Usually the house sang. It was built to make music out of the
seven winds that found it on its desert rise. Vents in the walls,
cunning terraces, cleverly-angled embrasures in the canted terrazo
facings drew them in; three spiral core-shafts tuned them into
vortices and descants, threw them across galleries, flung them
around precise cornices and carefully filigreed escarpments so
that more than anything the house resembled the ancient breathing
caves of the Nullarbor.
Which many said was Cheimarrhos' intention, that his great granite and limestone pylon was nothing less than an inverted network of caves set in the sky, chimnies and vaults and inclines in a structure such as Sumer must have seen, or Ur of the Chaldees, or Teoteochan of the Toltecs.
Paul Cheimarrhos called his house Balin, and on the day he finally showed me the roof-field there was a stillness on the red sand beyond the large deep-set windows, a lull I could not help but take personally, knowing Paul as I did, as an omen of some sort, as if my presence had caused it to be.
And, accordingly, as if unable to bear that terrible quiet, the middle-aged, incredibly vital Three-line tycoon talked about winds. Obliquely but inevitably. As we walked along the polished limestone corridor of Gallery 52, Paul rounded on me yet again, fixed me with his piercing blue gaze.
"When was the last time, Tom?"
"Only the once, Paul, three years ago. You used to come out to the coasts. I was here for the Anderlee hearings, but never got this far up. There were too many of us."
"The Anderlee thing, yes. I'm sorry." The polite show of regret quickly vanished from his eyes. He was too excited. "Thenthis makes up for it. Today is unusual, Tom. We usually get one of the four. The brinraga reaches this far north, and leftovers from the angry red-sky larrikin. I tune them down to gentle house-guests, mere palimpsests. Balin can do it. I'm so glad you're here."
We reached a corner window and looked out on the desert once more, but on a new vista entirely, stretching red and empty to the horizon.
"We even get spill-off from the sanalatti at this latitude, can you believe it? The experts say it's impossible but I know better. It's why Tyrren and I chose this spot, this exact place. I know the Soul when I feel it. Those scatterlings are unmistakable."
We stood looking out on the empty desert and I couldn't help but wonder how he did view my presence. Portentously, no doubt - the visitor who had arrived on the first windless day in four months.
"Are you familiar with the name Memnon?" he asked.
Knowing Paul Cheimarrhos' interest in antiquities and the ancient Mediterranean civilizations, I welcomed the change of subject.
"One of Alexander's generals?"
But of course Paul had been talking winds. He laughed, throwing back his thick mane of silver hair so it shifted like a magnesium shower along the shoulders of his cobalt house-robe.
"You are thinking of the general who led the Persian Greeks atGranicus. No, I mean the Colossi of Memnon, Tom. Two seated statues of Amenophis III on the Nile banks near Thebes. Some still believe they were designed so the sunrise and sunset winds made them sing..."
"A plaintive hooting song, yes. But that was an accident, nothing more than a freak thing. Others claim the Great Pyramid sang before it was sealed, that the engineering equations covered that. Some say Djoser's pyramid at Saqqara did the same, that Architect Imhotep was master of the micro-zephyrs, expert in a whole secret art of hierocantrics. These tales are apocryphal. Balin exists and does all this. David Tyrren worked with me on it."
I made a sound of acknowledgement to show him I knew what pretty well anyone did, that the great architect had worked on the house, pylon, monument - though I knew that Paul had done all the initial layouts himself. It was his own design, despite the careful elaboration that had made the design a reality.
We were walking again because that filled the silences, turning up into Gallery 55-B, working our way to the final upper levels, to the elaborate totemic roof-field at the pylon's crest where the wind-banks stood and the rows of strange acroteria were laid out like memorial pieces in a graveyard in the sky.
I needed to see that field, to find out if Paul Cheimarrhos had in fact done what David Tyrren suspected, and had - after much agonizing - revealed to Council at long last. It seemed I was in time.
Gallery 55-B was blind, no windows there to show the desert and sky in its twin infinite registers of red and blue, just cool limestone and granite - part of a wind-race when the vents and conduits were aligned and operating.
The whole truncated pyramid of Balin was a wind-trap, a man-made mesa over three hundred metres high, full of cave-chambers - every one part of some cunning, precisely-reckoned equation - and with a 'cemetery' field on its flattened crest. With its canted sides, its cavetto cornice and taurus moulding, it did look very much like the pylon of some great ancient temple gate never completed, never given its companion pylon or connecting wall, with no temple precinct at its back.
We turned into the wide transverse apron of Gallery 60, and there it was, laid out before us under the hot blue sky: the summit field set all over with shimmering, totem-like acroteria, tall blank ceramic and stone pillars, some elaborately painted, others bone-white and glaring in the sunlight, pierced with fibrile openings, set with airfoils and sonic wires.
It was exhilarating to see it all at last, and deeply disturbing - for at the very centre was a shallow basin, like a radar dish thirty metres across, and at the middle of that, so I believed, so Tyrren had confirmed, Paul Cheimarrhos' great act of sacrilege.
The twenty-six wooden burial poles were ancient, without doubt the undeclared cache stolen from the Vatican collection decades ago, smuggled back into Australia in ones and twos, hidden in black market havens, finally incorporated into Balin, perhaps the ultimate purpose of the place, though I quickly put that fancy aside. It was hardly likely - the idea was a measure of my own reaction to being here at last, to seeing the forbidden relics set up so boldly on this vast open deck.
Each post had its special ceramic cap, making it safe from orbital surveillance. Tribal comsats scanning the site saw nothing more than a shallow dish set with one more group of aerodynamic wind-posts. The angle of curvature of that depression had to make oblique scanning impossible as well.
Paul stepped down on to the flat roof-field, looking for all the world like some notable out of antiquity with his blue robe and silver hair, a Chaldean prince or an Akkadian merchant atop a ziggurat in ancient Ur or Sumer. Or again - allowing my fancies free rein, trying for the composure I needed - some of the acroteria, the totemic signs carved on them, took me half a world away - from Mesopotamia to Meso-America, and I imagined I was an Aztec priest in jaguar headdress and cloak of human skin stepping out to officiate at a ceremony to Chac Mool. Balin invited such notions.
