From: (Matthew Skala)
Newsgroups: talk.bizarre
Subject: Crimson and pearl (Cross Product ch. 12)
Date: 1 Dec 2000 21:12:12 -0800
Organization: Ansuz
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[Chapter 12 of a larger work.  Chapters 1-7 at ,
others being posted concurrently.]

Crimson and pearl

I stood on a bared mound of rock watching the yellow Sun sinking into the
trees.  It almost lined up with a straight row of hills, and I wondered if
it would line up with them perfectly on some special day, like a solstice or
equinox.  I wondered if I would get to see the green flash.  I've read that
during sunrise and sunset there's a moment where the angle is exactly right
for atmospheric refraction to bend the green part of the spectrum down to
ground level, but you can only see it when the observing conditions are
perfect, and I never have.

Behind me I could hear the sounds of Jeff and Taylor setting up the camp.
On Mella's urging, we had pressed ahead with trying to reach the radio
dishes at the top of the Mountain, and sure enough, we did find it easier
going.  Still, it was almost sunset before we reached the cleared circle
around the summit, where the five dishes stood.

Rick was in astrophysical heaven (My God!  It's full of stars!) as he
examined the dishes and their mounts.  He ran through two disposable cameras
snapping photos of the bearings in the mounts, and the feedline disappearing
into the ground, and the support arrangements.  He said there was no doubt
that these were telescopes, not communications receivers.  "At least not for
communications from anywhere in this galaxy," he said.  But the design was
unusual, not like the dishes he was most used to working with.  He praised
the sketch I had drawn him, saying it had captured the most important points
of the original.  He wanted to climb up to the focal point of one of the
12-meter dishes, but after a couple of nasty experiences with the razor wire
we convinced him to give it up.  He had to content himself with standing on
the concrete base of a dish and looking up the skirt of the machine into the
antenna.  He said it was all circular waveguide up there, non-standard.

I watched the Sun drop below the horizon; I didn't see the green flash, but it
was a pretty sight anyway.  Then I turned back to see that they had already
unpacked everything and hung the food in a tree away from the site.  Now
Jeff and Taylor were unrolling the tents.  Just in time, too, because the
light was fading surprisingly fast, almost visibly, like when they dim the
lights in a movie theatre.

Rick pointed to a patch of bare earth near one of the dish bases.  "It's a
shame about the fire ban, we could put some of those rocks in a circle there
and it'd be perfect.  Far enough from the trees not to be a risk.  I don't
suppose we could get away with -"  "No," I interrupted him, "Probably the
authorities would spot the smoke column and show up in black helicopters
with infrared scanners just to look for illegal campfires, and that's only
slightly an exaggeration."  "You'll have to excuse Rick," said Taylor, "He's
from Alberta."  "Oh, well then..." I said with a grin.  "The thing is, trees
are really big money here.  An awful lot of people's livelihood depends on
them, so the powers that be take forest fires very seriously.  And don't
even get me started on big-nosed spruce weevils."

It really was a shame about the fire ban, though, because the wind was
getting colder and colder, and we were shivering.  Taylor had a lantern-type
flashlight, the kind that's really just a handle that fits on top of a big
six-volt battery.  She turned it on and set it on the edge of the concrete
pad of one of the dishes, and she and Jeff set up our two tents in the space
between that dish and the next one.

Jeff and I each wanted to just go to bed and sleep, but Rick and Taylor
didn't want to risk missing anything unusual that might happen in the few
hours of darkness.  They insisted on dividing the night into watches and
setting up a schedule for everyone to take a turn sitting outside in the
cold.  I somehow drew the worst possible assignment: the second-to-last
watch, simultaneously early and late enough to keep me from getting any good
sleep before or after.  Grumbling, I crawled into one of the tents with
Taylor.  I pulled my sleeping bag up over my ears, trying to shut out the
quiet but annoying sound of her breathing, and tried to fall asleep.

I always hear voices in my head when I'm lying in bed at home ready to
sleep, in what I think is called the hypnogogic state.  I've read that most
people do.  I think the voices are usually speaking nonsensical fragments of
sentences, overlapping each other and skidding away as soon as I try to
concentrate on what they're saying.  Sometimes, when I've been concentrating
on something or someone a whole lot, I'll recognize that subject or that
person's voice running through my head when I'm falling asleep that night.
It happens on the same kind of day when I can close my eyes and see whatever
I was looking at all day.  I imagine my mind as absorbing an overload of
concepts during the day which then diffuse out over the course of a few
hours until it reaches equilibrium again.

Something else I've read about sleep is that it's a time for the brain to
reorganize memories from the day, shuffling things from short-term storage
to longer-term storage, something like defragmenting a hard drive.  That may
be why it's so hard to remember the voices of sleep; they only exist by
virtue of the fact that the memory circuits are offline.  So you get into
some kind of a "can't get there from here" situation, trying to remember
them from the awake state.  Who knows what else our brains might do that we
can't know about from this side of the firewall?

