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Songs of Earth and Power Omnibus, Page 45

Greg Bear

  Housewives, handymen, a late middle-aged man with a mind like a musty bookstore typing on an old Royal, three young babies as selfish as three Scrooges, their thoughts incredibly sensual, nonverbal and as fresh as an ocean breeze…

  He went back to the man at the typewriter. An article on guns was emerging from the antique upright Royal, an evaluation of a new Israeli automatic rifle.

  This man spoke German fluently. He had < served as a guard at an American embassy in Europe during the fifties > < married three times and shot his second wife on a hunting trip, but she recovered and did not prosecute, only rapidly divorced him, and he did not contest>

  Michael pulled away from the middle-aged man as if stung. He did not wish to tap the man's language abilities if he had to face more of that sort of foulness.

  Where did he live - and how far away?

  He could not tell.

  The shock of the man's frank evil had made Michael recoil drastically, throwing his probe out in a wide arc.

  And he saw - for a brief moment became…

  Eldridge Gorn, a horse trader. That was his euphemism for rounding up range horses and selling them to knackers. He had been in the trade for thirty years, starting in 1959, two years after he had been dishonorably discharged from the Navy.

  He had come back to Utah and been received by his Mormon family with chilly aloofness. Eldridge Gorn had not lived up to his father's expectations. His father was a hard, unforgiving man, whom Gorn loved very deeply, and the rejection had hurt.

  He had moved to Colorado, married and been divorced within a year. He had tried to take his life with a 12-gauge shotgun in a small motel room in Calneva; the gun had jammed, and he had spent twenty-five minutes laughing and crying and trying to get the gun to work. It wouldn't.

  It appeared to Gorn that someone, at least, wanted him alive.

  Shortly after that, he went to work on a ranch in Nevada and learned the trade of rounding up wild horses and selling them to slaughter houses. The money was marginal, and the last ten years - what with do-gooder animal groups and the ever-changing legal scene - had forced him to change his tactics, but he hung on. He knew he was a marginal man to start with, not worth much to anybody, the only sort of person who could seriously countenance turning range horses into dog food. And he liked the work.

  He even liked the horses. Sometimes they outsmarted him, and he would laugh as he had when the shotgun had jammed, and wave his battered felt hat at them and whoop

  Gorn sat on top of the cab of his pickup, a light afternoon breeze patting at his face and hair. Sage scrub to the horizon all around, a cinder cone of a centuries-old volcano off to the east, and nothing but silence and twenty or thirty head of wild horses about three miles away.

  Today he would just drive around them, count and look them over. Just possibly he could drive through the scrub and herd them into a small box canyon a half mile west of the cinder cone; but tomorrow would be better, when he had an assistant or two on horseback themselves.

  He lifted his nose up and sniffed like a dog. Then he hawked and spat over the hood and sniffed again. There wasn't any storm or even a cloud in the mild blue sky, but he smelled something very much like cold and winter. He prided himself on his nose - he could smell mustangs from five miles away in a good straight wind - and what he smelled bothered him.

  It didn't belong. It was out of season, that smell.

  Winter. Snow and ice.

  Something glittered by the cinder cone, like the flash from a circle of mirrors. Gorn began to feel spooked. His crusty burned-red arms itched, and his small hairs stood on end. He pinched his nose between two fingers, then blew into his clean white cotton handkerchief.

  The breeze became something out of a musty old refrigerator or freezer - not so much cold as having been kept still and confined for a long time.

  There were horses coming from the direction of the cinder cone - twenty, thirty, maybe as many as fifty, galloping from a direction where they couldn't possibly have been. What he smelled now was enough to send him into the cab of his truck, because the scent was fierce and electric and dangerous. He started the engine and watched the new herd through the windshield.

  They were all gray, hard to see against the sage but for a quality of iridescence more at home in an oyster shell than on a horse.

