by Harlan Ellison and Theodore Sturgeon
(Dedicated to the Memory of Cordwainer Smith)
Crouching there in the darkness on the 102nd floor, Smith fumbled for the skin-bag of knucklebones. Somewhere down below in the stairwell—probably the ninety-fifth or -sixth floor by now, judging from the firefly ricochets of their flashlight beams on the walls, coming up—the posse was sniffing him out. Soundlessly he put his good shoulder against the fire door, but it was solid. Probably bulged and wedged for months, since Smith had made the big mistake.
He was effectively trapped in a chimney. The dead stairwell of the carcass that was the Empire State Building, in the corpse that was New York City, in the mammoth graveyard he had made of the world. And finding the only escape hatch closed off, he reluctantly fumbled at his belt for the skin-bag of knucklebones.
Smith. First and last of the magic men. About to cast the runes again.
The posse had reached the ninety-ninth floor. If he were going to do it—terrible!—he had to do it now…
He hesitated a second. There were fifteen or sixteen men and women in that pack. He didn’t want to hurt them. Despite their slavering hatred, despite their obvious intention, he was reluctant to call into effect that power again.
He had done it before, and destroyed the world.
“He’s gotta be up there,” one of them called down to the rest of the pack. “Now we got ’im.”
The silence they had maintained since morning, climbing like insects up the inside of the Empire State, was suddenly broken. “Let’s take ’im!” yelled another one. The slap-slap of their rag-and-hide-wrapped feet on the metal stairs rose to Smith. He swallowed and it tasted sour, and he upended the skin-bag.
The knucklebones spilled chatteringly on the landing. The pattern was random; he murmured. Hunkered down on his haunches, he called up the power, and there was the faintest hiss of a breeze in the stairwell. A breeze that was peculiarly bittersweet, the way Holland chocolates used to be. A chill breeze that broke sweat out on Smith’s spine, in the hollows between his shoulder blades. Then the screams began. Below him, on the one hundredth floor.
Terrible screams. Small creatures with things growing inside them, pushing their vital organs out of alignment, then out through the skin. Watery screams. As solids turned liquid and boiled and ran leaving their containers empty husks. Short, sharp screams. As dull cutting edges appeared where none had been before, and severed the flesh that had contained them when they were merely bones. Then the screams stopped. The silence that had climbed with the posse since morning, that silence deepened, returned.
Smith crawled away from the knucklebones, far into the corner of the landing, drew his bony knees up to his bearded chin, and whimpered. The breeze—casting about like an animal that was still hungry—reluctantly died away; fled back to the place from which it had come.
Smith, alone. Caster of runes. Reader from a strange grimoire only he could interpret. The only survivor of the catastrophe he had caused. The only survivor because anyone else out there was merely one step away from animal. Smith, whimpering.
Alone. The terrible word broke away out of him like projectile vomit: “Alone!” and fled to the walls, rebounded to sting him, turned echo-edged and rebounded again.
“But for me.” Then a girl laughed girl-laughter, and down amidst the silence was the sound of quick soft footsteps, and again girl-laughter, not spread about the floor below, but right in the stairwell. And it was laughter again, footstepping up and nearer.
Terror and joy, terror and joy, shock and disbelief. Terror and joy and a terrible fear: oh, guard, oh fight, oh run, look out! Grunting akh!, grunting hah! Smith scrabbled to his knucklebones, so hurried that he would not take standing-time, but hurried hunkering, hams and knuckles, to his knucklebones. He swept them into a clack-chattering heap, and “Mind now,” he cautioned her (whoever she was) “I’ll cast again, I will!” He plucked up a bone, fumbled in the blackness for the magic bag, put in the bone, plucked up another, his shiny-dry dirty hands doing his seeing, for his eyes were elbow-useless for seeing in such a black.
“But oh! I love you,” she said, so near now she could say it in a strumming whisper and be heard: oh! what a voice, oh a clean warm woman’s voice, full of care and meaning: but oh! she loved him.
