Songs of Earth and Power Omnibus, Page 71Greg Bear
"Your mother is worried sick, more about you than the way the world's going, I think. Can you reassure us?"
Michael hugged his father tightly. "I'm still my father's son and my mother's son," he said. "It'll take me some time to tell you what's been happening. Right now, I have one more thing I have to do."
"Involving the Sidhe?" John asked. Ruth came into the hallway and leaned against a wall, her arms crossed. Michael went to her and hugged her, as well.
"Not involving the Sidhe," Michael said.
"Where's Shiafa?" Ruth asked.
Michael laughed and shook his head. "She's not with me. I'm not sure where she is. But she's fine."
"It's not that I'm prejudiced," Ruth said.
"I'm going to look for Kristine," Michael explained.
"In a bottle of wine?" John asked.
Michael lifted the unlabeled bottle. "It's probably just as well you didn't try this," he said. "It's very old."
"Maybe sixty million years."
"That's impossible," John said, and then laughed dryly. "But then, I suppose it isn't. Let me know what it tastes like?"
Michael nodded. "What did the people with Moffat and Crooke say about Mahler and Mozart?"
"I don't think they were convinced at first," John said. "Everybody's out of whack these days. Nobody knows what to do or where to turn. But Moffat seemed to have things in hand."
"I'm going out the back way," Michael said. "Try to keep the people calm. I think everything's going to work out."
"But you're not sure?" Ruth asked.
"No. I'm not sure."
She gave him a sad and intense look, her face pale and tight in the vibrating light of the candle. "I can't believe you're still my son," she said ' Have you met your great-great-grandmother yet?" Her eyes narrowed to slits.
"No," Michael said, smiling now, knowing what she was getting at. "Great-great-Grandpa's Hill wife hasn't come my way."
"If she does," Ruth said, "be sure to tell her something for me."
"Tell her, 'Boo!'" Ruth said. John took her outstretched hand, and she extended her other hand to Michael. He grasped it firmly.
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Michael was certain that there was more to Clarkham than had met his eye. Clarkham's concealment of his creations' gateways in bottles of wine was a master stroke. That all of Clarkham's worlds were derivative might or might not be relevant; he certainly did not wish to underestimate the Isomage.
Clarkham had, after all, escaped the combined plots of the Sidhe Councils - with Michael as the barb on the end of a spear-shaft centuries long. And Clarkham was much older than Michael.
That was balanced now by the millions of years of memories from Manus. But Michael had hardly had time to catalog the broad features of those memories, much less take full advantage of them. (What would he become when he had absorbed the entire treasure?)
He carried the bottles down the dark street, vaguely making his way by the candlelighted windows of the houses. He avoided the few people he saw - some drunk, some young and rowdy, some furtive and frightened. They carried Cole-man lanterns and flashlights and made a great deal of noise. Their world was crumbling. He did not want to think about them now, or about the responsibilities of a maker and mage -
He was concentrating on Kristine. How long had it been since her kidnapping? Weeks? Months? What had happened to her in that time?
What did she remember? Had Clarkham locked her in some dismal dream-world, as he had Michael? Did she think Michael was dead?
He was going back to where his first journey had begun, Clarkham's always-empty, always-full house. Once inside, he would drink a toast.
But from which bottle?
The stolen bottle of mage's nectar, however old it was, did not seem the most promising. Clarkham had not considered it important enough to take along with him. Or perhaps Waltiri had hidden it from him. And Clarkham had simply given away or abandoned the other wines, perhaps thinking it next to impossible that anyone would divine (no pun intended, Michael thought wryly) the secret of his worlds' gateways.
But Clarkham knew the secret was out. Michael had intruded once already. No doubt the Isomage, or whatever was left of him, would be on the alert.
Michael stood on the front porch of Clarkham's house. Despite all that had happened, the house still seemed nothing more than a slightly run-down dwelling in a moderately ritzy neighborhood.
