The Keys Stand Alone
The Soft World
D. Aviva Rothschild
June 25th, 1980.
Ten weeks since fantasy.
Ten weeks of reality.
Ten weeks of memories.
... of nightmares.
... of explanations, truth to the people who counted, lies to those who didn't.
of understanding and misunderstanding.
of phone calls.
of new habits, interests, tastes.
... of yearning.
... of family, hugging, kissing, embracing, sex.
of little pleasures and conveniences, television, music, telephones, airplanes, cars, oranges, cake.
of reading, strange books from America, dusty library tomes, mythology, science, comics.
... of meditation, seeking.
of visiting strange people.
... of questions, hopes, fears, anguish, pride, anger, despair, tears.
of what-ifs, wondering, regrets, should'ves, would'ves, could'ves.
... of work, music, movies, interviews.
... of alcohol, drugs, caffeine, nicotine.
of aches and pains, bruises, illnesses, exhaustion.
of limitation, imprisonment, mundanity, smallness, fragility.
of clumsiness, weakness, gravity, silence, grayness.
of resignation, release, acceptance, moving on.
But after that....
Oh, That Magic Feeling...
First there is darkness, still and silent and cool.
Then the sound of birdsong breaks the silence. It seems to come from no place; or, perhaps, every direction at once.
The birds continue to trill, and now you can see one of them, a brown individual with a red-orange breast and a dusty yellow beak. Though it sits on something around which its claws clasp, it is the only thing visible in the darkness.
Now the details begin to fill themselves in. The bird sits on a slender branch between two clumps of aspen-like leaves. The bark is yellow-brown, and small insects busily crawl along it, some chewing at the leaves.
All at once the scene unfolds completely, like a time-lapse photo of a multicolored flower opening, to reveal that the bird and its tree are at the edge of a large, thick, leafy forest under a clear morning sky. To the right of the forest, the trees thin out to become a vast meadow, green-brown with dots of pink and blue flowers and darker green bushes. A flash of color in the meadow catches your attention, and you swiftly focus in on a monarch butterfly, bright orange and black. You dip and rise with it as it flutters around a cluster of bluebells. Then, just as quickly, you pull away from the butterfly to examine a pair of deer, a doe and her spotted fawn, at the edge of the forest. The baby munches at some tender leaves; the mothers head is up and alert, gloriously fringed ears forward, wet black nose sniffing the wind for danger. It looks straight at you but does not react.
Now your attention turns to a new object far away, just visible north of the deer, in the middle of the forest: a tall outcropping of red rock, a mesa rising hundreds of feet above the trees. In a flash, you are there. Your vision sweeps up the side of the mesa to the top, focusing on four sleeping human figures, all male, Caucasian, exceptionally familiar. One, curled in a fetal position, is all but hidden by what seems to be a feathered cloak. A second, lying flat on his back, wears Earth-type clothing. The third, slightly shorter than the others, sleeps sitting up; and the fourth sleeps on his side with his right hand covering his left.
And now they are stirring.
Once upon a time they had been the members of the most famous band in the world. Not for a decade, to be sure. Still, their persistent popularity transcended space and species, as they had abruptly found out ten weeks ago. Back in April, some quite fannish alien beings had unceremoniously plucked them from Earth, dropped them on a planet called C'hou in some other universe (another universe!), and whisked rather hard; and the four fell out of the mix shaken, stirred, and decidedly different.
Just how different could best be seen in John Lennon, as, wide-eyed and silent, he rolled out of his fetal position and got to his feet with startling grace. Had anyone else from Earth been looking on, they would have been shocked by how muscular he'd become, especially in the chest, like a ballet dancer gone in for weightlifting; but first they would have to tear their eyes from his back and the huge feathered wings grown there, white edged with blue and taller than his head when furled. And if they returned their gaze to his chest, they would have seen a teardrop-shaped, deep blue diamond positioned exactly in the center. The way his face changed when he touched it suggested that it was more than decoration. His only clothing was a pair of worn and dirty gray drawstring pants, soft moccasins with hard soles, and a leather pouch on a strap. He wore no glasses but didn't seem to have contacts on, either.
If the others seemed different, it was in far more subtle ways. Like Paul McCartney, lying on his back and staring in shock up at the sky. As he had for the past ten weeks and beyond, he sat up very, very carefully, as if there was something on his stomach that he was afraid of dislodging. Similarly, he got to his feet with the greatest delicacy, every movement slow and deliberate. He looked normal, even a little thin, and his clothing consisted merely of jeans and a plain white t-shirt, all spotless. But if that imaginary observer watched him for a few minutes, they would have noticed that the light breeze ruffled his hair, but not his clothing. In fact, his clothes seemed not to be wrinkled by any movements he made. And he was barefoot and wore no ornamentation of any kind.
