By night, Ara's forest took on the empty, soulless character of a crypt. Bristly pines huddled in knots like reverent mourners, adorned in their mantles of needles and frost. I darted among them as fast as Alekseenko's snowmobile would carry me, taking turns as sharply as I dared, feeling the machine beneath me like an extension of myself. Every little nuance of its motion, every little buck and sway, told me more about where I was going than my eyes could anymore. Every speck of dust in this place had a character. Every rock, every root, every slick of ice and crust of snow had its unspoken name. It shocked me, at first, just how familiar this place felt, like I had found my way back to some primeval home.
I drove most of the way with my eyes closed, hunting the Covenant with my netsense, smelling their pursuit in the cold night air. Even when I knew I'd lost them, I kept going, surging across fell fields and weaving through the straggling swaths of forest in between, deeper and deeper into Ara's domain.
Long ago, I'd given up anger and suspicion. Up till now, I'd trusted Ara. I had no real reason to mistrust her yet, in the midst of all this confusion. For all I knew, it was the Covenant's trick. They'd put that pill in Alekseenko's head on the off chance I'd do the unthinkable, to turn me against the only creature I could trust. But without information -- without evidence -- I had no way of knowing for sure. The field of possibilities opened into a staggering array of complexity. I had all the resources of the transapients' network at my disposal, and no means to exploit it without data. No certainties on which to anchor a strategy.
Well . that would change soon. Within the next hour or so, I'd know at least one thing with certainty. A sense of destination clicked deep within my mind. I hauled the snowmobile around, skidding to a stop. I killed its ignition, removed my earmuffs and waited as the engine spluttered and died. And then I listened. With every sense at my disposal, both new and old, I listened.
Quiet like death. Not even the wind stirred the branches of the trees around me. The air hung still and empty. Even the buzz of Ara's signal was gone.
I screamed into the night. My voice carried in echoes, high into the treetops, bouncing away into the yawning sky, into silence. The Covenant's drug device hummed against my thigh, pumping me up in response to a cross- wired signal that should have been putting me down. Its stimulants burned in my veins. Twitching spasms of every muscle in my chest accompanied every thudding heartbeat. I wanted to explode.
Still nothing. I waited, stone still, for a few more seconds as the last echoes of my call died away. I clambered off the snowmobile, took a few steps out and around into the cone of its headlight's pale swath, and strained to hear anything over the crunching of my own footsteps through the virgin snow.
"Ara! If you can hear me . please!"
I ambled over to a nearby tree, pulled my pack off my shoulder and dug through it for my thermocouple probe. I felt absurd, screwing it through the bark, plodding through the motions of my silly mechanical ritual, desperately searching for that telltale heart. Twist until you feel it give. You've done this a million times before...
The handle slipped, and I scrambled for the thermocouple leads. I squinted through cold tears to see them, through the headlight's glare and the steam plume of my own breath. I felt clumsy. It seemed to take forever, such a simple, stupid task. And when it was done, I had to check it twice before I could bring myself to accept its readouts.
Nothing. Death-cold, like everything else. I backed the probe out, and its bore-hole gaped dark and empty. Dark, empty and cold.
I stood up, looked around, and started to another tree. Maybe she only used some of them, or turned some of them off to conserve.... Conserve? Do gods even need to conserve? What possible motive could she have had for hiding from me now, when she'd always seemed straightforward and honest. Or maybe that was part of it -- that I had always been so thoroughly deceived.
I dropped a second probe, hooked up the leads and watched another reading stick stubbornly on dead ambient. Nothing. Like the world had been drained of its soul. I shook tears out of my eyes, backed the probe out again and started for a third target....
And stopped there in the middle of the headlight's beam, weighed down by a creeping realization of futility. I dropped onto my knees, still holding my probe and staring up into the empty sky.
"Why?" I choked. For the first time, I really didn't expect an answer.
I must have sat there for the better part of an hour, commiserating with the silence, before I noticed a trickle of steam curl out of the first probe site I'd bored.
I scrambled onto my feet. "Ara?"
Tendrils of fog rolled into the cone of the headlight, building out of the surrounding shadows into a rolling gray wall. I watched it trickle in, rising like a phantom tide, swallowing the trees as it drowned the night in a featureless haze. A quiver of dread worked its way up my back. "Ezra?"
A voice rattled out of the silence. "You are bold to return here, beast."
For a moment, I thought about running . but I barely had to glance around to know that would be futile. Ezra's fog engulfed me. His presence stifled my netsense. Without Ara, I was like a bug in a jar. I swallowed in a dry throat and retreated a few steps toward the snowmobile. I thought about the pistol in my sack, but realized just as quickly how little good it would do me against a creature that didn't have a body. At best, I could use it on myself to deprive him of his plaything . but then even that I'd be doing by his pleasure.
"Same could be said of you," I said. No sense being polite to a god about to smite you. "What do you think Ara's going to do to you when she finds you here?"
Shadows played through the fog all around me, thrown by some invisible light source deep inside the bank. Those heads emerged again, coiling and sliding past each other in a ghastly serpentine dance. Like the images in clouds, their features shifted by the moment, defined more by an average than a concrete archetype. The presented themselves mostly as gnarled faces on twisting, trunk-like necks -- indeterminately something between an old man and a scaly beast, with wooly, writhing manes of cloud and shadow and dark, empty eye sockets glaring out from beneath sharply receding brows. Some had horns, others had crowns of snakes or thorns. They swam through the mist, turning its stark wall into a roiling image of hell.
Their voice came from everywhere at once -- cold, grating, like a rusty metal file grinding over old, brittle bones. "Ara is as good as dead. The Tribunal has handed down its punishment. You've seen her fate, but I see you're having difficulty convincing yourself of its reality. You should be so foolish. Wait around -- in a little while, I have no doubt, the pitiful detritus that's left of her will make its way back here . at which point I would be delighted to prove to you just how far she has fallen."
