LIES, INC. -- CHAPTER TEN
Around him in the room the faces of the people became, as he listened to the emphatic, virtually strident pitch of the discussion, suddenly flat and lurid. Like cartoon colors, he thought, and that struck him wrenchingly, as very sobering and very chilling; he sat stiffly, unwilling to move, because even the slightest body motion augmented the oppressive garishness of the crudely painted only quasi-human faces surrounding him.
The discussion had become a vicious, ear-splitting dispute.
Two opposing explanations of the paraworlds, he realized at last, were competing like live things; the proponents of each were more and more with each passing instant becoming manic and bitter, and abruptly he had a complete understanding of the inordinate, murderous tenacity of each person in the room, in fact all of them ... now no one, even those who had decided to remain in the living room to admire the jerky, twitching image of President Omar Jones drone out his harangue, had managed to avoid being sucked in.
Their faces, as Rachmael glanced about, stunned him. Terrible in their animation, their mechanical, horrifyingly relentless single-mindedness, the people around him battled with one another in a meaningless, formless muck of words; he listened with dread, felt terror at what he perceived; he cringed -- and felt himself cringe -- from them, and the desire to hop up and run without destination or the most vague spacial orientation that might help him locate himself, learn where he was, who these envenomed antagonists were -- men and women who, a few intervals ago -- seconds, days; under the LSD it was impossible to be even remotely accurate -- had lounged idly before the TV set, listening to a man who he knew was synthetic, who did not exist, except in the professional brains of THL's sim-elec designs technicians, probably working out of von Einem's Schweinfort labs.
That had satisfied them. And now --
"It wasn't a programming," the fold-fleshed dyed-haired older woman insisted, blasting the air of the room with the shivering, ear-crushing shrill of her near-hysterical voice. "It was a lack of programmmg."
"She's right," the thin, severe man with gold-rimmed glasses said in a squeaky, emotion-drenched falsetto; he waved, flapped his arms in excitement, trying to make himself heard. "We were all supposed to be falsely programmed so we'd see a paradise, as they promised. But somehow it didn't take with us, the few of us here in the room; we're the exceptions, and now those bastard 'wash psychiatrists come in and do the job right."
In vitriolic weariness Miss de Rungs said, to no one in particular, "The hell with it. Leave it up to our control; let the control worry." She leaned toward Rachmael, unlit cigarillo between her dark lips. "A match, Mr. ben Applebaum?"
"Who's our control?" he asked as he got out a folder of matches.
Miss de Rungs, with contempt and rasping animosity, jerked her head at Sheila Quam. "Her. This week. And she likes it. Don't you, Sheila? You just love to make everybody jump. Squirm, squirm, when you come into the room." She continued to eye Sheila Quam with hateful vindictiveness, then turned away, sinking into a voiceless interior brooding, cut off from everyone and in verbal interaction in the room with deliberate and hostile aversion; her dark eyes filmed with loathing.
"What I saw," Rachmael said to Sheila Quam. "Under the LSD -- that cephalopod. That you called -- Hank Szantho calied -- the Aquatic Horror-shape. Was that psychedelic? Under the condition of expanded consciousness did I pick up an actual essence and penetrate a hypnoidal screening-field of some kind? And if that --"
"Oh yes; it was real," Sheila Quam said levelly; her tone was as matter-of-fact as if this was a technical, professional discussion, something of academic interest only. "The cephalops of that sort seem to be, or anyhow it's conjectured by anthropologists in the area to be -- anyhow it's the most reasonable working hypothesis, which they'll probably have to go on whether they like it or not -- is that the cephalopodan life-form experienced as what we refer to as Paraworld Blue, its dominant species, is the indigenous race that dwelt here before TEL showed up with --" She paused, now no longer composed; her face was hardened and when she again spoke her voice was brisk and sharp. "Good big a-thought-for-this week advance weapons. Old papa von Einem's clever monstrosities. The output of Krupp and Sohne and N.E.D, filth like that." She abruptly smashed into a repellent chaos the remains of her cigarillo, "During the Telpor transfer to Whale's Mouth you were fed the routine mandatory crap, but as with the rest of us weevils it failed to take. So as soon as the LSD dart got you you started intuiting within your new environment, the illusory outer husk rigged up became transparent and you saw within, and of course when you got a good clear dose of that --"
"What about the other paraworlds?" he said.
