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   Chapter 11 No.11

Captives of the Flame By Samuel R. Delany Characters: 27303

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


The green of beetles' wings ... the red of polished carbuncle ... a web of silver fire, and through the drifting blue smoke Jon hurled across the sky.

Then blackness, intense and cold. The horizon was tiny, jagged, maybe ten feet away. He reached a metal out and crawled expertly (not clumsily. Expertly!) across a crevice, but slowly, very slowly. The sky was sharp with stars, though the sun was dim to his light-sensitive rind. Like a sliding cyst, he edged over the chunk of rock that spun somewhere between Mars and Jupiter. Now he reached out with his mind to touch a second creature on another rock. Petra, he called. Where is he?

His orbit should take him between the three of us in a minute and a half.

Fine.

Jon, who is the third one? I still don't understand.

Another mind joined them. You don't understand yet? I was the third, I always was. I was the one who directed Geryn to make the plan in the first place for the kidnaping. What made you think that he was in contact with the triple beings?

I don't know, Jon said. Some misunderstanding.

There was the laughter of children. Then Tel said, Hey, everybody, we're with Arkor.

Shhh, said Alter. The misunderstanding was my fault, Jon. I told you that Geryn talked to himself, and that made you think it was him.

Get ready, Petra said. Here he comes.

Jon saw, or rather sensed the approach of another spinning asteroid, whirling toward them through the blackness. But it was inhabited. Yes! The three of them threw their thoughts across the rush of space.

There....

* * *

Roaring steam swirled above him. He raised his eye-stalks another twenty feet and looked toward the top of the cataract some four miles up. Then he lowered his siphon into the edge of the pool of pale green liquid methane and drank deeply. Far away in a beryl green sky, three suns rushed madly about one another and gave a little heat to this farthest of their six planets.

Now Jon flapped his slitherers down and began to glide away from the methane falls and up the nearly vertical mountain slope. Someone was coming toward him, with shiny red eye-stalks waving in greeting. "Greetings to the new colony," the eye-stalks signaled.

Jon started to signal back. But suddenly he recognized (a feeling way at the back of his slitherers) who this was. He leaped forward and flung the double flaps of leathery flesh across his opponent and began to scramble back up the rocks. Jon had his tight, but was wondering where the hell were....

Suddenly his eye-stalk caught the great form that he knew must be Arkor coming down over the rocks (with Alter and Tel. Yes, definitely; because the creature suddenly did a flying leap between two crags that could have only been under the girl-acrobat's control), and a moment later that Petra had arrived at the other shore of the methane river. Using her slitherers for paddles, she struck out across the foaming current.

Think at him, concentrate.... There....

* * *

The air was water-clear. The desert was still, and he lay in the warm sand, under the light of the crescent moon. He was growing, adding facets; he let the pale illumination seep into his transparent body, decreasing his polarization cross-frequencies. The light was beautiful, too beautiful-dangerous! He began to tingle, to glow red-hot. His base burned with white heat and another layer of sand beneath him melted, fused, ran, and became part of his crystalline body.

He stepped up the polarization, his body clouded, and cooled once more. Music sang through him, and his huge upper facet reflected the stars.

Once more he lessened his polarization, and the light crept further and further into his being. His temperature rose. Vibrations suffused his transparency and the pulsing music made the three dust particles that had settled on his coaxial face seven hundred and thirty years ago dance above him. He felt their reflection deep in his prismatic center.

He felt it coming, suddenly, and tried to stop it. But the polarization index suddenly broke down completely. For one terrific moment of ecstasy the light of the moon and the stars poured completely through him. Chord after chord rang out in the desert night. Back and forth along his axis, colliding, shaking his substance, jarring him, pommeling him, came the vibrations. For one instant he was completely transparent. The next, he was white-hot. Before he could melt, he felt the crack start.

It shot the length of his forty-two mile, super-heated body. He was in two pieces! The radio disturbance alone covered a third of a galaxy. Twelve pieces fell away. The chord crashed again, and the crack whipped back and forth vivisecting him. Already he was nearly thirty-six thousand individual crystals, all of which had to grow again, thirty-six thousand minds. He was no more.

