…could thou and I with Fate conspire, To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire, Would we not scatter it to bits—and then Re-mould it nearer to the Heart’s Desire!Omar Khayyam
The ancient constellations—star groups which had presided over mankind’s entire history—vanished in one quiet instant, and were immediately replaced by new stars arrayed in unfamiliar patterns.
It was the most astounding event in the annals of astronomy, but it was witnessed by relatively few people. Only those who happened to be working near portals and looking outwards at the crucial moment saw the cosmos being transfigured. The news of it spread to the far interior of Orbitsville, of course, but the process took time and had little impact on the complacent market town of Orangefield. Most of Orangefield’s inhabitants had never made the journey to a portal—and therefore had never even seen a star—and happenings in the outside universe tended to be of secondary importance to them.
Distant suns might have changed their positions; remote galaxies might have done a strange shuffle—but crops still had to be gathered in the apron of cultivated land surrounding the town. The wheels of commerce and local industry still had to turn; no man or woman had been excused any chores; and infants still had to be fed, bathed and powdered before being tucked into bed for the night. During the hours of darkness the Orbitsville sky, which had never known stars, continued to exhibit its watered-silk striations, hundreds of delicate arches of blue and darker blue spanning the horizons—and life gave every indication of proceeding very much as usual…
Jim Nicklin’s home, lending library and workshop were combined in a single timber-framed building which occupied a pleasant site on the north edge of the town. It was constructed of fortwood, a local timber which, even when left unpainted, had a satisfying appearance and the durability of stone. Considered simply as a building, it was somewhat lacking in architectural merit—having been added to in a haphazard manner at various times in the previous fifty years—but it suited Nicklin’s needs and life style very well. It was easy to clean and maintain, and yet provided ample space for all his activities. It was within easy reach of the town’s amenities, and yet for the most part looked out on farmlands and distant savannahs.
There was a good fused-earth road a little more than a hundred paces from Nicklin’s front porch, but his property was separated from it by a broad stream. The clear water contained several varieties of fish which had been imported from Earth more than a century earlier, and now were as well established as if they had been there for geological eras. In addition to providing Nicklin with sport and occasional fare for the table, the stream gave him a comforting sense of being partitioned from the outside world.
To reach his premises, personal visitors and customers were obliged to make use of a small wooden bridge, at the far end of which was a gate which he could lock when he was in the mood for solitude. The fact that the stream could easily be waded, and also was well provided with stepping stones, was immaterial. When would-be callers saw that Nicklin’s gate was closed they understood they had chosen an unsuitable time, and—unless their business had a fair degree of urgency—would turn away. Respect for a person’s wish to be alone was basic to society in most regions of Orbitsville.
Although Nicklin had the reputation of being a moody and changeable individual, his unsociable spells usually manifested themselves only when nightfall was drawing near. That’s what he gets for being a bachelor, was the view of most of Orangefield county’s women and quite a few of the men. It isn’t right for a normal, healthy young man to be living on his own and going to a lonely bed at night. However, in spite of their reservations concerning Nicklin’s bachelorhood, very few of the eligible females had ever seriously thought of trying to attract him into the socially acceptable state of marriage.
He had not yet turned thirty, was tall, fair-haired, reasonably handsome and had only the faintest trace of a bulge above the belt buckle—but his boyish face, with its small nose and blue eyes, was slightly too boyish. It often bore a philosophic and mildly puzzled expression, as though he had just worked out how many angels could stand on the head of a pin and was dissatisfied with the answer. His eyes sometimes seemed amused when the folk about him were engaged in serious debate; or they could mirror a deep concern when there was nothing but laughter all around. In spite of his acknowledged genius for the repair of domestic appliances and light machinery, he gave the impression of somehow being impractical. He struck people as being soft, a dreamer who was ill-equipped to deal with the hard knocks which rural life could deal out on a plentiful basis. The women of Orangefield township and county were conditioned to respect tough, pragmatic men who had the potential to be tireless workers and good providers—so when choosing husbands they tended to overlook Jim Nicklin.