  And they were coming right for him, up the gentle scrub-covered slope, faster than any horses he had ever seen, gray blurs with long manes. Beautiful animals. If he could catch them (who could possibly own such beautiful horses and let them loose in this godforsaken country?) he could make a good deal more money by changing his tactics, avoiding the knackers and heading straight for the stock buyers in Las Vegas or Reno.

  A quarter mile from his truck, the herd began to divide. His sharp eyes told him the animals were sinewy, tight-muscled, oddly out of proportion compared to the animals he had known all his life. They looked flayed, and their heads were exquisite, more delicately featured than Arabians, wild and energetic and maybe scared by something behind them. Still at a gallop.

  Suddenly, the five or six horses in the lead lifted all their feet from the ground. They were barely a hundred yards from his truck and Gom clearly saw all four legs on each animal curl up and spread out like those ridiculous hunting paintings in rich men's clubs.

  The lead horses became longer, leaner, flying over the ground, not running, their hindquarters getting blurry, their necks stretching out until their heads seemed level with their shoulders -

  "God damn," Gorn said under his breath.

  Like bright streaks of Navajo silver, all five lead horses merged with the sky and simply vanished.

  And then the five behind.

  In ranks, all of the pearl-colored herd took to the air near his truck and were gone.

  He did not see them come down again.

  Corn sat behind the wheel with the engine running for a quarter hour before he half-heartedly returned his attention to the ordinary animals still down in the middle of the sage scrub.

  What he felt in his chest was something past all pain and feeling.

  Loss. Bereavement. An agonizing sensation of beauty and one important thing long since fled from his life. Gorn did not know what it was.

  But he knew he would spend the rest of that day, and perhaps the next, looking at the sky. Waiting.

  Michael put the packet of letters aside and pressed the bridge of his nose between two fingers.

  His life was dividing in two, and the division was fuzzing rapidly. How long could he keep the parts separated - and how long could he observe, and learn, without acting?

  The sky was clear and bland overhead, an extremely self-assured sky, unlike the Realm's active and ever-changing blueness. Differences. Contrasts are the direct path to knowing.

  He was becoming more and more aware of human variety; in contrast, the Sidhe had seemed almost uniform, lacking the physical and mental differences and distortions endemic to humankind.

  The Sidhe were like thoroughbreds; their lines had been molded across tens of millions of years, with who could tell what kind of strictures and impositions? Humans, however, had re-emerged from the condition of animals (were animals still), with all the riotous multiformity of nature.

  They would not mix easily.

  Michael returned the packet of letters to the armoire in the basement and then fixed himself lunch, a cheese sandwich and an apple. Half an hour later, he returned to the back yard to practice hyloka, squatting naked on the grass, his skin glowing like a furnace.

  "Salamander," he murmured, feeling the ecstasy of the unleashed heat subside. In such a condition, he realized, he could walk through a burning house unharmed; he would be hotter than the flames. He damped his discipline and got to his feet. Where he had been sitting, his legs and buttocks had left blackened prints in the grass. He was ravenously hungry again.

  He ate a second lunch, much the same as the first, and re
played The Man Who Would Be King on the VCR. Halfway through, he found he was merely staring blankly at the TV screen, his mind elsewhere - with the horse trader on the rangeland, with the elderly woman in the old forest… Mulling over the Tippet Hotel and Lieutenant Harvey, but most of all, thinking of Kristine.

  At four o'clock, the phone rang. Lieutenant Harvey explained he was calling from downtown.

  "I've had to put our mutual interest here, the Tippet Hotel case, on the back burner for the moment," he said. "But I'll want to talk with you in detail later. I doubt that you're a suspect, but if you'd feel more comfortable, you can have a lawyer present. I'm not looking for confessions or anything, you understand?"

  "Yes," Michael said, aware the detective was telling the truth; learning more about Harvey perhaps than the reverse.

  "But this is fascinating stuff, and I think you have some interesting things to talk about, don't you?"

  "If you have an open mind," Michael said.

  "Uh - HUH," Harvey grunted emphatically. "Keep us in the real world, okay?"