I was hurrying ahead now, heart pounding, so that Paul was following me, making no attempt at all to keep me from the depression at the centre. He did want me to see it.
Only when I remembered what hung in the sky high above us did I slow my pace, force myself to look less eager, more the casual visitor overwhelmed by this magnificent display.
Slowly, more slowly, I completed a gradual arc towards my real goal, giving Paul time to catch up. Then, together again, our footsteps ringing on the limestone flagging, we made our way to the very edge of the dish and looked down at the cluster of poles at the centre.
"Every now and then," I said, quietly in the vast expanse of air and light, "a National does something like this. Luna Geary. Tony Wessex. Dominic Quint. If we're lucky, Council learns of it before the tribes do. And I hope we're lucky this time, Paul, though I doubt it."
"The tribes who made those poles died out long ago, Tom. Bloodlines lost, only revenant DNA trace, languages forgotten. This is as fitting a place for them as any."
"How we see it isn't important, you know that. It's what they think. Every act like this - even suspected acts, rumoured acts - harm Nation."
"The tribes can't blame Nation for what I do. It's like privateering in the sixteenth century, the sea-captains operatingon a special brief from the Crown. Drake, Hawkins and Frobisher were not legal agents of Elizabeth Tudor but they acted for her."
"A handy rationalization."
"No, Tom!" One hand cut the air, a dramatic sudden gesture, a measure of the force of his feelings. "It is exactly what I say. It's like Iran-Contra once was and the Special Operations Division of the CIA..."
"Secret agenda. Deceiving the populace."
"No! No!" Again the hand cut the air. "We are both privateers, Tom. Me with Balin, you on Rynosseros, keeping back details from all but a trusted few..."
"And having them kept back from me."
He took the reproach calmly.
"Who told you? Tyrren?"
"No. We asked for the plans. There's been a tribal satellite tethered above Balin for a month. That's what really brought me here."
"Ah, yes. My Star above Bethlehem."
"A very deadly star. It can't be simple reconnaissance. Not coincidence. I'd say a warning."
"Tom, I've had those poles for twenty years..."
"They're from the Vatican catalogue. The ones they didn't give back. Part of a cause celebre."
Paul Cheimarrhos said nothing for a moment. His clear blue eyes flashed in the sunlight.
"You're well informed."
"You know I work with Council."
"Exactly what I mean! A privateer!"
"All right, a privateer myself. I didn't bring Rynosseros, but my coming here will have been monitored. That roadstop you specified, seven k's out..."
"Sabro, yes. There were tribesmen there. No questions were asked; the continent-crosser dropped me; it was a routine transit stop. But I made no attempt to conceal my identity either. That would've alerted them. It's why I wrote instead of using tech. The invitation had to come from you."
"I'm glad to have you."
"Despite the omen of no wind?"
Cheimarrhos laughed. "Despite that omen, yes!"
We were silent for a moment, each of us alone with our thoughts, gazing down into the dish at the small forest of shapes clustered there. The glare from the hollow and the surrounding field made it easy to shut my eyes, to escape the ancient painted posts masked from the sky by their insulated caps. Paul's voice startled me when he spoke.
"Tom, I will tell you something you will not know. What Three-line is, or was. Thirty years ago I invented a device which could measure haldane force around individual Clever Men, show which ones could access the most powerful vectors."
I couldn't believe what I was hearing.
"Council knows about this?"
"No. Secrecy was a condition. I tell you only because of our guest upstairs."
I resisted the urge to look up. This was incredible.
"The tribes couldn't allow such a device to be used," Paul continued, "especially by non-Ab'Os. They bought the Three-line patent, demanded it, the plans and prototypes, made sure it remained a lost invention. They gave me this concession, on tribal land because the winds fell here, with enough funds and tech support to build Balin and establish a fortune in service companies.
"Those gave me a certain limited political power, as you know, which I've finally managed to pass on to my sister. Some of those companies help me acquire antiquities for my collection. The tribes permit them to operate. Ironically they made it possible for me to get these Vatican posts."
"But you've kept them," I said, my thoughts racing, wanting more than anything to ask more about the device. "You haven't given them back."
"As I say, Tom, the bloodlines no longer exist. Or if they do, only as revenant imposters. Who makes the claim? Who truly can? I do nothing more than collectors of antiquities and objets d'art have always done. For my pleasure I accumulate and keep safe objects which even their makers and inheritors might damage or ruin. It's the paradox of antiquarians and special collections everywhere." He looked into the sky. "My own Star now. I've been watching it. I have an antique Meade LX6 over there. It does the job."
"A laser strike at any moment, Paul. Balin might not survive it."
"What do they see, Tom? Nothing."
"There's more," I said. "Earlier this month, authorities in Rome finally confirmed that a special collection of burial posts - part of a personal gift to the Popes - was stolen in the years after Balin was built. An antiques smuggler was named; he named someone once attached to Three-line who has since disappeared. Nothing definite, all very tenuous, but your Star suggests how they're seeing it."
Paul surveyed the silent glade before us. "I've had them twenty years. I'm for this land, Tom, for all this. I'm the right sort of collector..."
"How they're seeing it, I said. You didn't even try to trade for such relics."
Paul laughed. "Oh, I made enquiries. But why haven't they confronted me? Sent in a search team, demanded entry, interrogated my staff? Why no formal investigation?"
I hesitated. He seemed perfectly serious; as if the obvious answer had not occurred to him? It made me cautious.
"You tell me, Paul, assuming you can trust your staff here, assuming they're not serving outside interests. I can only guess that it's part of the deal you made - what? - thirty years ago? This Three-line device you created would seem by its nature to weigh in as something between a holy artefact, something pertaining to the Dreamtime, and a National crisis. I'd say they made a deal with you at the level of their belief systems. Gave oaths, never expecting this. Now they have a dilemma requiring careful deliberation."
Paul turned away from the small forest of posts.
I followed him back across the roof-field, not wanting to ask my next question under the naked sky. Gain-monitors could never reach down so far, but scan could, and how did we seem, I wondered? Like conspirators? Very much Paul's privateers?
