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Книга The Jewels of Aptor. Содержание - Chapter IX

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“What about the—the three instruments?” Geo asked. “What happened to them?”

The blind Priestess turned to him. “Your guess,” she said, smiling, “is as good as mine.” She turned again and glided softly from the room.

When she left, Iimmi said, “Something is fishy.”

“But what is it?” said Geo.

“Well, for one thing,” said Iimmi, “we know there is a Hama. From the dream I would say that it’s just about the size and organization of this place.”

“Just how big is this place anyway?” Geo asked.

“Want to do some more exploring?”

“Sure,” he answered. “Do you think she does know about Hama but was just pretending?”

“Could be,” said Iimmi. They started off down another corridor. “That bit about going into men’s minds with the jewels,” Iimmi went on. “It gives me the creeps.”

“It’s a creepy thing to watch,” said Geo. “Argo used it on Snake the first time we saw her. It just turns you into an automaton.”

“Then it really is our jewels she was talking about.”

Stairs cut a white tunnel into the wall before them, and they mounted upward, coming finally to another corridor. They turned down it and for the first time saw recognizable doors in the wall. “Hey,” said Iimmi, “maybe one of these goes outside.”

“Fine,” said Geo. “This place is beginning to get me.” He pushed open a door and stepped in. Except for the flowing white walls, it duplicated in miniature the basement of the New Edison building. Twin dynamos whirred and the walls were laced with pipes.

“Nothing in here,” said Iimmi.

They tried a door across the hall now. In this one sat a white porcelain table and floor to ceiling cases of glittering instruments. “I bet this is the room your arm came off in,” Iimmi said.

“Probably,” replied Geo.

They came out and continued even farther. In the next room the glow was dimmer, and there was dust on the walls. Iimmi ran his finger over it and looked at the gray crescent left on the bleached flesh.

Two huge screens leaned out from the face of a metal machine. A few dials and a glass meter hung beneath each two yard rounded-rectangle of opaque glass. In front of each was a stand which held something like a set of binoculars and what looked like a pair of ear muffs.

“I bet this place hasn’t been used since before these girls went blind,” said Geo.

“It looks it,” Iimmi said. He stepped up to one of the screens, the one with the fewer dials on it, and turned a switch.

“What did you do that for?” Geo asked.

“Why not?” said Iimmi. Suddenly a flickering of colored lights ran over the screen, swellings of blue, green, shiny scarlets. They blinked. “That’s the first color I’ve seen since I’ve been here,” Iimmi said. The colors grayed, dimmed, congealed into forms, and in a moment they were looking at a bare white room in which stood two barefoot young men. One was a dark Negro with pale hands. The other had an unruly shock of black hair and only one arm.

“Hey,” gestured Iimmi, and the figure on the screen gestured too. “That’s us.” He walked forward and the corresponding figure advanced on the screen. He flicked a dial and the figures exploded into colors and then focused again. “What’s that?” asked Iimmi.

In a room stood three of the blind women. On one wall was a smaller screen similar to the one in their own room. The women, of course, were oblivious to the picture on it, but it was the picture on the screen that had stopped Geo. It was a face. A man’s face.

One of the women had on an ear muff apparatus and was talking into a small metal rod which she carried with her as she paced.

“But the picture! Don’t you recognize him?” demanded Geo.

“It’s Jordde!” exclaimed Iimmi. “They must have gotten in contact with our ship and are arranging to send us back.”

“I wish I could hear what they’re saying,” said Geo.

Iimmi looked around and then picked up the metal ear muffs from the stand in front of the screen. “That’s what she seems to be listening through,” said Iimmi, referring to the Priestess in the picture. “Try them. Go on.” He helped Geo fit them over his ears. “Hear anything?”

Geo listened.

“Yes, of course,” the Priestess was saying.

