AS THEY HEADED OUT, THE white mist thinned and finally went; it still hid the shore, but otherwise visibility was good. In fact, there wasn’t anything to see but water, stretching blue and unbroken north and south, and westwards to the horizon. The breeze had stiffened, and the sea became choppy. This was an unwieldy vessel, more raft than boat, made up of half a dozen dugout hulls lashed together beneath a bamboo deck. It rolled heavily, and several of the Indians were sick, in a businesslike fashion, over the side. Simon repressed an urge to follow their example.
Brad was looking his usual imperturbable self.
The morning was warm, a sign that spring was well advanced. Not that the winter in coastal California had been severe, but there had been plenty of damp miserable days in which he had been glad of the shelter of the palm-thatched Indian hut. It was surprising, he thought, how one got used to things—smells, for instance.
He asked Brad: “What kind of fish, do you think?”
The Indians were used to the pale-skinned strangers talking in their unintelligible tongue, and the remark aroused no interest. Brad shrugged.
“From the length of the poles, I’d guess something sizeable. Dolphin or tuna—perhaps swordfish. I hope not dolphin.”
Simon, too, would once have been repelled by the idea of killing an intelligent creature for food, but that was a long way back. The thought of food of any kind at the moment, though, was nauseous. He said: “Do you still think it was a smart idea to come on this trip?”
“If we’re hoping to become members of the tribe, it is.”
This, of course, was the big question over which they had wrangled since reaching the Indian village, soaked and half-starved, a couple of months earlier. Despite that last remark, Brad had been in favour of moving on, Simon of staying. Brad always was in favour of moving on—an inclination which had carried them halfway round the world and led them into more hot spots than Simon cared to count.
It was not that he found the life of the tribe particularly attractive. Apart from the occasional hunt for antelope or red deer, the routine was basically one of idleness. The braves, when they were not kippering themselves in the smoke hut, occupied themselves with intricate basketwork, making feathered costumes and headdresses, and painting rocks—pursuits for which Simon and Brad lacked both skill and aptitude. They were also given to singing, especially late in the evening: songs which at best were long, incomprehensible, and boring. When the braves were high as a result of smoking dried thorn-apple flowers, the songs took on a wilder note, sometimes resulting in violent scuffles. After the first, they had steered clear of the thorn-apple parties—all Simon got out of the one pipe he tried was a blinding headache.
All the same, he favoured staying put, at least for the time being, and Brad had reluctantly agreed. The tribe provided food, shelter, and protection from external hazards, advantages which past experience had taught him to value highly. There was in fact a good case to be argued for remaining with the tribe permanently, provided this was permitted, and Simon had argued it. That argument had been inconclusive. It would probably be renewed with the coming of summer. Meanwhile it made sense to go along with the tribe’s way of life.
Night Eagle began rapping out commands. He was the chief, an Indian of above-average height with unchallenged authority over the rest of the braves. That authority was much more dubious where his chief wife, Little Green Bird, was concerned. She was a small but ample lady, lavishly decked in bright cloths, feathered ornaments, and bone bangles, who was always capable of putting a worried look on her husband’s normally impassive countenance. She had an affectionate nature, and had taken a fancy to Brad. Her fondness for embracing him partly accounted for his eagerness to move on.
The bamboo poles, between ten and fifteen feet in
length, carried long lines fitted with large barbless bone hooks, on which the braves now impaled chunks of unsavoury-looking meat. They came from an antelope carcass so rotten that even the village dogs had turned up their noses at it.
Once the hooks were baited, Night Eagle cast the lines from three poles in turn, handing each pole over to a pair of braves who slotted the end into a hole recessed in the deck. It was obviously customary for the chief to make the cast—though it didn’t seem to involve any great skill—and Simon and Brad kept well out of the way while this was going on. They had learned the importance of ritual in Indian life, and how easy it was to offend against it unwittingly.
A member of the tribe who would not be at all sorry to see them land in trouble was Night Eagle’s son, Stone Blade. He was perhaps a year younger than they were, and had shown his dislike for the two strangers. Especially for Brad, which could be connected with his mother’s partiality for him. Stone Blade had been moved out of the women’s quarters to live with the braves a few days after their arrival, which probably made things worse.
Watching proceedings beside Simon in the stern, Brad said: “I don’t see two men holding a really big one.