"Well? What about them? They're real, too. Just as real. The Clock; that's a common one. Paraworld Silver; that comes up again and again." She added, "I've been here a long time; I've seen that one again and again ... I guess it's not so hard to take as Paraworld Blue. Yours is the worst. Everybody seems to agree with that, whether they've seen it or not. When you've gone through Computer Day and fed your experience into the fniggling thing's banks so that everybody in the class can --"
Rachmael said carefully, "Why different psychedelic worlds? Why not the same one, again and again?"
Sheila Quam raised a thin, expertly drawn eyebrow. "For everyone? The whole class, as long as it exists?"
After a pause she said, "I don't really know. I've wondered a whole lot of times. So have plenty of other people who know about it. The wash psychiatrists, for instance. Dr. Lupov himself; I heard a lecture he gave on the subject. He's as no-darn-place as anybody else, and that's what --"
"Why did Miss de Rungs say everyone squirms when you come into the room?" He waited for her answer; he did not let her off the hook.
Smoking a newly lit cigarillo placidly, Sheila Quam said, "A control, whoever he is -- it varies from one month to the next; we take turns -- has the power to order the euth-x of someone he thinks a menace to Newcolonizedland. There's no board of appeal, any more; that didn't work. It's a very simple form, now; I fill it out, get the person's signature, and that's it. Is that cruel?" She eyed him searchingly; evidently the query was sincere. "Next month, in fact sixteen days from now, it'll be someone else's turn and I'll be squirming."
Rachmael said, "What's the purpose of the killing? Why has the control been given such power? Such drastic authority to arbitrarily --"
"There are eleven paraworlds, " Sheila said. She had lowered her voice; in the crowded kitchen the infuriated, hip-and-thigh argument had terminated by dwindling swiftly away and everyone was mutely listening to Sheila Quam. Even the de Rungs girl was listening. And her expression of malice had one; only a stricken, anticipatory dread showed. The same expression that pervaded the features of each person in the room. "Twelve," Sheila continued; the presence of the stony, voiceless audience did not seem either to nonplus her nor to goad her; she continued in the same detached, reasonable fashion. "If you count this." She gestured, taking in the kitchen and its people and then she tossed her head, indicating the booming TV set in the living room with the we-bring-you-live-on-tape voice of President of Newcolonizedland, Omar Jones. "I do," she said, "In some ways it's the most bug-built of all of them."
"But the legal, sanctioned murders," Rachmael said, staring at the girl with her glorious white-shiny hair, her immense guileless blue eyes, and, beneath her turtle-neck sweater, her small, articulated breasts. It did not seem congruent with her, this capacity, this office; it was impossible to imagine her signing death decrees. "What's the basis? Or is there a basis?" He heard his voice rise and become almost a snarl. "I guess there doesn't have to be, not if everyone is locked in." Without consultation with anyone in the class he had come to that self-evident conclusion; the huddled, resigned air about all of them showed that. He felt it in himself already, and it was a noxious, almost physically poisonous sensation, to find himself drawn gradually into this demoralized milieu. Waiting for the control to act, and for whatever reason served. "You consider these people enemies of that state?" He gestured convulsively toward the yammering TV set in the living room, then turned, set down his syn-cof cup with a sharp clatter; across from him Sheila Quam jumped, blinked -- he seized her by the shoulders and half-lifted her to her feet. Wide-eyed, startled, she returned his gaze fixedly, peering into him, penetrating him back as he focused with compassionless, ruthless harshness; she was not afraid, but his grip hurt her; she set her jaw in an effort to keep still, but he saw, in her eyes, the wince of physical suffering. Suffering and surprise; she had not expected this, and he could guess why: this was not what one did to the pro tem control. Pragmatically it was suicidal if not insane.
