9. Strange Awakening
There was a rhythmic ebb and flow of waves on some murmurous shore. It must, I thought, be part of my dream.
I couldn’t remember. The murmur was a voice, but the things it said seemed to slip by over the surface of my mind without waking any ripples of comprehension. Sight? I could see nothing. There was movement somewhere, but meaningless movement. Feeling? Perhaps a mild warmth, no more. Only the voice, very low—unless, after all, it were some musical instrument.
But it spoke in English.
Had I been capable of surprise that should have surprised me. But I was not. I was utterly passive. I let sensations come and go in the darkness that lay just beyond me, on the other side of that wall of the silenced senses. What world? What time? What people? It didn’t matter yet.
“—of waiting here so long,” the voice said on a minor chord of sadness so intensely sweet that my throat seemed to tighten in response. Then it changed. It pleased—and I knew even in my stupor that no one of flesh and blood could possibly deny whatever that strange sweet voice demanded. “So I may go now, Lord? Oh, please, please let me go!” The English was curious, at once archaic and evolved. “An hour’s refreshment in the Swan Garden,” the plaintive voice urged, “and I shan’t droop so.” Then a sigh, musical with a deliberate lilt.
“My hair—look at it, Lord! The sparkles all gone, all gone. Poor sparkles! But only an hour in the Swan Gardens and I’ll serve you again. May I go, Lord? May I go?”
No one could have denied her. I lay there enthralled by the sheer music of that voice. It was like the shock of icy water in the face to hear a man’s brisk voice reply.
“Save your tongue, save your tongue. And don’t flatter me with the name of Lord. This is business.”
“But so many hours already—I’ll die, I know I’ll die! You can’t be so cruel—and I’ll call you Lord anyhow. Why not? You are my Lord now, since you have the power to let me live or—” Heart-rending sorrow breathed in the sigh she gave.
“My poor hair,” she said. “The stars are quite gone out of it now. Oh, how hideous I am! The sight of me when he wakes will be too dreadful, Lord! Let me take one little hour in the Swan Garden and—”
“Be quiet. I want to think.”
There was silence for a moment or two. Then the sweet voice murmured something in a totally unfamiliar language, sullenly. The man said, “You know the rules, don’t you?”
“Yes, Lord. I’m sorry.”
“No more impudence, then. I know impudence, even when I can’t understand it. Pay attention to me now. I’m going to put an end to this session. When this man wakes bring him—”
“To the Swan Garden? Oh, Lord Paynter, now? I will love you forever!”
“It isn’t necessary,” the crisp voice said, “Just bring him to the right station. The City’s the nearest connection since this is confidential so far. Do you understand?”
“The City? Walk through the City? I’ll die before I’ve gone a dozen steps. My poor slippers—oh, Lord Paynter, why not direct transmission?”
“You’ll have new slippers if you need them. I don’t want to remind you again all this is secret work. We don’t want anybody tuning in accidentally on our wave-length. The transmitter in the City has the right wave-band, so you can bring him—”
His voice trailed off. The girl’s tones interrupted, dying away in the distance in a faint, infinitely pitiable murmuring quaver. There was a pause, then the sound of light feet returning on some hard surface and a rush of laughter like a spurt of bright fountaining water.
“Old fool,” she said, and laughed again. “If you think I care—“ The words changed and were again incomprehensible, in some language I had never heard even approximated before.
Then movement came, and light—a brief, racking vertigo wrenched my brain around,
I opened my eyes and looked up into the face of the girl, and logic was perfectly useless after that. Later I understood why, knew what she was and why men’s hearts moved at the sight and sound of her. But then it was enough to see that flawless face, the lovely curve of her lips, the eyes that shifted from one hue to another, the hyacinth hair where the last stars pulsed and died.
She was bending over me, the tips of her scented ringlets brushing my shoulder. Her voice was inhumanly sweet, and so soft with warmth and reassurance that all my bewilderment melted away. It didn’t matter where I was or what had happened, so long as that lovely voice and that lovely face were near—which was exactly the effect she had meant to make and exactly the reason why she was there. I knew her face.
