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Fiction

Under the Scab

Previously on The Kaslo Chronicles: As a new age of magic dawns amid the ruins of the former technological civilization on Novo Bantry, wizard’s henchman Erm Kaslo is on the trail of the horde of multi-legged creatures that carried off the survivors who had taken shelter at the castle of his employer, the wizard Diomedo Obron. The tracks lead to an interplanar portal into the Seventh Plane. Kaslo has no idea what awaits him there, but knows that he must go through. To read the other stories in the series, visit lightspeedmagazine.com/kaslo.


“Under the Scab”

It was too late in the day to start back to Indoberia. Kaslo tried to find ways to busy himself about the castle, but his thoughts would not leave him alone. Finally, he went up to the flat roof of one of the larger towers and leaned against the parapet as the planet’s sun sank below a horizon no longer broken by the Commune’s skyline. In the opposite direction, the stars were coming out, but Kaslo saw only a handful of the glittering orbitals that used to stretch in a sparkling, glinting arc across the night sky. Some had been thrown off into space, some had come down in searing fireballs, some had just gone dark and died.

He thought about the millions of people who had lived up there, thought about how they had died and about how a few desperate survivors might be gasping for their last breaths of dwindling air even now. Nothing could be done for them, just as nothing could be done for the people snatched from the village where he had promised them safety.

When he’d made the promise, he’d thought it genuine. A sturdy palisade, a rotation of sentries, a tocsin to sound a warning: all just matters of common sense. But he saw now that he had been playing by the rules of another game—a game whose pieces had all been brutally swept from the table, to be replaced by a new and sinister collection of elements.

And the rules, he thought. I not only don’t know them; I may never know how to play.

• • • •

Kaslo and Bodwon did not go straight to the whimsy. Instead, they went to the southern edge of the city, to where the spaceport still stood. The op was surprised to find the place virtually intact. The only major destruction he saw was where a liner must have been just about to touch down at the moment of change. When its in-atmosphere drive failed, the huge vessel had crashed onto the pad, bursting apart like a great ceramic ball. Broken fittings, broken crockery, broken bodies, were scattered in a circular field of destruction all around the ruptured hulk.

They made their way past the edge of the debris. Their destination was the main terminal, where the supplies were kept. Then Kaslo spotted a familiar shape sticking out of the liner’s remains. “Wait,” he said.

He picked his way through the mess and came to the still recognizable remains of a second-class bunk. The compartment built into the headboard was closed, and of course it no longer knew how to open itself at Kaslo’s command. But he wedged the end of his knife into a crack and heard a click.

The cubby sprang open. The op reached inside and found what he’d been looking for: several ampoules of the medications taken to reduce mental stress and the possibility of permanent derangement among passengers who went through the irreality of a whimsy. The find meant they wouldn’t have to search the spaceport’s supply center, which he expected would have been heavily looted.

Kaslo called up his mental map of Indoberia as it had been, and worked out the shortest route to the Commune’s connaissarium. It would mean crossing the ornamental canal, but he was hopeful that at least one of the simple footbridges would still be standing. If not, they’d make some kind of raft.

As it turned out, they arrived dry-footed at the square where the connaissarium had stood, though they were tired from scaling and descending more piles of shattered crystal and masonry. The buildings fronting the square had all been extravagantly tall, their elements bound together by energy webs. When the matrices had ceased to function, the structures had come down in an avalanche of destruction, like great glass dominoes smashing and crashing against each other. Though it had been more than a month, Kaslo could smell the reek of corruption from the thousands of people torn, crushed, and buried in the rubble.

He and Bodwon stood and watched the whimsy for a while. It looked like swirls and billows of dark smoke, charcoal gray and burgundy, confined by a wall of clear glass.

“It looked the same yesterday,” Bodwon said.

“Yes,” said Kaslo, “it’s stable.”

“Never seen one before. Thought they were only in space.”

“Not anymore, apparently.”