By contrast, George Harrison looked and acted entirely normal as he scrambled to his feet, though his clothing was a bit unusual in appearance: a clean sapphire blue shirt and black trousers made of some comfortable-looking silky material, cut very simply. He wore a pair of moccasins like John's. His sole bit of jewelry was a ring on his left ring finger, a green and black malachite band, nice enough but nothing worth a second glanceexcept that George constantly flipped his hand from palm to back, looking at the ring, and rubbed his thumb on it as if to reassure himself it was really there.
Finally there was Ringo Starr, who remained seated on the mesa, looking both shell-shocked and incredibly hopeful. Like George, he was dressed in the plain silky clothing, but monochromatically, all in green, offset by incongruous Earth-normal white sneakers of no obvious brand. His clothes and shoes were fairly grubby. He also wore a nicely tooled leather belt with a small pouch hanging on it. He was the only one of the four with facial hair, a beard and mustache, and his ponytail was bound with a strip of cloth-of-gold. On his fingers he wore a matched set of three platinum and sapphire rings, and he sported one sapphire drop earring. Overall, if he or George had changed radically, it was not evident in anything that an outsider could have seen.
Except if the imaginary observer happened to be thinking about how the four should look in 1980, and not expecting some iconic image of them from 1964, he/she might have suddenly realized that they looked like they had indeed been spirited away from those heady early days of American Beatlemania. He/she would have been wrong, but the mistake would have been quite understandable, given that the four were currently inhabiting younger bodies cloned from their originals. (Though these bodies had not initially been given them with all the little... extras. Those came a bit later.)
The four stood or sat silently, looking around. The top of the mesa was covered in scrub and rocks, though where they'd awakened, the ground was mostly clear. Directly below where they stoodsouth of the mesa, if the sun rose in the east in this placewas a large clearing, perhaps a quarter of a mile in diameter, overgrown and filled with rocks on one side, with a path leading into the forest. Way, way off, they could just see the forest end and a meadow begin. The air was incredibly fresh and clear, the sky almost cloudless, the temperature quite pleasant. There was just enough breeze to ruffle their hair and send the leaves below whispering a bit.
They couldn't stop staring at the scenery, at themselves, at each other. They were afraid to do anything but stare. Since returning home, they had spent many a night dreaming of C'hou, where they'd done thrilling and unbelievable things that they'd had to consciously (and in at least one case, very reluctantly) give up in order to return home. As a result, they'd suffered varying degrees of nighttime misery as they didn't quite get a chance to do things and woke up frustrated, or did things and woke up elated only to become depressed, or failed to do things and woke up screaming. Still, with dreams the only visual reminders of the lives they had briefly exulted in, they were all loathe to do something that might break the tenuous and almost painfully welcome illusion.
Though none of their dreams had been quite this detailed or realistic....
And the Fans had promised they'd try to get the four back into these bodies....
But so soon?
Well, John said at last. Well.
He moved away from the others a little and stood for a few moments, wings slightly open, feeling, listening. Wind on his skin, ruffling his hair and feathers, gusting in his ears. Birdsong. Scrabble of squirrel. Heartbeats, rapid. Breathing. Wings connected just below his shoulder blades, hanging down, a slight but pleasant weight. Feathers tickling the backs of his legs. New muscles in his upper torso, his back, his wings. The hard, warm, affectionate presence of the blue gem in his chest. Water molecules in the air brushing against his skin. A tickle of hunger in his stomach. Absently, almost automatically, he reached for the pouch that he wore slung across his body, took out a few pieces of dried fruit and jerky, and ate them without tasting.
He started to back up then, as the others stayed still, bewitched, watching. When he was sufficiently far from the edge of the mesa, he stopped for another moment or two, swallowing the sudden terror that washed over him. Real? Not real? Dream? Forgotten how? Fall to his death? Wake up screaming?
No more thinking. John sprinted toward the edge, newly powerful leg muscles hurtling him forward faster and more effortlessly than he would have ever though possible several lifetimes ago but which were now so familiar, so right, so his.
Mesa edge, huge diving leap over, freefalling headfirst, arms going to sides, thumbs hooking in trousers, every shred of fear and doubt evaporating at the first beat of his wings, ecstasy flooding through him as he pulled out of the dive, beat harder, arrowed up, shot into the sky that had been and was again his playground.
Haaaaeeeeeeeeeee! he screamed, a noise that send chills down his listeners, watching enthralled, unmoving, still afraid to believe, to dare to accept that they'd really, finally crossed the line from dream to actuality.