Brad’s habit of sounding knowledgeable about everything could still rile Simon, and seasickness did not help. He said: “I suppose deep-sea fishing was another of those sports you practised back home?”
Brad shook his head. “No, but it stands to reason. A big tuna can weigh as much as two thousand pounds.”
Before Simon could respond to that, a cry went up from one of the braves. The deck lurched, and the line tautened towards a point on the port bow. A large hump rose, then resubmerged. The boat veered in that direction.
Simon immediately appreciated Brad’s point. The bamboo pole bent into a shallow arc across the gunnel: so strong was the pull that the two men were bound to be plucked from their footing into the sea.
But something else happened before that. With ecstatic whoops, the Indians threw themselves onto the pole holders, securing themselves with hands and feet, fingers and toes, to the rocking deck. The boat sped on in the wake of the great fish. Simon and Brad had to dig in hard themselves to avoid going overboard.
“You didn’t think of that one,” Simon gasped.
“It’ll be all right as long as . . .”
Brad didn’t finish the sentence. The boat tilted sharply, banging them against the deck again. Clouds spun across the sky, and Simon had terrifying glimpses of a shifting horizon and menacing sea. Then there was a shout from Night Eagle, and sea and horizon spun back to where they had been. The boat hit the water with a bang, and a splash that drenched them all.
It wasn’t difficult to work out what had happened. The tuna had dived, threatening to capsize the boat, and the chief had taken emergency action. As he got to his feet, Simon saw Night Eagle replacing his knife—an obsidian blade traded from Indians of the interior—in its deerskin and bone sheath. The severed line dangled from its pole.
The Indians seemed to take the setback philosophically. As Brad suggested, it must be a not uncommon occurrence. He went on: “They could play the fish better with a longer line.”
“You tell Night Eagle,” Simon said. “I’m sure he’d appreciate being clued up on tribal skills by a visiting paleface. Bearing in mind tensile strength might have something to do with it.”
“Something in that,” Brad admitted. “I was thinking in terms of stuff like nylon. Coyote hair, even well plaited, doesn’t really match up.”
The Indians had resumed tossing out ground bait. Simon felt a little better. The near capsizing of the boat, though alarming, seemed to have settled his stomach. And it was satisfying to have put Brad right about something.
There was a second bite within quarter of an hour, followed by the same procedure of the other Indians piling on top of the pole holders. But the initial shock was not so great this time, and the boat was hauled less swiftly through the water. A couple of times it tilted, but righted itself.
Eventually Simon thought he detected a slowing in the pace. Soon after, on a command from Night Eagle, two braves detached themselves. The gunnels carried struts with transverse crosspieces, and as the line fractionally slackened they hooked it onto one of them and went on winding it round, hauling in the tiring fish.
It finally broke water, revealing itself as close on seven feet in length, yellow finned, with a golden stripe down one side. It was pulled close in, and
Night Eagle leaned out, stabbing with his obsidian knife. Blood spurted, and the tuna heaved convulsively. He stabbed again, and the braves got together to drag it inboard.
Simon was standing close by, watching. Too close: a sudden impact of slimy wetness sent him sprawling. He heard a splash and thought the fish might have slipped back, but got up to see it still writhing on the deck. But Brad was missing.
He was in the water, several feet from the boat with the gap increasing. The Indians, preoccupied with the tuna, were paying no heed to him. Simon dived in.
Closing on him, he asked: “You okay?”
“Don’t waste your breath. Swim.”
The gap had increased; the boat’s primitive leather sail was filled with a strong southeasterly breeze. Simon called out, trying to attract the attention of the Indians.
Brad gasped: “Swim!”
They were making no progress—in fact, losing ground. One of the Indians at least was aware of their problem: Stone Blade had abandoned the fish to stare in their direction. Even at this distance, Simon could see the grin on his face.
He swam doggedly. He didn’t know how far from shore they were, but guessed at least ten miles. He tried to recall the longest distance he had swum—a mile, maybe, in the school swimming pool? And would the Indians really abandon them? He had a nasty suspicion about the answer.
As the gap went on widening, he felt himself starting to flag. Their lives over the last couple of years had been strenuous, but strenuous on dry land. Swimming used different muscles, and theirs were out of condition.
The boat was more than fifty yards distant when Night Eagle at last looked towards them, and issued a command. The sail was brought about in the primitive tacking operation the Indians used. It lost the wind, and the boat idled while they slogged their way towards it.
