It's Time To Wake Up, George

One more story from the Complete Works of the Literate Dead:

It's Time To Wake Up, George

The road was forever. Infinite, moving; like the night, it went on and on without pause or rest. Whenever he drove, George could feel the dream again. Sleep was unnecessary, for the highway captured his brain and played the images in front of his open eyes.

He had ceased to be human. The car enveloped his body like a protective shell and hurtled him endlessly forward along a network of concrete wires. There was no purpose to life but motion; no reason for motion than the fact of its being. He was—wasn’t; was—wasn’t, simultaneously in the uncountable series of moments that stretched before his mind. The road-wire fed steadily into his face, constantly renewing his energy, and streamed, fecal-like, from somewhere behind the machine.

George blinked and began to fight the dream for control of his awareness. Each time it was harder to wake, and now a feeling of panic began to wash through his stomach as he realized that the highway would not return to normal. It remained a thick cord ramming into his forehead, coming faster by the second. He commanded his foot to break, but somehow it had grown into the floor of the car like a giant accelerator pedal. He was frozen, helpless; unable even to scream in terror as he flew constantly toward the blackness beyond his headlights.

Then, far ahead, something moved. Something that was not the road tried to signal him to stop, and as the figure took the shape of a hitchhiker, the highway flattened and released its hypnotic grip. George sighed relief and guided the car to the shoulder. He wiped large beads of perspiration from his forehead, watching as a young woman came running toward him.

"Where to?" he asked as she climbed in on the passenger side. She had no baggage, not even a pack.

"Nowhere special." The voice was light, almost laughing.

He turned to stare at her. "She's young," he thought. "Happiness comes easy when you're young."

She saw his expression and smiled impishly.

"Would you like to make love to me before we start?" Her fingers began to unzip her jeans.

George grinned suddenly and shook his head. He pulled back onto the road. "No thank you, uh---what's your name, anyway?"

"Cathy."

"Well, no thank you, Cathy. Not that your offer isn't appealing, but I'm afraid I wouldn't be up to it."

"Why not? Are you gay?"

"My, you are blunt, aren't you?"

She smiled again. "Uh-hum."

"No," he shook his head. "I'm not. Gay that is. Or usually blunt, either."

"Well, then," she stretched and looked out the window. "What are you usually, George?"

He startled. "How did you know my name?"

"Just a guess," she yawned. "You look like a George."

He shifted uncomfortably in his seat and concentrated on the road.

"So, tell me," she insisted.

"Tell you what?"

"About yourself, of course." She had turned to face him again. "What do you do with your life?”

"Live it," he offered sarcastically.

"God damn it!" she flared. "Stop the car."

"Why? What's the matter?"

"I'll wait for someone who doesn't hate company."

"At this time of night? On this road? You're lucky I came along."

"Yeah," she snipped. "It's really my night."

George resisted the urge to pull over. "Oh, come on, Cathy. I just wanted to spare you the boredom of listening to my life story. I didn't mean to hurt your feelings."

She leaned forward to get a better look at his face. "How old are you, George?"

"Thirty-four."

"That's a long way from the end, you know."

Suddenly he was laughing at himself, and he stared at her in amazement.

She nodded acknowledgment and chuckled. "You needed that."

He nodded. "But how can you tell what I'm thinking?"

"Because you're only human. You're not all that different from anyone else."

"Sometimes I feel I am."

"Everyone does. Then they get like you."

He hesitated. "I'm not sure. I think I've got a pretty unique kind of depression going."

"How's yours so different?" She settled back to listen.

"Well," he shrugged, "Most people get depressed some time or other. Then they snap out of it. A few don't. Then they kill themselves. Me?" He gestured vaguely. "I've been bored with living for as long as I can remember. I go through all the motions. Eat, sleep, work; eat, sleep, work. Day after day after day after day. Nothing ever brings me up, but I don't go any lower either. Actually, I don't think I can get down any farther. I seem to have bottomed out at sea level, so I keep on waiting."

"Waiting for what?"

