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Science Fiction

Turn of the Glass

By Al Onia
Feb 7, 2020 · 5,570 words · 21 minutes

From the author: Strangers in paradise waiting for the apocalypse. Or has it already passed them by? My Ray Bradbury tribute story.


     The tall, fit man balanced one foot on the pier and the other on the cabin cruiser, appearing undecided on the next step. His mirrored sunglasses reflected the dull sky with a grey light of their own.

     "Bethel?" he called. "Paul Bethel? Are you aboard?"

     The boat's resident appeared from below deck, sticking a red-bearded face up through the aft transom. "Who are you?" He hoisted himself from the cabin and faced the visitor.

     "Croft, from The Prophetic Times. We spoke last week about an interview. I'm late. Had trouble finding your slip." Larger boats dwarfed the cruiser on all sides. The man shifted his weight to keep from falling into the water as the waves rose in the small cove.

     Bethel worked a fingernail between two front teeth. He called to the women lounging on the next boat. "Margot. Elissa. Your bow line's loose. A squall's coming."

He turned his attention to the stranger. "You bring money?"

     The visitor pulled an envelope from his pocket. "A bank draft. I can authorize it from here, if..."

     "If I tell you the tale of my previous career. Come aboard, then. Rain's on the way, better if we go below."

     Paul Bethel ushered his guest into a cozy, functional galley. Croft ducked to clear the low ceiling. A two-burner stove, tiny sink and below-counter fridge occupied one side, a table and two bench seats the other. Light diffused from outside via shallow windows along the tops of the walls. Croft glimpsed bunks further aft through a curtain. Bethel motioned the man to sit at the table. The odor of propane and bacon filled the cabin. Bethel moved a pile of books and papers to a bunk in the berth beyond.

     "Still doing research?" Croft asked.

     "Old habits die hard. The stuff I follow these days is more conventional and not as stressful to my soul, Mr. Croft."

     "James. Do I call you Paul?"

     "Bethel is fine."

     "Okay. I have to tell you up front, Bethel, your timing sucked. I mean, your discoveries should have garnered a lot more mainstream coverage but for that damn Icelandic volcano nobody could pronounce."

     "Eyjafjallajokull. Easy enough if you take a deep breath and don't stop until the end. Drink?" Bethel took a bottle from under the galley bench and two glasses. He poured caramel-colored liquid into one and offered it to Croft.

     "It's early but this marine air chills to the core."

     Bethel filled the second glass and re-capped the bottle. "I like the cold. No desert within a thousand leagues."

     Croft set a recorder on the table. "Do you mind? Prevents misquoting you."

     "Not at all. Where do you want to start?"

     "The desert. The glass."

     Bethel warmed the drink between his palms then took a sip. "I always thought the UFOlogists were a bit whacked but I couldn't deny their passion. I happened to be in the Nevada desert where they were gathered. I was drilling cores through the sand as part of my University's climate change research."

     "You were a prof?"

     "No. A technician for the Ph.D.'s in Boulder. I designed a method to recover cores in sand. It isn't like cutting a core in soil or ice. Sand has no stability. I invented a method to inject a soluble adhesive during the drilling process so we could extract a consolidated core. Then we'd dissolve the glue in the lab and reconstruct the time layers from there."

     "How did the UFOlogists fit in?"

     Bethel stretched his legs to the middle of the deck. "They watched me work and asked if I would cut a core where they believed an extra-terrestrial craft had landed."

     "Based on what?"

     "Their GPR data, ground penetrating radar, showed a perfect circle. There were no insects nor other animals within the circle. They were convinced. It was close to my work so I obliged." Bethel stopped to take a sip.

     Croft stared at him. "And?"

     "It's in the article."

     "Indulge me." He indicated the recorder. "I'd like to hear it first-hand. For the record."

     "Record? I thought you were a reporter."

     "Poor choice of words. What did you discover?"