Sheila, gratingly, said, "All right; possibly someday we'll have to admit -- classify -- Omar Jones and the colony we've built up here as just one more paraworld. I admit it. But until then this remains the reference point. Are you satisfied? And until then any alternate distorted sub reality perceived by anyone arriving is judged prima facie evidence that he's in need of a wash. And if psychiatric help doesn't bring him around to the point that you're at now, sharing this reality instead of --"
Hank Szantho said brusquely, "Tell him what the paraworlds are."
The room, then, was silent.
"Good question," the middle-aged, bony, hard-eyed man said presently.
To Rachmael, Szantho said, "It's von Einem's doing."
"You don't know that," Sheila said quietly.
"He's got some razzle-dazzle gadget he's been playing around with at the Schweinfort labs," Szantho continued, "Undoubtedly stolen from the UN, from where it tests its new top-Secret weapons. Okay, I don't know that, not like I saw it in action or a schematic or something. But I know that's what's behind all this damn paraworld stuff; the UN invented that time-warping device recently and then Gregory Floch --"
"Ploch," Miss de Rungs corrected.
"Gloch," Sheila said bitingly. "Gregory Arnold Gloch. Anyhow, Gloch, Floch, Ploch; what does it matter?" To Rachmael she said, "That freak who switched sides. Possibly you remember, although all the news media because of really incredible UN pressure more or less squelched it, right down the line."
"Yes," he said, remembering. "Five or six years ago." Greg Gloch, the peculiar UN progeny prodigy, at that time beyond doubt the sole genuinely promising new wep-x designer at the Advance-weapons Archives, had, obviously for financial reasons, defected to a private industrial concern which could pay considerably better: Trails of Hoffman. And from there had beyond question passed directly to Schweinfort and its mammoth research facilities.
"From that time-warpage wingding," Hank Szantho continued, appealing to each of them with jerky, rapid gesticulations. "What else could it be? I guess nobody can say because there isn't nothing; it has to be that." He tapped his forehead, nodding profoundly.
"Nonsense," Miss de Rungs retorted. "A variety of alternate explanations come to mind. Its resemblance to the UN's time-warpage device may be merely --"
"To be fair about this," the middle-aged, hard.-eyed man said in a quiet but effective monotone, "we must acquaint this newcomer with each of the major logical alternatives to Mr. Szantho's stoutly defended but only theoretically possible explanation. Most plausible of course -- Szantho's theory. Second -- in my opinion, at least -- the UN itself, since they are the primary utilizers of the device ... and it is, as Mr. Szantho pointed out, their invention, merely pirated by Gloch and von Einem. Assuming it was obtained by von Einem at all, and proof of this either way is unfortunately not available to us. Third --"
"From here on," Sheila said to Rachmael, "the plausibility swiftly diminishes. He will not recount the stale possibility that the Mazdasts are responsible, a frightening boogyman we've had to live with but which no one seriously believes, despite what's said again and again, This particular possible explanation properly belongs in the category of the very neurotic, if not psychotic."
"And in addition," Miss de Rungs said, "it may be Ferry alone, with no help from anyone; from von Einem or Gloch. It may be that von Einem is absolutely unaware of paraworlds per se. But no theory can hold water if it assumes that Ferry is ignorant."
"According to you," Hank Szantho muttered.
"Well," Sheila said, "we are here, Hank. This pathetic colony of weevils, Theo Ferry put us here and you know it. THL is the underlying principle governing the dynamics of this world, whatever category this world falls into: pseudo-para or real or full para." She smiled grimacingly at Hank Szantho, who returned her brilliant, cold glare dully.
