addressing the tables when he answered: "Beautiful, just beautiful."
With his help, she moved aside the old Formicatop table from the choice position beside the window and placed the new wooden one there. Sunlight smeared its top like warm butter. She sighed with satisfaction, turned to Carl, and put her arms about him in a jubilant hug. "It's happening, Carl. The Blue Apple is beginning to shine." She pulled back, startled. "You smell wonderful. What are you wearing?"
He sniffed his shoulder and caught the cool fragrance misting off him, a scent kindred to a mountain slope. "I don't know," he mumbled.
"Long night on the town, huh?" She smiled slyly. She truly liked Carl. He was the most honest man she'd ever known, a bald, boy-faced pal, soft around the middle but with a quiet heart and an inward certainty. His experience as an account exec had earned him managerial skills that to Sheelagh seemed a dazzling ease with the world of things.. For the first year he ran the entire business on the phone, shuffling loans and debts until they. burst into the black. He was a solid guy, yet he pulled no sexual feeling from her whatever. And for that reason, he had become in a short time closer to her than a brother. She had confided all her adolescent choices to him, and he had counseled her wisely through two high school romances and the lyric expectation of going to college someday. He knew her dreams, even her antic fantasy of a handsome, Persianeyed lover. "From the looks of your clothes," she went on, "your date must have been quite an athlete." Her lubricious grin widened.
Carl pridefully buffed the thought with a smile and went about his business. The redolence of open space spun like magnetism about him all day, a day like most others: After getting the espresso machine and the
coffeemaker going at the bar, he brought the first hot cup to a hungover Caitlin in the kitchen.
The old woman looked as wasted as ever, her white hair tattering about her shoulders and her seamed face crumpled-looking from last night's drinking. Grief and bad luck had aged her more harshly than time, and she wore a perpetual scowl. But that morning when she saw Carl back through the swinging door of the kitchen, his hair feathering from his head and his clothes clinging like plastic wrap, a bemused grin hoisted her features. "Don't you look a sight, darlin'. Now, I know you don't drink, and you smell too pretty to have been rolledso, mercy of God, it must be a woman! Do I know her?"
He placed the black coffee on the wooden counter before her, and she quaffed it though the brew was ply boiling in the cup. "It's not a woman, Caity."
"Ah, good, then there's still a chance for my Sheelagh" –she winked one liver-smoked eye-"when she's older and your hard work
and bright ideas have made us all rich, of course."
Carl took down the inventory clipboard from its nail on the pantry door. "Sheelagh's too young, and too smart to be interested in a bald coot like me."
"Hat That's what you think. And she too probably. But you're both wrong." Caitlin sat back from her slump, refreshed by the steaming coffee. "Baldness is a sign of virility, you know. My Edward was bald, too. It's a distinguishing feature in a man. As for being too young, you're right. She's young with ideas of going off to college. But what's college for a woman? Just a place to meet a roan."
"You know better than that, Caity," Carl told her as he prepared the reorder checklist. "Your daughter's smart enough to be anything she wants to be."
"And does she know what she wants to be? No. So why run off to college when she could be making her fortune here with a clever businessman like yourself? She should be thinking of the Sham-of the Blue Apple, and the lifetime her father gave to this place. before the Lord called him and his weak liver answered. What's going to come of all this recent fortune and long hard work if she goes away? I'm not going to live forever."
"Not the way you drink, Caity. Have the ketchup and mayo we ordered gotten here yet?"
"They're in the cooler downstairs. I'm too old to stop drinking now, Carl. I haven't long to go. I can feel it. Old folk are that way. We know. But I'm not scared now that the Blue Apple has come around. Forty years Edward and I put into this tavern. And only the first ten were any good-but that was back when Chelsea was Irish. I would have sold out when it all changed after the war, but Edward had been brought up here, you know, and he had his dreams, like you have yours, only he wasn't near as handy at making them real. And then Sheelagh was born." She laughed, making a sound like radio noise. "I was forty-five when she was born. Is she God-sent or not, I ask you? Edward blamed the devil. No children for twenty-five years, and then a girl. I think that's what finally killed him, not the drink. If only he could have lived to meet you and see this: the house jammed every night-and eating my food, no less. Take off your glasses."
Carl peered over the rim of his wire glasses as he arranged the dry goods on the counter for that day's dinner menu.
"Why don't you get contact lenses?" Caitlin asked him. "Those glasses bend your face and make you look like a cartoon. And brush back your hair. If you're going to be bald, at least keep what you've got neat."
Carl was well acquainted with Caitlin's ramblings and admonitions, and he grinned away her jibes and checked the potato-and-leek soup she had prepared yesterday far this day's lunch. The old woman was an excellent cook. During the Forties she had worked as a sous chef in the Algonquin, and her dishes were savory and accomplished. She made all of the restaurant's fare with the help of a Chinese assistant who came in the afternoon for the dinner crowd. When Carl saw that the menu for the day was ready, he patted Caitlin on the shoulder and went out to set up the tables for lunch.
Caitlin Sweeney watched him go with a throb of heartbruise that the airy, springstrong scent he trailed only sharpened. She loved that man with a tenderness learned from a lifetime of hurting. She recognized the beauty in his gentleness that a younger woman like her daughter could only see as meekness. Like a lightning rod, Carl was strong in what he could draw to himselfas he had drawn
more fortune to them in one year than her Edward for all his brawny good looks had drawn in forty years. Carl had the prize of luck only God could give. She saw that.– And she saw, too, that Sheelagh, like herself in her hungry youth, yearned for the luckless arrogance of beauty. She sighed like the warmth of a dying fire leaking into the space-cold of night and put her attention on that day's cooking chores.
Carl was pleased that Caitlin encouraged his passion for Sheelagh, believing that the old woman was only teasing his interest in her daughter to keep him happy and hopeful. Carl's loneliness was the only lack Caitlin could pretend to complete in return for all he had done for* them. Besides, Sheelagh was too self-willed for her mother's opinions to influence her even if the crone had really thought he was right for her. Carl spent little time pondering it that last day lie lived as a man, for he was kept busy with his own strangeness.
Lightbulbs blinked out around him faster than he could replace them. And as he worked the bar for the afternoon business lunches, the reverie he had experienced that morning spaced out and became moony and distracted.
"You look pretty harried, sucker," a friendly, gravelly voice said as the blender he was trying to run for a banana daiquiri sputtered and stalled. He looked up into the swart-bearded face of Zeke Zhdarnov, his oldest friend. Zee was a free-lance science writer and parttime instructor of chemistry at NYU. He was a thickset man with a penchant for glenurquhart plaid suits and meerschaum pipes. Carl and Zee had been friends since their adolescence in a boys' home in Newark, New Jersey. They had nothing in common.
At St. Timothy's Boys' Home, Zee had been a husky, athletic ruffian and Carl a chubby, spectacled math demon. A mutual love for comic books brought them together and defied their differences. St. Tim's was a state house, and the place was haunted with dispirited, vicious youths-from criminal homes. Zee offered protection from the roughs, and Carl did his best to carry Zee's classwork. At eighteen, Zee graduated to the Marines and Nam. Carl sought personal freedom by applying his math skills to finance at Rutgers University. A Manhattan brokerage drafted him straight out of the dorms. Meanwhile in Nam, Zee was learning all there was to know about the smallness of life. He paid for that education cheaply with the patella of his right knee, and he came back determined to invent a new life for himself. He studied science, wanting to understand something of the technology that had become his kennel. When that became too abstract, he went to work for a New Jersey drug company and married, wanting to find a feeling equal to the numbness that surrounded him. During his divorce, he had sought
out Carl, and the pain and rectification of that time had brought them together again, closer than they had ever been. Carl had done poorly at the brokerage, stultified by the anomie that had poisoned him from childhood but only oozed out– of him after he had found enough security to stop his mad scramble from St. Tim's and catch the scent of himself. He had smelled sour, and not until he had met Sheelagh and developed the Blue Apple did he begin to feel good about himself. That was a year ago when Zee had reappeared. Now Zee came by often with a crowd of students to fill the Blue Apple up, and Carl was always happy to see him. They shook hands, and a loud spark snapped between their palms.
"Wow!" Zee yelled. "Are you charged! You look like you're being electrocuted-very slowly." He shifted his dark, slim eyes toward the table Sheelagh was clearing, her pendulous breasts swaying with her effort-. "She's overloading you?"
"Today's an unusual day for me, buddy, but not that unusual. What'll you have?"
"Give me a Harp."
Carl took out a bottle of Harp lager from the ice cooler and poured it into a frosted mug. "The wiring's shot around the bar. I can't get this blender or even the damn lightbulbs to work right."
Zee reached over, and the blender purred under his touch. "It's the same way with women and me. The touch must be light yet assertive. I think you've got a lot of backed-up orgone in there." He stabbed Carl's midriff with a swizzle stick. "How about a run with me tomorrow? We'll follow the Westway down to the twin towers. I'll go easy on ya."
Carl agreed, and they chatted amiably about their usual subjects-slow running and fast women-while Carl tended to business. Later, as he was leaving, Zee leaned close and whispered: "No sense wearing that
expensive cologne if you're going to dress like that." He reached out to shake, thought better of it, saluted, and left.
The rest of the day was a bumbling of small accidents for Carl. The bar's electrical system gave-out entirely, and he had to mix drinks by hand and repeatedly go down to the basement cooler for ice. The tiny screws in his eyeglasses popped out; and he lost a lens down an open drain. Napkins clung tenaciously to his fingers, no matter how dry he kept them, and he spilled several drinks before he got used to the paper coasters coming away with his hand. Midway through the dinner shift, with the house jammed, the lights began dimming. When he left; the bar to check the fuse box, the light came up, only to fade again on his return. "This is weird," Carl at last acknowledged, running both hands through his startled hair. Sparks crackled between his fingers. "I'm going home." He went over to the pay phone to call a neighborhood friend to cover for him, but he couldn't get a dial tone. Moments later a customer used the same phone without difficulty.
Carl waited until Sheelagh came to the bar with drink orders, then signed her toward a vacant corner. "What's wrong with me tonight, Sheelagh?"
"Your glasses are missing a lens. Your clothes need ironing. And you really should comb your hair."
"No– I mean, look at this." He touched her arm, and a large spark volted between them.
"Hey! Cut that out. That hurts."
"I can't stop it. I've been electrocuting customers all day. Look." He passed his hand over a stack of napkins, and the paper rose like drowsy leaves and clung to his fingers.
"It's some kind of static electricity," Sheelagh explained.
"I'll say. What can I do about it?"
"Keep your hands to yourself."
Spark surges thudded through him whenever he reached for metal, and after another hour .of stiffening jolts, he sat on a stool at the far end of the bar and cradled his head in his hands.
"Is it that bad, darlin'?" A gentle hand touched his bald head, and another spark jumped.
Carl looked up into Caitlin's whiskey-bright eyes. A –feeling of bloated peacefulness buoyed him at the sight of her time-snarled face. "Hi, Caity. Everything's wrong for me tonight. And I don't even know why."
"Just your luck taking a rest. Don't mind it. Have a drink."
"Nah-but I'd better get back to work."
"Wait." She took his hand, and another knot of electricity unraveled sharply with her touch. "I have to tell you." The marmalade-light in her stare dangled above him, and he could see the whiskey burning in her. "If only I could tell you what I've been humbled to. She doesn't know." She glanced toward where Sheelagh was serving a table, her sinewy elegance shining in the dim light. "You're a special man, Carl. Luck splits through you like light through a crystal. I see that. I see it because I'm old, and pain and mistakes have taught me how to see. You're a beautiful man, Carl Schirmer." Her scowl softened, and she turned away and went back to the kitchen. A customer called from the bar, and Carl rose like a lark into a smoky sunrise.
