Malcolm: Well; more anon.--Comes the king forth,
I pray you?
Doctor: Ay, sir; there are a crew of wretched souls
That stay his cure: their malady convinces
The great assay of art; but at his touch--
Such sanctity hath heaven given his hand--
They presently amend.
--Macbeth, Act IV, Scene III
It is grey with the wow and the mumming in my ears. Now thoughts like slowbubbles come creeping up in me as time cranks back up to speed. Still, like cascades from a slo-mo waterwheel, the scenes in languorous turn parade before slipping back to grey. In physical terms, each picture must take up hours, but having your brain smeared out as a probability wavefront stretching over several light-seconds does funny things to your inner clock.
Don't dare waste time thinking too hard on it, though, not while you're pressing flesh with the stars. That way lies the loss of grip that comes when you try to do something too hard, or try too hard not to, or try not to try too hard. And with loss of grip, you'll miss your cue. For ever and ever.
This time, the picture is of flat wood grain, a truck-bed punched into it in die-stamped void-negative and moving through it as if solid and fluid had switched roles. After a while, that goes and there are talking Sivas dancing in a line out from the wall, mumming like the grey and buzzing how brother Johnny can be saved from a life of drink. For some reason, I don't want to go too near to that one on the left... basic philosophy: shove it in the mouth and pull it out the other end.
Then comes the cue.
The Pattern comes straight down from behind, scattering the Sivas for a seven-ten split. Now everything is serious and businesslike, squared-off corners and breath held in taut chest. I make the discs, emblazoned with ideograms, follow the braided network of line and intersection in the Pattern, getting ready for touchdown.
Like camel through needle's eye, a comet could still pass through my eye's iris, but I know without daring to think it that already my body is beginning to contract from a fifteen million kilometer wide probability distribution, as my flesh drops below lightspeed. I move the t'ang shi on the Right Corridor of the Pattern, bringing to life the subprogram that will automatically lock me in on the one habitable planet of the system.
Now things will start to come into focus. My township-wide retina still sees nought but the fluttering of the grey, and the shortwave-radio wowings are in my ear, but already I can feel myself straddling the planet; I can sense it, the lapping of the ocean swell against the scrotum of a South Sea navigator.
Down, down, now I see in my mind's eye glimpses of the landscape. I feel outward (and this is a particularly dangerous part) for the minds of my fellow travellers. We will land nearby to one another.
Then, exploding out at me, a rush of hillside, grass, the aura forms about me just before I take shape, it explodes in a flash of actinic light and a thunderclap and I roll in a stupor to evade the flames.II
Two things strike me as clarity begins for me: the excessive brightness of the light that engulfs me, and the knife in my arm.
Several yards up the hillside, a brushfire crackles where I had taken shape. I move something down in the lower regions of the Pattern and the fire is doused. Now for the knife.
Like bloodflow in my veins, it throbs me. I look and see that the greater part of my left forearm is parbroiled, without doubt when in stupor I lay in the blastfire of my own aura. Fortunately, somewhere in the depths of my mind is stored an image of my physical form, to molecular detail. I conform the phenomenal body to the image, and now the arm is whole.
I glance across a dip to the next hill, and as quickly down again. The washed-out white is searing, but in my eyes is the afterimage of a female human body, walking down the hill.
"Fritz!" It's closer this time. Now I can look up without the glare. She is standing only two meters from me, and I try to avoid looking in her eyes, for they are solid brown, like a dog's eyes. But then, so are mine now. That was one of the things they did to all of us at Tucson Base before our departure: they changed our eyes with alpha-specifics and other biomutagens, they changed our skin color to make it more reflective of short UV, in preparation for our trip to the Denebola system. But they misjudged. Everything looks harsh and whited out, like an overdeveloped photo. Still, I'm thankful. I remember the total darkness Earth's daylight was to us right before we left, and I realize that normal human eyes would be struck instantaneously and permanently blind by the light that now glares around us.
"Fritz, you silly ass!" I break out laughing. Marilyn, for sure.
"Well, you pulled in safe."
"Were you close to Ingrid right before we took shape? She'd been having nightmares on the way out."
"Ohgawd." That was bad. I'd already marked Ingrid as one of the ones we'd lose in transit. I didn't want to mention to Marilyn the Sivas I had been afraid to get near to. "What about?"
"She was up to go to the pot, you know, and these moose heads on the wall leaped down and attacked her. I didn't get more than that."
I shook my head. How they okayed her to make the jump, I'll never know. But that part of it's none of my business.
"Hulloo!" The voice reached us across a valley.
"Hola!" I called back. Through squinted dogeyes, I could make out three figures. That was enough. This would be the gathering point.
"You know," said Marilyn, "we took shape not a hundred meters apart. They'll expect the two of us to launch each other back for the return trip."
"I, at least, will leave this world by the sweet exertions of my own good right hand," I replied.III
By mid-afternoon, the entire party had gathered in the valley by the stream. The last to come in had been Reinfeld, who had taken shape some twenty kilometers from the rest of us. Fourteen had arrived in all: myself, Marilyn, Reinfeld, and the Philistine, leader of our group; Pei, the Italian photographer; two greasy Yugoslavians who seemed still awestruck by the Americans' discovery of a way to traverse the interstellar void without benefit of physical mechanism; a tall, quiet woman who kept apart from the rest of us; three mown-lawn terminals I assumed were the linguists of the group; and a pair of phaens, one phaen by birth and one by the artifice of humanity, standing robed in crystal-planed sinew. Ingrid had also made it, much to my surprise; but her face wore white. I could see she knew she would never be close to any of us again, would never survive the return trip to Earth. The moose heads would carry her off.
There were three of our number missing, three who had never made successful transit, and who now never would. I knew only one of them personally, a tall, blond, moustached man named Davis. Seventeen we had numbered in Tucson on Earth, but only fourteen we numbered on Denebola VI. Three had been lost as their rarefied forms ghosted between the stars, taken by falling from the tightrope of the dreaming-time, taken by departing from wei wu wei. They would now continue on as ever-spreading wavefronts, their very atoms distributed as probability measures over several cubic meters; and in what would be to the universe tens of billions of years, but to them only short months, the decayed remains of what had once been a human being would meet the thermal death. But that would be only the beginning of their horrors.
For few of our savants believed any longer in the ultimate nature of physical matter.IV
Night stars not so different from Earth's blazed in the sky. But here and there a random star would be missing from a constellation, or an interloper would destroy old geometries. And across the darkling sky vaulted a pale, luminous rainbow. One of this world's moons, ten million years past, had tried to get too close to tellus mater, and had paid the price.