"But if the paraworlds are derived via the UN's time-warpage gadget," the hard-faced middle-aged man said, "then they would constitute a spectrum of equally real alternative presents, all of which split off at some disputed episode in the past, some antediluvian but critical juncture which someone -- whoever it is -- tinkered with through the damn gadget we're discussing. And so in no sense are they merely 'para.' Let's face that honestly; if the time-warpage gadget is involved then we might as well end all speculation as to which world is real and which are not, because the term becomes meaningless."
"Meaningless theoretically," Miss de Rungs answered, "but not to anyone here in this room. Or in fact anyone in the world." She corrected herself, "Anyone in this world. We have a massive stake in seeing to it that the other worlds, para nor not, stay as they are, since all are so very much worse than this one."
"I'm not even certain about that," the middle-aged man said, half to himself. "Do we know them that thoroughly? We're so traumatized about them. Maybe there's one that's better, to be preferred."
He gestured in the direction of the living room with its logorrheic flow of TV noise, the pompous, unending, empty spouting-forth of jejune trash by the nonreal president of what Rachmael -- as well as everyone else on Terra -- knew to be a nonreal, deliberately contrived and touted hoax- colony.
"But this world can't be para," Gretchen Borbman said, "because we all share it, and that's still our sole criterion, the one point we can hang onto." To Rachmael she said, "That's so important, Because what no one has laid on you yet, mercifully, is the fact that if two of us ever agree at the same time --" She lapsed into abrupt silence, then. And regarded Sheila with a mixture of aversion and fear. "Then out come the proper forms," she went on, at last, with labored difficulty. "Form 47 -B in particular."
"Good old 47-B," the curly-haired youth said gratingly, and instantly grimaced, his face contorted. "Yes, we just love it when that's trotted out, when they run their routine check of us."
"The control," Gretchen continued, "signs 47-B after he or she -- she, right now -- feeds someone's paraworld gestalt in on Computer Day, which is generally late Wednesday. So after that it becomes public property; it isn't simply a subjective delusional realm or a subjective anything; it's like an exhibit of antique potsherds under glass in a museum; the entire damn public can file past and inspect it, right down to the last detail. So there would hardly be any doubt if ever two individual paraworlds agreed simultaneously.
"That's what we dread," the fold-fleshed older woman with lifeless dyed hair said in a toneless, mechanical voice, to no one in particular.
"That's the one thing," Gretchen said, "that really does scare us, Mr. ben Applebaum; it really does." She smiled, emptily, the expression of acute, unvarying apprehension calcified into sterile hopelessness over all her features, a mask of utter despair closing up into immobility her petite, clear-hewn face -- clear-hewn, and frozen with the specter of total defeat, as if what she and the rest of them dreaded had crept recently close by, far too close; it was no longer theoretical.
"I don't see why a bi-personal view of the same paraworld would --" Rachmael began, then hesitated, appraising Sheila. He could not, however, for the life of him fathom her contrived, cool poise; he made out nothing at all and at last gave up, "Why is this regarded as so -- injurious?"
"Injurious," Hank Szantho said, "not to us; hell no -- not to us weevils. On the contrary; we'd be better able to communicate among each other. But who gives a grufg about that ... yeah, who cares about a little minuscule paltry matter like that -- a validation that might keep us sane."
Sheila said, remotely, "'Sane.'"
"Yes, sane," Hank Szantho snarled at her.
"Folie a deux," Sheila said mildly. To Rachmael she said, "No, not injurious to us, of course. To them." She once more indicated the empty living room -- empty except for the din of Omar Jones' recorded unending monolog. "But you see," she explained to Rachmael, raising her head and confronting him tranquilly, "it wouldn't just be real; that is, real in the experiential sense, the way all LSD and similar psycheletic drug-experiences are ... they're real, but if one of the experiences is common to more than a single individual the implications are quite great; being able to talk about it and be completely understood is --" She gestured faintly, as if her meaning at this point was obvious, scarcely worth articulating.
"It would be coming true," Miss de Rungs said in a stifled, unsteady voice. "Replacing this. " She ejected the end word violently, then swiftly once again sank into her withdrawn brooding.
