The call reached Doctor Orient at his club.
He had just finished a light dinner and was at his meditations in the club’s small reading room when a gentle, unpleasant probe at the base of his brain disturbed the deep lull of his thoughts.
Shiny with purpose, the probe cut through spider webs of a billion existences.
He didn’t resist the intrusion but went receptive, letting the call light up the darkness behind his closed eyes. The tiny synapses, the fine connection points within his body, began to glow warm as the message cleared.
At first a sense of the quality of the message, its weight and consistency, then his brain tasted immediacy and he formed the picture.
Having made its intended contact the energy instantly withdrew, leaving him temporarily drained of vitality.
He pushed himself to his feet and made unsteadily for the door. Coatless and shivering he gulped deep breaths of air as he stood waiting for his car to be brought around to the entrance.
He was still feeling giddy as he ducked his long frame awkwardly into the vintage Rolls Ghost. He sat for a moment, running his palms over the smooth wood of the wheel before starting the engine.
He drove with the window open and washed his face with cold air in an effort to get his mind in gear. Moments—or was it years?—ago he had been in a lush spatial drift, leisurely exploring the universe within himself, and now he was involved in the total reality of a crosstown drive.
And the call had come from Hap.
Hap Prentice, after three months of silence.
Orient parked northeast on Eighth Avenue and waited.
The circus was in town. Outside Madison Square Garden it was comparatively quiet but inside it would be all noise, color and confusion. He snorted mildly. He wasn’t fond of the old show. Too yang.
When he felt ready he stepped out into the street, crossed to the ticket booth, bought a ticket and entered. Guided as much by his sense of smell as by his highly reputed powers, he took the stairs to the menagerie.
It was deserted except for the dusty animals. The performance was in progress in the main arena. He heard the brassy music and the periodic roar of the crowd.
There was a large platform in the center of the room. It was about six feet off the ground and was divided into sections by plywood partitions. Each section was papered with garish three-color posters of some unusual or unfortunate human being. The freak show.
He walked slowly around the platform looking carefully for the right olace. A lion coughed.
Orient stopped in front of a stage where a poster done in fiery red and glossy blacks proclaimed:
ASLEEP A HUNDRED YEARS
WILL ANSWER YOUR QUESTIONS!
The artist had depicted Malta as a raven-haired beauty sleeping on a bed of flames.
A feeling of anxiety nudged Orient, and then the probe was there, cutting through his emotions. He looked around, then climbed the tiny steps up to the stage. He went directly to the red satin curtain and pulled it aside.
Hap was waiting.
He did not look well. He was pale and lean with trouble. His blue eyes, once vivid with animal spirit, were set hollowly in his skull, looking like faded coins in their dark scoops.
“Hello, Hap,” Orient said softly.
“Hello… Doc… ” Hap tried to smile, then gave it up. He pointed to the girl lying on the couch behind him. “Can you help her, Doc… ?” he faltered.
The girl looked still and white under the glare of the naked lightbulb hanging from the cardboard ceiling. Orient brushed past his friend and pulled away the sheet covering her. The poster hadn’t exaggerated. Malta was a beauty. Her body was an elongated flow of liquid lines. Sloping breasts rising full to sharp nipples. Stomach long and flat, easing into wide hollow hips extending the narrow shape of her legs. Her skin looked opaque and cool, like the surface of a stone from the sea, its luminosity heightened by a curious absence of hair. All of her, even her pubic area, had been shaved. As he reached for her pulse he noticed an iron ring on her second finger.
Orient’s examination took less than ten minutes but it spanned the young doctor’s vast knowledge of the medical sciences. Being a surgeon as well as a psychiatrist, he was aware of the variations of possiblities. But the girl manifested neither physical symptoms of disorder nor any sign of catatonia, catalepsy, or brain damage. He questioned Hap as he worked over her.
“How long has she been like this?”
“You took your time, didn’t you?” Orient lifted her arm. “I can’t find any injury or disease. Of course, I’ll have to run some tests.”
“You won’t need tests… ” Hap’s voice was slurred.
Orient looked up. “Has she been hypnotized?”
“She’s in some… kind of trance. She never told me.”
“Did you hypnotize her, Hap?” he pursued.
“No… she went in by herself… always. And I would get her out. But… ”
“You can’t bring her out, is that it?” Orient pulled back an eyelid and studied the pupil.
“That’s it… I feel her… Then something happens to her, something awful… ” Hap’s hands opened and closed. “She can’t take anything like that, Doc.”
Orient straightened up and moved closer to Hap.
“Listen to me, Hap, can you rouse this girl in any way?”
“No more, Doc… it’s horrible for her.”
Orient’s fingers tightened on his friend’s arm. “It’s important that I see the symptoms.”
Happleton Prentice nodded.
Doctor Orient stood aside as Hap bent low over the girl. He watched as his former pupil went through the preliminary tuning procedures; breathing, concentration, breathing, then lowering his energy field to negative so it would draw the energies of the girl.
Orient saw that it was taking more effort than normal for Hap to maintain concentration. He began to call her name. He was at maximum negative polarity.
The girl’s lips twitched.
“Malta… ” he repeated softly.
The girl’s mouth opened. She began to speak, her voice a surprising masculine growl.
“Oh say… oh say verna… vernat kio… oh say… ”
Orient was on terms with most of the kev languages but the sounds coming from the girl’s mouth didn’t register anywhere.
As he came nearer to catch the rhythms he glanced at her face and froze. The girl’s features, calm before, were now contorted into a rigid grimace of raw terror.
As he watched, her face began to wither with age.