"One more thing," I said as we reached the open gallery that would lead us back into Balin's great mass. My heart was pounding as I said the words. "Did you hold back any Three-line knowledge? Plans? A duplicate prototype?"
"Of course not," Paul said, and was as closed to me then as a new moon, as the invisible satellite was - his Star, that sinister moonlet locked and turning with the world, geo-tethered by its micro-filament to the parent facility over the equator.
Paul Cheimarrhos smiled. "So serious, Tom. Come. We must not be late for lunch. Sarete is Three-line now. She might never forgive us."
"Paul, I have to know. The device..."
"Later. Come now." There were six of us for lunch, and the others were already seated at the long cedar table before a breathtaking view of the western desert: Sarete Cheimarrhos, Paul's reputedly formidable sister, her dark-skinned Islander assistant, Naese; to her left one of Paul's actor friends, the renowned John Newmarket, looking splendid in the Edwardian finery that was his Todthaus trademark, and next to him, white-suited, so urbane, the economist, James Aganture, agent for one of Three-line's longstanding European clients.
Sarete had been overseas during my visit to Balin three years before. I had heard a great deal about this celebrated woman; even Tyrren had issued several cautions. Now here she was rising to greet me.
If the flamboyant and expansive Paul could be likened to a messianic Beethoven cast in silver and blue, then his calm and elegant sister, with her black gown, long dark hair and sombre, appraising gaze, was something from the shadowed spaces of the El Greco that hung on the room's northern wall. She was ten years younger than her brother by all accounts, but the smooth untanned skin gave her a timelessness, a twenty year range of possibilities at least.
There was a smile, a generous one, but it never reached the eyes, and in the instant I knew that this pale, severely pretty woman intended me to see this duality of response. I was Paul's guest, the luncheon no doubt his idea. Just as Balin was completely his domain, the administration of the Three-line holdings was hers, and this had to be taking precious time out of a very busy day.
Rather than feeling affronted, I was glad of the hard honesty. There were probably enough lies in this great house already.
"Captain Tyson," she said as we shook hands. "I believe you and John know one another." I nodded and smiled at the actor. An answering smile softened those famous gaunt cheeks. "This is James Aganture, one of our European consultants." Aganture and I exchanged smiles as well. "And this is Naese, my secretary."
A fitting assistant for her employer, I decided, an Islander woman, quite dark, middle-aged, with small eyes and small fleeting smile. Naese rose, gave a slight bow of the head. I did the same.
We took our places. I was seated next to James Aganture at Sarete's right, opposite John Newmarket and Naese. Paul spoke a word to Anquan, the major-domo, and joined us, immediately taking charge of the dinner conversation by asking James Aganture to bring us up to date on the situation in Europe.
The svelte, white-suited European did that until the food arrived, when the business of eating gave me an opportunity to study Sarete and the others, though I found it harder to do that than I expected. Thoughts of what Paul had said about his invention kept crossing my mind, and I was glad when the meal was over at last and I could adjourn to my quarters for siesta.
Around 1500 there was wind.
I was drawn from sleep by the deep swelling song, went to the windows and looked out, used house tech to bring different vistas to the wall-screen, one cycling after the other, every angle but where the posts stood.
It was thrilling to see and hear - the outward signs of Balin coming alive. The pennants and long windsock drogues at the corners of the roof-field stirred on their poles, the helium- filled outrider kites floating high above the house started shifting in the sky, inditing their signatures on the bright air. Spinner caps turned, the most sensitive of the sonic acroteria began to sound. Like some great ship advancing through time, trailing cloud-wrack and windsong, Balin was on its way again.
Tolerances were adjusted: within ten minutes the field was thrumming and whistling, within twenty howling and keening. From further down the great sloping mass came a deep moaning that meant one or more of the induction vents were cycling open, the spiral cores engaged, that power-cells were regenerating and airflow was being guided through the mighty house. There were corridors now where my casual passage from one room to another would vary pitch and tone, add a subtle difference to the house- song. This was Paul's great legacy. This!
I must have stood there for fifteen, twenty minutes, reading the land, studying how this structure stood upon it, considering what micro-climates might exist in its shadow. Then the phone chimed, drawing me back, and it was Naese's face in the glass.
"Forgive the interruption, Captain. Sensors showed tech use in your quarters - we assumed you were awake. If it's convenient, my mistress would appreciate your calling on her in, say, fifteen minutes?"
The request did not surprise me.
"Certainly," I said. "I'll be ready."
On Balin's sloping west wall was a small open place like a col or cirque on the side of a mountain, and in the sun-trap made there was a walled garden, little more than some lawn and a grove of dusty orange trees.
A house-servant, Cristofer, led me there, opened the low bronze door and let me out into the tiny grove. The westering sun warmed the spot; the sloping planes of the wall-face came together above me in a gradual point, with stone wind-masks spinning on their pins in the vents.
The wind had strengthened, I noticed. The pressure systems over the desert had shifted - it was probably the brinraga which struck the parapet of the garden, stirring the fruit trees, whistling up the granite face to the vents above, where extruded murtains randomized the flow, altering its direction, tailoring it to the house-song.
Tyrren had built well. The massif of Balin sang but the garden was a pocket of calm, not only a sun-trap and a wind-haven, but also a place sheltered from the vast music forming all around us.
Sarete was sitting on a white wooden bench amid the trees, wearing a gown of dark green polysar and speaking softly into a comlink at her wrist. Though Three-line's Chief Executive, she apparently did much of her work from Balin, away from the coasts, privileged with the com tech that required. I marvelled at such easy luxuries. Near her, on another bench and using a lap-scan, sat Naese.
Both women looked up when I approached, but Naese turned her attention back to the scan display almost immediately. Sarete gave a polite smile and switched off the link.
"Thank you for coming. Paul considers you his so I won't keep you long."
I went to make some appropriate remark, but thought better ofit. This audience was wholly on her terms; she had reminded meas much.
"We could not discuss it at lunch, but tell me frankly, Captain, what does that comsat mean?"
