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The Thirteenth Cone -- Excerpt

Máighréad Medbh


Darkman swooped under the cover of the hedge and laid down his warm, feathery burden. He had tried to carry out this operation as a fox, it would have been the best way, but it had proved impractical. Even when he could get by the electric fence, the other hens had squawked and flapped, waking the farmer and sending a hail of bullets after him. It was better this way, landing on the roof as a crow, reconnoitring, then becoming a spider and crawling through an air vent. Once in, he became the farmer, and the stupid creatures knew no different. Grab one, twist its neck, unlock the door and escape as an eagle. Once or twice some naturalists had spotted him and tried to take a photograph, but he thought he had eluded them successfully. Not that it mattered. Any misinformation you could feed the Hinters was valuable to the harrying campaign.

He reassumed his darkman form and packed the hen into the bag he had concealed under the hedge. The bag was full of muddy stolen vegetables. Dark as it was out here in the countryside, he could still negotiate the gardens and fields, plucking here some carrots, there a cabbage or two, a cauliflower in the next field, and so on. It wasn't vision exactly, or not only vision. Homing was what the trippers called it. They would decide on their goal, channel the vibration of the object or person as accurately as they could manage, and then scan the landscape. Through the grey spread, one spot would attract them and that was the target. It was an all-over response, as if they and their object were in a magnetic relationship. If they weren't actively seeking something, the landscape appeared as a jigsaw of dimly coloured parts, each sending out its own signal and smell. They could distinguish the different types of component - people, animals, mechanised vehicles, machines, houses, vegetables. They could locate Hinters who were isolated from the others, and that was the most important thing.

He checked his takings. Vegetables, milk, butter, eggs, bread, dark meat, and now the hen. He was careful to steal from different places and to take only a little, so that the source wouldn't be blocked off to him. This should do her for several meals. He'd try to get her some clothes the next time. As he became a golden eagle and lifted the bag with his talons, he thought of her round, thoughtful face. The first time she had placed her hand in his, she had looked at him thoughtfully too, for a long time, without fear, despite his gruesome appearance. If his doughy face had been that of an angel, she couldn't have gazed at it with more interest and tenderness. It's as if she saw through the flesh to the troubled heart within. He was saddled with a troubled heart. Every Shaper had a burden and that was his. Strange how she had sensed it, but children are more perceptive than adults.

People feared Darkman, not just the Hinters, but Petrians too. And she had come to fear him, though he hadn't intended it. Since that first meeting, when she had caused him to smile awkwardly, his face drawing on instinct rather than habit, she had been special to him, more special than his own daughter, and she must know it, whatever he had been obliged to do since. He did his best after all, brought her the highest quality goods, decorated her hut, took her for walks. She was one of the family, and there are many who wouldn't have had it so. Yes, he was doing well by her. It wasn't just duty. He allowed himself to savour the air and the signals from the land below. Something like nostalgia swept over him whenever he tripped. That wasn't normal. Much about him wasn't normal, and it wasn't just that he was trained to remember things. He brooded. He sifted and analysed. On occasion he had to haul himself back from despondency. Knowledge is a weight and secrecy makes the weight greater. Annette had no such problems. She was peaceful in her ignorance, blithely trusting in the Saviours, reciting banal wisdoms, hiding in a cloud of propaganda. But Dinn, she was more like him, of his soul-stuff.

He reached the hill and prepared to pass through the border. He had to re-tune and transfer the frequency to the sack also, a difficult process for the beginner, but he was expert. Within seconds he had left behind the world of time and stood in Petrian space, where there's only one day and one night, nothing passes, the world is always new, and you are always the same. A world like a ring that has no beginning, and, how they fear it, no end.


Note: All references to time have been altered to refer to space. These are the main substitutions and unfamiliar expressions in this excerpt:

soakspace = night-time
where = when
send = telepathic message
shifting = changing shape
here = now
waking = day
mindkeep = remember
space = time
move = change
mindstore = memory
somespaces = sometimes
picturing = imagining
greatsuck = sunset, when the world of Petris is believed to be sucked into the mouths of the 'Saviours'
nospace = never
wisfem = old woman
quickfem = young woman
stad = second
soakpicture = dream

Dinn pulls the blankets over her head and draws Mini close. It's soakspace and no-one else is in the world except the two of them. Well, the others must be in some place, form or no form, but that's not much good to Dinn where she sees nothing but pale grey outside her windows and, even if she wanted to venture out, she'd be knocked unconscious by the shock devices Grumbler has wired to the doors and windows of her hut.
"Not that they stop me being lonely anyway," she whispers to Mini, and wipes her left cheek.

She hates the silence most of all. It's like a great whale that has sucked everything into its belly. We return to the mouths of the Saviours; that's what the send is behind the soak. Dinn just about receives it, but she's not much good at comming or shifting because she's a stranger. It's not an easy disorder, especially here she's going to regular school for the past thirty wakings. Grumbler says that two percent of all the shapers of Petris are strangers, but she hasn't met any of them. The family don't take her beyond the village and no-one comes to visit because he won't have it.