In the upstairs dusty-floored guest bedroom, Michael took his Swiss army knife from his pocket and cut the lead foil on Clarkham's bottle. With a pop, the cork came out cleanly and in one piece. Michael smelled the varnish-like stain on the cork's end and then smelled the bottle.
It had not soured.
The gate was clearly inviting him.
He took a sip and sprayed it across the back of his tongue, as his father had taught him. He closed his eyes.
The flavors paraded, and he tasted again the distinct divisions. He counted carefully, using all of his heightened senses to mark the borders on each range of tastes.
Thirty-five, thirty-six different flavors - one dusty and grassy, the world where Clarkham had last conversed with him - and then thirty-seven, richer by far, thirty-eight, thirty-nine -
Like counting the iron gates in the alley between worlds.
And forty. He bore down with all his discipline on that flavor. It was harsh, metallic and stony, and yet behind it lurked the most complex subtleties of all the succession. He thought for a moment, as he crossed, that this fortieth flavor might have once been the finest but had somehow begun to turn, separately from all the others.
Michael was nearly hit by a car as his feet touched hot asphalt pavement. The car screeched to a halt, and the driver cursed at him, then swerved into another lane.
Stunned, Michael left the intersection and stood on the sidewalk. There, he looked up at the street sign. The placards for streets in both directions were blank.
A hot, mellow sun shined down on the pastel stucco-walled buildings with awnings stretched out halfway across the sidewalks. Old streamlined cars - Buicks, Fords, Chevrolets and a single white Packard - with bright paint jobs and glittering chrome drove down the streets, wide white sidewalls on their tires. Men and women in summer attire passed by - Bermuda shorts, sunglasses, Hawaiian shirts, spaghetti-strap print dresses with short-sleeved jackets.
Michael stood off to one side under a black and white striped awning. So many people… Where had they come from? For that matter, where was he? He had never suspected Clarkham was capable of creating a world this complex, with such a distinct feel of reality.
Michael entered a men's clothing store to gather his wits. The sunlight through the windows was dazzling. Legless and headless mannequins modeled wide-lapel sports coats and Arrow shirts in the window, surrounded by a small mock-up split-rail fence. A smiling cast-iron black jockey in red and white livery offered a silver ring beside a chair. Michael sat and rubbed his eyes. The taste on his tongue was fading, yet the world was still here, detailed and undeniable. It felt real.
All but the blank street signs.
"May I help you, sir?" asked an unctuous salesman in a pinstriped suit. Michael looked up. The salesman's face was round, black hair greased slick, a thin pencil mustache beneath his sharp nose. The salesman smiled, revealing brilliant white teeth.
Michael quickly probed his aura. He had no aura. He was as alive as the mannequins in the window, and as thoughtful.
Michael got up from the chair without replying. The salesman looked over his shoulder at two other salesmen toward the rear of the store. "Sir?"
"I'm fine," Michael said.
"I should hope so, sir. May I help you find suitable apparel?"
"No, thank you."
"What's the date?" Michael asked abruptly.
"September 19th, sir. We're hav
ing a summer's end sale. You know that summer apparel is never really out of date in Los Angeles. Some fine buys."
"The year, I mean."
The salesman smiled quite broadly. "The gentleman has been reading too much John Collier, perhaps?"
"Nineteen and thirty-seven, give or take a few minutes."
"Think nothing of it."
Michael left the shop and strolled down the street, delicately probing the people he passed. None were more than animated figures - brilliantly animated, but no more real for all that.
He passed the alcove entrance to a stone-walled office building. A shoeshine stand squatted in one comer, attended by an elderly white-haired black (Negro, he almost wanted to say) in a powder-blue wraparound apron. The black smiled at several men as they passed. "Shine? Finest shine." He focused on Michael, starting from Michael's shoes and glancing upward. Michael's suede Hush Puppies did not invite an inquiry.
The shoeshine man was empty, also.
