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«Our Lady of Darkness», Fritz Leiber

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It was the TV tower standing way out there so modern-tall on Sutro Crest, its three long legs still deep in fog, that had first gotten him hooked on reality again after his long escape in drunken dream. At the beginning the tower had seemed unbelievably cheap and garish to him, an intrusion worse than the high rises in what had been the most romantic of cities, an obscene embodiment of the blatant world of sales and advertising—even, with its great red and white limbs against blue sky (as now, above the fog), an emblazonment of the American flag in its worst aspects: barberpole stripes; fat, flashy, regimented stars. But then it had begun to impress him against his will with its winking red lights at night—so many of them! he had counted nineteen: thirteen steadies and six winkers—and then it had subtly led his interest to the other distances in the cityscape and also in the real stars so far beyond, and on lucky nights the moon, until he had got passionately interested in all real things again, no matter what. And the process had never stopped; it still kept on. Until Saul had said to him, only the other day, “I don’t know about welcoming in every new reality. You could run into a bad customer.”

“That’s fine talk, coming from a nurse in a psychiatric ward,” Gunnar had said, while Franz had responded instantly, “Taken for granted. Concentration camps. Germs of plague.”

“I don’t mean things like those exactly,” Saul had said. “I guess I mean the sort of things some of my guys run into at the hospital.”

“But those would be hallucinations, projections, archetypes, and so on, wouldn’t they?” Franz had observed, a little wonderingly. “Parts of inner reality, of course.”

“Sometimes I’m not so sure,” Saul had said slowly. “Who’s going to know what’s what if a crazy says he’s just seen a ghost? Inner or outer reality? Who’s to tell then? What do you say, Gunnar, when one of your computers starts giving readouts it shouldn’t?”

“That it’s got overheated,” Gun had answered with conviction. “Remember, my computers are normal people to start out with, not weirdos and psychotics like your guys.”

“Normal—what’s that?” Saul had countered.

Franz had smiled at his two friends who occupied two apartments on the floor between his and Cal’s. Cal had smiled, too, though not so much.

Now he looked out the window again. Just outside it, the six-story drop went down past Cal’s window—a narrow shaft between this building and the next, the flat roof of which was about level with his floor. Just beyond that, framing his view to either side, were the bone-white, rain-stained back walls—mostly windowless—of two high rises that went up and up.

It was a rather narrow slot between them, but through it he could see all of reality he needed to keep in touch. And if he wanted more he could always go up two stories to the roof, which he often did these days and nights.

From this building low on Nob Hill the sea of roofs went down and down, then up and up again, tinying with distance, to the bank of fog now masking the dark green slope of Sutro Crest and the bottom of the tripod TV tower. But in the middle distance a shape like a crouching beast, pale brown in the morning sunlight, rose from the sea of roofs. The map called it just Corona Heights. It had been teasing Franz’s curiosity for several weeks. Now he focused his small seven-power Nikon binoculars on its bare earth slopes and humped spine, which stood out sharply against the white fog. He wondered why it hadn’t been built up. Big cities certainly had some strange intrusions in them. This one was like a raw remnant of upthrust from the earthquake of 1906, he told himself, smiling at the unscientific fancy. Could it be called Corona Heights from the crown of irregularly clumped big rocks on its top, he asked himself, as he rotated the knurled knob a little more, and they came out momentarily sharp and clear against the fog.

A rather thin, pale brown rock detached itself from the others and waved at him. Damn the way these glasses jiggled with his heartbeat! A person who expected to see neat, steady pictures through them just hadn’t used binoculars. Or could it be a floater in his vision, a microscopic speck in the eye’s fluid? No, there he had it again! Just as he’d thought, it was some tall person in a long raincoat or drab robe moving about almost as if dancing. You couldn’t see human figures in any detail at two miles even with sevenfold magnification; you just got a general impression of movements and attitude. They were simplified. This skinny figure on Corona Heights was moving around rather rapidly, all right, maybe dancing with arms waving high, but that was the most you could tell.

As he lowered the binoculars he smiled broadly at the thought of some hippie type greeting the morning sun with ritual prancings on a mid-city hilltop newly emerged from fog. And with chantings too, no doubt, if one could hear—unpleasant wailing ululations like the yelping siren he heard now in the distance, the sort that was frantic-making when heard too close. Someone from the Haight-Ashbury, likely, it was out that way. A stoned priest of a modern sun god dancing around an accidental high-set Stonehenge. The thing had given him a start, at first, but now he found it very amusing.

A sudden wind blew in. Should he shut the window? No, for now the air was quiet again. It had just been a freakish gust.

He set down the binoculars on his desk beside two thin old books. The topmost, bound in dirty gray, was open at its title page, which read in a utilitarian typeface and layout marking it as last century’s—a grimy job by a grimy printer with no thought of artistry: Megapolisomancy: A New Science of Cities, by Thibaut de Castries. Now that was a funny coincidence! He wondered if a drug-crazed priest in earthen robes—or a dancing rock, for that matter!—would have been recognized by that strange old crackpot Thibaut as one of the “secret occurrences” he had predicted for big cities in the solemnly straight-faced book he’d written back in the 1890s. Franz told himself that he must read some more in it, and in the other book, too.

But not right now, he told himself suddenly, looking back at the coffee table where there reposed, on top of a large and heavy manila envelope already stamped and addressed to his New York agent, the typed manuscript of his newest novelization—Weird Underground #7: Towers of Treason—all ready to go except for one final descriptive touch he’d hankered to check on and put in; he liked to give his readers their money’s worth, even though this series was the flimsiest of escape reading, secondary creativity on his part at best.

But this time, he told himself, he’d send the novelization off without the final touch and declare today a holiday—he was beginning to get an idea of what he wanted to do with it. With only a flicker of guilt at the thought of cheating his readers of a trifle, he got dressed and made himself a cup of coffee to carry down to Cal’s, and as afterthoughts the two thin old books under his arm (he wanted to show them to Cal) and the binoculars in his jacket pocket—just in case he was tempted to check up again on Corona Heights and its freaky rock god.

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