Read Like A Writer
There are two ways to learn how to write fiction: by reading it and by writing it. Yes, you can learn lots about writing stories in workshops, in writing classes and writing groups, at writers' conferences. You can learn technique and process by reading the dozens of books like this one on fiction writing and by reading articles in writers' magazines. But the best teachers of fiction are the great works of fiction themselves. You can learn more about the structure of a short story by reading Anton Chekhov's 'Heartache' than you can in a semester of Creative Writing 101. If you read like a writer, that is, which means you have to read everything twice, at least. When you read a story or novel the first time, just let it happen. Enjoy the journey. When you've finished, you know where the story took you, and now you can go back and reread, and this time notice how the writer reached that destination. Notice the choices he made at each chapter, each sentence, each word. (Every word is a choice.) You see now how the transitions work, how a character gets across a room. All this time you're learning. You loved the central character in the story, and now you can see how the writer presented the character and rendered her worthy of your love and attention. The first reading is creative—you collaborate with the writer in making the story. The second reading is critical.
John Dufresne, from his book, The Lie That Tells A Truth: A Guide to Writing Fiction
Saturday, August 20, 2016
The Long Remembered Thunder by Keith Laumer
THE LONG REMEMBERED THUNDER
BY KEITH LAUMER
[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
Worlds of Tomorrow April 1963
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]
He was as ancient as time—and as strange as
his own frightful battle against incredible odds!
In his room at the Elsby Commercial Hotel, Tremaine opened his luggage and took out a small tool kit, used a screwdriver to remove the bottom cover plate from the telephone. He inserted a tiny aluminum cylinder, crimped wires and replaced the cover. Then he dialed a long-distance Washington number and waited half a minute for the connection.
"Fred, Tremaine here. Put the buzzer on." A thin hum sounded on the wire as the scrambler went into operation.
"Okay, can you read me all right? I'm set up in Elsby. Grammond's boys are supposed to keep me informed. Meantime, I'm not sitting in this damned room crouched over a dial. I'll be out and around for the rest of the afternoon."
"I want to see results," the thin voice came back over the filtered hum of the jamming device. "You spent a week with Grammond—I can't wait another. I don't mind telling you certain quarters are pressing me."
"Fred, when will you learn to sit on your news breaks until you've got some answers to go with the questions?"
"I'm an appointive official," Fred said sharply. "But never mind that. This fellow Margrave—General Margrave. Project Officer for the hyperwave program—he's been on my neck day and night. I can't say I blame him. An unauthorized transmitter interfering with a Top Secret project, progress slowing to a halt, and this Bureau—"
"Look, Fred. I was happy in the lab. Headaches, nightmares and all. Hyperwave is my baby, remember? You elected me to be a leg-man: now let me do it my way."
"I felt a technical man might succeed where a trained investigator could be misled. And since it seems to be pinpointed in your home area—"
"You don't have to justify yourself. Just don't hold out on me. I sometimes wonder if I've seen the complete files on this—"
"You've seen all the files! Now I want answers, not questions! I'm warning you, Tremaine. Get that transmitter. I need someone to hang!"
Tremaine left the hotel, walked two blocks west along Commerce Street and turned in at a yellow brick building with the words ELSBY MUNICIPAL POLICE cut in the stone lintel above the door. Inside, a heavy man with a creased face and thick gray hair looked up from behind an ancient Underwood. He studied Tremaine, shifted a toothpick to the opposite corner of his mouth.
"Don't I know you, mister?" he said. His soft voice carried a note of authority.
Tremaine took off his hat. "Sure you do, Jess. It's been a while, though."
The policeman got to his feet. "Jimmy," he said, "Jimmy Tremaine." He came to the counter and put out his hand. "How are you, Jimmy? What brings you back to the boondocks?"
"Let's go somewhere and sit down, Jess."
In a back room Tremaine said, "To everybody but you this is just a visit to the old home town. Between us, there's more."
Jess nodded. "I heard you were with the guv'ment."
"It won't take long to tell; we don't know much yet." Tremaine covered the discovery of the powerful unidentified interference on the high-security hyperwave band, the discovery that each transmission produced not one but a pattern of "fixes" on the point of origin. He passed a sheet of paper across the table. It showed a set of concentric circles, overlapped by a similar group of rings.
"I think what we're getting is an echo effect from each of these points of intersection. The rings themselves represent the diffraction pattern—"
"Hold it, Jimmy. To me it just looks like a beer ad. I'll take your word for it."
"The point is this, Jess: we think we've got it narrowed down to this section. I'm not sure of a damn thing, but I think that transmitter's near here. Now, have you got any ideas?"
"That's a tough one, Jimmy. This is where I should come up with the news that Old Man Whatchamacallit's got an attic full of gear he says is a time machine. Trouble is, folks around here haven't even taken to TV. They figure we should be content with radio, like the Lord intended."
"I didn't expect any easy answers, Jess. But I was hoping maybe you had something ..."
"Course," said Jess, "there's always Mr. Bram ..."
"Mr. Bram," repeated Tremaine. "Is he still around? I remember him as a hundred years old when I was kid."
"Still just the same, Jimmy. Comes in town maybe once a week, buys his groceries and hikes back out to his place by the river."
"Well, what about him?"
"Nothing. But he's the town's mystery man. You know that. A little touched in the head."
"There were a lot of funny stories about him, I remember," Tremaine said. "I always liked him. One time he tried to teach me something I've forgotten. Wanted me to come out to his place and he'd teach me. I never did go. We kids used to play in the caves near his place, and sometimes he gave us apples."
"I've never seen any harm in Bram," said Jess. "But you know how this town is about foreigners, especially when they're a mite addled. Bram has blue eyes and blond hair—or did before it turned white—and he talks just like everybody else. From a distance he seems just like an ordinary American. But up close, you feel it. He's foreign, all right. But we never did know where he came from."
"How long's he lived here in Elsby?"
"Beats me, Jimmy. You remember old Aunt Tress, used to know all about ancestors and such as that? She couldn't remember about Mr. Bram. She was kind of senile, I guess. She used to say he'd lived in that same old place out on the Concord road when she was a girl. Well, she died five years ago ... in her seventies. He still walks in town every Wednesday ... or he did up till yesterday anyway."
"Oh?" Tremaine stubbed out his cigarette, lit another. "What happened then?"
"You remember Soup Gaskin? He's got a boy, name of Hull. He's Soup all over again."
"I remember Soup," Tremaine said. "He and his bunch used to come in the drug store where I worked and perch on the stools and kid around with me, and Mr. Hempleman would watch them from over back of the prescription counter and look nervous. They used to raise cain in the other drug store...."
"Soup's been in the pen since then. His boy Hull's the same kind. Him and a bunch of his pals went out to Bram's place one night and set it on fire."
"What was the idea of that?"
"Dunno. Just meanness, I reckon. Not much damage done. A car was passing by and called it in. I had the whole caboodle locked up here for six hours. Then the sob sisters went to work: poor little tyke routine, high spirits, you know the line. All of 'em but Hull are back in the streets playin' with matches by now. I'm waiting for the day they'll make jail age."
"Why Bram?" Tremaine persisted. "As far as I know, he never had any dealings to speak of with anybody here in town."
"Oh hoh, you're a little young, Jimmy," Jess chuckled. "You never knew about Mr. Bram—the young Mr. Bram—and Linda Carroll."
Tremaine shook his head.
"Old Miss Carroll. School teacher here for years; guess she was retired by the time you were playing hookey. But her dad had money, and in her day she was a beauty. Too good for the fellers in these parts. I remember her ridin by in a high-wheeled shay, when I was just a nipper. Sitting up proud and tall, with that red hair piled up high. I used to think she was some kind of princess...."
"What about her and Bram? A romance?"