Clarkham had populated his world with vacuous ghosts. In a way, these inhabitants were worse than the dark figures Michael had avoided in Clarkham's dream-prison. Without the discipline, one would probably accept these as people.
He turned back abruptly and entered the alcove, passing through the revolving glass door. In the lobby, he glanced at the magazine stand replete with issues of Life magazine and stacks of newspapers and pulps. The vendor, a young, skinny woman with her hair netted in a tight bun, smoked a Camel cigarette, lost in some blank reverie. Truly blank, Michael thought. Emptiness mimicking emptiness.
His respect for Clarkham grew, tinged with horror. Why did Clarkham wish to populate worlds with simulacra? That seemed a perversion of what being a maker or a mage was all about - providing a habitat for real people.
But perhaps he was missing the big picture, Michael thought. Perhaps these were simply test subjects, architect's toy figurines. He stepped into a wood-paneled elevator with three other simulacra, one of whom - a gray-haired woman in a black silk suit - smiled at him with matronly good-humor.
He returned the smile. The operator, a Latino with deep-set black eyes, asked what floor he wished. Michael said, "Fourth, please."
Anyplace where he could get off and be quiet, away from the simulacra. Where he could spread a large-scale probe across this world and measure its extent… Feel for Kristine.
The door opened at the fourth floor, and Michael stepped out into a cool, shadowy hallway. Near the end of the deserted hall, adjacent to an etched glass-front door marked "Pellegrini and Shaefer, Novelties and Party Favors" in gold letters, he paused by a white ceramic water fountain. Michael spread his probe.
And screamed, withdrawing it immediately.
Head crawling with fire, he slumped to the floor. His mouth seemed to instantly fill with the taste of decayed meat. Trap, he thought, pulling in all his senses and calling up a rejuvenating pulse of hyioka.
But after a few minutes of silent recuperation, he realized this world was not a trap. What he had felt had not been intended for him. The boundaries of this world - no more than five or six miles on a side - were truly corrupted.
He pulled in the range of his probe and braced himself, taking a deep breath. Kristine.
Point by point, he swept the streets and buildings, touching briefly on the hundreds of empty caricatures populating the mock-up city It's a film set, he thought. It wasn't as hollow as the sets he had seen in the Western lot at Moffat's studio, but it was nearly so.
It was a sham.
It couldn't be intended as a serious rival for the worlds the other candidates had constructed. And it obviously wasn't the last of Clarkham's tests. How many mock-worlds had Clarkham created? And how accomplished had he finally been?
As he probed, he felt the foundation of the little world, riddling its secrets, automatically comparing its rules and qualities with the overlay he had recently set loose on Earth. The underpinnings here were smoothly textured, almost slick, difficult to analyze, even more difficult to get a grip on. The words of Tonn's wife.
For a moment, he felt a trace of Clarkham, but that passed, and he could not recover it. And almost immediately after, he forgot about that brief touch, for he found her.
Michael's release of breath was clearly audible up and down the length of the still hallway. She was alive, she was reasonably well - and she did not remember who she was.
Kristine was wrapped up in Clarkham's world and thought herself a part of it - just as Michael had.
He punched the button for the elevator and anxiously watched the brass arrow point to the raised floor numbers. The arrow passed the 4, and the doors did not open. At the end of the hall, he heard heavy footsteps shuffling. But he could feel nothing.
The chair. The turning chair.
In the house next door to Clarkham's, on his first passage through to the Realm, Michael had paused to look into the living room and had seen an overstuffed swivel rocking chair with its back turned toward him. The chair had been rocking, and as Michael had watched, it had started turning…
With a chill, he had passed by the living room, the chair and its unseen occupant.
The guardians of Clarkham's gateway could have numbered more than two. Tristesse had been stationed by the Sidhe; Lamia had acted as a watcher for both Clarkham and the Sidhe. But the third -
Whatever had been in the rocking chair -
Might have been controlled solely by Clarkham.
