A equipe do ajuste

Wikisource, a biblioteca livre
Saltar para a navegação Saltar para a pesquisa
A equipe do ajuste
por Philip K. Dick


Algo deu errado... e Ed Fletcher se meteu na maior coisa em sua vida. Adjustment Team 1.jpg


Estava uma manhã muito luminosa. O sol brilhava sobre os gramados e calçadas úmidas, refletindo os carros cintilantes estacionados. O Oficial aproxima-se andando apressadamente, folheando suas instruções, virando as páginas e franzindo a testa. Por um momento, pausa em frente à pequena casa de estuque verde e então volta a caminhar, adentrando o quintal.


O cachorro dormia dentro de seu abrigo, de costas para o mundo. Apenas a grossa cauda para fora.

— Pelo amor de Deus, — exclama o Oficial com as mãos nos quadris. Ele bate a lapiseira ruidosamente contra sua prancheta—. Acorda, você aí!

O cão se agita e lentamente põe a cabeça para fora do abrigo, piscando e bocejando ao sol da manhã.

— Ah, é você. Já? — e boceja de novo.

— Grandes obras. — o Oficial desliza seu dedo especializado sobre a folha de controle de tráfego —. Eles estão ajustando o Setor T137 esta manhã. A partir de exatamente nove horas.— e confe o relógio de bolso—. Alteração de três horas. Vai terminar ao meio-dia.

— T137? Isso não é muito longe daqui.

O Oficial faz uma careta. — É verdade! Você está mostrando uma perspicácia surpreendente, meu amigo capa preta. Talvez você possa até já ter adivinhado que é por isso que estou aqui!

— Estamos nos sobrepondo com T137.

— Exatamente. Alguns elementos deste setor estão envolvidos. Precisamos ter certeza de que todos estejam devidamente posicionados quando o ajuste começar.— diz o Oficial olhando para a pequena casa de estuque verde—. Sua tarefa específica diz respeito àquele homem. Ele trabalha em um estabelecimento comercial situado no Setor T137. É essencial que ele esteja lá antes das nove horas.

O cachorro tinha observado a casa. As cortinas foram levantadas. A luz da cozinha estava acesa. Através das cortinas renda era possível ver algumas formas, se movendo em torno da mesa. Um homem e uma mulher. Estavam bebendo café.

— Lá estão eles.— murmura o cachorro — É o homem, não é? Ele não vai ser prejudicado, vai?

— Claro que não. Mas ele precisa estar no escritório mais cedo. Normalmente ele não sai antes das nove. Hoje ele deve sair às oito e meia. Ele deve estar dentro do Setor T137 antes do início do processo, ou ele não será alterado para coincidir com o novo ajuste.

O cão suspira: — Isso significa que tenho que convocá-lo.

— Correto.— o Oficial verifica a folha de instruções—. Você precisa chamá-lo exatamente às oito e quinze. Entendeu? O mais tardar oito e quinze.

— O que vai trazer essa convocação de oito e quinze?

O Oficial abre o livro de instruções e examina as colunas de código. — Isso vai trazer um amigo de carro. Ele vai levá-lo para trabalhar mais cedo.— diz fechando o livro e cruzando os braços, preparando-se para esperar—. Dessa forma, ele vai estar no escritório quase uma hora antes do tempo. O que é vital.

— Vital— murmura o cachorro enquanto se deita novamente, os olhos fechados—. "Vital".

— Acorda! Isso deve ser feito exatamente no horário! Se você chamar muito cedo ou muito tarde...

— Eu sei. Vou fazer isso direito. Sempre faço isso direito — resmunga o cachorro sonolento.

Ed Fletcher despeja mais creme em seu café. Suspira, inclinando-se para trás na cadeira. Atrás dele, o forno assobiava baixinho, enchendo a cozinha de vapor. A luz amarelada do teto irradiava para o chão.

— Outro pãozinho?— pergunta Ruth.

— Estou satisfeito.— Ed toma um gole de café—. Coma-o você.

— Já tenho que ir— levanta-se Ruth, abrindo o robe— hora de ir para o trabalho.

— Já?

— Claro. Você tem tanta sorte! Gostaria de poder ficar por ai— Ruth vai até o banheiro, passando os dedos pelo longo cabelo preto—. Quando se trabalha no Governo tem que se estar lá cedo.

— Mas você sai cedo...— diz Ed enquanto desdobra a Chronicle e examina um carro verde esportivo—. Bom, tenha um bom dia hoje. Não digite nenhuma palavra errada ou com duplo sentido.

A porta do banheiro se fecha, Ruth despe-se do robe e começa a se vestir.

Ed boceja e olha para o relógio sobre a pia. Temos tempo. Sequer são oito horas. Ele bebe mais café e em seguida, esfrega o queixo mal barbeado. Talvez teria que fazer a barba, dá aos ombros preguiçosamente. Mais dez minutos, talvez.

Ruth sai apressada em seus chinelos de nylon e corre para o quarto.— Estou atrasada!— E veste apressada a blusa, a saia, as meias e por fim calça os pequenos sapatos brancos. Finalmente, ela se inclina e o beija.— Adeus, querido. Hoje à noite faço as compras.

— Adeus. — Ed abaixa o jornal e coloca o braço em torno da cintura da esposa, abraçando-a carinhosamente —. Você tem um cheiro tão agradável. Não vá flertar com o chefe!

Ruth sai correndo pela porta da frente, fazendo barulho ao descer os degraus. Ele ouve o som dos passos dela diminuírem ao longo da calçada.

Ela se foi. A casa estava em silêncio. Ele estava sozinho.

Ed fica de pé e empurra a cadeira para trás. Vaga preguiçosamente até o banheiro e pega o barbeador. Oito e dez. Lava o rosto, espalha o creme de barbear e começa a fazer a barba. Faz a barba com cuidado já que tem tempo de sobra.

