Excerpts from books by Matthew Hughes
A Little Learning
“Have you come to help me?” the soldier said, indicating the shaft through his flesh. “You do not resemble the god I prayed to.”
“No,” said Bandar. It was unwise to feel emotions, critical or supportive, in response to the idiomatic entities. They were not, after all, real people; they were more like characters in stories, no more than a collection of necessary attributes. The wounded soldier was probably a version of Unrequited Faith; to pull the arrow free would contradict his role in the Event and could cause the entity to act disharmoniously.
Bandar faced the space between two of the date palms and sang five notes. A wavering vertical fissure divided the air. He stepped through.
A gust of wind threw stinging sleet into his face. He was in a world of black and white and gray, standing on glacial scree that sloped down from a bare ridge above and behind him. The closest thing to color was the dark blue of mountains whose lower slopes were visible beyond the ridge until they rose to disappear above the leaden overcast from which the sleet was flying. If the wet clouds dispersed they would reveal no peaks; the tops of the mountains were buried in unbroken ice all the way to the pole.
Downslope, a cold, wet plain of lichen and coarse grass extended to a line of horizon that was largely invisible behind the showers of freezing rain. Far out he saw a mass of reindeer and the humped shapes of mammoths, identifiable by their peculiar bobbing gait. Closer, a ring of musk oxen turned curved horns toward a short-muzzled bear that circled the herd on long legs.
Good, thought Bandar. He recognized the scene. He had visited this Location before though not at these precise coordinates. Still, the connecting node that would admit him to the next site was near, in a narrow cave set back from a ledge that must be farther up the ridge. He strove to remember how the view before him had looked from that previous vantage. He had definitely been higher up and somewhere off to his right.
The experienced noönaut developed a feel for these things. Though he could not call himself experienced, Bandar could perform the exercise that enhanced his sense of direction. After a moment, he experienced a tiny inclination to go to his right. He let his will yield to it and the predilection grew stronger.
That’s that, he told himself and turned in the direction. A motion from the corner of his eye caught his attention. The snub-faced bear was loping toward him across the flatland, broad paws flicking up spray from the wet lichen. It was almost to the bottom of the slope.
Bandar swiftly sang the thran of nine and three notes which had sequestered him in the sacked city. The bear’s pace did not slacken and its small black eyes remained fixed upon him. Quickly, the noönaut intoned the seven and four, the second most common insulating thran.
The bear reached the base of the scree and began to climb. He could see its condensed breath smoking from its gaping mouth, its lolling tongue bright pink against its brown fur.
There were three other thrans Bandar could try. He suspected now that the oldest and simplest of them, the four and two, would insulate him from the idiomatic bear’s perceptions. But if he was wrong, there would not be time to determine which of the other two would work. The bear had increased its speed, ears flattened against its broad head. It would be on him in seconds.
Bandar sang five tones and the air rippled behind him. He flung himself through the gap and tumbled to the ground in the date grove. The Event was still unwinding and the wounded soldier remained pinned to his tree. The man blinked at him but Bandar counted slowly to ten then sang the five tones once more. He stepped through the fissure.
As he had expected, much more time had passed in the ice world and it had recycled. The Landscape was as it had been the first time he had stood on the slope, the bear stalking the musk oxen out on the plain. Bandar saw it become aware of him, saw it turn toward him and take its first step. He sang the four and two; instantly the predator turned back to the herd.
Chanting the tones, the noönaut faced about and began to climb. The loose gravel rattled out from under each footstep, so that he slid back half a step for each one he took. The icy rain assaulted the weather side of his face and neck and his extremities were numb. Bandar paused and, continuing the thran, applied another of the adept’s exercises: thick garments grew to replace the nondescript garb in which he had imagined himself when he entered the noösphere. Warm mittens and heavy boots covered his hands and feet and a fur lined hood encased his head. For good measure, he imagined himself a staff. The climbing went better after that.
The top of the ridge was broad and only slightly curved. He made good time with the wind at his back and within a few minutes he saw the ledge jutting out of the scree. But when he scrabbled down from the ridgetop he was surprised to find several fissures and cracks in the rock.
He turned and looked out at the plain again. He was sure this was the spot his tutor had brought them to, but the class had been warned not to venture out of the recess, presumably because of the bear. They had only looked out through the narrow opening, to fix the scene in memory, then attended as the tutor had revealed the two nodes and sung the thran that activated both.
Bandar looked into the first fissure and rejected it as too scant in both width and height. The second was no better. The third looked promising, however. The opening was the right height and the darkness beyond promised that the cave was also deep enough. Throwing back his hood, he stepped within.
The gates would be to his right, and Bandar turned that way. Thus he did not at first notice the bulky shape squatting in the rear of the cavern holding her sausage-fingered hands to the tiny warmth of a grease lamp burning in the severed cranium of a cave bear’s skull. He drew breath to sing the four and two but before a sound could emerge a noose of plaited rawhide dropped over his head and constricted his throat.
