Dian Girard

Ping! Cheryl Harbottle sat up, startled. She looked around the room for the source of that odd little noise. Nothing seemed to be wrong. The lighting panels were still glowing at the Midday-Summer setting and the Woodland Sounds background tape was still giving out with soft coos, twitters, and the sound of rustling leaves. Her eyes finally came to rest on the new decorator lamp. Humph. That must be the problem. The darned thing was burned out or something. It looked funny. Cheryl got up and walked over to peer at it. There was nothing in the middle where something should have been, she thought, wrinkling her slim brows. There really was nothing. All of the wires were in place, but the bright glowing ball in the middle was gone. What was worse, she couldn't see through where it was supposed to be. The air looked sort of fuzzy, or distorted. It was almost like look- ing into rippling water. Cheryl bent closer to peer at it, and something grabbed her nose. She yelped and jumped back. Then she rubbed the end of her offended member and stared at her lamp. Well! She had the distinct feeling that it shouldn't do that. She walked around to look at the other side. There was barely enough room for her to edge around into the cor- ner behind it. The lamp was a sort of pole-like arrangement. One end was moored in the ceiling and the other was stuck to the floor. The middle blossomed out into an elaborate mesh of gleaming wires in a big cage arrangement. Cheryl poked an experimental finger at the nothing in the middle. About two inches from the center something took hold of it. She pulled her hand back rapidly and pursed her lips. What she needed was the instruction book. Of course, there wasn't one. She hadn't seen an in- struction manual for anything in years. Well, the com- puter ought to know something. She sat down in front of her Insta-Think home termi- nal, flicked it on, and asked for a catalog. The alphabetic listing on the screen rolled by slowly and she stopped it at "lamps, decorator." That was how she'd bought the fool thing in the first place. The computer obligingly switched to its collection of 60-second advertisements. Eventually, after watching what seemed like an endless array of light- ing fixtures in all sizes, shapes, styles, and colors she saw her lamp. "New Lighting Concept," the ad proclaimed in fiery letters. "Capture the Sun in Your Living Room!" Cheryl pressed the MORE button on the terminal and the system cycled into the full three minute sales pitch. Not that it told her much. Some vibrant baritone informed her that she'd be the envy of the neighborhood and pointed out the benefits of "metal-sheen polybutyrate," whatever that was. She pressed the MORE button again when the ad was over and got an expressionless voice that talked about hydrogen, ignition and containment systems, energy pulses, and electromagnetic balance. The picture on the screen was a maze of interconnecting lines with squiggles, boxes, and numbers. Out of sheer spite she pushed the advance button once more, but all she got was a picture of long strings of mathematics and a theory lec- ture that made no sense to her at all. Cheryl switched off the terminal irritably and swiveled around to look at the broken lamp. Well, it probably would be best to turn it off. Then she might as well call Repair. Let them handle it. Damm, she's only had the fool thing for a week. That was the trouble with the modern world——nothing was made right any more. At least there was the thirty day warranty, she thought tiredly. She should have bought one of those cute little antique lamps with the glass bulb. She got up and walked over to switch the lamp off. Nothing. As a matter of fact, the nothing was still there. She flicked the switch on and off again, but the funny little distortion in the middle stayed right where it was. A little experimentation with a writing stylus proved that the pull was still there too. Cheryl frowned. Odd, very odd. Something was work- ing, but how was it working with the power off? She pushed the stylus at it again and this time let the lamp grab it. The stylus moved smoothly forward and to her horror it disappeared into the lamp. Gone, finis, kaput. Ridiculous! Cheryl circled the lamp warily, her eyes wide. She picked up a china figurine she'd always hated and offered it as a sacrifice. There seemed to be a little difficulty drag- ging it through the wire maze, but eventually the figure was gobbled up. That was sort of gratifying, actually. Keeping an eye on the nothing spot Cheryl began to carefully bend some of the matrix wires out of the way. Eventually she had a clear opening to the center, which didn't see to effect the spot at all. She had a feeling she'd just voided her thirty-day warranty, but she'd gone too far to stop now. She offered the lamp her morning pa- per, and watched with a sort of clinical detachment as the pages curled inward, compressed together, and turned into a funnel which slowly disappeared into the noth- ingness. Where the devil was it going? Big things just couldn't be put inside of little things. On the other hand, maybe the spot was bigger on the inside than it was on the outside. There had to be a limit