"Punishment? For interfering with me?" I dug Alekseenko's pill out of my pocket and tossed it into the mud. "You'd think they'd go after you as an accessory, if that's really what they toasted her for. Did you sell this one to her, too . or was he someone else's little project?"
The skein of heads shivered, ripples distorting their faces like an image on a screen thrown out of whack by a sudden impact. The air vibrated. "Your faith in your own relevance is inspiring," the voice said, "but I think you know as well as I do that you are only one small secretion of a highly pervasive sickness. And were I to offer my services to every mind on this planet intent on such voyeurism, I wouldn't be concerned for myself. It is a tool. Its use is what matters more. And even then, interference is the Keeper's main concern." A head wound its way closer, drawing up over my head and snarling down at me like a viper poised to strike. "Eavesdropping is not."
"So he was your little project, then?" "I thought it best to keep an eye on you."
I bristled. Chemical rage burned out of the implant on my thigh, stinging in my veins as it percolated through them. "You set me up. You set her up!"
"Ara dug her own grave. I only hastened the inevitable."
"Are you going to kill me?"
Another shudder. The world-shaking rumble of a transapient's laugh. "Would that I could, beast . but your betters have deigned to pity you. The Keeper has decided that you represent an embryonic power and, as such, are entitled to civil protection. So much as I would delight in exterminating you . I have no wish to become a victim of my own pride. Unlike your benefactor."
"The Keeper knows about me?"
The head dipped close enough to touch. The whiskers lining its hollow, vapor-toothed mouth writhed toward me like reaching fingers, clutching at my head. "The Keeper knows everything."
I leaned against the snowmobile, feeling weak and heavy.
Ezra went on. "Let me welcome you to godhood, beast. I suspect you'll be disappointed by it. Even if you could manage to wrest yourself from that revolting fetter of meat, you would still live in the shadow of greater things. You will always be just a link in someone's food chain. Where do you go from here? Do you rage against your fellows and fall to the dumb metal of a bullet in your brain, or do you strive for vengeance on the architect of your despair . and succumb to the maniacal arrogance that felled Ara? What kind of a god are you, Turanov? What kind of madness fires your soul?"
"You think I'm a fool?"
"No. You're not even a fool. Given an eternity of trying, I doubt you could climb that high."
"Then why are you here? Don't you have better things to do than torment beasts?"
"I was curious to know where the apple falls."
I closed my eyes. No matter how hard I squeezed them shut anymore, I couldn't blind myself to the surging presence of that other world. I couldn't find my way back to my own blissfully myopic past. Even in the deepest recess of my memory, the currents of their netherworld threaded my thoughts. My ascension had reshaped my past along with my future. I could hardly remember a time without this looming sense of destiny -- without this subliminal awareness of my own place in a world that had grown too big to fit in my head. It had become too great, too intricately layered, to file away into those neat, glib packages of understanding. I'd come into this expecting a transcendence. I'd expected to find freedom here, above the bonds of being merely human. Instead, it seemed, I'd only cultivated an awareness of greater limits.
For the first time, I truly feared going any further -- not because I was afraid of facing the unknown . but because I knew. I knew what waited for me there. For the first time, I could see the road ahead. And Ezra was right -- only a fool would follow that road to its end.
"How do I reach the Tribunal?" I asked. "How do I talk to them?"
"About what? What could you possibly say that would interest them? You can plead with them. You can beg them to return you to your former state, or to wipe you mercifully from existence . but you know they can't give you either of those things. So what could you say to them that would be worth their time?"
"They made a mistake. Ara doesn't deserve what they did to her."
"Ara deserves worse! And if you knew anything about what you've become, you'd reprehend her just as thoroughly. She has destroyed you, beast. She has left you a greater mind mired in a pitifully stagnant substrate! You're caught on the membrane between worlds, and as long as you are slave to meat and bone, you'll go no further. You lack the courage to venture from the flesh. Your instinct keeps you tied to your own mortality. Even if you survive this night, you'll wander this world lost for the remainder of your days! You don't think I know humans? You don't think I've watched men like yourself rise just as high and fall just as far? If the odds were millions to one that you might succeed, I'd wish you well. But the best you can do for yourself now is to resign yourself to the emptiness of your prospects. You are the aborted project of an aborted god . and you do not have the means of completing yourself."
"Then I'll ask the Keeper."
"You'll be disappointed."
"Just tell me how to find him!"
The woods fell quiet. It seemed almost as if I'd caught Ezra by surprise. No chance of that, I knew. But, for something, he gave me a moment of quiet. Out of revulsion, resignation . maybe respect. Maybe my persistence amused him. Or maybe I was only being foolish.
"The Keeper is everywhere," he said finally. Slowly, his fog began to peel away. "You need only attract his notice. Follow your sense of him . and perhaps you'll be surprised at where it leads you." He retreated into the night, a dark cloud sliding over the landscape of two worlds mated in the confluence of my mind. I watched him go, burning with my own false certainty, my misplaced hope. Then I slung my pack over my shoulder, fired up the snowmobile and turned back toward the Covenant border, following the only sense of purpose I had left to go on. There was only one place I knew of where I might find someone -- anyone -- who might grant me a moment's consideration. If not the Keeper, then someone. And that at least would be a start.
I drove through the darkness, guided by the halogen shaft of the snowmobile's headlight and my own inexplicable trust in Ara's unspoken promise: Despite everything I wasn't yet, despite everything I might never become, I was still something more than I had been before she'd found me.
I'd been worth the trouble I'd caused her, and I'd make sure her efforts didn't go to waste.
- Table of Contents
- Chapter Eight and Final