Jim had moved away from her. He was leaning against the wall between two windows, the display of light quietly exploding around him. "What's the matter with you?" he asked.
"It's all too much," she said.
"What is?" "Okay, it says it wants you to save special people.”
"To help mankind" "Sure, sure," Holly said to the wall.
To Jim she said, "But these people are all just too special, don't you think? Maybe it's me, but it all seems overblown, it's gotten trite again.
Nobody's growing up to be just a damned good doctor, or a businessman who creates a new industry and maybe ten thousand jobs, or an honest and courageous cop, or a terrific nurse. No, they're great diplomats, great scientists, great politicians, great peacemakers.
Great, great, great!" "Is this adversarial journalism?" "Damn right.”
He pushed away from the wall, used both hands to smooth his thick hair back from his forehead, and cocked his head at her. "I see your point, why it's starting to sound like another episode of Outer Limits to you, but let's think about this. It's a crazy, extravagant situation. A being from another world, with powers that seem godlike to us, decides to use me to better the chances of the human race. Isn't it logical that he'd send me out to save special, really special people instead of your theoretical business tycoon?" "Oh, it's logical," she said. "It just doesn't ring true to me, and I've got a fairly well-developed nose for deception.”
"Is that why you were a great success as a reporter?" She might have laughed at the image of an alien, vastly superior to human beings, stooping to engage in a bickering match. But the impatience and poutiness she'd thought she detected as an undercurrent in some of its previous answers was now unmistakable, and the concept of a hypersensitive, resentful creature with godlike power was too unnerving to be funny at the moment.
"How's that for a higher power?" she asked Jim. "Any second now, he's going to call me a bitch.”
The Friend said nothing.
Consulting her notebook again, she said, "July twentieth. Steven Aimes.
Schools of light swam through the walls. The patterns were less graceful and less sensuous than before; if the lightshow had been the visual equivalent of one of Brahms's most pacific symphonies, it was now more like the discordant wailing of bad progressive jazz.
"What about Steven Aimes?" she demanded, scared but remembering how an exertion of will had been met with respect before.
"I am going now" "That was a short tide," she said.
The amber light began to darken.
"The tides in the vessel are not regular or of equal duration. But I will return. " "What about Steven Aimes? He was fifty-seven, still capable of siring a great something-or-other, though maybe a little long in the tooth. Why did you save Steve?" The voice grew somewhat deeper, slipping from baritone toward bass, and it hardened. "It would not be wise for you to attempt to leave" She had been waiting for that. As soon as she heard the words, she knew she had been tensed in expectation of them.
Jim, however, was stunned. He turned, looking around at the dark amber forms swirling and melding and splitting apart again, as if trying to figure out the biological geography of the thing, so he could look it in the eyes. "What do you mean by that? We'll leave any time we want.”
"You must wait for my return. You will die if you attempt to leave.
" "Don't you want to help mankind any more?" Holly asked sharply.
"Do not sleep." Jim moved to Holly's side.
Whatever estrangement she had caused between her and Jim, by taking an aggressive stance with The Friend, was apparently behind them. He put an arm around her protectively.
"You dare not sleep." The limestone was mottled with a deep red glow.
"Dreams are doorways." The bloody light went out.
The lantern provided the only illumination. And in the deeper darkness that followed The Friend's departure, the quiet hiss of the burning gas was the only sound.
Holly stood at the head of the stairs, shining a flashlight into the gloom below. Jim supposed she was trying to make up her mind whether they really would be prevented from leaving the mill-and if so, how violently.
Watching her from where he sat on his sleeping bag, he could not understand why it was all turning sour.
He had come to the windmill because the bizarre and frightening events in his bedroom in Laguna Niguel, over eighteen hours ago, had made it impossible to continue ignoring the dark side to the mystery in which he had become enwrapped. Prior to that, he had been willing to drift along, doing what he was compelled to do, pulling people out of the fire at the last minute, a bemused but game superhero who had to rely on airplanes when he wanted to fly and who had to do his own laundry. But the increasing intrusion of The Enemy-whatever the hell it was-its undeniable evil and fierce hostility, no longer allowed Jim the luxury of ignorance. The Enemy was struggling to break through from some other place, another dimension perhaps, and it seemed to be getting closer on each attempt. Learning the truth about the higher power behind his activities had not been at the top of his agenda, because he had felt that enlightenment would be granted to him in time, but learning about The Enemy had come to seem urgently necessary for his survival-and Holly's.
