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Songs of Earth and Power Omnibus, Page 56

Greg Bear

  On the porch, beyond shattered and leaning sliding glass doors, a single much larger bird, about two feet tall, perched on the edge of a concrete rail. Its feathers ruffled in a passing breeze, and it turned to face him. It appeared corvine, but with a blood-red breast and beak; its eyes were small black jewels lined in white. Michael thought it might be the same bird that had watched from the roof when Tommy came.

  The large red-breasted bird stabbed its beak toward the upper floors and nodded three times, making a tiny gluck sound in its throat.

  "Arno?" Michael asked. The bird preened itself, ignoring him. Then it smoothed its feathers and pointed to the upper floors again.

  Michael backed away from the carpet of silent birds and resumed his climb. There were no more abandoned articles of clothing; if anything, the stairway and halls of each floor seemed less cluttered than when he had last been there, as if a group had made some pretense at cleaning and inhabiting the empty rooms.

  As he approached the eleventh floor, he could feel the presence of an intrusion quite strongly. The gate was still open. And someone was standing before it… That much he could sense but no more. He paused by the elevators, staring down a long, dark southern hall, all its doors closed. The end of the hallway was darker than it should have been - a rectangle of subterranean blackness. Standing before the blackness was a white-haired figure in dark clothes.

  Michael's heart was subjected to two separate moments of alarm and shock. The first came when he thought the figure was Tarax. He had half-expected to find Tarax here, and perhaps his daughter as well, but this individual was neither. As his eyes probed the gloom, he saw that it was long of arm and leg and short of trunk, which gave him his second shock; he thought it was one of the Crane Women. Then it approached him.

  It was indeed an old Breed female, but it was not Nare, Spart or Coom. Her long white-blond hair hung down to her shoulders. Her lips were full, pink, even luxurious, but her skin was nearly as pale as her hair. She regarded him suspiciously with small, bright blue eyes sighting along a thin nose. She wore a man's black suit, which hung loosely on her, a stiff, starchy white shirt (also baggy) and a narrow black tie. "I've been here two days," she said with a mild Scottish brogue. She did not touch his aura to learn what language to speak. "The Serpent told me to wait for you and bring you back with me."

  "Who are you?" Michael asked. Why did such a simple question seem so clumsy? Because he already knew the answer, had known without even asking. "You're his attendant," he said.

  She nodded. "The Serpent expects you. You are a candidate."

  Then she motioned for him to follow. "This is not the path the Sidhe take from the Realm," she said, waiting for him to approach only two steps behind her before she reached with one hand toward the cavern-dark rectangle at the end of the hallway. "That is closed temporarily, but its power is here, waiting for those who know how to hitch on." The Breed pushed her hand into the blackness and passed through, briefly filling the hallway with blinding daylight. The blackness closed around her, leaving only her left hand suspended in the gloom, long finger curling, curling, urging him on.

  The daylight flashed around him this time, and he stood on the barren shore of a broad slate-colored lake. The time was early afternoon. Thick clouds hovered over the lake and the adjacent brown hills. Nearby, gnarled pines encroached upon the rocky shore. A mist drifted across the far shore, obscuring more hills and a small peninsula sparsely fletched with more pines. The air was chill and moist but not cold. The Breed female stood near the still edge of the lake a few yards away. "Do you know where you are?" she asked.

  Michael sniffed. "East," he said. "England… or Scotland."

  "Have you been here before?"

  He shook his head.

  "Do you know why you have been called here?"

  "No, not exactly."

  "You've heard the tale… of the War, and the fall, and the loss, and the rise again, the flight and the return?"

  "Yes," Michael said.

  She nodded, and then she was gone. In her place stood a tree stump, its roots covered with algae below the water's murky line. "Thank you," he said with mock brightness. Then he sat on a rock and waited, feeling curiously patient. Only the gnawing thought of Kristine's captivity disturbed an extraordinary peace that settled over him.

