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Songs of Earth and Power Omnibus, Page 20

Greg Bear

"The Pact will be broken. Alyons will lose everything."

  Helena's expression was triumphant. "That's the second time he's used those words. He told Savarin the same thing. We'll win!"

  Michael frowned. The Child's face was composed, hands folded in his lap. Sherebith kneeled beside the pit and looked up at them. "Nobody cares for them but me," she said. "I am the only one."

  "And the caretaker," Helena reminded her.

  "And him."

  Behind them, a short lean man dressed in brown pants and a knee-length baggy shirt pushed a wicker cart across the narrow walkways. From the sides of the cart hung the paper and wicker bowls used by the inhabitants of the pits. Three covered containers poked from a recess in the top of the cart. Helena and Michael stepped out of his way and he passed along the narrow walkway, the bowls tapping against the side of the cart. Michael looked at the man's face. He seemed to concentrate on some inner melody, gliding under the bands of light from a ventilator; his eyes were sunken, useless, and as blue as a newborn kitten's. "The caretaker," Helena whispered into Michael's ear.

  "The only one," Sherebith affirmed, gaze fixed on Ishmael in his pit.

  Michael was cold when they emerged from the Yard. Sherebith closed the door behind them and latched it without a word. For the first time, Michael knew what it felt like to want to die - to get the misery over with.

  That was the emotion he had contracted from Ishmael.

  Helena took a deep breath and brushed her hair back from her face. "Now you see why we don't go there often."

  "They're kept in the pits… because they hurt people?"

  "They're monsters," Helena said, walking across the road. "Didn't you hear him?"

  "Yes, but he's been there… how long? Decades? That would turn anyone into a monster."

  "I've only heard stories," Helena said, keeping one pace ahead of him. "They killed their parents, or they murdered other people. Or they escaped to the Blasted Plain and lived there and made raids on Euterpe until they were caught, or killed. And when they were killed, a foulness came out of them." She shuddered, her shoulders jerking spasmodically. "This isn't Earth, Michael."

  "I know that," Michael said, his voice rising. "But Jesus - the way they're treated. If they're so bad, why not just kill them?"

  "We can't kill them," she said. "Aiyons can. Not us. He hasn't killed any of them for a long time. None have escaped for a long time. They're human… sort of. I don't wish to talk about it anymore."

  "All right. Then about his prophecy. How do you know he's telling the truth?"

  "Sherebith will tell you. Once you get past all the crap, Ishmael never lies."

  "But maybe he misleads. I read about the sibyls-"

  Helena turned on him, neck thrust out and fists clenched. "Look! We have little enough to go on, nothing to encourage us. We take our reassurances where we can."

  "From Ishmael?" Michael said, his face flushing. "From someone you lock up as a monster?"

  "A special monster," she said, relaxing slightly. "Don't try to set us straight about the Realm, or about what we're doing, Michael. We've been here much longer than you have."

  That seemed to settle it. They were silent the rest of the way back to Helena's apartment. She walked up the stairs ahead of him. "You want to come in?" she asked.

  He considered. "Yes. I want to know what I can do to help. I don't like Alyons any more than you do. Maybe less."

  "Then come in," Helena said.

  Chapter Twenty-Three

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  Helena busied herself cleaning up in the back room behind half-drawn curtains. Michael listened to water splashing, toilet articles clinking, Helena humming to herself.

  He was disturbed. Something was wrong, but what exactly eluded him. The perverse mood brought on by Ishmael's words was passing; what was wrong, or seemed wrong, was much more mundane.

  Helena. When she was away from him, he had doubts she could ever be more than she was at this moment - friendly, but distant. When she was in his sight, the doubts shrunk to mere points, blocked by his infatuation. She was quick, pretty, human. She would never look like the Crane Women. She came from Earth. From home.

  Yet he didn't feel at ease around her. He was more comfortable around Eleuth than Helena.

  Helena parted the curtains and smiled at him. "Thank you for waiting. I always have to wash myself off after visiting the Yard." She offered him a damp rag. He didn't feel any dirtier than usual, but to please her, he robbed off his face and wiped his hands.