That arrangement suited Nicklin quite well. Orangefield was a low-tech community which was modelled on the ideal of a small town in the American mid-west, circa 1910, with some elements borrowed from equally idealised English villages of the same period. The quality of life was good—enhanced by the fact that high-tech resources could be called upon from outside when emergencies occurred—but Nicklin had observed that married men always had to work harder than bachelors, and led lives which on occasion were marred by domestic troubles. Not being greatly enamoured of toil, he was quite satisfied with his mode of existence, especially as there were more than enough times when he got himself into ample trouble with no assistance from a marriage partner.
He had an uneasy suspicion that one of those times was near at hand as he watched the heavy-shouldered figure of Cort Brannigan cross the bridge and come striding towards the workshop entrance. It was early on a fine spring morning, the sort of morning which might have been designed to uplift the human spirit, but there was something about Brannigan’s gait and out-thrust jaw which suggested that, if anything, his spirit was in a meaner and more joyless condition than usual.
He was a sixty-year-old farmer, who had a mixed-produce spread eight kilometres north of the town, and in spite of being obese he was renowned as a brawler. His great belly, which could absorb strong men’s best punches, surged as he walked, glowing intermittently as it moved in and out of the cylinder of shadow created by his wide-brimmed hat. Several of the cinnamon sticks he habitually chewed to obliterate the smell of alcohol projected from his shirt pocket. He had no time for Nicklin as a person, and only dealt with him because there was no other competent repair service in the county.
Some ten days earlier he had brought in his wife’s sewing-machine, which needed to have a bracket welded or brazed, and had demanded priority service. Nicklin was afraid of the big man, although he did his best to conceal the fact, and had promised the repair would be taken care of within a couple of days. He had intended to pass it over without delay to Maxy Millom, his part-time employee, but Maxy had not been around that afternoon. There had been a flurry of urgent work the following morning, and somehow the sewing-machine had been forgotten. When Brannigan had telephoned to enquire about it Nicklin had put him off with a hastily concocted excuse, and then—incredibly, it seemed in retrospect—had forgotten the machine all over again.
At that very moment it was being worked upon by Maxy in the shed he used for welding operations. The job would take only a few minutes, so Brannigan would not have to leave empty-handed, but the machine was bound to reek of hot metal when finally produced, and the big man would realise at once just how much priority his esteemed order had been given…
“Good morning, Cort,” Nicklin said, mustering a smile as Brannigan came into the shop and approached the low counter. “Great morning, isn’t it?”
“Hadn’t noticed.” Brannigan glanced over the shelves behind Nicklin. “Where is it?”
“It? Oh, the sewing-machine! Maxy will be bringing it through in a minute.”
“Isn’t it ready?”
“It’s been ready for ages, Cort… sitting right here and ready to go…” Nicklin forced his brain into higher gear. “I just noticed a rough spot on the welding—just a minute ago—so I told Maxy to take it back and smooth it out. We don’t want your good lady scratching her hand, do we?”
Brannigan studied Nicklin as though he were some unpleasant primitive life form. “I bumped into young Maxy in the bar of the Victoria Hotel last night. Got to talking to him for a while.” Brannigan increased the intensity of his stare, as though he had just said something very significant.
“Really?” Nicklin toyed nervously with his empty coffee cup as he divined what was coming next. “That was nice.”
“When I asked him about my machine he said he didn’t even know I’d brought it in. What have you to say to that?”
Nicklin mentally cursed his assistant for not having either the loyalty or the savvy to cover up for him. “You can’t trust a word Maxy says when he’s had a couple. Poor kid gets confused. I think his memory goes.”
“It had gone last night, that’s for sure,” Brannigan growled, his gaze probing Nicklin’s soul. “He couldn’t even remember having any relatives over in Poynting—let alone a favourite uncle who had just died, and whose funeral he had just attended.”
“My problem is that I trust people too much.” Nicklin put on a disappointed expression, at the same time wondering what insane impulse had prompted him to blurt out that particular lie. To make matters worse, he had completely forgotten having done it, otherwise he might have been able to bribe Maxy into collusion.