     "Glass shards. Fused, melted sand. Edges sharp as a knife. I had read about dunes in the Sahara turned into glass mountains by French nuclear tests back in the 1960's so I knew it was possible." From inside his shirt, he withdrew a black, shiny pendant on a chain. "Like this obsidian."

     Croft hesitated. "Is it radioactive?"

     "No. Believe me, these guys had Geiger counters like you and I have watches. And the layers were thin."

     "You dated them?"

     "I was on the team who did. I got to see the results but it wasn't in their climate change mandate so they sat on it."

     "You put the results on line, though." 

     "I did, until Eyjafjallajokull erupted and garnered all the attention. Mainstream media didn't care and few take the UFOlogists seriously. Oh, and I got fired for misuse of proprietary data."

     The steady patter of rain on the deck above them began.

Croft pulled a curled magazine from his case. "This might be all that's left."

     Bethel reached up and turned on the cabin lights, casting a tranquil glow in the small space. He smoothed the cover. "The second issue of the Prophetic Times, a collectable. I have a better copy around here somewhere."

     "Ten years is a lifetime in the publishing business. The second half of your article never appeared. What didn't you get to share?"

     Bethel refilled his glass. "I was asked not to reveal the chronology. Two guys with sunglasses like yours, less friendly. They weren't reporters. The dating was imprecise at best. No material to carbon date and aeolian deposition isn't constant. We inferred our chronology from known volcanic ash layers in other strata. We got a reliable date from Mount Mazama a millennia after the second last glass layer."

     "So what showed up?"

     "Periodicity. The most recent melt was First Millennium B.C. Between plant fibers and wind-blown volcanic ash, the event previous was reckoned close to 7000 B.C. Before that, 16000 B.C. and the oldest 28000."

     Croft scribbled the dates on a sheet. He stared at the figures. "I don't follow. Is there a pattern?"

     "Forget the actual dates, look at the difference between each event." He put a finger on the bottom of the list. "Thirty thousand to eighteen thousand years ago, a difference of?"

     "Twelve thousand years."

     "To the next?"

     "Nine thousand."

     "Keep going," Bethel said and leaned back, staring at his glass.

     "Six. Then the last was three thousand years ago. the next one should be...now?"

     "Correct. Give or take a couple of centuries."

     Croft tapped his pencil. "What exactly is happening on this shrinking scale?"

     Bethel drained his glass. "If the UFOlogists are right, the next landing."

     "Why the changing intervals?"

     "Consider a man walking a dog. The pair approach you. The master sends the dog running in your direction every ten minutes by his watch. From your time perspective, the dog's encounters with you get closer and closer together. It spends less time running the ever-shrinking distance between you and the dog's master."

     Croft said, "I think I see. The visitor who created the melted sand is the dog. And the master?"

     "Is getting closer." Bethel sipped his drink. "The main flotilla, if you will. Each time a reconnaissance ship is dispatched to Earth, the journey takes less time."

     "Why come to the same spot every time? And why the desert?"

     "Not spot. Spots. Nevada isn't unique. There is anecdotal evidence of similar findings in the Atacama plateau and the Gobi. These areas weren't always desert but I'm guessing they want a consistent coordinate reading. Baseline for whatever information is being gathered."

     "Then we're due for a hell of a surprise. Can you be more precise on the time?"

     "Naw. Even if it's true, the error bars are huge on a human scale."

     "You don't believe your own work?"

     "Like I said, I'm distracted by other interests now."

     "Not even a final quote?"

     Bethel chuckled. "I'm flattered, but no. Not for the record."

     Croft picked up the recorder from the table and turned it off. "Then humor me. I won't reveal anything you don't want me to."

     Paul Bethel wiped his lips with a hand. "It's internal. I'm trying to evade my unconscious mind."

     "Evade?" The noise from the rain rose. The boat rocked. The cabin light flickered for a moment.

     "It describes my efforts as well as any. You see the ocean here, the rocky shorelines, not a sandy beach or cove within a hundred miles or more. My subconscious doesn't like it. So I have to deal with the other Paul Bethel, the one that still fears what he dug up from the desert a decade ago."

