door was opened, by a fat middle-aged woman in a pink robe.

"I've come to see Dr. Horzabky," said Trasek.

The woman uncertainly surveyed the pale face. "Couldn't you call some other time? I don't think he's like to be disturbed this time of night."

"He'll see me," said Trasek.

The woman peered at him. "An old friend?"

"No," said Trasek. "We have - mutual acquaintances."

"Well, I'll see. You'll have to wait a minute." She closed the door, and Trasek was left alone on the moonlit marble.

A few moments later, the door opened, and the woman motioned him in. "This way, if you please."

Trasek followed her down a hall, the woman's slippers scuffing along the dark red carpet. She opened the door and Trasek passed into a long room, lit with golden light from a great crystal chandelier.

The floor was covered by an Oriental rug - sumptuous orange, mulberry, indigo - and the furniture was massive antique hardwood. Books in old Walnut racks lined one wall - heavy volumes, all sizes, all shapes and colors. Across the room a number of large paintings hung, and a mirror on the far wall reflected the door Trasek had entered.

Dr. Horzabky stood holding a book. He wore a red velveteen smoking jacket over black trousers - a tall narrow-shouldered man with a thick neck, a wide flat head. His chin was small and pointed, his hair sparse. He wore thick-lensed spectacles, under which his eyes showed large and mild blue.

Trasek closed the door behind him, advanced slowly into the room, harsh and fierce as a black wolf.

"Yes?" inquired Dr. Horzabky. "What can I do for you?"

Trasek smiled. "I doubt if you'll do it."

Horzabky raised his eyebrows slightly. "In that case, there was small reason for you to call."

"I might be an art fancier," said Trasek, nodding toward the pictures on the wall. "Although they're something queer for my taste . . . mind if I look at them?"

"Not at all." Horzabky lay down his book. "The pictures however are not for sale."

Trasek approached the first, rather more closely than a connoisseur would recommend. It appeared, at first glance, merely a shading of blacks, dull browns and purples. "This one seems rather dull."

"According to your taste," said Horzabky, looking quizzically back and forth from the picture to Trasek.

"Who's the artist?"

"An unknown artist."

"Ah," and Trasek passed on to the second, an abstraction. "Now this," and Trasek nodded, "is a nightmare." Indeed, the shapes seemed unreal, and when the mind reached to grasp them, they appeared to slip away from comprehension, and the colors equally odd - nameless off-tones, bright tints the eye saw but could not name. Trasek shook his head disapprovingly, to Horzabky's amusement, and passed on to the third. This was likewise an abstraction, but composed in a quieter spirit - horizontal lines and stripes of gold, silver, copper, and other metallic colors.

Trasek examined this closely. "There's a clever illusion of space and distance here," he said, watching Horzabky from the corner of his eye. "Almost you would think you could reach in, gather up the gold."

"Many have thought so," assented Horzabky, eyes owlish behind the spectacles.

Trasek examined the fourth picture with even greater care. "Another picture I can't understand," he said at last. "Are those trees?"

Horzabky nodded. "The artist has painted everything as it would appear inside out."

"Ah, ah . . ." Trasek nodded wisely and passed on to the fifth picture. Here he found depicted an intricate framework of luminous yellow-white bars on a black background, the framework filling all of space with a cubical lattice, the parallel members meeting at the picture's vanishing point. Without comment Trasek turned to the last, which was merely a grayish-pink blur. Trasek shook his head silently once more, turned away.

"Perhaps now you will reveal your reason for calling," Horzabky put forward, gently.

Trasek turned away from the pictures, and Horzabky, meeting his eyes, blinked.

"A friend asked me to find you," said Trasek.

Horzabky shook his flat head. "You still have the advantage of me. Who is the friend?"

"I doubt if you'd recognize his name. He knew yours, though - from the Bocz death-camp, in Kunvasy.

"Ah," said Horzabky softly. "I begin to understand."

Trasek's eyes glowed like eyes seen in the darkness from beside a campfire. "There were sixty-eight thousand - devil-ridden slaves. All starved, jellied with beatings, rotten with frost-bite - things that monkeys and jackals would turn away from."

"Come, come," Horzabky protested mildly, lowering his spindly figure into a chair. "Surely ---"

"One of the Kunvasian scientists asked for them, was told to do anything he liked - they were too sick and weak to be worked profitably and had been sent to Bocz to be killed." Trasek leaned forward. "Do I interest you?"