Terror and joy. He plucked up the last of the bones, his eyes in the black-on-black, driving at the doorway to the stairs, where now a hand-torch flashlightninged an agony into him; and he cried out. The flash was gone a-borning, too brief, almost, to have a name at all, gone before its pointed tip had slashed its way from lens to optic nerve, gone long before its agony was done with him. And something alive, life alive even after what he had done; life alive was breathing in the dark.
A threat, a warning—yes and a kind of begging: Be real! and in God’s name don’t make me do it again!—he rattled his bag of bones.
The torch lit, arced, wheeling and swording a great blade of light, scraping and spinning across the floor to him. The flashlight struck the one knee he had down and he screamed, not for the knee but for the light sandblasting his unready open eyes. She made wide-smiling, welcome-words: “Here’s light, my darling darling. Look at me.”
He hand-heeled the scorching water out of his eyes and picked up the light. He pointed it at the doorway, and the man who stood there was seven feet, one and a half inches tall and wrapped in rags; he had a bloody beard down to his clavicle, a split stomach, and when the light hit him he bowed down and down and crashed dead on his face. He was a man whose liver was homogenized and had sweated out through the pores of his back—all of it, and a liver is a very very large thing, he knew that now.
“Oh please,” she begged him, “find me beautiful…” and since he had not thought to move the light and the big dead bloody-bearded man stood no longer in the wall, he saw a naked woman standing well back from the doorway, at the head of the stairs.
For a long time he crouched there with the light in one hand and his bag of bones in the other.
He rose to his feet and the bones tumbled a whisper down the path of light to the woman. He was ever so careful, because perhaps if the light left her she might be gone. He took a careful step, because perhaps she would escape: But no, but no, she waited there sculpture-still and he went to her.
She looked straight and unblinking at the light as the light grew and grew near, until at last he could reach her. He transferred the bag to dangle from the fingers which held the light, studying her face as he had studied the darkness. He knew the instant before he touched her what his hand told him when it touched: that she was dead. She toppled away from him backward and down, and disappeared in the darkness of the stairwell. The final sound of the fall was soft, vaguely moist, but ended.
Smith backed to the wall of the landing. The first finger of his right hand went idly to his lips, and he sucked on it. It had to have been a cruel joke of his own magic. These perambulating corpses. Something inherent in the incantations as they were filtered down through his consciousness, his conscience, his libido, his id. They were sympathetic magic, and that meant he, himself, Smith, was an integral part, not merely the voice-box. Not merely a way-station through which the charms worked. He was part of them, helped form them, was as necessary as the wood into which the nails were driven to form the shell of the house. And if this were so, then the filtering process was necessarily influenced by what he was, who he was, what he thought. So:
Like the destruction of the civilization he had known. Like the hideous torments that came to those he was compelled to destroy. Like the walking dead. Like the visible, tangible, terrifying creatures of his mind; that came and went with his magic.
He was alone, this Smith. But unfortunately, he was alone inside a skull densely populated with Furies.
In the rabbit warren he called a home, that barricaded cistern to which entrance was only possible through the ripped and sundered walls of the IRT-7th Avenue subway tunnel just north of 36th Street, Smith collapsed with weariness. He had failed to get the canned goods. His mouth had watered for days, for Cling peaches, for that exquisite sweetness. He had left the eyrie late the night before, heading uptown toward a tiny Puerto Rican bodega he had known was still intact. A grocery he had seen soon after the mistake, and around which he had danced widdershins, placing a powerful incantation in the air, where it would serve as shield and obstruction.
But crossing Times Square —with the checkerboard pattern of bottomless pits and glass spires—the posse had seen him. They had recognized his blue serge suit immediately, and one of them had unleashed a bolt from a crossbow. It had struck just above Smith’s head, on the frame of the giant metal waste basket that asked the now-vanished citizenry of Manhattan to KEEP OUR CITY CLEAN. Then a second bolt, that had grazed his shoulder. He had run, and they had followed, and what had happened, had happened, and now he was back. Peachless. He lay down on the chaise-lounge, and fell asleep at once.
The incubus spoke to the nixie.
