Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder

When the Vertical World Becomes Horizontal

The rain is coming closer, sending the heat running before it.  I can see the rain, hanging like twists of smoke over the roofs.  The city will be scrubbed clean.

This is an acute moment.  The wind is raising gooseflesh on my arms.  I can feel the thunder as electricity and the electricity as thunder.  Down in the street I hear voices calling around the corner.  I think I even hear the music.

This is the moment.  I know it's here.

I've been waiting so long.  I'll savor this last bit of waiting.  The dark is so dark, so close-wrapped.  The electricity is white.  The streets are going to steam.

There has never been a better moment since the world began.  This is it!  It's here.

It's never happened since the last time, and it's going to happen now.  The beginning of the world was a better moment.  It was exalting.  As nearly as I can tell, there have been two good moments since.  I missed them both.

I'm going to be here for this one.

So are you.

I know the sun is baking the sidewalks now.  The heat is on now.  But listen with your skin.  Rain is in the air.

It's going to be good.  When you see the rain and steam and sun and people all mixed together in the afternoon, you'll know their tune is the one that's been in your head all along.  Close your eyes.  Feel the wind rising.

I'll tell you how good it's going to be.  I'll tell you what it was like for someone who knew even less than you do about what is happening:

Woody Asenion was raised in the largest closet of an apartment at 206 W. 104th St. in Manhattan.  Once there had been four--Papa, Granny, Mama, and him--but now there were only two.  There was room now for Woody to stretch out, but at night he still slept at Papa's feet, just like always, for the comfort of just like always.

Woody had never been out of the closet without permission.  Well, once.  When he was very small, he had slipped out into the apartment one night and wandered the aisles alone until the blinking and bubbling became too frightening to bear and the robot found him, shook a finger at him and led him back home.  He had never done it again.

That was before they moved to 206 W. 104th St., back when they lived in the old closet.  The new closet was about the same size.  Its shape was different.  That had taken growing used to.

The closet was the same size, but the apartment outside was larger.  He wouldn't dare go out there at night.

But on this day the vertical world was turning horizontal.  People were no longer cringing and bullying.  They were starting to think of other things.

It was already this close: When Woody's father, who was very vertical, flung the door of the closet open while in the grip of an intense excitement, Woody had his hand on the knob and the knob half-turned.  That was a quarter-turn more than he usually dared when he toyed with strange thoughts of an afternoon.

Mr. Asenion broke Woody's grip on the knob with an automatic gesture.  "You promised your papa," he said and rapped the knuckles with a demodulator he happened to have in his hand.  But the moment was quickly forgotten in his excitement.

"I had it all backward!  I had it all backward!  It's the particular that represents the general."

That was part of the vertical world turning horizontal, too.  Since he had left Columbia University in 1928, Mr. Asenion had been working on a Dimensional Redistributor.  He had been seeking to open gateways to the many strange dimensions that exist around us.  He had never been successful.

He had never been successful in the vertical world, either.  He had fallen out of the bottom.  He told himself that he did not fit because he hadn't yet found his place.  He was very vertical.  He knew the power that would be his if he ever invented the Dimensional Redistributor, and so labored all the harder through the many years of failure.  It was his key to entry at the top of the pyramid.

But suddenly, on this day when the vertical world was turning horizontal--enough people being ready for that to happen--he had been struck with a crucial insight as he was standing with a demodulator in his hand.  He suddenly saw that you could turn things around.  The answer was not many gateways to many strange dimensions.  It was one gateway.  One gateway into this world.

He knew how to build it, too.

"I'll need a 28K-916 Hersh.," he said.  That was a vacuum tube with special rhodomagnetic properties that had been out of stock for forty-two years.

There was only one place in New York, perhaps in all the world, where such a tube might be found--Stewart's Out-of-Stock Supply.  Stewart's has everything that is out of stock.  Mr. Asenion had seen a 28K-916 Hersh. there in 1934.  However, he had no need of it then.

Stewart's has everything out of stock that an out-of-date inventor might need, but they may not sell it to you if they disapprove of you.  Mr. Asenion had not been welcome in Stewart's since the fall of 1937 when he had incautiously announced his intentions under stern cross-questioning.

"Woodrow," Mr. Asenion said, "you must go to Stewart's in Brooklyn.  They will have a 28K-916 Hersh.  It's all I need to finish my machine.  Then I will rule the world."