though. With a slightly fiendish smile she picked up a large plastic fern, pot and all. Now that really was too much! When the potted fern was gone she offered up last season's overcoat, an old pair of shoes, her husband's tacky old fishing hat, that awful painting Louise gave them at Christmas, and an extra pair of salt shakers. At differing rates of speed they all van- ished down the insatiable maw of the lamp. She'd fix the dammed thing. Cheryl pried the matrix wires further apart and began to bend them back and forth. Eventually they snapped off and she shoved each one ruthlessly into the spot. In less then twenty minutes she managed to feed most of the lamp to itself. Not even a burp. All she had left were the two bare poles, top and bottom, which she couldn't pull loose. And the spot, of course. Cheryl thought wistfully of the old saying, "crawl into a hole and pull the hole in after you." This hole obvi- ously wasn't going anywhere. It completely ignored the fact that most of its parent structure was gone and hung there about five feet from the floor. She could see a good two inches, top and bottom, between it and the poles. It was balanced somehow. "With no visible means of support," Cheryl said out loud, with just a touch of panic. She could see it a lot bet- ter now. Well, she could see what she couldn't see a lot better. It seemed to her, when she bent carefully to look, that there was a tiny black speck in the middle of he dis- tortion, but she couldn't be sure. She got a ball of cord from the twins' room and dangled the end enticingly over the spot. The cord straightened and moved gently for- ward. She experimented a little bit, pulling the cord out and letting it be caught again. Eventually, however, it was grabbed for good. It moved inexorably forward. She braced her feet, leaned back, and pulled. No good. The cord kept moving and the spot stayed put. She unrolled some more cord and tied it firmly around the big arm- chair. The spot ate up the slack and the armchair began to inch its way across the room. When the cord shortened enough that the chair began to lift into the air she decided that the experiment had gone far enough. Unfortunately Cheryl was better at tying knots than un- doing them. She ran around the apartment frantically, but by the time she'd turned up a pair of Saf-T-Shears in the den the spot was administering the coup de grâce. Cheryl watched helplessly as her Komfy Kushion chair, with Genuine Imitation Tufted Vinyl upholstery, slowly de- formed and funneled its way into the spot. Migod, there was no stopping it! It seemed to be im- movable, and it had the appetite of a growing teenager. Cheryl had a sudden cold shiver. What if one of the kids bumped into it? She gulped and wished she hadn't destroyed the cage that had fenced it in. Cheryl dashed into the bedroom and stripped one of those awful orange polkadot blankets off of the bed. She could at least wrap it up so no one would blunder into it. There wasn't any cord left, but a little rummaging turned up two ugly ties belonging to her husband. Back in the living room Cheryl carefully gathered one end of the blanket around the lower pole and tied it firmly with a green plaid tie. Then she folded the blanket up over the tie, around the spot, and gathered it to the top pole, leaving plenty of slack in the middle. She secured it with the other tie and adjusted a frivolous bow as a sort of farewell to the spot. There it was, helplessly swathed like a pot-bellied mummy. Cheryl drew a deep sigh of relief. Her relief was short lived. The blanket folds began to arch inward until she was staring at an acrylic hourglass. The waist narrowed, disappeared, and the top and bottom of the blanket started to strain toward the center. Eventu- ally the fibers gave with a sickening "rrrrripp!" Cheryl found herself looking at two strips of orange polkadot garnish, one on each pole. And a slightly askew purple and red striped bow. The spot shimmered contentedly. Cheryl ran to the computer to call Repair and then stopped suddenly. Repair what? Not the lamp, it was virtually gone. The spot didn't need repair, it was working just fine. Residence Maintenance? Was it a Maintenance problem if you had a bottomless pit in your living room? They might even accuse her of putting it there, and sue her for lowering the property value. She stared glassy-eyed at the little monster. Maybe she should rope off the corner, put up caution signs and warn- ing blinkers. Cheryl giggled with just a touch of hysteria. How about charging admission? "See the eighth wonder of the world! Watch the Harbottle spot devour Cin- cinatti!" On the other hand . . . Cheryl calmed herself and frowned at the spot. It ate things up, did it? Finally she marched over to the computer terminal and keyed in a number. When she got her connection she said, "Hello, this is Mrs Harbottle in 1743, B Level. I want to discon- tinue my rubbish disposal service. I've made other ar- rangements." Now all she had to do was find some tasteful drapes that would go with the rug . . . and those orange polka- dots, of course.

This is from Black Holes, a book edited by Jerry Pournelle. It was published in 1978. I like the ending.
Previous Home Next