They watched it a little longer, until Kaslo hitched his shoulders and said, “Well . . .”

They approached it slowly, spring-guns ready, in case something emerged. In space, Kaslo knew, whimsies went in only one direction. But that had been in the space of the old universe.

The op knew what everybody had known about whimsies. There were nine planes of existence, and spacetime occupied the third. The Underworld was the second plane, the Overworld the fourth. The first plane was an empty limbo, thought to be the workshop from which the now-departed demiurge and his helpers had fashioned and launched the other eight realms.

The higher dimensions did not usually impinge on the third plane. The exception was the seventh, through which passed the whimsies, each of which connected some arbitrary point in third-plane space with some other point at an immense distance.

No one knew their origin. Some thought that a now-vanished spacefaring species had burrowed them through the seventh dimension, using powers beyond humanity’s grasp. Others believed the denizens of the upper realms had built them for their own purposes, and that humankind trespassed upon them in the same manner as vermin took advantage of houses and food stores.

Whatever the answer, whimsies had been waiting when humanity took its first flights beyond the system that contained the original home world, which some said was a remote place far up The Spray called Old Dirt. They were stable and reliable, although sometimes a ship went into one and did not emerge where it was expected. Again, theories abounded. The lost ship might have come out a million years too late, or too early. Spacers told tall tales about seventh-plane creatures that captured ships and wore them as jewelry, or swatted them like annoying pests.

Kaslo and Bodwon reached the whimsy. Its flat surface was larger than it had looked from a distance. It towered over them like a wall of dark glass. Kaslo felt his back muscles tighten, the skin over them going cold. He shook off the sensation before it could cause him to shiver.

“The rope,” he said.

They had brought rope from the castle, Bodwon wearing it like a bandolier. He now unwound it and tied one end to Kaslo’s waist. While that was going on, the op sorted through the medications he had retrieved from the liner. There were three kinds: a heavy sedative that brought instant unconsciousness; an ameliorative that prevented the sedative from depressing the brain’s functions beyond the point of no return; and a complex synthetic hormone that cushioned the neural circuits against permanent restructuring, should the other two components fail.

Kaslo left the sedative and ameliorative in his satchel and held the third capsule in his palm. “I’ll try it this way, first,” he said. “I’ll put my head through. You count to five, then pull me back.”

“You don’t want the eyes?” Bodwon said.

“Not yet.”

The other man shrugged and stepped back a few paces, then wound the rope around his wrist and bicep. “Ready,” he said.

Kaslo faced the whimsy. He pushed his fears back into a far corner of his awareness. With his thumb, he pressed the ampoule against his palm, as he had done so many times while lying in a spaceship’s bunk. He felt a coolness penetrate, then permeate, his hand, and flow up his arm, shoulder, and neck. It reached his head and filled his skull with calm clarity. The fear he had pushed away now faded to nothing.

He stepped forward, bent at the waist, and let his head enter the whimsy.

Instantly, the world he knew disappeared, to be replaced with a flood of sensations he could not process. He could see nothing, because here there was no energy called light. He could hear nothing, because there was no medium to transmit sound.

Yet his brain, even cushioned by the hormone, tried to make sense of what his sensory organs reported, so he experienced flashes of color, garish reds and purples too intense for comfort. He sensed a flatness, as if he was standing on an immense plain, and a highness, as if there a great space hung above him—though he could see neither.

There were sounds, though he knew they were being produced only in his head: a hollow fluttering, like liquid moving though a metal pipe, and a deep hum that cycled from soft to painfully loud. The skin of his forehead was trying to report impressions of temperature and pressure, hot, cold, mild, intense.

No good, he said within the confines of his mind, and saw the words become jagged-edged shapes, silver and green, that flew off and faded in the distance until they disappeared.

He tried to pull his head out of the whimsy, but something like gravity worked against the motion. He strained harder, but it was as if the muscles of his head and neck had lost almost all strength. He tried to gesture with his hands that were still back in the third plane, but could not tell if the signals from his brain were reaching their muscles and nerves. He realized he could not feel the rope around his middle or the pressure of his feet against the ground outside; all sensation was confined to his head, and none of it made sense.