Jess rocked his chair back on two legs, looked at the ceiling, frowning. "This would ha' been about nineteen-oh-one. I was no more'n eight years old. Miss Linda was maybe in her twenties—and that made her an old maid, in those times. The word got out she was setting her cap for Bram. He was a good-looking young feller then, over six foot, of course, broad backed, curly yellow hair—and a stranger to boot. Like I said, Linda Carroll wanted nothin to do with the local bucks. There was a big shindy planned. Now, you know Bram was funny about any kind of socializing; never would go any place at night. But this was a Sunday afternoon and someways or other they got Bram down there; and Miss Linda made her play, right there in front of the town, practically. Just before sundown they went off together in that fancy shay. And the next day, she was home again—alone. That finished off her reputation, as far as the biddies in Elsby was concerned. It was ten years 'fore she even landed the teaching job. By that time, she was already old. And nobody was ever fool enough to mention the name Bram in front of her."
Tremaine got to his feet. "I'd appreciate it if you'd keep your ears and eyes open for anything that might build into a lead on this, Jess. Meantime, I'm just a tourist, seeing the sights."
"What about that gear of yours? Didn't you say you had some kind of detector you were going to set up?"
"I've got an oversized suitcase," Tremaine said. "I'll be setting it up in my room over at the hotel."
"When's this bootleg station supposed to broadcast again?"
"After dark. I'm working on a few ideas. It might be an infinitely repeating logarithmic sequence, based on—"
"Hold it, Jimmy. You're over my head." Jess got to his feet. "Let me know if you want anything. And by the way—" he winked broadly—"I always did know who busted Soup Gaskin's nose and took out his front teeth."
Back in the street, Tremaine headed south toward the Elsby Town Hall, a squat structure of brownish-red brick, crouched under yellow autumn trees at the end of Sheridan Street. Tremaine went up the steps and past heavy double doors. Ten yards along the dim corridor, a hand-lettered cardboard sign over a black-varnished door said "MUNICIPAL OFFICE OF RECORD." Tremaine opened the door and went in.
A thin man with garters above the elbow looked over his shoulder at Tremaine.
"We're closed," he said.
"I won't be a minute," Tremaine said. "Just want to check on when the Bram property changed hands last."
The man turned to Tremaine, pushing a drawer shut with his hip. "Bram? He dead?"
"Nothing like that. I just want to know when he bought the place."
The man came over to the counter, eyeing Tremaine. "He ain't going to sell, mister, if that's what you want to know."
"I want to know when he bought."
The man hesitated, closed his jaw hard. "Come back tomorrow," he said.
Tremaine put a hand on the counter, looked thoughtful. "I was hoping to save a trip." He lifted his hand and scratched the side of his jaw. A folded bill opened on the counter. The thin man's eyes darted toward it. His hand eased out, covered the bill. He grinned quickly.
"See what I can do," he said.
It was ten minutes before he beckoned Tremaine over to the table where a two-foot-square book lay open. An untrimmed fingernail indicated a line written in faded ink:
"May 19. Acreage sold, One Dollar and other G&V consid. NW Quarter Section 24, Township Elsby. Bram. (see Vol. 9 & cet.)"
"Translated, what does that mean?" said Tremaine.
"That's the ledger for 1901; means Bram bought a quarter section on the nineteenth of May. You want me to look up the deed?"
"No, thanks," Tremaine said. "That's all I needed." He turned back to the door.
"What's up, mister?" the clerk called after him. "Bram in some kind of trouble?"
"No. No trouble."
The man was looking at the book with pursed lips. "Nineteen-oh-one," he said. "I never thought of it before, but you know, old Bram must be dern near to ninety years old. Spry for that age."
"I guess you're right."
The clerk looked sideways at Tremaine. "Lots of funny stories about old Bram. Useta say his place was haunted. You know; funny noises and lights. And they used to say there was money buried out at his place."
"I've heard those stories. Just superstition, wouldn't you say?"
"Maybe so." The clerk leaned on the counter, assumed a knowing look. "There's one story that's not superstition...."
"You—uh—paying anything for information?"
"Now why would I do that?" Tremaine reached for the door knob.
The clerk shrugged. "Thought I'd ask. Anyway—I can swear to this. Nobody in this town's ever seen Bram between sundown and sunup."
Untrimmed sumacs threw late-afternoon shadows on the discolored stucco facade of the Elsby Public Library. Inside, Tremaine followed a paper-dry woman of indeterminate age to a rack of yellowed newsprint.
"You'll find back to nineteen-forty here," the librarian said. "The older are there in the shelves."
"I want nineteen-oh-one, if they go back that far."
The woman darted a suspicious look at Tremaine. "You have to handle these old papers carefully."
"I'll be extremely careful." The woman sniffed, opened a drawer, leafed through it, muttering.
"What date was it you wanted?"
"Nineteen-oh-one; the week of May nineteenth."
The librarian pulled out a folded paper, placed it on the table, adjusted her glasses, squinted at the front page. "That's it," she said. "These papers keep pretty well, provided they're stored in the dark. But they're still flimsy, mind you."
"I'll remember." The woman stood by as Tremaine looked over the front page. The lead article concerned the opening of the Pan-American Exposition at Buffalo. Vice-President Roosevelt had made a speech. Tremaine leafed over, reading slowly.
On page four, under a column headed County Notes he saw the name Bram:
Mr. Bram has purchased a quarter section of fine grazing land, north of town, together with a sturdy house, from J. P. Spivey of Elsby. Mr. Bram will occupy the home and will continue to graze a few head of stock. Mr. Bram, who is a newcomer to the county, has been a resident of Mrs. Stoate's Guest Home in Elsby for the past months.
"May I see some earlier issues; from about the first of the year?"
The librarian produced the papers. Tremaine turned the pages, read the heads, skimmed an article here and there. The librarian went back to her desk. An hour later, in the issue for July 7, 1900, an item caught his eye:
A Severe Thunderstorm. Citizens of Elsby and the country were much alarmed by a violent cloudburst, accompanied by lightning and thunder, during the night of the fifth. A fire set in the pine woods north of Spivey's farm destroyed a considerable amount of timber and threatened the house before burning itself out along the river.
The librarian was at Tremaine's side. "I have to close the library now. You'll have to come back tomorrow."
Outside, the sky was sallow in the west: lights were coming on in windows along the side streets. Tremaine turned up his collar against a cold wind that had risen, started along the street toward the hotel.
A block away a black late-model sedan rounded a corner with a faint squeal of tires and gunned past him, a heavy antenna mounted forward of the left rear tail fin whipping in the slipstream. Tremaine stopped short, stared after the car.
"Damn!" he said aloud. An elderly man veered, eyeing him sharply. Tremaine set off at a run, covered the two blocks to the hotel, yanked open the door to his car, slid into the seat, made a U-turn, and headed north after the police car.
Two miles into the dark hills north of the Elsby city limits, Tremaine rounded a curve. The police car was parked on the shoulder beside the highway just ahead. He pulled off the road ahead of it and walked back. The door opened. A tall figure stepped out.
"What's your problem, mister?" a harsh voice drawled.
"What's the matter? Run out of signal?"
"What's it to you, mister?"
"Are you boys in touch with Grammond on the car set?"
"We could be."
"Mind if I have a word with him? My name's Tremaine."
"Oh," said the cop, "you're the big shot from Washington." He shifted chewing tobacco to the other side of his jaw. "Sure, you can talk to him." He turned and spoke to the other cop, who muttered into the mike before handing it to Tremaine.
The heavy voice of the State Police chief crackled. "What's your beef, Tremaine?"
"I thought you were going to keep your men away from Elsby until I gave the word, Grammond."
"That was before I knew your Washington stuffed shirts were holding out on me."
"It's nothing we can go to court with, Grammond. And the job you were doing might have been influenced if I'd told you about the Elsby angle."
Grammond cursed. "I could have put my men in the town and taken it apart brick by brick in the time—"
"That's just what I don't want. If our bird sees cops cruising, he'll go underground."
"You've got it all figured, I see. I'm just the dumb hick you boys use for the spade work, that it?"
"Pull your lip back in. You've given me the confirmation I needed."
"Confirmation, hell! All I know is that somebody somewhere is punching out a signal. For all I know, it's forty midgets on bicycles, pedalling all over the damned state. I've got fixes in every county—"
"The smallest hyperwave transmitter Uncle Sam knows how to build weighs three tons," said Tremaine. "Bicycles are out."
