by Allen Varney
Scarce larger than a drop of water are the gleaming jewels that lie under the grasping talons of Yahn, and every jewel is a life.
In Agon the mapmakers get headaches.
Say you work for the Pandectra's office, mapping this city halfway up the sheer north face of Mount Axxis. As soon as you draw all five Ledges on parchment and get all eight Prime Faiths to approve it, the annual twistor migration erupts from Metamoria Chasm, the abyss into the Storming Realities. Dozens of transreal beings sweep straight up through the city terraces toward their spawning ground, the diamantine lodes near Axxis Summit. Their passage reshapes the mountain and part of the city. That in itself makes Pandect cartographers look for a window and a fast trip down to the flagstones.
More than that, just try to label all the deepwells, the portholes each twistor's path tears into the Realities. The deepwell count had passed 6,000 when I last checked, years ago. The migration adds dozens more. Imagine cataloguing that lot, to begin with. Then you meet a veyor, a deepwell magician, who would much rather you didn't tell about his own personal well. Perhaps, to dramatize his concern, he throws you out the window. So now you feel not only despondent but twitchy.
Finally you discover some oddity like Cloverlane. The throbbing sets in under your forehead, you throw your map out the window, and you say, "Right, I'll just amble over to the Euthanasium for a view of torture chambers in the Dervish Dimensions. At least someone has it worse than I do."
I enjoyed walking visitors down Cloverlane. It makes a nice break from tourist stops like the Metamorian temples and Scarp Bazaar, and it shows life's other side. Maybe I mean "underside."
But the last client I took there didn't go sightseeing.
This fellow, Papkid Deeming, introduced himself as an acquaintance of Lhauria Dilp, the Toad Queen. Papkid had just floated in by ctenoliner from the Rain Coast. A mutual friend said, "That Fillip the visager really knows Luden district," so Papkid asked me to escort him on a business visit to Dilp's Transcendicon.
Well, Dilp had my body in stasis gel just then, and she owned the lens I was riding while my body healed. So refusing Papkid seemed, shall we say, impolitic.
To make a good showing, I rode Dilp's strongest carrier, a hulking lizard named Saurassith. You couldn't mistake Saurassith. He wore nothing but a burlap poncho and a belt of finger bones, but he'd had his snout scales and arms tattooed with nasty-looking symbols. I never did learn what they represented.
I call Saurassith "he," but I don't know his actual gender. Possibly he didn't know it himself. He didn't know much, because Dilp was renting his higher mind.
But I can hardly describe his skill with polearms. I once saw Saurassith whip around and decapitate a very surprised alley thug in mid-charge. It happened so fast, the ganger's body kept running toward him, still swinging its dirk. Luckily, the severed head fell in the blade's path, or Saurassith might have got hit. Or perhaps not. Those scales looked thick.
Saurassith made an excellent partner. He'd had his tongue and palate altered for human speech, so I could use his voice. When he strapped my headband around his scaly forehead, I felt safe, no matter how that forehead sloped.
Papkid didn't strike me as rich or powerful. Some visitors practically glittered with diamantine dust. I remember one wealthy Uplander telling me, "After I made my first million carats in dust, I wish I'd not squandered the rest of my youth trying to get rich."
Papkid looked nothing like that. He was about my age -- or rather my body's age, call it 35 -- with a round belly and a bubbling, bumbling manner, dum-di-dum ho-di-ho. He wore nothing fancier than a low-necked beige overkilt with a rawhide drawstring. But on his left shoulder he wore a white onyx brooch, and on his scalp he'd shaved an eye-in-circle.
That meant the Chasmosis faith. In other words, serious wealth. After the last migration Chasmosis had captured all the most lucrative new deepwells. Now their holdings far outstripped their closest and most bitter rival in the Prime Faiths, the Polyplanar Theodicals.
I staged the trip to Cloverlane in my usual way. Saurassith and I met Papkid at early midlight by the wellhead near Highview, the Chasmosis temple on Ledge Four's precipice. The Nimbus, the periodic light from Axxis Peak, cast long shadows, and flocks of twisteaters swooped overhead. The wind from the Chasm looked ghastly, of course -- I was glad my lens lacked olfactors -- but it blew back the smog from Fetor up on Ledge Five.
Papkid sipped ceremonially from the well, spoke a quiet orison, then examined the view like a carpenter truing a skewed jamb. "Splendid, just splendid. I've seen so many haemographs of Agon, I feel I've been here all along."
