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"Maybe.”


"Why would it be there all this time?" "I don't know. Maybe it's been there a lot longer. Hundreds of years.


Thousands.”


"But why a starship at the bottom of a pond?" "Maybe it's an observation station, a place where they monitor human civilization, like an outpost we might set up in Antarctica to study things there.


Holly realized they sounded like kids sitting under the stars on a summer night, drawn like all kids to the contemplation of the unknown and to fantasies of exotic adventure. On one level she found their musings absurd, even laughable, and she was unable to believe that recent events could have such a neat yet fanciful explanation. But on another level, where she was still a child and always would be, she desperately wanted the fantasy to be made real.


Twenty minutes passed without a new development, and gradually Holly began to settle down from the heights of excitement and nervous agitation to which the lights in the pond had catapulted her. Still filled with wonder but no longer mentally numbed by it, she remembered what had happened to her just prior to the appearance of the radiant presence in the millpond: the overwhelming, preternatural, almost panic-inducing awareness of being watched. She was about to mention it to Jim when she recalled the other strange things she had found at the farmhouse.


"It's completely furnished," she said. "You never cleaned the house out after your grandfather died.”


"I left it furnished in case I was able to rent it while waitin for a buyer.”


Those were virtually the same words she had used, standing in the house, to explain the curious situation to herself "But you left all their personal belongings there, too.”


He did not look at her but at the walls, waiting for some sign of a superhuman presence. "I'd have taken that stuff away if I'd ever found a renter.”


"You've left it there for almost five years?" He shrugged.


She said, "It's been cleaned more or less regularly since then, though not recently.


"A renter might always show up.”


"It's sort of creepy, Jim.”


Finally he looked at her. "How so?" "It's like a mausoleum.”


His blue eyes were utterly unreadable, but Holly had the feeling she was annoying him, perhaps because this mundane talk of renters and house cleaning and real estate was pulling him away from the more pleasurable contemplation of alien encounters.


He sighed and said, "Yeah, it is creepy, a little.”


"Then why. . . ?" He slowly twisted the lantern control, reducing the flow of gas to the wicks. The hard white light softened to a moon-pale glow, and the shadows eased closer. "To tell you the truth, I couldn't bear to pack up my granddad's things. Together, we'd sorted through grandma's belongings only eight months earlier, when she'd died, and that had been hard enough. When he. . . passed away so soon after her, it was too much for me. For so long, they'd been all I had.


Then suddenly I didn't even have them.”


A tortured expression darkened the blue of his eyes.


As a flood of sympathy washed through Holly, she reached across the ice chest and took his hand.


He said, "I procrastinated, kept procrastinating, and the longer I delayed sorting through his things, the harder it became to ever do it.”


He sighed again. "If I'd have found a renter or a buyer, that would have forced me to put things in order, no matter how unpleasant the job.


But this old farm is about as marketable as a truckload of sand in the middle of the Mojave.”


Closing the house upon the death of his grandfather, touching nothing in it for four years and four months, except to clean it once in a while that was eccentric. Holly couldn't see it any other way. At the same time, however, it was an eccentricity that touched her, moved her. As she had sensed from the start, he was a gentle man beneath his rage, beneath his steely superhero identity, and she liked the soft-hearted part of him, too.


"We'll do it together," Holly said. "When we've figured out what the hell is happening to us, wherever and however we go on from here, there'll be time for us to sort through your grandfather's things. It won't be so difficult if we do it together.”


He smiled at her and squeezed her hand.


She remembered something else. "Jim, you recall the description I gave you of the woman in my dream last night, the woman who came up the mill stairs?" "Sort of" "You said you didn't recognize her.”


"So?" "But there's a photo of her in the house.”


"There is?" "In the living room, that photograph of a couple in their early fifties.


Are they your grandparents, Lena and Henry?" "Yeah. That's right.”


"Lena was the woman in my dream.”


He frowned. "Isn't that odd. . . ?" "Well, maybe. But what's odder is, you didn't recognize her.”


"I guess your description wasn't that good.”


