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Книга The Jewels of Aptor. Содержание - Chapter VIII

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The road finally tore completely away, and four feet below them, over the twisted rail, was the mouth of a street that led into the waterfront. Snake, Iimmi, and then Urson vaulted over. Urson shook his hands painfully when he landed.

“Give me a hand, will you?” Geo asked. “My arm is really shot.” Urson helped his friend over.

Almost as though it had been in wait, thick liquid gurgling sounded behind them. Like a wounded thing it emerged from behind the broken highway, bulging up into the light which shone on the ripples in its shriveled membrane.

“Run it!” bawled Urson, and they took off down the street. In the moonlight, the ruined piers spread along the waterfront to either side of them, some even slanting into the silvered water.

Turning once, they saw it bloat the entrance of the street, fill it, and then pour across the broken stones, slipping across the rubble of the smashed wharf.

When Geo hit water, he was aware of two things immediately as the hands reached for his body. First, the thong was yanked from around his neck. Second, pain seered his arm as if the bones and ligaments were suddenly replaced by white-hot cords of steel, and every vein and capillary had become part of a webbing of red fire.

It was a long time before consciousness. Once he was lifted. And when he opened his eyes, the white moon was moving incredibly fast above him toward the dark shapes of leaves. Was he being carried? And his arm hurt. There was more drowsy half consciousness, and once a great deal of pain. When he opened his mouth to scream, however, darkness flowed in, swathed his tongue, and he swallowed the darkness down into his body and into his head, and called it sleep—

A spool of copper wire unrolled over the black tile floor. Scoop it up quick. Damn, let me get out of here. I run past the black columns, glimpsing the cavernous room, and the black statue at the other end, huge, and rising into shadows. Men in dark robes are walking around. (Not only could they see, this time; they could hear the thinking.) Just don’t feel up to praying this afternoon. I am before the door, and above it, a black disk with three white eyes on it. Through the door, up black stone steps. Wonder if anyone will be up there now. Just my luck I’ll find the Old Man himself. Another door with a black circle above it. Push it open slowly, cool on my hands. A man is standing inside, looking into a large screen of glass. Figures moving on it. Can’t make them out, he’s in the way. Oh, there’s another one.

“I don’t know whether to call it success or failure,” one says.

“The jewels are… safe or lost?”

“What do you call it?” the first one asks. “I don’t know any more.” He sighs. “I don’t think I’ve taken my eyes off this thing for more than two hours since they got to the beach. Every mile they’ve come closer has made my blood run colder.”

“What do we report to Hama Incarnate?”

“It would be silly to say anything now. We just don’t know.”

“Well,” says the other, “at least we can do something with the City of New Hope since they got rid of that super-amoeba.”

“Are you sure they really got it?”

“After the burning it received over that naked atom pile? It was all it could do to get to the waterfront. It’s just about fried up and blown away already.”

“And how safe would you call them?” the other asks.

“Right now? I wouldn’t call them anything.”

Something glitters on the table by the door. Yes, there it is. In the pile of strange equipment is a U-shaped scrap of metal. Just what I need. Hot damn, adhesive tape too. Quick, there, before they see. Fine. Now, let the door close, real slow. Ooops. It clicked. Now come on, look innocent, in case they dome out. I hope the Old Man isn’t watching. Guess they’re not coming. And down the stairs again, the black stone walls moving past. Out another door, into the garden, dark flowers, purple, deep red, some with blue in them, and big stone urns. Some priests are coming down the path. Ooops again, there’s old Dunderhead. He’ll want me inside praying. Duck down behind that urn. Here we go. What’ll I do if he catches me? Really sir, I have nothing under my choir robe. Peek out.

Very, very small sigh of relief, now. Can’t afford to be too loud around here. They’re gone. Let’s examine the loot. The black stone urn has one handle above. It’s about eight feet tall. One, two, three: jump, and… hold… on… and… pull. And try to get to the top. There we go. Cold stone between my toes. And over the edge, where it’s filled with dirt. Pant. Pant. Pant.