He paused a moment, raising an eyebrow pensively. "Something to happen, I guess. Anything that would make some sense. Right now, I'm just killing time. Maybe that's all life really is—a way to kill time. You eat and sleep and go to the bathroom because your body says it needs to. If your mind counts for anything at all, it's to help your body keep going. So, what's the point? Go on for what? To maybe get laid by another body responding to a different set of urges? Let's face it, Cathy. If we're anything at all, it's just hunks of meat looking for a diversion or responding to Mother Nature's need to continue the species. Who needs it in the first place, and why risk producing someone else to carry on this pointlessness?"

"So that's why you didn't want to lay me?"

"Yeah, that's it exactly. Oh, you'd be fun, I'm sure. But then what? What's the purpose—to go find another person to waste a little more time with when you're gone? Better to control the urges from the start. They get out of hand too easily."

She pursed her lips. "Man, you must think about suicide a lot."

He gave an ironic smirk. "So, you really aren't a mind reader after all."

She didn't seem to understand.

"I've stopped contemplating my own demise ages ago," he explained. "It's not that I can find a reason to stay alive, but I don't know a damn thing about death. Frankly, it scares the hell out of me."

"I'd say," she mused, "that you probably have a great deal of hope hiding somewhere inside you."

"Hope?" he snorted. "If you can read hope into all that, let me clarify my position for you. If I could go back to any point in time, I'd visit my parents on the night I was conceived and convince my father to pull out. Now, does that sound like a hopeful man?"

He expected her to get angry, but instead she let out an exasperated sigh. "It sounds like a man who is over tired and could use a break from all this driving." She touched his shoulder gently. "Come on, George. Let me take the wheel while you get a little rest."

"It's true," he thought as he pulled off the road. "I'm exhausted. Been pushing too hard lately."

They changed places, and as Cathy returned onto the highway, he fell into a sound sleep. The dream took him again. Forms were different, but feelings came as before. This time he was traveling backward at a steadily increasing speed. It was dark all around, and the sound of a thunderous heartbeat kept pushing at his chest. A strong gust of wind seemed to suck his feet out from under him, stretching his body into a thin tube. He tried to scream, but only exhaust air escaped his mouth. There could be no stopping, though he had known that all along. Something far beyond his control demanded this motion; demanded he be drawn endlessly into an artificial oblivion of semi-consciousness.

It was the terror that let him hold onto sanity. The nauseating waves of coldness were horribly familiar, refusing to yield under the monotonous rhythm of forced travel. The pounding heartbeat became a deep resonant whisper, calling names of persons and places he had never heard before. His brain could function just enough to realize that the words were somehow milestones on this backward journey, though he could retain none of them in the non-existent memory of the nightmare. He found himself straining for air; fighting against the unnatural position of upraised legs, but only a strangled choke could form in his lungs. It emerged as a low gurgle, while his hands clawed desperately at the receding blackness.

The gurgle took his name and mocked him. "George," it babbled like an echo. "George..."

He wanted to ignore it, but everything was shattering from the vibration. "George!" It was so insistent. "George!"

His eyes flew open, and he stared wildly. Cathy was steering with one hand and shaking him with the other.

"Wake up, George. You were gagging in your sleep."

He jerked his head violently, still unable to speak.

"You okay?"

He nodded. "Oh, Christ," he finally whispered. "I can't take many more of those."

"Bad dreams?"

"The same one over and over, I think."

"Can you describe it? Maybe it will go away if we can figure it out."

"Later. I gotta rest first." He settled back and stared out the window.

The sun would challenge the dark soon. Already a faint tinge of red filtered across the sky. The scenery drifted past in a darkly silhouetted ballet of unrecognizable terrain.

"Strange," he thought. "I've made this trip a hundred times before, but nothing here seems the same."

He turned to Cathy. "Where are we, anyway?"

She shrugged. "Beats the hell out of me. I've just been following the painted lines."

"Didn't we pass any towns while I was asleep?"

"I didn't see any, but you were only out about an hour or so."

He frowned. "That's still a lot of miles without seeing anything. How much gas is left?" She glanced at the dashboard.

