She nodded. "But we gotta try.”
They settled into an uneasy silence.
When he looked at his watch, Jim saw that it was ten minutes past one in the morning. He was not sleepy. He didn't have to worry about drifting off and dreaming and thereby opening a doorway, but he was physically drained. Though he had not done anything but sit in a car and drive, then sit or stand in the high room waiting for revelations, his muscles ached as if he had put in ten hours of heavy manual labor.
His face felt slack with weariness, and his eyes were hot and grainy.
Extreme stress could be every bit as debilitating as strenuous physical activity.
He found himself wishing The Friend would never return, wishing not in an idle way but with the wholehearted commitment of a young boy wishing that an upcoming visit to the dentist would not transpire. He put every fiber of his being into the wish, as if convinced, the way a kid sometimes could be, that wishes really did now and then come true.
He remembered a quote from Chazal, which he had used when teaching a literature unit on the supernatural fiction of Poe and Hawthorne: Extreme terror gives us back the gestures of our childhood If he ever went back into the classroom, he would be able to teach that unit a hell of a lot better, thanks to what had happened to him in the old windmill.
At 1:25 The Friend disproved the value of wishing by putting in a sudden appearance. This time no bells heralded its approach. Red light blossomed in the wall, like a burst of crimson paint in clear water.
Holly scrambled to her feet.
So did Jim. He could no longer sit relaxed in the presence of this mysterious being, because he was now more than halfconvinced that at any moment it might strike at them with merciless brutality.
The light separated into many swarms, surged all the way around the room, then began to change from red to amber.
The Friend spoke without waiting for a question: "August first Seattle Washington. Laura Lenaskian, saved from drowning. She will give birth to u child who will become a great composer and whose music will give solace to many people in times of trouble. August eighth. Peoria, Illinois Doogie Burkette. He will grow up to be a paramedic in Chicago, where he will do much good and save many lives August twelfth. Portland Oregon. Billy Jenkins He will grow up to be a brilliant medical technologist whose inventions will revolutionize medical care" Jim met Holly's eyes and did not even have to wonder what she was thinking: the same thing he was thinking.
The Friend was in its testy, I'll show-you mode, and it was providing details which it expected would lend credibility to its extravagant claim to be altering human destiny. But it was impossible to know if what it said was true-or merely fantasies that it had worked up to support its story. The important thing, perhaps, was that it seemed to care deeply that they believe it. Jim had no idea why his or Holly's opinion should matter at all to a being as intellectually superior to them as they were to a field mouse, but the fact that it did evidently matter seemed to be to their advantage.
" August twentieth. The Mojave Desert Nevada. Lisa and Susan Jawolski . Lisa will provide her daughter with the love affection. and counseling that will make it possible for the girl eventually to overcome the severe psychological trauma of her father's murder and grow up to be the greatest woman statesman in the entire history of the world, a force for enlightenment and compassionate government policies August twenty-third. Boston, Massachusetts. Nicholas O'Conner saved from an electrical-vault explosion.
He will grow up to become a priest who will dedicate his life to caring for the poor in the slums of India-" The Friend's attempt to answer Holly's criticism and present a six grandiose version of its work was childishly transparent. The Burkette bo was not going to save the world, just be a damned good paramedic, and Nicholas O'Conner was going to be a humble man leading a self effacing existence among the needy-but the rest of them were still great or brilliant or staggeringly talented in one way or another. The entity now recognized the need for credibility in its tale of grandeur, but it could not bring itself to significantly water down its professed accomplishments.
And something else was bothering Jim: that voice. The longer he listened to it, the more he became convinced that he had heard it before, not in this room twenty-five years ago, not within its current context at all.
The voice had to be appropriated, of course, because in its natural condition the alien almost certainly did not possess anything similar to human vocal cords; its biology would be inhuman. The voice it was imitating, as if it were an impersonator performing in a cosmic cocktail lounge, was that of a person Jim had once known. He could not quite identify it.