We could hear the phaens in a nearby tent, making love. Their voices grated on me; neither the somber resonance of cast iron, nor the tinkling of silver, but the crystalline tang of ancient bronze. Back in the States, I knew, ritual antlers and elective amputation were in, and Greek, French, and English culture had long since been sanctified as a lifeway; but the less progressive still looked on phaens strangely. Count me in; male and female are trouble enough. Pole, hole, and now palette. No thanks.
"How's the Philistine let that ruckus go on?" asked Reinfeld as he huddled by the fire with Marilyn and me. "Can't imagine old Casey being so loose."
"Well, you know," said Marilyn, "phaens are put together different up here. Limbic center. They can do it without triggering the aura."
I poked a stick. Sparks flew. "Yah. And we need drugs." I looked up. "When I first joined the Program, that was one of the things my wife used to hate the most. We didn't half dare do it without a beta-specific."
Reinfeld: "You're still seeing Annalies?"
"Yah, sort of. She's living in a group now. But I went back last time we were home. Her friend Jean, you met her, she's got a neonate by some fellow, doesn't know yet if she'll sign the papers for it or if they'll have it put to sleep. But, God, it's getting harder every time! Annalies is thirty years older than me now!"
Reinfeld shook his head. "Helen and I, we just agreed to stop seeing each other a few times back. She's getting older, I'm getting younger. It's gotten to the point..."
Marilyn did something with the Pattern, and the fire flared up. "You know that bitch? The tall one that's with us? She's a Brit."
I replied, "Thought they wouldn't have anything to do with our 'filthy' methods of star travel. All that shit about Moral Rearmament. The Brits can go fry for all I care. The Aussies, too."
"Well, she's in on it. Says the other Brits don't know what it's all about. Just listen to that old fucker Westphal making speeches in Parliament to get more money for Dover Base."
Reinfeld stretched. "S'pose you'd be for more money for Dover Base if the Russkies were sitting there just thirty kilometers from you over the channel in Calais."
I looked up at the rainbow of milk. Reinfeld and Marilyn were gearing up for another of their arguments.
"Look, Jack, I thought we'd got over this phobia complex about Marxism, you know? Us adults? I admit you and I and Fritz are at least a generation out of synch with the calendar on Earth, but don't you think just for once you could come up to date? I mean, they've been there since we were yea high..."
"Ever since they dropped the H-bomb on Brussels, eh, Marilyn?"
She sighed, the sigh of disgust in extremity. "You don't understand..."
"Sure, sure, ask Fritz about that. All of Scandinavia, Finlandized. The summer I graduated from college, I remember it, at a national park in Maine, the Warsaw Pact tanks over West Germany, the Low Countries, France. Italy, Greece, Turkey: if they're not in the red orbit, whose orbit are they in? Certainly not their own. In all of Europe, what's left? Switzerland, Spain, Portugal... and only Britain takes it seriously."
"Ao-h-h-w, come on, now, Jack. You don't honestly believe, I mean paranoid is paranoid, but you're not..."
"And what could we have done, Marilyn? Look in Asia, all of Asia gone red, right? All the Arab countries. Most all of Africa south of the Sahara, huh? My uncle was in Johannesburg when it went under, you know that?"
"I'm sick of hearing about your uncle..."
"And Latin America. How about them? Brazil holds out yet? Venezuela? They're it. But I suppose you'd call them as bad as Britain."
"Jack, look, what are peace-loving people doing building those bases in the Amazon? If these people, if the Brits, if the Aussies, are so innocent, why don't they present their records at the U.N. to prove it?"
"At the new United Nations which sits in Moscow? Come on, Marilyn, not even you can be that..."
"No, you come on, Jack. I just can't believe this. I've never heard you make such radical statements before..."
"And among the stars? The Soviets have our whole solar system, they have Alpha Centauri, Ceti, Indi, Draconis, most of the stars in twenty light years of Earth."
"Sure, Jack. And they travel the stars in those clunky physical ships. You tell me..."
"While we travel from one star to another without physical aids, Marilyn? Your own physical body is swifter than a Russian starcruiser, Marilyn? What of it? They're guaranteed a safe trip. How many of us never make it? What does it do to those of us who do make it? And how much, Marilyn, how much of your psyche did they have to gut and overhaul to make you what you are?"
Reinfeld had hit a sore spot. There was silence. After a while, they each got up and went to bed. And I sat and watched the "rainbow" with dogeyes by the light of the dying embers.
And reflected on the irony. It was not Robert Goddard who had proved to be the father of American star travel, but Carl Jung.V
Day in the camp. The phaens, Jarn and Sterk, were strolling arm in arm toward the stream, as they did every morning. Their loose-fitting tunics could not conceal a physique no god had ever willed on humankind. I shuddered and turned away.
Ingrid was also by the stream, I knew. She had no work and none of us spoke to her. She was alone and white, and by unspoken agreement, Marilyn would take over her duties.
Pei sat in the center of the camp, brooding over his photographic supplies. We had misfigured the light here, and he claimed no filters or changes of exposure would compensate for his film. So he had sat there, staring at the black containers, worrying discs down on the Pattern and trying to change the physical nature of the photographic emulsion. Every now and then, one of the expedition would pass by.
"Hey, Salvatore, changed yer film yet?"
Then one day he did something wrong while trying to change the film. There was a whipcracking sound like nearby thunder, and a boulder in the midst of the camp split in half of a sudden. After that, the Philistine forbade Pei to use the Pattern on his film, and he spent his time moping and helping out the Brit woman.
And among us all sat the three terminals, like See No Evil, Hear No Evil, and Speak No Evil. Like a magnet they would eventually draw the natives of this world, working strategies on the Pattern that we had never been taught. At the University of Zürich, before the war, I had done graduate study in physics, and I had gotten my doctorate in America after everything went to shit. Back in those day, when Annalies and I were raising a son, the "hard" sciences were still taken seriously. Sure, they still studied physics and chemistry and math and biology in the universities, I knew. But the students snickered at them, as if at alchemy or astrology.
The Program had put me through the sequence at Provo, changing me into what I am today... in more advanced circles, I knew, the true illuminati scorned Darwin and Schrödinger and Einstein, pursuing instead the stink of mansblood spilled with flint knives, and the men chanting high on mushrooms while wearing antlers, and the deep compacts in the dark of night with the depths beyond humankind. They'd done more along those lines to the terminals than to any of the rest of us. I'd never seen more than that man whose heart they had torn out while he was fully conscious, that first semester at Provo. Most of the students had laughed as the blood spurted six feet.
