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Hour of the Horde, Page 2

Gordon R. Dickson

  “I know,” said Miles a little impatiently. But then, rousing him from that first impatience to sudden near anger, came recognition of the relief in Marie’s voice a few seconds before, when she had said: “Then you’re all right.”

  Those remembered words jarred unpleasantly back to mind his own first few moments of alarm when he had seen the sun’s changed color. He heard the edge in his own voice as he answered her.

  “I know the sun’s changed color! I said I saw it happen! What of it?”

  “Miles—” Marie’s voice broke off, oddly, as if she were uncertain of what to say to him. “Miles, I want to see you. If you’ve been asleep all this time you haven’t had dinner yet, have you?”

  “Well… no. I haven’t.” Miles was abruptly reminded of the emptiness inside him. Come to think of it, he had not eaten since breakfast, thirteen hours before.

  “I’ll meet you at the Lounge in ten minutes then,” said Marie swiftly. “You can have some dinner, and we can talk. Ten minutes?”

  “All right,” he said, still somewhat numb with sleep.

  “Good-bye, Miles.”


  He hung up.

  Slowly waking up in the process, Miles went back to his room, washed his face, put on a fresh shirt and a sport coat, and left the rooming house for the half-mile walk back across the two campuses and their connecting walkway to the business section beyond the east campus. As he passed the landlady’s living room, the door was still ajar, and from within he heard the voice of a television announcer, still talking about the change, and saw the backs of a number of people sitting and listening.

  The irritation which Marie’s concern for him had awakened in him expanded again to include these people. It was ridiculous, almost superstitious of them, to be stampeded into fear just because of what seemed to be a change—undoubtedly temporary, undoubtedly freakish—in the color of the sun.

  “Latest reports over Honolulu say that the redness persists—” The TV announcer’s voice was cut off sharply as Miles softly closed the front door of the house behind him. He headed up the darkened street under the towering, dark-leaved branches of the elms toward the footbridge and the east bank of the river where the Lounge was.

  His walk across the campus and over the footbridge was like a walk though an evacuated city. There seemed to be nobody about. But once on the far side of the river, when he pushed open the door of the Lounge, he found the place crowded; only the crowd was all clustered at one end, around the television set at the front of the bar. Forty or fifty people, many of them students, were seated and standing there, packed closely together, listening in absolute silence to the same sort of news broadcast he had overheard as he was leaving his rooming house. He threaded his way through them and went back into the rear area where the high-backed wooden booths were; all of these were empty.

  Miles took a corner booth in the back of the room. It was the booth he and Marie always took if it was available, and after a few moments their usual waitress, a girl named Joan, a part-time student in the English Department, came through the swinging doors from the kitchen, saw him, and came over to ask him what he wanted.

  “Just coffee—two coffees, for now—” Miles remembered suddenly that Marie had said she had already eaten. “I guess just one dinner, come to think of it. Are there any hot beef sandwiches left?”

  “Lots of them,” said Joan. “Hardly anyone’s been eating. They’re all listening to television. We’re listening, back in the kitchen. You know the weather people can’t figure it out? The sun’s actually changed. I mean, it isn’t just something in our atmosphere—” She broke off in the face of Miles’ silence. “I’ll get your coffee.”

  She went off. She had scarcely brought two cups of coffee back and left again in search of Miles’ sandwich when the sound of footsteps from the front of the Lounge made him look up. He saw Marie coming quickly down the aisle between the booths toward him.

  She looked at him with the brown eyes that were now so dark and luminous they seemed to have doubled their size in her white face.

  “Miles…” She reached across the table to lay her hand on his arm. “Do you feel all right?”

  “All right? Me?” He smiled at her, for clearly she needed reassurance. “I’m still a little dopey from sleep and I could stand some food. Outside of that, I’m fine. What’s the matter with you?”

  She looked at him strangely.

  “Miles, you can’t be that much out of touch with the rest of the world,” she said. “You just can’t !”

