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Songs of Earth and Power Omnibus, Page 57

Greg Bear

"I had a safe and peaceful life until just recently," Michael said. "I still wonder about being a candidate for anything as important as a mage. I suppose I'd be asked to tie worlds together and to help create new ones."

  "Ultimately," the Serpent agreed, "that would be your task. Why do you think you are inadequate?"

  "I've done silly things," Michael said. "I've gotten people killed. My magic is comparatively weak. I'm young, and I feel very stupid most of the time. And… I don't want to be powerful and important." So he had finally said it.

  "No person in his right mind ever wants to be a mage," the Serpent said. "It is a greater sacrifice and a harder life than any other you could choose or have forced upon you. No, those who want to be mages can never be true candidates. Clarkham, for example. His desire corrupts him."

  "But I have been stupid," Michael cried out. "In the Realm, there was a Breed woman who loved me. She sacrificed herself for me - for nothing - and I…" He stopped, gulping rapidly, and found he couldn't say any more. He shook his head and wiped tears from his eyes.

  The Serpent watched him without responding.

  "Now, I've put another woman in danger. I have to find her. I don't know what I'll have to do to save her."

  "You'll do what you must, obviously," the Serpent said.

  "Conflict is part of your existence. Why are you ashamed of your mistakes?"

  "There's no excuse for being stupid. I was blind. Ignorant."

  "Do you think you committed a sin?" the Serpent asked.

  Michael was a little shocked to have the word he had been avoiding brought forward so abruptly. "I suppose I have."

  "Do you know what a sin is?"

  "Doing something stupid you can avoid. Being vicious or selfish. Not thinking of others as living, thinking beings."

  The Serpent growled. "Sin is refusing to accept things as they are and refusing to learn from them. Sin is acting out of deliberate ignorance. Did you act out of deliberate ignorance?"

  "No," Michael said. "But I was acting in my own self-interest. I didn't think about Eleuth… I used her."

  "That is a very youthful thing to do."

  "It was still wrong."

  "She chose to sacrifice herself, did she not?"

  "Yes, and she didn't tell me it would kill her, but I should have known."

  "Adonna, when he play-acted as God, implanted a very inadequate and corrupt notion of sin in human minds. He said sin was a violation of God's law. That is the philosophy of a tyrant, not a creator. He wished to keep all humans subjugated and ignorant. Human growth was anathema to him. He wished to keep us in ignorance and darkness. There is no God's law. Why should a god impose arbitrary limits? There is only growth and understanding. Through growth and understanding, there is love. Where there is no understanding and no growth, only ignorance, there is no love. That is sin. But to grow is to commit mistakes. To learn sometimes requires trial and error. It should be apparent to you now that all sins are youthful transgressions. All evil is youthful. After a few thousand years, thoughts of evil become ineffably boring, like the posturing of ill-mannered children."

  "But I've felt evil. In Clarkham…"

  "Poor Clarkham. Ambitious, inadequate, very talented but flawed clear through. Adonna was once like Clarkham. And that is how Clarkham was ultimately defeated, by those who could reach back into their own pasts and understand him.

  Clarkham is only a few hundred years old. Adonna and the members of the Maln and the Councils of Eleu and Delf are tens of thousands of years old."

  "But what they did to him - filling him with evil."

  "Clarkham brought that upon himself. He made a trade when he was young. Magic for corruption. It is a way to gain power - a short-sighted and foolish way. When he had his power, he wished to stay the way he was, forever. And that means he cannot grow or learn. Such temptations are often placed before candidates. If they succumb, they are marked forever and easily detected."

  "I haven't been tempted that way."

  "Not yet," the Serpent said.

  "And even if I should become a mage, it would still be possible for me to sin, wouldn't it?"

  The Serpent rolled and rubbed itself on the stones.

  "I mean," Michael continued, "you sinned… in the War."

  "I fought. We all sinned."

  "But you took away the souls of the Sidhe."