I stared at the terminals' zinc oxide complexion. A hornet could have lighted on a terminal's open eyeball, and the terminal wouldn't have done anything. But I couldn't for the life of me figure out quite what that had to do with forces operating through the terminals, forces which, if they told the truth, antedated the initialization of the physical universe.VI
One morning like a cloud they came on the morning skies. We saw black dots in vee-formation against cirrus clouds to the south, and dared not glance toward the east, lest Denebola blind. Then abovehead they glided. Something made me tense. First contact is always a hazard.
Down back out of the west they came, barreling like beasts out of the blue welkin, romping at a hundred down the greensward. The Philistine stood in a woodlawn, sheltered in gentledancing light beneath the leaves, wearing antlers. Finally, a dozen of the natives stood before him. The expedition drew near in awe.
We gathered around them. Nothing reminded me of the natives so much as the gryphons of ancient mythology. A full meter and a half the males stood at the shoulder. The body was larger than that of a lion, larger and leaner, covered in most with a short tan fur, though one or two bore a striped grey. Proud and tall the head stood on the neck, the head of an eagle, with wings sprouting from the ears. And wings! From their shoulder blades projected pinions four, five meters in length, feathered golden-tan.
They folded now with a ruffle, the tails like a lion's twitched, the four clawed feet dug and pawed in the sward as the gryphons (for so I called them) stood in a semicircle about the Philistine. He turned his head. The Brit stood by his side, the three terminals sat crosslegged behind him. He wore the antlers, that he might be recognized as a leader; this much had the Tarot warned us to do before our journey commenced.
Now a magnificent golden male, the largest of the gryphons, stood forth before the Philistine. His wings spread to their fullest, his head turned to the skies, and he opened wide his beak. I was totally unprepared for what happened next.
Perhaps you've heard a chimpanzee in the zoo. Compare his or her screechings to a human voice, to a Viennese soloist. Now imagine a parrot, and compare him or her to the gryphon who before us stood. Any sound you ever heard, any sound that ever tolled in the depths of your heart, could have issued from that throat. Reinfeld stood beside me.
For once, he was speechless.
The gryphon finished his speech and stood back. Now the Philistine seemed to grow as he spread his arms. Even without turning inward and focusing on the Pattern, I could tell something was happening on it. Though my senses denied it, I could have sworn that the skies overhead in a matter of seconds took on an ebon cast. Something tangible held in all our chests, like a bubble about to break.
Then, there was a lambent flash about the Philistine, like a lesser display of the aura, and in an instant his body seemed aflame. Flames, and an argent bolt searing struck from the heavens as he held his arms aloft, a black flinty core to a column of yellow-white flame that glared even to dogeyes. Then he seemed to be sliding down into ruin, falling away from the core like loose shale. I looked once more, and again he was sliding from the core; and once more, and again he was sliding into shambles. It was, I realized, only the same event happening over again several times. The Philistine had become an avatar of the Falling Tower, sixteenth of the Major Arcana.
Then, with silence, the burning was gone. This time only a small man stood there, with a kilt, a pouch on a thong about his neck, and the antlers on his head. He was still playing to his audience, though, as might any accomplished person finely attuned to the thin line between those actions that would lead to his or her audience's applause, and those that would mean the fatal stigma.
We could not yet reach each other by spoken language, but the terminals would soon overcome that. In the meanwhile, the Philistine had reached the gryphons on a deeper and more meaningful level, in a mode given birth by cold planning in committees on Earth, where men and women eyeing the deal of brightly-colored pasteboards could divine, across the cold void of more than forty light-years, the heart and soul of a race at whose form and condition they could not even guess. When all mindsets and moods, including your own, become relative, the objects of a skeptical and clinical study, it is a wonder what tales will spill forth from your subconscious through those twenty-two children of ancient Romany.VII
"Henotheists," said Reinfeld.
"Eh?" I hadn't bothered to keep up on the latest dialogs with the gryphons.
"I said, the very worst it could possibly be," he replied. "We can't pull the God Gambit here. At best, they'd identify us with those-- those things out of the rock dells..."
"The snakes, you mean."
"The winged snakes. Not precisely that, either. They know enough to realize that's only an archetype. Unless, perhaps, not that the gryphons'd know it, the forces that operate through the terminals happened to work through the nervous systems of..."
"Say, Jack," I chuckled, "you don't believe everything they told you at Provo, do you?"
Reinfeld was dark and grim. "There were parts of it you never saw, Fritz. I don't just mean the metamorphoses and the ritual maimings. I mean, you never saw a terminal initiated, for starters."
"They take the old Tridentine and stand it on its head."
There are times when I don't know whether to laugh or what. I mean, Jack can be so foolishly serious when he wants; but I knew he had been into some crap with the Pattern that I'd never seen, a group that experimented on its own. I'd heard how he put lit cigarettes to his eyelids his last year at Provo, and suffered no injury.
It was Marilyn. She was happy and angry and happy in her anger, coming up the path worn in the camp by human feet.
"It's sexist! I just can't believe it!" Perhaps the smile on her face was too broad and sharklike.
"What's this now?"
"The families. The Yugoslavs have been into it with the gryphons. Their family, I just can't believe there's anything so patriarchal. Nowhere on Earth..."
"Long as you stay in the States," mumbled Reinfeld. Marilyn heard it, and she fell glum-sour.
"No. I won't believe that." Then more silence, and: "Groups of forty to eighty, Fritz. Females outnumber males about five to one. In each group, each clan, one male runs the show, totally. Power of life and death. He has all the females, you know, none of the other males mate..."
Reinfeld: "We'll re-educate 'em." A cynical tone I didn't like.
"It's no laughing matter, Jack. A male wants a female, he challenges the chief for leadership. Or they break off, form a new clan. There's no government above the clan. Within the clan, the chief holds absolute sway. And their economics..."
Reinfeld: "And we'll teach 'em good old Earth-neutral, red-white-and-blue, one-gryphon-one-vote democracy, eh, Marilyn?"
"Jack, I never said anything of the sort..."
"And patriarchalism? You did say that..."
"I never did..."
"You just couldn't believe there's anything so patriarchal. That's almost a direct quote."
"It is not."
"It is. Nothing so patriarchal. Marilyn, don't try to play word-games with me..."
"Okay. So it is. But you can't really tell what I meant by it."
Reinfeld's dogeyes rolled skyward. "Marilyn, listen to me, who's the biochemist on this expedition? Do you know why the males run this society? Do you know they have four genetically distinct types of female? Did you even bother to find out what their genetic code is like? As usual, it seems that mere facts are beneath your dignity..."
"Goddammit, Jack, just for once can't you feel it? Do you always have to analyze things?"
