“What a way to go,” said Jubal. On an impulse he casually pulled out of his side coat pocket the flashlight he had borrowed, tossed it up and caught it in his hand.
“What’s that for?” Esther asked, evidently intrigued.
“Well, you never know. Suppose there was a power failure, and all the lights went out.”
“Huh.” Esther didn’t seem to think a power failure likely.
“Or, suppose we saw something mysterious that was a little bit off the trail, and we wanted to go and look it over?” Jubal flicked the bright beam briefly out into the nearby grass and flower beds, then quickly turned it off, not wanting to draw the attention of any curious security folk who happened to be around.
Esther seemed taken by the idea of exploration. “What kind of a thing would that be?”
“Oh, something mysterious. The kind of thing that you can’t tell what it might be until you get a good look at it.”
“That sounds mysterious, all right”
“When our walk is over, you’ll go back in your house and I’ll go back in mine. But security might not be watching us every minute of the time while we’re out walking. Especially if we were just a little way off the walk somewhere, looking at something mysterious.”
And then, to Jubal’s surprise, it was actually Esther who very casually took his hand as they were walking. So he suddenly wondered if security was actually looking at them at this very minute, and suppose he were to make a move to kiss her, right now…
He was on the brink of stopping, with some such intention in mind, but Esther at the crucial moment kept on moving, her hand still in his, tugging him along.
Jubal thought he had been doing fine until now, talking with this movie actress, but awkwardness suddenly took hold. He wanted to tell her something that would let her know how he was starting to feel about her; and he knew that as soon as he was alone again, he would be able to think of a dozen things he should have said…
And he had carefully planned for this moment to arrive when they were somewhere else, so what were they doing here, again? Jubal was perfectly certain that they had turned off the walk at a different place, hardly ten seconds ago. But here they were, somehow back in the mystic, troubling spot beside the Sekhmet statues.
And once again reality was beginning to grow uncertain.
Now, paradoxically, as if time or space or both had suddenly gone wobbly, Jubal and Esther were also very near the place where he had found the dead man—yesterday? Had it really been only yesterday?
In spite of all Jubal’s careful effort to choose paths leading somewhere else, they were still—here. Like there was no way you could possibly get away from it.
Esther’s voice seemed to reach him from a considerable distance. “Jubal, what’s wrong? I thought I saw…”
She didn’t answer. What spooked her couldn’t have been another dead man, though; she wasn’t looking at the ground, which was the logical place to discover corpses, but past Jubal’s shoulder, into some tall growth.
And now he had lost sight of his companion altogether. As if some tremendous—fog—could be covering the whole estate. Or covering his eyes and mind…
Jubal used the flashlight boldly at last. Being noticed by security was suddenly the least of his worries. In the sharp beam he could see Esther’s face. But there was a new problem now: she was first drifting away, then coming closer again, as if the status of the hill beneath their feet was unreliable, though neither of them was really moving.
And now he saw there had to be something wrong with the flashlight in his hand, for there seemed to be multiple beams projecting from its glassy eye. First about a dozen shafts of light, then a hundred, as if Jubal with the electric torch in his hand were struggling in a universe of mirrors.
No, whatever force was trying to twist and turn the world was too silent for that. And it seemed to be reaching even deeper than the center of the earth.
“Esther? Esther?” The second time it came out as a scream.
The two of them were hardly more than an arm’s length apart, and moving toward each other, but still it was impossible for their outstretched hands to touch.
After screaming his name Esther fell to making little sobbing noises, and from the look on her face he was afraid that she was going to feint. He himself wasn’t doing too well either.
But suddenly they were close together once again, and now he reached to take her in his arms.
Now the immense bulk of Casa Grande, seeming to loom almost over their heads, had four towers instead of two. Two of them were bathed in red floodlights, and none of the four were exactly alike. Near at hand, Jubal could see two bushes where a moment ago there had been only one. And then he was looking at a bush of bushes, all of them waving insubstantial leaves and branches, no two of them quite precisely alike. First heated air, then cold, blew in his face. Odors that he had never smelled before assailed him. In his ears there sounded a drumming and a babbling, and a screaming of immense bagpipes. There were two dark statues looming, and one of them reached out for him with rocklike hands.
Sekhmet. It seemed to Jubal that a whole chorus of discordant voices chanted out the name.
Esther was suddenly gone, had been snatched off somewhere out of his sight. And all Jubal knew for certain was that the world had gone crazy around him, and he too was being somehow dragged away, into a blue-white vortex…
* * *
« ^ »
Jubal had to fight his way through a rapid succession of ugly dreams, each more frightening than the one before. In some of them he was being pursued by tall, black figures that moved with the stiffness of stone statues. In other visions the world seemed to be changing beneath his feet, in such a way that he knew that he was damned to hell and lost forever. But Jubal’s mind tore free of all bad dreams in the process of waking up. And by the time he was completely awake, their terror and loneliness were all but totally forgotten.
He was awake now, no longer terrified. But as soon as he began to look around him fear was replaced by almost total bewilderment. He had awakened lying flat on his back on a narrow, flat, firm kind of bunk or couch, which stood in the middle of a small room formed by curving overhead and walls. The room contained no other furniture besides the bunk, and it was like no other place that Jubal had ever seen.
The windowless walls were composed of broad triangular panels or tiles, most of them blue in an assortment of shades. A few of these triangular segments were glowing white, and these provided light at a comfortable level. The walls went up straight to a height of about eight feet, then curved gently into a smoothly rounded ceiling of the same materials and design, so no sharp edges or corners were visible. At the far end of the room, only a little beyond the foot of Jubal’s bunk, were two full-length, doorless openings, set directly across from each other in opposite walls. Both doorways were at the wrong angle for him to see. much of anything through them as long as he remained lying on the couch.
Sixteen-year-old Jubal Doors sat up with a jerky motion, noticing confusedly as he did so that the narrow bed on which he lay lacked any kind of sheet, blanket, or pillow, and was entirely covered in a smooth brownish fabric something like leather. More startling was the fact that he was still fully clothed, even to his shoes and sportcoat.
He had not the remotest idea of how he had come to be lying where he was.
Raising an arm, Jubal looked automatically at his wrist-watch, which was still ticking away. But in his strange state of mind, the position of the hands failed to register.
The room, the compartment—whatever the proper name for the space he now inhabited—was quiet. And when he swung his legs off the couch, the gray, smooth floor, or deck, was steady beneath his feet. Still, Jubal delayed for a moment before standing up. He wasn’t dizzy. Numb was a more accurate description of his state. And the numbness was not of his body, but of his mind. Something was not quite right.
It was at that point that he stumbled over an odd object on the floor, something that tripped him so he almost fell. Looking down, Jubal saw a reddish, rubbery-looking thing almost a yard long and an inch thick, with several branches, like a snake that had been hatched as Siamese triplets. One of the branches ended in something that looked like a needle, and others in flat disks with flat, smooth little panels set into them. Jubal had no idea what it was, but it had an ugly look about it, and he kicked it to one side of the room with an instinctive movement.