The room, now, was tomb-like still.
"I wonder which one," Hank Szantho said, half-idly, to himself but audibly. "The Blue, ben Applebaum? Yours? Or Paraworld Green, or White, or god knows which. Blue," he added, "is about the worst. Yeah, no doubt of that; it's been established for some time. Blue is the pit."
No one spoke. They all, wordlessly, looked toward Rachmael. Waiting.
Rachmael said, "Has any of the rest of you --"
"None of us, obviously," Miss de Rungs said, with rigid, cupped firmness, "has undergone Paraworld Blue. But before us -- several, I believe, and fairly recently. Or so the wash psychiatrists say, anyhow, if you can believe them."
"But not all of us," Gretchen Borbman said, "have been before the computer, yet. I haven't, for instance. It takes time; the entire memory area of the cerebral cortex has to be tapped cell by cell, and most of the retention in stored form of the experience is subliminal. Repressed from consciousness, especially in the case of-less favorable paraworlds. In fact the episode in its entirety can be split off from the self-system within minutes after the person regains contact with reality, in which case he has absolutely no knowledge -- available, conscious knowledge, that is -- of what happened to him."
"And a pseudo-memory," Hank Szantho added, rubbing his massive jaw and scowling. "Substituted automatically. Also a function beyond conscious control. Paraworld Blue ... who in his right mind, who wants to keep his frugging right mind, would recall it?"
Gretchen Borbman, impassive, drained and pale, went to pour herself a fresh cup of the still-warm syn-cof; the cup clattered as she maneuvered it clumsily, With iron-rigid fixity all of them maintained a state of contrived obliviousness toward her, pretended not to hear the tremor of her nervous hands as she carried her cup step by step back to the table, and, with painstaking caution, seated herself beside Rachmael. None of the other weevils showed any sign whatever of perceiving her existence in their midst, now; they fixedly kept their eyes averted from her halting movement across the small, densely occupied kitchen, as if she -- and Rachmael -- did not exist. And the emotion, he realized, was stricken terror. And not the same amorphous uneasiness of before; this was new, far more acute, and beyond dispute directed absolutely at her.
Because of what she had said? Obviously that; the ice-hard suspension of the normal sense of well-being had set in the moment Gretchen Borbman had said what seemed to him, on the surface, to be routine: that she, among others in this group, had not presented the contents of their minds, their delusional -- or expanded-consciousness-derived -- paraworld involvement. The fear had been there, but it had not focused on Gretchen until she had admitted openly, called attention to the fact, that she in particular viewed a paraworld which might conform thoroughly to that of someone else in the group. And therefore would, as Miss de Rungs had said, would then be coming true; coming true and replacing the environment in which they now lived ... an environment which enormously powerful agencies intended for extremely vital reasons to maintain.
-- Agencies, Rachmael thought caustically, which I've already come up against head-on. Trails of Hoffman Limited, with Sepp von Einem and his Telpor device, and his Schweinfort labs. I wonder, he thought, what has come out of those labs lately. What has Gregory Gloch, the renegade UN wep-x sensation, thrashed together for his employers' use? And is it already available to them? If it was, they had no need for it as yet; their mainstays, their conventional constructs, seemed to serve adequately; the necessity for some bizarre, quasi-genius, quasi-psychotic, if that fairly delineated Gloch, did not appear to be yet at hand ... but, he realized somberly, it had to be presumed that Gloch's contribution had long ago evolved to the stage of tactical utility: when needed, it would be available.
"It would seem to me," Gretchen Borbman said to him, evidently more calm, now, more composed, "that this rather dubious 'reality' which we as a body share -- I'm speaking in particular, of course, of that obnoxious Omar Jones creature, that caricature of a political leader -- has damn little to recommend it. Do you feel loyalty to it, Mr. ben Applebaum?" She surveyed him critically, her eyes wise and searching. "If it did yield to a different framework --" Now she was speaking to all of them, the entire class crowded into the kitchen. "Would that be so bad? The paraworld you saw, Paraworld Blue. Was that so much worse, really?"