Nevertheless, he had traveled to the farm with the expectation that he would encounter good as well as evil, experience joy as well as fear.
Whatever he learned by plunging into the unknown should at least leave him with a greater understanding of his sacred life-saving mission and the supernatural forces behind it. But now he was more confused than before he'd come. Some developments had filled him with the wonder and joy for which he longed: the ringing in the stone, for one; and the beautiful, almost divine, light that was the essence of The Friend. He had been moved to rapture by the revelation that he was not merely saving lives but saving people so special that their survival would improve the fate of the entire human race.
But that spiritual bliss had been snatched away from him by the growing realization that The Friend was either not telling them the whole truth or, worst case, was not telling them anything true at all. 'The childish petulance of the creature was unnerving in the extreme, and now Jim was not sure that anything he had done since saving the Newsomes last May was in the service of good rather than evil.
Yet his fear was still tempered by hope. Though a splinter of despair had lodged in his heart and begun to fester, that spiritual infection was held in check by the core of optimism, however fragile, that had always been at the center of him.
Holly switched off the flashlight, returned from the open door, and s down on her mattress. "I don't know, maybe it was an empty threat, but there's no way of telling till we try to leave.”
"You want to?" She shook her head. "What's the point in getting off the farm anyway? From everything we know, it can reach out to us anywhere we go.
Right? I mean it reached you in Laguna Niguel, sent you on these missions, reached you out there in Nevada and sent you on to Boston to rescue Nicholas O'Conner.”
"I've felt it with me, at times, no matter where I've gone. In Houston, in Florida, in France, in England-it guided me, let me know what was coming, so I could do the job it wanted done.”
Holly looked exhausted. She was drawn and paler than the eerie glow af the gas lantern could account for, and her eyes were shadowed with rings of weariness. She closed her eyes for a moment and pinched the bridge of her nose with thumb and forefinger, a strained look on her face, as if she was trying to suppress a headache.
With all his heart, Jim regretted that she had been drawn into this. But like his fear and despair, his regret was impure, tempered by the deep pleasure he took in her very presence. Though it was a selfish attitude, he was glad that she was with him, no matter where this strange night lead them. He was no longer alone.
Still pinching the bridge of her nose, the lines in her forehead carved deep by her scowl, Holly said, "This creature isn't restricted to the area near the pond, or just to psychic contact across great distances.
It can manifest itself anywhere, judging by the scratches it left in my sides and the way it entered the ceiling of your bedroom this morning.”
"Well, now wait," he said, "we know The Enemy can materialize over a considerable distance, yes, but we don't know that The Friend has that ability. It was The Enemy that came out of your dream and The Enemy that tried to reach us this morning.”
Holly opened her eyes and lowered her hand from her face. Her expression was bleak. "I think they're one and the same.”
"What?" "The Enemy and The Friend. I don't believe two entities are living under the pond, in that starship, if there is a starship, which I guess there is. I think there's only a single entity. The Friend and The Enemy are nothing more than different aspects of it.”
Holly's implication was clear, but it was too frightening for Jim to accept immediately. He said, "You can't be serious? You might as well be saying. . . it's insane.”
"That is what I'm saying. It's suffering the alien equivalent of a split personality. It's acting out both personalities, but isn't consciously aware of what it's doing." Jim's almost desperate need to believe in The Friend as a separate and purely benign creature must have been evident in his face, for Holly took his right hand, held it in both hers, and hurried on before he could interrupt: "The childish petulance, the grandiosity of its claim to be reshaping the entire destiny of our species, the flamboyance of its apparitions, its sudden fluctuations between an attitude of syrupy goodwill and sullen anger, the way it lies so damned transparently yet deludes itself into believing it's clever, its secretiveness about some issues when there is no apparent reason to be secretive-all of that makes sense if you figure we're dealing with an unbalanced mind.”