O Oficial inclina-se sobre seu relógio de bolso, mordendo os lábios nervosamente. O suor se destacava em sua testa. O ponteiros dos segundos o irritava. Oito e quatorze. Quase na hora.

— Prepare-se!— retruca o Oficial . Está tenso, seu pequeno corpo rígido—. Faltam dez segundos!

— O tempo!— lastima o Oficial.

Nada acontece.

O secretário se vira, os olhos arregalados de horror. Na abertura do pequeno abrigo via se a cauda grossa e peluda. O cachorro simplesmente voltara a dormi. — O tempo!— grita o Oficial e chuta violentamente o peludo—. Em nome de Deus!

O cão se agita e sai apressado de dentro do abrigo—. Meu Deus!— envergonhado, faz o caminho rapidamente até a cerca. De pé sobre as patas traseiras, ele abre a boca—. Woof! — convoca. O cachorro olha penitente para o Oficial. — Imploro seu perdão. Não consigo entender como isso aconteceu.

O Oficial olhava fixamente para o relógio. Um terror um frio embrulhava seu estômago. Os ponteiros mostravam oito e dezesseis—. Você fracassou, disse seco. — Você falhou! Seu pulguento miserável, seu pano-saco velho, vira-lata! Você falhou!

O cachorro cai em si e volta ansiosamente. — Está dizendo que falhei? Qual o tempo da convocação que você tinha dito mesmo?

— Você convocou tarde demais.— o Oficial afasta seu relógio lentamente, uma expressão vidrada em seu rosto—. Você convocou muito tarde. Nós não vamos ter o amigo com o carro. Não há como predizer o que virá no lugar. Tenho receio de saber o que oito e dezesseis traz.

— Espero que ele esteja no Setor T137 a tempo.

— Ele não vai,lamenta o Oficial . — Ele não vai estar lá. Nós cometemos um erro. Fizemos as coisas darem errado!

Ed espalhava o creme de barbear em seu rosto quando o som abafado do latido do cão ecoa pela casa em silêncio.

— Droga!— murmura.— Vai acordar o quarteirão todo!— Ed enxuga o rosto e parece ouvir alguém que se aproxima. Uma vibração e então a campainha toca.

Ed sai do banheiro. Quem poderia ser? Será que Ruth tinha se esquecido de alguma coisa? Veste uma camisa branca e então abre a porta da frente.

Era um jovem, de rosto suave e ansioso, sorria alegremente para ele.

— Bom dia, senhor.— disse tirando o chapéu —. Sinto muito em incomodá-lo tão cedo.

— O que você quer?

— Sou da Companhia Federal de Seguros de Vida. Estou aqui para falar sobre... Ed empurra a porta quase fechando-a.— Não quero nenhum seguro. Estou com pressa. Tenho que começar a trabalhar.

— Sua esposa disse que esta seria a única vez que eu poderia alcançá-lo. — O jovem pega sua pasta, facilitando a porta aberta novamente.— Ela pediu especialmente para eu vir bem cedo. Nós não temos o costume de começar nosso trabalho a esta hora, mas desde que ela nos pediu, fiz uma nota especial.

— Ok. — suspirando, cansado, Ed admite o jovem —. Você pode explicar sua política, enquanto me visto.

O jovem abre sua maleta no sofá, coloca para fora montes de panfletos ilustrados e pastas. — Eu gostaria de mostrar-lhe algumas dessas figuras, se me permite. É de grande importância para você e sua família...

Ed estava sentada, observando os panfletos. Por fim, compra uma apólice de 10 mil dólares de sua própria vida e depois coloca o jovem para fora. Ele olha para o relógio. Já são nove e meia!

— Droga. — estava atrasado para o trabalho. Afixou a gravata, pegou o casaco, desligou o forno e as luzes, jogou os pratos dentro da pia e correu para a varanda.

Foi uma corrida e tanto em direção ao ponto de ônibus que há alguns minutos estava amaldiçoando.

— Vendedores de seguro vida. Por que o idiota tem que vir justo quando estava se preparando para sair?

Ed pragueja. Sem sequer saber as consequências de chegar ao escritório tarde naquele dia. Ele não chegaria antes das dez, antecipa. Um sexto sentido lhe dizia que aquilo não passaria impunemente. Algo ruim iria acontecer. Aquele era o dia errado para se estar atrasado. Se aquele vendedor não tivesse aparecido.

Ed saltou do ônibus a uma quadra de seu escritório e começa a caminhar rapidamente. O relógio enorme na frente da joalheria Stein lhe diziam que já eram quase dez horas.

Sentiu um aperto no coração. O velho Douglas lhe mostraria o inferno, com certeza. Podia vê-lo agora. Douglas bufando e bufando, com o rosto vermelho, sacudindo o dedo; o Evans, sorrindo atrás de sua máquina de escrever; Jackie, o office boy, rindo; Earl Hendricks, Joe, Tom e Mary, a de olhos escuros, bustos grandes e longos cílios. Todos eles, brincando durante todo o resto do dia.

Ed chega até a esquina e para próximo ao semáforo. Do outro lado da rua, o grande edifício branco de concreto, colunas imensas de aço e cimento, vigas e janelas de vidro, um grande edifício de escritórios. Ed se encolhe. Talvez pudesse dizer que o elevador ficou preso. Algum ponto entre o segundo e terceiro andar.

O semáforo mudou, mas ninguém atravessava. Ed atravessou sozinho. Alcançou a calçada oposta e ficou ali parado, rígido. O sol tinha tinha se escondido. Em um momento estava radiante, em seguida, se foi. Ed olhou atentamente para cima. Nuvens cinzentas rodavam plá no alto. Enormes nuvens disformes. Nada mais. Uma névoa, espessa e sinistra fazia tudo ficar indefinido e arrepios desconfortáveis ​​tomaram o seu corpo. O que foi aquilo?