Grammond snorted. "Okay, Tremaine," he said. "You're the boy with all the answers. But if you get in trouble, don't call me; call Washington."
Back in his room, Tremaine put through a call.
"It looks like Grammond's not willing to be left out in the cold, Fred. Tell him if he queers this—"
"I don't know but what he might have something," the voice came back over the filtered hum. "Suppose he smokes them out—"
"Don't go dumb on me, Fred. We're not dealing with West Virginia moonshiners."
"Don't tell me my job, Tremaine!" the voice snapped. "And don't try out your famous temper on me. I'm still in charge of this investigation."
"Sure. Just don't get stuck in some senator's hip pocket." Tremaine hung up the telephone, went to the dresser and poured two fingers of Scotch into a water glass. He tossed it down, then pulled on his coat and left the hotel.
He walked south two blocks, turned left down a twilit side street. He walked slowly, looking at the weathered frame houses. Number 89 was a once-stately three-storied mansion overgrown with untrimmed vines, its windows squares of sad yellow light. He pushed through the gate in the ancient picket fence, mounted the porch steps and pushed the button beside the door, a dark panel of cracked varnish. It was a long minute before the door opened. A tall woman with white hair and a fine-boned face looked at him coolly.
"Miss Carroll," Tremaine said. "You won't remember me, but I—"
"There is nothing whatever wrong with my faculties, James," Miss Carroll said calmly. Her voice was still resonant, a deep contralto. Only a faint quaver reflected her age—close to eighty, Tremaine thought, startled.
"I'm flattered you remember me, Miss Carroll," he said.
"Come in." She led the way to a pleasant parlor set out with the furnishings of another era. She motioned Tremaine to a seat and took a straight chair across the room from him.
"You look very well, James," she said, nodding. "I'm pleased to see that you've amounted to something."
"Just another bureaucrat, I'm afraid."
"You were wise to leave Elsby. There is no future here for a young man."
"I often wondered why you didn't leave, Miss Carroll. I thought, even as a boy, that you were a woman of great ability."
"Why did you come today, James?" asked Miss Carroll.
"I...." Tremaine started. He looked at the old lady. "I want some information. This is an important matter. May I rely on your discretion?"
"How long has Mr. Bram lived in Elsby?"
Miss Carroll looked at him for a long moment. "Will what I tell you be used against him?"
"There'll be nothing done against him, Miss Carroll ... unless it needs to be in the national interest."
"I'm not at all sure I know what the term 'national interest' means, James. I distrust these glib phrases."
"I always liked Mr. Bram," said Tremaine. "I'm not out to hurt him."
"Mr. Bram came here when I was a young woman. I'm not certain of the year."
"What does he do for a living?"
"I have no idea."
"Why did a healthy young fellow like Bram settle out in that isolated piece of country? What's his story?"
"I'm ... not sure that anyone truly knows Bram's story."
"You called him 'Bram', Miss Carroll. Is that his first name ... or his last?"
"That is his only name. Just ... Bram."
"You knew him well once, Miss Carroll. Is there anything—"
A tear rolled down Miss Carroll's faded cheek. She wiped it away impatiently.
"I'm an unfulfilled old maid, James," she said. "You must forgive me."
Tremaine stood up. "I'm sorry. Really sorry. I didn't mean to grill you. Miss Carroll. You've been very kind. I had no right...."
Miss Carroll shook her head. "I knew you as a boy, James. I have complete confidence in you. If anything I can tell you about Bram will be helpful to you, it is my duty to oblige you; and it may help him." She paused. Tremaine waited.
"Many years ago I was courted by Bram. One day he asked me to go with him to his house. On the way he told me a terrible and pathetic tale. He said that each night he fought a battle with evil beings, alone, in a cave beneath his house."
Miss Carroll drew a deep breath and went on. "I was torn between pity and horror. I begged him to take me back. He refused." Miss Carroll twisted her fingers together, her eyes fixed on the long past. "When we reached the house, he ran to the kitchen. He lit a lamp and threw open a concealed panel. There were stairs. He went down ... and left me there alone.
"I waited all that night in the carriage. At dawn he emerged. He tried to speak to me but I would not listen.
"He took a locket from his neck and put it into my hand. He told me to keep it and, if ever I should need him, to press it between my fingers in a secret way ... and he would come. I told him that until he would consent to see a doctor, I did not wish him to call. He drove me home. He never called again."
"This locket," said Tremaine, "do you still have it?"
Miss Carroll hesitated, then put her hand to her throat, lifted a silver disc on a fine golden chain. "You see what a foolish old woman I am, James."
"May I see it?"
She handed the locket to him. It was heavy, smooth. "I'd like to examine this more closely," he said. "May I take it with me?"
Miss Carroll nodded.
"There is one other thing," she said, "perhaps quite meaningless...."
"I'd be grateful for any lead."
"Bram fears the thunder."
As Tremaine walked slowly toward the lighted main street of Elsby a car pulled to a stop beside him. Jess leaned out, peered at Tremaine and asked:
"Any luck, Jimmy?"
Tremaine shook his head. "I'm getting nowhere fast. The Bram idea's a dud, I'm afraid."
"Funny thing about Bram. You know, he hasn't showed up yet. I'm getting a little worried. Want to run out there with me and take a look around?"
"Sure. Just so I'm back by full dark."
As they pulled away from the curb Jess said, "Jimmy, what's this about State Police nosing around here? I thought you were playing a lone hand from what you were saying to me."
"I thought so too, Jess. But it looks like Grammond's a jump ahead of me. He smells headlines in this; he doesn't want to be left out."
"Well, the State cops could be mighty handy to have around. I'm wondering why you don't want 'em in. If there's some kind of spy ring working—"
"We're up against an unknown quantity. I don't know what's behind this and neither does anybody else. Maybe it's a ring of Bolsheviks ... and maybe it's something bigger. I have the feeling we've made enough mistakes in the last few years; I don't want to see this botched."
The last pink light of sunset was fading from the clouds to the west as Jess swung the car through the open gate, pulled up under the old trees before the square-built house. The windows were dark. The two men got out, circled the house once, then mounted the steps and rapped on the door. There was a black patch of charred flooring under the window, and the paint on the wall above it was bubbled. Somewhere a cricket set up a strident chirrup, suddenly cut off. Jess leaned down, picked up an empty shotgun shell. He looked at Tremaine. "This don't look good," he said. "You suppose those fool boys...?"
He tried the door. It opened. A broken hasp dangled. He turned to Tremaine. "Maybe this is more than kid stuff," he said. "You carry a gun?"
"In the car."
"Better get it."
Tremaine went to the car, dropped the pistol in his coat pocket, rejoined Jess inside the house. It was silent, deserted. In the kitchen Jess flicked the beam of his flashlight around the room. An empty plate lay on the oilcloth-covered table.
"This place is empty," he said. "Anybody'd think he'd been gone a week."
"Not a very cozy—" Tremaine broke off. A thin yelp sounded in the distance.
"I'm getting jumpy," said Jess. "Dern hounddog, I guess."
A low growl seemed to rumble distantly. "What the devil's that?" Tremaine said.
Jess shone the light on the floor. "Look here," he said. The ring of light showed a spatter of dark droplets all across the plank floor.
"That's blood, Jess...." Tremaine scanned the floor. It was of broad slabs, closely laid, scrubbed clean but for the dark stains.
"Maybe he cleaned a chicken. This is the kitchen."
"It's a trail." Tremaine followed the line of drops across the floor. It ended suddenly near the wall.
"What do you make of it. Jimmy?"
A wail sounded, a thin forlorn cry, trailing off into silence. Jess stared at Tremaine. "I'm too damned old to start believing in spooks," he said. "You suppose those damn-fool boys are hiding here, playing tricks?"
"I think." Tremaine said, "that we'd better go ask Hull Gaskin a few questions."
At the station Jess led Tremaine to a cell where a lanky teen-age boy lounged on a steel-framed cot, blinking up at the visitor under a mop of greased hair.
