Read an Excerpt
By James Schmitz
Bean BooksISBN: 0-7434-3559-1
Chapter OneThe Big Terrarium
The third morning Fred Nieheim woke up in the Little Place, he no longer had to prove to himself that he wasn't dreaming. He knew where he was, all right, along with the rest of them-Wilma and Ruby and Howard Cooney and the Cobrisol. But knowing it didn't make him any happier.
He remained lying on his back, gazing moodily out through the, bedroom window, while he wondered how one went about getting back to Earth from here-specifically, to the Nieheim farm twenty-two miles south of Richardsville, Pennsylvania, U.S.A. It wasn't apparently just a matter of finding a way out through the very odd sort of barriers that fenced in the area. According to the Cobrisol, a local creature which appeared to be well-informed, they would then simply be in something known as "Outside," which was nowhere near Earth. At least, the Cobrisol had never heard of Earth, and still wasn't entirely convinced that it existed.
"Sometimes, Fred," it had hinted gently only last evening while they sat together on the front porch, watching a rather good production of an Earth-type sunset above the apple orchard, "sometimes, the memory and other mental functions are deranged by transfer from one Place to another. Don't let it worry you, though. Such effects almost always wear off in time...."
Fred felt Wilma stir quietly in bed beside him, and he raised himself cautiously on an elbow to look at her. The bed creaked.
Ruby went "Chuck-chuck!" sharply from the corner of the bedroom, where she slept in a basket. She was a middle-aged hen pheasant of belligerent nature, who regarded herself as the watchdog of the Nieheim farm. Basket and all, she'd been transferred along with them to the Little Place.
Fred remained quiet until Ruby stuck her head back under her wing. Wilma was still asleep, and only a rounded, smooth shoulder and a mop of yellow hair were visible at the moment above the blankets. They had been married less than two years, and if he and Wilma and Ruby had been set down here alone, he mightn't have minded it so much. The Cobrisol had assured him that one ordinarily received the best of care and attention in the Little Places; and the Cobrisol itself, though disconcerting in appearance until you got used to it, seemed to be as agreeable a neighbor as anyone could want.
Unfortunately, there was also Howard Cooney....
* * *
Out in the kitchen, precisely as Fred's reflections reached that point, a metallic clatter announced that Howard Cooney was manipulating Wilma's big iron skillet on the stove again.
Fred scowled thoughtfully. For a recent acquaintance, Howard certainly was making himself at home with them! He was a tramp who had happened to select the night of their transfer to sleep in the shed back of the Nieheim farmhouse; and so he'd been picked up and brought along, too. Unfortunately, whoever or whatever had constructed a reasonably accurate duplicate of a section of the Nieheim farm in the Little Place, hadn't bothered to include the shed. The first night, at Wilma's suggestion, Howard had moved into the living room. After that, he'd stayed there.
Fred felt he couldn't reasonably object to the arrangement under the circumstances, but he suspected that Howard was an untrustworthy character. He'd already begun to ogle Wilma when he thought nobody was noticing-and there was the disturbing fact that he was considerably bigger and huskier than Fred.....
He'd better, Fred decided uneasily, work out a method of getting them all back to Earth before Howard got the wrong kind of ideas.
* * *
"Morning," Howard Cooney said hospitably, as Fred came into the kitchen. "Sit down and have some hoot. Where's Wilma?"
Fred said Wilma was still sleeping.
"Me," said Howard, "I'm up with the sun! Or what goes for the sun around here. Know what? I'm going to build a still!" He explained that he'd discovered a maze of piping under the front porch which wasn't connected to anything and which he could use for the purpose.
Fred doubted Howard would have any success with his dubious project, but he didn't comment on it. The piping wouldn't be missed. The duplicated house functioned just as well as the house back on Earth had; but it was operated on different and-so far-incomprehensible principles. Hot and cold water ran out of the proper faucets and vanished down the drains, but neither faucets nor drains appeared to be connected to anything but the solid walls! Similarly, the replicas of the electric stove and refrigerator performed their normal duties-but Fred had discovered by accident that they worked just as well when they weren't plugged into the electric outlets. It was all a little uncanny, and he preferred not to think about it too much.
He tried a slice of the hoot Howard had been frying. Hoots came in various flavors, and this one wasn't at all bad-quite as good as ham, in fact. He said so.
