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The dream memory of Doc had bothered him before, but this time even the warmth of the sun had failed to quiet it, though his nose reported no trace of a human odor now.
 
     
 
King's tail grew limp as he crouched to the floor, inching his way forward, his whine barely audible.
 
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The Keepers of the House
by Lester Del Rey

The Keepers of the House

By Lester Del Rey

Outwardly, there was nothing about the morning to set it apart from thousands of other such mornings the dog had smelled. Yet his great, gaunt body shifted nervously on the rocky shelf over the river, and his short hackles lifted slightly as the skin on his neck tautened. He raised his head, sniffing the wind that blew from the land, and his ears searched for wrongness in the sounds that reached him. Once he whined.

The feeling left from the dream was still troubling him. He had bedded down in a dry shelter back from the water. After he had scraped away the ancient, dried bones of rabbits, it had seemed like a good place. But sleep had been too busy, full of running and of tantalizing smells. And finally, just when he was tearing at something with an almost forgotten flavor, the warm scent in his nostrils had changed to another, and a voice had pierced his ears. He had snapped awake, shivering, with the name still ringing in his head.

"King!"

The dream memory of Doc had bothered him before, but this time even the warmth of the sun had failed to quiet it, though his nose reported no trace of a human odor now. There was something about this territory …

Abruptly, a motion in the water caught his attention. He edged forward, rising to his feet, while his eyes tracked the big fish. Overhead, a bird must have seen the same prey, since it began dropping. King growled faintly and plunged down into the unpleasant chill of the water. Necessity and decades of near starvation had taught him perfect form in this unnatural act. A moment later, he was heading for shore with the fish clamped between his jaws.

He found a hollowed spot of dry sand, shook the water out of his short fur, and began tearing at the fish. It was a flavorless breakfast, far inferior to the big salmon that were so easy to catch along the northwestern rivers, but it filled him well enough.

The wind was growing stronger, reminding him of the cold that was creeping down from the north as it seemed to do at regular intervals. Each year, the cold drove him south and the warmth followed to let him move back again. Usually he took the same trail from river to river, but this time—as in a few other restless years—something had driven him to seek a new way, risking the long runs through the foodless wastelands, from river to river, looking for some end he never found.

He pawed out a stubborn bone from between his teeth and got to his feet again, the double drive overcoming the wish to rest in the warmth of the sun. Beyond the shelter of the dunes along the river, the wind was sharper and colder, tossing bits of dry sticks and rubble ahead of it.

He had no idea why he was heading inland, except that it seemed somehow right, until the damp odors on the wind told him that the river must bend in the direction he was heading. By then, he was out of sight of the water and the plants, birds, and insects that lived along it. He settled into a steady lope as he came to what had once been a raised roadway. The banked surface was comparatively free of sand, making the going easier.

The road swept past what must have once been heavily wooded land, and King sniffed the familiar odor of rotted logs. A few trees were still standing, dead and girdled to a height above his head, but there was no life there. The sand and dust drifted into piles and shifted before the wind, covering and uncovering the ever-present broken rabbit bones, scouring at them and the standing trunks as if to eliminate even this final evidence that there had been life. In some sections, a few trees and plants had survived and were spreading, but the great dust-bowl area here was barren. Except for the wind and the padding of King's feet, there was no sound.

Once the road ran among the wrecks of close-packed houses, and King's hackles lifted again, his nose twitching uneasily. It had been twenty years since he had bothered to investigate a house, but this morning his mind kept prickling with strange sensations. He hesitated at a couple of the rust-crumpled cars; the larger one held crumpled bones that almost meant something to him. Then he left the dead town behind, heading for the strengthening smell of the river.

Ten minutes later, he was staring out at a long concrete bridge that spanned the current. Beyond it lay the city.

The wind was colder now, driving along before a dull grayness that threatened a storm. Below King, the water stretched out, heading toward the south and safety for the winter. He moved uncertainly away from the bridge, then dropped to his haunches, his tongue rolling out doubtfully as he stared at the bridge and the city beyond. Something was wrong in his head. He scratched at his ear, turned to bite at the root of his tail, and still hesitated.

Finally he got to his feet and headed along the pitted surface of the bridge. A sign creaked, jerking his ears forward. It was only half a sign, without a place name, but carrying an iron engraving of its population, now smeared over with weathered paint. King bristled toward it, smelled it cautiously, and abruptly nosed behind it. There was only the whisper of the ghost of an odor there, and it was too faint to stimulate his sense more than once. He clawed at it, whining, but the scent from his dreams refused to return.

