Through the drawn curtains the window was flooded for one moment by such a bright radiance that the room grew bright as day. The letters on the computer screen faded, and for a moment even the pattern of the wallpaper seemed washed out.
Then, as the color contrasts danced on the fire chief's retina, a rumble and crash resounded from the marketplace yonder, as if lightning had struck. There was a smell of ozone in the room, but also of burnt rubber and caramels. There was a rumble in the basement, six floors below, and the tall, narrow house groaned on its foundations.
Now the computer's glimmer flickered at the terrible blow, and even the scant light of the room seemed to dance in the fluctuations of current. In the darkness which reigned for a while in the room, a yellow reflection hovered outside the window.
Heinrich Theisen dashed to the window and tore open the curtains. Over in the southwest, where the big banks are, there was a sulphurous yellow glow - as if the sky itself were burning. A dense fog flowed from it, steaming, covering the moon and the clouds, wan and ghostly.
The very next moment - as two or three windows were flung open below across the way and voices disputed the nocturnal happening loudly - a wind rose, first in little gusts, then with a roar as if a summer tempest were making a mockery of all yesterday's weather forecasts. Then drops fell through the window, scattered at first, but soon so violently that they swelled to a torrent.
At last the sky seemed to break open entirely. While flashes of lightning flickered in the sky, bright and lurid, and the thunder rolled mightily down the narrow streets, water poured down in such heavy torrents that it took away not only the smell of burned rubber and ozone, but also that of caramels. And it seemed that all the doubts which had arisen in people's heads as to the natural order of things would be washed away as well.
There was a great roaring in the air, and loud blows were heard, though they could not have come from the thunderstorm, which was growing more and more severe. It was as if someone or something were squeezing the air together at short intervals with great force, producing waves which struck the ear painfully.
Then the first rockets exploded in the rain, shot into the air by the New Year's people, spilling their splendid blossoms over the city, in foaming white and all the colors of the rainbow. The bells of the cathedral, which invisible hands must have been moving prematurely, began to chime hollow and majestic, and the distant bells of the small churches replied brightly.
Of course - it was only evening, about seven - the windows shook again. The fire chief looked at the clock and - as if he were in the midst of a war - opened his mouth wide as another wave of pressure swept across the roofs. Yes, back there, where Seehausen must have been, the sky was burning red.
Noise rose from the streets, where people converged loudly, cars honked, their drivers stopped. Tires screeched on the pavement, where the rain must have been collecting more and more. And now smoke could be seen rising over where the post office was. Finally, as the air still sloshed about a bit, the howl of sirens resounded, leaving the nearby police station.
The corridor of the building was quiet as Theisen hurried down it. A few cars stood in the street, the drivers gaping at the sky. A lurid radiance moved past above the clouds, seeming to sink further on into the river. At last there was a faint rumble from above, as if a remote-controlled missile had struck one of the old buildings.
Along with other people, Theisen headed for the marketplace. An extremely bright radiance hung over it, and a blue shimmer which rose from the rathskeller. Dust was sifting down from the town hall itself, seeming to come from its pillars and balconies. Thin wisps of smoke streamed weakly out of the door of the cellar, which the fire chief quickly reached.
Two policemen stood almost helplessly outside the entrance, a third spoke rather desperately into his microphone. Theisen identified himself quickly - as someone, that is, who knew how to deal with a fire in such an important building. In fact, the very next moment one of the firemen who had been on duty New Year's Eve rushed down in confusion, and it seemed - to judge by the black spots and marks - that the fire had seized this man as well.
The guests downstairs seemed at a loss, standing in small groups in front of the tables, talking, making way for the policemen and firemen who were flooding the hall with a certain bafflement. The blue light came from the floor and the walls. Above all, though, it seemed to come from a door which had been opened between huge old barrels. There was also a kind of pulsation, and the air seemed to tremble there. There was a smell of caramels.
As if following an inspiration, Theisen stood in front of a big barrel with Bacchus on it. Suddenly he was seized by a hot maelstrom which came from the direction of the blue shimmer. Sparks danced before his eyes, seeming to rise from a curtain, and it seemed to him that not only his ears burned, his hair was beginning to burn as well.
