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She was only a goddess part-time, but she loved her job, and she was good at it. She went to and fro upon the earth and walked up and down in it, and where she strode bloomed flowers and sprouted grain; when she spread her hand, the winter was mild and the harvest bountiful, a summer storm brought showers warm and sweet as a sunlit pond, and the spring sang of things green and growing.
The First Folk called her Eyyallarann, the Flowmind; the stonebenders called her Thukulg’n, the Drowner; to the treetoppers she was Ketinnasi, the Riverman; to mankind, she was Chambaraya, the Water Father; but her name was Pallas Ril.
It was said she had a human lover, in some far-off place; that for half the year she took the form of mortal woman and lived in peace with her lover and her human child. Others said her lover was himself a god, her shadow-self, a dark angel of slaughter and destruction, and that the half of each year she spent at his side was the world’s ransom: that she paid with her body to keep him beyond the walls of time, and preserve the peace of the good land.
As is common with such tales, both were true; and false; and to the same degree.
The part-time goddess had no church, no religion, no followers; she could not be propitiated by sacrifice or summoned by invocation. She walked whither she willed, and followed the course of her heart as though its turns were the twists of her riverbed; she loved the land and all things in it, and all prospered under her hand. The only prayer that might sway her was the sob of a mother over her ill or injured child—be that mother human or primal, goshawk or bobcat, elk or rabbit—and this only because the human part of her remembered what it is to be a mother.
This was probably, in the end, the real reason why she and her lover both had to die.
For the scent of her green and growing land troubled the slumber of another god: a blind and nameless god, a god of dust and ashes, whose merest dream can kill.
The severed head of a child bounced once on his mattress, then rolled against his ribs, and Hari Michaelson began to wake.
He groped for it, struggling upward through smothering blankets of hungover sleep. His gummed-together eyelids parted with the slow rip of shredding meat. Layers of dream shredded into smoke tatters, leaving behind only wisps of melancholy: He had been dreaming of the old days again. Of his long-dead Acting career. Or even earlier—he could not quite grasp the details, but he might have been dreaming of his student days at the Studio Conservatory, more than twenty-five years ago, when he was young, and strong, and full of hope. When he’d still been riding the upward swing of his life.
He found the foreign object on the bed, his fingers flapping blindly across it. Not a head, of course it wasn’t a head; it was a ball, that’s it, just a kid’s ball, like the one he used to play rugger with, centuries ago in those bright and happy days before his mother’s death and father’s breakdown. With the abstract certainty of the dreams he shed, he knew the ball was Faith’s. She’d sneaked into the master suite, and this was her way of encouraging him to get his lazy ass out of bed and take her to Saturday morning soccer practice.
He rolled over and coughed a wad of phlegm out of his cottony lungs. “Abbey: Clear th’ windows,” he said thickly, in a tone the housecomp would recognize. “Get s’m fucking light in here.”
Strange ball, though, he thought fuzzily while he waited for the windows to depolarize. Weird shape, kind of irregular—bumpy and malformed—and the texture was strange, too, smooth and soft over a hard surface within, almost like bone—
And what was this shit here? Hair? This ball has hair on it?
At the same moment that he realized that the windows weren’t working and no light was entering the room, his hand found the ragged mess of bone and bloody shreds of flesh that remained of the neck, and an oiled voice spoke Westerling from a tall shadow at the foot of his bed.
“So, Caine,” it murmured with dark, humid lust, “I hear you’re crippled, now . . .”
And the head in his hand was his daughter’s, and the shadow at the foot of his bed was Berne.
The blade of Kosall flickered like a flame in the moonlight, and Hari Michaelson’s legs would not move.
Hari lay shivering beneath his tangled, sweat-soaked sheets, and hoped he hadn’t crapped himself again.
A warm hand cupped his shoulder. “Hari, it’s okay,” Shanna said softly from close by. “I’m here. Just a nightmare, that’s all.”
He clenched his teeth, biting down on his courage until he could open his eyes. She knelt beside his bed, her hair a tousled halo of deeper shadow in the darkened bedroom, her eyes wide and almost luminous, a faint vertical crease of concern between her brows.
“Was I—” he started thickly, then he coughed his throat clear and tried again. “Was it loud?”
She nodded sadly. “Berne again?”
“Those always seem to be the worst.”
“Tell me about it.” He rolled his head to the side, staring across the room at the rumpled covers on her bed; he couldn’t bring himself to look down at his own. “Did I—is there a mess?”
“I don’t think so,” Shanna said gravely. “I can’t smell anything. Do you want me to look?” She had that nurselike professional detachment in her voice again. He hated that tone; it made his stomach knot into a sick tangle of bile. That tone had loathing and disgust lurking just beneath the calm I’ll handle it surface.
“You’d better,” he said tightly. It hurt more to say this than it had to take the fucking wound in the first place. “The bypass is down again.”
The neural bypass that shunted impulses around the break in his partially regenerated spinal cord was erratic, at best; he hadn’t reloaded the software in three days, and some unexplained bugginess in the program made the bypass shut down unexpectedly now and again. That part of the dream had been perfectly accurate: he couldn’t move his legs, couldn’t feel them, or anything else below his navel. Below the three-inch-wide scar Kosall had left in his belly, he was dead as a butchered cow.
A shutdown always gave him nightmares, and sometimes he woke up in a pool of his own shit and piss that he couldn’t feel, and sometimes—if he’d been lying there long enough to numb his nose—couldn’t even smell. This was the reason Shanna no longer slept in his bed.
One of the reasons.
“Abbey: Room lights to one quarter,” Shanna said calmly. “Execute.”
The room lit with a soft decentralized glow, and she peeled back the covers. He made himself look. The sheets were stained only with the sweat that made his nightclothes cling to his clammy skin—that meant the shutdown was not yet complete; he still had control of his bowels and bladder. He gave a sigh of relief that threatened to become a shudder. Maybe he could make it to the bathroom before the goddamn bypass rebooted itself.
The regeneration therapy the Studio physicians had used to treat Hari’s severed spinal cord had slightly better than a 90 percent success rate—that’s what they kept telling him. Looking at it the other way, though, meant it had a 10 percent failure rate, and that’s roughly where Hari fell.
So to speak.
Sure, it had partially worked—he had some urinary and rectal sphincter control, and limited sensation. But even those partial gains were sacrificed to the spinal bypass. The bypass worked by neural induction, similar to the Studio’s first-hander chairs; when it went down, it played fuckass with everything below his waist.
The screen on the night table beside his bed flickered to life, casting a cold electric glow into the bedroom, and the disembodied face of Bradlee Wing, his father’s nurse, frowned out of it. “Administrator Michaelson? Are you all right?”
Shanna lifted her eyebrows at him, and he nodded reluctantly. She hit the voice recept key for him so he wouldn’t have to drag himself across the bed using only his arms.
“Yeah, fine, Brad. I’m fine.”
“I heard you shout—”
“I said I’m fine. Shanna’s here, everything’s okay.”
“Want something to help you sleep?”
Almost half a liter of Laphroaig remained in the bottle beside the screen; the scotch’s acidic, iodine bite still lingered in the back of his throat. He saw the expression on Shanna’s face as she caught his look at the bottle, and he turned away, scowling. “Don’t bother. Just—check on Dad, will you? Make sure I didn’t wake him.”