  "No guarantees," Michael said.

  "I have my instincts to rely on," Harvey said softly. "They don't fail me often. What they tell me now worries me. Should I be worried?"

  Michael waited for a moment before answering. Eventually, Harvey would have to know. The dreams were spilling over into the real world. The division was fuzzing all too rapidly.

  "Yes," Michael said.

  "I can see it's going to be a cheerful week," the lieutenant said. "I'll get back to you in a couple of days. Sooner, if anything new comes up." Michael deposited the receiver on the hook. Logically, Harvey should question him as soon as possible. But the lieutenant was postponing unpleasantries for as long as possible. Michael couldn't blame him for that.

  He walked up the stairs, pulled down the ladder to the attic and climbed into the musty warmth. Once, sitting in the attic while Waltiri looked through boxes of old letters and memorabilia, Michael had felt as if time had rolled back or even ceased to exist; nothing had changed there for perhaps forty years.

  The attic still seemed suspended above the outside flow. He idly opened the drawer of a wooden filing cabinet and leafed through the papers within. So much accumulated within a lifetime… reams of letters, piles of manuscripts and journals and records. .

  He pulled out folder after folder, peering inside. Several letters from Arnold Schonberg, dated 1938; he put those aside for later reading. Schonberg had been a composer, Michael remembered; perhaps the letters mentioned the concerto.

  Then he found the Stravinsky oratorio manuscript, Stravinsky had composed The Rite of Spring early in the century, and Disney had set the work to dying dinosaurs. Every adolescent knew Stravinsky.

  Holding the oratorio was like holding a piece of history. He lightly touched the signature and the accompanying letter, savoring the roughness of the fountain pen scratches.

  , the letter was dated. He could almost imagine, outside, a calm bright spring day, the cars parked on the street and in the brick driveways all rounded and quaintly sleek, like the Packard in the garage; silver DC-3s and Lockheed Vegas flying in to Burbank airport, tall palms against the sky, everything more spread out, less crowded, almost sleepy…

  Michael looked up from the manuscript with a glazed, distant expression. Before the war. Days of the late Depression, easing now that Roosevelt was rearming the country.

  Days of comparative peace before the storm.

  Kristine seemed to regard Westwood a* the center of the universe. She knew ail the best restaurants there-"best" meaning good food on a slightly more than meager budget - and she had chosen a less crowded one this evening. It was called the Xanadu, which both discomfited and amused Michael. The decor was dark wood paneling inlaid with somewhat oriental, somewhat Art Deco scenes beaten into brass sheets. White silk canopies depended from the ceiling. Its fare was not Chinese food, but nouveau French, and Kristine assured him everything was very good despite the reasonable prices. "The chef here is young," she said. "Just getting started. He'll probably be gone in two or three months; some body else will hire him, and I'll never be able to afford his cooking again." They were seated at a corner table by a waitress dressed in tuxedo.

  Kristine gauged his reaction as the waitress wobbled away on high heels. "So it's not consistent," she said, laughing.

  "Xanadu's an odd name, isn't it?" he asked. "For a restaurant like this?"

  She shrugged. "I suppose they intended it to mean… a pleasurable place, extravagant, not necessarily Chinese."

  Michael felt a strong, all-too-adolescent urge to bring up his unusual familiarity with Xanadu, but he resisted. He would not impress Kristine by being any odder than he already was.

  "Have you been reading about those hauntings?" she asked.

  "Yes. In the papers."

  "Aren't they strange? Like the flying saucer waves. Really spooky, though."

  He glanced down at the side of his chair, where he had laid the envelope containing the copy of the manuscript. Time to change subjects completely, he decided. He brought it up to table level. "I made a copy," he said.

  She glanced at the envelope, obviously aware of the gingerly way he supported it on his fingertips. "How did it come out?"

  "You can look for yourself." He handed it to her.

  "It's very clean." She pulled it halfway out of the envelope. "I didn't think it would copy nearly that well."