     "How do you know?"

     "I have this recurring dream. No, a nightmare."

     Croft sat in silence.

     Bethel continued after a minute. "I'm walking along a beach. Ocean on one side, thick vegetation on the other. The beach has no beginning, no end. It's just there."

     "You're alone?"

     "I'm not sure. Each time the dream comes, I get more information. Others? I can't remember, maybe one."

     "Man or woman."

     Bethel closed his eyes. "I don't know. Young, perhaps a child. I'm tired, Mr. Croft. You will excuse me. I need to lie down."

     Croft gathered his material and stood, careful to keep his head low. "Thank you, Mr. Bethel, we will follow this up, I promise."

     Bethel sensed an aura of discipline. Military? "You're not a reporter, are you?"

     "I'm afraid not. Like you, I'm part of a team."

     "Croft your real name?"

     "Colonel Croft. Special Forces. Just so you know how serious we are."

     "Get the hell off my boat."

     Croft didn’t move. "When I'm ready." He pointed to the sleeping berths. "You're not researching anything. Those conventional pursuits are a pretense. You're hiding from the world and yourself." He leaned forward, his face inches from Bethel's. "I recommend you talk to no one else. If I was a reporter, you'd be in deep shit."

     "Like I care."

     The cabin brightened, illuminated from outside but the heavy rain persisted. The air warmed.

     Bethel moved toward his berth. "Let yourself out. Sun shower, I hope you brought an umbrella. Speaking for myself, I don't mind the rain one bit."

     He pulled the curtain closed.

     The French acrobat had been gone at least a month by Bethel's reckoning. Was it longer? He should have marked the days to keep track but he'd clung to the notion she'd return in a few weeks. She would miss him and come back. He sat near the shore watching the other four companions drink and stare at nothing, not even each other. The waves pounded their relentless assault on the beach, the sound no longer soothing as much as monotonous.

     It had been different when they had first arrived. He struggled to remember from where but could not call up any vivid memories. He hadn't even paired off with la jeune fille at first, instead choosing, or being chosen by, he was no longer certain, the doctor. He watched her now with disinterest. She had become like the other three, content to sit in the shade of the palm trees, sipping on the endless supply of alcoholic beverages from arising until bed. The ritual repeated day after day. The girl had been different; she never succumbed to the situation's apparent inevitability. And so, she had left. To walk to the end of the beach, she said, if it existed. Bethel theorized they were on an island. One day, she would appear from the opposite direction to her leaving, having circumnavigated the island.

     "Paul, come join us. The mist won't lift today."

     He focused on the group. Margot the doctor, of what, no one knew, had her eyes shaded with one hand and the other held a frosty glass high in greeting. Bethel stood, brushed the fine white sand from his calves and butt, and strode up the slope. He looked to the sky. No distinct circle of a sun cut through the cloud. The ocean, the beach and the lush land all faded into the constant fog.

     "What were you looking for?" Mayland asked.

     Margot answered first. "He spends his days looking, don't you Paul?"

     "For what? The fog never lifts."

     Bethel sat on the grey lounger opposite Croft and Margot. He accepted a drink from Mayland.

     The architect continued the conversation. "What do you look for to emerge from the soup, eh?"

     "The acrobat. She left, it must be more than a month ago." In fact, try as hard as he might, Bethel wasn't certain how long his lover had been gone from the beach. A month? Six? A year?

     "Acrobat? I don't recall an acrobat. What was her name?" Margot asked.

     Bethel sipped his drink. He pictured the absent girl's lithe form running and stretching on the sand, red hair sweeping across her shoulders. Or was it blonde? He couldn't clarify the image. "Her name was Tara."

     "Did you see the waves this morning, Mayland." Croft spoke.

     Mayland shook his head. "It's still morning now, Colonel. Do you mean yesterday morning?"

     "Perhaps I do. What say you, Elissa?"

