Medusas web, p.33
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       Medusa's Web, p.33

           Tim Powers
 

  He forced the intolerable memory aside. “You’re all right?” he asked Ariel. “No concussion?”

  “Fine except for a headache.” She sat on the windowsill and gave him a tired smile. “Madeline tells me my pupils are the same size.”

  “You’ve done two spiders in less than an hour,” Madeline said to Scott. “You’re in no shape to watch this film.”

  “I’m fit enough,” Scott said. And I don’t think it matters, he told himself bleakly. Say good-bye to Hollywood. He took the dartboard from Madeline and turned it around, looking for the switch or latch that Louise had found. “How did you know where we were?”

  “You went up the hill and on past the ridge garages,” Madeline said, “but I heard the bike’s engine stop, instead of fade away down the easement on the far side. I figured you’d want to coast silently, and so you were either heading for the apartment building or the old east garage. I ran over and saw your bike by the garage, so I climbed the tree and came in through the roof. Luckily the trapdoor was already open.”

  “I’m glad you did,” Scott said. He had found a lever on the rim, and when he pushed it to one side, the top of the dartboard was loose. “And the alien on the bicycle was genius.”

  “I had to pull the seat off the bike and then . . . impale him on the post. Anally, as it were. God knows what somebody will think happened, if they go in there.”

  “My blood’s on the floor,” he said, taking the film can out of the round case. “So is Ariel’s, and yours too, probably. Talk to a lawyer before you say anything to the police.” He opened the film can and carefully lifted out the reel of film.

  “It’ll stand up that Claimayne shot Ferdalisi,” said Ariel.

  “At least neither of you did.” Scott lifted the tail end of the film. It was clear, and the word LEADER was printed in grease pencil on the last inch of it. “I’m glad Natacha wound it back to front,” he said. “Rewinding it here would have been a chore. Madeline, could you get me some blankets—and nails and a hammer—to cover the windows?”

  “Right,” she said, and hurried out of the room.

  “She is determined to be the one to watch it,” said Ariel when Madeline’s footsteps had receded down the hall.

  “I know.” Scott unspooled three feet of film from the reel and then fitted the reel onto the central bobbin in the magazine. “This is a short film—a full reel’s only about fifteen minutes, and look, this is less than half filled.” He fitted the film through the slot at the bottom of the magazine and closed the cover, and then he turned and looked at Ariel. “You’ve got to get me a clean spider.”

  Ariel’s eyes widened, and after a few seconds, she said, “I guess that’s kinder than tying her up or knocking her out.”

  “I’m going to throw the extension cord out the window, so you can plug it into the old 220 socket in the dining room. You can get the spider while you’re doing that.”

  “Scott, I don’t think anybody should watch the damn film. It’s sure to be dangerous—maybe fatal!—and not at all sure to accomplish anything.”

  “Damn it, do you think I—I’m looking forward to this? Sorry, sorry—but it’s the only way, if there’s any way, to exorcise the spiders, cut them right out of this universe. Taylor thought it would. And with the spider vector . . . conduit, opening, live wire . . . severed, Aunt Amity will have lost her link with Madeline.” His hands were shaking. “I truly don’t want to do it. I don’t. It’s only minutes away now.”

  “Let me do it. No, I mean it, listen—you both looked at the Medusa spider when you were kids, maybe a fresh—”

  “I think that’s what’s going to save me, if anything does. It’ll be my second time touring special. Ariel, I have to do it.” He heard Madeline’s footsteps in the hall, and he realized that he had only seconds in which to tell Ariel something important.

  “Ariel,” he said quickly, “I love you.”

  She stared at him.

  Scott stared back, helplessly. “By the way,” he added.

  Madeline came shuffling in with a pile of blankets in her arms. Her voice was muffled as she said, “Hammer and nails in my pockets.”

  Ariel cocked her head at Scott and gave him a wry smile. “Well—likewise. Sincerely. Since I was a . . . an idiot teenager.”

  Scott’s breath caught in his throat, and now more than ever he didn’t want to watch the film. But he opened the side panel on the projector and unlocked the lens holder and opened the film gate.