  “Oh—” The word came out more harshly than he had meant it to. “You mean this business about the sun changing color? Don’t worry, it hasn’t done any damage yet. And if it did, that’s not my line of work. So why worry about it?”

  The waitress came up with Miles’ order and said hello to Marie.

  “Isn’t it terrible? It’s still going on,” she said to Marie. “We’re all following the news, back in the kitchen. They’re just beginning to see it from planes in the South Pacific now—and it’s still red.”

  She went back to the kitchen.

  “I’ll tell you why you ought to worry,” said Marie quietly and tensely, taking her hand from his arm and sitting back almost huddled in her corner of the booth. “Because it’s something that affects the whole world, all the people in the world, and you’re one of them.”

  Automatically he had picked up his fork and begun to eat. Now, at these words, he laid his fork down again. The wave of exhaustion inside him, the wave of anger first pricked to life by the alarm and concern of the people on campus he had passed on his way back to the rooming house, returned with force to wash his appetite away. The mashed potatoes and gravy he had just put into his mouth seemed to have no more taste than if they were made of flour and water and artificial coloring.

  “The other two billion won’t miss me if I stick to my own work,” he said. “I’ve got more important things to worry about. I spent all day today painting the river bluffs and the freeway bridge. Do you want to know how it came out?”

  “I can guess how it came out,” answered Marie. She too was a student in the school of art at the university. Like Miles, she was graduating this spring. Unlike Miles, she had neither a grant for European study waiting for her nor the supporting belief of her instructors that she had the makings of a truly unusual artist in her. It did not help that Miles himself could see promise in her work. For even he could not bring himself to class that promise with what he himself was after in painting.

  “Marie,” an instructor had said bluntly to Miles one day in a burst of frankness, “is going to be good—possibly quite good—if she works hard at it. You’re either going to be unmatchable or impossible.”

  Yet in spite of this, there were elements in Marie’s work which were the equivalent of those very elements for which Miles searched in his own. Where he was stark, she was beautiful; where he was violent, she was gentle. Only, he wanted his equivalents of these things on a different level from that on which she had found hers.

  “Well, it was the same thing all over again,” said Miles. He picked up the fork once more and mechanically tried to force himself to eat. “The painting turned savage on me—as usual.”

  “Yes,” answered Marie in a low voice, “and I know why.”

  He looked up sharply from his plate at her and found her eyes more brilliant upon him than ever.

  “And this business about the sun proves it,” she went on, more strongly. “I don’t mean the change in color itself; I mean the way you’re reacting to it—” She hesitated, then burst out with a rush. “I’ve never said this to you, Miles. But I always knew I’d have to say it someday, and now this thing’s happened and the time’s come! You aren’t ever going to find the answer to what’s bothering you about the way you paint. You never will because you won’t look in the right direction. You’ll look everywhere but there!”

  “What do you mean?” He stared at her, the cooling hot beef
sandwich now completely forgotten. “And what’s this business of the sun got to do with it?”

  “It’s got everything to do with it,” she said tightly, taking hold of her edge of the table with both hands, as if her grip on it were a grip on him, forcing him to stand still and listen to her. “Maybe this change in the color of the sun hasn’t hurt anything yet—that’s true. But it’s frightened a world full of people! And that doesn’t mean anything to you. Don’t you understand me, Miles? The trouble with you is you’ve got to the point where something like this can happen, and a world full of people be frightened to death by it—and you don’t react at all!”

  He looked narrowly at her.

  “You’re telling me I’m too wound up in my painting?” he asked. “Is that it?”

  “No !” Marie answered fiercely. “You’re just not interested enough in the rest of life!”

  “The rest of life?” he echoed. “Why, of course not! All the rest of life does for me is get between me and the painting—and I need every ounce of energy I can get for work. What’s wrong with that?”