Caitlin's kind words fueled Carl for the rest of his last day, but by closing time he was feeling wrong again. He felt tingly as a glowworm, and all the tiny hairs on his body were standing straight up. He left Caitlin and Sheelagh to shut down the Blue Apple and walked home. An icy zero was widening in his chest, and he thought for sure he was going to be sick. Nonetheless, the beauty he had felt that morning was still there. Above the city lights, a chain of stars twined against the
darkness, and the fabric of midnight shimmered like wet fur. Only the bizarre emptiness deepening inside him kept him from leaping with joy.
So self-absorbed was he with the bubble of vacancy expanding within him that he didn't notice the befuddled look on the face of the kid whose huge radio fuzzed out and in as Carl passed. Nor did he see the streetlights winking out above him and then flaring back brightly in his wake. The midnight traffic slowed to watch the neon lights in the stores along Twentythird Street warble to darkness in his presence. Not until he had stumbled up the blacked-out stairs of his own building and had fumbled to get his key in the lock by the light of the sparks leaping from his fingers did he notice that a thin ghostfire was burning coolly over his hands and arms. He left the door unlocked behind him, afraid that something awful was happening to him. His apartment lights, like all the lights in the building; were browned out. The filaments in the bulbs glowed dark red but cast no radiance. The TV worked bat gave no picture, only a prickly sound. He wheeled the TV to the door of the bathroom, and by its pulsing blue glow 'he had enough light to take a cold shower. The chilled water invigorated him, and when he looked down at his arms, he saw that the shimmering was gone, if it had been there at all. Relief widened in him, and he washed the one lens of his glasses and put them on to examine himself more closely.
The air was a vibration of luminance, and the wavering static of the TV seemed louder and more reverberant. He slid open the glass door to the shower, and his heart gulped panic. The TV was blacked out. The illumination and the sound were coming out of the air!
He jumped out of the shower stall and nearly collapsed. The bathroom was refulgent with frenzied
light; waterdrops hung in the air like chips of crystal. Through the glare in the mirror, through an anvil, of ripping-metal noise, he saw that his head was blazing with swirls of silvergreen flames. Dumbstruck, he watched the terror in his brilliantly oiled face as green fire fumed from his body in an incandescent rush.
A white-hot shriek cut through him, and his body went glassy, shot through with violet sparks and flurries of black light. Silence
froze the room to a cube of crackling light. And the last thing Carl Schirmer saw was the glass of his own horrified face shatter into impossible colors. '
Zee was the first to see Carl's apartment when he came by the next morning for their planned run. His knock went unanswered, but he heard the TV, so he tried the door. And it opened. The apartment smelled windshaken, bright as a mountaintop. Zee went over to the TV, which had been wheeled across the room to face the bathroom door and was blaring a morning soap. He turned it off.
"Oh sweet Jesus!" The words escaped him before he knew what he was seeing. Ile bathroom was a charred socket. The mirrors were purpled from exposure to an intense heat, burned imageless. Zee entered, and the tiles crushed to ash beneath his sneakers. He stood– numb in the scorched and shrunken room. The seat of the fire-glossed toilet had curled to the shape of a black butterfly, and the sink counter that had held toothbrush and shaving implements was reduced to twisted clinkers.
The police, later, would classify the fare as unclassifiable. No human remains were found, and Carl was recorded as a missing person.
Caitlin and Sheelagh came by late in the afternoon
to see the mess themselves, and they found Zee still there.
"What do you think happened?" Caitlin asked after she had surveyed a blasted room.
Zee was sittin on the couch in the living area where he could see to the bathroom, staring as though he had not heard h r. He tugged at his beard, twisting at the braid that had formed from his daylong tugging. "Spontaneous human combustion," he whispered without looking at her.
"What?" The old woman looked to her daughter, who just shook her tear-streaked face.
"No one knows why," Zee answered in a trance, "but it happens all the time-usually to old ladies who drink too much."
Caitlin gave him a fierce, reproving look.
"I'm not joking," he shot back. ."That's the statistic. Men burn up, too. And I guess that's what's happened to Carl."
"You mean, he just caught fire?" Caitlin sat down beside him and peered into his face incredulously. "How can that be?"
"I don't know. Nobody, knows. I read about it once. The best theory they have is that imbibed alcohol ignites some kind of chemical reaction in the body."
"But Carl never drinks," Sheelagh pointed out, and then straightened with the rise of a memory. "The police came by the tavern. I told them he was feeling odd yesterday. Paper stuck to him and sparks kept jumping from his. fingers."
"Yeah, I remember that," Zee muttered. He stood up. He went back to the bathroom for another look at the mystery. He was a rational man, and he felt, muscularly felt, that there was a reason for this.
The blue, wide-sky fragrance was almost gone. Sunlight slanted through the apartment window and
laid a diagonal bar across the purpled bathroom mirror. In the brilliant yellow shaft, a shadow showed within the heat-varnish of the mirror.
"Hey!" he called to the two women. "Do you see this? Or am I losing my mind?"
Caitlin and Sheelagh entered the bathroom with trepid alertness and peered where Zee was pointing. In the violet-black sheen of the mirror, where the sunlight crawled, was the vaguest
"It looks like a tree crown to me," Caitlin said.
"No-it's the outline of a head, neck, and shoulders," Zee insisted, his finger frantically outlining the image.
"Could be," Sheelagh conceded. "But it could also just be our imagination."
"I'm a science writer," Zee said impatiently, pressing his face to the mirror. "I don't have an imagination. Get me a screwdriver. Come on."
Zee dismantled the mirror and took it to his studio office in Union Square. For a while he experimented with it himself, illuminating the surface with sunlight, arc light, UV light. Nothing more than' the dimmest semblance of a human head appeared. And the rorschached shape could really have been anything. But Zee recognized the square of Carl's head, the familiar silhouette so oft-seen in the darkness of lights-out at St. Tim's, too well remembered from those lonely first years when a friend was the closest he got to family. Hard as he tried, though, his amplifications distinguished little more than an amorphous shadow.
Then a friend of his who worked at IBM's imageintensification lab in Jersey took pity on his feeble but relentless efforts and decided to prove once and for all that the mirror was a random fire pattern. A week later, the friend, pastier and meeker-looking, presented him with a computer-enhanced photograph. The five-by
seven-inch unglossed image showed a starburst of puissant radiance, most of it blank with an unsealed intensity Daggered at the very center, a clot of darkness resolved with a stabbing clarity to Carl Schirmer's
horror-crazed features. Eating the Strange
Nothing-the blankest word in the language. A year ago, Carl Schirmer vanished into nothing. How? I've come to believe that the microevents in the atoms of Carl's body are the key. I'm not a physicist, but I know enough science to guess what happened to him. Here's what I figure:
The very big and the very small-general relativity and quantum mechanics-come together, at a fundamental unit of length called Planck's length, which is the geometrical mean of Compton's wavelength and Einstein's gravitational radius of a particle. It looks like this: 1= h
It's equivalent to about 10'3 centimeter. The edge of nothingness, just beyond that smallness, spacetime
itself loses the flat, continuous shape we take for granted and
becomes a fantastic seething of wormholes and microbridges,
the tiniest webs and bubblings. Any part of this ceaseless
ferment lasts no more than the sheerest fraction of a –second.
It is the texture of Nothing. Like sponge. Or suds. Each
bubble is a solitary region of space: The surface of the bubble is
the farthest distance the center of the bubble can know about
in its brief lifespan because that's as far as light can travel in so
short a time. It's a universe in itself, existing only for that
fraction of time and during that fraction connecting our
universe with the ubiquitous Field that connects all universes.
To see how this fact connects with Carl Schirmer, we have to go back to Planck. At the end of the nineteenth century, he was trying to explain why radiation varies with temperature. As
an object is heated, first it gets red-hot, then white-hot. It only gets bluehot if the temperature increases. The higher frequencies of blue require more energy-which was news in the nineteenth century. Greater energy for shorter wavelengthsl Not what common sense had learned from sound and water waves, which need more energy the longer they are. The now classic formula that predicts this phenomenon is E = hF where h = Planck's constant:
Since frequency is the inverse of time, the formula can be written this way: E x T = Constant (h). Energy, as everybody knows, equals mc2, mass times the speed of light squared. What, after all, is the speed of light but a length of space covered in a period of time. So, h actually equals Mass times Length2/Time. ML2/T is called angular momentum.
What is it? Basically, it's linear momentum times the radius around which it spins, MIA x L = ML2/T, like a rock in a sling. The amazing thing is that this
angular momentum, alias Planck's constant, can hold any amount of energy at all! Like the skater who spins faster by pulling in his arms, the frequency of a photon increases as its radius, in this case wavelength, decreases. Fantastically, there is no limit to this increase of energy, either. The smaller the photon, the more energy it containsl
Somehow, Carl turned into light. And that light did not wholly irradiate away. If it had, a large part of Manhattan would have been vaporized. Instead, the photons that made up Carl increased in energy and shrank. The energy flux was so great that Carl's body of light shrank smaller than the fine structure of spacetime itself-and he fell through the fabric of our reality into the seething superspace of quantal-tunnels, spume, and foam-perhaps to expand again in another universe. This is the ghost hole theory. A saner phrase than Nothing. But really, it's just as senseless.
I'm writing a science fiction novel. Shards of Time. It's about Carl, of course, and the ghost hole that swallowed him. Just now it's seeming that's all there is between me anti insanity-this fabulous story of a man who turns into light, a man whose fate I'd always taken for granted. Why are stories so long? The text is already there, in the true history of accidents that brought Carl and me together and then separated us. If I can just write it before –my funds dry up, I may be able to sell it 'and not have to move. I don't want to move-: There's been enough erasure lately. I've barely the stamina left to imagine the lies that can carry the ideas coming at me. The moment goes everywhere at once. Unfortunately, the muscle of my memory is numb, and my line of concentration has been wavering. I must rest. Actually, I must restructure myself inside out. Perhaps I'll fast.
That's one way to restructure and save money at the same time.
Caitlin Sweeney came to see me . The old lady was surprised at this mess. She didn't know I'd lost my teaching post. I think she was drunk. She wanted to see the mirror and the photo again, and she sat for a long time by the window looking at them. She wanted to know what they meant. I was five or six gins into forgetting that day, and I told her everything I've guessed about the ghost hole. When I was done, she asked why other scientists weren't studying what had happened to Carl. I tried to tell her that the mirror had become scientifically inadmissible after I took it off the wall, but I cracked up-laughing as much as cryingand that scared her o$:
Later, as it was growing darker and I was coming up from that day's drunk, I remembered her bird-bright eyes and the queer way she peered at the photo close up, the silver of leer breath cutting the gloss again and again until she was sure of what she was seeing. And now I'm sure. Carl isn't screaming with pain in this photo. He's grimacing with intense pleasure! –excerpts from The Decomposition Notebook by Zeke Zhdarnov
Orgasm ignited him. Hot as the sun's weight, space molded his shape. He tried to move but could not budge the pleasure. He tried to see and saw a hard blue sky, deeper than his sight, quivering with delight. Listening, he heard his heart moaning and his blood sizzling in his ears.
The voltage of the orgasm wearied, and the himshaped heat melted to a delicate warmth.
"YOU ARE AWAKE!" A blowtorch voice seared his hearing, and his whole being juddered.
"Excuse me," the voice said more softly, deep as a man's but lissome as a woman's. The words came from every direction. "Can you tell me who you are?"
He tried to speak, but his voice had to cross a dreamgap between his will and his breath. When at last the words came, the sound of his voice subtracted him from the pleasurable stillness, and he immediately felt himself upfalling, floating and turning through the blue nothing: "Who wants to know?"
Carl drifted a long time. Blue filled the hollow bodiless center of his mind with peace. Memory was a soft distance. Expectation was unbegun.
