Dinner at deviants palac.., p.17
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       Dinner at Deviant's Palace, p.17

           Tim Powers
 
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  What on earth, he wondered as he crouched in the light-less cage with the drugged, dying far-gone, do you suppose those buildings are? Dwellings? For whom? Offices? For what work?

  Suddenly there was a drum roll of booming knocks, and after his first jump of startlement he realized that the noise must be that of a lot of people coming aboard—and being herded on like cattle, to judge by the commotion. He guessed that at least one more wagonload of Jaybirds had come in through the gate last night. Hadn’t that poor baldy girl said that most of the incoming girls were being shipped directly to the sister city?

  Hello, girls, he thought sadly, nodding at the hull. Do give my regards to poor Sister Windchime… and Uri, too, of course.

  The booming of footsteps continued to jar his cage randomly for a while, then settled down. He had just begun to relax again when a deafening rumble started up, setting his teeth on edge and making the cage bars vibrate so violently that it itched to sit on them, and he yanked his head away from contact with the hull and splashed his hands up out of the water to cover his ears. My God, he thought, that’s got to be an engine! They’ve got internal combustion!

  A moment later his guess was confirmed, for the hull scraped forward and then the cage tilted as the mooring cable couldn’t give any more, and the water that had been a pool around him became a sluicing river, loudly rushing in from around and under the tarp on the forward side and splashing up against the aft side. Suddenly it wasn’t at all impossible for his unconscious companion to drown, and Rivas leaned forward to make sure the boy was well braced above the flood.

  Well, he thought as he tried to adjust to the idea that this noise and shaking would not be stopping soon, at least it’ll cut down on the travel time.

  Soon the barge had moved out past the breakwater into the open sea and the real waves, and for several seconds after they breasted the first one he really believed that the basket he was in had been savagely yanked up at least ten feet into the air and then allowed to fall back to the surface, and then yanked up again as soon as it had solidly whacked the water. This toss and plummet effect continued, with no sign of ever coming to an end, and when he’d got himself braced well enough to be able to think, he discovered that the only way he could keep himself from opening the basket and diving out was to promise himself, at each bone-jarring impact, that he would only endure five more.

  Slam. Only five more, Greg—hang on! Slam. All but five done now. You can take five more. Slam. Okay, count ’em down, that was six, here comes five…

  Over the Holy City the clouds were disrupted by frequent violent updrafts, and the flying man banked north off them so as to skim the Santa Ana River and the barren beaches south of Hunningten Town rather than actually fly over the glass plain of Irvine, even though most of himself was down there. He didn’t know that it was free neutrons that made his soap bubble skin itch, but he knew that flying near the place made him feel bad. He hoped the bulk of himself wouldn’t come to harm in there.

  Though only five days old, he was getting better at handling his ever-heavier body. Now he skimmed in low over a hill and down the far side, twitching fluff from the bobbing heads of dandelions and startling bees and enjoying being in the shade of the hill…. He was still in direct sunlight, but he was momentarily cut off from the hard, itchy heat radiating from the Holy City.

  The hill descended quite a distance, and he was able to surge up fast, lose speed and stall, without rising above its crest. And as he gently drifted down, he wondered why Rivas had to keep pretending he still wanted this Uri creature. The sinking man, his balloon-fingered hands spread to slow his drifting descent, reviewed the scanty memories Rivas had of the woman. Why, he thought as he tap-dancingly touched down—he still didn’t have enough weight to bend stiff weeds—why, he hardly remembers her at all. She’s important to him only as an excuse for… for…

  Well, the drifting man didn’t quite know. Something like an alcoholic’s attitude toward liquor. Rivas had somehow got into the position of needing something he didn’t like… no… more precisely, he’d got into the position of not liking something he needed. Why?

  The featherweight man dancing over the tops of the flowers didn’t really care why, he simply didn’t want Rivas to learn why… because if Rivas knew, it might clear up his confusions and interfere with the dancing man’s seduction of him. And the thistledown man wanted—so very badly!—to merge with Gregorio Rivas. How else was either of them to become whole?