"A city devoted to looking at everything everywhere and making fast carats from it all." I asked Saurassith to raise his arm and point. "This ledge, Surveil, has the rich merchants, the legal scryers, the reality guilds. Down on Ledge Three you see Central, home of the Pandectra, her enormous bureaucracy, and most of the faiths. Down below Central is Observatory, a rowdy place full of artisans, freethinkers, and poor travellers."
"Not only poor ones. I found a little resthouse that's quite splendid." Papkid's favorite word.
Lastly, I had him look far down at Luden, a color patchwork of mossy roofs. This far above Ledge One, Agon's oldest and shabbiest district actually looked pleasant.
I said casually, "Down there, when our current Pandectra's great-grandmother was in office, a couple of disreputable veyors invented the haemograph."
For the first time, I got his full attention. "Really!"
"Yes. A merchant had hired them to scry, of all things, fashionable new footwear. So Garix the Polyseer focused his deepwell while his partner, Ohren, held a quill pen and parchment, ready to draw. The search took hours. When they found a nice sandal, they both pointed in excitement. Ohren's pen struck Garix's finger, Garix bled on the deepwell, and the rest is history."
"My, my. Splendid! Well, Fillip, you may think me, too, a veyor, or some other variety of wizard." Papkid smiled. "I have a new type of haemograph that will -- oh, I shouldn't say. Where is Dilp's place, exactly?"
I had Saurassith point to Cloverlane. The street stretched straight as a ruler from Grobe Street to Tenstable Boulevard between Yardgood and Hackel Lanes.
I asked Papkid, "See those three hazy spots along Cloverlane?"
"Remember those. Three hazy spots on a straight street." And that's all I would say.
We hailed a sedan chair carried by four big stonemovers. They make good carats cleaning up damage from the annual twistor stampede -- that's why they're called "stonemovers." But in the downseason they move whomever hires them. Off we went.
We disembarked where Grobe Street intersects Cloverlane. Carvings on the archway there show a chain of four dozen emaciated gargoyles, each biting a different portion of the gargoyle ahead of it. Right there, visitors gain insight into Luden's work ethic.
In Saurassith's body it didn't take me long to fend off all the malformed beggar children. The merchants with their incense and whips never came near us.
I told Papkid, "Some of Agon's richest families used to live on Cloverlane. Most belonged to a now-defunct faith called the Sacred Deeplines. They wanted to capture twistors and create warps all over Luden, so anyone could travel to any reality."
"That sounds highly unpopular."
"Very observant. About 70 years ago the Polyplanar Theodicals declared a Cleansing in Luden. No one has seen a Deepliner since. That marked the district's downfall, as you'll see, though their wells remain. Let's walk now."
Then Yahn lured to him shadows whose home was beyond the Rim [...] And Yahn said, "I will loan you each a Life [...] you shall polish these Lives with experience and cut their edges with your griefs, and in the end shall return them again to me."
We walked. The Ludens hold their wretched market by the archway, and bargain hunters packed the street. But I had Saurassith shoulder through, with Papkid behind.
We passed screaming merchants hawking everhot pots and roundview mirrors. Old women with trained cats. Buskers who struck up tambang melodies as we approached, then stopped as we went by, as though worked by levers.
Mainly, though, we passed visagers. They cover Luden like dormice. You can tell a visager who's not working because he's in his body. When they're working, some occupy headband lenses like mine, or brooches or pendants. Some even lack carriers, so they live in jars or, in one case, a brick storefront.
With their bodies rented to Dilp or her trifling competitors, the visagers had nothing to do or sell except the haems made from their own blood. Papkid paid a few carats to view many of them, mostly little duodecimos. Some were fresh white sheets, lots of gaudy color and conspicuous motion. Others -- weren't. They all showed scenes from the Storming Realities:
-- a huge river cascading down both sides of a gorge big enough to swallow a town, with rainbows glimmering in the fall's spray;
-- an aerial view of a tea-color desert, with a walking path tracing a hideous alien silhouette;
-- a palatial fountain where shining marble gods galloped on merhorses through petrified waves.
We passed Meggy the Shop. Meggy's voice startled Papkid. "Half-carat to look, five to buy!" When she shook her windows, he jumped back.
I made the introductions, and Meggy began her pitch. "Here, sir, I've a lovely large haem, full quarto no less. Its stunnin' beauty reveals to the discernin' viewer a horizon of endless possibilities. Half-carat viewin' counts toward purchase." One window slid back seductively.
Papkid tossed in a carat coin. "Keep that. Please show us both the quarto."
You could cover the sheet with two hands. It showed a coral reef in shallow water. Sunlight poured in waves over twisting sea-sculptures, while alien tendrils caressed the current. Bizarre shapeless creatures jerked through the water in perpetual spasm -- like visagers, in a way.
