Fantasy Humor

A Little Learning

By Matthew Hughes
10,618 words · 39-minute reading time
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From the author: Guth Bandar is an explorer of the human collective unconscious, which the Institute of Historical Inquiry has comprehensively mapped over aeons of Old Earth's ancient civilization. But The Commons, as the Institute's scholars call the noosphere, may still have a few surprises left.


 

 

 A LITTLE LEARNING

by Matthew Hughes

 

Guth Bandar skirted the fighting around the temple of the war god, took a right turn off the processional way and descended the cramped, winding street that connected the acropolis with the cattle market.  He ignored the shrieks around him and the whiff of acrid smoke stealing up from the lower town, where the invaders were firing houses they had already looted. 

After a few paces he found the narrow alley and stepped into its dark confines.  The passage led to the blank stone wall of a substantial house where a man in the robes of a prosperous merchant was scraping a hole beneath the masonry.  Beside him was a leaden coffer.  As Bandar squeezed past, the man finished digging.  He opened the box long enough to strip rings from his hands and a chain from his neck and place them within.  Polished gold and the glint of gems gleamed in the dim light then the lid snapped shut.

Bandar paid no heed.  The merchant was always here at this point in the cycle.  In a moment he would scuttle back to the street, there to be caught by a clutch of soldiers, iron swords out and bronze corselets crimson with blood and wine.  They would torture the merchant with practiced skill until he led them, weeping and limping, back to the buried hoard.  Then they would cut his throat and throw him on the rubbish heaped against the wall at the alley's end.

Now the man stood and turned to go.  He passed Bandar as if he were not there, which from the merchant's point of view, he was not.  Bandar continued to chant the nine descending tones, followed by three rising notes, which insulated him from the man's perceptions as it did from those of all the idiomatic entities intrinsic to this Event. 

The chant was called a thran, one of several dozen specific combinations of sounds which enabled scholars of the Institute of Historical Inquiry, where Bandar was apprenticed, to sojourn among the multitude of archetypal Events, Landscapes and Situations which constituted the human noösphere -- what the laity called the collective unconscious -- of Old Earth. 

Still chanting, Bandar climbed the stinking heap at the end of the alley.  At its apex would lie a large amphora with a fractured handle.  He would seize the amphora, prop it against the wall, then mount and scramble atop the barrier.  There he would chant a new thran, opening the gate to the next-to-last stage of the test:  a Landscape preserving an antique time when the world was mostly forest. 

The apprentice had already made his way by rocket-tube and teeming public slideways across the world-girdling City of a hyperindustrialized global state that flourished and faded eons before, taken a short detour through an insidious alien invasion -- it had failed -- and traversed a rift valley where early human variants competed to determine whose gene pools would dry to dust in the evolutionary sun.  Now a walk in the forest and a segue into one of the Blessed Isles would see his quest completed.

But when he reached the top of the refuse heap, instead of the great urn he found it smashed to fragments.  That ought to have been impossible, Bandar knew;  nothing changed in the noösphere.  Events and Situations repeated themselves exactly and eternally.

There was only one possible explanation:  Didrick Gabbris had already passed this way, climbed on the amphora and departed.  But before doing so he had contrived to destroy the vital stepping stone.

Frantic, Bandar scoured the area, digging through the rubbish in hope of finding something of sufficient size and sturdiness to take his weight.  But if there had been anything useful, Gabbris had removed it.

Bandar was left with three choices.  His first option was to search the city and bring back something else to climb on.  But his insulation from the idiomats' perceptions would not extend to a substantial object that was inherent to the Location.  And the longer he interacted closely with the substance of the Location, the more risk that the thran's effect would weaken and he might be perceived. 

Suppose some brutal soldier, startled as a chair was borne along by a vague, misty figure, thrust his spear into the mist.  Bandar's corpse would thence forward be a permanent feature of the Sack of the City.  His tutors had warned of the risks of “dying” in an Event.  The sojourner's consciousness became bound to the Location, reforming as one of the idiomatic entities and forever “living” and “dying” as the cycle played out endlessly.

His corporeal body, seated cross-legged on a pad in the examinations room at the Institute, would remain comatose.  It would be transferred to the infirmary, bedded and intubated, and consigned to a slow decline.

Bandar's second option was to find an out-of-the-way corner and remain there until the Event concluded and began anew.  Then, when he came back to the rubbish heap, the amphora would be waiting for him.  But that would take time -- too much time, even though durations in the noösphere did not run at the same speed as in the phenomenal world. 

Different sites had their own internal clocks.  This Event ran far slower than reality;  the few hours in which he waited out the cycle would be almost a day in the examination room.  Bandar would be the last apprentice to complete the quest;  he could abandon all hope of winning the Colquhoon Bursary and being admitted to the advanced collegia.

Which was exactly why Didrick Gabbris had smashed the urn.  Gabbris would win the bursary.  Gabbris would scale the academic heights, while Guth Bandar slunk back to his family's commerciant firm, to spend his life buying and selling and fretting over the margins between the two.

His third option was no help:  he could intone a specific thran and a ripple would appear in the virtual air.  He would step through the emergency exit and instantly plunge back into his own seated body.  He might complain to the Institute's provost about Gabbris's perfidy, but by the time a board could be convened to investigate, the Event would have recycled and all evidence of the crime would have disappeared.

Glumly, Bandar weighed his options and decided to risk searching for a step-up.  But as he started down the pile of refuse there was a commotion at the mouth of the alley and three soldiers appeared, pushing the merchant before them.  They watched as he knelt and dug up the box, amid coarse jokes and pokes with a sword at the man's plump buttocks.

There was nothing Bandar could do.  The way was too narrow for him to pass, even unseen.  He must sit on the rubbish heap and sing the thran, waiting while the soldiers gloated over the treasure, argued over its division, then cut the merchant's throat and finally departed. 

There would be no time to find something to step on.  Sadly Bandar waited for the blood to spurt and the soldiers to leave.  He would open a gate and return to the examination room.  Perhaps his story would be believed and he would be given a make-up exam.  But that was a faint hope;  he could imagine the conversation.

Bandar would say, “I accuse Didrick Gabbris of malfeasance in the matter of the amphora.”

Gabbris would not deign to sully a glance by directing it at Bandar.  He would elevate his nose and say, “Words without substance fleetly fly but seldom stick.  Bring forth your evidence.”