“The sedatives Laborer Michaelson takes—”
“Don’t call him Laborer Michaelson. How many times do I have to tell you?”
“And don’t fucking call me Administrator, either.”
“Sorry—sorry, ah, Hari. The hour—I forget, that’s all.”
“Yeah, whatever. Check on him.”
“Will do, ah, Hari.”
The screen faded to black.
He couldn’t quite make himself meet Shanna’s eyes. “I, uh, I better go check on Faith. If I woke up Bradlee all the way down on the first floor, I must have scared the shit out of her.”
Shanna rose. “I’ll go.”
“No, no, no,” Hari insisted tiredly. “Go back to bed. My fault, my job. I have to go reboot anyway—I’ll use the hall toilet so you can sleep.”
He whistled for his wheelchair, and it whirred into his bedroom, weaving around the furniture; the proximity sensors of its self-guidance system gave it an animal smoothness of motion. A simple command, “Rover: Stay,” locked its wheels into place once it reached his bedside, but Hari engaged the manual brakes as well. His bypass had taught him a grim distrust of microprocessors.
Shanna slid a hand under his armpit to help him up. He lowered his head and didn’t move. “I can do it,” he said.
“Oh, Hari . . .” She sounded so tired, so inexpressibly sad, as though one breath of his name could compass each of his failures, and all of her forgiveness. It made him grit his teeth till his ears rang. “Go to bed,” he said tightly.
“I wish you’d let me help,” she murmured, and for a moment the knots in his heart eased, just a little.
He covered her hand with his own. “You help every day, Shan. You’re what keeps me going, you and Faith. But you have to let me handle what I can handle, okay?”
She nodded silently. She leaned down and kissed him lightly on the cheek, then went back to the bed on her side of the room. Hari watched her grimly, waiting until she crawled back under the covers and settled in. “Good night,” she said.
“Yeah. Good night.”
She rolled onto her side, away from him, and gathered the down-filled pillow beneath her head. “Abbey,” he said, “lights out. Execute.”
Safe in the darkness, he slowly and carefully levered himself from the bed into Rover’s seat. It took both hands to move each dead-meat leg, one at a time, into place on the footrests. He sat there for what felt like a long time, breathing too hard, staring at his hands.
He’d made these hands into weapons, conditioned them until they were as deadly as any blade. In years past, he had been widely considered the finest infighter alive. His sole reminder of those days was the crumple of knuckles broken and rebroken, banded with faintly discolored scars.
He’d thought he was tough, back then. Only later, when the most use he had for his hands was shoving a glycerine suppository up his ass and manually disimpacting his bowels, did he find out how tough he really wasn’t. The first time Shanna had heard him sobbing, and found him sitting on the toilet with shit all over his futile fists, splattering it in child’s footprints across his dead thighs as he tried to pound some feeling, some use, back into them, he realized that he’d been kidding himself all along.
He’d never be tough enough for this.
After unlocking Rover’s wheels, he gripped their rims and spun the chair roughly toward the door. He’d had a levichair a few years before, but he’d sold it; he’d told Shanna, and his doctors, that he thought the levichair’s magfield wasn’t properly shielded, and it might have been the culprit behind his software problems. The truth was, he’d hated the fucking thing, and feared it. Any mechanical failure, even a mild powerdown, could leave him helplessly immobilized. At least Rover had wheels.
Which didn’t stop him from hating it, too.
The door slid aside at his approach; he wheeled out into the hallway and turned for Faith’s room. He should have stopped by the toilet to reboot first, he knew, but some irrational mulishness wouldn’t let him be sensible about it. Even if the worst should happen, he wouldn’t make much of a mess: Rover had a urine tube, and chemical toilet under the seat—though Hari privately thought that if he ever let himself get into the habit of using them, he’d kill himself.
The smell . . . More than anything else, that’s what he feared; the bare thought of it closed down his throat and stung his eyes. He remembered that smell too well: the chemical reek of illness and incontinence. It was Duncan’s smell, after his breakdown and downcaste spiral. The tiny apartment he’d shared with his father, in San Francisco’s Mission District Temp ghetto, had enclosed that stench, concentrated it, burned it into him like a brand on the inside of his skull. Not sharp, but thick and somehow rounded; not pungent but gooey, filling the back of his throat like he was drowning in snot.
It smelled like madness.
Rover’s comfort hookups were not a convenience; they were a threat. If he let himself fall that far, if he surrendered in the way every doctor told him he had to, if he accepted his disability and tried to accommodate it, that smell would cling to him forever. He was afraid that he might get used to it. He was afraid that someday he wouldn’t even notice anymore.
Rover rolled to a stop at Faith’s door. Hari touched the door with the tips of three fingers, as gently as a caress on his daughter’s cheek, and it swung silently inward a few centimeters. He whispered to the Abbey to raise the lights in the hallway, and the house complied, slowly turning up the intensity until a spill of light crossed Faith’s bed and gleamed on her spray of golden hair.
She lay in the boneless sprawl of childhood sleep. Hari’s chest burned with a fierce ache, and he could not shift his gaze until the slow rise and fall of the nightshirt that covered her chest unlocked his eyes. He remembered staring at Shanna the same way, as Pallas Ril lay bound to the altar in the Iron Room, high atop the Dusk Tower of the Colhari Palace in Ankhana; he remembered the relief—the flood of sanity and purpose returning to the universe—he’d felt when he saw that she still lived.
No such relief ever came to him in these dark nights, when he would stop by Faith’s door to stare at his daughter. The cold terror that coiled behind his eyes, the constant expectation that one of these nights he would look in and not see her chest rise and fall, never vanished; it was only postponed. He knew, with a certainty that went beyond religious conviction, that she would be taken from him. It was the most basic weave of his fate: Nothing so precious was allowed to remain in his life.
Her translucent skin—it seemed to glow, lit from within by the warmth of her eyes—her hair the color of sunlight on winter wheat, the classical Nordic regularity of her features, all carried just a hint of Shanna’s Anglo heritage, and none at all of his. She favored her real father.
Her biological father, Hari corrected himself. I’m her real father.
He thought with longing of the scotch bottle on his nightstand. He should have brought it with him. He could use a little peat-fired comfort tonight; these postmidnight hours were a fertile earth for thoughts darker than the night outside.
Sometimes when he looked at Faith, he couldn’t help thinking of Lamorak—of Karl. Karl Shanks: second-rate Actor, a minor star, a good-looking swordsman with a small gift for thaumaturgy, at one time a pretty good friend of Hari’s. Shanna’s lover. Her betrayer.
The father of her child.
Lamorak had betrayed Shanna, and Hari; Hari had betrayed him in turn. Had given him over to torture.
Had murdered him with his own hand.
He could still feel it, even now, more than six years later, if he closed his eyes and thought for just a moment: lying on the arena sand with Kosall through his guts, Ma’elKoth towering over him and Lamorak at his side. With Shanna’s tears trickling across his face like the opening drops of a spring shower. He could feel the buzzing hum of Kosall’s magick vibrating up his severed spine to his teeth, when he took its hilt to activate the magick of its irresistible edge.
He could feel Lamorak’s head slicing free of his body with the ragged zzzip of a page being ripped from a book, as he pulled the traitor’s neck against Kosall’s blade.