But I do remember that the voices were unusual that night.  I think maybe
they were more organized than usual and at the same time less
comprehensible.  I felt I was listening to some kind of argument or debate,
although on what subject I can't remember.  I don't know if I got to sleep
properly at all.  I have a memory of imagining myself going to work on the
bus, and getting there and spending a day writing computer programs, like
always.  That could have been a dream I dreamed, or simply something I
imagined because I was bored.  I also remember that when the tent door
unzipped and Rick grabbed my shoulder to shake me awake, I felt that I was
already awake at that time, not really awakened by him.  But my memory of
having been awake already could easily have been manufactured; the brain
does that too.

I pulled on my heavy coat and crawled out into the satiny dark night.  This
wasn't going to be the highlight of the trip, I could tell.  I sat on the
edge of one of the concrete pads with the legs of the telescope arching up
behind me, and looked out at the world.  The sky was beautiful, cold and
remote like a dancer in an old picture, sprinkled with pinhole stars.  I
amused myself by trying to recognize and name each constellation.  It was
surprising how many I knew; I was never much on star-gazing, but over the
years I guess I'd soaked up a lot of it.

Below the Mountain, the forest was invisible in the blackness.  I could only
see the horizon as a theoretical line where there were no more stars.  No
more stars.  That wasn't a pleasant thought, and it led me into all kinds of
others about death and decay and I wished profoundly that I wasn't out here
all alone in the cold and the dark, probably on the wrong side of a
dimensional warp, sitting under a radio telescope in a forest full of
witches and spooks.  I looked up at the stars again and I felt the sign
change and remembered that they weren't cold at all, burning hot nuclear
furnaces shooting through the void at kilometers per second with only
light-year after light-year of nothing at all to protect me from them.  The
dishes weren't receivers at all, they were transmitters calling the alien
energy to invade my world.

I closed my eyes, telling myself I was only resting them from the wind.
They say blind people often develop amazing hearing in compensation.  That
shouldn't have happened in half a second, but as soon as I did close my eyes
the night seemed to jump in at me.  Every curl of wind around the fir
needles, every inexplicable rustling in the salal, and every breath taken by
my sleeping companions, all invaded my head.  I could hear the mosquitoes
whining, could almost imagine hearing one land on Taylor's pale exposed neck
and slip its tongue into her body.

The fear seemed to come crawling down the metal of the frame behind me, up
from the ground, and into my heart; I realised that if I didn't open my eyes
immediately, I might never be able to again.  So I took a deep breath,
called the power, and looked.  The stars were wrong, and Mella was sitting
next to me on the concrete slab, holding onto one leg of the telescope with
her left hand and warming her bare feet at the coals of the campfire.  With
her right hand she was playing with something long and thin, maybe a pencil,
twirling it around with her fingers.  I never got a closer look to identify
the object more precisely.  She had chipped black toenail polish.  The wind
had died down, and the infrared from the coals was toasting my face; my back
was still cold.

Mella was wearing a long bluish-grey hooded garment of some feltlike
material, much like a Scout badge blanket.  It covered her from the top of
the head down to about the level of the knees.  Her legs were bare, at least
from that point down.  Her arms and hands seemed to be encased in long
gloves of a finer-grained fabric of the same color.  Sitting on the edge of
the concrete, she looked like something that had grown there, perhaps a
fungus of some sort.

"Hi!" she said brightly.  "You looked so peaceful there, I wasn't sure I
should disturb you.  Were you praying?"  "Um, no," I said.  "Actually, I was
feeling cold and lonely."  Mella frowned.  "Well, this is certainly the place
for it.  But don't.  There are some other people who have it a lot worse
than you do."  "Like that's supposed to be any comfort to me?"  "No need to
get hot."  She giggled.  "Unless you really want to, of course...  No,
actually, I meant those people I was telling you about earlier, the ones
with six points of thought in their heads.  Star people."

"You said they were why you're here."  "Yes, I did.  That's sort of what I
do - like healing, you know?  Making the best of bad situations.  It's a
shame, though, on this Mountain I don't think I can do much more.  It's such
a shame."  "You told me at one point that you thought I could do something
here, for freedom and intelligence.  Am I to understand that what you want
me to do has something to do with these star people?  Like maybe setting them
free?  You said they were confined."  I could feel her tense up, where her
leg was alongside mine on the concrete.  "I'm going to assume that's what
you mean and you're just not allowed to say it."  Still, she said nothing.
"I mean, I don't know much about magic, but I'll be glad to help if I can."

"Sounds to me like you've got a pretty good idea there," she said, "and I'm
glad you brought three friends this time, because with you and me that makes
five, which is exactly the right number."  "Great!  Let's do it!"  She sort of
smiled and looked at me sideways.  "There's just one little problem, nothing
really and I shouldn't mention it."  "What?"  " It's all very well to say
'let's do it,' but I don't actually know how.  I've never done it before."

