2. The Stain and the Stone
There was a message waiting for me at the airport. Robert J. Allister wanted to see me. I felt impressed. Allister runs a chain of news and picture magazines second only to Life and Time.
I phoned for an appointment, and they told me to come right up. I walked through a waiting-room full of people with prior appointments and they passed me right into the sanctum, with no preliminaries. I began to wonder if I’d been underestimating my own importance all these years. Allister himself rose behind his desk and offered me his hand. I waded forward, ankle-deep through Persian carpets, and took it. He told me to sit down. His voice was tired and he looked thinner and more haggard than his pictures.
“So you’re Jerry Cortland,” he said. “Been following your Rio stuff. Nice work. Care to drop it for awhile?” I gaped. He gave me a tired grin.
“I’d like you to work for me on contract,” he said. “Let me explain. You know Ira De Kalb?”
“The poor man’s Einstein?”
“In a way, maybe. He’s a dilettante. He’s a genius, really, I suppose. A mind like a grasshopper. He’ll work out a whole new concept of mathematics and never bother to apply it. He—well, you’ll understand better after you’ve met him. He’s onto something very new, just now. Something very important. I want some pieces written on it and De Kalb made a point of asking for you.”
“He has his reasons. He’ll explain to you—maybe. I can’t.” He pushed the contract toward me. “How about it?”
“Well—” I hesitated. My ex-wife had just slapped another summons on me, alimony again, and I could certainly use some money. “I’ll try it,” I said. “But I’m irresponsible. Maybe I won’t stick to it.”
“You’ll stick,” Allister said grimly, “once you’ve talked to De Kalb. That I can guarantee. Sign here.”
De Kalb’s house blended into the hillside as if Frank Lloyd Wright had built it with his own hands. I was out of breath by the time I got to the top of the gray stone terraces linked together by gray stone steps. A maid let me in and showed me to a room where I could wait.
“Mr. De Kalb is expecting you,” she said. “He’ll be back in about ten minutes.”
Half the room was glass, looking out upon miles and miles of Appalachians, tumbled brown and green, with a dazzling sky above. There was somebody already there, apparently waiting too. I saw the outlines of a woman’s spare, straight figure rising almost apologetically from a desk as I entered. I knew her by that air of faint apology no less than by her outline against the light.
“Dr. Essen!” I said. And I was aware then of my first feeling of respect for this job, whatever it was. You don’t get two people like Letta Essen and Ira De Kalb under the same roof for anything trivial.
I knew Dr. Essen. I’d interviewed her twice, right after Hiroshima, about the work she’d done with Meitner and Frisch in establishing the nuclear liquid-drop concept of atomic fission. I wanted very much to ask her what she was doing here but I didn’t. I knew I’d get more out of her if I let it come her way.
“Mr. De Kalb asked me to meet you, Mr. Cortland,” she said in her pleasant soft voice. “Hello, it’s nice to see you again. You’ve been having quite a time in Rio, haven’t you?”
“Old stuff now,” I said. “This looks promising, if you’re in on it. What’s up, anyhow?”
She gave me that shy smile again. She had a tired gentle face, gray curls cut very short, gray eyes like two flashes of light off a steel beam when she let you meet her direct gaze. Mostly she was too shy. But when you caught that rare quick glance of her it was almost frightening. You realized then the hard dazzling mind behind the eyes.
“I’ll let Mr. De Kalb tell you all about that,” she said. “It isn’t my secret. But you’re involved more than you know. In fact—” She paused, not looking at me, but giving the corner of the carpet a gentle scowl. “In fact, I’d like to show you something. We’ve got a little time to spare, and I want your reaction to—to something. Come with me and we’ll see.”
I followed her out into the hall, down a flight of steps and then into a big room, comfortably furnished. A study, I thought. But the bookshelves were empty now and everything was lightly filmed with dust.
“The fireplace, Mr. Cortland,” Dr. Essen said, pointing.
It was an ordinary fireplace, gray stone in the pine-paneled wall, with a gray stone hearth. But there seemed to be a stain at one spot on the hearth, close to the wall. I stepped closer. Then I knelt to look.
The speed of a chain of thoughts comes as close as anything I know to annihilating time itself. The images that flashed through my mind seemed to come all at once.
I saw the stain. I thought—transmutation. There was no overt reason but I thought it. And then before I could take it in clearly with my conscious mind, in the chambers of the unconscious I was standing again at the alley mouth in Rio at three in the morning, seeing a dark thing leap forward at me with its two hands outstretched.
I heard the thin humming in my ears, felt the burning of its touch. I remembered the sunburst of violent energy deep inside me that had heralded murder whenever it came. And I knew that all these were one—all these and the stain upon the hearth. The knowledge came unbidden, without reason.
But it was sure.
I didn’t question it. But I looked very closely at the stone. That stain was an irregular area where the stone seemed changed into another substance. I didn’t know what the substance was. It looked wholly unfamiliar. The gray of the hearth stopped abruptly, along an irregular pattern, and gave place to a substance that seemed translucent, shot through with veins and striae that were lighter, like the veins in marble.
The pine panels beside the fireplace were partly stained like the stone and a little area of the carpet that came up to the edge of the hearth. Wood, stone and cloth alike had turned into this—this marble stain. The veins in it were like tangled hair, curling together, embedded like some strange neural structure in half transparent flesh.
I looked up.
“Don’t touch it,” Dr. Essen said quickly.