Michael had little doubt that the shuffling footsteps he heard at the end of the hall and the occupant of the chair were one and the same.
He swore under his breath and tried to open a gate. But he could find no purchase; the seamless glass-smooth creation allowed for no exits. He swallowed, hoping to wipe the taste of the wine from his tongue, but it lingered. Thinking of the water fountain, he walked quickly to the ceramic basin and turned the handle. The cool water did not erase the taste.
For a moment, Michael felt very foolish. He had just spun loose a thing of incredible complexity and power, an improving overlay for the sick and injured Earth; he had absorbed the knowledge of the world's oldest living being -
And yet he still was afraid. He damped the fear quickly and stood in the middle of the hall, wrapped in a grim calm. Being merely human could get him killed. He explored Manus's knowledge of guardians and other artificial and altered beings. The brief tastes of memory - changelings, conjured devils, witch-waifs, abortions like Ishmael and transformed monsters like the vampiric Tristesse - did not match what he heard approaching.
A door opened and closed around the corner at the end of the hall. Something sniffed delicately. "Hello," a muffled voice said. "I see you've gotten this far."
The voice was barely recognizable.
"Clarkham?" Michael asked.
Again the delicate sniff. "Yes. Have you found her yet?"
"I've found Kristine."
"That's good. You'll pardon me if I don't show myself. I still have some pride. We've never met, you know."
Michael raised his eyebrows. "I beg your pardon?"
"No, we never have. Puzzle it out. Reports from distant shores. Corruption and bad decisions. Vicarious thrills."
"I don't understand."
"I won't get in your way. My ambitions, at least, are few now. And don't confuse the other with me, though we are both failures. The other brought your woman here. You'll contend with him, not me. I regret many things, not least of all… him. You can go now."
"Who are you?" Michael asked, confused.
"I've identified myself. Let that suffice. To tell all would be most painful. Find out for yourself. Earn the facts."
Michael thought of the rocking chair. "You were in the house next door to Clarkham's."
"Who were you waiting for?"
"Arno. To apologize. I told him I'd be waiting when I left him the key."
"Did you expect me?"
The sniff was less delicate this time, and much less pleasant. "You can go."
The elevator door opened with a chime. Michael hesitated,. then entered. The simulacrum operator smiled toothily at him. "Lobby?" he asked.
"Nothing on the fourth floor," the operator said, smirking.
The door closed with a squeak, but behind that squeak, Michael thought he heard a distant groaning wail of anguish. Even through his controlling discipline, his neck and scalp prickled.
The brightness of the sunlight had diminished slightly. He passed the shoeshine stand and turned left down the street in Kristine's direction. When he had first located Kristine, he had seen a distinctively narrow three-story white wood-frame building wedged between two other brick and stone structures. Considering the limited size of Clarkham's creation, Michael didn't think it would take him long to find the site.
The street changed character within a few hundred yards. The buildings became darker and older; brick and stone replaced stucco, and styles seemed to revert to the teens and twenties. The air was cooler, grittier.
The people were different, too. Much less care was being spent on the details of the simulacra. Their faces were blander, more standardized; the worst of them were mere blank-eyed mannequins.
Michael became aware, after walking a mile and a half, that he was much closer to the edge of corruption. He took care to limit the extent of his probe in that direction.
Despite his discipline, he couldn't help becoming more excited - and anxious - the closer he came to Kristine. The undercurrent of his anxiety was excruciating So much had happened since they last met; even if he could bring her out of this creation and back to Earth - even if Earth was recovering through the influence of his overlay - would they still feel for each other with as much intensity and depth?
So little time together, and the time so strange…
Memories of Manus's ancient loves came to him unbidden, colored by rich emotions and contexts he couldn't begin to interpret. There were hardly words in English to describe what the memories conveyed.
Now the figures around him were little more than place markers walking around in barely-sketched clothes. Michael could see and feel the shifting qualities of their presence, holding them together only marginally here on the edge of a corruption that burned.