A new thought came: If space was so different here, time must also have an alien dimension. While on the third plane Bodwon counted to five, an aeon might pass for Kaslo’s head. And who knew what might come by and take an interest in it?

His fear blossomed anew, overpowering the medication. He fought against it, but saw the emotion rise like tendrils of a sea-plant, bright green and sickly yellow, tossed by tide and waves. Calm and center, he told himself, reaching for the mental exercises he had practiced since his youth. But they were partly based on breath control, and he could not find a connection between his will and the muscles of his diaphragm. The sea-forest grew more dense, its motion more wild.

And suddenly he was under Novo Bantry’s yellow sun, breathing air and hearing Bodwon’s footsteps approaching and his voice saying, “Are you all right?”

The hormone-induced clarity was back. “I think so.”

“What was it like?”

Kaslo just looked at the man. “If you really need to know,” he said, “take a look.”

Bodwon put up his hands in a manner that declined the invitation. “Now what?” he said.

Kaslo was surprised to feel almost completely restored. He stooped and opened the satchel he had left on the ground. Out of it he took a strip of tanned leather, long enough to tie around his head. Embedded in the hide were the eyes that had been on the ends of the stalks Polpero had cut from the clicker. Examination had shown Obron that the creature’s natural organs had been covered over with crystal cusps that had unusual properties. The wizard had worked overnight to adapt their function to Kaslo’s vision. He had not been entirely sure that the things he had done would make them serve Kaslo’s needs, but Obron had said, “They will not make things worse, and they well make possible that which otherwise could not be.”

Kaslo had now experienced the impossible. He was willing to give his employer’s growing level of ability a chance. He tied the strap around his skull, positioning over his eyes the faceted crystal cusps that had been grafted onto the clicker’s eyes. Immediately the world of the third plane became a kaleidoscope of contending angles.

He turned once more toward the whimsy, then looked back over his shoulder and told the segmented face of Bodwon, “This time, count to ten, then pull me back.”

He fought a flash of revulsion and put his head and shoulders through the barrier. It was the same, yet it was different. He still heard the wuthering pipe sounds and the cyclic hum, still felt the alternating temperatures and pressures on his face. But now flashes of color and transient shapes in his vision were less intense. He felt a moment of dizziness and closed his eyes beneath the cusps. When he opened them again, the dizziness flooded back then abruptly dissipated.

He felt a kind of shifting in the back of his head, as if a muscle had flexed in his brain. All right, he said to himself, let’s go with that. He exercised his will, and felt the sensation again.

Kaslo had not risen to the top of the difficult profession of confidential operative without developing willpower. Now, as he applied it, his vision suddenly stabilized. He was no longer experiencing assaults on his optic neural systems that caused them to produce spasmodic splashes of meaningless color and form. He was seeing.

And what he saw was a plain and a sky, with a range of rounded hills in the distance, all of them a featureless gray. But then there came another flex of whatever was active in the back of his skull. With the sensation came a realization: This is not reality I am experiencing, but an interpretation of irreality that my sensorium can cope with.

He made another mental effort, and the irritating sounds ceased. Now he re-examined the gray landscape and came to another conclusion: The things I’m seeing don’t have to be gray. I can choose.

He chose, and the plain became ocher, the sky a light blue, the hills a deeper shade.

That’s better, he thought. Now, let’s see what happens if . . . He willed his vision to sharpen, to magnify as the speculus had done. Instantly, the hills loomed closer, their slopes oddly rounded and folded. He could see motion.

Tighter, he told himself, and the image in his field of vision grew both larger and more in focus. Still the moving objects were difficult to discern against the similar-colored background. So he put his will behind his need, and changed the hills from dark blue to pale cream.

