Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Prologue to The Gods Of The Gift, a novel of science and fantasy

            When he was nine years old, Garuvel Nep Zing discovered that he could disappear.  He was sitting in a white gazebo on the family estate. It was hidden by tall thin evergreens to the rear of the Great House, at the end of a long sloping lawn. Garuvel treasured this spot for its remoteness from the prying eyes of his family and the family’s servants.  Little finches nested in the stately spires, and Garuvel watched them land and disappear twittering inside the moist aromatic branches.  Occasionally he acted as the finchs’ protector against marauding black-feathered zilfs. It was the zilfs’ habit to steal eggs and even chicks from the finch nests. Garuvel felt like the finch: too small to cope with more aggressive predators. Unlike the finches, however, he had no help from his flock, or, in this case, his family.  With the exception of his mother, all his kin seemed bent on pushing him out so that younger brother Verleth could accede to the position of first-born.
            The gazebo was one of several places Garuvel sought refuge when he was having trouble with his family. In this instance he was vexed by a prank pulled by his brother.  Verleth had trapped two cats in one of the estate’s outbuildings and put them into a large sack filled with white flower.  He had thrown the sack into the stall where Garuvel’s horse was calmly chewing its vello sprouts.  The horse kicked the stall’s gate in terror, escaped and went trampling across the Baron’s favorite Holes pad at just the moment when the Baron was making his tee stroke. 
            Not being a tattler, Garuvel refused to shift the blame when the raging Baron brought his two sons into the library to discover the guilty party. Verleth’s eyes gleamed with malice and his mocking smile made Garuvel’s fists curl with rage. Garuvel’s punishment was to be deprived of all books other than his school work for two weeks.  His father knew how to hurt him.  Garuvel fled from the high-gabled library. He was almost crying; his face worked with the effort of holding back his tears.  Not wanting his father or brother to see this, he lowered his head, almost touching his breastbone with his chin. Then he retreated to the gazebo, to nurse his anger and frustration.  His father always said the same things:  “Why aren’t you more like Verleth?  Why was I cursed with such a pathetic first-born”?
             As he recalled his father’s acid words, Garuvel spoke aloud, wistfully.  His imagination was conjuring a fantasy, a daydream. 
            He said, “Sometimes I wish I could just disappear.”  And it did indeed happen:  he disappeared.
            He  didn't know what he had done; a fluke, an accident. Perhaps he had unwittingly summoned an Air Elemental and it was making mischief.  Or possibly he was hallucinating, his mind had snapped under the strain of being Garuvel Nep Zing, hopelessly inept first-born of his Great House. His hands went to his face, and he felt his ears, his nose and mouth.  He looked down at himself and there was nothing to see: no clothes, torso, legs, feet, nothing.  He became dizzy because he felt as if he were floating in space, with no other point of reference. Then, as he became frightened, he felt his heart beating in his rib cage, and the terror was oddly comforting because it let him know that he was  still in his body, still connected to his consciousness.
            He thought, “I can’t be invisible, it’s not possible.” He spoke the words aloud, to ascertain that he still had a voice, and no sooner had this happened than he did, in fact, re-appear.
            He decided to experiment.  Was he crazy or had he stumbled upon some arcane skill?  He repeated the phrase, “I wish I could disappear,” and he was thinking in a visual way about what had just transpired. Again, his body vanished, and he felt an odd sense of being in multiple places simultaneously; there was a barely perceptible sense of one place contracting, and another place expanding.  His attention, however, was riveted to more immediate concerns.  Does he have control of this thing, can he repeat it at will?  He disappeared and reappeared three times.  He knew that it involved a mental trick: He had to imagine that he was invisible, form the image in his mind of his body vanishing, and then say the words aloud, "I am invisible." Conversely, if he wanted to become visible, he had to speak his wish aloud, while visualizing the desired result.
“I am visible.”  If he did not say his desire aloud, if he did not pre-visualize the result, nothing happened.  It took all three things: the thought, the visualization, the spoken words.
            Garuvel felt a quiet flush of victory racing through his blood.  This was power, this was mastery!  When he returned to his suite he stood before the mirror doing it over and over again: think it, visualize it, say it. "I am invisible".  Whoosh! there was nothing in the mirror.  He could see nothing when he looked down at himself; not his pleated white shirt, nor his baggy blue pantaloons, not even the speed-shoes on whose bottoms he had painted symbols to taunt his brother.