But all had faded to a dry scab, as the deepwell magic bleached from the blood. Sad, really. Meggy once had the most potent blood on the street, and her early haems never faded. That's what Cloverlane does to you.
Papkid politely replaced the image in the window. Meggy offered others. "I've one of the biggest independent deepwells on this street, you know."
"I don't doubt that." In a sly tone Papkid added, "Quarto, though -- it's a bit small. Can you stretch it this big?" He held his hands a bit apart.
She considered. "Wellll -- that's risky."
"How about this big?" Papkid held his hands wide apart.
Meggy's windows rattled. "You're just twistin' my ledges, you churner. Can't open a deepwell that wide. Amble!"
"Splendid...." Papkid walked on, chuckling.
After three dozen steps Cloverlane starts to curve right. Papkid stopped. "I thought this street ran straight."
"Indeed you did," I said. "Keep going."
The lane doubled back at a tight angle. On both sides houses rose three or four stories high, with their painted roofs peaking still higher. I could see dark glass circles just under the peaks, oculus windows. The people gazing down looked just like the houses, dirty and desperate. I wondered what kind of lives they lived behind those windows.
I stopped Papkid at the curve. "We call this First Bend. Here you see Agon's architecture in its least pretentious and most characteristic form."
"Very polite." Papkid stepped carefully over a wooden beam, fallen from a ruined house. In all my years in Luden no one had bothered to remove that beam. Changes in its graffiti tracked Cloverlane's invisible gang politics.
"Years ago that large house belonged to the last Deepliner leader, Arn Camorak, a minor noble from the Downmount Islands. Toward the end of his life old Camorak sat each day on that high balcony you see, and footmen ran all his errands. He had them dress in fine noble livery. Applicants for the footman job had to dress in the full livery and run down Cloverlane while he watched. He only hired the fastest runners.
"One candidate ran so fast that old Camorak called down, `You'll do very well for me.' The man shouted back, `And your lordship's livery will do very well for me.' He vanished around the bend, and no one in Luden saw him again."
Papkid said, "You seem to have an anecdote for every place in Agon."
"Agon has more stories than deepwells. I like to think of them as windows onto other times."
"How much further to Dilp's Transcendicon? The road seems to lead back toward Grobe Street."
"We'll walk a while longer, and then you'll see."
The next stretch of Cloverlane ran a long way, still curving right. The houses grew bleak and dilapidated, their roofs higher and their shadows deep across the flagstones. Window by window, the faces I saw grew leaner, their gazes empty, their eyes full of bloodshot veins.
We passed junkshops and hockshops and steaming battercake carts. Papkid grew more puzzled with every step.
Then came a second tight bend to the right.
I said, "We call this Craverlane Bend, and no, I don't mean `Cloverlane.'"
"But why haven't we crossed Grobe? Or crossed back over Cloverlane? We've kept curving right." He looked around the bend. "And this next length keeps curving right!"
"Now you see why Cloverlane got its name. After this next long stretch it makes one final sharp bend to the right, what we call Third Bend. There you think, `Aha, I've missed my bearings so far, but now we must hit some part of Cloverlane we've already walked.'"
Papkid waited. "But...?"
"Well, you'll guess the rest: After a long right curve with no intersection, you come out on Tenstable Boulevard. You've walked a three-leaf clover, three times as long as the next street on either side, on a street you previously traced as straight as a window ledge."
He surveyed the litter, human and otherwise. "Appropriate. The locals seem to have found their path through life longer and harder than they expected."
I had just started to mention that my own body lay nearby in the Transcendicon, packed in Dilp's stasis gel. But I didn't.
Papkid looked at the street sign over a used-brass emporium. I saw the question in his eyes.
I said, "They used to call this `Second Cloverlane Bend,' which makes sense. Some years back an eccentric barrelwright named Dall Crave lived near here. Everyone knew his strange nature. Once, to rid himself of a prolonged case of hiccups, he burned his nightshirt."
"Compared to some cures I've heard, that hardly seems strange."
"He was wearing the nightshirt."
"Ah. So they renamed this bend after Crave?"
"He renamed it after himself. He would steal out from his home at night, paint over the LO on the CLOVERLANE sign, and replace it with RA. Perhaps he thought of it as advertising, or marking his territory. Constables would fine him and make him change the sign back, but then he'd simply change it again. They couldn't stop him.
"The struggle continued until he died in his sleep at a ripe old age, whereupon they changed the sign back to `Cloverlane' and thought they'd done with it.