  "And it was not enough. I would have destroyed them utterly if I could have."


  "Because they chose to destroy my people. I was a mage, and I was sworn to protect my people."

  "Then evil breeds evil."

  "Around you is the result. Conflict. Confusion. Horror. And also…"

  Michael waited, but the Serpent's voice had simply trailed off. It did not continue.

  "Beauty," Michael finished for it.

  The Serpent growled. "I have listened and watched for so long that I am beyond weariness or astonishment. I have lived far too long, but I cannot die. If you succeed, then perhaps I can be released."

  "But you still haven't told me all that a mage does."

  "A mage cares for his people. He - or she, for some mages have been female, though not many - smooths the path. A mage must understand his people. Do you understand yours? Humans, I mean."

  Michael shook his head.

  "Now think deeply, don't answer quickly. Do you know the character of humans?"

  "They surprise me all the time. How can I know them?"

  "Then you already understand that humans are surprising. Sidhe rarely are. Sidhe are deliberate. How else do humans and Sidhe differ?"

  "Humans don't have magic/' Michael said.

  "But some can work magic, no?"


  "Michael, you are mostly human; what Sidhe there is in you is not enough, by itself, to convey magic if magic was the talent of the Sidhe alone."

  "Then I was lied to."

  "If you do not believe you can work magic, then you cannot work magic. Simple and effective; another link in the chain the Sidhe forged thousands of years ago. Adonna taught humans that even if magic can be worked, it is evil, a sin. How have humans compensated?"

  "By working with matter. Science and technology."

  The Serpent seemed to purr deep in its throat. "Yes. A surprise. Using the wild fruits of the untended garden. Adapting to a universe, rather than tailoring a universe to fit them. Listening to the echo of the long, complicated song the world has become and accepting it, not circumventing it. A novel idea. The Sidhe have not done it; they have worked their magic, but in a way, magic is a denial of reality, not an acceptance.

  "So humans are makers of tools, forgers of iron, builders of metal wings and artists of plants and animal flesh. Such work seemed a crude and futile quest to the Sidhe, thousands of years ago; they were much more worried about your artists and musicians. They did not discourage your scientists. They could not understand them. Now, the quest of human science has been so successful, it is often more powerful than its masters. And in the twentieth century, it has become more powerful than the Sidhe."

  "But scientists can't make universes."

  "Not yet," the Serpent said. "Given another hundred years or so - a very small amount of time - and they will. If it is necessary. It may be necessary. But they will not do it through magic. And really, even the Sidhe can no longer create successful worlds. Adonna was the best, and his Realm is failing even as we speak. But we have gotten away from my question. What are humans?"

  "Humans are animals," Michael said. "They think they aren't, but they are."

  "True, but not in the way you mean. Humans are like animals, because many animals - even cockroaches, Michael! - were once people, long ago. The Sidhe forced me to turn my own kind into animals. And they transformed all their past enemies. You know of the Cledar and of the Spryggla. Their descendants are the birds and the mammals of the sea."

  "I mean, so few humans can think beyond their immediate concerns."

  "That may
lead to tragedy, but could they have survived with any other attitude? The universe is no longer kind and nurturing."

  "But some of them are cruel."

  "And some Sidhe are cruel. How are they different?''

  Michael was confused. "I don't understand what you want me to say."

  "Do you detect similarities between humans and Sidhe, at the very bottom? Similar capacities for evil?"

  "Yes," Michael said.

  "Our kind, and the Sidhe and the others were all one, once. Have you thought about the origins of those who lived in the original tailored worlds?"

  He hadn't. "Where did they come from?"

  "They had no beginning. They were never created."

  Michael wrinkled his nose. "That doesn't make sense."