It’s better this way, he thought. This thought came to him every time he considered whose child he was raising; every time he reminded himself that Faith shared no Michaelson blood. Duncan liked to observe, with Thomas Paine, that virtue is not hereditary; no more so would be its opposite.
Madness, on the other hand, runs in families.
He briefly considered waking her—one sleepy smile from his daughter would chase off a whole night’s worth of shadows inside his head—but he knew he wouldn’t. He never did. He wouldn’t let himself use Faith as a drug against his black moods.
After one last longing look, to watch the rise of her chest, he wheeled Rover down the hall toward his office. When these black fits took hold of his heart, work was his only answer.
He turned in at the guest bathroom, next door to his office. Rover’s arms folded down, and he was able to swing himself onto the toilet using the wall-mounted rails. His pajama trousers fastened up the back with a Velcro closure, so that he could pull them open instead of having to lower them. A four-digit code on the belt unit slung across Rover’s back shut down his bypass software, and a single keystroke began the reboot.
As the software that allowed him to walk reinitialized, making his legs twitch and jerk, as his bowels and bladder spastically voided themselves, Hari Michaelson—who had once been Caine—clenched his jaw and squeezed his eyes shut against the familiar tears of his private humiliation. Why can’t I wake up? Please, God—whoever might be listening. That’s what I want. That’s all I want.
I want to wake up.
Hari shuffled along the hall, a little unsteady on his feet. Good as the bypass was, it would never be the same as a healthy spine; he would forever totter on secondhand legs, operating them by remote control. For the rest of his life, he’d be waxworks from the waist down: a numb, half-Animatronic replica of Caine.
And how, the cold postmidnight of the empty hallway asked him, was he supposed to live with that?
The way I live with everything else, he gritted to himself for the thousandth time, or the millionth. I’ll deal with it. I’ll just fucking deal.
Rover paced him silently, its proximity sensors keeping it a precise two steps behind and to his left; it remained in the hallway, squatting beside the door, when Hari went into the office. Inside, he lowered himself gratefully into the bodyform gel-filled polypropylene of his most comfortable chair and rested his head on his hands. He felt hollow, but also somehow uncomfortably full, and frighteningly fragile, as though his guts were stuffed with eggshells.
He rubbed grit out of his eyes and checked his deskscreen’s time readout: 0340. His stomach twisted slowly, sending sour scotch rasping up the back of his throat. He swallowed it again and grimaced at the lingering acid burn it left behind. Some coffee, maybe? Maybe his life looked like shit from nothing more than fatigue and the opening bars of a familiar hangover theme.
For a moment, he flirted with the idea of calling Tan’elKoth, over at the Curioseum. He could stand to talk, tonight, even with an enemy—and Tan’elKoth was hardly that, not after all these years. They had each done things to the other that could not be forgiven—Hari freely admitted he had done more wrong than he’d taken—but somehow it didn’t seem to matter.
It’s not like he’d wake the big bastard up; Tan’elKoth hadn’t slept in something like twelve or thirteen years.
No, goddamit. No, he told himself. I’m not doing it. Not this time.
Calling Tan’elKoth would be only a distraction. That’s all it ever was. Whatever peace Hari found in the other man’s company was a sham, all smoke and mirrors. It wouldn’t last an hour after they parted. There was no mystery here; Hari was not so blind that he did not see the real reason he kept company with the former Emperor of Ankhana: Tan’elKoth was the only man alive who treated him like he was still Caine.
That’s something else I just gotta fucking get over.
He swiveled his chair around to the mahogany sideboard behind his desk and keyed the coffeemaker for a twelve-cup Yucatán brew. The machine’s whirr was only audible enough to let him know it was working as it measured out the mexiroast beans from its refrigerated hopper, ground them, and dusted them with cinnamon. Thick dark coffee drooled into the pitcher, so strong that the smell alone started his caffeine buzz.
While he waited for the pitcher to fill, he idly played with the keypad of his deskscreen. He didn’t decide to call up anything in particular, or so he told himself, but somehow his fingers seemed to know what he needed: they entered a long, detailed, specific code.
The dark rectangle of his deskscreen slowly gathered a foggy greyish light: an overcast sky. A blurred patch of brown and cream resolved into a close-up view of a man with the face of a god. Hum and rumble from concealed speakers pulsed into the rhythm of speech; of words, now, in a voice soft and warm and impossibly deep: a voice that is not heard so much as felt: a subterranean vibration, the precursor shocks to an earthquake. Hari didn’t need to listen to know what those words were; he remembered them vividly. Even as he remembered that sky, and that face.
Ma’elKoth, framed against the clouds that he had called above Victory Stadium, rumbled his soothing, comforting hum: let it go, Caine. It’s all right. Shh. Lie quiet, relax, and let it go . . .
Hari stared at the wall of his office while he listened to Caine’s voice whisper from the speakers in the artificial speech of the Actor’s Soliloquy.
*Fuck letting it go.*
And he hadn’t. He hung on, still, every day. He was still fighting. He owed that much, at least, to the man he used to be.
He sighed and reluctantly instructed his deskscreen to link to Studionet. He spoke the required phrases so that Studionet could verify his voiceprint; a moment later, fully updated hardcopy charts began to scroll out of his printer. He gathered them into his hands and shuffled through them. Hari had an innate distrust of data that existed only electronically, on the net; this probably came from growing up in the shadow of Duncan’s lunatic libertarianism.
At one time, Hari had possessed an extensive library of nonvirtual books, with real cotton-and-wood-pulp pages, cardstock covers—some that dated from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, bound in leather-covered fiberboard, pages edged with gold leaf. Whenever possible, Duncan had taught Hari from books, the older the better; Duncan claimed that nothing printed after the Plague Years could be trusted.
“The print on the pages—it’s an object, do you understand? Once it’s printed, there it is, in your hand. It can no longer be altered, or edited, or censored—if it is, you can see it, see where it’s been blacked out or cut away. Electronic text, though, is at least half imaginary; anyone can go in and make whatever changes they like, to suit whatever the politics of the moment happen to be. You don’t believe me? Call up anything by John Locke on the nets. Call up anything by Abraham Lincoln. By Friedrich Nietzsche or Aleister Crowley. Compare what you see on the screen with what you find in the old books. You’ll learn.”
Those books were long gone now, of course; hundreds of thousands of marks worth had been sold. Some of them, too sensitive to be sold—banned works, by unpersons like Shaw, and Heinlein, and Paine—were in a sealed vault on the Sangre de Cristo estate of Hari’s Leisure Patron, Marc Vilo. Hari couldn’t keep books like that in the house, not with Duncan here.
The commutation of Duncan’s sedition sentence was conditional. At the first hint of subversive behavior—for example, possession of banned works of literature—Soapy would sink his teeth into Duncan’s ass and drag him away, and not back into the Mute Facility at the Buchanan Social Camp. This time, he’d be cyborged, and sold as a Worker—and Duncan wouldn’t last a week under the yoke; as ill as he was, he wouldn’t last a day.
He remembered an argument Duncan had had with Tan’elKoth, four or five years ago—back when Duncan still had enough fine motor control to speak aloud. “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights . . .”
Hari half smiled, remembering. Duncan had been quoting Jefferson with a high, acid-edged screech; that meant Tan’elKoth had been baiting him again. He often fell back on Jefferson when Tan’elKoth had boxed him into a logical corner.