“Oh say… virto oh say… kio kio… Oh say… ”
His stomach pulled tight as the sounds rumbled stronger, filling the cramped space behind the curtain, surrounding him.
Hap was shaking with effort, his chest heaving.
“Send her back, man, stop it.” Orient’s voice scraped through his dry throat.
Hap covered his face with his hands and began to deactivate.
The rumbling began to diminish, departing, it seemed, into the girl’s slim body. Abruptly, it stopped.
The muscles in Malta’s face relaxed. She looked as calm and young as before. She was still unconscious.
Hap was slumped over on the floor.
It was quiet again in the small room. The music from the arena filtered through the silence like a light cologne.
Doctor Orient took a cigarette case from bis pocket and extracted a hand-wrapped cigarette. He snapped the case shut and hefted it in his hand. Absently he examined the oval design engraved in the silver.
The case was his peculiar staff of the adept, given to him by his last master, the venerable Ku. It was the symbol of power and a function of the power. Orient understood on the day he was invested with the case that he would go down from the mountain where he had discovered the serene knowledge and take his place once more in the cities of men.
He lit the cigarette, sharply scenting the little space.
“Can you talk, Hap?” His voice seemed unnaturally loud.
Hap stood up and stretched.
“I’m okay.” He yawned. “Just temporary.”
Outside a group of people drifted by, laughing. A child began to cry somewhere.
“We’d better get the girl out of here.”
Hap smiled sleepily. “Anything you say, Doc.” He wrapped the sheet around Malta and tried to lift her from the couch. He couldn’t make it.
“Too tired,” he grunted finally.
Doctor Orient pulled the curtain aside. It was just intermission and the floor was beginning to fill up with people.
Orient located a Garden policeman and produced his credentials. He explained that Malta was a patient and had to be moved. The special officer nodded and withdrew, returning in a few minutes with a wheeled stretcher and another officer. The four men moved the stretcher swiftly out of the building and across the street and placed the girl in the spacious back seat of Orient’s limousine.
Doctor Orient drove slowly to Fifty-Seventh Street and made a left turn.
“Thanks for coming out to help, Doc.” Hap shifted uneasily.
“Your friend is in a serious bind.”
“You can swing it, can’t you?”
“I’ll try.” Orient swerved to avoid hitting a cab. “You’d better tell me what you’ve been doing since you left us.”
“I hope you don’t hold it against me. My leaving like that, I mean.”
“No blame, pilgrim. You’re a free agent.”
Hap leaned his head back against the cool leather seat. “As you well know, Doc, I never wanted to be a telepath. When you approached me and told me about your little team I thought you were the original mad scientist. No, don’t interrupt, Doc… Even after you showed me proof of telepathy and proved that I had extrasensory talent, I still didn’t like it—I was one year away from major-league ball and that’s the way I wanted it—well, anyway, I just couldn’t stand it anymore around your house and all that telepathy was messing up my mind, so I jumped.”
Orient smiled. “I can understand how… ”
“Let me get all of this out, Doc. So anyway I decided to go down to Florida for some fishing. Well, fishing didn’t help so I started doing a little drinking… the booze didn’t help either but it was easier than thinking… and then the telepathy business happened again… One night in Yuba City I was blind drunk and I somehow contacted Malta… ”
Malta. The word rippled in Orient’s mind.
“How did that come about?”
“I guess I was sending telepathically while I was clobbered, and she heard me.”
Orient sensed an imbalance. Telepathy as he knew it was not a chance factor.
“That’s not clear to me.”
“If you find it hard, think how hard it was for me to swallow. 1 wouldn’t either, but she proved it.”
Hap’s face reflected a stubborn fight with his sense of belief.
“She went into this trance and received thoughts from me. She repeated everything I was thinking.”
“How did she go into this trance?”
“She says something funny, some funny kind of doubletalk, almost like the words you heard her say back there.”
Orient remained silent, brooding as he drove.
“So Malta and I stayed together after that. It wasn’t much of a thing, we didn’t have much to say to each other, I was still drinking every day… but she stayed with me and kind of looked after me… ”
“How did you wind up with the circus outfit?”
“Well, we ran out of money pretty soon, so we started working a local carnival… you know, mind reading?”
“I know.” Orient frowned. He had explained how he felt about commercialism to Hap at the beginning of his instruction.
“It was a good act. She would go into a trance and I would feed her the stuff… in a couple of weeks we were booked into a top spot.”
“And you had decided to go into mind reading?”
“No, no, we were gonna stay with the show until Philly. Then we were gonna split up. Malta wanted to go someplace in Europe and I was going to play ball in Venezuela under another name till I got back in shape.”
“So what happened to Malta?”
“I don’t know. The first night we got here, Malta went into her trance but she didn’t answer any of the questions. That was yesterday; and when I tried to bring her out of trance she… well you saw what she went through. Doc, do you have any idea what’s happened to her?”
Doctor Orient shook his head. “I don’t know,” he said slowly, “not yet.” He reached for a leather-covered microphone dangling from the dash. He pressed the signal button a few times. A scratchy voice responded from the speaker set between the seats.
“Sordi, meet me in the garage with a stretcher,” Orient said. “And you’d better prepare a couple of guest rooms.”
Orient replaced the mike.
Doctor Orient swung the car off Riverside Drive and into the driveway of a narrow four-story building. As they approached, a large aluminum door slid silently up, revealing a spacious garage. Sordi was waiting just inside the door.
“What happened?” the dapper secretary called out, pulling the stretcher toward the Rolls. “Is somebody hurt?” Without speaking, Orient and Hap transferred Malta carefully from the car to the stretcher. “Who is she, Doctor?” Sordi continued, bobbing around them. He greeted Hap in the same breath. “How are you, Prentice? Where’ve you been?”
