An unimaginably vast machine stands on the rim of the known universe at the very edge of no-time and no-space, where nullity becomes a positive force. Its housing cover a sub-infinity of distance. Its power radials are many, hooked up as each one is to be dimensions that border the edge of Elsewhere. These radials feed those dimensio-spheres with the titanic energies necessary to the proper functioning of the worlds that are locked within them.
And sometimes a flaw develops....
Brian Creoghan came to a dead stop when he saw the blackness. It quivered between the trees like a living thing, ebony curtain shot with crimson flecks, fluttering as if the wind were shaking it. It was afternoon in the New Hampshire hills, and night was still several hours away, yet the blackness lingered.
After a moment it laughed—sweet, silvery laughter that might come from the throat of a woman. The hairs on the nape of his neck stood up. There was nothing in the woods to make such a shadow, a black rectangle about four feet square, roughly; and there seemed to be no corners to the thing.
He took a step forward into the underbrush alongside the footpath and the blackness retreated. Again it laughed, mockingly, and Brian Creoghan felt the touch of unseen eyes. Then more swiftly it slid sideways between the tree boles, quivering faintly. A moment later, it was gone.
His forehead was damp with nervous sweat.
To most men, the edges of the world are firm and immovable. The house is the home, the wife is the mother and the helpmate, the car is in the garage and books rest naturally on the shelves. It is a world of salary and stock dividend, interest from the bank and monthly payments on the mortgage. There is no room for the unusual, the macabre or the outré.
In this world, the blackness he had seen could not exist.
To prove that it did not, he went in among the trees where he had seen it and bent over to search the ground where it had stood and laughed at him. The soft loam of the woods floor showed a crude imprint, and where his fingers touched the flatness, it was cold, cold.
Brian Creoghan turned and went back to the footpath. There was no longer any stomach in him to continue the daily walk that had become a habit since he had taken up residence in the old farmhouse a retired couple had fixed up and made comfortable. All Brian Creoghan wanted was a drink.
His thought were a jumble as he moved along the narrow path. In his earlier years—he was now in his middle thirties—he had been possessed of a wandering itch that had taken him to many corners of the Earth. He had stood in the marshes at the edge of Lake Pontchartrain and watched the dance to the Gran' Zombie and its eerie aftermath. He had fought Mau Maus in Kenya and leopard men of the Idiong Society in Nigeria. He had listened to the talking head of a dead brujo and watched the firefly maidens of the Colorado's Indians in Ecuador. He had used the hoomanamana priests of Hawaii to help locate a bed of pearls somewhere in the south Pacific, and attended a black mass in the ruins of a French monastery.
Yet never had he seen the like of the laughing blackness. Not in Italy where he had watched a man afflicted with the malocchio, the evil eye, unwittingly bring disaster to a friend. Not in Chipping Norton, England, where he had attended a coven of witches, and had danced around Roll-right stone circle and leaped over the sun fire afterward.
He was not a man easily shaken. In his earlier years he had been roustabout and sailor, beachcomber and stevedore, pearl diver and gold hunter. He had seen more than his share of the lusts common to mankind, its follies and its cruelties. Yet the blackness seemed to touch some chord deep within him, a chord which none of these other experiences could reach.
As he walked the narrow pathway he recalled the Tuareg whom he had fought with jeweled daggers in the Sahara and the curses of the ju-ju priests of Kunasi when he had learned to read the Ashanti talking drums. he had handled the coconut bowls of the Dyaks on Borneo, a Mau Mau panga—a sort of machete—and the killing spear of the island headhunter.
But these objects he could understand, take into his hands, see and touch and in some cases, smell. The blackness was none of these. It was alien, frightening; and Brian Creoghan was not easily frightened.
He came down out of the woodlands into a world of changing color. Early autumn lay upon the land. The maple and the sumac leaves were tinted crimson, the birches a soft gold. Where elms and oaks and buckeyes merged, their branches rioted with red and yellow and a vivid bronze.
It was a familiar sight, but still capable of stirring him. He had lived in Woodstead three short weeks now, in an eighteenth century house that had been added to over the years until its original stone walls, three feet thick against Indian attack, were hidden by white clapboard and shingles.
He paused to draw a breath, sampling the cool New England air. He laughed at his fears. A double Irish whiskey on two ice cubes would put him in a better humor. Tomorrow he would walk these woods again and stand gazing on distant hillsides painted gold and scarlet, and he would understand that his experience was merely an optical illusion. It had not existed, except perhaps in his mind.
As if to reassure himself, he held his eyes on a distant church steeple and then on an aluminum silo of toward Conway for a long time, until he heard the sound of footsteps moving up the road.
Brian Creoghan turned. The man approaching was a farmer who lived five miles up the road. He had seen the man in the corner store a few times, and they had taken to nodding at one another. There was something different about Bemus Foss today. As Creoghan studied his features, he found them stiff and fearful.