  "We're in luck," Michael said.

  "Thank you." She riffled the pages, returned it to its envelope with a broad smile and slipped it in her voluminous canvas purse. Her smile changed to concern. "Are you feeling all right tonight?"

  He nodded. "I'm a little nervous," he admitted.

  "Why? Is it the restaurant?"

  "No. What will you do with the manuscript now?"

  She shrugged, an odd reaction, as if it all meant very little to her. Then an excited smile broke through her nonchalance, and she rested her arms on the table, leaning forward eagerly. "I'll show it around ^ie department. There are plans for a concert in the summer… July, I think. If we can get it prepared by then, perhaps we can perform it. And I'll show it to Edgar." The waitress returned for their orders, and Michael chose poached halibut. There were no vegetarian dishes on the menu; he felt less uncomfortable eating the flesh of sea-creatures but knew that a Sidhe would abhor even such non-mammalian fare.

  Kristine ordered medallions of salmon. The waitress poured their wine, and Michael sipped it cautiously. He had drunk wine only once before, at the Dopso's house, since his return, and he had reservations about how it might affect him in his present nervous state. He did not want to become even mildly drunk; the very thought bothered him. But the wine was agreeably sweet and light, and its effects were too subtle to be noticeable.

  One evening, the soul of wine sang in its bottles…

  Baudelaire. Why the line seemed appropriate now, he didn't know.

  "I'm starting to have my doubts about this whole thing, about putting on a concert," Michael said, inching back into his chair.

  "Why?" Kristine asked, startled. "Aren't you supposed to promote Waltiri's works? Isn't that what an executor does?"

  "I'm not precisely an executor, I just manage the estate. I don't know." He opened his mouth to speak again, then shut it and shook his head. "I don't know what in hell I'm doing here. I'm giving you something you can't possibly understand-"

  "Now wait a minute," Kristine flared.

  He pointed to her bag, with the corner of the envelope sticking out. "When that music was written on the manuscript I made this copy from, the paper was white and pure.^It wasn't soaked in anything between that time and now. It just…aged."

  "I don't get you."

  "No, and neither does anybody else." He felt his frustration suddenly rise to the surface. "I'm not in an enviable position right now. I'm pulled this way and that."


  "So-" He held up both hands. "Please. Just listen for a bit.
You can say how crazy I am afterward. I know you're an expert on music, maybe even on Waltiri's music, but this is something else."

  "I don't understand your doubts. You think-"

  Michael's expression stopped her. She folded her arms and leaned back in her chair, glancing nervously at a patron walking past their table.

  "You mentioned the hauntings. There's a connection."

  "With this?" She dropped her hand to the envelope.

  Michael nodded. "I don't know all the details. Even if I did, it wouldn't be worthwhile to tell you. Because you couldn't possibly believe."

  "Jesus," she said. "What are you involved in?"

  He laughed and looked up at the backlit white canopy overhead.

  "That policeman. Is he part of it?"

  "Not really. He's like you. And my father. And Bert Cantor."

  "Who's Bert Cantor?"

  "Somebody who knows. Whom do I tell? And how much? You all live in the real world."

  "You don't?"

  Michael sighed. "For a time, I didn't. I was missing for five years, Kristine."

  Her brows knit. Then she leaned forward. "Because of the concerto?"

  "It's part of the… experience. Yes." And I ended up in a much better re-creation of Xanadu than this restaurant - He severely edited what impulse would lead him to say. It was so difficult, wanting to tell the entire story and being constrained by practical considerations - belief, the impact the story might have on how she regarded him, his unease at what might seem self-aggrandizing.

  "Okay. I'm listening." There was a look in Kristine's eyes then that only deepened his distress. She was interested. She was positively intrigued. He was something different in her life, and his attitude, his tone of voice, did not reveal him to be a nut or a liar.

  Which compounded distress upon distress.

  And stopped him cold before he could begin his next sentence. "I'm sorry." His face reddened.