“I have none but my character.”

“Your character is a subjective quality.  You perhaps measure it as large and splendorous, while others might call it mean and marred by envy.”

“This is injustice!”

“Again, a subjective concept, while blunt facts resist manipulation.  Failure must find no favor.”

Senior Tutor Eldred would tug at his sparse side whiskers and make his disposition.  He would be swayed by the force of Gabbris's views.  Bandar's would seem the squeakings of some timorous creature.

The pathetic scene at the foot of the refuse heap was nearing its conclusion.  The merchant said, as always, “There, you have taken all that I valued.”

One of the soldiers drew a dirk.  “Not quite all.”

The merchant trembled.  “My life is of no worth to you.  Though you take it from me you cannot carry it away with you.”

“Yet we are inclined to be thorough,” said the invader.

Bandar waited.  He thought of some of the Locations he had visited during his years at the Institute, the places he would miss.  It was then, as he said goodbye to some of his favorites, that it occurred to him that he had a fourth option.

The Institute had issued the examination candidates a partial map of the noösphere, showing only the Locations they would need to navigate the test course.  The full chart of humanity's collective unconscious was an intricately convoluted sphere, complexity upon complexity.  It was the work of thousands of years of exploration by noönauts, many of whom had been absorbed by perils lurking in dark corners of the Commons.

Bandar did not have such a map.  A noönaut could take on his journey only what he could hold in his memory, and to encompass the schematic representation of an organic realm that had been evolving for eons was itself a work of years.

But there was a physical representation of the full map in the communal study chamber and Bandar had spent many hours gazing into its labyrinthine depths.  He could not reify it fully like a master, so that it would appear to hang in the air before him, twisting and rotating to display its maze of lines and spheres.  But he could recall large parts of it, all of the major Landscapes, most of the first-order Situations and more than a few of the significant Events.

The more he thought of it, the clearer grew his recollection of the map.  He saw connections and linkages from this Event to a Landscape and from there to a Location from which he knew three paths radiated.  In his mind's eye he could plot a route that would let him navigate to the test's final Location, a prototypical island paradise, where Eldred waited for the candidates to arrive.

It was just possible that Bandar could indeed find his way home.  Better yet, he was fairly sure that some of the sites through which he would travel had advantageous temporal dimensions:  the alternate route, though it required more steps, might actually be traversed in less objective time than the course the tutors had set.

The merchant had gurgled out his last bloody breath.  The alley lay empty.  Bandar made up his mind to try the long way home.  Perhaps his resourcefulness would so impress the examiners that they would overlook his failure to follow the prescribed course.  At the worst, if hopelessly stuck, he could exit through open an emergency gate.

He risks nothing who has lost all, he told himself.  Singing the thran, he returned to the processional way and followed it past the burning royal palace to the city's shattered gates.  Dead defenders were piled high and he had to climb a rampart of bodies to reach the wooden bridge that spanned the canal.

A little beyond was a stand of date trees.  A single attacker, pinned to a trunk by an arrow through his shoulder, weakly struggled to work the head free of the wood.  His eyes widened when Bandar ceased intoning the insulating thran and suddenly appeared before him.

“Have you come to help me?” the soldier said, indicating the shaft through his flesh.  “You do not resemble the god I prayed to.”

“No,” said Bandar.  It was unwise to feel emotions, critical or supportive, in response to the idiomatic entities.  They were not, after all, real people;  they were more like characters in stories, no more than a collection of necessary attributes.  The wounded soldier was probably a version of Unrequited Faith;  to pull the arrow free would contradict his role in the Event and could cause the entity to act disharmoniously.

Bandar faced the space between two of the date palms and sang five notes.  A wavering vertical fissure divided the air.  He stepped through.

A gust of wind threw stinging sleet into his face.  He was in a world of black and white and gray, standing on glacial scree that sloped down from a bare ridge above and behind him.  The closest thing to color was the dark blue of mountains whose lower slopes were visible beyond the ridge until they rose to disappear above the leaden overcast from which the sleet was flying.  If the wet clouds dispersed they would reveal no peaks;  the tops of the mountains were buried in unbroken ice all the way to the pole.

Downslope, a cold, wet plain of lichen and coarse grass extended to a line of horizon that was largely invisible behind the showers of freezing rain.  Far out he saw a mass of reindeer and the humped shapes of mammoths, identifiable by their peculiar bobbing gait.  Closer, a ring of musk oxen turned curved horns toward a short-muzzled bear that circled the herd on long legs.

Good, thought Bandar.  He recognized the scene.  He had visited this Location before though not at these precise coordinates.  Still, the connecting node that would admit him to the next site was near, in a narrow cave set back from a ledge that must be farther up the ridge.  He strove to remember how the view before him had looked from that previous vantage.  He had definitely been higher up and somewhere off to his right.

The experienced noönaut developed a feel for these things.  Though he could not call himself experienced, Bandar could perform the exercise that enhanced his sense of direction.  After a moment, he experienced a tiny inclination to go to his right.  He let his will yield to it and the predilection grew stronger.

That's that, he told himself and turned in the direction.  A motion from the corner of his eye caught his attention.  The snub-faced bear was loping toward him across the flatland, broad paws flicking up spray from the wet lichen.  It was almost to the bottom of the slope.

Bandar swiftly sang the thran of nine and three notes which had sequestered him in the sacked city.  The bear's pace did not slacken and its small black eyes remained fixed upon him.  Quickly, the noönaut intoned the seven and four, the second most common insulating thran.

The bear reached the base of the scree and began to climb.  He could see its condensed breath smoking from its gaping mouth, its lolling tongue bright pink against its brown fur.

There were three other thrans Bandar could try.  He suspected now that the oldest and simplest of them, the four and two, would insulate him from the idiomatic bear's perceptions.  But if he was wrong, there would not be time to determine which of the other two would work.  The bear had increased its speed, ears flattened against its broad head.  It would be on him in seconds.

Bandar sang five tones and the air rippled behind him.  He flung himself through the gap and tumbled to the ground in the date grove.  The Event was still unwinding and the wounded soldier remained pinned to his tree.  The man blinked at him but Bandar counted slowly to ten then sang the five tones once more.  He stepped through the fissure.