Then he was pulled forward. He heard the screams of people who, to their good fortune, were further away from things than he was. He almost plunged into one of the old barrels, and felt as if the clothes were being torn from his body. He lost consciousness, and the smell of caramels penetrated his nose.
Around him it was dark. Before him, around him, even beneath him he felt the presence of something, of someone, who did not seem at all unpleasant. Indeed, though he was really paralyzed with astonishment, it stirred in his arms, seemed to twist and stretch - just as if that Something did not itself know how to behave.
An unbelieving grip on his shoulder, from which tatters hung. A groping in his hair. A hand which passed across his face. Then a cry, piercing, unbelieving and almost desperate - which had to come from a woman. The woman was around him, and now she pushed him away with a brusque gesture. She cursed vividly, but still beautifully to his ears, which still rang.
He got a naked knee in his face, followed by a resounding box to the ears. Then it was fingernails, burying themselves deep in his face. Now a lock of his hair was torn out. At last - after a time which one would have to call fairly long - a thin ray of light glided onto the pillow, and in it he made out the black, curly head of a woman whom he had inadvertently buried somewhat under his body.
He wanted to excuse himself, but failed to find the right words; everything was happening so quickly. So he only rolled to the side, almost exhausted by the rage and zeal before him. But he did not forget to glance at the bosom of the woman; it was quite splendid, but also bare.
The bed squeaked, springs lashed against the mattress. He felt that he was driven away by flashing, sharp fingernails, and in such a way that he simultaneously crossed an invisible border between space and time. At the edge of the bed he experienced the same reeling dizziness he had felt when falling.
Even before he could think, he was pushed over the edge of the bed, for its edge was not a boundary such as one is familiar with from normal resting places; rather, something like an abyss was hidden behind it, into which he was a hairsbreadth from slipping and sliding. A hairsbreadth - in truth, for at the very last moment he managed to cling to the sheet.
Nonetheless he probably would have fallen a long way if it had not been for those long, sharp fingernails, once again, holding onto him. And as he hung and dangled for a few moments, he even noticed out of the corner of his eye that each of the nails had a rosy sheen - not to mention the sweet fragrance which the woman gave off here too.
She dug her nails into his shoulder, tugged, lashed him down - and he slipped. It had to be due to her concerned, worried face that she finally - cursing softly again - managed to drag him back onto the bed. Then she quickly wrapped another of the large sheets over her chest.
Red fire fell brightly on her from the blackness, as if a volcano were spewing flames. Hot embers brushed both of their cheeks, and glowing ashes fell far past the bed. The bed had finally given way, as if it had merely hung on a fine thread, and fell - nearly turning over, and taking its two occupants with it - into the depths, in which scattered red lights flared up all around.
Its two passengers had no choice but to cling to each other if they were not to lose their hold on the shaking bed. On top of everything, a picture of the Virgin Mary seemed to plummet down out of the void, hitting the back of the fire chief's head with its heavy frame.
At last the bed hit bottom, creaking in all its joints and hinges, springs shooting from the mattress like kobolds. Fine dust rose up about them, obscuring their view for quite some time. A few scattered glasses and pitchers kept falling from the vast darkness above, mixed with masonry, but they shattered harmlessly on the ground.
The woman was the first to free herself from the rubble. Her eyes flashed as she wiped the dirt and dust from her breasts. Then suddenly she laughed very softly with her pearly white teeth as she saw the man at her side, who looked stunned and lost in the bed.
Light shone on the walls of the large chamber in which they found themselves; it even seemed to make molecular structures visible. Lightning flashed from great transformers, rising into the air in long arcs and foaming over the walls. Machines installed at irregular intervals around them glowed in a blue shimmer.
"Shh" - he pressed his finger to her lips.
Now she heard it too. It seemed as if faint noises were coming from over there, where there was a door, and it had opened. Two men appeared within it, heavy flashlights in their hands, which they turned on as if that would help them see more in the bright light. They seemed to be looking for something, but Theisen and Margharita - for that was her name - remained invisible to them. After a while they closed the door behind them again.
"Oof," said Theisen, finally removing his hand from her mouth.