  “Ariel will swear Claimayne shot Ferdalisi,” said Madeline. “Won’t you, Ariel?”

  Ariel nodded, glancing at Scott.

  Madeline’s statement, of course, presumed that Scott would be alive when the police investigated, and therefore that Scott would not be the one to watch the film.

  He didn’t argue. “You talk to a lawyer before you say anything to anybody,” he told her.

  He snapped the pressure rollers away from the sprocket wheel and the take-up sprocket, and he twisted the frame-line setting knob until the cross on the sprocket wheel had rotated a few degrees to vertical. As far as he could recall from having watched his aunt do it many times when he was a boy, the machine was now ready to have the film threaded through it. He knew it took oil, and he remembered his aunt cleaning out the oil system with gasoline, but she had done that much more seldom and he didn’t remember the procedure. The old oil should keep it running for the few minutes required, he thought.

  He sighed deeply.

  “Ariel,” he said, picking up the socket end of the extension cord, “maybe you could throw the other end of this out the window and go downstairs and plug it in.”

  She brushed damp strands of dark hair back from her forehead and stared at him for several seconds. “Okay.” She unlatched the window and hauled it up, and she gathered up several loops of slack cord and then threw it out the window. “It might take me a few minutes.”

  “You want help?” asked Madeline.

  “I’ve got it, sweetie. You help your brother.” Ariel hurried out of the room without looking at Madeline or Scott.

  Madeline shivered in the cold wind blowing in now through the window. “She doesn’t want you to watch the film.”

  “No,” Scott agreed.

  “She loves you, and you love her.”

  “Yes.”

  “We’ve both found somebody.”

  Scott knew that Valentino was who Madeline believed she had found.

  He nodded and walked to the window. He bent down and rested his right palm on the windowsill and looked out over the waving green trees and vines of the slope to the arched windows and red tile roofs of the houses across Vista Del Mar, and for a moment he thought the sudden yearning that seized him was the desire to go downstairs to his room and finish the Wild Turkey bottle; then he recognized it as a response to the volume and shapes and colors of the view—he very much wanted to capture all the light in dabs of paint on canvas. Reproduce it flat, he thought, in two dimensions!

  “Scott,” began Madeline, “I hope you—”

  He straightened up. “I’ve got to thread the film,” he said, walking back to the projector. “Do you remember how it used to go?”

  She pursed her lips. “Oh, I can watch. I bet I’ll know if you do it wrong.”

  He fitted the yard-long strip of film around several rollers and wheels and laid it in the open film gate. He touched the film gate knob, but Madeline caught his hand.

  “Slack.”

  “Oh, right. And below the gate too.” He pulled a loop in the film between the feed sprocket and the film gate and did it again between the bottom of the film gate and the sprocket wheel, and then he closed the gate.

  Below that, he pushed the film into place around various wheels and rollers to the take-up sprocket and let the end hang down into Aunt Amity’s molasses can.

  “Look right?” When she nodded, Scott locked the lens turret and then clicked all the pad rollers back into their closed positions, fixing the film into plac
e. “Did you find the screen?”

  Madeline nodded. “We can nail its case to the wall, same height she used to have it in the dining room.” She carefully took hold of his left hand and looked at the cut in his palm. “You should get Neosporin on that and bandage it. Scott, I may not come back. I may stay in the past, with Mr. Valentino.”

  “I don’t think we can predict what will happen.” And will you hate me, he wondered, for supposedly keeping you from Mr. Valentino? Will you ever understand that Aunt Amity would simply have swallowed and digested you, if I had not done this?

  Ariel came hurrying down the hall and stepped into the apiary.

  “It’s plugged in,” she said. “Let’s get those windows covered.” She clasped Scott’s right hand as she walked past him, and when she released it and moved on toward the windows, he had a folded slip of paper in his hand.

  A FEW MINUTES LATER the bare overhead lightbulb cast the only light in the long room, and Scott held up one end of the screen case against the wall while Ariel stood on a chair to nail the thing to the wall. When she stepped down, he took hold of the ring on the bottom edge of the screen and pulled it down, and the glittering white sheet stayed down and the case didn’t fall off the wall.