Ed avançou com cautela, tateando o caminho através da neblina. Tudo estava silencioso. Nenhum som, nem mesmo os sons do tráfego. Ed olhou freneticamente ao redor, tentando ver através da névoa. Ninguém. Nenhum carro. Nem sol. Nada.

O edifício de escritórios apareceu à sua frente, fantasmagórico. Estava com um cinza distinto. Ed estendeu a mão hesitante - Uma parte do prédio desmoronou. Desabou em forma de uma torrente de partículas. Como areia. Ed ficou boquiaberto. Havia uma cascata de detritos cinza, espalhados ao redor de seus pés. E onde ele havia tocado o edifício formou-se uma cavidade irregular e feia estragando o concreto.

Atordoado, abriu caminho até os degraus da frente para escalá-los mas os passos cediam sob seus pés. Seus pés afundavam. Vasculhava a areia movediça, tão frágil que cedia com seu preso.

Ele entrou no átrio, o lobby estava escuro, as luzes do teto piscavam debilmente na escuridão. Uma nuvem sobrenatural pairava sobre tudo.

Ele viu o stand de charutos. O vendedor se inclinava em silêncio, descansando sobre o balcão, palito entre os dentes, o rosto vazio. E cinza. Ele estava todo cinza. — Ei, — Ed resmungou, — O que está acontecendo?

O vendedor não respondeu. Ed estendeu a mão para ele. Sua mão tocou o braço cinza do vendedor e o atravessou. — Meu Deus" — diz Ed ao ver que o braço do vendedor se soltou, caiu no chão do átrio, desintegrando-se em minúsculos fragmentos. Pedaços de fibra cinza. Como pó. Ed cambaleava quase perdendo os sentidos.

— Socorro! — ele gritou, encontrando a própria voz. Nenhuma resposta. Olhou ao redor e algumas formas estavam por ali: um homem lendo um jornal, duas mulheres aguardando o elevador.

Ed caminhou até o homem, estendeu a mão e o tocou. O homem lentamente desmoronou, transformando-se em um amontoado de cinzas, poeira, partículas. As duas mulheres também se dissolveram quando tocadas. Silenciosamente. Não faziam qualquer som ao se desmancharem.

Ed encontrou as escadarias, agarrou o corrimão e subiu. Os degraus desmoronavam sob seus pés então tentou correu o mais rápido possível. Atrás dele, restavam apenas um caminho de destroços, com suas pegadas claramente visíveis no concreto. Ao chegar no segundo andar, nuvens de cinzas sopraram ao seu redor. Olhou para o corredor silencioso e viu mais nuvens de cinzas. Nenhum som. Apenas escuridão sobre escuridão. Subiu vacilante para o terceiro andar. Novamente, o sapato desmanchava a escadaria completamente. Por um segundo Ed se desligou, pairou no ar sobre um fosso sem fundo que bocejava.

Ele então subiu e surgiu na frente de seu próprio escritório: DOUGLAS E BLAKE, IMOBILIÁRIA.

O corredor estava escuro, sombrio, com nuvens de cinzas. As luzes do teto piscavam irregularmente. Ed estendeu a mão para a maçaneta da porta. A alça saiu em sua mão então a largou e cravou as unhas na porta. A placa de vidro caiu diante dele, quebrando-se em pedaços e assim arrancou a porta e entrou para o escritório.

A senhora Evans sentava-se à máquina de escrever, os dedos descansando calmamente sobre as teclas. Ela não se movia, estava cinza, seu cabelo, sua pele, suas roupas, estava sem cor. Ed a tocou, seus dedos penetraram o ombro dela em uma descamação seca. Ed recuou, enojado mas a senhora Evans não se mexeu.

Ed seguiu em frente e empurrou uma mesa que virou um amontoado de cinzas. Earl Hendricks estava junto ao refrigerador de água, um copo na mão, era uma estátua cinza, imóvel. Nada se movia. Nenhum som ambiente. Nenhuma vida. O escritório inteiro estava cinza, sem vida ou movimento. No corredor novamente, Ed balançou a cabeça, atordoado. O que significa isso? Será que estava enlouquecendo?.

Um som. Ed virou-se e olhou a névoa cinza. Uma criatura estava vindo rapidamente em sua direção. Um homem vestindo uma túnica branca. Atrás dele, outros vieram. Homens de branco, com equipamentos, máquinas complexas.

— Ei! — Ed ofegou fracamente.

Os homens pararam. Boquiabertos, os olhos saltando.

— Olhe!

— Algo saiu errado!

— Um ainda carregado.

— Peque o de-energizador.

— Nós não podemos prosseguir até...

Os homens vieram até Ed e ficaram em torno dele. Um carregava uma longa mangueira com algum tipo de bico. Alguém trazia um carrinho portátil e alguém gritava instruções rapidamente.

Ed saiu da sua paralisia e o medo tomou conta dele. Pânico. Algo terrível estava acontecendo. Ele tinha que sair dali, avisar as pessoas. Fugir.

Ed virou-se e correu escada abaixo enquanto os degraus desmoronavam sob ele, vôou sobre montes de cinzas, ficou de pé e correu a diante, até o térreo.

O lobby estava coberto de nuvens de cinzas então continuou cegamente em direção à porta. Atrás dele, os homens vestidos de branco se aproximavam arrastando seus equipamentos e gritando uns com os outros.

Chegou até a calçada. Atrás dele, o edifício de escritórios vacilou e cedeu, afundando-se para um lado, torrentes de cinzas choveram aos montes. Ed correu em direção à esquina e os homens estavam logo atrás dele. As nuvens cinzentas pairavam ao seu redor então tateou o caminho através da rua, com as mãos estendidas e assim ganhou o meio-fio oposto.