Hari could see the scene as though it unfolded once more before his eyes: Tan’elKoth at the table in the Abbey’s kitchen, his bulk dwarfing it to the size of a child’s playset. The coffee mug in his massive hand looked like an espresso cup. He wore an immaculately tailored Professional’s suit, single-breasted in a stylish taupe, and his mane of chocolate curls was pulled back in a conservative ponytail. He carried himself with the suave cool of a male model, but his eyes danced with unconcealed glee: he loved tangling with Duncan.
“Self-serving propaganda,” he’d rumbled, and lifted a finger, pontificating. “Whatever the intent of this hypothetical creator—whose mind you pretend to know—I can tell you this: The gods have no interest in rights. There are no rights. Or wrongs. There is only power, and weakness. I have been a god, and I am acquainted with several more; our concern is with the structure of survival. A human life is defined by its relationship with others: by its duty to its species. In the face of this duty, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are meaningless. What you call individual rights are merely the cultural fantasy of a failed civilization.”
“Fascist bastard,” Duncan had croaked happily. His eyes rolled like misshapen marbles, but his voice was clear, and stronger than it had been in a month. “Can’t trust a fascist—truth is always your first sacrifice to the welfare of the state.”
“Hmp. As you say. If you do not wish to take my word, ask your daughter-in-law; though she is a weak god, a flawed and failed god, she is a god nonetheless. Ask Pallas Ril where individual rights place in her hierarchy of concern.”
“Not gonna argue gods with you, you smug sonofabitch,” Duncan had croaked.
Duncan had been sitting up that day, his chest strapped securely to the raised back of his convertible traveling bed, its wheels locked alongside the table where Tan’elKoth sat. Veins bulged and twitched among the translucent scraps of white hair that remained on his scalp; his eyes rolled, his hands trembled uncontrollably, and a line of frothy drool trailed down from one corner of his mouth, but he seemed mostly lucid.
Arguing political philosophy was the only thing that had seemed to hold Duncan’s attention, even then. Before the autoimmune disorder that was progressively eating his brain had become symptomatic, Duncan had been a professor of social anthropology, a philologist and an authority on the cultures of Overworld. He had always loved to argue, loved it perhaps more than anything else, including his family.
He had nearly ended his life under a sedition sentence in the Mute Facility of the Buchanan Social Camp for one overpowering reason: He could not learn to shut up.
Hari had never been able to argue with him. He didn’t have the right kind of mind to spin political fantasies back and forth across a table. Hari had always been too busy surviving the realities of his existence to waste time dreaming about how things ought to be. Sometimes a week or more would pass when he could barely get a coherent sentence out of Duncan, but somehow Tan’elKoth always seemed able to draw Duncan up from whatever nirvana into which his private madness had sealed him.
Duncan had gone on, “Don’t care about gods. Gods are irrelevant. What counts is people. What counts is having respect for each other.”
“I respect what is respectable,” Tan’elKoth replied. “To ask for respect where none has been earned is childish maundering. And what is respectable, in the end, save service? Even your idol Jefferson is, in the end, measured by how well he served the species. The prize of individualism—its goal—is self-actualization, which is only another name for vanity. We do not admire men for achieving self-actualization; we admire self-actualization when its end result is a boon to humanity.”
“Huh,” Duncan said, wiping his chin with the back of his hand. “Maybe self-actualization is the only way to really serve humanity. Maybe it’s people like you that harm it. When you try to ‘serve humanity,’ you end up making them into sheep. You serve them, all right: you serve them for dinner. People eat sheep.” He rolled his clouded eyes at Hari, a distinct twinkle within them welcoming him to the table, to the discussion, as if to say, People like you. My son, the predator.
Tan’elKoth hummed disagreement. “Sheep are very successful, as a species. Humanity, at least on my world, is not. Your individualism leads, inevitably, to men who place their own desires above the welfare of others—of any others, perhaps all others.”
“Men like Leonardo, and Mozart. Like Charlemagne and Alexander.”
“Hmp. Also,” Tan’elKoth said with an air of finality, as though he had cunningly led Duncan into an inescapable rhetorical trap, “men like Caine.”
That was when Hari had decided he was done with this conversation. “That’s enough,” he said. He set his mug down too fast and too hard; coffee slopped across the table. “Change the subject.”
“I meant no insult—” Tan’elKoth said mildly.
“I don’t care. I’m not insulted. I’m just sick of listening to it.”
Duncan didn’t seem to hear; or perhaps he heard, and chose to ignore. “Caine did a lot of good for a lot of people—”
“Purely by accident,” Tan’elKoth interrupted.
“Aren’t you the one who doesn’t believe in chance?”
“Hey,” Hari said, louder. “Cut it out, both of you.”
Duncan swung his strengthless head toward his son. “I’m only trying to stick up for you, Killer,” he said, a tremor leaking into his voice.
“I don’t need you to defend me, Dad,” Hari told him. “I just need you to shut up.”
Deeper clouds had gathered behind the cataracts in his father’s eyes, drawing a veil between his consciousness and the world. “Sorry . . . I’m sorry . . .”
Sitting now at his desk in the black morning, those last three words burned him. How could he have said such a thing? How could he have been so childish?
And though he might pretend otherwise, the answer was all too clear. The wound left by the excision of Caine from his life had been too fresh back then. He hadn’t had a chance to adjust to the granite fact that he could never, ever be that man again. Never again would he be that strong. Never that sure.
Never that free.
He hadn’t known, then, the source of his pain—he’d kept telling himself I got everything I wanted. I won, goddammit! What the fuck is my problem? All he’d really understood was that he hurt all the time; all he had was blank animal incomprehension and the social grace of a wolverine with a toothache.
Not long after that, Duncan’s voice had gone forever. Right now, he couldn’t remember if his father had ever spoken to him again.
Hari spent a long time staring at the hardcopy charts spread across his desk. Gradually, he forced himself to make sense of the numbers. Christ, that’s ugly, he thought. He rearranged them, gathered them up, shuffled them, and spread them across his desk once again. No matter in what order he stacked them, the brutal truth was unmistakable.
He didn’t know what the fuck he was doing.
Of the six fiscal years that he had been Chairman of the San Francisco Studio, his Studio had lost money in four; three in a row, now, and getting worse. He had taken the number one Studio on Earth—the flagship of the entire Adventures Unlimited system—and he had pooched it so badly that now only the freight fees paid by the Overworld Company were keeping it afloat.
This is a mystery? he thought bitterly. This was supposed to be a surprise?
He had been given the Chairmanship—and its attendant upcasting to Administration—as a blatant public-relations stunt, a transparent attempt to counter the disastrous aftermath of Caine’s final Adventure, For Love of Pallas Ril. The fallout of that Adventure had toppled SF’s previous Chairman, Arturo Kollberg, and had blackened the reputation of the entire Studio system. At the time, briefly, Hari had been the most famous man on Earth—For Love of Pallas Ril was the single most popular Adventure in history, setting records for both viewership and receipts that still stood, nearly seven years later—and he could have done incalculable damage to the industry. So they bought him off.
That’s a little too generous, Hari thought. I wasn’t bought off. I was just bought.
Bought with the chance to live in peace with the woman he loved. Bought with the chance to raise his daughter as an Administrator. Bought with the chance to get to know his father again, as a man. And in return?