He called a greeting. Foss glanced at him with a side-wise flick of the eyes, walking on with no more than a brief inclination of his head. Half a dozen steps beyond, he swung about suddenly and came back.
"Have you see aught of two cats?" he asked abruptly, squinting his eyes very slightly in deference to the setting sun that shone on them.
Brian Creoghan repeated, "Two cats?"
"A white male and a tiger. Pets they are to my little one. Disappeared three nights ago. Little one's all broken up. You haven't seen them?"
Defeat rounded his shoulders. Sighing, Foss turned away and began once more to stride in that determined manner which was so characteristic of the man. His rigid shoulders told Creoghan he regretted his impulse to stop and ask, as though he begged for favors.
He called after Foss, "If I see them, I'll let you know."
The farmer made no answer. Only his heels hitting the blacktop road spoke for him, like the cold heartbeats of a man who feared his own shadow. Brian Creoghan had the impression that Bemus Foss wanted to break into a run, that he would not be at ease until he was behind the stout wooden door of his farmhouse.
Cats. The familiars of witches.
Now what brought that into his mind? The blackness? Could the blackness have swallowed up the cats as it slid back and forth between the boles of elm and buckeye? Surely this was nonsense, the brooding of an overtired mind.
There was no tiredness in him, however. Brian Creoghan was solid with muscle, used to hard living and the rigors of an outdoor life. Service with the First Cavalry in Korea had toughened his young body. Now that it was older, the years of hunting caribou in the Barren Lands and trailing sixteen-hundred-pound Kodiak bears across the Alaska peninsula had added muscle and weight. And so, not being tired, he had no explanation for the fancies that gibbered and mocked him in some dark recess of his brain.
It was as if he should understand that blackness, that long and long ago that same blackness, or one similar to it, played a part in his life. A memory tugged at his brain like a forgotten dream, a fragment of which yet touched him. The sensation was vaguely related to the déjà vu of the French, that sense of having experienced this same moment in time somewhere before, in this or some other life.
He moved along the road toward is house, past rail fences behind which fields lay heavy with corn shocks neatly piled. In the distance a church spire rose like a pallid finger against a background of hills blue with distance, and for a moment between the leaves of an elm he caught sight of a red barn.
He had always liked autumn, late September and October with its smoke fires and rustling leaves blowing in a wind, with November waiting, growing hard and cold toward its end when the tree branches loomed dark against a gray sky. It was a dying time of year, but the air was like a thin wine, invigorating and oddly stirring.
As he came within sight of the white clapboard and graystone house which was his first real home as an adult, he quickened his steps. He would lay a fire and settle down with two or three books he had in mind. Books about cats. When he learned what he needed to know, he would cook his evening meal and think over what he had read.
The white picket gate swung open with a faint creak to its hinges. As he moved up the flagged walk he told himself that tomorrow he would oil them. Then standing on the granite slab that served as a doorstep, he inserted the key and opened the front door.
To a lonely man who has been a wanderer all his grown life, a house can be something more than the home poets say it is. To Brian Creoghan it was a haven and a heaven. It was filled with souvenirs of his years in the far corners of the Earth. A Mau Mau simi might rest blade with blade beside an adya katti, a knife used by the Goorg tribe of Malabar. On the mantel above the fireplace he had set a model of a Micronesian outrigger canoe and beyond that, the teakwood duplicate of a Chinese junk fashioned for him in Hong Kong by a one-eyed brute with the fingers of a Praxiteles.
The fire was soon roaring, as warming as the Irish whiskey he sipped before its dancing flames. Cats, he thought. Bubastis of the Egyptians and the rites to Pasht, the cat-headed goddess who had been worshiped in ancient Thebes. Cats, the black familiars of witches.
When the Bushmill was half gone he refilled the glass, adding one more ice cube, and then moved into the study, the wood-paneled walls of which were lined with shelves heavy with books. He hunted until he found the volumes he was after.
Brian made himself comfortable. He browsed lightly, turning the pages swiftly, discovering that the cat is one of the oldest animals, its bones having been found in prehistoric cave dwellings beside the skeletons of the first men. In ancient Egypt the cat was venerated as a companion to the gods. Cats wore jewels in their ears and upon death were placed in cat cemeteries. For anyone to slay a cat, even accidentally, was to endanger his own life; sometimes mobs tore the cat-killer apart in its angry frenzy. Mohammad was in the habit of holding his ca Muezza when he preached his religion to the Faithful. The cat temple in Bubastis was famous in the ancient world.
In medieval times, because they were believed to be the familiars of witches, cats were crucified, flayed alive, hurled living onto great bonfires. At Shrovetide in an English town, a cat was annually flogged to death. Hunted down, persecuted, they were reduced to savagery in most places.
