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Songs of Earth and Power Omnibus, Page 67

Greg Bear

  His father had taught him something about wines; he did not shake it nor in any other way disturb the sediment cast off to the side of the reclining bottle. Sediment could take years to settle out again. Spoil the purity.

  The contents were a deep, rich green-brown through the green glass, as clear and suggestive as the depths of a gem-stone. All summer and winter caught in a swallow, fogs and soil, earth and sky and sun, distillations of time and reality. A core-sample of a universe, not the cultural universe of books and music and art, but of the world itself as shaped by humans.

  Oenology. The one art the Sidhe would almost certainly ignore. The one art the Sidhe had not passed on to the re-evolved humans.

  His respect for Clarkham grew. Never underestimate your enemies. He took his knife from his pocket and contemplated removing the lead wrapping, but found himself paralyzed with indecision. Drink it here, or elsewhere? Share it with Shiafa? That idea particularly disturbed him.

  Swallowing this vintage might do more than transport. It might teach, give clues. He did not want Tarax's daughter to be more powerful than he was.

  He pushed the knife blade into the foil around the lip of the bottle. Pulling the lead and impressed wax away, he unfolded the corkscrew from the base of his knife and pushed the tip into the dark cork. The cork seemed brittle. The screw finally found purchase, and he twisted the knife handle. With less dexterity than he might have wished, holding the bottle between his knees and glancing up the stairs to see that nobody was watching, he pulled the cork free of the neck.

  The base of the cork was stained with a dark reddish-purple glaze. He sniffed the cork and smiled - his father's ritual - and then smelled the open bottle. The odor was not strong; it reminded him more of dust than flowers or fruit. Should he let it breathe for a while for maximum effect? How fastidious should one be, uncorking a wine between worlds?

  He lifted the bottle to his lips. In other circumstances, he might take days to make this decision and follow every little precaution - including his father's wine rituals.

  The liquid met his lower lip, cool and slick. It spilled across his tongue in a thin dribble, and he swirled the small amount of wine across his palate and over the full surface of his tongue.

  His eyes widened.

  With a barely controlled gag, he spit the wine out onto the dusty floor and wiped his lips hastily. Sour and bitter. The wine had turned. He held the cork up to the light; it was brittle and crumbling. Too much oxygen had gotten into the bottle.

  But even so -

  For a moment, he felt his skin warm and his hair stand on end. The basement's outlines seemed to change. With a blink, the effect vanished. He might have imagined everything.

  Michael recorked the bad bottle. The wine the Dopsos had served had been very good but certainly not a wine of power. Perhaps he was on the wrong track after all. Or Clarkham had reserved the finest bottles for his own use, giving the Waltiris only vin ordinaire.

  He returned the corked bottle to the rack and removed the last. This one seemed dustier, less clear behind the glass. The sediment lay thick within, covering almost a quarter of the bottle's circumference.

  He removed the foil and the cork and lifted the bottle to his nose. Eyes closed, he inhaled.

  When he opened his eyes again, the light bulb sang like an insect. The walls flexed outward. He smelled the sweetness deep in his nose and all down his throat, into his stomach and down into the center of his being. His eyes felt encrusted with rainbows. Curiously, he examined the cork's bottom and saw that the varnished darkness there was absolute.

  He took a swallow from the bottle.

  The sweetness was that of a season - late summer.

  The tickle in his nose was like a burst of sunlight in his eyes, drawing him closer to a sneeze.

  The rounded, almost oily sensation was a distant lake slowly rippling under hazy sun. In the lake, the Serpent wallowed, and in the Serpent's memories, a mix of dangers and opportunities.

  The smell of distant raspberries: a vine on a trellis in a garden with no guardian, no Tristesse to menace and frighten. The way is open.


  From a multitude of possible places to go.