"Hull, this is Mr. Tremaine," said Jess. He took out a heavy key, swung the cell door open. "He wants to talk to you."
"I ain't done nothin," Hull said sullenly. "There ain't nothin wrong with burnin out a Commie, is there?"
"Bram's a Commie, is he?" Tremaine said softly. "How'd you find that out, Hull?"
"He's a foreigner, ain't he?" the youth shot back. "Besides, we heard...."
"What did you hear?"
"They're lookin for the spies."
"Who's looking for spies?"
"Who says so?"
The boy looked directly at Tremaine for an instant, flicked his eyes to the corner of the cell. "Cops was talkin about 'em," he said.
"Spill it, Hull," the policeman said. "Mr. Tremaine hasn't got all night."
"They parked out east of town, on 302, back of the woodlot. They called me over and asked me a bunch of questions. Said I could help 'em get them spies. Wanted to know all about any funny-actin people around hers."
"And you mentioned Bram?"
The boy darted another look at Tremaine. "They said they figured the spies was out north of town. Well, Bram's a foreigner, and he's out that way, ain't he?"
The boy looked at his feet.
"What did you shoot at, Hull?" Tremaine said. The boy looked at him sullenly.
"You know anything about the blood on the kitchen floor?"
"I don't know what you're talkin about," Hull said. "We was out squirrel-huntin."
"Hull, is Mr. Bram dead?"
"What you mean?" Hull blurted. "He was—"
"He was what?"
"The Chief won't like it if you hold out on him, Hull," Tremaine said. "He's bound to find out."
Jess looked at the boy. "Hull's a pretty dumb boy," he said. "But he's not that dumb. Let's have it, Hull."
The boy licked his lips. "I had Pa's 30-30, and Bovey Lay had a twelve-gauge...."
"What time was this?"
"Just after sunset."
"About seven-thirty, that'd be," said Jess. "That was half an hour before the fire was spotted."
"I didn't do no shootin. It was Bovey. Old Bram jumped out at him, and he just fired off the hip. But he didn't kill him. He seen him run off...."
"You were on the porch when this happened. Which way did Bram go?"
"He ... run inside."
"So then you set fire to the place. Whose bright idea was that?"
Hull sat silent. After a moment Tremaine and Jess left the cell.
"He must have gotten clear, Jimmy," said Jess. "Maybe he got scared and left town."
"Bram doesn't strike me as the kind to panic." Tremaine looked at his watch. "I've got to get on my way, Jess. I'll check with you in the morning."
Tremaine crossed the street to the Paradise Bar and Grill, pushed into the jukebox-lit interior, took a stool and ordered a Scotch and water. He sipped the drink, then sat staring into the dark reflection in the glass. The idea of a careful reconnoitre of the Elsby area was gone, now, with police swarming everywhere. It was too bad about Bram. It would be interesting to know where the old man was ... and if he was still alive. He'd always seemed normal enough in the old days: a big solid-looking man, middle-aged, always pleasant enough, though he didn't say much. He'd tried hard, that time, to interest Tremaine in learning whatever it was....
Tremaine put a hand in his jacket pocket, took out Miss Carroll's locket. It was smooth, the size and shape of a wrist-watch chassis. He was fingering it meditatively when a rough hand slammed against his shoulder, half knocking him from the stool. Tremaine caught his balance, turned, looked into the scarred face of a heavy-shouldered man in a leather jacket.
"I heard you was back in town, Tremaine," the man said.
The bartender moved up. "Looky here, Gaskin, I don't want no trouble—"
"Shove it!" Gaskin squinted at Tremaine, his upper lip curled back to expose the gap in his teeth. "You tryin to make more trouble for my boy, I hear. Been over to the jail, stickin your nose in."
Tremaine dropped the locket in his pocket and stood up. Gaskin hitched up his pants, glanced around the room. Half a dozen early drinkers stared, wide-eyed. Gaskin squinted at Tremaine. He smelled of unwashed flannel.
"Sicked the cops onto him. The boy was out with his friends, havin a little fun. Now there he sets in jail."
Tremaine moved aside from the stool, started past the man. Soup Gaskin grabbed his arm.
"Not so fast! I figger you owe me damages. I—"
"Damage is what you'll get," said Tremaine. He slammed a stiff left to Gaskin's ribs, drove a hard right to the jaw. Gaskin jack-knifed backwards, tripped over a bar stool, fell on his back. He rolled over, got to hands and knees, shook his head.
"Git up, Soup!" someone called. "Hot dog!" offered another.
"I'm calling the police!" the bartender yelled.
"Never mind," a voice said from the door. A blue-jacketed State Trooper strolled into the room, fingers hooked into his pistol belt, the steel caps on his boot heels clicking with each step. He faced Tremaine, feet apart.
"Looks like you're disturbin the peace, Mr. Tremaine," he said.
"You wouldn't know who put him up to it, would you?" Tremaine said.
"That's a dirty allegation," the cop grinned. "I'll have to get off a hot letter to my congressman."
Gaskin got to his feet, wiped a smear of blood across his cheek, then lunged past the cop and swung a wild right. Tremaine stepped aside, landed a solid punch on Gaskin's ear. The cop stepped back against the bar. Soup whirled, slammed out with lefts and rights. Tremaine lashed back with a straight left; Gaskin slammed against the bar, rebounded, threw a knockout right ... and Tremaine ducked, landed a right upper-cut that sent Gaskin reeling back, bowled over a table, sent glasses flying. Tremaine stood over him.
"On your feet, jailbird," he said. "A workout is exactly what I needed."
"Okay, you've had your fun," the State cop said. "I'm taking you in, Tremaine."
Tremaine looked at him. "Sorry, copper," he said. "I don't have time right now." The cop looked startled, reached for his revolver.
"What's going on here, Jimmy?" Jess stood in the door, a huge .44 in his hand. He turned his eyes on the trooper.
"You're a little out of your jurisdiction," he said. "I think you better move on 'fore somebody steals your bicycle."
The cop eyed Jess for a long moment, then holstered his pistol and stalked out of the bar. Jess tucked his revolver into his belt, looked at Gaskin sitting on the floor, dabbing at his bleeding mouth. "What got into you, Soup?"
"I think the State boys put him up to it," Tremaine said. "They're looking for an excuse to take me out of the picture."
Jess motioned to Gaskin. "Get up, Soup. I'm lockin you up alongside that boy of yours."
Outside, Jess said, "You got some bad enemies there, Jimmy. That's a tough break. You ought to hold onto your temper with those boys. I think maybe you ought to think about getting over the state line. I can run you to the bus station, and send your car along...."
"I can't leave now, Jess. I haven't even started."
In his room, Tremaine doctored the cut on his jaw, then opened his trunk, checked over the detector gear. The telephone rang.
"Tremaine? I've been on the telephone with Grammond. Are you out of your mind? I'm—"
"Fred," Tremaine cut in, "I thought you were going to get those state cops off my neck."
"Listen to me, Tremaine. You're called off this job as of now. Don't touch anything! You'd better stay right there in that room. In fact, that's an order!"
"Don't pick now to come apart at the seams, Fred," Tremaine snapped.
"I've ordered you off! That's all!" The phone clicked and the dial tone sounded. Tremaine dropped the receiver in its cradle, then walked to the window absently, his hand in his pocket.
He felt broken pieces and pulled out Miss Carroll's locket. It was smashed, split down the center. It must have gotten it in the tussle with Soup, Tremaine thought. It looked—
He squinted at the shattered ornament. A maze of fine wires was exposed, tiny condensers, bits of glass.
In the street below, tires screeched. Tremaine looked down. A black car was at the curb, doors sprung. Four uniformed men jumped out, headed for the door. Tremaine whirled to the phone. The desk clerk came on.
"Get me Jess—fast!"
The police chief answered.
"Jess, the word's out I'm poison. An earful of State law is at the front door. I'm going out the back. Get in their way all you can." Tremaine dropped the phone, grabbed up the suitcase and let himself out into the hall. The back stairs were dark. He stumbled, cursed, made it to the service entry. Outside, the alley was deserted.
