Read Long After Midnight Online

Authors: Ray Bradbury

Long After Midnight (2 page)

 
          
Under
the cool double moons of Mars the
midnight
cities were bone and dust. Along the
scattered highway the
landcar
bumped and rattled,
past cities where the fountains, the gyrostats, the furniture, the
metal-singing books, the paintings lay powdered over with mortar and insect
wings. Past cities that were cities no longer, but only things rubbed to a fine
silt that flowered senselessly back and forth on the wine winds between one
land and another, like the sand in a gigantic hourglass, endlessly pyramiding
and
repyramiding
. Silence opened to let the car pass,
and closed swiftly in behind.

 
          
Craig
said, "We'll never find him. These damned roads. So old. Potholes, lumps,
everything wrong. He's got the advantage with the cycle; he can dodge and
weave. Damn!"

 
          
They
swerved abruptly, avoiding a bad stretch. The car moved over the old highway
like an eraser, coming upon blind soil, passing over it, dusting it away to
reveal the emerald and gold color of ancient Martian mosaics worked into the
road surface.

 
          
"Wait,"
cried Beck. He throttled the car down. "I saw something back there."

 
          
"Where?"

 
          
They
drove back a hundred yards.

 
          
"There.
You see. It's
him."

 
          
In
a ditch by the side of the road the plump man lay folded over his cycle. He did
not move. His eyes were wide, and when Beck flashed a torch down, the eyes
burned dully.

 
          
"Where's
the bottle?" asked Craig.

 
          
Beck
jumped into the ditch and picked up the man's gun. "I don't know.
Gone."

 
          
"What
killed him?"

 
          
"I
don't know that either."

 
          
"The
cycle looks okay. Not an accident."

 
          
Beck
rolled the body over. "No wounds. Looks like he just—stopped, of his own
accord."

 
          
"Heart
attack, maybe," said Craig. "Excited over the bottle. He gets down
here to hide. Thought he'd be all right, but the attack finished him."

 
          
"That
doesn't account for the Blue Bottle."

 
          
"Someone
came along. Lord, you know how many searchers there are. . . ."

 
          
They
scanned the darkness around them. Far off, in the starred blackness, on the
blue hills, they saw a dim movement.

 
          
"Up
there." Beck pointed. "Three men on foot."

 
          
"They
must have ..."

 
          
"My
God, look!"

 
          
Below
them, in the ditch, the figure of the plump man glowed, began to melt. The eyes
took on the aspect of moonstones under a sudden rush of water. The face began
to dissolve away into fire. The hair resembled small firecracker strings, lit
and sputtering. The body fumed as they watched. The fingers jerked with flame.
Then, as if a gigantic hammer had struck a glass statue, the body cracked
upward and was gone in a blaze of pink shards, becoming mist as the night
breeze carried it across the highway.

 
          
"They
must have—
done
something to
him," said Craig. "Those three, with a new kind of weapon."

 
          
"But
it's happened before," said Beck. "Men I knew about who had the Blue
Bottle. They vanished. And the bottle passed on to others who vanished."
He shook his head. "Looked like a million fireflies when he broke apart.
.. ."

 
          
"You
going after them?"

 
          
Beck
returned to the car. He judged the desert mounds, the hills of bone-silt and
silence. "It'll be a tough job, but I think I can poke the car through
after them. I
have
to, now." He
paused, not speaking to Craig. "I think I know what's in the Blue Bottle.
. . . Finally, I realize that what I want most of all is in there. Waiting for
me."

 
          
"I'm
not going," said Craig, coming up to the car where Beck sat in the dark,
his hands on his knees. "I'm not going out there with you, chasing three
armed men. I just want to live, Beck. That bottle means nothing to me. I won't
risk my skin for it. But I'll wish you luck."

 
          
"Thanks,"
said Beck. And he drove away, into the dunes.

 
          
The
night was as cool as water coming over the glass hood of the
landcar
.

 
          
Beck
throttled hard over dead river washes and spills of chalked pebble, driving
between great cliffs. Ribbons of double moonlight painted the bas-reliefs of
gods and animals on the cliff sides all yellow gold: mile-high faces upon which
Martian histories were etched and stamped in symbols, incredible faces with
open cave eyes and gaping cave mouths.

 
          
The
motor's roar dislodged rocks, boulders. In a whole rushing downpour of stone,
golden segments of ancient cliff sculpture slid out of the moons' rays at the
top of the cliff and vanished into blue cool-well darkness.

