The Illustrated Man. Ray Bradbury

“Stop!” shouted Mark.

The boulder vanished. Mark was there.

Saul suspended his knife. The fire played on his cheeks. His eyes were quite insane.

“It didn’t work,” he whispered. He reached down and put his hands on Mark’s throat and closed his fingers. Mark said nothing, but moved uneasily in the grip, his eyes ironic, telling things to Saul that Saul knew.

If you kill me, the eyes said, where will all your dreams be?

If you kill me, where will all the streams and brook trout be?

Kill me, kill Plato, kill Aristotle, kill Einstein; yes, kill all of us!

Go ahead, strangle me. I dare you.

Saul’s fingers released the throat.

Shadows moved into the cave mouth.

Both men turned their heads.

The other men were there. Five of them, haggard with travel, panting, waiting in the outer rim of light.

“Good evening,” called Mark, laughing. “Come in, come in, gentlemen!”

By dawn the arguments and ferocities still continued. Mark sat among the glaring men, rubbing his wrists, newly released from his bonds. He created a mahogany-paneled conference hall and a marble table at which they all sat, ridiculously bearded, evil-smelling, sweating and greedy men, eyes bent upon their treasure.

“The way to settle it,” said Mark at last “is for each of you to have certain hours of certain days for appointments with me. I’ll treat you all equally. I’ll be city property, free to come and go. That’s fair enough. As for Saul here, he’s on probation. When he’s proved he can be a civil person once more, I’ll give him a treatment or two. Until that time, I’ll have nothing more to do with him.”

The other exiles grinned at Saul.

“I’m sorry,” Saul said. “I didn’t know what I was doing. I’m all right now.”

“We’ll see,” said Mark. “Let’s give ourselves a month, shall we?”

The other men grinned at Saul.

Saul said nothing. He sat staring at the floor of the cave.

“Let’s see now,” said Mark. “On Mondays it’s your day, Smith.”

Smith nodded.

“On Tuesdays I’ll take Peter there, for an hour or so.

Peter nodded.

“On Wednesdays I’ll finish up with Johnson, Holtzman, and Jim, here.”

The last three men looked at each other.

“The rest of the week I’m to be left strictly alone, do you hear?” Mark told them. “A little should be better than nothing. If you don’t obey, I won’t perform at all.”

“Maybe we’llmake you perform,” said Johnson. He caught the other men’s eye. “Look, we’re five against his one. We can make him do anything we want. If we co-operate, we’ve got a great thing here.”

“Don’t be idiots,” Mark warned the other men.

“Let me talk,” said Johnson. “He’s telling us what he’ll do. Why don’t we tellhim! Are we bigger than him, or not? And him threatening not to perform! Well, just let me get a sliver of wood under his toenails and maybe burn his fingers a bit with a steel file, and we’ll see if he performs! Why shouldn’t we have performances, I want to know, every night in the week?”

“Don’t listen to him!” said Mark. “He’s crazy. He can’t be depended on. You know what he’ll do, don’t you? He’ll get you all off guard, one by one, and kill you; yes, kill all of you, so that when he’s done, he’ll be alone—just him and me! That’s his sort.”

The listening men blinked. First at Mark, then at Johnson.

“For that matter,” observed Mark, “none of you can trust the others. This is a fool’s conference. The minute your back is turned one of the other men will murder you. I dare say, at the week’s end, you’ll all be dead or dying.”

A cold wind blew into the mahogany room. It began to dissolve and became a cave once more. Mark was tired of his joke. The marble table splashed and rained and evaporated.

The men gazed suspiciously at each other with little bright animal eyes. What was spoken was true. They saw each other in the days to come, surprising one another, killing—until that last lucky one remained to enjoy the intellectual treasure that walked among them.

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