            "I am visible", he said, but nothing happened, until he remembered that he must hold in his mind the image, however fleeting, of being once morevisible. There, try it again.  Imagine himself as he was before.  "I am visible>"  Whoosh! He reappeared instantly.  True, there was this vague sense of unease, each time he utilized this marvelous capacity.  Some part of himself contracted, another part expanded, his entire being briefly fragmented and flew across the universe. It was very subliminal, but he was honest with himself:  I do feel this, he thought, and perhaps this gift is not entirely a good thing.
            Nonetheless, Garuvel, being a precocious nine year old, felt suddenly very powerful and needed to take advantage of matters.  He began wandering around the family estate, unseen,  prying into everyone's secret lives. 
            He watched his father, the Baron Hatlath Nep Zing, playing cards
with the other magnates of the Great Houses of Vygor. He learned that his father cheated quite deftly.  All the Magnates cheated, but his father seemed to be the best cheater of the bunch.
            He saw his mother as she watched the Faketron, indulging her passion for soap operas, her lap full of knitting.  Sitting in her big overstuffed chair, with her legs supported on a matching ottoman,  she would ring at intervals for her maidservant, who brought little cups of green liquid.  Garuvel sat invisibly at her side one day, for the entire afternoon.  He noticed that as the Baroness drank more cups of green liquid, her comments to the actors on the Faketron grew more raucous. Some of the things she said embarassed Garuvel, who had always seen his mother as genteel and reserved.  It was a shock to realize that his mother was not as he had thought.  Towards late afternoon, after many hours of soap opera plot twists, she shouted  hoarsely at a female character, “By the tits of the goddesses, will you fuck the man already!?”
            Garuvel left the suite, shaken and confused.
             He was tempted a few times to re-appear in his mother's lap, or to surprise his brother Verleth playing nasty games with the sword-master's daughter.  The more he learned about how people’s private actions failed to correspond to their public personae, the less he entertained these childish fantasies.
            Some instinct cautioned him.  His relationship with his family was difficult, even dangerous. The desire to show off, to assert his specialness was almost overwhelming, but an inner voice said, "Watch out Garuvel.  This secret must remain a secret."  Revealing it, he knew, would make everyone nervous, and would greatly diminish the advantages it gave him.  His father was not above trying some sort of restraint, should he feel threated by Garuvel’s new gift.
            He wondered about the nature of this power.  Was it because he was a first-born from one of the Twelve Great Houses?  Was this some power the first-borns held as a secret their whole lives, something that enabled them to maintain their centuries-old hegemony over the planet?
            When other eldest sons came with their magnate fathers, he observed them carefully.  He invisibly followed Klarvey Nep Waxold  for a day, but saw nothing unusual.  He scanned the faces of Termo Nep Feevey, Gabilon Nep Vorce, and Frexis Nep Komochon, but saw no hint of secret power.  Termo was a freckle-faced lout and Gabilon’s tongue twitched across his lips as he watched the swaying of servant girls' skirts. Frexis drooled from the right side of his mouth and picked boogers from his nose which he flicked indiscriminately off his fingertips.
            None of these eldest sons, however, seemed to have any difficulty with the fact that they were destined to run their family's business and military empires.
            Garuvel, on the other hand, was always the victim of Baron Hatlath's rages.  The subject was always the same.
            "Look!" the Baron said, day in and day out, taking Garuvel's younger brother Verleth by the elbow and standing both of them in front of a mirror.  "Look at the size of Verleth!  Look at his healthy coloring!"  The Baron squeezed Verleth's biceps proudly.  "What an arm!  Why were YOU born first? What's the matter with you, Garuvel?  You don't get enough sun, enough exercise.  You should emulate Verleth."
            Looking in the mirror, Garuvel accepted his pitiful inadequacy. Though a year younger, Verleth towered over him, radiating aggressive competence.  Garuvel regarded his own pale figure;  the short pants and
monogrammed blazer hung from his skinny frame in wrinkles and pouches. He wanted to get away as quickly as possible, to change out of his dinner
uniform and go to Dryad's Grotto to read a volume of poetry by his hero, Harl Plesniak.
            "What's the matter with you?" The Baron, as usual, grew heated.
"Can't you do anything right?  Why did you bother to be born?  If it weren’t for the tests, I would not believe you to have sprung from my loins!  You take too much after your mother; she spoils and coddles you.  What am I supposed to do?"            Garuvel's father wound up the tirade by slapping him on the back of the head with an open fan of playing cards.  The blow was hard enough to cause Garuvel to stumble to his knees.