"Brooklyn?" said Woody.  "I've never been to Brooklyn, Papa."

He had heard of Brooklyn from the lips of his dead mother.  She said she had been to Brooklyn once.

Sometimes he had thought of Brooklyn as of some strange wonderland when his father was out experimenting in the apartment and he was alone in the closet.

He had seen the Heights of Brooklyn once, the great towering wall of rock that conceals all but the spires of the land beyond.  Or he believed that he had.  Sometimes he thought that he must have imagined it when he was small.  He would know if he should ever see it again.

But to go to Brooklyn?  "It's farther than I've ever been.  Why don't you go, Papa?"

"There are reasons," said Mr. Asenion with dignity.  "You wouldn't understand.  At this special moment I must stay with my machine.  Further inspiration may come to me at any moment.  I must be ready."

He had a point.  Lack of success in the vertical world is no index of lack of skill in invention.  He had something in the Dimensional Redistributor.  What's more, his insight on this day when the vertical world was turning horizontal was valid: With the particular representing the general, one reversed (and modified) gateway, and a 28K-916 Hersh., his Dimensional Redistributor would work.  And there are even alternatives to the 28K-916 Hersh., if you want to know, which inspiration could reveal and ingenuity confirm.

Woody shook his head in fear and excitement.  "I can't do it."

Mr. Asenion heard only the fear and reacted to that.  "There's no need to be afraid, just because it's Brooklyn.  I'll write out the way, just as I always do.  And I'll send the robot along to keep you company.  You will be safe as long as you stick to the path and carry your umbrella."

The robot nodded dumbly from behind Mr. Asenion.  When Woody ran errands in the neighborhood, the robot always kept him silent company.

"I don't want to," said Woody.

"I command you to go.  You owe it to me, your father, for all the many years I've fed you and kept a roof over your head and let you sleep at my feet."

He was right if you look at things vertically.

"All right," said Woody.  "I'll go."

Mr. Asenion patted Woody on the head.  "Good boy," he said.

When the Dimensional Redistributor was in operation, he meant to pat the whole world on the head, when it did what he said.  "Good boy," he would say.

As soon as Mr. Asenion turned away, Woody kicked the robot.  It could not complain, but it did look reproachful.

So there you have Woody Asenion--raised in a closet, lower than the lowest in the vertical world, somebody who knows even less than you do about what is going on.  He is even more limited than you know.  Last birthday, Woody was thirty-seven years old.

Woody gave the robot one of his hands and held his map and directions tight in the other so as not to lose his way, said good-bye to his father, who turned away to putter with his machine, and with one deep breath cleared the first three thresholds--the door of the closet, the door of the apartment, and the door of the building at 206 W. 104th St. in Manhattan--and stood blinking in the sun, heat, and sidewalk traffic.  There were threats, noise, and distraction all about him.  Cars clawed and roared at each other, seeking advantage.  Signs in bright colors loomed at Woody yelling, "Number *1* in Quantity" and "Do As You're Told, Son" and "Step Backward."  It was confusing to Woody, but he knew that if he did not panic, if he followed his instructions and stayed on the path and did not lose his umbrella, he could pass through the danger unscathed.

He let his breath out.  The air in the street was wet and sticky.  The sunlight was oppressive.  He seized the robot's hand all the tighter, and they set off down the street.  It was the robot who carried the rolled umbrella.

The people they threaded through were these:

Three white men--one in a business suit, one old, one a bum.

Two black men--one grateful, one not.

A student.

Three old women.

Five Puerto Ricans of both sexes and various ages.

Two young women--one bitter, one not.

A Minister of the Church of God.

A group of snazzy black buccaneers talking bad.

And a little girl who also lived at 206 W. 104th St. in Manhattan.

"Hi, Woody," she said.  "Hi, It."

Five of these twenty-five saw Woody Asenion walking along the street with his hand in the hand of a tall skinny cuproberyl robot that carried an umbrella, and knew him instantly to be their inferior.  All the others weren't sure, or else they didn't care about things like that anymore.

That's how close the vertical world was to turning horizontal.  But it hadn't happened yet.

The map led Woody directly to the subway station.  There was a hooded green pit, an orange railing, and stairs leading down.

In the old closet, when Woody was small, he could feel the force of the subway train.  When it prowled, the building would shudder.  His mother had told him not to be afraid.

