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Songs of Earth and Power Omnibus, Page 72

Greg Bear

  He saw the narrow white building, sandwiched between two five-story brick apartment complexes. A fire escape criss crossed its front and ended a few feet above arm's reach over the sidewalk. Beneath the folded ladder, a simple square wooden overhang shadowed the building's double glass and wood doors.

  Michael felt for Clarkham's presence, gingerly skirting the painful borders of the creation. There was nothing definite; his probe kept being drawn back to the office building where the unseen figure had addressed him, and Michael kept pulling away from that sensation of lostness and resignation.

  He pressed down the latch on the brass handle of the right-hand door and opened it slowly, stepping inside. A wall of tarnished mailboxes waited with timeless patience on the left, beside a janitorial door shut and padlocked. To his right, an ancient map of Los Angeles hung behind dusty and cracked glass.

  So much detail…

  Stairs covered with frayed oriental-style carpet rose beyond the wall of mailboxes. He began climbing, not needing to refer to the building's directory, knowing which floor. She is here.

  Kristine, Michael knew, sat at this very moment in a cracked leather armchair behind a glass-topped desk in a small office on the top floor, the third.

  He climbed the next flight of stairs, past the second floor landing and doorway, the door hand-lettered in black: "Pascal Novelties and Party Supplies." Not and - and. The detail was repeating, and inaccurately.

  Clarkham had made much of his creation out of rubber-stamped combinations, prefab units, as it were. Michael thought of the large teeth on both the salesman and the elevator operator. Identical.

  On the third floor doorway, in gold letters on the clear glass, he read


  Ernest Brawley Rachel Taylor

  Divorces Investigations Confidential

  Behind the door, at the end of the very narrow hallway that ran the length of the building against the right-hand wall, Michael heard Kristine speaking to someone in an undertone.

  He walked at a measured pace down the hallway, restraining an urge to run and find her immediately, simply to see her and know by the evidence of his eyes that she was alive and well.

  The corruption was so close, barely a few hundred yards away, practically singing against the fabric of the streets and buildings, vibrating in the wood like a threatened quake or tremor. How had she stood it for so long?

  The door to the last office was half-open. Michael pushed it all the way. Kristine sat facing the door, black Bakelite desk phone sitting on the glass-topped wood desk in front of her. She held the receiver pressed against her ear and slightly lowered from her heavily lipsticked mouth.

  Kristine's hair been arranged in an upswept, split bun above her forehead and pulled tightly back behind into a more full bun. The style was not particularly attractive. She looked hard, weary. Her eyes barely reacted when she saw him.

  "Yeah," she said into the phone. "Bring me the timecards, and I'll believe Jimmy was there, like you say. Look, I've got company, I gotta go." She hung up the receiver decisively. "There's a buzzer downstairs. We come down to meet you. What can I do for you?" She appraised him coldly.

  He smiled. "It's time to leave," he said.

  She stiffened and dropped one hand below desk level. "Where are you going, then?" she asked.

  What came next was pure inspiration. He remembered Bogart and Stanwyck going through their timeless motions on the television screen the night his father had first introduced him to Waltiri.

  "You mean, where are we going," Michael said casually.

  "The persuasive type, eh?" Kristine asked, eyes sweeping him again with faint amusement. "You aren't dressed for the part. Ernie has a good tailor-"

  "It's not what I'm wearing that counts," Michael said. "It's what I'm thinking."

  "Is a penny payment enough?" She still had her hand below desk level, and Michael sensed that it was just an inch or two away from a gun. She knew how to use it, too.

  "More than enough. For you, it's free." Michael began to feel gloriously giddy. "I'm thinking you don't belong here. You look and act tough, but I know you better."

  "We never met before, Mister."

  "Think back. Think back to before you came here. Remember a kiss?"

  She smiled wryly. "So sing me the tune the radio was playing. Maybe that'll refresh my memory."

  Just the words Stanwyck had used.