But then he swooped over them and flung his hand out, showered them with shining drops of water, washed away all their doubts and truly awoke them at last to the miraculous reality within and without!
At last Paul could open himself fully to the sensations of his own body. Like John, he stood for a timeless instance, savoring the energy that surged and boiled inside him, the intoxicating feeling of perfect health and endless stamina and incredible power. And yet he bore only a fraction of what was available to him! For a moment he considered going to that higher level, connecting to... to... he didn't know what it was, just an enormous, terrifying, heavenly place from which he would draw, oh, many times what he had now, becoming so insanely powerful that he dared not take so much as a step without careful calculation and deliberation; but no. Far too dangerous to the others, far too difficult to control, especially after ten weeks of no practice; and he was plenty happy now anyway.
With care he walked to the edge of the mesa. He looked down at the ground, hundreds of feet away; laughed, crouched, and sprang.
The edge of the mesa shattered under Paul's feet as he soared into the sky, briefly rising level with John and waving at him in joyous excitement before gravity took hold of him and he plummeted into the clearing, landing with a ground-shaking BOOM! in a shower of dirt and pulverized rock, sinking a foot or so into the earth. Completely unhurt and quivering with laughter, he hopped again, more casually, and burst out of the ground, landing about ten feet away, conveniently next to a pile of rocks and rubble. He picked up the nearest chunk, which was about the size of his fist, and crushed it between his palms, letting the pebbles and dust fall to the ground. Then he picked up another chunk, this one larger than his head. Making sure no one overhead was in that direction, he wound up and pitched it over the forest. It was well out of sight and still soaring when he started moving to the edge of the forest, hopping like he was on the moon, his standard mode of travel when he wasn't trying to appear normal.
Paul wrapped his arms around the trunk of a leafy hardwood tree, about fifteen feet high, and heaved. His arms sank into the wood a little, sending bark chips everywhere, and the tree resisted him for just a few moments before it started to come up. He had to back up along the lowering trunk, snapping a few branches off along the way, easing the tree down so the roots underfoot had room to emerge. Finally he stood with the tree fully uprooted in his arms, and he lifted the whole thing over his head and looked up at it and started laughing once again, astounded anew that he was capable of such a feat, that so much power was his to play with.
Unlike the others, George could not sit and bask in the feel of his power right off the bat. His magic sat on his finger, quiet and unobtrusive (unless he cared to take the ring off, which no he didn't, not for anything). It was just as potent as anything the others had, just as wonderful; but it had to be invoked first.
Which he did, crouching just slightly, spreading his arms a bit, and
becoming a peregrine falcon.
After ten weeks, he'd lost a few steps and had to spend a few moments adjusting to his new form, settling into it. So much smaller than he'd been, a fourth the length and many times lighter, compact, streamlined, amazing eyesight, he could see little birds fluttering around the tops of trees miles away. He didn't like standing on the mesa surface; nothing for his claws to dig into. His heart beat rapidly in his feathered breast as he spread his wings to their almost four-foot span and took off into the sky, screaming his head off for joy as he rocketed forward, attaining 55 MPH effortlessly. I'm free! I'm free! I'm free! God, how he'd been missing this!
He drew near John, and they flew together for a few minutes, darting and weaving around one another in an intricate aerial dance, looping and closing, perfectly in control, sharing what only they could share. Then George broke away as he shot upward, climbing until he was almost a mile over the forest top, spread out below him like a giant green carpet. The leaves teemed with life, birds and squirrels and insects. Gliding with elaborate nonchalance, he focused on one particularly plump squirrel almost directly below... and with a shudder of excitement, drew his wings in and went into his stoop.
Down he plunged, accelerating madly, as fast as any Formula One racer, almost mindless with the thrill of it. In seconds he was zeroing in on the squirrel, claws outstretched, but before he touched the creature he pulled out of his stoop and zoomed over the treetops instead. Oh yeah! he screamed mentally as the landscape shot by beneath him. If only he'd thought of this the last time they had the magic! Well, now he would do it any time he felt like it!
But he had other things he wanted to try first.
Ten weeks of despair and futile, hopeless reaching erased themselves in a fraction of a second as Ringo closed his eyes and opened his mind, and the mesa top unfolded around him with such stunning clarity and brilliance of color that the sight almost overwhelmed him, so faint had it grown during its absence. Ah! he cried, and then was silent, motionless except for the tears trickling down his cheeks, face in utter rapture, as he focused on himself, savoring the brilliant green of his clothes, discerning the faintest differences in hue between threads. Even the dirt on his trousers and shirt was exquisitely beautiful. He dove down into the weave, focusing more and more tightly until he saw dust mites walking amid the individual grains of dust clinging to the threads, boulders among a raft of crisscrossed blue logs; continued to focus, dust mites growing to elephant size, mountain size, and far beyond, until he floated within huge, complex patterns of molecules, everything fitting together perfectly, a microcosm of how the universe itself was constructed.