Sitting on a stool in the booth was a blue extraterrestrial being.  It looked something like a hound, something like Fred MacMurray.  It was dressed in a blue Friends of the New York Subway System uniform.

Woody looked at his directions.  They advised him to ask for tokens.

"Four toll tokens;" he said to the alien in the tollbooth.  "Please."

The alien said, "Are you Woody Asenion?"

Woody ducked behind the robot in surprise.  "How do you know my name?"

The alien waved it away, and turned for the telephone.  "Just forget I asked.  It really isn't important, Woody.  Forget the whole thing."

He dialed a number.  While he waited for the ring, he said, "I'd only buy two toll tokens, if I were you.  You'll only need two.  Oh, hello, Clishnor, Listen--'It's about to rain.'  Right."

Woody looked at his directions.  They said to buy four toll tokens.  He set his jaw.

"Four toll tokens, please," he said bravely.  "And how did you know me?"

"I was set here to ask," said the blue alien in the blue Friends of the New York Subway System uniform.  "I ask everybody if they're you.  We're here for the rain, and we wanted to have warning."

"Rain?" said Woody.

"The weather forecast says that when Woody Asenion goes to Brooklyn, it's going to rain." The alien passed four tokens under the grill of the booth.  "Now, you just see if it doesn't."

"Oh, is that how it is," said Woody, who wasn't sure how weather forecasts were made.  He hadn't thought he was that important, though of course he was.  Well, he was safe.  The robot had the umbrella.

Woody and the robot turned away.  There was a white electric sign on the other side of the booth.  It had a black arrow and black letters that blinked and said: "To the Subway."

They followed the arrow.  Behind them the tollbooth quietly closed and the yellow light went off.

The directions and map mentioned the black arrow and the sign.  They walked through the darkness between the metal pillars until they came to another stair.  An automatic machine guarded the top of the stair.  It held out a hand until Woody gave it two toll tokens, and then it let them pass.

There was light at the bottom of the stairs and the stairs were very tall.  Down they walked, down and down, until Woody was not at all sure that he wanted to go to Brooklyn at all, even to buy his father a 28K-916 Hersh. so that he could finish his Dimensional Redistributor and control the world.

The station was a great vaulted catacomb.  The walls were covered with grime-coated mosaics celebrating the muses of Science and Industry.  Woody and the robot were all alone on the echoing platform.

Then suddenly a wind blew through the station, fluttering the map and directions in Woody's hand.  A chill wind.  Following the wind, the squealing, clashing, and roaring of the great behemoth.  Following the noise, the subway train itself.  It hurtled into the station under the tight command of the pilot, whom Woody could see seated in the front window, and came to a stop with a tortured screech of metal.  A voice more commanding than Mr. Asenion's said, "Passengers will stand clear of the moving platform as trains enter and leave the station!"  A shelf of metal moved silently out to the train as a pair of doors opened in front of them.  Woody squeezed the robot's hand hard.

The robot nodded reassuringly and led Woody onto the metal shelf and then aboard the train.  One last look.  The shelf began to withdraw and the doors closed like a trap, and Woody was committed.

Woody was afraid, as you can well imagine.  He sat, uneasy as a cricket, on the seat next to the robot.  Blackness hurtled by the window behind his head.  There was great constantly modulating noise.  All the passengers stared straight ahead and pretended they were alone.

But this was no ordinary subway train, even though it now ran on an obscure local line.  There was a plaque on the wall across from Woody.  It said, "This train, the Lyman R. Long, was dedicated at the New York World's Fair, July 7, 1939, as the Subway Train of the Future."

Then, in no time at all, they were in the great gleaming Central Station of the New York Subway System.  They left the Subway Train of the Future and ventured out into the echoing bustle of the bright high-ceilinged underground world.  The walls were alive with texture and color.  High overhead, dominating Central Station, was a great stained-glass window lit like a neon sign.  It, too, celebrated the muses of Science and Industry, but it was much grander.

Woody took no notice of the wonder around him.  He ignored the people.  He ignored the color.  He ignored the light.  He ignored the shops that filled the caverns of the Central Station.  He held tight to the robot's hand and looked resolutely straight ahead.  All this around him was distraction.  He was going to Brooklyn to buy his father a 28K-916 Hersh. so that he could finish his Dimensional Redistributor and control the world.  If he were distracted and left the path, he would not dare to guess his fate.

