The two glassy knobs that protruded from her pale pink hair flashed with inner fire, resonating with the storm that was tossing the airship like a drifting spore.
There were sounds in the passageway outside. She busied herself over the hinged wooden compact, which was open like a clamshell on a cushion before her. Her eyes were weary and wise, belying her youthful, almost nymphean looks.
She heard voices conversing lowly, then a final goodnight. A sallow, hawk-faced man stepped through the hatch into the cabin. His skull’s joints were bold lines on his shaven crown. He had never looked old because he had never looked young.
“I thought I told you not to take your hair down,” he said.
“I didn’t plan to go back out.”
“I don’t care what you were planning. Look at those things. It’s as though you want people to know what you are.”
She put her hands up to rearrange her coiffure. Her hair, the color of dawn-tinted clouds, was long and luxuriously heavy. She met his eyes in the mirror and saw that they sparkled. She shuddered inwardly. “Are we far off course?”
As if to emphasize the question, the ship dropped suddenly and then soared upward.
“We’re off every map they’ve got,” the man said. “There’s no way to set down in this gale, so we’ll just have to coast along with it until it decides to give out. We may never get back to Enoch. How about that?”
She returned to the compact, using tweezers to adjust the black, beanlike ova in their rotating ring of cavities. Only four remained to her. “Do the others know?”
“Those fools?” He ran a finger down the edge of a design on the bulkhead. “You were very free with them tonight.”
She snapped the compact shut. “I didn’t mean—”
“Not at all! I prefer it when you speak your mind. I don’t like all this skulking about. And if what you say reflects rather badly on me, well, that’s not your fault is it?”
She turned to face him. “Darden, you know I—”
“Please,” he said, putting up one hand. “How long has it been since I found you? There’s nothing you have to apologize for. Not to me. We’ve been through high times and low together, haven’t we?”
“Yes, Darden.” She thought of the story he’d told her again and again, of his finding her, a puling babe, exposed in the pumice desert of Lund.
He laughed. “Oh, I remember one low time. What would the others think if they ever knew what you’d done with those seeds of yours? Eh? Do you remember the look on old—”
“I never use them except when you ask me to!” she cried.
“So it’s my fault! You think the chimeras come out of nowhere!” He laughed again. “Why, if I didn’t keep those little beans of yours under lock and key...! Speaking of which...” He put his hand out. “Finished?”
Orana gave him the case. He placed it in a metal-bound wooden chest and locked the lid. She winced at the sound.
“Don’t delude yourself,” he said. “We’re both rotten.” He slid his arm around her waist and crushed his lips against hers. He moved to her neck. His hot breath filled her ear: “You’re just a little more rotten.”
There was a loud pop, and Darden flew back against the bulkhead. His eyes glittered with malice. The scar on his cheek turned white.
Lightning stabbed at the embrasures, seeking the source of power. An explosion rocked the craft. Night swept black-winged into the cabin. Gravity loosed its hold, turning the contents into swirling flotsam. Orana drifted up out of Darden’s reach as though in an ecstasy of divine rapture.
Then a giant’s hand came down, and the bulkhead crashed against them. Stunned, Orana found herself whirled back into space. She had a glimpse of Darden’s face streaked with blood. A rent opened in the hull like a black mouth, and icy fingers yanked her into darkness.
A mote in a howling maelstrom, she tumbled for what seemed an eternity through elemental anarchy. Orientation and polarity lost all meaning. Mad choirs of daemons shrieked in her ears, driving her in a harsh zigzag across the face of chaos.
Something struck her a resounding blow, bounded away, and struck her again. And then, suddenly, miraculously, she found herself pressed against a flat surface. Her senses righted themselves, and she knew that she was on the ground.
The wind blasted her with tiny pellets that stung her eyes and filled her mouth with the taste of salt. She rolled over to put her face in the lee. Lights whirled like meteors across her vision. The airship was turning somersaults into darkness. Then the gale picked it up like a toy, and it was gone.
A vision of pink and pale blue greeted her open eyes, a perfectly smooth plane of sparkling rose receding to the line at infinity, vertical in her vision, to meet the cosmic sapphire dome.
She got up on one elbow. The sun was a pink ball peering over the world’s rim. Her shadow was a blue finger stretched out behind her.
For a confused moment she thought she lay in a snow field. But the surface was hard and gritty. Also, it was not cold. By bits and pieces she recalled her advent upon the plain, the taste of salt on her lips.
Her heart leaped. The salt flats were so remote that some doubted their very existence. The last nameless range west of Enoch, far past the great karst plateau, was known as the Edge of Beyond. And its twisted pinnacles merely overlooked the beginning of the flats.
She was alone in the heart of Beyond.
The breeze was cool and dry. There was no other sound and no sign of any living thing. The sky was cloudless. The sun waxed incandescent as it rose.
To the south she descried a trail of wreckage across the glittering expanse. She got to her feet, stretched her sore muscles, and began walking. The scattered objects were the only things upon which her eyes could fix. The flats were utterly featureless. No hills or mountains were visible at the circle of the horizon.
Halfway to the nearest piece she passed a place where the ship had struck the salt. The crust had cracked, revealing a pool of muddy blue-green brine, placid under a sheet of floating crystals. The ship itself was nowhere in sight. Perhaps it had righted itself and flown on. If that were the case, it might soon return, and find her there on the plain.
Many of the things were from her cabin. She found some clothes, now woefully inadequate. She was wearing a tight pink blouse and loose, flowing black pants. There was a pair of sandals among the wreckage, which she slipped on, but Darden had liked to keep her looking her best, and the gowns strewn over the salt were no better than what she had on.
Taking up the trail again, she came across more mementos: jewelry, artifacts, rare cylinders. Darden specialized in organizing acts of larceny and tomb-plundering—they’d been on such a mission when the storm struck—but lately he’d come to rely almost exclusively on her talents in evading both the guards of the modern world-city and the cunning traps of the ancients.
The trail petered out. There was one last object in the distance. Squinting—the sun was a glaring white ball in the east now and the flats shimmered brilliantly—she descried a shattered rectangle. She bounded forward with a cry of joy.
