12. The Swan Garden
Topaz squealed with sheer delight.
“Come on out!” she cried. “It’s the Swan Garden! What are you waiting for anyhow? I’ll take back all I ever said about Lord Paynter. Oh, do look, isn’t it wonderful here?”
Silently I stepped after her through the door.
So little actual time had elapsed that I don’t think she really missed me. Something had reached out through the matter-transmitter and intercepted one of us and let the other go on. But Topaz must have rushed out of the door the moment it opened and been too overcome with pleasure at finding herself just here to realize I was lagging behind.
And I—had I really been for a round-trip through a galaxy? Had I dreamed it? Was this whole interlude a dream while my own body slept in the time-axis, waiting for the world’s end? In preparation for that sleep I had begun to learn how to ignore time as a factor in our plans.
In this world, waking or sleeping, evidently I must learn to ignore space. Distance meant nothing here with the matter-transmitters functioning as they did. You could live on Centaurus and get your breakfast rolls fresh from a bakery in Chicago.
You could drop in on a friend on Sirius to borrow a book, simply because it might be easier than to walk around the corner for one. And in the annihilation of space, time too seemed to undergo a certain annihilation. Just as, in ignoring time, you could as a corollary overstep space.
I had overstepped reason too. I had come into a world where nothing made sense to me, where the people who had been my companions moved behind masks, stirred by motives that were gibberish. I had overstepped both space and time just now, and so compactly that the girl who called herself Topaz never missed me.
I was still too dazed to argue. I could control my own motions again but my mind had suffered too much bewilderment to function very well. I followed Topaz dumbly, staring about me at the remarkable landscape of the Swan Garden—knowing in some indescribable way that inside my mind other eyes stared too, impassive metal eyes that watched my thoughts as they watched the things around me.
Topaz spun around twice in sheer delight, her sun-colored veils flying. Then she ran her hands through her hair, dislodging a last sparkle or two, and, smiling at me over her shoulder, beckoned and hurried ahead through what seemed to be a wall of white lace.
A gentle breeze stirred it, shivering the folds together and I saw that we were following a narrow path through a grove of head-high growths like palmetto, except that the leaves and flowers were white, and shaped like enormous snow-flakes, each a perfect crystalline pattern and every one different from every other.
Topaz ran her hands lovingly through the flowers as we went down the path. Underfoot the ground had the look and feel of soft down. After a moment we entered a cleared space with what seemed at first glance a stream of water tracing an arabesque path among huge, humped boulders. The breeze freshened, the lacy curtains shimmered and thinned before it and I saw a gossamer vista beyond of unreal gardens where fantastic beauties lay in wait.
“Sit down,” Topaz said. “I don’t know why Lord Paynter sent us here but I suppose he’ll join us when he’s ready. Isn’t it lovely? Now I can have my hair starred again. Oh, do sit down! Right there, on that—”
“That rock?” I asked.
“No, that chair. Look.” She sank lightly on one of the boulders and it curved and moulded itself beneath her to a couch the shape of her body, fitting every bend of her limbs perfectly. It looked very comfortable.
I grinned at her and sat down myself, feeling thick, resilent softness yielding as I sank. Deliberately I turned off my mind. Events wholly beyond my control had catapulted me into this world and this complex situation.
The only way I could keep sane was to ride along without a struggle until the time for action came. I thought I’d know it when it did. There was no use asking questions of this lovely deliberately feather-brained little creature beside me. Perhaps, when Paynter came—
“Have some fruit,” Topaz invited, gesturing at the stream flowing past.
I looked again. It wasn’t a stream. Call it a tube, of flowing crystal, hanging unsupported in the air about three feet off the ground. It came out of the downy earth at the edge of the trees, twisted intricately around the boulders and dived into the ground again farther on. From where I sat I could touch one arch of it without stretching.
Drifting past my hand came a globe, large as an orange, of a pale green translucence. Topaz put out her hand, waited for it to drift nearer, plucked it out of the stream. She gave it to me, cool and dripping from its bath.
“Eat it if you like,” she said. “Choose what you will. I’m going away for awhile. Oh, I’ve been so good to you! Hours and hours I sat waiting for them to wake you up and my hair grew all dull and horrible.” She shook her curls and her face brightened.
“I’ll show you,” she promised. “I’ll use the star-powder all over. It takes some planning, though. The stars in my hair will have to be a different color and my face—a half-mask, do you think? A dark mask, set off by the stars? Or jet stars along my arms, like gloves.”
Somewhere among the trees in the direction from which we had just come a gong sounded one clear note. Topaz looked up. “Oh,” she said. “Lord Paynter.”
I felt in the center of my mind a sudden quickening of interest. The spy who had usurped my senses was preparing for action. But—what action?
I bit into the pale green fruit Topaz had handed me.
It wasn’t yet my problem. If anything, it was De Kalb’s. I’d have to know more before I could do a thing. I sank my teeth into crisp moist sweetness that tingled on the tongue like something mildly alcoholic. It was delicious.
“Lord Paynter—welcome to the Swan Garden!” Topaz rose from her rock and swept an elaborate and probably ironic curtsey, her bright veils billowing. “Hideous as I am,” she added, “and it’s all your fault, I make you welcome. I—”
“Be quiet, Topaz,” a familiar voice said.
I got to my feet and turned to face him as he came out from among the crystal-shaped flowers that hid the path. It was the voice I had heard in my dim awakening moments here. But seemed to me now even more familiar than that. A thin cold flat voice, a little too high. Oh yes, I had heard it before—perhaps a thousand years before.
