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Songs of Earth and Power Omnibus, Page 73

Greg Bear

  "He is the only one," said the other.

  "You made him."

  A nod.

  "He's a shadow? Or a simulacrum?"

  "He is me. Like you, I had some of the talents of a maker. Curious that two such rarities as you and I should occur within a millennia, both springing from Sidhe and humans - you more human than I, and more rare for that."

  "Makers spin worlds, not people."

  "Worlds are extensions of one's self. They are solid dreams. Since I…" The dark Clarkham made a half-swallowing, half-choking sound and called for water. A poorly resolved waiter, white smudging into black, brought a glass goblet to him, and he drained it quickly. "You know the mistakes I made, long ago."

  Michael raised an eyebrow. "Not in detail."

  "The details are not important. Suffice it to say I chose a less tortuous path to express my talents, to gather discipline about me. I did not have the boon of the Crane Women's teaching… That is reserved for those favored by the Councils, and I have never been their favorite. The "down side" of this path, as one of your businessmen might currently express it, was a wasting spiritual disease. I found I had not prepared myself properly. I gained power enough but could not avoid the corruption. It is a cruel malady, for I could only shed myself of its effects by passing it off to others. For a time, I managed to control the worst effects…"

  "Shahpur, for example."

  "Yes. Shahpur. The Sidhe compounded the effects of my malady when I was defeated in the Realm and the Blasted Plain was scorched around the Pact Lands. I could not remain on Earth or in the Realm. My disease was so hideous then that I would have quickly polluted thousands, perhaps millions. I could not kill myself; I would have, had there been a way. I would have done that simply to atone for what happened to my… women. Lovers. But death is not an option and never will be."

  "Had you created this world then?"

  "I was working on it even as they defeated me. You are aware that in its latter days, time in the Realm, compared with time on the Earth, was most unreliable? Occasionally it would speed up, occasionally slow down. But that's of little relevance here. I had a luxuriously long and peaceful time to 'spin' this world, as you say. I put everything I was capable of into it. And after… I retreated here."

  "We always end up in civilized discussions, don't we?" the presentable Clarkham commented. Michael ignored him.

  "I had to come here. I was corrupting everything around me. At least here, I could shed my evil on the periphery."

  "A serious problem," the other said. "When one's production of nastiness exceeds the capacity of whole populations of sacrificial victims. When only a world can hold it all."

  "Yes," his original agreed. "I had had enough of making worlds. I became convinced I was not good at it, and my handicaps were hideously distracting. So I spun something other than a world. I remade myself. Something of a shadow, something of me… Finely tuned, finely wrought. This is what the Sidhe Councils set you against." He indicated the dapper Clarkham, who nodded and smiled.

  "This has been my adversary… and you control him?"

  "Not at all. He is too like my younger self, centuries ago. Willful. He made plans on his own. He discovered he also had some ability to spin worlds. He tried a few - of little quality, quite derivative, worse than my own. You have encountered at least one, I believe.

  "In the Realm, when you confronted him, you removed most of the reality I had given him. You almost destroyed him."

  The facsimile's smile went away. "You made a ghost of me. That's why I lured you here. What little I can do outside, I will not have you there to interfere with. And what little I can do is more than what Tarax can do, now that he has failed."

  "Like you, I had real talent," the original declared to Michael. "This much must be obvious." A soot-dripping arm waved at the surroundings. "Not even Adonna could spin a creation so solidly detailed and appointed."

  "I still don't think you have a real grasp of the problems involved in being a mage," the facsimile said, leaning forward and putting one elbow on the table. "Especially a mage of humans. I cannot imagine a more fractious and divided audience. Split by religions and philosophies so distorted by the Sidhe that some are beyond redemption… And we cannot blame the Sidhe for all our sins. Have you considered what sort of policing a mage would have to do? What sort of punishments he would have to mete out? A mage is more than a creator; he must also control, and guide."

  Michael said nothing, concentrating instead on finding a seam in the foundations around them. Let them talk.

