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Songs of Earth and Power Omnibus, Page 48

Greg Bear

  Yes, if he had designed this world, that would be an obvious asset.

  Just before he let himself slide into sleep, he thought he felt the very singing of the vacuum itself, not empty but full of incredible potential - a ground on which the world was only lightly superimposed, from atoms to galaxies; it seemed as if it might all be swept away by a strong enough will. Or more probably, as if the ground of creation could be overlaid with another scheme, imitative but different in large details.

  He composed a fragment of a poem, back-tracking over the words and editing several times before coming up with:

  Here makes real

  The weaver's weft.

  Lace-maker's bobbins

  Spin right, leap left

  Lift time's thread

  Over atom's twist,

  Bind such knot with

  Death's stone fist.

  Weave of flower

  And twine of light

  Must cross and thwart

  By wilt, by night.

  Michael mused for a time on how realities might be put together by those less than gods. Such thinking was so abstruse and farfetched, however, that he soon drifted back to more immediate concerns.

  He was not disappointed that Kristine did not share his bed this evening. He was patient in his love. She already trusted him, though skittishly; she had given him an incredible gift by believing his story.

  He smiled in his slumber. He was still thinking profound thoughts and still feeling Kristine's even, steady, sleeping existence. He would have gladly remained in that state forever, but he knew how fragile his contentment was.

  Now he had told everybody who counted, who had the slightest possibility of believing him. If he had been secretive, if his courage had faltered and he had kept silent, he would have been playing along with Clarkham's plans.

  Michael would not be isolated.

  He suspected he had just purchased some extra time, at very little cost indeed.

  Yet still, on the very fringes of his outermost perception: the foulness, the spoor of the Isomage.

  Clarkham had one- advantage over Michael still: a plan. Michael didn't have a clear idea of what he needed to do, or even of the nature of what was coming.

  Chapter Ten

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  Downstairs, somebody banged on the door frantically. Michael broke out of a dream - dangerous, dreams, since they now pulled in his circle of awareness - and lurched out of bed, grabbing a robe and slipping it over his nakedness. In the hallway, he saw Kristine standing in the door to the master bedroom. She wore one of Golda's nightgowns, simple dark blue flannel. "Somebody wants in," she said sleepily.

  Michael extended his awareness as he thumped barefooted down the stairs. The aura of the person beyond the door, a man, was very familiar and very welcome, though there was something subtly wrong…

  He opened the door. A heavy-set bearded fellow in his middle forties stood outside, dressed in skins and furs like a trapper, with a cloth bag slung over his shoulder. His short gray hair jutted out in all directions. "Nikolai!"

  "Thank God," the man said with a mild Russian accent. "I have been looking all over for this place. I am not used to Los Angeles now, Michael." He lay his cloth bag down on the step and hugged Michael twice, kissing him on both cheeks.

  "How did you get here?" Michael was astonished; he had last seen Nikolai in the Realm, standing beside the Sidhe initiate Biri and Clarkham's mistress Mora at the outskirts of the imitation Xanadu.

  "I walked," Nikolai said. Michael invited him in; Kristine watched them from the bottom of the stairs.

  "This is a friend," Michael said to Kristine. "His name is ' Nikolai Kuprin."

  "Nikolai Nikolaievich Kuprin, Kolya to friends." He returned to the porch for his bag, grinning sheepishly.

  "Nikolai, this is Kristine Pendeers."

  "Beautiful, beautiful," Nikolai breathed, staring at her with embarrassing concentration. "My pleasure." He shook her hand delicately; Kristine, Michael noticed, extended her hand to Nikolai in the feminine fashion, allowing him to grasp her fingers. "I have not seen a human woman in… ah, if I think about how long, I'll weep. Here, I have been staying out of sight, walking at night, because I would be conspicuous, don't you think?"

  "How did you cross over?" Michael asked.

  "It is very bad in the Realm now," Nikolai said. "I think perhaps Adonna is dead. Everything is uncertain."

  "This is that Nikolai?" Kristine asked, her voice rising an octave.

  "You've told her? Good. Prepare everybody."

  "You still haven't answered my question," Michael said, too astonished and pleased to be exasperated.