He began running again, leaping over gaps in the paving. One newly fallen section was impassable, and he had to search his way across twelve-inch rusty iron beams. He slipped twice, and had to scratch and fight his way back. At midpoint, with the limits of the small city spread out before him, he stopped to explode in a barking sound he hadn't made in thirty years. Then he was plunging on again, until the bridge was behind and he was coursing through the wide, ruined streets at a full run.

Twice he started on false trails through the shops and warehouses, but the third time something seemed to groove itself into his thoughts, like the feeling that led him back to the salmon run each year. It was weak and uncertain, as old memories fought against stronger habits, but it grew as he panted his way out of the heart of the ruined city. Glass fractured and clattered downward from one building, followed by a skull that shattered on the stones. King avoided the shower of fragments and redoubled his speed, his big body bent in arching leaps and his ears flattened back against his head.

He knew where he was, even before he swept through the last of the rooming-house section and came to the edge of the rolling university campus. Then, for a moment, the dawning memory in his mind spun and twisted at the ruin the elements had made. But it was the lack of familiar smells that bothered him most. Even at the end, there had been the eternal odor of the chemistry laboratory, and now even that was gone.

The big gate was open. His legs had begun to bunch for the leap and scramble over it, and the tension in them died slowly. He slowed to a trot, lifting his head in a double bark that rasped the unused muscles of his throat. A huge tree had fallen across the path, but a section had been cut away with an ax. Rotted chips sounded underfoot as King passed by.

Then he was darting around one of the big redstone buildings, heading down the path that led to the back of the campus. There most of the great tree boles still stood, with even their nakedness too thick a screen for his eyes to penetrate. He charged through the rubble of sticks and rabbit bones that filled the path there and took a sudden left turn, to come to a skidding halt.

The two-story Promethean Laboratory building still stood, and across the fence beyond, some of the familiar houses were still there. King teetered toward one of them, back toward the laboratory, and then again toward the house. He let out two high-pitched barks and cocked his ears, listening. There was no answering sound.

A sick whine grew in his throat, until the wind suddenly shifted.

The smell was stronger this time. It was wrong—incredibly wrong—but it was beyond mistake. Doc was here! And with the instinctive identification of wind direction, he knew it had to be the laboratory.

The door was closed, but it snapped open with a groan of hinges as King hit it in full leap. He went rolling over and over across the floor of the littered hall, clawing against the stone tiles instinctively, while his mind rocked at the waves of human scent and the human voice that was beating into his ears!

The smell was so strong to his unaccustomed nostrils that he had no directional sense; at first the echoes along the hollow corridors also made it hard to locate the voice. He cocked his ears, studying it. It was wrong, like the smell—yet it was the voice of Doc!

"… as wrong as before. It didn't matter. It was better than starving like rabbits under the biocast. They were falling within minutes after the cable …"

King dove through the passage and into the room beyond. The voice went on without pause, coming from a box in front of him. And now the metallic quality under it and the lack of the random ultrasonic overtones of a real voice registered on him. It was only another false voice—another of the things men had, but which he had almost forgotten. Doc's voice—without Doc!

The sound dropped to the bottom of his awareness. King swung around the room. There was something in the scent that made his neck muscles tense, but he knew Doc was there. His eyes adjusted to the glaring light inside, while his nose tried to cut a trail through the thickness of the odors. Both senses located the source at the same time.

Beside the big machine with the slow-spinning rolls of tape there was a bed covered with ragged blankets. A hand lay on the edge of the tape machine, twisted into the controls, and an arm led down to the figure below on the bed.

King's tail flailed the floor, and his legs doubled for the leap that would carry him into Doc's arms. He never made the leap. The scent was wrong and the figure too motionless. King's tail grew limp as he crouched to the floor, inching his way forward, his whine barely audible. He raised his nose at last to the other hand that lay dropping over the side of the bed, and his tongue came out.

The hand was cool and stiff, and there was no response to welcome King's caress.

Slowly, cringing, King drew himself up to look down at what lay on the bed, and to nuzzle it. It didn't look like Doc. Doc had been young and alive, clean-shaven and with dark hair. The body was too thin, and the long beard and hair were stark white. Yet the odor said unquestionably that this was Doc—and that Doc was old—and dead!

Standing with his front feet on the bed, King lifted his muzzle upward, his mouth opening while the deep, long sound ached in his chest. But no sound came. He brought his face down to that of Doc and nuzzled again, whimpering. It did no good.

For a long time he lay there, whining and crying. The voice went on, and something ticked regularly on the wall. There was the sound of the wind outside, faint here, but rising steadily. Once King heard his own name used by Doc's voice from the box, and his ears half-lifted.