The Commons was the distillation of all human experience, everything that had ever been important to humankind, individually or collectively, since the dawntime. It was the composite memory of the species, the realm of the archetypes. Some were of great moment, battles and disasters; some were the small but vital elements of a full life, the loss of virginity, the birth of a child; some were simply landscapes — deserts, sea coasts, lush valleys, ice age barrens — against which generation upon generation of humans had measured their existence.
The elements of the noösphere were formed by aggregation. An event happened, and the person to whom it happened remembered it. That individual memory was the smallest particle of the noösphere, called by scholars an engrammatic cell. On its own, a single cell drifted away on the currents of the Commons and was lost.
But when the same event — or even closely similar events — happened to a multitude the individual cells were so alike that they cohered and joined, drawing vitality from each other, and forming a corpuscle. As a corpuscle grew it became more potent, more active, even to the extent of absorbing other similar corpuscles. Enough such adhesions and corpuscles aggregated into archetypal entities, permanent features of the collective unconscious. They took up specific Locations in the Commons.
Events, Situations and Landscapes were not precise nor accurate records. Rather they were composite impressions of what similar happenings had meant to those to whom they happened. They included every horrid crime and tragic defeat, every joy and triumph of the human experience, real or imagined, each distilled to its essence and compounded.
And all of those essential Events, Situations and Landscapes were peopled by appropriate idiomatic entities, like the mammoths on the sleet-swept plain, the tortured merchant in the burning city, and the immensely fat female cave dweller whose piglike eyes now regarded Guth Bandar from the rear of the cave, while whoever was behind him jerked the noose, leaving him dancing on tip-toe, struggling to breathe.
The fat one grunted something and another figure appeared from behind her bulk. This one was as lean and dried as the rawhide that constricted Bandar’s throat, with a face that was collapsed in on itself and wrinkled up like dried fruit, framed by thin white hair clotted together by rancid oils. She poked a wisp of wool into the grease lamp to make a second wick then lifted the skullcap and crossed the cave to hold it before Bandar’s face.
She peered at him from rheumy eyes, toothless gums working and lips smacking loudly. Then the hand that was not encumbered by the lamp reached under his parka and worked its way into his leggings. She seized parts of Bandar that he would have rather she had left untouched, weighing them in her dry, hard palm. Then she made a noise in her throat that expressed disappointment coupled to resignation and spoke to the unseen strangler behind him.
The noose about his throat loosened but before Bandar could gain enough breath to sing the thran a hood of grimy leather descended over his head. The noose was slipped up over the ill-smelling hide until it came level with his mouth. Then it was cinched tight again, gagging him. He tried to intone the thran but could not produce enough volume. Meanwhile, his hands were bound together behind him.
There were eye holes in the hood and a slit where his nose protruded, allowing him to breathe. He felt a weight on his head and realized that the headgear supported a pair of antlers.
The strong one who had held him from behind now stepped into view and he saw that she too was female, though young and muscular, with a mane of tawny hair and a face that mingled beauty with brute power.
She moved lithely to hitch a hide curtain to a wooden frame around the cave’s mouth, closing out the light and the cold air that flowed in like liquid from the tundra. The old one was dipping more wicks of what was probably mammoth wool into the grease lamp, creating a yellowy glow on the walls while the fat one began to strip off her furs and leathers.
It was an ancient maxim at the Institute that a little learning made a perilous possession. Bandar realized that aphorism defined his predicament. He had been brought to this Location once before, but barely long enough to fix the place in his memory. He had misjudged its category.
When they had briefly visited an adjacent cave the tutor’s sole concern had been to display the nodes that coincided there. He had not explained the Location’s nature and when Bandar had looked out at the tundra he had thought that they were briefly passing through a mere Landscape; instead, it was now clear that this was a Situation.
In the dawntime, there had been an archetypal tale of three women — one young, one old, one in the prime of life — living in some remote spot. Questers came to them, seeking wisdom and always paying an uncomfortable price. In later ages the Situation had evolved into bawdy jokes about farmers’ daughters or poetic tropes about dancing graces. But here was the raw base, rooted deep in humankind’s darkest earth. Bandar had no doubt that the final outcome of this Situation, as with so many others, was blood and death.
The grease fire was warming the cave as the crone and the girl efficiently rendered Bandar naked. The matron, now also uncovered, grunted and sprawled back on the pile of furs, giving Bandar more than an inkling of the first installment of the price he must pay.
The young one took a gobbet of the grease that fed the lamp and warmed it between her hands before applying it to the part of Bandar that the crone had weighed and found merely adequate. Despite Bandar’s disinclination to participate, her ministrations began to have an effect.
Bandar realized that he was in danger of being pulled into this Situation, deeply and perhaps irrevocably. The longer one stayed in a particular place and interacted with its elements, the more its “reality” grew and the more integrated with it the sojourner could become. The speed of the effect was heightened if the noönaut abstained from intoning thrans or if he adopted a passive attitude.