He was a tall man, big, thick, heavy, with a fine military bearing. He had a down-drooping mouth between the flat slabs of his cheeks, very sharp pale blue eyes—Murray’s eyes, Murray’s face, Murray’s voice. It was Colonel Harrison Murray.
It wasn’t surprising, of course. So far as I knew, there might be other people in this world and there might not be. Maybe it was simply a dream, peopled by the three who still lay asleep beside me in the time-axis, dreaming as I dreamed. Only, they didn’t suspect, apparently. They thought all this was real. Only I knew that the whole thing might explode like a bubble at any moment—
Murray, if this were not a dream, had been healed in the long bath of time, for he looked perfectly restored now. That injury to the hidden place of the mind or the soul or the body, where the nekronic being struck, was something that could mend, then, with time. With time. Were we in the world of the Face? Had we wakened? Did we still sleep? How could I possibly find myself now in a world where Dr. Essen moved behind a mask of beauty by the name of Topaz and Murray, unchanged in any particular, called himself Paynter with a perfectly straight face, and De Kalb—De Kalb—what about De Kalb?
I do not know.
Blankly I looked around. No one had spoken. But the voice was in my brain. De Kalb? It came again.
I do not know but I intend to learn. Be quiet and we will learn together.
Paynter strode briskly forward, his boots ringing on the downy earth. He wore what might have been a uniform, tight-fitting, dun-colored. He gave me a keen, competent glance in which no recognition stirred, then nodded.
“Good day. Hope you’re feeling better. All right, men, bring the boxes over here.”
He stood aside and two men in uniform lugged forward a gray box the size of a small table. It had metal banding around it and a series of sockets along the top. They set a second and smaller box beside it and stood waiting.
I found myself staring at them with far more interest than I felt in the boxes. Here were the first people I had seen closely, at first hand, who didn’t belong in the dream. Their presence shook me a little. Perhaps it wasn’t a dream then. Perhaps there really was a tangible world around us, outside this garden. Perhaps I had really awakened out of the time-axis.
I turned to look at Murray—at Paynter—who still regarded me keenly as he sat down on one of the rubber-foam rocks. I sat down again too, watching him with new patience now. I could afford to wait. After a moment he spoke.
“Topaz showed you the cave where we found you?”
“Oh yes, I did everything you ordered, Lord Paynter,” Topaz contributed. “I pretended that nothing—”
“Be quiet, Topaz,” Paynter said with some irritation. And then to me, “What’s your name?”
“Cortland,” I said, and added ironically, “Lord Paynter.”
“Job Paynter,” he corrected me calmly. “Topaz calls everybody Lord—when she wants something. Call me Paynter. It isn’t customary to use courtesy titles here.”
“Oh, but it is,” Topaz said. She was kneeling by the stream and flicking bits of spray out of it. “Mister and Mistress and Lord and—”
“Topaz, stop playing and run away for awhile.” Paynter was half irritated, half indulgent.
“Oh, thank you, Lord Paynter!” She was on her feet in an instant, beaming with smiles. “My hair—there’s so much to do! Call me when you want me.” She vanished among the snow-crystal trees, moving with that extraordinary grace that was as natural to her as breathing.
I watched her go, seeing incongruously superimposed upon her averted face the features of Letta Essen. They were the same. I was sure of it. Imagine Letta Essen twenty years younger, with the same keen brilliance turned to deliberate irresponsibility, deliberate loveliness, and you would get—Topaz. But a Topaz who did not seem to know she had a double.
“Now, Cortland,” Paynter said, putting his hands on his knees and regarding me narrowly, “we have a lot of talking to do. I’ve heard the playback of your conversation with Topaz when you first woke. I assume you—ah—believe you’re from the first half of the twentieth century, right?”
“You know I was asleep in the cave,” I said. “You must have seen me.”
“I did. We analyzed the tissues and clothing of all the sleepers. Low radioactivity, so we know the sleep began before the atom wars. So that’s all right. It’s time-travel. We can’t very well doubt that. But you’ll have to tell us how the sleepers got there and how I came to be with them.” He shook his head rather dazedly.
I glanced around the little snow-veiled clearing where we sat. The two soldiers had finished their task and left us at a wave from—Paynter? Topaz was gone. We were quite alone, lying back comfortably on our rubber-foam boulders, the stream gurgling faintly past us through the rocks and the air.
“Maybe you can explain things now, Murray,” I said. He regarded me with a sort of fixed watchfulness, alert, waiting.
“Murray?” he said after a moment when I did not speak again. “Murray?”
“All right—Paynter,” I conceded. “But let’s have the explanation. Things are getting too far ahead of me.”
“I’ll be glad to explain everything I can to you, in a few minutes,” Paynter said, gesturing toward the gray boxes. “I don’t understand what it is you’re implying, though. I almost get the impression that you think you know me.”
“I knew a man named Murray who looked exactly like you—if you want to play it this way,” I said. “But it looks pretty obvious what happened. You and the others woke before me. You may have wakened months or years sooner. You went out into this world, whatever it is—whenever it is—and made places for yourselves. Now it seems to suit all of you to pretend I’m a poor relation you never heard of. That’s what I think happened. Maybe you’ve got a better story.”
He exhaled noisily, a heavy sigh that was partly of impatience.
“I think I see what you mean. That doubling of images confuses all of us. You really don’t know, then?”
“I really don’t know.”
“Obviously, I—or my image—was in that cavern with yours. There was also a woman there. I didn’t recognize her. The third man was Belem.” He paused and fixed me with that expectant look again.
“Belem,” I echoed. “Where I come from we pronounce it Ira De Kalb.”
“Belem,” he told me firmly, ignoring the feeble levity, “is a Mechandroid. He isn’t human. Did you know that?”