As he had expected, much more time had passed in the ice world and it had recycled.  The Landscape was as it had been the first time he had stood on the slope, the bear stalking the musk oxen out on the plain.  Bandar saw it become aware of him, saw it turn toward him and take its first step.  He sang the four and two;  instantly the predator turned back to the herd.

Chanting the tones, the noönaut faced about and began to climb.  The loose gravel rattled out from under each footstep, so that he slid back half a step for each one he took.  The icy rain assaulted the weather side of his face and neck and his extremities were numb.  Bandar paused and, continuing the thran, applied another of the adept's exercises:  thick garments grew to replace the nondescript garb in which he had imagined himself when he entered the noösphere.  Warm mittens and heavy boots covered his hands and feet and a fur lined hood encased his head.  For good measure, he imagined himself a staff.  The climbing went better after that.

The top of the ridge was broad and only slightly curved.  He made good time with the wind at his back and within a few minutes he saw the ledge jutting out of the scree.  But when he scrabbled down from the ridgetop he was surprised to find several fissures and cracks in the rock.

He turned and looked out at the plain again.  He was sure this was the spot his tutor had brought them to, but the class had been warned not to venture out of the recess, presumably because of the bear.  They had only looked out through the narrow opening, to fix the scene in memory, then attended as the tutor had revealed the two nodes and sung the thran that activated both.

Bandar looked into the first fissure and rejected it as too scant in both width and height.  The second was no better.  The third looked promising, however.  The opening was the right height and the darkness beyond promised that the cave was also deep enough.  Throwing back his hood, he stepped within.

The gates would be to his right, and Bandar turned that way.  Thus he did not at first notice the bulky shape squatting in the rear of the cavern holding her sausage-fingered hands to the tiny warmth of a grease lamp burning in the severed cranium of a cave bear's skull.  He drew breath to sing the four and two but before a sound could emerge a noose of plaited rawhide dropped over his head and constricted his throat.

The Commons was the distillation of all human experience, everything that had ever been important to humankind, individually or collectively, since the dawntime.  It was the composite memory of the species, the realm of the archetypes.  Some were of great moment, battles and disasters;  some were the small but vital elements of a full life, the loss of virginity, the birth of a child;  some were simply landscapes -- deserts, sea coasts, lush valleys, ice age barrens -- against which generation upon generation of humans had measured their existence.

The elements of the noösphere were formed by aggregation.  An event happened, and the person to whom it happened remembered it.  That individual memory was the smallest particle of the noösphere, called by scholars an engrammatic cell.  On its own, a single cell drifted away on the currents of the Commons and was lost.

But when the same event -- or even closely similar events -- happened to a multitude the individual cells were so alike that they cohered and joined, drawing vitality from each other, and forming a corpuscle.  As a corpuscle grew it became more potent, more active, even to the extent of absorbing other similar corpuscles.  Enough such adhesions and corpuscles aggregated into archetypal entities, permanent features of the collective unconscious.  They took up specific Locations in the Commons.

Events, Situations and Landscapes were not precise nor accurate records.  Rather they were composite impressions of what similar happenings had meant to those to whom they happened.  They included every horrid crime and tragic defeat, every joy and triumph of the human experience, real or imagined, each distilled to its essence and compounded.

And all of those essential Events, Situations and Landscapes were peopled by appropriate idiomatic entities, like the mammoths on the sleet-swept plain, the tortured merchant in the burning city, and the immensely fat female cave dweller whose piglike eyes now regarded Guth Bandar from the rear of the cave, while whoever was behind him jerked the noose, leaving him dancing on tip-toe, struggling to breathe.

The fat one grunted something and another figure appeared from behind her bulk.  This one was as lean and dried as the rawhide that constricted Bandar's throat, with a face that was collapsed in on itself and wrinkled up like dried fruit, framed by thin white hair clotted together by rancid oils.  She poked a wisp of wool into the grease lamp to make a second wick then lifted the skullcap and crossed the cave to hold it before Bandar's face.

She peered at him from rheumy eyes, toothless gums working and lips smacking loudly.  Then the hand that was not encumbered by the lamp reached under his parka and worked its way into his leggings.  She seized parts of Bandar that he would have rather she had left untouched, weighing them in her dry, hard palm.  Then she made a noise in her throat that expressed disappointment coupled to resignation and spoke to the unseen strangler behind him.

“Ready him.”

The noose about his throat loosened but before Bandar could gain enough breath to sing the thran a hood of grimy leather descended over his head.  The noose was slipped up over the ill-smelling hide until it came level with his mouth.  Then it was cinched tight again, gagging him.  He tried to intone the thran but could not produce enough volume.  Meanwhile, his hands were bound together behind him.

There were eye holes in the hood and a slit where his nose protruded, allowing him to breathe.  He felt a weight on his head and realized that the headgear supported a pair of antlers.

The strong one who had held him from behind now stepped into view and he saw that she too was female, though young and muscular, with a mane of tawny hair and a face that mingled beauty with brute power.

She moved lithely to hitch a hide curtain to a wooden frame around the cave's mouth, closing out the light and the cold air that flowed in like liquid from the tundra.  The old one was dipping more wicks of what was probably mammoth wool into the grease lamp, creating a yellowy glow on the walls while the fat one began to strip off her furs and leathers.

It was an ancient maxim at the Institute that a little learning made a perilous possession.  Bandar realized that aphorism defined his predicament.  He had been brought to this Location once before, but barely long enough to fix the place in his memory.  He had misjudged its category.

When they had briefly visited an adjacent cave the tutor's sole concern had been to display the nodes that coincided there.  He had not explained the Location's nature and when Bandar had looked out at the tundra he had thought that they were briefly passing through a mere Landscape;  instead, it was now clear that this was a Situation.

In the dawntime, there had been an archetypal tale of three women -- one young, one old, one in the prime of life -- living in some remote spot.  Questers came to them, seeking wisdom and always paying an uncomfortable price.  In later ages the Situation had evolved into bawdy jokes about farmers' daughters or poetic tropes about dancing graces.  But here was the raw base, rooted deep in humankind's darkest earth.  Bandar had no doubt that the final outcome of this Situation, as with so many others, was blood and death.

The grease fire was warming the cave as the crone and the girl efficiently rendered Bandar naked.  The matron, now also uncovered, grunted and sprawled back on the pile of furs, giving Bandar more than an inkling of the first installment of the price he must pay.