  The wine was not a passkey to a distinct world. It was as he had barely suspected a skeleton key

  Clarkham being far more powerful than Waltiri or even the mage of the Cledar, and in his own way far more subtle, an instigator of unrest and trouble and a prompter of actions a skeleton key to the dozens of worlds or more that Clark-ham had created; an open invitation, for the wine would not have been left here had Clarkham wished otherwise; a challenge - find me in the manifold of my creations

  Michael saw the Isomage's house as a kind of skeleton on a background the shade of the cork's varnished bottom. He also saw the pleasure dome and the house in Los Angeles. These were the shadows of Clarkham's creations, no longer accessible. The taste of the wine continued to quietly massage his tongue, revealing layer after layer of finish.

  Here was the primitive, stark world in which Michael had been imprisoned. Beyond it was something more complex but difficult to distinguish; the taste seemed muddy. At another level, Michael saw a city stretching across a valley, a sprawled and sunny place… not unlike Los Angeles in the 1930s and 1940s, he realized. The Hollywood hills and Griffith Park seemed to stand out, as well as the large barn-like studios and great stretches of empty fields where more of the city would lie in Michael's time. A derivative creation.

  He probed that world and watched his energies spread from end to end of the tiny creation, barely twenty miles wide. The creation was empty; like Michael's former prison, it contained only pale shadows, architectural mannequins indicating where people might be.

  The next layer of taste unfolded across his tongue. He saw a field of yellow grass with intensely blue, almost purple sky rising above the field and the low golden hills beyond.

  David Clarkham stood under the hot sun in the field. He appeared younger - in his thirties perhaps - with thick brown hair and a wide mustache. His face was narrow with a narrow hawk nose and high cheekbones, and his eyes were langorous, relaxed. His lips curved in a faintly bemused smile. Michael swallowed the wine and felt the grass part around his solidifying body. His shoes sunk into the dirt as he took on substance.

  "Hello," the young Clarkham said.

  Michael shaded his eyes against the glare and built up all of his hyloka for a defensive surge. But Clarkham's assault did not come. Michael probed quickly, and Clarkham allowed him to perceive of his reality and character before blocking.

  It was indeed Clarkham, but not quite real and not quite a shadow; this Clarkham was almost as much a creation as the prairie around them. Even so, behind the image lay the merest hint of Clarkham's inescapable foulness.

  "Hello," Michael replied, feeling the sweat start out on his brow. The sun was almost unbearably hot. Clarkham, dressed in a dark corduroy suit with a white linen shirt, appeared to be mimicking a Western pioneer. Through the grass, Michael could see he was wearing scuffed leather boots with his cuffs pulled down over them.

  "I'm surprised," Clarkham said, hitching his thumbs in the pockets of his coat. "You're much more resourceful than I thought. More powerful, too."

  "I'm looking for Kristine," Michael said.

  "She's not here. I can't return her to you, especially now. I took her for just such an eventuality."

  "Why? That's the only reason I'm here." Michael realized the shallowness of that particular untruth; and yet, as he said it, he believed it. Part of him would have forgiven all, just to have the Earth return to normal and Kristine back.

  Clarkham's smile broadened. "You have no other ambitions, after making it this far? Surely you've faced… let's call them opportunities, if not temptations?"

  Normality was as impossible now as a peaceful settlement of the disputes between them. Michael could not have a normal life; Clarkham had never had one. Michael threw aside that especially tenuous shadow-self's wi
sh and faced Clark-ham on his own terms. Nothing visible had changed between them, but Michael's new stance was apparent to Clarkham immediately.

  "That's more like it," the ex-Isomage said. "More honest."

  "I didn't want to become a mage," Michael said softly.

  "1 did. I've been working through my apprenticeship, or whatever it should be called, for centuries longer than you've been alive. Your interference is unsettling and unwelcome. You've caused me much grief."

  "This whole dispute…" The magnitude of grief caused by the Sidhe-human conflicts was beyond Michael's ability to describe. All of human history… He shrugged.

  "Your maturity is a sometime thing, weak at best," Clark-ham said. "Yet you don't seem unreasonable. And your ambition isn't nearly as strong as mine. Perhaps we can discuss things, and you can realize how hopeless your prospects really are and how much harm you might cause if you try to fight both Tarax and myself."

  "All right," Michael said.

