"She might have," said Shapur. "Whatever happens is the will of-uh- Above, you know. We ourselves can do nothing to alter that."
The chagrin of that moment must have sharpened Wellby's wits for it was then that he vanished, leaving the room empty, except for a surprised demon. And surprise turned to absolute fury when the demon looked at the contract with Wellby which he had, until that moment, been holding in his hand for final action, one way or the other.
It was ten years (to the day, naturally) after Isidore Wellby had signed his pact with Shapur, that the demon entered Wellby's office and said, most angrily, "Look here-"
Wellby looked up from his work, astonished. "Who are you?"
"You know very well who I am," said Shapur.
"Not at all," said Wellby.
The demon looked sharply at the man. "I see you are telling the truth, but I can't make out the details." He promptly flooded Wellby's mind with the events of the last ten years.
Wellby said, "Oh, yes. I can explain, of course, but are you sure we will not be interrupted?"
"We won't be," said the demon grimly.
"I sat in that closed bronze room," said Wellby, "and-"
"Never mind that," said the demon hastily. "I want to know-"
"Please. Let me tell this my way."
The demon clamped his jaws and fairly exuded sulfur dioxide till Wellby coughed and looked pained.
Wellby said, "If you'll move off a bit. Thank you... Now I sat in that closed bronze room and remembered how you kept stressing the absolute unbrokenness of the four walls, the floor and the ceiling. I wondered: why did you specify? What else was there beside walls, floor and ceiling. You had defined a completely enclosed three-dimensional space.
"And that was it: three-dimensional. The room was not closed in the fourth dimension. It did not exist indefinitely in the past. You said you had created it for me. So if one traveled into the past, one would find oneself at a point in time, eventually, when the room did not exist and then one would be out of the room.
"What's more, you had said I could move in any dimension, and time may certainly be viewed as a dimension. In any case, as soon as I decided to move toward the past, I found myself living backward at a tremendous rate and suddenly there was no bronze around me anywhere."
Shapur cried in anguish, "I can guess all that. You couldn't have escaped any other way. It's this contract of yours that I'm concerned about. If you're not an ordinary damned soul, very well, it's part of the game. But you must be at least one of us, one of the cadre; it's what you were paid for, and if I don't deliver you down below, I will be in enormous trouble."
Wellby shrugged his shoulders. "I'm sorry for you, of course, but I can't help you. You must have created the bronze room immediately after I placed my signature on the paper, for when I burst out of the room, I found myself just at the point in time at which I was making the bargain with you. There you were again; there I was; you were pushing the contract toward me, together with a stylus with which I might prick my finger. To be sure, as I had moved back in time, my memory of what was becoming the future faded out, but not, apparently, quite entirely. As you pushed the contract at me, I felt uneasy. I didn't quite remember the future, but I felt uneasy. So I didn't sign. I turned you down flat."
Shapur ground his teeth. "I might have known. If probability patterns affected demons, I would have shifted with you into this new if-world. As it is, all I can say is that you have lost the ten happy years we paid you with. That is one consolation. And we'll get you in the end. That is another."
"Well, now," said Wellby, "are there consolations in hell? Through the ten years I have now lived, I knew nothing of what I might have obtained. But now that you've put the memory of the ten-years-that-might-have-been into my mind, I recall that, in the bronze room, you told me that demonic agreements could give nothing that could not be obtained by industry and trust in Above. I have been industrious and I have trusted."
Wellby's eyes fell upon the photograph of his beautiful wife and four beautiful children, then traveled about the tasteful luxuriance of his office. "And I may even escape hell altogether. That, too, is beyond your power to decide."
And the demon, with a horrible shriek, vanished forever.
The first pang of nausea had passed and Jan Prentiss said, "Damn it, you're an insect."
It was a statement of fact, not an insult, and the thing that sat on Prentiss' desk said, "Of course."
It was about a foot long, very thin, and in shape a farfetched and miniature caricature of a human being. Its stalky arms and legs originated in pairs from the upper portion of its body. The legs were longer and thicker than the arms. They extended the length of the body, then bent forward at the knee.
The creature sat upon those knees and, when it did so, the stub of its fuzzy abdomen just cleared Prentiss' desk.
There was plenty of time for Prentiss to absorb these details. The object had no objection to being stared at. It seemed to welcome it, in fact, as though it were used to exciting admiration.
"What are you?" Prentiss did not feel completely rational. Five minutes ago, he had been seated at his typewriter, working leisurely on the story he had promised Horace W. Browne for last month's issue of Farfetched Fantasy Fiction. He had been in a perfectly usual frame of mind. He had felt quite fine; quite sane.
