Now available through the following links:
Congrieve interjected, “Orville, what he means to say is that the three of us… you, me, and the Queen… will have to power dive straight to the ground from a height of ten thousand feet.”
Wootin rolled his eyes and smacked his forehead. “Hollister, if this makes sense to you—or anyone else present—then I’m proud to be a lunatic.”
“Look, Orville, I don’t claim to know how this hocus-pocus works. But I’ve seen enough of it to know that it does. And for that matter, so have you. And you know what ends up happening when we ignore the warnings these two give us, crazy as they always sound.”
Even with her colorless skin and her blood flooded eyes, the Queen was still very beautiful. It had to do with the triumph of geometry over limitations of her health. When he considered the unnerving effect of that beauty upon his friend, Wootin wondered whether the Mysteriarchs had the right idea about destroying beauty.
“I can’t argue with you. It wouldn’t do any good if I tried. But for the heck of it, I’m not going along this time. I’m not, just not. I get despondent sometimes, and my disposition might even tend toward the suicidal. But tonight, I’m not in the mood.” Wootin folded his arms across his chest as a show of stubborn opposition, and he tried to anchor himself in the sand, but the soft ground made him all the more unsteady. He had the uncomfortable feeling that his refusal was not a real manifestation of his will—not a decision he could guide by mulishness or maneuvering or zeal or adherence to principles, but rather another part of the conventions overtaking him. Even if his refusal were simply a mandatory prelude to his inevitable acquiescence, it still felt genuine; it still carried a stamp of authenticity. It made him feel as if what he was doing would control the final outcome.
“The time…” Ben-Zimra looked to the creeping shadows over the pentagram.
“We’ll have to leave without him,” said Congrieve. He ran his hand through his reddish blonde hair, now silvered by the rising moon and other worries. “Anyway, Ben-Zimra said that I would be the key to our success. So maybe we don’t really need him. Everything is supposed to depend on me. Wasn’t that the augury?”
“What a bunch of rot,” said Wootin. “They’re appealing to your ego, man.”
“Orville won’t budge when he gets like this.”
“We need him,” said the Queen. “Find some way to persuade him.”
“It’ll take longer than we have time, and more liquor than I brought.”
Cassiopeia turned back to Wootin. “Life is pointless and trivial except for moments like this one. Here you have the chance to see splendor and beauty beyond the imaginings of men. And you have the chance to save that beauty. By saving that beauty, you will prevent the occurrence of an unspeakable disaster. You’ve already seen the horrible evils that come from the dealings of the Mysteriarchs. If they succeed here, the results will be far worse than anything you’ve already witnessed. We might fail to stop them. That’s true. We face terrible foes and battles against terrible odds. But what is the worst that could come of our trying? A death so instantaneous you won’t even know it happened.”
He had entered an escape tunnel of some sort, but the tunnel led to nowhere. The air was somehow breathable, though it seemed absent. It smelled of nothingness. It smelled like drowning.
Congrieve had been tossed into the place where the next city should have been, but what lay before him was a vast negative space. He despaired that he had failed again, Another city had been destroyed, he surmised.
He tried to puzzle out which city might have occupied this barrenness. There wasn’t a clue, as nothing remained. Or so it seemed at first. But then he thought he could make out the barest hint of a tracery, and vaguely occupied areas beyond the hints and shadows.
It was as if he were studying an etching of a cityscape, but the plate had been dipped into the acid bath again and again, until the image it produced contained only a slight suggestion of a picture, and when he took a second look, the half-imagined remnants of lines and crosshatching had all vanished.
In the aftermath of the turmoil and trauma he’d been through, the absence of stimulus was somehow reassuring. He appreciated its purity. He was wounded in body and spirit, and his plane was badly damaged. Against this lightless background, he could scarcely tell whether or not he was moving. Then he thought that he might have encountered the City of Silence and Peace. It was a kind of chambered void, a vision of perfect emptiness.
Was there a difference between an empty space that was always empty and one that once held something beautiful? Was the old vanished beauty still impressed upon the void, but hidden? Like a name you can’t remember but still lurks inside the recesses of your mind, to one day burst forth if summoned by the right circumstances. When the forgotten name comes back, it brings proof that it had always been there, but before it does, it seems an unfillable emptiness.
As his plane limped through the air, he thought he saw inhabitants, floating or drifting, or keeping perfectly still, but he couldn’t be certain because life within the city registered upon the senses as a kind of deeper absence within the emptiness, a city of ghosts.
There was some manner of artistic statuary, a carving of nothingness upon nothingness, or so Congrieve imagined—or perhaps it was all hallucinations—the mind offering up its own phantoms because it could not stand the void.
Congrieve had seen great beauty in the cities of D’say-Wardsany, but nothing so beautiful as the City of Silence and Peace. And yet for all of its empty and blank beauty, there was nothing so terrible and hideous at the same time.
Would it even be possible to destroy this city? Congrieve felt as if his mere presence here was having that effect—with his plane and its commotion, its motion stirring the implacable currents. Even his own disordered thoughts were disturbing the outer stillness.
It was the winter of existence; it was the summer of the end, and the fall of eternal spring.
The spectrum itself was being broken beyond the repairable delights of the rainbow. Reds were very bloody, but turning to deathly blue before evaporating to yellow emptiness.