  "Because I am embarrassed," Nikolai said. "I took advantage of the Ban of Hours. I used the stepping stones in Inyas Trai." He crossed himself quickly as he said the name. "The Councils of Delf and Eleu have been dissolved-"

  "You know about them?"

  "Yes, yes - Eleu supports human participation in creating a new world, and Delf opposes… the Council of Delf sided with the Maln. But both are disbanded now, and even the Maln is in disarray. Tarax has disappeared. The crisis has divided everyone. Inyas Trai"- he crossed himself-"is full of Sidhe again, both sexes, all kinds. They are preparing the stepping stones for migration. Many thousands have left already. Exodus. And there are so many humans - more than I ever thought could exist in the Realm! Thousands. Where did they come from? I do not know! But I separated myself from those captured in Euterpe. I had to get back to Earth and warn you. I used a stone not yet open for the journey. I'm not sure I did the right thing." He looked around the house, face filled with wonder, mouth open. "So familiar. So beautiful. Like my parents' home in Pasadena."

  "Why wasn't it right?" Michael asked, sensing again something wrong in Nikolai's aura.

  "I don't feel very good. Sometimes everything seems like a painting on glass. I can see through. Perhaps the stone hadn't been…" He shrugged. "I am tired. May I sit?"

  They entered the living room, and Nikolai lay down on the couch, then craned his neck back to look at the piano. "A beautiful instrument," he said. "Is it yours?"

  "It belonged to Arno Waltiri," Michael said.

  Nikolai stiffened despite his exhaustion. "Do you know about Waltiri?" he asked.

  "He was a mage," Michael said. "I know that."

  "Mage of the Cledar." Nikolai returned his gaze to Kris-tine, and his drawn, dirty face seemed to light up from within as he smiled. "The birds. The musical race. He worked with the Council of Eleu, on Earth mostly. There was a rumor that the Maln collected humans from Earth, like Emma Livry… so much confusion, so many rumors."

  "I haven't told Kristine everything," Michael said. "Where are the Sidhe migrating?"

  "I attended the last meeting of the Council of Eleu," Nikolai said. "The Ban requested the presence of a human, and I was the most convenient. The Ban became part of the Council, but what her intentions are now, I don't know. I have no idea what is happening in the Irall. The Maln do not enter Inyas Trai."

  Kristine shook her head, completely lost. "He's talking just like you," she said.

  "Do not doubt my friend's word," Nikolai advised solemnly, leaning toward her from his recumbent position. "However crazy he might seem. Michael is a very powerful fellow. He bested the Isomage and destroyed him."

  "Clarkham isn't dead," Michael said. "Where are the Sidhe migrating? Please answer me, Nikolai. It's important."

  "Back to the Earth. They have not the power to go anywhere else. Adonna built the Realm close to the Earth on the string of worlds. They can only return."

  "The hauntings?" Kristine asked.

  "I thought as much," Michael said.

  "The stone I took is a direct route to Los Angeles," Nikolai said. "Nobody explained why. It was certainly convenient. If I haven't done a mischief…" He fell back on the couch pillow and closed his eyes. "Do you have aspirin?"

  Michael brought a bottle of aspirin and a glass of water. "Whe
re did you come out in Los Angeles?" he asked, stooping next to the couch and dropping two tablets into Nikolai's hand.

  "Hollywood," Nikolai said after swallowing the tablets and draining the glass. "A tall building on Sunset. Very bad shape inside, filthy."

  "Are you hungry?" Kristine asked. Nikolai regarded her as if she were a saint.

  "Very hungry," he said.

  "Then let's have breakfast." She went into the kitchen. Nikolai smiled weakly at Michael.

  "She is very nice," he said. "You have been well since your return?"

  "Healthy, getting stronger," Michael said.

  Nikolai appraised him shrewdly. "Stronger, as in arm-strong, leg-strong?"

  "That, too," Michael said.

  "I surprised you, no, by coming back? I'm not a great magician, not even of much concern to the Sidhe, yet I made it home, or nearly so. What year is it - truly, I mean? I look at the city and think perhaps centuries have passed."

  "It's 1990," Michael said. "May the twelfth."