Oh! How had he lived without this for the last two and a half months?
Ringo drifted in the microscopic world, admiring for a while, then flick, returned to the mesa top and admired that for a bit longer. Then he focused on a rock lying near the edge on the opposite side from where he sat. He ran a mental finger over it, full of wonder at how distance just didn't matter to him any more, how this little object hundreds of feet away was as tangible to him as if it was right under his physical hand. He poked it, watched it quiver. Then he scooped it up in his mental hand, concentrating on holding it in the air until his attention faltered a few seconds later and it dropped back to the mesa top. No matter! Plenty of time to get good at it again, plenty of time! He thought the rock up again and threw it over the edge of the mesa, followed it down, mentally somersaulted with it as it tumbled end-over-end, and caught it just inches before it hit the ground, stopping it dead in the air. He burst into delighted laughter, dropping the rock again, as the feeling of infinite freedom suffused him.
How had he lived without this?
Deliriously happy, John soared through the air. The gem on his chest, the Kansael, exulted along with him, pulsing with devotion. Not quite with words, it whispered to him, reminding him what they could do together.
Of course he hadn't forgotten. How could he forget half of himself? Laughing at it, and with it, he let go of his trousers and let his hands trail in the air, accumulating water strings, drawing more from the Kansael itself. When he had enough, he slowed down, wove the strings, and dropped a shining white blanket of frost over the treetops beneath him, like a path following him through the leaves. Satisfied with his handiwork, he pumped his wings harder and soared away, a thick contrail of cloud behind him.
Water, lovely water! Now gliding, keeping his wings almost rigid, he surrounded himself with a field of water, sent shining fountains arcing and twisting through the air, sprinkled the forest with raindrops and snowflakes and small bits of hail. The groundwater below the forest soil called to him, as did a small brook that burbled between the trees. He closed his eyes and extended his water sense, and the world recreated itself around him in a way he could not articulate, with water density substituting for color, and shapes fuzzing around the edges as water molecules evaporated from them, or disappearing completely if they were impermeable to water. It wasn't the safest way to perceive the world while flying, but it fascinated him.
Now he had to land and say hello to the brook. Opening his eyes, he circled around and dropped down to settle on a sturdy branch at the top of a tree right near it. Acting on a suggestion from the Kansael, he coated his hands and the bottoms of his shoes with water and increased its adhesive properties so that he clung to the tree like Spider-Man. Laughing, he scrambled down the trunk, keeping his water field up so he wouldn't hurt his wings on the branches of neighboring trees. Once on the ground, he normalized and reabsorbed the water, then trotted over to the little brook. It was just slightly wider than he was tall, a few feet deep, and of gentle disposition. He promptly fell in lengthwise and let the water wash over him, an incredibly soothing feeling; he felt like he was within a capillary of the world, flowing along with its lifeblood, pulsing with its heartbeat.
But he bubbled with too much excitement to want to be soothed right now, so he stayed submerged only a minute or so longer, then had the brook bear him upright so that he stood on the surface of the water. The lyrical gurgle of the brook still resonated in his head, and he began to build a tune from it, a hybrid of music and splash, sweet, gentle, yet tinged with thrill and wonder. The hybrid song spilled out from him as he reached for the myriad water strings of the brook and began to play them like a harp while humming his liquid melody. In response to his plucking, the water rose and danced around him, splitting and merging in a complicated pattern that perfectly embodied his watersong.
He broke off his song to laugh in delight. This was marvelously new! He'd sung to water before, but he'd never composed with it! He most fervently hoped this wasn't some kind of fluky one-time thing (the Kansael was oddly silent on the issue), and he wondered if different bodies of water would inspire different songs....
Paul was not inclined to damage the tree further, so he worked it back into the ground, which was somewhat harder because the top had a tendency to want to snap off, but he finally managed it, tamping the dirt around the roots and hoping he hadn't done the tree any permanent harm. It would likely bear the imprint of his arms forever, but he thought it would be all right.
Just for the sheer joy of it then, Paul started jumping in place, not too hard, soaring up a mere thirty or forty feet with each kick of his leg muscles, and in the air he started doing somersaults and flips, except he wasn't very good at it and mostly landed on his ass, or his stomach, or his head, but that was fine, no harm done, he was up in a flash and jumping again, plenty of time to practice, to do it again as often as he wanted!