He went to the corner, crossed the street, thrust the suitcase into the back seat of his car and slid into the driver's seat. He started up and eased away from the curb. He glanced in the mirror. There was no alarm.
It was a four-block drive to Miss Carroll's house. The housekeeper let Tremaine in.
"Oh, yes, Miss Carroll is still up," she said. "She never retires until nine. I'll tell her you're here, Mr. Tremaine."
Tremaine paced the room. On his third circuit Miss Carroll came in.
"I wouldn't have bothered you if it wasn't important," Tremaine said. "I can't explain it all now. You said once you had confidence in me. Will you come with me now? It concerns Bram ... and maybe a lot more than just Bram."
Miss Carroll looked at him steadily. "I'll get my wrap."
On the highway Tremaine said, "Miss Carroll, we're headed for Bram's house. I take it you've heard of what happened out there?"
"No, James. I haven't stirred out of the house. What is it?"
"A gang of teen-age toughs went out last night. They had guns. One of them took a shot at Bram. And Bram's disappeared. But I don't think he's dead."
Miss Carroll gasped. "Why? Why did they do it?"
"I don't think they know themselves."
"You say ... you believe he still lives...."
"He must be alive. It dawned on me a little while ago ... a little late, I'll admit. The locket he gave you. Did you ever try it?"
"Try it? Why ... no. I don't believe in magic, James."
"Not magic. Electronics. Years ago Bram talked to me about radio. He wanted to teach me. Now I'm here looking for a transmitter. That transmitter was busy last night. I think Bram was operating it."
There was a long silence.
"James," Miss Carroll said at last, "I don't understand."
"Neither do I, Miss Carroll. I'm still working on finding the pieces. But let me ask you: that night that Bram brought you out to his place. You say he ran to the kitchen and opened a trapdoor in the floor—"
"Did I say floor? That was an error: the panel was in the wall."
"I guess I jumped to the conclusion. Which wall?"
"He crossed the room. There was a table, with a candlestick. He went around it and pressed his hand against the wall, beside the wood-box. The panel slid aside. It was very dark within. He ducked his head, because the opening was not large, and stepped inside...."
"That would be the east wall ... to the left of the back door?"
"Now, Miss Carroll, can you remember exactly what Bram said to you that night? Something about fighting something, wasn't it?"
"I've tried for sixty years to put it out of my mind, James. But I remember every word, I think." She was silent for a moment.
"I was beside him on the buggy seat. It was a warm evening, late in spring. I had told him that I loved him, and ... he had responded. He said that he would have spoken long before, but that he had not dared. Now there was that which I must know.
"His life was not his own, he said. He was not ... native to this world. He was an agent of a mighty power, and he had trailed a band of criminals...." She broke off. "I could not truly understand that part, James. I fear it was too incoherent. He raved of evil beings who lurked in the shadows of a cave. It was his duty to wage each night an unceasing battle with occult forces."
"What kind of battle? Were these ghosts, or demons, or what?"
"I don't know. Evil powers which would be unloosed on the world, unless he met them at the portal as the darkness fell and opposed them."
"Why didn't he get help?"
"Only he could stand against them. I knew little of abnormal psychology, but I understood the classic evidence of paranoia. I shrank from him. He sat, leaning forward, his eyes intent. I wept and begged him to take me back. He turned his face to me, and I saw the pain and anguish in his eyes. I loved him ... and feared him. And he would not turn back. Night was falling, and the enemy awaited him."
"Then, when you got to the house...?"
"He had whipped up the horses, and I remember how I clung to the top braces, weeping. Then we were at the house. Without a word he jumped down and ran to the door. I followed. He lit a lamp and turned to me. From somewhere there was a wailing call, like an injured animal. He shouted something—an unintelligible cry—and ran toward the back of the house. I took up the lamp and followed. In the kitchen he went to the wall, pressed against it. The panel opened. He looked at me. His face was white.
"'In the name of the High God. Linda Carroll, I entreat you....'
"I screamed. And he hardened his face, and went down ... and I screamed and screamed again...." Miss Carroll closed her eyes, drew a shuddering breath.
"I'm sorry to have put you through this, Miss Carroll," Tremaine said. "But I had to know."
Faintly in the distance a siren sounded. In the mirror, headlights twinkled half a mile behind. Tremaine stepped on the gas. The powerful car leaped ahead.
"Are you expecting trouble on the road, James?"
"The State police are unhappy with me, Miss Carroll. And I imagine they're not too pleased with Jess. Now they're out for blood. But I think I can outrun them."
"James." Miss Carroll said, sitting up and looking behind. "If those are police officers, shouldn't you stop?"
"I can't, Miss Carroll. I don't have time for them now. If my idea means anything, we've got to get there fast...."
Bram's house loomed gaunt and dark as the car whirled through the gate, ground to a stop before the porch. Tremaine jumped out, went around the car and helped Miss Carroll out. He was surprised at the firmness of her step. For a moment, in the fading light of dusk, he glimpsed her profile. How beautiful she must have been....
He reached into the glove compartment for a flashlight.
"We haven't got a second to waste," he said. "That other car's not more than a minute behind us." He reached into the back of the car, hauled out the heavy suitcase. "I hope you remember how Bram worked that panel."
On the porch Tremaine's flashlight illuminated the broken hasp. Inside, he led the way along a dark hall, pushed into the kitchen.
"It was there," Miss Carroll said, pointing. Outside, an engine sounded on the highway, slowing, turning in. Headlights pushed a square of cold light across the kitchen wall. Tremaine jumped to the spot Miss Carroll had indicated, put the suitcase down, felt over the wall.
"Give me the light, James," Miss Carroll said calmly. "Press there." She put the spot on the wall. Tremaine leaned against it. Nothing happened. Outside, there was the thump of car doors; a muffled voice barked orders.
"Are you sure...?"
"Yes. Try again, James."
Tremaine threw himself against the wall, slapped at it, searching for a hidden latch.
"A bit higher; Bram was a tall man. The panel opened below...."
Tremaine reached higher, pounded, pushed up, sideways—
With a click a three by four foot section of wall rolled silently aside. Tremaine saw greased metal slides and, beyond, steps leading down.
"They are on the porch now, James," said Miss Carroll.
"The light!" Tremaine reached for it, threw a leg over the sill. He reached back, pulled the suitcase after him. "Tell them I kidnapped you, Miss Carroll. And thanks."
Miss Carroll held out her hand. "Help me, James. I hung back once before. I'll not repeat my folly."
Tremaine hesitated for an instant, then reached out, handed Miss Carroll in. Footsteps sounded in the hall. The flashlight showed Tremaine a black pushbutton bolted to a two by four stud. He pressed it. The panel slid back in place.
Tremaine flashed the light on the stairs.
"Okay, Miss Carroll," he said softly. "Let's go down."
There were fifteen steps, and at the bottom, a corridor, with curved walls of black glass, and a floor of rough boards. It went straight for twenty feet and ended at an old-fashioned five-panel wooden door. Tremaine tried the brass knob. The door opened on a room shaped from a natural cave, with waterworn walls of yellow stone, a low uneven ceiling, and a packed-earth floor. On a squat tripod in the center of the chamber rested an apparatus of black metal and glass, vaguely gunlike, aimed at the blank wall. Beside it, in an ancient wooden rocker, a man lay slumped, his shirt blood-caked, a black puddle on the floor beneath him.
"Bram!" Miss Carroll gasped. She went to him, took his hand, staring into his face.
"Is he dead?" Tremaine said tightly.
"His hands are cold ... but there is a pulse."
A kerosene lantern stood by the door. Tremaine lit it, brought it to the chair. He took out a pocket knife, cut the coat and shirt back from Bram's wound. A shotgun blast had struck him in the side; there was a lacerated area as big as Tremaine's hand.
"It's stopped bleeding," he said. "It was just a graze at close range, I'd say." He explored further. "It got his arm too, but not as deep. And I think there are a couple of ribs broken. If he hasn't lost too much blood...." Tremaine pulled off his coat, spread it on the floor.