     The last of the group stirred her drink. Her eyes were hidden behind large sunglasses covering half her face. "Waves." She swirled the word around her mouth like the straw in her drink. "Waaavesss." She giggled and slipped onto the ground, still holding the drink.

     The three resumed their talk of daily minutia while Bethel helped Elissa back on her chair.

     He remembered Tara's image. She had brown hair, streaked lighter by the salt water. Tara had spent much of her days swimming in the sea, often until the cloaked sun had set and sky darkened to a starless black.

     "Must be nearly lunchtime," Croft observed. "Not morning anymore. Where is that waiter? What's his name?"

     Bethel looked at their faces. None showed the least interest in answering Croft's question. They tolerated him. Bethel's dislike was stronger though he wasn't sure why. At times Bethel felt he was the only one with decent short-term memory. Long term was difficult for all of them. "We named him Morbous. But I don't think he's really a man, he's a construct. A manufactured being."

     "Bullshit," Croft said. "Who made him? You?"

     Bethel shook his head. "Ask him. Here he comes with lunch."

     The subject appeared from the foliage carrying a tray of sandwiches and fruit. Morbous walked with a hitch, his stride a series of short movements strung together digitally rather than the smooth motion of human muscle and ligament.

     "Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, I have prepared lunch. Do you require more beverages?"

     "What we require, Morbous," Croft commanded, "is an explanation."

     Morbous set the platter before them on the table. "Of what, sir?"

     "Of who you are, to start."

     "You asked me yesterday, sir. And the day before. Were you unsatisfied with my answers?"

     Croft waved away the sandwiches. Mayland offered the tray to Margot, then Bethel. Elissa had fallen asleep.

     Croft said, "Hmmph. Yesterday, you say. I don't recall it." He picked up a sandwich and examined it. "Fish again?" He took a bite. "Excellent."

     Morbous stepped back from the group. "Will that be all? I must tidy your rooms and get supper going."

     Colonel Croft had lost interest in everything but eating. Bethel smiled at Morbous, sharing the secret of the bully's distraction.

Bethel said, "Morbous doesn't know. We named him when he first appeared." He winked at the servant. "In the early days, when you would serve us, you always served Croft first and after everyone else, you would return to him and ask, 'More boss?'." Bethel laughed at the memory.

     Morbous grinned. "Will Miss Tara join us for dinner tonight?"

     Bethel shook his head. "No. I need you to find me a backpack, Morbous. And a hat. I am going on a hike for a few days. I will also require fishing tackle and a canteen. I leave in the morning."

     Morbous bent at the waist with a stiff, jerky motion. "Certainly, sir."

     Mayland stopped chewing. "Leaving us?"

     Margot's glass slipped from her hand onto the sand. "Following the girl. There was a girl wasn't there?" She counted the ring in silence, pointing at each person present. "Five. An unstable number. Three men and two women. Bad mix. Need one less man or one more woman." She touched Bethel's arm. "You leave and we'll be stable again. No jealousy, you see?"

     Bethel said, "I'm not jealous. You have Mayland and Elissa has Croft."

     Margot waved her hand. "Not you, dear man. Me. I'm jealous you neither need nor want Elissa or I. If I should want a change, Croft is my sole option. You might take sides in a fight. You upset the balance no matter how you look at it. Go on your journey with my blessing."

     Bethel watched Mayland for reaction to his lover's assertion that her choices were limited. Mayland seemed oblivious to the implied disappointment. Croft faced Margot, a hand shading his forehead, hiding his eyes as much as thoughts, Bethel mused. Bethel stood. "It's settled. I shall leave tomorrow."

     He picked up one of Elissa's bright scarves. "I'm going to tie this to a tree on the shore. If you are not here when I return, I will recognize my starting point."

     Croft spoke, "If it is an island, as you have so often proclaimed during our afternoon discussions, then we shall see you again. Which way will you go?"

     Bethel looked both ways. He remembered the acrobat disappearing into the mist with the ocean on her right side. He faced opposite, the ocean on his left, beach on his right. He leveled his arm to point. "This way. More likely to run into Tara."