It's silly, but guess I sort of thought that if you were a witch, you'd know
how to do all your stuff, just by magic.  I said, "So, can you look it up
in, I don't know, the big book of rituals?  I saw you had one when you were
making that poultice for Rick."

"Oh, that wasn't a book of rituals.  Just an herbal, one of the standard
ones." "But you do have a book of rituals."  She shrugged.  "No, not much."
That's the sort of answer that would give me a migrane, if I got them.
Actually, I think maybe I did once, because I had an experience that fit the
descriptions I've read of what it feels like before you get a migrane, the
pinwheel hallucinations and all, and then after that I did get a headache.
But it wasn't very painful; in fact, I barely noticed it.  I didn't bother
taking any Tylenol or anything.  I think standard migrane headaches are
supposed to feel a whole lot worse than that.

Anyway, I was still on the book thing.  I really believe in books.  "Well,
surely there'd be some book that says, even if you don't have it.  Between
us, my friends and I have access to a whole lot of libraries.  If it's
written down anywhere we can find it.  Just tell me what to look for.  I
mean, spells have to come from somewhere."

"Well, it's like this.  You, um, you write computer programs, right?"
"Yes."  "That's not so different from casting a spell.  You have the idea in
your mind, and you have to put it into words or symbols or whatever.  So:
when you have something you want to say to the machine, do you have to look
it up?"  "What do you mean?"  "I mean, are you sitting there all the time
with, I don't know, a translation dictionary looking up every word?"

"Usually.  Not every single command.  I learn the basic constructs of
whatever language I'm using off by heart, but I hit the manual for pretty
much every system call I use.  I do my best work with one hand on the
keyboard and two or three fingers inserted in the book; it freaks out the
touch-typists when they see me typing at full speed that way.  Of course,
different people have different styles.  I have cow-orkers who memorize
everything.  I don't know how they do it."

Mella gave me a strange look.  "Cow what?"  "Oh, sorry.  I said 'cow
orkers'.  It's traditional, where I come from, to say that instead of 'co
workers'.  You move the double-yew over, see."  "Oh.  Okay.  Well, anyway,
maybe it was a bad analogy, but the point I was trying to make is that I
don't read my practices out of a book.  I don't have to, because I know what
I want to do and I just do that, how would you say it, flying by the seat of
my pants."  She grinned wickedly.  "Except I'm not usually wearing pants at
the time."

"All right, I see what you mean.  The book helps for getting the words right
but it doesn't help with the creativity part of making software.  That has
to come from inside."  "Exactly!  There are things you can do to help put it
there, but the seed is already present.  I think it's from our memories of
watching the Universe begin."  "Okay, so what do we do now?"  She shrugged.
"Whatever the fuck we can."  There was a pause; I guess I was surprised to
hear her use that word, it seemed out of character for her.

"I did try it once," Mella said meditatively, "but then of course he showed
up to stop me.  He always shows up."  "He?"  "Oh, you know.  That little
fascist panhandler, no, that's not right, comp-, corr-, um, I just can't
think of the word, but I know you met him when you were here the first
time."  "Commissionaire?"  "That's it.  You said it.  I couldn't.  Anyway, I
don't think he likes the star people.  Maybe they're against his religion."
"He did strike me as very religious."  "Yeah, whatever else he is, he is
that."  "But so are you."  "Oh, but it's different for me.  I'm right!"

Laughing, she skipped up on the rocks and started talking fast, as if from a
memorized script.  She described someone, herself I guess.  "The Witch of
the Forest stood upon the rock in her blue wool robes bound round with a
silver chain.  She called out to her familiars and the white raven dove
across the moon and the rabbit stood to attention and far below in the
valley the jet-black mare whinnied.  As the net of enchantment drew tighter,
the poor mortal couldn't decide whether escape was feasible or even, um,
desirable..."  "No fair!" I said, "you still have to tell me: are you a white
witch or a black witch?"  "No," she said, just like a programmer.  "Well,
okay, maybe grey?"  She half-closed her eyes.  "Mmm.  More like crimson.
Crimson and pearl."

There was a flash of light in the sky, and Mella pointed up behind my right
shoulder.  "Look, meteors!" I turned to look, but they were gone, and when I
turned back, so was she.  I stood on the rock where she had been and looked
out at the line of hills I could barely see in the starlight, imagining
Jeff's mystery GIS overlaid on them.  I still couldn't figure out what it
was supposed to signify.  The stars were still wrong; I'm no expert, but I
know where to find the Big Dipper and it wasn't there.  Right or wrong, they
sure were pretty.  When the brightest stars sank below the hills, I heard an
owl cry in the forest below, checked my watch, and figured it was time to
wake Jeff.  He grumbled, but dragged himself out of the tent he was sharing
with Rick, and I crawled back in next to Taylor.  I allowed her soft steady
breathing to hypnotize me into thinking I was asleep.

Matthew Skala                   :CVECAT DELENDA EST