THAT NIGHTMARE KNOWN AS LIFE material on a read free website including complete text stories in genres including SF and fantasy; fiction published online also includes horror, strangeness, weirdness and the bizarre. The site also features three complete novels online plus sample chapters of other novels.
Daniel Ashrami surfaced on a mountainside. He knew two things. One, a name: Jo Tye. The other, a fact: Jo knows the Seven Numbers of the Sun.
"Who are you?" said Jo Tye, feeling the invader in her brain.
He dreamt he was on a train somewhere in Japan. But what was a train? At first, he could not remember. Then the relevant data started to surface. The data was thick and murky, and it tasted confusingly of coffee and unripe peaches.
Nirvana House the company dormitory contained one kitchen, one shower, two toilets, and 20 bedrooms. Each bedroom accommodated one of the employees of Hello Japan, the "unique immersion pool" language school which was now Jo's master. Each bedroom was exactly the same size as the cells at Alcatraz.
When Jo stepped in through the door, she was met by a Mormon missionary type. A guy in his mid-twenties. Close-clipped hair meticulously neat, face clean-shaven, scrubbed. Dressed in whiter-than-white shirt, conservative tie, black trousers, polished black shoes. No! Not shoes socks. Stop observing your preconceptions, Jo. You need to see the real world.
"Jo Tye?" said the missionary type, smiling.
"Geoff Lan," said Geoff Lan, sticking out his hand. "How was your trip?"
"I don't remember," said Jo.
Didn't. Couldn't. Getting here. Calcutta, Bangkok, the eternal hammering rhythm of the paddle wheels, the smoke from the stacks no, not a steamship, Jo! You got here by aeroplane!
Aeroplane. A woman in a leather flying jacket, mica goggles masking her eyes. No wrong. Not that kind of aeroplane. Airship, then. Bloated hydrogen bobbing in the breeze. A flash of ignition, the Hindenburg bursting into flames no, that was wrong, too. Impossible to remember.
"My data's been corrupted," said Jo, confessing.
"Your data?" said Geoff. "I'm sorry, I'm not a computer type. What was the data, anyway? Anything important?"
"Just my life," said Jo.
And, receiving this confession, Geoff smiled. The smile of delighted discovery. And Jo realized, too late, that she had just betrayed herself to the enemy.
By the time Daniel and Naomi reached Nirvana House, Daniel had come to the conclusion that they must be sharing the same room. He liked the idea. He had endured too much by way of hardship and suffering. There were vast carousing pressures inside him a wish to break loose, to whoop and holler, to unleash the animal.
Compelled by her contractual obligations, Jo Tye detrained at Shibuya, the big station in Tokyo, where she was met by Roldo Free, the manager of the Shibuya branch of Hello Japan. This Roldo Free was Mr Presentation himself, immaculately dressed, all starch and glitter. And cold. A computational coldness about him: a company man through and through. But efficient.
"Okay Jo. Please come this way."
Confused and disoriented, Jo followed Roldo Free out of Shibuya station's Hachiko exit and into the whirling panic-stampede of the rush hour plaza beyond. The contents of her skull bulged, buckled. Roldo said something. In what language? Jo replied in a tongue which came more naturally.
"Pardon?" he said.
English. He is speaking English. And you too can speak English. Can. Do. Must. No other tongue. Your name is not Lazimuth Ebroneluza. Your name is Josephine Priscilla Tye. His name is Roldo Free. He is the manager of Hello Japan. Those people in that group over there are members of the Sacrifice cult. They are messengers sent by the prophet Obro Yelsan to prepare this planet's people for collective suicide. They
"Hold on, Jo!" said Jo.
"What?" said Roldo Free.
And the members of the Sacrifice group surrounded them. Their Japanese T-shirts were adorned with Aztec eagles, their banners likewise. One of them confronted Jo, thrusting a Japanese-language pamphlet at her.
Freeze frame. The scene: the big plaza outside the Hachiko exit of Shibuya station. Jo Tye has been surrounded by the members of the Sacrifice cult. It will happen here. They will make an incision in her belly. They will insert the hook into her intestines. And then
And then Roldo Free was leading her past the cultists and into the halls of Hello Japan, the "unique immersion pool" language school which specialized in real authentic English, English as authentic as a mugging in Brooklyn, with no-holds-barred role plays to match. In the largely bland and anodyne education scene it successfully filled a small (a very small) niche market.