So when the voice returned, directionless as smoke, intimate as a friend, the words embraced all of him, and he listened rapt as the face of the world
"At the end of time, in the last million years of the universe, an unusual creature drifts through the slow hurry of evolution into the glory and anguish of selfawareness: It is an eld skyle, and it is I. I am vast by human standards: a cubic kilometer of silaceous cell matrices intricately and delicately interpenetrating. A colossal jellyfish floating in ,a lake: a radiolarial system, highly evolved, yet stationary and witless-looking as a brain without a body. To you I would look like a cloudy pond shimmering with biotic iridescence. Yet what makes me unusual is not my size or unlikely form. I am unusual because I thrive almost wholly on ghosts. I eat the past."
"Wait a minutel Hold on nowl" Carl called through the thickness of the nightmare. "Are you saying I'm alive? This isn't the next world?"
"It's another world, Carl," the gray voice answered.
"How. do you know my name?"
"I know everything about you."
A hearty laugh towered like a megalith. "No. I'm as mortal as you. That's why I can assure you-you're not dead."
"How come I feel I should be?"
"Perhaps because you are, at this moment, bodiless."
"And you call that alive?" The propinquity of madness alarmed him. "Where am I? I can't see myself."
"You are inside me. I am reshaping you. To even begin to understand how this is possible, you must know something about my world. I live in a special region inside the cosmic black
hole at the end of time. The universe around me is small and hot. Spacetime has long ago completed its expansion, braked, and begun to fall back on itself. At the time of this telling, one hundred and twenty-five billion years after your star, Sol, cindered to frozen rubble, the whole universe is a mere six hundred thousand parsecs wide, the distance from your earth to the Andromeda galaxy. All of spacetime has been reduced to a mote of what you knew the cosmos to be."
"I knew the cosmos to go from Brooklyn to the Bronx," Carl's voice quaked. "Where am I?"
"I've told you. You're at the end of time."
"But why?" Carl whined. "I was just at home, taking a shower-" ,
"One hundred and thirty billion years ago."
"I'm hallucinating. I must be hallucinating."
"Would you rather not hear this?"
"I have a choice?"
"Of course." The eld skyle's voice had the long patience of a horizon. "I am narrowing my five-space consciousness to your human smallness because it plea: sures me. It's not at all necessary. If you prefer, I'll just pass you on into my world. Words are useful only if you can believe them. In your case, perhaps, experience itself is the best teacher."
"Well, if you put it that way-go ahead, tell me everything."
The blue space holding Carl brightened like the fever of a dream. "I'm glad, Carl. I've wanted to tell this story for a long time. Let me begin again. We are now in a place many years in your future. So far in the future that the universe itself is old and dying. It is caving in on itself. In the whirlpool center of this implosion, the most immense collapsar that has ever existed spins, tusked with fiery streamers huge as galaxies. The void around it flares with its radiant scud, too hot for planets or even ordinary stars. But inside the black hole, beyond its cyclone of neutron fire, where all things, even the subtleties of light, are spellbound by gravity, a wonderful kingdom exists."
"And that's where we are now, right?"
"Yes. The kingdom is called the Werld. It is a lightsecond deep, and it is wide as thirteen earths. Most remarkable of all, it is embedded in a bubble of ordinary spacetime, a gravitational globule suspended inside the black hole. The spin of the collapsar's ring nucleus distorts the infalling spacetime around the vacuole kingdom, sealing the Werld o$' from the crushing gravity that surrounds it on all sides. The nucleus of the black hole is the kingdom's source of life, much the way Sol was the lifesource of your planet-only in reverse. Sol was a star, and it radiated the energy which sustained earthlife. The ring nucleus here is a singularity, an infinitely dense zone where light and spacetime cease to exist. The singularity pulls energy into it. The radiation streaming past and through the Werld provides the light and energy for life to thrive. After passing here, the energy plunges on, into the nucleus, where it is destroyed. Except at the exact center. There a hole in the ring singularity links into superspace, an
infinite corridor that connects all the universes that exist the multiverse. You popped out of that hole."
"Any chance I could pop back in?" Carl queried hopefully.
"I'm afraid not. You see, you came out as light. And most of –you was lost in the ring singularity. Only some of you shot straight through the hole of the ring, arced along a klein-bottle warp, looking from the center of the black hole to the periphery before plummeting back toward the core. Along the way, your four-spat, journey intersected the top edge of this kingdom and glinted here in this living lake-in me. A few of your photons were captured by specialized cells just under the glassy surface of my lake, and over a period of time equal to an earth century, you were re-created from the information inside your own light."
Carl felt frosty with fear. "How do you know you got it right?"
"Every molecule of your form has been explored by my five-space consciousness: and compared to the anthropic ideal enfolded in the hyperspace of your genes. The flaws and variances of the genetic ideal were the rough edges of your individuality: your soft stomach, weak eyes, bald head, and bloated kidneys. Those deviations from the perfection implicit in your chromosomes are actually food to a being like me-an eld skyle. I eat the strange. You see, my five-space mind experiences you wholly, shining with the full possibilities of life. There is a great potential difference between that and your actual physical form. An eld skyle experiences a thrilling, century-long rush of power as it rectifies the dimensionally charged gap between the optimal and the actual."
"Yeah, well, I'm glad this was a high for somebody. But what's it do for me?"
"What I've done for you, Carl"-the eld skyle spoke with the exuberance of a game-show host "is to give you a new body. It's fashioned from the lake sludge, but it's more fully you than the old shape you endured. Your body has been adamized, if you will accept my neologism. Like Adam, you have now been made in the exact likeness of your nucleic potential. You have been both exalted and reduced. Your individuality is potentially less but your actual expression, your stock strength, your innate animality, is greater."
"Sounds great as an idea," Carl admitted, "but is it me?"
"Apart from your new appearance," the eld skyle's voice hushed through him, "you won't feel any differently than you did one hundred and thirty billion years ago on earth. You are still essentially yourself. Even your memories are intact. Let me show you-"
The presence of the eld skyle's voice vanished into a bleat of silence. Anxiety shivered through Carl as the conviction that he was not dreaming seized him. And then the glistening pleasure returned. His fear shriveled. He had no idea what was happening, but felt no fear at all. Warmingly, the blue void that surrounded and buoyed him shimmered with movement. The light jellied to images, glassy shapes from his past: St. Tim's ash-colored buildings, canyoned Manhattan, the Blue Apple's dirty bricks glowing in the city's crooked daylight. Faces snapped past like the rags of fireworks: childhood buddies, teachers, lovers, bosses, and his closest friend, Zeke, ZeeZee, Zeebo, the Zee, his first hero, the big kid who had protected him from the bullies, the grown man Carl had helped grapple with his feelings after Nam and a divorce
Dumbstruck and glowing with new feelings, Carl rolled gently through the blue emptiness.
'As you see, your history is still with you," the
voice returned, slender. "So is your fear. But I'm holding it in check because you are from a special era of life. You have the
possibility of apprehending your fate, unlike the thousands of other humans from earlier times that have given their strangeness to me and gone on. They had no way of grasping the concept of a final black hole or this marvelous kingdom dangling within it. You are the first that I can speak to about the infinity virus." 'I think you're overrating me."
"No. I am using concepts your brain has already encountered."
"Right, but my brain's a lot smarter than I am. Just take it
"Certainty," the eld skyle agreed, sounding very close in the whaled space. "The infinity virus arrived a billion years ago. It came through the ring hole from somewhere in the multiverse. It carried the information to build me and. all the other lifeforms in the Werld. There is no archaeological evidence of life older than a billion years ago anywhere in the kingdom. None of the
many intelligences that live here now know where the virus came from. Also, none of the lifeforms that evolved from the infinity virus are humanoid. All the people in the Werld have come here through eld skyles, as you've
come here." "You mean-I'm not alone? There are other humans here?"
"Oh, yes. All of them, or their ancestors, have come through me and my kind. We are the most evolved product of the viral program. Our five-space awareness is sustained by three primary factors: light infalling through the collapsar's event horizon, the mineral honeycomb of the rock that holds our liquid forms, and the dimensional charge from assimilating the strangeness of other creatures. To satisfy the last of these needs, eld skyles are equipped with a unique spore designed very much like its viral ancestor. The spore is encoded to activate only inside neurologies broadcasting a certain frequency indicative of, self-awareness. After it is formed and programmed, it is iridium-coated and ejected through a waterspout high into the atmosphere. There its glide-shape catches the powerful axial winds of the Werld, and it is propelled into the fibrous, filament-wide tunnels that connect the fringes of the gravity bubble with the superspace in the open center of the singularity."
"All this for a meal?" Carl was giddy with the weirdness of his predicament. "You're a five=space being and you haven't even invented fast food yet? Come on."
"This does sound complex from a three-space view, I grant you. But let me go on. It takes my spore years to reach the hole in the singularity, but the instant it gets there, it vanishes into the multiverse and just as instantly appears somewhere in the infinite elsewhere. Of course, most of the spores are lost. Even with their iridium armor, the heat of the stars and the far greater endlessness of space defeat them. Only the tiniest fraction of the trillions of spores ejected by an eld skyle ever find their way to a useful environment."
"Well, you're obviously doing something right."
"Yes, indeed. Entirely by chance, one spore reached the planet earth eighty-four million years before you were born. It hovered in the reservoir of ionic detritus of the upper atmosphere for a hundred thousand years or so before sifting down into the biosphere. A fish ate it first, and the molecular lock of the spore's surface bonded it to the nerve tissue of the creature. The spore passed along from animal to animal as
food for millions of years. For a long while it lapsed, into the limbo of silt before being taken up by a plant, eaten, and carried once again by the life frenzy. Thirty-two thousand .years ago, the spore was ,eaten in a piece of badger meat by a
lake-dweller in neolithic Switzerland. That was one of your ancestors."
"No wonder I'm a vegetarian."
"The frequency of her neurology was complex enough to activate the spore, which immediately sited itself in her genetic material. Fifteen hundred generations later, the spore received a subquantal signal from me, the eld skyle that began its journey, one hundred and thirty billion years in the future. That signal is the key to this whole cycle. It is an inertial wave signal and propagates through superspace instantly. My need is felt everywhere that my spores are, for the spores are inertially identical to me. My five-space mind selects an activated spore from somewhere in creation by sensing and evaluating. the complexity of the spores' hosts, and at my discretion, the chosen spore begins its delivery."
"So-bingo-here I am."
"Would you like to, hear more about the mechanism of your journey?"
"As soon as I selected you, the spore's master program went to work on two fronts-your body's neuromolecular field and your universe's inertial field."
"You've already lost me."
"Bear with me. The spore flooded your body with a complexly designed substance modeled on your body's natural neurotransmitters. It mimed your own nerve chemicals so that it could penetrate the RNA in the synapses of your nerves. Within forty-eight hours, every RNA molecule in your body's synapses was fitted with the spore's neurochemical. The spore chemical modulated your nerve impulses, ' triggering a neural feedback pattern in your sensory ganglia, brain stem, and limbic area that you experienced as intense, inexplicable euphoria. But that was a mere side efect."
"I'm beginning to feel that I'm just a side effect," Carl despaired.
"In a manner of speaking, you are. You're a projection of your body. The main thrust of the spore saturation was to generate a waveform hologram of your body, inside out, atom by atom. Once that waveform came on, the electric resonance of your nervous system began harmonizing with the magnetic field of the earth. The harmonic buzz charged you with the billion-volt potential difference between the ionosphere and the earth. You were walking lightning."
"That explains why I was sparking all day."
"Yes, that took the better part of a day. But what happened next happened swiftly. The wave resonance of you and the planet began to pick up the overtonal harmonics of the sun's field, the local stars, even the galaxy. By that time, you were hypercharged, and the water in your shower was sustaining such a strong transfer charge that it was flying away from your body. Your waveform was in resonance with the charge of the universe itself. A few moments later you reached concrescence, the point where the resonation of you and the universe was precise enough to supply the energy for a local collapse. In a sliver of a second, the immense energy transfer from the universe shrank your light pattern into a space smaller than
ten to the minus forty-third centimeter, smaller than the grain of spacetime. Your collapsed waveform fell into a hypertubule, a wormhole entrance into the multiverse smaller than a quark. The inertial imprint of the spore guided you here. And so the circle joins."
