The road narrowed, avoiding the slope which led up to the house, but its annealed crust, blunted like halffused quartz, offered a more comfortable surface than the crystal teeth of the lawn. Fifty yards ahead Dr. Sanders came across what was unmistakably a jeweled rowing boat set solidly into the roadway, a chain of lapis lazuli mooring it to the verge. He realized that he was walking along a small tributary of the river, and that a thin stream of water still ran below the crust. This vestigial motion in some way prevented it from erupting into the spur-like forms of the rest of the forest floor.
As he paused by the boat, feeling the crystals along its sides, a huge four-legged creature half-embedded in the surface lurched forwards through the crust, the loosened pieces of lattice attached to its snout and shoulders shaking like a transparent cuirass. Its jaws mouthed the air silently as it struggled on its hooked legs, unable to clamber more than a few inches from the hollow trough in its own outline now filling with a thin trickle of water. Invested by the glittering light that poured from its body, the crocodile resembled a fabulous armorial beast. Its blind eyes had been transformed into immense crystalline rubies. It lunged toward him again, and Dr. Sanders kicked its snout, scattering the wet jewels that choked its mouth.
Leaving it to subside once more into a frozen posture, Dr. Sanders climbed the bank and limped across the lawn to the mansion, whose fairy towers loomed above the trees. Although out of breath and very nearly exhausted, he had a curious premonition of hope and longing, as if he were some fugitive Adam chancing upon a forgotten gateway to the forbidden paradise.
High in an upstairs window, the bearded man in the white suit watched him, the shotgun in his hands pointed at Sanders's chest.II. The illuminated man
7 Mirrors and assassins
Two months later, when describing the events of this period in a letter to Dr. Paul Derain, Director of the Fort Isabelle leper hospital, Sanders wrote:
- but what most surprised me, Paul, was the extent to which I was prepared for the transformation of the forest-the crystalline trees hanging like icons in those luminous caverns, the jeweled casements of the leaves overhead, fused into a lattice of prisms, through which the sun shone in a thousand rainbows, the birds and crocodiles frozen into grotesque postures like heraldic beasts carved from jade and quartz-what was really remarkable was the extent to which I accepted all these wonders as part of the natural order of things, part of the inward pattern of the universe. True, to begin with I was as startled as everyone else making his first journey up the Matarre River to Mont Royal, but after the initial impact of the forest, a surprise more visual than anything else, I quickly came to understand it, knowing that its hazards were a small price to pay for its illumination of my life. Indeed, the rest of the world seemed drab and inert by contrast, a faded reflection of this bright image, forming a gray penumbral zone like some half-abandoned purgatory.
All this, my dear Paul, the very absence of surprise, confirms my belief that this illuminated forest in some way reflects an earlier period of our lives, perhaps an archaic memory we are born with of some ancestral paradise where the unity of time and space is the signature of every leaf and flower. It's obvious to everyone now that in the forest life and death have a different meaning from that in our ordinary lack-lustre world. Here we have always associated movement with life and the passage of time, but from my experience within the forest near Mont Royal I know that all motion leads inevitably to death, and that time is its servant.
It is, perhaps, our unique achievement as lords of this creation to have brought about the separation of time and space. We alone have given to each a separate value, a distinct measure of their own which now define and bind us like the length and breadth of a coffin. To resolve them again is the greatest aim of natural science-as you and I have seen, Paul, in our work on the virus, with its semianimate, crystalline existence, half-in and half-out of our own time-stream, as if intersecting it at an angle- often I think that in our microscopes, examining the tissues of those poor lepers in our hospital, we were looking upon a minuscule replica of the world I was to meet later in the forest slopes near Mont Royal.
However, all these belated efforts have now been brought to an end. As I write to you, here within the quiet and emptiness of the Hotel d'Europe at Port Matarre, I see a report in a two-week-old issue of _Paris-Soir_ (Louise Peret, the young Frenchwoman who is with me here, doing her best to look after the wayward whims of your former assistant, had hidden the paper from me for a week) that the whole of the Florida peninsula in the United States, with the exception of a single highway to Tampa, has been closed, and that to date some three million of the state's inhabitants have been resettled in other parts of the country.