"Oh, about—" The engine began to surge and sputter, then died in a spasm of coughs. "—ten drops," she finished.

George punched his seat. "Damn!"

Cathy sighed. "Well, getting mad won't do any good. We'll just have to walk to a station. Maybe we can flag someone down on the way."

He got out of the car and kicked at the gravel. "Fat chance. I haven't seen anyone all night."

She climbed from behind the wheel. "Come on, George. Where's your spirit of adventure? Where's the courage that made this country great?" Her arm lifted as if she were waving a flag. "What would Washington have done if he had run out of gas on the way to Valley Forge?"

In spite of himself, he had to laugh. "Okay, okay. I'll undertake this perilous voyage into the unknown. My troops must have fuel." He reached for his jacket. "You wait here 'til I get back."

She shook her head. "No, I've got a better idea. It's getting light, so I'll go back the way we came in case I missed something in the dark. Whoever gets here first can drive to pick up the other one."

It seemed reasonable, and he nodded, then turned to go. He had only taken a few steps when a thought struck him.

"Cathy," he called after her.

"What?"

"You really do make me feel good. Thank you."

She smiled. "Then come kiss me good-bye."

It was full sunrise when they finally started to walk.

*

He had gone about two miles when he saw the pyramid. Although it stood at least six stories high, the curve of the highway combined with a small stand of trees to camouflage its presence until he was almost on it. The smooth white sides gleamed brightly in the full light of the new day, catching the still shadows of the surrounding hills and reflecting the shimmer of water from a nearby pond. Its appearance was lulling, and his first thought was that the building could not have been constructed, but rather had grown since his last trip.

He looked for a plaque to indicate the name of the company and realized there was nothing printed or etched anywhere on the stone walls. Nor could he see any kind of poster or sign facing the road in his direction. George crossed the asphalt at a point where a wide flagstone footpath spilled onto the highway and meandered back to the pyramid's base. It ended in a dark rectangular opening, clearly discernable, but somehow incongruent in its suggestion of accessibility. This made no sense. A building of this size would house hundreds of employees. Where were the driveways and parking lots to accommodate them? The question made him uneasy, as he eyed the path curiously.

The answer came to him in the next moment, and he silently chastised himself for being so dense. This must be the rear of the structure. There had to be an access road somewhere up ahead.

Well, no point in looking for a road when a path would do as well. The trick now would be to find a security guard or some early-bird executive that would let him in to use a phone. Or maybe they had a night shift still on duty.

As he neared the wall, a low hum suggesting machinery filtered out to the still morning air. The dark patch grew larger and burrowed itself deeper into the base, forming a dimly lit tunnel. George walked to the entrance and peered inside. Ceiling, floor, and walls, all concrete; all identical in texture, receded gradually inward until they disappeared around a barely visible corner.

He brought a cupped hand to his mouth and shouted a hello. Nothing. He tried it again. "Anyone home?" He cocked his head and listened. Only the hushed rhythmic whoosh of air, like the sleeping exhalations of some mechanical giant, rode down to mingle with the muffled hum of gears.

Cautiously, he started down the hallway. The thing to do, he told himself, was find someone on duty and ask for help. People were naturally kind to strangers in trouble. They went out of their way to be understanding. It wasn't like he was purposely intruding, after all.

Then why was he glancing so nervously over his shoulder? George pursed his lips as he realized how silly he was acting. There was something about entering a building unbidden that put one on the defensive. Or was it the building itself? He shook his head. That was patently absurd; the kind of thinking that came from watching too many late night movies on television. Better get on with the business at hand and quit acting like a child having nightmares. He forced a bit more confidence into his steps, turned the corner, then stopped short. The floor ended in a mobile walkway that covered the width of the corridor, moving inward on a gradually rising incline.

It reminded George of an oversized assembly-line belt, though the presence of handrails clearly indicated it was intended for human transport. So why one way? To accommodate arriving employee traffic? What about those going home? Was there another corridor somewhere nearby to service departures, or was the tread reversible? No doubt about it, the design was screwy. Well, unusual, to say the least. But if he were going to find someone...