All he had to do was sit down and shut up.
One of his new colleagues, the Chairman of the St. Petersburg Studio, had put it cogently when they first met, a couple of weeks after Hari’s upcaste: “Perhaps the most significant skill an effective Administrator ever develops is the ability to do nothing. Knowing when not to act is vastly more important than knowing what to do can ever be.”
And there he had it: a philosophical rationale for being a good boy, for sitting quietly and marking days till his pension. Thus conscience does make cowards of us all, Hari thought.
He was strong enough to survive any given day. But when he looked down the long bleak tunnel of the rest of his life, he saw far too many nights like this one, sitting at his desk after 0300, staring into the cement-grey certainty that today would be exactly like yesterday, tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeping in its petty pace from day to day, world without end, amen.
If he was lucky.
Another keystroke or two pulled up an abstract of the latest brief filed in Social Court by lawyers for Avery Shanks. Whenever Hari was in a really shitty mood, like tonight, he could access the growing archive of Bsn. Shanks v. Adr. Michaelson, and brood about what would happen if Studio Legal ever dropped the ball.
Businessman Avery Shanks—Karl Shanks’ mother, Lamorak’s mother, the head of the electronic chemicals giant SynTech— had personally filed capital Forcible Contact Upcaste charges against Hari within days of the climax of For Love of Pallas Ril—before Hari was even out of the hospital. She had used the SynTech legal department as her personal attack dogs, filing and refiling, contending that her son’s caste of Professional had been only pro forma, attendant to his employment as an Actor. SynTech lawyers continued to argue that Karl should be considered a Businessman in the eyes of the court.
Which, without the Studio’s protection, would be enough to get Hari cyborged and sold as a Worker.
On his worst nights, Hari suspected that the reason the Studio hadn’t quashed this lawsuit altogether is that they planned to drop it on him like a hammer if he ever stepped out of line.
He closed the lawsuit archive, rustled his hardcopy charts again, straightened them with an irritable snap, but his attention circled inevitably back . . .
Legal fees alone could wipe him out. Shanna’s income couldn’t support the family by itself, even without the costs of a court battle; she still had a fanatically loyal core audience, but her overall receipts had been dropping for years. She didn’t even have first-handers anymore. She spent each of her twice-yearly three-month shifts on freemod, her experiences being graved into a microcube: an ironic echo of one of Arturo Kollberg’s innovations, the Long Form.
The experience of being a goddess has a certain charm—the seamless serenity of her powerful connection to her entire world, the mind-bending awareness of every living thing within the Great Chambaygen watershed, the uplifting consciousness of boundless power perfectly controlled—but her fans had soon discovered they could get the same effect from her cubes. Even from a single cube. Since each day was much like another for Chambaraya, her rentals were shit. To keep first-handers coming back, for good rentals and cube sales, you need story. Story was exactly what Pallas Ril didn’t have. She was complete; there was nothing she could need that the river did not provide. For Chambaraya, there is no necessity. Without necessity, all is whim.
He shook his head to rattle his attention back to the charts in his hands. He’d been staring at them sightlessly for he didn’t know how long. The figures on the page no longer had any meaning he could comprehend; they had become vaguely threatening hieroglyphs, an apocalyptic prophecy in Linear A.
With a sigh, he finally surrendered. He folded the charts once, then again, then tucked them neatly into the disposal chute alongside his desk. “Abbey: Call out. AV,” he said. “The Studio Curioseum. Private line of Tan’elKoth. Execute.”
In a moment, the Waiting logo on the screen dissolved to a high-contrast, discolored view of Tan’elKoth’s face. “Caine. Another sleepless night?”
“Goddammit,” Hari said for what seemed like the millionth time, “if I have to call you Tan’elKoth, you can fucking well call me Hari.” But this protest had become familiar, reflexive, and he could hear the insincerity that blunted its edge.
Tan’elKoth heard it, too. One majestic eyebrow arched, and the creases at the corners of his eyes deepened a trifle. “Just so.”
“What’s wrong with your screen? You’re all orange, and the contrast is so bad it looks like half your face is missing.”
Tan’elKoth shrugged and rubbed his eyes. “The screen is fine. I can no longer abide reading from a monitor, and the incessant flicker of your electric lights gives me a headache.” He turned the screen so that Hari could see the large book open on Tan’elKoth’s reading desk, and the tall flame of the oil-burning hurricane lamp that sat beside it. “But you did not rise in these wee hours to chaff me for poor equipment maintenance.”
“Yeah,” Hari sighed. “I guess I was wondering, if you weren’t too busy—”
“Busy, Administrator? I, busy? Perish the thought. I am, as I have been for lo, these many years, entirely at your disposal, Mr. Chairman.”
“Forget it,” Hari muttered. He lacked the strength to shoulder Tan’elKoth’s heavy irony tonight. He reached for the cutoff.
“Caine, wait,” Tan’elKoth said. His eyes shifted, and he passed a hand over his face as though he wanted to wipe away his features and become a different man. “Please—ah, Hari—forgive my tone. I have been too long alone with bitter thoughts, and I spoke without thinking. I would be glad of company tonight, should you wish it.”
Hari studied Tan’elKoth’s image on the screen: the dark streaks beneath his eyes, the new creases and sags of his once-perfect skin, and the downtwist at the corners of lips that had once known only smiles. Shit, Hari thought. Do I look as bad as he does?
“I was thinking,” Hari said slowly, “that I might brew a jug of coffee and sail over. Feel like walking?”
Tan’elKoth’s downtwists flattened toward what might have been a smile, on somebody else. “Into the District?”
Hari shrugged like he didn’t care, fooling neither himself nor Tan’elKoth. “I guess. Game?”
“Of course. I enjoy your old neighborhood; I find it stimulating. Rather like one of your antique nature films: an ocean of tiny predators, circling each other.” He cocked his head at the screen and spoke with the soft cheer of a man telling an off-color joke in a crowded restaurant. “When was the last time you killed someone?”
Below the desk, one of Hari’s hands found its way to the numb, dead-meat oval of scar tissue at the small of his back. “You should remember. You were there.”
“Mmm, just so. But, one never knows: Perhaps tonight, we shall be lucky enough to be attacked.”
“Yeah, maybe.” If we run across a wolfpack that’s stone fucking blind, Hari thought. “All right, then. I’m on my way.”
“I’ll be at the South Gate in half an hour.”
“See you there.”
“Yes, you shall—” He smiled as he poked the cutoff. “—Caine.”
Hari shook his head and directed a disgusted snort at the dark rectangle of screen. He hit his own cutoff and found half a smile growing on his face.
“Hari? You never came back to bed.”
He looked up, and his smile faded away again. Shanna stood in the doorway, looking at him reproachfully through her pillow-twisted hair. Her face wore the fading ghosts of beatitude, a slowly dimming glow of transcendent peace: she’d been dreaming of the river.
It made him want to throw something at her.
“Yeah, I—” He lowered his head and tried not to look guilty, and gestured at the stacks of hardcopy spread across his desk. “I decided to get some work done.”
“Who were you talking to? That was Tan’elKoth, wasn’t it?”
He lowered his eyes and stared at the fists he’d made against his legs.
“You know I wish you didn’t spend so much time with—”
“Yeah, I know,” Hari interrupted. This was a familiar argument, and he didn’t feel like spinning it up again at this hour of the night. “I’m gonna go out for a little while.”