"But didn't you hear me say she had a beauty mark-" His eyes narrowed, and his hand tightened around hers. "Quick, the tablets.”


Confused, she said, "What?" "Something's about to happen, I feel it, and we need the tablets we bought at The Center.”


He let go of her hand, and she withdrew the two yellow, lined tablets and felt-tip pen from the plastic bag at her side. He took them from her, hesitated, looking around at the walls and at the shadows above them, as if waiting to be told what to do next.


The bells rang.


That musical tintinnabulation sent a thrill through Jim. He knew that he was on the verge of discovering the meaning not merely of the events of the past year but of the last two and a half decades. And not just that, either. More. Much more. The ringing heralded the revelation of even greater understanding, transcendental truths, an explanation of the fundamental meaning of his entire life, past and future, origins and destiny, and of the meaning of existence itself Grandiose as such a notion might be, he sensed that the secrets of creation would be revealed to him before he left the windmill, and that he would reach the state of enlightenment he had sought-and failed to find-in a score of religions.


As the second spell of ringing began, Holly started to get up.


Jim figured she intended to descend to the window on the stairs and look into the pond. He said, "No, wait. It's going to happen here this time.”


She hesitated, then sat down.


As the ringing stopped again, Jim felt compelled to push the ice chest out of the way and put one of the yellow, lined tablets on the floor between him and Holly. He was not sure what he was expected to do with the other tablet and the pen, but after a brief moment of indecision, he held on to them.


When the melodic ringing began a third time, it was accompanied by an impossible pulse of light within the limestone walls. The red glow seemed to well up from inside the stone at a point directly in front of them, then suddenly raced around the room, encircling them with a throbbing band of luminescence.


Even as the strange fire whipped around them, Holly issued a wordless sound of fear, and Jim remembered what she had told him of her dream last night. The woman-whether it had been his grandmother or not-had climbed the stairs into the high room, had seen an amber emanation within the walls, as if the mill was made of colored glass, and had witnessed something unimaginably hostile being born out of those mortared blocks.


"It's okay." He was eager to reassure her. "This isn't The Enemy.


It's something else. There's no danger here. This is a different light.”


He was only sharing with her the reassurances that were flooding into him from a higher power. He hoped to God that he was correct, that no threat was imminent, for he remembered too well the hideous biological transformation of his own bedroom ceiling in Laguna Niguel little more than twelve hours ago. Light had pulsed within the oily, insectile birth sac that had blistered out of ordinary drywall, and the shadowy form within, writhing and twitching, had been nothing he would ever want to see more directly.


During two more bursts of melodic ringing, the color of the light changed to amber. But otherwise it in no way resembled the menacing radiance in his bedroom ceiling, which had been a different shade of amber altogether the vile yellow of putrescent matter or of rich dark pus-and which had throbbed in sympathy with an ominous tripartite heartbeat that was not audible now.


Holly looked scared nonetheless.


He wished he could pull her close, put his arm around her. But he needed to give his undivided attention to the higher power that was striving to reach him.


The ringing stopped, but the light did not fade. It quivered, shimmered, dimmed, and brightened. It moved through the otherwise dark wall in scores of separate amoeba-like forms that constantly flowed together and separated into new shapes; it was like a one-dimensional representation of the kaleidoscopic display in one of those old Lava lamps. The ever-changing patterns evolved on all sides of them, from the base of the wall to the apex of the domed ceiling.


"I feel like we're in a bathysphere, all glass, suspended far, far down in the ocean," Holly said. "And great schools of luminescent fish are diving and soaring and swirling past us on all sides, through the deep black water.”


He loved her for putting the experience into better words than he could summon, words that would not let him forget the images they described, even if he lived a hundred years.


Unquestionably, the ghostly luminosity lay within the stone, not merely on the surface of it. He could see into that now-translucent substance, as if it had been alchemized into a dark but well-clarified quartz. The amber radiance brightened the room more than did the lantern, which he had turned low. His trembling hands looked golden, as did Holly's face.


But pockets of darkness remained, and the constantly moving light enlivened the shadows as well.


