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Songs of Earth and Power Omnibus, Page 70

Greg Bear

  That was when the war truly began…

  And Manus had been powerless to prevent it. He had, in fact, been swept up in the sickness, as had the then-mage of the Sidhe and the mages of the other races.

  The outcome Michael had known already, but Manus's memories added horrifying detail. The true Fall…

  What many thought of as humanity's fall, distorted in the myth of Adam and Eve and the serpent, had been in fact the beginning of a climb to a new maturity in a creation left to go completely out of control.

  Space had spread almost without limit. The creation had merged with wild and discarded continua, and in the necessary coming together of laws for existence, the fine-tuning of the mages and makers had been abrogated. Unfamiliar and alien intelligences had appeared at these distant borders. The triumphant Sidhe, alarmed that in their victory they were declining into easeful ways, had set out across the Great Distance, as these newly accessible regions were called. Followed the war called Quandary, lasting millions of years, of which Manus knew very little, imprisoned as he was on Earth.

  Then the Sidhe had returned, neither victorious nor defeated, but somehow lessened by their journeys… And only one of them had aspired to be maker and mage: Tonn. Tonn had been the last to go to Null, where creations were arranged, and to work true magic to shape the Realm.

  For the ten thousand years since, Null had gone unoccupied.

  Michael knew the combinations of discipline necessary to open a mage's gate. From the hill overlooking the loch, he used Manus's memories and spread wide a black gash in the rock and dirt, unlike the gates in the air he had made before.

  This gash led into a near-total lack of qualities, with the most minimal of enforced patterns.

  Michael and Shiafa stepped into Null.

  "Beneath" Null was the mist Michael had seen beneath the Realm, but even more unstructured and painful to witness. "Above" Null was a negative plane of dissolution, where badly contrived creations could be recycled, falling back to the mist. Null could be used as an eraser, should a maker or mage decide a new creation must be eliminated.

  These two, mist and negative plane, spread across all manner of distances and dimensions; and "between" them, where no untrained human eye could track or decipher, lay Null itself, a simple structure of black cubes resembling an enormous mineral specimen. But Null was not made of rock or of anything else.

  It was a place marker, a beginning point.

  It had never been "made" by anybody. Existing before all creations, or all peoples, Null had a timeless and a priori reality that Michael found difficult to comprehend, even with Manus's memories.

  Tarax already stood on the uppermost cube, lost in concentration. In his hands he held a pair of calipers, the two points of the calipers spanning a featureless ivory-colored sphere floating before him.

  Michael entered Null on the next cube down. Shiafa closed her eyes and moaned as she appeared on the surface of a third cube a short distance away, if distance meant much here - which it did not.

  Tarax glanced away from his measurements and smiled at Michael as an equal. Welcome, candidate, he said. There was no sound in Null and hence no voices but those conveyed by mind. Even those communications seemed tinny and weak. It was obvious to Michael that nobody could remain in Null for long without losing all material form, and perhaps all mental order as well. It was not meant for habitation; it was meant for the highest kinds of creation.

  Thank you. The chivalric politeness did not seem out of place here. The sheer, oppressive lack of order had to be compensated for.

  My daughter should not be here. She is not equipped for these reaches.

  I have given part of myself to her that she might come and witness.

  Witness what, our struggle?


  Tarax indicated the sphere between the calipers. This is almost finished. It can support all those now alive on Earth. Would you condemn both our peoples to destruction to assume your own petty prominence?

  Michael was fascinated by the difference between Tarax's nascent creation and the tiny pearls he had grown. You would abandon the old world completely?

  What use is it? It is harsh and uncontrolled. My people live there with difficulty. As flawed as the Realm was, it supported us in comfort.

  Do you have room for all the races?

  Tarax spread his arms wide. All are welcome.

  I don't think my people would know how to live in a creation so isolated from Earth.

  They would learn.