His directions said . . . but there it was, directly before him, the sign that said, "To Brooklyn."  Under it sat a new modern plasteel train, doors open wide, waiting patiently.  The Lyman R. Long was 1939's vision of the future, now relegated to a local line.  This was the future made present.  This was tomorrow now.

It was far more frightening somehow as it sat, quietly waiting.  This open door was the last threshold.  If Woody passed beyond it, he would be swallowed whole and carried to Brooklyn.  He would not be able to help himself.

But he had no choice.  He could not help himself now.  He must stay on the path, and the path led to Brooklyn.  Stepping aboard the train had the same disconcerting finality as the bursting of a soap bubble.

There were but two seats left together in the car, and Woody and his robot companion sat down. As soon as they sat, as though on signal, the doors of the car slid shut automatically and silently, and automatically and silently the subway train slid out of the Central Station of the New York Subway System, bound for Brooklyn.  It plunged immediately into the cold dark earth tunnel under the East River, and down down it went without consideration of what it might discover.  Down.  Noiselessly down.  Relentlessly down.

One instant they were in the station.  One instant there was still connection to the familiar world.  One instant they were still in Manhattan.  The next moment they were hurtling into an unknown nether world.  It was all too sudden.  Woody was paralyzed with fear.

It felt to him as though a hand were wringing his brain, and another hand was squeezing his throat, and another hand was tickling his heart, toying with his life and certainty.  And the only hand that was really there was the strong cuproberyl hand of the robot Woody Asenion's father had made to keep Woody in the closet and safe from other harm.  Woody held that familiar hand tight.  He looked at the map and directions that he held.  That was his talisman.  He had not left the path.  As long as he did not leave the path, he would be safe.

The train bumped a bottom bump and the lights in the car dimmed and then came up.  The door between cars at Woody's left slammed open, allowing a brief snatch of the whirring whine of the rubberite wheels on the tracks, and three young people burst threateningly in.  They were very dangerous because no one in the subway car had ever seen anything like them.  They were not apprentices.  They were not secretaries.  They were not management trainees.  They were neither soldiers not students.  They were not hip, but then neither were they straight.

One was a boy, narrow, tall, ugly and graceful as a hatchet.  He wore an extravagant white suit, dandy and neat, and carried a yellow chrysanthemum to play with.  The other boy was short, dark, curly, and cute.  He wore a casual brown doublet over an orange shirt.  He bounced and bubbled.  The girl wore cheerfully vulgar purple to her ankle with a slit to the thigh.  She was pale and her black hair was severe and dramatic.

The girl was the first into the car.  She swung around and around the pole in front of Woody, laughing.  The bouncy boy galloped in after her, swung with her around the pole, and then stopped her with a sudden kiss, even though Amy Vanderbilt in an ad overhead suggested that public emotion is not good manners.  The ugly one strolled in gracefully, shut the door to the car, and blessed the two with his yellow mum, tapping them each on the head, saying nothing.

Then he turned and waved his flower menacingly at the rest of the car.  He danced.  This was too much for one still vertical soul who leaped to his feet and said authoritatively: "We are all good citizens here on our way to Brooklyn.  What do you mean by this intrusion?"

"Don't you feel it?" the bouncy one asked.  "The world has changed.  The Great Common Dream is changing, and so is the world.  We're going to Brooklyn to dance in the rain and celebrate.  Come on along."

The girl looked directly at the questioning man.  "Listen with your skin," she said.  "Don't you feel it?  Don't you want to be dancing?"

The man looked puzzled.  But he listened with his skin and he knew they were right, even if they were a little early.  He was horizontal in his heart, which is why he was so quick to seem vertical.  He still thought it might be noticed if he wasn't.

But now he said, with joy in his voice, "I do feel it!  I do feel it!  You're right.  You're right!"  He howled a joyous howl of celebration.

And he began to dance in the aisles.

"I feel it, too!" someone else yelled.  "I do."

Who?  It might have been any of the first six people to join him in the aisles.

Now that's how close the vertical world was to turning horizontal.  All that was necessary was the suggestion.  People were ready to go multiform as soon as they knew it was time.  Woody tugged at the sleeve of the tall boy in the extravagant white suit.

"Yes, sir, may I be of practical assistance?" said he, and winked.