The voice vanished again, and Carl's body tightened with the silence. Ahead of him, space wrinkled, and a warp of sunlight spalled the blue distance.
"You're surfacing now," the eld skyle spoke. "You're
rising out of my watery depths. You've listened patiently, and finally it's time for you to confront your new life.
"Hey, not yet," Carl called out. "You haven't told me anything about this place."
Tremulous, sudden brilliance stunned Carl. He felt the rising rush of his body. His back arched, and just as he realized that he was indeed in water, he split the surface like a man collapsing. The air gulped him, and his hungry lungs ached with the cold. As he splashed to his back, lurching and flapping to find his balance, his senses swooped in on him.
Haws of birdnoise burst on all sides,– and a flock of snakeheaded blue egrets swarmed off the water and into the air. The sky was a radiant purple, sunless yet gleaming. Its brightness heaved off the water and hurt his eyes.
Jesus Flippin' Christ," he gasped, the words cold in his mouth.
The snaky egrets were flapping toward a boulderstubbled shore. He swam after them even though he did not know how to swim. The water he was in was thicker than water, so buoyant it was holding him up. His meagerest efforts to move were enough to spin him wildly, and several moments passed before he coordinated himself to move in one direction. By then, his eyes had adjusted to the slam of the strong light, and he could see the shore more clearly. It wasn't a shore. It was a rim-a wall. The boulders were immense. The bigger ones on either side of him were small islands wraithed with misty flowers. Ahead, the blue egrets landed on their reflections in the bright shallows.
"Before you reach my edge, I do have something more to tell you." The sound of the voice was alarming. It seemed to come from all around. Carl whirled., After he had calmed himself and begun sliding toward the shallows again, the eld skyle's lucent voice continued:
"The Werld is vast, Carl. Its appearance will awe you, for you've never seen anything like it. Crags of treecrowded rock floating in space, glinting with waterfalls and rainbows, the purple sky around them swarming with their shadows and the tumbling clouds. It's beautiful beyond words. Hard, even for me, to believe that when the infinity virus first arrived here, there was nothing but infalling cosmic dust and light. The virus proliferated close to the inside of the event horizon in the high-energy light and collected the cosmic dust into exoskeletons. That served as shields, allowing the organism to draw even closer to its power source. Like coral, only much faster, the exoskeletons accumulated along the fields of force laced throughout this gravity vacuole. Over millions of years, planetoids formed around the standing resonance patterns of those gravity waves. The gaseous emissions of the swiftly evolving viral descendants created a watery, oxygen-bright atmosphere which now is only slightly richer than the one you once breathed."
The sky was so bright that Carl had to float facedown. When he turned his head for air, he asked: "Where are the
people you said were around?"
"Many sentient lifeforms are present in the Werld at this time," the eld skyle answered, its voice sounding as if it spoke from the core of his brain. "Few are humanoid. In fact, the most technologically advanced planetoid, Galgul, is occupied by the predominate sentience of the Werld-the zotl. They're arachnoid creatures that exist as fused male-female units. The female is almost twice the size of a human and apparently
featureless-a black, furry barrel to your eyes-but quite
intelligent. The males are smaller, not as bright, . but very deft and fast. They're spidery, about the size of your hand, and red or black depending on their social status. They've adapted four of their eight appendages
into wings, and they can hover or soar. Their other four legs are actually arms with powerful and agile grippers. They see with remarkable acuity in infrared and your visible range. Most of their communications are hormonal, though they also have a click language several orders more complex than dolphin speech. The male.female components must unite regularly to survive; since each half alone completes only part of their metabolic cycle. They eat nitrogen, light, and the painproducts of other creatures. Here in the Werld, their favorite food is humans."
"Great. You've eaten my strange, and they want to eat the
"I'm warning you about the zotl because once you go over my edge, you'll be beyond my reach. The zotl are as intelligent as humans, with a technology of their own. They herd humans and use them as they need. A zotl feast is ghastly. The male zotl piths the back of the skull, and a needle-fine tubule is inserted into the amygdala, the pain center of the brain. The human is paralyzed but quite aware of what is happening. The awareness is important to the zotl's digestion, so the captive brain is injected with a serum that heightens perceptions. Then the pain center is activated, and the human suffers. The torment is horrendous, a molten tearing, all the more terrible because the body is left intact and is nourished by the zotl's glucose wastes. The feeding can last for weeks."
"I want to go home!" Carl cried and rolled to his back in the thick water. His white body gleamed in the hot light. "Look at me I'm naked. How can I. defend myself naked?"
"The only defense against the zotl for you is to avoid them. There is .a tribe of humans at your level of development who live avoidance. They have no advanced technology, as that would attract zotl hunt
ers; however, their culture is rich. I've inscribed their .language in your brain, and you'll have no: trouble communicating with them. They call themselves Foke. I've arranged for a thornwing, a kind of bird-plant, to take you to Tarfeather, the Foke's present secret home. And to complete my birthing of you as a man, I've modified your sex hormone, alpha androstenol, to attract a woman I know of among the Foke. Her name is Evoe, and she knows the Werld. If you treat her wisely, she will be your best ally."
Carl's backstroke picked up as a gigantic sense of future rose in him. "I don't know what to say"
"Then listen. There are a few more things you should know about the Werld. The scattered foci of gravity nodes that give the Werld its unique contours also magnetize space in.such a way that the unwinding of your supercoiled DNA is
inhibited. Which means you won't age. Genetic chipping by cosmic rays is limited at the Midwerld level of the Foke by the atmosphere and the planetoids between them and the horizon, where the radiation enters. And there are as yet no viral cancers, colds, or diseases. Death is an accident here. And there is bounteous, opportunity for accidents, for the gravity contours and the winds of the Werld are treacherous. Not to mention gumper hogs with maws like sharks, poison dagger lizards, and mansized blood beetles. Learn well what the Foke have to teach you, and you will live long."
"Oh, God, eld skyle," Carl moaned. "I feel like fishfood floating in an aquarium. Can't you give me a gun or a knife or even some clothes?"
The eld skyle's voice was gone. Only the waterlammed sounds of the shore filled his hearing.
Carl's efforts had carried him over the slippery surface to the shore. Black sand dimpled under his hands as he pushed himself to his knees. The shallow
water unruffled, and he saw a red-bearded, brass-haired man with a square-boned face and thick shoulders. It was he. Those tentative hazel eyes were his own. He reached out and touched the blindness of the water. The reflection wobbled. Slow with disbelief, he lifted his arms and stared at the circuitry of veins and the straps of muscle straining for use. His chest was smoky with russet hair and his abdomen squared with strength. The blood-drum beat louder as his wavering fingertips followed the taut planes of his face to his mane of sleek, redgold hair. Suddenly, the silence of the eld skyle was more real than its voice had been, and Carl sat back in the thick water as what it had said recurred to him.
"Adamized," he mouthed, peering at his reflection, tugging at his –hair, and grinning like a lunatic. The numbness of the eld skyle s ecstasy was thinning, tingling with the implications of all Carl had just learned.
"Carl Schirmer," he said to himself, "look what's happened to you. It can't be real. It is real, bumblewit. But it can't be. Eld skyle, if you can hear me-you did a great job. If only I could take this home with me."
He looked about to see where he was. The sandbar where he was kneeling curved into a black sand beach beneath eel-black dolmen rocks. Carl took one more look into the surprised explosions of his eyes, then heaved himself to his feet and slogged up the beach. The windhoned rocks were pitted and fractured, and even though he was naked, he had no difficulty scaling the rockface to the top.
A wall of wind surfed along the ledge, and he squinted against the cold Push and the brash sunlight at islands floating in the sky. For as far as he could see, huge chunks of rock floated in space, their irregular surfaces covered with slim, elegant trees and golden grass. The nearest skyle hovered several hundred meters away. Dark-green curtains of spruce draped cliffwalls
that banked a long lake. Another eld skyle, Carl realized, and he glanced back toward where he had come from. The glare off the water sprained his seeing, and he had to stare at the tree-staggered coast to clear his eyes. Trembling smells of cedar and pine riffled in the air, and hot light sighed off dusty rocks.
When he could see clearly again, he gazed back over the edge into the gulf of floating islands: Delirious cloudshapes obscured the distances, melted-looking sprawls of silver and gold archipelagoed
with skyles. With astonishment he noticed that a waterfall at the bottom of a nearby skyle was falling upward, toward the skyle.
While he studied the apparent anomaly, a thick bark-tattered vine skirled its way along a fissure in the outside wall, moving serpentwise toward him. He was mentally reviewing what the eld skyle had told him about focalized gravity nodes when the slither vine curled over the edge and snagged his ankle.
"Ee-yow!" He jumped with fear and tripped forward, falling to his face. Another startled bark escaped him before the vine yanked him off the wall and into the abyss. The wind kicked the breath out of him; and he sprawled, expecting to fall. Instead, he flew sideways along the rimwall and plunged into a net of thorny meshed vines. The net snapped about him, enwrapping him tightly in a pod that broke away and plummeted into the gulf.
Carl's face was clear of the binding tendrils, and he could see the raptor of the pod's tiny hooked head and the taloned vines dangling below. The underside of the eld skyle swung into view, revealing another lake ringed with twisted trees, its surface velvety black.
Carl heard the flap of wings above him, and the thornwing caught a powerful current and swooped through a swarm of skyles. The tug of the abrupt curves squeezed
his insides, and the physical reality of what was happening loomed up in him. As the thornwing glided through the bright tatters of cloud among the sky-hung buttes, he flashed to his old life-the Blue Apple, Caitlin, and Sheelagh. An astonished hilarity quaked in him, rippled with fear. The memory of the eld skyle's voice was all that reigned in his madness. One hundred and thirty billion years had passed. The wind of the thornwing's flight streamed over him, yet he was basted with sweat.
As they dropped deeper into the Werld, the light of the sky changed. Vast wells of peacock-blue space' churned with golden clouds. Flocks of winged animals arrowed along flyways in all directions. And everywhere, kingdoms of black rock and blue forests hung in the air. Some of the skyles were so huge that skimming over them was like flying on earth again, watching the woods of Pennsylvania rolling by, until the edge curved past and the sky billowed with distance.
Among far-off skyles, glass towers flashed. Carl glimpsed them briefly before a metallic scream ripped his hearing to deafness. A finned black metal boomerang big as a Ferris wheel spun out from a tower of clouds and sliced through the air only meters away. The thornwing squawked and looped a tight arc, volplaning with the slipstream of the craft. Then the thornwing's glide cut through the interior of a cloud, and the oystery blankness obscured sight for a long time. The flightscream of the craft thinned with distance, and the thornwing rolled into a relaxed glide.
The diffuse light rusted as they went deer. When they swooped out of the clouds, the Werld was dusky. Scarlet walls of cumulus toppled on all sides, and the hollows of the skyles brimmed with night.
Tiny lights winked from the darkside of a skyle. As the thornwing rushed closer, Carl saw that the sparks were lanterns held by shadowy figures. The thornwing
arrowed toward the figures, the frayed tips of trees brushing past and the rocky forest floor hurtling by. They were dressed in animal skins and leather thongs. When they sighted the diving thornwing with its torpedoed passenger, their startled cries cracked the nocturnal silence, and they bolted.
They howled as they ran, conferring frenziedly while
dodging branches and fallen trees. All at once, they halted and heaved their lanterns at the thornwing, The lanterns collided in midair and burst into a gush of sparks. Hot flechettes stung Carl along the length of his body, and he heard the thornwing's shrill cry as the burning embers caught in it shaggy hide.
Its tendriled embrace broke, and Carl collapsed onto the duff-cushioned ground. Flopped out on his back, he witnessed the thornwing's retreat. With its sheer wings withdrawn, it was a tangle of spiked vines and vetch. It rolled along the ground like a tumbleweed, glinting with the sparks it had caught, and finally unwrapping into a gawky, spiderlegged flap of bluegreen wings.