She sighed and flushed slightly. She was still holding the sheet in front of her breasts, and she put a hand to her hair as if she would dearly like to comb it. But the chamber they were in was still full of electrical tension, which drew them together, as it were, and so for the first steps they took they literally clung to each other.
After a short while they were relieved to find a slightly sloping surface over which the intense radiance was not quite as strong. Margharita's eyes flashed in the darkness, and at each rare word she said, her teeth seemed to gleam. A few moments later the two had reached the door through which the men had vanished.
Before them lay - once they had opened the door with great caution - a steel gallery which seemed to run around an enormous hall which lay in an uncertain twilight into which they peered down cautiously. There sluggish life prevailed.
Several men, presumably technicians, stood at high consoles and - if appearances did not deceive - appeared to be studying indicators, swinging needles and voltmeters, the latter crawling like flies in tall jars. Occasionally distant doors opened, revealing women who carried tables and something like plugs and measuring instruments in their hands.
One of the men looked up to the gallery and reached out his hand. Everyone seemed to freeze, turning around and looking up as well. Now the fire chief and Margharita realized that they cast a very faint blue shadow into the hall, as if they were illuminated from behind.
Theisen seized her arm and dragged her with him to a rather narrow door which led from the gallery. Seconds later they found themselves in a chamber with big lockers along its walls, some of them open. In front of them and inside them hung beautiful clothes of velvet and silk, covered with ruffles and braid.
There was also playful plunder in the corners. Little blankets and chains and tiny bottles which smelled good. One might think that someone had piled up soap and flagons, powder compacts, lipstick and mascara as if to equip a whole regiment of selected women. But there was no time even to touch one of the clothes.
For as they vanished into the next room they heard footsteps outside, coming up the stairs to the gallery. But to the paralyzed fire chief it seemed as if - dizzy and almost reeling - he were gazing down into another abyss. For before them, floating in a kind of water, a good dozen girls revolved in an enormous cube, with open but sightless eyes, their long hair drifting in the current.
All of them were naked and rosy and had their thumbs in their mouths, as if lost in dreams, so that one might think - though they must have been between seventeen and twenty years old - that they were nothing more than small children. Some of them even had pink bows on their ankles as they drifted sleeping and dreaming through the green water.
One of the girls, who seemed more beautiful than anything the fire chief had ever seen, seemed to glide up to the glass wall. She had high, even cheekbones and a nose which seemed almost cheerful. Her body was round and clean as her bosom. It seemed to the fire chief that the girl noticed him now. Her eyes began to gleam, and seemed to look at him for a long time before she drifted away again.
He was not sure, and he felt a blow in the ribs, just as a noise started up outside the first door over there, which they had locked behind them, as if all the men and women of this building were clustering there.
"And now, my friend?"
They retreated into the next room with a swiftness which they would not have thought possible, more falling than walking. There, once again - amidst luxurious mirrors in a room furnished with a few big beds - was the smell of that perfume which Theisen had perceived at the beginning of his strange adventure. And gold which had to be real glittered on the walls, which were covered with black, gleaming ceramic.
In their haste to escape unpleasant prospects, both of them had stumbled into one of the beds, sinking in trimmings and ruffles, while lapis lazuli and diamonds were lavished on the tables beside them. Now she was the one who held his mouth closed - as if there were some danger that he might cry out amidst the perfumes and deodorants upon which they had fallen. But once again her hand smelled so beautifully of a pleasant perfume that he had never smelled it so sweet.
They managed to escape this room just in time. For as they saw looking back, the door opened, and several men appeared in it, looking about them as if pursued. But it also seemed, as Theisen and Margharita noticed, as if these men had never seen even the relatively moderate luxury and splendor which the room displayed. For it seemed to both of them that the men's eyes bulged.
But they had no time to concentrate on that, for they were not alone in the room they had entered. For there was a single bed in the room in front of them, and on this bed lay a woman who was almost entirely naked. At any rate, she slipped into the pillows quick as lightning, while the powerful, half-naked man who stood in front of the bed turned around to the two intruders.
As they saw now, he was very thickset, and powerful muscles seemed to play on his upper arms. Now he seemed to pull together the rest of his strength which he had not yet directed at the woman on the bed. And Margharita was afraid, as she breathed into Theisen's ear, that his chest would burst from all the muscles. At any rate, he then let out one of the most terrible cries which ever resounded over this globe - and whether it was that, or their sense of decency: they reached a curtain through which they came straight into the next room.