“Later, Sordi,” Orient said. “Take Malta to the meditation room and then see to it that we’re not disturbed tonight.”
“Malta?” Sordi whistled softly through his teeth and cracked a wide grin. “That’s some patient, Doctor.” Then he saw the grave manner of both men, and quickly became very busy with wheeling the stretcher over to the elevator. He waited for Hap and Orient to enter before pushing the third-floor button.
As the elevator started up Orient pushed the second-floor button. “We’ll get out here,” he told Sordi. “Make her as comfortable as you can.”
The doors opened onto a long, wide, high room which served as Orient’s living room, study and library. After a backward glance at Malta, Hap shuffled hesitantly out of the elevator after Orient.
Most visitors found the house magnificent. Orient preferred fine, dark wood, rough stone and glass as dominant themes and had combined these elements skillfully and simply, from the terraced master bedroom to the basement surgery room. But Hap was uneasy in the atmosphere of Orient’s home. It was too big, too imposing, with its stone-faced walls and floor-to-ceiling windows. But then he was uneasy with the circumstances that had brought him there. He still regarded his own telepathic powers with the same affection he reserved for bad checks. And he saw his experience as Orient’s pupil as some surreal form of choir practice.
He braved the doctor’s disapproval of alcohol and poured himself a brandy. Then he settled his tired body into a deep armchair and watched the doctor pace the floor as he consulted a thick volume.
His mind went back to the night he had met Orient…
He was playing a night game in Jacksonville. The air was still and moist, and he was already running sweat when he took his first turn at batting practice. Then it happened.
The second ball came in low and curving outside. Hap lunged and smashed it foul off the end of the bat. The ball spun straight and fast directly toward a man in a white suit sitting behind first base. The man didn’t move. Apparently he didn’t see it coming.
But just before the ball smacked into the man’s face it caromed down and away from him as if it had bounced off something solid in midair.
The man sat there calmly, as if nothing unusual had occurred.
Hap looked around to see if anyone else had noticed the ball’s strange pattern but everyone on the field was intent on their pre-game warm up. When he dropped the bat and trotted out to shortstop he was still wondering about the foul ball’s erratic pattern. He glanced over at the stands and had a strong, uncomfortable feeling that he knew the man from somewhere.
All during the game Hap continued to feel the presence of the man behind first base. Then came the eighth inning. His team was down a run, and he was the second man at bat. The first batter dribbled a slow ground ball to third and beat out the throw. As Hap stepped up to the box, he looked at the third base coach for a sign. The bunt was on.
Hap’s eyes flickered over to first base and the man in the white suit. Suddenly he had a crazy feeling that the man didn’t want him to bunt. But he shook the thought and concentrated on the pitch. It came in perfectly and he slid his hand to the end of the bat and set himself to push the ball between the charging third baseman and the pitcher. But at the instant of contact his concentration was joggled by a quick picture of the man behind first base, his white suit gleaming like chrome in Hap’s mind. The ball went into the dirt foul.
He stepped out of the box and called for the pine tar rag. He looked over for a new sign while he rubbed the handle down. The bunt was still on. He took a deep breath and tried to settle down.
The next pitch was high and outside. The runner was on his way to second. Hap reached up and flicked it just past the rearing catcher behind him. Strike two.
The sign came to swing away. He rubbed his palm on the seat of his uniform and rocked his weight on his heels. And there was a surge running through him as he stared at the pitcher. He knew he would hit the next pitch out of the ball park.
The ball came in high and fast. His hands were wood and he felt the contact right to the muscles under his arms. He almost tipped his cap trotting past first base.
After the game the man was waiting for Hap outside the stadium.
“Do I know you, mister?” Hap said aggressively. He didn’t like people bugging him, especially while he was playing. And this guy didn’t look right. He was tall and thin, really thin, with hollowed-out cheeks that stressed his high, jutting cheekbones. An inch-wide streak of silver slashed straight back through his long black hair.
The slight slant of his green eyes gave his sun-darkened face a Mongolian cast. His wide mouth turned up at the corners so that he seemed to be constantly smiling over some amusing, unspoken observation.
And he had the strangest hands Hap had ever seen. They were slender and long, dangling loosely from the ends of his wrists like the hands of a basketball player. But the palms were cracked and wrinkled, crisscrossed with a network of short, deep lines like those of a very old man. Yet from his face, which was unlined and smooth, he looked to be about thirty.
Hap didn’t like him. He didn’t like his long hair, he didn’t like his smirk and he didn’t like his damned white suit.
“I’m Doctor Owen Orient,” the man said. His voice was calm and low.
“Medical doctor?” Hap asked automatically. Most states he played in abounded with doctors of every persuasion.
“A.M.A., but out of practice. Right now I’m involved in private research and I want you to help.”
Hap started moving away. “I don’t have much time, Doc,” he shook his head. “I’m a ballplayer and it’s baseball season.”
“Do you ever know before you hit a home run that you’re going to hit it?”
The question stopped him. He looked around. They were standing in an empty parking lot outside the stadium. The rest of the team had gone ahead to the hotel. Now he was alone here talking to a stranger about something he didn’t understand.
He scowled. “What’s your business with me, mister?” he said sharply.
“You’re a telepath.”
“A what?” Hap yelled.
“A telepath,” the man repeated evenly.
Hap started walking away.
“Do you remember the ball stopping before it hit me?” the man asked.
Hap stopped. “Yes,” he said his back to the man.
“I can prove I did that.”