  All night the rainy wind had been from the north, but the sun had begun silently to shatter the clouds, and fitful breezes were occasionally blowing in from the sea. When the next gust bent the grass and made the balloon man grab a weed stalk to keep from being tumbled inland, he lifted his plastic-bag head and snuffed the sea air.

  He’d caught a scent of Rivas, but distantly, and in a strange, bloody-smelling mix. The featherweight man kicked and rose like a kite launched in a strong wind, and he didn’t mind getting above the hill into the hot region, for he could see better from up here.

  When he was at the top of his jump he spread his arms and legs to catch the breeze and stay up there, and as he stared out at the shadow-mottled blue face of the sea he warped his still ectoplasmic eyes through a dozen round and oval shapes, trying to focus on what he needed to see.

  Then he had it in sight, and his fingers and long toes lashed madly in the air to keep him steady.

  It was a big wide barge with odd projecting cowls and wings and fins, like an exploded beetle, surging along so strongly, and leaving such a white wake, that the flying man knew it was powered by some species of engine. And it was, his fine-tuned senses told him, crowded inside with women. The twiddle-fingered airborne man frowned primly. Well, he thought, I daresay Rivas is enjoying this cruise.

  There were bales under dark cloths dragging in the water alongside the boat, and the kite man finally caught on that Rivas was in one of the bales. He couldn’t have explained how he knew it, only that when he looked at the boat and thought of Rivas he got an impression of cold rushing water and darkness and stale air.

  Boy, boy, the flying man thought, clicking his tongue and shaking his translucent head pityingly. You do so poorly on your own. It’s time you and I had another chat.

  The hemogoblin spread flattened arms and, at home on the wind, swooped away toward the sea, leaving the land behind.

  Chapter Eight

  AT FIRST RIVAS TRIED to resist the warm euphoric drowsiness that was stealing over him; he reminded himself of the danger he was in, and the much greater danger Uri was in, and he tried to feel tension and anxiety.

  Somehow, though, it all seemed postponeable. After all, what could he do to help or hinder things from inside this ridiculous cage? Perhaps the wisest thing to do would be to go to sleep, in this actually quite comfortable bed of rushing water. The shaking wasn’t nearly so bad now that they’d apparently got out past the breakers. It occurred to him that he’d heard of waterbeds, but this was the first riverbed he knew of.

  He laughed heartily, and for quite a while, at the notion.

  Singing a song seemed like a good idea for a few moments, but sleep proved more imperative. He snuggled up against the steel bars on the hull side, not forgetting to say good night to all the girls on the other side of the wood—what were they in, anyway, a big barrel? A keg of leg, ho ho, a butt of butts; he was whooping with laughter now—then he subsided and arranged himself for sleep, wondering, with the last spark of awareness, why the sea water tasted so… what, not salty…rusty, that was it. Like blood.

  To his own intense annoyance he let himself sink no further toward sleep. Let me sleep, he begged himself; of course sea water tastes like blood. It used to be blood. No, the other way around, evolutionarily blood was once just a quantity of sea water contained in the hollow body of some early form of life… sponges or jellyfish or something. Right. Now that that’s settled, he thought, let’s go to bed.

  But again one part of his mind—a part tha
t was becoming seriously alarmed—resisted sleep. Why, he thought muzzily, should the sea water have the rusty iron taste of blood? And why is my thumb… and the bullet lash down my back too… going numb? And what is it that this… thought-dissolving blurriness reminds me of?

  The answers arrived almost simultaneously. Shifting to a more comfortable position in the hope of tricking himself into sleep, he became aware of two objects in his hip pocket, a big hard lump and a flat hard disk. Irritably he reached down under the turbulent water and dug them out.

  By touch he could tell what they were. They were the jar of Blood, evidently empty, that he’d pocketed after giving the dying boy a whiff, and the lid that had once been screwed onto it. Evidently he was sitting right now in a vigorously stirred soup of Blood. And the oblivion that was eroding the awareness out from under him had the same feeling of being monitored that his very first long ago receiving of the Jaybird communion had had.

  Taking Blood felt like receiving the sacrament.

  He knew this was important… in a way. Actually, wasn’t it something he’d already guessed? Or would have, soon? Of course it was.