"… King and the other three. Probably starved by now, though, since there are no land animals left for them to feed on. King was a smart dog, but …"

His name wasn't repeated, though he listened for a while. Later, the voice stopped entirely, while the tape hummed a few more times, clicked, and began flapping a loosened end that knocked over a bottle of pills beside Doc's frozen hand. It clicked again, and slowed to silence, leaving the ticking of the clock the only sound in the room.

Abruptly, there was a rustling noise. King shot to his feet, whirling to face the source, just as a large white rat scuttled from the shadows near the door. It went rigid at his movement, coming slowly to its hind feet, its eyes darting from King to the body of Doc. It let out a high squeak.

The dog dived for it, snarling. But a thread of familiarity was clutching at his mind, slowing his charge. The rat twisted around and through the door, quavering out a series of squeaks. It went scuttling along the hall, through the opened door, and across the steps to the wasteland beyond. By the time King reached the outside, it was heading for the great tower across the street and halfway to the rocket field.

King could smell its spoor mixed thickly with that of Doc as he leaped the fence and followed. He heard it squeal once more as it saw him, and heard its claws scrape against the rotted metal of the tower as it scurried up beyond his reach.

But he was slowing already. The tower was dead now, with the great ball of fire gone from its top, but the memory of the tingling; itching false smell that had plagued him while the fire glowed was rising in his mind to drive him back. He hated it as Doc had hated it—and there was still fear for what it had been. He stopped fifty feet beyond the massive girders, bristling as he backed around it.

The concrete hut under it was broken now though, and the guards were gone. He saw some of the guns scattered about—or what was left of them, in the jumble of sand and human skeletons that still lay around the tower. Some of the skeletons were farther back, mixed with axes and other guns. An arm was still tangled with a shred of rope that connected to a faded metal sign. Where the great cable had been, a blackened line curved toward the tower, pitting the metal more deeply.

Somehow, King knew the tower of the tingling fire was dead. But he had waited too long. The rat had scrambled down and was heading toward the rocket field. He started after it again, halted, and reluctantly turned back toward the laboratory.

There was pleading in his whine as he found the body of Doc again, which still bore the smell of death. Instinct told King that Doc was dead and would never be anything but dead. Yet there was the half-remembered smell of his brother Boris, after the sweet smells and the prickings, lying on the table while Doc and the men stood around. Boris had smelled dead—and Boris has walked again, smelling freshly alive. Before that, there had been the dead rats that would not stay dead. And the rabbits—though when the rabbits finally smelled dead, they were all dead, and no more rabbits lived.

He circled Doc uneasily, his lips lifted. He paced to the outer door, searching for any return of the rat, while his mind slowly remembered the other rats. With a quick check on Doc, King darted up the stairs, his legs making a familiar pattern of it, and into the great laboratory there.

There were no more rats. The cages were empty, and the scents he had learned here as a puppy were almost gone. Only the room itself was the same as the one that had haunted his hunger-driven dreams.

There had been the rats on the table when he was young and the tower was only a banging beyond the window. The rats that died, and the three that did not, when the men drank smelly liquid and shouted and danced all night, shaking their fists at the base of the tower. The table was still there, beyond the place where the men mixed the strange smells. The table where strange things happened to him later that he could not remember. The tail he had owned before the last time on the table still hung there. There had been another wild night when the bandages came off his new tail, puppy-small and weak, but growing quickly enough. This room had been a good place, and some of his later dreams had been good.

Other dreams had brought back the bad times, as they returned to his mind now. The night the tower blazed with fire, Doc swearing while King felt the tingling until it was cut off. The men arguing with Doc, not coming back—even moving toward the hated tower. The huge celebration outside when the tower blazed again, while Doc and his one friend cried. The wild frenzy of stringing wires over the Promethean lab and into a vile-smelling box. After that, there was no more tingling in his nostrils inside the lab, but things had grown worse in spite of it.

King was trembling as he finished his inspection for rats, and his legs beat a frantic tattoo down the stairs. The fear was as thick as it had been when the men came and took him and his brothers away from Doc, to jam them into planes with other dogs and dump them far away, where the rabbits were thick—and almost useless for food.

Doc had fought then, even moving outside the safety of the laboratory, but the men had taken the dogs. Yet Doc had been alive. And now he was dead.

Fear twisted in King, settling into something sick. He paced around the body, growling and whining. Once he stopped to lick the hand; it was colder now, and there was no moisture on it. The scent was growing more wrong as the body cooled.