Have we opened him up enough yet? No, not nearly enough. We counted too much on the first blast. But what’s left? Enough is left that I still have difficulty emerging. We’ll have to wait. They’ll do it to him, and for us. There’s all the time in eternity. Stop rushing. I’m concerned. I have my principals as well as you, and they have equally as unpleasant a way of making their wishes and sorrows known as yours. They’ll have to wait, like mine. They won’t wait. Well, they’ll have to. This is a careful operation. They’ve waited two million eternities already. You turn poetry, but that isn’t the figure. A long time, at any rate. Then a few more cycles won’t twit them that much. I’ll tell them what you said. You do that. I can’t guarantee anything. When did you ever? I do my best. That’s an explanation, not an excuse. I’m leaving now. You’re fading; it’s obvious you’re leaving. You’ll stay with Smith? No, I’ll leave him, and go take a rest at the black pool spa…of course I’ll stay with him! Get out of here. Arrogance! Imbecile!
Smith slept, and did not dream. But there were voices. When he awoke, he was more weary than when he had lain down. The grimoire still stood open, propped against the skull on the kitchen table he had set against the wall. The charts were still there, the candle was still half-down.
Something ferocious was gnawing at the back of his mind. He tried to focus on it, but it went chittering away into the darkness. He looked around the cistern. It was chill and empty. The fire had gone out. He swung his legs off the cot and stood up. Bones cracked. There was pain in his shoulder where the crossbow bolt had grazed him. He went to the rack and took out a corked decanter, pulled the cork with his teeth and let the dark gray smoke-fluid within dribble onto the raw, angry wound.
He was trying to remember. Something. What? Oh…yes. Now he remembered. The girl. The one who was spreading the word about him. Blue Serge suit, she was telling them, crowds of them, rat-packs in the streets, blue serge suit, a little weasel man, with a limp. He’s the one who did it. He’s the one who killed the world.
If he’d been able to get out of the city, he might have been able to survive without having to kill anyone else. But they’d closed off the bridges and tunnels…they were now actively looking for him, scouring the city. And beyond the city…now…it wasn’t safe.
Not even for him, for Smith who had done it. So he had to find the girl. If he could stop her mouth, end her crusade to find him, he might be able to escape them, go to the Bronx, or even Staten Island (no, not Staten Island: it wasn’t safe there).
He knew he must find her quickly. He had had dreams, there in the cistern. He had gone to Nicephorus to glean their meanings, and even though he read Greek imperfectly, he found that his dream of burning coals meant a threat of some harm at the hands of his enemies, his dream of walking on broken shells meant he would escape from his enemies’ snares, his dream of burning incense foretold danger, and his dream of holding keys meant there was an obstacle in the path of his plans. The girl.
He prepared to go out to find her. He took a piece of virgin parchment from the sealed container on which had been inscribed the perfect square in Latin:
S A T O R
A R E P O
T E N E T
O P E R A
R O T A S
and with the dried beak of a black chicken he wrote in purple ink (he had made from grapes and shoe polish), the names of the three Kings, Gaspar, Melchior and Balthazar. He put the parchment in his left shoe, and as he left the cistern he made the first step with his left foot, pronouncing the names softly.
Thus he knew he would travel without encountering any difficulties. And he wore a black agate, veined with white. To protect him from all danger and to give him victory over his enemies.
Why had they somehow failed him at other times?
It was night. The city glowed with an eerie off-orange color, as though it had lain beneath great waters for ages, then the water had been drained away and the city left to rust.
He conjured up a bat and tied to its clawed foot a kind of kite-tail made from the carefully twined and knotted hair of men he had found lying dead in the streets. Then he swung the bat around and around his head, speaking words that had no vowels in them, and loosed the bat into the rusty night. It flew up and circled and squealed like an infant being skewered, and when it came back down to light on his shoulder, it told him where she was.
He turned the bat free. It swooped twice to bless him, then went off into the sky.
It was a long walk uptown. He took Broadway, after a while avoiding the checkerwork of pits without even seeing them. The buildings had been turned to glass. Many of them had shattered from sounds in the street caverns.
There was a colony of things without hands living in rubble-strewn shops on Broadway and 72nd Street. He got through them using the black agate. It blinded them with darkness and they fell back crying for mercy.