            Taking this as his dismissal, Garuvel fled his fuming father and simpering younger brother.  He went first to his room, where he got a flash- light and his copy of Harl Plesniak's "Feral Tenderness".   He donned his beret, then put on his comfortable loose clothes.  Filling a pack with vitta cakes and glorp juice, he ran his finger quickly over the rest of his shelf of favorite books.  The book shelf had been fitted with a lock by his father, but it wasn’t a very good lock, and cracking it was simple.  Today he would read"Starwinds", by Latif el Rashid.  Mystical cosmology.  Food for Garuvel's hungry soul.
            He opened his door a crack and checked for signs of Verleth, the Baron, the sword-master, the sword-master's son, or any others in his legion of persecutors.
            "Wait a minute," he wondered.  "Why am I doing this?  If I can disappear, I don't need to hide from anyone."  Then another thought occurred to him.  "Maybe I can do more than just disappear."
            He was angry with himself for not having this thought sooner, for overlooking something so obvious.  He realized that it was the power’s frightfulness that had deterred him.  The sense of contraction, expansion, of swooping across light years….the ramifications, if it were true, that he could do more than merely appear and disappear.
            Sooner or later, he admitted, he would have to know.  Otherwise he would spend his days cowering, as if some huge toothy animal lived in one of his armoires.
            He applied the same mental trick to a different problem. He visualized himself sitting in Dryad's Grotto with his snacks and his books.  "I'm in the grotto, feeling safe, a favorite book before my face," he said.  
            He found  himself sitting on his favorite cushion, with a book in his hand and a cup of juice atop a flat rock.  He was soothed by the sound of droplets falling musically from the cave ceiling into Celestine's Pool.  There had been a faint whooshing sound followed by a loud bang as the transition became reality, as his sudden appearance displaced air molecules and particles of dust. 
            Yet, again, he had that odd sensation of being several places at once;  contraction,expansion, vast reaches of empty space.  Since these sensations had no tangible consequences he put them aside.  For the first time in his life, he had real power!  Now it was a question of whether he ruled the power, or the power ruled him.  He was too young to anticipate that this question would become the dominant theme of his life.
            He experimented.  He traveled short distances instantaneously, then longer distances.  He probed the limits of this power.  Suppose he could make a tree or a rock appear somewhere it had never before existed?  Late one night, he climbed out his bedroom window and used the vines and the roof gables to let himself to the ground.  He walked to a remote corner of the estate, to a place where there was a little circular glade, enclosed by drooping Wairaba trees.  He concentrated, then spoke, “A great Wairaba tree, with branches too many to see!”
            There were some fairly loud pops and smaller explosions as molecules gave way to matter more dense.  In the pallor of the moonlight, Garuvel saw his tree, there it was, utterly real, at the center of the glade where nothing before had existed besides grass and elderlion weeds. He touched it, he tested the tensile strength of its branches, heard the spatulate leaves rustle as he let the limbs snap back.  Again, the experience was followed by unease, by expanding, contracting vast reaches of space.  This time the unease was more intense, the sense of disturbance more tangible.  It seemed that the bigger the “change”, the bigger was the accompanying effect.  Garuvel began to consider putting this power away;  it might be something far too potent for a child, it was not a toy!  But then, he barely considered himself a child. He had suffered so much, it had etched his soul with unsought gravitas, matured him beyond his years.  All the same, he resolved to stop playing games.  He would wait and see if some means of discovery presented itself. Where had this thing come from?  Why had it come to him?  What was it for?
            Garuvel needed to consider himself something more than a child. It was an illusion, a conceit, but it had great survival value.  It bolstered his fragile self esteem.
            One night at dinner, Garuvel wolfed down his favorite dessert, a bowl of Mobo fruit, from the garden planet, Eltubi.  He ordered a servant to fetch him another bowl, but his mother intervened.
            "Don't be so greedy, child, where are your manners?  You have gobbled those fruits like a sow grubbing up fallen plums!"
            Garuvel had been visualizing the Mobo fruit, hanging fat and plump on the vine, in a sunny endless orchard. His appetite for the fruit was so great that he found it unbearable to have it thwarted.  In a flash of rage, and without
thinking, he said, "I will have all the Mobo fruit I want, if I have to go to Eltubi to get it!"
            He was whisked to the heart of that world's famous orchards. He had a moment of terror; he was light years away!  He had never before left Vygor!  He had to get home!  He was in a panic, not thinking
clearly, not working things through. His mind whirled, things contracted, expanded, whooshed here and there.  In his panic he returned to the dinner
table clutching an armful of fruit, his blazer stained purple from
the juice.