  "My life has been full of bitterness," the original said. "It is only fair that my other self should be given an opportunity, free of interference."

  "He hasn't escaped your malady," Michael said.

  There - something too small to squeeze travelers through, but large enough for a ribbon of chaos -

  "No," the facsimile said. "I haven't. It eats at me, too. And I have to divest myself of the results now and then. But I cannot do otherwise. Like my original, I do not have the option of suicide."

  "What sort of mage would you be, dropping your corruption on innocents?" Michael asked. "You've done enough damage already."

  "What about the damage done to us?" the original wailed, standing abruptly. The chair legs caught in the plush carpet, and the chair went over backward, knocking into a hazy simulacrum as it delivered a fresh bottle of wine. The wine spilled to the floor, part of it landing on the dark Clarkham. The liquid hissed and blackened. "I can't even enjoy wine now! It sours before it ever touches my lips."

  "I enjoy it for him," the other said, face blank. He looked at Michael intently. "What are you doing?"

  Michael did not answer.

  "He's doing something."

  "What are you up to?" the original asked, backing around the fallen chair, away from the table and Michael.

  "There's really nothing you can do," the facsimile said doubtfully. "Still…"

  "Hold his woman," the original commanded.

  Michael pushed back his chair casually and stood between the facsimile and Kristine.

  "There's something wrong," the original said, raising his dark, woody palms and feeling the space around them.

  "You cannot escape," said the other, brushing a hand through his hair. He had aged visibly in the past few minutes and was now roughly as old in appearance as he'd been when Michael first confronted him in the Realm.

  "You must flee!" the original instructed his second.

  "You're staying," Michael said. With remarkable ease, he bound the facsimile to the floor with a clinging, tenuous skein of shadow-cords, the arms of a dozen ghosts of himself.

  "You are a monster," the facsimile said, struggling only for a moment. "A sport. You're still a weapon of the Sidhe. Still aimed and fired by Tarax!"

  Michael ignored him; his charges weren't worthy of comment. There was nothing in particular he had to say to either of them. He pitied both, a little - but his thoughts were on Shahpur, bound in white sheets and filled with Clarkham's corruption; on Tommy, disintegrating on the sidewalk before the Waltiri house; on Emma Livry, lying burned, in agony, until rescued by the Ban of Hours; on Coleridge and Mozart and all the dozens of human geniuses ultimately tormented by Clarkham's struggle to find someone capable of expressing his desires strongly enough to make them real.

  Himself included.

  Michael circled the original Clarkham and picked up the bottle, gently nudging away the leg of the simulacrum waiter. The bottle had landed on its side and still contained some fluid. Michael had thought he recognized the label - Doppel-sonnenuhr, the double sundial. It had seemed only reasonable that Clarkham would have brought some of this vintage with him. It would probably not give them a way out; it had been grown in the Realm, after all, and its flavor led either into Clarkham's worlds or back into the Realm, which was no more. Besides, it seemed likely that both Clarkhams were telling the truth - once in this world, there was no way out…

  But the wine p
rovided the seam in the smooth foundation. It was neither flesh and blood nor of this world; its reality was subtly other, and through it, Michael could feel the qualities of the chaos "above" Null, eager to come in and erase, devour.

  Michael partly corked the bottle with his thumb and began sprinkling its contents around the tables. A large spot of wine was already seething at the original's feet. Orange light seemed to glow beneath the dark stain.

  "I don't know what you're doing," the original Clarkham said quietly, dabbing at himself. Larger flakes of soot fell away beneath the glistening wine. "Are you going to destroy us, after all?"

  Michael didn't respond. Grimly, he shook the bottle and continued sprinkling.

  "You were wrong, then," the original said to the facsimile.

  "He's making a bloody mess, I'll give him that."

  Michael was aware that the second Clarkham, without moving, was working against the bonds. Soon he would be free.

  "I think he knows what he's doing. He's more capable than even you imagined."

