Authors: Madeleine L’Engle
Dennys, ramming the last of his sandwich into his mouth, peered over his twin’s shoulder. “Well, I more or less get the usual science signs. That looks like
Hebrew, there, and that’s Cyrillic. I haven’t the faintest idea what these keys are for.”
Sandy looked down at the lab floor, which consisted of large slabs of stone. There was a thick rug by the sink, and another in front of the shabby leather chair and reading lamp. “I don’t know how Mother stands this place in winter.”
“She dresses like an Eskimo.” Dennys shivered, then put out one finger
and tapped on the standard keys of the computer: “
TAKE ME SOMEPLACE WARM
“Hey, I don’t think we ought to mess with that,” Sandy warned.
“What do you expect? A genie to pop up, like the one in Aladdin and the magic lamp? This is just a computer, for heaven’s sake. It can’t do anything it isn’t programmed to do.”
“Okay, then.” Sandy held his fingers over the keyboard. “A lot of people think
computers are alive—I mean, really, sort of like Aladdin’s genie.” He tapped out on the standard keys: “
SOMEPLACE WARM AND SPARSELY POPULATED
Dennys shouldered him aside, adding: “
Sandy turned away from the odd computer. “Let’s make the cocoa.”
“Sure.” Dennys picked up the red tin, which he had set down on the counter. “Since Mother’s using the Bunsen burner, we’d better go
back to the kitchen to make the cocoa.”
“Okay. It’s warmer there, anyhow.”
“I could do with another sandwich. If they’ve gone all the way into town, supper’ll probably be late.”
They left the lab, closing the door behind them. “Hey.” Sandy pointed. “We didn’t see this.” There was a small note taped to the door:
EXPERIMENT IN PROGRESS. PLEASE KEEP OUT
“Uh-oh. Hope we didn’t upset anything.”
“We’d better tell Mother when she gets back.”
“Why didn’t we
“We were busy stuffing our faces.”
Dennys crossed the hall and opened the kitchen door and was met with a blast of heat.
He tried to step back, but Sandy was on his heels.
“Fire!” Sandy yelled. “Get the fire extinguisher!”
“Too late! We’d better get out and—” Dennys heard the kitchen door slam behind them.
“We’ve got to get out—”
Sandy yelled, “I can’t find the fire extinguisher!”
“I can’t find the walls—” Dennys groped through a pervasive mist, his hands touching nothing.
Came a great sonic boom.
Then absolute silence.
Slowly the mist began to clear away, to dissipate.
“Hey!” Sandy’s changing voice cracked and soared. “What’s going on?”
Dennys’s equally cracking voice followed. “Where on
earth … What’s happened…”
“What was that explosion?”
They looked around to see nothing familiar. No kitchen door. No kitchen. No fireplace with its fragrant logs. No table, with its pot of brightly blooming geraniums. No ceiling strung with rows of red peppers and white garlic. No floor with the colorful, braided rugs. They were standing on sand, burning white sand. Above them, the sun
was in a sky so hot that it was no longer blue but had a bronze cast. There was nothing but sand and sky from horizon to horizon.
“Is the house all right?” Sandy’s voice shook.
“I don’t think we went into the house at all…”
“You don’t think it was on fire?”
“No. I think we opened the door and we were here.”
“What about the mist?”
“And the sonic boom?”
“And what about Dad’s computer?”
“Uh-oh. What’re we going to
?” Dennys’s voice started out in the bass, soared, and cracked to a piercing treble.
“Don’t panic,” Sandy warned, but his voice trembled.
Both boys looked around wildly. The brazen sunlight beat down on them. After the cold of snow and ice, the sudden heat was shocking. Small particles of mica in the sand caught the light and blazed up at them. “Hey.” Dennys’s voice
cracked again. “What’re we going to
Sandy tried to speak calmly. “We’re the ones who do things, remember?”
“We just did something.” Dennys was bitter. “We just blew ourselves here, wherever here is.”
Sandy agreed. “Stupid. We were stupid, mucking around with an experiment-in-progress.”
“Only we didn’t know it was in progress.”
“We should have stopped to think.”
Dennys looked around
at sky and sand, both shimmering with heat. “What do you suppose Dad was up to? If we knew that—”
“Space travel. Tessering. Getting past the speed of light. You know that.” Anxiety made Dennys sharp.