Jon, the voice sang through drumbled silicate.

Right over here, Petra, he hummed back. (The note was a perfect quarter tone below A-flat. Perfect! Not clumsy. Perfect!)

Where's Arkor?

To their left the triple notes of an E-flat minor chord (Arkor, Tel, and Alter) sounded: Right here.

Just as they had made contact, before the music stopped (and once more their thoughts would become separate, individual, and they would lose awareness of each other and of the hundreds of other crystals that lay over the desert, under the clear perpetual night)-just then a strident dissonance pierced among them.

There, sang Petra.

There, hummed Jon.

There, came the triad in E-flat minor. They concentrated, tuned, turned their thoughts against the dissonance. There....

* * *

Jon rolled over and pushed the silk from his white shoulders and stretched. Through the blue pillars, the evening sky was yellow. Music, very light and fast, was coming from below the balcony. Suddenly a voice sounded beside him: "Your Majesty, your Majesty! You shouldn't be resting now. They're waiting for you downstairs. Tltltrlte will be furious if you're late."

"What do I care?" Jon responded. "Where's my robe?"

The serving maid hastened away and returned with a sheer, shimmering robe, netted through with threads of royal black. The drape covered Jon's shoulders, draped across his breasts, and fell to his thighs.

"My mirror," said Jon.

The serving maid brought the mirror and Jon looked. Long, slightly oriental eyes sat wide-spaced in the ivory face over high cheekbones. Full breasts pushed tautly beneath the transluscent material, and the slender waist spread to sensual, generous hips. Jon almost whistled at his reflection.

The maid slipped clear plastic slippers on his feet, and Jon rose and walked toward the stairs. In the lobby, the throng hissed appreciatively as he descended. On one column hung a bird cage in which a three-headed cockatoo was singing to beat the band. Which was difficult to do, because the band was composed of fourteen copper-headed drums. (Fourteen was the royal number.)

Across the lobby wind instruments wailed, and Jon paused on the stairs. "Don't worry," the maid said, "I'm right behind you."

Jon felt the terror rise. Hey, he called out mentally, is that you, Petra?

Like I said, right behind you.

Incidentally, how did I come up with this body?

I don't know, dear, but you look devastating.

Gee, thanks, he said, projecting a mental sneer. Where's Arkor and Company?

The music had stopped. There was only the sound of the three-headed bird.

There they are.

The winds screeched again, and at the entrance of the lobby, the people fell away from the door. There was Tltltrlte. He was tall, and dark, in a cloak in which there were many more black threads than in Jon's. He unsheathed a sword, and began to come forward. "Your reign is through, Daughter of the Sun," he announced. "It is time for a new cycle."

"Very well," said Jon.

As Tltltrlte advanced, the throng that crowded the lobby clapped their hands in terror and moved back further. Jon stood very straight.

As Tltltrlte came forward, his shoulders narrowed. He pushed back the hood of his cloak and a mass of ebony hair cascaded down his shoulders. With each step, his hips broadened and his waist narrowed. A very definite bulge of mammary glands now pushed up beneath his black silk tunic. As Tltltrlte reached the bottom of the steps, she raised her sword.

Think at him, came Arkor from the bird cage.

Think at him, came from Petra.

Jon saw the blade flash forward and then felt it slide into his abdomen. At her, he corrected.

At her, they answered.

As Jon toppled down the steps, dying, he asked, What the hell is this anyway?

We're inhabiting a very advanced species of moss, Arkor explained, with the calmness that only a telepath can muster in certain confusing situations. Each individual starts off male, but eventually changes to female at the desired time.

Moss? asked Jon as he hit his head on the bottom step and died.

There....

* * *

The wave came again and thundered on the beach. He staggered backwards, just as the froth spumed up the sand. The sky was blue-black. He raised his fingers to his lips (seven long tines webbed together) and whined into the night. He lifted his transparent eyelids from his huge, luminous eyes to see if there wasn't some faint trace of the boat. Spray fell on them, stung the rims, and he snapped all three lids over them, one after another. He whined again, and once more the wave grew before him.