“She is set upon staying in the harbor for three more days, to wait out the week,” reported Jordde. “I am sure she will not remain any longer. She is still bewildered by me, and the men have become uneasy and may well mutiny if she stays longer.”

“We will dispose of the prisoners this evening. There is no chance of their returning,” stated the Priestess.

“Detain them for three days, and I do not care what you do with them,” said Jordde. “She does not have the jewels, she does not know my—our power; she will be sure to leave at the end of the week.”

“It’s a pity we have no jewels for all our trouble,” said the Priestess. “But at least all three are back in Aptor, and potentially within our grasp.”

Jordde laughed. “And Hama never seems to be able to keep hold of them for more then ten minutes before they slip from him again.”

“Yours is not to judge either Hama or Argo,” stated the Priestess. “You are kept on by us only to do your job. Do it, report, and do not trouble either us or yourself with opinions. They are not appreciated.”

“Yes, mistress,” returned Jordde.

“Then farewell until next report.” She flipped a switch and the picture on the little screen went gray.

Geo turned from the big screen now, and was just about to remove the hearing apparatus when he heard the Priestess say, “Go, prepare the prisoners for the sacrifice of the rising moon. They have seen enough.” The woman left the room, Geo finished removing the phones, and Iimmi looked at him.

“What’s the matter?”

Geo turned the switch that darkened the screen.

“When are they coming to get us?” Iimmi asked excitedly.

“Right now, probably,” Geo said. Then, as best he could, he repeated the conversation he had overheard to Iimmi, whose expression grew more and more bewildered as Geo went on.

At the end the bewilderment suddenly flared into frayed indignation. “Why?” demanded Iimmi. “Why should we be sacrificed? What is it we’ve seen too much of, what is it we know? This is the second time it’s come close to getting me killed, and I wish to hell I knew what I was supposed to know?”

“We’ve got to find Urson and get out of here,” said Geo. “Hey, what’s wrong?”

The indignation had turned into something else. Now Iimmi stood with his eyes shut tight and his face screwed up. Suddenly he relaxed. “I just thought out a message as loud as I could for Snake to get up here and to bring Urson if he’s anywhere around.”

“But Snake’s a spy for…”

“…for Hama,” said Iimmi. “And you know something? I don’t care.” He closed his eyes again. After a few moments, he opened them. “Well, if he’s coming, he’s coming. Let’s get going.”

“But why…?” began Geo, following Iimmi out the door.

“Because I have a poet’s feeling that some fancy mind reading may come in handy.”

They hurried down the hall, found the stairs, ducked down, and ran along the lower hall. Rounding a second corner, they emerged into the little chapel simultaneously with Urson and Snake.

“I guess I got through,” said Iimmi. “Which way do we go?”

“Gentlemen, gentlemen,” came a voice from behind them.

Snake took off down one of the passages, and they followed, Urson looking particularly bewildered.

The Priestess glided behind them, calling softly, “Please, my friends, come back. Return with me.”

“Find out from her how the hell to get out of this place!” Iimmi bawled up to Snake. The four-armed boy suddenly darted up a flight of stairs, turned a corner, and darted up another. They came out on a hall and followed Snake to the end.

All four of the boy’s hands flew at the door handle, turning it carefully, this way, and back.

Two, three seconds.

Geo glanced back and saw the Priestess mount the top of the stairs and begin to come toward them. She seemed to float, her white robes flaring out from her, brushing at the walls.

The door came open, they broke through leaves, and were momentarily standing in a huge field of grass, surrounded by woods. The night was fully lit by the moon.

As they ran through the silver-washed grass, Geo turned to look behind him. The blind Priestess had slowed, her white face turned to the moon. Her hands went to her throat, she unclasped her robe, and the first layer fell away behind her. As she came on, the second layer began to unfold, wet, deathly white, spreading, growing to her arms, articulating itself along the white spines; then, with a horribly familiar shriek, she leapt from the ground and soared upward, her white wings hammering the air.