  "We're in one of my test environments," Clarkham explained. "Like an artist's sketch. It's part of my larger world. It's quite accomplished, I think. It has firm roots and mimics most of the complexity of our birth universe. It is not nearly so large, of course."

  "Is it complete?" Michael asked.

  "No," Clarkham admitted. "Come with me. We'll find a cool place."

  They walked over the fields. Michael felt the quality and density of this test-world with the palms of his hands. It was indeed fine, almost indistinguishable from Earth. He could not do something this powerful and real - not yet, perhaps not ever.

  Yet he itched to try. The part of himself that aspired to be a mage - the ultimate poet, creator of worlds - was impressed but not overawed.

  In a depression within the prairie lay a small town hammered together from gray planks and splintered posts. On one side of the single dirt street was a barber shop, a saloon and a hotel, on the other a gunshop and a feed and general store, all deserted. Michael stretched his mental fingers wide, searching for the facts in this world he might need to know, and he curled those fingers back empty. This world was a test case, finely wrought, but not profound.

  Derivative. For the first time since he had swallowed the wine, Michael smiled. Clarkham saw the edge of that smile, and his face became thinner, nose sharper, cheeks paler.

  They walked the single dirt street, and Clarkham held open the swinging doors to the saloon. Michael passed through into welcome, cool shadow. Clarkham pulled out a seat at a rickety round table, and Michael sat.

  "This is all I have," Clarkham said, indicating with his arms the room and the world beyond, and not just one world, but the others Michael could still feel at the back of his palate. "You helped remove the rest from me. I cannot return to Earth now. Not in person, not physically."

  Michael thought of the footprints on the dusty floor. Whose, then? A Sidhe - perhaps Tarax himself, or Biri - clearing out Clarkham's gate to the Realm, disposing of Lamia and Tristesse - carrying them to the Tippett Hotel… Leaving them there as a warning to the Ban, perhaps, that humans must not cross there…

  Would he ever know? Probably not.

  "I could not go to the Realm, but now that's dead too, and soon the Earth with it, no? So no regrets. You've taken nothing from me I didn't deserve to lose. Complacency is a mage's worst enemy. Complacency and lack of vigilance."

  "The Earth is dying?" Michael asked, feeling like a child again, asking questions of a teacher. The role he wishes upon me. Power lies in placing others in their weakest postures.

  "Tarax didn't do a very good job of bringing his ship up on the reef, did he? Pushed out the captain and then couldn't navigate. He forgot to toss away the unnecessary, the deadly cargo - the underpinnings of the Realm. Chaos, the mist of creation. Now they pollute the Earth. Soon anything will be possible. When anything is possible, nothing is real. Might as well spread turpentine across a fresh oil painting." Clarkham sat across the table from Michael and folded his arms, looking strong and young and satisfied, his face dark in the saloon's cool gloom. "His qualifications to be the mage of the new Earth seem weaker to all of us day by day. Perhaps even to himself."

  "All of us?"

  "The Serpent still dreams. And who can say there aren't others? They might be less apparent in this than even you. And you have moments when you don't even want to be a mage." His smile was perfectly candid and friendly. "The contest must be decided soon. We all have loyalties to our people, and without the people, what use is a world? Like Adonna, I once considered populating my own worlds, but…" He sighed. "You've seen the results. By the way, how did you escape? Mine was a particularly nasty trap."

  Michael saw no reason for lies. "Tarax released me."

  "On what condition?"

  "Part of a pact. I would train his daughter, and he would tell me where you've hidden Kristine."

  Clarkham's smile broadened. "Interesting. The law of mages. No candidate shall harm a fellow candidate or lessen his chances. But as you see, I don't necessarily follow those rules. Tarax's daughter - a Sidhe? I seem to recall his woman was a pure Sidhe. Adonna made the same mistake." He leaned forward and put his elbows on the table. "Thirsty?"

  Michael shook his head. He did not want the taste of the wine diluted or washed away. "Why is it a mistake?"

  "It can be a great mistake for a mage. If you choose not to be a mage - if you sensibly decline this position you've half unwittingly put yourself in - then there is no threat. But I tell too much. You are still my enemy."

  Michael nodded. "Yes," he said. "You killed Tommy."