It was a flat challenge. Hap accepted.
Later, he watched Doctor Orient move a bottle of beer across a table, in a small, sluggish bar, and he was convinced. It was the seventh time he had made the bottle go where Hap had pointed.
“And you can read minds, too.”
Hap examined the bottle, still considering the possibilities of trickery.
“You’re thinking that there’s always the possibility of a trick,” Orient said.
He looked at Orient’s flat green eyes. “Any con man would know enough to say that,” he said.
Orient got up. “All I want to con you out of is some time to train yourself to use your own powers.”
“Okay, okay, now, sit down a minute.” Hap was confused.
“I’ll only confuse you further if I talk to you now,” Orient said genially. He took a card from his wallet as he paid the bill. “Here’s my New York number.” He put it down at the edge of the table.
Hap watched the card slide across the table and stop just short of his fingers.
“Just pressing my point.” Orient smiled. “Thanks for your time. And remember, with your help we can eventually teach everyone to use their telepathic power.”
“What good would that do?” Hap put the card in his pocket.
“You decide that,” Orient said.
It took Hap a few weeks before he finally got around to talking to Orient again.
Now he wished he had burned the card to ashes.
“I can enter her trance field,” Orient said presently, still leafing through the book. “But if it’s an occupied trance it will be somewhat dangerous.”
“Yes, there’re some aspects of Malta’s reaction that resemble cases of possession.”
“What do you mean, possession?”
“No sense in going into it until I’m sure.” He snapped the book shut and went over to the crammed bookshelves across the room. He returned, holding another book even larger than the first. He studied the volume in silence for some time.
Hap was just settling down with a second brandy when Orient looked up.
“I’m going to need your help tonight, Hap,” Orient said. “Do you feel up to it, or shall we try it in the morning?”
“What do you need?” Hap sighed and put the glass down.
“I want to enter Malta’s trance. The entry will be simple enough, as you recall the space of a trance is what scientists refer to as hyper-space.”
Hap nodded, remembering the many hours of instruction Orient had given him in parapsychology.
Orient went on, “You know that hyper-space is merely the reverse of our space, so that to enter Malta’s field I’ll go to a positive pole and let whatever has her draw me in also.”
“What do I do?”
“I want you to lock contact with me and just feed energy. Don’t project yourself. I can use the energy you send through as a guideline.”
Hap thought it over. “Okay, let’s try it now. I don’t want to leave her there overnight.”
“Are you sure you’re strong enough to keep sending energy enough?”
“I think I can handle it.”
“I hope so.” Orient went over to the elevator and pressed the button. He nodded for Hap to join him.
Neither of them spoke as they rode up to the next floor and walked the long corridor to the meditation room.
Malta was inside, still on the stretcher.
Sordi had placed her by the side of the running pool at the far end of the room. Orient checked her pulse rate.
Hap sat down on the floor and took a long breath. This was the one section in the house to which he responded. Everything in the room had been keyed to provide harmonies that would lull its occupants into a gentle, hovering awareness; the light, the shade, the huge rock placed on the thick brown carpet, the slash of emptiness through the length of the room, the running water alive with the darting colors of small fish.
Hap knew the room well. He had spent hours here alone learning how to communicate with himself. The grind of sleeplessness eased as he automatically relaxed.
Doctor Orient sat across the pool, his breathing already as imperceptible as that of the girl on the stretcher next to him.
Hap relaxed further, digging inward for the source point. He controlled his breathing and focused on the bright blue light of a distant sun deep in the universe of his being.
Like a climber testing his ropes, Orient made sure that the psychic gears had beveled and contact between Hap and himself was clear. Then he went in.
He entered slowly, using a technique he had learned in Rome. He reined the thrust of his projection as it leaped into the junction of strongest negative polarity. Electricity sparkling from maximum electrons to minimum electrons, water rushing to fill an empty river bed, the eternal hunt to feed hunger—the movement is always toward the unnourished, the implication. The universe fills its gaps.
He was in trouble as soon as he pierced the dimension. A great wind constantly threatened to sweep him from contact with the thin stream of energy that was his only control as he spun through the bottomless vapors of some infinite vertigo. Then he sensed it. Something waiting at the center of the wind, something familiar in the midst of the chaos. He felt the pull and he knew that he was being drawn by an enormous predatory presence. He veered and increased his speed.
The maneuver enabled him to avoid disaster. His speed took him past the presence and around it, sending him back toward his junction of entry.
As he hurtled past the negative core he sensed the sluggish maw of it, the thick vortex of raw need vibrating with expectancy, waiting to engulf him.
He fought to keep contact with his line of energy.
He was between his entry point and the attraction of the still-yearning presence. His speed was decreasing dangerously, but sensing direction gave him a spasm of strength. He made it back, straining like some spectral salmon to wriggle out of the net home.
It was a long time before they could move.
Orient regained consciousness first.
He felt a grab of anxiety when he saw the still-sleeping girl. He knew that she was prey for a hundred hunters.
Orient managed a smile. The path that Hap had generated had never once wavered and had given him enough leverage” to avoid being trapped.
“I could feel it from my end,” Hap said, his eyes still closed, “it was a bitch to hold.”
Orient picked a hand-wrapped cigarette from his case. “It’s awesome.” He struck a match. “It’s a huge presence picking up anything in its path. Malta wandered into the hyena’s mouth, all right. It just swallows anything that comes along, getting bigger and stronger.” He inhaled. “Hap, I think it’s a generator.”
Hap opened his eyes. “A generator?”
“Yes, a source of power for someone practicing magic.” Orient shook his head, smoke streaming from his nostrils. “There’s someone in this vicinity building up a negative field.”