It was the chest.
She reached it and fell to her knees. The lock had been broken but the contents remained. Trembling, she drew out the compact. The seeds were intact. She sat cross-legged on the salt and positioned them more carefully, as a mother might shift her sleeping infants.
The world was a shining white disk beneath a clear blue dome. Sunlight pounded inexorably on her back and skull. She had no water, no food, and no shelter. She wouldn’t last more than a few hours if she didn’t find a way of protecting herself from the onslaught.
She rose to her knees went through the chest more carefully. Most of the contents were oddments that Darden had considered important. Among them was his chain-sword, his most prized possession.
She drew it out carefully. She’d never been allowed to touch it but had watched Darden handle it many times. With one flick of her wrist, the links locked into place, forming a razor-sharp rapier. She drove the pommel against her hip, and the blade collapsed into a chain again.
The chest held nothing else of value. She got to her feet with her finds and returned to her clothes. Among them were two white bed sheets. Using the chain-sword, she cut a hole in the middle of one and slipped it over her head. A silken cord served to cincture it around her waist. The other she used as a hood.
The glare of the salt was blinding now. Her vision was already blurred. She recalled that a silken sleeping mask lay among her scattered clothing. She took it up, cut two slits in it, and slipped it on after completing her toilet, unconsciously arranging her hair as Darden had liked it, with the knobs of her antennae hidden.
There was little more to be done. She filled a satchel with anything that seemed likely to be useful, including a paring knife, a cup, a bottle of liquor, and extra pins for her hair. Into the bag also went the compact and chain-sword. With that she set out.
East lay Enoch the world-city. South lay the wreck of the airship. North and west lay lands empty and unknown. She headed northwest. She knew she would probably die, but still her heart was light.
As the trail of jetsam receded Orana began to feel strangely exposed. The plain went on, and on, and on, without the slightest variation in any direction. It proved difficult to keep up a good pace. With no goal to make toward, her steps wove back and forth. The earth was a treadmill, the sun a lidless eye transfixing her with its stare.
The white expanse rebuked her soul. It whispered that the world of color and form existed in the eye alone, a broken impression of a vast blank cosmos whirling toward tepid surcease. And in that final unalterable uniformity, time and existence would cease to have meaning, and all would be one, and nothing.
The sun climbed overhead. Her feet lagged and her head lolled on her shoulders. Clouds of sparks assailed her vision. She sank to the glittering plane, rolled on the salt for a moment, and lay still.
Her half-open eyes seized upon the tiny crystalline cubes whose complex configurations stretched away in nightmare boundlessness.
Deliriously, she got up on her hands and knees. It seemed all one whether she walked or crawled. The latter proved more irksome, though, so she rose unsteadily to her feet and kept walking.
Soon she began passing patches of pale blue-green. A measure of sanity returned to her mind. She felt the gnawing of thirst, and her lips were dry and cracked, but she remembered who she was.
Clouds started to coalesce in the north. She prayed silently to all the gods she knew. There were still no landmarks, but the plain was broken into big polygons like tiles mortared with crystalline ridges.
Bastions of clouds bore down on her, hung with curtains of pearl. The storm-wall reached from horizon to horizon, a soaring range with slanting lines pushing ahead of its broad foundations.
Advance towers surged around her. Delicious shadow enveloped her. Cool wind tugged at her raiment. Thunder rolled. And then the blessed rain came down.
She stopped and opened her mouth to the heavens. That did nothing to slake her thirst, but it washed the salt from her lips. She set her cup out on the crust. Once her raiment was soaked she sucked at the sheets and let them grow sodden again.
The rain slackened after all too brief a downpour. Ragged rents exposed the blue sky. Water lay in a thin sheet on the ground. She tasted it, but, as she’d expected, it was already too salty to drink.
She swallowed what had gathered in her cup, took off her sheets, and wrung them out in it. This, too, she drank, then repeated the process. She downed three cupfuls that way. The fourth and last she kept in the cup.
Puffy white cumuli scudded over the flats now beneath high cirrus banners. Rainwater lay in a perfect sheet across the plain, an inch deep in every direction, reflecting the sky like a mirror. It was as though she floated between two heavens, one above and one below.
She went her way exultantly, walking on water, sole to sole with an upside-down second self, dancing between twin layers of clouds.
The shallow ocean lifted into haze and vanished as the sun declined. Her legs grew weary. She felt the need of rest. But every spot was the same as every other.
As the ruddy disk touched the horizon, her feet started breaking through into sun-warmed quagmires. She backtracked, halted, and peered forward. In the uncertain light it was hard to tell where solid ground lay. This, then, was the place to sleep. She lay down, wrapped in her two sheets.
The sun sank out of sight. Twilight swept over the earth. Stars appeared in the desolate gulf, waxing in darkness, gathering into glittering swarms. They bore down on her like a volley of flaming arrows.
She felt as though pressed against a spinning ball from which she might drop into the abyss at any moment. In the west, Saant hung low like a flickering red candle. Staring into it, she fell asleep, and dreamed of temples with empty tabernacles.
In the morning she skirted the thin crust by veering to the north. The plain continued as before. Her water was gone. She hoped for another afternoon shower, but no shower came. The featureless flats rolled on and on. She was achingly thirsty again and light-headed with hunger.
Dark spots came and went in her sun-touched vision. One spot refused to vanish. She rubbed her eyes and looked again. A long, low eminence lay in the dancing distance.
It was an outcrop like an island in the sea of salt, an upturned keel of brown stone clothed in varicolored vegetation. She started forward convulsively, half stumbling, half running, thinking of the rainwater that must have pooled in its hollows.
As a girl, she’d once been aboard a steamer with Darden when an earthquake struck. Their craft had settled to the exposed reef. She’d been entranced with the loveliness of the coral landscape that rose up before her. Then the waves had returned, and they’d barely escaped with their lives.
