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At sunset they lit the bonfires built around the cube. The sea wind caught the flames and fanned them upward through the brush. The fires were well laid; soon each cone-shape pyre was torching up against the walls. The villagers stepped back and watched, ready with more fuel. The cube was still and silent, as it had been since dawn.
Gareth Mitchell stood alone on the cliff path to the beach. She knew she wasn't welcome here. No one had waved or said helloshe thought they were ashamed to. It was easier for them to pretend she wasn't there. She'd known them all her life, been their only medic for a year. They had come to her with their wounds and diseases and some of their sorrows. And now they wouldn't look her way, wouldn't meet her glance.
A gray flint lizard elbowed its way out of the grass and down into the path. It paused to smell her boot with a flick of its dark tongue, then journeyed onward, its delicate splayed fingers leaving handprints on the sand. She watched it go and envied it, so perfect in design, so safe inside its armor-plated solitude, so seemingly content to be exactly what and where it was. A cold breeze blew and she pulled her leather cape close.
The smoke diminished as the flames grew more intense. Heat waves rose to distort the prisms of the eye. Where the square overhung the circular base, naphtha was added to the fire to take advantage of this vulnerability. She could see the metal corners beginning to glow red. That upset her, and she turned and faced the sea.
The sun was gone. A line of dark blue clouds rimmed the horizon. Just above the clouds an early star winked brightly. She stared at it, distracted by the fires' crackling, and slowly realized the star was moving toward her. It came directly overhead, in a line across the sky, passed behind high clouds that dimmed it, and then reappeared to drop behind the mountains.
A shout went up on the hillside. The cube was turning. The tallest timbers supporting the pyres had been pressed against the walls. These were being shoved, screeching and protesting and thrown aside in showers of sparks and smoke. Burning logs and embers rolled. People were running and yelling. The cube swung around until the eye faced the mountains, until all the fires had been scattered. It had shrugged off its attackers.
Gareth began to laugh with relief. They had won, she and that beautiful old thing! Had she been asked, she couldn't have explained why she loved it, but she did. She didn't even know what it was, and the mystery was part of its charm. It had no known purpose, no useit simply was. Solid and forever. She knew it wasn't a temple, but for her it was, and when she walked there, the very air felt good, as if once, long ago, something wonderful had happened here and joy had permeated the hill and trees.
When she was little, she used to press her hands against the base, and it seemed to her then that she could feel it living. That vibrancy was gone, lost with childhood, but when she was troubled, she still came here to let the spirit of the place ease her soul.
The cube began to turn again, back toward the sea. She'd never been this close before when it moved; when one stood beneath, looking up, the moving bulk was awesome. Light from a high pink cloud fragmented on a hundred mirrored facets and was gone. Birds on the rocks offshore broke into frightened cries as bright and scattered as the light.
Wind whipped in a sudden gust and sent sparks and ashes flying. The villagers backed away from the scattered fires. Some were slapping embers from their clothes and hair, others rubbed their eyes. Her first impulse was to ask if they needed help, and then she thought, Why bother? They don't know I'm here. She pulled her cape around her and set off down the path.
When she got home, she thought, she would light the fire, toast some bread and cheese, have some wine, and go to bed. Tomorrow she would get up early and go herb hunting, get away and forget how silly decent people could be when they were frightened by something they couldn't understand. She began a mental inventory of the drugs in short supply and the plants she'd have to gather to replace them.
There was yelling again on the hill. A breaker smashed against the rocks and drowned out another shout. The fire had spread to a thicket and beyond to dry grass on the hill. Pushed by the wind, it was licking toward a field of ripening grain. If that field caught, the next fuel would be the village.
She ran back, shrugging off her cape to use as a flail in beating out the flames. People were milling about, unsure of what to do. "Forget about the cube!" she yelled as she ran to join them. "Stop the grass fire!"
Something struck a hard glancing blow to her shoulder. She ignored it, thinking it was fire-flung debris. A rough hand reached out and grabbed her arm, spinning her around, nearly causing her to fall.
"Get out of here!" a man yelled. It was Luther Buri, the council leader. "Go home! We don't need your help!" He was in a rage and gray with ash and soot.
"What's wrong with you?" She pulled free.
"Don't you see the fire? Are you crazy?"
As soon as she said it, she knew it had been the wrong thing to say since, at the moment, Luther apparently was. He swung at her, hard enough to have broken her jaw if she hadn't ducked. Two other men grabbed him by the arms then or he would have knocked her down.
"You laughed!" Luther yelled, struggling to get at her. "You saw that thing turn and you laughed! Do you know how hard we worked to build that fire? Do you know how long it took to gather that much wood? The weight of it? And you see it go to waste and laugh? God, I'd like to kill you!"
"Luther!" one of the men said, shocked. "You don't mean that."
"Yes, he does, Eugene," Gareth said, knowing it was true and frightened by the knowledge. "But I didn't laugh at youor anyone else. I laughed becauseI was relievedbecause…" She couldn't think how to make him understand. "I wasn't laughing at you. We can talk later. Let's get the grass fire out."
"No!" Luther shouted. "I won't have you here!"