He looked for flaws in her reasoning, and found one. "But you can't believe an insane person, an insane alien individual, could pilot an unimaginably complex spacecraft across lightyears through countless dangers, while completely out of its mind.”
"It doesn't have to be like that. Maybe the insanity set in after it got here. Or maybe it didn't have to pilot the ship, maybe the ship is essentially automatic, an entirely robotic mechanism. Or maybe there were others of its kind aboard who piloted it, and maybe they're all dead now. Jim, it's never mentioned a crew, only The Enemy. And assuming you buy its extraterrestrial origins, does it really ring true that only two individuals would set out on an intergalactic exploration? Maybe it killed the others.”
Everything she was theorizing could be true, but then anything she theorized could be true. They were dealing with the Unknown, capital "U," and the possibilities in an infinite universe were infinite in number.
He remembered reading somewhere-even many scientists believed that anything the human imagination conceived, regardless of how fanciful, could conceivably exist somewhere in the universe, because the infinite nature of creation meant that it was no less fluid, no less fertile than any man's or woman's dreams.
Jim expressed that thought to Holly, then said, "But what bothers me is that you're doing now what you rejected earlier. You're trying hard to explain it in human terms, when it may be too alien for us to understand it at all. How can you assume that an alien species can even suffer insanity the way we can, or that it's capable of multiple personalities? These are all strictly human concepts.”
She nodded. "You're right, of course. But at the moment, this theory's the only one that makes sense to me. Until something happens to disprove it, I've got to operate on the assumption that we're not dealing with a rational being.”
With his free hand, he reached out and increased the gas flow to the wicks in the Coleman lantern, providing more light. "Jesus, I've got a bad case of the creeps," he said, shivering.
"Join the club.”
"If it is schizo, and if it slips into the identity of The Enemy and can't get back out. . . what might it do to us?" "I don't even want to think about that," Holly said. "If it's as intellectually superior to us as it seems to be, if it's from a long-lived race with experience and knowledge that makes the whole of the human experience seem like a short story compared to the Great Books of the Western World, then it sure as hell knows some tortures and cruelties that would make Hitler and Stalin and Pol Pot look like Sunday-school teachers.”
He thought about that for a moment, even though he tried not to.
The chocolate doughnuts he had eaten lay in an undigested, burning wad in his stomach.
Holly said, "When it comes back-" "For God's sake," he interrupted, "no more adversarial tactics!" "I screwed up," she admitted. "But the adversarial approach was the correct one, I just carried it too far. I pushed too hard. When it comes back, I'll modify my technique.”
He supposed he had more fully accepted her insanity theory than he was willing to acknowledge. He was now in a cold sweat about what The Friend might do if their behavior tipped it into its other, darker identity.
"Why don't we jettison confrontation altogether, play along with it, stroke its ego, keep it as happy as we-" "That's no good. You can't control madness by indulging it. That only creates more and deeper madness. I suspect any nurse in a mental institution would tell you the best way to deal with potentially violent paranoid is to be nice, respectful, but firm." He withdrew his hand from hers because his palms were clammy. He blotted them on his shirt.
The mill seemed unnaturally silent, as if it were in a vacuum where sound could not travel, sealed in an immense bell jar, on display in a museum in a land of giants. At another time Jim might have found the silence disturbing, but now he embraced it because it probably meant The Friend was sleeping or at least preoccupied with concerns other than them.
"It wants to do good," he said. "It might be insane, and it might be violent and even evil in its second identity, a regular Dr. Jekyll and Mr.
Hyde. But like Dr. Jekyll it really wants to do good. At least we've got that going for us.”
She thought about it a moment. "Okay, I'll give you that one. And when it comes back, I'll try to pry some truth out of it.”
"What scares me most-is there really anything we can learn from it that could help us? Even if it tells us the whole truth about everything, if it's insane it's going to turn to irrational violence sooner or later.”
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