  Michael wet his lips and walked slowly into the office, sitting on the corner of her desk, watching her hidden arm closely. He began to whistle, hoping he could reproduce at least the basics.

  She stopped appraising him. Her large green eyes opened wide with wonder. The face behind the makeup softened noticeably.

  "I know that…" she said.

  "You should. It's our song."

  "What's it called?" she asked, both hands on the desk, empty. She seemed about ready to stand, perhaps run.

  "Opus 45," Michael said. "Concerto for piano and orchestra, Infinity."

  Kristine pushed the chair back. "There's no music like that here," she said.

  "It's a simple case of kidnapping."


  "You," Michael said, pointing. "Now we have to go."

  Her confusion put an end to the enjoyment. Michael held out his hand, and she reached for it, hesitated, then grasped it firmly. The warm touch of her skin was ecstasy.

  "Your name is Kristine," he said.

  "Yes, of course I know that - Kristine Taylor. I mean… Kristine Pendeers."

  "And who am I?"

  She smiled, and a tear traveled down one cheek, bringing a streak of mascara with it. "You're Michael," she said, taking a deep, tremulous breath. "Oh, God. Michael! Where in hell are we?"

  "Not far from hell at all," he said. "Come with me."

  But first, she ran from behind the desk and wrapped her arms around him. Not so much had happened after all, he decided - not enough to matter. He was crying, too.

  Chapter Thirty-Seven

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  The difficult part now began: getting home. Michael led Kristine out onto the street. "Something hurts my head here," she said. "I haven't really been able to think about it until now, but it's been hurting for a long time."

  "The whole place is rotting away at the edges," Michael said.

  Kristine made a face. "That's what it feels like. Can we leave?"

  "I'm trying."

  "What's happened to you? How long has it been?"

  Michael shook his head and held his finger to his lips. "I have to think." He pulled her close to him and nuzzled her cheek, then let her go and drew his palms together to feel for a way out.

  "God, all this gunk," she said, touching her lips with her finger.

  Michael tried again to locate a seam in the apparently seamless matrix of Clarkham's world. The substratum beneath the detail and solidity was masterfully smooth, smoother than it needed to be - as if Michael's father were to spend weeks polishing the underside of a table. Again, there was more craftsmanship than practicality or actual achievement in this world.

  "It's going to be hard," Michael said finally, letting his hands drop.

  "We can't leave?"

  "There has to be a way." He was calling up facts from the Serpent Mage's memories, but in all that Manus knew about makers and creating worlds, there was little about one-way entries. Detail, he thought. How do I use Clarkham's craftsmanship to get out?

  "We're going to walk toward the center. That's where the reality is most complete," he said.

  "I'm ready. I have some questions. I think I have some questions, anyway. How long have I been there - months, years?"

  "Months, maybe. No more."

  "Am I older? I feel older."

  "You don't look any older."

  "Is this place like the Realm you talked about?"

  "Somewhat," Michael said. "It's much smaller, and it's… not made the same." They looked at each other intently. "I love you," M
ichael said. "It's been awful, not being able to find you."

  Kristine's face was almost comically serious. "I haven't felt the time, however long it's been. He made me into somebody else. And the funny part is - nothing happened, and / didn't really notice. I wasn't bored, but most of the time I just sat behind that desk or walked around the city, thinking I was on a case… Taking phone calls. God, I don't remember what people said to me. It's all jumbled now, but it didn't feel like it when… I was in it. Like a bad dream. Not a nightmare, I mean, but badly thought out, artistically bad."

  They brushed past figures that became more and more convincing and detailed as they approached the center of Clark-ham's creation. "I have a thought," Michael said. "It's crazy, but no crazier than anything else… Do you know a liquor store or a good restaurant around here?"

  "Of course," Kristine said. "There's a fancy French place called La Bretonne. Lots of mobsters go there."

  "Take me there," Michael said.


  "We need to order a good bottle of wine."

