[You didn't imagine it. Try to think of life as a kind of building, Ralph -- what you would call a skyscraper.]
Except that wasn't quite what Clotho was thinking of, Ralph discovered. For one flickering moment he seemed to catch an image from the mind of the other, one he found both exciting and disturbing: an enormous tower constructed of dark and sooty stone, standing in a field of red roses. Slit windows twisted up its sides in a brooding spiral.
Then it was gone.
[You and Lois and all the other Short-Time creatures live on the first two floors of this structure. Of course there are elevators--]
No, Ralph thought. Not in the tower I saw in your mind, my little friend. In that building -- if such a building actually exists -- there are no elevators, only a narrow staircase festooned with cobwebs and doorways leading to God knows what.
Ralph favored him with a bright, bitter smile.
["There goes freedom of choice, I guess."]
Lachesis: [You mustn't think so! It's simply that what you call freedom of choice is part of what we call ka, the great wheel of being.]
Lachesis: [There is no such thing as natural death, not really. Our job is purposeful death. We take the old and the sick, but we take others, as well. Just yesterday, for instance, we took a young man of twenty-eight. A carpenter. Two Short-Time weeks ago, he fell from a scaffold and fractured his skull. During those two weeks his aura was]
Ralph got a fractured image of a thunderstruck aura like the one which had surrounded the baby in the elevator.
Clotho: [At last the change came -- the turning of the aura. We knew it would come, but not when it would come. When it did, we went to him and sent him on.]
["Sent him on to where?"]
It was Lois who asked the question, broaching the touchy subject of the afterlife almost by accident. Ralph grabbed for his mental safety belt, almost hoping for one of those peculiar blanks, but when their overlapped answers came, they were perfectly clear.
Clotho: [To everywhere.]
Lachesis: [To other worlds than these.]
Lachesis: [It's the north side of the Civic Center that Deepneau's plane will strike. This little boy will be killed instantly if steps are not taken to prevent it ... and that can't be allowed to happen. This boy must not die before his scheduled time.]
Clotho: [Listen, then. Every now and again a man or woman comes along whose life will affect not just those about him or her, or even all those who live in the Short-Time world. These people are the Great Ones, and their lives always serve the Purpose. If they are taken too soon, everything changes. The scales cease to balance. Can you imagine, for instance, how different the world might be today if Hitler had drowned in the bathtub as a child? You may believe the world would be better for that, but I can tell you that the world would not exist at all if it had happened. Suppose Winston Churchill had died of food-poisoning before he ever became Prime Minister? Suppose Augustus Caesar had been born dead, strangled on his own umbilical cord? Yet the person we want you to save is of far greater importance than any of these.]
He was an amazingly competent artist already, only four years old or not ("My little genius," Sonia sometimes called him), and his picture was much better than the color-it-in poster on the other side of the sheet. What he had managed before the lights went out was work a gifted first-year art student might have been proud of. In the middle of the poster-sheet, a tower of dark, soot-colored stone rose into a field of roses so red they almost seemed to clamor aloud. Standing off to one side was a man dressed in faded bluejeans. A pair of gunbelts crossed his flat middle; a holster hung below each hip. At the very top of the tower, a man in a red robe was looking down at the gunfighter with an expression of mingled hate and fear. His hands, which were curled over the parapet, also appeared to be red.
Sonia had been mesmerized by the presence of Susan Day, who was sitting behind the lectern and listening to her introduction, but she had happened to glance down at her son's picture just before the introduction ended. She had known for two ears that Patrick was what the child psychologists called a prodigy, and she sometimes told herself she had gotten used to his sophisticated drawings and the Play-Dough sculptures he called the Clay Family. Perhaps she even had, to some degree, but this particular picture gave her a strange, deep chill that she could not entirely dismiss as emotional fallout from her long and stressful day.
"Who's that?" she asked, tapping the tiny figure peering jealously down from the top of the dark tower.
"Him's the Red King," Patrick said.
"Oh, the Red King, I see. And who's this man with the guns?"
As he opened his mouth to answer, Roberta Harper, the woman at the podium, lifter her arm (there was a black mourning band on it) toward the woman sitting behind her. "My friends, Ms. Susan Day!" she cried, and Patrick Danville's answer to his mother's second question was lost in the rising storm of applause:
Him's name is Roland, Mama. I dream about him, sometimes. Him's a King, too.
They emerged at last into the corridor. A few deeply shocked people wandered back and forth, eyes dazed and mouths agape, like zombies in a horror movie. Sonia hardly glanced at them, just got Pat moving toward the stairs. Three minutes later they exited into the fireshot night perfectly unscathed, and upon all the levels of the universe, matter both Random and Purposeful resumed their ordained courses. Worlds which had trembled for a moment in their orbits now steadied, and in one of those worlds, in a desert that was the apotheosis of all deserts, a man named Roland turned over in his bedroll and slept easily once again beneath the alien constellations.