"Okay. Do you know what happens to a mature female gryphon without a male? Do you know if he doesn't have her, after two, at most three, breeding seasons, she'll die of hormonal imbalance? They tell me it happens, it's not a pleasant sight."
"It's sexist. It can be eliminated."
"Hah. Do you know what the pressures for selective adaptation are like on this world, what would happen to them if their biochemistry, if their clans weren't put together like that? Do you know what beasties would be coming through at us right now if the terminals, if our Adamic Gift, weren't holding the fort for us?"
"Look, Jack, we can bring in alpha-specifics, alter their genetic patterns. All this can be changed. They don't have to be held captive by their biochemistry, any more than you or I do..."
I turned and started slowly down the path.
"Just like human females, eh, Marilyn? Without those precious daily doses of specific, you yourself couldn't live, no human female could stay alive beyond the orbit of Earth's moon much longer than twenty-eight days..."
"I-- I won't believe that, I won't..."
"Huh? Not after what happened to the women on the first two Soviet Mars missions? Or our first Venus orbiter? You remember what happened there, why we never had a second."
Silence. As usual, Reinfeld had struck home.
"Patriarchal. I never said that."
"Jack, don't you see? Even if you quoted me exactly, it's not the same thing. You've seen a corpse at a funeral. It's all the same, every detail, except that it's not. Somehow, there's something, the head's too big lying there on the pillow, whatever. It's the same thing with my words; even if you quoted me exactly, in context, no distortions, it's still not the same. It's just not, it can't be, don't you see?"
I was around the turn, between the trees like pines. Every day, I knew, it was like that with Marilyn and the Brit and the Yugoslavs and the phaens going at the gryphons. Oh, more subtle, to be sure, planting in unsuspecting minds, as seeds, the answers to awkward questions they'd never asked, undermining belief in things it had never occurred to them to assert. And the deepest part of the work was not even going on at the conscious level. While we sat dialoguing with the gryphons, there sat the three terminals, making the gryphons unnaturally receptive to our words, and doing things with the Pattern, painlessly removing from the gryphons pieces of their psyches they'd never even known they had, and now would never miss.VIII
I sat under the shade of the bo tree, safe from Denebola's stare, and held in my left hand an ink pen over the pasteboard. Now feeling deep in the depths of my selfhood, now reaching out, now sailing, eyes closed, on a gentle sea of impulse, I was sketching slowly and by snatches the local form of the Sun, nineteenth of the Major Arcana, as it came to me.
It is not for one like me, a physicist turned interstellar emissary, to draw such pictures. Joannes Pelagius Mayer was a cardmaker in the Swiss town of Constance in the late seventeenth century, and it was his talents that animated my hands on this floodlit hillside more than forty light-years from that hillside where Citizen Mayer was laid to rest almost four centuries ago, victim at the age of thirty-eight of a ruptured vermiform appendix. He left an attractive widow; I knew, through his perceptions, the life he had shared with her, and I dwelt on its intimate details more than once as le soleil came to me in fits and jerks.
Reaching deep within, I had drawn Mayer's card-drawing talents off the shelf, where he certainly had no further use for them. I knew, in a detached and theoretical way, that it was causing a great deal of pain to whatever was left of Joannes Pelagius Mayer, wherever it rolled and gibbered in the darkness beyond the Outer Rim, for me to borrow its talents in this manner; but what is only theory can have no meaning to the living, especially in this day and age of pragmatism.
Shadow fell manlike over my lap; I upturned my dogeyes to see the Philistine.
"Sun coming along?"
"This ought to be the final draft."
"Eh. What's that rainbow doing there?"
"Just... just a feeling came to me that on this world, the nineteenth card has the milkbow like that above the little gazebo."
The Philistine grunted and raised an eyebrow. "Back at Tucson Base, they're gonna be scratching their heads over that one. But no new cards'r anything, eh?"
I shook my head. The Philistine sank beside me. He loosened. "Say, Fritz, have you had a chance to talk with these natives yet?"
"My work keeps me busy. Still, I wonder how they can fly."
Blankness on his face. "What do you mean?"
"Oh, that's the physicist in me. These males mass two hundred kilos, gravity is near Earth-normal... we used to agree that there was a science called aerodynamics. But that was back before the war. These gryphons just have a different agreement among themselves, is all."
I chuckled. "Now in the same category as astrology and waterwitching. But that was back when we didn't yet alert that reality is more complicated than that."IX
"Are you into the number three?"
Morning by the stream where I was washing up. Jarn the phaen was standing above me. Ae was smiling. Water ran and dripped off my forearms.
"Three? Not really. How come?"
"Sterk and I were wondering. You seemed all right."
"Oh. Thanks. But not really."
"You've never done the troika?" Innocent surprise.
"Nope. Oh, I'm not that old-fashioned. Some people in my wife's group get into it. But that's just not where I am."
Aes eyes rounded, solid brown. "Wife? You're married? How thirties!"
I bit my lip. "Her name is Annalies. She lives with a group in Ellay. We were married in Switzerland, before the war."
"What war? And what's 'Switzerland'?"
There are times, in speaking with the younger generation, that an abyss opens at my feet.
"How old are you?"
Jarn smiled a thin, angular smile, neither male nor female nor anything in between. "Nineteen last month. Just before we left."
"More like eight months ago, with time lag on the way out."
"That's right. After a while, everybody you know gets to be older..."
"Annalies used to be a year younger than I. Now she's thirty years older."
"My body? Just pushing forty."
Ae rolled aes head, and smiled. "That's why Sterk travels with me."
I tried not to wince at aer when ae laughed. "Fuck, no. Fucking god, you are medieval. We just do each other's bods over good. Life just happens that way, that's all."
Ae laughed. "So the Philistine says you used to be a... what? A physicist?"
"So how'd you get into the Program?"
"Me? I had a woman and a child to support. Six months after I got my degree, the bottom dropped out of physics. We had to eat."
"So you joined the Program?"
"Was in the first group. They didn't have the Pattern down pat then. We saw other things in our heads. Lots of gruesome stuff used to happen to you if you did it wrong. But I've been in it since the beginning, with Jack and Marilyn."
"And this physics... used to be the idea that there was only one way for people to agree?"
I nodded and let it go at that. One thing I'd learned by hard knocks was the nerve-sapping futility of trying to explain to anyone born in the last generation even the most rudimentary picture of what physics was, and what it had studied. Human perception had irretrievably shifted; each era heretofore had grasped from within ages still more anterior, but while I had trod the stars these years, the ability to understand anything, however simple, that no longer survived, had become a power as estranged from the masses as the integral calculus. "So, Jarn, how'd you sign up?"