One of the fur-wrapped people snapped open a bow and swiftly strung an arrow. But as he was sighting the thornwing, Carl lurched at him and spoiled his shot. The thornwing arched overhead in time to see Carl thrown back to the ground. It rauked once and soared out of sight.
Hoots and shouts clattered in the chill air, and the fur-strapped people were around him. They chided his nakedness, his clumsiness, and his interference. And he understood them. Their language was a rushed sibilance, a strange whisper-tongue, yet he recognized it: "He let the flopwing get away! Break his wrist."
"Leave him be. He's nothing. Did you see him hit the ground like a bag of roots? Haw!"
"At least we can –see he's a man," a woman's voice
added, "and a large-sized one at that!" Giggles and female voices fluttered.
"He's obviously an eld dropping," a male's coarse voice said. "Let's leave him here."
A shouted "No!" jumped from the women in the small crowd. "We must bring him to the wizan," one of the women, spoke. "It is the law"
"Crawl" The man's voice coarsed again. He stepped forward where Carl could see him: a bleak man in wolf and snakeskins, his youthful blackbearded face already sharp and hard as a flintedge. At his hip, in a lizardhide holster, was a handgun. "I'm the chief of this run, and I say we leave him. If he's alive when we circle, back this way, we'll take him to Tarfeather."
"Right, Allin!" another of the men called out. "Let's get to Rhene and free our Foke now"
"Please; go," Carl agreed from where he was back= sprawled. He cast a glance over the forest-hackled ridges of the skyle. "I can make myself comfortable here if you'd leave me some clothes."
Silence boomed. Allin took one step closer to Carl. "You speak Foke."
"He's not a skyle dropping," one of the others guessed.
"I think I am," Carl said, sitting up. "Me eld skyle gave me your language before sending me out into the Werld. You're the Foke, right? From Tarfeather."
Mutters shivered through the group. Allin hushed them with a slant of his cubed head. His black hair was pleated tightly to his skull and dangled in corded bangles to his shoulders. The small hairs at the crown of his forehead twitched. "You are the first dropping that I've heard speak." His tiny eyes were brown and flecked with gray glints as though they were sweating. "Where are you from?"
"Uh-earth. A planet that existed a very long time ago.>
Allin cut him off: " No, fool. Where in the Werld are you
"The eld skyle?" Carl offered.
Allin snorted with frustration. One of the others stepped closer, a broadfaced woman with short, brindled hair; she said to Carl: 'Allin wants to know where the thornwing picked you up. There are millions of eld skyles. What you saw on the path you flew from there to here could help us a great deal."
"Craw, it could save our lives!" Allin snapped.
"Did the thornwing fly the Cloudgate?" the brindlehaired woman asked. "You know the Cloudgate."
Of course he did. The information was there with the language, rising to his awareness as an image: Clouds swirled like the wheel of the galaxy, helixing a
'spiral that, corkscrewed the length of the Werld. Because of the large-scale gravitational refraction of the infalling light, one side of the Werld glowed bluish and the. other side ruddy. The direction of the cloud's drift toward either of those different sky colors told which side of the Werld one was on. Also, the intensity of the light revealed depth from the Eld, which was the fire of photons and nucleons falling through the event horizon. The Eld's, antipode was the Rim, the land of night and the lower edge of the Werld where spacetime funneled rapidly toward the core of the black hole.
This information bristled in him, but he lacked the Specific knowledge-he did not remember the shade of haze in the sky or the drift of the clouds. He told them as much, and Allin turned away from him with disgust.
"Wrap him up," the leader ordered, "and let's go. It's a long journey to Tarfeather."
Before Carl could react, several of the men seized him and bound him with leather cord in a plump,
scratchy blanket. Two men carried him like a rolled-up rug, and everyone ran through the trees toward the falloff of the ledge. Carl's head was free, and he saw the front runners bound off the cliff, somersault in midair,
and shoot high into the sky. Carl gawked to see the feet of the men carrying him rush through a crinkling of dead leaves to the edge of the ridge and leap. A veil of forest unfolded-below them, and Carl clenched against the tug of gravity. Instead, the forest spread below him and retreated. A powerful undertow was hoisting them upward. The skyle they had been on fell away, and they were sailing swiftly into a lake of empty space. There, the contour of banked space leveled, and they positioned their bodies to glide in the direction of their choice.
Allin led them toward a keyhole of brilliant light among a cluster of skyles. The flight was a lengthy one, for on the other side of the cluster was another, huger sea of emptiness. Deprived of the familiar temporal rhythms of night and day, – the many hours seemed interminable to Carl. For a while, he occupied himself with the wonder of his new experience. But that was too bulky. Everything was so new to him that the information that the eld skyle had implanted in him packed his mind, and nothing was clear.
He concentrated and saw the Werld in his mental eye the way the Foke did: The fierce light of the collapsing universe came through the Eld and fell first into the Welkyn, the upper Werld; then through the gold spiraling clouds to the crepuscular Midwerld, where they were now; and finally down – into Rataros in the darkness at the Werld's edge-the Rim. Flexing his neck, he could
see the arc of the sky and just barely discern the pastel difference in shades between the red and blue extremes. He dozed and pondered and dozed again.
Carl was roused when the men guiding him along their fallpath took a firm grip and pulled him sharply to one side. His insides lurched, and he woke to find himself gently rolling in the sky toward a tiny crevassed skyle. "Where are we?" he asked in English and then again in Foke.
"Be quiet," one of the carriers admonished. "We're being stalked."
They rotated him so that he could see the black, boomerang-shaped craft that was hovering a thousand meters away. It looked like a splinter in the dusk.
"They haven't seen us yet. We're going to hide and wait until-"
A star glinted at the head of the viper-flat craft, and the air around them thumped with the pressure of a nearby explosion. By the time the boom erupted, they had rolled through the sky to the other side of the skyle.
Another blast scythed the top off the small skyle and fountained the surrounding space with gravel.
The poke touched down on the tiny skyle and licked off again: immediately, bounding toward the next nearest skyle. Before they reached it, the small skyle they had thrust off wobbled under repeated fire. The din ruptured hearing, and with a deafening force, the skyle shattered.
The pulverized rock spun away from a writhing, electric-blue bolt of ionized air. A spearhead of crushed stone pierced the skull of the man carrying Carl. His partner clutched at Carl, and the two whirled with the humbling force of the devastation.
A dizzying plunge whipped seeing to a blur. Impact jolted sense out of Carl, and he lay spraddled face up, staring at the distant black grin of the killer ship,
"Get up, you foal!" Allin's angry voice cut deeper than Carl's daze.
Carl sat up and realized that the binding straps had burst. The rug moved slickly under him. He had landed on the man who was carrying him. The dead man's face was twisted around a purple scream.
"Come on, idiot!" Allin shouted again. "Get over here before they fire again."
Carl staggered to his feet and gawked at the spired precipice he was on. Allin was waving to him from another skyle across a gap that dropped into gaudy, cloud-fiery distances.
Carl balked. Allin called out once more: "Just leap as hard as you can! The fallpath will carry you."
Carl's muscles were stymied with fear. Allin moved to bound toward him, but at that moment the gunship fired again. A brain-stuffing roar shook Carl to his knees. The ship had hit the spired skyle he was on.
Voices cried through the muddy echoes of the blast. He looked up and saw five of the Foke vaulting toward him. The sight of them coming for him stood him up. He waved, the ship flashed again, and the five flyers burst like blood bags.
Allin roared and leaped into space. He shot over the gap and rammed headlong into Carl, hurtling them both off the spire as it splattered under a direct hit.
Carl retched for breath and glimpsed veins of inky dust
bleeding into the alien sky-glimpsed streaming manes of blood and a blue tangle of intestine-before Allin hit him and soared him into darkness.
He came around a minute later, and they were lying in the tall grass on the edge of another skyle. The blow had unlocked his clarity, and be saw with sharp precision for the first time. His head was twanging with pain, his sight greasy with tears, and he quaked with the memory of his cowardice and the grim result. But for once, he recognized the truth of where he was. Overhead, the corpses were unwrapping in the flow of the fallpath. In a cloud of blood, ravelings of entrails wavered like a shredded banner, and heads and limbs in rags of flesh toppled in a slow spin.
Behind the spur of rock where they lay, the gunship waited. Its name shimmered into Carl's awareness: It was a zotl jumpship-perhaps the zotl jumpship that he had seen earlier when the thornwing was gliding with him through .the Welkyn. Now that he remembered, he was convinced that the ship had been arcing down toward these gloaming levels. It would wait to see if there was movement. The zotl's detectors were useless against them, because they had no radios and little metal with them, apart from Allin's pistol. The jumpship was a carrier vessel and would be reluctant to come closer. Too many others had been destroyed by plastique bombs. That understanding settled Carl into a wait, though his insides were jangling with what had just happened.
He pressed his back into the wet ground under him and stared through the mess of broken shapes at the motes of skyles hanging higher than his sight into the tottering reaches. And in that moment, under, the fluttering smoke of smashed bodies, lives lost to save him, he awoke.
Until the keen agony of that time, he had merely been a name, Carl Schirmer, in an endless life that could have been happening on earth or in the Werld or anywhere. He was just the shadow of his smiles and words and habits. He was just the scree of time, a jumble of genetic and historical accidents that he called I. . He had been too muddy with flaws and selfish emotions to carry any reflection, so he never really was self-aware, he never was an I, until he had been chased to the tip of death.
Lying there, watching the flame-antlered clouds and, nearer, the drifting gore of the dead, the voltage of
his life sizzled into awareness. His hard brain went soft, and he felt his livingness as never before. His body was strong, powerful even, and the animal tension in his nerves smoldered in his muscles, eager for movement.
The eld skyle had indeed adamized Carl,, for he had never experienced before the integrity of bone and tendon that he knew now. A new health, made terribly alert .by contrast to the stew of body parts swimming above him, centered his perceptions. All at once, Carl was an I, an ephemeral summoning of minerals, water, and light into mind. The gruesome deaths of the five Foke jarred him into the itchy, gummy, renitent physicality of his body. The adamized changes made that immersion easier and more palatable. His flat feet were gone and the achy calves-that went with them. The hair on his hulled chest had the glow of fur. And the vitality of his lifeforce stretched him above the dumbness of his meat into the unchangeable domain of I.
"Let's go," Allin breathed from nearby.
His voice sharpened Carl's focus, and Carl felt the chill air gnawing him. He was still naked. He rolled to his side and saw Allin bellycrawling deeper into the long grass. He scuttled after him, ignoring the switching cuts of the blades and the thistly ground. At the far end of the long field, the earth (ah, ironic word? crumbled into a deep deciduous pit.
"We're going to jump again," Allin told him. His red eyes were a smear of disdain. "Do you think you can do it?"
The side of Carl's jaw where Allin had hit him pulsed louder. "Hell, let's go."
Allin pushed to his feet, dashed to the lip of the pit, and leaped upward.
Carl followed. His urgency to embrace this miraculous life erased his fear, and he lunged off the precipice. The upward undertow snagged him at once, and he lofted on the cold wind into the opal sky of Midwerld.
Allin had techniques for riding the, fallpath that allowed him to vary his speed and direction. He bowed his body, reaching behind him for his ankles and the straps of his strider sandals. He slowed and slid back until he was beside Carl. He took some moments to show Carl how to hold himself-sleeking himself for speed and twisting for direction. The Foke used the flaps of furs like sails to steer himself. Finsuit, the term came to Carl.
Carl glanced back but did not see the black splinter of the jumpship. When he looked forward again, he noticed the survivors of the group circling ahead. They were furious at him, and he couldn't blame them. He had shown himself a coward, and if he'd had a tail, it would have been tucked.