"They're geo-tethered, as you know. The logistics of moving them, aligning them..."
"Yes. They use them that way all the time, but it means filing deployments, getting clearances, logging variations. It's a busy sky."
"So I've discovered. It tells us how seriously they regard this."
"It does. It may be a routine shift, simple reconnaissance, coincidence..."
"Council sees it as a warning."
"Because David talked."
"No, Sarete. Tyrren told us nothing, simply confirmed what was already available through channels."
"Ah, channels. And do you think there is an agent in our midst?"
After Paul's empassioned evasions, again I found this directness refreshing.
"Can you doubt it? I would have thought infiltration preceded a tech commitment like this." And I glanced briefly upwards. "Given what Balin is, I would assume infiltration occurred a long time ago. This is unique."
"How large is your staff?"
"Here? Seven including Naese. All trusted. All here a long time. Some rarely go above. We keep house secrets, Captain."
"Possible. Unlikely. They will not see the...relics either. But what can that station do? I've been given general configuration data but I'd like you to tell me."
So you can make a decision, I realized. Make policy for Three-line.
"We read lenses deployed. It's probably irijinti. Given twenty minutes it could effectively demolish Balin."
"Which took eight years to build. Twenty minutes."
"Depending on intensity and duration. They sometimes move deployed like that..."
"Target the roof-field?"
"Easily. To a square metre, possibly less. But hardly their intention." I glanced at the Islander woman sitting quietly among the trees. "They'd want to commandeer the...relics."
"Naese knows everything, Captain. Should I leave?"
It was such an unexpected question that I hesitated.
"You understand that I'm still making up my mind about all this?"
"All right. Then as Three-line you should. But only if it's a regular routine to do so. Anything could seem provocative now. Do you leave Balin often?"
"Occasionally. You like Paul, don't you? You're like him."
'Like' and 'like', both words revealing more about Sarete and her relationship with her brother than she perhaps intended.
"We understand something in common, something difficult, probably irreconcilable in our affairs."
"Ah, your role as privateers."
"Paul's word, Sarete. I suppose it suits."
"What would yours be? Patriot? National? Romantic?"
"Privateer will do."
"You have no satellite over your head."
"I do now. And for all I know I may have one for every Ab'O Prince I've ever dealt with as Blue."
Naese looked up suddenly, made a hand-sign. Sarete raised a hand to excuse herself for a moment.
"Foreman has entered the Manada."
"Excellent. Send on that." And to me: "Your advice?"
"In what capacity?" I said it to remind her of the levels that separated us, wanting the distinctions to matter. There were different values at work here; Naese's interruption, this allocation of time, had shown me that.
"As a State of Nation man?"
"Persuade him to give the poles back. Or leave here immediately."
"As the Blue Captain?"
"As Paul's friend?"
"As his friend?"
"I'm still deciding, but I'd say stay. Risk it."
"If Balin is struck and the reason is given as sacred relics, there are many who will not believe. The tribes are seen as ruthless aggressors, hostile to Three-line, to Nation, to all non-Ab'Os, displeased with past concessions because of a device Paul invented long ago..."
"Nation knows about the device?" It was the first time I had seen surprise on Sarete's face. The eyes first widened, then narrowed. Her mouth drew into a line. Alarm, disappointment, annoyance, I couldn't tell.
"No. Paul told me before lunch."
Sarete nodded. Her head lifted a fraction. She glanced out at an errant drogue - orange, red and bright blue - cutting the wind forty metres away. I could not be sure, but I believed she did it to conceal something contained in her gaze - or perhaps missing from it. More than ever she resembled the El Greco madonna above the cedar table.
"What will you do?" she asked finally. "As yourself?"
I smiled, watching the kite as well, seeing it as some complex bird-equation worked out upon the registers of air, left to find resolution, to create its own fragment of meaning. It occurred to me, absurdly, very fondly, that Paul would probably have namesfor his kites. This was his house, his ultimate statement. Everything belonged, made for the homeostasis Paul Cheimarrhos needed, externalized in kite and corridor and wind-chase. In the burial poles in that shallow dish.
No wonder he had been glad to relinquish the operation of Three-line. Dreamer, idealist, monomaniac, he wanted none of it. Who knew what wonders, what pieces of self, Balin's vaults and chambers contained? This was more than a vast schema of the Nullarbor's Breathing Caves, those hundreds of miles of underground conduits, chambers, tortuous chimnies. This was a living extension of the man, every corridor, each framed vista and spinning wind-mask. Seeing it any other way just didn't begin to give the truth.
He had to continue, remain just what he was. He had no choice.
The kite, set upon its wall of air, mindlessly navigating, brought that in, gave that answer. Just as he had set it there, given it that brave and futile task, serving, being, till it was finally destroyed and replaced, he had put Balin upon the land, raised it up for its time. His statement. His stand.
I watched the woman whose lift of head, whose gaze had led me out to the kite, realizing, imagining what she too had been through, the years of dealing with this reality of Paul's.
She had seemed hard and alien before. Now she seemed trapped and committed, caught at the moment of deciding. Caught in the choices of others. As I was. As Paul might yet be.
"I will remain here till that satellite moves away," I said. "If my presence can deter them, provide another reason for not striking, then good. Do you mind having one more house-guest, Sarete?"
"It's not my place..."
"I'm asking you anyway."
"Not at all, Captain. It was good of you to see me."
Again the safe courtesy, the illusion of my having gifted her and not the reverse. She was alien again in that moment, and I found myself hating it, hating what she represented, this seeming lack of connection, the cool pragmatism, the failure to read or simply accept one set of equations because she had equations of her own.
I left the garden but did not return to my quarters. Instead I climbed the escarpment, gallery by gallery, to a viewing lounge close to the summit. There I stood amid the low ochre-coloured furniture, safe behind the thick glass, watching the sturdy outrider kites hanging in the sky and the long streamers of dust and cloud which boiled off this stone massif and converged at the horizon as lines in an endlessly moving yet strangely constant perspective.
