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THE PETRIFIED WORLD (Robert Sheckley)

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  1. THE PETRIFIED WORLD (Robert Sheckley)
  2.  
  3. Lanigan dreamed the dream again and managed to wake himself with a hoarse cry. He sat upright in bed and glared around him into the violet darkness. His teeth clenched and his lips were pulled back into a spastic grin. Beside him he felt his wife, Estelle, stir and sit up. Lanigan didn't look at her. Still caught in his dream, he waited for tangible proofs of the world.
  4.  
  5. A chair slowly drifted across his field of vision and fetched up against the wall with a quiet thump. Lanigan's face relaxed slightly. Then Estelle's hand was on his arm -- a touch meant to be soothing, but which burned like lye.
  6.  
  7. "Here," she said. "Drink this."
  8.  
  9. "No," Lanigan said. "I'm all right now."
  10.  
  11. "Drink it anyhow."
  12.  
  13. ''No, really. I really am all right."
  14.  
  15. For now he was completely out of the grip of the nightmare. He was himself again, and the world was its habitual self. That was very precious to Lanigan; he didn't want to let go of it just now, not even for the soothing release of a sedative. "Was it the same dream?" Estelle asked him.
  16.  
  17. "Yes, just the same.... I don't want to talk about it."
  18.  
  19. "All right, " Estelle said. (She is humoring me, Lanigan thought. I frighten her. I frighten myself.)
  20.  
  21. She asked, "Hon, what time is it?"
  22.  
  23. Lanigan looked at his watch. "Six-fifteen." But as he said it, the hour hand jumped convulsively forward. "No, it's five to seven."
  24.  
  25. "Can you get back to sleep?"
  26.  
  27. "I don't think so," Lanigan said. "I think I'll stay up."
  28.  
  29. "Fine, dear," Estelle said. She yawned, closed her eyes, opened them again and asked, "Hon, don't you think it might be a good idea if you called --"
  30.  
  31. "I have an appointment with him for twelve-ten," Lanigan said.
  32.  
  33. "That's fine," Estelle said. She closed her eyes again. Sleep came over her while Lanigan watched. Her auburn hair turned a faint blue, and she sighed once, heavily.
  34.  
  35. Lanigan got out of bed and dressed. He was, for the most part, a large man, unusually easy to recognize. His features were curiously distinct. He had a rash on his neck. He was in no other way outstanding, except that he had a recurring dream which was driving him insane.
  36.  
  37. He spent the next few hours on his front porch watching stars go nova in the dawn sky.
  38.  
  39. Later, he went out for a stroll. As luck would have it, he ran into George Torstein just two blocks from his house. Several months ago, in an incautious moment, he had told Torstein about his dream. Torstein was a bluff, hearty fellow, a great believer in self-help, discipline, practicality, common sense and other dull virtues. His hardheaded, no-nonsense attitude had come as a momentary relief to Lanigan. But now it acted as an abrasive. Men like Torstein were undoubtedly the salt of the earth and the backbone of the country; but for Lanigan, wrestling with the impalpable and losing, Torstein had grown from a nuisance into a horror.
  40.  
  41. "Well, Tom, how's the boy?" Torstein greeted him.
  42.  
  43. "Fine," Lanigan said, "just fine." He nodded pleasantly and began to walk away under a melting green sky. But one did not .escape from Torstein so easily.
  44.  
  45. "Tom, boy, I've been thinking about your problem," Torstein said. "I've been quite disturbed about you."
  46.  
  47. "Well, that's very nice of you," Lanigan said. "But really, you shouldn't concern yourself --"
  48.  
  49. "I do it because I want to," Torstein said, speaking the simple, deplorable truth. "I take an interest in people, Tom. Always have, ever since I was a kid. And you and I've been friends and neighbors for a long time."
  50.  
  51. "That's true enough," Lanigan said numbly. (The worst thing about needing help was having to accept it.)
  52.  
  53. "Well, Tom, I think what would really help you would be a little vacation."
  54.  
  55. Torstein had a simple prescription for everything. Since he practiced soul-doctoring without a license, he was. always careful to prescribe a drug you could buy over the counter.
  56.  
  57. "I really. can't afford a vacation this month," Lanigan said. (The sky was ochre and pink now; three pines had withered; an aged oak had turned into a youthful cactus.)
  58.  
  59. Torstein laughed heartily. "Boy, you can't afford not to take a vacation just now! Did you ever consider that?"
  60.  
  61. "No, I guess not."
  62.  
  63. "Well, consider it! You're tired, tense, all keyed-up. You've been working too hard."
  64.  