  “You know what’s wrong!” Marie started out of her corner and leaned across the table toward him. “You’re too strong, Miles. You’ve got to the point where nothing frightens you anymore—and that’s not natural. You’re all one-sided, like that overdeveloped arm of yours and nothing on the other side—” Abruptly she began to cry, but silently, the tears streaming down her face, even while her voice went on, low and tight and controlled as before.

  “Oh, I know that’s a terrible thing to say!” she said. “I didn’t want to say it to you, Miles. I didn’t! But it’s true. You’re all one huge muscle in the part of you that’s a painter, and there’s nothing left in you on the human side at all. And still you’re not satisfied. You keep on trying to make yourself even more one-sided, so that you can be a bloodless, camera-eyed observer! Only, it can’t be done—and it shouldn’t be done! You can’t go on in this way without destroying yourself. You’ll turn yourself into a painting machine and still never get what you want, because it really isn’t pictures on canvas you’re after, Miles. It’s people! It really is! Miles—”

  Her words broke off and echoed away into the silence of the empty dining area at the back of the Lounge. Into that silence, from the bar at the front, came the unintelligible murmur of the announcer speaking from the television set and still relaying news, or the lack of it, about the sudden change of color of the sun. Miles sat without moving, staring at her. Finally, he found the words for which he was reaching.

  “Is this what you called me up, and asked me to meet you here, to say?” he asked, at last.

  “Yes!” answered Marie.

  He still sat, staring at her. There was a hard, heavy feeling of loneliness and pain just above his breastbone. He had thought that at least there was one person in the universe who understood what he was trying to do. One person, anyway, who had some vision of that long road and that misty goal toward which he was reaching with every ounce of strength he had and every waking hour of his days. He had thought that Marie understood. Now it was plain she did not. She was, in the end, as blind as the rest of them.

  If only she had understood, she would have realized that it was people he had been striving to get free of, right from the start. He had been trying to pull himself out of the quicksand of their bloody history and narrow lives, so that he would be able to see clearly, hear clearly, and work without their weight clinging to his mind and hampering the freedom of his mind’s eye.

  But Marie had evidently never seen this fact, any more than the rest.

  He got to his feet, picked up his check and hers, and walked away from her to the cashier and out of the Lounge without another word.

  Outside, still the streets were all but deserted. And through this desert cityscape, under a full moon made dusky by the reflection of reddened sunlight, he returned slowly to his rooming house.


  In the night he woke suddenly for no apparent reason. He lay staring at the darkness of the ceiling above him and wondering what had wakened him at such an hour. The bedroom was hot and stuffy, and he had kicked off all his covers.

  His pajama top was wet with perspiration. It clung like a clammy hand to his chest, and this, plus the thickness of the air, filled him with a strange sense of some lurking presence as of a crouching danger in the dark. He wondered whether Marie was sleeping peacefully or whether she had also wakened.

  It was unnatural for the room to be so stuffy and hot. He got up and went to open the window, but it already stood wide open from the bottom, as high as it could be raised. Outside, the night air hung unmoving, as unnaturally warm and stuffy as the room air.

  No breeze stirred. Below, silhouetted against the corner streetlight beyond, a tall, horizontal-armed oak towered over the lilac bushes and the small flowering crab tree in the dark rooming house yard. Bushes and trees alike stood like forms of poured concrete, all stiffly upright, darker than the night.

  Distantly, thunder muttered. Miles looked up and out at the horizon above the trees, and the flicker of heat lightning jumped, racing across the arc of black sky in which no moon or stars were showing. The thunder came again, more loudly.

  He stood watching as the lightning and thunder increased. Still no breath of air moved. The lightning flared along the distant edge of darkness like the cannon flashes of some titanic war of the gods, just out of sight over the horizon. The thunder grew. Now the heat lightning had given way to chain lightning, which stitched wild, jagged thrusts of brilliance across the sky.