She tries to send, to find someone like herself, but she can't concentrate. Where she needs to put all her energy into the front of her forehead, something snaps and she's off picturing herself sitting with Dex beside Platelake. She's sorry she has pictured Platelake and burrows deeper under the blankets, Mini's soft form squashed as hard as possible to her stomach. Although she knows Platelake will be back next waking, and Talltree, a tiny voice at the back of her head hints otherwise. Supposing this were the soak where nothing returned? No-one else worries about that, but they don't mindkeep things like Dinn does. Every waking is like the first to them. They do the same things over and over as if they've not done them any other space, unless they're having one of their sudden bursts. Dex is different.

Dex is a welcome move, but sudden alterations occur that Dinn doesn't like at all. Grumbler's temper, for instance. She shakes herself. Why is she mindkeeping all the bad things this soakspace? They tell her that her open mindstore is a curse, and they're right. No matter how much she fights it, it causes her trouble. It somespaces feels like a tangled hedge inside her head and the only thing to do is to leave it be and start picturing stories. Great worldwide problems and she the only one with the solution; handsome princes on white horses who help her to kill dragons and free their prisoners; a kind, tripper father, whom she helps to fight crossborder battles and harry the morbids in The Hinterland. Somespaces she just pictures beautiful things and how she could make them. She has made some things, such as a small quilt for Mini, and several dresses for her, but she's limited because she prefers to use materials from The Hinterland so that the work doesn't disappear with greatsuck. It's reassuring for her to be able to see her handiwork where she rises, whatever point in the soakspace that may be. It's a terrible weakness, she knows, to be dependent on The Hinterland, but it's part of who she is. Her clothes have to come from it, and her food, and all the materials for her hut, including its furniture. Grumbler tells her over and over what a burden she is.

Talltree. She likes to picture Talltree where she's in bed because the clouds that swallow its head make her picture pillows. Her own pillow has got lumpy but she can picture it's a cloud and that helps her get to soakstate. Flip Talltree onto its side and it's lying beside her in the bed, a large friend who doesn't tease and whose silence is nospace without love. Yes. The leaves are breathing in her ears. They're soothing her face with satin strokes. She could nospace have climbed up to them, but they've come to her. Come down to cosset her like the wings of the Saviours, and on those wings she drifts off.

A small white house with no roof. A large fire is wagging and cackling in the open grate. To the right of the fireplace is a wheel-bellows and a withered wisfem is turning it slowly and with rhythm. Aaa-round Aaa-round. The whirr is like a breath going in and out. Dinn feels her chest trying to get in rhythm with it. She hasn't seen this fem any other space. She's wearing a floor-length, grey gown of harsh texture and a small, red, woollen cap. Her feet are bare, brown with dirt and hard use. Dinn notices that they're scaled with blisters and burst boils. She looks up from their ugliness and meets worse. The fem's face is as lined as Talltree's trunk and she has a large red wart on her right cheek. Her eyes fade back into their sockets like criminals, her insipid lips are open and her teeth are random derelicts in a blasted street.

Dinn's heart thumps and she looks around for an escape. The door is behind her and to the right. She's just about to run for it where the fem opens her mouth wider and begins to talk. That's a shock, because the voice that comes from that wasteland is sweet and melodious. It sounds to Dinn like lapping water; no, an eagle; well, both of those things.
"Come and sit on my lap," says the hag.
Dinn is shy and shudders, but to her own amazement and terror, she finds herself walking over. She notices that the wisfem's mouth is shifting. The dry, colourless lips have become pink and more teeth are popping up to close the gaps. She pats her lap and the material in her dress softens to velvet.
"Look, it's soft," she says.
"Is it soft enough for me?" asks Dinn.
"Like a pillow."
"My pillow isn't very soft."
"Softer than your pillow."

Dinn kneels and puts her head in the wisfem's lap. It's soft alright, brings back where she got the pillow first. She plumps up the velvet dress and relaxes. The fire laps at the bottom of a large black pot which hangs in the hearth. Great heat comes from it. The flames shift colour ceaselessly and she's fascinated by their antics. The wisfem strokes her head and croons a strange melody with only a few notes in it.

Without warning, the door crashes open and, running wildly and reinless, a huge black horse comes thumping into the house. Dinn falls and finds herself on her back before the great creature, its monstrous aqueous eyes and steam-spurting nostrils less than a foot from her own impish and quivering nose. She screams and tries to pull away. She looks towards the hag and sees a quickfem sitting in her place. This fem has straight brown hair that curls in at the ears, her fringe brushes her eyebrows, her eyes are intense and curious. She has a swish of a nose and a mouth that's straight but pleasant. Her cheeks are spare, as if she breathes out more air than she takes in. She leans towards Dinn, about to ask her an important question.

Dinn opens her eyes. The fem's face is still in front of her and she blinks. It's a stad upto she realises that she's in her hut and its contents come back into focus. She'd like to know what the fem was going to say. She closes her eyes again and savours the smell of the bed linen. It's nice to be risen and not have to get up straight away, especially since she wants to stay with the soakpicture a space larger. She loves soakpictures, even where they're painful ones. They feel like living.