  No, insisted the unhappy, struggling part of his mind, it’s important.

  Right, right. Much too important to consider before taking a little nap.

  The salty, rusty fluid crashing around him in the darkness was hot, or so it seemed to him now, and he tried to remember where he was but couldn’t. Evidently he’d got inside the heart of some huge being.

  He wasn’t sure who he was himself. The very idea of self seemed odd. He reached up to touch his face and it took all his strength to do it; he fumbled at his own face, feeling the toothless gums, the sunken cheeks, the hairless skull. There was another person too inside the spasming chamber of muscle, a bigger person, one who still had hair, and it warmed him to realize that that was him, too—or he and that person were both equally members of someone higher, the someone whose blood crashed powerfully, sustainingly, around them in the hot darkness…. Individual awareness was now recognizable as a kink in an otherwise perfectly smooth fabric….

  One of the four hands in the bouncing basket let go of an empty jar and a lid and then drifted to the bars that, through the covering tarpaulin, abraded back and forth across the hull; and with nearly no more intent than a flower has in turning to the sun, the hand tried to wedge its fingers between one of the bars and the hull.

  After a while the basket obligingly swung away from the hull for a moment, as the barge crested a bigger than usual wave, and the fingers were able to curl all the way around the steel bar before the sea slammed the basket back against the hull.

  As the fingers of his right hand were crushed between the two ponderous weights, Rivas warped back into self-awareness like a stretched-out-straight spring suddenly released. The hotly nauseating agony in his hand was his anchor, and he forced himself to move toward it along his frayed connection with it, away from the blurred state in which even sharing was a meaningless concept because in the long run there was only one entity in the universe. The pain became more definitely his own with every bit of progress, until at last he was again aware of being in the churning cold water in the lightless metal basket with himself here and the far-gone boy over there.

  He held his maimed hand under water—the salt stung it savagely for a moment, but then the cold water began numbing it—and he realized he could see if he wanted to.

  He was still in the pitch-dark cage; what he could see wasn’t anything that was here, and he was aware of that, but it was vivid, and certainly nothing he’d ever seen before.

  A miles-high stone wall in glaring purple light, wavy and blobbly and full of holes like a frozen splash, cut off half the horizon and a third of the gray sky, and things were visible gliding on diaphanous wings among the lacy stone pseudopods at the top. Looking down, a movement that covered quite a distance, as if his neck was yards and yards long, he saw a thing like an orange spider or a hundred-legged starfish, and he reached out a… Jesus, what was that, a sort of unfolding length of dried gut… and touched the orange creature.

  Strength flowed into him, and out of the spidery thing, apparently, for it curled its legs and its color dimmed and it slowly settled to the sand. Belatedly he noticed that the creature had two shadows, a red one that lay behind it and a blue one that lay out to one side….

  … And then he was in a volcanic-looking natural amphitheater, smooth as a bubble with the top broken away, and, incapacitated by the consequences of some unimaginable self-indulgence, he was watching a crowd of the spider-things. They were arranged in a line curled to form a big spiral, and one of them in the center began walking out of the coil, pausing in front of each of its motionless fellows to extend a leg and make a touch… and at each touch he felt the strength flow into him as the one touched dimmed and slowly collapsed…. This was of course be cause for the occasion he had become the one that was walking and touching the others….

  Though Rivas knew he could stop seeing any of this any time he decided to, the vision faded now by itself. It had had a flavor of… memory. A rueful recollection.

  “Not so tasty, those weren’t,” spoke the boy in the darkness. “Just lucky for me that their glow was more a psychic than a chemical effect. Too bad the highfliers never came down. Hard to see, but once I thought I saw one of them carrying something that seemed to be a tool. They might have been tasty.”

  Another vision was starting up, and Rivas let himself watch.

  A dimly green-lit plain was what he saw, viewed from above, with clusters of strange, spherical flowers on long stalks growing up from it. He sensed that he wasn’t alone, and sure enough a moment later a bulbous, streamlined animal went porpoising past him, downward, followed by two more. As he watched them recede, their apparent size diminishing with their increasing distance from him, he saw that they were still well short of the flower globes, which must therefore be huge and much more distant than he’d supposed.