The house-song was clear but at a comfortable remove - like an orchestra tuning somewhere else. I began to see the great structure as something to be maintained in that other sense, and wondered which of the staff members - Anquan? Cristofer? Deric? - might abseil down these vast faces, clearing wind-wrack from the vents, carrying out service checks, replacing fixtures, tuning the structure in fact.
I recalled the meeting in the garden. Could Sarete not see the virtue in this vital reality? It was an eternal act of defiance, this great demense, a continuing statement of identity, personal for Paul, but for Nation too, a crucial affirmation.
Or was that just my bias?
I tracked clouds to the horizon and considered equations, found myself coming back to the new integer, probably the ultimate issue in all this.
What a device Paul must have created to be allowed such a thing as Balin.
I sensed someone at my back, turned to find the calm figure of James Aganture standing near me, the cultured, white-suited gentleman from our luncheon. Like me, he was gazing out at the desert, deep-set brown eyes filled with admiration.
"Amazing, isn't it? It just goes on forever."
He moved in beside me, stood watching the sweep of the land, the boiling ribbons of red dust streaming past, gloriously capped now with low cloud, trimmed with gold by the afternoon sun.
"You lose a sense of such scale in Europe," he said. "It might be said that here you lack density, weight of identity, but that surely is changing. We stand upon a great symbol. Another waits above. It is a testing of symbols really."
During lunch I had imagined what conversations I might have with someone like James Aganture, had wondered what talk there could be with that avenging moon fixed in our sky, steadier by far than those trembling outriders at the ends of their cables. That he had almost read my thoughts startled me.
I nearly smiled as he worked his way into what he wished to say, Sarete's question, no doubt Paul's. My own.
"Will it strike?" he said.
"Will it strike?" I answered him.
"I ask you the same question, James. And I wonder why you remain when the risk is so great."
Aganture's well-shaped mouth turned down, his dark eyes widened. "A visit planned weeks ago. I did not know until I arrived."
"Of course. So will you leave soon?"
Aganture did not answer. He waited a few moments, bringing his long hands together before him, then came to it again. This time he was even more direct.
"What will Council do, Captain?"
"Excuse me, James, but I'm still not sure what you mean."
"I know you are here as a representative of Nation," he said. "I know about the posts. It is why I was sent."
"Sent? By whom?"
"The Vatican, Captain Tyson. I am Monsignior James Aganture, the instrument of the Cardinals Elect and the Holy See."
"Hm. Your interest here, Monsignior Aganture?"
"Please. It is James. And it is merely a visit to negotiate for full restoration of the posts."
"How did you learn of them?"
The man smiled. "Our own investigators. There are those who saw to the actual handling who could later be bought. Thieves prosper in this. Once they had disposed of the merchandise, theystill had information to sell. Once we had the principal's name..."
"Cheimarrhos would be an expensive name, I imagine?"
"Expensive enough. We had made reasonable guesses. Balin is world-famous. Our host is known for his collecting. And he is hardly subtle. Once he even enquired about direct sale; he is on public record as a 'liberator' and 'protector' of relics."
"Does Paul know?"
"Not yet, Captain. I have not lied, simply withheld. I am a senior operative for a legitimate corporation dealing with Three-line in other areas. It was easy to come here. My firstloyalty, however, is to Mother Church. I thought it best I learn of Council's intentions before declaring myself. And, yes, we know about the satellite. It will settle eveything, ne?"
I met the churchman's gaze. "I hold Blue. I have full executive authority where Council is concerned in matters like this."
"I suspected as much. Will you order him to return the posts?"
"Order him? First you ask what will Council do, as if it can do anything, and now this."
"Captain, please. You will understand, I hope, when I say that you are not altogether the best choice here, ne? You are Paul's friend, you are a champion of National interests. Is it not provocative to have sent you?"
I fought down my anger. "Sent, Monsignior?"
Aganture frowned, clenched his hands again, though elegantly, without force.
"But...forgive me, Captain. I naturally assumed that was how it was. I know you can travel where you will..."
"James, go and declare yourself. Make your official representations and get away from here. That is a very deadly star."
James Aganture nodded, studied the striations of dust and cloud beyond the glass, the sharp and startling perspectives of the sky.
"Yes. But this is as delicate as it is urgent."
"You are here as a businessman as well as a friend."
"Exactly. We mean to buy them back if we can. Make them a gift to the tribes."
"Ah, I see. All good business, Monsignior Aganture. Curry favour for the Church."
"Captain, it really is not that simple."
"Of course. It isn't for Council either. They can't help themselves. I like to think I am here for simpler reasons."
"I see that now, of course. May I ask what they are?"
"Paul is an old friend. At a distance, it is easy to take positions, have the luxury of serving ideologies and some greater good. I came to make up my mind. I needed to know."
"Yes. I'm glad we've had the opportunity to speak. And please..."
"Your identity is safe for the moment."
"Thank you, Captain. You must understand that I cannot afford to jeopardize my organization's trade dealings with Three-line. It is difficult to know what to do for all of us."
"Keeping options open just in case."
"Very awkward, yes."
"You have spoken to his sister?"
But I saw at once that he had, that this was Sarete's answer too, and more of her questions. James Aganture was here at the invitation of Sarete Cheimarrhos, I was suddenly sure of it. I left him no time to answer.
"You ask for confidentiality. You impose upon my duty to my friend. I now ask you to tell him who you are. I give you until, let us say, dinner this evening, Monsignior, yes?"
"Yes. Yes, Captain."
And I left him, found my way down to my quarters on Level 42, welcoming the option of silence and opaqued windows, needing the time to consider what really had to be done, thinking of the Three-line device and wondering what my real reasons now were.
At sunset we saw the view that made Balin renowned across the world - the Inferno, great boiling lines of cloud plunging towards the horizon, meeting in the pit of the sun, drawn like great rivers, like tattered banners, cohorts, cables of molten gold laid upon the sky, the angles of a mad geometer hauled and hurtled into the blazing, settling point like a rehearsal for the end of days.
Even Sarete and Naese were there for it. We sat and stood about the lounge and could not find enough words for conversation, no moment when the few comments made did not do more than force silence again.