  "There," she said, throwing the rag into a corner and sitting in the second chair before him. She adjusted her seat until it was square with his. "You know how much I feel for you," she said.

  He didn't reply for a moment. Her eyes locked his; he had to make an effort to look away and swallow. "I know that you feel for me," he said, concentrating on the curtained window. "I don't know how."

  "Now you're being obscure," she said. "I care for you a great deal. You are a very sweet boy. True, you're caught up in things you don't really understand, but so am I. So are we all. You do the best you can."

  He shrugged, his thick red eyebrows drawn together. She smiled. "You're smart, attractive, and anywhere else I would probably be in love with you, right this minute. I'd want you to write your poetry for me. I'd play the piano for you." Her smile broadened. "You may hear me play a piano soon, anyway. If we were in Brooklyn, I'd take you-" She stopped and her face stiffened. "But we aren't. We have to see that. I can't love you, not like I should. Today you've seen why."

  "I have?"

  "The Yard. To love you properly, I'd want to give myself to you completely… and I can't." She searched his face and reached out to touch his cheek. "Don't you see? They've taken love away from us here. We might make a mistake, a slip. I couldn't stand the thought of having a Child."

  He was dumfounded.

  "Poor Michael," she repeated.

  "I don't see-" he began. But he did see. She was being perfectly reasonable. And yet… there was that wrong thing, that still-nagging point of disturbance.

  "Friendship is very important here," she said. "We live by it. We all have to work together, or they'll overwhelm us. We all have to resist every way we can. I need you. We need you. As a friend."

  He still didn't have any reply. He wanted to show her he knew what she was about to say, but he couldn't.

  "We can't be lovers, Michael. Do you understand? I hope you do. I want to have you understand, now, before it gets all…" She waved her hand and cocked her head to one side. "All crazy."

  "I understand," he said. It was too late. He felt it even more strongly now. Not being able to have her made him love her all the more. He knew it was perverse, but it wasn't a new emotion; it was just that the denial unveiled it completely. He had to be near her any way he could. "Friendship is important to me, too," he said with a weak grin. "I need friends here."

  "Good." She laid her hand on his knee and regarded him earnestly. "We need your help."


  "If you truly want to be one of us, to resist Alyons and the coursers and to free us all from the Sidhe… you have to listen for us. Let us know what you hear."

  He laughed. "The Crane Women don't tell me anything," he said. "I feel like a God damned mushroom with them." He was surprised by the bitterness in his voice.

  "Yes. I know the joke," she said. "We all feel that way. But Savarin says you're right in the thick of things. There's a Sidhe living not ten yards from your hut, and the Crane Women are training you. I've told Savarin I bet you're already learning things no other human knows. Like how to bum off your clothes." She smiled. "We still don't know why you're being trained. Probably only Lamia could tell us that. But there must be things you can learn, knowledge you can pass on to us. You could learn about the land beyond the Blasted Plain-"

  "I've been there," Michael said.

  "See!" Her excitement doubled. "Wonderful! You could tell Savarin what it's like, what w
e'll find v/hen we break out!"

  "I'm not sure it's wise to even think about crossing the Blasted Plain," Michael said. "Even the Sidhe have to dust themselves with sani and use their horses for protection. It's dangerous."

  "We know a little about the powder. Can you get some for us?"

  "I don't think so," he said. "I don't know where it is, or even if the Crane Women have any - - -"

  "But if you could get into their hut, look for it___They must have some."

  "I wouldn't even want to try," he said.

  "Why not? They're half human."

  He chuckled. "The forgotten half. You should see their windows at night. Like they have a blast furnace inside. Orange light, flickering. You'd think it was on fire."

  "Can't you even look?" The goad in her voice was not particularly sharp, but surrounded by the silkiness, the hint of doubt, it hurt.

  "I'll let you know," he said after a pause.

  "We'll need it soon."

  "How soon?"

  "Within a fortnight. Two weeks. Sorry - I start to talk like the old folks here." She gave him a questioning look, lifting her eyebrows. She was practically begging.