  This was finally the time, and it was sufficient in and of itself. What he felt was akin to pride, but he was not prideful. He was worthy to meet the Serpent Mage, but did that convey any honor? Yes, and no. If Michael thought as a human might think, then yes. If he thought as a Sidhe, it conveyed something else entirely. A fitting into the flow, a final integration into the overall story.

  Late afternoon lengthened imperceptibly into dusk. He was neither bored nor anxious. He simply waited, his hyloka throbbing, heating and cooling him like another kind of breathing. Michael did not think much, nor did he daydream or doze. The hour approached. He would feel apprehension and even terror when it arrived; he was not above his origins. Transcendence, perhaps, but not aloofness.

  He had come a long way to be here. Distance in space was the smallest component of that long, difficult vector. He had learned many disturbing things about himself, about the world and about his family. He was no longer the same Michael Perrin he had been when he had first entered Clarkham's house, passed through and around and entered the house next door, to find Tristesse's backyard and alley and the gate that gave access to the Realm.

  The water of the lake - the loch - rose in a glassy, swelling hump in the middle distance, then smoothed again without waves. The hump reappeared halfway toward the shore, this time disturbing the water with the faintest iridescent ripples. Night was falling rapidly, and the mist was thickening, beading his shirt and light jacket.

  The oldest living creature on the Earth, or perhaps anywhere else. Older even than Adonna called Tonn.

  The air warmed. Michael surveyed the nearby waters. A very long black shape - perhaps twenty yards from beginning to end - lay curled just below the surface of the loch about ten yards offshore, taking advantage of the decline and deeper water beyond.

  Slowly, it unwound and moved toward the shore, sine-waving from side to side, sending out oily ripples in beautiful whirlpool patterns. Its head broke the surface in the shallows, and Michael felt its dark gaze on him.

  The Serpent Mage was ugly. It looked dangerous, with its smooth black skin dimpled all over like a very old catfish or electric eel, its filmed eyes tiny, its fins small and barbed, dorsal fin little more than a ridge of thorn-like stickles in the middle of its back. It was a yard and a half wide and squat in cross-section, as if oppressed even in the water by its freight of time.

  Michael shivered The head slithered up the shore, cresting sand and gravel before it. Then it rested, careened slightly to one side, still watching him, silent on all levels.

  Its mouth was a wide, round-gummed crescent recessed behind the blunt two-lobed snout. The mouth opened an inch or two and shut, then again. Recessed deep behind the gums were crescents of sharp, tiny teeth, no larger than Michael's, but far greater in number.

  Michael dropped his legs over the side of the rock and approached the Serpent, hands held out before him. His fingers trembled.

  But for a tiny, final thread of noctilucent cloud, the last light had gone out of the sky, He was seeing the Serpent by all of his new senses, and in that seeing, the Serpent was suddenly wrapped in cold fire. Mother-of-pearl stripes retreated down its length from its snout. Its eyes became sullen blood rubies. Then the decorations passed away, and it lost all character but its length and its width. It sat on the shore as black as polished obsidian, blacker than the turbid loch water and the mist-shrouded night air beyond.

  "You called me," Michael finally said.

  "Yes, I did," a voice issued from the long form. It spoke human words but hardly sounded human. There was too much age in it, too much time wrapped in solitary contemplation.

  "I don't know why you called me."
  "We must discuss what you're going to do," the Serpent said. "The world is remaking itself."

  "I'm ready to listen," Michael said, stopping three strides from the Serpent's head.

  "I am not here to give instructions," the Serpent said. "The most I will do is suggest. The rest is up to you. Do you know what you are now?"

  "The Breed woman who brought me here said I was a candidate. I assume that means I'm a candidate to be a mage."

  "And how do you feel about that?" The Serpent rolled slightly and inched back and forth on the pebbles, as if scratching.

  Michael shook his head. Not much different from any other job interview, he thought. "It seems ridiculous. I'm weak and ignorant and unprepared."