"Let's lay him out here and try to bring him around."
Lying on his back on the floor, Bram looked bigger than his six-foot-four, younger than his near-century, Tremaine thought. Miss Carroll knelt at the old man's side, chafing his hands, murmuring to him.
Abruptly a thin cry cut the air.
Tremaine whirled, startled. Miss Carroll stared, eyes wide. A low rumble sounded, swelled louder, broke into a screech, cut off.
"Those are the sounds I heard that night," Miss Carroll breathed. "I thought afterwards I had imagined them, but I remember.... James, what does it mean?"
"Maybe it means Bram wasn't as crazy as you thought," Tremaine said.
Miss Carroll gasped sharply. "James! Look at the wall—"
Tremaine turned. Vague shadows moved across the stone, flickering, wavering.
"What the devil...!"
Bram moaned, stirred. Tremaine went to him. "Bram!" he said. "Wake up!"
Bram's eyes opened. For a moment he looked dazedly at Tremaine, then at Miss Carroll. Awkwardly he pushed himself to a sitting position.
"Bram ... you must lie down," Miss Carroll said.
"Linda Carroll," Bram said. His voice was deep, husky.
"Bram, you're hurt ..."
A mewling wail started up. Bram went rigid "What hour is this?" he grated.
"The sun has just gone down; it's after seven—"
Bram tried to get to his feet. "Help me up," he ordered. "Curse the weakness...."
Tremaine got a hand under the old man's arm. "Careful, Bram," he said. "Don't start your wound bleeding again."
"To the Repellor," Bram muttered. Tremaine guided him to the rocking chair, eased him down. Bram seized the two black pistol-grips, squeezed them.
"You, young man," Bram said. "Take the circlet there; place it about my neck."
The flat-metal ring hung from a wire loop. Tremaine fitted it over Bram's head. It settled snugly over his shoulders, a flange at the back against his neck.
"Bram," Tremaine said. "What's this all about?"
"Watch the wall there. My sight grows dim. Tell me what you see."
"It looks like shadows: but what's casting them?"
"Can you discern details?"
"No. It's like somebody waggling their fingers in front of a slide projector."
"The radiation from the star is yet too harsh," Bram muttered. "But now the node draws close. May the High Gods guide my hand!"
A howl rang out, a raw blast of sound. Bram tensed. "What do you see?" he demanded.
"The outlines are sharper. There seem to be other shapes behind the moving ones. It's like looking through a steamy window...." Beyond the misty surface Tremaine seemed to see a high narrow chamber, bathed in white light. In the foreground creatures like shadowy caricatures of men paced to and fro. "They're like something stamped out of alligator hide," Tremaine whispered. "When they turn and I see them edge-on, they're thin...."
"An effect of dimensional attenuation. They strive now to match matrices with this plane. If they succeed, this earth you know will lie at their feet."
"What are they? Where are they? That's solid rock—"
"What you see is the Niss Command Center. It lies in another world than this, but here is the multihedron of intersection. They bring their harmonic generators to bear here in the hope of establishing an aperture of focus."
"I don't understand half of what you're saying, Bram. And the rest I don't believe. But with this staring me in the face, I'll have to act as though I did."
Suddenly the wall cleared. Like a surface of moulded glass the stone threw back ghostly highlights. Beyond it, the Niss technicians, seen now in sharp detail, worked busily, silently, their faces like masks of ridged red-brown leather. Directly opposite Bram's Repellor, an apparatus like an immense camera with a foot-wide silvered lens stood aimed, a black-clad Niss perched in a saddle atop it. The white light flooded the cave, threw black shadows across the floor. Bram hunched over the Repellor, face tensed in strain. A glow built in the air around the Niss machine. The alien technicians stood now, staring with tiny bright-red eyes. Long seconds passed. The black-clad Niss gestured suddenly. Another turned to a red-marked knife-switch, pulled. As suddenly as it had cleared, the wall went milky, then dulled to opacity. Bram slumped back, eyes shut, breathing hoarsely.
"Near were they then," he muttered, "I grow weak...."
"Let me take over," Tremaine said. "Tell me how."
"How can I tell you? You will not understand."
"Maybe I'll understand enough to get us through the night."
Bram seemed to gather himself. "Very well. This must you know....
"I am an agent in the service of the Great World. For centuries we have waged war against the Niss, evil beings who loot the continua. They established an Aperture here, on your Earth. We detected it, and found that a Portal could be set up here briefly. I was dispatched with a crew to counter their move—"
"You're talking gibberish," Tremaine said. "I'll pass the Great World and the continua ... but what's an Aperture?"
"A point of material contact between the Niss world and this plane of space-time. Through it they can pump this rich planet dry of oxygen, killing it—then emerge to feed on the corpse."
"What's a Portal?"
"The Great World lies in a different harmonic series than do Earth and the Niss World. Only at vast intervals can we set up a Portal of temporary identity as the cycles mesh. We monitor the Niss emanations, and forestall them when we can, now in this plane, now in that."
"I see: denial to the enemy."
"But we were late. Already the multihedron was far advanced. A blinding squall lashed outside the river cave where the Niss had focused the Aperture, and the thunder rolled as the ionization effect was propagated in the atmosphere. I threw my force against the Niss Aperture, but could not destroy it ... but neither could they force their entry."
"And this was sixty years ago? And they're still at it?"
"You must throw off the illusion of time! To the Niss only a few days have passed. But here—where I spend only minutes from each night in the engagement, as the patterns coincide—it has been long years."
"Why don't you bring in help? Why do you have to work alone?"
"The power required to hold the Portal in focus against the stresses of space-time is tremendous. Even then the cycle is brief. It gave us first a fleeting contact of a few seconds; it was through that that we detected the Niss activity here. The next contact was four days later, and lasted twenty-four minutes—long enough to set up the Repellor. I fought them then ... and saw that victory was in doubt. Still, it was a fair world; I could not let it go without a struggle. A third identity was possible twenty days later; I elected to remain here until then, attempt to repel the Niss, then return home at the next contact. The Portal closed, and my crew and I settled down to the engagement.
"The next night showed us in full the hopelessness of the contest. By day, we emerged from where the Niss had focussed the Aperture, and explored this land, and came to love its small warm sun, its strange blue sky, its mantle of green ... and the small humble grass-blades. To us of an ancient world it seemed a paradise of young life. And then I ventured into the town ... and there I saw such a maiden as the Cosmos has forgotten, such was her beauty....
"The twenty days passed. The Niss held their foothold—yet I had kept them back.
"The Portal reopened. I ordered my crew back. It closed. Since then, have I been alone...."
"Bram," Miss Carroll said. "Bram ... you stayed when you could have escaped—and I—"
"I would that I could give you back those lost years, Linda Carroll," Bram said. "I would that we could have been together under a brighter sun than this."
"You gave up your world, to give this one a little time," Tremaine said. "And we rewarded you with a shotgun blast."
"Bram ... when will the Portal open again?"
"Not in my life, Linda Carroll. Not for ten thousand years."
"Why didn't you recruit help?" Tremaine said. "You could have trained someone...."
"I tried, at first. But what can one do with frightened rustics? They spoke of witchcraft, and fled."
"But you can't hold out forever. Tell me how this thing works. It's time somebody gave you a break!"
Bram talked for half an hour, while Tremaine listened. "If I should fail," he concluded, "take my place at the Repellor. Place the circlet on your neck. When the wall clears, grip the handles and pit your mind against the Niss. Will that they do not come through. When the thunder rolls, you will know that you have failed."
"All right. I'll be ready. But let me get one thing straight: this Repellor of yours responds to thoughts, is that right? It amplifies them—"
"It serves to focus the power of the mind. But now let us make haste. Soon, I fear, will they renew the attack."
"It will be twenty minutes or so, I think," said Tremaine. "Stay where you are and get some rest."
Bram looked at him, his blue eyes grim under white brows. "What do you know of this matter, young man?"
"I think I've doped out the pattern; I've been monitoring these transmissions for weeks. My ideas seemed to prove out okay the last few nights."