He opened the two opaque lids, and this time thought he saw them far off through the greenish spray. The pentagonal sail rode above a billow-blue, wet, and full. It dipped, rose, and he pulled back his transparent eyelid again, this time when the wave was down, and thought he saw figures on the fibrous hammock of the boat. On the blue sail was the white circle of a Master Fisherman's boat. His parent was a Master Fisherman. Yes, it was his parent coming to get him.

Another billow exploded and he crouched in the froth, digging his hind feet deep into the pebbly beach.

The crosshatch of planking scudded onto the shore, and they swarmed off. One wore a chain around his neck with the Master Fisherman's seal. Another carried a seven-pronged fork. The two others were just boat-hands and wore identifying black belts of Kelpod shells.

"My offspring," said the one with the seal. "My fins have smarted for you. I thought we would never swim together again." He reached down and lifted Jon into his arms. Jon put his head against his parent's chest and watched water beading down the pentagonal scales.

"I was frightened," Jon said.

His parent laughed. "I was frightened too. Why did you swim out so far?"

"I wanted to see the island. But when I was swimming, I saw...."

"What?"

Jon closed his eyelids.

His parent smiled again. "You're sleepy. Come." Now Jon felt himself carried to the water and into the waves. The spray fell warmly on his face now, and unafraid, he relaxed his gill slits as water fell across him and they climbed onto the boat.

Wind caught the sail, and the open-work of planking listed into the sea. Long clouds swung rapidly across the twin moons like the tines of the fishing forks the fishermen saluted the sacred phosphor fires with when they returned from their expeditions. He dreamed of his, a little, in the swell and drop. His parent had tied him to the boat, and so he floated at the end of a few feet of slack. Water rolled down his shoulders, slipped beneath his limp dorsal fin, and tickled. Then he dreamed of something else, the thing he had seen, glowing first beneath the water, then rising.... He whined suddenly, and shook his head.

He heard the others on the boat, their webbed feet slipping on the wet planks. He opened his eyes and looked up. The two boat-hands were holding onto stays and pointing off into the water. Now his parent had come up to them, holding a fishing spear, and they were joined by the Second Fisherman.

Jon scrambled from the water onto the plank. His parent put an arm around him and drew him closer. (Here he comes, Arkor said.) His other hand went to the seal of authority around his neck, as though it gave him some sort of protection.

"There it is," Jon suddenly cried. "That's what I saw. That's why I was afraid to swim back." (There it is, Jon said.)

A phosphorescent disk was shimmering under the surface of the water. The Second Fisherman raised his spear higher. "What is it?" he asked. (What is it this time? Petra wanted to know.)

Indistinct, yet nearly the size of the ship, it hovered almost three breast strokes from them, glowing beneath the surface.

(I'll have a look, said Petra.) The Second Fisherman suddenly dove forward and disappeared. Still holding to the frame of the boat, Jon and his parent went under the water where they could see better.

One of Jon's eyelids, the transparent one, was actually an envelope of tissue which he could flood with vitreous solution when he was submerged to form a correcting lens over his pupil.

Through the water he saw the Second Fisherman bubbling through the water toward the immense, transluscent hemisphere that dangled ahead of them. The Second Fisherman stopped with an underwater double-reverse and hovered near the thing. (It's a huge jellyfish, Petra told them.) "Can't figure out what it is," the Second Fisherman signaled back. Then he extended his fork and jabbed at the membrane. The seven tines went in, came out.

The jellyfish moved, fast.

The tentacles hanging from the bottom of the bag raveled upward like snagged threads. The body bloated and surged sid

eways. Two tentacles wrapped around the Second Fisherman as he tried to swim away. (Eep, said Petra. These things hurt.)

Jon's parent was on top of deck again, shouting orders to the boat-hands. The ship swung toward the thing which was now heaving to the surface.

(Look, let's finish this thing up for good. Concentrate. That was Arkor. There....)