"Yes," Rachmael said. It was unnecessary to comment further, certainly no one else in the tense, overpacked room needed to be convinced -- the expressions on their strained faces ratified his recognition. And he saw, now, why their unified apprehension and animosity toward Gretchen Borbman signified an overwhelming, ominous approaching entity: her exposure before the all- absorbing scanner of the computer in no sense represented one more repetition of the mind-analysis which had taken place routinely with the others in the past. Gretchen already knew the contents of her paraworld. Her reaction had come long ago, and in her manner now consisted, for the others in the group, a clear index of what that paraworld represented, which of the designated categories it fell into. Obviously, it was a decidedly familiar one -- to her and to the group as a whole.
"Perhaps," the curly-haired youth said acidly, "Gretch might be less entranced with Paraworld Blue if she had undergone a period stuck in it, like you did, Mr, ben Applebaum; what do you say to that?" He watched Rachmael closely, scrutinizing him in anticipation of his response; he obviously expected to see it, rather than hear it uttered. "Or could she have already done that, Mr. ben Applebaum? Do you think you could tell if she had? By that I mean, would there be any indication, a permanent --" He searched for the words he wanted, his face working,
"Alteration," Hank Szantho said.
Gretchen Borbman said, "I'm quite satisfactorily anchored in reality, Szantho; take my word for it. Are you? Every person in this room is just as involved in an involuntary subjective psychotic fantasy-superimposition over the normal frame of reference as I am; some of you possibly even more so. I don't know. Who knows what takes place in other people's minds? I frankly don't care to judge; I don't think I can." She deliberately and with superbly controlled unflinchng dispassion returned the remorseless animosity of the ring of persons around her. "Maybe," she said, "you ought to re-examine the structure of the 'reality' you think's in jeopardy. Yes, the TV set." Her voice, now, was harsh, overwhelming in its caustic vigor. "Go in there, look at it; look at that dreadful parody of a president -- is that what you prefer to --"
"At least," Hank Szantho said, "it's real."
Eyeing him, Gretchen said, "Is it?" Sardonically, she smiled; it was a totally inhumane smile, and it was directed to all of them; he saw it sweep the room, withering into dryness the accusing circle of her group-members -- he saw them palpably retreat. It did not include him, however; conspicuously, Gretchen exempted him, and he felt the potency, the meaning of her decision to leave him out: he was not like the others and she knew it and so did he, and it meant something, a great deal. And he thought, I know what it means. She does, too.
Just the two of us, he thought; Gretchen Borbman and I -- and for a good reason. Alteration, he thought. Hank Szantho is right.
Tilting Gretchen Borbman's fat face he contemplated her eyes, the expression in them; he studied her for an unmeasured time, during which she did not stir; she returned, silently, without blinking, his steady, probing, analytical penetration of her interior universe ... neither of them stirred, and it began to appear to him, gradually, as if a melting, opening entrance had replaced the unyielding and opaque coloration of her pupils; all at once the variegated luminous matrices within which her substance seemed to lodge expanded to receive him -- dizzy, he half-fell, caught himself, then blinked and righted himself; no words had passed between them, and yet he understood, now; he had been right. It was true.
He rose, walked unsteadily away; he found himself entering the living room with its untended blaring TV set -- the thing dominated the room with its howls and shrieks, warping the window drapes, walls and carpets, the once-attractive ceramic lamps ... he sensed and witnessed the deformity imposed by the crushing din of the TV set with its compulsively hypomanic dwarfed and stunted figure, now gesticulating in a speeded-up frenzy, as if the video technicians had allowed -- or induced -- the tape to seek its maximum velocity.