At that moment I was not even trying to reason things out. My tongue felt thick and my mind was lightly furred all over with the effects of what? Sleep? Some drug they might have given me while I lay there helpless? I didn’t know. I accepted all that was happening with a mindless acquiescence. Later I would wonder. Now I only stared up at the lovely, familiar face and listened to the lovely, familiar face and listened to the lovely, remotely familiar voice.
“You’re all right now,” she was murmuring, her changing eyes on mine. “Quite all right. Don’t be worried. Do you feel strong enough yet to sit up? I have something I want you to see.”
I got an elbow under me and levered myself slowly up, the girl helping. I looked around.
I was dressed in unfamiliar dark garments and I was sitting on a low couch apparently composed of a solid block of some hard yet resilient substance. We were alone together in a smallish room whose walls looked like the couch, hard yet faintly translucent, just a little yielding to the touch. Everything had the same color, a soft graylike mist or—I thought dimly—sleep itself, the color of sleep.
The girl was the color of—sunlight, perhaps. Her smooth skin had an apricot glow and her gown was of thin, thin silky stuff, pale yellow, like layers of veiling that floated when she moved. There were still a few fading sparkles in her curls. Her eyes just now were a clear bright blue that darkened as I met them to something close to violet.
“Look,” she said. “Over there, behind you, on the wall.”
I turned on the couch and looked. The far wall had a circular opening in it. Beyond the opening I could see rough rock walls, a grayish glow of light, four figures lying motionless on the dusty floor. For a moment it meant nothing to me. My mind was still dim with sleep. Then—
“The cave!” I said suddenly. And of course, it was. That little glittering tree which was the last thing I had seen before sleep overtook me stood there, motionless now. Beside it lay De Kalb.
Dr. Essen slumbered beyond him, the flat metal sheet with the bars of wire still leaning against her knee. She lay on her side, the tired, gentle face half hidden by her bent arm, the gray curls on the dusty floor. There was a rather unexpected gracefulness to her angular body as she lay there, utterly relaxed in a sleep that was already—how many thousands of years long?
My eyes lingered for an instant on her face, moved on to Murray’s motionless body, moved back again to search the woman’s half-hidden features for a disturbing something I could not quite identify. It was—it was—
The figure beyond Murray’s caught my attention suddenly and for an instant my mind went blank with amazement. The puzzle of Dr. Essen’s face vanished in this larger surprise, the incredible identity of that fourth person asleep in the dusty cave. I gaped, speechless and without thought.
Up to that instant I suppose I had been assuming simply that all of us were being awakened, slowly and with difficulty, and that I had awakened first. But the fourth person asleep on the cavern floor was Jeremy Cortland. Jerry Cortland—me.
I got to my feet unsteadily, finding after a moment or two that I was in fairly good control of all my faculties. The girl twittered in concern.
“I’m all right,” I said. “But I’m still there!”
Then I paused. “That means the others may have wakened too. De Kalb—Dr. Essen—have they—?”
She hesitated. “Only you are awake,” she said at last.
I walked on slightly uncertain feet across the floor and peered into the cave. There was no cave.
I knew it when I was close to the wall. I could see the light reflected slightly on the texture of the surface. The cave was only another reflection, television perhaps, or something more obscure, but with startlingly convincing depth and clarity.
And if that scene was separated from me in space it might be distant in time as well—I might be seeing a picture of something hours or weeks old. It was an unpleasant moment, that. So long as I thought myself near to that last familiar link with my own world I had maintained a certain confidence that broke abruptly now. I looked around a little wildly at the girl.
“I’m not in that cave now—they’re not there now either, are they? This was just a picture that was taken before any of us woke. Did you wake first, then?” It was no good. I knew that. I rubbed my hand across my face and said, “Sorry. What did happen?”