            When he saw the faces of his family, and those of the fourteen servants present in the dining room, he knew that he had made a terrible mistake.  He had revealed his carefully guarded secret.  Nor did he comprehend the immediate danger as his father's bodyguards, Gorlo and Wirt, converged upon his place at the table.  Too late, he opened his mouth but he couldn’t summon a coherent vision,
a fully formed desire.  He was too busy being angry with himself for making
such a silly error!
            A cloth was clamped over his face.  Its smell made his eyes water and his nostrils burn.  He tried not to breathe it in, but Gorlo trussed him up roughly, and his breath only came more quickly as he panted with fear.  He felt himself being dragged away, and as his consciousness faded, he heard a single dreaded word, a word that on Vygor stood for demonic sorcery:  T'vorsh.
            "No, no!" he wanted to cry, "I am not  T'vorsh.  You have it all wrong!  I'm only nine years old.  I don't shape-shift and conjure and consort with disgusting things in bottles. I made a mistake, I didn’t realize what I was doing!"
            It was too late.  His tongue was stilled.  The last thing he saw before he was taken away was a shared glimpse of muted triumph on the faces of his father and his brother Verleth.
            He was given to the Mentechs.  They took him to the sinister Hejastra Hospital, a place redolent of screams in the night and sharp, whizzing machines.
            He was placed on a ward with other real or suspected T'vorshi, sorcerors who specialized in verbal spells and recitations, summoning and combining the four classes of Elementals into material substance.  There were many T’vorshi among wealthy families, so the pursuit of sorcery was deemed a mental illness rather than a crime.  Still, they were locked away and treated harshly.
            Garuvel’s tongue was numbed, his thumbs and forefingers banded together to prevent him from signing or conjuring.  He was drugged to keep him from performing mental mischief.
            Eight years passed and Garuvel lacked the attention span to know his own suffering.  His mind was featureless, his muscles waxy and thin. He might have died in that lonely place, were it not for a medical oversight.
            In his seventeenth year, his hormones began to do their inevitable work. In a period of five months he grew four inches and gained fifty pounds.
            No one seemed to notice.  Garuvel had lain dormant for so long that his treatment was automatic.  The drugs that had kept his mind vague and his tongue stilled began to lose their effectiveness.  One day in his cell, Garuvel stubbed his toe and cried out in pain.  It was the first sound to emerge from his mouth since the fateful dinner with his family.  As the weeks passed, his mindcleared.  He began to practice speaking into his pillow, late at night.  He made pencils and pins appear and disappear, to see if he still had the “power”. It was still there. 
            He remembered what had happened.  As his mind returned, he realized that his life had been stolen, that he had lain in a cell for eight years, being fed through a tube, being changed and turned by surly attendants who had no care for the bruises they inflicted upon him.  Why was he being kept here at all?  Why didn’t they just do away with him?  He must be a pawn, he speculated. If Verleth got out of hand in some way, the Baron could revive his first born and use him as a lever.
            Rage burned in his heart like a physical pain.  He examined himself late at night, and saw how wasted he had become.  He resolved to take his revenge upon his family, the Mentechs, upon the entire planet Vygor.  The ground would tremble, the seas rise up.  Mountains would belch flame and poisonous gases.  He would watch from high in the air, laughing, then transport himself to the orchards of Eltubi.
            Garuvel stood looking out the mesh window of his cell, at the angled rooftops of the hospital.  The sickly blue lights of the security lamps showed him a ghostly landscape. Fences of electric razor wire enclosed the hospital and seemed to keep at bay the gloom of the endless forests beyond. Those forests were home to jank-wolves, bears, hyanx, giant boar.  The world Vygor was not worth saving.  He visualized his vengeance.  Carefully, he constructed a sequence of words and visualizations that would put him out of harm’s way
as the planet exploded.  As he opened his mouth to speak, a dizziness overcame him.  He struggled to stand, but as the breath left his lungs, his knees gave out, and he fell to the floor, faint and nauseous.

            The walls of his cell began to shimmer and fade; he saw a great pulsing light and heard a sound as of distant horns rolling in across a vast ocean.
            'I'm dying,' he thought.  'It's just as well, for I must be an evil creature after all."
            Through the light he saw an entity.  It was tall, winged , glowing with a nacreous shimmer.  Half bird, half man, the being was ten feet tall.  There were fingers at the ends of bone-like pin feathers next to its body.  The wings vibrated with energy, they seemed to be holding and confining the power
of flight, so that it could stand and look directly into Garuvel’s eyes. It spoke to him, but the words emerged all at once, not singly as in normal speech.  It spread its wings wide, and Garuvel saw six other figures standing
within the embrace of the great feathers.  Each was of a different species, from a different world.  And one of them was himself, Garuvel Nep Zing, as he might be when he came to full manhood.