  65. "I've been on leave of absence all week," Lanigan said. He glanced at his watch. The gold case had turned to lead, but the time seemed accurate enough. Nearly two hours had passed since be had begun this conversation.
  66.  
  67. ***
  68.  
  69. "It isn't good enough," Torstein was saying. "You've stayed right here in town, right close to your work. You need to get in touch with nature. Tom, when was the last time you went camping?"
  70.  
  71. "Camping? I don't think I've ever gone camping."
  72.  
  73. "There, you see! Boy, you've got to put yourself back in touch with real things. Not streets and buildings, but mountains and rivers."
  74.  
  75. Lanigan looked at his watch again and was relieved to see it turn back to gold. He was glad; he had paid sixty dollars for that case.
  76.  
  77. "Trees and lakes," Torstein was rhapsodizing. "The feel of grass growing under your feet, the sight of tall black mountains marching across a golden sky -- "
  78.  
  79. Lanigan shook his head. "I've been in the country, George. It doesn't do anything for me."
  80.  
  81. Torstein was obstinate. "You must get away from artificialities."
  82.  
  83. "It all seems equally artificial," Lanigan said. "Trees or buildings -- what's the difference?"
  84.  
  85. "Men make buildings," Torstein intoned rather piously, "but God makes trees."
  86.  
  87. Lanigan had his doubts about both propositions, but he wasn't going to tell them to Torstein. "You might have something there," he said. "I'll think about it."
  88.  
  89. "You do that," Torstein said. "It happens I know the perfect place. It's in Maine, Tom, and it's right near this little lake --"
  90.  
  91. Torstein was a master of the interminable description. Luckily for Lanigan, there was a diversion. Across the street, a house burst into flames.
  92.  
  93. "Hey, whose house is that?" Lanigan asked.
  94.  
  95. "Makelby's," Torstein said. "That's his third fire this month."
  96.  
  97. "Maybe we ought to give the alarm."
  98.  
  99. "You're right, I'll do it myself," Torstein said. "Remember what I told you about that place in Maine, Tom."
  100.  
  101. Torstein turned to go, and something rather humorous happened. As he stepped over the pavement, the concrete liquified under his left foot. Caught unawares, Torstein went in ankle-deep. His forward motion pitched him head-first into the street.
  102.  
  103. Tom hurried to help him out before the concrete hardened again. "Are you all right?" he asked.
  104.  
  105. "Twisted my damned ankle," Torstein muttered. "It's okay, I can walk."
  106.  
  107. He limped off to report the fire. Lanigan stayed and watched. He judged the fire had been caused by spontaneous combustion. In a few minutes, as he had expected, it put itself out by spontaneous decombustion.
  108.  
  109. One shouldn't be pleased by another man's misfortunes; but Lanigan couldn't help chuckling about Torstein's I twisted ankle. Not even the sudden appearance of flood waters on Main Street could mar his good spirits. He beamed at something like a steamboat with yellow stacks that went by in the sky.
  110.  
  111. Then he remembered his dream, and the panic began again. He walked quickly to the doctor's office.
  112.  
  113. Dr. Sampson's office was small and dark this week. 'The old gray sofa was gone; in its place were two Louis Quinze chairs and a hammock. The worn carpet had finally rewoven itself, and there was a cigarette bum on the puce ceiling. But the portrait of Andretti was in its usual place on the wall, and the big free-form ash tray was scrupulously clean.
  114.  
  115. The inner door opened, and Dr. Sampson's head popped out. "Hi," he said. "Won't be a minute." His head popped back in again.
  116.  
  117. Sampson was as good as his word. It took him exactly three seconds by Lanigan's watch to do whatever he had to do. One second later Lanigan was stretched out on the leather couch with a fresh paper doily under his head. And Dr. Sampson was saying, "Well, Tom, how have things been going?"
  118.  
  119. "The same," Lanigan said. "Worse."
  120.  
  121. "The dream?"
  122.  
  123. Lanigan nodded.
  124.  
  125. "Let's just run through it again."
  126.  
  127. "I'd rather not," Lanigan said.
  128.  
  129. "Afraid?"
  130.  
  131. "More afraid than ever."
  132.  
  133. "Even now?"
  134.  
  135. "Yes. Especially now."
  136.  
  137. There was a moment of therapeutic silence. Then Dr. Sampson said, "You've spoken before of. your fear of this dream; but "you've never told me why you fear it so."
  138.  
  139. "Well ... It sounds so silly."
  140.  
  141. Sampson's face was serious, quiet, composed: the face of a man who found nothing silly, who was constitutionally incapable of finding anything silly. It was a pose, perhaps, but one which Lanigan found reassuring.