Finally he came to the place the bat had told him to find if he wanted to locate the girl. It was, of course, where he had lived when he had made the mistake. He went inside the old building and found the room that had been his.
Here it had all begun, or had it begun when he went to work at the Black Arts Bookstore? or when in college he had sunk himself so deeply in the arcana back in the library stacks that he had flunked out? or perhaps when as a youth he had first thrilled to the ads in yellowed copies of Weird Tales: UNLOCK YOUR SECRET POWER. Ancient mysteries of the Pyramids revealed, or even earlier, when on All Hallows’ Eve he and some others had drawn a pentagram in yellow chalk? How old had he been then? Eight? Nine?
There had been the candles and the geometric shape drawn on the floor, and he had begun to chant Eu-hu, Elihu, Asmodeus, deus deus stygios—nonsense syllables of course—how could they be anything else? But they had come to him and something in his monotonous soprano had shaped them—no, fleshed them. A glove looks like a hand; thrust a hand into it and it looks the same but is not, it is a far more potent thing. Words are words—nothings—but there seemed to be that in his young chanting that filled, that fleshed, each of them. And as for the words themselves, they came to him each dictated by the last, like the cadence of pacing feet: being here, there is only one place to go next; from Ahriman to Satani is somehow simply obvious, and then like hopscotch the young voice bounced on Thanatos, Thanatos, Thanatos. It was then that the bulge happened in the middle of the pentagram. The floor couldn’t have swelled like that (it showed no signs of it later) but it did all the same, and the thin pennants of many-colored smoke and the charnel smell did happen, and the crowding feeling of—of—of Something coming up, coming in. Then goggle-eyed kids deliciously ready to be terrified were terrified, ready to scream, screamed, ready to escape, fled in a galloping synergy of wild fears—all but young Smith, who stayed to watch the plumes of smoke subside, the bulge recede… for his chant had stopped, a panic-driven sneaker had cut the careful yellow frame of the pentagram, so that soon nothing was left but the echoes of that abandoned-abbatoir smell and in Smith’s heart a terrified yet fascinated dedication; he cried, he whispered: “It really worked…it really worked!”
An old-wives’ tale once had heart-attack victims munch the leaves of the foxglove and recover. Along came science and extracted digitalis. In just this way Smith learned what it really is about bat’s blood, and the special potency of the body-fat of a baby murdered at the dark of the moon, and how these and many other things may be synthesized and their potency multiplied without recourse to bats or babies, stars or stumpwater, Eucharists, eunuchs or unicorn born.
Basics are simple. The theory of solid-state electronics is complicated but the thing itself is not; the tiny block of semiconductive germanium called transistor, nuvistor, thermistor, tunnel diode is, as any fool can see, a simple thing indeed. So it was that Smith, working his way through matters incomprehensible, indescribable, and unspeakable, came all the way through the complexities of the earnest alchemists and the many dark rituals of animists and satanists and the strangely effective religious psychology which steeps the worship of the Nameless One sometimes called the Horned God, and many others, until he reached simplicity, until he reached basics.
Simple as a transistor, as difficult to understand.
And who, using a transistor, needs to understand it?
But a transistor (however precise) without a power supply (however tiny) is useless. The runes and the bones without the runesmith…nothing. With one, with the smith called Smith, fear more terrifying than any ever known by humankind; disaster unexpected, inexplicable, seeming random, operating on unknown logic and unleashing unknown forces.
In the Hall of the Seven Faceless Ones.
Stood the incubus and the nixie.
Before their masters.
Who told them.
Things they needed to know.
The time has come. After time within time that has eaten time till it be gorged on its own substance, the time has come. You have been chosen to act as our emissaries. You will go and you will find us an instrument and you will train it and teach it and hone it and mold it to our needs. And when the instrument is ready you will use it to open a portal, and we will pour through and regain what was once and always ours, what was taken from us when we were exiled.
Where it is cold.
Where it is dark.
Where we receive no nourishment.
You will do this.