"Is it raining now?" asked Woody.  It seemed important that he should ask, since the strange blue toll-token seller had suggested that it was going to rain and he wanted to be prepared.  The robot carried Woody's umbrella in his capable cuproberyl hand.  Woody would be all right.  If it did rain, Woody would stay dry.

"Raining," said the ugly one.  "Raining?  How would I know if it's raining?  We're in a subway train under the East River."

"Oh, hey now, it's Woody," said the girl.  "Go easy on Woody.  It's going to rain, Woody.  Don't you want to come along with us and dance in the rain?"

But she was too insistent for poor Woody.  He didn't know enough of the world to be sure what it was that she intended, but he suspected the world too much to want to learn.  She was a distraction.  The whole car was a distraction, dancing, gadding, and larking.  He stared fixedly up at the subway ad for Amy Vanderbilt's new etiquette book.  "Know Your Place in the Space Age," the ad whispered to him when it knew it had his full attention.  And that was another distraction.

"Hey, dance with us, Woody," said the curly one in orange.  "You can do any step you like.  You can do a step no one else has ever done."

Woody explained: "I have this map and these directions."  He pointed to them.  "I'm very busy now.  I'm running an errand for my father.  I'm going to buy a 28K-916 Hersh. so that he can finish his Dimensional Redistributor and control the world."

The tall narrow boy said, "Why doesn't your father run his own errands?  He's all grown up now."  He said it gracefully because that's the way he was.  

Woody stared straight ahead with all the best deafness he could muster.  It was the deafness he did when he sat in the comer of the closet with his back to the world and wouldn't hear.  He could shut out lots and lots.

The other boy and the girl said, "Come on, Woody.  The vertical world is turning horizontal.  Come with us, Woody.  We're in Brooklyn now.  This is New Lots.  This is our stop.  This is our place.  Take a chance, Woody.  Dare.  Dance.  Dance in the rain."

And everybody in the car said, "Come one, come all, Woody.  There's room for you.  There's room for everyone."

But Woody stared straight ahead, which made everything on either side blurry, and wouldn't hear.  It was as good as shutting his eyes.  He held onto his map and his directions with both hands so that he would not become lost.

Woody felt the subway come to a smooth stop.  He wouldn't admit it, but he heard the doors slide gently open.  He wouldn't admit it, but after a long moment he heard the doors slide gently shut again.  He only unblunked his eyes when he felt the train begin to move again.

He was alone in the car.  There was no one else there.  The girl in that purple dress down to her ankle and up to her thigh was gone.  The boy in the white suit was gone.  The boy in the brown doublet and orange shirt was gone.  All the people in the car were gone.  Even the robot was gone, and the umbrella with him.  You can imagine how that made Woody feel.

No hand to hold.  No umbrella to keep him dry and safe.

But still he had his map and directions.  He wasn't completely lost.

He was driven to walk the length of the train.  Every car was empty.  Every car was as empty as his car when everyone had gone.  He was alone.  He walked from one end of the train to the other and he saw no one.  When he got to the head of the train he looked in the window at the driver.  But there was no pilot.

And still the train hurtled on.  Woody was afraid.

He went back to his own seat.  He sat there alone studying his map and directions.  They said to get off at Rockaway Parkway.

And then the train came to a halt.  An automatic voice said automatically, "Rockaway Parkway.  End of the line."  And the door slid open.  Woody bolted through it and up the stairs.

There was an orange railing here, too.  The stairs ended between two great boulders with white lamps that said, "Subway."  Woody was standing in a great rock garden.  And this was Brooklyn.

It was not raining.  The air was hot, damp, and heavy in Brooklyn, like a warm smothering washcloth.  Woody wished he had his umbrella.

He looked at his directions.  They said, "Follow the path to Stewart's."

So he followed the path, and in a few minutes he came to the edge of the hill.  He could see the flatlands below and on across the damp sand flats even to the palm-lined shores of Jamaica Bay itself.  He could see the palms swaying sullenly under a threatening sky.  He followed the path further, never straying, and when he reached Flatlands Avenue, he could suddenly see the great porcelain height of his landmark, white, but marked by stains of rust.  That was the Paerdegat Basin--and close by the Paerdegat Basin was Stewart's.

It was an easy walk.  Woody had time to study his instructions.  They were frightening, for they asked him to lie.  He wasn't good at that.  When he lied, his father always caught him out.