  Scott returned to the projector and made sure the changeover switch was still set on sixteen frames per second, then faced Madeline. She stared back at him defiantly.

  “I’ll flip you for it,” he said.

  The spider Ariel had passed to him was now trimmed of all margin and pressed into the palm of his right hand, with the spider lines against his skin.

  Madeline laughed in surprise. “Will you abide by it? Will I? Let me see the coin.”

  He dropped a quarter into her extended palm, and she looked at both sides of it and flipped it in the air several times, catching it and slapping it onto the back of her other hand and peering at the result.

  “Does a coin count as two-dimensional or three?” she asked. “I guess three—it’s got bumps, and two sides.” She held it out, and he carefully took hold of it between his thumb and forefinger. “I guess that’s as fair as we can hope for,” she said. “Sure, okay, toss. I pick heads.”

  Good-bye, Madeline, he thought. Try to remember me with love.

  He tossed the coin spinning into the air, caught it, and slapped it onto the back of his left hand; and he flexed his right palm to free the spider. Luckily the back of his left hand was sticky with blood.

  He held his overlapped hands out in front of her, and she pulled his right hand away, bending over to see the result. She gasped and hastily covered the spider with her own hand, but her pupils had already sprung wide open, and Ariel caught her when she sagged.

  “Both of you out in the hall,” Scott said, and as Ariel walked Madeline to the door, he quickly switched on the projector’s xenon lightbulb. “And get the light!”

  Ariel reached out to the side and turned off the overhead light as she and Madeline stumbled out of the room. “God be with you,” she called over her shoulder.

  Scott had never felt so alone as when he pressed the motor start button and the protector-flap open button and sat down on a chair four yards from the screen. He noticed that the spider Ariel had given him was no longer stuck to the back of his left hand, but there was no time to see if it was lying on the floor.

  The screen was bright white as the clear leader strip passed through the projector, and then with no preamble he was facing a four-foot-tall image of the Medusa spider.

  SCOTT RECOGNIZED IT IMMEDIATELY and intimately, even after a gap of twenty-three years, and in fact he knew there was no meaningful gap at all. He could almost feel eight-year-old Madeline beside him, and see Thomas Ince’s hands on either side of the image.

  The image was flickering rapidly, visible only in momentary flashes between split-second black frames; and since each new frame was a fresh projection of the spider on Scott’s retinas, none had time to split and grow bristly before the next replaced it; and because the flashes were in the tarantella frequency, the spider was always caught in the same segment of its rotation, so that its inherent spin appeared to be stopped.

  Scott didn’t lose consciousness, and this time he didn’t see the illusory vertical shapes of spiders viewed end-on—Madeline’s Skyscraper People, the horizontally viewed spiders whose perfect flatness was interpreted by his visual cortex as infinite height.

  Instead he toppled into the stuttering Medusa image.

  And from moment to jigging moment he strode in a procession between thick pillars that spread like flower petals at their distant capitals, and he cowered in rooms carved into the solid rock of volcanic stone towers, and he glimpsed balconied structures rising to the clouds from the tops of ornate domes, and he chased men through narrow cobblestone streets between overhanging half-timbered buildings in the rain; and he was bleeding, falling, choking, thrusting bladed weapons and firing clockwork rifles, straining to breathe deep under water, straining to give birth to a child, sweating among laboring bodies in harsh sunlight and painfully flexing frostbitten fingers on glacial plains in blinding snow; and his mind reeled helplessly in an onslaught of momentarily urgent emotions: bowel-loosening terror, rage, hilarity, tunnel-vision lust. His ears rang with screams, clanging, roaring, and orchestral music.

  But because the spider’s rotation was negated by the strobe effect of the fast black frames, each vision was interrupted before Scott had fully fallen into it—and so he was able to remember that he was sitting in a chair upstairs at Caveat—and remember too that he had seen the Medusa spider before, in a very different situation.