The things that were moving now stood out. They were clickers, a lot of them, and they were busy doing something. But he couldn’t make out what—there were too many shapes, too much movement, and his vision would not sharpen further, for all his efforts to will it to do so.

I need to get closer. No sooner had he formed the thought than he was drifting effortlessly across the plain. And no sooner had the motion begun than he was suddenly yanked backwards.

“You just disappeared into it,” Bodwon was saying from somewhere above him. Kaslo turned toward the sound and realized he was sitting on the stone surface of the plaza, looking up through the fracture-producing lenses of the clicker’s eye cusps. He pulled them from his face, but it still took several seconds before his vision-processing circuits could make sense of the other man’s face.

He closed his eyes, reopened them, then waited for a sudden wave of dizziness to fade. He blinked again and started to rise. “The eyes worked. And I could move,” he said.

Relief washed across Bodwon’s face. “I thought something had maybe grabbed you, was pulling you through.”

“No.” Quickly, Kaslo told him what he’d seen, then said, “How much rope have we got?”

It was good, lightweight fiber, but there was no hope of its stretching even partway to the hills.

As Bodwon recoiled the line, Kaslo stepped back and looked up at the whimsy again. Its swirls of colors had not changed. His passage through it apparently did not affect its stability.

Except, he thought. He asked Bodwon, “Does it seem smaller to you?”

The other man eyed the great circle. “Don’t know. Maybe.”

The op was glad of the medications he’d taken. “There’s nothing else to do,” he said. “I’ve got to go back in.”

• • • •

Standing before the impossible—a stable whimsy on a planet—Kaslo gave the situation only a moment’s thought. Then he told Bodwon to fetch a chunk of broken building stone from the ruins around them. He tied one end of their rope around the fragment, then heaved it through the whimsy.

He redonned the crystal cusps that had once covered a clicker’s eyes and poked his head through the barrier and was again met by a maelstrom of mental dissonance. But he flexed the newly found “muscle” in his visual cortex and in a moment he saw the thrown block of stone lying half-sunk into the ground, the rope tied to it.

He pulled his head back into third-plane space and told Bodwon to hand him his spring-gun. Then he said, “Wait here. If I’m not back before the sun begins to set, go home and report to Obron.”

“You don’t want me to come look for you?”

Kaslo touched the cusps over his eyes. “Without these, you’d be blind.”

The man nodded. “What’s it like?”

The op shook his head. “Different,” was all he could manage.

• • • •

Before he set off toward the hills, Kaslo checked the fragment of stone that anchored the rope. It had softened and now had the consistency of dense clay. He examined the rope and found it unaltered. That was good, because he was going to have to rely on its remaining where it was, leading up from the transmuted stone to a point where it disappeared into the air—because there was no other way to tell where the exit to the third plane stood.

Into the air, he thought, that’s not really the case, is it? When he waved his hand, he felt no stir of air from its passage. Come to think of it, he wasn’t breathing, yet he remained conscious.

He felt his clothing, made from organic fibers. It was unchanged. The flexi-ceramic mechanism that powered the spring-gun was also unaffected, but when he broke open the weapon to check its magazine, he found that the steel-coated lead bullets had become soft as overripe grapes. He dumped them out, thought, Now what?

He focused on the ground at his feet. It was neither soil nor rock, but seemed to be a tightly packed mass of small spheres, ranging in size from pinhead to pea, with far more of the former than the latter. He scooped up a handful of it and saw the depression he had made instantly fill itself in. He let the tiny grains flow through his fingers but closed his grip on one of the larger orbs.

It was hard and smooth, and about the size of a spring-gun bullet. He put it into the weapon’s receiving chamber and cranked back the ceramic spring, which he was glad to see was unaffected by seventh-plane conditions. Then he pointed the muzzle straight up and pulled the trigger. The sphere shot high up, went instantly out of sight. Kaslo stepped back a few paces and waited. After several seconds, he saw a large dimple suddenly form in the ground before him, then close.