  The shadow-bonds broke and disappeared. The facsimile shrugged his coat back up on his shoulders. Michael gave him a sharp glance: stay away from her. The facsimile did not challenge him.

  "It's best," said the original, folding his hands over his ample belly. "I can almost feel relief."

  The second Clarkham was fading. Michael glanced at the bottle; there was still a half-inch or so of the wine, the dregs. Turning quickly, he splashed the dregs over him.

  The surprise on both their faces was at once comical and horrifying. Where the wine stained his suit and dripped from his face, the second Clarkham began to glow orange. He tried to wipe away the wine, but couldn't. He was held by the advancing chaos.

  "You do things even I would not have guessed possible," the original said, with an air of peculiar enthusiasm. "Incomprehensible things. My wine. You use me against myself." His eyes were full of wonder.

  The wine stain expanded and shot fingers out under the wall, into the street. The daylight outside was suddenly clouded over.

  I've done this before - something like it - to Lin Piao Tai.

  "You're going to destroy my world, aren't you?" the original said.

  "Yes," Michael answered.

  "You know, if I had known a way, I might have helped you and the woman escape. It was really his idea to bring you here. I have nothing against you. Truly. I've grown tired-"

  The waiters, maitre d' and all the other simulacra vanished. The original's sloughing, sooty evil fell more rapidly. He was surrounded by a thick blanket of black, formless dust.

  Michael stood before Kristine and passed his hand over her eyes again. She looked around quickly. Before she could speak, Michael lifted her to her feet and wrapped his arms around her. "Just a little world," he said. "For us. For now."

  Between his palms spread the purest and whitest nacreous sheet. "Are we leaving?" she asked.

  "We're going home," Michael said. "But first, there're going to be some special effects." He gripped her tightly as the nacre spread around them both. "Take a deep breath," he said.

  "I hold you no ill will," the original Clarkham said. "This is truly best. I can see that."

  Michael turned to look at him. In the middle of a prodigious fall of soot from his head, in the span of his now-featureless face where his eyes would have been, two molten drops of silver flowed.

  "My regrets," Clarkham said, and the silver fell to the carpet. The La Bretonne shook, and the walls bloated and spun outward like released balloons. "Dear God above us all, I wish I had it to do over again-"

  The nacre closed, and that was as Michael preferred it.

  Chapter Thirty-Eight

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  As Michael held Kristine tightly within the whiteness, eyes half-closed, weary and resigned to whatever might come, he knew he had done his best. No one could have asked more of him, not even the Crane Women.

  "Where are we?" Kristine asked.

  "I've made a little world to protect us," Michael said.

  "Oh." Then, "What does that mean?"

  "It means I'm holding you," he said. "And I'm happy."

  "Don't talk down to me," she said, not at all in anger. "Where are we, and where are they?"

  "We are somewhere near Earth. They are dying or dead by now, and their world with them. Erased."

  She considered this for a moment, conflicting emotions crossing her face in rapid succession. "You're positive?"

  "As positive as I'll ever be about David Clarkham." He nuzzled her. "I'm very tired, and I'm very happy to have you. Let's wait until later for explanations."

  She stroked his cheek. "What in hell are you?" she asked tenderly.

  "Later. Please."

  Kristine suddenly relaxed. "All right," she said. "I don't know what it is about you. 1 feel very safe. I don't know what's going on, and I still feel safe."

  The thought of what he had just done to the two Clarkhams and of all he had been through - and all he had lost, most of it never to be regained - and the long path he had taken to come here, wherever here was, and that Kristine should tell him this, putting her seal of approval on him…

  "You're crying again," she said. His back began to knot up and his shoulders to curl inward. "No," she crooned. "Relax."

  But it had to come. He felt the Serpent Mage's memories within him, filled with tales of all his ancestors culled from a million years of "listening," and he thought of Manus in defeat.

  He thought of Eleuth.

  "Shh," Kristine said, holding him as tightly as she could, as if he might fly away.

