Cold Fire Page 34

She still felt that they were in the presence of something superhuman, maybe even a higher power by one definition or another, and she was humbled by it. Considering what she had seen in the pond, the pulsing luminescence even now swimming through the wall, and the words that kept shimmering into view on the tablet, she would have been hopelessly stupid if she had not been awed.

Undeniably, however, her sense of wonder was dulled by the feeling that this entity was structuring the encounter like an old movie or TV script.

With a sarcastic note in his voice, Jim had said that he had too little experience with alien contact to have developed any expectations that could be disappointed. But that was not true. Having grown up in the sixties and seventies, he had been as media-saturated as she had been.

They'd been exposed to the same TV shows and movies, magazines and books; science fiction had been a major influence in popular culture all their lives. He had acquired plenty of detailed expectations about what alien contact would be like-and the entity in the wall was playing to all of them. Holly's only conscious expectation had been that a real close encounter of the third kind would be like nothing the novelists and screenwriters imagined in all their wildest flights of fantasy, because when referring to life from another world, alien meant alien, different, beyond easy comparison or comprehension.

"Okay," she said, "maybe familiarity is the point. I mean, maybe it's using our modern myths as a convenient way to present itself to us, a way to make itself comprehensible to us. Because it's probably so radically different from us that we could never understand its true nature or appearance.”

"Exactly," Jim said. He wrote another question: What is the light we see in the walls? THE LIGHT IS ME.

Holly didn't wait for Jim to write the next question. She addressed the entity directly: "How can you move through a wall?" Because the alien seemed such a stickler about form, she was somewhat surprised when it did not insist on hewing to the written question-reply format. It answered her at once: I CAN BECOME PART OF ANYTHING, MOVE WITHIN IT, TAKE SHAPE FROM IT WHENEVER I CHOOSE.

"Sounds a little like bragging," she said.

"I can't believe you can be sarcastic at a time like this," Jim said impatiently.

"I'm not being sarcastic," she explained. "I'm just trying to understand.”

He looked doubtful.

To the alien presence, she said, "You understand the problems I'm having with this, don't you?" On the tablet: YES.

She ripped away that page, revealing a fresh one. Increasingly restless and nervous, but not entirely sure why, Holly got to her feet and turned in a circle, looking at the play of light in the walls as she formulated her next question. "Why is your approach marked by the sound of bells?" No answer appeared on the tablet.

She repeated the question.

The tablet remained blank.

Holly said, "Trade secret, I guess.”

She felt a bead of cold sweat trickle out of her right armpit and down her side, under her blouse. A childlike wonder still worked in her, but fear was on the rise again. Something was wrong. Something more than the disjointed nature of the story the entity was giving them.

She couldn't quite put her finger on what spooked her.

On his own tablet, Jim quickly wrote another question, and Holly leaned down to read it: Did you appear to me in this room when I was ten years old? YES. OFTEN.

Did you make me forget it? YES.

"Don't bother writing your questions," Holly said. "Just ask them like I do.”

Jim was clearly startled by her suggestion, and she was surprised that he had persisted with his pen and tablet even after seeing that the questions she asked aloud were answered. He seemed reluctant to put aside the felttip and the paper, but at last he did. "Why did you make me forget?" Even standing, Holly could easily read the bold words that appeared on the yellow tablet: YOU WERE NOT READY TO REMEMBER.

"Unnecessarily cryptic," she muttered. "You're right. It must be male.”

Jim tore off the used page, put it with the others, and paused, chewing his lip, evidently not sure what to ask next. Finally he said, "Are you male or female?" I AM MALE.

"More likely," Holly said, "it's neither. It's alien, after all, and it's as likely to reproduce by parthenogenesis.”

I AM MALE, it repeated.

Jim remained seated, legs folded, an undiminished look of wonder on his face, more boylike now than ever.

Holly did not understand why her anxiety level was soaring while Jim continued to bounce up and down-well, virtually-with enthusiasm and delight.

He said, "What do you look like?" WHATEVER I CHOOSE TO LOOK LIKE.

"Could you appear to us as a man or woman?" Jim asked.


"As a dog?" YES.