“Now?” These days, it never seemed to take long for that transcendent peace to flush out of her face; it was gone already. “You’re going out in the middle of the night?”
“Yeah. I do that, sometimes.” He left unsaid the And you’d know it, if you were here with me and your daughter more than six months a goddamn year, but it hung between them anyway, silently poisoning the air.
She pushed back her hair with the heel of one hand, and her face had that pinched, overcontrolled look he remembered too well, from the bad old days when they couldn’t so much as open their mouths without starting a fight.
Bad old days? Who am I kidding? he thought.
These are the bad old days.
“Will you be back in time for breakfast?” she asked; then she slipped in the cheap shot like a knife between his ribs. “Or do I need some lie to tell Faith about where you are?”
He started to snarl back at her, but caught himself. Who was he to complain about cheap shots? He let out a long, slow breath and shook his head. “No. No, I’ll be back for breakfast. Look, I’m sorry, Shanna. Sometimes, I just need somebody to talk to—”
When he saw the look on her face, he wished he’d bitten his tongue in half before those last words had come out.
Her eyes pinched almost shut, and her mouth set in a painfully thin line. “Sometimes I still let myself hope you might want to talk to me.”
“Oh, Shanna, don’t—look, I do talk to you.” He did: whenever he could stand to hear for the billionth fucking time How Easy It Is to Be Happy, if he just let himself Flow Like the River and shit like that. He looked away so that she wouldn’t read this on his face. None of this was her fault, and he’d promised himself over and over again he wouldn’t take it out on her. “Ah, forget it. I’m going.”
He shuffled the hardcopy into a stack and stood up. She came into the room as if she could stop him. “I wish you’d be more careful with Tan’elKoth. You can’t trust him, Hari. He’s dangerous.”
He brushed past her, careful not to touch her on his way to the door. “Yeah, he is,” he said. He added under his breath, as he walked away down the hall, “Like I used to be.”
And behind him, with endless inanimate patience, paced Rover.
She leaned on the window of his study, cooling her forehead against the glass, and watched him go. The black teardrop of his Daimler Nighthawk followed a long, smooth, computer-directed arc upward toward the cloud deck.
She ached for the river.
Forty days, she thought. That’s really just five weeks—well, six. For six weeks, I can stand anything.
Forty days from today, at 0900 hours, her next shift as the goddess would begin. At 0830 she would snug the respirator and lower herself into the freemod coffin and lock down its lid; she’d lie motionless on the gelcot for the endless minutes of mass balancing—the freemod transfer requires an extremely precise exchange of mass/energy between the universes—and for those slow-ticking seconds she would hang in delicious anticipation, awaiting the mind-twisting soundless thunderclap of freemod transfer. Awaiting the first notes of Chambaraya’s Song: the deep, slow hymn of welcome that would fill her heart and draw forth her answering melody. Twice a year, for three months at a time, she could be part of the river.
Twice a year, she could be whole.
She’d never told Hari how she longed for that music; she’d never told him how empty and stale Earth had become for her. She loved him too much to tell him how painful it was to be alone inside her head. Can’t you see? her heart cried to the departing arc of his car.
Can’t you see how lonely I am?
Slow tears rolled down her cheeks. How could she live, with nothing inside her but memory and hope?
“Mommy?” Faith’s voice came tentatively from behind her. “Mommy, are you all right?”
Shanna pushed herself away from the window. She didn’t bother to wipe away her tears; the intimate bond she shared with Faith for half of each year made lying impossible. “No,” she said. “No, I’m sad today.”
“Me, too.” Faith knuckled her eyes as she slowly came into the study. Shanna met her and picked her up, straightening Faith’s pajamas and brushing the fine-spun golden hair back from her face. Faith sighed and laid her cheek against Shanna’s shoulder. “You miss the river, huh?”
Shanna nodded silently. She sat back down on the window seat and held Faith on her lap; she looked out toward the orange-underlit gloom of the cloud deck.
“Me, too,” Faith said solemnly. “I miss the music. It’s always so quiet when you’re home—sometimes I get a little scared.”
Shanna hugged her daughter tightly, intimately aware of how small and fragile she was, holding her small head against her shoulder. The physical contact was only a poor echo, though, of the intimacy and love they could share when connected by the river. Faith had been born nine months—almost to the day—after her battle at the Ankhanan docks. The cells that would someday become her daughter had been already riding in her womb, that first time she’d ever touched the river and joined its Song.
Faith had been brushed with power at the apotheosis of Pallas Ril.
“I miss you when you’re here,” Faith said. “It’s pretty lonely, without the music. But Daddy needs you, too.”
“Yes,” Shanna said. “Yes, I know.”
“Is that what happened? Were you and Daddy fighting?”
“No, we weren’t fighting. No one fights with your father anymore,” Shanna said hopelessly. She looked out toward the swell of cloud where the Nighthawk had disappeared. “I think that’s most of the problem.”
The tenement sagged under the weight of two hundred years’ neglect. Its smog-blackened walls gave back almost none of the glow from the single cracked streetlight outside: a vacant, slightly lopsided rectangle, it loomed against the overcast night, a window into oblivion.
Hari stood on the crumbling pavement, staring up into the alley behind, at the spot where he knew his window still was: 3F, third floor in the back, farthest from the stairwell. Three rooms and one walk-in closet barely big enough for an eight-year-old boy to have a cot. That tiny closet had been his room until a month after his sixteenth birthday.
And that window, which could be pried open silently if he worked at it carefully enough: with better light—or younger eyes—he was sure he’d be able to pick out rope scars on the ancient aluminum windowsill.
He could still feel the coil of that rope pressing against his ribs from its hiding place between his thin camp mattress and the steel slats of the cot frame. That coil of rope had saved his life dozens of times; sometimes his only chance to escape Duncan’s intermittent homicidal rages had been to lock the door of his room and slip out that window, lower himself to the street. Down here among the whores and the addicts and the prowling sexual predators he had been closer to safe than anywhere within his father’s reach.
Closer to safe than breathing that apartment’s stink of madness into his lungs.
“I once thought,” Tan’elKoth said beside his shoulder, “that I understood why we come here. I believed that you come to remind yourself what an extraordinary journey your life has been. From here, one can see both where you began—” He nodded at the tenement, then turned to regard the spire of San Francisco Studio Central, only three kilometers away. “—and the pinnacle which you have achieved. The contrast is, not to put too fine a point on it, astonishing. Yet it seems to give you no satisfaction.”
Hari didn’t need to look at Tan’elKoth to know the expression he’d be wearing: a mask of polite interest that half concealed a savage hunger. The ex-Emperor had an interest both intense and abiding in anything that might cause Hari pain. Hari didn’t grudge that interest; he’d earned it.
“That’s not why I come here,” he said heavily.
He looked around at the crumbling buildings that leaned over the broken pavement; at the darkened basement bars on every corner, filled with loud music and restlessly still people; at the food bank, where empty-eyed men and women with silent children were already queuing up for the breakfast that was still two hours away. Not far away, a rumpled mound of tattered clothing moved slightly, revealing a ragface in the final stages of his long descent: his eyes rolled sightlessly, blind with methanol poisoning, his nose and part of his upper lip rotted into oozing open wounds. The ragface opened a plastic bag to pull out his dirty wad of fuel-laced handkerchief and pressed it to his mouth, shuddering deeply as he inhaled.