"What's going on?" Ula, Luther's wife, came running out of the smoky dusk. "Luther? Mike? What's the matter?" She eyed the men's grip on her husband, and they shyly let go.
"Nothing" Gareth started to say.
"You laughed!" Luther yelled. "That's not nothing! You said I was crazy. You laughed at all of us. I saw you! I was watching." The three around him looked at Gareth; doubt and resentment mingled with concern in their faces. "You people in the compound think you're all so smart. You worship books and do things. You don't care about us."
"Since when is it 'us' against 'you people'?" Gareth said, beginning to get angry. "Since when do we"
"It's always been! Always! You just pretend it's not."
"We've always worked together"
"You've never worked the fields! None of you!" There were tears in Luther's eyes, although whether they were tears of frustration or self-pity she couldn't tell. "You're the craftsmen. You're the experts. You're right and we're wrong! When it rains you can sit indoors and make your harnesses and hammer copper pots. You don't have to muck out stables and get your leg slashed by a strider"
"No, but I have to come sew you up then, don't I?" Gareth snapped. "Whether it's raining or not. This whole argument is stupid! The fire's"
"I'm not stupid!" He would have struck her then, but Ula stepped between them and deflected the blow. Ula staggered and would have fallen if Gareth hadn't caught her.
"What's the matter with him?" Gareth asked her, but Ula shook her head, pulled free, and stood erect.
"He's overtired, that's all. You'd better go home now," Ula said. "You people wanted nothing to do with tonight. You shouldn't have come over." Gareth hesitated, not wanting to leave it at this.
"Just goplease?" Ula begged.
Gareth looked from Luther's rage to Ula's pleading eyes and nodded. "Yes, I'm sorry you got hit."
Ula didn't answer, and there was something in the woman's look Gareth didn't understand; some old resentment had flared up that she'd been unaware existed. Suddenly she didn't care any more, about the fire or the fight or Ula. It was all too involved and senseless, and she was tired of them all. She bent to pick up her cape and left without another word. As she turned to go down the cliff path, she saw people coming across the field from the village, carrying shovels and wet sacks. Not everyone had gone crazy.
The tide was coming in, and waves slopped and surged around the rocks of the fishing pier. She walked fast, angry and upset, her boot heels punching holes in the damp sand. It was almost nightfall.
When she climbed the dunes, she had cooled down enough to put her cape on and think rationally again.
Luther had wanted to kill her. The question was: why? She didn't think her laughter was adequate causeunless he interpreted it as humiliating. Setting fire to the cube had been his idea and a failure.
It was possible that he really was going crazy. He was at that age when people did. Some grew moody and suspicious, afraid of everyone; some stumbled, unsure of their muscles; and a few killed themselves when they felt the symptoms coming on. Her parents had taught her to look for the gleam of copper in the eyes, painful joints, and faces that smiled without wanting to smile. She would have to look closely at Luther's eyes, if he'd let her near, or ask Ula. Maybe he was losing his mind, but that didn't explain what sounded like old hatred, or Ula's look of resentment.
Gareth climbed the last dune and took the path through the windbreak that protected fields from sea. The silver swords had been planted here so long ago that generations of children had played among the big succulents, using their massive broad leaves as slides, or climbing up, leaf by leaf, to peer down into the hollow center. "If you fall in one you have to stay there forever," children warned each other, and until Gareth was old enough to think of being pulled out by rope, she'd had bad dreams of being trapped inside a plant.
Remembering that tonight, she smiled to herself; no child could imagine all the ways one could be trappedways no rope was long enough to reach.
Night had come by the time she reached the woods. The hardroad, the only stretch still left intact, felt welcome after the sand. She paused outside the compound gate for one last look across the valley. Lamps were lit in the village houses. Mist hung above the fields. So familiar a sightwhy did she feel a stranger?
She went inside and tripped the balance lever on the gate. The big panel slid down smoothly. She locked it into place and leaned against its comforting security.
For want of any other explanation she had always assumed the walls and gate were built to keep out animals, but tonight she wondered. What animal here required defenses like this? The most dangerous ones were in the sea…except for people. She would have to ask Paul. He knew a lot of history.
Within the dark compound was an oval green where an artesian spring pumped into a fountain reservoir. Both green and reservoir were wild and overgrown. The buildings rimming the wall had fallen into ruin. Doors were gone; windows gaped open; wild things nested on the upper floors. Creeper vines were covering up the walls.
Gareth stopped for a drink at the fountain. One ornamental light still glowed beneath the water. Tiny fish scattered as she dipped her hand. Across the way was a lighted dome so old the panels had filmed into opaque amber. Margo was still working; she could hear the loom. Another light gleamed in the windows of a long, low building, part of which had fallen down. Above one window the word AIRD was embedded in frosty plastic. Only partial walls of other buildings remained, and Gareth's house, a great crumbling pile of adobe-like stuff.
A faint hissing sound made her look up. Overhead another star was falling, this one lower and much brighter. She saw only a trace of it before the trees shut off her view, but that was enough to worry her. The insects had quit singing and stayed silent for minutes, as if listening or waiting. She tried to remember what her father had told her about meteors. Did they ever hit the ground intact? And how big were they if they fell?
Copyright © 1981 by H. M. Hoover