“Let me get it straight, Doc—are you telling me that a magician has cast a spell on Malta?”
“Not quite. What I believe has happened is that someone in the city is practicing black magic. Whoever it is, is building up a tremendous amount of negative power in hyper-space. The energy used to feed black magic is negative energy. When Malta went into trance here she wasn’t prepared and she was assimilated by the negative presence of the field.”
“What happens to her now? Can’t we get her out?”
“There’s a chance.”
“I’ll need more help. Tomorrow, I think.”
“But, Doc, will she be all right like this? Maybe if we moved her out of the area… ”
“It’s too late for that. We have to pry her away from there now.”
“I still don’t understand about this magic gaff, Doc.”
“Not many people do. I’m not even sure I’m right about this. I’m basing my diagnosis on certain experiments I’ve made in the past. And the fact that your meeting with Malta wasn’t a chance factor physically, but a psychic imperative.”
Orient declined to go into any further discussion of his study of the occult. It wouldn’t have made any sense to an unbeliever, and he was too tired to clarify. “I’m going to send an emergency message to the others,” he said, closing his eyes. “Why don’t you give me a boost. Claude isn’t far away but Argyle is in Europe and I don’t know if I can get a clear contact alone.”
The message went and Hap went with it, riding the wave of energy emanating from Orient, the weight of his presence speeding not only the ride but the wave itself. He felt each contact as it was completed, lifting him higher and faster until the wave suddenly broke, one level after another, leaving him in a blissful glide from which he carefully slid—carefully…
She was young and pretty and not very brave, consequently she was skittish in the dentist chair.
“Don’t worry now,” Levi assured her gruffly, “you’ll feel better when you get out of that chair.”
She didn’t answer. She ran some water into a paper cup and rinsed out her mouth. Then she sat back in the chair and closed her eyes.
She could hear Doctor Claude Levi working, shambling about the room like a graceless bear, his shaggy bulk incongruous against the sophisticated chromium machinery that webbed his office.
He would be a very attractive man if he shaved off that horrible beard, she mused through her apprehension. As it was, his powerful intensity made him extremely magnetic.
She heard the soft sliding sound of metal fitting into metal.
“Don’t panic now,” he rumbled.
She opened her eyes.
Above her was a large glass and metal concentric circle. The glass was lit from behind so that there was no glare. The metal gleamed darkly in contrast.
“Just watch the birdie,” Levi said, pressing the switch that started the circle turning.
He let her watch the illusion for a while before he spoke again. When he did, his voice was a hoarse whisper.
“Relax, Emma, relax now. Put every thought out of your mind. Just follow the spiral deep into the center. Follow the spiral.”
She felt her jaw and throat go slack. She began to breathe more fully, with less effort. Her hands relaxed their grip on the armrests and hung loosely from her wrists.
“You are going into a soft doze now, Emma,” he droned deeply. “Your eyes are heavy, they can’t stay open.”
Her eyes closed and her breath became shallow and regular.
“You’re sleeping now but you can still hear me,” he continued. “Is that right?”
“Yes… ” Her voice was muffled.
“Now you feel better than you ever have before. Is that right?”
“You feel stronger, quicker, faster, more alive than you ever have before. Isn’t that true?”
“You have no cares, no problems, and above all you feel no pain. No pain whatsoever. If I were to jab you with a needle it wouldn’t hurt at all, would it?”
“That’s good, that’s just the way you should feel, Emma,” Levi said as he drew his instrument table and his drill closer to the chair.
“And one more thing,” he said as he bent closer to her mouth. “When I wake you up you’re going to feel terrific, even better than you do now. Except that you’ll feel some pain now and then. But it won’t bother you. That’s just to let you know if something is wrong. Just to warn your body. Do you understand?”
Levi worked quickly. His blunt, hairy fingers were amazingly efficient. He was just packing in the final layer of a wide filling when the probe found the base of his brain.
New York. Traffic.
The picture repeated, then withdrew.
Claude Levi leaned against the chair for a moment before completing the filling. When he was finished he put away his instruments and awakened his patient.
He chased her out of his office before she could finish telling him how wonderful she felt. He told his nurse to cancel his appointments for a few days, and get him a seat on the next plane for New York. Then he went across the yard to the main house and packed a bag.
The man circled warily around the girl.
She dropped to her hands and knees and spit the word at him. “Empty.”
He backed away and leaned against the wall.
“Empty,” she whispered slyly.
The man threw up his hands and laughed. Then the laugh broke off in his throat, and he stood flat-footed in front of her.
“Full,” he insisted.
Her guffaw turned into a cough as she got to her feet and pointed at him. “Empty. Empty. Empty.” The cough rose into a shriek.
“Full,” he said quietly.
“Empty.” She put her hair back in place and straightened her dress. Then she put a hand on his arm. “Empty,” she repeated patiently.
He turned. His head flew back, the muscles in his throat shifting like ropes under his skin. “FULL,” he roared.
She began beating at his back with her fists, the heavy blows punctuating the methodical repetition of her words. “Empty, Empty. Empty.” She was crying.
For a long time he didn’t move. Then he closed his eyes, and thrust his clenched fists high above his head. “Full,” he whispered.
She stopped hitting him. Her hand lingered, then dropped. She backed away.
“Full,” he repeated, opening his eyes.
“Empty,” she whimpered.
“Okay, A.S.,” another voice cut in, “we’re ready on two.”