It is impossible to say whether they walked or slid: before they could think, they had stepped into the barrier which lay before them in a cool blue light. Once again they felt light and shadow wash across their skin. At the same time there was something uncomfortable about that feeling. So, before they could think, they were in a room which lay cool before them.
The first thing they sensed in this place was once again the highly intense smell of the perfume which had been following their steps. They seemed to have stepped onto an ancient, faded carpet which lay in a room like an overheated greenhouse. Everywhere green and purple plants hung from the ceiling and stood in front of the high windows. Now there was an increasingly sweet smell of putrefaction, a smell drowned out neither by the perfume nor the many large and small fountains which poured their silvery jets into bright basins.
A deep, hollow voice sounded in the background, but they could not understand what it was saying. Amidst the dense foliage a black shadow shimmered like that of a heavyset man. They approached, then stopped in horror, reeling a bit in the incredibly cloying perfume.
There stood, no, hung - swaying on strong threads like a marionette - a man who could only be described as a monster: his flesh bursting at the seams. With a massive torso which was so fat and heavy that the strong legs refused to carry it. With such a girth that he could not see his own feet. This with red eyes which seemed small and crafty like those of a pig, staring into the hot jungle from deeply-padded sockets, while sweat ran over the gross features in thin streams.
As if obeying an inner voice, the fire chief glided up to the fat man and quickly seized the cords, metal wires and cables from which he hung. Then he let him descend completely into the chair, which was barely able to bear the heavy burden. The fire chief lifted his lids; he twitched faintly, as if in a trance.
"Ugh," said Margharita; now the man was completely still.
Theisen motioned her to be quiet. A rustling seemed to come from the big closet further away. The fire chief tore open the door, and robes, evening gowns, stoles deluged him, as if he were a traveling salesman. He fell backwards, his arms full of garments, and what glided over him was a woman from this room who must have been hidden temporarily in the closet.
She seemed to smear him in a particularly nasty fashion with her makeup, which he was unable to wipe away because he was struggling with the clothes in his arms. But he had seen her gaze and her eyes and the deep wrinkles in her features which bespoke vanity and domination, but also a kind of despair at having to leave all this, especially the fat man, whom she may have loved in some fashion. The curtain swayed and waved over there, and then the woman was gone.
But Margharita seemed paler than Theisen had ever seen him - after he managed to free her from the mountain of clothing. A few noises came from over there again, and Theisen touched his new-found friend with the now customary strong grip. He was about to flee with her through the door through which they had seen the woman hasten - then, following some instinct, she dragged him into a niche, then into a bay, and then through the door they found there.
Hardly had they entered the room behind it, when they stopped not only delighted, but almost embarrassed at the threshold of the door which fell to behind them. For this room too was full of girls - one more beautiful than the other - holding dresses in their arms or trying on costumes or turning in front of mirrors, while some lay in bed, pulling the covers over their heads.
It would be easy to say how they should behave under the circumstances. . . . What was important, what should have been done first, what they should have thought of the two visitors, who were probably unlike anything the girls had seen before. It took a short while before the first of the girls came up to the two, while some of the others vanished through curtains and doors and - it seemed - out the windows to the outside.
As immediately became clear, they spoke all conceivable languages of our earth, and the girl who had come up to them, a tunic slipped over her slender figure, was soon in tears. Like Margharita, some of them were from Italy, others had come from Poland and the rest of the world, perhaps, as they themselves surmised in broken language, because movies were being filmed or something...
It grew quite clear that, like Margharita and Theisen, none of the girls knew why she had been transported here in such difficult and strange fashion. Some of them - once all got to know each other better - murmured something of suitors who had already been glimpsed behind curtains and mirrors, but this too was anything but certain.
In short, considering the circumstances and the time, a quite understanding and friendly conversation had developed, when, accompanied by lightning which seemed to come out of nowhere, two or three women, no less confused than the girls, came into the room. At first it seemed as if the women's breath was taken away as they looked about them.
