I was paralyzed by joy, petrified by pleasure. Standing stock—still, shouting her name aloud. Smiling foolishly while she waved and blew me a kiss.
Then she dived into the water, being far more practical than I was and not just standing there shouting and waving. A half dozen strong strokes and she rose up out of the water beside me like a goddess from the sea. Damp and solid with her clothing dripping wet and in my arms. Laughing aloud with pleasure, kissing me with an excess of loving enthusiasm.
Forced to stop from lack of breath, still holding to each other, not wanting to be separated.
“You feel all right—feel great,” I finally said. “You are all right, aren’t you?”
“Couldn’t be better, particularly now with you here. Bolivar and James—?”
“They’re the same. We’ve all been working hard to find you. I won’t lie to you and say we weren’t worried. I’m sure that you can well imagine our feelings.”
“I certainly can! But you got here so fast. It hasn’t been much time at all. How long have I been away? It can’t be more than two, maybe three days at the most. The days are so short here that it is hard to tell.”
We started back to the beach. I shook my head. “You were here only a few days—from your point of view. I’m glad of that because that means that you didn’t have much of a chance to really get worried. But we are beginning to find out that time seems to move at a different rate in each different universe. Different entropy rate, that’s what Professor Coypu says.”
“I don’t understand—different rates? And different universes?” “That is what this whole thing appears to be about. Slakey has found a way of moving between these universes. So while only a few days went by here for you—it has been well over a month that has gone by since you vanished. I’ll tell you in great detail what fascinating things have gone on during that time, but first, please, what happened to you?”
She was no longer smiling. “I made a mistake, Jim, and I’m so sorry that I got everyone all worried and involved. I thought I could do this on my own. I really thought that the Heaven thing that the other girls believed in was all some kind of crooked scam. And I know all about crooks and scams. Master Fanyimadu seemed such a greasy slimeball I never thought he would react like he did—~or that he would be helped by his twin brother…”
“Wait, my love—please start again, and from the beginning—I beg of you. Sit beside me in the sand, that’s right, arms entwined. Big kiss or two, right. Now from the very beginning if you will. All I know about what happened is that message you left for me in my computer.”
“I was pretty cocky when I recorded it. Rowena and all the other girls were so excited about seeing Heaven that, I, well, wanted to see for myself. It took a good deal of convincing—as well as a lot of money—to set up the trip. I didn’t want go unarmed so I had my gun, a grenade or two, the normal items. I planned to take a look at Heaven—then find out what kind of con job Fanyimadu was playing. But it never got that far. We met him at the temple and he gave us a theological pep talk, then told us that it was time to go. He took us by the hands and Rowena and I were following him when there was some kind of movement, some kind of thing happening, I can’t describe it.”
“Neither can I. It’s the going through or over or to a different universe.”
“Then you’ll know what I mean. But it ended suddenly and we were still in the temple when this stranger appeared, looked just like Fanyimadu, and was shouting some kind of warning and pointing at me. Well, you understand, I just worked by reflex then—”
“Reflex involved a certain amount of gunfire, some explosions, a little self—defense?”
“Of course, you know how it is. Rowena was screaming and fainting, I was knocked down, but I still did plenty of damage you will be happy to hear. Then, I don’t know how it happened, we were here in this crystal world, the three of us. The two men and me. They ignored me; one of them seemed to be hurt and the other was bandaging him. I was just diving towards them when they were gone. Just like that. Bang. When I found myself alone I, well, just looked around.”
“Was anyone else here?”
“No one that I could see. It was lonely of course, and I missed you, and it was sort of frightening and depressing at first. But that was easy enough to ignore once I started exploring. There was really nothing else that I could do, I followed that broken—glass path to the ocean—isn’t this the most incredible place you have ever been! I drank the ocean water and it seemed all right. There is a kind of grass and some shrubs on the little islands. They bear tiny orange fruity things too—but they are poison. I found that out the hard way. “But—you’re all right?”
“I am now. I was getting hungry so I sniffed the fruit, it seemed all right. That was when I took one little bite and was very sick for a very long time. So I just stayed there on the island and took it easy until I felt a little better. I was thinking about seeing what was on the bigger islands as soon as I had the strength. There is the ocean of water here, but no food. I was beginning to get a little worried—and that’s when I heard you calling. Now tell me what is happening, what it all means.”