He spent a little time searching for more nodules of the right size, filling the spring-gun’s hopper and putting several more in a pocket of his upper garment. Then he cocked the weapon once more and turned toward the hills. A moment later, he was gliding smoothly across the plain, though he felt no breeze from his silent passage.

Not only silent, but dreamlike. One moment the pale hills were distant, the next he was nearing the point where they touched the plain. Time is different here, he thought. He willed himself to stop, then focused on the motion above. From this angle, he could make out less detail than he had from out on the plain. He saw segmented legs, as if he was looking up at a ledge and could only see movement near its edge.

One thing he could tell for certain was that the hill was no more made of rock than the ground was made of soil. It seemed to have a fibrous surface, with intersecting strands of various sizes meeting and interweaving at a thousand different angles. He moved toward it, reached out a hand, and touched.

Unlike the ground, it would not let his hand penetrate. It felt neither warm nor cold, but the touch transmitted a sensation to his nervous system that he could not identify—a kind of vibration without motion. He knew the feeling was supposed to convey information, but his brain did not know how to receive and interpret it.

The clickers were busy above, ignoring him. He readied the spring-gun and said to himself, Up. Immediately, he began to glide up the slope of the hill. As he neared the locus of the creatures’ activity, he thought, Slower, and felt his rate of ascent slacken. But still the many-legged beasts paid him no heed.

The slope curved out, then in again, and met another curve that came down from above, creating a kind of ledge. Along this the clickers ran in two streams, one in each direction. The file moving to Kaslo’s right carried nothing; those going left carried lengths of the fibrous material the hill was made of.

The op willed himself to drift to the right, around a shallow curve. He saw a scar on the hill’s surface where the clickers were prizing up and snipping off strands of the slope’s substance. He went left and followed the other stream, and soon came to a sharper bend in the ledge. Beyond it, a crevice opened in the hill, wide and tall, and lit from within by pale golden light. The fiber-bearing creatures were disappearing into it, and their unburdened cohorts were hurrying out.

Still, none of them paid any attention to the observer, hovering beside the trail. Kaslo moved closer and higher, then willed himself to descend between the two streams, his thumb on the spring-gun’s release catch. He was jostled and brushed against, but still attracted no notice.

Back on the third plane, he would have taken a long breath to steady himself. Here there was no breath to take or release. So he simply willed himself forward and entered the golden crevice.

The way was narrower here, the walls pressing in, but there was enough headroom for Kaslo to float above the two hustling streams of clickers. The passage sloped gradually down and he followed it at the speed of an easy walk. The light remained the same.

He rounded a long, gentle curve and the scene before him changed. The passage debouched into a vast chamber, its ceiling lost above in the golden glow, its farthest extent equally misty. The in-bound clickers were streaming along the space’s floor, then climbing partway up one of the side walls. They congregated busily at a point too far away for Kaslo to make out details of what they were doing, but out of the roil of motion came the other file of creatures, heading back for more of the fiber.

The op willed himself toward the cluster of activity, rising at a gradual incline until he was level with that part of the wall. As he drifted toward it, he saw a large, circular discoloration in the wall’s surface, and the closer he came the more it resembled an ulcer. The clickers were laying down the fibers on the edges of the laceration and weaving them together.

The image suddenly made sense to Kaslo. They’re making a scab, he thought. With that realization came the obvious corollary: the “hill” into which he had followed the stream of gray creatures was not a geological feature. It’s an organism. It’s alive.

He moved closer. The surface of the ulcer was thin and semi-transparent, pinkish in color. Behind it he could see vague shapes and feeble motion. A horrific thought half-formed in his mind, but he forced himself not to allow it to emerge full-blown. He drifted in, slowly approaching the center of the circular feature, now as wide as one of the slider tunnels that ran beneath Indoberia.

