Loriana had been living in the big house and hating the tall pine trees around it for what seemed like an eternity when she discovered the secret panel in the master control console of the house.
The secret panel was simply a narrow blank of aluminum–she’d thought of it as room for more switches if they ever needed any, perish the thought!–between the air-conditioning controls and the gravity controls. Above the switches for the three dimensional TV, but below those for the robot butler and maids.
Peter had told her not to fool with the master panel while he was in the city, because she would wreck anything electrical, so when the secret panel came loose under her aimlessly questing fingers and fell to the solid rock floor of the patio with a musical twing her first reaction was fear.
Then she saw it was only a small blank oblong of sheet metal that had fallen and that the space it had covered was a column of six little switches. Only the top one was identified. Tiny glowing letters beside it spelled TREESand it was on.
When Peter got home from the city that evening she garnered her courage and told him about it. He was neither particularly angry nor impressed.
“Of course there’s a switch for the trees,” he informed her deflatingly, motioning the robot butler to cut his steak. “Didn’t you know they were radio trees? I didn’t want to wait twenty-five years for them and they couldn’t grow in this rock anyway. A station in the city broadcasts a master pine tree and sets like ours pick it up and project it around homes. It’s vulgar but convenient.”
After a bit she asked timidly, “Peter, are the radio pine trees ghostly as you drive through them?”
“Of course not! They’re as solid as this house and the rock under it–to the eye and the touch too. A person could even climb them. If you ever stirred outside you’d know theses things. The city station transmits pulses of alternating matter at sixty cycles a second. The science of it is over your head.”
She ventured one more question. “Why did they have the tree switch covered up?”
“So you wouldn’t monkey with it–same as the fine tuning controls on the TV. And so you wouldn’t get ideas and start changing the trees. It would unsettle me, let me tell you, to come home to oaks one day and birches the next. I like consistency and I like pines.” he looked at them out of the dining room picture window and grunted with satisfaction.
She had been meaning to tell him about hating the pines, but that discouraged her and she dropped the subject.
About noon the next day, however, she went to the secret panel and switched off the pine trees and quickly turned around to watch them.
At first nothing happened and she was beginning to think that Peter was wrong again, as he so often was though would never admit, but when they began to waver and specks of pale green light churned across them and then they faded and were gone, leaving behind only an intolerably bright single point of light–just as when the TV is switched off. The star hovered motionless for what seemed like a long time, then backed away and raced off toward the horizon.
Now that the pine trees were out of the way Loriana could see the real landscape. It was flat gray rock, miles of it, exactly the same as the rock on which the house was set and which formed the floor of the patio. It was the same in every direction. One black two-lane road drove straight across it nothing more.
She disliked the view almost at once–it was dreadfully lonely and depressing. She switched the gravity to moon normal and danced about dreamily, floating over the middle-of-the-room bookshelves and the grand piano and even having the robot maids dance with her, but it did not cheer her. About two o’clock she went to switch on the pine trees again, as she intended to do in any case before Peter came home and was furious.
However, she found there had been changes in the column of six little switches. The TREES switch no longer had its glowing name. she remembered that it had been the top one, but the top one would not turn on again. She tried to force it from off to on but it would not move.
All the rest of the afternoon, she sat on the steps outside the front door watching the two-lane road. Never a person or a car came into view until Peter’s tan roverappeared, seeming at first to be motionless in the distance and then move only like a microscopic snail although she knew he always drove at top speed–it was one of the reasons she would never ride with him.
Peter was not as furious as she a had feared. “Your own damn fault for meddling with it,” he said curtly. “Now we’ll have to get a man out here. Damnit, I hate to eat supper looking at nothing but those rocks! Bad enough driving through them twice a day.”
She asked him haltingly about the bareness of the landscape and the absence of neighbors.
“Well, you wanted to live way out,” he told her. “You wouldn’t ever have known about it if you hadn’t turned off the trees.”
“There’s one other thing I’ve got to bother you with, Peter,” she said. “Now the second switch–the one next one below–has got a name that glows. It just says HOUSE. It’s turned on–I haven’t touched it! Do you suppose . . . ?”