"No one but I in all this world knew of the Niss attack. How could you have analyzed that which you knew not of?"
"Maybe you don't know it, Bram, but this Repellor of yours has been playing hell with our communications. Recently we developed what we thought was a Top Secret project—and you're blasting us off the air."
"This is only a small portable unit, poorly screened," Bram said. "The resonance effects are unpredictable. When one seeks to channel the power of thought—"
"Wait a minute!" Tremaine burst out.
"What is it?" Miss Carroll said, alarmed.
"Hyperwave," Tremaine said. "Instantaneous transmission. And thought. No wonder people had headaches—and nightmares! We've been broadcasting on the same band as the human mind!"
"This 'hyperwave'," Bram said. "You say it is instantaneous?"
"That's supposed to be classified information."
"Such a device is new in the cosmos," Bram said. "Only a protoplasmic brain is known to produce a null-lag excitation state."
Tremaine frowned. "Bram, this Repellor focuses what I'll call thought waves for want of a better term. It uses an interference effect to damp out the Niss harmonic generator. What if we poured more power to the Repellor?"
"No. The power of the mind cannot be amplified—"
"I don't mean amplification; I mean an additional source. I have a hyperwave receiver here. With a little rewiring, it'll act as a transmitter. Can we tie it in?"
Bram shook his head. "Would that I were a technician," he said. "I know only what is required to operate the device."
"Let me take a look," Tremaine said. "Maybe I can figure it out."
"Take care. Without it, we fall before the Niss."
"I'll be careful." Tremaine went to the machine, examined it, tracing leads, identifying components.
"This seems clear enough," he said. "These would be powerful magnets here; they give a sort of pinch effect. And these are refracting-field coils. Simple, and brilliant. With this idea, we could beam hyperwave—"
"First let us deal with the Niss!"
"Sure." Tremaine looked at Bram. "I think I can link my apparatus to this," he said. "Okay if I try?"
"It shouldn't take more than fifteen minutes."
"That leaves little time."
"The cycle is tightening," Tremaine said. "I figure the next transmissions ... or attacks ... will come at intervals of under five minutes for several hours now; this may be the last chance."
"Then try," said Bram.
Tremaine nodded, went to the suitcase, took out tools and a heavy black box, set to work. Linda Carroll sat by Bram's side, speaking softly to him. The minutes passed.
"Okay," Tremaine said. "This unit is ready." He went to the Repellor, hesitated a moment, then turned two nuts and removed a cover.
"We're off the air," he said. "I hope my formula holds."
Bram and Miss Carroll watched silently as Tremaine worked. He strung wires, taped junctions, then flipped a switch on the hyperwave set and tuned it, his eyes on the dials of a smaller unit.
"Nineteen minutes have passed since the last attack," Bram said. "Make haste."
"I'm almost done," Tremaine said.
A sharp cry came from the wall. Tremaine jumped. "What the hell makes those sounds?"
"They are nothing—mere static. But they warn that the harmonic generators are warming." Bram struggled to his feet. "Now comes the assault."
"The shadows!" Miss Carroll cried.
Bram sank into the chair, leaned back, his face pale as wax in the faint glow from the wall. The glow grew brighter; the shadows swam into focus.
"Hurry, James," Miss Carroll said. "It comes quickly."
Bram watched through half-closed eyes. "I must man the Repellor. I...." He fell back in the chair, his head lolling.
"Bram!" Miss Carroll cried. Tremaine snapped the cover in place, whirled to the chair, dragged it and its occupant away from the machine, then turned, seized the grips. On the wall the Niss moved in silence, readying the attack. The black-clad figure was visible, climbing to his place. The wall cleared. Tremaine stared across at the narrow room, the gray-clad Niss. They stood now, eyes on him. One pointed. Others erected leathery crests.
Stay out, you ugly devils, Tremaine thought. Go back, retreat, give up....
Now the blue glow built in a flickering arc across the Niss machine. The technicians stood, staring across the narrow gap, tiny red eyes glittering in the narrow alien faces. Tremaine squinted against the brilliant white light from the high-vaulted Niss Command Center. The last suggestion of the sloping surface of the limestone wall was gone. Tremaine felt a draft stir; dust whirled up, clouded the air. There was an odor of iodine.
Back, Tremaine thought. Stay back....
There was a restless stir among the waiting rank of Niss. Tremaine heard the dry shuffle of horny feet against the floor, the whine of the harmonic generator. His eyes burned. As a hot gust swept around him he choked and coughed.
NO! he thought, hurling negation like a weightless bomb. FAIL! RETREAT!
Now the Niss moved, readying a wheeled machine, rolling it into place. Tremaine coughed rackingly, fought to draw a breath, blinking back blindness. A deep thrumming started up; grit particles stung his cheek, the backs of his hands. The Niss worked rapidly, their throat gills visibly dilated now in the unaccustomed flood of oxygen....
Our oxygen, Tremaine thought. The looting has started already, and I've failed, and the people of Earth will choke and die....
From what seemed an immense distance, a roll of thunder trembled at the brink of audibility, swelling.
The black-clad Niss on the alien machine half rose, erecting a black-scaled crest, exulting. Then, shockingly, his eyes fixed on Tremaine's, his trap-like mouth gaped, exposing a tongue like a scarlet snake, a cavernous pink throat set with a row of needle-like snow-white teeth. The tongue flicked out, a gesture of utter contempt.
And suddenly Tremaine was cold with deadly rage. We have a treatment for snakes in this world, he thought with savage intensity. We crush 'em under our heels.... He pictured a writhing rattler, broken-backed, a club descending; a darting red coral snake, its venom ready, slashed in the blades of a power mower; a cottonmouth, smashed into red ruin by a shotgun blast....
BACK, SNAKE, he thought. DIE! DIE!
The thunder faded.
And atop the Niss Generator, the black-clad Niss snapped his mouth shut, crouched.
"DIE!" Tremaine shouted. "Die!"
The Niss seemed to shrink in on himself, shivering. His crest went flaccid, twitched twice. The red eyes winked out and the Niss toppled from the machine. Tremaine coughed, gripped the handles, turned his eyes to a gray-uniformed Niss who scrambled up to replace the operator.
I SAID DIE, SNAKE!
The Niss faltered, tumbled back among his fellows, who darted about now like ants in a broached anthill. One turned red eyes on Tremaine, then scrambled for the red cut-out switch.
NO, YOU DON'T, Tremaine thought. IT'S NOT THAT EASY, SNAKE. DIE!
The Niss collapsed. Tremaine drew a rasping breath, blinked back tears of pain, took in a group of Niss in a glance.
They fell. The others turned to flee then, but like a scythe Tremaine's mind cut them down, left them in windrows. Hate walked naked among the Niss and left none living.
Now the machines. Tremaine thought. He fixed his eyes on the harmonic generator. It melted into slag. Behind it, the high panels set with jewel-like lights blackened, crumpled into wreckage. Suddenly the air was clean again. Tremaine breathed deep. Before him the surface of the rock swam into view.
NO! Tremaine thought thunderously. HOLD THAT APERTURE OPEN!
The rock-face shimmered, faded. Tremaine looked into the white-lit room, at the blackened walls, the huddled dead. No pity, he thought. You would have sunk those white teeth into soft human throats, sleeping in the dark ... as you've done on a hundred worlds. You're a cancer in the cosmos. And I have the cure.
WALLS, he thought, COLLAPSE!
The roof before him sagged, fell in. Debris rained down from above, the walls tottered, went down. A cloud of roiled dust swirled, cleared to show a sky blazing with stars.
Dust, stay clear, Tremaine thought. I want good air to breathe for the work ahead. He looked out across a landscape of rock, ghostly white in the starlight.
LET THE ROCKS MELT AND FLOW LIKE WATER!
An upreared slab glowed, slumped, ran off in yellow rivulets that were lost in the radiance of the crust as it bubbled, belching released gasses. A wave of heat struck Tremaine. Let it be cool here, he thought. Now, Niss world....