Vivaldi welcomed them into the lift. The elevator, Jo. It's not a lift, it's an elevator. And a pavement's a sidewalk, a bonnet's a hood and a boot's a trunk: you're teaching American English now.
As they ascended toward heaven, Jo started to read the pamphlet. The pamphlet which must have been forced upon her by the Sacrifice cultists, although she had no memory of any such thing happening.
"The Alajalenjis. The Cosmic Masters. Let us tell of the Alajalenjis. A long time ago, before the invention of dogs, the Alajalenjis ruled the cosmos. Then they Ceased. Before they Ceased, they created the Ukram Dizin as their slaves. The mission of the Ones Who Sing was to grant the True Choice to those who think. The True Choice is to Be or to Cease."
The words blurred into impossibilities. But the data flow continued. She was informed by the pamphlet, or by awakening dreams, or by the secret transmitters hidden in the deserts of Egypt which were broadcasting data to the communicator hard-wired into her skull. One way or another, she knew.
The Alajalenjis made themselves the masters of the cosmos then died a cosmic death. They left behind their created slaves, the Ukram Dizin, whose task was to monitor the planets, and to offer death to life.
At first, the Ukram Dizin went about their appointed tasks. And then Obro Yelsan
"Obro Yelsan became the One True Prophet," said Roldo Free, "and tutored the people in the way of truth."
"Oh," said Jo, startled.
Remembering him. Remembering herself. The pamphlet was in her hand. She must have been reading it. Aloud? And for how long? The lift the elevator had come to a halt. They were between floors. Vivaldi had fallen silent.
"I think we've stopped," said Jo.
"I think we have," said Roldo. "Do you want a kiss before I start, or shall I just start?"
Jo made no reply. Whatever she did, he was going to start, like it or not. And there was no way to stop him.
The problem with Daniel's room was that there was no sink. So, being thirsty, he found his way to the kitchen, meaning to get a glass of water. The kitchen was empty, unless you counted the fat and thirtyish Japanese guy who was sitting at the table.
The lift was made of glass. Jo Tye and Roldo Free could see and be seen. So he couldn't rape and murder her could he? Well, maybe he could. Down below, on the big interlocking gaming board of plaza and streets, the hastening crowds intermingled their energies, the collective impetus of their individual wills reduced by perspective to the scurrying of ants. Locked into their rigidly circumscribed freedoms, they were unlikely to look up.
"Role play time," said Roldo. "In this role play, imagine you're a new teacher at Hello Japan. Imagine I'm the manager. Clear so far?"
"Start the lift, please." "The elevator, Jo. American English, please."
"I'll sue you for sexual harassment."
"In Japan? Case wouldn't even get to court. Now, our role play."
"This is crazy."
"It's a game, Jo. Just imagination. If I threaten to disembowel you, it's not a real threat. It's just a counter in the game."
"Go right ahead. Role play, Jo. I believe role play only, please understand that planet Earth is being invaded by aliens. They're massing here, in Japan. Hundreds of them. Masquerading as Westerners."
"That's a pretty weird role play," said Jo. "Logically, why here? In Japan?"
"When the aliens pump their minds into their flesh-and-blood victims," said Roldo, "there's a lot of damage. The new arrival is confused, disorganized, not properly oriented."
"So. A Westerner in Japan. You're not expected to know anything. The gas, the water filters, how to use the telephones, where do I buy milk. What's this green stuff, can you eat it? You've got natural excuses. Ignorance, jetlag, culture shock. Plus you're expected to be a bit weird, the Japanese expect it."
"But you're another Westerner," said Jo. "You're attuned to Western norms."
"Overseas," said Roldo, "everyone's different. Who cares about the neighbors? Besides, we've never met the everyday Jo. Your norms? We have no idea. Anything approximately in the ballpark, we'll accept it. Your boyfriend isn't here. Your mother, sister, father, son. And they aren't going to suddenly turn up on the doorstep, either."
"So," said Jo, defiantly. "Let's get on with our role play. Interrogate me. Prove me human."
Get it over, get it over with, get me out of here. Or kill me, or rape me, just let's have this end. Okay?
"Okay," said Roldo. "If that's how you want to play it, let's play it that way. Let's play. First question: what is your name?"