  "His death was easy. He killed himself. Do you know humans, Michael? You think you are one of them. You are, mostly. But you don't know them. Have you followed your history lessons, read the newspapers? We are not fighting each other in order to serve an exalted race, Michael. We strive to serve animals… unprincipled, cruel, blind and willful. When the Sidhe last left Earth for the Realm, humans were already on their merry path to making it unlivable even for themselves. Now they have the power to destroy everyone.

  "Humans are willful and blind. They do not appreciate. They look upon those possessed by genius and chew them over and spit them out. Artists and poets are just so many…" His face had paled again, and he brought color back with another broad smile. "Their scientists have the upper hand. Taming a garden gone to seed."

  "The Sidhe tried to take magic away from us," Michael said. "Without magic, we could only learn how to use the world. The scientists have made us strong."

  "Us?" Clarkham mimicked incredulously. "You rank yourself with the scientists?"

  "I would hope to," Michael said.

  "A candidate mage condoning the worship of a corrupt and runaway world. Amazing how far humans have fallen."

  Michael suddenly felt a surge of boredom. He pushed it aside lest it dull his apprehension and sense of peril. "You are about to try to strike a deal with me," he said.

  "I am?" Clarkham feigned surprise.

  "You are," Michael said, the insane self-assurance coming to the fore again. So much to keep in balance.

  "All right. But it might not be the deal you imagine. Your talent is strong but undeveloped. We could help each other. Alone, I can create a suitable world… But together, the three of us can control Tarax's ambitions and create a new Earth for all the races, or as many as will accept us."


  "You have a certain attraction to Tarax's daughter. Her power can be most useful, if handled properly. And I can keep the worst from happening between the two of you, once you merge." His eyes seemed to cloud. "Euphemisms. Once she seduces you, or you her."

  Michael made as if to consider this, but there were alarms in his head. What he had felt in Shiafa… Tonn's wife on the Blasted Plain. Connected. Horribly connected. Those who aspire to become mages…

  "What about her loyalty to Tarax?"

  "I doubt she feels any loyalty."

  Michael glanced down at the worn-smooth table top. "What kind of
world would you make for all the races?"

  "The world-building is relatively easy," Clarkham said. "It's control of the world's inhabitants mat causes trouble. Humans are especially difficult. They would likely start tinkering with the very foundations, unless they're kept tightly reined in. Sidhe might be more manageable. At least the Sidhe have a sense of their limits."

  "How would you control them?"

  "Rigidly," Clarkham said, eyes narrowing. "They have opposed me. They must never be that strong or willful again."

  "Isn't there any other way?"

  Clarkham shook his head slowly. "If you think otherwise, you're being foolish. Human history, Michael. Wars and exterminations and crimes and cruelty. Distorted minds and distorted societies. I doubt you have any idea of the depth of depravity humans are capable of."

  "The Sidhe are responsible for many of our problems."

  "Probably," Clarkham conceded. "But the roots are still there. The Sidhe merely tried to train the branches. And whoever caused the problems, as mage - I still have to solve them. Rigorous weeding and trimming. Could you face up to that?" Michael did not answer. He pushed his chair away from the table. The wine's finish was losing definition. "If I cooperate and bring Shiafa's power to you, will you free Kristine?"

  Clarkham made a magnanimous swing of one hand. "She is of no use to me except as a means to control you. I certainly do not lust after her."

  "Nobody implied that you did," Michael said, his face flushing.

  Clarkham stood and leaned across the table on his extended arms, fingers splayed against the dark wood. "Do not try to join this conflict, unless you join on my side. You have certain abilities but no sophistication. You do not know the potentials. Whatever you do, you must not oppose me. I've taken your measure, Michael Perrin. I know your weaknesses."

  Michael nodded agreeably.

  "We cannot afford the virtues of patience and kindness and honor," Clarkham continued, his eyes contemplating the distances beyond Michael. "If we are to be mages, that is."

  Michael's palms tingled. He lifted one hand as if to rub his nose and saw a pearly excrescence beginning there. "You've always wanted to be a mage, haven't you?" he asked.