  "I'll try," he said.


  "I better be going back now." He wanted to be alone, to think things over and subdue the buzz of confusion and disappointment.

  "Don't cause any trouble," she said. "Don't try to run away again. Just work with us… help us. You heard what Ishmael said."

  "I heard." They stood and she kissed him on the cheek, gripping his arms tightly.

  For the next week, he hardly had time to think. The Crane Women suddenly integrated him into Bin's training, without explanation - and without reprieve.

  The day after he'd spoken with Helena, they took Michael and Bin to a barren mound about two miles south. Coom supervised Bin and Spart kept watch on Michael as they tried higher and higher levels of hyloka.

  The Crane Women were positively grim. Spart barked out her instructions, her voice growing hoarse as the hours passed. Before the day was out, Nare was instructing Michael on how to block his aura of memory - which, among other things, would prevent a Sidhe or Breed adversary from in-speaking. "Occult the knowledge," she told him. "Occult the knowledge, not just your immediate knowings, but the knowings of your mother and father, your forefathers… memories of your kind. No eyes will see, no minds will use what you do not wish them to have."

  Snow fell more frequently during that week. The season was indeed going over to winter, in fits and starts, as if the air itself were undecided. But more days were cold than were not. Michael's hyloka kept him warm under the coldest conditions.

  Spart schooled Michael on how to throw a shadow while asleep, and how to sleep like the dead, his heart barely beating, while at the same time his mind was alert. He controlled his breath until he seemed not to breathe at all. He explored his inner thoughts, paring them down to the ones most essential to his exercises.

  For a time, he forgot about Helena and Eleuth. What little spare time he had, Michael spent exercising these new abilities, reveling in the potential that was being unlocked without resort to Sidhe magic.

  He could not locate the inner voice that had briefly conversed with him in poetry. He did find, however, a good many other unexpected things in his mind. Some edified him, some astonished him, and others made him wilt with shame. When he complained he couldn't stand any more introspection and asked if this was just incidental to the other disciplines, whether it could be foregone, Spart told him that a warrior must know all there was to hate in himself, or his enemy would use it against him.

  "Blackmail?" Michael asked.

  "Worse. Your own shadows can be thrown against you."

  Bin's training seemed similar, but at a higher level. There was no repeat of the torturing circle-formation the Crane Women had exercised against him. Nevertheless, Biri became thinner. He was less talkative and seemed more resentful of Michael's presence. Michael stayed away from him.

  In and around all the other exercises, there was running with and without sticks, physical training from a taciturn and frowning Coom, verbal harangues from Spart when he didn't pay attention.

  He hated it, yet the training exhilarated him. He missed Earth even more but he began to feel as if he could survive in the Realm.

  There was no training on the eighth day. Biri and the Crane Women left the mound before sunrise. Michael was asleep and had no idea where they went.

  He walked around the mound in the early dawn, calling out their names, looking at the fresh footprints heading south, wondering if now was the time to look for the sani in the Crane Women's hut. He lingered near the hut, frowning, feeling he was about to betray them. Still, they were not exactly friends - taskmasters, tyrants, not friends.

  Then why did he feel beholden to them?

  He began to sweat and ran away from the mound, going to Eleuth's new quarters in Halftown. She was cleaning clothes and preparing for more of her own exercises; he half-listened as she described the Sidhe magic she now knew.

  "If I brought a beetle back now, it would be alive," she said proudly, smiling at him.

  "No need," he said gloomily.

  "You are bothered."

  He walked around the small single-room apartment, one of four units in a single-story wood building. The room was barely fifteen feet on a side, divided in half by a curtain; clean, neatly arranged, but somehow oppressive. Eleuth didn't seem to find it so.

  "What are you going to do?" he asked.

  'I'll be assigned another task soon," she said, looking down at the floor, eyebrows raised.

  "Like what?" he pursued.

  "The decision hasn't been made yet."