Argyle Simpson stood impatiently while the make-up man dabbed at his face and the hairdresser sprayed his thick black Afro. He was bored. Balancing lights and lining up angles had very little to do with his kind of acting. He was an explorer, a platonic samurai who enjoyed engaging life head on. He liked to spend his nights getting next to some laughs. These days, what passed for laughs was rehearsal with his leading lady—the producer’s daughter, Italian style. He had to threaten to quit the film before she would even consent to rehearse. Now she was telling the paparazzi that she was the only Italian star who used the Method.
He walked over to the set and lifted his arms so that the wardrobe man could cinch his belt and sword. He adjusted the angle of his scabbard and drew himself up, strutting under the lights like the regal warrior he portrayed in the film.
He squinted, looking for the director.
Gregorio was explaining something to the leading lady in rapid Italian. Argyle could only catch a word here and there, but he knew that Amanda Rizzotta wanted her part padded.
He lit a cigarette and paced. He waved the make-up man away and sat down in a chair stenciled with his name. He was finished with his second cigarette by the time they were ready to work.
The director talked them through the scene, then went to take a look through the cameras. Ten minutes later he called action.
Argyle worked smoothly, taking Amanda into his confidence bit by bit, drawing the juice out of the dialogue, insisting that she be honest. He touched her lightly, waiting until the last possible moment to draw her close to his body.
Then the probe was there, tugging at his brain.
He kissed Amanda hard and held her to him. They called the cut for the third time before he pulled his head back and let her go.
Amanda looked up at him, confused for a moment, then her eyes became smoky and she smiled knowingly.
“Nice, babies, very nice, very, very nice.” The director was clapping them both on the back. “That was a print.”
“Listen, Gregorio”—Argyle started moving off the set— “I have to go to New York. Right now.”
The director followed him, mopping his face with a pink silk handkerchief. “Now?” he screamed. “Now?” The grips on the set stopped work and watched. “I’m shooting a picture. You don’t walk out now, not for anything.”
Argyle stopped and turned around to face Gregorio. “Look, buddy,” he said amiably, “if you want to sue—solid! Talk to Henry about the details.”
“But I need you.” Gregorio stamped his foot down on the floor. “Why should I talk to your agent? You must stay and finish my picture.”
“Listen, Gregorio.” Argyle put his hand on the director’s shoulder. “I’ll be back in a few days. And if you still want me, I’ll give you a corking finish. I’m sorry to upset you, Gregorio. I know you don’t deserve this and neither does Amanda.” He flashed a wide smile at his leading lady. She nodded suspiciously. “But I must leave. That’s final.”
The director weighed the variables. “I’ll shoot around you,” Gregorio proclaimed. He began shouting instructions in Italian.
Argyle moved away, wiping the make-up off his face.
Contact complete. Hap went into a peaceful doze.
Later Sordi roused him and showed him to his room. Gratefully he crawled between cool new sheets.
He slept soundly even through the sudden thunder squall that blew up during the night.
Doctor Orient was in his study sorting his mail from the silver tray at his side when Hap came down for breakfast.
The sun, streaming through the large window slanting in and over the desk highlighted the room like a massive Von Sternberg set.
To Hap, the lighting was just ordinary daylight, however, and less important than the eggs, fruit, cream, sour cream, toast and coffee on the sideboard. He took a plate and began heaping it full.
Orient was opening a telegram as Hap sat down to eat “It’s from Argyle, acknowledging contact,” he said.
“Why bother with the wire?” Hap said tersely.
“He’s in Rome and not quite the expert you are.”
Hap grunted and concentrated on his food. He had never been overly fond of the flamboyant actor.
“Don’t you worry about me, Doc.” Hap waved his fork in reassurance as he sensed the Doctor’s coming admonition. “I won’t tilt this game.”
Orient smiled at the term. In the game of pinball, when the player pushes the board trying to impose his will on the free-bounding steel ball, the game shuts off. All the lights go out except for one, which dimly signals the loss with the word TILT. If a communicant in a telepathic circle “pushes” the other participants by involving them with vagrant elements of his ego, he risks shorting out the contact. An ego tilt.
Hap ate his breakfast in silence as the doctor continued to read his mail. When Orient had finished with his correspondence he went to the sideboard and poured himself fresh coffee. He drank it standing up.
“Doc,” Hap muttered, “you know I’m still confused.”
Orient sat down. “Well, so am I. So you’re not alone. Tell me something Hap, what kind of person is Malta? How did you spend your time? Where was she from?”
Hap shifted uncomfortably. “You know, Doc, we never did do much talking. I was drunk a lot of the time. I didn’t start to sober up until the owner of the show threatened to fire us both if I didn’t hit the wagon.”
“When was that?”
“Maryland I think. Yeah… that was it. But I never could get her to tell me about herself. We just worked together.”
“Think, man, you must have gotten something across in three months.”
“Listen, I was dead drunk when Malta pulled me out of the gutter. And I stayed bagged for the next two months. If we hadn’t needed the money we probably never would have stayed together as long as we did.” Hap stared at his hands.
Orient said nothing, watching him.
Suddenly Hap looked up. “I’ll tell you one thing Doc,” he said with conviction, “she seemed to be afraid of something.”
Orient leaned forward in his chair. “What makes you think that?”
“Well, there were times when she would get very secretive, and kind of fade. She would make secret living arrangements for days at a time. Just show up for work, and fade when we were finished. Then after a few days she would come back.”
“She acted afraid in other ways. Every now and then we would be late going on, or miss a show entirely because she got a peek of something she didn’t like through the curtain.”
“Did she seem afraid of coming to New York?”
“No, not at all. She seemed to be relieved that the act was going to split up soon.”
“How did your act work, Hap?” Orient leaned back and stretched out his legs full length.