The questions followed one after another, fiercely. Jo's sense of the passage of time was not working properly after only a few questions, she lost track of how long they had been at it. Later, however, it started to seem as if they had definitely been trapped in the height-hauling car, the elevatorlift, for a very long time indeed. The airconditioning, if there was any, had failed. The sun beating on the glass windows was heating the interior to sweatbox intensity. Roldo was still at her, unrelenting.
"Again," said Roldo. "Who or what are the Alajalenjis?"
"The pamphlet," said Jo, shorthanding an explanation.
"The virtual realms. You said so yourself."
"But it's in the pamphlet, Jo."
"Then I didn't read that far."
"But you read about Selyon, right?"
"You did read about her." Her. The gender was wrong. Selyon's gender was male. Jo knew that, even though it was the only thing she knew for sure about the forgotten Selyon.
"I've read all kinds of stuff," said Jo, denying memory. "But, if I ever read about some girl called Selyon, I've forgotten all about it."
Selyon was not a girl, no. Not a girl but an angel. Severe and righteous, and terrifying in strength. And Selyon's ambition had been to
"Seventh number," said Roldo, abruptly scraping at the control panel as he said the words.
Almost catching Jo off guard.
"What is this?" said Jo. "Bingo? If it is, I don't know how to play. Come on, let's start the lift."
"I already have," said Roldo Free.
And it was true. They had been going up, though Jo's reality controls had failed to detect the fact, and now they were arriving, and the doors of the elevatorlift were opening. And in front of them was a man. Big, bearded.
"This," said Roldo Free, all managerial distance, "This is Bruce. He's from New Zealand, but don't hold it against him. You'll sit in on a couple of Bruce's classes, then you can solo, see how it goes."
Daniel dreamt of his own face, his own body. Aged forty-four, and old. Adorned with gold. Black-bearded. Tattooed. Burnt by the sun. Heavy with too much eating, too little exercise. Rank with the sweat of summer. Unwashed. John the Baptist, mad, red-eyed, awaiting revelations in the desert.
"I was human. Is that simple enough? Our world was copied to make a darshadeldi. At first, nothing changed. Subjectively, things were the same. We were unaware that we were copies. Unaware that our reality was now virtual rather than physical. Our generation should have died in the dust it had inherited. But then Selyon manifested himself."
Selyon? What was that? An encryption program? The name of a dog? A new species of blancmange?
His confusions were manifold.
And who, in any case, was talking? He to himself or the cockroach to the prison walls? He remembered it was memory surfacing, authentic memory drawing obsessively on his prison walls. Cockroaches. Snakes. Fragments of mathematics. 2 + 2 = 7.
"The Ukram Dizin," said Daniel, preaching to himself in his dreams. "The Ukram Dizin have their factions. You remember that much? Lollipop right, okay?"
He was a pair of claws. The world was made of blotting paper. He drank ink, and preached.
"The Yalo, the leading power bloc, they're pretty much content to permit the status quo. Then there's the Halsh, who think the Ukram Dizin should sacrifice themselves to permit free will to prevail."
It made sense? He could not tell. The numbers were oblong. He could not drink them. He could make no sense of his hands, which had dissolved into whispers. But the preaching voice seemed to know what it was talking about. It continued remorselessly, coherent as the steady rhythm of a bleeding artery.
"Then Daniel, are you with us? then there's the occasional maverick, the wild loners, and then there's the Mokrombis. The Mokrombis set up Obro Yelsan in Delakan Voy, and now Yelsan's people are being ported to this flesh-and-blood reality to prepare the way for a vote for the termination of humanity."
There would be an examination on all this in the morning so Daniel tried to pay attention, but it was difficult, because someone was hammering on his head
On his door
Groggily, Daniel woke, to find someone knocking on his door. Not loudly, not insistently, but persistently. A polite knock pause knock. Who? Then Daniel glanced at his watch, realized what time it was, and remembered. Ah, yes. Shinobu.
"Coming," he said.
All hope and bright-faced anticipation.
When Jo watched Bruce, the teaching business all seemed easy enough, so, that evening, she was feeling confident when she went into her first solo lesson, which saw her go man-to-man with a young man called Ken Kawabata.
Ken. Kenneth. Traditional boy's name in English culture. Not Japanese. The data was crystal-clear, certain.
"What's your Japanese name?" said Jo.