     Croft stuffed another sandwich in his mouth and gazed at Margot.

     Bethel left the foursome to find Morbous and ensure the servant was readying his supplies.

     Bethel shivered in the pre-dawn glow. It wasn’t cold, the temperature never varied from day to night so it must be nerves. He looped his arms into the pack, awaiting a sign to begin. The others had not come down to see him off. He heard a familiar whirr-click above the gentle surf. Out of the mist strode Morbous.

     "You the only one awake, Morbous?"

     "I never sleep, sir. So much to do to keep you all content." The artificial butler stopped an arm's length from Bethel.

     "We are too content, Morbous. That's the problem. No challenge, no raison d'etre."

     "I'm afraid I don't understand, sir."

     "Humans, or at least this one, need a reason to exist. Something or someone to believe in and give their lives meaning."

     "Shall I be seeing you again, sir?"

     "Unknown, Morbous. If my theory is correct and we are on an island, you will. Assuming I don’t starve to death."

     "Oh, you will find the fishing easy, sir. And the fruit that grows close to the shore shall provide."

     "Pity I can't go across the island but the interior vegetation is impenetrable, even if we had machetes." Bethel stared at the green curtain where it merged with the clouds. Tara and he had ventured inland once and got no further than a few hundred yards. Chance had brought them back to their starting point, otherwise he doubted they would have ever found a way out. It had to be the beach. The only way out of this perishing ennui.

     "Good day, Morbous. Watch for me."

     "I shall. Good luck to you, sir." The faithful Morbous walked stiffly up the beach and disappeared over the sandy bluff.

     Bethel made a vertical mark in his notebook signifying day one of his march. He checked the tree closest to the arbor, saw the bright cloth he had tied around the trunk. How many days or months until I return to this spot? he wondered.

     He hitched his pack. His feet wouldn't move in the sand. Fear assailed him. Would his sandals last? Would he find food? Would he find Tara? His breath quickened. He sensed his heart racing. The next step was the unknown. Bethel fingered the chain around his neck. He clutched the black amulet and touched it to his lips. "I begin." He threw one leg forward, then the other and began to walk. He was leaving the unknown, he told himself. That made each step easier. Purpose, he thought, purpose drives me ahead.

     Bethel chewed the pencil sharp to make his mark. Today marked day one hundred and fifty. The sole difference from every other day since leaving the refuge and his companions was the distance from the start. The sea never changed, long shore currents lapping against the sand. The bluffs and forest fringing the beach unchanging. Each day he looked for the mark on the tree. Each day he looked for signs of Tara or any other life. He vowed he would turn back after two hundred days. He tugged on his grey-streaked, crimson beard and began his daily walk.

     Bethel followed a daily routine to pass the time. As he walked, searching ahead, his mind drew on every life memory he could dredge up. He could recall childhood, parents, school but after that it became vague. Whatever had happened prior to waking up one day in the lodge with the five other guests and Morbous was opaque. As obscure as the omnipresent fog shrouding the horizons. He wasn't even sure how long the small group had been on the island, the recent past hidden to him as much as the future.

     He plodded on, always toward the dimness beyond sight. His leg muscles ached even after all this time. Like an endless climb. Bethel stopped.

     A question lurked on the edge of his consciousness. Don't force it, he thought. It will appear from the periphery when I don't push. He reached down to massage a calf. Uphill.

     "Of course," he shouted. "It's all uphill. I'm inside a bloody ring." Or cylinder. How big? Hundreds of miles in diameter at least, he speculated, even if he should return to his starting point tomorrow. Not an island after all. He was traveling in a circle nonetheless. And to the sides? Bands of land and water beyond the mists, repeating this habitat how many times?

     Had Tara figured it out too and set off inland? No, he thought, she would choose the sea. The spin axis would be leagues further than anyone could swim.

     Who would create such a construct for half a dozen humans?

