(Note: for extra added jollies, read the chapter, then read it again with Supertramp's "Fool's Overture" on in the background.)
[You weren't supposed to play with his body!]
+I didn't play with him! I used the first magic-based humanoid body that popped into my mind, which was a velae. Velae have wings, Shag.+
[I don't mean them! I mean the muscles and the ears. Those aren't velae-normal! Why did you give him those? Did you have some crazy plan to improve him?]
+Oh, excuse me! What should I have done with the magic left over after I turned him into a velae? Should I have given him some more fingers and toes? Or maybe you'd've preferred an extra head!+
[... magic left over?]
+Magic left over. The velae form only used up about half of the powder's power. I had to put the rest of it somewhere. I thought it would be less intrusive under the skin than above it. I'm sorry if you don't like my hasty decision.+
[Oh... I'm sorry, Varx, I should've known you wouldn'tI should have trustedyou did the right thingI'm just so upsetI can't thinkGods, it hurts to see John like that.]
+Yeah, I know.+
[Why did I do this to them? Borl was right, I should have known I couldn't prevent things from happening to them.... Why didn't I just continue to watch them on Earth, even if they were old and split up? At least they'd have been safe.]
+Incidentally, where is Borl? He was supposed to be here at half seventeen or thereabouts. No great loss, but still .+
[I don't know... Oh, John, I'm so sorry....]
Like a broken toy, John lay in Lyndess's airless little storeroom, arms and legs splayed limply over the sides of a narrow cot. A magic lantern, its light cold and cheerless, sat on a dusty box in the corner. Johns shallow, labored breathing and the rapid beating of his heart were the only sounds he made. Though he stared at the cracked wall behind the cot, he had long ceased to see it. Very little of the outside world existed for him any more.
Then came a stirring, an unfamiliar twinge in his brain that he did not want. He whined and thrashed feebly, trying to shake the feeling out. It would not leave, it grew in intensity, and he jerked harder, rocked from side to side, even flipped on his back in desperation. "No... I can't... I can't," he moaned, tearing at his hair. As if exploding from the pressure, he flung himself off the bed onto the floor -
and he was stifling! The walls closed in on all sides, pushing the air away, squeezing his life out! He was being crushed, smashed!
Outside, he must get outside!
Such a shock of longing tore through him that all his other pains melted away. For a moment he stared wide-eyed at the magic lantern as if it had generated this desire. Then he leaped up, pulled on his underpants and some trousers Lyndess had given him, stuffed his feet into his shoes, pressed his glasses on his face, and threw the magic cloak over the things on his back, barely noticing them for the first time in their short existence. A long step and he was out of the storeroom; six more took him to the front door. He wrenched it open and burst out of the building into Lyndess's garden, his shadow twinning in the double moonlight.
The warm night air, stinking of the city, bathed and caressed him, hinted of riches just out of reach. He took several deep breaths and smiled. Everything was right for a moment. But then his smile faded. He needed something more...what? He had no words for it, just the certainty that he wouldn't find it in the castle, or Focan, or Stal's farm. No, what glowed in his mind, like an emerald amid ashes, was the tower-top memory of the meadow to the northwest of the city. John shuddered with desire as he imagined fresh cool air, rustling green grass, limitless space, space, space in all directions.... Lyndess's private little door in the castle wall was padlocked, but luckily the lock was a feeble one; a substantial tug took it apart, and John slipped through to emerge into the market square at night.
Under the light of the two moons he made good progress, walking swiftly past covered wagons, sealed tents, and merchants sleeping protectively next to or atop their possessions. A brisk wind played with his cloak, made it billow out around his legs; he clutched the edges with his left hand and fingered the clasp at his throat with his right hand to make sure it held. It wouldn't do to have the cloak blow off, no, not at all....
Soon he was walking in Focan proper. The moonlight diminished, partially swallowed by the buildings, and John was forced to slow down as he picked his way between piles of dung and garbage. His footsteps slapped on the cobblestones, echoed off the buildings as if they were inches away from him, and his heart began to race; he was enclosed again! Tunneling through town like a worm, the weight of the earth pressing on him from all sidesexcept up. He looked at the infinite, starry sky and was strengthened, and boosted his pace as much as he dared. The meadow... oh, the meadow.
Ahead, several men stood in a knot next to a house, drinking from a bottle that they passed around. Their mutters died as John approached, and as he hurried past them he could feel their stares bore into his -
into his back.
Oh, they knew. They knew! They could see the things on his back as clearly as if he'd been naked. Snickering, whispering, pointing at the monster, perhaps pulling out a knife to throw or a gun to shoot. John shivered and hugged his cloak so close to his body that he could barely take a full step. Now the pull of the meadow was countered by a strong push to go back and disappear into Lyndess's storeroom forever. His pace slowed to a crawl as the tug-of-war raged within him. He whimpered, unable to bear the thought of returning to that trash compactor of a rooma staggering step, another person looking at him, and the room, empty of eyes, became paradise. But it wasn't!