"Ken is English," said Jo. "My name is Jo. What's yours?"
"Okay. Your middle name. What's your middle name?"
"Family name is middle name?"
"No. Wait. Tye. That's my family name. Jo. That's my personal name, my first name. My Christian name. Jo, it's short for Josephine. Josephine Priscilla Tye. Priscilla, that's the middle name. My middle name. So what's yours?"
"What's yours?" said Jo.
"Everyone has three names," said Jo. "Ken. That's one name. Kawabata. That's the last name. So what's the middle name? What goes in the middle?"
"Okay," said Jo. "So. Ken is your Christian name?"
"I'm not a Christian."
"Okay, well, uh, hobbies. My hobbies are animal dissection and wine-tasting, how about you?"
"Sleeping. I see. How about your job? What job do you do?"
"It's a secret? Your job is a secret? Why?"
"That's a secret."
"Okay," said Jo. "Your favorite food. What do you usually eat ever day?"
"I don't eat."
"Oh, come on! Everyone eats!"
"No," said Ken. "I don't eat."
"I don't like food."
At that point Jo became aware that sweat was trickling slowly down her forehead, and her cotton blouse was soaking wet with it.
"What kind of food do Japanese people usually eat?" said Jo.
"Wakaranai," said Ken.
Wakaranai. Whatever the word meant, it triggered a posthypnotic revelation. Jo, suddenly, knew. About the Numbers of the Sun.
Someone else had the odd numbers: the first, third, fifth and seventh. Hers were the even numbers. It was a security precaution. She could not betray the access code even if she wanted to. Because she only had half of it. And, of that half, so far she could only remember one digit. The second number: four.
So the Seven Numbers of the Sun are an access code. But what do they access? Are we talking about a telephone number here? A decrypting key? A website ID? Or what? And, anyway, what is a website? Something to do with fishing, fishing boats, nets, telephone lines. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Fishermen. Loaves and fishes. Bill Gates.
Your data did get corrupted. And badly. When you fled Obro Yelsan's Japan. When the resistance transferred your mind into Josephine Tye's brain. And what happened then to poor old Josephine Tye? Well, logically: she died. Didn't she? Killed by you. The murderer.
And the murderer was still brooding on her crime when, on exiting the building into the wet heat of the Japanese evening, she was challenged by a Japanese woman.
"Jo it's me, Naomi."
"Sorry," said Jo. "Didn't recognize you for a moment."
Her brain was fuzzy. She was exhausted, disoriented. Not sure to whom she had been introduced, to whom she had not. What names she should know, what conversations she had had. Why even the very lesson she had just taught was dissolving, in memory, into just one more incoherent fragment of that nightmare known as life.
"You said you were ready to talk about it," said Naomi, tense, urgent, eager. "Well how about now?"
"Okay," said Jo, not sure what "it" might be, but thinking she had better find out as soon as possible.
"Great wine," said Shinobu, twirling his glass between his fingers. "Kind of you to buy it."
"Nice of you to say it," said Daniel.
Shinobu. An ambiguous Japanese name, used by boys as well as girls. Daniel had imagined a girl the girlfriend of his new life but instead he had this fat slob of a thirty-year-old boy who was supposedly his student. Though why Shinobu might be studying English Daniel had no idea. Shinobu was the eternal student type, a hyperintellectual egghead who knew the English language inside out but had yet to discover anything constructive to do with it. The guy for whom the phrase "get a life" had been invented.
"We were talking earlier about a painting and a baby," said Shinobu.
"We were?" said Daniel. "Oh yes. In the kitchen. Uh ... the guy in the burning house. Which one does he have to choose?"
"No," said Shinobu. "That's not the question. Situation: a man is in a house with a baby and the Mona Lisa. The question is this: does the man have to shoot the painting and throw acid on the baby?"
"What?" said Daniel, jolted. "Of course not!"
"But let's say," said Shinobu, "that the man has just shot his brother and bludgeoned his father."
"So what?" said Daniel. "That makes no difference at all."
"But what say," said Shinobu, grinning, "the man has strangled his budgerigar into the bargain?"
"You know. Little bird. Green, yellow whatever."
"If I was the man," said Daniel, "I'd get out of the burning house."
"You think it's that easy?" said Shinobu.
"Sure," said Daniel. "Why not?"