     Bethel's inner clock and hunger alerted him it was near midday. He walked to the bluff, unloaded his pack and sat. He gnawed on dried fish and a pear-like fruit left over from last night's supper. Movement far down the beach captured his attention. He dropped the food and shaded his eyes from the dull glow overhead. A person. Tara? He abandoned his gear and began to run. He tried to yell but his voice stuck in his throat. It had to be Tara. He ran, lungs bursting. The figure raised an arm. The dark hair now identified her. Margot, not Tara. He was glad to see her regardless.

     She sat, waiting for him. At last he dropped beside her.

     "Margot," he panted. "How far?" He pointed the way she had come.

     She wrapped her arms around him. "Paul. I thought you'd never return. It's not far. I can't walk too much these days." She rubbed a hand across her swollen belly.

     "Pregnant? How?"

     "Rape. Croft."

"The bastard. But neither Tara nor Elissa ever conceived, why you?"

"Morbous isn't sure. He said it couldn't happen, or at least it wasn't supposed to. His programming told him a natural birth-control agent was in the water. I guess I didn't drink enough water. It's all I drink now. You didn't find the girl? I remember why you left. Her name was Tara?"

     Bethel shook his head. "I did not find her. Not even a sign." He pointed seaward. "She's out there. I imagine her swimming away from shore until she could swim no longer."

     "She loved to swim, I remember. I remember a lot more these days without swimming in alcohol and without the petty distractions of endless conversations about nothing."

     "Where are the others?" Bethel looked up the beach.

     "Gone." Margot dropped her head, resting both hands on her bare stomach, gently massaging the parchment-like skin.

     "Gone? Where?"

     "They just gave up. One by one. Elissa was the first. Slit her wrists. Mayland hated Croft for what he'd done to me and crushed his skull in a drunken rage before Morbous could intervene. When he sobered up, he begged for forgiveness. I was too upset to deal with him and locked myself in my room. He left to follow you, Morbous told me the next morning. That was two weeks ago." She paused to take a deep breath and release it. "I'm aware of time much more than before."

     Bethel said, "Wait here." He fetched his pack and returned to her. "Do you want me to go after him?"

     "I don't care. What good would it do? If he wants to come back, he will. Croft is dead, my child has no father. Mayland isn't suitable for a guardian." Margot put a hand on Bethel's knee. "I'd rather you fill the role."

     "I can't feel secure knowing he's out there. His anger waiting to lash out at anyone left. You. Me. The baby. Give me a month to catch him. I'm in better shape and can move a lot faster than he. Morbous will care for you and I'll return before the birth. I doubt Mayland went far."

     Margot rolled to her side; her eyes closed. "I'll be bigger when you get back." She drew her hand back and nestled it under her cheek.

     Bethel stood, donned his pack and set off at a brisk pace. He passed Elissa's scarf marker he had left months before and began hunting for signs of his quarry.

     The days blurred into weeks. Bethel stayed close to the bluff above the sand where footprints wouldn't be obliterated by the waves. He lost track of the days but knew he must turn back soon. One more day. One more turned into two, then ten. Now he knew he had to return. Margot may have already delivered during this second futile pursuit.

     He made better time on the way back to the lodge by sticking to the hard sand just above the water line. He traveled nights and days, stopping to rest only when exhaustion took command. At last, late one evening, he recognized the lights of the arbor. He heard a child's cry. He dropped his pack and ran the final yards to find Margot, Morbous and the baby gathered in the old cocktail patio where they had passed so many days with neither purpose nor reason.

     He panted, "I am so sorry, Margot. I lost track of the days. Never found a sign of Mayland."

     Margot nursed the infant in silence. She rocked in her chair staring ahead.

     Bethel asked Morbous, "What's wrong with her?"

     Morbous shifted his head with a jerk. "I don't know, sir. I did my best with the baby. I found the knowledge within me somehow but she stopped breathing. I directed all my efforts to the child and could not revive the lady until many minutes had passed. It is my fault, sir."