"No!" Bram's voice shouted. "Stop, stop!"
Tremaine hesitated. He stared at the vista of volcanic fury before him.
I could destroy it all, he thought. And the stars in the Niss sky....
"Great is the power of your hate, man of Earth," Bram cried. "But curb it now, before you destroy us all!"
"Why?" Tremaine shouted. "I can wipe out the Niss and their whole diseased universe with them, with a thought!"
"Master yourself," Bram said hoarsely. "Your rage destroys you! One of the suns you see in the Niss sky is your Sol!"
"Sol?" Tremaine said. "Then it's the Sol of a thousand years ago. Light takes time to cross a galaxy. And the earth is still here ... so it wasn't destroyed!"
"Wise are you," Bram said. "Your race is a wonder in the Cosmos, and deadly is your hate. But you know nothing of the forces you unloose now. Past time is as mutable as the steel and rock you melted but now."
"Listen to him, James," Miss Carroll pleaded. "Please listen."
Tremaine twisted to look at her, still holding the twin grips. She looked back steadily, her head held high. Beside her, Bram's eyes were sunken deep in his lined face.
"Jess said you looked like a princess once, Miss Carroll," Tremaine said, "when you drove past with your red hair piled up high. And Bram: you were young, and you loved her. The Niss took your youth from you. You've spent your life here, fighting them, alone. And Linda Carroll waited through the years, because she loved you ... and feared you. The Niss did that. And you want me to spare them?"
"You have mastered them," said Bram. "And you are drunk with the power in you. But the power of love is greater than the power of hate. Our love sustained us; your hate can only destroy."
Tremaine locked eyes with the old man. He drew a deep breath at last, let it out shudderingly. "All right," he said "I guess the God complex got me." He looked back once more at the devastated landscape. "The Niss will remember this encounter, I think. They won't try Earth again."
"You've fought valiantly, James, and won," Miss Carroll said. "Now let the power go."
Tremaine turned again to look at her. "You deserve better than this, Miss Carroll," he said. "Bram, you said time is mutable. Suppose—"
"Let well enough alone," Bram said. "Let it go!"
"Once, long ago, you tried to explain this to Linda Carroll. But there was too much against it; she couldn't understand. She was afraid. And you've suffered for sixty years. Suppose those years had never been. Suppose I had come that night ... instead of now—"
"It could never be!"
"It can if I will it!" Tremaine gripped the handles tighter. Let this be THAT night, he thought fiercely. The night in 1901, when Bram's last contact failed. Let it be that night, five minutes before the portal closed. Only this machine and I remain as we are now; outside there are gas lights in the farm houses along the dirt road to Elsby, and in the town horses stand in the stables along the cinder alleys behind the houses; and President McKinley is having dinner in the White House....
There was a sound behind Tremaine. He whirled. The ravaged scene was gone. A great disc mirror stood across the cave, intersecting the limestone wall. A man stepped through it, froze at the sight of Tremaine. He was tall, with curly blond hair, fine-chiseled features, broad shoulders.
"Fdazh ha?" he said. Then his eyes slid past Tremaine, opened still wider in astonishment. Tremaine followed the stranger's glance. A young woman, dressed in a negligee of pale silk, stood in the door, a hair-brush in her hand, her red hair flowing free to her waist. She stood rigid in shock.
"Mr. Bram...!" she gasped. "What—"
Tremaine found his voice. "Miss Carroll, don't be afraid," he said. "I'm your friend, you must believe me."
Linda Carroll turned wide eyes to him. "Who are you?" she breathed. "I was in my bedroom—"
"I can't explain. A miracle has been worked here tonight ... on your behalf." Tremaine turned to Bram. "Look—" he started.
"What man are you?" Bram cut in in heavily accented English. "How do you come to this place?"
"Listen to me, Bram!" Tremaine snapped. "Time is mutable. You stayed here, to protect Linda Carroll—and Linda Carroll's world. You've just made that decision, right?" Tremaine went on, not waiting for a reply. "You were stuck here ... for sixty years. Earth technology developed fast. One day a man stumbled in here, tracing down the signal from your Repellor; that was me. You showed me how to use the device ... and with it I wiped out the Niss. And then I set the clock back for you and Linda Carroll. The Portal closes in two minutes. Don't waste time...."
"Mutable time?" Bram said. He went past Tremaine to Linda. "Fair lady of Earth," he said. "Do not fear...."
"Sir, I hardly know you," Miss Carroll said. "How did I come here, hardly clothed—"
"Take her, Bram!" Tremaine shouted. "Take her and get back through that Portal—fast." He looked at Linda Carroll. "Don't be afraid," he said. "You know you love him; go with him now, or regret it all your days."
"Will you come?" asked Bram. He held out his hand to her. Linda hesitated, then put her hand in his. Bram went with her to the mirror surface, handed her through. He looked back at Tremaine.
"I do not understand, man of Earth," he said "But I thank you." Then he was gone.
Alone in the dim-lit grotto Tremaine let his hands fall from the grips, staggered to the rocker and sank down. He felt weak, drained of strength. His hands ached from the strain of the ordeal. How long had it lasted? Five minutes? An hour? Or had it happened at all...?
But Bram and Linda Carroll were gone. He hadn't imagined that. And the Niss were defeated.
But there was still his own world to contend with. The police would be waiting, combing through the house. They would want to know what he had done with Miss Carroll. Maybe there would be a murder charge. There'd be no support from Fred and the Bureau. As for Jess, he was probably in a cell now, looking a stiff sentence in the face for obstructing justice....
Tremaine got to his feet, cast a last glimpse at the empty room, the outlandish shape of the Repellor, the mirrored portal. It was a temptation to step through it. But this was his world, with all its faults. Perhaps later, when his strength returned, he could try the machine again....
The thought appalled him. The ashes of hate are worse than the ashes of love, he thought. He went to the stairs, climbed them, pressed the button. Nothing happened. He pushed the panel aside by hand and stepped into the kitchen. He circled the heavy table with the candlestick, went along the hall and out onto the porch. It was almost the dawn of a fresh spring day. There was no sign of the police. He looked at the grassy lawn, the row of new-set saplings.
Strange, he thought. I don't remember any saplings. I thought I drove in under a row of trees.... He squinted into the misty early morning gloom. His car was gone. That wasn't too surprising; the cops had impounded it, no doubt. He stepped down, glanced at the ground ahead. It was smooth, with a faint footpath cut through the grass. There was no mud, no sign of tire tracks—
The horizon seemed to spin suddenly. My God!! Tremaine thought I've left myself in the year 1901...!
He whirled, leaped up on the porch, slammed through the door and along the hall, scrambled through the still-open panel, bounded down the stairs and into the cave—
The Repellor was gone. Tremaine leaped forward with a cry—and under his eyes, the great mirror twinkled, winked out. The black box of the hyperwave receiver lay alone on the floor, beside the empty rocker. The light of the kerosene lamp reflected from the featureless wall.
Tremaine turned, stumbled up the steps, out into the air. The sun showed a crimson edge just peeping above distant hills.
1901, Tremaine thought. The century has just turned. Somewhere a young fellow named Ford is getting ready to put the nation on wheels, and two boys named Wright are about to give it wings. No one ever heard of a World War, or the roaring Twenties, or Prohibition, or FDR, or the Dust Bowl, or Pearl Harbor. And Hiroshima and Nagasaki are just two cities in distant floral Japan....
He walked down the path, stood by the rutted dirt road. Placid cows nuzzled damp grass in the meadow beyond it. In the distance a train hooted.
There are railroads, Tremaine thought. But no jet planes, no radio, no movies, no automatic dish-washers. But then there's no TV, either. That makes up for a lot. And there are no police waiting to grill me, and no murder charge, and no neurotic nest of bureaucrats waiting to welcome me back....
He drew a deep breath. The air was sweet. I'm here, he thought. I feel the breeze on my face and the firm sod underfoot. It's real, and it's all there is now, so I might as well take it calmly. After all, a man with my education ought to be able to do well in this day and age!
Whistling, Tremaine started the ten-mile walk into town.