  142.  
  143. "All right, I'll tell you," Lanigan said abruptly. Then he stopped.
  144.  
  145. "Go on," Dr. Sampson said.
  146.  
  147. "Well, it's because I believe that somehow, in some way I don't understand. . . ."
  148.  
  149. "Yes, go on," Sampson said.
  150.  
  151. "Well, that somehow the world of my dream is becoming the real world." He stopped again, then went on with a rush. "And that some day I am going to wake up and find myself in that world. And. then that world will have become the real one and this world will be the dream."
  152.  
  153. He turned to see how this mad revelation had affected Sampson. If the doctor was disturbed, he didn't show it. He was quietly lighting his pipe with the smouldering tip of his left forefinger. He blew out his forefinger and said, "Yes, please go on."
  154.  
  155. "Go on? But that's it, that's the whole thing!"
  156.  
  157. A spot the size of a quarter appeared on Sampson's mauve carpet. It darkened, thickened, grew into a small fruit tree. Sampson picked one of the purple pods, sniffed it, then set it down on his desk. He looked at Lanigan sternly, sadly.
  158.  
  159. "You've told me about your dream-world before, Tom."
  160.  
  161. Lanigan nodded.
  162.  
  163. "We have discussed it, traced its origins, analyzed its meaning for you. In past months we have learned, I believe, why you need to cripple yourself with this nightmare fear."
  164.  
  165. Lanigan nodded unhappily.
  166.  
  167. "Yet you refuse the insights," Sampson said. "You forget each time that your dream-world is a dream, nothing but a dream, operated by arbitrary dream-laws which you have invented to satisfy your psychic needs."
  168.  
  169. "I wish I could believe that," Lanigan said. "The trouble is my dream-world is so damnably reasonable."
  170.  
  171. "Not at all," Sampson said. "It is just that your delusion is. hermetic, self-enclosed and self-sustaining. A man's actions are based upon certain assumptions about the nature of the world. Grant his assumptions, and his behavior is entirely reasonable. But to change those assumptions, those fundamental axioms, is nearly impossible. For example, how do you prove to a man that he is not being controlled by a secret radio which only he can hear?"
  172.  
  173. "I see the problem," Lanigan muttered. "And that's me?"
  174.  
  175. "Yes, Tom. That, in effect, is you. You want me to prove to you that this world is real, and that the world of your dream is false. You propose to give up your fantasy if I supply you with the necessary proofs."
  176.  
  177. "Yes, exactly!" Lanigan cried.
  178.  
  179. "But you see, I can't supply them," Sampson said. "The nature of the world is apparent, but unprovable."
  180.  
  181. Lanigan thought for a while. Then he said, "Look, Doc, I'm not as sick as the guy with the secret radio, am I?"
  182.  
  183. "No, you're not. You're more reasonable, more rational. You have doubts about the reality of the world; but luckily, you also have doubts about the validity of your delusion."
  184.  
  185. "Then give it a try," Lanigan said. "I understand your problem; but I swear to you, I'll accept anything I can possibly bring myself to accept."
  186.  
  187. "It's not my field, really," Sampson said. "This sort of thing calls for a metaphysician. I don't think I'd be very skilled at it....."
  188.  
  189. "Give it a try," Lanigan pleaded.
  190.  
  191. "All right, here goes." Sampson's forehead wrinkled and shed as he concentrated. Then he said, "It seems to me that we inspect the world through our senses, and therefore we must in the final analysis accept the testimony of those senses."
  192.  
  193. Lanigan nodded, and the doctor went on.
  194.  
  195. "So, we know that a thing exists because our senses tell us it exists. How do we check the accuracy of our observations? By comparing them with the sensory impressions of other men. We know that our senses don't lie when other men's senses agree upon the existence of the thing in question."
  196.  
  197. Lanigan thought about this, then said, "Therefore, the real world is simply what most men think it is."
  198.  
  199. Sampson twisted his mouth and said, "I told you that metaphysics was not my forte. Still, I think it is an acceptable demonstration."
  200.  
  201. "Yes.... But Doc, suppose all of those observers are wrong? For example, suppose there are many worlds and many realities, not just one? Suppose this is simply one arbitrary existence out of an infinity of existences? Or suppose that the nature of reality itself is capable of change, and that somehow I am able to perceive that change?"
  202.  
  203. Sampson sighed, found a little green bat fluttering inside his jacket and absentmindedly crushed it with a ruler.
  204.  
  205. "There you are," he said. "I can't disprove a single one of your suppositions. I think, Tom, that we had better run through the entire dream."
