The Illustrated Man. Ray Bradbury

“We’ll have to tell Mr. Dickens now,” said Mr. Poe. “We’ve put it off too long. It’s a matter of hours. Will you go down to his home with me, Bierce?”

Bierce glanced up merrily. “I’ve just been thinking—what’ll happen to us?”

“If we can’t kill the rocket men off, frighten them away, then we’ll have to leave, of course. We’ll go on to Jupiter, and when they come to Jupiter, we’ll go on to Saturn, and when they come to Saturn, we’ll go to Uranus, or Neptune, and then on out to Pluto——”

“Where then?”

Mr. Poe’s face was weary; there were fire coals remaining, fading, in his eyes, and a sad wildness in the way he talked, and a uselessness of his hands and the way his hair fell lankly over his amazing white brow. He was like a satan of some lost dark cause, a general arrived from a derelict invasion. His silky, soft, black mustache was worn away by his musing lips. He was so small his brow seemed to float, vast and phosphorescent, by itself, in the dark room.

“We have the advantages of superior forms of travel,” he said. “We can always hope for one of their atomic wars, dissolution, the dark ages come again. The return of superstition. We could go back then to Earth, all of us, in one night.” Mr. Poe’s black eyes brooded under his round and luminant brow. He gazed at the ceiling. “So they’re coming to ruinthis world too? They won’t leaveanything undefiled, will they?”

“Does a wolf pack stop until it’s killed its prey and eaten the guts? It should be quite a war. I shall sit on the side lines and be the scorekeeper. So many Earthmen boiled in oil, so many Mss. Found in Bottles burnt, so many Earthmen stabbed with needles, so many Red Deaths put to flight by a battery of hypodermic syringes—ha!”

Poe swayed angrily, faintly drunk with wine. “What did we do? Bewith us, Bierce, in the name of God! Did we have a fair trial before a company of literary critics? No! Our books were plucked up by neat, sterile, surgeon’s pliers, and flung into vats, to boil, to be killed of all their mortuary germs. Damn them all!”

“I find our situation amusing,” said Bierce.

They were interrupted by a hysterical shout from the tower stair.

“Mr. Poe! Mr. Bierce!”

“Yes, yes, we’re coming!” Poe and Bierce descended to find a man gasping against the stone passage wall.

“Have you heard the news?” he cried immediately, clawing at them like a man about to fall over a cliff. “In an hour they’ll land! They’re bringing books with them—oldbooks, the witches said! What’re you doing in the tower at a time like this? Why aren’t you acting?”

Poe said: “We’re doing everything we can, Blackwood. You’re new to all this. Come along, we’re going to Mr. Charles Dickens’ place——”

“—to contemplate our doom, our black doom,” said Mr. Bierce, with a wink.

They moved down the echoing throats of the castle, level after dim green level, down into mustiness and decay and spiders and dreamlike webbing. “Don’t worry,” said Poe, his brow like a huge white lamp before them, descending, sinking. “All along the dead sea tonight I’ve called the others. Your friends and mine, Blackwood—Bierce. They’re all there. The animals and the old women and the tall men with the sharp white teeth. The traps are waiting; the pits, yes, and the pendulums. The Red Death.” Here he laughed quietly. “Yes, even the Red Death. I never thought—no, I never thought the time would come when a thing like the Red Death would actually be. Butthey asked for it, and they shall have it!”

“But are we strong enough?” wondered Blackwood.

“How strong is strong? They won’t be prepared for us, at least. They haven’t the imagination. Those clean young rocket men with their antiseptic bloomers and fish-bowl helmets, with their new religion. About their necks, on gold chains, scalpels. Upon their heads, a diadem of microscopes. In their holy fingers, steaming incense urns which in reality are only germicidal ovens for steaming out superstition. The names of Poe, Bierce, Hawthorne, Blackwood—blasphemy to their clean lips.”

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