  Combined grief and dismay crossed Nikolai's face. "Not as bad as I expected. So many changes! I am Rip van Winkle now, true?"

  Michael nodded. "There doesn't seem to be any link between time in the Realm and here," he said. "I was gone for only a few months, yet five years passed on Earth. And you…"

  "It is good to see you, very good," Nikolai interrupted. "My brain swims. I cannot think clearly now. Perhaps some food."

  Michael spread his hands out beside Nikolai and frowned. The man's aura was extremely weak, almost indetectable. The way the morning light from the front windows played on Nikolai's eyes was also subtly wrong - the reflections seemed bland, lackluster.

  Nikolai got to his feet and wobbled, shaking his head. They joined Kristine in the kitchen and sat at the small table. She complimented Michael on the larder he had stocked. "You're pretty self-sufficient. Most bachelors act as if their mommies were still around to do everything for them."

  "Most women I know would have freaked out long before this," Michael said.

  "'Freaked out,'" Nikolai repeated, chewing on a slice of toast he had slathered with butter and marmalade. "That means go crazy, perhaps?"

  "How long has he been gone?" Kristine asked.

  "Sixty, maybe seventy years," Michael said.

  "Sixty-seven years," Nikolai said. "You would have made a fine dancer, Miss Pendeers."

  "My hips and legs are too heavy," she said.

  "Not at all. It is strength that is important, and grace. You have grace, and the strength-" He slowly lowered the last scrap of toast to the plate. "Oh, Michael, it is not good. It is not working."

  Michael could not detect his aura at all. Instinctively, he reached out to hold Nikolai with both arms.

  "I am going back!" Nikolai bellowed, standing and rocking the table. He held his hands up to the ceiling and moaned, clutching at the air. "Please, not-"

  His last word ended in a high-pitched squeak. The table rocked on its pedestal, upsetting jars of jam and cups of coffee. Kristine screamed and backed against the sink. Michael had taken hold of Nikolai's skin jerkin and felt the material squirm between his fingers as if. alive.

  The table settled, and a cup rolled to the floor and shattered. Where the man had stood, the air was wrinkled by a heat mirage. That also faded. Nikolai was gone.

  Kristine began to cry. "Michael, what happened to him?" She wrapped her arms around herself, leaning backward over the sink.

  Michael stepped away from the table and stood with his arms hanging by his sides, clenching and unclenching his fists helplessly.

  "What happened?" she asked again, more quietly.

  "I think he's back in the Realm," Michael said. The eggs that she had begun frying now smoked in the iron skillet. He lifted the skillet from the stove and carried it carefully around her, lowered it into the sink and filled it with water. She watched him as if hypnotized.

  "Nobody's joking, right?" she asked. "This is serious?"

  Michael nodded and took her hand, sitting her down in the chair he had occupied. He righted Nikolai's chair and ran his hand over the seat as if to search for a trace of the vanished friend. Kristine sat in silence for several long minutes, not looking at him. Her breathing slowed, and she swallowed less often.

  "Do you still want to go on with it?" he asked.

  "The performance?" She shrugged with a sharp upward jerk of her shoulders. Her arms were shaking. "Yes. This is frightening. It's…" Michael squeezed her hand and looked at her intently. "It's not like anything I've experienced. I mean, that's obvious, but… It's incredible." She was high from terror and excitement. "I want to go on with it. Oh, yes!"

  "Why?" Michael asked, his tone close to anger. "You saw what happened to Nikolai. It's no game."

  "What do you want me to say, then? That I'm going to give up? I don't understand you."

  "I'm angry at myself," Michael said,

  "That's your privilege," Kristine said. "I think I'm doing rather well."

  Michael laughed and shook his head, then sat in Nikolai's chair. "You think it's an adventure," he said.

  "Isn't it?"

  "Do you understand the danger?"

  "Is Nikolai dead?"

  "I don't think so."

  "Will someone try to kill me? Us?"

  "Very likely," Michael said. "Or worse. The Sidhe can turn people into monsters, or they can lock them away in limbo."