Should be just over here, if I remember right. Dig, dig, dig. Damp earth feels good in your hands. Ow! my finger. There it is. A brown paper bag under granules of black earth. Lift it out. Is it all there? Open it up, peer in. Down at the bottom, beyond the folds of the edges where the top had been twisted tightly together, are the tiny scraps of copper, a few long pieces of dark metal, a piece of board, some brads. To this my grubby little hand adds the spool of copper wire and the U-shaped scrap of metal. Now, slip it into my robe and—once you get up here, how the hell do you get down? I always forget. Turn around, climb over the edge, like this, and let yourself down. Damn, my robe’s caught on the handle.

And drop.

Skinned my shin again. Some day I’ll learn.

Now let’s see if we can figure this thing out. Gotta crouch down and get to work. Here we go. Open the bag, and turn the contents out in the lap of the dark-colored robe, grubby hands poking.

The U-shaped metal, the copper wire, fine. Hold the end of the wire to the metal, and maneuver the spool around the end of the wire to the metal, and maneuver the spool around the end of the rod. Around. And around. And around. Here we go round the mulberry bush, the mulberry bush, the mulberry bush. Here we go round the mulberry bush; I’ll have me a coil by the morning.

Suddenly a harsh voice in the distance: “And what do you think you’re doing?”

Dunderhead rides again. “Nothing, sir,” as metal and scraps and wires fly frantically into the paper bag.

The voice: “All novices under twenty must report to afternoon services without fail!”

“Yes, sir. Coming right along, sir.” Paper bag jammed equally frantically into the folds of my robe. Not a moment’s peace. Not a moment’s! Through the garden with lowered eyes, past a dour-looking priest with a small paunch. There are mirrors along the vestibule, huge slabs of glass that rise thirty feet, reflecting the blue and yellow light back and forth from the colored windows of the temple. In the mirror I see pass: a dour-looking priest, proceeded by a smaller figure with short red hair and a spray of freckles over a flattish nose. And as we pass into prayer, there is the maddening, almost inaudible jingling of metal scraps, muffled by the dark robe.

Geo woke up, and almost everything was white.

Chapter VIII

The pale woman with the tiny eyes rose from over him. Her hair dropped like white silk threads over her shoulders. “You are awake?” she asked. “Do you understand me?”

“Am I at—at Hama’s temple?” he asked, the remnants of the dream still blowing in at the edges of his mind, like shredding cloth. “My friends, where are they?”

The woman laughed. “Your friends are all right. You came out the worst.” Another laugh. “You ask if this is Hama’s temple? But you can see, can you not? You have eyes. Don’t you recognize the color of the White Goddess Argo?”

Geo looked around the room. It was white marble, and there was no direct source of light. The walls simply glowed.

“My friends…” Geo said again.

“They are fine. We were able to completely restore their flesh to health. They must have exposed their hands to the direct beam of the radiation for only a few seconds. But the whole first half of your arm had apparently lain in the deadly rays for some minutes. You were not as lucky as they.”

Another thought rushed Geo’s mind now. “The jewels…” he started to say, but instead of sounding the words, he reached to his throat with both hands. One fell on his naked chest. And there was something very wrong with the other. He sat up in the bed quickly, and looked down. “My arm,” he said.

Swathed in white bandages, the limb ended some foot and a half short of where it should have.

“My arm…?” he asked again, with a child’s bewilderment. “What happened to my arm?”

“I tried to tell you,” the woman said, softly. “We had to amputate half of your arm. If we had not, you would have died.”

“My arm,” Geo said again, and lay back in the bed.