  "We are eternal. We change, we die, we return, and the combinations and permutations go on forever and ever. And slowly, we progress. Ever higher and higher. I imagine that long ago, we were simple vibrations in nothingness, small songs, each individual differing only in subtleties. How long the simple songs lasted, who can say? But they became more complex and more involved with each other. The songs joined and withdrew. Again and again they found patterns together, and the patterns broke down to make new patterns. New collections of songs, new styles, new addings and takings away. At times, what might seem setbacks - even disasters - happened, but across the greatest spans of time, there was progress. You must draw back before you can leap.

  "And finally, that progress has come down to us. But there was no beginning. There shall be no end. Only variations on a theme, never repeating, always improving.."

  "Sidhe and humans were once one species?" Michael asked, still incredulous.

  "It must have been so, once. One comes before many. And there are similarities."


  "Deep similarities. Though thousands of millennia have passed, the descendants of the original Sidhe can still mate with re-evolved humans. The songs even now beckon to each other."

  "Why all the fuss, then?" Michael asked.

  The Serpent growled quite loudly and rolled back and forth on the rocks. Michael backed away in some alarm.

  "Why all the fuss, indeed! Do you imagine I have all the answers?" it finally said when it could control its laughter.

  "You should," Michael said resentfully. "You're old enough."

  "I should indeed. But my life as a serpent has not been an unbroken and rational continuity. As I said, I've spent much of that time being little more than a senseless sea monster, loving shadows and deeps, only rarely stumbling back into something like sanity. Fortunately, this season I am reasonably lucid. But… not entirely. Once I knew much more than I do now. Perhaps even the answer to the profound question, 'Why all the fuss?'"

  "Maybe I shouldn't ask any more questions," Michael said, disgruntled.

  "Not at all. Continue. There is much more to talk about… But I should warn you. Even the answers I have given to you - they are not certain. They may not be entirely true. I am too old by far to be sure what the truth is. My own fantasies and dreams… They could be more real to me than memories."

  They continued talking until morning light suffused the mist The Serpent withdrew into the water for a time, leaving Michael alone on the shore while it made a circuit of the loch. Then it asked him to swim, and Michael stripped down and waded into the murky water. Not once did he touch the Serpent but simply treaded water while it slithered in wide circles around him, head breaking the surface like the end of a weather-smoothed log.

  Every few hours, the Serpent would illuminate itself with some fabulous design - lines of jewel-like swellings along its body, large and ornate fins, shimmering scales. But usually it was black or mud-colored, dimpled and ugly, ageless.

  With the sun high, directly overhead, and the mist burned away, the dreary landscape around the loch took on a bright, desolate beauty. Michael lay on the rocks and sand to dry himself. The water had tasted sharp, like weak tea.

  The Serpent crawled half its length up on the shore and rolled on its back, revealing a pale blue stripe running the length of its belly. A series of rune-like symbols were carved in the stripe. Michael crawled closer to the Serpent to examine the symbols. "What are those?"

  "The terms of my imprisonment. The list of my crimes."

  "I thought the Sidhe abhorred writing."

  "They abhor the casual use of writing. They abhor bookkeeping or the pinning down of history. For poetry, or for magic, writing is sometimes essential. These symbols are my prison."

  "What do they say?"

  "I don't know," the Serpent replied. "I can't see them. If I knew, I could free myself. And no one can reveal them to me."

  They lay silent in the sun for minutes.

  "Who was the last human you spoke to?" Michael asked.

  The Serpent became a volcanic line of glowing red and then darkened into dying embers. "I haven't conversed with a human, face to face, for almost two thousand years," he said. "It is not pleasant to discuss."


  "Because the last human candidate was deluded into thinking of our conversation as a temptation. He was extraordinary. He could have been a mage of the highest order, but he had attracted Adonna's attention as a youth. He had something else within him… something that went beyond the limits Adonna had set for him. Something above and beyond all these conflicts, very beautiful, without hatred, without greed. Still, he carried Adonna's mark…

  "When his philosophy touched people on a large scale, it perverted and destroyed as much as it comforted and enlightened. There have been others like him since, but not nearly as strong. » have spoken with none of them."