The Indians offered no help as Brad and Simon dragged themselves on board. They had turned back to the tuna, and were skinning and dividing it.
When they had their breaths back, Brad said: “Thanks. You shouldn’t have come in after me, though.”
From a practical point of view, that was
probably true. Brad was the stronger swimmer, and it was unlikely that the sight of two swimming for their lives rather than one would have influenced Night Eagle. Simon said: “There’d have been no need if you hadn’t let yourself get knocked overboard by the tuna.”
“I was thinking that it might have been more useful to throw me a line. And it wasn’t the fish that sent me over.”
“What did, then?”
Brad nodded in the direction of Stone Blade. “Our little friend caught me off balance.”
“Are you serious?”
“Yes. So was he.”
Simon wondered if Night Eagle had seen that; he didn’t miss much. He wondered, too, how close they had come to being abandoned. The Indians had received them with the usual hospitality that was offered to strangers in need, but strangers were expected to move on in due course. Acceptance as members of the tribe was something else; and presumably the final decision there was up to the chief.
Like his son, Night Eagle might have been resenting Little Green Bird’s attentions to Brad. He’d
shown nothing, but he never did. The time during which they were swimming desperately after the boat could have been one in which Night Eagle weighed the satisfaction of being rid of the palefaces against his wife’s wrath when he returned without them.
Simon said: “This is something we ought to think a bit seriously about.”
Brad nodded. “I’m doing that.”
• • •
Course was set for home: the Indians plainly were satisfied with their catch. Justifiably so—there were a couple of hundred pounds of good meat on the carcass at least. There would be a feast that night.
The weather had stayed calm, and the coastal mist was still present, though increasingly patchy. It swirled about them, varying between thick grey fog and a tendriled whiteness touched with the sun’s gold. They were heading south of east—their voyage had taken them a long way north of the village.
The mist continued to thin, and finally they could see the coastline. Brad gripped Simon’s arm. The shore was a couple of hundred yards off, flat and featureless but for one thing: the crumbling outline of an unmistakably Chinese pagoda.
It was an edifice they had seen once before, when they reached the Pacific coast after trekking across the continent from the Gulf of Florida. They had even explored the ruin, finding nothing of interest, only dust and decay, before resuming the journey which took them to Night Eagle’s village.
Simon said: “I suppose we could ask Night Eagle about it.”
Brad, who as usual had been quicker at picking up the language, put a question to the chief. Simon didn’t grasp the guttural response, but Night Eagle’s normally expressionless face showed distaste, and maybe more.
He asked: “What did he say?”
“Bad spirits, bad people, bad something else. Definitely bad.”
“Not much help, then. Not that it matters.”
“No. I’m not sure. I’d very much like to know just how a thing like that ties in with the fireball.”
• • •
The fireball had been the beginning of an adventure that had lasted two and a half years and taken them six thousand miles from their starting point. From Simon’s, at least, because it happened while he was
playing reluctant host to Brad, a hitherto unknown American cousin, on summer vacation in England. While out walking, they had encountered a shimmering white sphere of light, which Brad thought could be a fireball, a form of ball lightning. Going forward to take a closer look had resulted in the shattering and incredible experience of finding themselves sucked into it—and emerging into a world geographically identical with their own, yet frighteningly different.
They had gradually worked out a theory that explained what had happened. The fireball had been a crossing point between their world and one lying on a different probability track—an If world. It was a dizzying thought that there might be an infinite number of such worlds, invisibly side by side.
This particular world was one in which the Roman empire, instead of declining and falling, had retained its power and its control of Europe through to the twentieth century. Their arrival in it had proved, in fact, to be the means of breaking that power. Much had happened since, and here they were—still trying to adjust to this different pattern but now in an equally transformed southern California.
• • •
Although they did not mention their escape from drowning to Little Green Bird, one of the Indians must have: she scolded Brad for his carelessness while enfolding him in her ample bosom. The caresses continued until household duties connected with the impending feast took her attention elsewhere.
They went to the swimming hole below the village. While Brad was strenuously scrubbing himself, Simon said: “She obviously doesn’t give a monkey’s whether I get drowned. How do you do it, Brad?”
Brad contented himself with a filthy look. “I’ve had enough of this. Did you see Stone Blade’s face while his mom was doing her hugging bit? Today was probably a spur-of-the-moment effort. Next time he’ll plan things properly.” Brad climbed out of the hole and rubbed himself with the coarse towel. “You stay if you like. I’m going.”