"Could have been a famous chef back on Earth if I'd wanted to," Howard admitted carelessly. "This is last night's hoot, by the way. There weren't any fresh ones floating around this morning."
"Howard," said Fred, "I'm trying to think of a way to get us back to Earth-"
"You are?" Howard looked startled and then frowned. "Look, Buster," he said in a confidential tone, leaning across the table, "let's face it. We got it soft here. Once I get the liquor situation straightened out, we'll have everything we need."
Fred's mouth opened in surprise. "You don't mean you want to stay here all your life, do you?"
Howard eyed him speculatively. "You ought to wise up. You never been in stir, have you? Well, that's where you are now."
"It's more like a zoo," said Fred. "And-"
"Call it a zoo," the tramp interrupted. "Same principle." He shrugged his massive shoulders. "Trying to break out is a good way to get killed, see? And it's likely to make it rough on everyone else. You wouldn't want something worse than being shut up here to happen to Wilma, would you?" He grinned amiably at Fred, but the little gray eyes were shrewd and, at the moment, a trifle menacing.
There was just enough sense in what he'd said to make Fred uncertain. Howard seemed to have had some experiences which could be of value now. "What do you think we ought to do?" he inquired.
However, at that point, Howard became rather vague. In stir, he said, one had to take things easy until one had figured out the system. And then one made use of the system. The danger was in getting whoever was in charge of the Little place riled up by thoughtless action....
* * *
Going in search of the Cobrisol after breakfast, Fred admitted to himself that he couldn't quite make out what Howard Cooney was after. The tramp seemed to have something definite in mind, but apparently he wasn't willing to reveal it at this time.
At any rate, he'd made it clear that he didn't intend to be helpful about getting them back to Earth.
He found the Cobrisol coiled up at the head of a sloping section of ground which apparently was intended to represent the upper half of the south meadow of the Nieheim farm on Earth. As such, it was a few hundred yards out of place, and the grass that grew there wasn't exactly grass either; but Fred didn't pay much attention to such arbitrary rearrangements of his property any more.
"Nice day, isn't it?" he remarked, coming up.
"If you're speaking of the weather, yes!" said the Cobrisol. "Otherwise, I'll reserve my opinion."
Fred sat down beside it. "Something wrong?"
The Cobrisol nodded. "Possibly..." It was a quite odd-looking creature, with a snaky, ten-foot body, brick-red in color and with a rubbery feel to it, and a head that was a little like that of a pig and a little more like that of an alligator. No arms or legs, but it didn't seem to miss them. When it moved slowly, it extended and contracted itself like an earthworm; when it was in a hurry, it slithered about in sideways loops like a snake. "Take a look around," it invited significantly.
Fred gazed about. There was the usual, vague sort of sun-disk shining through the overhead haze, and the morning was pleasantly warm. At the end of the meadow was a huge, vertical something with indefinite borders called a "mirror-barrier," inside which he could see the Cobrisol and himself sitting in the grass, apparently a long distance away, and the duplicated farmhouse behind them. To the left was a rather accurate reproduction of the Nieheim apple orchard-though the trees were constructed more like firs-complete with a copy of the orchard section of the Nieheim trout stream. Unfortunately, no trout appeared to have been transferred.
Beyond the orchard was a thick, motionless mist which blended into the haze of the sky. The mist was another barrier; the Cobrisol called it a "barrier of confusion." The first day, Fred had made a determined attempt to walk out of the Little Place at that point; it had been a confusing experience, all right!
* * *
There wasn't much more to the Little Place. Behind the house, the ground sloped uphill into another wall of mist. He could hear Wilma and Howard Cooney talking in the back garden; and a number of small, circular objects that looked as if they might be made of some shiny metal floated about here and there in the air. The Cobrisol had explained that these were Eyes, through which the goings-on in the Little Place were being observed. Their motion seemed aimless, but Fred hadn't been able to get close enough to one to catch it.
"Everything looks about the same to me," he admitted at last.
"Everything?" repeated the Cobrisol.
Its long toothy jaws and rubbery, throat moved slightly as it spoke, though it wasn't actually pronouncing human words. Neither had Fred been talking in the Cobrisol's language, whatever that was. It was a little hard to understand. They hadn't been suddenly gifted with telepathy; it was just that when you were set down in a Little Place, you knew what the other intelligent creatures there wanted to say. And it sounded as if they were using your kind of speech.