(From beneath the water they felt Petra reach her mind into the pulsing mass: There....)

(As the tentacles encased her and she jammed the spear home again and again through the leaking membrane, she felt Jon's mind join in: There....)

The boat rammed into the side of the jellyfish, the planks tearing away the membrane and the thick, stinging insides fountaining over them. Now it nearly turned over, and tentacles flapped from the water in wet, fleshy ropes. The Second Fisherman was caught in one of the snarls.

Their green faces were lighted from beneath by the milky glow.

(There....) Suddenly it tore away from the planks, going down beneath the water. (There....) The Second Fisherman's head bobbed to the surface, shook the green fin that crested his skull, and laughed. (There....)

3 to 6, 3 to 6, (Jon's frequency oscillated from 3 to 6 as he drifted through clouds of super-heated gas) 3 to 6, 3 to 6-7 to 10! (Someone was coming.) U to 10, 7 to 10, (It was getting closer; suddenly:) 10 to 16! (Then:) 3 to 6, 7 to 10, 3 to 6, 7 to 10, (they had passed through each other. Hi, Petra said. Have you any idea where we are?)

(The temperature is somewhere near three quarters of a million degrees. Any ideas?)

9 to 27, 9 to 27, 9 to 27 (came puttering along and passed through both Jon and Petra;) 12 to 35, 10 to 37, (and then, again) 3 to 6, 7 to 10, 9 to 27, 9 to 27, 9 to 27 (We are halfway between the surface and the center of a star not unlike our sun, said Arkor. Note all the strange elements around.) 9 to 27, 9 to 27, 9 to 27.

7 to 10, 7 to 10, 7 to 10 (They keep on turning into one another, Petra said.) 7 to 10, 7 to 10, 7 to 10.

3 to 6, 3 to 6, 3 to 6 (At this temperature you would too if you were atomic, Jon told her.) 3 to 6, 3 to 6, 3 to 6.

9 to 27, 9 to 27, 9 to 27 (Where's our friend? Arkor wanted to know.)

pi to e, pi to 2e, 2pi to 4e, 4pi to 8e, 8pi to 16e, 16pi to 32e.

(Speak of the ... Jon started. Hey, we've got to do something about that. Not only is it transcendental, it's increasing so fast he'll eventually shake this star apart.) 3 to 6, 3 to 6, 3 to 6.

(So that's what causes novas, said Petra.) 7 to 10, 7 to 10, 7 to 10.

(At the next oscillation, Arkor, acting as a side-coefficient, passed through the intruder.) 322pi to 64e (Arkor got out before the second extremity was reached. The wave cycle stuttered, having been reversed end on end.) 642pi to 32e (It tried to right itself and couldn't because Jon spun through the lower end divisibility) 642pi to 16/9e (then Arkor jumped in, tail first it recovered and it resolved into:) 642pi to 4/3e, 642pi to 4/3e, 642pi to 4/3e (it quivered, its range no longer geometric).

(Watch this, said Petra, About face.... She gave it a sort of nudge, not passing through it, so that when it whirled to catch her, she was gone, and it was going the other way:)

4/3pi to 642e, 4/3pi to 642e, 4/3pi to 642e,

(I hope no one ever does that to me, said Petra. Look, the poor thing is contracting.)

4/3 to 640e, 4/3pi to 622, 4/3pi to 560, 4/3pi to 499,

(Somehow the e component chanced to slip through 125. Jon moved in like a shower of anti-theta-mazons and extracted a painless cube so fast that the intruder oscillated on it three times before it knew what had happened to it:)

4/3pi to 53e, 4/3pi to 53e, 4/3pi to 53e under high gravity-very high, that is, two to three million times that of earth, such as inside a star-in such warped space there is a subtle difference between 53 and 125, though they represent the same number. It's like the notes E-sharp and F, which are technically the same, but are distinguished between when played by a good violinist with a fine ear. When the root came loose, therefore, the variation threw the wave-length all off balance:) 4/3pi to 5e, 4/3pi to 5e, 4/3pi to 5e....