  La Bretonne was on the ground floor of a stately stone building at the very heart of Clarkham's creation. At four or five in the afternoon - the apparent time of day - it was just beginning to open for its supper "crowd." Neither Michael nor Kristine was dressed for the occasion, and a haughty maitre d' with slicked-down black hair and prominent teeth adamantly refused them service

  This did not stop Michael. Leaving Kristine at the front, he walked to the prominent oak rack of wine bottles on one wall and paced before it, finger to his lips. The maitre d' followed and berated him for his crudeness and bad manners.

  "I will call the police, m'sieur," he threatened with a terrible French accent.

  Michael chose a sauterne - Chateau d'Yquem 1929 - and skirted around the man, uncorking the bottle as he rejoined Kristine.

  The maitre d', red-faced and huffing like a pigeon in heat, stalked off with loud threats to call the police. Other employees - penguin-like waiters and busboys - stood well clear of the scene, watching with mixed empty amusement and empty irritation.

  Michael offered the bottle to Kristine, more out of politeness than any expectation she would be able to use the taste as he intended to. She took a swallow and nodded. "Good wine," she said, returning the bottle.

  "Clarkham's a connoisseur of wine. I'd expect him to stock his world with a good cellar." He brought the bottle to his own lips and took a hearty swig. It was indeed a good sauterne, bloody gold in color, and it carried a distinct message - a sweet message of warm sunny fields and evening mists, of a definite place on Earth. Michael gripped Kristine's hand as the maitre d' returned, still livid and voluble.

  A shadow fell over the restaurant's interior. Kristine paled and held Michael's hand with painful pressure. "I know who that…" she began, not needing to finish. Michael recognized it, also.

  Out in front of La Bretonne, hidden behind a stone pillar, was the presence he had met on the fourth floor. The simulacra in the restaurant froze and lost definition.

  Michael tried to place himself in the middle of the wine's flavors and to take Kristine with him, but the wine was souring on his tongue. The livid gold liquid in the bottle foamed black, and he hastily set it on a table top.

  "It came around the agency sometimes," Kristine said quietly, her face drawn with fascination and fear. "I didn't know what it was - it didn't fit in. I never saw it, but I always knew when it was there."

  "Mr. Perrin," a voice called behind them. They turned. Standing between the dark, gritty black outlines of the maitre d' and a simulacrum waiter was David Clarkham. He appeared much older than when Michael had last seen him, pallid of face and long of arm, as gaunt as a scarecrow. "You're disrupting everything. That's not unusual for you, is it?"

  Michael smiled confidently, though he did not feel very confident. He had once thought himself a match for Clarkham…That the Isomage did not present much of a danger to him.

  Now, he was not so sure. The presence outside the restaurant was stranger and more frightening than Tristesse or Lamia, for all its seeming coherence and lack of aggression.

  "How clever that you head for my wine collection. I never would have thought of that. It's brilliant, but it won't work. You think the battle - the competition - is over, don't you? I trust you believe you've won, too."

  "I don't know that," Michael said. Kristine stared at Clark-ham with rising color, her face grim.

  "I know you, too," she said. "You're the one who threatened me on the phone and brought me to this foul place."

  Clarkham sighed deeply. "I would be quite proud of this world, but for some major difficulties, not entirely my fault," he said. "One of the difficulties is that creatures of genuine, original flesh and blood cannot escape. As you've no doubt discovered, this world has a smooth and flawless foundation. For any would-be mage, it's the equivalent of a pit with sheer ice walls. That was not my original intention, believe me. You cannot leave."

  "And you?" Michael asked.

  "Whatever advantage it is, I can come and go as I please. How did your entry in the competition fare?"

  Michael shook his head. "I haven't been back yet to see."

  "Eager to rescue your woman. Laudable enough - if your ambitions are purely human. A mage has to be more deliberate and disciplined. What will you do if things are going wrong on Earth? You're not there to protect your people."