  Kristine's face was bland, seemingly peaceful, as she considered. "When I was nineteen," she said, "I thought about committing suicide. Everything seemed cut and dried. Art and music were fine, but could they explain anything? Could they tell me why I was alive or what the world was all about? I didn't think so. And ever since, I've lived a compromise; I wouldn't try to kill myself, because there was always a chance something would happen to explain everything."

  Here was a depth to Kristine he hadn't begun to reach. He could feel, without probing, a melancholy and rootlessness in her words that shook him.

  "When I listened to your story, I had a crazy hope that it was true and you weren't just crazy or putting me on. Even if the world was a wall of paper and everything I had learned was wrong. Because it meant there was something behind everything, some purpose or greater…" She gestured with the fingers of her right hand. "Something. Life is such a mess most of the time, and everything that's supposed to be important - love and work and all of it - can be so petty and senseless. Now I've seen a man just vanish, after confirming your story. And…"

  There were tears on her cheeks. "God dammit," she said, wiping them away hastily. "I'm so God damned grateful, and scared, and excited. There is something else, and maybe I'll learn, maybe I'll be really important."

  Michael smiled. "You're very courageous," he said.

  "Why do we have to perform the concerto?" she asked, expressing no doubts about the project but simply requesting a reason.

  "I wish I knew."

  Chapter Eleven

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  Kristine stayed in the Waltiri house only two nights. She then found a small studio apartment, sharing with an older woman geology student who spent most of her time on field trips in the Mojave Desert. No mention was made of Tommy; there seemed to have been a clean break. Nor did Kristine speak of Nikolai again; her almost panicked enthusiasm of that day had apparently subsided.

  She kept up a feverish activity arranging for the concert, but whenever the possibility of something more came up - something more intimate - she backed away. A look came into her eyes. As tempted as he was, Michael did not probe. His own emotions seemed to have slipped into neutral. The times they met and discussed the performance, he felt more relaxed and open, unpressured. But as interested as they were in each other, their relationship did not advance. It was necessary for Kristine to reevaluate, and for Michael as well.

  Students from the university came to the Waltiri house and carted away truckloads of papers. For a week, Michael simply kept out of the way of a group
of musicologists and librarians who spent the hours from eight in the morning to six at night cataloging, rerecording and safeguarding Waltiri's recordings. They worked mostly in the music room.

  Two weeks passed. He experienced no further visions or revelations, and there was nothing overtly unworldly in the news. Twice Michael inspected the Tippett Residential Hotel, and once, late at night, he revisited Clarkham's house, but all was quiet.

  The quiet times would end soon.

  He began sleeping in the master bedroom in late May. Kristine's occupation of the room had dispelled some of the groundless tabu Michael had felt about the marital bed of Arno and Golda. He found he slept more peacefully there; it was quieter even than the rest of the house. His sleeping awareness was sharper in that room.

  It was on an overcast, drizzling night in early June that Michael dreamed of the reoccupation of Earth's oceans by the Pelagal Sidhe.

  He floated just above the level of deep-ocean waves, cresting at thirty and forty feet. On the horizon, a wickedly glorious sunset was approaching its climax, tipping each wave with red and gold. Columns of clouds advanced east from the squat red sun, each wearing a cap of fading glory and resting on a base of shaded slate-brown. Rain fell in sheets to the north. Michael could feel the freshness of the ocean wind and the cold of the sea spray; he could smell the salt and the fresh rain. He had never felt more alive, and yet he knew he was asleep and that his sensate body was nowhere near his point of view.

  The west was darkening, and all the clouds had gone to gray and dark brown with edges of green. He seemed to look up at the zenith, rotating his nonbody somehow, and felt rather than saw a discontinuity in a massive gray cloud high overhead. Water began to fall, not rain but salty and brackish, copper-colored like the sea beyond Clarkham's Xanadu. Michael thought of water breaking during birth. A radiance of blackness ate away the bottom of the cloud, and out of the blackness, an entire ocean fell, not in drops, but in solid columns dozens of yards wide. In the columns, Michael saw deep sea-green male and female Sidhe riding the fall with webbed feet pointed down, arms held high over their heads and fingers meeting in a prayer gesture, eyes trained down, huge bubbles flowing around them from air trapped between the columns and the Earth sea below.