Fred had given up trying to figure it out....
"Well, there aren't any hoots in sight this morning," he acknowledged. "Or robols either," he added, after a brief search of the meadow grass. "Howard Cooney mentioned the hoots were gone at breakfast."
"Very observant of the Cooney person," the Cobrisol stated drily. It and Howard had disliked each other on sight. "Fred, there are a few matters I feel I should discuss with you."
"Now's a good time for a chat," Fred said agreeably.
The Cobrisol darted its head about in a series of rapid, snaky motions, surveying the area.
"The Eyes," it remarked then, "have assumed an unusual observational pattern this morning. You will note that two are stationed directly above us. Another cluster has positioned itself above the roof of the house. Early in the morning, an exceptionally large number were gathered among the trees of the orchard. These have now largely transferred themselves to the opposite side of the Little Place, near the maze-barrier."
"I see," said Fred, wondering what it was driving at.
"The One who maintains this Place is showing a remarkable degree of interest in us today," the Cobrisol concluded.
* * *
"Very well," the creature resumed. "Life in a Little Place is usually very satisfactory. The Ones who maintain them can be regarded as hobbyists who take a benevolent interest in the life-forms they select to inhabit their creations. Whereas Big Places, of course, are designed for major scientific projects...." The creature shuddered slightly throughout its length. "I've never been in one of those, but-well, I've heard stories! Until this morning, Fred, I was inclined to regard us here as exceptionally fortunate life-forms."
"Well," Fred said, frowning "I don't quite agree with... what do you mean, 'until this morning'?"
"There are indications that this Place is being maintained, shall we say, carelessly? Nothing conclusive, as yet, you understand. But indications!" The Cobrisol jerked its head in the direction of the mirror-barrier. "That barrier, for instance, Fred, and one or two others have been permitted to go soft overnight!"
"Go soft?" Fred repeated.
"They're no longer operating as barriers. If we chose to, we could go right through them now-and be Outside! An almost unheard-of example of slip-shod maintenance-"
Fred brightened. "Well, say!" He got hurriedly to his feet. "Let's try it then!" He hesitated. "I'll go get Wilma and Ruby first though. I don't like to leave Wilma alone with that Cooney character."
The Cobrisol hadn't moved.
"I'm afraid you don't have the picture," it remarked. "You assume that once you're outside you'll be able to find your way back to the place you call Earth?"
"Not exactly," Fred said cautiously. He didn't like to be evasive with the Cobrisol, but he wasn't sure it would want them to leave-and it might be in a position to make their departure more difficult. "We could just step through and look around a little...."
"Even if we weren't under observation at the moment," the Cobrisol pointed out, "you wouldn't live very long if you did. No life-form-as we know life-forms-can exist Outside. The barriers are set up to keep us where it's safe. That's why it's so irresponsible, of the One-"
Fred abandoned the idea of taking Wilma with him. He'd have to make a careful check first. "About how long," he inquired, "could I stand it out there, safely?"
"Forget it, Fred!" the creature advised him earnestly. "Unless you knew exactly what to do to get back into the Little Place, you'd be worse than dead as soon as you stepped out there. And you don't."
"Do you?" Fred challenged it.
"Yes," said the Cobrisol, "I do. But I won't tell you. Sit down again, Fred."
Fred sat down thoughtfully. At least, he'd learned a few new facts, and the knowledge might come in handy.
"A few moments ago," the Cobrisol said, "you made an interesting statement. It appears that you don't wish to leave Wilma alone with the other human?"
Fred glanced at it in surprise. "No," he said shortly, "I don't."
The Cobrisol hesitated. "I don't wish to be tactless," it remarked. "I understand many species have extremely rigid taboos on the subject-but might this have something to do with the process of procreation?"
Fred flushed. He hadn't got quite that far in his thoughts about Wilma and Howard. "In a general sort of way," he admitted.
The Cobrisol regarded him judiciously. "Wilma is a charming life-form," it stated then, somewhat to Fred's surprise, "whereas the Cooney is as offensive as he is ignorant.
Excerpted from Eternal Frontier by James Schmitz Excerpted by permission.
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