I am ready to serve. So am I. But what sort of weapon do you want us to get? I think I know what they mean. You always know what they mean; listen, masters, I don’t want to be a nuisance, but I can’t work with this incubus. He’s a complainer and a befuddler and he’s got delusions of authority. Masters, don’t listen to him. He’s jealous of the faith and trust you’ve put in me. He rails under the lash of envy. My success with the coven against the Norns infuriates him. Rails? What the Thoth are you gibbering about? Look, Masters, I serve gladly; there isn’t much else for me to do. But I can’t work under this lunatic. One of us has to be the charge-of-things on this. If it’s him, then put me on some other duty. If it’s me, then put him in his place.
You will work together as needs be.
The nixie will be in charge of this matter.
And you will assist.
I serve gladly, Masters. Then why are you foaming? Shut up! Darling, you’re lovely when you’re angry.
We will hear.
You will begin now.
The weapon and teach It.
Open the portal.
We long to return.
How you do it is your concern but.
Do not fail us.
The nixie and the incubus had worked together as well as might be expected. The nixie said, We’ll give him magic and let him use it. We can’t go through, not yet at least, but we can send dreams and thoughts and desires: they’ll pass through the veil. And what good will that do?
He’ll tear a rift in the veil for us. Oh, I can’t believe the stupidity of your ideas. Stupid or not, it’s the way I’m doing it; carefully and smoothly, and you keep your trachimoniae out of it. Just don’t order me about. I’m the highest-ranking incubus—
Just shut up, will you.
Shut up? How dare you speak to me like that? You’d better succeed quickly, nixie. My principals are anxious, and if you go wrong or slow down I’ll make certain they have their way with you.
The nixie had found his weapon. Smith. He had given him first a series of dreams. Then a hunger to know the convolutions of black magic. The bulge in the floor. The hunger of curiosity. Leading him, step by step through his life: the Black Arts Book Store, the proper volumes, the revealed secrets, the dusty little room, and at last…the power. But given not quite whole. Given in a twisted manner. The runes had been cast, and the mistake made—and Smith had destroyed the world, tearing the veil in the process. But not quite enough for the return of the Faceless Ones.
And the incubus grew impatient for his revenge. The girl.
Smith was sorry. Standing in the room to which his bat had led him, he was sorry. He hadn’t meant to do it. Smith had not, in the deepest sense, known it was loaded (nor had he been meant to know); and when it went off (in this room with half a candle and dust and books bound in human flesh, and the great grimoire) it was aimed at the whole world.
Peking, Paris, Rome, Moscow, Detroit, New York, New Orleans, Los Angeles: miles of cinders burying cold roast corpses. Checkerboard arrangements of bottomless pits and glass spires. Acres of boiling swamp. Whole cities that were now curling, rising green mist. Cities and countries that had been, were totally gone.
And in the few cities that remained…Water no longer flowed through their veins nor electricity through their nerves, and there they sat, scraping the sky, useless, meaningless, awaiting erosion. And at their dead feet, scurrying loners and human rat packs, survivors hunting and sometimes eating one another, a species in its glorious infancy with the umbilical cord a thousand ways pinhole-perforated before it had had a chance really to be born; and Smith knew this and had to see it all around him, had to see it and say, “My fault. My fault.”
Guilty Smith the runesmith. Back then, here, to the room where the runes had begun, to trap a girl he sensed would come. He set a noisetrap at the outer door (it opened outward so he propped a 4 x 4 against it and an old tin washtub under it; open the door and whamcrash!) and next to it a rune-trap (which cannot be described here) and he settled down to wait.
The nixie to the incubus:
What have you been doing? I’ve lured him back to the focus location. You fool! He may suspect now. He suspects nothing. I’ve implanted a delusion, a girl. When he sleeps we take him and rip the veil completely. What girl? What have you done? You can ruin it all, you egomaniac! There is no girl. A succubus. I tried earlier, but it went wrong. This time he’s weaker, he’ll sleep, we’ll take him.
What makes you think he’ll succumb this time, any more than he did the last time? Because he’s a human and he’s weak and stupid and lonely and filled with guilt and he has never known love. I will give him love. Love that will drain him, empty him. Then he’s mine.
