On the side of the Pyramid, Delia held Erik in place as the Bubble absorbed him, or tried to absorb him. It bubbled and howled as it engulfed the little old man. It blackened like a marshmallow in a fire, but it wasn’t hot to Delia’s touch. Alfred was panicking but, to his credit, his panic took the form of grabbing Erik’s hand and trying to pull him out, rather than just flapping his arms.
“What have you done, Delia! What have you done?” he cried.
The Bubble/Erik/Marshmallow thing stopped struggling and was still. It seemed to shrink into itself before Delia’s eyes, becoming more humanlike in stance and shape.
“I. AM. PARADOX,” it said.
“Oh,” Alfred said. “Good-o.”
“Alfred, don’t you understand?” Delia said. “What we have here is the living embodiment of ‘escaping’ combined with the living embodiment of ‘not escaping’. It’s a living Paradox.”
“That’s…” Alfred began. “It’s a little too much for me, honestly. I mean, there’s not much I can do about it, but you have to agree – it’s a little too much.”
Delia sighed. “So anyway, Paradox, you have untold power I presume?”
“YES,” Paradox said. “AND. NO.”
Delia screwed up her face. “Really should have seen that one coming. Can you help us get into the Pyramid?”
Alfred gasped. “I could have sworn he was going to say ‘yes but no.'”
“NOT. BEING. SELF. CONTRADICTORY. IS. EVEN. MORE. PARADOXICAL. IF. YOU. ARE. A. PARADOX.”
Delia and Alfred both groaned. “Fine, whatever. Just get us in.”
“CAN. BUT. WON’T.” Paradox said, and vanished.
Delia stood astonished. The wind rose, cooling her uncomfortably tight metallic costume.
“I’ve got to be honest with you, my love,” Alfred said. “That wasn’t one of your best ideas. Unless… Unless by being a bad idea it was a good idea…”
“Not now, Alfred,” she said. “We need another way to get in.”
“To the top, then,” Delia sighed.
They returned to the arduous task of climbing the Great Pyramid of South Hertling. It was getting hotter, and while their futuristic costumes looked very cool, they did tend to ride up which was quite annoying. Delia stopped from time to time to look behind, to see the progress of the battle. It seemed to have slowed almost to a stop now as Time and Space kept doing whatever weird thing they were doing.
But looking behind was merely a distraction from looking up. Once they were below the great golden capstone with its vast eye gazing down on South Hertling, like a… Well, like a vast eye.
When the Pyramid had first arisen over South Hertling, Delia had, like everyone, been overwhelmed with awe. But after a while, everyone had started to tune it out. It’s what you have to do, to get on with life in the shadow of a huge mystical anomaly. But now, standing right under the huge eye, that sense of awe, of helplessness in the face of a terrifying cosmos – it overtook her again, leaving her all but paralysed in the face of…
“Who’s eye does that look like?” Alfred asked. “It’s been bothering me for ages. I’ve almost been looking forward to getting close so I could get a better… Oh, I know! It looks like Indira Naidoo’s eye. You remember Indira Naidoo? Used to be a newsreader? You still see her, sometimes, on the gardening shows?”
Delia grinned from ear to ear. Sometimes, Alfred was easier to love than others…
And then the eye turned on them. It’s enormous iris of lapis lazuli turned, aligning its tremendous black pupil them.
“Right, here’s our chance,” Alfred said. “You ever see Inner Space? We go in through the tear duct…”
“We go in through the pupil,” Delia said. “Look! It looks like black gemstone, but if you look in the middle…”
“Yes, I know,” Alfred sighed. “Just wanted one last bad pop-culture reference in before I died.”
Delia moved towards the terrible pupil. To her amazement, Alfred checked her with a gentle hand on the shoulder and went first. In anyone else, it would have seemed patronising. In Alfred it seemed… well, still patronising, realistically. But also slightly endearing.
“Good to have known you,” he said, sounding more weary than brave. “Don’t follow if I scream, eh?”
Alfred gripped the curved jet ledge at the centre of the eye and pulled himself up. It was a slow, awkward pulling up, full of wriggling and puffing as befit an unhealthy middle-aged man. But, to his credit, he pulled himself over the edge.
“Oh,” he said, then was silent.
It wasn’t a scream, at least.
Delia took a deep breath and reached up to the ledge of the eye. Honestly, her ascent wasn’t greatly more dignified than Alfred’s had been. But at least there was no one there to see her. Her spacesuit helped her slide over the lip of the pupil and into the black-walled tunnel beyond. Alfred was nowhere to be seen. This did not surprise her – though it did disappoint her deeply.
Inside, the tunnel was high enough for her to walk very nearly upright. The light behind her was bright, making it impossible for her eyes to adjust enough to see far ahead. She paused a moment. For a while now, she’d been moving forward largely by momentum. Now she had a chance to think, she… Well… She kind of had to keep going because of momentum.
She crept down the corridor. It was a very long walk. It shouldn’t have been; by her rough calculations, she shouldn’t have been able to go more than twenty metres or so before coming out the other eyeball. She counted her footsteps, and was up to several hundred before the light finally died behind her. She felt the Measure in her pocket, hoping it would tell her anything about the space around her. It did not, though the solid brass weight of the object comforted her.
The light came on – dim and yellow. It rose slowly in intensity, seeming to come from everywhere at once. It split, becoming several distinct yellow lights, distributed around a large empty space – a barn, Delia suddenly realised. A figure stood silhouetted under a lamp – a woman of about Delia’s age, whip thin under a hat with a flat wide brim and, a serape draped about her narrow shoulders.
“Howdy, ma’am,” she said.
“Have we met?” Delia said.
“Not yet,” the woman said. “You can call me Ma Dusty.”