George shrugged and stepped onto the passing surface. The rubber strip felt springy beneath his feet, giving way ever so slightly as he shifted his balance to compensate for a perceived increase in speed. The lighting became further subdued and the incline sharper as the tread turned a series of corners, tunneling deeper upward; velocity continuously climbing until the florescent bulbs recessed along the walls began to streak as he passed them. Suddenly he was aware that the mechanical humming had changed to a deep rhythmic throbbing, a pounding that grew steadily louder until it seemed the entire building vibrated with each crash and echo.

Fear fluttered in his chest, constricting his breathing. It was the dream again, taking over his mind, stretching his brain into some hideous two- dimensional thing. He tried to turn and run, but the speed of the walkway swept him off his feet and dragged him backward faster than ever. His shout was lost in the thunderous beat as he was swept around another curve and deposited onto solid flooring.

George got up slowly, fighting against the urge to vomit. He felt shaken and disoriented, his head still spinning from the tumble. It took him a moment to realize how quiet everything had become. A distant muffled drumming, like a motorized heart pumping life into the stone block, came from somewhere far away. Otherwise, there was nothing. He leaned against a wall, feeling relief gush through him. This time, at least, the dream had not won out. It occurred to him that he should be grateful, but an acute sense of wariness would not permit it.

He took a moment to assess his situation. Within his immediate reach the hall ended in an oversized metal door equipped with a brass pull-ring. Unless he was willing to try running back against the flow of the walkway, the only choice he had was to go through that portal, assuming, of course, it was unlocked.

He waited a few more seconds until he was sure his head was completely clear, then he reached for the handle and gave it a tug. The door swung open easily, and he peered inside, blinking in amazement. Another mobile path rolled slowly through an aisle of large enclosed glass tanks. It reminded him at first of an aquarium, except for the continuous lub-dub of the hidden machinery and an intense darkness which made the well-lit cases stand out dramatically. They were huge by comparison also; at least twenty feet high, covering the distance from floor to ceiling and traversing the entire length of the room in a solid surface broken only by what looked like narrow partition strips.

It was impossible to tell what was in the cases from where he stood, yet he hesitated to climb onto the moving tread, remembering all too vividly his recent brush with the dream. Finally, he scowled to himself. It was time he started taking control of his life instead of surrendering it up to every apprehensive qualm that wandered through his mind. He stepped forward and was carried easily to the cases. They seemed to be identical pairs, until George realized that one wall was simply a mirror, reflecting both the activities of the other side and his own passing figure.

The first tank was an impressive collection of multi- colored liquids of apparently different densities. They swirled in random patterns at varied speeds and directions, producing an oddly relaxing effect as he watched them. He found himself wanting to stop and stare; to enjoy the effortless activity of these strange elements, but the walkway took him quickly past the partition. The second section began to make sense. From a clear tube the liquids passed into a large hopper connected to one side of a rectangular prism. The other side branched into a series of several dozen pipes, each feeding directly into its own individually colored box. These boxes, in turn, seemed to act as sifters, trailing varied quantities of multi-hued powders into another large hopper situated on top of yet another prism. A translucent tube ran from this form through the next partition, and George found his sense of anticipation rising as he neared the divider. Just what was this rather unusual factory creating, anyway? He had only seconds to wait for an answer. As the walkway swung him past the divider, he gaped in surprise. Rows of large bottles, each topped with a device that resembled a distributor cap, lined the entire tank from top to bottom. The sheer number was staggering. There must have been hundreds of shelves, each crammed with thousands of containers; masses of wires leading from their tops into the ceiling far above. The ones on the upper levels seemed to be filled with some of the dried powders he had just seen being produced in the second tank, but the lower jars contained what looked like some kind of organism suspended in a clear liquid.

An uneasy feeling swept through his body as he studied the case before him. This was all a little weird, and yet its familiarity could not be denied. He felt no threat; no sense of danger, but he knew instinctively what would follow.