Memory was tugging at a remote corner of his mind. Cats as living sacrifices, burned to death? Not only cats, but other animals as well, and human beings too, enclosed in wicker forms shaped to resemble animals and set on fire. Now who had done that? Was it—yes. The druids had used fire to offer up the life forces of their victims to their gods.
He crossed his ankles and sank back in his leather easy chair, brooding at the log blazing in the fireplace. The fire that was warm and comforting to his skin had tortured the flesh of those hapless ones who had been made prisoners of the Celts. For the druid was the Celtic priest, with strange and awesome powers.
He sipped the whiskey, letting the mood come upon him in which he was wont to brood upon the outré forces in the world, those unknown and sometimes unintelligible riddles which have confronted mankind since its earliest beginnings. Why had the Egyptians conceived the notion of gods wit animal heads? Had there ever been an Atlantis? Or was it the race memory of some inconceivably ancient time when Earth possessed a different moon? The Bible mentioned that giants once had lived upon the Earth. Where had they gone, those ancient ancestors of the human race? And the angels who had brought forth children by mating with the women of me: who were these angels? Not spirits certainly, as is the popular notion.
A knot popped in the fireplace with an eruption of blue and green flames. His eyes were drawn to those tongues of fire. There were so many mysteries in the world, so many. Some men with an inquiring cast of mind collected and wrote about them, even offered explanations.
The outré had always fascinated Brian Creoghan, perhaps because he had spent so many years of his life in the offbeat corners of the world. He had spoken with the Zulu witch doctors, with the shamans of the Ainu people, with voodoo conjurers.
Always he had listened with respect, always he had been convinced that the mysteries they practiced were as much a heritage of the race of men as the stone cathedrals raised by medieval man in Paris and Cologne.
Lost mysteries, forgotten riddles.
Clues—to something which mankind would rather forget?
Just as the mind of man will reject unpleasantness and horror, burying it deep in the subconscious, perhaps mankind in general also buries out of sight those things and events which have no place in an otherwise sand world.
Yet, to bury them away is not to eradicate them.
Few men believe in the Loch Ness monster. Yet short years ago a living coelacanth, thought by science to have been extinct for millions of years, was brought to the surface of the waters off the coast of Madagascar. Someday, perhaps a man will catch a sea serpent.
Ice-falls in London, in California in Pennsylvania, within the past ten years, where huge chunks of ice came hurtling down from an empty sky to crash through rooftops or to kill animals. Soldiers who march off to war and vanish from the eyes of men, never to be seen again. The winged serpents, the monsters that have appeared from time to time across the Earth are written of in memoirs and chronicles. And then forgotten.
And two cats disappearing on an autumn afternoon in the New Hampshire hills, while an eerie blackness laughed at him. Perhaps these were his own invitations to touch the infinite. Creoghan chuckled at his fancy and finished the whiskey in one long swallow.
He was lifting the third book, his beloved Where Two Worlds Touch, when the telephone rang. Startled, he dropped the book, let it lay as he rose to answer the call.
The voice was a woman's, low and oddly sultry, with overtones of sensuality in its depths. It had been a long time since he had heard a voice like that, not since a lovely Eurasian named Kasma had taken him on a round of the fleshpots of Singapore.
He muttered something, and the voice said sweetly, "My name is Moira MacArt. I'm a neighbor of yours, up on Lost Pond Road. Like you, I'm a newcomer to Woodstead. I feel we should be friends."
"I'd be delighted," Brian answered quite honestly.
"My brother and I would like to have you stop by tomorrow afternoon if you would, and stay for dinner."
"Shall I make it about five?"
"Five would be fine. I won't take up any more of your time. Goodbye—Brian."
The voice laughed. And his hair stood up on the nape of his neck. The laughter in his eyes was the same that he had heard short hours ago from the blackness. There was no mistake. A part of the puzzle was about to solve itself.
Moira MacArt put the phone onto its cradle and looked at the man standing quietly in the hall.
"He is coming, brother," she said softly.
The man nodded, smiling faintly. "You have done well, sister. Now at last, my theory will be proven—or disproved."
He was a tall, saturnine man with black hair streaked in gray, a goatee giving his thin lips a fuller look, easing their cruelty. His black eyes were piercing, brilliant with the intelligence gleaming behind them. He was clad all in black, a turtle-necked black sweater and a black jacket making him seem to be wearing formal garb. His face was pale, his hands white and unmarked by sunlight, yet very strong.
He moved past the woman, along the hall.
The woman looked at her fingernails, tinted a bright red, and sighed. Her hair was black silk, heavy of strand and thickly glossy, framing a face elfin in its beauty, with wide gray eyes and a full red mouth. There was no cruelty in her as there was in her brother. She touched her lips with her tongue tip and turned to watch as Ugony MacArt came to a great oak door set into the wall.
He paused outside the door. His hand came up to touch the wood, almost as if he caressed it.
"Soon, very soon now, I shall know."
The woman shivered.