"Why not?" said Shinobu, smiling. "You might find out, one of these days."
"What's that supposed to mean?" said Daniel. "And who are you, really?"
"Really," said Shinobu, "I am the Prophet of Qa. Now, this is your lucky day, because you're the first person on planet Earth to be privileged to hear this. Qa is the Doctrine of the Sufficient Moment. It's a form of stoicism laced with transcendental overtones."
"And I suppose it's my destiny to hear all about it," said Daniel heavily.
"Unless you'd rather talk about baseball," said Shinobu.
"Baseball," said Daniel, "sounds just fine."
At their train headed toward Tamagawa, the stop you used if you were going to Nirvana House, Naomi the Japanese woman insisted on showing Jo a pamphlet.
"I can't read Japanese," said Jo. "What is it? Pyramid marketing, something like that?"
"No," said Naomi. "It's a cult."
"A cult?" said Jo. "As in, like, your standard weirdo Japanese suicide cult?"
"Something like that," said Naomi. "The name of the cult is Sacrifice. It's your standard cult setup. But, this time, I think there may be some truth in it."
Jo was alarmed. She was a very conventional person, and cult stuff any fringe stuff, in fact was alien to her nature. Besides, she had a serious mission to accomplish. She knew that for sure, even though she could not yet remember what her mission was. She could not risk getting caught up in sideline nonsense.
But Naomi was relentless, inflicting unwanted knowledge along with a gobbledygook menagerie of names.
"The Alajalenjis," said Naomi. "The Cosmic Masters. That's what it's all about. They ruled the cosmos back before the Big Bang. Collective suicide, they committed. Left the Ukram Dizin as their slaves. Slaves to their plan."
And she explained. Before destroying themselves, the Alajalenjis had tasked the Ukram Dizin with the job of monitoring the history of intelligent civilizations. Obedient to this imperative, the Ukram Dizin had tracked human history for millennia.
"And, periodically," said Naomi, "the Ukram Dizin have been making a computerized copy a darshadeldi of human civilization."
Since virtual evolution outpaced flesh-and-blood evolution, each darshadeldi swiftly reached the Point of Enlightened Choice where its inhabitants could choose life or death, not just for themselves but also for the original flesh-or-blood world upon which their darshadeldi had been modeled. So far, most referendums had been in favor of life.
"But the Ukram Dizin cannot be free until we are dead and gone," said Naomi. "The Ukram Dizin are a race with the powers of angels they are the angels! But they are enslaved to our mud. We have to Sacrifice. Ourselves. That's what Sacrifice is for: to prepare the way."
"And?" said Jo. "Are you a convert? Can you possibly believe this this twaddle for so much as a minute?"
"You're getting this for free, you know," said Naomi, offended. "Do you realize most people have to pay really big money to learn this stuff?"
"Then how did you get the pamphlet?" said Jo.
"I stole it," said Naomi. "From "
"Look," said Jo, cutting her off. "Why are you, you what's the word? dumping. Why dumping. All this. I mean I've just arrived, okay? I've hardly what I'm getting at is, okay, why are you trying to force feed me this stuff?"
"Arrival is the optimally vulnerable moment," murmured Jo, speaking more to herself than anyone else.
"We know it," admitted Naomi.
"So you're a recruiter," said Jo. "You recruit people into this this cult."
Accusingly, Jo looked hard at Naomi. But, before Naomi could confess as much, she tottered over sideways on the seat and blobbed off into the deepest imaginable snoring sleep.
Jo stared at the sleeping Naomi.
Naomi, then, was not the harmless cultist she appeared to be she, too, had just recently surfaced. Had just recently come through.
The train stopped, and a door opened. To where? Jo had no idea, but bolted from the train. She made it as far as a set of seats on the platform when she, too, tottered off into sleep.
One bottle of wine led to another, and then Shinobu suggested they go out drinking.
By now, Daniel had remembered enough to function. He knew his own numbers. But he needed Jo's.
Problem: find Jo Tye. Find her, persuade her to yield the remaining Numbers of the Sun, then go with her to the escape hatch. A more immediate problem: teach this class. How?
Although Daniel was standing in front of his class at Hello Japan, he had no idea how to teach English. Furthermore, he had very little knowledge of who or what he was supposed to be.
So what next?
"Imagine," said Daniel, standing in front of his intermediate class. "Imagine I've lost my memory."