"But that same night, someone else here in Luden changed it again. And the cycle resumed. Finally the constabulary gave up."
Papkid found this splendid. "Solidarity, eh?"
"No, just mischief. People didn't like Crave much in life, but they always treasure a dead eccentric."
Papkid measured me like a milliner sizing a bolt of cloth. "You had an accident, didn't you, Fillip?"
He took me off guard. I never liked to talk about that. "How did you know?"
"Consider a proposition. I know you don't belong to my faith, Chasmosis, but you don't follow our rivals the Polyplanars either. The Planars control Dilp's Transcendicon."
"What? Why would a rich Prime Faith care about such a tiny establishment?"
"The Transcendicon itself is trivial. It serves as window dressing for Polyplanar's covert enterprise. Chasmosis seeks control of that enterprise. Help me in the forthcoming negotiations with Dilp."
"Help you how?"
"Oh, just do whatever looks helpful. If you agree, I can return your body, with splen-- decent carats in the bargain."
I didn't know quite how to feel. Infuriated? Fearful? Impressed?
I must say, I felt nervous about regaining my body. For a long time I had avoided checking it. Perhaps I felt reluctant to -- well, I don't know.
I said to Papkid, "You don't sound much like a veyor."
"I'm not. Not literally." He almost giggled. "But I'm a wizard of merchandise. The man we're meeting, now, he's a veyor. Look, I'll introduce you."
"What man?" I saw no one approaching, except a short youth in an ivory Chasmosis sacriant smock. He looked barely old enough for his Passage rite, and so thin the Chasm breeze could knock him up a ledge. I said, "Will this youngster take us to him?"
Ahem. Not the ideal greeting for Graffiel Javat, probably the finest veyor in three generations. I'd heard of him; everyone had. But though we could see all the Storming Realities, Agonists didn't actually see much of our own city or its leading citizens.
The story goes that the first great veyor, Kincannon, demonstrated his new scrying technique for the Pandectra. He focused the deepwell to display an overhead view of the Pandect. The Pandectra was impressed. She directed him to move closer, then inside the building and down corridors, and finally into a small chamber filled with people. Hunched over his well, Kincannon zoomed in on the best-dressed figure. He found he was watching the Pandectra, standing behind him and frowning. Not long after, she outlawed non-governmental scrying of Agonist targets.
Graffiel wouldn't have drawn much attention anyway. He had bulging eyes and jerking speech, almost a stammer. "I've," he began, then stopped as if observing his own thoughts. "I've. I've managed to add smell. To the image."
"Splendid!" Papkid grinned so wide, I saw a diamantine cap on one molar. "Here, Fillip's a visager, show him."
Graffiel pulled open a large halkleather satchel. "I've adapted. Adapted the principles behind lensing. To detach and transport a deepwell's local endpoint."
From the satchel he took a thin metal rectangle, a duodecimo frame. It looked empty, until he turned it around and showed the seething blackness of the Storming Realities.
"But -- I've never heard of moving a deepwell! Does it work like fixed wells?"
Graffiel stumbled twice in replying, so Papkid took over smoothly. "Better. You can move the viewpoint faster or enlarge the frame."
Graffiel wore a tiny valve on one fingertip. He opened it a gnat's breadth and dripped one drop of blood onto the frame.
As on any deepwell, the blood spread and whitened. An image appeared: a low boat with arching outrunners and triangular sail, knifing through jewel-blue water along a pristine beach. A fresh breeze carried the pungent scent of cloves.
I felt the breeze! There in my lens, without olfactors, I smelled that smell! My world had expanded. I stared at Graffiel. "In faiths' names, why have you stuck yourself here in Luden?"
He smiled uncertainly. "I don't know. There's just something. Something about this place."
I started to say, "Put that away, this area is dangerous," when I heard a scuffling noise.
Saurassith turned. An arm's length away, this gigantic ogre was swinging a huge club at my carrier's head! I glimpsed a hairy brown arm with a stained vambrace, and then Saurassith's glaive shot up to block the club. The impact shivered my lens.
By the time I collected myself, the two had already given and blocked a dozen blows, and Saurassith had driven the ogre back beyond reach.
While they circled, I watched the ogre: tall and broad as an archway, gloss white eyes, yellow tusks in an underslung jaw, long slit nostrils, batfur loincloth and boots. Its breath whistled through a harelip. Its skin showed mottled pink and brown, as though different colors had fought for territory and finally called truce.
This ogre looked like a common ganger, so I started to shout, "Hold it, we've got your leader's clear pass." But Saurassith took back his voice. He said, "Shuh DUPP-P-P!"