A little worried! Any woman other than my Angelina would be a basket case left alone like this. I kissed her passionately which was very good.
“Things have been very busy since you vanished. The boys helped me, but we couldn’t get the job done alone. So we called in the Special Corps and Inskipp sent in the troops. As well as Professor Coypu and an agent named Sybil Who penetrated another fake church with still another Slakey. He seems to have multipliedhimself over and over again. We had a plan to find the machine he uses but Sybil and I were caught before we even got started. We ended up in a place called Hell. It’s Coypu’s theory that each of these places is in a different universe. Heaven is one, and Hell and this Glass are others. Then we set up a plan and I managed to get into another one of Slakey’s front operations, trying to lay my hands on one of the machines for the Professor to examine. It didn’t quite work Out as plannedwhich is how I ended up here.”
“You have been busy. Now tell me more about this Hell place and your companion, what was her name? Sybil?”
I recognized that tone of voice and told her in greater detail about my visit to Hell. Sybil had only a brief mention and I think that I came out of it pretty well, certainly Hell had not been the time or the place for romance of any kind.
“Good,” she finally said. “And the last time you saw the boys they were enjoying themselves with this female agent. How old is she—about their age, you think?”
There were daggers behind her words and I walked ever so carefully. Yes, would you believe it, exactly the same age as the boys. Mutual interests, nice to see. But it was even nicer to be with her here. Which led to some enthusiastic cuddling and no more talk of Sybil. “Enough,” she said finally, standing and brushing the sand off her clothes. “With James and Bolivar in good health and enjoying themselves, Inskipp in charge of the investigation and Coypu busy inventing his brains out, we have no need to worry about any of them.”
“Correct—we worry about ourselves. Only we don’t worry. One can die of thirst in three days, but we have an ocean full of water so that’s not going to happen.”
“Yes—but you can also die of starvation in a month. And I’m beginning to get hungry.” She pointed out at the larger islands. “There could be food out there. Why don’t we take a look? I have had plenty of time to think about the situation here and I was going to do just that. Did you notice how all the crystal life—forms stay away from the shore?”
I hadn’t but I did now. “I’ll bet you know why.”
“I do. I made a simple experiment. Whatever the living crystals are, they are not glass. They dissolve in water. Not right at first, it takes awhile. Then they get sort of soft and swell up, and eventually melt completely.”
“What happens when it rains?”
“It never does. Look—no clouds.”
“And the water doesn’t bother the other kinds of life here? I saw things swimming around in a rock pool.”
“Some of the green growths extend roots or something into the water. Meaning they are a water—based life—form like we are.
“And might very well be edible,” I said with growing enthusiasm. “While we can’t eat the glass creatures, we might find something we can nosh on the islands.”
“My thinking exactly”
I rubbed my jaw and looked over at the sandy beach on the nearest island, no more than two hundred meters away. Beyond the beach there were green growths of some kind, much bigger than the shrubs that covered the small island that Angelina had explored.
“But we also have to think about leaving Glass,” I said. “We should go back to that spot where I appeared. So Coypu can find us when he gets his machine working.”
“He can only get it working after he invents it and builds it,” she said with great practicality. “I suggest that we leave a message there telling him where we are. Then do a little exploring. If we are going to be here any length of time we are going to need food.”
“My genius,” I said, kissing her enthusiastically. “Rest and save your strength. I’ll trot back and do just that.” While I trotted, then slowed down as the oxygen got me giggling, I considered a vital problem—how was I going to leave a message? By the time I reached the clearing I had the problem solved. My wallet was still in my pocket and was filled with unusable money and valueless credit cards. With my current name on each one.
In the clearing I used my shoes to kick and scrape clear a circle in the sand. In the middle of it I placed the wallet. Then, picking up the pieces of glass, with great delicacy using a fragment of shirttail, I constructed an arrow of colored fragments that pointed back down the path. With other pieces I spelled out the single word ISLANDS.
“Very artistic, Jim,” I said, stepping back to admire my handiwork. “Very artistic indeed. When our rescuers arrive they will figure that out instantly.”
I stepped over my announcement and went back to join Angelina. It was growing dark and she was sound asleep. It was warm and the sand was soft—and it had been a busy day. I sat beside her and must have fallen asleep as well, for the next I knew it was daylight and she was lightly patting my shoulder.
“Rise and shine, sleeping beauty badly in need of a shave. Rise and drink your fill from the ocean, then let’s swim over and see if we can find some breakfast.”