At sight of him the image, the Omar Jones thing, stopped. Warily, as if surprised, it regarded him -- at least seemed to; impossibly, the TV replica of the colony president fixed its attention as rigidly on him as he in return found himself doing. Both of them, caught in an instinctive, fully alert vigil, neither able to look away even for a fraction of an instant ... as if, Rachmael thought, our lives, the physical preservation of both of us, has cataclysmically and without warning become jeopardized.
And neither of us, he realized as he stared unwinkingly at the TV image of Omar Jones, can escape; we're both snared. Until or unless one of us can -- can do what?
Blurred, now, as he felt himself sink into numbed fatigue, the two remorseless eyes of the TV figure began to blend. The eyes shifted, came together, superimposed until all at once, locked, they became a clearly defined single eye the intensity of which appalled him; a wet, smoldering greatness that attracted light from every source, drew illumination and authority from every direction and dimension, confronted him, and any possibility of looking away now was gone.
From behind him, Gretchen Borbman's voice sounded, "You see, don't you? Some of the paraworlds are --" She hesitated, perhaps wanting to tell him in such a manner as to spare him; she wanted him to know, but with the least pain possible. "-- hard to detect at first," she finished, gently. Her hand, soothing, comforting, rested on his shoulder; she was drawing him away from the image on the TV screen, the oozing cyclopean entity that had ceased its speeded-up harangue and, in silence, emanated in his direction its diseased malevolence.
"This one," Rachmael managed to say hoarsely, "has a description, too? A code-identification?"
"This," Gretchen said, "is reality."
"Paraworld Blue --"
Turning him around by physical force to face her, Gretchen said, stricken, "'Paraworld Blue'"? Is that what you see? On the TV screen? I don't believe it -- the aquatic cephalopod with one working eye? No; I just don't believe it."
Incredulous, Rachmael said, "I ... thought you saw it. Too."
"No!" She shook her head violently; her face now hardened, masklike; the change in her features came to him initially, in the first particle of a second, as a mere idea -- and then the actual jagged carving of old, shredding wood replaced the traditional, expected flesh, wood burned, carbonized as if seared both to injure it and to create fright in him, the beholder; an exaggerated travesty of organic physiognomy that grimaced in a fluidity, a mercury-like flux so that the irreal emotions revealed within the mask altered without cease, sometimes, as he watched, several manifesting themselves at once and merging into a configuration of affect which could not exist in any human -- or could it be read.
Her actual -- or rather her normally perceived-features, by a slow process, gradually re-emerged. The mask sank down, hidden, behind. It remained, of course, still there, but at least no longer directly confronting him. He was glad of that; relief passed through him, but then it, too, like the sight of the scorched-wood mask, sank out of range and he could no longer recall it.
"Whatever gave you the idea," Gretchen was saying, "that I saw anything like that? No, not in the slightest." Her hand, withdrawn from his shoulder, convulsed; she moved away from him, as if retreating down a narrowing tube, farther and fatally, syphoned off from his presence like a drained insect, back toward the kitchen and the dense pack of others.
"Type-basics," he said to her, appealing to her, trying to catch onto her and hold her. But she continued to shrink away anyhow. "Isn't it still possible that only a projection from the unconscious --"
"But your projection," Gretchen said, in a voice raptor-like, sawing, "is unacceptable. To me and to everybody else."
"What do you see?" he asked, finally. There was almost no sight of her now.
Gretchen said, "I'm scarcely likely to tell you, Mr. ben Applebaum; you can't actually expect that, now, after what you've said."
There was silence. And then, by labored, unnaturally retarded degrees, a groaning noise came from the speaker of the television set; the noise at last became intelligible speech, at the proper pitch and rate: his categories of perception had again achieved a functioning parallel with the space-time axis of the image of Omar Jones. Or had the progression of the image resumed as before? Time had stopped or the image had stopped, or perhaps both ... or was there such a thing as time at all? He tried to remember, but found himself unable to; the falling off of his capacity for abstract thought -- as -- what --was --
He did not know.
Something looked at him. With its mouth.
It had eaten most of its own eyes.