     "It's my fault, Morbous. I should have abandoned the chase much sooner than I did. Oh, Margot, I am sorry." He put his hand to her shoulder. She turned to face him and he saw the slackness in the left side of her face. She mumbled but he could not understand the words.

     "I'm here now, Margot. For you and the baby. What is its name?"

     "Hein...hein...lik," she slurred.

     Morbous spoke, "Heinrich. After Margot's grandfather."

     "Heinrich," repeated Bethel. "A unique name for a unique boy." He leaned close to Morbous and whispered, "Is the boy okay?"

     Morbous nodded with the same jerky motion. "Healthy in every way, sir."

     "You aren't the Morbous I remember. Are you running out of your endless energy?"

     "I'm not certain, sir. The stress during the birth corrupted part of me. I've sent a message."

     "Message? What message? To whom?"

     "Uncertain, sir. The notion was unexpected. A hidden algorithm compelled me. I think we have been forgotten. You and the others were rescued by my creators and brought here."

     Bethel stood and marched half a dozen steps toward the water. He jerked his eyes back to the trio. He sank to his knees and let handfuls of sand run through his fingers. He dug into the ground furiously until his fingers came out bloodied. He examined his hand. "They've been here," he muttered. Then he wondered who they were. Glass slivers stuck into his flesh. He walked back to the arbor. "I've seen this before." He stared at Morbous. "You should know but you don't remember, is that it?"

     The servant examined Bethel's hand with interest.

     Bethel showed it to Margot. "The sand melted. Glass. We were beside an ocean, but not this one. I escaped from sand." He waved an arm in full circle. "It's all artificial. Morbous, can you take us back?"

     "I'm sorry sir, something went amiss and we have been abandoned."

     Margot cried out. "Heinrich, help me." She stiffened and would have dropped the infant had Bethel not grabbed the boy from her. Her arms relaxed and slumped further into her chair; head drooped to one side.

     "Morbous, help her, she's ill."

     The servant fussed and touched. "No response, I'm afraid, sir."

     Bethel gave Heinrich to him and knelt down. He felt for a pulse. He pressed an ear to her chest but Margot was as lifeless as the sand beneath her.

     Bethel sat in the shade of the arbor. He watched the boy run to the water and back with a bucket Morbous had produced. Heinrich filled the depression he'd excavated with seawater, then repeated the journey. When he'd get back to the pool, the previous water would have drained away but it seemed to fascinate him just the same.

     Bethel called, "Run faster, Heinrich. You almost caught it this time."

     The lad ran harder. He tripped, sending the water onto Bethel's legs. They both laughed. "Better take a break, son. Come and sit. Morbous brought us juice. Have a drink."

     The boy flopped beside him. He took rapid breaths. "What shall we do now?"

     "Let's sit and enjoy the view."

     "Tell me again about the time you went around the island. We should go."

     Bethel nodded. It had been so long he doubted Mayland was still alive, lurking beyond the mist, waiting for one of them to find him. "I have another story to tell you today. It's a dream I have."

     Heinrich spun around and crossed his legs.

     Bethel began, "I have it often of late and I don't know what it means. Perhaps a bright lad such as you can tell me."

     "Is it something that is going to happen to you?"

     "A good question, Heinrich. I wonder. Or is it something in my past?" Bethel closed his eyes to draw the vision clear. "I am on a boat."

     "Like the little ones we make to float on the sea?"

     "Yes, only bigger. Imagine your room floating on the water. That's where I am. Around me are mountains reaching from the water to the sky. The sky is foggy, much like here yet there is a sense of reality beyond the mist. I am talking to a man about sand. And how it can turn to glass. Then there is blinding light and I awaken. Here. With no explanation. No purpose."

     "You have me."

     Bethel studied the boy. "You're right, Heinrich. I knew a bright lad would discern the truth."


the end


This story originally appeared in Body-Smith 401.

Al Onia

Al Onia concentrates on Science Fiction, mostly from the hard to the hard-boiled.