  Michael now knew the full extent of the law of mages. Candidates could not simply "have it out" in Null; they were here by sufferance. What that meant precisely - who was suffering their presence? - Michael could not find in Manus's memories. But at any rate, while they were here, they could not settle the issue by any form of combat -

  Except one.

  Michael felt the pearly excrescences spread across both of his palms. He had an advantage over Tarax…

  His creation would not begin from scratch. The example of an unruly, unpredictable garden gone to seed, hothouse growths subsumed, wild and self-sustaining growths dominant - the example of Earth and all space-time around it lay buried within Michael, innate, felt if not understood. And the maker part of him could use that as a beginning.

  Tarax would try for a pure creation, outside and beyond the despised Earth. He would attempt what Adonna had ultimately failed at - creation ex nihilo. That was a very Sidhe thing, style and bravado. Michael admired that.

  But even with Manus's memories, he could not compete on that level. (If you merge with Shiafa…)

  He tossed that murmur aside and glanced at Tarax's daughter. She stood bravely on the black surface. I've brought your daughter to you.

  Is her training finished?

  It is. She knows as much as I knew when you brought her to me. I trained her as the Crane Women might have.

  Tarax's creation increased in apparent diameter. He expanded his calipers and measured it again, nodding. Then you will learn where your human woman is.

  Did you send Shiafa to me as a trap? Michael inquired.

  Is that relevant? You have evaded the trap, if I did.

  There are people on Earth who would consider such a trap villainous, the tactic of a desperate coward.

  Tarax seemed unperturbed. / wonder that you would believe I care for the opinions of humans.

  Where is Kris tine?

  I can tell you where she is, but not how to get there. Clarkham has her in one of his endless sketches for a creation.

  I already know that much. I've fulfilled my bargain. Tell me what you promised you would tell me.

  In number, it is Clarkham's fortieth creation, and you may find it among one of the bottles of wine he made in the Realm … or in the wine he stole from Adonna, the celebrational nectar of the Sidhe mages.

  Wine for the Sidhe? Where does he keep these wines?

  You've tasted some of them already. He hid them in various places.

  Michael subdued the anger he felt. This is not our bargain, he said, the nacre spreading between his hands as he brought them together. Shiafa looked on, squinting against the unaccustomed nonquality of Null's space-time extension.

  Never trust a Sidhe. You've heard that adage, no doubt.

  Michael grinned and turned to Shiafa. You are free to choose. I do not need your power now. His confidence had taken a perverse leap with Tarax's statement. Whatever etiquette existed in Null, whatever rules were implied by the law of mages, simply masked a jungle law -

  Survival of the fittest. Or more succinctly, the finest.

  And Michael had grown up in a jungle creation, not in the hothouse Realm Tarax carried in his deepest instincts.

  Michael withdrew all his balancing judgments and restraints. He pulled back all the controls, those he had known and those he had never even been aware of.

  A maker has no conscience, he said to Tarax. Where is your maker, Priest?

  I am my own maker.r />
  Michael's grin became positively feral. Did you discover this talent within you, or learn it?

  Tarax did not reply. His ivory globe was now nearly as broad as he was. The calipers vanished from his hands. We cannot compete here, Man-child.

  But this is the only competition that matters, Michael responded.

  He spun the nacre between his palms into a pearl the size of a baseball. Rose-colored lines washed around the little sphere. Manus's memories approved - this was a vigorous creation. It carried its own inner light and confidence. Tarax's large bone-colored globe was a patchwork, virtually stillborn effort. It would grow, perhaps even become a coherent creation, but it would be no better than Adonna's Realm, and probably worse. Tarax was aware of this, Michael suspected.

  Within his own pearl, Michael felt all the contradictions and difficulties of the unruly Earth. Spice in the mixture. Give the creation a little autonomy; allow it to surprise the maker. Leave the sting in the bee, the thorn on the rose, and the spider in the garden. These incongruities will remind the inhabitants of the thorns within themselves, the evils that spring not from worlds but from individuals, and perhaps they will not soon forget, and not soon succumb to the disaster that befell all races sixty million years before.