The old hag was shaking a bone rattle and grunting a salacious chant about a stag and a doe. Meanwhile, the young one had finished greasing him and was surveying the result with a critical eye. Bandar looked down and saw that his virtual body was behaving as if it were real flesh. It was a worrisome sign.
Act, do not react was the rule in such a predicament. But outnumbered, bound and gagged, he had few options for setting the agenda. He mentally cast about for inspiration and found it in the expression on the face of the youngest of the three cave dwellers. She was regarding what was now Bandar’s most prominent feature in a manner that more than hinted at disappointment.
Her look gave the noönaut a desperate idea: if it was possible to grow winter clothing and to create a staff from nothing, might he likewise be able to change the proportions of his own shape?. His tutors had never spoken of such a thing, but necessity was a sharp spur. If it was possible for Bandar to increase the dimensions of his most intimate equipment, he might improve his position.
While the young one reapplied herself to his lubrication, Bandar employed the adept’s exercises that had protected him against sleet and slippery footing, although now with a more personal focus. After a few moments he heard the rattle and chant stop. The crone was staring, open mouthed, and the tawny haired one was blinking with surprise. Bandar looked down and saw that his efforts had been more successful than intended. What had before been merely presentable was now grown prodigious.
“That will need more grease,” the old woman cackled. The young one agreed and scooped up a double handful.
When he was thoroughly lubricated, they manhandled him over to where the fat one lay in expectation. He was forced first to kneel between her enormous splayed thighs then to lie prone upon the mountainous belly. The crone took hold of his new-grown immensity and guided him until connections were established, which brought first a grunt of surprise from the matron then other noises as the young one placed a cold, calloused foot on Bandar’s buttocks and rhythmically impelled him to his labors.
The woman beneath him began to thrash about, making sounds that put Bandar in mind of a large musical owl. For his part, he concentrated on mental exercises that placed a certain distance between his awareness and his virtual body, lest he become too involved in the activity and find himself on a slippery slope into full absorption.
Seize the process or be seized by it, he remembered a tutor saying. The Commons was an arena rife with conflict, where will was paramount. To control his place in a Location, the uninsulated noönaut must be the dominant actor, not one of the supporting cast. How can I amplify my impact? he asked himself, rejecting any further increase in size — he might damage the matron.
The idea, when it came, seemed unlikely to succeed. Still, he had heard that women could grow fond of certain devices used for intimate achievements. Bandar summoned his conviction and focused his attention on effecting the change. Within seconds a new sound rose above the matron’s musical hoots: a deep thrumming and throbbing which he could clearly hear despite the fact that its source was buried in the mounds of flesh beneath him.
The matron now began to issue throaty moans with a counterpoint of high-pitched keening. She thrashed about with an energy that might have propelled Bandar from her if the young one hadn’t continued to press down with her pumping foot. At last the heaves and flings culminated in a final paroxysm and Bandar heard a long and satiated sigh, followed almost at once by a rumbling snore.
Immediately, the other two hauled the noönaut from the matron’s crevice and flung him down on his back, the vibrating immensity buzzing and humming above his belly. There was a brief tussle between youth and old age, quickly decided by the former’s strength despite the latter’s viciousness and guile.
The tawny haired woman straddled Bandar and seized his conspicuous attribute. As she lowered herself onto it her eyes and mouth widened and tremors afflicted her belly and the long muscles of her thighs. Then she leaned forward, placed her palms on his shoulders and set to work.
Bandar saw the crone peering over the young one’s shoulder with an expression that sent a chill of apprehension through him. Ritual slaughter might not be the worst fate he would suffer. He resolved to exert himself.
He reasoned that the same exercises that had enlarged some parts of him must make others shrink. While the young female lathered herself to a fine foaming frenzy above him, Bandar focused his attention on his still bound hands. In a moment he felt them dwindle until they were the size of a doll’s. The rawhide thongs slipped off.
The young woman was quicker to reach the heights than her older cavemate but stayed there longer. Bandar bided his time. Finally, she emitted a long and thoughtful moan and collapsed onto the noönaut’s chest. The old woman wasted no time but avidly seized the incumbent at hip and shoulder and rolled her free of Bandar. She stepped over him and prepared to impale herself.
Bandar bent himself at knee and hip to put his feet in the crone’s belly, then launched her up and away. As she squawked in pain and outrage, he sprang to his feet and made straight for the hide that hid the exit.
His tiny hands gave him trouble, but when a glance behind showed his two conquests sitting up and the hag reaching for a long black shard of razor edged flint he put an arm between wood and leather and tore the covering away.
The sleet slashed at him. The bare ledge was slick with freezing rain. There was another cave a short dash along the ledge — it looked to be the right one — and he half-ran, half-slid toward it, the antler-topped mask bobbing on his head and his still enormous and buzzing bowsprit pointing the way.
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