There was only the sky, the whole world drawn to that single ravenous point. And finally, as if in scorn, the sun closed its mighty eye in one slow blink, denying the clouds their lustre, turning them to lead where they sailed, streamed, panicked in the sky: you are too late, too late, little brothers, I turn my gaze from you all.
We subsided where we sat or stood, muscles loosened, sighs sounded above the rolling, healing frenzy of the house-song. John Newmarket tugged at his collar; James Aganture slowly shook his stately head. Naese sat with what seemed like a rapt expression on her face, considering the changed world beyond the glass. Sarete saw me give a deeper unsounded sigh, allowed the faintest trace of a smile to touch her pale lips.
Paul turned to us all, stood with his back to the glass.
"The world has many great identifying winds, enabling winds, precise expressions of the pneuma. The simoom, the sirocco, the kham-sin, the monsoons and the santanas. Pieces of the patchwork.
"I accept the reality; I accepted the challenge as Imhotep did. Here is the codex that lets us read what it tells us: not understand, never understand, but know. Just take in and know. The wind moves upon the land. It completes an equation in the soul, resolves itself through only those devices nature has raised up, precisely designed, to read what such things mean. Us. We are the world's way of apprehending itself. We complete all that out there. Our affirmations, our emotions, are the lock for that great key. This house reminds us."
I smiled. Paul had uttered similar words at the Anderlee gathering three years ago. I was an easy convert; I used my own ship to affirm such truths in myself, such a rich and simple knowing.
"Tomorrow," he said, "there will be towers of cumulus and laze-lions all day, nothing like this. This is justice, Tom, for Fate having served up a windless man, trying to build some new Tarot here. So you never add this to your legend! Comprendez?"
"I do, Paul," I said, laughing. "I'll hobble you with eclipses and minor comets from now on. Nothing less!"
"Apology accepted, gracious man. And you, James?" Paul was exalted, magnanimous; it was a pointed gaze, laden with irony and fond reprimand that he gave the clergyman. James Aganture had no doubt confessed.
"We have riches, an embarrassment of all that humanity has wrought. Cloisters, scriptoria, great art collections, antiquities, centuries of sophistry and clever talk, the doctrines and arguments. Now I find the simplicity of my God here. I remember that my eyes are the windows of the first and last cathedral I shall ever know."
"Accepted. And you, Honest John? You've seen it before. Anything to add?"
I was interested to see that lean, spirited John Newmarket also looked abashed.
"I lost words for this ten years ago, Paul," the actor said inhis rich full voice. "This must endure at all costs."
Which reminded us all and stole the edges from Paul's smile for a moment, though just a moment. Our host was not to be discouraged.
"Tonight we hold a starwatch in honour of our uninvited guest. We dress warmly. We go above. We find our personal monkey-moon and regale it, drag it up close, count its legs, tell our fortunes on its parts. I'll name every wind that troubles us. Yes?"
There was general assent, but I caught quick unguarded glances from Newmarket and Aganture towards Paul's sister, then found myself at the end of Naese's own coolly appraising gaze.
"Dinner is at 1900," Sarete announced, and led the way out of the lounge.
Paul held back, like some captain reluctant to leave the bridge of his ship, and I held back as well, not surprised when his expansive mood fell away like the gold of the departed sun.
"Do you know what Aganture is, Tom?" he said when we were alone.
"He told you!" Surprise and suspicion sat in Paul's eyes for a brief, flickering instant. "Well, he hinted at trade cutbacks. Direct dealings with the tribes. Circumventing Three-line altogether. All veiled, of course, the spineless fool!"
"What will you do?"
"About your Star?"
"They'll do it, you think?"
I shrugged, not mentioning the device, determined to keep away from that topic for the moment. "You said it yourself earlier today. The bloodlines are gone. They may not care about the poles at all. What you are becoming is a very useful example. If they strike at you, it's a warning to everyone else. They may need a precedent."
"Do you know who Newmarket represents?"
The question surprised me. "Newmarket?"
"A Tosi-Go subsidiary, a Three-line rival. A mercenary actor, Tom. My friend. Leave the posts where they are but sell them to Tosi-Go so the tribes dare not act. Not why he visited, oh no. Just happened to have been approached; thought he'd mention it like a caring friend."
"So what will you do?"
"No offers, Tom? Nothing from Council?"
They were bitter words, from a man who was trying hard to reconcile different realities. Forcing himself. Again.
"Nothing. I told Aganture. I cannot be who I am and come here without representing Council, but I do not follow their specific wishes."
"And what are their specific wishes, do you think?"
"I imagine to see you continue. To see Paul Cheimarrhos and Balin and Three-line survive."
"In that order? Well, two of those I heartily agree with, though I'm not sure I believe you. I'm no longer Three-line. It's an alien thing."
"You know what I mean. Council can't order you. They want you to remain as a symbol. That's your great worth to Nation. The posts matter because they put you and Balin at risk. That's how I think they'd see it anyway."
"Hm, well thank them for that. That much I can accept."
I discovered it was what I wanted, Paul believing that I was here for reasons of my own, out of friendship and personal esteem, for reasons ultimately as elusive and mysterious as his own. Learning of the Three-line invention had complicated the issue; I found myself needing to ask about it, realized how partisan I now felt, would be the moment I asked the questions that had tormented me all afternoon.
"What would you advise?" Paul said.
"What I told Sarete earlier. I'd stay."
"Good. The poles?"
"Hardly the issue."
Perhaps I could ask about it. Paul had mentioned the device to me. Knowing my background, of my time in the Madhouse, he had brought it up. But again I hesitated, knowing that the moment I did ask, I was no better than Newmarket or Aganture.
"It's what I was leading up to earlier when you showed me the posts. It's the Three-line holding itself that concerns them. Not the company - this great house of yours. The concession was given a long time ago and it's become too celebrated, too newsworthy, too steady a slight. I would think getting you to admit to having the poles will be used as counter-propaganda to discredit you in National and International eyes, making you appear as someone plundering, stealing away art treasures for his own material gain. Pirate rather than privateer, Paul, the critical difference. Just one more exploiter and opportunist. I believe the satellite is meant to force your hand."
"They won't strike?"