  That was true enough. Michael felt a surge of guilt - and anger that Clarkham, of all people, could chide him. He probed Clarkham quickly, shielding his reactions against the expected suffusion of evil. But the Isomage was almost free of corruption.

  "I've shed my latest accumulation of dross," Clarkham said. Outside, the unseen presence made a deep, unpleasant noise like coughing. Clarkham appeared momentarily irritated. "This world accepts my difficulties… sanitation facilities are abundant, you might say." He put his arm around one of the low-resolution simulacra. "Better than finding humans to dump my disease upon, no?"

  Kristine looked as if she might be sick. Her hand tightened on Michael's, and his anger compounded. He brought it under control immediately. Null, Manus's memories recommended. A world ill-conceived can be aborted…in Null.

  And if the world envelops the maker?

  No creation is absolutely seamless. That came to Michael almost as a truism, compounded of Manus's knowledge and his own experiences in Null.

  The presence approached the door of the restaurant slowly. Michael caught a glimpse of it through the front window before it passed behind a wall again; it was large, dark and of no definite color.

  "If you can leave here," Michael said, drawing conclusions rapidly, "then you must not be flesh and blood."

  "That should have been obvious to you long before now," Clarkham said. He walked to a table and pulled out four chairs. "Let's have a light supper and talk. The food here is exceptional. You can even have that magnificent sauterne served in a glass, which would be more appropriate, don't you think?"

  Michael gently urged Kristine forward. She glanced at him resentfully, and he read her combined weariness, fear and hatred of Clarkham without a probe. She was on the edge. She did not know what Michael had become; all she knew was that he had been delayed for quite some time before rescuing her, which implied he was not necessarily more adept or powerful than Clarkham.

  "We have another guest," Clarkham said. "Michael has met him already. My dear," he addressed Kristine softly, "do not be frightened of him. He is in some ways my better half, though sorely afflicted. He made this world. He made me."

  Clarkham gestured toward the doorway. Silhouetted against the late afternoon light, a small, corpulent man entered La Bretonne, darkness sloughing off him like dust. His skin was pocked and riddled with lesions, giving it a quality of distressed and decaying wood. He wore a wool suit as well tailored as could be expected, considering his shape and condition.

  "Excuse me," he said.

  His voice was the same as Clarkham's.
r />   "My original," Clarkham said. "More than a father to me."

  "And you are something less than a son," the presence said, waddling slowly toward the table.

  Judging from Kristine's expression, there was no question of sitting at table with the two. She was not in the least interested in their relationship; all she saw was a walking horror and a spectral, smiling captor. Michael, though suddenly and almost coldly curious, deferred to her.

  "We won't eat with you," he said.

  The corpulent presence stopped a few yards from the table, shuffled its feet in indecision, and then said, "I understand."

  "How disappointing," said the other.

  "Michael," Kristine moaned.

  "It's all right," Michael said.

  She obviously didn't believe him. "It can't be. This is horrible. I'd rather be back in the office, talking on the phone, not knowing… What are you going to do?"

  He took her hand and felt for how much strength she had left. Very little. Facing her, he put his hands on her shoulders and stared at her. "I'll never do this to you again," he said.

  "Do what?"

  He held the palm of his hand before her eyes and spun a brief, soothing dream of UCLA's grassy quadrangles and mock-Renaissance buildings. Then he pulled out a chair at a nearby table and sat her there. Face blank, she relaxed.

  "Gentlemen," Michael said, indicating the table where the more presentable Clarkham stood, hands still resting on the back of a chair, "let's talk."

  "I thought you'd be interested."

  "I apologize to her," the presence said. A small, sooty layer pooled around his feet.

  "You're both David Clarkham," Michael said cheerfully, sitting in the chair indicated. The others sat, the presentable one next to Michael, laying his napkin in his lap, and the dark, corrupted one opposite.

  "Yes," said the dark one. The presentable figure smiled and raised a hand in deferment.

  "And you are the only Clarkham I've met until now," Michael addressed the presentable one.