            Then the words spoken by the entity began to fall into place in Garuvel's mind.  It had said, "We know who you are; it is time for you to know who you are."
            Then Garuvel seemed to die, but his death lasted only a second.  Then he was alive again, as someone else, in another life.  He lived that life, then died, and was again reborn.  His journey through a multitude of lives accelerated: birth, life, death, birth, life, death, until it seemed as if he were inside a revolving drum with pictures on its curved surfaces. He lived  every kind of life, on every type of planet, in galaxies that had long since been pulled apart by greater galaxies or swallowed in black holes.
            The wheel began to slow.  Time relaxed and distended and tightened again.  He saw the winged being with its six companions including himself.  It uttered another of those multi-word sounds.
            Garuvel found himself lying on the hard floor of his cell.  The sound he had just heard rang like a bell in his mind.  As before, its syntax soon asserted itself, and it became comprehensible.
            "You are one of the Seven.  You are a bearer of the Realgift.  Any time you use the Gift, we will hear you.  Any time one of us uses the Gift, you will hear us.  You must know, however, that when you alter reality, there are unforeseeable consequences.  You cannot travel through space, or grow a tree, or change your body, without there being a corresponding change elsewhere in the universe.  The Great Balance must be maintained.  The universe is vast.  The spaces between worlds are all but unimaginable.  A trillion times you could utilize your gift, and all that will happen is that some cloud of hydrogen many light years away will grow, or shrink, or perhaps you will simply ignite a mote of space dust.  We have no control of the Great Balance.  Among our kind, some have needed to travel to many  worlds to undo the damage done by the simplest alteration.  You must always use the Realgift with caution and wisdom.  You might explode a star, destroy a thousand worlds. You do not know what might occur, or where it might occur, but as you make your change, you will immediately have a sense of that which has balanced, close at hand, far away, it is impossible to know.”
            The beings began to fade away, growing smaller as if being reeled backwards into a vast distance. 
            “Farewell for now,” the Winged One said. “We will always be with you.”
            It seemed as though tens of billions of years had passed.  At last Garuvel understood something about his strange faculty:  that he could Realize anything he could imagine.  As he contemplated it, he was gripped with pure terror.  Instead of being elated and bouyed up with feelings of power,  he could only think about how very complex things were, and how he sat there within the garden of his desires, knowing that with the slightest mistake, the garden could turn into a swamp of carnivorous weeds that would grow and grow,
eating up the entire universe.
            He lay there until he regained some composure.
            He must get out of the hospital.  He thought about what the Great Being had said.  Now he understood the sensations that had followed upon each use of the Gift.  He must not use it!  Not at all!  If there was but a chance in a trillion of endangering lives, then he could not take it.  He thought about the immensity of the universe.  How much sheer nothingness surrounded each tiny world, each burning star.  His choice was suddenly stark.  Stay here and die. Chance the Gift, and live.  The hospital, being a prison for magicians, was
replete with all kinds of detectors.  He tried to imagine an escape WITHOUT resorting to the RealGift.  He was stumped. 
             How could he work his way out using the absolute mininum of power? He went back to his very first discovery:  disappearance.  He could become invisible.  He could follow one of his warders out of the hospital, find a means of transport, and get off his home world of Vygor.
            He thought very carefully before beginning.  He did not sleep that night.
            In the morning he began his escape.  As he made himself vanish, he could feel the Council, inside his mind, sharing each action of the Gift.  They were mentors but not judges. They were with him.
            He paid one last visit to the Great House of Nep Zing.  His mother’s face had wrinkled. His father’s hair had gone grey.  The servants winced with fear every time Verleth strode through a room. 
            Garuvel went to Dryad’s Grotto, where he had secreted money and a few books.  As a child he was always planning to leave his home.  He had accumulated six hundred golden zirks, a nice little sum on any world.
He took two books:  “Starwinds”, by Latif el Rashid, and “Feral Tenderness” by Harl Plesniak.
            At the end of one Vygorian year, he was on the planet Eltubi, walking down a road that passed through miles of Mobo fields. He was dressed in a leather jerkin and trousers. There was a pouch strapped across his chest, and a fine light sword sheathed at his side.  His seventeen year old body was strong and healthy. He had experienced the Great  Wheel of Life.  He now had a strange gravitas for one so young, and a charisma which he wore lightly and without self consciousness. 
            He knew he had a lot of work to do.


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