The salt-island reminded her of that reef. The great mosses and lichens that crowned it looked as though carved by elfin jewelers. There were golden heliodor stalks with exploding cinnabar heads, and beds of blue-green beryl, and creeping carpets of amethyst orbs, and forests of ruby-tipped olivine spears, and towering onyx pagodas and toadstools, and rolling lichen-mats like landscapes carved of jade in arches and hollows and orange-velvet cups. Dragonflies darted hither and thither like winged brooches, crimson, bronzy green, and black-banded yellow.
She had almost reached the shoreline, where soft breakers of blue-green salt rolled against the black rocks, when a shrill whistle brought her up short. She froze. A figure stood silhouetted against the sky at the island’s brow, then vanished.
“Hello?” she called.
For a moment there was no answer. Then, suddenly, a score or more of tiny brown warriors materialized out of nowhere, brandishing spears and bows. She thought at first that they were pygmies, then realized that they were merely children. They wore scaly animal skins and bits of tattered cloth and scrap metal. Some were almost naked.
Orana stepped forward and lowered her hood and mask. A dart whizzed past her ear. It had been shot by an older youth, lanky and large-eared, who stood head and shoulders over the others. He strode to the fore and held his hand out menacingly.
“I missed you on purpose,” he said. “I could’ve killed you if I’d wanted to. That was just a warning. This is our place!”
“Where are your parents?” asked Orana.
“Dead!” a little girl yelled. The other children took up the chorus: “Dead! They’re all dead! Our parents loved us but they’re dead!”
The boy held his hand up for silence. “We’re all orphans here. I am the phylarch. We don’t allow big people. Go away!”
“I won’t harm you,” said Orana. “I’m just thirsty.”
“It’s against our rules.”
“Oh, Arrow,” said the girl who had spoken, “can’t we break the rules just this once? She seems nice, and she’s so pretty.”
Arrow shook his head. “You’re too young, and don’t understand. You don’t remember the time before.”
“I do too. But that’s not the reason you’re keeping her off!”
The other children shouted her down.
“And anyway,” said a warrior boy, “it’s stupid to talk about breaking a rule, when we’ve never even gotten the chance to follow it.”
“If we don’t follow our rules,” another boy said, “Tiamat will think we don’t love her. Then we’ll never go to Pureland.”
“Maybe I don’t want to go to Pureland,” said the girl. “We’ll be big people someday. You’ll be first, Arrow.”
“I don’t see how.”
“Please,” said Orana, “I just need water and something to eat.”
The boy phylarch hesitated. The other children looked expectantly at him. But stone set in his eyes. “Newt! Cubit! Ray!” Three warrior boys gathered around him. “You stay here, and make sure she stays off the island. The rest of you, come with me.”
The children melted into the mossy crevices, leaving the guards behind, two with spears and one with a nocked arrow. They watched Orana placidly, like crafty animals.
She began walking north, parallel to the shoreline. The boys kept up with her, leaping from stone to stone. They didn’t call to her or talk to one another.
The island was a mile long. At its northern extremity it rose into precipices crowned with big lichened boulders and pillars and what appeared to be a ruined temple. An isolated outcrop stood in the salt to the north. She set out toward it, crossing the glittering expanse. The boys remained in the shadow of the cliffs.
The outcrop was a cluster of natural pillars. A staircase led her up to a cave entrance between two shoulders of stone. Placing her hand on one side, she leaned as far forward as she dared. The air wafting out of the hole was cool and moist.
Her hand slipped, and she tumbled down into darkness, rolling from step to step to the bottom. For a moment she just lay there, stunned. A sensation of wetness spread up her arm, bringing her swiftly to her knees.
A pool of water glimmered in the gloom. It was too shallow for her cup, so she dipped her hands in and lifted it to her lips. It was fresh. Once her thirst was slaked she bathed her face and her arms.
The cave was the tomb of some time-forgotten chieftain, with carved pilasters and a groined ceiling. There was movement toward the back. Termites as big as her thumb were tending a fungus garden that carpeted the floor and walls. Guards twice their size, with orange heads and long pincers, patrolled the perimeter.
Desperately hungry, Orana stole forward, broke off a morsel of fungus, and placed it her mouth. It seemed edible. She tore out a handful. The guards came at her, snapping viciously. She beat a hasty retreat.
In a comfortable nook near the stairs she ate her ill-gotten meal. Her eyes grew heavy as her stomach grew full, and she dropped into a deep sleep.
Morning light streamed down the steps when Orana awoke. Her antennae throbbed. She sensed someone’s presence.
A small, lithe figure leaped to the stairs and bounded toward the opening.
“Wait!” called Orana. “I won’t hurt you!”
The figure froze and turned. It was the girl who had spoken the day before. She looked to be about nine. Her brown hair lay in a loose braid down her back. She had large eyes and expressive features.
Orana smiled, seeing an opportunity to get on good terms with the children. “My name is Orana. What’s yours?”
“Eloina. But never call me that. Everyone calls me Fish.” She spoke loudly and slowly, carefully articulating each syllable.
“Why do they call you that?”
“Because there’s no fish around here!”
That made no sense to Orana. “How long have you all lived here?”
“Oh, about five years,” said the girl. She came down a few steps. “What are you doing here?”
“I was on an airship that was blown off course. There was an accident. I woke up in the flats and started walking. That was two days ago.”
“Why’d you come this way? Do you know about Tiamat?”
“Who is Tiamat?”
“The Queen of Pureland,” said Fish. “How’d you get your hair so pink?”
“I was born with it, Fish.”
“What? I never heard of someone born with pink hair!”
Orana laughed. “I’ve never met anyone else with pink hair myself.”
“Didn’t your parents have pink hair?”
“I don’t know. I’m an orphan, too.”
Fish’s mouth opened, then closed. She came the rest of the way down.
“How did you all come to be here, Fish?”
“Same as you,” she said expansively. “Airship crash.”
“Did your—I mean, when you crashed, were you—”
“Is that when our parents died? Listen, lady, we were all wards of the city. You know what that means, don’t you?”
“But you said they were dead.”
The girl rolled her eyes. “That’s just what we tell the little ones.”