The young one took a gobbet of the grease that fed the lamp and warmed it between her hands before applying it to the part of Bandar that the crone had weighed and found merely adequate.  Despite Bandar's disinclination to participate, her ministrations began to have an effect.

Bandar realized that he was in danger of being pulled into this Situation, deeply and perhaps irrevocably.  The longer one stayed in a particular place and interacted with its elements, the more its “reality” grew and the more integrated with it the sojourner could become.  The speed of the effect was heightened if the noönaut abstained from intoning thrans or if he adopted a passive attitude.

The old hag was shaking a bone rattle and grunting a salacious chant about a stag and a doe.  Meanwhile, the young one had finished greasing him and was surveying the result with a critical eye.  Bandar looked down and saw that his virtual body was behaving as if it were real flesh.  It was a worrisome sign.

Act, do not react was the rule in such a predicament.  But outnumbered, bound and gagged, he had few options for setting the agenda.  He mentally cast about for inspiration and found it in the expression on the face of the youngest of the three cave dwellers.  She was regarding what was now Bandar's most prominent feature in a manner that more than hinted at disappointment. 

Her look gave the noönaut a desperate idea:  if it was possible to grow winter clothing and to create a staff from nothing, might he likewise be able to change the proportions of his own shape?.  His tutors had never spoken of such a thing, but necessity was a sharp spur.  If it was possible for Bandar to increase the dimensions of his most intimate equipment, he might improve his position. 

While the young one reapplied herself to his lubrication, Bandar employed the adept's exercises that had protected him against sleet and slippery footing, although now with a more personal focus.  After a few moments he heard the rattle and chant stop.  The crone was staring, open mouthed, and the tawny haired one was blinking with surprise.  Bandar looked down and saw that his efforts had been more successful than intended.  What had before been merely presentable was now grown prodigious.

“That will need more grease,” the old woman cackled.  The young one agreed and scooped up a double handful.

When he was thoroughly lubricated, they manhandled him over to where the fat one lay in expectation.  He was forced first to kneel between her enormous splayed thighs then to lie prone upon the mountainous belly.  The crone took hold of his new-grown immensity and guided him until connections were established, which brought first a grunt of surprise from the matron then other noises as the young one placed a cold, calloused foot on Bandar's buttocks and rhythmically impelled him to his labors.

The woman beneath him began to thrash about, making sounds that put Bandar in mind of a large musical owl.  For his part, he concentrated on mental exercises that placed a certain distance between his awareness and his virtual body, lest he become too involved in the activity and find himself on a slippery slope into full absorption.

Seize the process or be seized by it, he remembered a tutor saying.  The Commons was an arena rife with conflict, where will was paramount.  To control his place in a Location, the uninsulated noönaut must be the dominant actor, not one of the supporting cast.  How can I amplify my impact? he asked himself, rejecting any further increase in size -- he might damage the matron.

The idea, when it came, seemed unlikely to succeed.  Still, he  had heard that women could grow fond of certain devices used for intimate achievements.  Bandar summoned his conviction and focused his attention on effecting the change.  Within seconds a new sound rose above the matron's musical hoots:  a deep thrumming and throbbing which he could clearly hear despite the fact that its source was buried in the mounds of flesh beneath him.

The matron now began to issue throaty moans with a counterpoint of high-pitched keening.  She thrashed about with an energy that might have propelled Bandar from her if the young one hadn't continued to press down with her pumping foot.  At last the heaves and flings culminated in a final paroxysm and Bandar heard a long and satiated sigh, followed almost at once by a rumbling snore.

Immediately, the other two hauled the noönaut from the matron's crevice and flung him down on his back, the vibrating immensity buzzing and humming above his belly.  There was a brief tussle between youth and old age, quickly decided by the former's strength despite the latter's viciousness and guile.

The tawny haired woman straddled Bandar and seized his conspicuous attribute.  As she lowered herself onto it her eyes and mouth widened and tremors afflicted her belly and the long muscles of her thighs.  Then she leaned forward, placed her palms on his shoulders and set to work. 

Bandar saw the crone peering over the young one's shoulder with an expression that sent a chill of apprehension through him.  Ritual slaughter might not be the worst fate he would suffer.  He resolved to exert himself.

He reasoned that the same exercises that had enlarged some parts of him must make others shrink.  While the young female lathered herself to a fine foaming frenzy above him, Bandar focused his attention on his still bound hands.  In a moment he felt them dwindle until they were the size of a doll's.  The rawhide thongs slipped off. 

The young woman was quicker to reach the heights than her older cavemate but stayed there longer.  Bandar bided his time.  Finally, she emitted a long and thoughtful moan and collapsed onto the noönaut's chest.  The old woman wasted no time but avidly seized the incumbent at hip and shoulder and rolled her free of Bandar.  She stepped over him and prepared to impale herself.

Bandar bent himself at knee and hip to put his feet in the crone's belly, then launched her up and away.  As she squawked in pain and outrage, he sprang to his feet and made straight for the hide that hid the exit. 

His tiny hands gave him trouble, but when a glance behind showed his two conquests sitting up and the hag reaching for a long black shard of razor edged flint he put an arm between wood and leather and tore the covering away. 

The sleet slashed at him.  The bare ledge was slick with freezing rain.  There was another cave a short dash along the ledge -- it looked to be the right one -- and he half-ran, half-slid toward it, the antler-topped mask bobbing on his head and his still enormous and buzzing bowsprit pointing the way. 

As he went he tried to loosen the cord that pressed the mask into his mouth, but his puny hands hindered him.  Yet he must free himself of the mask to chant the thran that opened the gate in the next cave or be caught by the pursuing women. 

He decided to shrink his head.  There was no time for  refinement and he did not try to specify the degree to which his skull must diminish;  he could put things to rights later.

As he ran he felt the mask loosen, then the cord dropped loose around his neck as the dimensions of his jaw diminished.  He tossed his chin up and the antlered hood flew backwards.  From behind him he heard a grunt and a curse and a clatter.  Someone had tripped over it and they had all fallen.

Bandar did not look back but threw himself into the new cave, which he was relieved to see was empty.  He recognized it now, though he could not recall whether the gate he sought was to left or right.