They gave him clothes, a spare ill-fitting finsuit and tight strider sandals-but for the remainder of the flight, no one spoke to him. The journey lasted longer than he could guess. He was given a horn of water and purple twists of meat tough and spicy as jerky. As the sky indigoed and the great gorges of cloud glowered a longer red, he had plenty of time to ponder his situation.
He carefully reviewed everything he could remember of what the eld skyle had told him, and he explored further the remarkable information that imbued the Foke language he had been given. He contemplated Foke time. The gravitationally refracted colors that banded the whole Werld turned slowly, completing a full rotation in a span of time he estimated was equal to his sense of a century. The Foke who survived that long were called wizan. They were the tribe's spiritual leaders, contemplators of time, being, even question. He knew they would orient him, but he couldn't have guessed then how profoundly.
Tarfeather was the nomadic home of the Foke. Thousands of people lived there, migrating in continuous advance groups to test other regions of the Werld for the future locales of Tarfeather. The speed of the endless journey varied. When Carl arrived, the site was well settled. Skyles for many kilometers around showed signs of cultivation: grazing herds, farmland, tree homes, and the sky busy with the movement of people and barges. The fallpaths were distinct with activity, and he could clearly discern the network of gravity-curved flightlanes that enmeshed the skyles.
The band progressed toward the largest skyle, a mountain range extending both up and down and with an encircling river curling about the equator. The valleys were jungles, and all the prominences and abutments that jutted away from the skyle were naked rock.
Closer, Carl recognized black-and-gray camouflage tents. Bright-blue-robed figures were rushing out of one tent onto the
fallpath to meet the returning group.
Allin had taken the lead when they entered Tarfeather, flashing mirror signals long before Carl saw any sign of a settlement. He saluted the squad when they approached and recounted how Carl had been discovered and seven of the group lost.
Carl studied their faces. They had the same racial characteristics as the people who had found him: dark and striated hair, broad bones, cinnamon-toned skin, and flecked, agate-banded eyes. They were used faces, and they did not return his stare kindly.
They said nothing directly to Carl until they helped him land-a trickier maneuver than taking off: He stumbled with the abruptness of the shift from glide to fall and had to be helped to his feet. It was like stepping out of a pool after a long swim. The gravity owned him, and he slumped along the rock path with the others to one of the larger tents.
The interior had the walnut smell of autumn and a soft sheen of woodsmoke. Sheets of light hung from slit windows in the tent roof. The long hall looked as busy as a bazaar, yet the sound level mimed a temple.
Carl was led swiftly as his ponderous legs could keep up through the silky warmth, past curtained stalls of conversing people-office, food stalls, gamerooms-till they came to a stall with only one man in it. He was dressed in black and stood out boldly against the intricate cloud tapestry behind him.
The others regarded him deferentially, and Allin greeted him as wizan. "He speaks the language, sir. Perfectly."
"Is that so?" The wizan appeared younger than any of them: His immaculately groomed features seemed mild as amber.
"Yes," Carl replied. "An eld skyle imprinted it in my brain. Then I was sent to the Foke in a thornwing. It's the craziest thing that's ever happened to me-'
"Yes," the wizan cut him off, "the eld skyles are sometimes helpful in those ways." He was seated on a cushion, still and square as a Mayan icon. "You don't look much like a Foke, but you are clearly human and strong-looking at that. From where did the eld skyle take you?"
"I'm from the planet called earth." The words felt like tinsel in his mouth. "It existed a long time ago."
"What position did you have in your world?"
Carl couldn't find the words businessman or bartender in the Foke language. "I was a trader and brewseller."
The wizen sighed softly with disappointment.
"He's just a dropping that knows how to talk," Allin said. "He's not useful. I sensed that when we found, him, but the others insisted that he be brought here. On the way, seven of ours were killed. A zotl
jumpship. I've passed the location along and a strike force is on the way."
The wizan silenced him with a limp wave. "What is your name?" he asked Carl.
"Carl, do you want to stay with us?"
"The eld skyle sent me to you," Carl answered. "He warned me about the zotl and gumper hogs and blood beetles and told me that you could teach me how to survive here. I'd really appreciate that."
"I'm sure you would," the wizen –acknowledged. "But our ranks are closed. There are other human communities in the Werld. Rhene is a city where someone like you would be
"I would still prefer to stay here."
"Then you must demonstrate your usefulness to the Foke." The wizan's voice teetered on boredom. "What skills does a trader and a brewseller have?" can learn."
"Tarfeather is not a school." The black bits of his eyes drilled Carl. "Can you make plastique? Can you' ride the fallpath? Can you even tell time?" His eyes hooded, and he went into a rote routine: As a wizan of the Foke, I find you unacceptable for inclusion in our ranks by reason of your inutility-"
"I can work," Carl objected. "I'll do labor."
"We all work, Carl," he explained, his voice a scaly integument. "There are no laborers. We share responsibility for labor equally"
"I'm sure I'm good for something." Carl didn't want to start off his new life by thwarting the eld skyle's will: He wanted the Foke to accept him. Allin was grinning lushly, and Carl knew that whatever pleased Allin was no good for him. "Is there a court of appeal?"
"No, my review is sufficient," the wizan replied in a voice of ravening flatness. "I order that you be taken directly to Rhene and traded for imprisoned Foke or sold for manufactured goods. Away-away."
Carl let himself be dragged out of the stall. Allin strode beside him, kicked him into a walk, and leered with satisfaction. The blue-robed guards followed to the exit.
"What is Rhene?" Carl asked at the doorway.
"You speak Foke and you don't know of Rhene?" He slapped Carl on the back and pushed him out of the wizan tent.
The beauty of the blued clouds and dark skyles had an unearthliness that made Carl shiver. "Is Rhene a prison city?"
Allin allowed himself a black laugh. "You were the reason ,my friends died, dropping. I'd just as soon imprison you as flay and gut you. But I am a Foke. ,We don't have penalties or prisons. Just exclusion."
He motioned Carl toward a steep trail that mounted a sinuous, reptilian terrain to the giant log moorings of a sky barge. The barge was a sleek wooden craft with a needle prow and furled black sail-fins.
"Rhene," Allin explained, "is a zotl-built city for people-their favorite food. You might say it's a farm. Because it exists, we are spared the zotl hunt."
"You said Rhene wasn't a prison," Carl reminded him.
"It isn't," he answered.
"Then what keeps the people inside?"
"The people are free to come and go. But going isn't really a hope for most of them."-He gestured at the yawn 4 purpling sky and the skyles that cluttered space like motes of dust. "The cloudlanes, the fallpaths, and the skyles, that is the home of the Foke. But most of the people, in Rhene would not survive to their next meal out here. They are content with their busy lives in the city. The zotl androbs do most of the manual
work and the people are free to cavort with one another. The only price they must pay is the lottery" "I get a bad feeling from that word."
"When the zotl need to feast, they conduct a lottery. The one percent who lose are eaten. If you survive seven lotteries,
your name is permanently removed from the risk. Many people find the seven percent odds of losing more attractive than struggling for existence all the time out here. Isn't that really the way with you?'
They had come to the boarding ramp of the barge, where Foke bustled to load the hold with crates of blue cabbages. The sweet citron fragrance of the vegetable swirled in the air. Unbidden, the thought rose to Carl's mind that those were dream boles, a muscularly euphoric hallucinogen.
"There are great pleasures in the Werld," Allin said with a chill in his voice.
"Yeah, well, where I come from, the greatest pleasure is to be free:"
Surprise ticked across Allin's face. He gripped Carl's beard and shook his head once. "Then why are you so obedient to fear?" He shoved Carl up the ramp. "Go on, get on board, dropping."
Carl boarded the ship and was steered by– Allin's firm hand to a foredeck cabin. A dozen Foke sat on the benches that extended from the hull's ribs. They were conversing and staring out of the port visors at the scaffolding being slanted to slide the sky barge off the mountain and into the cloudy flightlanes. Allin and Carl sat with them until the barge jolted, tilted, and sledded into the sky.
"Do you know how this works?" Carl asked, after the barge had bucked violently and rocked into the steady sway of its cruise.
"Don't gad me with your questions, dropping." He swung to his feet. "Let's eat."
Carl's first full meal was braised cloud trout on a bed of butter-seared owlroot. He learned then that the Foke's fondest pleasure was eating. They were magical cooks and robust eaters. Their food was more diverse than anything he could remember of his older life.
That journey with Allin to Rhene lasted eighteen meals, no two alike, each almost supernaturally savory. During the flight, Carl learned enough about the Werld to –actually think he might be happy in Rhene. The Foke were a dour, hardworking people, but they were convivial when they cooked or ate. Food, or course, was free, and all were happy to display their culinary skills for Carl, even though he was a dropping.
Not having Allin's reason for hating him, the Foke were indifferent to his origin and fate: Droppings were common. But praise among the Foke was not, and they were pleased by his laudations of their cooking prowess. Soon he was accepted among them.
Between meals, people slept casually and took turns helping with chores. Carl was started off cleaning latrines, after his poetic praise of Foke cuisine had won him friends, was relieved of the odious chores some of the time and allowed to work on deck.
The drunken sky, the winds motherly with grass scents and warm showers, powered glad feelings in him; and he affably did whatever he was told. Also, he had time to accustom himself to the seemingly endless depths of the Werld. Carl had always been nervous about heights and had avoided balcony . seats, Ferris wheels, and plane trips. But a while on deck, he was enthralled by the rhapsodies of distance, and his fear dwindled.
Knowledge came not only from what the eld skyle had given him but also from those around him. A
kindly-face Foke physician taught him how to tell time. Units less than a week-twenty-five meals-did not officially exist; 5,555 "weeks" equaled one full rotation of the gravity rainbow that covered the Werld. The magnetic pole of the black hole, which was also the Rim, never varied in relation to the Werld, so with a compass one had a polar referent to watch the precession of the horizon's thin colors.
From other passengers, Carl learned that the zotl were in firm command of the Werld, and that they allowed the Foke to exist in exchange for their regular harvest of dream boles. The boles sedated a large segment of the herd city's populace and made zotl dominance easier to take and administer.
When the glass cupolas and silver minarets of Rhene appeared among the flamingo-tinted clouds, Carl was comfortable with the Foke way. Even Allin seemed less hostile. Carl had learned that Allin had been a free child-that is, he was raised in a tribal commune, a rougher life than the family children brought up by parents or other individuals. The Foke who had died helping Carl were the people he had grown up with. Carl's understanding of that resolved a lot of tension between them.
Rhene was a city of terraced skyles, monorails, and geometric domes opalescent as serpents' eyes. The undersides of these skyles were netted with nacreous flares and web lights, and Carl's first vista of the city had an ethereal effect on him. The air under the city glinted with the lights of individual flyers.
Carl had adjusted himself to his fate by this time, and he was eager to dock. Diatom-like flyers guided the barge into a colossal sky hangar of ribbon-contoured metal and moon-green spotlights. The Foke's wooden ship was primitive among the metal vessels honeycombing the dock, their shark bodies polished to black mirrors.
The technology amazed him. At the dock, androbs, squat mechanical stevedores, unloaded the holds. Scooters carried people across the wide marmoreal mall of androb-directed traffic to the clearing pavilion. Crystal parabolas arched through twenty stories of offices, coruscated' with elevators and jewel-lighted rampways.
"How many people are here?" Carl wanted to know.
"In this part of the Werld, millions." Disdain manacled Allin's face. "This is a matter I wish to conduct as quickly as possible, dropping, so stop gawking and keep up with me."
Getting through the clearing pavilion was not as easy as Allin had expected. Queues of passengers and baggage-laden androbs clogged the waiting mall, and Allin grumbled impatiently to himself.
The mall, like everything Carl had seen in the Werld, was lush with natural vegetation. Green birds flitted through the trees that lined the rampways, and waterfalls clear as wind whirred between the levels, slapping among rockgardens where scarlet grass shuddered in a breeze of mist and mudscents. But the tameness, the precise order of the place, was disturbing after such a long journey through the wild spaces.