Without warning, Fish stepped over, sat in her lap, and began stroking her pink hair. Orana took the girl’s hands and held them gently in her own, but Fish disentangled them and touched her hair again. Her hand brushed a knob, and she jerked back. “Ow!”
“I’m sorry,” said Orana. “Did you get a shock?”
“Did I! What do you have in there, anyway?”
“Just my antennae.”
Fish drew back, her dark eyes wide open. “Antennae? What are you, an insect?”
Orana laughed again. “No, I’m a daughter of Anûn.”
“You mean you’re from the moon? I never heard of people living on the moon.”
“They do. You can see their cities at night, if you look closely when its face is dark. I don’t know if I was born there.”
“Are you a ward of the city, too?”
“N-no. I had a guardian.”
“Wait. How old are you?”
“I thought so. I told my brother you weren’t that old.”
“Is your brother...Arrow?”
“Uh-huh. I think you’re nice. He thinks you’ll try to control us.”
“I don’t want to control you. I only want to leave this place. I might be able to help you, in exchange for your assistance. What would Arrow think of that?”
Fish shrugged. “It’s not just up to Arrow.”
“What happened to the adults on your ship, Fish?”
“I’m not supposed to talk about it.” She looked down at Orana’s satchel. The compact had slipped out. She took it up curiously. “What’s this?”
Orana tugged it out of the girl’s hands, embarrassed. “It’s nothing.”
“Fish, are you in there?” A boy was peering down from the entrance. His hair was a sun-bleached white and his freckled face was tan. He was small, but Orana knew that he must be Fish’s age, or older.
“I’m here, Cubit,” said Fish with a sigh.
“Arrow would be mad if he knew.”
“He wouldn’t know, if you sneaks wouldn’t tell him.”
“You want us to?” the boy threatened.
“Well, I’ve got to go,” said Fish. “Bye!” Before Orana could say another word, the girl ran up the steps and disappeared.
Orana pondered all she’d just learned. Again and again her thoughts returned to Tiamat, the mysterious ‘queen’ whose name she’d heard twice so far. She might be an imaginary friend conjured by the children in their loneliness. Orana shuddered at the thought of what such a figment might make them do.
She climbed up to the entrance and peered out. The golden sunlight of early morning lay over the flats. Fish was halfway to the island, her braid swinging as she ran. Cubit was struggling to keep up.
After a breakfast of fungus and water Orana set out toward the island. She wore her mask, for the sun was bright, and so she didn’t see the flying drone until it was almost upon her.
It was about the size of a human torso, a chassis of pale chitin suspended from four whirling rotors, with a single great eye on a stalk twisting down from the base, swiveling this way and that as it circled her.
Surreptitiously, she drew the coiled chain-sword and let it click into place beside her leg. The watcher appeared not to notice. It continued to dart around like a gnat.
Her antennae flashed briefly as she raised the rapier. She waved it around awkwardly, chasing the drone. As it swooped low she was able to bring the blade down between its rotors. It fell in two wriggling halves to the salt.
She peered at its exposed insides. They were of the same substance as its shell, yellowish white and papery thin, with intricate moving parts and pumping bellows and tubes but no moisture. It seemed neither animal nor machine. She crushed it flat on the salt. The way it crackled under her sandal made her shudder.
She continued on toward the cliffs. Cubit and the other two boys were sitting in the shadows, watching her. She veered to the right to resume her circumnavigation. The cliffs dwindled to shelves planted like garden terraces. The boys followed as before.
The western shoreline was gently concave. The wreck of an airship stood in the flats opposite the bay, a glittering white skeleton frosted with layers of salt like an ice-cased derelict in an arctic sea. A cleft high up on the island opened toward it.
As she neared the spot, children poured out of the crack, joining the boys on the shore. Arrow emerged last of all and leaped from stone to stone to the salt, spear in hand. “Our rules haven’t changed,” he said.
“Will you come out to talk to me?” asked Orana. “I have something to say.”
“We don’t keep secrets,” said Arrow. “Say it where everyone can hear.”
“Why won’t you let me on your island?”
“As I said, it’s our rule. And it’s a good rule.” He looked around at the others. “Big people only want to use us.”
“But I don’t want to use you. I don’t even want to know you. I just want to strike a deal. Once I can gather some supplies, I’ll be off. It will take months to do that on my own. I’m asking for your help. In exchange, I can perform some service for you.”
Once again, the boy hesitated. “Such as what?”
“What do you need done?”
He opened his mouth to speak. The other children looked at him. But he shook his head. “No. I’m sorry. We’re not making any deals.”
“Because of Tiamat? Is that it?”
“Just go away,” he said. “You’ll only bring us trouble. Please just go away.”
He turned and strode up to the cleft, his back stiff with pride. The others trailed behind more dejectedly.
Orana continued her exploration.
As she rounded the low southern cape she became aware that Fish was arguing with the boy sentries. The discussion went back and forth, and then Fish broke away, running toward her over the salt. The boys pretended not to notice.
“Hello,” said Fish, falling in beside her.
“Hello, Fish,” said Orana.
“I came to talk to you because I know you can help us.”
“I’m not so sure of that, Fish.” Orana’s voice was tinged with bitterness.
“You’re right about Tiamat,” said Fish.
“She’s the one who doesn’t like adults on your island?”
“Yes. And she always finds out what we do.”
Orana thought of the watcher she’d destroyed. “Where does she live?”
Fish waved toward the west. “In a tall tower on its own in the salt. Arrow once saw it from far away.”
“We’ve never seen her. Once I heard Arrow say that he thought she might be one of the nephelim or seraphim, or perhaps a giantess.”
“She doesn’t sound like a good queen to me,” said Orana. “What do you think?”
“I don’t know. Arrow says she helped us when we first came here.”
“Helped you how?”
“Our wardens were sneaking us away to sell us when a storm blew us off course. Tiamat made the big people go away. She said she wanted to take us all to Pureland. But she could only take one at a time. So once a month her toys come to carry someone off. Arrow started to get suspicious—”
“Good for Arrow,” said Orana.
“—and told Tiamat that no more would go until someone came back to tell us what it was like. That month Tiamat sent bigger toys and took three of us. So now we don’t argue.