O sol reapareceu, lançando uma luz amarela e quente sobre ele. Os carros buzinavam. Os semáforos piscavam. Por todos os lados homens e mulheres com sus as roupas de primavera corriam e se empurravam: compradores, um policial vestido de azul, vendedores com pastas. Lojas, janelas, sinais... carros barulhentos subiam e desciam a rua novamente.

E sobre tudo isso, o sol brilhante e céu azul tão familiar.

Ed parou, ofegante, se virou e olhou para trás, o caminho por onde viera. Do outro lado da rua estava o prédio de escritórios, como sempre havia estado. Firme e distinto. Feito de concreto, vidro e aço.

Ele recuou um passo e colidiu com um cidadão correndo. — Ei, o homem resmungou. —Olha por onde anda!", — Ah desculpe-me. Ed balançava a cabeça, tentando limpar seus pensamentos. De onde estava, o prédio parecia ser o mesmo de sempre, grande e solene e substancial, elevando-se imponente do outro lado da rua.

Mas há um minuto atrás... Talvez estivesse enlouquecendo. Ele tinha visto o edifício reduzir-se a pó. A construção- e as pessoas também. Elas se desmanchavam em nuvens de poeira cinza. E os homens de branco, eles o tinham perseguido. Os homens de vestes brancas, gritavam ordens, empurrando equipamentos complexos. Estava enlouquecendo. Não havia outra explicação. Fracamente, Ed virou-se e tropeçou ao longo da calçada, sua mente girava. Moveu-se cegamente, sem propósito, perdido em uma névoa de confusão e terror.

O Oficial foi levado para a câmara administrativa de nível superior e lhe disseram para esperar.

Andava de um lado para outro, nervoso, apertando e torcendo as mãos em uma agonia apreensiva, tirou os óculos e os enxugou trêmulo.

Adjustment Team 8.jpg

- Senhor. Todos os problemas e sofrimento... não foi culpa dele mas ele tem que ser responsabilizado. Era responsabilidade dele encaminhar os Convocadores e fazer com que seguissem as instruções. Aquele miserável infestados de pulgas voltou a dormir... e ele tem que ser responsabilizado por isso.

As portas se abriram. "Tudo bem", uma voz murmurou, preocupada. Era uma voz cansada, desgastada. O Oficial tremeu e entrou lentamente, o suor escorrendo de seu pescoço no colarinho de celulóide.

O velho olhou para cima, deixando de lado seu livro. Estudou o Oficial calmamente, seus antigos olhos azuis desbotados, profundamente brandos, o que fazia o Oficial tremer ainda mais. Ele tirou o lenço e enxugou a testa. — Eu entendo que foi um erro,—o Velho murmurou. — Em conexão com o Setor T137. Algo a ver com um elemento de uma área adjacente.

— Exatemente. — a voz do Oficial estava fraca e rouca. — Infelizmente.

— O que exatamente ocorreu?

— Comecei esta manhã com as minhas instruções. O material relacionado ao T137 tinha prioridade, é claro. Comuniquei ao invocador da minha área que era necessário uma convocação às oito e quinze.

— Será que o Convocador entendeu a urgência?

— Sim, senhor...— o secretário hesitou. — Mas...

— Mas o quê?

O Oficial se retorceu miseravelmente.

— Enquanto eu estava de costas o Convocador rastejou de volta para seu abrigo dormir. Eu estava ocupado, verificando o tempo exato em meu relógio. Chamei ele na hora exata, mas não teve jeito.

— Você o chamou exatamente às oito e quinze?

— Sim, senhor! Exatamente oito e quinze! Mas o Convocador estava dormindo. Quando consegui despertar-lo às oito e dezesseis, ele fez a convocação, mas em vez de aparecer o amigo com um carro, apareceu um vendedor de seguros de vida. - e faz uma cara de desgosto - "O vendedor manteve o elemento lá até quase nove e meia. Portanto, ele ficou atrasado para o trabalho em vez de ir mais cedo.

Por um momento, o Velho ficou em silêncio e depois disse:

— Então o elemento não estava dentro T137 quando começou o ajuste.

— Não. Ele chegou às dez horas.

— Durante a metade do ajuste...— o velho levantou-se e caminhou lentamente de um lado para outro, o rosto sombrio, as mãos atrás das costas. Um longo robe cobria suas costas. — É um assunto sério. Durante o ajuste de setor todos os elementos relacionados a outros setores devem ser incluídos. Caso contrário, suas orientações permanecem fora de fase. Quando este elemento entrou no T137 o ajuste estava em progresso já por 50 minutos. O elemento encontrou o setor na fase desenergizada. Perambulou por lá até que uma das equipes de ajuste o encontrou.

— Será que o pegaram?"

— Infelizmente não. Ele fugiu do setor. Para uma área próxima totalmente energizada".

— E então?

O velho parou de andar, passou a mão pesada através de seu longo cabelo branco. — Nós não sabemos. Perdemos o contato com ele. Vamos restabelecer contato em breve, é claro. Mas, no momento ele está fora de controle.

— O que você vai fazer?

— Ele deve ser contactado e contido. Deve ser trazido até aqui. Não há outra solução.

— Até aqui?

— É tarde demais para desenergizá-lo. Quando se recompor vai contar aos outros. Limpar sua mente só iria complicar as coisas... os métodos usuais não serão suficientes. Devemos lidar com este problema sozinhos.

— Espero que ele seja localizado rapidamente, — disse o secretário.

— Eles vão. Cada Sentinela já foi alertado. Cada Sentinela, cada Convocador.— os olhos do ancião brilharam. — Até mesmo os Oficiais foram, embora eu hesite em contar com eles.

O Oficial enrubesceu. — Eu vou ficar feliz quando isso acabar...