"Oh, y'know, we'd done about everything back there, the group, I've already offed a clone of myself twice in clone trials, was getting pissed at trying to shut all those 'headcasts out of my mind all the time..."
"You know you can shut out 'headcasts by moving the red and blue ma's to the left corridor of the Pattern."
"Blocks direct radio transmission to the limbic center. 'Course Madison Avenue would find a way around it if people outside the Program could do that. But so long as it's only a few oldtimers who aren't used to having commercials beamed right inside their skulls..."
"You're interrupting me."
I started. "Uh, yeah, go on."
"I was saying I wanted my right to travel. We'd already been most places on Earth an American passport will still take you."
"Not Switzerland, of course."
"Huh?" Genuine blank puzzlement.
I let it ride. "This the first time you been offworld?"
"Second. Once for vacation our nurturer took us on a Soviet Zviozdoflot passenger liner to a moonbase. There were just rocks up there, couldn't go outside without those suits. But there was one thing so beautiful..."
A beatific radiance suffused Jarn's features.
"...you could see Earth in the sky, all swirling blue and white, and on the night side, this glowing blue patch where China used to be... it was so beautiful..."
I checked my first reaction. I might have asked aer what was so beautiful about twelve hundred million dead in searing holocaust, but thought better of it. Even if I made it perfectly clear what I was driving at, ae would have been honestly unable to see why anyone would be upset. Something was changing...
"But mostly the moon was boring. Denebola, I can't wait to tell my significant ones when I get back. Being in the Program is fun-- oh, sorry, Fritz, here's Sterk, I'm so horny I could rape a hole in the ground."
And ae was gone.
Something was changing in human nature. Fun? I remembered cradling old Casey in my arms as he bled his life out by the salt-crusted seashore under the lurid light of Groombridge 3174. I recalled the look on Annalies' aging face as the years went by and I came home still wearing my youth; I wept inside as I recalled the look on her face.
But now, somehow, the inner fault lines were shifting; the Gordian knot that was the human spirit had been irremediably cut. Modern humanity was not naïve, nor were they ignorant of the old human heart that dreamed and throbbed and bled and wrote poetry and strained at secrets beyond its grasp, so much as they were coldly and unflappably skeptical that such inner phenomena had ever really existed. Or ever could exist.
After talking with Jarn, I could almost understand how Reinfeld feels.X
The stones rolled tumbledown as Jack and I clambered over the last rise on our way back to camp. We had spent our day off hiking across the countryside, shielded from the fauna by our Adamic Gift. All day long, Jack had carried on with me a rambling conversation on Tacitus, English Romantic poets, medieval chivalry, Herman Melville, and the nature of justice. I did my best to carry my end of it; I knew only too well that I was probably the only person Reinfeld still knew who could discuss such subjects with him with any inner understanding.
I mounted the crest and looked down into the valley. I flinched, drew back, looked again. I glanced at Jack. He motioned silently, and I nodded.
To eye and ear, the valley lay quiet in lengthening afternoon shadow. But something stronger than the senses assaulted me. Even now that I had caught my breath, I was unable to drown out the tangible sensation, in defiance of my senses, that heat and smoke were rising up from the land, like the smoke of a furnace. We scrabbled down the slope.
The camp was in confusion. Ingrid, of all people, was poking about the tents. A Yugoslav passed us with a mumbled, "So there you are." Finally, Jack hailed Marilyn.
"Marilyn? What's going on 'round here?"
"Marilyn! What's happened?"
"Sterk the phaen is dead."
"Dead? How's this?"
"Ohgod, ae's dead."
"Marilyn, you're not tracking. Now let's take this step by step..."
I elbowed Reinfeld out of the way. I could smell an argument brewing, and Jack was too dense to see this was no time...
"Marilyn. You've got to help us. What's going on?"
"Fritz? Sterk is dead."
"Yes, how? We just got back."
"It happened this afternoon... Sterk was having aes freedom with one of the native children..."
Jack interrupted: "Sodomizing it, you mean!"
I shot Jack a murderous glance. Marilyn choked and continued.
"That's... that word doesn't have the right flavor to it, Jack. It was aes right. If we'd had another week to work on the natives, they would have been more tolerant, wouldn't object. But the chief of the clan caught Sterk at it... ohgod..."
"Ohgod... that beak, those claws... it was so terrible, it happened so quick. He tore aer, like a sheet being ripped into rags. The... then the terminals did something that scared the gryphons off. I don't know, it felt so heavy. And they've been waiting out there, just waiting..."
Marilyn began moaning. I looked up at Jack. To think we could have met a gryphon on the way back...
We found the Philistine in the woodlawn, with the terminals. Someone had told him of our return. The terminals looked less waxy than usual; for once, their complexions didn't look like taut vellum. Then I guessed why, and cringed.
"Fritz? You're back, Jack's back, good. Stay in camp, will you? I've asked the terminals for closure. Probably nothing is in the works with the natives, but with sunset coming on, you know, and they may be a bit unreasonably worked up, we thought it safest..."
From within closure, sunset seemed hard and small and distant. Dark came on and the stars came out in a sky that seemed larger and flatter than usual. Even if the gryphons got ideas, our few hectares were safe until morning.
I crawled into my tent. Sleep came more easily than it should have.XI
My breath gusted in clouds at sunrise and already the gryphons were waiting. I could see them on the other side of closure, stick figures tiny and impossibly distant. Like everything beyond closure, they seemed small and skewed and too sharp, like objects seen through the wrong end of a telescope. And always, lurking at the edge of vision, was a hint of optical illusion, the feeling that every line of sight between us and them had, like bones, been broken and then poorly reset.
Now one gryphon alerted and cantered toward me. His path veered and he turned. Again he arced and twisted, and a third time he charged. Pick as straight a path as he pleased, any attempt to pass closure fell short of the mark. He turned and paced away.
The camp was subdued in morning's light. For the most part, those who walked about did so silently. The waiting game had begun. I saw Marilyn and the Brit woman walking down the footpath, heading to the stream. I had been down to wash earlier, but it was a slightly different instantiation than the stream that was there before closure.
Back at my tent, I waited and whittled away the morning with a dozen empty tasks meant to fill fallow hours. Now Denebola, smaller and brighter than yesterday, came at last to zenith. I made myself eat a silent lunch; not that I had any appetite. Whatever the Philistine was up to, he was holding his counsel. Sticklike gryphon sentinels still patrolled the horizon, a horizon three times as far as any I had ever seen before today. I cleaned my dish and duraluminware. There was more waiting to be done.