“Some of the others still believe in Tiamat. She sends us lots of presents. They fall to bits after a few days, but everyone likes them just the same. She always reminds us how much we owe her. Arrow repeats the things she says, but I think deep down he’s afraid, and doesn’t know what to do.”
“And what about you?” asked Orana.
Fish shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t know.”
“I’ll tell you something, Fish. Any time a person—man or woman, daemon or god—tells you to keep a secret or makes you afraid, know that the smiling face hides a ravenous gullet.”
“Will you help us?”
Orana blushed and clutched unconsciously at the compact hidden in her satchel. “No,” she said. “I can’t. I...I can’t.”
“I saw how you cut down that toy this morning,” said Fish. “Not even Arrow has done a thing like that.”
“I wouldn’t have done it either, if I’d understood your situation. And it required no special skill. If that’s the best Tiamat can do, she’s no very competent toy-maker.”
“But you can do other things. I know you can. You’re from the moon.”
Orana stopped and took the girl by the shoulders. “No. I can’t. I’m a reprobate, Fish. Do you understand?”
“No,” the girl said, looking confused and hurt and a little afraid.
“I’ve made my peace with the powers of this world,” said Orana. “You must do as seems best to you. I’d be in the way in either case. I’ll just gather my supplies and head out.”
“Go back to the island, Fish. You’re a good girl. Keep away from me from now on.”
Fish turned and ran.
“Damn,” Orana whispered.
As twilight descended Orana looked despondently over the flats from her tomb. A figure was making its way from the island. Assuming at first that it was Fish, she rose to send her away. But then she saw that it was Arrow.
The boy drew up to the foot of the stairs and peered at her as though trying to read her.
“Yes?” said Orana at last.
“I did something bad,” said Arrow.
“What do you mean? Just now?”
The boy shook his head. “I didn’t mean to, and I didn’t know this would happen. I...I need help.”
“You need...my help?”
“This morning you didn’t seem very interested in my help.”
Arrow glanced westward, scanned the sky nervously. Now that he was alone with her, he seemed less a young warrior and more a frightened boy. “Something’s happened,” he said in a small voice. “Please?”
“Let me get my bag,” said Orana.
She tried to pry whatever it was out of him as they crossed to the island. He answered evasively. They circled toward the airship and climbed to the cleft from which the children had emerged before.
A small hollow lay within. Stone huts were built into the cracks around the sides. The children were gathered in two groups, making a path to the largest.
Orana followed Arrow inside, ducking under the low lintel. A pallet of old blankets and skins covered the floor at the back. A girl Arrow’s age lay against the wall. Two other girls sat beside her, holding her hands. Her face was pale and sweaty. Her breath came in gasps.
“Yours?” asked Orana, understanding and pity suddenly flooding her heart.
“I’m his wife!” the girl cried through clenched teeth. “Go away. We don’t need you!”
“What’s your name?” asked Orana.
“Well, Skate, I’m all you’ve got.”
“What are you, a midwife?”
“She’s a daughter of Anûn!” shouted Fish, who had appeared at her elbow.
Orana’s cheeks burned. “Everything will be all right,” she said. “I trust nature, and you should, too. Let’s follow where she leads.”
“I know!” cried Fish, her face suddenly brightening. She vanished through the door.
“Arrow,” said Orana, “get someone to build a fire outside. You have something we can boil water in?”
“Have them get it ready. You two girls stay with me. I’ll need your help.”
Fish reappeared, pulling Cubit along behind her. He saw Skate and froze, his eyes wide open.
“Tell her!” cried Fish.
Cubit said nothing. His face expressed terror and fascination.
“What is it?” Orana asked.
“Tell her!” repeated Fish.
Without taking his eyes off the groaning girl, Cubit mechanically said, “Once when we were wards of the world-city I read a book and it was about how babies come and it had pictures.”
“You know how babies are born, Cubit?” asked Orana.
“Did you know that out of all the land animals in the world, maugrethim and people are the only ones that don’t lay eggs?” asked Fish.
“No, I didn’t,” said Orana. “Cubit, I need you to stay here. You can sit outside the door if you prefer. But I’ll need you to describe exactly what you remember.”
He nodded and sat down on the floor. “She’s having a baby,” he mumbled. He shook himself, then looked at Orana for the first time. “When it comes, it’ll still be attached to this long tube from its belly. It doesn’t hurt to cut it off. But you have to tie it shut or something.”
Orana nodded. “Fish,” she said, “go find a good, sharp knife. Put it in that water. Then come back here. I may need you later.”
Orana didn’t tell them that she knew less about childbirth than she did about handling a chain-sword. Fish darted out. Orana and the two girls got Skate into a sitting position, leaning back against a stone slab that they had covered with padding. Arrow came back in unnoticed.
Only vaguely was Orana aware of the passage of time. Once, after many hours, she happened to glance out the door as she sent Fish on an errand, and was surprised to see that darkness had fallen. Every so often she consulted with Cubit. He hadn’t actually read the book, it seemed, but did remember the pictures quite clearly.
Arrow continued to lurk miserably in the shadows. The contractions came faster and stronger. Skate shouted every imprecation she knew.
At last the crown of the head was visible, as white and as round as an egg, and streaked with wet black hairs. “Here she comes!” Orana cried.
The girl reached down and felt it. “Is that my baby?” she screamed.
“Yes. Breathe. Keep pushing.”
“What’s wrong with it?” Arrow shrieked. “Why is it white?“
“Shut up and get over here,” Orana growled. “Hold your wife’s hand and keep your mouth shut if you can’t say something sensible. Fish: water, knife, cloths. Go.”
Fish vanished without a word. Arrow relieved a girl at Skate’s side.
“I’m so tired,” Skate panted.
“Almost there,” said Orana. “Keep bearing down.”
It wasn’t long before a thin wail filled the air. Skate slumped down on the pallet, looking at the frail creature in Orana’s arms, so lately parted from her body. “Is my baby deformed?”