"As a cat?" YES.

"As a beetle?" YES.

Without the security of his pen and tablet, Jim seemed to have been reduced to inane questions. Holly half expected him to ask the entity what its favorite color was, whether it preferred Coke or Pepsi, and if it liked Barry Manilow music.

But he said, "How old are you?" I AM A CHILD.

"A child?" Jim responded. "But you told us you've been on our world for ten thousand years.”


Jim said, "Then is your species very long-lived?" WE ARE IMMORTAL.


"It's lying," Holly told him.

Appalled by her effrontery, he said, "Jesus, Holly!" "Well, it is.”

And that was the source of her renewed fear-the fact that it was not being straight with them, was playing games, deceiving. She had a sense that it regarded them with enormous contempt. In which case, she probably should have shut up, been meekly adoring before its power, and tried not to anger it.

Instead she said, "If it were really immortal, it wouldn't think of itself as a child. It couldn 't think that way about itself Infancy, childhood, adolescence, adulthood-those are age categories a species concerns itself with if it has a finite lifespan. If you're immortal, you might be born innocent, ignorant, uneducated, but you aren't born young because you're never really going to get old.”

"Aren't you splitting hairs?" Jim asked almost petulantly.

"I don't think so. It's lying to us.”

"Maybe its use of the word child' was just another way it was trying to make its alien nature more understandable.”


"Bullshit," Holly said.

"Damn it, Holly!" As Jim removed another page from the tablet, detaching it neatly along its edge, Holly moved to the wall and studied the patterns of light churning through it. Seen close up, they were quite beautiful and strange, not like a smooth-flowing phosphorescent fluid or fiery streams of lava, but like scintillant swarms of fireflies, millions of spangled points not unlike her analogy of luminous, schooling fish.

Holly half expected the wall in front of her to bulge suddenly.

Split open. Give birth to a monstrous form.

She wanted to step back. Instead she moved closer. Her nose was only an inch from the transmuted stone. Viewed this intimately, the surge and flux and whirl of the millions of bright cells was dizzying.

There was no beat from it, but she imagined she could feel the flicker of light and shadow across her face.

"Why is your approach marked by the sound of bells?" she asked.

After a few seconds, Jim spoke from behind her: "No answer.”

The question seemed innocent enough, and one that they should logically be expected to ask. The entity's unwillingness to answer alerted her that the ringing must be somehow vitally important.

Understanding the bells might be the first step toward learning something real and true about this creature.

"Why is your approach marked by the sound of bells?" Jim reported: "No answer. I don't think you should ask that question again, Holly. It obviously doesn't want to answer, and there's nothing to be gained by aggravating it. This isn't The Enemy, this is-" "Yeah, I know. It's The Friend.”

She remained at the wall and felt herself to be face-to-face with an alien presence, though it had nothing that corresponded to a face.

It was focused on her now. It was right there.

Again she said, "Why is your approach marked by the sound of bells?" Instinctively she knew that her innocent question and her not-so-innocent repetition of it had put her in great danger. Her heart was thudding so loud that she wondered if Jim could hear it. She figured The Friend, with all its powers, could not only hear her hammering heart but see it jumping like a panicked rabbit within the cage of her chest. It knew she was afraid, all right. Hell, it might even be able to read her mind. She had to show it that she would not allow fear to deter her.

She put one hand on the light-filled stone. If those luminous clouds wert not merely a projection of the creature's consciousness, not just an illusion or representation for their benefit, if the thing was, as it claimed, actually alive in the wall, then the stone was now its flesh.

Her hand was upon its body.

Faint vibrations passed across the wall in distinctive, whirling vortexes That was all she felt. No heat. The fire within the stone was evidently cold.

"Why is your approach marked by the sound of bells?" "Holly, don't," Jim said. Worry tainted his voice for the first time.

Perhaps he, too, had begun to sense that The Friend was not entirely a friend.

But she was driven by a suspicion that willpower mattered in this confrontation, and that a demonstration of unflinching will would set a ne tone in their relationship with The Friend. She could not have explained why she felt so strongly about it. Just instinct-not a woman's but an exreporter's.