Life had not come back while he was gone.

He licked Doc's hand again, and an answering chill went through the dog. The feeling of death began to settle deeper—a feeling inside that grew and swallowed him, a hungry feeling. He tried to shake it away, as he would have shaken the neck of the rat, but it stuck.

There was real hunger mixed with it. Eating was never good on the trip south, and he had burned too much energy chasing about that morning. The fish had not been enough. The smell of stale food of some kind in the room tantalized him, though he could find none, and reminded him there had been traces of the same odors along the path the rat had taken. The saliva was rising in his mouth at the thought. It drew him out, while the death inside pressed him away.

He started off twice, to return each time for another inspection. He whimpered and tried tugging at the sleeve of the arm. The rags parted, but Doc gave no sign. The death smell was stronger. King paced about, fighting the hunger and misery until they were too much. There was the food smell, the rat—and he would come back to Doc …

A faint mist was being driven along by the wind as he reached the tower again, braving it this time without stopping. Until the rain washed it away, the spoor would be all the stronger for the moisture in the air, and he followed it easily, until it ended on the blasted area of the rocket field.

King stopped at the sight of the bent and worn take-off cradles. From the distance, the first faint roll of thunder came, and he bolted stiff-legged, snarling with fear, as if one of the monster ships he had seen the men building so frantically were blasting up again.

The excitement of the frenzied construction had drawn him to it, even when it meant sneaking away from Doc—so that he had been present after the infants were all aboard, and the rocket took off. The thunder-booming roar, the gout of eye-searing flame, and the smell that paralyzed his nose for hours had sent him cringing back to shiver at Doc's feet for hours, and each new takeoff had brought a fresh attack. He still wanted nothing to do with the rockets.

The cradles were empty now, however—except for something that looked like one that had broken and was lying on its sides, the big tubes ripped away, and the ground scorched around it. And as he looked, the distant form of the rat appeared from below it and leaped upward through a door there.

King edged toward it, following the trail that led there, uncertain. It looked dead, but the other that had roared away on its lightning and thunder had also seemed dead. Then real lightning and thunder boomed behind him, and he forced himself to a faster trot.

The hulk seemed harmless. There were none of the chemical smells now, and the fumes of the ancient blast that had fizzled were gone. He moved gingerly toward the door, his nose twitching at the odors that came from it, just as the rat appeared.

It saw him and squeaked sharply, dashing back inside. King abandoned his caution. With a low growl, he leaped through the doorway above the ground. The edge of the metal tore at him, thin projections sticking out where it had been crudely hacked away. He snapped at it, then turned to find the rat.

There was enough light inside to see dimly. The rat had retreated into a narrow pipe that ran back. King tried to poke his nose into it, then fished with his paw. The rat drew back and snapped at him. Its teeth missed, but it was enough to teach him caution.

He drew back, crunching across a litter of dried papers, foil, and junk he did not recognize. A thicker bundle twisted under his feet, and the thick, heavy smell of meat—red meat, not the weak flesh of fish—filled his nostrils. Without thinking, he snapped down.

The stuff was dry and hard, disappointing at first. But as he chewed, over the salt and the odd flavorings, the almost forgotten flavor came through, sending saliva dripping from his mouth. From the odors here, he knew the rat had been eating it before he came, but it didn't matter. He finished the package, spitting out the wax, metal, and plastics that surrounded it as best he could. Then his nose led him along the trail of the rat's gnawing, back to the few tons of concentrate that were left.

The wrappings let through no smell to guide him, but he had learned to find food where it could be discovered. He tore into a package, gasping as a thick, fruity stuff seared at his tongue. He tried again, farther away. He ripped away the covering first, and settled down with the brick between his paws, working on it until it was gone.

Outside, the rain had increased to a torrent. He studied the rat and the view outside, and finally curled up against the door, blocking the rat's egress. Some rain came through, making a small puddle on the floor and wetting his coat, but he disregarded it at first, until the thirst began to grow in him. He lapped at the puddle, finding some relief.

His stomach began to feel wrong then. It was heavy, full and miserable. He fought against it, lapping more water. The rat came out of its hole and found another brick of food. He heard it gnawing, but the effort of moving was too great.

When the sickness finally won, he felt better. But it was an hour later, while the storm raged and the lightning split the sky with waves of solid fear, before he could pull himself back to another brick. This time he ate more carefully, stopping to drink between parts of his meal. It worked better. The food stayed with him, and his hunger was finally satisfied.