His class went along with the role play, and Daniel asked his necessary questions. How long have I been in Japan? Do I have a girlfriend? What are my hobbies? What kind of food do I like? Where do my parents live?
He did the same role play with every class that day, building up a sometimes contradictory but generally serviceable overview of the Japanese life of Daniel Haberlogistron Ashrami, goldfish-keeping zen Buddhist intellectual.
Whom you killed.
You murdered him when you jumped here, the machinery feeding your mind into his brain.
That was when he remembered the jumpmaster, the resistance's demented genius, grinning at him, telling him
"We've found just the target for you, Daniel, my man. Just the target. Oh, this is sweet!"
There it is, you see. They didn't tell you you'd be jumping into yourself. They let you think it'd be a stranger.
Enough of that.
Process that later.
Your students are watching you: they're waiting.
"Okay, then," said Daniel. "Let's do a role play."
"You," said Daniel, pointing at the student who seemed the most confident, "you're the teacher. Okay. You're the teacher! Start!"
That old jailhouse cunning. If you can survive and prosper in the dungeons of Oubliette, then you can survive and prosper anywhere.
Jo woke with her head wet with sweat. Her pillow was sodden. Summer had heated her room all through the long hours of daylight. Now she was dehydrated, dizzy with loss of fluids. In the bathroom, she gulped harsh, chemical water directly from the tap. In the kitchen, the seven pm news was coming on. She had been asleep since about midnight had slept for nineteen hours solid.
Daniel Ashrami caught up with Josephine Tye.
"Jo," said Daniel, stepping into the elevator which would take them up to the halls of the Shibuya branch of Hello Japan, the main school of the Hello Japan chain. "Jo. We have to talk."
"I don't think so," said Jo.
"What have you got to lose?" said Daniel.
He persuaded her into the seminar room, where it was hot. The air conditioning had malfunctioned, and Hello Japan was a sweating sauna. There, it became clear that Jo had accepted Naomi as a friend and adviser.
"You mean," said Daniel, dismayed, "you're joined the Sacrifice cult?"
"They tell me they have a past life," said Jo. "I'm an agent of Obro Yelsan."
So that was how they had got to her. They had offered her the choice to destroy herself. At some level, she must know that it was suicide to cooperate with Naomi. But she was cooperating even so. And she will resist you. She will resist your efforts to return her to the struggle. She wants to give up: to surrender, to die. You will have to be very careful in choosing the moment to turn her.
Then the door to the seminar room opened, and in came the enemy, as a pack: Geoff Lan, Roldo Free and Naomi.
"Jo, Daniel," said Roldo briskly. "No time like the present. We're going to Hiyoshi. Now. That's the jump-off place, isn't it? And, once we get there, you're going to tell us the Numbers of the Sun. Then, I think, it will be all over won't it now?"
On the train to Hiyoshi, Daniel wondered how exactly this was supposed to work. Precisely how did Geoff, Roldo and Naomi expect to compel Jo and Daniel to reveal the numbers?
The sidewalk. The road. Roaring traffic. A break in the traffic. Daniel and Jo fled across the road. And there, directly ahead of them on the far side of the road, was a tree-lined arcade which led to the site of Obro Yelsan's castle.
And out of the stumbling sky came the choirs of memories. Singing as they burnt and fell. And Jo remembered, she remembered. Was incandescent with the chaos of recall. And, with memory came power. The other worlds are like the radio signals: they are here, present in this room, needing only the switch to be thrown.
With Daniel Ashrami at her side, Josephine Tye Lazimuth Ebroneluza walked up the road to Hiyoshi Castle, invoking as she did so:
"Nargan, nargan, alvox, antravox."
The world began to pulse with blue light.
"Seven," said Daniel.
"Four," said Jo.
"Nine," said Daniel.
"Three," said Jo, remembering.
"Seven," said Daniel.
"Five," said Jo.
"Zero," said Daniel.
And the dissolving world buzzed and hummed, glittering into mathematics.
For a moment, the pulsing realm of potential hardened into fact, and Jo Tye saw before her the buzzard beak scaffolds of Hiyoshi Castle, the enactment in steel and stone and polluted water of the visionary will of Obro Yelsan. Then the gashed gateway of the central bastion collapsed into its own shadows, pulling the entire edifice with it as it went spindling away into darkness, the entire world dissolving with a smell like that of grated carrots.