Carl was gaping with apprehension at this city woven into the terrain when he noticed a woman standing at the lower level on a path among red and blue algal pools. She was a long, coltish woman in a black-and-coral shift. And she was staring at him.
That was not unusual, actually, since he was ganglier and ruddier than everyone else. But she wasn't goggling at him so much as looking for recognition from him. A tribal crowd carrying seedheads mounted on whip poles swept by her, blue birds flashing
about them. After they had passed, she was gone.
Allin was seated on the androb in line ahead of
him, his concrete-colored eyes glazed over. Carl watched tiny, blue-bottomed mandrills prowl a brake of bamboo and reminisced nostalgically about Manhattan, where waiting in line was a way of life. He slept awhile among the baggage on the androb behind him, dreamed erotically of confronting Sheelagh with his new body and of her tugging at his clothes. He woke to find himself being stripped by coilringed metallic tentacles.
Carl howled and writhed, and Allin's big hand clapped onto his shoulder. "Ease up, dropping." His voice glinted with humor, and Carl knew then something unpleasant was going to happen. "This is your medical exam. It's required before I can sell you.'
They were in a tiny room of flower-twined partitions, a padded slant table, and the green glaring lens of the tentacled ceiling. All of Carl's orifices were probed, blood was drawn from his arm, skin scraped from his abdomen, and the hair shaved from his face.
He saw himself in the androb's chrome surface, and again he didn't know himself. The face staring back at him was longboned and pugnacious.
Silk-textured garments tailored for his precise dimensions emerged from a wall panel. They were a white tunic shirt, loose black trousers, and corded leather sandals.
Carl dressed and was lea by Allin around the blossomed partition to a garishly lit chamber, reminiscent of a SoHo art gallery. A group of a dozen people stared at him and began a swift numerical exchange. He was being sold.
The bargaining went quickly. Within moments, a bald and sinewy little man was clasping to Carl's wrist a sturdy strap attached to a thickly corded leash. The leash was metal-clamped to his belt.
Allin was pleased. "You've earned Tarfeather enough fiber cord for another counsel tent and two tree homes."
"That much?" Carl peered into his owner's coriaceous face. "What makes me worth anything to you? I don't have any skills. You haven't even interviewed me."
He looked at Carl distrustfully and then at Allin. "Doesn't he know?"
"You'll be taking the place of Picwah's son in the lottery" Allin informed Carl with his pyknic leer, "as well as working as his servant for one tenth of a cycle. After that, if you're still alive, you're free."
"As part of the deal," Allin added, " I promised your lord Picwah that if you caused him any trouble I would cut off your ears." He grinned like a wolf. "You know, of course, I'd have traded you to the zotl themselves for a Foke. It's your fortune that the last prisoners were taken on to Galgul before we arrived. Farewell, dropping. Work hard."
Picwah snapped at Carl's wrist leash. "Come on-I have much to do."
"Wait!" The command cracked from across the gallery through the veils of muttering from other negotiations.
Carl heard it and looked. Picwah didn't and kept going. His leash jerked taut against Carl's immobility, and the scrawny man was yanked to his haunches.
"Are you acting up already?" he almost-screamed, popping to his feet and glaring at Carl.
Carl thumbed his attention to the approaching figures. Ile woman he had seen earlier by the algal pools was rushing
across the chamber. In her wake were two blue-robed, wide-bodied Foke.
"A wizan," Allin noted and dutifully bowed.
The fragrance of rose madder accompanied her as she stepped up to Carl, her gray-streaked eyes flecked with redgold regarding him as if his face were a mirror.
Carl played his gaze over her oak-brown hair and
the lynx angles of her face. "Evoe," he guessed in a wishful whisper. ,
Surprise swung across her face. " I do know you,' she breathed back. "But from where?"
The guards were watching her with anxiety. "How do you know her personal name?" one of them queried Carl.
"My lady, you are distressed," the other said to her. "We should go."
She touched Carl's arm, and a blur of energy warmed him. "Why are you here?" she asked.
Carl held up his strapped wrist. "I've been sold." He cast a nod to Allin. "By him."
She looked hard at Allin. "Why are you selling him? He looks Foke-worthy."
Allin met her stare with a stern countenance. "He has been wizan-appraised, my lady." The Foke warrior observed the wizan guards' edginess, and he asked: "What has distressed you?"
Evoe said nothing, for she was watching Carl for what was familiar.
"The last of her kin, a distaff aunt, was a prisoner in Rhene," a guard related. "We had come with the ransom to free her. But she has already been taken to Galgul."
That last word cracked the guard's voice. Allin nodded in sympathy to their anxiety. "You are indeed distressed, my lady," he said loudly to her; then, to the guards: "You must take her to where she can rest."
"Will you came with me?" Evoe asked Carl.
His heart was squashed with feeling. The eld skyle had been right about this woman-she was all the colors of waking to him, the flesh of dreams. She wasn't shimmeringly beautiful or vein-poundingly erotic. But her slender face enthralled him with its waif eyes and a
puckish smile that showed small white teeth. What could he say? He loved the melody of her features.
The guards took her arms and she shrugged them off. "Will you come with me?" she asked again, more urgently.
"Yes," Carl's whole body said.
"Lady!" Allin barked.' "We have witnesses to your distress. I am hereby overriding your authority by Foke right for the Foke good."
The guards seized her. She slumped and twisted, throwing herself against one guard for purchase and heaving the other to the ground. With her free arm, she jabbed viperlike at the remaining guard's face, and she was free. Her hand reached into the guard's robe, and she came away with a pistol.
Allin had settled into an attack crouch, and he crabbed toward her, ignoring the gun.
With. both hands, Carl grabbed Picwah by his shirtfront, hoisted him into the air, and flung him at Allin.
A knifeblade grinned in Evoe's hand. She cut the leash, and she and Carl bolted for the chamber's exit. They ran through gold-lighted corridors and into a transparent elevator. The lift tugged at
their tensed insides, and as the gallery level pulled off; they both laughed with relief.
"My name's Carl." He took her hand, and the warm electricity was still there.
"In my whole span, nothing like this has ever happened to me before." Her face glowed apricot from the exertion. "How do you know my name?"
"The same way I know your language. They were the gifts of an eld skyle."
"How long have you been in the Werld?"
"About twenty or so meals."
The elevator stopped, and she guided Carl out by
his hand. They were on a rooftop. Clouds the color of gunsmoke wisped overhead. Below, a laser-lit city blazed like magma.
"Rhene," Evoe announced. "The City of Sacrifice. We can't stay here."
The wind was steep on the top ramp of the clearing pavilion, and Carl was sure she was going to jump to the fallpath. His 'heart was galloping in' anticipation. She led him instead along the curve of the ramp in the circle of a landing pad. Dozens of glossy, enameled flyers were parked along the perimeter.
Evoe selected a blue-toned one and raised its blackglass canopy. "Get in."
The sling Carl crawled into held his weight and swiveled wildly until he realized he, had the control grip in his left hand. Evoe slid into the second sling, and the faceted blackglass hood closed with a sigh from its airtight bolts. The interior was black. Green points tapped on in the dark as Evoe activated its drive.
"Are we stealing this thing?" Carl asked into the blackness.
"It's a flyer," the answer arrived with a chorus of moving control lights and audial cues, "and any citizen of Rhene may fly it."
The canopy's blackglass phased to transparency, and Carl watched with glittering fascination as the landing pad dropped away and they were suddenly high over Rhene. The clearing pavilion, he saw at once, was the city of glass towers that he had seen from afar during his thornwing flight. In the direction toward where he had been then, clouds folded in on themselves like the interior of a brain.
"That's the Cloudgate," Evoe's alto voice informed him. "It's the only safe route through the destroyer winds to the Welkyn where the zotl live. That's why
Rhene is here-to guard their upper Werld from the human animals they breed in Midwerld for their food." "I came through there in a thornwing."
"That's about the only way through," Evoe agreed. "The fallpath flows down. Thornwings can get down the Cloudpath, but not up it. The only way up is a flyer. And the zotl destroy all unauthorized craft."
Rhene glowered below them like embers. "Where are we going?"
"Where no one will find us." She made some small adjustments and leaned back in her sling.
Skyles whirled past as their flyer swiftly found its way through the maze of the Werld. The continuous abrupt,changes in direction never touched them, and they hung gracefully in their slings.
Evoe was looking at Carl with an earnestness in her dolphin-tinted eyes that gave him the same slick feeling as luck. "Tell me about yourself," she requested, "so that maybe I can figure out why I feel this way about you."
A burr of anxiety snagged her voice: "Don't you feel it?"
He did. The eld skyle had prepared him for it, and it still amazed him. The sublime tranquillity of a summer afternoon prismed all his thoughts and feelings. He had been saturated with strangeness since he had been snatched out of his former life-and now the luster of caring emotion –welling in him, the most natural and primal emotion of any child, seemed strangest of all. "I'm in love."
They laughed a lot during that flight. The tight space of that pod seemed as big and full of promise to Carl as the entire room of May. He told her about himself. Not everything, of –course. He left out his balding head and flat feet. But he told her the high
lights: St. Tim's, college, the brokerage house in Manhattan, and the Blue Apple. He was surprised by how little there was. And how interested she was in it.
Evoe never finished her story. She was one and a half cycles old and had completed many initiations. She had been born into an ancient Foke clan with a legacy of fealties to other clans. That meant she had spent half of her first cycle serving and learning from various and scattered Foke tribes. She had attained a great deal. Her most valuable lesson was learning to surrender the leadership role she had been born to. Over the years of her ancestral servitude, when she cleaned the lodges and reared the children of other noble clans, she was immersed in and fell in love with the simpleness of living. After her thrall was over, she stayed close to that love, and she lived longer than any other in her family. She was the first wizan in their known history. And that had been a great humiliation to her clan.
Among the Foke, wizan were honored. They were allowed to write books. But warrior leaders, chiefs, were glorified. They alone could carry the guns smithied in the Foke's secret armories. The two were never found together in one person, though Chief Wizan was a popular character in Foke myth and lore. Foke chiefs were bound by law to take the Foke's greatest risks, and they always led in battle. None ever lived more than half a cycle.
Evoe suspended the telling of her story when the flyer landed on a skyle cliff among spires of fir. The pod went black.
"We'll send the flyer back," her soft voice said in the darkness. "They'll only be able to trace us to here-and by the time they do, we'll be long gone. Here, take this." She handed him the gun she had taken from her guard. "I have one, too. And some
naphthal pods-firebombs. I had come to Rhene armed, to free my kin."
Carl took the gun and tucked it in his belt.
The canopy bolts hissed open, and sharp alpine air flushed in. Carl rolled out of the flyer and stood up among bleached grass drooping over a whispering plunge. His eyes looked like raisins, and Evoe sang with laughter.
"Don't worry. I'm not going to lose you now," she said before shoving him into space.
They fell a hundred meters before the fallpath caught them firmly, and with her arm around him, they rose toward clouds red and blue as bruises. They flew through the bucketing wind a far spell before they launched into a calm warm flow where they could talk. The giant terrain rivered by on all sides. They kept themselves
positioned so that the dark Rim side was above them, and they could look down into the glimmering reaches of the Eld. She continued her story, and Carl learned about the Werld.
Evoe had lived in Rhene for over a quarter of a cycle, and she knew the intensities of pleasure that kept people there. The zotl had developed the bliss collar, a –rapture device that magnetically stimulated the limbic 'brain and wove the cellular quilt of the body with pleasure while leaving the mind clear. Like almost everyone in Rhene, she had worn the bliss collar, and she never cared then that her name was in the lottery or that people she knew had lost and been taken to Galgul.
She had survived all seven drawings and probably would still be wearing the collar if she hadn't witnessed a Foke attack. She saw only the end of it, after the insurgents had already succeeded in blasting their way through the barriers of the Well, the prison where people were gathered before being sent on to Galgul. The prisoners had already been freed, and she'd seen
their flyers falling down the sky away from the incandescence of Rhene. To cover their escape, a band of Foke had stayed behind and held off the androbs with a commandeered laser cannon.