If he had time, his memory or his noönaut's acquired sense of direction would tell him which to choose.  But there was no time.  He could not even intone the four and two thran and remove himself from his pursuers' purview:  having spent so long uncloaked in this Situation and so closely involved with its idiomats, he could not hide himself completely.

The moment he entered the cave he chanted the opening thran.  Nothing happened.  Then the cave darkened as the doorway behind him filled with murderous females.  Bandar had no time to work out why the thran had not succeeded.  Fortunately, the answer came before full panic set in:  he had sung the notes through vocal equipment that was markedly smaller than his regular issue;  just as a miniature horn plays a higher note, his shrunken larynx and throat had thrust the thran into a higher register.  Thrans had to be exactly the right pitch.

Bandar adjusted for scale and sang the notes again, and was rewarded with two ripples in the air.  Arbitrarily he chose the one to his left and leapt through as the young cavewoman's nails sank into his shoulder.

He emerged into Heaven.  All was perfection:  verdant meadows with grass soft as velvet and dotted with flowers of exquisite filigree;  groves of stately trees, each impeccable in composition and form;  skies as clear and blue as an infant's gaze;  and air as sweet as a goddess's breath.

The rift through which he had come closed behind him and Bandar stood a moment, a tiny hand to his breast as his fear ebbed away.  At once he knew that he had taken the wrong gate -- he should now be alone on a mountaintop from which he could have segued to the destination island.

He could retrace his route.  The cavewomen's Situation would soon recycle.  But first he should restore his body parts to their proper proportions and reclothe himself.  He needed to make tones of the right pitch, and it would not do to encounter the Senior Tutor while stark naked and presenting the humming enormity that dominated his ventral view.

He looked carefully around.  He was standing under some trees.  There were no idiomatic entities in view and Heaven was usually a tranquil Location.  But just to be safe he decided to move deeper into cover.  He ducked to pass under the lower branches of a flawless flowering tree, the perfume of its blossoms at close range making his head swim.  With each step the touch of the grass against his bare feet was a caress. 

A very sensuous Heaven, he thought, and resolved to explore it more thoroughly when he was received into the Institute as a full fellow.  Perhaps he would make a special study of such Locations;  it would be pleasant work.

Secluded among the scent-laden trees, he concentrated on a mental image of his own head and performed the appropriate exercises for what he judged to be sufficient time.  But when he raised his miniature hands to examine the results he discovered that his skull had remained tiny while his ears and nose had grown far beyond normal;  indeed they were now as out of harmony with nature as the buzzing, vibrating tower that rose from his lower belly.

If I could see what I am doing, it would make the work much easier, Bandar reasoned.  The setting seemed to arcadian for an actual mirror, but the noönaut heard the gentle tinkling of water nearby.  A still pool would do, he thought.

He followed the sound deeper into the grove and came to a clearing where a bubbling spring welled up to form a pool of limpid clarity.  He knelt and gazed into the gently rippling water.  The image of his shrunken face, albeit now centered by a trunk-like proboscis and framed by a pair of sail-like ears, looked back at him with grave concern.  He began the exercises anew.

“Bless you,” said a mellow voice behind him.  Bandar swung around to find a sprightly old man with the face of a cherub beaming down on him from under a high and ornate miter that was surrounded by a disk of golden light.  The saint was dressed in ecclesiastical robes of brilliant white with arcane symbols woven in gold and silver thread.  In his hand was a stout staff topped by a great faceted jewel.

“Thank you,” said Bandar.  “I'll be but a moment.”

But as he spoke he saw the man's beatific expression mutate sharply to a look of horror succeeded by a mask of righteous outrage.  Faster than Bandar would have credited, the jewel topped staff rotated in the hierophant's hand so that it could be thrust against the noönaut's chest, and he was toppled into the crystal water.

“Glub,” said Bandar as he passed below the surface.  When he struggled back to the air he saw the old man looming over him, the staff set to do fresh mayhem.  He had time to hear the idiomat cry out, “Enemy!  An enemy is here!” before the gem struck Bandar solidly on his tiny cranium and drove him under again.

Bandar wondered if it was possible to drown in the Commons.  He elected not to find out and kicked off toward the other side of the pool, swimming under the surface.

The throbbing queller of cavewomen was not diminished by the cold water.  Indeed it tended to dig into the soft bottom of the pool so that he had to swim closer to the surface.  But his action took him out of range of the staff and in moments he had hauled himself free of the water.  The idiomatic saint was circling the pool, clearly intent on doing more damage, all the while bellowing alarms.

Bandar fled for the trees, but as he ran he heard the rush of very large wings.  Casting a look over his shoulder, he saw a vast and shining figure passing through the air above the grove.  The long bladed sword in its grasp was wreathed in flame and the look on its perfectly formed features bespoke holy violence.

Bandar fell to his knees and opened his mouth.  The four and two would not work here, he was sure.  And he doubted the nine and three would be efficacious.  Given how his fortunes had fared today, it would be the three threes.  This was the most difficult sequence of tones, even when the chanter was not possessed of mouse-sized vocal equipment absurdly coupled to an elephantine nasal amplification box, while distracted by vibrations from below and the threat of incineration from above.

His alternatives rapidly dwindling, the noönaut frantically adjusted his vocalizations to find the exact pitch.  At least the giant ears assisted in letting him hear exactly how he sounded.  The sight of the descending winged avenger lent urgency to his efforts and in moments he struck the right tones.  He sang the three threes and saw the terrible beauty of the angel's face lose its intensity of focus.  The wings spread wide to check its ascent;  it wheeled and flew off, its flaming sword hissing.

The staff-wielding hierophant stood on the other side of the bubbling pool, scratching his head and wearing an expression like that of a man who has walked into a room and cannot remember what he came for.  Then he turned and went back the way he had come.

The gate back to the ice-world was too close to where the saint was keeping his vigil.  Bandar did not fancy hunting for it and standing exposed while seeking the right pitch for the opening thran, with hard-tipped staffs and flaming swords in the offing.  He would find another gate and take his chances.

Chanting the three threes, he went out onto the luxurious lawn again but now its caressing touch mocked his dismay.  He saw above the distant horizon a squadron of winged beings on combat patrol.  In another direction was a walled citadel, giant figures watching from its ramparts, a glowing symbol hovering in the sky over the heads.