The next case confirmed his intuition. The substances in the bottles had become fetuses, though of what he could not be certain. Obviously, they weren't human, for there was barely a distinction between their heads and bodies. In fact, they reminded him more of coiled hoses than anything else, though these hoses came equipped with tiny appendages that must be arms and legs.

In the final tank the containers were being uncapped by sets of mechanical arms. They moved rapidly, metallic fingers amazingly dexterous, removing the lids with one quick twist and releasing them to be reeled into the ceiling by their wires. The jars themselves were then lifted and placed onto a conveyor belt that carried them into an opening in the back wall and out of sight.

The moving tread came to an end before a door identical to the one he had entered on the opposite end of the room. This time, peaked by curiosity, he hurried through. George found himself on a stairwell that only led up.

He pursed his lips. Well, why should he have expected a choice now? He'd been on a one way street ever since he'd gotten on that first walkway. Might as well try to enjoy the tour, especially since there were no other alternatives. He climbed to the next landing where another massive door offered its brass ring. He knew before he opened it that the layout would be the same, though more disturbing than this prescience was the realization that he had somehow seen all this before.

But that was impossible, he thought. How could I understand this? His uneasiness increased as the walkway carried him down the new aisle. It was not a discomfort produced by fear—on the contrary—it was more like the unsettled feeling he always had when he returned home from a long trip. The full blown recognition of how he was responding slammed into him like a heavy weight. Why should he react emotionally like this was a homecoming? He didn't belong here.

He came to the first case, and everything became horribly clear. The little embryos had been removed from the bottles but were now encased in plastic. Into one end of their bodies a thin hose had been plugged, and another emerged from the opposite ends. The tiny arms and legs pushed futilely against the coating around them, as they wriggled and writhed in exaggerated gestures.

It was the highway dream, George thought. Just like being swallowed by a car and impaled by the road. Tears of pity for these unknown creatures welled up in his eyes.

"I understand you," his mind addressed the tubes. "We share the same pain. I don't know what you are, but all the same, we're brothers."

The next section came up quickly. Only one thing was different. Wires had been attached to the head area of the creatures, and toward the end of the case, some of them had succeeded in pushing their arms and legs through the plastic covering. The following tank showed more activity. A few of the tubes still had wires in their heads, though the majority had managed to free their hands and had ripped loose of the connections. They were now starting to tear plastic from a central area of their bodies. George stared in fascination as he realized they were uncovering what must be genitals. At the far end of the case, most of the creatures had coupled despite the hoses and the plastic encumbrances surrounding the rest of their forms.

Just as he reached the partition, he noticed two or three exceptions. These had freed themselves of the wires and, having also broken loose the covering from their heads, were methodically working downward along their torsos.

George shook his head. "You poor, dumb bastards," he said aloud though he wasn’t sure they could even hear, let alone understand him. "Even if you get free of that crap, you're still connected to the hoses." He wondered why he even cared.

In the final tank the rest of the production continued. About half the creatures had distributor caps sprouting from their backs. Except for their positions, they seemed identical to those seated on the tops of the bottles in the case downstairs. The wires from these caps ran through the floor, and George didn't doubt for a moment that he was watching a bizarre form of motherhood in the making. The other half of the population still wriggled within their coatings, but either they were weaker or the plastic stiffer, for they were not so agile as before.

"You're getting old, brothers," he told them, but no response was forthcoming. Then he noticed the one. It was among those few that had been trying to free their entire bodies, and upon searching through the crowd, he could see that several of them, at least, had removed all the plastic and were now exploring the hoses that fed in and out of their bodies.

But this one seemed more important than the others. It had freed everything but its legs, and George could sense the tremendous effort it exerted as it struggled against this disabling bondage. The treadway came to an end, though from where he was standing the little creature was still plainly visible. He barely took his eyes from it as he went to step onto the solid floor and found he could not separate his feet. He hit the end of the conveyor and toppled to the ground; pulling, grasping at his paralyzed limbs. He stared frantically at the tube in the case and suddenly knew that its struggle for freedom corresponded directly to his own. He let out a strangled cry, kicking with his knees and clawing like an animal, trying to counteract the numbing cold that began to creep upward, leaving everything dead as it passed. His fingernails tore into unresponding flesh, as his eyes bulged in fear.