Tension clotted the air, always just out of reach. This sense of being trapped at the bottom of a well, of drowning, of helplessness fanning embers of panic at the back of my mind... my thoughts drifted back over the years and I recalled another time there had been slow waiting and a feeling that the walls were closing in. I remembered a young graduate student in physics, pacing up and down the airport lobby in Geneva. I remembered him chain-smoking as he stared out the windows through the driving rain, watching the refugee flights taxi past one after another down the wet concrete. I remembered him waiting for flight 347 to London to be announced, and praying that the wind wouldn't bring death from the northwest. I remembered his wife and their infant son sitting with the luggage, and his silent worries because the Soviets were still shelling Paris. One stray shell... but the Socialist government that was still in power in Britain in those days had an agreement with Moscow about refugee flights. Anyhow, I later learned that Paris fell as we passed over the waters of Lac Leman.
Clouds hid Denebola. Only early afternoon? I drew my sweater closer about me and shivered. The waiting went on. Pei went by, hand in pocket, glum and silent. My breath came in clouds.
Reinfeld sat down on a rock next to me. He kicked dead ashes. I heard my first words of the day.
"Well, ain't this a fine pickle we're in?"
I looked up and grunted. The old edge was in his voice. Safest to wait until I knew what replies he expected of me.
"I've been to see the Philistine. Gave him a piece of my mind, too."
"Of course, nobody comes out and says it. But even Marilyn's finding it hard to stick up for him. You ask her what she thinks and she just chokes on a peach pit and makes some vague noises about how after all it was Sterk's right to mess around with the young gryphon, like somebody's congressman, just as if we were back home..."
"And the Philistine?" I saw there'd be no end of Marilyn if I let Jack carry on.
"Oh, he's even foggier than that. 'A most regrettable clash of cultural values,' he calls it. But he knows most of us think he misjudged. Within the hour, we should have either made a stand or cleared out. He still doesn't have a plan. It figures."
Cleared out? Within the hour? Jack and I would have returned to an empty camp, and the gryphons... but I knew Jack would consider that beside the point.
He continued: "You think. Would old Casey have gotten us in this muddle?"
I had to admit he wouldn't have. "But the Philistine's got the grey hair. We don't."
"Ah, physically. But chronologically? He took up field work just last year. Which makes him half a generation younger than us. And the ones coming up now, like Jarn and Sterk... mygod! You only had to be in the Program, Fritz, I only had to be in the Program two or three years before we realized... them, twenty years from now, they'll still believe, honest-to-God believe in it! The more they understand, the more they'll agree. They won't even want to go in for attitude readjustment, like Marilyn..."
"'Chiropractors of the mind'..."
"God! Chiropractors of the mind, that's us... what the hell do we think we're doing? That's what I keep asking myself."
We'd been through this one often enough before. "Then why do you stay with it? Why the hell don't you get out?"
Jack ran his hand through his raven hair. "You know the answer as well as I do, Fritz. The only other biochemists in the country worth their salt are past retirement age. I'm one of the senior members of the Program, too. Long as I stick with it, I'm too valuable for them to touch."
"But suppose I ever quit. With thoughts like mine, with a family like mine, how long do you suppose before I'd be 'volunteered' for that final hypodermic? Six months? A year? If you've been keeping half an eye open, you know that Selective Mercy isn't just for the unwanted and the defective anymore."
As usual, Jack came down a bit heavy on the melodramatics. But for once, I had to admit that, for all practical purposes, he was right.XII
As the afternoon dragged on, I wandered in the direction of the woodlawn. Sharpcut shadows had begun to grow eastward of the trees, and the three terminals sat crosslegged in paisley shade. The Philistine was arguing with them.
I didn't want to seem like I was eavesdropping, so I had to stay on the edge of the woodlawn, half out of earshot, pretending I was examining the leaves on the trees. The Philistine's voice came loud and angry:
"Then, fuck it all, why don't you move a siang in front of the Nine-Castle? You've only got two siang committed already on this side of the Pattern."
At intervals, one of the terminals would come through, in a hoarse, half-audible whisper, like dry, rustling leaves:
"There is a tension building up... on the Pattern... It must be bled off. If one more tsu crosses the Confluence... the entire structure... threatens to rotate... We will not be able to maintain closure..."
"Can you enter a feng on the anterank? That would hold it for now."
I couldn't hear the reply. The Philistine became more agitated.
"What do you mean, the partial order has gone out on the anteranks? You've got a ma there, that means you can't retrieve it now..."
The Philistine continued the argument in this vein for the better part of an hour. Denebola hung fisthigh above the hills.
"Look, I think you can drain off some of that tension on the Pattern if only you would shut down the White Region..."
Suddenly, one of the terminals interrupted with a croaking sound, a dry, inorganic bark that could be heard all through the camp:
Now it was the Philistine who was whispering: "No!"
"WE MUST HAVE BLOOD! The tension is growing too great... It must be grounded, NOW!"
Another terminal spoke in a gritty snarl: "Philistine. You are an old man. Soon you will be coming face to face with us. Would you that anger were yet fresh in our memory when that happens?"
A frightened whisper: "My god, who do you want?"
"No matter. You bear the antlers, you must perform the act if it is to be efficacious."
Most of the expedition had been attracted to the woodlawn by the commotion. My heart raced like a jackhammer. I wasn't sure just what was coming next, but I had a clear enough idea. The Philistine turned to Pei, and gestured.
"Salvatore! The young gryphon!"
The Philistine put the antler headdress on his head. He took something from the pouch around his neck, put it in his mouth, chewed it, and swallowed. He began shuffling back and forth, as if he were performing a raindance. He was mumbling something under his breath.
Pei entered the circle cursing, his forearms bloody. He was dragging a young gryphon. I hadn't known we had a hostage. I wondered if it was the same one Sterk had played with.
Marilyn came forward, and spoke a few words in the gryphon's ear-wings. It grew calmer. She motioned and it trotted docilely up to the Philistine. It sniffed of his hand, and licked it.
By now, the Philistine was chanting guttural tones aloud in a cadenced bass:
Something speaking in my bones told me that this was a tongue already ancient when the Atlantic burst through Gibraltar to inundate humankind's first kingdom, fourteen millennia before the pharaohs. But I also suspected that the Philistine had no conscious control over what he was uttering. Now he stood, arms raised antlerlike to the heavens.
The chanting ceased. He lifted the young gryphon by the scruff of its neck and set it on a flat stone before the terminals. I happened to notice that Marilyn was furtively rubbing her thighs together. As for Jarn, ae took no pains even to be subtle. I shuddered and turned away.
The Philistine pulled an obsidian knife from his pouch. He held it against the young gryphon's throat. Too late, it began bleating and struggling. He sawed the blade and his arms were sprayed in spurting red. He slashed the other side of the neck. The gryphon convulsed, rattled, twitched, twitched, and was still. He held its body for several seconds before he let it fall, with a sticky plop, to the stone.