And then, almost before he knew, his feet had followed a true path to Stewart's Out-of-Stock Supply.  It was a small block building.  He hesitated and then he entered.

The small building was filled with amazing machines, some of them a bit dusty, displayed to show the successes of the shop.  All of them had been made of parts supplied by Stewart's.  There was a four-dimensional roller-press, a positronic calculator, an in-gravity parachute--which seemed to be a metal harness with pads to protect the body--and a mobile can opener.

At the back of the building was a sharp-featured, crew-cut old man with a positive manner.  He looked as though he had his mind made up about everything.

"Don't tell me.  Don't tell me.  I've got my theory," the old man said.  He looked at Woody, measuring him with his eye.  Then he punched authoritatively at a button console on the counter in front of him.  The wall behind him dissolved as though it had forgotten to remember itself, and there were immense aisles with racks and bins and shelves filled with out-of-stock supplies.  A sign overhead said, "1947-1957."  And another sign said, "At Last. 4 Amazing New Scientific Discoveries Help to Make You Feel Like a New Person and More Alive!"

The old man put on a golf cap and said, "There.  I'm right so far, aren't I?  Now, let me see.  The rest of it should be easy.  Yes, you're really quite simple, young man.  I see to the bottom of you."

He punched a series of buttons.  A little robot rolled by, made a right turn down an aisle and then a left turn out of sight.  The old man stood waiting with a surefooted expression on his face.  In a moment the robot rolled back.  It placed a flat plate in the old man's hand, and he placed the plate on the counter.  Then he patted the robot on the head and it rolled away.

"There, you see.  You're the right age.  You're obviously a broad-headed Alpine.  The half-life of strontium-90 is twenty-eight years.  So you're here to replace the tactile plate on your Erasmus Bean machine.  Am I right?"

Woody shook his head.

"But of course I'm right.  I'm always right."

Woody shook his head.

"Then what are you here for?" the old man asked in a disgruntled tone.

Woody said, "I want a 28K-916 Hersh.  It was discontinued in 1932."

The old man hung his golf cap on a peg.  "Don't tell me my business.  It's strange.  You don't look like a 1932."

He punched again at his console of buttons, and the configuration of aisles flickered and restabilized.  The overhead sign now said, "1926-1935."  And another sign said, "Are You Caught Behind the Bars of a 'Small-Time' Job?  Learn Electricity!  Earn $3,000 a Year!"  The old man slapped a straw skimmer on his head.

"We did have a 28K-916 Hersh.," he said.  "Once.  We don't have much call for one of these.  I recollect seeing it along about 1934."

The little robot rolled out once again, made a right turn down an aisle and then a left turn out of sight.

The old man turned suddenly to Woody and said, "This tube isn't for your own invention, is it?  You're not a 1932 at all.  Who are you here for?  Murray?  Stanton?  Hyatt?"

Woody lowered his eyes.  He shook his head.

The robot rolled suddenly back into view.  It placed an orange-and-black box, as shiny and new as though this were 1932 and it was fresh from the Hersh. factory, in the hand of the sharp-featured old man.

"This is a rare tube with special rhodomagnetic properties," the old man said.  "Just how do you propose to put it to use?"

Woody looked down again.  Below the counter top he looked at his instructions and he read his lie.

In a thoroughly unconvincing manner he read, "I am a collector.  I mean to collect one of every vacuum tube in the world.  When I own a 28K-916 Hersh., my collection will be complete."

But the old man looked over the counter and caught Woody reading and his suspicions were aroused.  He seized the map and directions from Woody's hands, and discovered their meaning with a single glance.

"Woodrow Asenion!" he said.  "I barred your father from this store in 1937!  You know what that man intends.  He means to make a Dimensional Redistributor and control the world.  Well, not with help from Stewart's.  Power is to be used responsibly."

He threw the map and instructions behind him, seized Woody, and hustled him through the showroom, past the four-dimensional roller-press, the positronic calculator, the in-gravity parachute, the mobile can opener, and all the many others.  He threw Woody onto the sand under the palm tree in front of the building.

"And never come back," he said.  He straightened his skimmer.  Then he looked up.

Very slowly he said, "Why, I do believe it's going to rain."

The old man slammed the door and pulled down a curtain that said, "Closed on Account of Rain."