"They'd possibly destroy what they're overtly trying to save, if that matters. It seems un unnecessarily dramatic thing, using a comsat."
Paul nodded, finally asked the inevitable question.
"Why haven't they mounted a land assault or at least done a search? Sent Kurdaitcha in?"
"Because they already have."
"Your guess. I told Sarete this afternoon. I would assume it was done long before they moved that station."
"But who?" Paul was genuinely amazed; it obviously had not occurred to him at all. Again I could see that the dream was being spoiled. "Our staff has been here since Balin was built. Cristofer and Deric came in from other Three-line holdings..."
"Exactly how I would have done it. Planted someone when Balin was being built. Before then, if I could."
"Kurdaitcha?" Paul was making himself accept another way of thinking, a hated spoiling pragmatism.
"To keep an eye on Three-line initially, yes. To make sure no new inventions came along. To keep an eye on acquisitions."
"So what happens when I don't frighten?"
"A land strike, I'd say. They must already have verification that the poles are here, so it depends on how willing they are to sacrifice a handful of relics. If they can't neutralize what Balin represents by embarrassing you, they could use the posts as an excuse to destroy it anyway. A regrettable casualty. But whatever this is, Paul, it's the final stages of some carefully planned action."
"One Coloured Captain may suggest all the Captains are involved. And the other Captains will come if you ask. It may stay their hand. You're a symbol, Paul, just as we are. Not Balin, you. There can be other Balins, other ways of doing this. It's you we can't replace. And that's my comment, Paul, not Council's, not the Captains'."
"Yes. Yes. Thank you, Tom."
We watched the streaming, shadowing chains of cloud racing forthe edge of the world. The words of my handful of desperate questions were right there, held back, barely held. It might have been the sight of Paul that stopped me. His hands were fists at his sides. He sighed.
"Tom, I have changed my will. In view of circumstances. Regarding Balin. Will you be notary to it, take the signed original back to Council?"
"Whichever way it goes, Tom, I want it officially lodged. Yes?"
"I'll be glad to take it."
"And see the terms are carried out?"
The fists, the tension across his shoulders, were more vivid than words, than any other persuasion.
"Yes. If I can. Yes."
"I'll give it to you before dinner. Before we go above. Come to me in my quarters at 1840."
And he left me standing there with my questions, with sudden relief and self-reproach, and before me the rushing, frenzied, cloud-wrack chasing the sun, lean, iron-grey conquistadores seeking gold but succeeding only in building night in the far hidden places of the sky.
After showering and changing, by the time I knocked on his door at precisely 1840, I had put my curiosity aside, determined to wait, trusting that he would reveal more later.
When the door slid back, I entered and found Paul sitting on a divan by the windows, the last of the day a tattered ruin of light behind him in the western sky. He was examining a Canopic jar, one of a set of four 18th Dynasty pieces resting on a low table to one side, replacing the jackal-head stopper. He set it down as I approached, took an envelope from inside his black and gold house-robe, and handed it to me as I sat down.
"A formality, Tom. I've involved Council. It's fair they know my position."
I put it in a pocket of my sandsman's fatigues and went to tell him again that it was a pleasure, but Paul spoke first.
"Tom, why were you in the Madhouse?"
I tensed immediately, feeling the barest edge of panic, residual reflex fear. It never failed to surprise me. This was the question no-one asked, that was only rarely answered if ever, that now permitted my questions to him. Paul asking it mattered. I didn't give any of the usual replies.
"I don't remember. They would not tell me."
"Tartalen. He was in charge. One day I'll return. I'll ask."
He kept at it. "You should."
"There is a mystery about you. You're a National and a sensitive. The field is strong..."
"The other Captains..."
"No. I've met them. They've all been here at one time or another. You're different."
There was a knock at the door.
"Dinner and starwatch," he said. "This will be Sarete."
"Gain monitors, Tom. We may have an audience. Later."
We went to the door, found Sarete and John Newmarket waiting there.
"We go to study our demon," Sarete said, pleasantly enough. "The others will be waiting."
"On to the feast!" Paul said, and together we headed along the corridor, the house adding our variables to its ongoing song.
Dinner was an easy affair, first Paul then John Newmarket telling stories; James Aganture giving his views on the future of Mother Church in view of new tech embargoes recently imposed.
Finally the dishes were cleared away, and the six of us started our climb to the summit. In the Gallery of Record, Cristofer and Deric gave us jackets; warmly dressed, we stepped out onto the dark windy field.
It sang under the moonless sky. Under our feet, the house moaned deeply to itself. We crossed the plateau, the acroteria looming beside us like funerary totems, bleached bones keening in the cold brinraga. We made our way through the restless shapes, keeping well clear of the central depression, heading for the northwestern corner where Anquan had set up the old Meade telescope, its short thick barrel pointed at the sky directly overhead.
"The refreshments, please," Sarete told the old major-domo, raising her voice above the rush of wind so she could be heard, and Anquan went off with Cristofer to get the evening's collation.
Paul sat on the low stool before the telescope and used the eye-piece, made some quick adjustments.
"I have him," he said, his voice strong above the air-flow. "Very wicked-looking deployed like that. They really do know how to use psychology. Who's first? James?"
The churchman moved to the stool, settled himself and peered through the eye-piece. Paul stood beside him, looking straight up, silver hair streaming in the wind.
"See it?" he asked loudly so we could all hear. "The red lights are mainly tactical - 'barrican stars' to frighten us. Tom will confirm it. They're supposed to light up like that just before a strike."
"Really?" Aganture said, moving clear of the stool. "Is that true, Captain?"
"Yes," I said, studying the small group as best I could, dark shapes, blowing shapes, wanting to ask Paul about his comments earlier, concerned that we may have been overheard and interrupted deliberately, deeply worried by what that might mean.
"Your turn, John," Paul said, and the actor took his place at the telescope.
"It does look angry," was all he said.
Paul laughed. "It wants us to think that. It's trying to be hot and raging up there, but in reality it's a very cool thing, very calm."
Newmarket rose and moved away. "I've seen enough. Captain?"
"Sarete?" I said.
"No, thank you."