  As he started down himself, his ponderous body working to propel him through the transparent but thick medium, he saw that the top half of each sphere was silvery, and he knew that the silver stuff inside was what held each of the spheres up and kept the mooring lines taut, and as he swam closer he saw skeletal constructions inside the bottom halves, and, in the top halves, spots of colored brightness that might have been fires….

  The scene changed then, and he glimpsed a spiral line of creatures that looked like walruses made of flexible palm-tree trunks, and again one that he had become extended an extremity—a sort of catfish whisker—to touch each one in turn, and the strength flowed into him with each touch….

  And when once again he had drained from their minds enough of the strength, the psychic power to move things at a distance, he swam back to the secluded grotto which he had made his own. He had sniffed out some fairly hot pitchblende and adorned his cavern with it; and though this seasoning left something to be desired, the entrée itself was as rich as any he’d ever tasted.

  The heavy component of the medium through which he swam was abundant down here in the old quiet valleys, and, using just a flicker of the vast energy he’d taken from his flock, he made a globe of vacuum around a slightly smaller ball of the omnipresent medium. He looked the ball over to make sure it was perfect, and then, still without touching it, moved it away from him, deeper into the grotto. Feeding like this always damaged his body, and though he could make repairs on it almost as easily as he had caused the globe of vacuum to appear, there was no sense in putting the body in a situation where it might be outright destroyed. Too much trouble would be involved in finding another.

  The ball was far enough away now, around several corners; and with his mind, powered now by the vast energy he’d stolen, he squeezed it.

  The resistance was strong, but his power was stronger. He doubled and then redoubled his pressure. The ball, inside its diminishing shell of vacuum, was now half its original size, and continuing slowly to shrink.

 
; He squeezed even harder, and now he could feel the drain on his energy; but what with the local concentration of the heavy stuff, and the slight head start of the already tremendous pressure down here, and the copious amount of power he’d taken from his flock, he was confident that he’d be able to squeeze it to ignition and then glut himself on the resulting radiation, without having to unmake any bit of the crystal which, unlike the aquatic body he was now temporarily wearing, was himself.

  When the ball of heavy water had been compressed down to a tiny fraction of the size it had been, he reached into it with his mind and all at once agitated its atoms furiously, using up nearly the last of his stolen strength to do it—but then a second later he was battered by a blast of nutrition, the entire revitalizing spectrum of radiant energy. Suddenly it was easy to maintain the compression, a physical pleasure to squeeze the stuff; and, as always, he had to resist the temptation to drag more matter in and squeeze even harder as his capability increased, had to fight the perverse inclination to squeeze the products of the first ignition into another, and then the ashes of that one into still another, drawing from each compaction a little less energy than from the one before until, carried away and unable to stop, he would heedlessly pass the point where energy could be derived from the transmutations, and each successive fusion would be taking energy from him. He’d done that occasionally, on other worlds than this aquatic one, and though the super-heavy, unstable elements he was left with were pleasant to have around, tickling him with the particles of their decay, they weren’t nearly worth the crippling efforts it took to produce them, nor the years of slow recuperation he needed afterward.

  The scene changed again, and though the new vision was of the same world as the previous one, Rivas knew that it occurred much later. He was making a long swimming journey across vast extents of the green plain, but finding only empty spheres lying on the ground, the silvery stuff having long since leaked away and the mooring lines curled in limp loops around them. The walrus things were all dead, and the only beings that prowled here were the vampiric facsimiles of them, very hungry now that there were no genuine ones left for them to attach themselves to. One of these voracious, semi-transparent things had been accidentally created each time he had touched one of the walrus creatures that had been in extreme pain; the strength had flowed out from the suffering communicant, but at a sort of psychic slant, so that he’d been unable to catch it and consume it. These stray unabsorbed strengths eventually became a sort of being themselves, solidifying and even acquiring independent wills if they managed to attach themselves to a sufficient number of the genuine, original creatures; and these artificial, hungry things would cling to him if they could, and try to drain him, and though they’d get more from the disastrous conjunction than they could deal with—a burst of psychic energy that would certainly kill them—it would damage him, too. It was time, regrettably, to leave.

 
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