Woody looked around desperately.  He looked at the sky.  It was going to rain and he had no umbrella.  He had not bought the vacuum tube.  He had no map and directions.  He was almost lost.  He beat desperately on the door, but it would not open.  While he pounded, all the lights within went out.  The building was silent.  Then thunder rumbled overhead.

In panic Woody retreated along Flatlands Avenue.  The sky was crackling and snarling.  It was flaring and fleering. Woody wished desperately that he were safe at home in the comfort of his own familiar closet.  He felt very vulnerable.  He felt naked and alone in a strange country.  He was hungry, too.  What was he to do?  What was he to do?  He was bewildered.

Woody thought that if he could only find the subway station in the rock park again, the green stairs with the orange railing under the lamps that said, "Subway," he might find his way home to 206 W. 104th St. in Manhattan.  Desperately he began to run across the sand.

And then, suddenly, there they all were.  There was the boy in the white suit.  There was the boy in the brown doublet.  There was the girl in the long purple dress.  And behind them was a pied piper's gathering of people--dancing, larking, and gadding.  And that was just anticipation, for the moment of shift when the old vertical world was forgotten and the new guiding dream was dreamed had not yet come.  It had not yet begun to rain.

"Hi, Woody," said the boy in brown.  "Are you ready to join us?"

"Hi, Woody," said the girl in purple.  "Are you ready to dance in the rain?"

That was too frightening.  Woody said to the tall ugly boy in white: "Where is my robot?  It has my umbrella."

"He," said that one, and tapped Woody on the forehead with his yellow chrysanthemum.  "He.  And he isn't yours.  And I have my doubts about the umbrella, too."

"Ha," everybody said.  "Get wet."

"Ho," everybody said.  "It will hardly hurt."

That was terrifying.  Now, Woody knew who he was.  He was the one at the bottom.  It was a certain place.  If he left the path and joined this many, who would he be?  He would be lost.  He would not know himself.

"Who?" he asked.  "Who?"

"You," they said.  "You."

They laughed.  And they were singing, some of them.  And doing other things.  Celebrating beneath this final black threatening sky, this roiling heaven.

Woody could not bear it.  "I have to find a 28K-916 Hersh.," he said.  "How else can I go home?  I can't stay.  I have to go."

"Good-bye.  Good-bye," they called as he hurried away.  He looked back from the hillside, and they were looking up at the sky and waiting.  Waiting for the clouds to open and the rain to pour down.  Woody feared the rain.  He ran.

No map.  No directions.  No map.  No instructions.  No umbrella.  But he still had two toll tokens.

Down the path he ran into the rock park.  Along the path.  Still on the true path.  And there before him were the twin boulders.  Before him was the green stair with the orange railing.  Before him was haven.

But there was a chain across the top of the stair.  There was a locked gate across the bottom of the stair.  And the lamps at the entrance were not lit.  All said, "Closed."  All said, "Try Other Entrance."

The other entrance.  The other entrance.  Where was the other entrance?  There it was!  It was visible on the other side of the rock park, marked by another pair of lamps set atop another pair of boulders.

Woody left the path and struck toward them.  He ran in all his hope of home.  He ran in all his fear of the rain.  His understanding was not profound, but he knew that if he were rained upon, nothing would be as it was.

He did not notice that in leaving the path his father had marked for him before Woody had ventured out of the closet, he had lost his last protection.  First the robot, sturdy and comforting.  Then the umbrella to shield him.  Then he had lost his map and instructions.  And finally he had left the true path.

Woody reached the other entrance.  There was a chain across the top of the stairs.  There was a gate across the bottom of the stairs.  There were signs, and the signs said, "Closed" and "Try Other Entrance."

The other entrance.  The other entrance.  Where was the other entrance?  There it was!  It was visible on the other side of the rock park.

Woody hurried toward it.  But then halfway between the two he stopped.  That was where he had already been.  He looked confused.  He began to spin.  Around and around on his toe he went.  He did not know what to do.  Overhead the skies impended.  Poor Woody.  He really needed someone in charge to tell him what to do next.

Around and around he went.  Suddenly an imposing figure flashed into being before him.  It glowed lemon yellow and it was very tall.

"Halt.  Cease that," it said.  It was a stranger foreign creature than the blue alien in the Friends of the New York Subway System uniform.  "Woody Asenion?"

Woody nodded.  "Yes, sir."