“If past form is anything to go by, the feast tonight will wind up with them all getting high on thorn apple. It’ll be late tomorrow afternoon before they start taking notice again.”
Simon nodded. “And that would give us time to get well clear. I don’t suppose Night Eagle would be keen on sending out a search party, but Little Green Bird might make him. So, dawn tomorrow?”
“Yes. We can grab a few days’ rations from the leftovers.”
• • •
The feast began with speeches and long declamatory poems, continuing with songs to an accompaniment of an orchestra of rattles, whistles, and drums. If you had a taste for it, it probably sounded great. To Simon, it felt like having his eardrums sandblasted.
Things improved when the women started bringing food round—by now he was ravenously hungry. Little Green Bird attended to Brad personally, giving him the tastiest morsels together with pats and squeezes. The eating and drinking were punctuated by more songs and by dances. The shamans, their leader magnificently attired in a white deerskin and feather-and-pebble headdress, performed a special dance which ended with the passing round of the first of the pipes of glowing thorn apple. The pipe passed from the shamans to the chief, and then to the braves.
Simon wondered about their future. Even apart from Brad’s special problems, he realized it would have been difficult, perhaps impossible, for them to become regular members of the tribe. To live the Indian life, you needed to have been Indian reared. Their backgrounds of twentieth-century English (or American, in Brad’s case) just didn’t fit.
But he thought too, and with a touch of resentment, about the fact that once again it was Brad making the big decision, himself simply acquiescing in it. When they first met, back in prefireball England, his cousin’s cocksureness had incensed him. It had been satisfying when he had goaded Brad into fighting, and even more satisfying that his own greater physical strength was going to put the result beyond doubt. Brad, though, had refused to give in, and it had been he, in the end, who had offered the apology and stuck a hand out.
Since then, it seemed, although he had won a few minor conflicts, Brad’s view had prevailed on all the major issues. Did this prove him the weaker character? He supposed it must. On the other hand, since Brad was not going to be swayed once he had made his mind up, it always seemed more rational to go
along with him. One thing certain about this perilous world was that they were safer together than apart. If they ever got back to their own world, Brad could do whatever crazy thing he liked, and he would wave him a more than cheerful good-bye. But that was a bigger pipe dream than the one the braves were working up to. There was no way back.
Brad nudged him.
“I think it’s getting to them. Four pipes in circulation, and they’re reaching the noisy stage. In half an hour, they should start passing out.”
There was a hush as the chief shaman began to sing again, a wailing chant accompanied by peculiar jerkings of his arms and feet. Outlined against the light of the fire, his antics were bizarre—a comic turn, though definitely not one to be laughed at, especially with the braves high on thorn apple.
At that point, something even odder happened. Simon heard a resonant bell-like sound, which only slowly and tremblingly died away. And it did not come from the firelit area, but from somewhere out in the shadows. The shaman froze into an immobility as weird as his dancing, and a strange sigh
gusted along the ranks of the squatting Indians.
This was something entirely new, and he wondered what it signified. He whispered to Brad: “What do you think?”
“Shh . . .”
From beyond the circle of firelight, figures approached. They wore cloaks over brightly coloured pantaloons, and one had what looked like a bronze helmet. They stooped over the motionless Indians and spoke to them. They were speaking in the Indians’ tongue, but with strange accents.
“Obey!” Simon heard. “Be still—obey. . . .”
When they reached Brad and Simon, Simon realized something else: they were not Indians but Orientals.
A pair of hands grasped his head, and a voice addressed him: “Be still. Obey!”
After completing the circle of the braves, the newcomers moved away, towards the hut with the women and children. The Indians stayed as they had left them, unmoving.
Brad said quietly: “I don’t know what this is, but I’m not crazy about it. Ready to go, while they’re offstage?”
Simon nodded. There was a tight knot of fear in his belly. A few yards away, he saw Night Eagle, blindly staring into space. None of the Indians moved as they cautiously got up and made their way towards the trees. There was plenty of food lying about, but he was no longer concerned about rations for the journey. Getting away would be enough.
They came to the edge of the trees. He glanced towards Brad, and saw Brad turning to him with a look of warning.
Save it for later, he thought, and then thought nothing at all as something hit him, very heavily, behind the right ear.