Even mired in oppressive sleep, I felt that wicked little spider-pill rooting through my brain. I think it even talked to me, dropping status updates into my mind, keeping me abreast of its progress while it vivisected me.
I lay there in the snow, conscious but dead numb. I don't know if I had my eyes open or shut. I couldn't see, and except for the whisper of my own heartbeat in my ears, the world held dead quiet.
Things flitted around me -- thinking things, seeping through cracks in my reality out of some invisible, tangential world. I smelled curiosity on their thoughts. I felt them with some new sense, weirdly disjoint from my mind, as if that little pill were rewiring my existing perceptions, merging them in bizarre combinations. I tried to say something; tried to acknowledge those other minds; tried to apologize for the interruption I'd brought them. But the instant the words formed in my thoughts, they spilled out of my head, screaming meaning across the void, washing the onlookers away like minnows caught in a riptide.
Something big loomed over me. Something profound. I felt it the same way I felt the others, disturbingly out of phase with my normal perceptions. But this was something different; something terrible in its magnitude. The smaller things darted around it, circling like rings around a planet, bound by the gravity of its presence. I tried to look at it, but it always slipped away, out into the vague haze at the periphery of my vision. It was like trying to peer into a blind spot. I screamed again, pounding the thing with desperate questions.
It silenced me with a thought, driving a sudden, irresistible imperative of obedience into the core of my being. With that came the shattering realization that my mind was no longer my own. I thought what this thing willed me to think. There was never even the remote possibility of resistance.
So I let it have me. I let it do whatever it was it did to me there, floating in that weird unreality, stuck in the seam between worlds. I don't know how long it held me there. All I remember is a sudden drop from existence as it released me -- a long, gasping plunge into myself, the feeling of drowning in my own flesh, and the profound sensation of emptiness I experienced as I opened my eyes to a yawning silver sky, flecked with the feathery streaks of falling snow.
A flake landed in my eye, and the sudden sting of cold brought me up, clawing at my face with gloved hands, wiping tears and snowmelt off my cheek. I'd been lying on my back in the snow with my head nestled in the girl's lap. She sat there watching me with a curiously bemused look on her face, legs folded, arms back and neck craned forward, her head cocked slightly to one side.
I scrambled around to face her, still blinking away tears. I felt an odd tingling sensation a few inches behind my nose, right over the spot where the living pill had bored its way in. A crust of stale blood coated the back of my tongue, tangy and metallic.
"Shhhh." She reached toward me, soothing. I jerked away. "No worries. No harm done! Look. You're fine. See? No need to be afraid now."
"You have a hell of a sense of hospitality!" I said. The back of my throat felt dry and cold. The back of my face felt numb. I raked my tongue over my teeth a few times to scrape away the taste of blood.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I really didn't mean to hurt you. I thought it would have rendered you unconscious before you felt anything . but I've never had any hands-on experience with human physiology before now."
"But you're a . you're a god!" I tried to fight the shrill note of hysteria creeping into my voice.
"That doesn't mean I know everything! You should be happy I get all my information second-hand. Otherwise, I'd have had to dissect some of your countrymen."
"Or look it up in a damn encyclopedia! As it is, your source could stand to fact-check his research!"
"I know. I'm sorry. I should have known better than to trust Ezra to be forthcoming. But you're okay. It worked."
"You saw it didn't you? That means the interface took. You saw my net representation?"
"Net representation?" I blinked to clear a slick of frozen tears off my lashes. "That was you?" I'd gone from appalled to confused, rubbing at one eye and staring at her with the other. She didn't look like the thing in my dream. How could something so terrible wear a skin so disarmingly.?
"Will you trust me?" She put a hand out toward me. "Please? I really am sorry. I just wanted to talk to you."
Now what? I staggered around, snatched up my pack and started back the way I'd come, toward home. The girl just sat there in the snow, hand out, gazing after me.
About ten steps from her, I dropped to my knees. I felt spent. I'd half expected her to fry my brain then and there. She could have grabbed whatever invisible string she'd hooked into my consciousness and reeled me back like a fish, flopping across the ice as she drew me out of my hole. But the only thing that pulled me back was my own curiosity ... and the dawning realization that she hadn't tried to make me.
"Okay," I said. The words sounded strangled, crushed between heaving breaths. "Okay. We can talk."
