Suddenly he was afraid of glass.
It came upon him in the elevator without any warning, a vestigial memory perhaps, or the recollection of something he had read many years ago, a line in an old chronicle: the fear of glass. The entire building was sheathed in glass (an example of the architectural idealism that inspired the Palace of InterCos) so that men outside could at all times look in, and men inside could at all times look out. From the outside you could see men and women of all races working together for the good of humanity; from the inside you could look out at the world and its people, at the sky and its stars. And in the past he had felt pleasure at working inside this glass sheath, this immense dedicated structure, for glass--held tightly in its place--was a noble material. It was functional and beautiful. It was physically and spiritually hygienic.
But glass could cease to be noble, cease to be conventionally functional, glass could go mad, glass could go whirling through the air like the instrument of an executioner, slashing the flesh open, amputating arms and legs, gouging out an eye, it could slice like a beheading ax, it could drive in slivers through the body like a shower of spears. It was too brittle, it was too irresponsible, it was too murderous at certain moments in history, and he wanted to get away from it. He felt as if he were in a glass-enclosed vacuum which might implode upon him without warning, all sixty stories shattering like a monstrous cathode-ray tube, tearing and slashing and leaving only some gruesome little fragment of himself still alive still quivering.
The fear was very real. He could do nothing to quell it. As the elevator descended in the glass shaft he was trembling slightly. When the glass doors slid open on the ground floor he hesitated before he stepped out. In order to reach the North exit where his car was parked he had to walk through a long corridor--a glass corridor. The walls on either side were immense undivided panes, thirty feet high, a hundred and fifty feet long; and in a strong wind you could see these walls flexing, the surfaces would bulge and waver, shining with the most delicate iridescent colors. They had been donated by the Pan-Arabian Federation four years ago, when the building was being erected; and in one corner of one wall an inscription had been etched:
For the Palace of InterCos from the People of Arabia Through the Sands of our Desert Behold the Sands of Our Universe June 2016
He began to walk from the elevator to the eastern exit, ashamed of his fear and this unprecedented lack of control. He found that his lungs were tight, his arms were stiff, his skin had become rough and cold and painfully sensitive; there was a momentary time lag in all his movements--he could feel (for the first time in his life) the motor centers in his brain ordering his legs to go forward and the fractional reluctance of his legs to obey the commands. Damned glass everywhere, a harsh voice inside him kept crying: Damned glass, damned glass, and another voice said uneasily in response, Don't be such a fool, nothing's going to happen, nothing. The harsh voice, though, was more influential: he was wildly conscious of those gleaming Arabian walls, he was waiting every instant for the sound of their shattering and the terrible downpour of splinters, and he could smell the sweat of fear under his armpits. Glass. He forced himself as he walked, to look through the interior wall on his right, at the secretarial offices; and he saw without any surprise that they were brightly lit but empty. This morning they had been filled with girls, puzzled and apprehensive but busy, at work. Now: empty. He walked on a few yards and forced himself to look out, through the exterior wall on his left; and he saw that the Grand Plaza was empty too, except for a handful of people who stood far back (away from the glass) staring vacantly at the transparent building. Usually there were thousands of people out there gaping at the fountains, at the statues, at the replicas of famous rockets, at all the brilliant pageantry of InterCos. The flags were still flying, he noticed, the fountains were playing their interminable quadrille; the floodlights had already been turned on, as they always were, half an hour before sunset; the massive centerpiece of the Grand Plaza, the Ad Astra, still soared magnificently, an overpowering silhouette against the darkening sky; and it was all exactly as he had seen it innumerable times before--the most beautiful, the most dramatic vista built by the hands of man, only empty. Lifeless. Deserted. Humanity had abandoned it, leaving just this handful of people to watch beyond the range of falling glass. To watch for what? he asked himself savagely. What do they expect?
He was halfway to the exit now. Hurry, the harsh voice cried inside him: Damned glass. Hurry. He tried not to hurry. He tried to walk slowly, with dignity, as became a member of the United States Delegation in InterCos. Ahead of him he saw that the guards had gathered together in the foyer, and it was somehow important to give them the impression that he was in full command of himself, today was no different from yesterday or the day before. The guards were standing well back, as far as possible from the glass walls of the Arabian corridor and the glass doors of the exit; they were huddled like cattle in a rainstorm. They felt the same fear, he realized; probably the entire human race felt the same fear. Glass! A new phobia, acquired in a few hours. Look down from your shining tower, O Lords of InterCos, and see what has happened to your people! Glass!
The walls of the foyer were marble, white with superb black veining, as lofty, as impressive as the Arabian glass walls, but infinitely less lethal. The guards watched in silence as he approached, their faces pale and inquisitive, and he knew that they clearly recognized his fear (as he had recognized theirs): they could see fear in the unnaturally jaunty steps he took, in the stiffly held body, the irregular echo of his progress; and again he was angry and ashamed, as if his manhood had turned rotten in public view. The coward inside his brain was hurrying, hurrying to reach the safety of those marble walls; and he was unable to control or even argue with the coward, the harsh driving voice. Hurry! The glass avalanche might crash down this instant! Hurry! Another few yards, another few yards; and he was there. He was momentarily safe.