There could be no doubt:  he had passed into one of those Heavens that offered no happy-ever-aftering;  instead, here was an active Event -- one of those paradises threatened by powers that piled mountains atop each other or crossed bridges formed of razors.  In such a place an uninsulated sojourner would not long remain unnoticed.  And neither side took prisoners.

If he stopped chanting the three threes, someone might launch a thunderbolt at him.  Still, Bandar attempted the techniques that would restore his parts to their proper size.  At the very least, he wished to be rid of the humming monstrosity connected to his groin;  it slapped his chest when he walked and when he stood still it impinged upon his concentration. 

But it was too difficult to maintain the complex chant through his distorted vocal equipment while attempting to rectify his parts.  All Bandar could manage was to alter the color of the buzzing tower from its natural shade to a bright crimson.  It did not seem a profitable change.

He abandoned the effort and concentrated instead on using his sense of direction to tell him where the next gate might be.  In a moment an inkling came, but he was dismayed to recognize that the frailty of the signal meant that the node was a good way off.

Bandar set off in that direction, chanting the three threes, ears flapping from fore to aft and nose swaying from side to side, his chest slapped contrapuntally.  After he had walked for some time he noticed that the signal was only marginally stronger;  it would be some time before he reached its source. 

While I was making alterations I should have doubled the length of my legs, he thought and scarcely had the idea struck him than he realized if he had had that inspiration in the sacked city he could have climbed onto the wall to open its gate and none of this would have been necessary.

The noönaut stopped and sat down.  I have been a fool, he thought.  Didrick Gabbris deserves to win;  he will fit this place far better than I ever could.  He felt his spirit deflate and resolved not to persist with the quest.  He would open an emergency gate and leave the Commons.

But not here in the open, where someone might cast who knew what lethal missile in his direction.  Without warning, in such a Location, an actual god might appear and unleash disasters that only an irate deity could conceive of.

Bandar rose and crossed quickly to the nearest copse of trees.  Under their sheltering boughs he spied a troop of armored figures drawn up in a phalanx, the air above their head a blaze of gold from their commingled halos.  Still chanting, he backed away.

He walked on, investigating one stand of trees after another, finding each under the eye of at least one brightly topped sentry.  Several were peopled by whole battalions of holy warriors.

He would have to leave Heaven before he could find a safe place in which to call up an emergency exit.  He wished he knew more about these Locations -- his interests ran more toward the historical than the mythological -- but he recalled that there was often a ladder or staircase connecting them to the world beneath.  It was usually at the edge, sometimes wreathed in clouds.

He kept on until eventually he found himself descending a long, grassy slope which seemed to end in a precipice.  Gingerly, he inched toward the edge.  He would have crawled on hands and knees but his enormous red appendage hampered him.

Near the lip he looked out into empty air that was suffused with light from no discernible source.  Far below, scattered clouds drifted idly, the gaps between them allowing glimpses of fields and forests beneath.  Bandar shuffled closer to the edge to look almost directly down, hoping to see some means of descent but his view was hindered by the vibrating enormity.  Finally he knelt and leaned forward.

There was something there, just beyond the last fringe of lush grass.  He reached to move away the obscuring blades.  Yes, that looked much like the top of a ladder.

“Ahah!” said Bandar, breaking off the thran to indulge in a moment of triumphant relief.  Immediately, a scale covered hand appeared from beyond the rim, seized his wrist with claw tipped fingers and yanked him over the precipice.

Bandar's squawk was cut off by a hot, calloused palm pressed against his mouth.  There was a reek of sulfur and he was clutched by rock hard arms against an equally unyielding chest, then he heard a flap of leathery wings and felt his stomach lurch as the creature that held him dropped into empty space.

They spiraled downward, affording Bandar a panoramic view of what lay beneath Heaven.  There was a ladder;  indeed, there were many.  But though their tops were set against the grassy lip from which he had been seized their bases were not grounded on the earth far below.  Instead, they were footed on a vast expanse of stone paving that was the top of an impossibly colossal construction that rose, tier upon tier, to thrust up through the clouds and end just below the celestial realm.

The tower top was thronged by legions of blood red creatures, some winged, some not, but all armored in shining black chitin and clutching jagged edged swords and hooked spears as they swarmed up the ladders.

As Bandar spun downwards he saw the topmost of the invaders being boosted onto the grass and heard the piercing sound of a horn.  Then he and his captor descended into a cloud and for a time all was mist.  They emerged to fly beneath an overcast, dropping ever lower toward a great rent in the earth from which foul clouds and odors emerged, as well as more marching legions of imps, demons and assorted fiends, all bound for the great tower.

The demon that held Bandar lifted its wings like a diving pigeon and plummeted into the reeking chasm.  A choking darkness closed the noönaut's eyes and nose but he sensed that they fell a long, long way.

“In a moment, my servant will remove his hand from your mouth,” said the occupant of the black iron throne.  “If you attempt to say the name of You Know Whom,” -- one elongated finger directed its pointed tip at the roof of the vast underground cavern -- “you will utter no more than the first syllable before your tongue is pulled out, sliced into manageable pieces and fed back to you.  Are we clear?”

Bandar looked into the darkness of the speaker's eyes, which seemed to contain only impossibly distended pupils.  He wished he could look away but he was by now too far acclimated to this Location, and the Adversary's powers gripped him the way a snake's unwavering gaze would hold a mouse. 

He nodded and the palm went away.  The other's upraised finger now reflectively stroked an aquiline jaw, its progress ending in a short triangular beard as black as the eyes above it.  “What are you?” said the voice, as cool as silk.

Bandar wished he'd studied more about the Heavens and Hells, but he had always been more compelled by Authentics than by Allegoricals.  He knew, however, that within their Locations deities and their equivalents had all the powers with which their real-world believers credited them.  So, in this context, he faced an authentic Principal of evil -- or at least of unbridled ambition -- that had all the necessary resources, both intellectual and occult, to battle an omnipotent deity to at least a stalemate.  Bandar, who could not outargue Didrick Gabbris, was not a contender.

The sulfur made him cough,  Finally he managed to say, “A traveler, a mere visitor.”

The triangular face nodded.  “You must be.  You're not one of mine and,” -- the fathomless eyes dropped to focus briefly on Bandar's vibrating wonderment -- “you're certainly not one of His.  But what else are you?”