I couldn't remember him doing that before. It caught me so much by surprise, I would have shut up anyway.
There was nothing to do but watch him cut up the ogre. He sent its club flying, and when it wheeled back to run, he swung his blade between jaw and breastbone.
The blow severed not only the neck, but a chain with a darkwood pendant. Concentric circles -- the Polyplanar Theodicals. They were popular in Luden. After what Papkid said, I wondered if this was a standard mugging or -- what's the word -- espionage?
Papkid and Graffiel were gone, but I could see the hinged door of the Transcendicon still swinging. I debated whether to follow them. I should make a good impression on Dilp as Papkid's bodyguard. I should want my body back.
But mainly, I recalled that mesmerizing scent of cloves.
Yahn sits and smiles, watching his hoard increase in preciousness, and hath no pity for the poor shadows whom he hath lured.
Dilp's Transcendicon Royale infested a long shopfront right at Craverlane Bend. The window featured brightly colored folio haems: jungle pyramids, glaciers in starlight, flooded gorges. A few mannequins in travelling costume posed in come-hither attitudes.
It had been a sausage shop. Legend has it the butcher flavored his sausages with diamantine dust. One year the twistor migration smelled the dust and dived straight up through his shop, wrecking it. But they left plenty of deepwells, so the Deepliners took over. How did Dilp get the place? I don't know, nor want to.
Inside, the Transcendicon was all color, frenetically animated statues, rich tapestries. Thick brass frames -- deepwells -- hung at crazy angles. Stands of quartos and octavos crowded like weeds, and a welter of skewed staircases offered vantage points on a dozen huge folios. Copper tubes coiling from the high roof dripped blood on each frame.
Solemn Ludens thronged at each well. They looked like anyone else on Cloverlane, except for their expressions: hope. Joy.
The fee collector was Dilp's poor excuse for a veyor, Flitbert. I don't know what species Flitbert belonged to, but it clearly had low admission requirements. He was a hunched, hissing, beaky, scrawny, wattle-necked potbellied knock-kneed wretch. He advanced on each Luden and snapped, "Two carats to look, sssix to buy." The Ludens handed over their carats.
I found Papkid and Graffiel as Flitbert was showing them Dilp's latest folio haemograph: a beautiful bridge shrouded in fog. The bleeding was uneven, but what a view! A bridge of the gods, with titanic orange pillars and thick ropes rising into pearly cloud.
There you had the Transcendicon haem: huge, lurid, sloppy, spectacular. Those sights made up Luden's chief trade. In Observatory posturing hobbyists would bore you with their views of pallid flower petals. Veyors in Central and Surveill tediously scouted new soapmaking methods or concrete-aggregate ratios. But Luden conjured scenes of beauty and wonder. People bought them because the district had none of its own.
Graffiel told Flitbert, "I've. I've scryed that bridge. Excellent color. Whose blood is that?"
"What differenssse? Isss no one'sss particular, all mixed."
"Whose is it?"
Flitbert sullenly examined the tube feed. "Thisss blood -- sssomeone named Fillip."
I almost recall a stab of horror. Perhaps not. But I do remember strange, twisted pride. "That's me!"
Flitbert stared at me with a rancher's bland regard for livestock.
When I was young, schooling in an Observatory creche, I tried air-painting. I spent all day out on Ledge Two's precipice, spraying a floating image of Hymnia Temple. I remember my painting looked so grand, with wide columns and graceful songbird friezes. Late in the day the creche governor, a mean, angry man, happened by and scolded me for missing peaklight orisons. He looked at my image with bored contempt, as Flitbert looked at me in the Transcendicon. Then he pulled the sprayer's shield line, and my painting blew away on the Chasm wind.
Every visager in Craverlane has stories like that. Inside a lens, it doesn't hurt so much.
Flitbert led Papkid and Graffiel to the back, and allowed Saurassith and me to follow. Here unsold, fading haems spilled from open bins. Dozens of visagers lay in stasis capsules stacked like bottles in a wine rack. Curling tubes carried blood to the deepwell drips.
One capsule held my body. Perhaps I could have recalled which one, but I avoided trying.
On a stone platform piled high with spidersilk cushions sat the Transcendicon's owner and autocrat: Minor Theodical Lhauria Dilp.
They called her the Toad Queen. But "toad" is both inaccurate -- she was a lizard, like Saurassith -- and unfair to toads. Find any toad, however bloated, however pouchy in the neck and bulgy in the eyes and rugose in the skin. Show Dilp to that toad, and it will say, "Whoa, that's one ugly lizard."