Still, however slowly, he went forward; the meadow-pull was strongest, and tormented or not, he was closing on his goal.
Footsteps behind him! John whirled aroundto see a vague shape far down the street, barely visible.
A baby's thin wail made him jerk. Abandoned on the street? He glanced in the direction of the cry with vague, crazy thoughts of rescue, saw a house, heard a woman take the baby from its crib inside the building, talk to it softly. Gib Neb started chiming then, and he almost screamed as the sounds of the bells resonated through his entire body, exactly as if he'd been standing next to them.
What's going on? John's awed, disbelieving hands left the cloak, crept up to touch his ears. Why can I hear these things?
And as he became fully aware of his altered ears at last, he could not stop himself from listening harder, helplessly focusing on fainter and fainter sounds.
The sizzling sound had faded into the background but now commanded his attention again. His heartbeat, pounding faster and faster, was a bass drum advertising his presence. As he took his hands from his ears, as his muscles contracted and his bones moved in their sockets, he creaked and popped like a bowl of cereal. Houses groaned as they settled into the ground, releasing the day's heat. People snored and farted and moaned behind walls that blocked only sight. He knew there was a moth on his back because he heard it flutter to a landing, just as he could hear the hairs on his head rattle against one another in the wind.
"Jesus," he whispered/spoke, the tears gurgling as they welled up in his eyes. He reached to cover his ears, but the noise of his body exploded around him, and he froze, tears and sweat trickling down his body like babbling brooks. Make it stop, oh please let it stop, he pleaded with whoever sent them there. He couldn't move, a step would bring an avalanche of noise -
"GIVE IT BACK!" a man roared from nowhere and everywhere. John jerked sideways, lost his balance, and stumbled forward, windmilling his armshis cloak billowed out behind him, his things could be seen! He screamed, grabbed handfuls of cloak, and fled down the street, splashing through garbage, heedless of the torrent of sound he generated. His head swam with pictures of a mob coming after him, torch-wielding, pitchfork-waving. "Kill the monster! Kill it!" they shouted as they broke down doors and tipped over carts, finally pulling his cowering body from some inadequate hiding place. And they bore him to a pyre, tied him to a stake, and touched a match to kindling.
But none of this would happen in the meadow.
He skidded to a halt, astonished, tantalized by the thought.
Then he was running again, mind and ears finally closed to all but his goal as he hurtled past everything Focanian. Soon he escaped the town, was amid farms rich in space, but they were not what he needed; they were ordered, bounded, enslaved. John continued running until Focan was as far behind him as New York, until there was nothing but grass to the left, grass to the right, grass forward and behind. Then he stopped.
"Yeahhhh...." he exhaled, grin spreading, fatigue and fear vanishing. Space! Blessed, huge freedom surrounded him. He spread his arms to embrace the dark horizon and twirled around, laughing. Then he began to lope, enjoying the feel of wind on his face. His stamina was boundless, his body throbbed with energy; I could run forever! he cried silently. He couldn't contain his excitement any longer, he leaped into the air -
The moment his feet left the ground he knew.
He wanted to fly.
John barely kept his balance as he landed. He giggled nervously; he'd never even thought about the function of wings. They were grotesque appendages, hideous with the power to feel and be feltthings, not wings! He couldn't associate anything even vaguely pleasant with them. Him, flying? What an impossibility!
But he craved the sky.
Shedding his cloak and kicking his shoes onto it to weigh it down, he slowly spread his wings. His skin crawled; O unfamiliar muscles, stretching and contracting and twitching! The feel of the wind pushing at the wings sparked intense excitement in him; and when he moved them back and forth, the spark burst into a pleasure almost unbearably strong. Trembling with the force of it, he flapped harder, stretched on his toes; but he knew instinctively that this would not make him fly. He broke into a run, clumsily flapping. His pleasure increased, but his altitude did not, and too rapidly the pleasure became insufficient, like a drug whose dosage had to be constantly increased. Desperately he jumped, flapping like mad, but the air would not accept him and he fell to the ground. Springing up, he ran harder, leaped, dropped rejected, began even more fiercely anew. Again and again he battled the sky, clawing at it, screaming so that foam bubbled from his mouth; but he could not defeat it.
Then he paused, panting. Eyes ablaze with determination, he wiped his mouth along the back of his arm, gathered his strength,
shot off across the landscape,
flung himself into the air, parallel to the ground,
an unbelievable moment hanging above the planet suspended on the wind
but then he fell out of the sky.
With a tremendous thud, both physical and mental, he plowed into the grass, skidded a few feet, stopped.
For a long time he lay where he was, numb with spirit-pain. He could not fly. Though he had been airborne, he couldn't sustain it. His maximum effort had failed, and he knew with sickening clarity that he could push himself no farther, would never attain more than he had. He could not fly. He pretended to be an eagle, but he was no more than a kiwi grubbing for worms. They were things, not wings!
He could not fly.