"This is not real!" he screamed aloud. "This is the dream. It is not real, and I will not give in."

But even as he fought, he could hear another part of his brain saying, "Of course it's real, George. It's what you've always wanted. Oblivion. Stop fighting. It will be more pleasant than life."

He knew it was true. If he would only give in there would be no pain, no discomfort. It was the struggle that hurt.

Then he thought that Cathy entered his mind and realized it was not her, but the memory of his own laughter as they’d made love that was ringing in his ears. A surge of energy rushed through him and he roared, "No! I want to live!"

Teeth gritted; veins in his forehead strained, as the room became blood red, the whisper of faraway voices echoing through the hall...and he was standing upright again. He moved shakily and leaned against the doorway for support, then looked at the case. The tube had also broken free. George smiled and closed his eyes to rest. When he opened them again, the creature had disappeared among the crowd.

On the other side of the door he found another ascending stairwell, and he slowly climbed the steps. Again, there was a tread and tanks, but this time just three, the central one glowing brighter than the others. The first case seemed populated by only a few dozen tubes, all of which had broken loose of the plastic. They were lying in a line on a belt that passed them, one at a time, under a series of prismatic arches. Vary-colored flashes appeared at random intervals to mark their crossing as they were rolled the length of the tank and fed into the second chamber through a small sphincter opening.

As he moved along on his own walkway, George found himself blinking from the increased light. Once he was beyond the partition, the glare was so intense he had to shield his eyes, focusing only on the dark tubes as they entered through the wall and were divided onto two separate belts. Only a few went to the rear line, and as he adjusted to the brightness, he could see why. The second case was crowded with tubes, but only those on the rear belt glowed white. It was their combined brilliance that illuminated the tank. The select creatures on that back belt were being unplugged from their hoses by the white ones, who then connected them to single strands of wire that trailed from somewhere overhead. This done, they also began to glow.

The rest of the tubes passed on the front line into the third section. Here they were joined by a continuous stream of stiff, plastic-coated others from a belt in the rear wall, and all were dropped into a swirling mass of colored liquids which quickly dissolved their helpless bodies.

"This is where I came in," George said to himself as he began to cackle like a madman. He leaped from the tread and rushed through the door, scarcely registering curiosity that the stairs were now descending. He ran wildly downward, crashing into walls; stumbling off balance as he hit ground level and swerved around another corner. Somehow, he was in the tunnel through which he had entered the building, and he charged out into open air and daylight, back to the road.

Only flight seemed to exist as his leg muscles pumped wildly, carrying him far from the insanity. After a few minutes he began to ease his pace, and thoughts formed once again in his mind. The madness passed, replaced by reason, and he knew he must find Cathy; must show her this place. Tired from running, he slowed to a walk, and after a while he could see the car coming down the highway toward him. Cathy must have found gas in the other direction after all. He sighed with exhausted relief as she drew nearer.

Cathy pulled alongside and got out. "I was right," she said, hugging him. "There was a farmhouse just a little way back."

He stammered. "Cathy, I---"

"What's the matter, George? What happened?"

"I—, I'm not sure," he frowned, pointing down the road. "It might have been the dream, but..."

"But what?"

Then he was blurting things about pyramids and tubes; words exploding wildly in their effort to come out.

Cathy shook him. "Now look at me," she demanded. "Look at my face."

He obeyed her order. "It's time to wake up, George. You say there was a pyramid? Okay," she handed him the keys. "Show me."

T hey got into the car, and George pressed the accelerator. "It's just up here a bit. You'll see."

She nodded. "Alright, I'll see."

He recognized the curve and the trees. "Right here," he gestured with his head. "Over to the left. It's hidden until—" He braked rapidly. "What the hell?"

It was gone. He turned to her, bewildered. "Cathy, I swear to God, it was there." He stared again at the patch of trees.

Her hand felt for his arm. "George, I believe you."