"I'm listening," replied Horzabky without emotion.

"The scientist was a man of vision - no question about it. He wished to probe into other dimensions, other universes, but there was no known tool or contrivance to give him a purchase. Any earthly force acted in the bounds of earth dimensions, and he needed a force beyond these bounds. He thought of mental power - of telepathy. All the evidence seemed to indicate that telepathy acted through non-earthly dimensions. Suppose this force were magnified tremendously? Might it not twist open a path into the unknown? Possibly the concentrated effort of a great number of minds might be effective. So he obtained the sixty-eight thousand slaves. He dosed them with drugs that stimulated their concentration but numbed their wills, made them pliable. Into the compound he herded them, massed them cheek on shoulder facing a target painted on a panel of plywood. He told them to will! will! will! to go in, but not beyond! three directions, then a fourth! to imagine the unimaginable!

"The slaves stood there panting, sweating, eyes popping in their efforts. Mist gathered on the target. 'In! In!' yelled the scientist. 'In but not out! And the target burst open - a three-foot hole into nowhere.

"He let them rest a day, then he brought them out again - and again they broke a way into another space. Seven times he did this - and then catastrophe interrupted him. The Kunvasian General Staff decided that the time had come. On I day they turned loose their air force, but the United defenses smashed the armada over the Balt Bay; the war was lost the same day it was started.

'The scientist at Bocz was in a quandary. Sixty-eight thousand slaves knew of his seven holes, in addition to a few guards. Silence must be arranged, and death was an excellent arranger. An idea came to him. Why not put all this dying to some use - if only to gratify a whimsical curiosity? So he divided the sixty-eight thousand into seven groups, and on succeeding nights he herded a group through one of the holes.

"By this time the United Army of Occupation was approaching - but when Bocz was liberated, the scientist had disappeared, together with his seven holes. Strangely, all the guards who had aided the scientist were housed in the same barracks, and this barracks was fumigated one night with nocumene. Seems as if the case were closed, doesn't it?"

"I would think so," said Horzabky, casually displaying a small automatic, "but this is your story. Continue."

"I've about finished my part of it," said Trasek, grinning obliquely at the gun.

"Perhaps you are right." Horzabky rose to his feet. "The accuracy of your knowledge puzzles me, I admit. Possibly you will reveal its source?"

"That's a rather valuable bit of information," said Trasek. "Suppose you talk for awhile."

"Hm . . ." Horzabky hesitated. "Very well. Why not?" He pulled the robe closer around his thin shoulders, as if he were cold. "As you say, it was a grand conception, noble indeed - and no ordinary person can conceive my exultation when success came on the first night of trial . . . Long after the prisoners had retired to their barracks I stood on the platform, staring into my new universe. I asked myself, what now? I thought, if the hole were fixed in space, the earth's motion would have left it far behind in an instant; evidently it was fixed, part of the plywood panel. And true, when I lifted the panel - cautiously, hair by hair - the hole moved along as well. I carried it to my quarters, and soon I had six others - seven wonderful new universes I could carry around almost in a portfolio." Horzabky gazed at the pictures on the wall. Trasek, if he had leapt at this instant could have seized the gun; however he chose to keep his distance. "And the prisoners - they were part of the experiment. They had been condemned to die; now wasn't it better that they served some useful purpose?"

"Their opinion was not asked," remarked Trasek. "However I think it likely that they would have preferred to live."

"Poh." Horzabky pursed his lips, flung his thin arms out. "Creatures such as they were . . ."

Trasek lowered himself into a chair. "Tell me about your universes."

"Ah - yes," said Horzabky, "They're a strange collection, all different, every one, though two of them appear to act by the same set of fundamental laws as our own. This one -" he indicated picture No. 4, "- is identical to ours, except that it's seen from a versi-dimensional angle. Everything appears inside out. Universe No. 5 now - this was the space cut into innumerable cubes by the luminous webbing "- is built of the same sort of stuff as our own, but it developed differently. Those bars are actually lines of ions; the whole universe is a tremendous dynamo." He stood back, hands buried in the big pockets of his jacket. "Those two are the only ones susceptible to discussion in our words. Look at No. 1. It appears a mottled crust of black, rusty purple. The colors are an illusion - there is no light in that universe, and the color is light reflected from our own. What actually is past that blur I don't know. Our words are useless. No word, no thought, in our language can possibly be of any use, even ideas like space, time, distance, hard, soft, here, there . . . A new language, a new set of abstracts is necessary to deal with that universe, and I suspect that, almost by definition, our brains are incapable of dealing with it."