But apart from the estimated losses in real-estate values and hotel revenues ("Oh, Miami," I cannot help saying to myself, "you city of a thousand cathedrals to the rainbow sun!") the news of this extraordinary human migration has prompted little comment. Such is mankind's innate optimism, our conviction that we can survive any deluge or cataclysm, that most of us unconsciously dismiss the momentous events in Florida with a shrug, confident that some means will be found to avert the crisis when it comes.
And yet, Paul, it now seems obvious that the real crisis is long past. Tucked away on the back page of the same issue of _Paris-Soir_ is the short report of the sighting of another "double galaxy" by observers of the Hubble Institute on Mount Palomar. The news is summarized in less than a dozen lines and without comment, although the implication is inescapable that yet another focal area has been set up somewhere on the surface of the earth, in the temple-filled jungles of Cambodia or the haunted amber forests of the Chilean highland. But it is still only a year since the Mount Palomar astronomers identified the first double galaxy in the constellation Andromeda, the great oblate diadem that is probably the most beautiful object in the physical universe, the island galaxy M 31. Without doubt, these random transfigurations throughout the world are a reflection of distant cosmic processes of enormous scope and dimensions, first glimpsed in the Andromeda spiral.
We now know that it is time ("time with the Midas touch," as Ventress described it) which is responsible for the transformation. The recent discovery of anti-matter in the universe inevitably involves the conception of antitime as the fourth side of this negatively charged continuum. Where anti-particle and particle collide they not only destroy their own physical identities, but their opposing time-values eliminate each other, subtracting from the universe another quantum from its total store of time. It is random discharges of this type, set off by the creation of anti-galaxies in space, which have led to the depletion of the time-store available to the materials of our own solar system.
Just as a super-saturated solution will discharge itself into a crystalline mass, so the super-saturation of matter in our continuum leads to its appearance in a parallel spatial matrix. As more and more time "leaks" away, the process of super-saturation continues, the original atoms and molecules producing spatial replicas of themselves, substance without mass, in an attempt to increase their foot-hold upon existence. The process is theoretically without end, and it may be possible eventually for a single atom to produce an infinite number of duplicates of itself and so fill the entire universe, from which simultaneously all time has expired, an ultimate macrocosmic zero beyond the wildest dreams of Plato and Democritus.
In parenthesis: reading this over my shoulder, Louise comments that I may be misleading you, Paul, by minimizing the dangers we all experienced within the crystalline forest. It's certainly true that they were very real at the time, as the many tragic deaths there testify, and that first day when I was trapped in the forest I understood nothing of these matters, beyond those which Ventress confided to me in his ambiguous and disjointed way. But even then, as I walked away from that jeweled crocodile up the sloping lawn towards the white-suited man watching me from the window, his shotgun pointed at my chest-
Lying back on one of the glass-embroidered chesterfields in the bedroom upstairs, Dr. Sanders rested after his chase through the forest. As he climbed the staircase he had slipped on one of the crystallizing steps and momentarily winded himself. Standing at the top of the staircase, Ventress had watched him clamber to his feet, the glace panels splintering under his hands. Ventress's small face, the tight skin now mottled by vein-like colors, was without expression. His eyes gazed down, showing not even a flicker of response as Sanders grappled for his balance at the banisters. When Sanders at last reached the landing Ventress motioned him toward the floor with a curt gesture. He then took up his position at the window, driving the butt of the shotgun through the broken panes as they annealed themselves.
Dr. Sanders brushed the frost off his suit, picking at the crystal splinters embedded like needles in his hands. The air in the house was cold and motionless, but as the Storm subsided, moving away across the forest, the process of vitrification seemed to diminish. Everything in the high-ceilinged room had been transformed by the frost. Several plate-glass windows appeared to have been fractured and then fused together above the carpet, and the ornate Persian patterns swam below the surface like the floor of some perfumed pool in the _Arabian Nights_. All the furniture was covered by the same glace sheath, the arms and legs of the straight-backed chairs against the walls embellished by exquisite curlicues and helixes. The imitation Louis XV pieces had been transformed into huge fragments of opalescent candy, whose multiple reflections glowed like giant chimeras in the cut-glass walls.