And then a block of air immediately to the right of the typewriter had shimmered, clouded over and condensed into the little horror that dangled its black and shiny feet over the edge of the desk.
Prentiss wondered in a detached sort of way that he bothered talking to it. This was the first time his profession had so crudely affected his dreams. It must be a dream, he told himself.
"I'm an Avalonian," said the being. "I'm from Avalon, in other words." It's tiny face ended in a mandibular mouth. Two swaying three-inch antennae rose from a spot above either eye, while the eyes themselves gleamed richly in their many-faceted fashion. There was no sign of nostrils.
Naturally not, thought Prentiss wildly. It has to breathe through vents in its abdomen. It must be talking with its abdomen then. Or using telepathy.
"Avalon?" he said stupidly. He thought: Avalon? The land of the fay in King Arthur's time?
"Certainly," said the creature, answering the thought smoothly. "I'm an elf."
"Oh, no!" Prentiss put his hands to his face, took them away and found the elf still there, its feet thumping against the top drawer. Prentiss was not a drinking man, or a nervous one. In fact, he was considered a very prosaic sort of person by his neighbors. He had a comfortable paunch, a reasonable but not excessive amount of hair on his head, an amiable wife and an active ten-year-old son. His neighbors were, of course, kept ignorant of the fact that he paid off the mortgage on his house by writing fantasies of one sort or another.
Till now, however, this secret vice had never affected his psyche. To be sure, his wife had shaken her head over his addiction many times. It was her standard opinion that he was wasting, even perverting, his talents.
"Who on Earth reads these things?" she would say. "All that stuff about demons and gnomes and wishing rings and elves. All that kid stuff, if you want my frank opinion."
"You're quite wrong," Prentiss would reply stiffly. "Modern fantasies are very sophisticated and mature treatments of folk motifs. Behind the facade of glib unreality there frequently lie trenchant comments on the world of today. Fantasy in modem style is, above all, adult fare."
Blanche shrugged. She had heard him speak at conventions so these comments weren't new to her.
"Besides," he would add, "fantasies pay the mortgage, don't they?"
"Maybe so," she would reply, "but it would be nice if you'd switch to mysteries. At least you'd get quarter-reprint sales out of those and we could "'even tell the neighbors what you do for a living."
Prentiss groaned in spirit. Blanche could come in now at any time and find him talking to himself (it was too real for a dream; it might be a hallucination). After that he would have to write mysteries for a living-or take to work.
"You're quite wrong," said the elf. "This is neither a dream nor a hallucination."
"Then why don't you go away?" asked Prentiss.
"I intend to. This is scarcely my idea of a place to live. And you're coming with me."
"I am not. What the hell do you think you are, telling me what I'm going to do?"
"If you think that's a respectful way to speak to a representative of an older culture, I can't say much for your upbringing."
"You're not an older culture-" He wanted to add: You're just a figment of my imagination; but he had been a writer too long to be able to bring himself to commit the clich§Û.
"We insects," said the elf freezingly, "existed half a billion years before the first mammal was invented. We watched the dinosaurs come in and we watched them go out. As for you man-things-strictly newcomers."
For the first time, Prentiss noted that, from the spot on the elf's body where its limbs sprouted, a third vestigial pair existed as well. It increased the insecticity of the object and Prentiss' sense of indignation grew.
He said, "You needn't waste your company on social inferiors."
"I wouldn't," said the elf, "believe me. But necessity drives, you know. It's a rather complicated story but when you hear it, you'll want to help."
Prentiss said uneasily, "Look, I don't have much time. Blanche-my wife will be in here any time. She'll be upset."
"She won't be here," said the elf. "I've set up a block in her mind."
"Quite harmless, I assure you. But, after all, we can't afford to be disturbed, can we?"
Prentiss sat back in his chair, dazed and unhappy.
The elf said, "We elves began our association with you man-things immediately after the last ice age began. It had been a miserable time for us, as you can imagine. We couldn't wear animal carcasses or live in holes as your uncouth ancestors did. It took incredible stores of psychic energy to keep warm."
"Incredible stores of what?"
"Psychic energy. You know nothing at all about it. Your mind is too coarse to grasp the concept. Please don't interrupt."
The elf continued, "Necessity drove us to experiment with your people's brains. They were crude, but large. The cells were inefficient, almost worthless, but there were a vast number of them. We could use those brains as a concentrating device, a type of psychic lens, and increase the available energy which our own minds could tap. We survived the ice age handily and without having to retreat to the tropics as in previous such eras.
