More Than Fire, p.1Philip José Farmer
Farmer, Philip Jose - World of Tiers 6
MORE THAN FIRE
To Lynn and Julia Carl, Gary Wolfe, and Deck Weil
“THIS’LL BE IT!” KICKAHA SAID. “I KNOW IT, KNOW IT! I CAN feel the forces shaping themselves into a big funnel pouring us onto the goal! It’s just ahead! We’ve finally made it!”
He wiped the sweat from his forehead. Though breathing heavily, he increased his pace.
Anana was a few steps behind and below him on the steep mountain trail. She spoke to herself in a low voice. He never paid any attention to her discouraging-that is, realistic-words, anyway.
“I’ll believe it when I see it.”
Kickaha the Trickster and Anana the Bright had been tramping up and down the planet of the Tripeds for fifteen years. Their quest was not for the Holy Grail but for something even better: a way to get out of this backwater universe. It had to exist. But where was it?
Kickaha usually looked on the cheerful side of events. If they had none, he lit the darkness with his optimism. Once he had said to Anana, “If your jail’s an entire planet, being a yardbird isn’t so bad.”
Anana had replied, “A prison is a prison.”
Kickaha had been carrying the key to unlock the gate leading to other worlds and to the mainstream of life. That key was Shambarimen’s Horn, the ancient musical instrument he carried in a deerskin pouch hanging from his belt. During their wanderings on this planet, he had blown the Horn thousands of times. Each time, he had hoped that an invisible “weak” place in the fabric of the “walls” separating two universes would open in response to the seven notes from the Horn and make itself visible. There were thousands of such flaws in the walls.
But so far, he had not been in an area where these existed. He knew that every time he blew the Horn, a flaw, a way out of their vast prison, might be a hundred yards away, just out of the activating range of the Horn. As he had said, knowing that made him feel as if he owned a ticket in the Irish Sweepstakes. The chances of his winning that would be very, very low.
If he could find a gate, an exit deliberately made by a Lord and often evident as such, he would have won the lottery. The natives of this planet had heard rumors of gates, or what could be gates. Countless rumors. Kickaha and Anana had followed these, sometimes for hundreds of miles, to their sources. So far, they had found only disappointment and more rumors to set them off on another long trail. But today, Kickaha was sure that their efforts would pay off.
The trail was leading them upward through a forest. Many of the giant trees smelled to Kickaha like sauerkraut juice mixed with pear juice. The odor meant that the leaves at the tips of the branches would soon be mutating into a butterflylike, but vegetable, creature. The brightly colored organisms would tear themselves away from the rotting twigs. They would flutter off, unable to eat, unable to do anything but soar far away before they died. Then, if they were not eaten by birds on the way, if they landed on a hospitable spot, the very tiny seeds within their bodies would sprout into saplings a month later.
The many marvels on this planet made it easier to endure their forced stay on it, Kickaha thought. But the longer they were here, the more time it gave their archenemy, Red Orc, to track them down. And Kickaha also thought often of his friends, Wolff and Chryseis, who had been imprisoned by Red Orc. Had they been killed by Red Orc, or had they managed to escape?
Kickaha, who on Earth had been named Paul Janus Finnegan, was tall, broad-shouldered, and muscular. The exceptional thickness of his powerfully muscled legs made him look shorter. He was deeply sun-browned; his shoulder-length and slightly curly hair was red-bronze; his face was craggy, long-lipped, and usually merry. His large wide-set eyes were as green as spring leaves.
Though he looked as if he were twenty-five years old, he had been born on Earth seventy-four years ago.
Buckskin moccasins and a belt were his only clothing. His belt held a steel knife and a tomahawk. On his back was a small pack and a quiver full of arrows. One hand held a long bow.
Behind him came Anana the Bright, tall, black-haired, blue-eyed, and also sun-browned. She came from a people who thought of themselves as deities, and she did look like a goddess. But she was no Venus. A classical scholar seeing her slim and exceptionally long legs and greyhound body would think of the hunting goddess, Artemis. However, goddesses did not perspire, and Anana’s sweat ran from her.
She, too, wore only moccasins and a belt. Her weapons were the same as Kickaha’s except for the long spear in one hand, and she bore a knapsack on her back.
Kickaha was thinking about the natives who had directed them up this path. They had seemed certain that the Door to the Sleeper’s Tomb was on top of the mountain. He hoped that the door was a gate. The natives he had questioned had never been to the mountaintop because they did not have the goods to give the Guardian of the Door for answers to their questions. But they knew somebody who knew somebody who knew somebody who had visited the Guardian.
This was probably another disappointing journey. But they could not afford to ignore any rumor or tale about anything that could be a Lord’s gate. Anyway, what else did they have to do?
A little more than a decade and a half ago, he and Anana had escaped from the Lavalite World into the World of Tiers. Then, he had been very confident that they would soon be able to do what must be done.
Their adventures on the Lavalite World, that planet of insecurity, instability, and constantly shifting shape, had been harrowing. Kickaha and Anana had rested for several weeks after escaping from it to the World of Tiers. Then, having renewed themselves with rest and fun, they had sought out and found a gate that teleported them to Wolff’s palace, now uninhabited. This was on top of the monolith on top of the World of Tiers.