The sun beat down on Sandy’s head, so that he reached up and wiped sweat from around his eyes. “I wish we’d never thought of that Dutch cocoa.”
Dennys pulled off his heavy cable-knit sweater. Licked
his dry lips. Moaned. “Lemonade.”
Sandy, too, stripped off his sweater. “We got what we asked for, didn’t we? Heat. Low humidity. Sparse population.”
Dennys looked around, squinting against the glare. “Sparse wasn’t meant to mean
Sandy unbuttoned his plaid flannel shirt. “I thought we asked for a beach.”
“Not on Dad’s gizmo we didn’t. Just sparse population. Do you suppose we’ve blown
ourselves onto a dead planet? One where the sun is going into its red-giant phase before it blows up?”
Despite the intense heat, Sandy shivered, glanced at the sun, then quickly away. “I think the sun in its red-giant phase would be bigger. This sun doesn’t look any larger than our own sun in movies set in deserts.”
“Do you suppose it is our own sun?” Dennys asked hopefully.
“We could be anywhere. Anywhere in the universe. If we were going to play with that doggone keyboard, we should have been more specific. I wish we’d just settled for Bali or Fiji, beautiful people or no.”
“I’d just as soon see a beautiful person. Right now. I wish we hadn’t done whatever it is we’ve done.” Dennys pulled off his cotton turtleneck, stripping down to his white briefs and tank top.
Sandy stood on one leg to start pulling off his warmly lined pants, glanced again at the fierce sun, then quickly closed his eyes. “They’ll miss us when they get back from the dentist.”
“But they won’t know where to look. Mother has more sense than we have. She’d never mess around with anything of Dad’s unless he was right there.”
“Mother’s not interested in astrophysics. She’s into virtual
particles and things like that.”
“She’ll still miss us.”
“Dad’ll be home tomorrow,” Sandy said hopefully. He was now stripped to his underclothes.
Dennys picked up his things and made a tidy bundle. “Unless we find some shade, we’re going to have to put our clothes back on in half an hour, or at least some of them, or we’ll get a vicious sunburn.”
“Shade.” Sandy groaned, and scanned the horizon.
“Den! Do I see a palm tree?”
Dennys held his hand to shade his eyes. “Where?”
“There. All the way over there.”
“Yes. No. Yes.”
“Let’s head toward it.”
“Good. At least it’s something to
.” Dennys trudged off. “If it’s the same time of day it was when we left home—”
“It was winter at home.” Sandy’s eyes were almost closed against the glare. “The sun was already setting.”
to their shadows, as long and skinny as they were. “The sun’s slightly behind us … We might be heading east, if it’s our own kind of sun.”
Sandy asked, “Are you scared? I am. We’ve really got ourselves into a mess.”
Dennys made no reply. They trudged along. They had left on their shoes and socks, and Dennys suggested, “It might be easier walking barefooted.”
Sandy bent down and touched the
sand with the palm of his hand, then shook his head. “Feel it. It would burn our feet.”
“Do you still see that palm tree?”
“I think so.”
They moved across the sand in silence. After a few minutes it seemed firmer under their feet, and they saw that there was rock under the sand.
“That’s better,” Sandy said.
The ground seemed to shudder under their feet. Dennys flailed his arms to
try to keep his balance, but was flung to the ground. “Is this an earthquake or something?”
Sandy, too, was thrown down. Around them they could hear a noisy grating of rock, and a deep, thunderous roaring beneath them. Then there was silence, abrupt and complete. The rock steadied under them. The earthquake, or whatever it was, had lasted less than a minute, but it had been of sufficient force
to push up a large section of rock, making a small cliff about six feet high. It was striated and raw-looking, but it provided a shadow that stretched across the sand.
Both boys climbed to their feet and headed into the welcome shade. Sandy touched the sheared-off rock, and it felt cool. “Maybe we could sit here for a minute…”
The sun was still fiercely hot, but the slab of rock they sat on
was cool. The relief of the shade was so great that for a few minutes they sat in silence. Their bodies were slippery with sweat; it trickled into their eyes. They sat without moving, trying to take every advantage of the shade.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen next, but whatever it is, I’m not likely to be surprised,” Sandy said at last. “Are you sure it was Dad’s experiment we weren’t supposed
to interrupt? Couldn’t it have been Mother’s?”