He lay near the doorway of the old rocket, staring out through the darkness that was still split by lightning. The rat scurried about behind him, but he let it go. Now that it was harmless and his stomach was filled, some of the old patterns began to stir in his mind. The rat was one he had known so long ago, its smell grown old, but still clearly identifiable.

He had tried twice to leave the ship and force his way back to where Doc was lying, but the lightning drove him back. Now he lifted his voice in a long, mournful bark. There was no answering call from Doc. He began working himself up for another try.

Lightning crashed down in the direction of the laboratory. The building itself stood out in the glare, with every wire of its outer covering glowing white hot. There was a roll of sharp thunder close by, and then another explosion that seemed to open the laboratory up in a blossom of flame through the abating rain.

King muttered unhappily, licking his lips uneasily, while his tail curved tighter against him. But now, while the flame still smoldered around the distant building and the lightning might come back, now was no time to risk it.

He turned around several times, scraping away the litter, buried his nose in the tuft of his tail, and tried to relax. He was almost asleep when he felt the rat creep up to him. It must have recognized his smell, too, since it settled down against him as it had done when they were both together in the laboratory with Doc. He snarled faintly, then let it alone and went to sleep. Surprisingly, there were no dreams to bother him.

The rat was gone in the morning when King awoke, and the sun was shining, though the quieter wind held a closeness that was too close to freezing to suit him. He hesitated, turning back toward the food stores. Then the sight of the rat, racing across the space near the tower, decided him. With an unhappy growl, he dropped from the hulk of the rocket and took out after it.

If the rat got there before he did, and Doc needed him …

In open running, the rat was no match for him. It drew aside, its high voice chattering, as he thundered up. He did not turn, but drove on, heading at a full run for the laboratory.

There was no laboratory! The steps were there, blackened and cracked. Some of the walls still stood. But the building he had known was gone. Beside it, the trunk of one of the big trees had been blasted apart and now had its tattered remnants strewn over the dirt, mingling with the coals from the fire that had gutted the building. A few were still smoking, though the rain had put out the blaze before it had completely burned out by itself. The heavy, acrid scent of damp, burned wood loaded the air, concealing everything else from his scent.

He uttered a short, anguished yelp and went dashing through the doorway. The ashes were hot, and the stones left from the floor were hotter, but he could bear them. He hardly felt them as he swung toward what had once been the room where Doc lay.

The box from which the voice had come was gone, but the twisted wreck of the tape machine was there. And beside it, charred scraps showed what had once been a bed.

King cried out as his nose touched the heat, but he was pawing frantically, disregarding the pain. He could stand it—and he had to. He shoveled the refuse aside, digging for something that was his. And finally, under the charred raggedness, there were traces. There was even enough to know that it had once been Doc.

And Doc was still dead—as dead as the meat that once came from cans had been dead.

King whimpered over the remains, while the rat climbed onto a section of the wall and chattered uneasily. But the dog was already backing away. He stopped beyond the hot ruins of the building to lift his head. For a second, he held the pose while the rat watched him, before his head came down and he turned slowly away.

The food in the rocket lay to his right, and the old gate through which he had first come was on his left. He licked his lips as his eyes turned to the rocket, but his legs moved unwaveringly left. The steady walk turned into a trot, and his stride lengthened, carrying him back to the rooming-house section and on into the former business section. There had been other fires, and one had spread across several blocks. He swung around it and back to the street he had first taken.

Ahead of him, the bridge came into view, and nearer was the bank of the river on this side.

King did not waver from his course. His legs paced out onto the rotten pavement that would carry him across the stream. He moved on, slowing as he had to walk the girders again. When he was past that section, and at the midpoint of the bridge, something seemed to turn him.

The town lay behind him from here, most of it visible at the crest of the bridge. The rain and the storm had made changes, but they were too small to notice. And the university lay at the edge of King's vision, though some of the tower could be seen. He faced toward it, and then unerringly toward the place where the laboratory should have been.

Now his muzzle lifted into the air as he sank to his haunches. He seemed to brace himself, and his lungs expanded slowly. He could feel it, and the need of it. The instinct behind it was too old for remembrance, but the ritual came finally by itself, with no conscious control.

His mouth opened, and the dirge keened on the air, lifting and driving upward toward the empty sky above.

There was only the single requiem. Then King swung back toward the distant shore, picking his way along the worn bridge.

He slipped down the crumbled bank to the thin edge of sand near the stream and turned southward, trotting on steadily with the cold wind at his back.

Somewhere, there would be a place to fish for his breakfast.

The End

 
 
 
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© 1956 by copyright by Renown Publications. Reprinted by permission of the author's estate. First published in Fantastic Universe, l956.