Dilp was literally a Transcendicon fixture. She hadn't left that platform in years, because she had no legs. She lost them years ago during a Holy Cleansing that her faith, Polyplanar, called against a business rival. A mercenary fire spirit fought her; while she stamped it out, it ate her legs. Everyone joked that the spirit died with the words, "Tastes just like chicken."
Flitbert introduced Papkid and Graffiel; he didn't bother with me. Dilp's no-neck head turned in their general direction. If eyes offer windows into thoughts, you knew straight away Dilp was thoughtless. That fire spirit had burned out her vision, leaving blank roast-red eyeballs.
Another sad case, that Dilp. Even sighted, she'd have had no interest in deepwells nor haems. I secretly imagined she hated herself so much, she'd rather not give herself the pleasure of travel.
"Wuh. Whhhell, Papk'd." She sounded like a bullfrog in a well. "Whhhat hhhave you?"
"Greetings, Theodical Dilp. My associate and I have developed a splendid new haemograph, and we wish to invite your partnership. Let me describe the features of --"
"P'rtnersh'p? Hhhawh-wh-wh!" She laughed like a bullfrog in a well getting slowly strangled. "Whhhy sh'd I need p'rtners? I own th' biggest whhhells and all th' vis'gers!"
"Because, Theodical --" (Papkid, all cheerful innocence) "-- my friends in Chasmosis know that you Polyplanars run a profitable enterprise here. So profitable, perhaps you need someone to help."
The Toad Queen's dead eyes widened. She laughed again. "Th' faith needs no hhhelp. People 'gainst th' faith, they need hhhelp. Like these folks hhhere. I got one vis'ger -- drinkin' one night at th' Waterhhhole over on Grobe, made some remarks 'bout th' faith. Hhhappened, a theodical in th' tavern didn't like whhhat hhhe overhhheard."
Flitbert stole a glance at me. "Uh, Theodical --"
The Toad Queen ignored him. I listened, stunned.
"Fellow hhhad an `accident' th' same night. Fell in th' Waterhhhole wellhhhead out back, nearly drowned. Hhhe's learnin' better in stasis."
How could I learn better? I never knew I'd offended a Polyplanar. All those years....
I spoke quietly: "I didn't even know." Then in fury, without thinking: "I want my body back!"
Instantly I regretted the words. But suddenly Saurassith was moving!
He barreled straight for the stasis capsules. Flitbert interposed, which I admit took courage. "Can't dissscharge from ssstasisss. Mussst pay healing fees."
I began, "Well then, never mind." But Papkid called out, "I'll pay!"
Saurassith nodded, picked up Flitbert in one hand, threw him aside like a sack of vulture feathers, and headed for a rack. He knew, better than I, the right capsule.
It was a white ceramic coffin with rounded ends. I had the crazy thought, I'm a pill! A tube of pale blue stasis gel fed in; another, my blood, drained out. Saurassith threw back the lid.
A cloud of bluish vapor rose. I wanted to look away, but the lens saw it all: drowning under cerulean gel, a pale, thin figure with a bulbous nose, weak chin, lank brown hair, and a horrid complexion. In cheap clothing dyed gel-blue, the lump of flesh looked ugly and vulnerable. I felt revulsion, pity. Fear.
Saurassith's clawed hand slapped up at me. The world spun, I felt dizzy, I heard a splash --
-- and suddenly I was drowning. I thrashed upward in a spray of gel and a spasm of coughing.
Saurassith pounded my back, an experience I don't recommend. "How you?" he asked.
"Nauseated. Concussed, panicky. A dozen different kinds of terrible." I looked at him. I can never read lizard expressions, but his eyes held a depth I couldn't see when I lived on his forehead. His true mind wasn't gone, just submerged.
Dilp had rented Saarassith's mind. I wondered if "rent" was the right word. What was she doing with it? More to the point, where had she stored it?
No one at the front of the studio noticed any of this. Graffiel had been showing around his sailboat haem. A few Ludens gathered, curious, then more. One young fellow bought the sheet, examined it, and looked up in wonder. I still remember his astonished announcement: "Look, the viewpoint moves where I want!"
Well, after that, they all had to have one.
Papkid wasted a guileless smile on blind Dilp. "As competitors, we'd destroy the business that conceals your true operation. As partners, we thrive."
Dilp listened uneasily to the gathering Ludens. "R'dic'lous."
"I've just had a fun thought," said Papkid. "What about a contest? If you can attract more Ludens to your deepwells than we can to ours, you can have ours. If we attract more, you convert to Chasmosis and run your operation with us."
Perhaps Papkid's amiably thick manner reassured Dilp. Personally, I thought of a fisher playing a line.