" August twenty-sixth. Dubuque Iowa. Christine and Casey Dubrovek Christine will give birth to another child who will grow up to be the greatest geneticist of the next century. Casey will become an exceptional school teacher who will tremendously influence the lives of her students, and who will never fail one of them to the extent that a suicide results" Jim felt as if he had been hit in the chest with a hammer. That insulting accusation, directed at him and referring to Larry Kakonis, shook his remaining faith in The Friend's basic desire to do good.
Holly said, "Shit, that was low.”
The entity's pettiness sickened Jim, because he wanted so badly to believe in its stated purpose and goodness.
The scintillant amber light swooped and swirled through the walls, as if The Friend was delighted by the effect of the blow it had struck.
Despair welled so high in Jim that for a moment he even dared to consider that the entity under the pond was not good at all but purely evil.
Maybe the people he had saved since May fifteenth were not destined to elevate the human condition but debase it. Maybe Nicholas O'Conner was really going to grow up to be a serial killer. Maybe Billy Jenkins was going to be a bomber pilot who went rogue and found a way to override all the safeguards in the system in order to drop a few nuclear weapons on a major metropolitan area; and maybe instead of being the greatest woman statesman in the history of the world, Susie Jawolski was going to be a radical activist who planted bombs in corporate boardrooms and machinegunned those with whom she disagreed.
But as he swayed precariously on the rim of that black chasm, Jim saw in memory the face of young Susie Jawolski, which had seemed to be the essence of innocence. He could not believe that she would be anything less than a positive force in the lives of her family and neighbors. He had done good works; therefore The Friend had done good works, whether or not it was insane, and even though it had the capacity to be cruel.
Holly addressed the entity within the wall: "We have more questions.”
"Ask them, ask them." Holly glanced at her tablet, and Jim hoped she would remember to be less aggressive. He sensed that The Friend was more unstable than at any previous point during the night.
She said, "Why did you choose Jim to be your instrument?" "He was convenient. " "You mean because he lived on the farm?" "Yes. " "Have you ever worked through anyone else the way you've been working through Jim?" "No.”
"Not in all these ten thousand years?" "Is this a trick question? Do you think you can trick me? Do you still not believe me when I tell you the truth?" Holly looked at Jim, and he shook his head, meaning that this was no time to be argumentative, that discretion was not only the better part of valor but their best hope of survival.
Then he wondered if this entity could read his mind as well as intrude into it and implant directives. Probably not. If it could do that, it would flare into anger now, incensed that they still thought it insane and were patronizing it.
"I'm sorry," Holly said. "It wasn't a trick question, not at all.
We just want to know about you. We're fascinated by you. If we ask questions that you find offensive, please understand that we do so unintentionally, out of ignorance.”
The Friend did not reply.
The light pulsed more slowly through the limestone, and though Jim knew the danger of interpreting alien actions in human terms, he felt that the changed patterns and tempo of the radiance indicated The Friend was in a contemplative mood. It was chewing over what Holly had just said, deciding whether or not she was sincere.
Finally the voice came again, more mellow than it had been in a while: "Ask your questions" Consulting her tablet again, Holly said, "Will you ever release Jim from this work?" "Does he want to be released?" Holly looked at Jim inquiringly.
Considering what he had been through in the past few months, Jim was a bit surprised by his answer: "Not if I'm actually doing good.”
"You are How can you doubt it? But regardless of whether you believe my intentions to be good or evil, I would never release you." The ominous tone of that last statement mitigated the relief Jim felt at the reassurance that he had not saved the lives of future murderers and thieves.
Holly said, "Why have you-" The Friend interrupted. "There is one other reason that I chose Jim Ironheart for this work. " "What's that?" Jim asked.
"You needed it" "I did?" "Purpose." Jim understood. His fear of The Friend was as great as ever, but he was moved by the implication that it had wanted to salvage him.
By giving meaning to his broken and empty life, it had redeemed him just as surely as it had saved Billy Jenkins, Susie Jawolski, and all the others, though they had been rescued from more immediate deaths than the death of the soul that had threatened Jim. The Friend's statement seemed to reveal a capacity for pity. And Jim knew he'd deserved pity after the suicide of Larry Kakonis, when he had spiraled into an unreasonable depression.