“It is difficult,” the woman said. “It is only a little consolation, I know, but we are blind here. What burned your arm away, took our sight from us when it was much stronger, generations ago. We learned how to battle many of its effects, and had we not rescued you from the river, all of you would have died. You are men who know the religion of Argo, and adhere to it. This another of your party has told us. Be thankful then that you have come under the wing of the Mother Goddess again, for this is a hostile country.” She paused. “Do you wish to talk?”

Geo shook his head.

“I hear the sheets rustle,” the woman said, smiling, “which means you either shook or nodded your head. I know from my study of the old customs that one means ‘yes’ and the other ‘no.’ But you must have patience with us who cannot see. We are not used to your people. Do you wish to talk?” she repeated.

“Oh,” said Geo. “No. No, I don’t.”

“Very well,” the woman said. She rose, still smiling. “I will return later.” She walked to a wall in which a door slipped open, and then it closed again, behind her.

He lay still on the bed for a long time. Then he turned over on his stomach. Once he brought the stump under his chest and held the clean bandages in his other hand. Very quickly he let go, and stretched the limb sideways, as far as possible away from him. That didn’t work either, so he moved it back down to his side, and let it lay by him under the white sheet.

After a long while, he got up, sat on the edge of the bed, and looked around the room. It was completely bare, with neither windows nor visible doors. He went to the spot through which she had exited, but could find not seam or crack. His tunic, he saw, had been washed, pressed, and laid on the foot of the bed. He slipped it over his head, fumbling with only one arm. Getting the belt together started out to be a problem, but he hooked the buckle around one finger and maneuvered the strap through with the other. He adjusted his leather purse, now empty, on his side. Then he saw that the sword was gone.

An unreal feeling, white like the walls of the room, was beginning to fill him up like a pale mixture of milk and water. He walked around the edge of the room once more, looking for some break.

There was a sound behind him and the tiny-eyed woman in her white robe stood in a triangular doorway. “You’re dressed,” she smiled. “Good. Are you too tired to come with me? You will eat and see your friends if you feel well enough. Or, I can have the food brought.”

“I’ll come,” Geo said.

She turned, and he followed her into a hall of the same luminous substance. Her heels touched the back of her white robe with each step, but she was silent. His own bare feet on the cool stones seemed louder than those of the blind woman before him. Suddenly he was in a larger room, with benches. It was a chapel, obviously of Argo because of the altar at the far end, but its detail was strange. Everything was arranged with the white simplicity that one would expect of a people to whom visual adornment meant nothing. He sat down on a bench as the woman said, “Wait here.” She disappeared down another hall.

Suddenly the woman returned from the other hallway, followed by Snake. Geo and the four-armed boy looked at each other, silently, as the woman disappeared again. A wish, like a living thing, suddenly writhed into a knot in Geo’s stomach, that the boy would say something. He himself could not.

Again she returned, this time with Urson. The big man stepped into the chapel, saw Geo, and exclaimed, “Friend, what happened?” He came to him quickly and placed his warm hands on Geo’s shoulders. “What…” he began, and shook his head.

Geo grinned suddenly, and patted his stump with his good hand. “I guess jelly-belly got something from me after all.”

Urson held his own forearm next to Geo’s and compared them. There was paleness in both. “I guess none of us got out completely all right. I woke up once while they were taking the scabs off. It was pretty bad, and I went to sleep again fast.”

Iimmi came in now. “Well, I was wondering…” He stopped, and let out a low whistle. “I guess it really got you, brother.” His own arms looked as though they had been dipped in bleach up to the mid forearms.

“How did this happen?” Urson asked.

“When we were back doing our tightrope act on those damn girders,” explained Iimmi, “our bodies were in the shadow of the girders and the rays only got to our arms. I’ve got something you’ll be interested in too, Geo.”

“Just tell me where the hell we are,” Urson said.

“We’re in a monastery sacred to Argo,” Iimmi told him. “It’s across the river from the City of New Hope, which is where we were.”

“That name sounds familiar; in the…” began Urson. Snake gave him a quick glance, and he stopped, and then frowned.

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