"Wha—?" He frowned in confusion.

"I believe you," she repeated. "It must have been there for you."

"Come on," he snapped. "Quit treating me like a fool."

"I'm not, George. I'm serious.”

He saw that she was.

"It was your dream, you said. It was probably a way for you to work out your dream. Don't you think?"

Something clicked in his mind. "Of course! I escaped. I'm free of the dream." He smiled broadly, grabbing her in a huge bear hug.

"Thank you, Cathy," he whispered. "Thank you."

She laughed and hugged back, rocking him in her arms.

*

The city was an average, no-dirtier-than-any-other-place community. As they pulled up to a red light, George exhaled heavily. "Just a few minutes from home now."

Cathy smiled. "Then I think this is where I get off."

He turned to protest. "But why? Couldn't you spend a little time here with me? I was hoping we could get to know each other better."

She shook her head. "No, I don't think I should delay my plans any longer. I may have made a mistake already, waiting as long as I have."

"What plans, Cathy? You never said anything about plans before." He wanted to plead with her, but he knew he was being silly; that she had her own private life to live.

"Oh, I do have things to do, George," she said lightly; then added seriously, "It's been a fine trip."

He looked into her eyes and smiled back. "Yes, it has. Real fine."

The light turned green, and a horn sounded behind them. Cathy swung open her door, reaching up to kiss him quickly. "Good-bye, George," she called from somewhere out on the sidewalk. He waved as he pulled away.

Gliding through the streets in the warm afternoon sun, he felt too mellow to go directly home. He contented himself with a small detour that passed through the industrial end of town; just enough extra driving to let his sadness over Cathy's departure settle into its proper emotional compartment.

George wasn't even sure what name was listed on the front of the plant, but it really didn't matter as he braked and sat gaping. The swing shift would begin soon, and a small crowd of workers trickled into the side of a red brick building with three enormous smoke stacks belching dark clouds into the otherwise blue sky. It wasn't the building, or the stacks, or even the smoke itself that made him gaze in recognition. It was the motion of the people filing into the door; that and the presence of a large metal pipe that fed from a fuel tank on the tarmac to an upper section of the factory wall. From the rear of the plant several other pipes trailed out, spewing their liquid contents of multi-colored oils into a storage lagoon.

"Holy God in Heaven," he muttered to himself.

And now the dream was finally clear. It was just a mirror of life itself, where all but a few perished without protest or struggle. As for the rest—he looked again at the factory and shook his head sadly. In the end there was really nothing much to distinguish the products from the producers. Both were the end results of the same process.

"All that waste," he whispered as the doors closed behind the last of the workers.

He headed into his own neighborhood and passed a school. The children were swarming from the doors and piling into busses or cars to be chauffeured home. Pausing at a stop sign, he let out a short ironic laugh.

It was the same thing. From the plastic coating of a house to the protection of a vehicle and into another building—this one designed to program all the proper attitudes and behaviors. So many countless experiences sacrificed to the rote lessons of distorted textbooks; so many years spent night after night in front of a mind-robbing television set, waiting, waiting for something to come like a flash and clear the cobwebs of self-inflicted boredom. All that precious time wasted on illusions.

That was how it had been for him. All his life had been spent on some weird assembly line while the drones of his society worked to make him into a proper model. And they had succeeded for so long. But someone had made a mistake. Somewhere along the way they had forgotten to erase a part of his consciousness, and that part held onto an image of the real world and played it over continuously, haunting him with the terror of its presence until that moment he could face it and set himself free.

George pulled into his driveway and got slowly out of the car. He had opened the screen on the porch and was reaching for the knob with his key, when the inner door swung open suddenly, and Cathy greeted him, a drink in her hand.

"Hi, neighbor!" She nodded, grinning. "What kept you so long?"

He was both happy and confused. "Cathy," he stammered. "How the heck did you get here?"

She laughed. "I got to missing you, so I looked up your address in the phone book." She hugged him as he walked in. "You really shouldn't leave a spare key under the door mat. It's the first place anyone looks."

His mouth was still half open.