Evoe had stood on the cordon line with the crowd and cheered as the attack squad of androbs was shattered by the blinding bolts from the cannon. After the prisoners were well gone, the Foke guerrillas dispersed. But by then, the zotl had arrived.
She had never seen the zotl before. They came in their own flyers, designed for their alien anatomies. Their flyers were man-long needles that' cut through the air almost faster than seeing and could stop or shift direction instantly. Within moments, they had stunned all of the guerrillas still in Rhene, and they carried them up the Cloudgate and into Galgul.
The Foke had lost seven fighters and had freed over a hundred prisoners. The sacrifice and the victory profoundly affected Evoe, and shortly afterward she left Rhene and returned to the wilds. The last half cycle, she had been traveling among the Foke clans, living again their nomadic rituals.
While she spoke, Evoe modified the way Carl held his limbs so that he was more comfortable with the sensation of freefalling and rising with the vallations of space. Foke as experienced as Evoe could read the flightlanes in the stream curves of clouds and the shapes of skyles. What had looked to Carl to be a mere moiling of clouds among the suspended jumble of skyles began to take on the continuity and direction of a terrain as she talked. He also learned to tell at a distance the warm skyles and clouds from the cold by the flowlines of the wind.
Evoe guided them toward a skyle and held him by his belt as they broke free of the fallpath with strong bodytwists. Gravity steepened at once, and he would have hit the approaching rock ledge with his face if Evoe hadn't righted him at the last moment.
They ate owlroots and slamsteaks. The slam-steak was a large snail found on some skyles. The Foke ricocheted the snail off the fallpath so that it slammed back into the rocks hard enough to break its sturdy shell. Braised and seasoned with local herbs, it was tender as lobster and sapid as filet mignon.
They jumped from skyle to skyle eating as they went and working on Carl's blundering flying skills. When Carl had worn out his anxiety about jumping and landing and he was familiar enough with the sky
geography to begin to see the fallpaths among the clouds and floating mountains, they landed to rest.
Lying together on their backs with clouds building into great treeshapes, violet and yellow, and the trees themselves cloudlike, their branches boiling in the green wind, Carl was happy. Maybe it was the first time in his life that he was happy. Or maybe he'd just never been awake enough to notice it when it had happened before. But he was so happy that he could hear a song playing inside him that he'd never heard before.
Carl had never been musically inclined, yet that interior melody was vivid enough for him to hum. Evoe reached into the coral-stitched pocket of her black robe and took out a devil's harp, a blond wood instrument with small internal windbags and pipes. She caught his tune and chivvied it in the wind with the rustling branches and the hickett of tree toads. It was the first and simplest song he had ever created, and it was
stamped with the common melodic traits of his time on earth:
rootweave of the nearest tree. For a while, he shifted his gaze from the jazz of her laughter-shimmying breasts to the pointillism of blue-and-green trees-from the shadow of pubic hair behind the hem of her chemise to the slow mandala of –a dew-spider in the shaded grass. Her heart bobbed like a cork.
They touched each other at the crest of the right moment, and silks of feeling tickled the spaces of hunger inside them. The taste of her salt skin mingled with the power turning within, and everything loosened, splintered, multiplied.
When they made love, they became each other. She felt his brimming strength, the magnetism in his bones, and she saw herself as if through his eyes backsprawled in a ruffle of grass and horsemint. His eyes closed, and he felt the gorging magic filling him like light, tightening through the lens of his awareness to the burning focus of an orgasm. The resin smell of crushed grass spelled over them.
Solitudes opened, and they rocked back into their own bodies, the sex between them liquid, filling the dark gnarled foot of the tree with a charmed, fleece odor.
Her limbs were straggled, sticky, humming with dreams. She held to his arms, and the glittering sounds of their bodies and the surge of feeling in the nimbus of their flesh opened her completely to the moment: She felt the slippery green moss floating out of the treeroot beneath her, and the other skyles iced with the Werld light, sun-high, swelling the tree bark, rising the sap.
A claret light sheened among the clouds when they came out of each other. She had seen through him, beyond his adamized body and past life on earth to the cryptic silence in him. Carl didn't know how else to explain it. He felt that they had interpenetrated each
other's souls. They had heard each other's stories-now they, felt each other's inner life.
He remembered the eld skyle telling him about Evoe, and how she would be mated to him by the very molecular nature of his body. And he was at peace. He knew this woman truly
loved him just for him. She lay across his warm chest, and the smell of her hair reminded him of rain. How could the eld skyle have known? Was it telepathy, that it had used to select Evoe for him? The moment was too wonderful for him to think that thought through. The light was ripe, the rock shadows somnolent. Later, he would wonder why he had accepted his new life so mindlessly. Several lizardwings flicked through the plum sky like meteors.
They roamed for what seemed a lifetime. The skyles fed them and the fallpath carried them. They, visited clan sites and mingled with the Foke, but they never went to Tarfeather. There was too much else to see for them to return to the moving capital and perhaps provoke Allin and his clan's wizan with the fact of Carl's freedom. They had sentenced him to slavery, though he bore no grudge against them; their rejection, after all, had sent him to Rhene and Evoe. He was not eager' to confront them again.
Among the wet, cloudbroomed skyles in a far corner of the Werld, they met a wizan clan that specialized in Werld knowledge. They were the closest thing to scientists Carl had met among the Foke. They had no hardware, none of the apparatus he associated with science. They were not technicians. They were, rather, historians, pooling and recording the knowledge of droppings like himself What they learned was preserved in books that they published with their own presses.
Next to food, the written language was adored by the Foke. Everyone read and wrote, and each clan had its own press. Because of the difficulty of obtaining materials, only wizan were freely published. Others had to work hard for the right. Religious tomes and cookbooks were the most common publication. But Foke were also fond of journals and treatises.
Carl and Evoe met the scientific wizan at the Cloudwall. That was far across the Werld, on the blue side, at the apparent perimeter. The clouds piled up there into a virtual wall that no one had ever penetrated because the Werld literally ended there. The wizan had gathered in this place not so much to study the Cloudwall as to stay hidden from the zotl. They were compiling a New History of the Werld, and they needed the obscuring mists of the Cloudwall to cover their operation.
Carl was surprised by how much the wizan knew of the universe. The Werld was self-contained, yet generations of contact with droppings dating back to their own origins one hundred and fifty cycles ago had revealed a fairly accurate depiction of the cosmos. They were happy to see Carl, for he spoke their language and could more easily relate what he had learned. There was, however, little he could add to their understanding.
The wizan knew the universe was closing up. They were the last human age; and that knowledge spurred their mystical pursuits: The meaning of life, for the wizan, was meaning itself-the discovery or, when necessary, the invention of meaning. They believed that ail creation was light and light's gradients, and so all beings, to them, were equal. The Werld was clement enough and big enough to sustain this philosophy. Foke communities made up the rules they chose to live by, and individuals unhappy with the collective –were free to leave and find or start cummunities more to their liking. The wizan were appalled by Carl's stories of earth:
Old age, .disease, 'prison, and human-slaughtering war were horrors alien to –the Foke way. In the telling, Carl amazed
himself at having endured life on earth. Compared to the Werld, even with the zotl and gumper hogs, –earth was a synonym for hell.
Among the wizan, living from meal to meal in their simple routines, unashamed of time, Carl was grateful to be free of his past, all the incomprehensions and indecisions of existing at the ass end of earth's most violent millennium. He was free. He had been delivered from a madness that he had once thought was all there was. And now here he was, in a world of secret places, bonded to a woman he loved. Life was good:
Evoe, too, was caught up in Carl's happiness. Her life since meeting him had been a continuous surprise of feeling. She had loved before and had reared children, but she had lost them all to zotl and the wild things of the Werld. Death's indirections had long ago liberated her from love-until now. Black memory faded before the brilliance of her lover's smile. He made her feel strong with life. His touch pried her loose from herself, and his embrace carried her loneliness. She would die before she would let herself lose him.
Carl and Evoe's time among the sapient and gentle wizan of the Cloudwall left them peaceful and not as guarded as the dangers of the Werld demanded. During their long journeying, they had witnessed both the wonders and the hostilities of the skyles. Sickness was practically unheard-of, as the eld skyle had foretold, and no one aged beyond his full maturity. Yet the Werld's population was relatively scant. The treacheries of the fallpath crippled and killed many Foke all the time. Certain magnetic skyles were renowned for the healing of bones, and Carl had spent some time there himself with a snapped wrist. Other skyles, especially the larger ones, were lethal with the presence of preda
tors. But the greatest risk to Foke life was the zotl raid.
The zotl used the radar in their nimble needlecraf to fly through the clouds that spiraled the length of the Werld. The only safe place for Foke along the Cloudriver was beside the Wall. The wizan told Carl that gavitational fluctuations along the Wall had destroyed many a zotl craft, and the paineaters rarely flew there now.
When Evoe and Carl left the wizan, they traveled on the fog-tattered fringe of the Wall until they came to where it joined the Cloudriver and they had to move inward. No Foke could travel in the Cloudriver for very long: Vision was an empty lilac-gray, and one had to gauge the fallpath by feel alone. Landing anywhere was out of the question. Not only were those cloudforest skyles evil with bizarre predators, but there was no sure way to catch the fallpath. The visual clues were not there. One had to jump into the wind and pray.
So Carl and Evoe stayed above the clouds, looking for a well of clear space and lighted skyles that tunneled through the Cloudriver. The fringe was a tricky place, since the wind could suddenly shift and smother the fallpath and nearby skyles with blinding clouds.
Just that was happening to them, as it had happened numerous times before. Cauliflowering clouds loomed out of the Cloudriver, billowing purple and gold. Around them, rain girandoled, a gray halo sheeting the flowlines of the fallpath and smoking over the skyles.
They soared toward a flower-bright skyle where heat shimmered in the cup of a small valley. When Carl glanced back to gauge the advance of the cloudfall, he saw them, and it was already
They, had hidden in the Cloudriver and had approached with the blossoming clouds until they were close enough to strike. Carl thought in that first instant
that they were Foke. They were human, and all six wore finsuits. But in the next instant, he realized they were moving too fast for Foke. He noticed the black thrusters on their backs the same moment Evoe spotted them.
Without hesitation, she unsnapped a naphthal pod from the belt under her robe and flung it toward them. The fireball caught one of the flyers head-on and splashed with the impact, searing two others. All three whirled out of control and spun flapping flames into the cathedral buttes of a skyle.
The remaining three were already– too close for another naphthal pod, and Carl unholstered his gun. He never even had the chance to aim. Evoe glanced about and saw a steep-banking plunge in the fallpath below them. She grabbed Carl in both of her arms and pulled him close.
"Carl, I love you," she said, and her face was a blaze of feeling, her soul leaning against the opal light in her eyes. "Stay alive."
He burbled the beginning of some reply, and she twisted him about, tripped him with a swing of her legs, and toppled him into the drop of the fallpath that sheared away from them. Carl was too clumsy to stop or even slow his fall. He watched Evoe distance away.
The three flyers were almost on her. One of them peeled off to pick Carl up, and Evoe drew her gun and fired several rounds, her body wrenching, with the coil of each shot.
Then the two flyers were on her, and she was bowled over, snagged by their grapnels, and swung away.
Carl jerked about to see his pursuer rolling lifelessly in a cloud of his blood. Trying to brake himself, Carl went into a roll. He tumbled head over heels in a
freefall and was soon lost among the skyles whipping past him like freights.
Panic hardened to clarity, and he utilized the techniques Evoe had been teaching him to slow a fall. He pulled his finsuit sleekly against him before carefully unfurling its fins to cup the air. His fall relaxed to a float, and he swam toward the contraflow that always paralleled a fallpath.