At an arm’s length from the surface, he willed himself to stop. The motions beyond the pink membrane did not suggest struggle—they were more like the peristaltic movements of a body’s natural systems. He inched closer. The spring-gun was in the way, and he slung it across his back, then drew his knife. But when he had the weapon before him he saw that its blade was drooping from the hilt, as soft as an over-boiled vegetable.

Having nothing else to cut with, he forced the limp metal back into its sheath and, reaching out with both hands, he tore the skin with his fingernails. Kaslo looked through the rent and now the nascent thought he had forced from his mind came rushing back with the force of a flash flood.

Behind the barrier a wide, deep cavity had been scooped out of the wall. But there was no empty space; the cavity was now filled with human beings, jammed and jumbled together, bound to each other and to the walls of the depression by a network of the same fibers the clickers were using to repair the ulcer.

Kaslo saw limbs, faces, the soles of feet and the crowns of heads. He saw movements that told him the captives were still alive, mouths that opened, eyelids that fluttered, fingers that crooked and straightened. A cold horror took hold of him. He saw a face he recognized, a middle-aged man who had been one of the mob Kaslo had taken in. The lips moved as if forming words, but no sound came; there was no air to carry it.

A hand protruded toward Kaslo. He reached and took it, with the thought that he might be able to pull someone free of the tangle of flesh. But before the fingers could close on his, he yanked his hand back. At the touch of the cool flesh he had learned two terrible things: first, that whoever had owned that hand no longer did; second, that the organism whose substance the clickers had opened and filled with captured humanity was not just alive—it was sentient, it was aware of what was being done to it, and it suffered.

A wave of anguished knowledge flooded through Kaslo. Not only did he feel the entity’s despair, he felt the traces of all the personalities that it had been helplessly made to absorb from the people who had been pressed into it. Then it got worse. The pain came from more than just this occasion; Kaslo became aware of a vast expanse of time, of aeons spent in bondage, of great power stolen and misused.

And as he knew the slave, he began to be conscious of the bondmaster. His mind reached toward that knowledge, but even as it did so, some instinct—or perhaps some knowledge acquired from the individuality he had just encountered—shoved him away from that thought. He thought of the shade of Phalloon in the Underworld, terrified even to let a name cross its diminished mentality, of Obron’s fear to make a connection.

Now a new thought came: I need to get out of here. Even as the words formed in his mind, he noted that the scene before him had changed. The clickers were no longer busy at their work. The streams no longer went to and from the distant entrance. Now they all stood still, their eyestalks in constant motion, their pincers feeling the space around them, as if they were blind.

They cannot see me, he thought, but now they know I am here, and they are looking.

He didn’t know what had kept them from noticing him. It might just be that whoever or whatever controlled them had not told them to look. But it appeared that things were about to change. He was already moving across the cavern toward the entrance, but he willed his speed to increase.

Something was happening in the gap. The clickers were massing there. As he drew closer, Kaslo could see that several of them had sunk their pincers into the edges of the slit, now they were interlocking their legs with others of their kind. A barrier made of gray bodies and meshed segmented limbs was building, a layer at a time, from the base of the gap.

And it was closing fast. When he had come through, it had been four times his height and he had floated through vertically, the soles of his feet well above the backs of the hustling creatures. Now, the exit was more than half blocked and, because it narrowed toward the top, the gap was closing faster and faster.

Kaslo willed himself to fly horizontally, head-first, and was glad to find that his orientation changed. Faster, he thought and it seemed that his speed increased. But the clickers were piling up, and now one stood on the backs of two others, seized the top edges of the gap’s apex and blocked the last space.

The op was zooming toward the topmost creature at undiminished velocity. He meant to crash through, and wondered if he should—or could—try it feet-first. No, he thought, the spring-gun.

It was still slung on his back. He pulled the weapon over his head and into his grip. It was still cocked. He worked the feed to line up several missiles in the chamber. He was approaching the blocked exit at a speed that seemed to be about as fast as he could have run in the third plane.

The topmost clicker’s eyestalks had been moving, as if casting about for something elusive. Now they stopped, and fixed themselves on Kaslo’s approach. He saw the thing’s complex mouth parts working, and wondered if they had some kind of language.