Through the doorway opposite, Dr. Sanders could see into a small dressing-room. He assumed he was sitting in the principal bedroom of an official residence maintained for some visiting government dignitary or the president of one of the mine companies. Although elaborately furnished-straight from the catalogues of a Paris or London department store-the room was devoid of all personal possessions. For some reason, the large double bed-a four-poster, Sanders guessed from the patch on the ceiling-had been removed, and the other furniture pushed to one side by Ventress. He still stood by the open window, peering down at the stream where the jeweled boat and the crocodile lay embalmed. His thin beard gave him a fevered and haunted aspect. Half-bent over his shotgun, he pressed closer to the window, ignoring the sections of crystal sheath that he dislodged from the heavy brocaded curtain.
Dr. Sanders began to stand up, but Ventress waved him back.
"Rest yourself, Doctor. We'll be here for some time." His voice had become harder and the gloss of ironic humor was absent. He glanced away from his gunbarrel. "When did you last see Thorensen?"
"The mine-owner?" Sanders pointed through the window. "After we ran to search for the helicopter. Are you looking for him?"
"In a manner of speaking. What was he doing?"
Dr. Sanders turned up the collar of his jacket, brushing away the fine spurs of frost that covered the material. "He was running around in circles like the rest of us, completely lost."
"Lost?" Ventress let out a derisive snort. "The man's as cunning as a pig! He knows every dell and cranny of this forest like the back of his hand."
When Sanders stood up and approached the window Ventress beckoned him away impatiently. "Keep away from the window, Doctor." With a brief gleam of his old ironic humor, he added: "I don't want to use you as a decoy just yet."
Ignoring this warning, Sanders glanced down at the empty lawn. Like footsteps in dew-covered grass, the dark prints of his shoes crossed the sequined surface, merging into the pale-green slope as the process of crystallization continued. Although the main wave of activity had moved off, the forest was still vitrifying itself. The absolute silence of the jeweled trees seemed to confirm that the affected area had multiplied many times in size. A frozen calm extended as far as he could see, as if he and Ventress were lost somewhere in the grottoes of an immense glacier. To emphasize their proximity to the sun, everywhere there was the same corona of light. The forest was an endless labyrinth of glass caves, sealed off from the remainder of the world and lit by subterranean lamps.
Ventress relaxed for a moment. Raising one foot to the window-sill, he surveyed Dr. Sanders. "A long journey, Doctor, but one worth making?"
Sanders shrugged. "I haven't reached the end of it yet, by any means-I've still got to find my friends. However, I agree with you, it's an extraordinary experience. There's something almost rejuvenating about the forest. Do you-?"
"Of course, Doctor." Ventress turned back to the window, silencing Sanders with one hand. The frost glimmered on the shoulders of his white suit in a faint palimpsest of colors. He peered down at the crystal vegetation along the stream. After a pause he said: "My dear Sanders, you're not the only one to feel these things, let me assure you."
"You've been here before?" Sanders asked.
"Do you mean-_deja vu?_" Ventress looked round, his small features almost hidden behind the beard. Dr. Sanders hesitated. "I meant literally," he said.
Ventress ignored this. "We've all been here before, Doctor, as everyone will soon find out-if there's _time_." He pronounced the word with a peculiar inflexion of his own, drawing it out like the tolling of a bell. He listened to the last echoes reverberate away among the crystal walls, like a fading requiem. "However, I feel that's something we're all running out of, Doctor-do you agree?"
Dr. Sanders tried to massage some warmth into his hands. His fingers felt brittle and fleshless, and he looked at the empty fireplace behind him, wondering whether this ornate recess, guarded on either side by a large gilt dolphin, had been fitted with a chimney flue. Yet despite the cold air in the house he felt less chilled than invigorated.