Every Institute apprentice learned in First Week that the concept of thrans had originated in a dawntime myth about an ancient odist whose songs had kept him safe on a quest into the underworld.  This knowledge gave Bandar hope as he said, “I am also a singer of songs.  Would you care to hear one?”

The Adversary considered the question while Bandar attempted to control his expression.  The distant gate he had sensed in Heaven was but a few paces across the cavern.  He had only to voice the right notes, perhaps while strolling minstrel-like about the space before the throne, to call the rift into existence and escape through it.

“Why would you want to sing me a song?” said the Adversary.

“Oh, I don't know,” said Bandar and was horrified to see the words take solid form as they left his mouth.  They tumbled to the smoldering floor to assemble themselves into a wriggling bundle of legs and segmented body parts that scuttled toward the figure on the throne, climbed his black robes and nestled into the diabolical lap.  The Principal idly stroked it with one languid hand, as if it were a favored pet.

“All lies are mine, of course,” the soft voice said, “and I gave you no leave to use what is mine.”  He nodded to the winged fiend that still stood behind Bandar and the noönaut felt a icy pain as the thing inserted a claw into a sensitive part and scratched at the virtual flesh.

“Now,” said the Adversary, when Bandar had ceased bleating and hopping, “the truth.  What are you, why did you come here and, most urgent of all, how did you contrive to enter His realm behind His defenses?”

“If I tell you, may I go on my way?”

“Perhaps.  But you will tell me.  Ordinarily, I would enjoy having it pulled out of you piece by dripping piece, but today there is a certain urgency.”

“Very well,” Bandar said, “though the truth may not please you.”  And he told all of it -- thrans, Locations, examinations, Gabbris, the smashed amphora -- wondering as he did so what the repercussions might be.  It was no great matter if the odd idiomat saw a sojourner pass by;  but Bandar had never heard of an instance where a Principal was brought face to face with the unreality of all that he took to be real. 

At the very least, the Institute would be displeased with Apprentice Guth Bandar.  Yet, whatever punishment Senior Tutor might levy, Bandar could not imagine that it would be a worse fate than being absorbed into a Hell.  Chastising malefactors, after all, was what such Locations did best.

When the noönaut had finished, the listener on the throne was silent for a long moment, stroking his concave cheek with a triangular nail, the great dark eyes turned inward.  Finally he laid a considering gaze on Bandar and said, “Is that all?  You've left out no pertinent details that might construe a trap for a hapless idiomatic entity such as I?”

Bandar had thought about trying to do exactly that, but had not been able to conceive of a means.  Besides, he had expected this question and knew that any lie he attempted would only scamper off to its master, leaving Bandar to re-experience the demon's intruding claw, if not something worse.

“It is all.”

The Adversary stroked at his beard.  “You can imagine that this news comes as a shock.”

“Yes.”

“Even a disappointment.”

“I express sympathy.”  It wasn't a lie.  Bandar could express the sentiment without actually feeling it.

“It repeats forever?  And I never win,” he indicated the cavern's ceiling again, “against You Know Whom?”

“Never.”

“What would you advise?” the archfiend asked, then added, “Honestly.”

Bandar thought it through but could come to no other conclusion.  “You must be true to your nature.”

The archfiend sighed.  “That I already knew.”  He reflected for a moment then went on, “It ought to be comforting to know exactly why one exists.  Instead I find it depressing.”

A silence ensued.  Bandar became uncomfortable.  “I can offer one solace,” he said.

The dark eyes looked at him.  “It had better be exceptionally good.  I usually need to see a great deal of suffering before I am comforted.”

Bandar swallowed again and said, “When your Location's cycle ends and recommences, you will not know of this.”

“Hmm,” said the other.  “Thin comfort indeed.  Knowledgeability is my foremost pride.  To know that I shall become ignorant is a poor consolation until ignorance at last descends.  The battle up there may go on for eons.  I must think about this.”

Bandar said nothing and attempted to arrange his mismatched features into an expression of studied neutrality.  He saw thoughts making their presence known on the Adversary's features, then he saw his captor's gaze harden and knew the archfiend had come to the inevitable conclusion. 

The voice was not just cool now;  it was chilled.  “I see.  If I keep you and make you part of this 'Location,' as you call it, then might I expect you to regularly reappear and remind me that I am not what I thought I was?”

“I do not know how much of my persona would survive the process, but there is a risk,” said Bandar.  “I would be happy to relieve you of it by moving on.”

“Hmm,” said the other.  “But someone must suffer for my pain.  If not you, then who?”

Bandar looked around the smoky cavern.  All the demons and imps seemed to be regarding him without sympathy.

He thought quickly, then said, “I may have an idea.”

Intoning the three threes, Bandar scaled the ladder that reached to the brink of Heaven.  The first assault had failed and the invaders had pulled back, leaving mangled fiends and demons heaped on the tower's top and scattered about the narrow strip of celestial turf that marked the limit of their advance.

Angels of lower rank were now heaving the fallen over the edge and casting down the scaling ladders so that Bandar had to climb with scampering haste to avoid being toppled.  He picked his way across the grass, stepping over bodies and dodging the clean-up.  There was a sharp tang of ozone to the otherwise delicious air of Heaven;  an inner voice told him it was the afterscent of thunderbolts.

No one paid him any notice as he made his way between regiments of angelic defenders, drawn up in precise blocks and wedges, their armor and weaponry dazzling and the space above their heads almost conflagrant with massed halos.  But beyond the rearmost ranks he saw others laid upon the grass, their auras flickering and dim, shattered armor piled beside them. 

As he neared the recumbent forms he heard again the whoosh of great wings.  Huge figures gracefully alit and  gathered up the fallen angels then took to the air and winged away.  Urged by his inner voice, Bandar ran toward the evacuation and, seizing the robe of an archangel, climbed to the broad span between his wings.  His tiny fists made it hard to hold on as the great pinions struck the air and they sprang aloft.

So far, so good, said the voice.  Bandar was too busy clutching and intoning to frame a response.  They climbed above the fields and woods of heaven, until the great rivers were mere scratches of silver on green.  For a long time, the archangel's wings dominated the air with metronomic strokes then the rhythm ceased and the great feathered sails held steady as they glided down toward a city of shining stone upon a conical hill, with serried roofs and pillars and windows that flashed like gems.  The archangel alighted on a pristine pavement and carried the angel in his arms toward a vast edifice of marble and alabaster.