Slowly sitting up, John stared at the sky which had so cruelly denied him access, and he began to cry. He cried like the wolf or the dragon does, with hot, bitter tears that glittered in the double moonlight as they rolled down his face. "Fuck!" he screamed at the stars. Fuck you! Fuck it all! Goddamn son of a bitch! I hate it! Yoko! Yoko! Mother, where are you? I want to die! Take me home! Oh, God. "
He tossed away his glasses, put his face in his hands, and sobbed.
It was a while before he lifted his wet face into the breeze. The wind mocked him as it ruffled his hair and feathers painfully. The urge to fly raked at his innards, and the knowledge that he never could raked at his mind.
As he groped for and donned his glasses, an anomaly on the horizon caught his eye: a ragged dark line, barely visible. Through his turmoil he sensed something important about that line, so he struggled to his feet and trudged over, conscious that his wings bounced at every step, tugging, taunting.
Soon he found himself staring into a canyon whose far edge was perhaps several miles away and whose beginning and end were not visible from his vantage point. Though there wasn't enough light to make an accurate guess, the thing seemed well over a quarter of a mile deep.
Fascinated in spite of himself, John knelt at the edge. From what little he knew about geology he expected to see rock formations poking up from the bottom, but this canyon was empty, almost unnaturally so. Its sides were smooth, and some spots glittered in the moonlight as if they'd been polished. John suffered a vision of a giant man striking the ground with an ax.
This must be the Chasm we're supposed to have come across. He stood up and looked at the distant edge. There must be a bridge somewhere. Funny how calm he had gotten. Especially considering the idea that popped into his head. If I jump off the side of this thing, I reckon I could fly. Lots of room to fall, lots of time to start flapping. Nothing to hit on the way down, either, but I'll need a running start to clear the edge.
(John blinked. "What the fuck am I doin'?" he shrilled, scrambling away from the edge. "I'm goin' completely ma- ")
If I fly, great; if not, well, death's better than being in so much pain. He began to back up, preparing for the leap. The ground was grassy and even, no hidden things to
("Help! I can't stop! Help!" John screamed, grabbing at the air)
step on, no depressions to stumble over. When he judged his distance sufficient, he stopped, removed his trousers, dropped them on the ground with his glasses on top (didn't want them falling off in midair), took a deep breath, gathered his strength, readied his wings,
and shot off across the grass as hard as he could, like an Olympic champion, near naked, bare feet pounding on the turf, calm, confident, assured
five four threetwoone
John shrieked as he plunged headfirst into the horrible blackness of the Chasm, flailed his limbs uselessly, and dropped like a stone.
[John! John! Varx, save him, save him!]
+Ow! I can't! I don't know how!+
Tumbling down end over end wind resistance on wings hurts oh Yoko oh Sean I'm dead I'm dead I'm dead you'll never make money with that guitar they're going to be bigger than Elvis THE BEATLES how do you add up all your money I once had a girl hey man I'm so fat and terrible can't he do his own bloody lyrics love love love Yoko oh God Yoko Apple is rotting I want a divorce primal SCREAM Paul is such an asshole where's Yoko why can't I come back mother Kotex green card Sean oh Sean I wanted to see you grow up
Right, Lennon, stop watching your life and do something before you go splat.
Right. Calmly, professionally, John twisted around in the air until he was falling headfirst again. He scissored his legs together, pointed his toes, pulled his arms to his sides, and hooked his thumbs inside his underpants. A creature of four limbs again, he readied himself, readied, readied.
Wings flung out, angled
He pulled out of the dive, soared on stiffened wings towards the other side of the Chasm. He smiled despite the wind flattening his face, perhaps because of it. A different instinct took over then, and he flapped his wings, uncertainly at first because the muscles were new and the pressure against his wings was tremendous, then with more strength and confidence, until the strokes were smooth and regular, propelling him forward at an even pace. He smiled again for a job well done -
The shock of realization made John break stride and nearly stall, but he was now so aware of his wing muscles and how they worked that he caught himself before he lost altitude, pumped harder, steadied. Flying, I'm flying, flying, flying! Incredible, fantastic, magnificent! Ecstasy surged through him as he knifed through the air, borne on his wings, his wide white wings; he was a jet, an eagle, a god!
The far Chasm wall loomed. Effortlessly, in full command of his new limbs, he angled up, shot out of the canyon. Bird plane superman! The ground dropped away, dwindled, and he was the only one in the universe, rocketing up to join the stars; oh, the space, the freedom! "Eeeyow!" he sang, zooming to his right. He flapped harder, then drew his wings in and dropped, faster, faster, faster, oh what joy!, then at the last possible second, with instinctive ease, pulled out of the dive and soared back up, toes skimming the top of the grass. "Yeehah! Whee!"
He rose, he dove, he danced across the wind, screaming his rapture to the world; and yet his face had tranquility in it as well, for there was no longer any pain in him, no terror, no loneliness, no alienationnothing but indescribable pleasure.
"Thank you, God!" he cried, rocketing straight up. "Thank you for doing this to me! I can fly! I can fly!"