They fled.

And other dark forms were shadowing the moon. The priestesses across the field joined her aloft in the moon-bleached sky. She overtook the running figures, turned above them, and swooped. The moon lanced white along bared fangs. The night breeze touched pale furry breasts, filled the bellying wings. Only the tiny, darting, blind eyes were red, rubied in a whirl of white.

They crashed into the protective bushes where the winged things could not follow. Branches raked his face as he ran behind the sound the others made. Once he thought he had lost them, but a second later he bumped against Iimmi, who had stopped behind Snake and Urson, in the darkness. Above the trees was a sound like beaten cloth, diminishing, growing, but constant as once more they began to trod through the tangled darkness.

“What the hell…” Iimmi finally breathed softly, after a minute of walking.

“You know it’s beginning to make sense,” Geo said, his hand on Iimmi’s shoulder. “Remember that man-wolf we met, and that blob in the city? The only thing we’ve met on this place that can’t change shape is the ghouls. I think most animals on this island undergo some sort of metamorphosis.”

“What about those first flying things we met?” whispered Urson. “They didn’t change into anything.”

“We have probably just been guests of the female of the species,” said Geo.

“You mean those others could have changed into men too if they wanted?” Urson asked.

“If they wanted,” answered Geo.

In front of them now appeared faint shiftings of silver light. Five minutes later, they were crouching at the edge of the forest, looking down over the rocks at the white shimmerings over the river.

“Into the water?” Geo asked.

Snake shook his head. Wait… came the familiar sound in their heads.

Suddenly a hand raised from the water. Wet and green, it stood a foot or so from the shore in the silver ripples. The chain and the leather thong dangled down the wrist, and swaying there were two bright beads of light.

Iimmi and Geo froze. Urson said, “The jewels…”

Suddenly, crouched low like an animal, the big man sprang onto the rocks and ran toward the river’s edge.

Three shadows, one white, two dark, converged above him, cutting the moonlight away from him. If he saw them, he did not stop.

Iimmi and Geo stood up from their crouched positions.

Urson reached the shore, threw himself along the rock, and swiped at the hand. Instantly he was covered by flailing wings. The membranous sails splashed in the water. Two seconds later, Urson rolled from beneath the layers of membrane that still struggled half on land and half in the water. He started forward up the rocks. He slipped, regained his footing, and then came on, nearly falling into Geo’s and Iimmi’s waiting arms.

“The jewels,” Urson breathed.

The struggle continued a minute longer on the water. Something was holding them down, twisting at them. Then suddenly, the creatures stilled, and like great leaves, the three forms drifted apart, caught quietly in the current, and floated away from the rocks.

Then two more forms bobbed to the surface, faces down, rocking gently, backs slicked wet and green, shiny under the moonlight.

“But those were the ones who—” Geo began. “Are they dead?” His face suddenly hurt a little, with something like the pain of verging tears.

Snake nodded.

“Are you sure?” asked Iimmi. His voice came slowly.

Their… thoughts… have… stopped, Snake said.

Crouched down in front of them, Urson opened his great hands. The globes blazed even in the dim light through the leaves, and the chain and the wet thong hung over his palm to the ground. “I have them,” he said. “…the jewels!”

Chapter IX

Snake reached down, picked the beads up from Urson’s hand. The sound of wings had stopped.

“Where do we go now?” Urson asked.

“Follow the general rule, I guess,” said Iimmi. “Since we know Hama does have a temple somewhere, we try to find it, get the third jewel, and rescue Argo Incarnate. Then get back to the ship.”

“In three days?” asked Urson. They had related the rest of what they had found to him by now. “Well, where do we start looking?”

“The Priestess said something about a band of Hama’s disciples behind the fire mountain. That must mean the volcano we saw from the steps in the City of New Hope.” Iimmi turned to Snake. “Did you read her mind enough to know if she was telling the truth?”

Snake nodded.

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