But now it was too late for wondering. The clicker stood on its rearmost pair of legs, but the rest of its sharp-pointed limbs reached toward him like hard fingers ready to pierce and grasp. He remembered Polpero’s ghastly wounds.

Kaslo did not know where to aim the spring-gun. It wouldn’t matter. When he was moments away from impact, his thumb pressed the release. The weapon made no sound, but three of the spheres he had collected on the plain shot from its muzzle and penetrated the clicker’s hard-shelled belly, making a vertical line of three circular wounds.

The effect was more than the op could have hoped for. The holes in the creature’s abdomen immediately began to widen, like smoldering fire through a sheet of paper, a glow of energy around the growing rim of each. As Kaslo still sped toward it, the three wounds became one, then that one spread like a wildfire—out toward its limbs, upward toward its head and upraised pincers, down toward its rudimentary tail.

In a blink, the clicker was no longer there. The gap was open, and Kaslo shot through it and out into the emptiness above the plain. He wasted no time but called up into his mind’s eye the block of softening stone with its rope leading back to the world of space and time.

It seemed to him that he flew toward it like a missile. In moments, he saw the rope ahead of him, still disappearing into emptiness. The stone had flattened under its own weight and now resembled a pool of thick liquid.

Kaslo willed himself to slow and to come down feet first. He reslung the spring-gun and took the rope in both hands. He yanked, then gripped hard, hoping that Bodwon would pull him through.

But there was no response. A chill went through him. They had not established that it was possible to pass through the whimsy from this direction without someone pulling from the other plane. Kaslo had just assumed it could be done.

He followed the rope, letting it pass through his hands but without tugging on it. He came to where the cord disappeared and slid his fingers along its length. Their tips disappeared, but there was resistance and it had taken a lot of Kaslo’s strength just to push through to the first joints.

Will it, he thought. But when he tried, it made no difference. And even as he drove his hands deeper into the invisible whimsy, he became aware that something was happening behind him. If he had been in the third plane, the hairs on his neck would have risen, and he would have known that someone was watching him.

He looked back, saw the place where the clickers had been so busy, up the slope of what he had thought was a hill. There was more motion there now, but it was different. The distant, tiny figures were no longer traveling back and forth along the fold in the slope. They were streaming down onto the plain and rushing toward him.

Kaslo turned back to where his hands and wrists had disappeared. He thrust his arms deeper into nothingness, and tried to dig the balls of his feet into the ground to gain purchase. But with no ground, no purchase could be gained. He still hovered a little above the granular surface of the plain.

He did not know how quickly the clickers would reach him. He knew only that he had to push through, or be carried back to the chamber of golden light and pushed into the mass of now mindless people packed into the wall.

Or perhaps his would be a worse fate, he thought. If the thing he dared not think about now knew about him . . .

He forced the thought from his mind and pushed again. It was like trying to force his hands through rapidly setting concrete. He was trying harder, trying his hardest, but he had managed to pass only the length of his forearm through. And now he was completely stopped.

There was nothing for it but to pull his arms out, turn and face the oncoming horde, and use the spring-gun for as long as he could. At least he wouldn’t have to worry about running out of ammunition.

But when he tried to draw his arms back into the seventh plane, they would not move. He struggled, the skin of his back twitching as he imagined the clickers racing ever closer. But he was stuck solid, as if the concrete had set.

In a life that had occasionally presented Kaslo with opportunities to die, he had sometimes wondered how it might come to him. He hadn’t thought of this one. He wondered if the clickers would be able to pull him free, or if he would be worried to death as Polpero had been.

And what happens if you die outside your own plane? he wondered. Would his ba and ka be able to find their way to the Underworld and Overworld?