"I know all about you.  You're late.  You're very late.  It's time for the rain to start.  It should have started by now."

"Is it going to rain?" Woody asked.  "Is it truly going to rain?"

"Yes, it is."

"But I don't want it to rain," Woody said.  "I want to be home safe in my own closet.  Is it because I left the path?"

"Of course," the strange creature said.  "And now you must get wet."

"No," said Woody.  "I won't.  I'll run between the raindrops.  I won't get wet."

And he started to run in fear and in trembling.  The lightning lightened, to see him run.  Thunder clapped the stale air between its hands.  The forefinger of the rain prodded at Woody.

Rain fell at Woody, but he dodged and ducked.  He ran down Grapefruit Street, and it missed him.  He ran up Joralemon and it spattered around him and never touched him.  He ran past the infamous Red Hook of Brooklyn, sharp and deadly.  He ran through the marketplaces and bazaars of the Arab Quarter.  He ran through a quiet sleeping town of little brown houses, all like beehives, full of little brown people.  He ran through all the places of Brooklyn and the rain pursued him everywhere.

He would not be touched.  This was Woody Asenion, who was raised in a closet and who didn't dare to open the door by himself.  Who would have thought he would be so daring.  Who would have thought he would be so nimble.  Fear took him to heights he had never dreamed of.  Fear made him magnificent.

Watching people paused and cheered as he passed.  They had to admire him.  Pigeons fled before him.  Lightning circled his head.  Thunder thundered.  The skies rolled and tumbled blackly, but not a drop of rain could touch Woody Asenion.

Then at last as he ran up the long slow slope to Prospect Park, he began to tire.  His breath was sharp in his throat.  His steps grew labored.  His dodges grew less canny.  And of a sudden lightning struck all around him.  It struck before him.  It struck behind him.  It struck on his either hand.  All at once.  Woody was engulfed in thunder, drowned in thunder, rolled and tossed by thunder.  He was washed to the ground.  He was beached.  He was helpless.

And as he lay there, unable to help himself, it rained on Woody.  A single giant drop of water.  It surrounded him and gently drenched him from head to toe, and after that Woody was not the same.

That was a very strange drop of rain.

And now Woody was all wet.  He stood and looked down at himself.  He held his arms out and watched them drip.  Then he laughed.  He shook himself and laughed.  He was really changed.

All the other multiforms, all the other people, came running up to Woody and surrounded him.

They were all wet, too.

"Here," said the boy in the doublet.  "Look what we found for you."

It was an orange-and-black box, factory new.  It was a 28K-916 Hersh.  It said so on the box.  He gave it to Woody.

The girl said, "Woody.  You made it, Woody."  She kissed him and Woody could only smile and laugh some more.  He was happy.

The boy in the white suit handed Woody his chrysanthemum.  "We waited for you," he said.  "We didn't get wet until you did."

It was such a great secret to be included in.  It didn't matter to Woody that he was the last to know.  He was the first to get wet.  How lucky he was.

Woody began to dance then.  If fear had made him an inspired dodger, the promise of the new horizontal world made him an intoxicated dancer.  His dance was brilliant.  His dance was so brilliant that everybody danced Woody's dance for a time.  But nobody danced it as well as he did.

Woody danced, and with him danced all the no-longer-verticals.  With him danced three alien beings--two blue, one lemon yellow.  With him danced the two boys and the girl.  With him danced all the people from the subway train.  With him danced all the people from his neighborhood, including the little girl who also lived at 206 W. 104th St. in Manhattan.  She danced between two robots, one small, one tall and skinny.

Then Woody saw his father.  His father was dancing Woody's dance, too!  There were three other men of his age dancing with him.

Woody danced over to his father and everybody danced after him.  Mr. Asenion said, "These are my good friends, Murray, Stanton, and Hyatt.  We are going to invent together."

Woody said, "I have your 28K-916 Hersh."

"No need," his father said, waving it away, never ceasing to dance.  "No need, indeed.  I made do without it.  As you can see."  And everybody cheered for Woody's father.

Then the step changed and everybody danced his own way again.  Woody was happy.  Woody celebrated, too.

And the horizontal world began.

(This story was written in May 1972 and published in Universe 4 in March 1974.  It also appears in our collection, Farewell to Yesterday's Tomorrow, which can be ordered here.)

Return to Contents

Background courtesy of Eos Development