"No, Captain. Thank you."
I positioned myself on the stool, and after a split-second of auto-focus saw the irijinti, saw it again in actual fact, since I'd seen the displays Council had at Twilight Beach, beganmatching its configuration with other comsats I had seen up close this way, started when Paul whispered at my ear.
"The Canopic jar," he said. "is a second prototype. Get it away from here. Say a gift!"
The wind sang about us. Possibly no-one heard.
I made myself stay calm; my heart racing as I peered up at the evil red lights.
It explained everything. Not the posts. Not Balin. Not just those things. Far more serious, much greater danger. Paul had broken faith.
The jar, a duplicate. He had used it to read me!
"Finished already?" he said, speaking for the others to hear.
I rose from the stool. "Let me get my configuration lists. I still say irijinti, but I want to type it. I can almost make out its markings." My voice sounded steady above the wind.
"I'll try for a better fix," Paul said, calmly enough, taking his place at the eye-piece once more.
I hurried from the field, entered the Gallery, ran down the ramps towards our chambers. My footsteps echoed on the polished stone, set a desperate percussion into the air-flow.
The palm-lock to Paul's rooms had been keyed to me, no surprise at all; the door swept aside at my touch. I crossed the softly-lit interior, immediately went to the four jars on the low table: monkey-head, falcon-head, human-head, jackal - seized the jackal-head, removed the ceramic cap, saw the dull black tech that gave it its extra weight, the recessed contacts and displays.
What had it shown? What?
"I will take that, Captain."
I turned at once. Naese stood in the doorway, a laser baton in her hand.
"I'm sorry. This is a gift to me from Paul. Ask him."
She raised the baton, aimed it at my heart.
"Captain, I am Kurdaitcha in the final moments of a very long, very old mission."
"Colour, Hero status, mean nothing compared to my brief, do you understand? Without that jar and the contents of the envelope in your pocket, I will be sung. I dare not fail. Save your life."
"The envelope contains Paul's will."
"No. His will was lodged with Nation long ago. What you havecontains blueprints for what you hold in your hands. Look and see."
I placed the jar on the divan, brought out the envelope and opened it, saw words and schematics.
"Yes?" Naese said. "They are mine. Paul's life might still be yours if you hurry."
I threw the plans onto the divan and ran for the door. She let me pass but called after me. "Captain! Wait!"
I ignored her, running for the ramps, needing to get Paul from the roof, away from the telescope and the field and the line of sight of that deadly watcher, aware that it already had all the commands it needed.
I saw the result of those commands as I leapt out upon the field, a thread, a wire, the tiniest filament of dazzling light connecting Balin for just an instant to its attendant moon, then the tearing scream of its brief and deadly anger above the keening windsong.
I did not need to go out to where the telescope had stood. There would be time later. I waited by the door as the three figures came to me across the windy field, Sarete in the lead, head raised, cool and detached, resolved as ever, yes, leading them, John Newmarket and James Aganture to either side, eyes downcast, ashamed.
As I watched them approached, their faces lit from the doorway, I heard Naese at my back, panting lightly from her run. She did not have the jar or the plans; she no longer held her weapon.
"Your mistress has done well," I said.
"She has saved Three-line and Balin," Naese replied. "She made a difficult choice. An only choice."
"What did Paul read, Naese?"
"What do you mean?"
"With the contents of the jar?"
"That you are a sensitive. That's all."
"I don't believe you."
Sarete and her companions reached us, stopped before the doorway. Her words might have come from Naese, from a script of exculpation they had jointly devised.
"He knew the consequences, Captain. He made a choice, without considering anyone, never consulting others. Something had to be done. I made a choice too."
More words than I would have expected. Still James Aganture and John Newmarket looked in different directions at the night. Only Sarete and Naese met my gaze.
"It wasn't the posts," I said, so nothing was hidden. "There was a second Three-line device. A duplicate."
Aganture and Newmarket both looked at Sarete.
"Nonsense," she said calmly.
"Nonsense, Captain. There was never a duplicate."
She knew. Of course she knew. Naese did not say a word.
"I see. Privateering."
"What, this?" Sarete asked.
"I suppose so. Not your kind, but yes."
"Not my kind, no. Never my kind."
I went out onto the field then, went to the where the old Meade telescope had stood, came back with the lines of blood painted on my cheeks.
Sarete grimaced with distaste when she saw them. "Captain, is that really necessary?"
"Tell her, Naese."
The Kurdaitcha frowned. "He is Blue, Sarete. He has made vendetta against this house."
"You're joking. I am this house now."
"No, Sarete," I said. "I think you will find that Paul has bequeathed it to Nation. Years ago. Naese can check."
"Ridiculous! That can be negated."
"Naese," I said, drawing rage and loss into that small hard word.
"You don't understand, Sarete. Those signs. In front of witnesses, he has sworn vendetta. He can strike at anything to do with Three-line, at any ships coming here. Through him, Council can. You must leave here. All of you."
"This is not the end of this," Sarete said.
"No," I was able to say. "It is not."
On the desert near Sabro, there is a mighty house, a vast pylon set against the sky. Though left to Nation as a final bequest from the man who caused it to be, it is deserted now, neither National nor tribal, a monument at the interface. The great vents stand open; the structure howls and sings and braids the winds into endless tapestries, strange proclamations of desire. At the crest is a field and a shallow empty dish thirty metres across.
Once a year, seven ships go to that great house, the only ones who can since it is reached by crossing tribal land. The crews climb aloft and reach that field. While the crew-members do small acts of maintenance, the Captains sit in the depression and talk.
Sometimes there is a ritual of watching sunset, sometimes a starwatch. Kites are set upon the air, new pennants added to the dream.
At such times, coincidentally, no satellite ever crosses thatsky. The comsats studiedly avoid the place as if contemptuous of something all too futile.
The Captains smile in the windy darkness or in the flowing riot of the dying sun. More than anyone, they know the worth of dreams.
They know it is never that.
Originally appeared in Blue Tyson, Aphelion 1992.
Copyright © 1992 Rynosseros Enterprises.
Reprinted with kind permission of the author.