"What now?" Holly asked softly.


Jim noticed that something had happened to the yellow tablet on the floor between them. "Look.”


Words had appeared on the top third of the first page. They looked as if they had been formed by a finger dipped in ink: I AM WITH YOU.


Holly had been distracted-to say the least!-by the lightshow, but she did not think that Jim could have leaned to the tablet and printed the words with the felt-tip pen or any other instrument without drawing her attention. Yet she found it hard to believe that some disembodied presence had conveyed the message.


"I think we're being encouraged to ask questions," Jim said.


"Then ask it what it is," she said at once.


He wrote a question on the second tablet, which he was holding, and showed it to her: Who are you? As they watched, the answer appeared on the first tablet, which lay between and slightly in front of them at such an angle that they could both read it. The words were not burnt onto the paper and were not formed by ink that dripped magically from the air. Instead, the irregular, wavery letters appeared as dim gray shapes and grew darker as they seemed to float up out of the paper, as though a page of the tablet were not one-five hundredth of an inch thick but a pool of liquid many feet deep. She recognized immediately that this was similar to the effect she had seen earlier when the balls of light had risen to the center of the pond before bursting and casting concentric rings of illumination outward through the water this was, as well, how the light had first welled up in the limestone walls before the blocks had become thoroughly translucent.


THE FRIEND.


Who are you? The Friend.


It seemed to be an odd self description. Not "your friend" or "a friend" but The Friend.


For an alien intelligence, if indeed that's all it was, the name had curious spiritual implications, connotations of divinity. Men had given God many names-Jehovah, Allah, Brahma, Zeus, Aesir-but even more titles.


God was The Almighty, The Eternal Being, The Infinite, The Father, The Savior, The Creator, The Light. The Friend seemed to fit right into that list.


Jim quickly wrote another question and showed it to Holly: Where do you come from? ANOTHER WORLD.


Which could mean anything from heaven to Mars.


Do you mean another planet? YES.


"My God," Holly said, awed in spite of herself So much for the great hereafter.


She looked up from the tablet and met Jim's eyes. They seemed to shine brighter than ever, although the chrome-yellow light had imparted to them an exceptional green tint.


Restless with excitement, she rose onto her knees, then eased back again, sitting on her calves. The top tablet page was filled with the entity's responses. Holly equivocated only briefly, then tore it off and set it aside, so they could see the second page. She glanced back and forth between Jim's questions and the rapidly appearing answers.


From another solar sy.stern? YES.


From another galaxy? YES.


Is it your vessel we've seen in the pond? YES.


How long have you been here? ,000 YEARS.


As she stared at that figure, it seemed to Holly that this moment was more like a dream than some of the actual dreams she'd been having lately.


After so much mystery, there were answers-but they seemed to be coming too easily. She did not know what she had expected, but she had not imagined that the murkiness in which they had been operating would clear as quickly as if a drop of a magical universal detergent had been dropped into it.


"Ask her why she's here," Holly said, tearing off the second sheet and putting it with the first.


Jim was surprised. "She?" "Why not?" He brightened. "Why not?" he agreed.


He turned to a new page in his own tablet and wrote her question: Why are you here? Floating up through the paper to the surface: TO OBSERVE, TO STUDY, TO HELP MANKIND.


"You know what this is like?" Holly said.


"What's it like?" "An episode of Outer Limits" "The old TV show?" "Yeah.”


"Wasn't that before your time?" "It's on cable.”


"But what do you mean it's like an episode of Outer Limits?" She frowned at TO OBSERVE, TO STUDY, TO HELP MANKIND and said, "Don't you think it's a little. . . trite?" "Trite?" He was irritated. "No, I don't. Because I haven't any idea what alien contact should be like. I haven't had a whole lot of experience with it, certainly not enough to have expectations or be jaded.”


"I'm sorry. I don't know. . . it's just. . . okay, let's see where this leads.”


She had to admit that she was no less awed than she had been when the light had first appeared in the walls. Her heart continued to thud hard and fast, and she was still unable to draw a really deep breath.

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