“I let Maxy put just about anything over on me when he wants some extra time off,” he went on. “You know what? I’m going to go over to the welding shop right now and fetch your machine, and while I’m there I’m going to give that kid the worst…”
Nicklin’s voice faltered as he glanced out through the nearest window and saw the pear-shaped figure of Maxy approaching with the sewing-machine tucked under his arm. Maxy’s bottle shoulders and wide, slabby hips made him look older than his nineteen years when he was seen at a distance. Like many slightly misshapen men, he had great physical strength, and was walking so energetically that he appeared to spring clear of the ground with every step. He had not bothered to put on his hat for the short walk between the two buildings, and his scalp—shaven to forestall premature baldness—shone in the sunlight with the whiteness of lard.
Nicklin, who had been hoping to keep Maxy and Brannigan apart, almost groaned aloud at the sight. Please, O Gaseous Vertebrate, he prayed inwardly, please allow Maxy to have developed some common sense, diplomacy, loyalty or compassion during the night.
Make him keep his mouth shut about the dead uncle business. That’s not too much to ask…
Maxy burst into the shop with unnecessary force, glaring at Nicklin with hostile eyes. “What for,” he demanded, “did you tell Mr Brannigan I had an uncle in Poynting who died?”
Terrible sentence construction, Maxy, Nicklin thought, his mind trying to escape into irrelevances as he realised he was well and truly boxed in. His brow prickled with cool sweat.
“Yeah, that’s what I’d like to know.” Beneath its frosting of silver stubble, Brannigan’s face was that of a man who was prepared to commit murder.
Confronted by his accusers, Nicklin was suddenly amazed by how angry they were. They were behaving as though he had committed some terrible crime against them… as though he had betrayed their trust in a matter of the utmost gravity… and, when it came down to it, who were they? Nobodies! He had no need of them. In fact, they were the ones who needed him! It was, now that he thought of it, rather like the trial scene at the end of Alice in Wonderland, where Alice is coming to her senses and realises that all the entities who are crowding and harassing her are nothing more than playing cards. There was absolutely nothing to prevent him from, as Alice had done, rising up and venting his irritation with one great shout of, Who cares for you? You’re nothing but a pack of cards!
“What are you grinning at?” Brannigan shot Maxy a can-you-believe-this? glance and leaned across the counter, coming so close that Nicklin received a warm gust of cinnamon from his breath. “I don’t see anything funny.”
Nicklin, who had not been aware of showing amusement, did his utmost to emit that single devastating shout which would scatter his oppressors as though they were leaves caught up in a tornado. His mouth opened, but no matter how he strained no sound was issued, and he realised amid an upwelling of despair that the simple act—natural to anyone who had any backbone to speak of- was beyond his capabilities. He was hemmed in, trapped, about to be humiliated, and could envisage no possible means of escape.
“There must be some misunderstanding here, gentlemen,” he said, mind racing with the futility of an engine which has just snapped its load shaft. “I don’t think I ever actually said anything about…”
He broke off, becoming aware of a new element in the scene, something which with a modicum of luck could terminate the current unpleasantness. Beyond the wide shady eaves of the building, the agile figure of Zindee White—aged thirteen and a bit—could be seen sprinting across the stretch of grass which separated her family’s home from Nicklin’s property. She was wearing a bright red T-shirt and orange shorts, and was moving so fast that a visible cloud of dust and pollen swirled in her wake. She was the most regular customer for Nicklin’s library service, and—in spite of the age difference—possibly his best friend. It was obvious that she had some important news to impart to him. From past experience he knew that “important” could embrace anything from the acquisition of a desired toy to the discovery of a jewel-bug with exceptional markings. Whatever it was on this occasion, Nicklin vowed, he was going to find some way to make it his ticket to freedom.
Thank you, O Gaseous Vertebrate, he thought while giving a theatrical start of surprise. “Here’s young Zindee!” he exclaimed. “And just look at that speed. I hope there isn’t anything wrong at home.”
Before Brannigan and Maxy could reply, Zindee stormed in through the shop’s open door, her sneakers slapping the floor with the force of her deceleration. “Jim! Have you heard the…?”