“It worked fine, people liked us.”
“I mean, what did you do during the act? Did you guess weights or ages, or predict the future?” He let the question hang.
“I would come out, introduce Malta, then I would pretend to hypnotize her. Actually she would go into a trance by herself. Then I put a hood over her head. I went into the audience and collected things—you know the kind of stuff— watches and rings with engravings on them, wallets, photographs. Anyway, I would tell her telepathically what I had in my hand and Malta would repeat what I told her. At the end of the act I would draw her out.”
“Was that all there was to it?”
“That’s about it… oh yeah… there was something.
“Every once in a while she would do something on her own. I mean, she would say things I hadn’t sent. Like she would read a letter in a wallet, a letter I hadn’t even seen.”
“Is that all?”
“When she did something like that she would give advice. That was the only time she ever said anything or predicted anything.”
“What kind of advice?” Orient got to his feet intently.
“She would tell them to be careful, or to see their doctor. Stuff like that. She only did it a couple of times.”
Orient hooked his fingers into his belt and renewed his pacing.
“I’m going to have to do some research this afternoon,” he said presently. “Why don’t you try to take it easy today? We can’t do very much for Malta until the others get here.”
Hap turned in his chair. “Will she be all right? She hasn’t eaten or drunk anything for a few days now.”
“In her suspended state it won’t make much difference. At any rate she’ll be out tonight, or we’ll be in.”
“What’s that mean?”
“If we make some error and something goes wrong, all of us are going to end up like Malta—suspended.”
“All of us—who’s all of us?” Hap felt his neck burn.
“I believe you’ve met the other pilgrims who are going to assist us.”
“If you mean Simpson and Levi, forget it. They’re not going to want to assist. They don’t know Malta.”
“I’m going to ask them to volunteer nonetheless.”
“You think they’re going to take a chance like that?”
“We’ll see.” Orient set his cup down. “Take a stroll in the garden in the meantime. Get some air.”
Hap watched him go out.
For half an hour he prowled around the study, deep in thought. When he had called for the doctor he had no idea that Malta’s condition was this complicated. Magic. Negative energy. He had thought that she had just gone into a trance too deep for him to reach. But this was something serious. Even Orient was alarmed. Hap knew that he would do everything necessary to help Malta. But to involve two other men in something like this…
He had met the other telepaths who comprised Orient’s circle of pilgrims during the weeks he had been under Orient’s tutelage. From time to time they would attempt projects, experiments. He had been less than enthusiastic when he was asked to assist them—surly, as a matter of fact. He had never cared much about their work. He had been too busy resenting the fact that he had telepathic power. Any help he had given them he had doled out grudgingly. Now he would be asking them to risk their lives, or worse.
He decided the doctor was wrong. No one was going to volunteer to help out a jive busher.
Sordi came in and began to clear away the dishes.
“Are you comfortable, Mr. Prentice?” he asked quietly, watching Hap carefully.
“Huh? Oh yes, who wouldn’t be after a breakfast like that?”
Hap moved over to the bookcase. He selected a book at random and ambled distractedly to his bedroom.
He lay on his bed, blankly turning pages as he tried to understand the turns his life, had taken since Doctor Orient had found him. Eventually he discovered he was looking at a series of photographs in an album of some sort. Examining it with more attention he saw that clippings from old newspapers were tucked between the pages. He unfolded some of them and began reading.
The first was an account of a young married couple who were completing a film in Mexico. They had written, directed and starred in the film. Their names were Owen and Harriet Orient. The clipping was dated 1925. The next story concerned the same couple. They were in Monte Carlo after an auto race in which Owen Orient had participated, driving his own Bugatti.
As he read Hap realized that Owen and Harriet Orient must have been the doctor’s parents. He went back to the album and began picking out faded, brown-edged photographs of the Orients holding an infant in their arms.
He was at the stage in the album where there were a number of pictures of a small boy at play when someone knocked on the door.
It Was Sordi, looking worried. “Excuse me for disturbing you,” he said with some consternation, “but do you by some chance have the photograph album?”
“Right. I’m just reading it now.”
“The doctor never shows it, you know.” Sordi moved closer and extended his hand.
“Okay, coach,” Hap handed the album over. “Sorry if I busted in on anything.”
“Oh, no blame. You couldn’t have known.” He backed out of the room.
Hap was overwhelmed. He had found out more about his strange teacher in the past thirty minutes than he had in all the weeks of training at the mansion. He decided to take a stroll in the garden.
When he returned to the house he found Argyle Simpson relaxing behind Orient’s desk.
Hap forced a smile. “Howdy, Simpson.”
“Well, howdy yourself, Prentice old man.” Argyle lifted a gleaming chelsea boot off the desk in greeting. “It’s good to see you back in touch, old buddy. I heard you gave up the telepathy business in favor of an athletic career.”
Hap’s neck reddened. “Look, try to remember that I’m a shortstop by profession and a damned telepath by accident.”
Argyle remained at his impeccable ease. “Now there’s no need for that sort of paranoia. We telepaths are the pilgrims of the new race, after all.” He mocked Orient gently. “Responsibility, Prentice, respon… ”
“Yeah? Well, maybe you’ll change your mind when you hear what the Doc has planned for our new race tonight.”
“And what do you know about that, pilgrim, or is it rookie?”
“Look, hambone, it so happens that… ”
“That this isn’t the time for personal games,” Orient finished as he entered the room. “Hello, Argyle. Did you have a good flight?”
“The film was a bore.”
“You won’t be bored long here, I think.”
“Sounds good. I was just sending this poor fellow up, trying to get a little advance information.”