But the Toad Queen spat her acceptance: "'Greed!"
Graffiel refocused his deepwell and bled more droplets. The new haems drew gasps from the growing crowd. Still finding my balance, I staggered over.
Graffiel already looked pale. He saw me, smelled the vinegary stasis gel, and said, "Fillip? I. I think I'm. Feeling a bit -- Could you keep going for me?"
I shouldn't have resented his request. After all, that was the rule in Craverlane: Visagers embellished veyor images. But back in my body, I could feel how the work had drained me.
Still, I did want to help. I sighed, opened the bleed valve on my right wrist, and sprinkled droplets across Graffiel's deepwell. The contest began.
When the Ludens understood they could move the view where they liked, they began calling requests: "A beautiful desert! A city like Agon, but ruined in a jungle! A bridge like that one, but bigger!"
Flitbert was running among the wells, frantically trying to refocus them to request. But the last request caught Dilp's attention. "The same, but bigger" -- that she understood.
"Flitbert, wh-whhhiden th' bridge folio. Friends, come whhhatch! Double-folio!"
Flitbert cranked a squeaking wheel beside the deepwell. As it widened to the extraordinary double-folio size, fresh blood dripped thinly and unevenly, clotting in spots.
The bridge image shivered and jerked. Someone said, "Earthquake," and everyone laughed. Then they went back to Graffiel's haems.
People clustered around me so tight I could hardly breathe. Saying "Ten to look, a hundred to buy," Papkid took carats as fast as his hands could move. My blood poured out.
Graffiel refocused, and I saw with weak delight that he'd found a handsome scene of Dilp's bridge. Such a panorama! The view veered, plunged down the orange pillars to crashing surf -- the next instant it raced along the water toward gleaming towers -- then it spun onto a tremendous sunlit vista of high forested hills over a foam-white bay.
By now every Luden in the studio had converged on us. The way they threw carats, they seemed maniacal, euphoric. So was Papkid: "Twenty to look, 200 to buy!"
But I felt dizzy. A high ringing filled my ears, and I couldn't see. Rather, I seemed to see differently, as though down a tunnel or well.
In my vision, the Ludens vanished. Dilp was no longer shouting her frenzied discount offers. Instead, the Toad Queen sat happily atop a pile of bodies -- Prime Faith bishops, Surveill merchant families, veyor guild leaders, even the Pandectra. Dilp's bulk pressed them into a hole, and from beneath welled an illimitable torrent of blood.
Red haze blinded me. I stumbled away. Papkid shouted for me to come back, but amid the crowd's clamor I tried to interpret the vision.
If the Polyplanars were running a covert business here, where was it? I saw no other rooms. A secret passage, or --?
Then I knew. I waved to Saurassith and pointed at Dilp's upholstered stone platform. I shouted, "There! Uncover it!"
He moved, fast as a lizard on hot sand. Wham, he hit the platform and collided full-on with the Toad Queen. It's hard to believe if you've seen Dilp, but Saurassith toppled her like a flood hitting a wall of sandbags.
She screeched, oh how she screeched! Yet, seeing the giant lizard man with warrior tattoos and a glaive, nobody interfered. Anyway, most people didn't hear her over the general uproar.
I flung her cushions aside. The platform was hollow, and inside I saw a cluster of octavo deepwells. The slow drips showed Chasmosis sacriants, Pandect bureaucrats, troop movements....
Each deepwell had an attached lens. I pulled them all off, a double handful, and held them out to Saurassith.
Unlike me, he never hesitated. Two clawed fingers plucked out a lens, and he placed it to his forehead. He reeled back -- I thought he'd fall -- but as he righted himself, a new light gleamed in his green cat-eyes.
"Thank you, Fillip." His voice resounded, deep and clear. "The trap holds me long."
"What were you doing in there?"
"I watch Agon's leaders. I see them always, unsleeping, unblinking. I speak their secrets to the Polyplanar Theodicals. They use the secrets to gain power."
"How incredibly illegal." Given my "accident," I feared to think what Polyplanar or Chasmosis would do to protect their secret. If I stayed on Craverlane, how long would I last?
I felt trapped. I wanted out, across that marvelous bridge. But I didn't know what I needed or how to start.
Papkid had run outside. He was shouting, "Visagers! Jobs! Splendid carats!"
Shout this on Craverlane Bend, and idle visagers practically condense from the air. They trouped in. I saw some who had regained their body just recently, yet here they were already renting it again.