“I want to look at this,” he said, bounding up from the touch and slamming his martini-on-the-rocks down on the tray of the robot maid so hard he made her rattle. “I bought this house as solid, but there are swindles. Ordinarily I’d spot a broadcast style in a flash, but they just might have slipped me a job relayed from some other planet or solar system. Fine thing if me and fifty other multi-megabuck men were spotted around in identical houses, each thinking his was unique.”
“But if the house is based on rock like it is . . . ?”
“That would just make it easier to pull the trick, you dumb bunny.”
They reached the master control panel. “There it is,” she said helpfully, jabbing out a finger . . . and hit the HOUSE switch.
For a moment nothing happened, then a white churning ran across the ceiling, the walls and furniture started to swell and bubble, and then they were alone on a rock table as b ig as three tennis courts. Even the master control panel was gone. The only thing that was left was a slender rod coming out of the gray stone at their feet and bearing at the top, like some mechanical fruit, a small block with the six switches–that and an intolerably bright star hanging in the air where the master bedroom had been.
Loriana pushed frantically at the HOUSE switch, but it was unlabeled now and locked in the off position although she threw her weight at it stiff-armed.
The upstairs star sped off like an incendiary bullet, but its last flashbulb glare showed her Peter’s face set in lines of fury. He lifted his hands like talons.
“You little idiot!” he screamed, coming at her.
“No, Peter, no!” she wailed, backing off, but he kept coming.
She realized that the block of switches had broken off in her hands. The third switch had a glowing name now: PETER. She flipped it.
As his fingers dug into her bare shoulders they seemed to turn to foam rubber, then air. His face and gray flannel suit seethed iridescently, like a leprous ghost’s, then melted and ran. His star, smaller than that of the house but much closer, seared her eyes. When she opened them again there was nothing at all left of the star or Peter but a dancing dark after-image like a black tennis ball.
She was alone on an infinite flat black rock plain under the cloudless, star-specked sky.
The fourth switch had its glowing name now: STARS.
It was almost dawn by her radium-dialed wristwatch and she was thoroughly chilled, when she finally decided to switch off the stars. She did not want to do it–in their slow wheeling across the sky they were the last sign of orderly reality–but it seemed the only move she could make.
She wondered what the fifth switch would say. ROCKS? AIR? Or even . . . ?
She switched off the stars.
The Milky Way, arching in its unalterable glory, began to churn, its components darting about like midges. Soon only one remained, brighter even than Sirius or Venus–until it jerked back, fading, and darting to infinity.
The fifth switch said DOCTOR and it was not on but off.
An inexplicable horror welled up in Loriana. She did not even want to touch the fifth switch. She set the block of switches down on the rock and backed away from it.
But she dared not go far in the starless dark. She huddled down and waited for the dawn. From time to time she looked at her wrist and at the night-light glow of the switch-label a dozen yards away.
It seemed to be growing much colder.
She read her wrist dial. It was two hours past sunrise. She remembered they had taught her in third grade that the sun was just one more star.
She went back and sat down beside the block of switches. Loriana picked it up with a shudder and flipped the fifth switch.
The rock grew soft and crisply fragrant under her. It lapped up over her legs and then slowly turned white.
She was sitting in a hospital bed in a small blue room with a white pinstripe.
A sweet mechanical voice came out of the wall, saying, “You have interrupted the wish-fulfillment therapy by your own decision. If you now recognize your sick depression and are willing to accept help, the doctor will come to you. If not, you are at liberty to return to the wish-fulfillment therapy and pursue it ti its ultimate conclusion.”
Loriana looked down. She still held the block of switches in her hands and the fifth switch still read DOCTOR.
The wall said, “I assume from your silence that you will accept treatment. The doctor will be with you immediately.”
The inexplicable terror returned to Loriana with compulsive intensity.
She switched off the doctor.
She was back in the starless dark. The rocks had grown much colder. She could feel icy feathers falling on her face–snow.
She lifted the block of switches and saw, to her unutterable relief that the sixth switch now read, in tiny glowing letters: LORIANA