"Of course, we were spoiled. When warmth returned, we didn't abandon the man-things. We used them to increase our standard of living generally. We could travel faster, eat better, do more, and we lost our old, simple, virtuous way of life forever. Then, too, there was milk."
"Milk?" said Prentiss. "I don't see the connection."
"A divine liquid. I only tasted it once in my life. But elfin classic poetry speaks of it in superlatives. In the old days, men always supplied us plentifully. Why mammals of all things should be blessed with it and insects not is a complete mystery... How unfortunate it is that the men-things got out of hand."
"Two hundred years ago."
"Good for us."
"Don't be narrow-minded," said the elf stiffly. "It was a useful association for all parties until you man-things learned to handle physical energies in quantity. It was just the sort of gross thing your minds are capable of."
"What was wrong with it?"
"It's hard to explain. It was all very well for us to light up our nightly revels with fireflies brightened by use of two manpower of psychic energy. But then you men-creatures installed electric lights. Our antennal reception is good for miles, but then you invented telegraphs, telephones and radios. Our kobolds mined ore with much greater efficiency than man-things do, until man-things invented dynamite. Do you see?"
"Surely you don't expect sensitive and superior creatures such as the elves to watch a group of hairy mammals outdo them. It wouldn't be so bad if we could imitate the electronic development ourselves, but our psychic energies were insufficient for the purpose. Well, we retreated from reality. We sulked, pined and drooped. Call it an inferiority complex, if you will, but from two centuries ago onward, we slowly abandoned mankind and retreated to such centers as Avalon."
Prentiss thought furiously. "Let's get this straight. You can handle minds?"
"You can make me think you're invisible? Hypnotically, I mean?"
"A crude term, but yes."
"And when you appeared just now, you did it by lifting a kind of mental block. Is that it?"
"To answer your thoughts, rather than your words: You are not sleeping; you are not mad; and I am not supernatural."
"I was just making sure. I take it, then, you can read my mind."
"Of course. It is a rather dirty and unrewarding sort of labor, but I can do it when I must. Your name is Prentiss and you write imaginative fiction. You have one larva who is at a place of instruction. I know a great deal about you."
Prentiss winced. "And just where is Avalon?"
"You won't find it." The elf clacked his mandibles together two or three times. "Don't speculate on the possibility of warning the authorities. You'll find yourself in a madhouse. Avalon, in case you think the knowledge will help you, is in the middle of the Atlantic and quite invisible, you know. After the steamboat was invented, you man-things got to moving about so unreasonably that we had to cloak the whole island with a psychic shield.
"Of course, incidents will take place. Once a huge, barbaric vessel hit us dead center and it took all the psychic energy of the entire population to give the island the appearance of an iceberg. The Titanic, I believe, was the name printed on the vessel. And nowadays there are planes flying overhead all the time and sometimes there are crashes. We picked up cases of canned milk once. That's when I tasted it."
Prentiss said, "Well, then, damn it, why aren't you still on Avalon? Why did you leave?"
"I was ordered to leave," said the elf angrily. "The fools."
"You know how it is when you're a little different. I'm not like the rest of them and the poor tradition-ridden fools resented it. They were jealous. That's the best explanation. Jealous!"
"How are you different?"
"Hand me that light bulb," said the elf. "Oh, just unscrew it. You don't need a reading lamp in the daytime."
With a quiver of repulsion, Prentiss did as he was told and passed the object into the little hands of the elf. Carefully, the elf, with fingers so thin and wiry that they looked like tendrils, touched the bottom and side of the brass base.
Feebly the filament in the bulb reddened.
"Good God," said Prentiss.
"That," said the elf proudly, "is my great talent. I told you that we elves couldn't adapt psychic energy to electronics. Well, I can! I'm not just an ordinary elf. I'm a mutant! A super-elf! I'm the next stage in elfin evolution. This light is due just to the activity of my own mind, you know. Now watch when I use yours as a focus."
As he said that, the bulb's filament grew white hot and painful to look at, while a vague and not unpleasant tickling sensation entered Prentiss' skull.
The lamp went out and the elf put the bulb on the desk behind the typewriter.
"I haven't tried," said the elf proudly, "but I suspect I can fission uranium too."
"But look here, lighting a bulb takes energy. You can't just hold it-"
"I've told you about psychic energy. Great Oberon, man-thing, try to understand."
Prentiss felt increasingly uneasy; he said cautiously, "What do you intend doing with this gift of yours?"
"Go back to Avalon, of course. I should let those fools go to their doom, but an elf does have a certain patriotism, even if he is a coleopteron."
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