  The air sighed suddenly outside the window. It blew damply against him. The thunder roared. Suddenly the skies split with thunder directly above him, and a lightning flash left a searing afterimage of trees and bushes painted on his vision. The wind blasted, and suddenly there was a dry, hard pattering all around.

  It was hail. At once, before he could move back and close the window, the full hailstorm was on him. In the wild lightning he saw the yard below full of dancing whiteness, saw the bushes bent over and even the ornamental flowering crab tree bent nearly to the earth.

  Only the oak, he noticed, refused to bend. It stood towering as before. Its leaves lay over flat, and its branches swayed to the wind, but its trunk ignored the storm. It stood unyielding, upright, all but indifferent.

  Hail was stinging Miles’ face and arms. He pulled back from the window, closing it all but an inch or two. Even through that little space, the wind whistled icily into the room. He got back into bed, huddling the covers up around him.

  Before he knew it, he was asleep once more.

  “The Ship…”

  It seemed that those were almost the first words Miles encountered on going downstairs after waking the next morning. They were on the lips of his landlady as he left for breakfast and his first class, and they echoed around him from everybody who was abroad in the red light of this early day as he crossed the campus. When he reached the room in which the seminar on Renaissance art was held, it seemed to be the only topic of conversation among the graduate students there as well.

  “Too big to land, anyway,” Mike Jarosh, a short, bearded man who was one of the graduate history majors, was saying as Miles came in. “As big as the state of Rhode Island.”

  “They’ll probably send down a smaller ship,” somebody else put in.

  “Maybe. Maybe not,” Mike said. “Remember, the ship just appeared there, in orbit a thousand miles out. None of the telescopes watching the sun saw it coming, and it appeared right in front of the sun, right in front of their telescopes. If whoever’s in the ship can do that, they may be able to send down people to the surface of the Earth here just by some way of transferring them suddenly from the ship to here—”

  The professor in charge of the seminar, Wallace Hankins, a thin, stooped man, half-bald but with his remaining hair still as black as his eyebrows, came in the door just then, cutting off Mike in mid-sentence.

  “Any news? Any broadcasts
from the ship—” Mike was beginning to ask him, when Hankins cut him short.

  “Yes, there’s been some kind of message,” Hankins said. “The United Nations Secretary-General just received it—the broadcasts don’t say how or why. But that’s all beside the point. It’s plain there’s no use trying to hold any kind of seminar under these conditions. So we won’t try it today. The rest of you go about your business—and, with luck, we’ll meet again here next week at the same time under conditions more conducive to a discussion of Renaissance art.”

  The babble of excitement that broke out at this announcement, Miles thought, would have suited a group of grade-school children better than a dozen hardworking graduate students. The others hurried off as, more slowly, he put his own books back into the briefcase from which he had taken them while Mike Jarosh was talking. Hankins had stood aside to let the class members stampede past him out the open door. So it happened that, as Miles was leaving last, he came face to face with Hankins.

  “I’m sorry to lose a day,” said Miles honestly, stopping.

  Hankins looked back at him, his round face under the high, hairless forehead more than a little sour.

  “The Renaissance seems out of fashion at the moment,” he said and, following Miles out through the door of the seminar room, closed it behind both of them.

  Miles, briefcase in hand, headed back down the worn marble steps of the staircase inside the history building and out of the building back toward his rooming house. He was not quite sure what he should do with this unexpected gap in his daily schedule. Automatically, he thought of setting up his easel somewhere outside and trying to work—and then he remembered that outdoor painting would be all but impossible as long as the sun continued to be this color. Color values would be all off.

  No sooner had he thought of this than he was intrigued by the notion of doing a painting under the red light, just so that he could see in what way the colors were off once the sun returned to normal. He hurried on to the rooming house and went up the stairs to his room with enthusiasm beginning to burn inside him. But as he entered his room, his spirits took a sudden drop. The sight of the canvas he had painted yesterday afternoon, now drying in the corner, reminded him abruptly of Marie and the storm of the night before.