"What's the matter, George? Ain'tcha glad to see me?"

He bubbled over. "Glad? Cathy, I couldn't think of anything that would make me happier. I've got so much to tell you; things I'm just finding out—" Then he was kissing her, guiding her to the couch while she laughed and sprinkled liquor in the air.

After a while they lay in a tangle, breathing softly and whispering to each other. She stroked his forehead and kissed it lightly. "So, you've found out?" Her eyes gleamed.

He nuzzled against her neck. "Yes, I have. I can't ever be programed again. I've got control now, and I won't ever give it up."

"But you don't have to."

He smiled contentedly. "I know."

She held his head in her hands. "Oh, George, I'm so happy for you. Welcome to the white!"

He frowned, uncomprehending. "What?"

"Welcome to the white!" she repeated.

"To the what? White?" He looked up. "What are you talking about, Cathy?"

She gazed at him strangely, her lips thin and tight. "It's time to wake up, George."

Her face became a blur, though the voice was clear as before.

He pulled back in fear, watching as her body transformed quickly into a thin glowing tube.

"You were in the pyramid, George. You know what comes next. Let me help you."

He shrank back, terror choking off his breath.

The Cathy-thing persisted. "No need to be afraid, George. This is the reality—not that thing you call a body. You've seen the illusion yourself." She-it kept trying to explain to him. "You were due any day now. That's why I had to meet you—to guide you into the white. Come, be one of the controllers. We determine our own destinies."

From the corner of the floor where he had retreated, George stared into the brilliant light. Words began to return to him. "But I saw you in that factory," he croaked hoarsely. "You were all plugged in somehow; even the whites. You can't be in control of yourself if you're hooked onto something."

There was a Cathy laugh made vile by the absence of her body. Then: "No one can be separated from the whole. Even in governing the ruler is governed by the expectations of the ruled." The laugh came again, louder than before. "What do you imagine the source of our power is? The sun? Some element? George, George, you saw those others struggling on the conveyor belts, trying to understand what we already know. Those movements; that's what creates the light we wear, and our minds direct each phase of each tank. It's balanced, George. Only so many can ever be white. Only so many ever get the chance to wire-up. Come on, plug in."

"No," he shouted, trying to shrink back farther. "Go away. I want to be free. Totally free. I won't ever give that up. Never. Do you hear me, you disgusting—"

Sounds ceased to come from his lips. He reached for his throat and found only a long thin tube with short wriggling arms and legs protruding from it.

"I believe you, George." The voice was almost sad. "You could never be one of us."

The light grew brighter, and though he could no longer see it, he felt the intense glare obliterating everything—even his own instinctive sense of panic. The brilliance became unbearably hot, scorching his flesh until he writhed in excruciating pain and only the thought of release filled his mind.

He knew he was falling; gliding through a cooling liquid which mercifully dissolved his tortured consciousness into oblivion. The last image that flowed from his mind was the road; infinite, moving...

*

In pitch darkness the young tube plucked plastic from its head and wriggled contentedly as a flow of food energy washed through its length. A few moments later wastes slid from the other end, completing another day's cycle. The continuous lub-dub throbbing of the Parents swelled louder, inducing a deep thick sleep. The dream came again, and this time the tube slipped easily into its persuasive urging. Images changed shapes until all that seemed to exist was a strange wheeled case that hurtled itself endlessly along a hard, flat surface marked by white lines running down the center. Hours passed, and the Parents were forgotten. Only the motion was real; steady, forever flight that begged no reason, no permission to be. Lights darted from the front of the vehicle, cutting the blackness that would otherwise engulf it. There was power in those lights. He sensed it. Power to control the dark, power to keep the motion alive. But the dancing beams were beginning to flicker and dim, pictures fading into a pounding heartbeat rhythm.

The tube fought desperately not to slip back; to keep this rushing presence intact, but the hardened surface had already melted into the thin coiled length of feeding hose, piping a fresh supply of nutrients through its reluctant body. There was no escape from the fishline tugging that pulled relentlessly backward; harder, harder...

Then far ahead, something moved.



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