I shouldn’t have to be worrying about things like that at a time like this, he told himself. I’ve got enough to be getting on—

The thought was interrupted as he felt a sudden forward motion. A moment later, he was blindly hurtling through real, third-plane space, his wrists tightly held by two strong hands. He was in darkness and he stumbled and almost fell, but the hands held him upright.

“Let me go,” he said. “I can’t see with these things on.”

Released, he tore off the cusps strapped over his eyes, to find himself still in darkness. His head swam for a moment, then the circuits in the back of his head reoriented themselves and he could see again: a campfire burning on the stone flags of the connaissarium’s square, its light showing him the grinning face of Bodwon.

Kaslo looked up and saw the diminished night sky. “I told you not to wait,” he said.

The other man put on an innocent expression. “It was too dark,” he said. “I was afraid I’d get lost.”

“Never mind,” the op said. “We’ve got to go, and right now. The clickers are coming again.”

Bodwon looked past him. “I don’t think so.”

Kaslo turned and saw what Bodwon had been seeing. Or what he hadn’t been seeing, because there was no longer a whimsy to be seen.

“It really started to shrink after you went through,” Bodwon said, “Slow and gradual, but steady. By the time I saw your hands come back out, it was only this wide.” He held his own hands apart, making a space not much wider than his body. “And now it’s gone completely.”

“That’s got to be good,” Kaslo said. “Let’s make some torches and get ourselves home.”

Bodwon had looted the ruins of the connaissarium for firewood, breaking up furniture and artworks from a dozen different periods in the long, rich history of Indoberia. Now they tore strips of canvas from a famous triptych and wrapped them around broken pieces of its frame.

“What did you find in there?” Bodwon said, cocking his head toward the vanished whimsy.

“If I tell you,” Kaslo said, “you won’t be able to sleep.”

They set off by torchlight, picking their way through the debris in the square. They had gone a score of paces when Kaslo abruptly stopped and clapped his hand to the pocket of his upper garment.

“What?” Bodwon said.

Kaslo was remembering the moment in Obron’s old manse, when the magnate had reached through the speculon he and Varshun had made and brought from the sixth plane a handful of “soil”—which had immediately set fire to the furniture he placed it on. And now Kaslo had brought a pocket full of whatever passed for the ground in the seventh plane.

He leaned forward and tipped the lip of the pocket so that the spheres he had used for ammunition avalanched out onto the flagstones. As they bounced and rolled, they no longer looked like colorless, perfectly spherical pebbles. Instead, in the light of the torches, they glowed with an iridescent sheen, a rainbow of transient, ever-shifting hues.

Carefully, Kaslo reached for one. It was warm in his palm.

Bodwon bent to see the thing. “It’s beautiful,” he said. “What is it?”

“A nouble,” Kaslo said. He remembered the three that had been smuggled off the secondary world New Gargano in the dying man’s sleeper. They had been worth a fortune, and now Kaslo had a whole bagful of them.

He put the glowing sphere back in the satchel and slung it around his neck again. “Obron should be pleased,” he told Bodwon as they set off again. “These things are supposed to be useful to wizards.”

This time he took only three steps before his tired mind made the connection. He remembered how the contraband noubles had passed unharmed through the fire that consumed the corpse of Osvert Chittipath.

I think, he said to himself, I may know the answer to the question: Why a fire elemental?

Matthew Hughes

Matthew Hughes

Matthew Hughes writes science-fantasy. His SF novels are: Fools Errant and Fool Me Twice, Black Brillion, Majestrum, The Commons, The Spiral Labyrinth, TemplateHespira, The Damned Busters, The Other, Costume Not Included, and Hell to Pay. His short fiction has appeared in Asimov’s, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Postscripts, Storyteller, Interzone and a number of “Year’s Best” anthologies. Night Shade Books published his short story collection, The Gist Hunter and Other Stories. Formerly a journalist, he spent more than twenty-five years as a freelance speechwriter for Canadian corporate executives and political leaders. His works have been short-listed for the Aurora, Nebula, and Philip K. Dick Awards. His website is at matthewhughes.org.