“She’s beautiful. Come here, Arrow.” Orana put the child in his arms. He stared down at it blankly, wide-eyed. Fish and Cubit darted out with the news. The children started cheering.
“That’s your daughter,” said Orana, a little harshly, as she toweled the baby off. “Don’t you care?”
He looked up at her, and she saw that his eyes were wet and red-rimmed. “All these months I’d been afraid that she would come and it wouldn’t mean anything,” he said, seeming not to have heard her. “I felt nothing. Nothing at all! And now—” His voice broke, and he sobbed.
Orana looked away. Her eyes also were wet.
“I want my baby,” said Skate.
Orana nodded to Arrow. “Best let her nurse. She’ll be wanting to sleep soon.”
Just then the group became aware that the cheering had turned into screaming. Fish put her head in the door. “Tiamat took Cubit!”
Orana rushed to the cleft, followed by Arrow. Day was dawning. Away in the west several black specks showed against the luminous sky.
“She never comes off schedule,” said Arrow, “except—”
“Good morning!” said a strange voice. It was ebullient but affectless, almost mechanical, as though an animal were imitating human speech.
Orana turned to see a drone hovering near at hand. “With whom am I speaking?”
“Little ones,” said the voice. “I saved you. I protected you. One by one I have borne you to my bosom. All I have asked in return is your trust. And how have you repaid me?”
“Listen to me, children,” said Orana. “Would someone who really loved you make you afraid? Would they threaten to take away their love? Would they remind you that you’re in debt to them?”
“Little ones,” said the voice, “look at your new friend. What is different about her? Look at her head!” The children all turned, and Orana became aware that her hair had fallen to her shoulders. “She is a witch and an alien!” said the voice. “She is your enemy!”
“Is that true?” a boy asked.
“I am a witch of the moon,” said Orana, “but if I can bring back Cubit, I will.”
“Little ones,” the voice began. It was cut off by a spear ripping through its shell. Arrow lowered his hand as the drone dropped to the earth.
“We’ve had enough of queens,” he said. “We’ll take witches for a change.” He looked at Orana. “Are you ready? I’m coming with you, you know.”
“No, you’re not,” said Orana. “Skate needs you. And I may not make it back. If worst comes to worst, you’ll need to make some kind of defense.”
She didn’t tell Arrow that his “help” would be more trouble than it was worth.
“I suppose you’re right,” he said, hanging his head.
“Now, tell me about this tower. Am I likely to miss it?”
“Miss it!” he said. “On the flats?”
An hour later she was walking westward, swathed in her sheets again. In one hand she carried a borrowed mattock. A bundle of dun, black-headed stalks was slung over her shoulder. Her satchel hung at her side.
She was threading her way between salt-cones. Each spike stood a few feet high in the otherwise level flats. Their sharp shadows shrank as the sun rose higher, becoming blue circles at noon. Hard-looking white clouds materialized in the sky.
The sound of a light footfall brought her up short. She spun, mattock uplifted. But it was only Fish.
“Why are you here?” hissed Orana.
“I just wanted to see what you’re doing. Please don’t send me away.”
“I would if I thought you’d obey. Don’t you know I probably won’t return?”
“If you don’t, what difference will it make where I am? We can’t fight Tiamat without you.”
“Well, time’s too short to take you back,” said Orana, glad of the company in spite of herself. “Just do as I say.”
Fish slipped her hand into Orana’s, and they went on.
They emerged from the cone field. The sun sank before them. When it touched the horizon they decided to stop for the night.
Under Fish’s guidance, Orana used the mattock to break through the crust, revealing a pool of brine. Fish slid one of the stalks into the sludge, taking care that the black head should rest on the edge.
They then made two pallets from Orana’s sheets. Sitting cross-legged on hers, Orana spread a handkerchief on the salt. She took out her compact, selected three of the four seeds, and laid them side by side on the cloth. They were like polyhedra with tufted stalks protruding from their vertices.
She began singing an unearthly lullaby. The light in her antennae waxed and waned with the rise and fall of her voice. The stalks writhed. Their cilia waved.
When her song came to a close, she folded the cloth over them and lay back beside Fish.
“What were you doing?” asked Fish.
“Growing my seeds.”
“I didn’t see them grow.”
“Wait until morning.”
“Is it magic?” asked Fish.
“No more than that stalk over there.”
“But you didn’t even touch them.”
“Didn’t I? Distance and space aren’t the same thing. Those seeds are the germs of unlife. With my brain-elements I cause them to unfurl.”
“Where did they come from?” asked Fish.
“They were made by the powers of the air. But a hundred thousand chiliads rendered the daemons too weak-willed to handle them. Then man came and learned their secret. Because man is mortal, his youth springs ever anew. The daemons can act in concert with the will of one whose faculties permit it. That’s how I shape my seeds. I can’t make them myself. They were with me when I was found as an infant.”
“What if you run out?”
“Then my antennae will atrophy, and I’ll be just another woman in the world.”
“Will you run out?”
“I have only one in reserve now. All my life I’ve been saving them, Fish, using them only...when necessary. Today seems as good a time as any to spend them.”
They bedded down then, wrapped in their sheets, but talked late into the night, watching meteors streak across the sky.
By the morning the ova had swelled into strange shapes. Orana wrapped up the wriggling forms and put them her satchel.
The stalk had also developed. It was as limp as a wet noodle, and its black head had become a red fruiting body nearly bursting along its seams. Orana and Fish each took a piece for their breakfast, sucking out the fresh water it held, and put the rest away for later.
It was late morning when they first spied the tower. The structure stood like a white giant over the flats, watching them from afar while they were still miles away. No doubt the island was visible from its crown.
Orana was reminded of a refinery as they came within hailing distance. Its base was mostly hidden behind the thicket of pipes that rose vertically from the salt. Round windows of various sizes protruded above. A bricolage of machinery comprised its hull.
Here and there hinged valves released jets of steam. The warm clouds that wafted toward them had the sickening smell of a brewery. The irregular crown shimmered uncertainly in the bright sunlight.
There were no openings at the level of the salt that Orana could see. She wondered if Tiamat actually lived in the tower. Perhaps they had caught her unawares, while away from home. Or perhaps she didn’t even exist.