(All right, everybody, concentrate-)

(There, there, there....)

For one moment, the intruding oscillation turned, ducked, tried to escape, and couldn't. It contracted into a small ball with a volume of 4/3pie3, and disappeared.

There....

* * *

Jon Koshar shook his head, staggered forward, and went down on his knees in white sand. He blinked. He looked up. There were two shadows in front of him. Then he saw the city.

It was Telphar, stuck on a desert, under a double sun. The transit ribbon started across the desert, got the length of twelve pylons, and then crumpled.

As he stood up, something caught in the corner of his eye.

His eyes moved, and he saw a woman about twenty feet away from him. Her red hair fell straight to her shoulders in the dry heat. He blinked as she approached. She wore a straight skirt and had a notebook under her arm. "Petra?" he said, frowning. It was Petra, but Petra different.

"Jon," she answered. "What happened to you?"

He looked down at himself. He was wearing a torn, dirty uniform. A prison uniform. His prison uniform!

"Arkor," said Petra, suddenly. (Her voice was higher, less sure.)

They turned. Arkor stood in the sand, his feet wide over the white hillocks. The triple scars down his face welled bright blood in the hot light.

They came together now. "What's going on?" Jon asked.

Arkor shrugged.

"What about the kids?" asked Petra.

"They're still right here," Arkor said, pointing to his head and grinning. Then his finger touched the opened scars. When he drew it away, he saw the blood and frowned. Then he looked at the City. The sun caught on the towers and slipped like bright liquid along the looping highways. "Hey," Jon said to Petra. (No, he realized; it was Petra with a handful of years lopped off.) "What's the notebook?"

She looked down at it, surprised to find it in her hands. Then she looked at her dress. Suddenly she laughed, and began to flip through the pages of the notebook. "Why, this is the book in which I finished my article on shelter architecture among the forest people. In fact this is what I was wearing the day I finished my article."

"And you?" Jon asked Arkor.

Arkor looked at the blood on his finger. "My mark is bleeding, like the night the priest put it there." He paused. "That was the night that I became Arkor, really. That was the time that I realized how the world was, the confusion, the stupidity, the fear. It was the night I decided to leave the forest." Now he looked up at Jon. "That was the uniform you were wearing when you escaped from prison."

"Yes," said Jon. "I guess it was what I was wearing when I became me, too. That was the time when freedom seemed most bright." He paused. "I was going to find it no matter what. Only somehow I felt I'd gotten sideswiped. I wonder whether I have or not."

"Have you?" asked Petra. She glanced at the City. "I guess when I finished that essay, that's when I really became myself, too. I remember I went through a whole sudden series of revelations about myself, and about society, and about how I felt about society, about being an aristocrat, even, what it meant and what it didn't mean. And I suppose that's why I'm here now." She looked at the City again. "There he is," she nodded.

"That's right," said Jon.

They started across the sand, now, making toward the shadow of the ruined transit ribbon. They reached it quicker than they thought, for the horizon was very close. The double shadows, one a bit lighter than the other, lay like two inked brush strokes over the page of the desert. "But how come we're in our own bodies," the Duchess asked, as they reached the shadow of the first pylon. "Shouldn't we be inhabiting the forms of...." Suddenly there was a sound, the shadow moved. Jon looked up at the ribbon above them and cried out.

As the metal tore away, they jumped back, and a moment later a length of the ribbon splashed down into the sand, where they had stood. They were still for a handful of breaths.

"You're darn right he's there," Jon said. "Come on."

They started again. Petra shook white grains from her notebook cover and they moved along the loose sand. A road seeped from under the desert, now, and began to rise toward Telphar. They mounted it and followed it toward the looming city. Before them the towers were dark streaks on the rich blue sky.

"You know, Petra's question is a good one," Arkor said few minutes later.

"Yeah," said Jon. "I've been thinking about it too. We seem to be in our own bodies, only they're different. Different as our bodies were at the most important moments of our lives. Maybe, somehow, we've come to a planet in some corner of the universe, where three beings almost identical to us, only different in that way, are doing, for some reason we'll never know, almost exactly what we're doing now."