But two of them pounced upon two girls, and, as it seemed, the feeling was mutual; they seemed to know each other - probably as mother and daughter - and seemed to have been looking for each other for a long time. On the whole the atmosphere of the room seemed to change, as if someone had discharged electricity into the air, felt by all.
It is also strange when people are thrown together, even if they never knew each other before. Here it was the - at first unspoken - order of the day that all must lend each other support. It is so simple when such lines intersect and fuse. And it was Theisen - the only man in this room - and his Margharita on whom especially the older women concentrated; the younger women's agreement was not long in coming.
In the nick of time, one must say, for there was now a rattling and a rumbling all around them. While some of the dubious men and women who belonged to this concern seemed to be fumbling at the door, Margharita took one of the girls and went into the room with the big cube full of girls, while Theisen stayed behind, to be on the safe side. For this girl had seen how the cube was operated, and so - despite the danger which this might involve - it was only a few seconds before the first positive impression emerged.
"Do you think that's all true?" Margharita breathlessly asked Silvia, the girl, after gazing repeatedly at the drained cube.
Now the girls woke within it. They opened their eyes and yawned, as if they had all been away for a long time in distant rooms. The first ones quickly realized that they were naked. Something like astonishment flickered across their faces, and with their hands they removed the bows from their necks.
"I don't know," Silvia replied.
The girls reached the floor like blossoms blown down by a steady wind, and most of them reached for their clothes. Almost all of them now had expressions of astonishment on their faces, for they did not even know how they had gotten into this hall. One of them came up to Margharita and touched her cheek as if she could take some of it for herself.
By now the flickering which could be seen throughout the rooms of the kidnappers had grown so strong that lightning struck in the military center as well, the source of all the data and apparatuses used her to kidnap young women. It is hard to say how long it took until the military took the measures which they had long prepared.
But, as apparently they had only been waiting for a clue and access to the rooms, it took perhaps five minutes before the first scientists, their light coat-tails flapping about their hips, arrived with heavily-armed guards. Only a short time later the woman they had seen fleeing from one of the closets was apprehended as well - for somehow the scientists and police with the new devises seemed to have an easier time finding renegades. They must even have known that the faithless, fat professor had already departed this world, even if they had not been able to find him in time.
While the girls - and the mothers present - fell back happily into their times, some of the scientists, more and more of whom had appeared, conferred with Margharita and Theisen, especially regarding the question as to whether it could be feared that the two might misappropriate the secret in some way - which they evidently had to conceal with great care. And though it was only clear that the renegade professor - evidently driven by more than a touch of madness - had been using military secrets for his own profit, even refining them a bit, there was really nothing more to be feared from Theisen and Margharita.
From two people, that is, who had found each other and who, a little bit later, stepped into a niche from which they fell into Theisen's homeland, not Margharita's.
"Well," said Theisen, as he and Margharita - once again exploiting the play of forces - stood for a few moments as if on the roof of the world.
It had grown radiantly bright, and for a moment it seemed as if the earth with all its rivers, lakes, hills and forests lay spread before him and his new friend. It seemed as if they need only reach down to take all that belonged to them as it did to all others.
But the impression faded as quickly as it had come. It grew drafty, cold and windy, and Margharita - perhaps also because she had to think of Naples, which she had left such a short time ago - had to cling to the fire chief. Their embrace grew so close that one might have thought they would never part again.
Brightness, wind, radiance and light passed almost as quickly as they had come. Almost without transition the two, still embracing, fell over and down - at any rate into a region and a zone which they could not grasp. There was a crunching under their feet, and for a moment they were both startled, both overcome by the feeling that something had been removed from their bodies.
But there was nothing. Wind, storm and laughter passed, tormenting both of them as they floated over the clouds - or at least thought of it. It seemed strange, once they had landed on the marketplace of his city and a little bit later climbed the stairs to his apartment, that one could experience all this as real. Yet it seemed that the faces of both were brighter than before, though they could not name the true reason for such a strong stirring.
At any rate, it was dark again outside the window. Evening had fallen, and the heat lightning, which they still saw a little bit, seemed - after astonishing inhabitants and weathermen for the entire week - to fade away as soon as it arrived. As Theisen was no longer needed to fight fires here - he learned on the telephone - they finally managed to continue their initial entertainment in the stranded bed.