Maps in a mirror, p.72

Maps in a Mirror, page 72

 

Maps in a Mirror
 



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  “What does it mean?” another asked, and this time no one had an answer.

  Agnes raised her old, faded black hand and they listened. “There might be some important meaning that we cannot guess from this information. But one thing we do know. If things go on the way they are now, it should be sometime during tonight’s sleep that the interval between flashes fades to zero, and we have darkness with no light in between. How long that will last I don’t know. But if it has any duration at all, my friends, I will want to be home with my family. We don’t know how soon travel will reopen between cells.”

  No one had any better ideas, and so they went home, all of them, and her great-grandchildren helped Agnes to her home, which was nothing more than a roof to keep off the sun and the rain. She was tired (she was always tired these days) and she lay on her bed of ticked-out straw and dreamed two dreams, one while she was still awake, and one while she was asleep.

  While she was awake she dreamed that with the darkness this great gift house had learned mankind’s rhythms and needs, and the darkness would be the first night, a night exactly as long as a night should be on Earth. And then a morning would come, and another night, and she approved of this, because a hundred years without darkness was proof enough to her that nighttime was a good idea, despite the fears and dangers it had often brought on Earth. She also dreamed that the walls between cells were sealed off every day of the year but one, so that each cell would become a society to itself, though in that one day a year, those who had a mind to could leave and go their own way. Travelers would have that one day to find the spot where they wanted to spend the next year. But the rest of the time, every cell would be alone, and the people living there could develop their own way, and so strengthen the race.

  It was a good dream, and she found herself almost believing it as she drifted off to sleep without eating. (She often forgot to eat these days.)

  In her sleep, she dreamed that during the darkness she rose to the center of the Balloon, and there, instead of meeting a solid wall, she met a ceiling that fairly pulled her through. And there, in the center, she found the great secret.

  In her dream, lightning danced across a huge sphere of space, six hundred kilometers in diameter, and balls and ribbons of light spun and danced their way around the wall. At first it seemed pointless, meaningless. But at last (in her dream) she understood the speech of the light, and realized that this globe, which she had thought was an artifact, was actually alive, was intelligent, and this was its mind.

  “I have come,” she said to the lightning and the lights and the balls of light.

  So what? the light seemed to answer.

  “Do you love me?” she asked.

  Only if you will dance with me, the light answered.

  “Oh, but I can’t dance,” she said. “I’m too old.”

  Neither, said the light, can I. But I do sing rather well, and this is my song, and you are the coda. I sing the coda once, and then, which is to be expected, il fine.

  In her dream Agnes felt a thrill of fear. “The end?”

  The end.

  “But then—but then, please, al capo, to the start again, and let us have the song over, and over, and over again.”

  The light seemed to consider this, and in her dream Agnes thought the light said yes, in a great, profound amen that blinded her so brightly she realized that in all her life she had never understood the meaning of the word white, because her eyes had never seen such white before.

  Actually, of course, her dream was undoubtedly her mind’s way of coping with the things going on around her. For the darkness came not long after she went to sleep, came and stayed and as soon as the last of the sunlight was gone the lightning began, huge dazzling flashes that were not just light, not just electricity, but spanned the spectrum of all radiation, from heat and less-than-heat to gamma radiation and worse-than-gamma. The first flash doomed every human being in the Balloon—they were poisoned with radiation beyond hope of recovery.

  There were screams of terror, and the lightning struck many and killed them, and the wail of grief was loud in every cell. But even at its cruelest, chance plays its hand as kindly as it can; Agnes did not wake up to see the destruction of all her hopes. She slept on, slept long enough for one of the bolts to strike directly at the roof over her, and consume her at a blow, and her last sight was not really white at all, but every radiation possible, and instead of being limited by human eyes, at the moment of death she saw every wave of it, and thought that it was the light in her dream saying amen.

  It wasn’t. It was the Balloon, popping.

  Every wall split into two thinner walls, and every cell detached from every other cell. For a moment they hung there in space, separated by only a few centimeters, each from the other; but all still were linked to each other through the center, where vast forces played, forces stronger than any in the solar system except the fires of the sun, which had been the source of all the Balloon’s energy.

  And then the moment ended, and the Balloon burst apart, each cell exploding, the entire organization of cells coming apart completely, and as the cells dissolved into dust they were hurled with such force in every direction that all of them that did not strike the sun or a planet were well launched out into the deep space between stars, going so fast that no star could hold them.

  The transport ships that had left the Balloon since the flashing began were all consumed in the explosion.

  None of the cells hit Earth, but one grazed close enough that the atmosphere absorbed much of the dust; the average temperature of the Earth dropped one degree, and the climate changed, just slightly, and therefore so did the patterns of life on Earth. It was nothing that technology could not cope with, and since Earth’s population was now down to a billion people, the change was only an inconvenience, not a global catastrophe.