"Why is your approach marked by the sound of bells?" She thought she detected a slight change in the vibrations that tingled across her palm, but she might have imagined it, for they were barely perceptible in the first place. Through her mind flickered an image of the stone cracking open in a jagged mouth and biting off her hand, blood spurting, white bone bristling from the ragged stump of her wrist.

Though she was shaking uncontrollably, she did not step back or lift her hand off the wall.

She wondered if The Friend had sent her that horrifying image.

"Why is your approach marked by the sound of bells?" "Holly, for Christ's sake-" Jim broke off, then said, "Wait, an answer's coming.”

Willpower did matter. But for God's sake, why? Why should an all-powerful alien force from another galaxy be intimidated by her unwavering resolution? Jim reported the response: "It says. . . For drama?'" "For drama?" she repeated.

"Yeah. F-O-R, then D-R-A-M-A, then a question mark." To the thing in the wall, she said, "Are you telling me the bells are just a bit of theater to dramatize your apparitions?" After a few seconds, Jim said, "No answer.”

"And why the question mark?" she asked The Friend. "Don't you know what the bells mean yourself, where the sound comes from, what makes it, why? Are you only guessing when you say for drama'? How can you not know what it is if it always accompanies you?" "Nothing," Jim told her.

She stared into the wall. The churning, schooling cells of light were increasingly disorienting her, but she did not close her eyes.

"A new message," Jim said." I am going.'" "Chicken," Holly said softly into the amorphous face of the thing in the wall. But she was sheathed in cold sweat now.

The amber light began to darken, turn orange.

Stepping away from the wall at last, Holly swayed and almost fell.

She moved back to her bedroll and dropped to her knees.

New words appeared on the tablet: I WILL BE BACK.

"When?" Jim asked.



"He?" Holly asked.


The light in the walls was red-orange now, dimmer, but still ceaselessly changing patterns around them.

Jim said, "Two of you share the starship?" YES. TWO FORCES. TWO ENTITIES.

It's lying, Holly thought. This, like all the rest of its story, is just like the bells: good theater.


"We'll wait," Jim said.


"Why can't we sleep?" Holly asked, playing along.


The page was full. Jim ripped it off and stacked it with the others.

The light in the walls was blood-red now, steadily fading.


"What are you telling us?" The same three words again: DREAMS ARE DOORWAYS.

"It's a warning," Jim said.


No, Holly thought, it's a threat.

The windmill was just a windmill again. Stones and timbers.

Mortar and nails. Dust sifting, wood rotting, iron rusting, spiders spinning in secret lairs.

Holly sat directly in front of Jim, in powwow position, their knees touching. She held both his hands, partly because she drew strength from his touch, and partly because she wanted to reassure him and take the sting out of what she was about to say.

"Listen, babe, you're the most interesting man I've ever known, the sexiest, for sure, and I think, at heart, the kindest. But you do a lousy interview. For the most part, your questions aren't well thought-out, you don't get at the meat of an issue, you follow up on irrelevancies but generally fail to follow up on the really important answers. And you're a naive enough reporter to think that the subject is always being straight with you, when they're almost never straight with an interviewer, so you don't probe the way you should.”

He did not seem offended. He smiled and said, "I didn't think of myself s a reporter doing an interview.”

"Well, kiddo, that's exactly what the situation was. The Friend, as he calls himself, has information, and we need information to know where we stand, to do our job.”

"I thought of it more as. . . I don't know. . . as an epiphany.

When God came to Moses with the Ten Commandments, I figure He just told Moses what they were, and if Moses had other questions he didn't feel he had to grill the Big Guy.”

"This wasn't God in the walls.”

"I know that. I'm past that idea now. But it was an alien intelligence so superior to us that it almost might as well be God.”

"We don't know that," she said patiently.

"Sure we do. When you consider the high degree of intelligence and the millennia needed to build a civilization capable of traveling across galaxies -good heavens, we're only monkeys by comparison!" "There, you see, that's what I'm talking about. How do you know it's from another galaxy? Because you believe what it told you. How do you know there's a spaceship under the pond? Because you believe what it told you.”

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