After a while, he left off jumping and turned his attention to the spells he'd learned to cast, not nearly as spectacular as his inherent magic but fun and useful. One spell, an illusion that made him look normal, was already up and running; did he remember how to recast it? He concentrated, becoming aware of the raw magic around him, then pulled a fragment of it into himself and sent it on a quick pinball journey through his body. Ah, yes! In moments the altered magic emerged to be shaped as he required.
He used it to remove his existing illusion and reveal his true self. All the hair on his body, and his teeth and nails, had been transformed into diamond, somehow flexible in the case of his hair. Impressive but inconvenient to go around looking like that, especially since he was too strong to wear clothes without destroying them and had become a perpetual nudist. After admiring himself for a moment, he cast his other spell, a simple light spell that made his sparkly bits glow; useful, if a tad embarrassing. (It had extra utility when he was at high power, but that was for later.)
With his memories of both spells confirmed, he damped the glow and recast his illusion. First, to make sure he could still do it, he recreated his normal color and his previous outfit, which was akin to creating a three-dimensional painting around himself. He'd gotten pretty good at it before, and it wasn't hard to get back into the groove of it. Thereafter he amused himself by starting to jump again, in mid-air giving himself different outfits, a tuxedo with top hat, a policeman's uniform, a Tarzan-type loincloth, a deep-sea diving suit, a clown costume. Then he shifted focus again, and covered himself with empty space, turning invisible. Very handy, that little trick could be!
He hoped very much that wherever they were, he would get a chance to learn some more spells....
Decelerating, George looped around, back to the clearing on the opposite side of the danger zone (Paul), where there were few rocks. He landed gracefully on the ground, where he collected himself for just a moment, then *ping* became a magnificent black Arabian stallion, over sixteen hands high. He shook himself, then reared and whinnied triumphantly, pawing at the air. When he dropped back down, he started to gallop, mane and tail flying. Not much room to run in the clearing, he reached the forest edge much too quickly and circled around, better to be smaller, so when he was halfway back he screeched to a halt and *ping* became a gray squirrel, chittering and flicking his tail back and forth nervously at the strange noises nearby. His nerve broke, and he darted for the nearest tree, made a tremendous leap and clung to the bark with his sharp little nails, then skittered up to perch on a branch. He laughed at himself for letting the beast's instincts get the better of himhe needed to practice, get back into the ring, definitely!then leaped around the tree branches for a few minutes, enjoying his new dexterity and sense of balance.
But George didn't waste too much time on the squirrel, not when there were so many other forms waiting to be assumed! From the branch he *ping* became a dragonfly and darted around snatching midges from the air and eating them with quiet enjoyment; dropped to the earth and *ping* became a mole, dug into the ground with his oversized, powerful clawed hands and tunneled about a foot before breaking through the surface again, poking his pointy nose out, and emerging; *ping* an orange tabby cat, stretching out in the sun and soaking up the heat, kneading the air with his paws, the end of his tail barely twitching; *ping* a giraffe, taller than the nearest trees; *ping* a wolf, smelling traces of himself in all his other forms; *ping* Elvis *ping* Harry Secomb *ping* a statue of himself *ping* *ping* *ping* *ping* switching shapes every few minutes to make up for weeks of enforced immutability.
Pausing momentarily as a lion, comfortable once again in his shifting skin, he was ready for the transformation he'd been holding back, a shape with... idiosyncrasies, but so elegantly powerful that he couldn't resist; and
became a glittering, sinuous gold dragon, over fifty feet long and twenty feet high, eyes like huge rubies, shining scales bigger than shields, huge veiny wings as transparent as wet paper, a bullwhip tail. An intriguing smell wafted from him, a hot, oily, pleasantly saffron odor with a dash of desert incense. George roared, a great musical basso sound, and spat a stream of fire into the air. Then he chuckled benevolently, conscious that tiny little Paul had left off whatever he was doing to stare across the clearing, as well he might, for George was so magnificent, so powerful, so huge....
Oh, but Ringo was larger still....
He mentally pulled back, farther and farther, expanding his field of vision, sweeping in the mesa top, the trees below, the others cavorting, the mesa, the entire forest surrounding it, the meadow, farther and farther, bigger and bigger, until he gazed down upon the whole world hanging in space, forests and mountains, deserts and jungles, tundra and icecaps, continents and oceans and clouds...
and while what he saw now gave him an unexpected jolt, he discounted it for the moment as he made a small, private vow to himself; and then he dropped down from the exosphere to begin the serious (but highly intoxicating) work of investigating their new location....