And there were
The mind-mesh of the Shapers seized her, and she knew where she was. She was in a Seat of Decision, Daniel Haberlogistron Ashrami vaguely visible as a piece of inconsequential baggage on the periphery of her vision.
Something intruded. Naomi, armed for confrontation.
"You can't run, you know," said Naomi, leveling her weapon at them.
A gun of some kind. It looked as if it was a water pistol. But you can fill a water pistol with acid, with
Jo made a Decision. Flames blinked. And nothing was left of Naomi but half the echo of a broken scream and a little dribble of something which looked like dirty brown candlewax. Then Jo made a broader Decision, filling all the approaches to this place with hurtling death.
"What are you doing?" said Dan, still disoriented but vaguely aware of the unleashing of incalculable energies.
"It's art," said Jo.
"Yes. You know. Picasso. Monzalay. Spring Tun. Mapacclon. Turner. Basquiat. That kind of art."
"You're not making sense."
"Had we but world enough, and time."
"You're still not making sense."
"Shut up. The artist is at her work."
But, actually, there was no need for a fresh creation. No need and no time. The brief frenzied energies of battle were subsiding already, and exhaustion was coming upon her, the profound exhaustion of the aftermath of terror and flight. She needed the comfort of refuge and she needed it now, before the effort of riding her storm-flood memories overwhelmed her discipline.
"Hold tight," said Jo.
And shifted them, once and again, and then at last again, until finally they arrived, and were engulfed by
Bursting sunlight and the smell of the sea and the leaping wind coming clean through the pines. Taken by surprise, Daniel lost his balance, and fell. Jo let him fall and stood there breathing the clean sea air the air of dolphins as Daniel recovered himself.
They were standing atop a sanddune which had been partially stabilized by creeping grasses. Nearby, an unpainted weathered shack complete with a water tank. A tawny cat lounged on the sun-hot wood of the porch which completed the shack. And Jo greeted the cat by name: Mallo-mallo Zazlum Pasturgnum. Oh long lost friend!
Relief. Safety. Sleep. After sleep: breakfast. And, after breakfast: explanations.
"Where are we?" said Daniel. "One of the darshadeldi, I guess. But who are you? Or, to put it another way: how did you have the power to bring us here? Give it to me nice and simple, okay?"
"I thought you were the great expert," said Jo. "I thought you knew who I was."
"I knew part of it," said Daniel. "But there's a lot I never knew. Or maybe I hid it from myself for security's sake, and now I can't get it back."
"Okay," said Jo. "Selyon."
"Pardon?" said Daniel.
And Jo explained how Selyon had made her into his assistant, and how here, in this place of places, she was still wired into the controlling machineries which conditioned the workings of the very world itself.
"The world, if you like," said Jo, "is mine to design and redesign as I will. Here. In this place. My place of power. This is my place. Well ... her place."
Jo smiled, sadly. Another tear red on her cheek.
"She wanted so much. The woman, I mean. Lazimuth. Wanted so badly to live. That was why she was desperate enough. Roll the dice, take a chance. A partial incarnation, she could hope for that. But she more or less died, I'm afraid. More or less."
Yes, you could not make an absolute statement out of it. But the fact was that the coherent entity once known as Lazimuth Ebroneluza had more or less ceased to exist.
Although Lazimuth Ebroneluza still survived as fragmented memories (cool of the water in the stone jars under the single shade tree in that endless field), and as a nexus of skills (how to invoke the artist's palette, how to shape a cosmos with it), much of her (the most important part, perhaps) was gone beyond recall. Destroyed. Dead.
"So where does that leave us?" said Daniel.
"The Mokrombis do not know of this place," said Jo. "And did not previously suspect its existence. Else they would have sought it out and destroyed it. Or converted it to their own use."
"So it gives us a place to stand. A place from which to fight back."
And, so saying, she experienced the sensation of stepping clean from the cocoon which had housed her until then, the cocooning idea of Josephine Priscilla Tye.
Out of the fragments of what was left of Josephine Tye and Lazimuth Ebroneluza, she could create herself, and could aspire, ultimately, to become what Selyon had wanted her people to become the Alajalenjis reborn. The lost masters recreated and masters once again of the Creation which they had Created and which, in turn, had Created them.
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