  Michael's little pearl-creation fairly pulsed with its own confidence and eagerness. This world already lives, he thought. I simply have to give it freedom. It requires very little power from me, merely encouragement.

  This world is like a child.

  Michael felt a burst of joy within him that transcended any emotion he had ever known before. He was once again a child rolling mud into a ball. The greatest art of all time - creation of a world - was really no more profound and exalted than a child's play.

  And into the pearl went this aspect of innocent enthusiasm, to counter the wisdom of the bee's sting and the rose's thorns. The pearl threatened to burst into light.

  Tarax kept his bloated bone-sphere close to him, apparently worried lest it be released too early.

  Michael lay his fingers on the surface of his pearl and, lifting it above the black surface of Null, pushed it away from him across the "distance" to the mist. Shiafa's thoughts as she watched were like a song.

  You do not need me, she said. I am free.

  Michael turned with tears in his eyes, his face glowing red. / don't know what it is I've done. You helped me come here. But you are right. I do not need you.

  With his thoughts, there poured forth a residue of the energy he had put into the pearl. Shiafa added part of her own self, her own thoughts. And in those thoughts lived a small, self-contained world that impressed itself on both of them for the merest instant.

  And in this tiny world -

  Michael and Shiafa lay down under the spreading boughs of an ivory-trunked tree in the lost creation of their ancestors. They removed their simple hand-spun and hand-sewn clothes and reveled in their beauties and flaws, taking as much pleasure in the flaws as the beauties. They cataloged their differences, Sidhe and mostly-human. They replaced the tensions that had once plagued them and savored such flavors like bitter herbs in a rich stew.

  They held each other in the suffused light of the old world, moving against each other, their friction bringing on a delicious passion cut free of all guilt and necessity.

  They loved. Michael was no longer a teacher and Shiafa no longer a student. For a dangerous instant, they were totally connected; but that instant existed only in a shared fantasy, and the connection was robbed of all its dire consequences.

  They parted.

  The little world dissolved.

  Shiafa wavered in the uncertain reality of Null, her face as bright as the moon, eyes closed, still savoring the dreamworld they had made for each other. Then she did something she had never done for Michael or for anybody else in her life; she opened her eyes and smiled at him, directly and without reservations.

  Michael nodded to her - respect, relief, all his best wishes.

  Shiafa pulled aside a curtain, revealing sunlight and nigged desert hills - perhaps Israel - and departed from Null. She had been released from both Michael and her father.

  Michael's pearl had orbited Null several times, then dropped abruptly to the mist, where it waited like seed in a womb for the proper moment to lay itself over the desperately ill Earth. Tarax still held on to his bone-egg, now nearly as broad as Null itself, if Null had any breadth.

  There is no battle between us, Michael said. I wish you luck.

  The desperation in Tarax's face then was beyond what Michael had expected or desired. The Sidhe was failing as a maker, but no others were available.

  The Maln had destroyed the last of the Urges long ages ago.

  Michael moved forward to help. The bone-egg bubbled, wildly overextending, developing far too many qualities for a single creation. To Michael, it was obvious Tarax had been overdeliberate, overcautious.

  It's dangerous, he told the Chief of the Maln. Send it out to dissolve. Start again.

  No, Tarax said. It is the best I can do…

  It's flawed.


  Michael watched the bone-egg swell between the mist and the hideous solvent "sky," Tarax laboring beside it like an ant with a boulder. For a moment, he wondered if Tarax's world-sized abortion would harm the Earth and his own nascent creation.

  But Manus's memories told him, this is what Null is for. Nothing that goes wrong here can affect the worlds beyond. Only if Tarax tried to apply his abortion beyond Null - something he did not have the strength to do, in Michael's judgment - was there danger. At any rate, there was nothing Michael could do to stop him.

  Before he departed from Null, he allowed himself one last comment to Adonna's self-proclaimed successor.