"It's possible," Arkor said. "With all the myriad possibilities of worlds, it's conceivable that one might be like that, or like this."

"Even to the point of talking about talking about it?" asked Petra. She answered herself. "Yes, I guess it could. But saying all this for reasons we don't understand, and saying, 'Saying all this for reasons we don't understand....'" She shuddered. "It's not supposed to be that way. It gives me the creeps."

There was another sound, and they froze. It was the low sound of some structure tumbling, but they couldn't see anything.

Another fifty feet, when the road had risen ten feet off the ground and the first tower was beside them, they heard a cracking noise again. The road swayed beneath them. "Uh-oh," Arkor said.

Then the road fell. They cried out, they scrambled; suddenly there was cracked concrete around them, and they had fallen. Above them was a jagged width of blue sky between the remaining edges of the road.

"My foot's caught," Petra cried out.

Arkor was beside her, tugging on the concrete slab that held her.

"Hold on a second," Jon said. He grabbed a free metal strut that still vibrated in the rubble, and jammed it between the slab and the beam it lay on. Using the wreck of an I-beam for a fulcrum, he pried it up. "There, slip your foot out."

Petra rolled away. "Is the bone broken?" he asked. "I got a friend of mine out of a mine accident that way, once." He let the slab fall again. (And for a moment he stopped, thinking, I knew what to do. I wasn't clumsy, I knew....)

Petra rubbed her ankle. "No," she said. "I just got my ankle wedged in that crevice, and the concrete fell on top." She stood up, now, picking up the notebook. "Ow," she said. "That hurts."

Arkor held her arm. "Can you walk?"

"With difficulty," Petra said, taking another step and clamping her teeth.

"Alter says to stand on your other foot and shake your injured one around to get the circulation back," Arkor told her.

Petra gritted teeth, and stepped again. "A little better," she said. "I'm scared. This really hurts. This may be a body that looks like mine, but it hurts, and it hurts like mine." Suddenly she looked off into the city. "Oh hell," she said. "He's in there. Let's go."

They went forward again, this time under the road. The sidewalks, deserted and graying, slipped past. They passed a shopping section; teeth of broken glass gaped in the frames of store windows. Above, two roads veered and crossed, making a black, extended swastika on a patch of white clouds.

Then a sudden rumbling.

Silence.

They stopped.

Now a crash, thunderous and protracted. An odor of dust reached them. "He's there," Arkor said.

"Yes," said Jon.

"I can...."

Then the City exploded. There was one instant of very real agony for Jon as the pavement beneath his feet shot up at him, and he reached his mind out as a shard of concrete knocked in his face (all the time crying, No, no, I've just become Jon Koshar, I'm not supposed to ... as a lost Prince had cried out half a year and half a universe away) and at the same time, There....

Petra got a chance to see the face of the building beside them rip off a foot before the air blast tore the notebook from her hands, and at the same time she welled her thoughts from behind the bone confines of her skull. There....

And Arkor's thoughts (he never saw the explosion because he blinked just then) tore out through his eyelids as fragmented steel tore into them. There....

* * *

It was cold, it was black. For a moment they saw with a spectrum that reached from the star-wide waves of novas to the micro-micron skittering of neutrinos. And it was black, and completely cold. A rarefied breeze of ionized hydrogen (approximately two particles per cubic rod) floated over half a light year. Once, a herd of pale photons dashed through them from a deflected glare on some dying sun a trillion eons past. Other than that, there was silence, save for the hum of one lone galaxy, eternities away. They hovered, frozen, staring into nothing, above, below, behind, contemplating what they had seen.

Then, the green of beetles' wings, and they flailed into the blood of sensation from the blackness, whirled into red flame the color of polished carbuncle, smoothly through the nerves and into the brain; then, before the blue smoke, burning blue through the lightning seared axion of their corporate organisms, they were snared within the heat and electric imminency of a web of silver fire.

* * *

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