  206.  
  207. Lanigan grimaced. "I really would rather not. I have a feeling.... "
  208.  
  209. "I know you do," Sampson said, smiling faintly. "But this will prove or disprove it once and for all, won't it?"
  210.  
  211. "I guess so," Lanigan said. He took courage -- unwisely -- and said, "Well, the way it begins, the way my dream starts --"
  212.  
  213. Even as he spoke the horror came over him. He felt dizzy, sick, terrified. He tried to rise from the couch. The doctor's face ballooned over him. He saw a glint of metal, heard Sampson saying, "Just try to relax ... brief seizure ... try to think of something pleasant."
  214.  
  215. Then either Lanigan or the world or both passed out.
  216.  
  217. Lanigan and/or the world came back to consciousness. Time mayor may not have passed. Anything might or might not have happened. Lanigan sat up and looked at Sampson.
  218.  
  219. "How do you feel now?" Sampson asked.
  220.  
  221. "I'm all right," Lanigan said. "What happened?"
  222.  
  223. "You had a bad moment. Take it easy for a bit."
  224.  
  225. Lanigan leaned back and tried to calm himself. The doctor was sitting at his desk, writing notes. Lanigan counted to twenty with his eyes closed, then opened them cautiously. Sampson was still writing notes.
  226.  
  227. Lanigan looked around the room, counted the five pictures on the wall, re-counted them, looked at the green carpet, frowned at it, closed his eyes again. This time he counted to fifty.
  228.  
  229. "Well, care to talk about it now?" Sampson asked, shutting a notebook.
  230.  
  231. "No, not just now," Lanigan said. (Five paintings, green carpet.)
  232.  
  233. "Just as you please," the doctor said. "I think that our time is just about up. But if you'd care to lie down in the anteroom --"
  234.  
  235. "No, thanks, I'll go home," Lanigan said.
  236.  
  237. He stood up, walked across the green carpet to the door, looked back at the five paintings and at the doctor, who smiled at him encouragingly. Then Lanigan went through the door and into the anteroom, through the anteroom to the outer door and through that and down the corridor to the stairs and down the stairs to the street.
  238.  
  239. He walked and looked at the trees, on which green leaves moved faintly and predictably in a faint breeze. There was traffic, which moved soberly down one side of the street and up the other. The sky was an unchanging blue, and had obviously been so for quite some time.
  240.  
  241. Dream? He pinched himself. A dream pinch? He did not awaken. He shouted. An imaginary shout? He did not waken.
  242.  
  243. He was in the street of the world of his nightmare.
  244.  
  245. The street at first seemed like any normal city street. There were paving stones, cars, people, buildings, a sky overhead, a sun in the sky. All perfectly normal. Except that nothing was happening.
  246.  
  247. The pavement never once yielded beneath his feet. Over there was the First National City Bank; it had been here yesterday, which was bad enough; but worse it would be there without fail tomorrow, and the day after that, and the year after that. The First National City Bank (Founded 1892) was grotesquely devoid of possibilities. It would never become a tomb, an airplane, the bones of a prehistoric monster. Sullenly it would remain a building of concrete and steel, madly persisting in its fixity until men with tools came and tediously tore it down.
  248.  
  249. Lanigan walked through this petrified world, under a blue sky that oozed a sly white around the edges, teasingly promising something that was never delivered. Traffic moved implacably to the right, people crossed at crossings, clocks were within minutes of agreement.
  250.  
  251. Somewhere between the town lay countryside; but Lanigan knew that the grass did not grow under one's feet; it simply lay still, growing no doubt, but imperceptibly, unusable to the senses. And the mountains were still tall and black, but they were giants stopped in mid-stride. They would never march against a golden (or purple or green) sky.
  252.  
  253. The essence of life, Dr. Sampson had once said, is change. The essence of death is immobility. Even a corpse has a vestige of life about it as long as its flesh rots, as long as maggots still feast on its blind eye and blowflies suck the juice from the burst intestines.
  254.  
  255. Lanigan looked around at the corpse of the world and perceived that it was dead.
  256.  
  257. He screamed. He screamed while people gathered around and looked at him (but didn't do anything or become anything), and then a policeman came as he was supposed to (but the sun didn't change shape once), and then an ambulance came down the invariant street (but without trumpets, minus strumpets, on four wheels instead of a pleasing three or twenty-five) and the ambulance men brought him to a building which was exactly where they expected to find it, and there was a great deal of talk by people who stood untransformed, asking questions in a room with relentlessly white walls.
  258.  
  259. And there was evening and there was morning, and it was the first day.
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