  There's no substitute for talent, he said.

  Tarax did not respond. White hair sticking out from his head with the effort of controlling the bone-egg, he looked after Michael with a pitiful yearning totally uncharacteristic of the Sidhe priest.

  The past makes victims of us all, Michael realized even more sharply. The last of his animosity simply evaporated.

  He pulled the gap shut after him and stood on the sidewalk before his parents' house, in the glow of a sizzling streetlight, the night a frightening dark sheet of warm metal laid over the city and half the Earth.

  The pearl's convergence with Earth had not begun yet. Whatever would happen, would happen in its own due time.

  He opened the door. In the living room, his father was presiding over a meeting of neighbors. The electricity was out, and candles had been placed around the room, on the fireplace mantle and on top of the entertainment center and hall credenza. As Michael entered, a plump middle-aged man wearing a golfing sweater and baggy slacks interrupted a vehement diatribe on the lack of city services. Michael glanced around the room. He recognized most of the people there: Mr. Boggin, the plump speaker, and his wife Muriel; the Wilber-force family, six- and seven-year-old daughters sitting before the blank television; grandmotherly Mrs. Miller, widowed before Michael's return from the Realm; the Dopsos; and Warren Verde, a bookseller friend of John's.

  "Any news?" John asked quietly.

  "Your son is involved in all this, that's what Ruth and Mrs. Dopso have been saying, isn't it?" Mr. Boggin asked. John didn't answer. "Well?" Boggin persisted, facing Michael. "What do you know? What can we expect?"

  Michael frowned. He could feel the man's mental state all too acutely; his thoughts smelled of sweat and the fear of his own inadequacy. Mr. Boggin knew he was not the sort of man to survive a major crisis on stamina or wits. Clarkham's words on whom the candidates would be creating worlds for returned to Michael, and he mentally brushed them away.

  "There's been a kind of battle," he said.

  "These invaders," Warren Verde interjected. "Have you been talking with them?"

  Michael nodded. "More than that."

  Mrs. Miller moaned and twisted her hands in her lap.

  "I've been workin
g to see what can be done to put things right again." That, he knew, was about as much as they could take right now. "Where are the guests?" he asked his father.

  "Moffat and Crooke and several other people took them away. They've arranged for rooms at some downtown hotels."

  One thing at a time. And the time had come.

  "Dad, did Mr. Waltiri ever give you bottles of wine?"

  John smiled. "Two bottles," he said. "We never drank them. Waiting for a special occasion."

  "Are they in the wine closet?" John kept a fair collection of wines in a cool first-floor hall closet.

  "I think so. Ruth?"

  "I haven't touched them," Ruth said. Her eyes had not left Michael since his entry.

  "Then they should still be there. Do you need them?"

  "Who's Waltiri?" Mr. Boggin asked.

  "The composer," Verde said. "John used to know him, didn't you?"

  John had told the guests very little, perhaps for the same reasons Michael had chosen to cut his explanation short. People who rigorously lived their normal lives could not stretch their imaginations to encompass what he now knew.

  "I'll get them for you," John said.

  "I'll come with you." Michael followed his father into the hall. John took out his keychain and unlocked the closet door, then shook his head. "Can't see anything in there. I'll get a flashlight or a candle." He came back with a candle, but Michael had already located the two bottles on the bottom of the right-hand rack, using his sense of smell more than anything else. One bottle carried the double sundial of Clarkham's winery. The second carried no label whatsoever; this dark, almost black container was oddly shaped, slightly pinched in the middle. The glass had a glazed, metallic sheen.

  "Arno had no idea what was in that one," John said. "He said I might save it for a very special occasion. I take it this is that occasion?"

  "Perhaps not yet," Michael answered. "May I take them?"

  "They're yours. Arno… wasn't exactly human, was he?"

  "Part of him was human," Michael said.

  "The part that died."


  "You sound distant," John commented. "Something big happened, didn't it?"