Somehow, she'd worked her way over to me while I'd had my back to her. When I turned, I found her hand hovering an inch from my face. She touched me, fingertips warm on my cold-numbed cheeks. The smile on her face looked as genuine and caring as any I'd seen come out of Mother's ragged mug. And this face was just as beautiful, in its own way. It looked like there were tears glittering in those eyes.
"What's your name?" I asked.
"Ara," she said.
"Ara." I nodded. "Don't you think you should put some clothes on, Ara?"
At first, she looked surprised. She drew back, that neutral cast of concern cracking into a crooked smile of amusement. Then she came back toward me, draped her arms around my shoulders and pressed herself against me. "What's the matter?" she whispered, lips brushing past my ear. "Does my illusion arouse you?"
And she shattered, bursting into a million insubstantial sparks that settled into the snow, flickering out one by one -- fire bleeding out into the ice.
I stared at the place where she had been. No sign at all that something physical had occupied that space. No tracks in the snow, no breath of heat left over from her sudden, blazing departure. As though she'd just exploded and evaporated like a dusting of black powder tossed into a fire.
"Ara? I . I'm sorry?"
"Maybe this is better."
The words came out of nowhere, dropped into my mind and spoken with my own internal voice. I grabbed my exposed ear, folded the muff back down over it and shook my head. There was a slight ringing, bouncing around inside my skull. It echoed back and forth between my ears, louder to the left, then the right. Drawing closer and receding. Like I'd hit my head on something very, very hard.
"Can you hear me? Dammit. I think I'm going to have to have another talk with Ezra.."
"Close. I'm Ara's avatar. If what you were talking to a second ago were triangle, call me square. Same critter, different shadow. My name is Zavier."
"Zavier? What about Ara?"
"Why do you have three names? Why do people sometimes refer to you by your first or your third? Depends on company. Well, I'm no different. Call it a net name, if you like. That's really the only place I exist anyway. Close your eyes. Open your ears. Hear that ringing? Well, listen more carefully, and try to visualize it."
I felt crazy. But I did it anyway, following the directives of that voice inside my head. It sounded like the tuning chords of some far-off symphony, woefully out of practice. And it moved. It made me dizzy to close my eyes and just listen. Waves of static sloshed through my brain. I tried to follow it, staggering around with my eyes closed, trying to match its movements and capture its invisible source. I wanted to wrestle it down and hold it still. Make it shut up and get the hell out of my mind.
After only a handful of blind paces, I ran headlong into a tree.
I opened my eyes and blinked to clear a wash of spots. Now there were two bells ringing in my head. But, suddenly, the nature of the first became clear.The trees
They sang. In that shrill, discordant wail, they sang the tune that flooded my thoughts. They made harmony from chaos, like the Music of the Spheres. I shook myself, staring dumbly at the gray, frost-covered bark of the trunk in front of me. Numbed by realization. The source of the sound itself wasn't moving. It was just an illusion of changing voices. I covered my ears, pressing the muffs tight against my head with the palms of my hands, and still the sound rang clear. I closed my eyes again, squeezing my lids together till they ached. Still, I couldn't place that pattern. It flitted randomly through the forest.
And then the tree in front of me called out again. I heard it loud and distinct -- by far the brightest source of sound in my perceptual field. It reverberated and echoed, a broken, wavering tone. Another tree to my left picked up its song and answered its call. And they all went singing off in a line, trailing back into the forest like a wooden choir. Propagating their song over miles of empty wilderness.
"Odd that you call it the Wilds," Zavier said through my thoughts, "when it's arguably the most civilized place on this world."
"The trees are singing," I said. I put my hands on the trunk. If I tried, I could fool myself into believing I felt it vibrate, warm and alive.
"It's not the trees," Zavier said. "It's what's inside them. Their cores are signal propagators. Antennae, boosters, regenerators. They all feed off a geothermal tap running under these woods. This entire place is alive. Teeming with intelligence. You Covenant hicks just don't want to acknowledge you're the minority population around here."
"It's just noise," I said. "Just random radiation. There's no pattern. No organization. How could any of this possibly be.?"
"A perfectly encrypted signal looks like noise," Zavier said. "Do you think we'd blather our business all over the spectrum when we're supposed to be keeping it hidden from the likes of you?"
