- Author: Robert Moore Williams
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This etext was produced from If Worlds of Science Fiction September 1952. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.
It was like a mirage in reverse, this strange island off the California coast—it couldn't always be seen, but it was there—in Time.
"There's the island, Parker!" Retch called.
Bill Parker shifted the controls of the 'copter and the big craft swung in the direction Retch was pointing. Squinting his eyes against the sun glare rising from the Pacific, Parker clearly saw the island. It was miles away as yet but it swam like a mirage suspended just above the surface of the sea.
The island was not large—Parker guessed it as probably being less than two miles in circumference—but he could make out a fringe of trees along the shore and a central peak rising like a cliff in the center.
"I've found it again!" Retch spoke with fierce satisfaction—clenched fists. Parker heard the indrawn hiss of breath following the words; a hiss that seemed to hold[Pg 126] a promise for the future. Revenge, vengeance, triumph, or something else? Parker could not determine what emotional overtone had found expression in Retch's words. But the emotional overtone was there. Out of the corner of his eyes, Parker glanced at the man sitting in the seat next to him. What he saw did not please him.
Retch was big. He had the muscular build of a prize fighter. The scar over his left cheekbone did not add to the attractiveness of his appearance. He did not, in Parker's opinion, look like the scientist he had claimed to be.
Parker shrugged such thoughts aside. What difference did it make what Retch was, or the nature of his business here? He had paid charter charges on the big helicopter.
"There it is, Parker!" Retch almost screamed the words. As he pointed again toward the island in the far distance, Parker caught a glimpse of a pistol in a shoulder holster under the man's arm.
The sight of the gun caused a split second of alarm in the big pilot. He had not known that Retch was armed. Then the alarm subsided. Parker pressed his left arm down against his body, assuring himself that his own gun was where it belonged.
The woman, Mercedes Valdar, seemed to catch some of Retch's excitement. She leaned forward across Retch's shoulder to stare at the island. Parker caught another whiff of the musky perfume that she used. He noticed again what he had realized the first time he met her—that in any man's language she was a beauty. Aquiline face, smouldering black eyes, high cheek bones, a delicate brown complexion that hinted at Indian blood back several generations in the past, she looked like something out of an exotic movie. The slacks and sport coat that she wore accentuated the fact that she was a woman.
Parker was aware again of the enigma of her presence. Retch had introduced her as his secretary. Parker, accepting the man's statement, had asked no questions. Asking questions in a matter such as this was a fine way to get a bust in the snoot.
"It ees the island!" Her whisper was sharp. A glow appeared on her face. "Soon we will be reech!" She slapped Parker heartily on the shoulder. "Beel, is not that wonderful!"
"It sure is," Parker answered. He was as astonished by the statement as he was by the slap on the shoulder.
"Shut up, Mercedes!" Retch spoke. "Parker, turn some juice into this thing."
"She's cruising at about her best speed," Parker answered.
"Then get her faster than cruising speed. We've found the island." His manner indicated that finding the island was very important but that something else perhaps of equal importance remained to be done.
"What's the big rush!" Parker countered. "You don't think it will vanish before we get there, do you?"
A startled look appeared on Retch's face. "No, of course not. That is—"
A thudding jar went through the ship.
"What 'appened?" Mercedes[Pg 127] screamed in fear.
With a snarling crash of breaking metal, one of the helicopter blades was yanked from its mounting above them.
Parker had the dazed impression that he saw the big blade jerked away through the air. Then, like a leaf suddenly caught in a violent hurricane, the helicopter began to turn flip-flops in the air.
"Do somesing!" Mercedes cried.
As the ship jumped and began to yaw, she was thrown across the cabin. Jerking, buckling, jumping, twisting, the big helicopter lurched its way toward the surface of the sea below. Cutting the power, Parker leaped from his seat. He knew what was going to happen. He intended to try and be ready for it.
Retch, gripping his seat with both hands, yelled. "We're falling!"
"It's not news to me," Parker answered, jerking open the door to the compartment at the rear. Inside that compartment was a mass of synthetic fabric. Tossed to the surface of the sea, inflated by the self-contained flask of gas under pressure, it would make a rubber raft.
"You've left the controls!" Retch barked. "Do something to stop us. We're going to fall." The man's face was wild with fear as he twisted his head around to see what Parker was doing.
"You damned right I've left the controls!" Parker answered. "We've lost the equivalent of a wing in an ordinary plane. If you know any way to stop a plane from falling you tell me." Working with deft, sure hands, he pulled the mass of synthetic fabric out of its compartment.
"But we've got to get to that island. We've found it. We've got to get there while—"
"If we get there, we'll have to swim," Parker answered. "Personally, I'll consider myself lucky to get there by swimming. Here we go."
The last was spoken as the helicopter began its final plunge to the surface of the blue water below them.
Parker, with the mass of fabric clutched firmly in both hands, threw himself flat on the floor.
The 'copter hit with a terrific thud. An instant later, Parker was on his feet. The life raft was under one hand. With the other hand, he was reaching for the handle that opened the cabin door.