  He was about to say something that might make her feel miserable but he caught himself. He was upset. He couldn't stand her calmness but that was no excuse to pass on his gloom. "The Crane Women are gone today," he said. "I don't want to stay on the mound. Would it bother you if I stayed here?"

  She smiled; of course not.

  She fixed a simple dinner for them. In perverse exchange, he briefly put up his wall against in-speaking, leaving her fumbling for words, without ready access to his memory of English. She was chastened, but remained outwardly cheerful.

  After dinner was cleared, he asked her whether she could transfer someone between the Realm and Earth. He thought the question innocent enough; he just wanted to know how capable she was.

  "Why are you angry?" she asked.

  "I'm not angry." He shrugged and admitted perhaps he was. "It's not your fault."

  "I feel that it is."

  "Damned females, always so sensitive!'"

  She backed away and he flung up his arms. "I'm sorry," he said.

  "You wish to return to Earth?"

  "Of course. I always have."

  "You would consider it love if I returned you to Earth?"

  The question took him aback. "Can you?"

  "Would you consider it love?"

  "What do you mean, love? It would be wonderful, yes."

  "I'm not sure I can," she said. "I wouldn't want to fail you."

  He paced around the room, scowling and mumbling. "Jesus, Eleuth, I'm just confused. Very, very confused. And angry. Yes."

  "With whom are you angry?"

  "Not at you. You've never done me anything but good."

  She smiled radiantly and took his hand. "I would want everything I do to be good for you, to be love for you."

  He felt even more miserable. What if he never did go home, would it matter much? Could he make a life here in the Realm, even in the Pact Lands? Others had lived in worse conditions and been happy, or at least not miserable. Eleuth sensed some of his mental peregrinations and gripped his hand all the tighter.

  "It could be a good life here," she said. Her hopeful tone was like a dart in his temple.

  "How?" he asked, shaking her hand loose. "I don't belong here! I'm human, and you're-" He pounded his hand against the wall. "A
nd she's human, and that's the problem, isn't it?"

  "The woman in Euterpe?" Eleuth asked, staring at the back of his head.

  "Helena," he said. He imagined it to be the most vicious thing he could say: the name of the woman toward whom he felt as Eleuth deserved to have Mm feel toward her. As Eleuth wanted him to feel.

  "Humans have many more troubles than Breeds, actually," Eleuth said. She didn't sound upset or jealous. He turned toward her. Her face was composed, half-caught in the afternoon light from a high window, eyes large and deep and calm.

  "Please," Michael said.

  "You could love her, and be with me," Eleuth said.

  Tears began to flow down his cheeks. He was furious, every thought part of a turbulent, rising whirl. "Don't say any more. Please, no more."

  "No," Eleuth said, standing and reaching for his shoulder. "I'm sorry. I don't understand. I cannot be…jealous. Sidhe women are not jealous. Who can be jealous of males who cannot love, cannot attach?"

  Michael sat on a bench and nibbed his eyes with his palms. None of the calmness exercises would work now. He couldn't bring down his level of misery, or control its effects on his body, the tension in his neck and arms.

  "I could love you while you loved her," Eleuth said. Michael didn't seem to hear. She sat beside him and put her head on his shoulder. "I could do many things for love, and what I cannot do, I will learn." She stroked his back with one hand. "It is all a Sidhe women ever expects."

  He stayed with her that night and the next morning returned to the Crane Women's mound. The huts were still empty. He entered his own hut and stashed the book in the rafters, then sat on the mats and tried to think of a poem. Not even an opening line would come. His head was empty of words. Full of turmoil; empty of expression.

  By late morning, he made his resolution. He would search for the sani. He didn't know right from wrong himself; perhaps Helena and Savarin did.

  In Bin's empty hut, the plaited mats were neatly folded in one corner. He looked everywhere in the hut and found no sign of the powder.

  He crossed to the Crane Women's hut and stood by the door. Peering through the windows, he saw only darkness within. He tried to pry the door open with his fingers, but it seemed latched. He pushed, hoping it would open. It didn't. Then he pushed harder and something wooden clicked within. The door swung outward slowly.