Graffiel pulled more portable wells from his satchel. The bleeding began. Ludens crowded into the Transcendicon, shouting more requests. "Another bridge, but yellow! A bridge joining this haem over here with that one over there!"
I thought, They have no idea what they want.
Then I thought, What do I want?
To help overthrow Dilp? To join Papkid and Graffiel? They were bleeding visagers, just like Dilp. And the visagers allowed it, because -- well, I still don't know why. A thousand dreadful reasons.
I sighed. Even breathing felt hard. I wanted my placid life in the lens.
Dilp was fuming at her imminent loss. At least her burbling sounded fume-y, like a bullfrog in a well being slowly strangled in a mudbath. "Wh-wh-wh-wh-whhhaaait-t-t! Op'n them whhhider, whhhider!
Flitbert stared as if Dilp had asked him to dissect her. "With all ressspect, Theodical, thisss isss unwissse --"
Scaly rolls of fat shook on the Toad Queen's arm as she smashed him. "I! Said! Wh-wh-whhhider! Lhhhook, friends, quaaadruple folios!"
Looking like he'd gladly dissect her after all, Flitbert cranked the bridge frame wider. It screeched and cracked. The blood spread thin, so the bridge went pale and blurry. With ever sloppier bleeding, the haems faded almost as soon as Flitbert peeled them off the well.
Then the bridge wobbled.
Flitbert had a moment to say, "Uhh-- Ohhhh--"
The frame shattered. A warp erupted, and Flitbert vanished into the black whirl. The warp's howl drowned his scream.
Every Luden knew that howl. They stampeded for the front door. Some picked up mannequins, broke the window, and leaped out.
The warp grew larger, like a spreading sinkhole turned upright. When it reached the ceiling and the floor, it ate through. Lightning crackled at its edges.
"Fillip, if that warp touches the other deepwells, it grinds this building like a sausage. We leave." Saurassith tried to pick me up. Force of habit.
"No! Bring the emergency veyors. I'll rescue the haems."
"Cheap trash. Forget them."
"These were my dreams."
The warp surged again, and a beam from the ceiling landed between us. Green lizard eyes judged me. Saurassith said, "Let that not be your epitaph," and turned.
I called to him: "You carried me through a bad interval. Thank you." He turned back, nodded once -- it felt like a valediction -- then ran for the door.
Dilp, Papkid, and Graffiel brazened it out as the ceiling sagged. They tried to repair the deepwell, but each took time to shove aside a rival. I think nobody there understood what they'd unleashed. The veyors who invented haemographs had probably acted in that same headlong ignorance.
But they acted. I would have played safe, done nothing.
Who would win? Suddenly I didn't care. Whoever won, I wouldn't -- because they thought big, and I didn't. In fact, I never even thought small. In all those years I bled away on Craverlane Bend, I'd hardly thought anything about anything.
I gauged the warp's expansion versus the distance to the exit. Too fast, too far.
I had the headband lens in my hand. By touching it a certain way, I'd go back in, just as before. In there I'd survive anything. Just as before.
And with that exact thought foremost in my conscious mind, my body took over and jumped headlong into the warp.
[T]here are gods of old, who be far greater than Yahn, who made the Law wherein Yahn is overskilled, and who will one day drive a bargain with him that shall be too hard for Yahn. Then Yahn shall wander away, a mean forgotten god....
Well, I'm with you in this bar, so I obviously didn't die. When I landed here on Earth -- north of here, actually, at Point Reyes seashore -- I started travelling. I had no money, no passport, not even a canteen. But you know.... Wash dishes, wait tables, learn the language, find someone to bribe. You can always work out something.
The traveller's sole essential -- more important than any item or preparation -- is the decision to go.
In ten years I've seen the most marvelous sights: Italy -- Victoria Falls -- Peru's Nazca Lines -- the Barrier Reef -- Zanzibar -- all fantastic beyond imagining. I love it.
Lately, though, I've felt a bit homesick, so I've returned here. Odd, because these hills don't match Mount Axxis, and Agon certainly has no Coit Tower or Lombard Street. Never mind the TransAmerica Pyramid!
But near Union Square yesterday I had a definite Agonist moment. A TV in a store window showed this jaw-dropping CNN report about an Internet chess tournament. A Grandmaster in a hotel ballroom won 47 simultaneous games against opponents in 29 countries. I said aloud, "That hotel's right here in The City!" And an old lady beside me said, "Honey, if it don't happen here, it don't happen nowhere."
It's the atmosphere. More than anywhere else, I feel at home here, beside this beautiful bay and the Golden Gate.
What still baffles me is those unspeakable computers. Can you recommend a pleasant, unthreatening book on Windows?