They had armed themselves in the palace with some of the weapons of the Lords, weapons superior to anything on Earth. Then they had activated a gate that had previously passed them to a cave in a Southern California mountain. This was the cave through which Kickaha had first come back to Earth after many years of absence.
But when he and Anana had stepped through the gate, they had found themselves on a planet in this artificial universe, the Whaziss world. The gate had been a one-way trap, and Kickaha did not know who had set it up.
Kickaha had boasted more than once that no prison or trap could hold him long. Now, if those words could be given substance, he would have to eat them. They would taste like buzzard dung sprinkled with wood ashes.
Yesterday, he and Anna had stopped two-thirds of the way up the mountain and camped for the night. They had continued their climb at dawn and thus should, by now, be close to the top.
Five minutes later, he heard the voices of children drifting down the path. Within two minutes, they stepped over the edge of the small plateau.
The village in the middle of the plateau was much like others in this area. A circular wall of upright and pointed logs enclosed approximately forty log houses with conical roofs. In the center of the village was a temple, a two-story log building with a round tower on top and many carvedwood idols in and around it.
If the natives’ stories were true, the temple could contain a gate. According to these, the building contained a vertical structure of “divine” metal. Its thin beams formed a sixsided opening into the world of the gods. Or, as some stories said, a door to the world of the demons.
The natives also said that the hexagon had been on the top of the hill before the natives were created by the gods. The gods-or the demons had used the opening long before the natives came into being and would use it long after the natives had become extinct.
The first one to tell Kickaha this story was Tsash. He was a priest of a deity that had once been very minor but was now up-a
Tsash had said, “The Door to the Other world is open. Anyone may step through it. But he will only find himself on the other side of the six angled door and still in our world unless he can utter the magical word. And there is no assurance that he who does know the word will like what he finds on the other side.”
“And just where is this door?” Kickaha had said.
Tsash had waved his hand westward. The gesture took in a lot of territory, since he was standing in a temple on a cliff on the shore of the Eastern Sea.
“Out there. It is said that the Door is in a temple-dedicated to what god, I do not know-which is on a hilltop. But then, all temples are on the tops of high hills or mountains.”
“How many temples are there in this land?” Kickaha had said.
“Only the gods could count them, they are so numerous!”
He had lifted both four-fingered hands above his head, and he had cried, “Do not use the Door even if you find the magical word to open it!
You may awake the Sleeper! Do not do that! You will die the Undying Death!”
“Which is what?” Kickaha had said.
“I do not know, and I do not wish to know!” Tsash had shouted.
Kickaha had asked more questions, but Tsash seemed to have submerged himself in prayer. His huge eyes were closed, and the mouth under the green hair growing all over his face was murmuring something rhythmic and repetitive.
Kickaha and Anana had left the temple and set out westward. Fifteen years later, after going up and down and around but always working toward the Western Sea, they were on another mountaintop with a temple on it. Kickaha was excited. He believed that the long-sought gate was inside the building. Despite the many failures and consequent disappointments,he allowed himself to believe that their quest was at an end. Perhaps “allowed” was not the correct word. He had no control over his enthusiasms. They came and went as they pleased; he was the conduit.
If Anana was delighted or expectant, she did not show it. Many thousands of years of life had rubbed away much of her zest. Being in love with Kickaha and sharing his adventures had restored some of this-far more, in fact, than she had expected. Time was a chisel that had reshaped the original substance of her spirit. Yet it had taken that relentless dimension a long, long time to do it.
“This has to be it!” Kickaha said. “I feel it in the bones of my bones!”
She patted his right cheek. “Every time we get to a temple, our chances to succeed increase. Provided, of course, that there is any gate on this planet.”
The children playing outside the wall ran screaming toward them. Kickaha figured that they must have been forewarned. Otherwise, they would have run screaming away from them. The children surrounded the two and milled around, touching them, chattering away, marveling at the two-legged beings. A moment later, a band of armed males chased the youngsters away. Immediately afterward, the priest appeared in the village gate and waved a long wooden shaft at them. The outer end of this sported a scarlet propellor spun by the wind. Halfway down the shaft was a yellow disc bearing on its surface several sacred symbols.
Behind the priest came two minor priests, each whirling above his head a bull-roarer.
All the natives were naked. They were, however, adorned with bracelets and with ear-, nose-, and lip-rings. Their heads and faces were covered with a short greenish fur except for the chin region.
And they were three-legged.
Ololothon, the Lord who had long ago made their ancestors in his biology factory, had been very cruel. He had made the tripeds as an experiment. Then, having determined that they were functional though slow and awkward, Ololothon had let them loose to breed and to spread over this planet. They had no generic name for themselves, but Kickaha called them the Whazisses. They looked so much like the illustrations of a creature called a Whaziss in a fantasy, Johnny Gruelle’s Johnny Mouse and the Wishing Stick, which Kickaha had read when very young.
Kickaha called out in the dialect of the locals, “Greetings, Krazb, Guardian of the Door and holiest priest of the deity Afresst! I am Kickaha, and my mate is Anana!”