  "What is required of this new mage?" the Serpent asked.

  "I'm not sure," Michael said. "I assume to offer leadership and help bring humans and Sidhe together, to live in peace."

  "Do you know that such a thing is possible?"

  "No. But I know it's necessary, or we will all die."

  "I have been listening to humans for sixty million years, give or take a few million, and I've listened to the Sidhe also. I've reached around the world, and beyond the world, and felt lives. When our kind was incapable of thoughts much deeper than planning for the next meal, or the next coupling, I waited. I saw their dreams increase in subtlety and power and watched them struggle back to awareness. The seed of rebirth I planted in them began to bear fruit. But time still dragged.

  "I have been alive and carried in this body much too long. I have lived so long that I have gone crazy, and outlived my insanity, thousands of time. Each time I slipped back to savagery, I fought my way out of the tangle, even though savagery and insanity were more comfortable, because I knew this time would come. I suspect other mages have also known. But unlike other mages, I could not participate in the preparations. And during my lucid moments, I planned what I would say when a new candidate appeared."

  Rain started to fall, and the loch sang and hissed under the passing storm.

  "I swam the oceans of the world, and found deep passages beneath the land and came to these inland bodies of water to rest. Once, not very long ago, Elme brought me to her garden, and for a time I taught the children she had made with Aske, and the others who had gathered there. When Tonn reigned as Yahweh, our time in the garden became a legend, then a lie, and 1 swam the deep reaches for a thousand years, sick at heart and crazy again. I hated all living things. I thought the past, before the War, was lost forever. Even now, human life seems to me largely a dance of ignorance and hunger. What light there is is rare, and when discovered, usually snuffed out. Do you know who most often does the snuffing?"

  Michael considered for a moment, water dripping from his face and steaming from the heat coming off his body. "Tarax and the Maln," he finally answered.

  "They are the latest, yes. Do you know why humans have had to struggle against such odds in the past thousands of years?"

  "Because of interference from the Sidhe."

  "Yes. Do you hate them for their interference?"

  Michael considered again, then shook his head. "It wouldn't do any good," he said.

  "Wouldn't it be best to free us all by destroying the Sidhe?"

  "No. We need them."

  "Do they need us?"

  "Even more."

  "You know of some of the actions taken by the Sidhe. But the conspiracies have gone much deeper than you suspect. When you think of the finest human achievements, practical and artistic, names occur to you. Whom do you think of immediately?"

  "Leonardo da Vinci, I suppose," Michael said. "Shakespeare, Beethoven. Einstein. Newton."

  "Yes, and hundreds of others, east and west, most lost to history. I hope you do not leave out Bach… not very long ago, listening to his music helped me return to my present clarity. In your culture, these giants seem preeminent, do they not? But they are not the peak of human potential. They were safe enough to be ignored by the Sidhe. Some were ignored for a time, and when, unexpectedly, they began to worry the Sidhe, their lives and careers were plagued or cut short. But the finest, the preeminent - the ones I could feel even in the womb, radiating their genius - were snatched away by the Sidhe before maturity, or before they could accomplish their work. Almost all of the finest have been stolen away for ten thousand years, and still we have matured and progressed. The Sidhe have failed again. But they have come close to crippling us."

  Michael said nothing, simply listened and waited.

  "Now, only in the past few centuries - the wink of an eye - have some of the Sidhe come to their senses. Plans have been made, and factions have struggled with each other. And you have survived and come here to listen to me. So listen closely, for this is the most important information of all.

  "The worlds are coming together. Adonna's Realm has failed. It lacked the mastery of prior creations. And here, in our universe, all have forgotten the art of making worlds. The true masters died during the War or were turned into animals and died not long thereafter. Since that time, this world - our world - has not been maintained. Few even remember that once, making worlds was the grandest craft of all - and the most necessary."