Not yours at all, nixie. The Masters will see to you.
He stood in a dark corner, waiting. And sleep suddenly seemed the most important thing in the world to him. He wanted to sleep.
Sleep! Should a man live threescore years, one of them must go to this inert stupidity, a biochemical habit deriving from the accident of diurnal rotation. The caveman must huddle away behind rocks and flame during the hours of darkness because of the nocturnal predators who can see better in the dark than he can. They, in turn, must hide from him. Hence the habit, long outmoded but still inescapable. A third of a life spent sprawled out paralyzed, mostly unconscious, and oh vulnerable. Twenty years wasted out of each life, when life itself is so brief a sparkle in a surrounding immensity of nothingness. Brief as it is, still we must give away a third of it to sleep, for no real reason. Twenty years. Smith had hated and despised sleep, the cruel commanding necessity for sleep, the intrusion, the interruption, the sheer waste of sleep; but never had he hated it so much as now, when everyone in the world was his enemy and all alone he must stand them off. Who would stand sentry over Smith? Only Smith, lying mostly unconscious with his own lids blinding him and his ears turned off and his soft belly upward to whatever soft-footed enemy might penetrate his simple defenses.
But he could not help himself; he wanted to sleep.
He lay down fully dressed and pulled a blanket over him. He murmured his goodnight words, which for a long time had been (as he slid toward the edge of slumber’s precipice and scanned the day past and the weeks and months since that first terrible rune-work), “I didn’t mean it. I didn’t mean it. I’m sorry. I’m sorry…” and as he tumbled off the edge of waking, he would catch one awful glimpse of tomorrow—more of the same, but worse.
But not tonight. Perhaps it was his exhaustion, the long thirty-six-hour flight up the Empire State Building, trying, out of guilt and compassion, not to use his terrible weapon (how many times had he made that firm resolution… how many times, falling sickly asleep, had he determined to walk out unarmed, to build an attention aura around himself, to get from the new barbarians that which his guilt deserved?), or perhaps he had reached a new peak of terror and shame, and feared especially the vulnerability of sleep.
As he approached the dark tumble into oblivion, something made him claw at the edge, hold fast, neither asleep nor awake, just at that point through which he usually hurtled, unable to stay awake, on guard no more.
And he heard voices.
Now I send her to him. Now when he’s weakest. Wait! Are you sure? This man…he’s…different. There’s been a change in him. Since we last manipulated him? Don’t be ridiculous. No, wait! There is…something. Sleep. Yes, that’s it. It has to do with sleep. I’m not waiting; my Principals want through now, in this tick of time, now! I want success more than you, that is why the triumph and the rewards will be mine. The twelve generations it took to breed this Smith as a gateway and the lifetime it took to train him. It’s all come down to me, to me to fail or succeed, and I’ll succeed! I’m sending the succubus, now! He’s never been loved…now he’ll be loved.
No! You fool! Your ego! Sleep is his strength. You have it all wrong. Nothing can harm him when he sleeps!
Smith had a brief retinal impression of something…it was being a gateway, and what it was like. Mouth open till the flesh tore at the corners. Darkness pouring from within him, then flames that expanded and rolled over the land, filling the sky, and himself burning burning burning.
Then it was gone. Smith clung for one more amazed moment to this place, this delicately limned turnover point between waking and sleeping. This line was a crack in—in something incomprehensible, but it was a crack through which his mind could peep as between boards in a fence.
Something began to beat in him, daring to move, hope. He quelled it quickly lest it wake him altogether and those—those others—know of it. Slipping, slipping, losing his clutch on this half-wakefulness, about to drop end over end into total sleep, he snatched at phrases and concepts, forcing himself to keep and remember them: twelve generations it took to breed this Smith as a gateway…lifetime it took to train.
And: nothing can reach him, nothing can harm him while he’s asleep.
` Sleep the robber, sleep the intruder, sleep the enemy—all his life he had tried to avoid it, had succumbed as little as possible, had fought to live without it. Who had taught him that? Why did he want to unlearn it so desperately now? And what did the doctors and poets say about sleep: surcease, strengthener, healer, knitter-up of the raveled sleeve of care. And he had sneered at them. Had he been taught to sneer?