A sphincter at the tower’s base hissed open, revealing a tube of clacking machinery, a miniature assembly line. Some of the jointed arms sprayed a white fluid that dried into papery sheets and tubes; others joined the pieces together. A rolling belt conveyed the product, an insectile missile, into the open air.
Instinctively, Orana swung the chain-sword erect and raised it. The missile shot straight at her with an angry whine. It was like a robber fly with a drill bit for its head. At the last instant she slashed downward, cleaving it in two halves. Fish crushed the pieces into fragments.
Sphincters all over the tower began opening and closing, sending out drone after drone. Orana threw off her sheets. The chain-sword flashed as she whirled this way and that, cutting the attackers down from the air. Her pink tresses swung freely now, and her knobs pulsed with inner fire, taking up the rhythm of her dance. The wriggling parts rained down on the salt to be crushed beneath Fish’s heel.
And then, all at once, the onslaught ceased. A circle of fragments surrounded the two fighters. The tower stood silent. Perhaps it had to rest; perhaps it had run out of material.
Now was Orana’s chance. She placed a chimera on the salt. It had grown even larger and continued to develop as she concentrated, drawing air in through stoma and converting it into tissue. Soon it was like a great sea cucumber, with rugose crimson skin, a cluster of glowing tentacles at its tip, and thousands of tiny tube feet below.
“What will you do with it?” Fish asked.
Orana didn’t hear her. Her senses flowed through the chimera’s feelers. She drove it to the tower’s base, used its feet to pry open a sphincter, and crawled down the tube to the central shaft.
It was dark, but her scout’s senses functioned on a broad spectrum. She climbed a spiraling groove to a high chamber. There, instead of the windows she’d expected, she saw only bundles of tubes joining the outer wall to a nexus, which in turn hung from a stem through an opening in the ceiling.
Gingerly, she transferred her tube feet from the floor to the suspended mass and squirmed past the cables. Then came a moment of fearful disorientation, and she found herself sprawled out on the salt.
“What’s the matter?” Fish cried. “Orana? Are you all right?”
Orana sat up. “That’s never happened before,” she said. “I lost contact.” She looked at the round windows. “She’s watching us through those. And I’m certain she can see the island as clearly as she can see you and me.”
She took out her second chimera and set to work on it, forming it into a thing like a brittle star. Its five feathered arms radiated from a ridged stalk with tube feet for its base. She sent it along the same route.
This time, when she reached the upper chamber, she wrapped her delicate arms around the cables and shore through them with tiny, razor-sharp pennules. The tower set up a strange whining hum. She worked through bundle after bundle.
Then, once again, she found herself thrown out on the salt, this time violently. A queer sobbing met her ears.
“I’m going in,” she said. “She won’t be able to see you here now. Don’t come after me. Understand?”
“I’ll stay here,” said Fish.
Orana went to the opening and wormed her way to the central shaft, which was warm and humid and dark. From there she climbed to the upper chamber.
Feeble light filtered in past the rims of the window-eyes. Cables dangled loosely from several, oozing black fluid. One bundle had been only partially severed, and her chimera’s body lay beneath it, crushed to a pulp. There was a smear of its white ichor on a section of wall.
She looked around uneasily. There was no sign of an enemy. But she couldn’t keep climbing with an invisible foe at her back.
Her gaze returned to the mess on the wall. The ichor was spattered over an arrangement of projecting shapes. One of these moved slightly, settling into a recess.
So that was it: a trap had crushed her scout. The same could happen to her at any moment. But there was no sense in staying where she was.
She scaled the nexus using the bundles as a ladder and wriggled her way up the stem. The sides of the shaft were honeycombed with open tubes. Her first chimera lay in one, useless to her now. Shreds of clothing suggested that this was how the children were brought in. The stem was fluted, but she saw no mechanism by which a body could be drawn higher.
Her quandary was answered when hundreds of papery myriapods swarmed down from above. She crushed a dozen with a single swipe, but that was only a fraction of the horde. They took hold of her clothing and pulled her up.
Nausea washed over her in a moment of apparent weightlessness. Then gravity reasserted itself, but from the opposite direction. She found herself plunging head-foremost through the top of an orbicular chamber.
At the last instant she seized hold of the opening, swung her feet down, and threw herself to the side. She landed lightly beside a vat of tarry ooze.
Dim, desolate light filled the chamber. The stem branched overhead into cables that lost themselves amongst the conduits, valves, bellows, and bladders that made up the domed ceiling. Myriapods poured out of the openings between them.
Cautiously, she threaded her way to a window and peered out. A starry black sky met her gaze. The stars were brighter than she could remember ever having seen them. They did not twinkle. She recognized the constellations, but the celestial sphere had been spun out of place, as though she were at a different latitude.
One star only was new. It was smaller than the full moon but much brighter. It hovered down near the horizon, framed by needle-sharp peaks. A plain of ice stretched toward her from their shadows, glittering bleakly.
And then, somehow, she knew that the great star was the sun, and that she had climbed to a planetoid beyond the farthest wanderers known to Enoch. She was looking out of a tower whose crown was the base of Tiamat’s tower on earth. It was in truth a column between two worlds.
Shuddering, she turned toward the vat again. Cubit’s face protruded from the oozy surface. His body was invisible. His eyes were open but vacuous.
“You have no right to be here,” the boy said. The voice was his own, but the tone was Tiamat’s, ebullient and artificial.
“Why don’t you show yourself?” said Orana.
“I am as you have seen me,” the voice said.
As you have seen me. Suddenly she understood: the tower was Tiamat. It was alive, but with a life not native to earth, nor even to earth’s dimension, and of an order of intelligence alien to man.
“Why do you take the children?” she demanded.
“I desire only to love them. Why will they not let me love them?”
“Because you devour them.”
“I clasp them to my bosom and shower them with all I have to give.”
“You envy their happiness,” said Orana. “And when they want a little less of your ‘love’ you retaliate.”