  "Somebody made this world - the Earth?" Michael asked, incredulous - yet it felt so right! Answered so many inner questions…

  "Not just the Earth. The universe."

  "But it's huge," Michael said. "I don't see how humans or even Sidhe could have made something so enormous, so complex."

  "Complexity is not always desirable. Enormity…yes. It always had a potential for growth. But it has gotten completely out of control now. Hundreds of creators, dozens of mages, worked to make this the grandest world of all… and succeeded. But the War ended cooperation. Now only I remember those times."

  "People once lived only in universes they had made?"

  "Why should it be otherwise?" the Serpent asked. "You are a child of your times. Do you not build your homes and live in them, in preference to staying out in the wind and the rain?"

  "But mat can't be quite the same thing, I thought that the Realm was like a growth, a polyp or something, on our universe."

  The Serpent growled. For a moment, Michael began to tremble again, until he realized it was laughing. He did not expect such a human response from the monster stretched out before him. but then he realized how ridiculous that was. The Serpent was more human than he was. Age and transformation did not cloak its humanity.

  "That was all Adonna managed," it finally said. "An admirable effort, but ill-conceived. The Sidhe had destroyed or transformed all the mages and peoples who might have helped Adonna succeed. His was the ultimate conceit."

  "How can this universe be controlled again?"

  "It can never be controlled again. If you leave a garden untended long enough, it is no longer a garden but a wild forest or a jungle, and it cannot simply be trimmed back and weeded and replanted. Our world has grown far beyond our power to control. It has merged with other worlds, cross-pollinating and taking on their qualities. That is part of the enormity you see - we are now a polyp on the worlds of creators beyond our reach or understanding.

  "Besides, your people - my children - have evolved in this garden-turned-jungle. You have learned some of its ways, and you are attuned to its character, however much you struggle against it. The world has turned cruel and harsh against you and made you tough and creative and resilient. The Sidhe cannot hope to match your creativity, whatever magic they wield.

  "Human discipline, on Earth, is now stronger than theirs. And strongest of all, in potential, is the discipline of the Breeds. Those who cross the barriers between Sidhe and humans hold the heritage of both peoples."

  "I'm a Breed…"

  "You are still more human than Sidhe. You are not immortal, and you have that miracle called a soul."

  "What… what is that?" Michael asked.

  "Curious that you think I would know," the Serpent said.

  "You don't know?"

>   "I only discovered how to destroy the soul, not to understand it. It is perhaps the final mystery, forever closed to those who live in universes. Those who do not need to dwell in shells, who stand out in the final sunlight and the final rainstorms, the weather beyond all worlds, perhaps they understand souls. Or perhaps that is what our souls mature to become… independent, free."

  "The Sidhe will never have souls again?"

  "No. My work was final."

  "No wonder they hated you. You were worse than they."

  The Serpent rolled back again, and Michael felt its clouded eye on him. "More evil, more willful, and more creative. I have had long enough to contemplate my excesses."

  "Then they're doomed."

  "No. There is a way to save them. Not in the individual - only in the race. And they must sacrifice their racial purity to do so."

  "They must join with humans."


  "But they hate us."

  "Many of them both hate and fear us. We are the vital ones now. They are the elegant and stylish ones. They have maturity and experience. We have anger and compassion and creativity. Now they come to Earth and hide. They feel hunted; they feel lost. They fear retaliation when humans discover what the Sidhe have done to hold them back."

  "Humans will take a long time to accept what I've learned," Michael said. "It wasn't easy for me, and I saw things with my own eyes."

  "Now they see things directly too. The Earth will not be the same. The Realm will not just vanish - it will leave its mark when it finally disintegrates. And no one surviving that cataclysm will doubt the new reality."

  Michael squatted on the sand, then sat back on his butt and took a deep breath. "Why always disaster?"

  "Because our universe has lost its safeguards. The garden has become filled with lions and scorpions. The gardeners are dead or, like me, ineffective, most of their skill sucked away."