  Michael was tempted to ask more, but the tone of the Serpent's voice dissuaded him. After a while, when his clothes were dry, he stood and stretched. "I don't have much time," he said. "I have to find Kristine."

  "We have wandered far with words, haven't we?" the Serpent asked. "How much have you learned?"

  "Some. Not a great deal," Michael said.

  "Then you know that what must be learned cannot be taught with words."

  Michael felt a chill.

  "You must sacrifice yourself now."

  "I don't understand."

  "You pride yourself in your individuality, your personal memories and accomplishments. But if you were to place all you have thought and been and done on top of what I contain, your mere two decades on my millions of years, you would be lost."

  "Yes. Probably."

  The Serpent growled softly. "That is what you must do."

  Michael stared. "Why?"

  "You cannot be a mage as you are now. You must have experience. You must learn."

  "I don't want to be a mage," Michael said softly, shivering again.

  "Do you have a choice?" the Serpent asked.

  "Is this what you offered the last man you spoke to?" Michael asked. The Serpent did not answer. "Is it?"


  "And he refused?"

  "He had the mark of Adonna."

  "Do I have the mark of Adonna?"

  "You do not," the Serpent said. "You shed the mark in the Realm."

  "And you want me to carry your mark?"

  Again the Serpent burned lava-red, and the water around his submerged length bubbled and steamed. "You must combine worlds. You must create new worlds. You must unite the races."

  "Yes, yes, somebody has to do that! I know."

  "And you are a candidate. Perhaps the best candidate."

  "But why must I submerge myself in… in you?"

  "I have the experience. The memories. I cannot use them. You can."

  "You have something else," Michael said, hardly believing what he was feeling, what he was about to say. A voice inside him fairly screamed that he was being childish and stupid. Who was he to challenge the oldest living human? But another, stronger voice compelled him. Both voices were purely his own. This choice was his. "You carry the horrors of the past. If I absorb you, and lose myself, th
en I become you. And you were as evil and willful as Adonna."

  "I have contemplated my excesses," the Serpent reiterated, its length obsidian-black.

  "But would you commit those excesses again… to save your people?" Michael put on his clothes again.

  The Serpent withdrew a few yards into the water. "If I were given no choice, I would."

  "When you tried to destroy the Sidhe, did you really have no other choice? Or did you hate them?"

  "I hated them," the Serpent admitted.

  "And you would try again?"

  "They are weak now."

  "Would you try to destroy them?" Michael felt a surge of defiant horror. "You could, now that they're weak. You could finish what you started."

  Only the last three yards of the Serpent's trunk and head protruded onto the shore now. "I hope I would not do that."

  "But you might… anyway."

  "I might," the Serpent conceded.

  "I can't become you," Michael said, crying out again. "I can't be the kind of mage you were. If I can be any sort of mage at all…"

  "You are very young."

  "I wish there was a way I could learn from you, learn what is necessary, without the risk. If that is possible…"

  But the Serpent withdrew into the loch without another word. The ripples stilled along the shore, and Michael was alone. He turned toward the tree trunk where the Breed female attendant had faded away.

  She stood there again, her white hair dazzling in the sun, her baggy black suit and starchy white shirt and narrow black tie just as he remembered them.

  "Follow me," she said. She tore away a part of the landscape beyond the tree trunk and stepped into inky darkness. Michael crawled through the hole after her.

  And returned to the eleventh floor of the Tippett Hotel.

  The Breed woman was a translucent shadow ahead of him, halfway down the hall. "You have failed," she said, her voice as weak as her image. "You are no longer a candidate. Go home and weep for your people and your world."

  Chapter Twenty-Two

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  Michael stood in the hallway, alone and angry and as still as the marred plaster walls around him. Why did I do that? he asked himself, relaxing his clenched fists and arm muscles. Because I am a coward? Afraid to submit to a higher personality?