Ruth came tripping down the stairs and out of the building, into the hot noonday sun. She lit a cigarette and hurried along the walk, her small bosom rising and falling as she breathed in the spring air. "Ruth." Ed stepped up behind her. "Ed!" She spun, gasping in astonishment. "What are you doing away from—?" "Come on." Ed grabbed her arm, pulling her along. "Let's keep moving." "But what—?" "I'll tell you later." Ed's face was pale and grim. "Let's go where we can talk. In private." "I was going down to have lunch at Louie's. We can talk there." Ruth hurried along breathlessly. "What is it? What's happened? You look so strange. And why aren't you at work? Did you—did you get fired?" They crossed the street and entered a small restaurant. Men and women milled around, getting their lunch. Ed found a table in the back, secluded in a corner. "Here." He sat down abruptly. "This will do." She slid into the other chair. Ed ordered a cup of coffee. Ruth had salad and creamed tuna on toast, coffee and peach pie. Silently, Ed watched her as she ate, his face dark and moody. "Please tell me," Ruth begged. "You really want to know?" "Of course I want to know!" Ruth put her small hand anxiously on his. "I'm your wife." "Something happened today. This morning. I was late to work. A damn insurance man came by and held me up. I was half an hour late." Ruth caught her breath. "Douglas fired you." "No." Ed ripped a paper napkin slowly into bits. He stuffed the bits in the half-empty water glass. "I was worried as hell. I got off the bus and hurried down the street. I noticed it when I stepped up on the curb in front of the office." "Noticed what?" Ed told her. The whole works. Everything. When he had finished, Ruth sat back, her face white, hands trembling. "I see," she murmured. "No wonder you're upset." She drank a little cold coffee, the cup rattling against the saucer. "What a terrible thing." Ed leaned intently toward his wife. "Ruth. Do you think I'm going crazy?" Ruth's red lips twisted. "I don't know what to say. It's so strange..." "Yeah. Strange is hardly the word for it. I poked my hands right through them. Like they were clay. Old dry clay. Dust. Dust figures." Ed lit a cigarette from Ruth's pack. "When I got out I looked back and there it was. The office building. Like always." "You were afraid Mr. Douglas would bawl you out, weren't you?" "Sure. I was afraid—and guilty." Ed's eyes flickered. "I know what you're thinking. I was late and I couldn't face him. So I had some sort of protective psychotic fit. Retreat from reality." He stubbed the cigarette out savagely. "Ruth, I've been wandering around town since. Two and a half hours. Sure, I'm afraid. I'm afraid like hell to go back." "Of Douglas?" "No! The men in white." Ed shuddered. "God. Chasing me. With their damn hoses and—and equipment." Ruth was silent. Finally she looked up at her husband, her dark eyes bright. "You have to go back, Ed." "Back? Why?" "To prove something." "Prove what?" "Prove it's all right." Ruth's hand pressed against his. "You have to, Ed. You have to go back and face it. To show yourself there's nothing to be afraid of." "The hell with it! After what I saw? Listen, Ruth. I saw the fabric of reality split open. I saw—behind. Underneath. I saw what was really there. And I don't want to go back. I don't want to see dust people again. Ever." Ruth's eyes were fixed intently on him. "I'll go back with you," she said. "For God's sake." "For your sake. For your sanity. So you'll know." Ruth got abruptly to her feet, pulling her coat around her. "Come on, Ed. I'll go with you. We'll go up there together. To the office of Douglas and Blake, Real Estate. I'll even go in with you to see Mr. Douglas." Ed got up slowly, staring hard at his wife. "You think I blacked out. Cold feet. Couldn't face the boss." His voice was low and strained. "Don't you?" Ruth was already threading her way toward the cashier. "Come on. You'll see. It'll all be there. Just like it always was." "Okay," Ed said. He followed her slowly. "We'll go back there—and see which of us is right."

They crossed the street together, Ruth holding on tight to Ed's arm. Ahead of them was the building, the towering structure of concrete and metal and glass. "There it is," Ruth said. "See?" There it was, all right. The big building rose up, firm and solid, glittering in the early afternoon sun, its windows sparkling brightly. Ed and Ruth stepped up onto the curb. Ed tensed himself, his body rigid. He winced as his foot touched the pavement— But nothing happened: the street noises continued; cars, people hurrying past; a kid selling papers. There were sounds, smells, the noises of the city in the middle of the day. And overhead was the sun and the bright blue sky. "See?" Ruth said. "I was right." They walked up the front steps, into the lobby. Behind the cigar stand the seller stood, arms folded, listening to the ball game. "Hi, Mr. Fletcher," he called to Ed. His face lit up good-naturedly. "Who's the dame? Your wife know about this?" Ed laughed unsteadily. They passed on toward the elevator. Four or five businessmen stood waiting. They were middle-aged men, well dressed, waiting impatiently in a bunch. "Hey, Fletcher," one said. "Where you been all day? Douglas is yelling his head off." "Hello, Earl," Ed muttered. He gripped Ruth's arm. "Been a little sick." The elevator came. They got in. The elevator rose. "Hi, Ed," the elevator operator said. "Who's the good-looking gal? Why don't you introduce her around?" Ed grinned mechanically. "My wife." The elevator let them off at the third floor. Ed and Ruth got out, heading toward the glass door of Douglas and Blake, Real Estate. Ed halted, breathing shallowly. "Wait." He licked his lips. "I—" Ruth waited calmly as Ed wiped his forehead and neck with his handkerchief. "All right now?" "Yeah." Ed moved forward. He pulled open the glass door. Miss Evans glanced up, ceasing her typing. "Ed Fletcher! Where on earth have you been?" "I've been sick. Hello, Tom." Tom glanced up from his work. "Hi, Ed. Say, Douglas is yelling for your scalp. Where have you been?" "I know." Ed turned wearily to Ruth. "I guess I better go in and face the music." Ruth squeezed his arm. "You'll be all right. I know." She smiled, a relieved flash of white teeth and red lips. "Okay? Call me if you need me." "Sure." Ed kissed her briefly on the mouth. "Thanks, honey. Thanks a lot. I don't know what the hell went wrong with me. I guess it's over." "Forget it. So long." Ruth skipped back out of the office, the door closing after her. Ed listened to her race down the hall to the elevator. "Nice little gal," Jackie said appreciatively. "Yeah." Ed nodded, straightening his necktie. He moved unhappily toward the inner office, steeling himself. Well, he had to face it. Ruth was right. But he was going to have a hell of a time explaining it to the boss. He could see Douglas now, thick red wattles, big bull roar, face distorted with rage— Ed stopped abruptly at the entrance to the inner office. He froze rigid. The inner office—it was changed.