Before Orient could answer, Levi strolled into the study.
Orient smiled broadly. “I’m glad you could come, Claude.”
“I’m glad you called.” Levi beamed. “Things have been a bit slow in Motown lately. I haven’t seen a decent opening in three months.”
Levi was an avid chess player, and one of the few people who beat Orient easily.
While Hap brooded at the window, Argyle enjoyed himself watching Orient and Levi’s animated conversation. To Argyle, the square, shaggy Levi always seemed to be playing Oliver Hardy to Orient’s lank, steely Stan.
“Okay, we’re all here,” Orient said presently. “Let’s get down to business.”
Hap shrugged his shoulders and resumed his window gazing.
“This is an emergency,” Orient went on. “A friend of Hap’s is in trouble.”
“What’s wrong?” Simpson looked at Hap.
“I think it’ll be easier to explain the girl’s condition and outline an approach in the meditation room,” Orient said.
“A girl, eh, Prentice,” Levi boomed. “No wonder you decided to take a vacation.”
Hap remained silent as they entered the elevator, rode up one floor and filed down the corridor to the meditation room.
Malta was waiting, still and patient on the stretcher. The four men grouped around her.
“This girl went into a trance and never came out of it.” Orient realized he sounded like a lecturer. ‘‘When we attempted to rouse her she underwent a strange transition and produced violent symptoms which seemed to be painful to her. Not only was our attempt unsuccessful, but the symptoms produced have parallels in certain cases of demonic possession.” Orient anticipated Levi’s question. “I made a complete medical examination, of course.”
“With Hap’s help,” Orient went on, “I managed to enter the field of her trance. I found a huge negative presence there which seemed to be predatory. This presence had trapped the girl’s energy.”
“How big was the presence?” Levi asked.
“In proportion to our space I would say it’s approximately the size of our sun.”
“And you think all of us together can combine energy to get the girl out?” Levi continued.
“Not exactly. Yes, I do need the weight of your combined presence, but that’s not what’s going to get her out of there.”
“I didn’t think so.”
“My plan is to re-enter hyper-space and enter the presence.”
“What the hell for, Doctor?” Levi objected. “You wouldn’t be able to handle energy that powerful.”
“I won’t have to handle it. I’m going to will my entry and give it a purpose. Code it. The code will be to find the girl’s energy. If the program of the entry is fulfilled it will create an actuality in hyper-space. Since any actuality in hyper- space is impossible, the. girl and myself will become antimatter.”
Orient looked around at the faces of his students. There was a pause as they wrestled with the idea.
“I see it, I see it.” Hap was congratulatory. “When you find her you’ll have created an event in hyper-space, and you’ll both be blown out of there.”
“That’s right, you’ll have set up a bloody paradox.” A delighted Levi smacked his forehead with his palm. “A paradox,” he repeated.
Sounds nice, but will it work just that way?” Argyle asked quietly.
“No,” Orient answered. “I don’t know if the four of us will be strong enough to maintain spatial balance. Doing this means that if something goes wrong we won’t be able to get out of there once I take you in. We run a risk of ending up just as you see this girl now, alive but inanimate. Objects for Sordi to dust.”
His three students stood silently waiting.
“That’s it, gentlemen,” Orient said, just as Hap opened his mouth to speak. “If you feel it’s too risky you have the option to pass this project… ” His voice trailed off as each of his students sent their answer to him in the same manner. A silent, emphatic yes.
Orient sat cross-legged on the floor next to the stretcher. The others did the same, making themselves comfortable alongside the pool.
Doctor Orient began to explore his breath. Soon he felt the energy emanating from the four other communicants. He embraced their power and took it into his own motion. He went back to his first breath… the itch of being, light. He went back further, back to the cluster of primary genes that seeded his reality. Then the first gene—the code gene that carries the implication of the future and the imprint of the past. There he swam long and warm until he became water. As water he became fire, and as fire he became air… pleasant drifts circling inward… slowly, then whirling stronger, faster… a spinning dip toward center and the great leap to other space… hyper-space… the junction to everywhere…
He entered swiftly this time and increased his speed, accelerating straight toward the now familiar negative mass. This caused the spinning projectile of his energy to shift suddenly like a curve ball and take a steep orbit around the vortex instead of entering it directly. He felt the swirling phosphorescence of the mass, and as he came around and closer he felt the static of Malta’s impaled energy.
Entering the mass was entering a nothing-pudding—an excruciatingly slow-oozing texture. He huddled small, drawing the particles of his electron energy to its nucleus, decreasing its size but increasing its rate of penetration.
His projection, which was the energy of a combined spatial reality—the reality being the quest to join Malta—began to fulfill its purpose.
The mass began to shudder and yawn, going into slow, silent convulsion as he approached Malta. His energy settled into place.
The completion created the time.
A cataclysmic split of being.
Eternity. Then seconds.
Doctor Orient regained consciousness ten minutes after he had entered hyper-space. Like a miler at the end of his run, however, he was still in the full stride of his momentum. He tried to use an entry maneuver to guide himself to an easy stop but he couldn’t hold… he slipped out again. When he returned, blown back by contact with his entry point, another minute had elapsed. He was still in motion, but now he was able to hold before the entry point deep within himself. He coasted to a stop, the technique his brake.
He began to breathe regularly shortly afterward. The nose, inhale. The mouth, exhale. He checked his watch. Twelve minutes, a long time to be traveling. He got to his feet and fixed his tie. The others were still in trance. He went to the Stretcher and knelt next to Malta.
Softly he called her name. The girl’s lips parted slightly. Her head moved. She opened her eyes.
They were deep green.