Trasek nodded with genuine admiration. "Well put, doctor. You interest me."

Horzabky smiled slightly. "We have the same difficulty with No. 2, which looks like a particularly frenetic modern painting, also No. 3 and No. 6."

"That's six," Trasek remarked. "Where's the seventh?"

Horzabky smiled again, a small trembling-lipped kewpie-smile. He rubbed his sharp chin, nodded at the mirror. "There."

"Of course," muttered Trasek.

"No. 7 --" Horzabky shook his flat bald head, "so alien to our world that light refuses to penetrate it."

"Is it not grotesque," Trasek commented, "that the prisoners at Bocz were denied that option?"

"Only superficially," replied his host. "A moment's reflection solves the paradox. However," he added sadly, "the inflexible nature of light made it impossible for me to observe the experiences of the more obliging prisoners."

"What happens to a stick you push in?"

"It dissolves. Melts to nothing, like tissue paper in a furnace. Conservation of energy falls down in the other universes, where matter and energy are equally unacceptable, and where our laws have no authority."

"And the others?"

"In No. 1 a stick, a bar of iron, crumbles, falls to dust. In No. 2, you can't hold it; it's wrenched from your hands, by whom or what I'm sure I don't know. In No. 3, the stick may be withdrawn unchanged, and likewise in No. 4. In No. 5 the stick acquires an electric charge, and if released flies off at tremendous speed down one of the corridors. In No. 6 -- that's the blurred, pinkish-gray place -- the stick becomes a new material, though it's structurally the same. The different space alters the electrons and protons, makes the wood as hard as iron, though chemically the substance is still wood. And, in No. 7, as I said, the material merely melts."

Trasek stood up; Horzabky's hand leapt out of the pocket of the robe like a snake, and with it -- a gun.

"A pity," signed Horzabky, "that in the discussion these reminders of our tangled lives must intrude. But you appear a passionate man, a bitter man, Mr. Whatever-your-name, and my little weapon, though blunt and unsubtle, is an effectual ally. It is necessary that I be careful. At this moment a number of so-called war-criminals are being rounded up. My innocent activities at Bocz would be misconstrued and I'd suffer a great deal of inconvenience. Perhaps now you had better tell me what you sought here."

Trasek's hand went to his pocket. "Easy!" hissed Horzabky.

Trasek smiled his hard smile. "I have no weapon. I need none. I merely wish to withdraw a small article . . . This." He displayed a small round box with a button on the lid. "I press this small button three times -- so -- and presently the reason for my visit will appear."

A long instant the two stared at each other, motionless, as if frozen in crystal -- the one suspicious, the other mocking.

"We turn our attention to Universe No. 4," said Trasek, "where recently you commended ten thousand guests. Examine the scene. Does it suggest nothing to you?"

Horzabky forebore to answer, watched Trasek balefully.

"Those are trees, it's evident that they are trees, although the foliage appears to be growing inside the tube of the trunk. We can see we're on dry land, though that's about all we can be sure of, with that lighting. . . Would you like to know the actual whereabouts of the scene? I'll tell you. It's Arnhem Land, the most isolated part of Australia. It's our own Earth."

The faint buzz of the door-bell sounded.

"You better answer it," said Trasek. "You'll save your housekeeper the worst fright of her life."

Horzabky motioned with his gun. "Go ahead of me, open the door."

As they marched down the hall, the fat woman in the pink robe appeared. "Go back to bed Martha," said Horzabky. "I'll take care of it." The woman turned, retired.

The bell rang again. Trasek put his hand on the door. "A warning, Doctor. Be careful with that gun. I don't mind a bullet or two at me -- but if you injure my brother, the relatively easy death I plan for you will be postponed indefinitely."

"Open the door!" croaked Horzabky.

Trasek threw it wide.

The thing lurched in from the darkness, stood swaying in the hall. Horzabky's breath came as if someone had kicked him in the belly.

"That's a man." said Trasek. "A man inside out."

Horzabky pushed the glasses back up on the ridge of his nose. "Is this -- is this one of . . ."

Trasek had been brightly watching Horzabky's gun. "It's one of your victims, Doctor. You sent him through your No. 4 hole."

"That's a plastic coverall he's wearing," said Trasek. "To keep the flies off him, or rather, from inside him -- because to himself he's still a normal man, and it's the universe that's backward."