The hackles of his neck rose. Cold fear gripped him, clutching at his windpipe. The inner office was different. He turned his head slowly, taking in the sight: the desks, chairs, fixtures, file cabinets, pictures. Changes. Little changes. Subtle. Ed closed his eyes and opened them slowly. He was alert, breathing rapidly, his pulse racing. It was changed, all right. No doubt about it. "What's the matter, Ed?" Tom asked. The staff watched him curiously, pausing in their work. Ed said nothing. He advanced slowly into the inner office. The office had been gone over. He could tell. Things had been altered. Rearranged. Nothing obvious—nothing he could put his finger on. But he could tell. Joe Kent greeted him uneasily. "What's the matter, Ed? You look like a wild dog. Is something—?" Ed studied Joe. He was different. Not the same. What was it? Joe's face. It was a little fuller. His shirt was blue-striped. Joe never wore blue stripes. Ed examined Joe's desk. He saw papers and accounts. The desk—it was too far to the right. And it was bigger. It wasn't the same desk. The picture on the wall. It wasn't the same. It was a different picture entirely. And the things on top of the file cabinet—some were new, others were gone. He looked back through the door. Now that he thought about it, Miss Evans' hair was different, done a different way. And it was lighter. In here, Mary, filing her nails, over by the window—she was taller, fuller. Her purse, lying on the desk in front of her—a red purse, red knit. "You always...have that purse?" Ed demanded. Mary glanced up. "What?" "That purse. You always have that?" Mary laughed. She smoothed her skirt coyly around her shapely thighs, her long lashes blinking modestly. "Why, Mr. Fletcher. What do you mean?" Ed turned away. He knew. Even if she didn't. She had been redone—changed: her purse, her clothes, her figure, everything about her. None of them knew—but him. His mind spun dizzily. They were all changed. All of them were different. They had all been remolded, recast. Subtly—but it was there. The wastebasket. It was smaller, not the same. The window shades—white, not ivory. The wall paper was not the same pattern. The lighting fixtures... Endless, subtle changes. Ed made his way back to the inner office. He lifted his hand and knocked on Douglas' door. "Come in." Ed pushed the door open. Nathan Douglas looked up impatiently. "Mr. Douglas—" Ed began. He came into the room unsteadily—and stopped. Douglas was not the same. Not at all. His whole office was changed: the rugs, the drapes. The desk was oak, not mahogany. And Douglas himself... Douglas was younger, thinner. His hair, brown. His skin not so red. His face smoother. No wrinkles. Chin reshaped. Eyes green, not black. He was a different man. But still Douglas—a different Douglas. A different version! "What is it?" Douglas demanded impatiently. "Oh, it's you, Fletcher. Where were you this morning?" Ed backed out. Fast. He slammed the door and hurried back through the inner office. Tom and Miss Evans glanced up, startled. Ed passed by them, grabbing the hall door open. "Hey!" Tom called. "What—?" Ed hurried down the hall. Terror leaped through him. He had to hurry. He had seen. There wasn't much time. He came to the elevator and stabbed the button. No time. He ran to the stairs and started down. He reached the second floor. His terror grew. It was a matter of seconds. Seconds! The public phone. Ed ran into the phone booth. He dragged the door shut after him. Wildly, he dropped a dime in the slot and dialed. He had to call the police. He held the receiver to his ear, his heart pounding. Warn them. Changes. Somebody tampering with reality. Altering it. He had been right. The white-clad men...their equipment...going through the building. "Hello!" Ed shouted hoarsely. There was no answer. No hum. Nothing. Ed peered frantically out the door. And he sagged, defeated. Slowly, he hung up the telephone receiver. He was no longer on the second floor. The phone booth was rising, leaving the second floor behind, carrying him up, faster and faster. It rose floor by floor, moving silently, swiftly. The phone booth passed through the ceiling of the building and out into the bright sunlight. It gained speed. The ground fell away below. Buildings and streets were getting smaller each moment. Tiny specks hurried along, far below, cars and people, dwindling rapidly. Clouds drifted between him and the earth. Ed shut his eyes, dizzy with fright. He held on desperately to the door handles of the phone booth. Faster and faster the phone booth climbed. The earth was rapidly being left behind, far below. Ed peered up wildly. Where? Where was he going? Where was it taking him? He stood gripping the door handles, waiting.