Hari lifted a hand, dropped it again: a brief hopeless flick that encompassed the entire Mission District. “Sometimes I have to remind myself it’s a long fucking way down.”
An old, old punchline whispered in the back of his head, bitter and unfunny: The fall ain’t so bad—the problem’s that sudden stop at the bottom . . .
“You are considering a leap?” Tan’elKoth said slowly.
Hari shrugged and started walking again. Rover hummed along in the street behind him, keeping its robotic two-pace distance.
Tan’elKoth swung alongside with the ponderous majesty of a battle cruiser at half speed. “And this is why you bring me here? Do you hope that I hate you enough to convince you to jump?”
“Don’t you?” He squinted up at the enormous man beside him. Tan’elKoth wore the cable-knit sweater and chinos of a casually stylish Professional, and his dark mane was pulled back in a conservative ponytail. Middle age was softening his jawline toward a curve of jowl, but he still had the titanic build of the god he had once been. The metallic straps of the ammod harness that he wore over his sweater gleamed like armor under the streetlight. It was easy to imagine that the pavement would tremble beneath his step.
“Of course I do,” Tan’elKoth said easily. They ambled along another block, passing from shadow to light to shadow again, sharing a companionable silence.
“I have dreamed your death, Caine,” he said finally. “I have lusted for it as the damned in your Christian hell lust for oblivion. Your death would not give me back my Empire, would not return to me the love of my Children, but it would ease— if only for the few seconds that I crush your life between my fingers—the suffering of my exile.”
He lowered his head as though to examine the sidewalk. “But: once done, I would be bereft. I would have nothing else of which to dream.”
Hari sidestepped a pair of drunks who leaned on each other as they tried to decide whether to go indoors or pass out here on the street; Tan’elKoth shouldered them effortlessly out of the way. They shouted something slurred and angry. Hari and Tan’elKoth kept walking. “And further,” Tan’elKoth murmured, “I confess that I would miss you.”
“Sadly, yes.” He sighed. “I find myself living more and more upon memories of the past. They are the sole comfort of my captivity. You are the only person with whom I share those memories; you are the only man alive who truly remembers—who truly appreciates—what I once was.” He spread his hand in a gesture of resignation. “Maudlin, isn’t it? What a revolting creature I have become.”
This cut a little too close to the bone for Hari’s comfort; he walked on without speaking for a block or two. “Don’t you—” he began slowly, then started again. “You ever think about going back?”
“Of course. My home is never far from my thoughts; Ankhana is the land of my birth, and of my rebirth. The bitterest wound that life has inflicted upon me is the knowledge that I will never taste that wind, never warm my face with that sun, never stand upon that earth, ever again. I could leave this life a happy man, if only my last breath might be of Ankhanan air.”
Tan’elKoth lifted his massive shoulders and dropped them again. “But that is an empty fantasy. Even if your masters would allow such a thing, the Beloved Children have no need of me; I am of greater value to the Church as a symbol than I could be as a personal god. And that god still exists: The power of Ma’elKoth is a function of the pooled devotion of my worshipers. Priests of Ma’elKoth still channel the power to perform miracles by praying to my image—I should say, His, for He and I are no longer coextensive.”
He released a long, slow sigh, empty of all feeling save loss. “I cannot pretend that the world fails to turn for lack of my hand upon it.”
Hari nodded. “Shit just turns out that way sometimes,” he said. “You should be used to it by now.”
“Should I?” Tan’elKoth came to a halt; he appeared to study the urine-stained wall at his side. “And how is it that I should find my defeat more tolerable than you have your victory?”
Hari snorted. “That’s easy: you can blame it on me,” he said. “Who do I blame?”
Chocolate brows canted upward over his enormous liquid eyes as Tan’elKoth considered this. “Mm, just so,” he admitted at last, nodding to himself with a rueful half smile. “It is a curiously consistent characteristic of yours, Caine, that you always seem to be just a bit smarter than I anticipate.”
“Yeah, sure. I’m a genius with a capital J.”
Tan’elKoth laid one finger alongside the bend in his nose where Caine had broken it: the only flaw in his classically perfect features. “Do you know why I have never had this repaired?” he asked. He opened his hand as though releasing a butterfly. “For the same reason that I changed my name.”
Hari squinted at him again, narrowing his eyes to overlay his vision with the memory of this man as he’d been in the days he had ruled the Ankhanan Empire, as Emperor and living god. In those days, he had called himself Ma’elKoth, a phrase in Paquli that translates, roughly, as I Am Limitless. Ma, in Paquli, is the present nominative case of to be; tan is its past tense.
I Was Limitless.
“So that every time I hear my name—every time I see my reflection—” Tan’elKoth continued, “I am reminded of the penalty for underestimating you.”
His tone was distantly precise. Well rehearsed. More and more, during these Earthbound years, Tan’elKoth seemed to be talking for someone else’s benefit—as though he was playing to an audience that existed only in his mind.
Hari grunted. “Flatterer.”
“Is that why you’ve never made a try for me?”
Tan’elKoth began walking again. “Revenge is an occupation of inferior minds,” he said meditatively. “It is the shibboleth of spiritual poverty.”
“That’s not an answer.”
Tan’elKoth only shrugged and walked on. After a moment, Hari followed him. “Perhaps I have not destroyed you,” the ex-Emperor murmured, “because it is more enjoyable to watch you destroy yourself.”
“That’s about right,” Hari said with a snort. “Everything I’ve done my whole life has been somebody’s entertainment.”
Tan’elKoth hummed a neutral agreement.
Hari rubbed the back of his neck, but his fingers couldn’t loosen the knots that had tied themselves there. “Maybe that’s part of what’s so hard to take, at the end of the day. I’ve done a lot of shitty things in my life. I’ve done some pretty good things. But when you come right down to it, none of that matters. Everything I’ve done, everything that’s been done to me—win, lose, love, hate, who gives a fuck?—it all only counts as far as it helps some bastard I’ve never met while away a couple idle hours.”
“We are indeed a pair,” Tan’elKoth mused. “Our wars long fought, our glories passed. Is it truly that your life was mere entertainment which troubles you—or is it that your life is no longer so entertaining?”
“Hey, that reminds me,” Hari said. “I don’t think I’ve invited you lately to go fuck yourself.”
Tan’elKoth smiled indulgently. “I wept because I had no shoes, until I met a man who had no feet.” He nodded down the sidewalk, at a ragged legless beggar dozing in his ancient manual wheelchair. “Consider this man: I have no doubt he would give up his very hope of the afterlife to walk—even so badly as you walk—for one single day.”
“So?” Hari said. “So he’s more crippled than I am. So what?”
Tan’elKoth’s smile turned cold. “You have a much nicer wheelchair.”
“Oh, sure,” Hari said. He grunted a bitter laugh. “Rover’s a real treat.”
“Rover?” Tan’elKoth said. One eyebrow arched more steeply. “You gave a name to your wheelchair? I hadn’t thought you the type.”
Hari shrugged irritably. “It’s a command code, that’s all. It lets the voice-control software know I’m talking to it.”
“And Rover is a dog’s name, is it not? Like Faithful—mm, Fido?”