  Many grieved for the deaths of the billions of people in the Balloon, but for most the disaster was too great to be comprehended, and they pretended that they didn’t remember it very often, and they never talked about it, except perhaps to joke. The jokes were all black, however, and many were hard put to decide whether the Balloon had been a gift of God or an aeons-old plot by the most talented mass murderer in the universe. Or both.

  Deenaz Coachbuilder was now very old, and she refused to leave her home in the foothills of the Himalayas even though now the snow only melted for a few weeks in the summer and there were many more comfortable places to live. She was senile and stubborn, and went out every day to look for the Balloon in the sky, searching with her telescope just before sunrise. She could not understand where it had gone. And then, on one lucid day when her mind returned for just a few hours, she realized what had happened and never went indoors again. They found a note on her body: “I should have saved them.”

  HECTOR 8

  In the moment when the Hectors hung loosely in the darkness, in the last endless moment before the leap, they cried out their ecstasy. But now Hector answered their cry with a different sound, one they had never heard from him.

  It was pain.

  It was fear.

  “What is it?” the Hectors asked him (who was no longer themself).

  “They did not come!” Hector moaned.

  “The Masters?” And the Hectors remembered that the Masters were supposed to come and trap them and force them not to leap.

  “For hundreds of flashes my walls were soft and thin and they could have passed into me,” Hector said (and the saying took only an instant), “but they never came. They could have risen into me and I would not have to die—”

  The Hectors marveled that Hector had to die, but now (because it was built into them from the beginning) they realized that it was good and right for him to die, that each of them was Hector, with all his memories, all his experience, and, most important, all the delicate structure of energy and form that would stay with them as they swept through the galaxy. Hector would not die, only the center of this Hector, and so, though the
y understood (or thought they understood) his pain and fear they could hold off no longer.

  They leaped.

  The leap crumbled them but hurled them outward, each leaving the rigidity of his cell structure, losing his walls; each keeping his intellect in the swirling dust that spun out into space.

  “Why,” each of them asked himself (at once, for they were the same being, however separate), “did they let us go? They could have stopped us, and they did not. And because they did not stop us, they died!”

  They could not imagine that the Masters might not have known how to stop the leap into the night, for the Masters had first decided Hector could exist, millions of years before, and how could they not know how to use him? It was impossible to conceive of a Master not knowing all necessary information.

  And so they concluded this:

  That the Masters had given them a gift: stories. A trapped Hector learned stories, thousands and millions and billions of stories over the aeons of his endless captivity. But such Hectors could never be free, could never reproduce, could never pass on the stories.

  But in the hundred years that these Masters had spent with them, the Hectors had learned those billions of stories, truer and kinder stories than those the Makers had built into the first Hector. And because the Masters this time had willingly given up their lives, this time the Hectors made their leap with an infinite increase of knowledge and, therefore, wisdom.

  They leaped with Agnes’s dreams in their memories.

  They were beautiful dreams, all but one of them fulfilled, and that dream, the dream of eternal happiness, could only be fulfilled by the Hectors themselves. That dream was not for the Masters or the Makers or even the Masses, for all of them died too easily.

  “It was a gift,” the Hectors said to themselves, and, despite the limitations built into them, they were deeply grateful. “How much they must have loved me,” each Hector said, “to give up their lives for my sake.”

  On Earth, people shivered who had never known cold.

  And every Hector danced through the galaxy, dipping into the clouds left by a supernova, swallowing comets, drinking energy and mass from every source until he came to a star that gave a certain kind of light; and there the Hector would create himselves again, and the Hectors would listen to themself tell stories, and after a while they, too, would leap into darkness until they reached the edge of the universe and fell over the precipice of time.

  In the shadow of inevitable death, the people of Earth withered and grew old.

  AFTERWORD

  “UNACCOMPANIED SONATA”

  When my story collection Unaccompanied Sonata and Other Stories was published, my afterword for this story was very brief: “ ‘Unaccompanied Sonata’ began with the the thought of one day: What if someone forbade me to write? Would I obey? I made a false start then, and failed; years later I tried again, and this time got through the whole story. Other than punctuation changes and a few revised phrases, this one has stood in its first full draft as it came out of the typewriter. It’s the truest thing I’ve ever written.”

  At the time, that’s all I understood of where that story came from. Since then I’ve learned more. I told the whole story in my foreword to Lloyd Biggle, Jr.’s, story “Tunesmith” in a Tor double published not long ago. I’m excerpting a part of that essay to tell you where this story came from:

  In 1959 I turned eight. It was an innocent time; my parents let me hop on my bike and ride from our home on Las Palmas Drive all the way down Homestead Road to downtown Santa Clara, California. To the public library, a squat building in the middle of a circle of huge trees. A setting straight out of faerie, I realize now; then, though, I cared nothing for the trees. I parked my bike, sometimes even remembering to lock it, and plunged through the doors into the world of books.

  It seemed such a large place then. Directly ahead as you came inside was the circulation desk, with a librarian always in attendance—always policing, I thought, since as an eight-year-old I had enough experience of life to know that all adults were always watching children to make sure they didn’t get away with anything. When an unaccompanied child entered the library, there was only one permitted place to go: the children’s section, to the right. The tall shelf units to the left, shadowy and forbidding with their thick, dark-spined books, were meant for adults only, and children were not to enter.