The Clerk nodded curtly. "That's him, all right. The element in question." Ed Fletcher looked around him. He was in a huge chamber. The edges fell away into indistinct shadows. In front of him stood a man with notes and ledgers under his arm, peering at him through steel-rimmed glasses. He was a nervous little man, sharp-eyed, with celluloid collar, blue-serge suit, vest, watch chain. He wore black shiny shoes. And beyond him— An old man sat quietly, in an immense modern chair. He watched Fletcher calmly, his blue eyes mild and tired. A strange thrill shot through Fletcher. It was not fear. Rather it was a vibration, rattling his bones—a deep sense of awe, tinged with fascination. "Where—what is this place?" he asked faintly. He was still dazed from his quick ascent. "Don't ask questions!" the nervous little man snapped angrily, tapping his pencil against his ledgers. "You're here to answer, not ask." The Old Man moved a little. He raised his hand. "I will speak to the element alone," he murmured. His voice was low. It vibrated and rumbled through the chamber. Again the wave of fascinated awe swept Ed. "Alone?" The little fellow backed away, gathering his books and papers in his arms. "Of course." He glanced hostilely at Ed Fletcher. "I'm glad he's finally in custody. All the work and trouble just for—" He disappeared through a door. The door closed softly behind him. Ed and the Old Man were alone. "Please sit down," the Old Man said. Ed found a seat. He sat down awkwardly, nervously. He got out his cigarettes and then put them away again. "What's wrong?" the Old Man asked. "I'm just beginning to understand." "Understand what?" "That I'm dead." The Old Man smiled briefly. "Dead? No, you're not dead. You're...visiting. An unusual event, but necessitated by circumstances." He leaned toward Ed. "Mr. Fletcher, you have got yourself involved in something." "Yeah," Ed agreed. "I wish I knew what it was. Or how it happened." "It was not your fault. You're the victim of a clerical error. A mistake was made—not by you. But involving you." "What mistake?" Ed rubbed his forehead wearily. "I—I got in on something. I saw through. I saw something I wasn't supposed to see." The Old Man nodded. "That's right. You saw something you were not supposed to see—something few elements have been aware of, let alone witnessed." "Elements?" "An official term. Let it pass. A mistake was made, but we hope to rectify it. It is my hope that—" "Those people," Ed interrupted. "Heaps of dry ash. And gray. Like they were dead. Only it was everything: the stairs and walls and floor. No color or life." "That Sector had been temporarily de-energized. So the adjustment team could enter and effect changes." "Changes." Ed nodded. "That's right. When I went back later, everything was alive again. But not the same. It was all different." "The adjustment was complete by noon. The team finished its work and re-energized the Sector." "I see," Ed muttered. "You were supposed to have been in the Sector when the adjustment began. Because of an error you were not. You came into the Sector late—during the adjustment itself. You fled, and when you returned it was over. You saw, and you should not have seen. Instead of a witness you should have been part of the adjustment. Like the others, you should have undergone changes." Sweat came out on Ed Fletcher's head. He wiped it away. His stomach turned over. Weakly, he cleared his throat. "I get the picture." His voice was almost inaudible. A chilling premonition moved through him. "I was supposed to be changed like the others. But I guess something went wrong." "Something went wrong. An error occurred. And now a serious problem exists. You have seen these things. You know a great deal. And you are not coordinated with the new configuration." "Gosh," Ed muttered. "Well, I won't tell anybody." Cold sweat poured off him. "You can count on that. I'm as good as changed." "You have already told someone," the Old Man said coldly. "Me?" Ed blinked. "Who?" "Your wife." Ed trembled. The color drained from his face, leaving it sickly white. "That's right. I did." "Your wife knows." The Old Man's face twisted angrily. "A woman. Of all the things to tell—" "I didn't know." Ed retreated, panic leaping through him. "But I know now. You can count on me. Consider me changed." The ancient blue eyes bored keenly into him, peering far into his depths. "And you were going to call the police. You wanted to inform the authorities." "But I didn't know who was doing the changing." "Now you know. The natural process must be supplemented—adjusted here and there. Corrections must be made. We are fully licensed to make such corrections. Our adjustment teams perform vital work." Ed plucked up a measure of courage. "This particular adjustment. Douglas. The office. What was it for? I'm sure it was some worthwhile purpose." The Old Man waved his hand. Behind him in the shadows an immense map glowed into existence. Ed caught his breath. The edges of the map faded off in obscurity. He saw an infinite web of detailed sections, a network of squares and ruled lines. Each square was marked. Some glowed with a blue light. The lights altered constantly. "The Sector Board," the Old Man said. He sighed wearily. "A staggering job. Sometimes we wonder how we can go on another period. But it must be done. For the good of all. For your good." "The change. In our—our Sector." "Your office deals in real estate. The old Douglas was a shrewd man, but rapidly becoming infirm. His physical health was waning. In a few days Douglas will be offered a chance to purchase a large unimproved forest area in western Canada. It will require most of his assets. The older, less virile Douglas would have hesitated. It is imperative he not hesitate. He must purchase the area and clear the land at once. Only a younger man—a younger Douglas—would undertake this. "When the land is cleared, certain anthropological remains will be discovered. They have already been placed there. Douglas will lease his land to the Canadian Government for scientific study. The remains found there will cause international excitement in learned circles. "A chain of events will be set in motion. Men from numerous countries will come to Canada to examine the remains. Soviet, Polish, and Czech scientists will make the journey. "The chain of events will draw these scientists together for the first time in years. National research will be temporarily forgotten in the excitement of these non-national discoveries. One of the leading Soviet scientists will make friends with a Belgian scientist. Before they depart they will agree to correspond—without the knowledge of their governments, of course. "The circle will widen. Other scientists on both sides will be drawn in. A society will be founded. More and more educated men will transfer an increasing amount of time to this international society. Purely national research will suffer a slight but extremely critical eclipse. The war tension will somewhat wane. "This alteration is vital. And it is dependent on the purchase and clearing of the section of wilderness in Canada. The old Douglas would not have dared take the risk. But the altered Douglas, and his altered, more youthful staff, will pursue this work with wholehearted enthusiasm. And from this, the vital chain of widening events will come about. The beneficiaries will be you. Our methods may seem strange and indirect. Even incomprehensible. But I assure you we know what we're doing." "I know that now," Ed said. "So you do. You know a great deal. Much too much. No element should possess such knowledge. I should perhaps call an adjustment team in here..." A picture formed in Ed's mind: swirling gray clouds, gray men and women. He shuddered. "Look," he croaked. "I'll do anything. Anything at all. Only don't de-energize me." Sweat ran down his face. "Okay?" The Old Man pondered. "Perhaps some alternative could be found. There is another possibility..." "What?" Ed asked eagerly. "What is it?" The Old Man spoke slowly, thoughtfully. "If I allow you to return, you will swear never to speak of the matter? Will you swear not to reveal to anyone the things you saw? The things you know?" "Sure!" Ed gasped eagerly, blinding relief flooding over him. "I swear!" "Your wife. She must know nothing more. She must think it was only a passing psychological fit—retreat from reality." "She thinks that already." "She must continue to." Ed set his jaw firmly. "I'll see that she continues to think it was a mental aberration. She'll never know what really happened." "You are certain you can keep the truth from her?" "Sure," Ed said confidently. "I know I can." "All right." The Old Man nodded slowly. "I will send you back. But you must tell no one." He swelled visibly. "Remember: you will eventually come back to me—everyone does, in the end—and your fate will not be enviable." "I won't tell her," Ed said, sweating. "I promise. You have my word on that. I can handle Ruth. Don't give it a second thought."