I didn’t mean to. I didn’t need to. I knew what it would feel like. I knew that though it was perfectly motionless it would burn my hand with friction if I touched it. Dr. Essen knew too. I saw that in her face.
I stood up. “What is it?” I asked, my voice sounding oddly thin.
“The nekron,” she told me, almost absently. She was searching my face and the keenness of her gaze was al– most painful to meet. “That’s Mr. De Kalb’s word for it. As good a word as any. It’s—a new type of matter. Mr. Cortland—you have seen something like this before?” Her rare, direct look was like the sharpness of a knife going through me, cold and deep.
“Maybe,” I said. “No, never, really. But—”
“All right, I understand,” she nodded. “I wanted to verify something. I’ve verified it. Thank you.” She turned away toward the door. “We’d better get back. No, please—no questions yet. I can’t possibly explain until after you’ve seen the Record.”
“The Record? What—”
“It’s something that was dug up in Crete. It’s—peculiar. But thoroughly convincing. You’ll see it soon. Shall we go back?”
She locked the door behind us.
Certainly De Kalb didn’t look his forty-seven years any more than a Greek statue does. He looked like a young man, big and well proportioned. His sleek hair lay flat and short upon his head, and his face was handsome in the vacant way the Belvedere’s is.
There was no latent expression upon it and you felt that no emotions had ever drawn lines about the mouth or between the brows. Either he had never felt any or his control was such that he could suppress all feeling. There was the same placidity you see in the face of Buddha.
There was something odd about his eyes—I couldn’t make out their color. They seemed to be filmed as though with a cat’s third eyelid. Light blue, I thought, or gray, and curiously dull.
He gave me a strong handshake and collapsed into an overstaffed chair, hoisted his feet to a hassock. Grunting, he blinked at me with his dull stare. There was a curious clumsiness to his motions, and when he spoke, a curious ponderous quality in his diction. He seemed to feel something like indulgent contempt for the rest of the world. It was all right, I suppose. Nobody had better reason. The man was a genius.
“Glad you’re here, Mr. Cortland,” he said hoarsely. “I need you. Not for your intelligence which is slight. Not for your physical abilities, obviously sapped by years of wasteful and juvenile dissipation. But I have an excellent reason to think we may work well together.”
“I was sent to get an interview for Spread,” I told him.
“You were not.” De Kalb raised a forefinger. “You err through ignorance, sir. Robert Allister, the publisher of Spread is a friend of mine. He has money. He has agreed to do the world and me a service. You are under contract to him, so you do as he says. He says you will work with me. Is that clear?”
“Lucid,” I told him. “Except I don’t work that way. The contract says I’m to handle news assignments. I read the fine print too. There was no mention of peonage.”
“This is a news assignment. I shall give you an interview. But first, the Record. I see no point in futile discussion. Dr. Essen, will you be kind enough—” He nodded toward a cupboard.
She got out a parcel wrapped in cloth, handed it to De Kalb. He held it on his knee, unopened, tapped his fingers on its top. It was about the size and shape of a portable typewriter case.
“I have showed the contents of this,” he said, “only to Dr. Essen. And—”
“I am convinced,” Dr. Essen said dryly. “Oh yes, Ira. I am convinced I”
“Now I show it to you,” De Kalb said and held out the package. “Put it on the table—so. Now draw up a chair. Remove the wrappings. Excellent. And now—”
They were both leaning forward, watching me expectantly. I glanced from them to the battered box, then back again. It was a tarnished blue-white rectangle, battered, smudged with dirt, perfecly plain.
“It is of no known metal,” De Kalb said. “Some alloy, I think. It was found fifteen years ago in an excavation in Crete and sent to me unopened. Not intentionally. Nobody has ever been able to open it until recently. It is, as you may have guessed, a puzzle box. It took me fourteen years to learn the trick that would unlock it. It is also apparently indestructible. I shall now perform the trick for you.”
His hands moved upon the battered surface. I saw his nails whiten now and then as he put pressure on it.
“Now,” he said. “It opens. But I shall not watch. Letta, will you? No, I think it will be better for us both if we look away while Mr. Cortland—”
I stopped listening along about then. For the box was slowly opening.
It opened like a jewel. Or like an unfolding flower that had as many facets as a jewel. I had expected a lid to lift but nothing of the sort happened. There was movement. There were facets and planes sliding and shifting and turning as though hinged, but what had seemed to be a box changed and reassembled and unfolded before me until it was—what? As much a jewel as anything. Angles, planes, a shape and a shining.
Simultaneously there was motion in my own mind. As a tuning fork responds to a struck note, so something like a vibration bridged the gap between the box and my brain. As a book opens, as leaves turn, a book opened and leaves turned in my mind.
All time compressed itself into that blinding second. There was a shifting reorientation, motions infinitely fast that fitted and meshed with such precision the book and my mind were one.
The Record opened itself inside my brain. Complete, whole, a history and a vision, it hung for that one instant lucid and detailed in my mind. And for that moment outside time I did comprehend. But the mind could not retain it all. It flashed out and burned along my nerves and then it faded and was only a pulse, a glimpse, hanging on like an after-image in my memory. I had seen—and forgotten.
But I had not forgotten everything.
Across a gulf of inconceivable eons a Face looked at me from red sky and empty earth. The Face of Ea ...
The room spun around me.
“Here,” Dr. Essen’s voice murmured at my shoulder. I looked up dizzily, took the glass of brandy she offered. I’m not sure now whether or not I had a moment of unconsciousness. I know my eyes blurred and the room tilted before me. I drank the brandy gratefully.