The guards were staring at him, as if he had walked unscratched through the eye of a mysterious catastrophe--a cavern of burning ice, or a silent and invisible tornado. They were tall men, very handsome in their InterCos uniforms, blue, gold buttons, gold helmet, white buckskin boots. He had no wish to speak to them, and there was no need today to sign the Delegation book. As he came abreast of them he steadied himself, said briefly, "Good night," and turned to go through the doors.
He turned again, irritably. "Yes?" The man who spoke was a big Irishman named Luxley.
"Are you leaving then, Mr. Harrison?"
"God Almighty, sir, you won't get far."
"Every street in the city is blocked, sir. It's a madhouse out there."
"I know," he said. "I saw the newscast a few minutes ago."
Another guard said, "It's chaos, Mr. Harrison. Inconceivable chaos." He was a Russian.
"You'd be better off to stay here the night," Luxley said. "Believe me, sir. Besides which--" He looked out at the Grand Plaza and up at the sky. "We've waited the full two hours. It's time for another packet of the things."
"They come every two hours," a Chinese guard said somberly.
"Devils," the Irishman said. "Mr. Harrison, are they devils up there or not, sending those things at us?"
"Aggressors," the Russian said. "We should have no mercy on them. Not an ounce of mercy."
"Glass is the worst thing," a West Indian guard said. "Did you hear what happened on Madison Avenue, Mr. Harrison?"
"Nine young girls," Luxley said vehemently. "God help us, nine young girls, cut to ribbons--are you going, sir?"
They all wanted to talk, pointlessly, passionately, pouring out words to relieve their anxieties. He recalled what his brother Mark had said last night: The human race has not experienced bombardment for eighty years. We don't know how people will take it. This was how they took it. A sudden wild phobia (glass) and a babble of words. He had no wish to listen, and he repeated "Good night," and went to the door.
"What is happening in the Council of Ministers?" the West Indian guard asked quickly.
"What is Dr. Werner doing?" the Russian demanded; and the Chinese asked, "What is the Lord Hsuen doing?"
He shook his head regretfully and walked out. Those are good questions, he said to himself as the doors revolved. Those are exceedingly good questions, what is Dr. Werner doing, what is the Lord Hsuen doing, what is happening in the Council of Ministers. Unfortunately, I cannot give, I do not know the answers. Probably they are as frightened as everybody else, possibly they are just sitting and staring at the glass walls and the glass dome of the Council Chamber, wondering when the avalanche will descend on them, waiting for the roar of the vacuum imploding...
The evening air was cool. The sun had already set and a pale-red glow remained on the horizon, far to the west, over the flatlands of New Jersey. He could smell the strange new odor that had come to the city--the stench of the green metallic fungus on the Hudson; it was stronger now than it had been in the morning or at midday. There had been bulletins about the stuff every few minutes in all the Delegation offices, detailing its rapid spread. Here it had not yet reached either shore, but in the Pool of London and on the Seine it was in contact with land, burning its way like acid through anything it touched. "We are facing a new technology," Dr. Werner had said at one of the afternoon conferences. "A new and unusual and in some ways alarming technology. But, gentlemen, I urge you not to lose heart. Everything in our power is being done, and if we remain calm, if we approach the problems judiciously, with confidence, we can be sure that..."
Words, he had thought even at the time. The words of desperation. Now, smelling the fungus on the evening air, he thought again, angrily and contemptuously, Words.
He walked a few steps and paused to look back at the Palace of InterCos. It was fantastically beautiful. From here the glass lost most of its menace, it was no longer colorless, brittle, on the point of disintegrating. He could not imagine this lovely structure changed in any way. There was softness and depth in the glass, reflections of the night sky--dark blues and greens, purple and the glowing red of the horizon; there were patterns of dancing light sparkling up from the floodlit fountains and warmer color reflected from the flags in the Grand Plaza. "Our jewel box, truly," Dr. Werner had once said of it: "Holding man's wildest and most exciting dreams."
He turned to walk on. Luxley, the Irish guard, called to him and came running over, breathing heavily.
"Mr. Harrison," he said, "by God--excuse the profanity, sir--you're right. I'd rather die out here in the open than back there like a cat in a sack." He took off his gold helmet and rubbed his hair with the palm of his hand. "Faugh," he said. "Do you smell the stink of that copper algae? Algae--is that the name for it?"
"I guess that's as good a name as any."
"It's horrible stuff. I'll walk you to your car and keep you company, sir."
"It's one of those Iranian cars, isn't it? Lovely little jobs they are, all covered with that fancy engraving."
"So I thought," Luxley said. He was nervous, breathless, but apparently determined to show that he had courage too. He laughed and said, "It's a pleasure to stretch your legs, isn't that a fact?"
They had gone only a few yards when the earth began to shake. They stopped, frozen, counting the thuds, feeling the explosions through their feet and their knees, up through their bellies and their lungs, eyes, brains. Nine thuds. Nine reverberations.
"Nine," the Irishman said weakly. "Did you count them?"
"Thank the Lord, they were way off. In the Bronx, I reckon, or Harlem. No damage done."
"No damage done here."
"A good way off," Luxley repeated, and began to laugh. "And what do you think of that? They're keeping it up. The ninth bloody salvo, the devils, and they send over nine bloody bombs. It proves they can count."