"We've got to get out of here. This ship will go the bottom like a rock."
Behind him, Mercedes and Retch were struggling to their feet. Parker yanked on the handle that opened the cabin door.
The handle did not budge.
The heavy jolt the craft had taken when it struck the surface had twisted the whole frame.
"Get that door open!" Retch moaned. "We'll be drowned like rats."
"Hell, I'm trying!" Parker answered. He yanked upward with all his strength.
The door still did not budge.
Outside Parker could see the green water rising around the cabin.
He backed away, ducked his[Pg 128] head, threw himself with all his strength against the door.
Under the driving impact of his body, the door was knocked open. The mass of synthetic fabric in his arms, Parker catapulted through the opening and into the sea. He hit with a terrific splash. Mercedes followed him. Parker, treading water and working with the valve that would release the gas and inflate the raft, saw that Retch was still standing in the door of the 'copter.
"What am I going to do?" Retch screamed.
"But I can't swim."
"Then wait until I get this goddamned raft inflated. Ugh!" Parker's voice went into silence as arms came up out of the water and closed around his neck with a grip of death.
Mercedes, in a panic that often comes to people catapulted suddenly and unexpectedly into the water, was grabbing the nearest source of potential safety.
"Let go!" Even as he spoke, Parker felt her arms close even tighter around his neck. He knew then that she was not going to let go. She was pulling him under with her.
Giving one final jerk at the valve of the gas container, Parker found himself pulled under water.
The arms around his neck seemed to grip like iron. He caught them in both hands, yanked at them. His hands slipped. He grabbed again. She was behind him, on his back, so he could not slug her. Meanwhile each passing second was sending both of them deeper into the sea. He yanked at her arms again. This time his fingers held. Her grip was broken.
Twisting, he grabbed her hair. Then he began to fight his way to the surface.
His head broke water. As he gulped air, he realized the blessed sight before his eyes.
The rubber raft! His last jerk at the valve before Mercedes dragged him under had opened it.
From the door of the sinking helicopter Retch was staring at the raft. At the same instant in final desperation, he jumped. His clutching fingers caught the edge of the rubber raft. Like a frightened river rat, he pulled himself out of the water.
Treading water, Parker dragged Mercedes to the edge of the raft. Retch leaned over and lifted her in. For an instant, Parker remained in the water, his fingers firm on the raft, letting it support him while he gasped air into his lungs. Behind him, with a gurgle and a rumble, the helicopter sank. He swung himself into the raft. Mercedes, her masculine garb clinging to her, was sitting up.
"I am sorry, Beel," she said. "I get the scare up and I grab at you. I not know for sure what I am doing. You will forgive me, no?"
"Think nothing of it," Parker answered. "Anybody can get scared under these circumstances."
"That I know," she answered. "But you saved my life. And that I will remember."
"Forget it," Parker said. "I did[Pg 129] what had to be done, nothing more."
"But I will remember it," she calmly repeated.
Parker was silent. Under her hardness for the first time he glimpsed something deeper, finer. She was the type who meant what she said. She was a woman who paid her debts. Under other circumstances.... Parker put the thought out of his mind.
Now he set about doing what had to be done—paddling to the island. He turned his eyes toward it.
The island was gone. Calm, serene, the level face of the sea stretched away to the horizon.
Fear, dark, sudden, and overwhelming, arose in Bill Parker. The fear did not come up just because the face of the sea was level and calm, the island not visible, but because of something else, something that he had forgotten, something that he had put out of his mind and out of his life. Could it be possible that—
He caught himself. In that direction lay madness. Words exploded out of him. "Hey, what the hell? Am I nuts? What became of that island? I saw it!"
"I told you we had to hurry to get there when we saw it." Retch was hesitant. "It's—it's not always there."
"But it's got to be there! I saw it!"
"There is a trick about that island," Retch said. "I—it—I—you don't always see it. Something funny."
Parker was across the shaking, unsteady raft. His impulse was to take Retch by the throat, to shake words out of him. "What do you mean?" He was restraining himself with difficulty.
Retch spread his hands. "I'm sorry, I can't explain. That's all I know. Believe me."
Retch was telling the truth Parker decided. The big pilot swung his gaze in every direction, searching for land. Somewhere in the far distance was the peninsula of Lower California. But it was beyond range of his eyes. As far as he could see, was barren water.
Setting his course by the small compass that was included as part of the standard equipment on the life raft, Parker paddled toward the south. The clumsy raft made little progress. Parker hardly noticed, hardly cared. Deep in his mind was a lurking thought he was trying to keep below his consciousness.
In the front of the raft, Retch sat with his back to Parker. From Retch's motions, Parker knew the man was cleaning his gun. Parker made no comment. When Retch had finished and had turned back to him, Parker spoke. "I want to know a little more about that island. How does it happen we can't see it?"
"I'm not certain," Retch answered. "I think it's a lot like the mirages you see on the desert. This island is something like that, only in reverse. In a mirage, you see something that doesn't exist. In the case of this island, you