Word of mouth had carried the news of the funny-looking bipeds and their quest to Krazb many months ago. Despite this, protocol forced him to pretend ignorance and to ask many questions. It also required that the council of elders and shamans invite the two strangers into the council house for the drinking of a local brew, for much talking, for a slow working up to the reason why the strangers were here (as if the Whazisses did not know), and for dancing and singing by various groups.
After three hours of this, the priest asked Kickaha and Anana what brought them here.
Kickaha told him. But that caused much more explaining. Even then, Krazb did not understand. Like all the natives, he knew nothing of the Lords or artificial pocket universes. Apparently, the long-ago-dead Lord had never revealed himself to the natives. They had been forced to make up their own religion.
Though Kickaha did not succeed in making everything clear in Krazb’s mind, he did make him understand that Kickaha was looking for a Door.
Kickaha said, “Is there one in your temple or is there not? Anana and I have entered more than five hundred temples since we started our search fifteen years ago. We are desperate and about to give up the search unless your temple does indeed contain a Door.”
Krazb gracefully got to his feet from his sitting position on the ground, no easy movement for a triped.
He said, “Two-legged strangers! Your long quest is over! The Door you seek is indeed in the temple, and it’s unfortunate that you did not come here straightaway fifteen years ago! You would have saved yourself much time and worry!”
Kickaha opened his mouth to protest the injustice of the remark. Anana put a hand on his arm. “Easy!” she said in Thoan. “We have to butter him up. No matter what he says, smile and agree.”
The Whaziss’s lips tightened and the place where his eyebrows should be under the green fur was drawn down.
“Truly, there is a Door here,” he said. “Otherwise, why should I be called the Guardian?”
Kickaha did not tell him that he had met twenty priests, each of whom titled himself “Guardian of the Door.” Yet, all of their Doors had been fakes.
“We had no doubt that your words were true,” Kickaha said. “May we be allowed, O Guardian, to see the Door?”
“Indeed you may,” the priest said. “But you surely are tired, sweaty, dirty, and hungry after your journey up the mountain, though you should no longer be thirsty. The gods would be angry with us if we did not treat you as hospitably as our poor means permit us. You will be bathed and fed, and if you are tired, you will sleep until you are no longer fatigued.”
“Your hospitality has already overwhelmed us with its largesse,” Kickaha said.
“Nevertheless,” Krazb said, “it has not been enough. We would be ashamed if you left us and went to other villages and complained about our meanness of spirit and of material generosity.”
Night came. The festivities continued under the light of torches. The humans fought their desire to vent their frustration and boredom. At last, long past midnight, Krazb, slurring his words, announced that it was time for all to go to bed. The drums and the horns ceased their “music,” and the merrymakers who had not passed out staggered off to their huts. A minor official, Wigshab, led the humans to a hut, told them that they were to spend the night there on a pile of blankets, and wobbled off.
Having made sure that Wigshab was out of sight, Kickaha stepped outside the hut to check out the situation. Highly looped Krazb must have forgotten to post guards. Except for the drunken sleepers on the ground, not a Whaziss was to be seen.
Kickaha breathed in deeply. The breeze was cool enough to be pleasant. Most of the torches had been taken away, but four bright brands on the temple wall made enough light in this moonless night to guide them.
“Did you hear Krazb when he said something about the price for admission to the Door?” she said. “That sounds ominous.”
“IT WAS TOO NOISY. WHAT DID HE SAY ABOUT THE PRICE?”
“That we’d talk about it in the morning. That there were two prices. One was for just looking at the Door. Another, the much higher price, for using the Door.”
The price, Kickaha knew, would not be in money. The Whaziss economy was based only on the trading of goods or services. The only item of any value Kickaha could offer was the Horn of Shambarimen. Krazb wouldn’t know what it could do. He would desire it just because there was nothing like it anywhere on his world.
Thus, he and Anana were not going to get through the Door unless they gave up the Horn. If they did not surrender it, they would have to fight the Whazisses, whom Krazb would use when no one was watching.
He told Anana his thoughts while they stood in the doorway of the hut.
“I think we should sneak into the temple right now and find out if there is a gate. If there is, we go through it. Provided we can.”
“That’s what I expected,” she said. “Let’s go.”
While they were putting on their belts, backpacks, and quivers, Kickaha was thinking; What a woman! No hesitancies, no shilly-shallying for her. She quickly figures out what the situation is-probably had it figured out before I did-and then acts as the situation demands.
On the other hand, he did get irritated sometimes because she knew what his thoughts were before he voiced them. And lately, she obviously was having the same reactions to him that he was having to her.
For far too long, they had rarely been out of each other’s sight, and they had been without the company of other human beings. The Whazisses were unsatisfactory substitutes for “people.” They had a very stunted sense of humor and of art, and their technology had not progressed for thousands of years. Though they could lie, they were unable to conceive of the big whoppers that humans told just for the fun of it. Nowhere had Kickaha heard a Whaziss express an unconventional thought, and their cultures differed very little from each other.
More Than Fire by Philip José Farmer / Science Fiction / Fantasy have rating 3.6 out of 5 / Based on25 votes