The terminals' complexion was now a soft, healthy cocoa. Something in the air felt loose and placid. I knew the sensation. All that was missing was a good cigarette to smoke.XIII
And there was evening and there was morning, the beginning of another intolerable day in closure. Where the land opened to the west, I scried a single distorted sentinel, outlined in the harsh arc-lamp light our eyes had never become accustomed to during our accursed stay on this world.
Down to the stream to wash. There I spied Marilyn. She was taking the beta-specific which each woman must, of necessity, take daily in the field, where she is bereft of the gentle pull of Earth's moon on her metabolism. I retreated in silence. Unlike Jack, I had learned better than to try to break through Marilyn's half-world of plasticine logic.
Back in wandering to the woodlawn. The terminals still sat in half-lotus, now beginning to look parched once again. I passed my hand in front of one's face. It showed no awareness of my presence, but my forearm tingled for the next five minutes as if asleep. I couldn't help but show my contempt in little ways for these men (come to think of it, this alone of all occupations remained closed to women and phaens) who had let themselves be reduced to vacuous husks of humanity, in return for a conjugal intimacy with the Jungian archetypes and mythic symbols that underlie the phenomenal world. I tried not to let myself recall that the difference between the terminals and the rest of us in the Program is only one of degree. But I was careful not to get physical with them. That was how we had lost Kadell on that early expedition to BD+37°174.
It was a morning of silent quickness, and on a whispered word from one of the Yugoslavs, I took down my tent and began packing. Something hung in the air like the tension before a storm. Gossip floated like flotsam on a tide:
"Did you hear that woman named Ingrid left last night?"
"No, right through closure?"
"Yes, she defocused just past midnight..."
"But she'll pass through a cover transform..."
Even if Ingrid made it home, I knew she would have been unduly deflected by going through closure. We had all accustomed ourselves to those minor arc-gaps: returning to Earth and finding that, this time, William Jennings Bryan was listed as winning the 1896 presidential election, or that last spring's tiger-print fabrics had never even been in fashion. But to return to an Earth where, say, Carthage had won the Punic Wars, and Hannibal razed Rome... I prayed to a God I no longer believed in that Ingrid would lose her grip and never reach any Earth...
"Did you hear the terminals wanted blood again, just after sunrise? This time they were specific: they asked for Dr. Reinfeld. But the Philistine put his foot down. That's why we're leaving..."
Just before noon, the expedition gathered in the woodlawn. Boxes were packed and stacked; they would "go with us" when we left. The Philistine stood in his kilt, naked from the waist up, and motioned for our attention.
"People... uh, we will be leaving Denebola VI shortly, as you have heard. You will set the Pattern in your head for Earth, you will have roughly twenty minutes for that. If you encounter any problems, please confide a senior member... Uh, in just under half an hour, the terminals will drop closure. This should give us a minute or two before the gryphons alert, and we can depart. Uh, erh..."
I walked off toward a small rock grotto, passing Marilyn on the way.
"What's eating our fearless leader?"
"He knows he fucked things up. He knows what they'll do to his brother when we get back."
Mocking Jack's tone of voice: "Why his brother? Why not him?"
She laughed. "The Philistine's too valuable to the Program. And the sole justifiable purpose of punishment is to deter, right?"
We both cracked up. That had been one of Jack's favorite windmills to tilt against since way back.
"Have a good trip, Marilyn."
"You too, Fritz. See you in Tucson."
I sat in the grotto, and turned my vision inward. Now I saw in my mind's eye wooden discs emblazoned with ideograms in red and blue, scattered at points of intersection on an intricate grid of lines. I willed the discs to move, each according to its proper powers of mobility. Slowly, the outlines of the Pattern for return began to emerge.
I was finished early. Out I came to find the Philistine stalking the lawn, and I managed to attract his attention.
"Eh? Fritz? Ready to go?"
I nodded. "What about our work here?"
"You have your cards done."
"I mean with the natives. We haven't finished giving them an adjustment, let alone enlightening them."
He scratched his nose. "We'll send back a larger force, try another clan. Next time there won't be any question of our success."
"What if this clan spreads the word?"
"What of it? We've restructured them well enough inside. Anywhere they go, no matter what their intentions, they'll only spread it, like a contagion."
A squeaking howl split the air. We whirled to find the terminals writhing.
"I would not have thought it possible!" one barked.
"Philistine! We depart now! Closure is being dropped."
The sky and horizon quivered and then snapped back like a soap bubble popping. The Philistine bristled.
"Look, what are you trying to pull?"
"Their shaman has been at work..."
"Look here, you know they can't hit on anything except by sheerest accident..."
"We must return in force soon..."
One terminal croaked: "The Rood must never be erected on this world!"
Another hissed: "But how did they know?"
Now people milled in confusion about the lawn. My hand went to my pants, and I conjured up in my mind old images...
Off to the side, Pei was fucking the Brit, his fat buttocks quivering as he thrust into her again and again in rhythm. Some of the older members of the expedition paid them notice with raucous laughter and applause. The younger members were inured to the sight of such activity in public; they treated it as part of the landscape.
Now I was getting hot and firm. I remembered how Annalies used to look when she propped her lean frame back against the corner of the shower with that crooked, hungry smile...
Blue flames, like Saint Elmo's fire, built and danced across Pei and the Brit. Their heaving bodies became engulfed in a blaze of actinic blue. I averted my eyes, and there was a blinding flash and a crack like thunder. When I looked back, there was only a blackened, burning patch on the grass.
Now I looked and saw spread wings soaring down the valley. I retreated to the safety of the grotto, and looked out as I continued to beat my bishop. Two of the terminals lay on the ground, head to hip. The third terminal struggled rigidly to its feet, and a gryphon soared in and split its head open like a rotten melon. Something fluid, like archaic electricity, flashed invisibly from the cloven skull to the gryphon. I blinked. Maybe it was only a floater drifting across my field of vision. But no, the gryphon dipped and screeched a deafening howl from its alien throat, cartwheeling and tearing up the sod as something unseen silently tore the gryphon's body open from breastbone to crotch. The gryphon howled and jerked madly, mashing its own guts beneath its body. For a brief moment, something ancient and utterly inhuman, some vast force, impinged on my mind from without, exulting and drunk with power. It reminded me of the time, as a youngster, when I had looked down from above as I burned ants with a magnifying glass.
Now I was hard and I tensed my legs. Out on the grass, Jack was swimming in tongues of pale blue. I saw something tawny gold flash across the green, head jerks to follow it, Marilyn on her knees, and Jack cries, "NO!!"