“But they know not how I need them. Oh, I stepped down to the blue planet for Id, and sojourned there alone for long ages, drawing my sustenance up from the plain. But then they came, and gave me purpose. If they go now, I shall die.”
Orana wondered if Tiamat were dissipated like the spirits of the sublunary sphere, drained of will through aeonic ennui. Love, she had been told, was the perfection of the will. But she knew that Tiamat was parasitizing Cubit’s mind in speaking, and that her humanity was illusory. She shuddered to think what embryo of dark conception corresponded to “love” in her vocabulary.
“I am sorry for your sufferings,” she said. “But I’m not leaving without the boy.”
“Take him, then, and break his mind,” said the voice. There was a note of hateful gloating that had not been audible in its self-pity.
Orana guessed that the black ooze represented Tiamat’s brain and that she was feeding on the boy’s soul. If she yanked Cubit out of that embrace, she might save his body, but his mind would be torn to shreds. Could there be a way of loosening Tiamat’s hold?
She recalled the bottle of liquor she still carried in her satchel. She drew it out and unstopped it. Mescat fumes filled the chamber. With a silent prayer she up-ended it over the vat, draining it down to its last drop. The clear fluid vanished without a trace into the viscous mass. Bubbles began forming on the surface.
“What are you doing?” the boy’s voice screamed. “What—I—my—mind—I—oh—”
The ooze exploded in a shower of stinking globules. Cubit’s body was thrown into Orana’s arms. The vat continued to bubble and squeak, sending up streams of black ichor and bits of rotten bones and teeth. Lifeless myriapods rained down from the walls. The tower rocked on its foundations.
“What’s happening?” the boy mumbled.
“Be still,” said Orana. “I’ll get us out of here.”
Already she was developing the last chimera. It grew into a segmented worm with short legs at the tip of its tail and a pair of ridiculously tiny wings close behind its head. She sent it slithering onto the edge of the vat. With its powerful feet she gripped the rim, then fluttered its wings to elevate its head to the opening above. There she seized hold with its mouth.
“Put your arms around my neck,” she told Cubit.
With him hanging down her back she wriggled up the worm, using its segments as handholds. Within the shaft the going became easier. Gravity reversed itself. They dropped into the upper chamber.
Here, too, the tower was reeling. Orana kicked an eye out of its socket. She held Cubit up so he could crawl through to the pipes. She followed, and they climbed down to the base and ran, hand in hand.
Fish was where she had been told to wait. They made toward her as fast as their legs would carry them. Without a word Orana seized the girl’s hand and kept going.
A sickening groan went out over the flats. Sanity-threatening colors played over the salt despite the fierce sunlight.
“Don’t look back, children,” panted Orana.
They obeyed. Before long they were back amongst the pillars of salt.
As they neared the island the next day, Orana sensed that something was wrong. A hush lay over the mosses. She ascended to the cleft with Fish and Cubit and found that the huts were all empty.
All but Arrow’s, where the boy phylarch was laid out on his pallet, his face pale, his bloody hands crossed over his breast. Skate was beside him, holding their baby and rocking.
Orana dropped to her knees. “What happened?”
“After you left a man came,” said Skate, speaking lowly. “The others let him on the island because he said he was your friend. Arrow tried to make him leave.”
Orana took the boy’s hand. He was dead. Her antennae throbbed. “Where is he?”
A short time later she was climbing the serried stone pillars to the temple ruins. From their rounded heads she could see clear to the Edge of Beyond. She passed under a colonnade of fat, banded pillars.
Darden was lolling in a shady portico.
“What have we here?” he said, grinning sardonically at her appearance. “Half a week without me to look after you, and see what happens.”
Orana tried to smile. “I thought you were dead.”
“No! The other fools are probably done for. I left them at the wreck. I found where you must have landed. And knowing how contrary you are it was easy to take up your trail.” His eyes flashed, and she shifted uneasily. “You took good care of your seeds and my sword, I hope.”
“They’re at the village. You met the children?”
“I taught one little fool a lesson. The rest were too stupid to get me something to eat, so I came up here to wait for you.”
“Are you hungry?” Orana asked softly. “I’ll get you something, Darden.”
“Do that. Bring those items.”
She returned an hour later with a repast prepared from the children’s stores.
“Is it edible?” he asked, sneering. He took up a fruiting body and bit into it, frowning. Parts of it were curiously lumpy and stringy. “The ova, love.”
She handed him the compact. He opened it, then snapped it shut. “I must be seeing things,” he said, taking another bite. “It looks empty to me.”
“It is empty.”
The scar on the side of his face turned white. “Where are they?”
“I used them up.”
“All of them? Out here?”
“The children needed my help,” she said.
He smiled, but his eyes danced with malice. “And my sword?” he asked. “Did you bring that, too?”
“Here,” she said, handing it to him.
Quite calmly, he shook it straight. “You’ve been using it,” he said. “Interesting.” He got to his feet, standing over her. “You shouldn’t have wasted them. You realize that.”
She took three steps backward, but her eyes met his without fear. Her antennae were pulsing. “I brought your food up here instead of bringing you down to the village,” she said, “because I didn’t want the children to see.”
“See what?” he asked, looking slightly confused, as though he were forgetting something. He winced and put his hands to his head.
“I had a flash of insight yesterday,” she said. “All these years I’ve been preserving the ova because they meant I was something special. They meant I was still worthy of your protection. It’s fitting that I devote the last one to you. You may not have noticed, but you just swallowed it. Let it unfurl now, and prove that even your mind, Darden, can give birth to beauty.”
A hard lump was forming on Darden’s brow. Orana began singing. Darden stumbled into the center of the court and fell to his knees. Tendrils snaked out of his mouth and nostrils and the ducts beside his eyes. Roots descended from his breeches to feel over the paving stones. Tentacles exploded from his skull.
Orana turned her back on him and descended to the village.
There the children gathered around her, touching her, calling her name. Some of the littler ones confused it with “Mama,” and she did not correct them.
At the summit of the island an anemone had grown up to overshadow the temple. Seraphim went back and forth among its tendrils, and it waved like a sea-flower of glass and gold.