  He exerted his will over the hampered power of the stilled Medusa, and he imposed on the tumultuous cascade the remembered view of Ince’s hands—and the hands appeared, holding the opened brown-paper folder, with the wood paneling and the porthole beyond; all sounds had ceased, and the view was now static, as motionless as a still photograph. Scott projected his consciousness down through the eight unmoving ink lines in the folder—and he found himself staring at a sallow, bony face in a mirror.

  It was a young man with red hair cut in neat center-parted bangs. He wore a black bow tie and a high white collar.

  A pale, long-fingered left hand reached out and tilted the mirror downward, and in the reflection Scott saw the Medusa inked on a piece of paper on a blotter, the curl of its limbs reversed in the mirror. The ink at the end of one limb glistened for a moment before going matte.

  “Who are you?” came a voice from what felt like his own throat.

  Scott was able only to exhale in reply, but he felt the head nod in response.

  “You arrive unsummoned!” the voice went on in a now evident British accent. “Through her.” Scott felt the face smile, though the facial muscles felt stiff. A right hand holding a steel-nibbed pen waved over the paper. “I synthesized her, deduced her lineaments from those of her weaker sisters. She is harmless viewed through a mirror, as Perseus knew. But can we be satisfied knowing her only through her reflections?”

  Scott recalled what Valentino had said to him, in his house that had stood in the fated path of the 101 Freeway: Beardsley got it, figured out how it should look, from studying a portfolio of lesser spider drawings his father brought back from India. The studying was bad for Beardsley, I gather—his health was destroyed, and he died very young.

  “On your deathbed,” Scott managed to pronounce through the young man’s throat and mouth, “you will—ask that it be destroyed.”

  The left hand swung the mirror back up, and Aubrey Beardsley was staring straight into his own eyes again—straight into Scott’s. The brown eyes narrowed, but then Beardsley shrugged. “‘Indeed, indeed, repentance oft before / I swore,’” he said softly, “‘but was I sober when I swore?’”

  Scott recognized the line; it was from Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat. He recalled the last two lines: And then and then came Spring, and Rose-in-hand / My thread-bare Penitence apieces tore.

  Beardsley was still smiling.
“You know the verse, I’m sure. A deathbed repentance, though, would surely be a definitive one! That is reassuring to hear, and I thank you for it. But it would seem that this last instruction of mine is not to be followed, hm?” He swiveled the mirror down, so that he and Scott together were looking again at the reversed Medusa. “Else you wouldn’t have been able to pay me this visit.”

  Beardsley was fading, and Scott moved his consciousness in a different direction.

  Now he stood at the top of a neatly terraced garden slope, and when he turned, he was facing Caveat. For a moment the structure was wood sided, and the inscription on the stone lintel over the front door was complete: CAVEAT PROGENIES; then it was the newer stuccoed walls and the broken lintel that he saw, and he projected his viewpoint inside and up the still-carpeted stairs.

  All the wainscot doors in the hallway were open, and daylight or lamplight streaked the floor of the hall in front of several. Voices and laughter and the clink of bottles on glasses echoed up and down the hall. Scott moved forward, and as he was passing one dark doorway, he saw his shadow beneath his feet; he looked up, and for a moment the house was gone, and the full moon shone on low broken walls under a starry night sky. The cold breeze carried the acid reek of doused campfires.

  “Scott!”

  He turned, and he was in the hallway again, and in daylight streaming from one doorway he saw that Madeline was standing by the stairs, with a man he recognized as Rudolph Valentino.

  “Scott,” cried Madeline again, hurrying to him and grabbing his arm, “come with us! It’s too late for you to get back, you’re in the Medusa, and the future here is very short.”

  “Maddy,” said Scott, nearly choking, “how are you here? I meant to save you—”

  “You are saving me, the Medusa is blocked by repetition, about to go away, and Aunt Amity will be plain dead without its living tentacles to reach in my head with. Oh, I took your coin-toss spider and looked at it again, right away—I didn’t really stop looking at it—I’m in a spider vision right now, and the Medusa will be gone before the vision would have had an ending. I’m not going back.”

 

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