Marilyn quietly vanished into thin air.
I started to my feet. The gryphon wheeled and turned on Jack. Two hundred kilos of bronze muscle loped down the greensward toward him to avenge its brother's daughter. It couldn't know Jack was on the brink of a state where the deep wells of the soul are opened, and surge in a flood over the outer world of phenomenal reality...
Something that a moment before had been a gryphon now stilted pink and awkward on knee-stumps, leaving behind it a trail of slime like a snail. Trumpeting and rubbery it collapsed heavily to the earth. I started out to Jack as the glistening mound humped with a wet, slimy, sucking sound and convulsed.
"No, Fritz! Stay back!"
"Jack?! Where's Marilyn?"
"It isn't safe to touch me!"
I drew back my arm, and choked. I suddenly saw that Jack's body looked vague and blurred, like a camera image slightly out of focus. Then I realized what his outline and features suggested: I had met Jack's sister once, before the police took her in and they sent her to the camps in Alaska...
"Mygod! Marilyn, she's..."
"...okay. Mad as a hornet, but I'll split her off from me once we're starborne. Now stand back, Fritz!"
I retreated. To save Marilyn, Jack had incorporated her into himself. Now spontaneously, with no manual stimulation, the blue flowed and crawled over their body. I heard an anguished cry:
"Sweet God in heaven, not this close to me!!!"
Then the violent flash, the thunderclap, they were gone. I rubbed more quickly, saw a gryphon pawing about the sward, felt the aura coming over me. Diffusion and muzziness of mind blocked out climax as the darkness took me in a frozen silver sheet of glory.XIV
Languid through the grey, and far off the squealing. Now it wows with a flutter, and static drones. Glowing rings, mandalas with angel wings, shoot down diagonals in the clouds, and following arrows spin by to pierce them like faded shafts of light. Pleasant my balance, like a ship's wheel turning. Now a white-hot anchor presents itself for my view, hanging still for a minute before it vanishes like a conjurer's trick.
Faded, drifting up from behind, comes a memory of a world we left behind. Most of it is dim, like snatches of last night's dream... not to strain after it too hard, lest I lose my grip. But gryphons come back. A rout, too. Not too often we fail these days, not with the honing of our skills. A return in force is certain, and then... "a spiritual atom bomb of infinite power..." before me is the face of the man in uniform who gave our commencement address long years ago at Provo.
Now, a gammadion blazing sunlike spins mad arms like the Cross of Dizzy past my wavefront dogeyes.
Eyes... I open my eyes (in the grey?), still floating as if drugged. I seem to be in a hospital bed. To my right, a rail along bedside, silver gleams so nice. A woman's hand is grasping the railing, smooth and tan. On the third knuckle, a freckle stands out against the white...
No... this is the hand of a young woman; but I recognize its every line and detail. I upturn my eyes.
"Fritz, you came down in the Arizona desert..."
Then things go wet and misty for a bit. I never dreamed, I never dared hope... the wavy, jet black hair, the dark, wide eyes; no wrinkles about-- somehow, impossibly, she is young again!
"They did it with alpha-specifics."
"...expensive? Something like that, only the government..."
She gives her head a sunny toss. "It's out of Program funds. Things will be just like old times, Fritz.
"All the tension. All the doubts inside you. They've been monitoring it. They're resetting you. It will all be gone, just like you've been resetting those beings out there."
Now she is caressing my cheek and something in me is aching and melting in the warmth. Never in all my years in the field had I dared to dream... then, a stab of ice:
"Jack! Ohmygod, Jack!"
Annalies lays a finger on my lips.
"Fritz, love, don't you worry about your friend Jack. They have a whole team of terminals working on him around the clock. Stuff inside him they should have taken care of years ago. He's going to be all right when they finish with resetting him."
I lie back against my pillow. Somewhere deep down, a hard, cold spark is screaming alarm, but the warmth quickly puts it out. I want to abandon myself to the warmth. I clutch Annalies' warm hand in my own. The blankets are warm. Her voice is warm:
"While you were gone to Denebola, they made a breakthrough. They found how to do it all from Earth at long range. Now you can reach out from your office across hundreds and thousands of light years. Each of you can give adjustments, singlehanded, to entire worlds. That's what the Program wants you to do for them now.
"Fritz... you and I can be together forever. The things they can do with alpha-specifics are..."
Warmth runs free and liquid down my cheeks. I want to give myself in to it totally.
"...and cloning. They saved some tissue, you know. And by delving into the Akashic Record, now they can retrieve the personality and re-imprint it."
From the other side of the room, a baritone: "Dad."
For six years I have never let myself hear that voice. I turn my head, and even through a watering veil, I recognize a face I have never let myself picture since that day the Razor Surgery Brigade slashed him dead in the streets of New York.
"Peter?" My throat catches. Now the liquid warmth is a torrent.
He crosses the room, resurrected from the dead: "We're... we're all together now, Dad."
Annalies: "Forever, Fritz. For ever and ever."
ICE. I scream voicelessly into the grey as I snap out of it. Blind in the void, knives are stabbing my heart as I try to scream, but only the wowing and the tidelike mumming of the interstellar grey reach my ears. I fight for balance, can't strain, don't dare try not to. Slowly I slip back into the tuneless calm. I know I have just escaped slipping off the tightrope. It would be so easy to slip back, for ever and ever.
I float in the grey. After ten years in the Program, I know too much about the subconscious whose dark depths we have begun to harness-- I know too much about how "near" and "far" and "present" and "future" intertwine within it-- to fool myself into thinking that what I have just had is only a nightmare. Somehow, I know with a mystic's certainty that it is only a matter of time until I return from the stars to find it come true.
I begin sinking into stupor. Only a matter of time; why not surrender to the warmth? And yet-- and yet-- no matter how I ache for it to come true, somehow I know I have just had a prevision of my own damnation. Jack would understand; as for the rest, the Gordian knot has been unraveled: "Fritz, you're tying yourself in knots. Get some sleep." So sensible; so cold and vulgar. Thus... do we unravel all Gordian knots...
Sinking into sleep. Will sleep the rest of the way home... Out on the Rim, something bronze is laughing, something ancient and utterly inhuman: "Poor, scurrying ant, what did you think we had planned for you? Doing to these others what we once did to your kind... you didn't think you would escape us? You will have your dream, we will see to that-- and we will have you, to the utmost depths of your heart and soul..."
I shake cobwebs. True sleep coming on: now the images, like cascades, pass in parade.
The ant is scurrying beneath the lens of glass.
The circle tightens.
The circle of light.