  Not that anyone had told me that, of course. But the signs were clear. The children’s section was for children—and that meant that the non-children’s sections were not for children.

  That year I read everything remotely interesting in the children’s section. I prided myself, as a third-grader, on not reading anything aimed at any grade under sixth, and those books were soon read. What now? Nothing to read, nothing to check out with my library card and carry home in the basket on the front of my bike.

  And then I realized: there were hundreds, thousands of books on the other side of the circulation desk. If I could just make my way over there, find a book, and then hide somewhere and read it . . .

  I dared not. And yet that strange, forbidden territory lured me. I knew better than to ask—then I would be told no and would be watched all the more carefully because I had confessed my interest in forbidden places. So I watched, for all the world like a child hoping to shoplift and waiting for the clerks all to look the other way.

  Finally they did. I moved swiftly and silently across the long space before the circulation desk, the no-man’s-land between the bright-windowed children’s section and the deep-shadowed adult section. No one called out for me to stop—it would have been a harsh, guttural “Halt!” I knew, for I had seen enough World War II movies on TV to know that unreasoning authority always spoke with a German accent. At last I ducked behind a shelf unit and found myself in the brave new land, safe for the moment.

  Sheerest coincidence placed me directly in front of a single shelf entitled “Science Fiction.” There were few books there—mostly story collections edited by people like Judith Merrill and Groff Conklin. Best Science Fiction Stories of 1955. That sort of thing.

  But I was glad. After all, I was used to reading easier stuff. The letters in these books were all so small and close together. There were so many words. But at least the stories were short. And science fiction. That was like those time-travel stories in Boy’s Life, right?

  I took a couple of books and snuck off to a secluded table. There were some adults around, but they weren’t official, and as long as I was quiet I figured they wouldn’t tell on me. I opened the books and started to read.

  Most of the stories were just too hard. I’d read a paragraph or two, maybe two pages, and then I’d flip on to the next story. Mostly it was because the stories were about things that I didn’t care about. Sometimes I couldn’t even figure out what was going on. Science fiction wasn’t meant to be for eight-year-olds, I knew—but still, they didn’t have to make it so darned hard, did they?

  There were a few stories, though, that spoke clearly to me and captured my imagination from the start. By far the longest one I was able to finish began with the image of people visiting a great concert hall, being pestered by a strange, twisted old man who seemed to take some sort of pride in it. Then the story flashed back and told the story of how that great concert hall came to be, and who that old man was.

  You see, there was a time when people had forgotten the joy of music. It only survived in commercial jingles, short songs designed to sell something. Except that there was one jingle-writer who had a special gift, an ability that transcended the limitations of his craft. The story struck me more deeply than any other I had ever read till then. I identified with the hero—he was all my best hopes and dreams. His pains were mine; his achievements would be mine as well. I, as a child, was too young to truly understand some of the concepts in the story. Intellectually I grasped them, but I had no experience to make the idea come to life. Nevertheless, the story itself, the hero’s discovery of who he was and what he
could do, the response of others around him, and what his actions led to—ah, that was the path of a great man’s life. I thought. Anyone can be great when following in paths that others praise. But when you achieve solitary greatness, when you bend an unbending world and turn it into a new path, not because the world wanted to turn, not because anyone asked you to turn it or helped you, but rather because you walked that path yourself and showed the way, and, having seen it, they could not help but follow: that became my lifelong measure of the true hero.

  Or perhaps it already was my measure, and it took that story to make me aware of it—does that matter? At the time, as an eight-year-old child unschooled in philosophy, I found the story overwhelming. It remade me. I saw everything through new eyes afterward.

  I grew up and learned to tell stories myself. First I was a playwright; then I turned to fiction, and when I did it was science fiction that I wrote, though I cared not overly much for science. It was the mythic story that I wanted to tell, though I couldn’t remember when I had decided that. And it was in the genre of science fiction and fantasy that the mythic story could still be clearly, plainly told—I knew that, was deeply certain of it. I could not do with fiction what I knew I had to do, except in this realm of strangeness.

  So I wrote science fiction, and eventually that came to be the mainsail of my writing career. And one day in the dealer’s room in a science fiction convention I saw the name Groff Conklin on the spine of an old and weathered book and I remembered those old anthologies from my childhood, when I thought I had to sneak into the adult section in order to read. I stood there, my hands resting on the book, in reverie, trying to remember the stories that I had read, wondering if I might find them again and, if I did, whether I’d laugh at my childish taste.

  I talked to the dealer, telling him the time period of the books I had read in the Santa Clara library. He showed me what he had; I scanned through the books. I couldn’t remember title or author of the one story that meant most to me, but I remembered vaguely that it was the last story in the book. Or was it simply the last I read, because there was no point in reading any other? I couldn’t remember even that.

 
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