“Mother’s doing something with subatomic particles again,” Dennys said. “Last night at dinner, she spent most of the time talking about virtual particles.”
“It sounded crazy to me,” Sandy said. “Particles which have a tendency to life.”
“That’s right.” Dennys nodded. “Virtual particles. Almost-particles. What you said. Particles which tend to be.”
Sandy shook his head. “Most of Mother’s subatomic experiments are so, oh, so sort of infinitesimal, it hasn’t mattered if we’ve come into the lab.”
“But maybe if she’s looking for a virtual particle—” Dennys sounded hopeful.
“No. It sounds to me more like something of Dad’s. It was just sort of wishful thinking when I asked if it could be something of Mother’s. Why didn’t we see that notice
on the door?”
I wish our parents did ordinary things,” Sandy complained. “If Dad were a plumber or an electrician, and if Mother were somebody’s secretary, it would be a lot easier for us.”
“And we wouldn’t have to be such great athletes and good guys at school,” Dennys agreed. “And—” He broke off as the earth started to tremble again. It was a brief tremor, with no heaving
of stones, but both boys sprang to their feet.
“Hey!” Sandy jumped, almost knocking Dennys over.
From behind the rock cliff came a very small person, perhaps four feet tall. Not a child. He was firmly muscled, darkly tanned, and there was a down of hair across his upper lip and on his chin. He wore a loincloth, with a small pouch at the waist. As he saw them, he reached for the pouch in a swift,
“Hey, wait.” Sandy held up his open hands, palm forward.
Dennys repeated the gesture. “We won’t hurt you.”
“Who are you?” Sandy asked.
“Where are we?” Dennys added.
The small man looked at them in mingled curiosity and fear. “Giants!” he cried. He had a man’s voice, a young man’s voice, deeper than Sandy’s or Dennys’s.
Sandy shook his head. “We’re not giants.”
Dennys augmented. “Who are you?”
The young man touched himself lightly on the forehead. “Japheth.”
“That’s your name?” Sandy asked.
He touched his forehead again. “Japheth.”
Perhaps this was the custom of the country, wherever in the universe it was. Sandy touched his own forehead. “Alexander. Sandy.”
Dennys made the same gesture. “Dennys.”
“Giants,” the young man stated.
“No,” Sandy corrected.
The young man rubbed his head where a purplish egg was forming: “Stone hit me. Must be seeing double.”
“Japheth?” Sandy asked.
The young man nodded. “Are you two? Or one?” He rubbed his eyes perplexedly.
“Two,” Sandy said. “We’re twins. I’m Sandy. He’s Dennys.”
“Twins?” Japheth asked, his fingers once more reaching for the pouch at his side, which appeared to be filled with tiny arrows,
about two inches long.
Dennys opened his hands wide. “Twins are when”—he had started to give a scientific explanation, stopped himself—“when a mother has a litter of two babies instead of one.” His voice was soothing.
“You’re animals, then?”
Sandy shook his head. “We’re boys.” He was ready to ask “What are you?” when he noticed a tiny bow near the pouch of arrows.
“No. No.” The young man looked
at them doubtfully. “Only giants are as tall as you. And the seraphim and nephilim. But you have no wings.”
What was this about wings? Dennys asked, “Please, J—Jay—where are we? Where is this place?”
“The desert, about an hour from my oasis. I came out, dowsing for water.” He bent down and picked up a wand of pliable wood. “Gopher wood is the best for dowsing, and I had my grandfather’s—” He
stopped in midsentence. “Higgaion! Hig! Where are you?” he called, as the twins might have called for their dog at home. “Hig!” He looked, wide-eyed, at the twins. “If anything has happened to him, my grandfather will—there are so few of them left—” He called again urgently, “Higgaion!”
From behind the outcropping of rock came something grey and sinuous which the twins at first thought was a
snake. But it was followed by a head with small, bright, black eyes, and great fans of ears, and a chunky body covered with shaggy grey hair, and a thin little rope of a tail.
“Higgaion!” The young man was joyful. “Why didn’t you come when I called you?”
With its supple trunk, the little animal, the size of a small dog or a large cat, indicated the twins.
The young man patted its head. He was
so small that he did not have to bend down. “Thank El you’re all right.” He gestured toward the twins. “They seem friendly. They say they aren’t giants, and while they are as tall as seraphim or nephilim, they don’t seem to be of their kind.”