Something in my chest spasmed. I stepped back. A heavy sense of dread swept over me. "Oh, god," I said. "The Covenant. What the hell am I doing here?"
I grabbed my pack, slung it over my shoulder and began to run. The trees wailed around me. Their voices reached after me, every time I passed one by. The air breathed, alive with their sound.
"I can't be here," I said. "I can't talk to you. It's against the Covenant rules. What if the Keeper finds out?"
Never in my life had I thought of the Keeper as more than an abstract symbol -- a blazing iconic sun on a bronze coin, worn by the Lords of the Covenant's highest Council. He had always been just an idea behind an emblem; just an admonition put on overly curious children by their parents. Heed the law. Do not question that which is, or you will answer to the Keeper. The Keeper of the Covenant. The Keeper of our world.
Now that sun blazed hot in the forefront of my mind, scalding the sin out of my soul. The hymn of the trees told me one thing -- that I had come dangerously close to a world that was not my own, and that if I knew what was good for me, I would want to know no more. I ran until my legs ached, but the song of the trees did not diminish. The forest went on for kilometers, almost to the border of the Covenant lands. It screamed its awareness out to its very edge. And even past that, something deep within me knew, its song inundated the full world-girdling breadth of the Wilds.
"Turanov!"It knew my name! How did it know my name
My heels ground into the ice, deep enough to turn black dirt up onto the white dusting of powder on the surface. Not that it had stopped me -- I had no illusions about not controlling my own body. I knew that if it had wanted to, it could have worked me like a puppet. But it didn't.
"The Keeper," I said. The cold air burned in my lungs, and my voice scratched through a raw throat. I dropped back onto my knees, heaving to catch my breath. "If the Keeper finds out.."
"What does the Keeper care if we just talk? I only want to talk to you, Turanov. Please. I don't mean you any harm. I don't intend to interfere in your Covenant . or with any of the Keeper's silly designs.."
"Don't call them silly! Oh, god, don't call them silly!"
"Relax. Please. He only cares if things change . and nothing will change. I promise."
A hand fell on my shoulder. I batted it away; whirled around to face its owner. The trees howled through my thoughts, deafening every sense of reason I had left.
Ara stood behind me, bent over to meet my gaze on the level, her hands tucked between her knees. Now she wore a flowing white gown, the color of fresh snow. A light fog billowed between us. With a start, I realized it came from her breath. She made footprints when she took a step toward me.
"Please," she said. And with that word, the forest grew suddenly silent in my mind. She put a hand out to me. "I only want to talk. There's no need for anyone else to know. I'm lonely . and curious. Won't you talk to me a little while? Won't you stay with me . just for a little while?"
Snowflakes drifted lazily down out of a stainless steel sky. Brooding storm clouds blotted out the dwindling winter sun. I tasted night on the air, bitter and still. I would not get far before dusk. I wondered idly, in some far off corner of my mind, if that was accidental. In a way, it didn't matter. The result was the same. And despite all the admonitions I'd received from Mother as a child . I was lonely and curious, too.
"Okay." I straightened my hat, and adjusted the pads of my muffs over my ears. "I'll stay . for a little while. There are some things I still have to do, though, before nightfall. While there's light."
She nodded. "Okay. We can talk, while you do them?"
"No," I said. "I need time to think. But I'll stay . and we can talk later." I met her eyes, and it was difficult to believe I was staring into the eyes of a god.
She smiled. "Okay," she said. "Thank you. Take all the time you need. I'll be here."
I drew a breath, held it, and counted the seconds against the frantic beating of my heart. I rolled over onto my pack, fished it open and brushed its inside clean of ice and snow. I found my probe and my map, charted out the last few targets of the day and looked around to find them. All within a few hundred meters. And just enough light left to hit them all.
When I turned around again, she had gone, but I knew she hadn't gone far. I felt her presence, hovering insubstantial in the air around me. And when I closed my eyes and felt with that new sense she had put in my head, I could feel her thoughts, rambling on the voices of the trees. A quiet drone, displaced among the bedlam of my own mind. Merely hinted, but always clear.
I stood and went to sink my probe into one of those singing trees. I didn't need to, though. I already knew what the readings would be.
- Table of Contents
- Chapter Four