“Let me show you something,” I said, removing the cloth bundle from my pocket. “Used my shirttail. Wrapped another piece of shirt around it to make a handle.”
“You are so practical, my darling,” she said, taking up the glass dagger and admiring it, then handing it back. “But won’t it dissolve when you go into the water?”
“Not if I hold it over my head and swim with one arm.”
“My husband, the athlete. Shall we go?” It took her only a few strokes to reach the first, smaller island, where she waited patiently while I thrashed over to join her. When we started across to the other side she stopped and pointed.
“There,” she said, “under that thing that looks like a cross between a sick octopus and a dead cactus. Those are the shrubs I told you about. The ones with the orange fruit. Pure poison.”
“Let’s see if we can find something better on that larger island.
It was a tiring swim for me but I did it without getting a drop of water on the blade. I emerged from the water panting and puffing and looked around.
“There may be other berries or fruits or such that aren’t too obnoxious,” I said. “That looks like a path over there.”
“If there is a path—then something made it. And that something could be dangerous.”
“Remember my trusty knife,” I said, unwrapping it and brandishing it happily.
“In that case you may lead the way”
The path really was a path, trodden flat and turning and twisting through the strange growths. There were analogs of trees, shrubs and bushes, even a green groundcover halfway between grass and moss. But nothing was in any way familiar. Or looked in any way edible. It was Angelina who saw a possibility first.
“There,” she said, parting the fronds of a feathery growth. “Those bluish bumps on the trunk.”
The bumps had a nasty resemblance to blue carbuncles. I bent and prodded one with my fingernail; a thin skin split and blue juice oozed out.
“Possibly edible?” Angelina asked.
“Possibly,” I said with deep suspicion. “And there is only one way to find out. It’s my turn to be guinea pig.”
I reached out gingerly and poked my finger into the juice. Brought it to my nose and sniffed.
“Yukk!” I said. “Even if it is edible it will come up even faster than it went down. Press on.”
I wiped my finger in the soil until it was filthy but cleansed of the juice, then started warily down the path again. It wound around the larger growths but always continued in the same direction. Uphill and away from the shore.
“Wait,” Angelina said. “Do you hear anything?”
I stopped and cocked an ear, then nodded. “A sort of booming sound, coming from up ahead.”
“Jungle drums. Perhaps the natives are restless.”
“We’ll soon find out.”
I tried to sound more cheerful than I felt. Stranded on an alien planet in an alien universe. No food to eat, unknown dangers to face. Most depressing. But at least I had Angelina again and that was incredibly cheering. I grabbed the mood swing as it went up and tried to hold onto the good feeling. I still walked slowly and silently with the knife probing out before me.
The booming was louder and the beat most irregular, slowing then quickening in an unpredictable manner. Well why not? We couldn’t expect a big—band sound here. Now the larger growths were thinning out and I could see what appeared to be a clearing beyond the bole of the last, much larger, one. The path turned there and appeared to go on, skirting the clearing and not crossing it.
“Very suspicious,” Angelina said. “Whatever creature made this path it appears that it didn’t want to cross that clearing.”
“It might be shy—or nocturnal or something like that.”
“There also might be something in the clearing that it didn’t want to get near. And that’s where the sound is coming from.”
We stopped behind the big, bulging growth that appeared to be covered with thick green hair; then cautiously looked out.
“Wow!” Angelina gasped.
Wow indeed. In the very center of the clearing was a single grayish, lumpy thing like a great pile of slumped mud. A long growth emerged from its summit and hung down almost to the ground. Growing on this, like fruit on a branch, were glistening red spheres.
“Fruit maybe,” I said. “Possibly edible.”
“Possibly dangerous,” she said. “I don’t like the way that thing is out there alone—and the way the path circles around it.”
I did not like it either. “Two choices then. We follow the path and stay away from the thing. Or we get closer and find out more about it.”
“Knowing you, Jim diGriz, your mind is already made up. But I’m going with you.”
“A deal—as long as you stay behind me.”
When we stepped into the clearing the drumming sound stopped. It knew we were there. In a moment the sound started again, faster and not as loud as before. This continued as I walked slowly in its direction. Stopped and looked at it closely and shook my head. Indeed, I thought, it sure is ugly. —
A wet orifice opened in the center of the bloated form and a deep and rasping voice spoke. “It… sure is ugly,” it said.