Down, said the inner voice, and Bandar descended, clutching handfuls of angelic fabric until his feet touched the polished flags.  Turn right and go up the hill.  There's a staircase.

Bandar wanted to say, “This is unwise,” but he was afraid that to cease intoning the thran in this part of the Location would invite a blast from on high.  He topped the staircase and came upon a broad plaza of more white stone accented by inlays of colored gems.  On the other side of the square stood an enormous rotunda -- yet more white stone, though this one was roofed with a golden dome.  Its gigantic doors -- still more gold, bedizened with mosaics of gems -- gaped open, throwing out an effulgence of light and a glorious sound of massed voices.

Here we go, said the inner urging.  Bandar advanced on trembling legs until he stood in the doorway.  The interior was incandescent with magnificence.  Rank upon rank of angels stood on wall-climbing terraces, singing unparalleled choruses to the great white-bearded figure who sat a diamond throne that grew from the middle of a diamond floor.

In, said the voice in Bandar's mind, and keep chanting.  The noönaut's legs could not have felt looser if they had been made of boiled asparagus, but he did as he was told, crossing the brilliant floor until he stood directly before the throne.  Its occupant's feet rested on a footstool that resembled a globe of the earth, just at Bandar's eye level.  He noticed that the bare toes bore delicate hairs of gold.

The sojourner stood, awaiting direction from within.  It was hard to keep intoning the thran while the thousands of perfect voices sang in flawless harmony a song that thrilled the soul.

It's always the same song, you know, said his passenger.  He never tires of hearing it, and they know better than to tire of singing it.

The music was climbing, crescendo upon crescendo, ravishing notes impossibly achieved and sustained, quavering tremolos that intoxicated the senses.  It was all Bandar could do to keep intoning the three threes, especially with his distorted vocal equipment and the difficulty compounded by the sharpness of hearing that his elephantine ears provided.

Wait for it. 

The thunderous chorus was now pealing out such a paean of praise that Bandar feared the golden dome might lift away. 

Almost. 

The voices soared to the brink of climax.

Now.

Bandar ceased intoning the thran.  From the point of view of the idiomats, including the Principal on the throne, he suddenly appeared before them, with all his acquired anatomical peculiarities on full display.

The music stopped in mid-melisma.  There was an instant silence so profound that Bandar wondered for a moment if he had been struck deaf.  Then he heard the thrumming sound of the giant crimson monstrosity that still vibrated on his front.

Perfect, said the inner voice.  Open up, here I come.

Bandar opened his mouth.  He felt the same unpleasant sensation of stretching and an urge to gag that he had experienced when the Adversary had entered him down in the sulfurous cavern.  A moment later the sinister figure was standing beside him, looking up at the divine face staring down at him from the throne of Heaven.

The archfiend raised his arms and cried, “Surprise!”

“It's always much easier to get out of Heaven than to get in,” commented the Adversary, as they plummeted toward the lake of fire.  When the heat grew uncomfortable for Bandar, the archfiend considerately sprouted wings -- much like an archangel's though somber of feather -- and swept the noönaut to safety in a subterranean passageway that led back to the cavern of the iron throne.

“Are you going to keep your promise?” said Bandar.

“Ordinarily, I wouldn't,” said the Principal, “but I don't want you popping up in every cycle to remind me of my futility.”

“Thank you,” Bandar said.

“Although it goes against my nature to be fair, you do deserve any reward in my power to grant.”  The dark eyes unfocused for a moment as their owner looked inward to memory.  “The expression on His face.  The way His eyes popped.  That was worth anything.  I will keep the war going as long as possible just so I can retain that image.”

“I will be happy to accept what we discussed,” Bandar said.

“Very well.”  The Adversary looked at him.  “It is done.”

Bandar consulted his own memory and found there a complete chart of the noösphere, exactly like the great globe suspended in the Institute's communal study chamber.  Or was it?

“Is it real?” he asked.

“I have no idea,” said the archfiend.  “Since your arrival my concept of reality has been severely edited.  I used my powers to improve your memory.  I can assure you, however, that it will lead you away from here, I hope forever.  I do not want you back.”  His long fingers imitated the action of walking.  “Off you go.”

Bandar consulted the globe and saw that the gate in the cavern led to a selection of Locations, depending on which thran was used to activate it.  He returned the map to his memory, chose the seven and one and stepped through the rift.

He was overjoyed to find himself in a shaded forest of giant conifers.  He recognized a particular tree not more than a few paces distant, strode to it and sang a handful of notes.  Again the air rippled and he departed the forest to emerge into hot sunlight on a white beach strung between laden coconut palms and gentle wavelets.

“I have overcome!” he cried.

“You have certainly achieved some sort of distinction,” said the nasal voice of Didrick Gabbris.  Bandar turned to meet his rival's sneer.  Gabbris lounged in the shade of a palm.  Beside him, Senior Tutor Eldred inspected Bandar in detail, from the tiny skull with its flapping ears and pendulous nose down to the minuscule hands and the crimson humming centerpiece.  When he had finished the catalog, his face formed an expression that Bandar found uncannily like that which he had recently seen on a deity.

“I can explain,” the apprentice said.

“Not well enough,” predicted Eldred. 

It was a prescient observation.  The Institute decided that Guth Bandar was not what they were seeking in a new generation of noönauts.  Nor was Didrick Gabbris, for Bandar's account of the shattered urn was believed and he had the compensatory satisfaction of seeing his enemy driven from the cloister while he was still being debriefed by a hastily convened inquiry.

Bandar learned that in the tens of thousands of years that noönauts had been visiting the Commons other sojourners had run afoul of Principals, though no one it seemed had ever shaken the confidence of both a god and his chief opponent.  It was decided that the contaminated Locations would be declared out of bounds for a few centuries, to give them time to recycle.

Bandar returned to the family firm and took up buying and selling.  But in his leisure hours he would sit crosslegged, and summon up his perfect map of the noösphere.  He soon found a Allegorical Location entirely peopled by nubile young women.  And with his ability to make useful modifications to his virtual anatomy, the idiomats were always delighted to receive him.

He decided that a little learning was only dangerous when spread too thin.

 

-- 30 --

This story originally appeared in Fantasy & Science Fiction.


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