He had. For their purposes, he had been taught. More: he had been bred for this—twelve generations, was it? And why? To be given the power to decimate humanity so that something unspeakable, something long-exiled could return to possess this world? Would it be the Earth alone, or all the planets, the galaxies, the universe? Could it be time itself? Or other sets of dimensions?
The one thing he must do is sleep. Nothing can harm him when he sleeps.
Then she came to him. The girl from the stairwell, alive again, a second time, or how many times back to the inky beginnings he could not even imagine? She came to him through the door, and there was no sound of crashing washtub; she came through the room and there was no stench and death from the rune-trap.
She came toward him, lying there, without clothes, without sound, without pain or anger, and she extended her flawless arms to him in love. The pleasure of her love swept across the room. She wanted to give herself, to give him everything, all she was and all she could be, for no other return than his love. She wanted his love, all of his love, all of him, everything, all the substance and strength of him.
He half-rose to meet her, and then he knew what she was, and he trembled with the force of losing her, of destroying her, and he murmured words without vowels and a slimy darkness began to eat at her feet, her legs, her naked thighs, her torso, and she let one ghastly shriek as something took her, and her face dissolved in slime and darkness, and she was gone…and he fell back, weak.
Smith the runesmith let go his shred of wakefulness and plunged joyfully into the healing depths. It was not until he awakened, rested and strong and healthily starving, that he realized fully what else he had let go.
The sin was not his. He had been shaped to do what he had done. A terrible enemy had made him its instrument, its weapon. You do not accuse, condemn, imprison the murder weapon.
The runesmith, smiling (how long since?) fumbled for the skin-bag of knucklebones. He closed his eyes, his strong, clear rested eyes, and turned his rested mind to the talent (inborn) and skills (instilled) in him alone of all men ever. No jaded blind buckshot in the faces of his kind, done in anguish to stay alive, but the careful, knowing, precise drawing of a bead. The location, direction, range known to Smith the weapon in ways impossible to Smith the man.
The knucklebones spilled chatteringly on the floor.
The pattern was random; his talent and his skills understood it.
He murmured a new murmur.
Hunkered down on his haunches, he called up the power.
There was the faintest hiss of a breeze in the tumbled warren of this focus-room, a breeze that was peculiarly bittersweet, the way Holland chocolates used to be. A chill breeze that broke sweat out on Smith’s spine, in the hollows between his shoulder blades.
Then the screams began.
They were screams beyond sound, and surely only an immeasurable fraction of them reached Smith, so different were they in quality and kind from anything remotely human. Yet their echoes and their backlash seemed to blur the world for a moment of horror beyond imagining. A soundless, motionless quake, the terror of countless billions of frightful beings facing death and (unlike the millions who had perished here) knowing it, knowing why.
Smith’s skills knew as Smith himself could not, that the universe itself was relieved of a plague.
Was it a long time later? Probably it was—Smith was never able to remember that—when he stood up and filled his lungs with the dusty, sweet air and looked out on tomorrow and forever with clear and guiltless eyes.
He tested his power. It was intact.
He walked to the inner and outer barriers, kicking them down. He looked out at the sunlit ruins of the city.
If I live, he thought (and barring accident I can live forever), I can build it up again. I have magic; they gave it to me and no one can take it away. Magic and science, humanity and the Powers. It’s supposed to have worked that way long ago. It will again. Build it up again…
And if I don’t, if I fail, then at least I’ve fixed it so they have no enemies but themselves. Terrible as that might be, there are worse things.
He saw a flicker of movement in the distance, something feeble, hungry, misshapen, ragged.
The runesmith stepped out of the shadows, and walked toward the movement in the distance. There was sun now. For the first time. Because he wanted sun. And he wanted cool breezes. And the scent of good things in the air.
He could have it all now. They might never forgive him, but they could not harm him, and he would help them, as they had never been able to help themselves.
They were still alone, but perhaps it would be better now.