This compassion, even if it was another lie, affected Jim more strongly than he would have expected, and a shimmer of tears came to his eyes.
Holly said, "Why have you waited ten thousand years to decide to use someone like Jim to shape human destinies?" "I had to study the situation first collect data, analyze it, and then decide if my intervention was wise. " "It took ten thousand years to make that decision? Why? That's longer than recorded history.”
She tried the question again.
At last The Friend said, "I am going now" Then, as if it did not want them to interpret its recent display of compassion as a sign of weakness, it added: if you attempt to leave, you will die" "When will you be back?" Holly asked.
"Do not sleep. " "We're going to have to sleep sooner or later," Holly said as the amber light turned red and the room seemed to be washed in blood.
"Do not sleep. " "It's two in the morning," she said.
"Dreams are doorways." Holly flared up: "We can't stay awake forever, damn it!" The light in the limestone was snuffed out.
The Friend was gone.
Somewhere people laughed. Somewhere music played and dancers danced, and somewhere lovers strained toward ecstasy.
But in the high room of the mill, designed for storage and now stacked to the ceiling with an anticipation of violence, the mood was decidedly grim.
Holly loathed being so helpless. Throughout her life she had been a woman of action, even if the actions she took were usually destructive rather than constructive. When a job turned out to be less satisfying than she had hoped, she never hesitated to resign, move on.
When a relationship soured or just proved uninteresting, she was always quick to terminate it.
If she had often retreated from problems-from the responsibilities of being a conscientious journalist when she had seen that journalism was as corrupt as anything else, from the prospect of love, from putting down roots and committing to one place-well, at least retreat was a form of action. Now she was denied even that.
The Friend had that one good effect on her. It was not going to let her retreat from this problem.
For a while she and Jim discussed the latest visitation and went over the remaining questions on her list, to which they made changes and additions. The most recent portion of her ongoing interview with The Friend had resulted in some interesting and potentially useful information. It was only potentially useful, however, because they both still felt that nothing The Friend said could be relied upon to be true.
By 3 :15 in the morning, they were too weary to stand and too to continue sitting. They pulled their sleeping bags together and stretched out side by side, on their backs, staring at the domed ceiling.
To help guard against sleep, they left the gas lantern at its brightest setting. As they waited for The Friend to return, they kept talking, not about anything of importance, small talk of every kind, anything to keep their minds occupied. It was difficult to doze off in the middle of a conversation; and if one did slip away, the other would know it by the lack of a response. They also held hands, her right in his left-the logic being that even during a brief pause in the conversation, if one of them started to take a nap, the other would be warned by the sudden relaxation of the sleeper's grip.
Holly did not expect to have difficulty staying awake. In her university days she had pulled all-nighters before exams or when papers were due, and had stayed awake for thirty-six hours without much of a struggle.
During her early years as a reporter, when she'd still believed that journalism mattered to her, she had labored away all night on a story, poring over research or listening yet again to interview tapes or sweating over the wording of a paragraph. She had missed nights of sleep in recent years, as well, if only because she was occasionally plagued by insomnia. She was a night owl by nature anyway. Piece of cake.
But though she had not yet been awake twenty-four hours since bolting out of bed in Laguna Niguel yesterday morning, she felt the sandman sliding up against her, whispering his subliminal message of sleep, sleep, sleep. The past few days had been a blur of activity and personal change, both of which could be expected to take a toll of her resources. And some nights she had gotten too little rest, only in part because of the dreams Dreams are doorways. Sleep was dangerous, she had to stay awake. Damn it, she shouldn't need sleep this badly yet, no matter how much stress she had been under lately. She struggled to keep up her end of the conversation with Jim, even though at times she realized that she was not sure what they were talking about and did not fully understand the words that came out of her own mouth. Dreams are doorways. It was almost as if she had been drugged, or as if The Friend, after warning them against sleep, was secretly exerting pressure on a narcoleptic button in her brain. Dreams are doorways. She fought against the descending oblivion, but she found that she did not possess the strength or will to sit up. . . or to open her eyes.
Her eyes were closed. She had not realized that her eyes were closed.
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