 
          
In
the roar, as he drove, Beck cast his mind back—to all the nights in the last
ten years, nights when he had built red fires on the sea bottoms, and cooked
slow, thoughtful meals. And dreamed. Always those dreams of
wanting.
And not knowing what. Ever
since he was a young man, the hard life on Earth, the great panic of 2130, the
starvation, chaos, riot, want. Then bucking through the planets, the womanless,
loveless years, the alone years. You come out of the dark into the light, out
of the womb into the world, and what do you find that you really want?

 
          
What
about that dead man back there in the ditch? Wasn't he always looking for
something extra? Something he didn't have. What
was
there for men like himself? Or for anyone? Was there anything
at all to look forward to?

 
          
The
Blue Bottle.

 
          
He
quickly braked the car, leaped out, gun ready. He ran, crouching, into the
dunes. Ahead of him, the three men lay on the cold sand, neatly. They were
Earthmen, with tan faces and rough clothes and gnarled hands. Starlight shone
on the Blue Bottle, which lay among them.

 
          
As
Beck watched, the bodies began to melt. They vanished away into rises of steam,
into dewdrops and crystals. In a moment they were gone.

 
          
Beck
felt the coldness in his body as the flakes rained across his eyes, flicking
his lips and his cheeks.

 
          
He
did not move.

 
          
The
plump man. Dead and vanishing. Craig's voice: "Some new weapon . . ."

 
          
No.
Not a weapon at all.

 
          
The
Blue Bottle.

 
          
They
had opened it to find what they most desired. All of the unhappy, desiring men
down the long lonely years had opened it to find what they most wanted in the
planets of the universe. And all had found it, even as had these three. Now it
could be understood, why the bottle passed on so swiftly, from one to another,
and the men vanishing behind it. Harvest chaff fluttering on the sand, along
the dead sea rims. Turning to flame and fireflies. To mist.

 
          
Beck
picked up the bottle and held it away from himself for a long moment. His eyes
shone clearly. His hands trembled.

 
          
So
this is what I've been looking for, he thought. He turned the bottle and it
flashed blue starlight.

 
          
So
this is what all men
really
want? The
secret desire, deep inside, hidden all away where we never guess? The
subliminal urge? So this is what each man seeks, through some private guilt, to
find?

 
          
Death.

 
          
An
end to doubt, to torture, to monotony, to want, to loneliness, to fear, an end
to everything.

 
          
All
men?

 
          
No.
Not Craig. Craig was, perhaps, far luckier. A few men were like animals in the
universe, not questioning, drinking at pools and breeding and raising their
young and not doubting for a moment that life was anything but good. That was
Craig. There were a handful like him. Happy animals on a great reservation, in
the hand of God, with a religion and a faith that grew like a set of special
nerves in them. The un-neurotic men in the midst of the
billionfold
neurotics.

 
          
They
would only want death, later, in a natural manner. Not now. Later.

 
          
Beck
raised the bottle. How simple, he thought, and how right. This is what I've
always wanted. And nothing else.

 
          
Nothing.

 
          
The
bottle was open and blue in the starlight. Beck took an immense draught of the
air coming from the Blue Bottle, deep into his lungs.

 
          
I
have it at last, he thought.

 
          
He
relaxed. He felt his body become wonderfully cool and then wonderfully warm. He
knew he was dropping down a long slide of stars into a darkness as delightful
as wine. He was swimming in blue wine and white wine and red wine. There were
candles in his chest, and fire wheels spinning. He felt his hands leave him. He
felt his legs fly away, amusingly. He laughed. He shut his eyes and laughed.

 
          
He
was very happy for the first time in his life.

 
          
The
Blue Bottle dropped onto the cool sand.

 
          
At
dawn, Craig walked along, whistling. He saw the bottle lying in the first pink
light of the sun on the empty white sand. As he picked it up, there was a fiery
whisper. A number of orange and red-purple fireflies blinked on the air, and
passed on away.

 
          
The
place was very still.

 
          
'
Til
be damned." He glanced toward the dead windows of
a nearby city. "Hey, Beck!"

 
          
A
slender tower collapsed into powder.

 
          
"Beck,
here's your treasure! I don't want it. Come and get it!"

 
          
"...
and get it," said an echo, and the last tower fell.

 
          
Craig
waited.

 
          
"That's
rich," he said. "The bottle right here, and old Beck not even around
to take it." He shook the blue container.

 
          
It
gurgled.

 
          
"Yes,
sir! Just the way it was before. Full of bourbon, by God!" He opened it,
drank, wiped his mouth.

 
          
He
held the bottle carelessly.

 
          
"All
that trouble for a little bourbon. I'll wait right here for
old
Beck and give him his damn bottle.
Meanwhile—have another drink, Mr. Craig. Don't mind if I do."

 
          
The
only sound in the dead land was the sound of liquid running into a parched
throat. The Blue Bottle flashed in the sun.

 
          
Craig
smiled happily and drank again.

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