“It’s not a dog’s name,” Hari said, disgusted with himself. “It’s a joke, that’s all. It started as a bad joke, and I just never bothered to change it.”
“I don’t see the humor.”
“Yeah, me neither.” He shrugged dismissively. “I know you don’t watch a lot of net. You know anything about twentieth-century serial photoplays?”
“Little, save that they tend to be infantile.”
“Well, there was one called The Prisoner. Ever hear of it?”
Tan’elKoth shook his head.
“It’s kind of too complicated to really explain,” Hari said. “Rover was . . . a very efficient prison guard. That’s all.”
“Mmm,” Tan’elKoth mused. “I think I see—”
“Don’t go wise and philosophical on me—every time you pull that shit, I start to regret I didn’t kill you when I had the chance.”
“Just so.” Tan’elKoth sighed. “Sometimes I do, too.”
Hari looked at him, trying to think of something to say; after a moment, he just nodded and started walking again, and Tan’elKoth fell in at his side.
They walked together in silence for some time.
“I suppose . . . the actual question is, What, in the end, does one want?” Tan’elKoth asked finally. “Do we want to become happy with the lives we have, or do we want to change our lives—into lives with which we will be happy? After all, to content yourself with your current situation is a simple matter of serotonin balance: it can be accomplished by medication.”
“Drugs won’t change anything but my attitude.” Hari shrugged, dismissing the idea. “And changing? My whole life? This was what I was fighting for.”
“I won, goddammit. I beat Kollberg. I beat you. I got everything I goddamn wanted: fame, wealth, power. Shit, I even got the girl.”
“The problem with happy endings,” Tan’elKoth said, “is that nothing is ever truly over.”
“Fuck that,” Hari said. “I am living happily ever goddamn after. I am.”
“Ah, I see: It is happiness which has brought you to these streets, at this hour, with me,” Tan’elKoth murmured. “I have always supposed living happily ever after at four a.m. would somehow involve lying in bed, asleep, with one’s wife.”
Hari looked at the filthy pavement beneath his feet. “It’s just . . . I don’t know. Sometimes, y’know, late at night . . .” He shook his head, driving away the thought. He took a slow breath, and shrugged. “I guess I’m not handling getting old so well, that’s all. This is . . . Ahh, fuck it. Midlife crisis bullshit.”
Tan’elKoth stood silently at Hari’s side, motionless, until Hari looked up and found the ex-Emperor staring at him like he’d bitten into something rotten that he couldn’t spit out. “Is this the name you give to your despair? Midlife crisis bullshit?”
“Yeah, all right, whatever. Call it whatever the fuck you want—”
“Stop,” Tan’elKoth rumbled. He put a hand the size of a cave bear’s paw on Hari’s shoulder and gave him a squeeze that stopped just short of crushing bone. “You cannot trivialize your pain with nomenclature. You forget to whom you speak, Caine.”
Tan’elKoth’s gaze smoked; it held Hari as tight as his smothering grip did. “In this way, we are brothers; I have felt what you feel, and we both know that no mere word can compass and contain this injury. We are wounded, you and I: with a hurt that time cannot heal. Like a cancer, like gangrene, it grows worse with each passing hour. It is killing us.”
Hari lowered his head. The pain in his chest allowed him no answer; he could only stare, grip-jawed and silent, at the faint bands of soft color across his knuckles.
Drunken voices slurred from behind them, “Hey, you fuckers! Hey, shitheads!”
Hari and Tan’elKoth turned to find two men lurching toward them along the street: the pair of drunks Tan’elKoth had shouldered off the sidewalk. As they wove unsteadily through a pool of mercury-argon lampglow, Hari could see the length of pipe in one’s hand. In the hand of the other, two decimeters of blade gleamed steel-bright.
“Who th’fuck y’think y’are?” the one with the knife asked owlishly; he turned his head from side to side as though searching for an angle that might clear his vision. “Who y’think y’r shovin’?”
The knife guy was in the lead; Hari took one step forward to intercept him. He could read this bastard like a street sign. The knife was for show—for intimidation, for self-respect: eight inches of steel penis, bright and hard.
Hari saw three ways he could settle this right down. He could apologize, maybe buy them a drink, cool them off a little, let them feel like they mattered—that’s all they really wanted. Or he could pull out his palmpad and key the Social Police, then point out to these guys that he’s an Administrator and Tan’elKoth’s a Professional, and they were looking at life under the yoke if they didn’t back off. Simplest would be just to tell them who he was. Laborers are as celebrity-struck as anybody else, and unexpectedly meeting Caine himself on the street would dazzle them.
Instead, he angled the right side of his body slightly away from the guy, presenting about a three-quarter profile, his hands boneless at his sides, a bright tingle beginning to sizzle along his nerves. “Y’know, you shouldn’t pull a knife unless you’re gonna use it.”
“Who says I’m not planning to—”
Hari leaned into a lunge, his left hand becoming a backfist as it blurred through a short arc from his thigh to the guy’s nose. It struck with a wet whack like the snap of a soaked towel, and tilted the drunk’s head back to the perfect angle for Hari’s right cross to take him precisely on the point of the chin.
Hari staggered a little, grimacing—his bypass’s secondhand footwork left him off balance, open for a countering slash of the knife—but it didn’t matter: the drunk fell backward like a toppling pole and stretched his length on the pavement.
“It’s not about what you’re planning,” Hari said.
Both his fists burned and stung.
It was a good pain, and he welcomed it.
“Fuck my mother,” the other drunk breathed, the pipe hanging forgotten by his side. “You—I know you—you are, aren’t you? I mean, aren’t you Caine?”
“I used to be,” Hari said.
“I’m a big fan—”
“Thanks. Take a fucking hike.”
“No, I mean it, I really am—”
“I believe you. Now get out of here before I kill you.”
The drunk stumbled off, muttering to himself, “Shit, holy shit, holy son of a motherfucking shit . . .”
Tan’elKoth nodded down at the man who lay on the street. “Is he dead?”
“Maybe.” Hari shrugged. “Probably not.”
Hari’s combat rush faded as fast as it had risen, leaving him bleak and bitter and slightly sick. His hands throbbed and his mouth tasted of coffee grounds. So, here I am, thirty years later: still beating up drunks in the Mission District.
Why not just go ahead and roll him for loose change?
“You asked me what I want. I can tell you . . .” Hari said slowly. “I can tell you exactly what I want.”
He nudged the drunk with his toe, not even really seeing the man anymore; in this drunken, bleeding Laborer lying in the street, his face busted up because he was too stupid to back off, he was looking at himself.
“I want to find out who it is that keeps reaching down into my life and turning everything I touch into shit,” Hari said. “I want to meet him. I’m not asking for much: I want to share a little bit of pain with him, that’s all.” He pressed his fists against his legs, and said through his teeth, “I want to get my hands on the motherfucker.”
“Mm. This is a dream I can share with you, Caine.” Once again, Tan’elKoth laid his hand across Hari’s shoulder like a blanket, and through that physical connection sparked a current of understanding.
Hari pulled away.
Tan’elKoth kept his hand in the air, turning it over as though to read his own palm. He loomed over Hari, blank, impenetrable, inhumanly solid: a sarsen stone outlined against the dawn-lit clouds above.
“Be careful for what you wish,” he said softly. “A very wise man of your world has observed that when the gods would punish us, they answer our prayers.”
From the Paperback edition.