"How many more are there like him?" inquired Horzabky, casually.

"None. Flies got some, sunburn most of the others, and the natives shot a lot full of reed arrows. A government cattle inspector came along and wanted to know what was going on. How he ever recognized --" Trasek nodded -- "for a man is a mystery. But he took care of him, as well as he was able, and I finally got a letter . . ."

Horzabky pursed his small pink mouth. "And what was your plan relative to him?"

"You and I are going to help him back through Hole No. 4. That should put him right side out again with relation to the world."

Horzabky smiled thinly. "You're an amazing fellow. You must know that both you and your brother are threats to the quiet life I plan to live here, that I can't possibly permit you to leave alive."

Trasek sprang forward so fast his figure blurred. Before Horzabky could blink, Trasek seized his wrist, jerked the gun free. He turned his head to his brother.

"This way, Emmer," Then to Horzabky: "Back with you, Doctor, back to your art gallery."

They stopped in front of the No. 4 hole. "Remove the glass, if you please," said Trasek. Horzabky complied slowly, and with a surly expression. Trasek leaned slightly through the hole, surveyed the country, pulled back. "If this is how things look to you, Emmer, I fail to understand your continued sanity . . . Well, here's the hole. It's about a six foot drop - but you'll be right side to the world. First you'd better take off the plastic playsuit, or you'll have it all wound up in your bowels."

Trasek unzipped the covering, wadded it up, tossed it through the hole. He dragged a chair close under the hole. Emmer awkwardly climbed up, inserted himself, dropped through.

Trasek and Horzabky watched him a moment -- still inside out, but now one with his environment.

"That's a bad month out of anyone's life," said Trasek. His mouth jerked. "I was forgetting the years he spent as a Kunvasian slave --." A hand was at his pocket; Horzabky seized the gun, stepped away, the weapon levelled.

"You won't snatch it this time, my friend."

Trasek's harsh smile came. "No, you're right there. You may keep the gun."

Horzabky stood staring, half-at, half-past Trasek. "You have given me an upsetting evening," he muttered. "I was sure the entire number had been disposed of." He glanced down the line of pictures.

"Now you're not sure, eh Doctor?" Trasek jeered. "Maybe not all of them died when they passed through . . . Maybe they're waiting just out of sight, like rats in a hole --"


"-- maybe you've carried them with you everywhere, maybe they steal out during the night to eat and return to hide."

"Nonsense," blurted Horzabky. "I saw them die. In No. 1 they turned stiff and crumbled, vanished off in the murk. In No. 2 they struggled and kicked and finally came all apart and the parts jerked off in all directions. In No. 3 they expanded, exploded. In No. 4 -- well, as you know. In No. 5 they were picked up and whisked like chaff along the corridors, far down and out of sight. In No. 6 -- it's impossible to see into the blur, but any object pushed in and withdrawn is changed in every atom, petrified, every it made part of the new space. In No. 7, matter just melts."

Trasek had been musing. "No. 2 seems disagreeable. . . No. 4 -- no, Horzabky, not even for you. I don't believe in torture, for which you can thank your stars . . . Well, No. 2, shall we say? Will you climb through by yourself, or shall I help you?"

Horzabky's mouth twisted like a mottled rose-bud; his eyes sparked. "You miserable . . . insolent . . ." He spat the words, and they darted through the air like white serpents. He raised his arm; the gun roared -- once, twice.

Trasek, still grinning, went to the wall, took down No. 2, propped it against one of the massive tables, and the violent shapes of the world within swam, shifted, outraged by the mind.

Horzabky was whining in a high-pitched tone. He ran a few steps closer to Trasek, pushed the gun almost into his face, fired again -- again -- again.

White marks appeared on Trasek's forehead, cheek. Horzabky floundered back.

"You can't kill me," said Trasek. "Not with matter from this world. I'm one of your alumni, too. You sent me through No. 6, I'm like that stick of wood -- iron!"

Horzabky leaned against the table, the gun dangling. "But -- but --."

"The rest of them are dead, Doctor. There's nothing to land on; you just fall forever -- unless you happen to catch the edge of the hole. I finally climbed back in while you were out gassing the guards. Now, Doctor," he took a soft step closer to the palsied Horzabky, "No. 2 is waiting for you. . ."


Data entry and page scans provided by Judy Bemis

Data entry by Judy Bemis

Updated November 8, 2007. If you have a comment about these web pages please send a note to the Fanac Webmaster. Thank you.