  And of Shiafa, sad Shiafa finally free - she at least was not lost - and even sadder Tarax, power and desire without, finally, the necessary talent.

  Within the tiny lifeboat world, settling slowly down to Earth, Michael wept and shivered and came to terms with what he was and what he would have to be.

  "I'm not going away," Kristine said. "Whatever you are. You make me safe."

  The whiteness took on color and dissolved around them.

  They stood in Clarkham's house, on the second floor, with the ancient bottle of wine sitting upright and undisturbed a few feet away.

  The Earth still existed and accepted them.

  Chapter Thirty-Nine

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  Fall gave way to winter, and winter to a dry, clear spring.

  Chapter Forty

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  A different dawn.

  To the eyes of most, the pale rose horizon and dusty gray zenith would not have seemed any different. But 10 Michael, who did not even look with his eyes, the changes were obvious.

  For one thing, there had been less violence around the Earth during the night. Strife between humans and Sidhe had decreased markedly in the past few months; now, he could see a decline in strife between humans and humans. He was pleased; there was good reason to believe he was responsible.

  For weeks he had worked to lift a mental haze that had lain over the Earth for thousands of centuries. The accumulation of discarded dreams, lost memories, cast-off fragments of personalities from the migrating human dead - the general miasma of a mental environment gone ages without cleansing - had created a mind-muffling "smog." The smog was now largely gone.

  His people could think more clearly. Their passions did not magnify and distort, and they were less quick to destructive anger.

  If he did nothing for the rest of his life - however long that was - then his creation of the overlay and cleansing of the mental environment would be sufficient, he thought.

  But he did not intend to stop. He had other responsibilities.

  Kristine slept beside him, a large, very pregnant pale shape in the bedroom's dawn-lit obscurity. They had moved into the Waltiri house just after their return; John had made new furniture for them to replace what had been ruined by the birds.

  Michael seldom slept. Night was the time he voyaged out on a spreading
wave of perception and kept track of his Earth. On such nights, there seemed to be ineffable rustlings in the world. When Kristine had become round-bellied and big-breasted, she had told him, "I don't know who's more pregnant, you or I. At least on you, it doesn't show."

  The Earth turned beneath him, a truly remarkable pearl covered with rock and soil and oceans and people and clouds and sky. Much had changed since the Sidhe migrations and the death of the Realm, and much had remained the same. Sidhe, for the most part, avoided human cities and human machines and usually chose desolate parts of the land and sea to rebuild their own communities. So it was that Sidhe now lived among the hills and cinder cones of Death Valley, and in the sandy wastes of the Sahara and the Gobi and scattered across the outback of Australia, where they could work their magic and adjust their ways in relative peace.

  There were exceptions. A large Sidhe community now existed in Ireland, mostly Faer and Amorphals; a thousand Sidhe had settled in the heart of London, a thousand more in Jerusalem and several hundred in Peking.

  Life went on. In Los Angeles, cars still crowded the freeways and power still pulsed through the wire networks across the country. The Sidhe would have to adapt to these things.

  Pelagals prevented all killing of cetaceans and other marine mammals and regulated the fishing of certain ocean regions. Humans would have to adapt to this.

  Riverines frequently harried rafters on the Colorado River. Apparently, both humans and Sidhe took this as a kind of sport, and firm friendships had been made.

  Airline pilots frequently found their craft inhabited by Amorphals. There had been no air disasters since such occupations began.

  Sidhe horses and riders, under tough restrictions, had begun to be grudgingly accepted in equine competitions.

  And on the negative side -

  Sidhe tribal sorcerers in the Middle East had been called upon by Moslems to raise the dead of past wars, that they might fight the Jews again. Human dead could not be literally resurrected, but the sorcerers had obliged by raising shadows and dreams of ancestors, breathing a kind of life back into the ghostly residues of the past. These "dead" had promptly occupied Arab villages, driving out the living and refusing to fight or do much of anything else. The Moslems had sworn vengeance against the Sidhe. There was little Michael could do about such travesties.