Ed arrived home at sunset. He blinked, dazed from the rapid descent. For a moment he stood on the pavement, regaining his balance and catching his breath. Then he walked quickly up the path. He pushed the door open and entered the little green stucco house. "Ed!" Ruth came flying, face distorted with tears. She threw her arms around him, hugging him tight. "Where the hell have you been?" "Been?" Ed murmured. "At the office, of course." Ruth pulled back abruptly. "No, you haven't." Vague tendrils of alarm plucked at Ed. "Of course I have. Where else—?" "I called Douglas about three. He said you left. You walked out, practically as soon as I turned my back. Eddie—" Ed patted her nervously. "Take it easy, honey." He began unbuttoning his coat. "Everything's okay. Understand? Things are perfectly all right." Ruth sat down on the arm of the couch. She blew her nose, dabbing at her eyes. "If you knew how much I've worried." She put her handkerchief away and folded her arms. "I want to know where you were." Uneasily, Ed hung his coat in the closet. He came over and kissed her. Her lips were ice cold. "I'll tell you all about it. But what do you say we have something to eat? I'm starved." Ruth studied him intently. She got down from the arm of the couch. "I'll change and fix dinner." She hurried into the bedroom and slipped off her shoes and nylons. Ed followed her. "I didn't mean to worry you," he said carefully. "After you left me today I realized you were right." "Oh?" Ruth unfastened her blouse and skirt, arranging them over a hanger. "Right about what?" "About me." He manufactured a grin and made it glow across his face. "About...what happened." Ruth hung her slip over the hanger. She studied her husband intently as she struggled into her tight-fitting jeans. "Go on." The moment had come. It was now or never. Ed Fletcher braced himself and chose his words carefully. "I realized," he stated, "that the whole darn thing was in my mind. You were right, Ruth. Completely right. And I even realize what caused it." Ruth rolled her cotton T-shirt down and tucked it in her jeans. "What was the cause?" "Overwork." "Overwork?" "I need a vacation. I haven't had a vacation in years. My mind isn't on my job. I've been daydreaming." He said it firmly, but his heart was in his mouth. "I need to get away. To the mountains. Bass fishing. Or—" He searched his mind frantically. "Or—" Ruth came toward him ominously. "Ed!" she said sharply. "Look at me!" "What's the matter?" Panic shot through him. "Why are you looking at me like that?" "Where were you this afternoon?" Ed's grin faded. "I told you. I went for a walk. Didn't I tell you? A walk. To think things over." "Don't lie to me, Eddie Fletcher! I can tell when you're lying!" Fresh tears welled up in Ruth's eyes. Her breasts rose and fell excitedly under her cotton shirt. "Admit it! You didn't go for a walk!" Ed stammered weakly. Sweat poured off him. He sagged helplessly against the door. "What do you mean?" Ruth's black eyes flashed with anger. "Come on! I want to know where you were! Tell me! I have a right to know. What really happened?" Ed retreated in terror, his resolve melting like wax. It was going all wrong. "Honest. I went out for a—" "Tell me!" Ruth's sharp fingernails dug into his arm. "I want to know where you were—and who you were with!" Ed opened his mouth. He tried to grin, but his face failed to respond. "I don't know what you mean." "You know what I mean. Who were you with? Where did you go? Tell me! I'll find out, sooner or later." There was no way out. He was licked—and he knew it. He couldn't keep it from her. Desperately he stalled, praying for time. If he could only distract her, get her mind on something else. If she would only let up, even for a second. He could invent something—a better story. Time—he needed more time. "Ruth, you've got to—" Suddenly there was a sound: the bark of a dog, echoing through the dark house. Ruth let go, cocking her head alertly. "That was Dobbie. I think somebody's coming." The doorbell rang. "You stay here. I'll be right back." Ruth ran out of the room, to the front door. "Darn it." She pulled the front door open. "Good evening!" The young man stepped quickly inside, loaded down with objects, grinning broadly at Ruth. "I'm from the Sweep-Rite Vacuum Cleaner Company." Ruth scowled impatiently. "Really, we're about to sit down at the table." "Oh, this will only take a moment." The young man set down the vacuum cleaner and its attachments with a metallic crash. Rapidly, he unrolled a long illustrated banner, showing the vacuum cleaner in action. "Now, if you'll just hold this while I plug in the cleaner—" He bustled happily about, unplugging the TV set, plugging in the cleaner, pushing the chairs out of his way. "I'll show you the drape scraper first." He attached a hose and nozzle to the big gleaming tank. "Now, if you'll just sit down I'll demonstrate each of these easy-to-use attachments." His happy voice rose over the roar of the cleaner. "You'll notice—"

Ed Fletcher sat down on the bed. He groped in his pocket until he found his cigarettes. Shakily he lit one and leaned back against the wall, weak with relief. He gazed up, a look of gratitude on his face. "Thanks," he said softly. "I think we'll make it—after all. Thanks a lot." * * *