7

“This is your life!” the Fate cried. Atropos held a tiny bobbin in her hand. She grinned at him and raised her shears high. They glinted in the half-light already streaming in from the predawn sky.

“Look at it! Do you see the colors? Some of Clotho’s pigments scraped off this one, as they sometimes do. Or more likely such a strong thread shook them off by itself! And you doubted yourself a hero.”

Pavlos squinted. The thread was almost invisible. By rights it should be, in order to fit into a tapestry with five billion others. But he was beginning to understand the odd way in which subjectivity operated here.

He squinted, tilting his head from left to right, and did catch an occasional flash of color. He found it hard to pay attention, though. Irrelevant memories interfered with his concentration.

He recalled the prideful ownership of his first knife… the time he was lost in the woods for two days and came home with a wounded fox kit that became his pet for a year…

There was the shame of being caught cheating on a third grade exam… the glory of serving on the honor guard at an all-Europe Boy Scout Jamboree… his first love… his first expedition across the Deccan of India… his third love… his mission for NATO…

Suddenly he recognized what was happening to him. He tore his gaze from the tiny thread, and the flood of memories cut off at once. He threw his head back and laughed richly.

“A hero’s reaction.” Clotho nodded. Even Lachesis looked up at him from her innumerable bobbins and regarded Pavlos for a moment. She gave his laughter a dim, satisfied smile that lasted only an instant. Then the dour expression returned and she went back to work.

“Just remember this, hero,” Atropos said as he subsided to a broad grin. “I hold the shears. You will now pay the price heroes must, by giving us your mind and memory. Do not be tempted by rash thoughts. You already know that you cannot harm us, but if you try, and do any more damage to the tapestry than you did last night, I can snap your thread as quickly as I cut this one… or this one… or this one…”

The shears flashed, and each severed thread gave off a tiny spark as it expired.

“Stop!” Pavlos cried.

Atropos arched her brows.

“Yes, yes, I understand,” Pavlos said, hurriedly. “You don’t have to kill anyone else to demonstrate your power!”

The crone smiled. “They were doomed, anyway. But you will have a form of immortality, living forever in the minds of my sisters.”

A dubious home for all eternity, Pavlos thought. I’d rather spend it in a cesspool.

“What was this about a reward?” he asked. “Don’t I get some sort of prize for cooperating?”

Lachesis grumbled. She bent forward over the loom, muttering to herself. Atropos smiled. Clotho put her arm around her elder sister’s shoulder, then grinned at Pavlos.

“Poor Lachesis. She hates this part. It always makes more work for her.

“Yes, hero. You may choose anything that is in our power to give… providing it does not thwart our purpose, or change your commitment to us, and takes no more than a twentieth part of the day to fulfill.”

“That leaves a lot of choice,” Pavlos said sarcastically.

“Heroes usually ask some favor for one they love, or for the city or country of their birth. We can do all of this for you, hero! Think of your loved ones! It would amuse us to do you, the finest hero we have had in many centuries, the favor of a long and prosperous life for your children. Should your city prosper? Know that the overall suffering around the world shall remain the same, but for some years your homeplace will be joyful!

“Choose your favor, hero! You have won our hearts and will not be denied!” And if Clotho’s ancient, puckered face were capable of affection and generosity, it showed them now.

Pavlos hesitated.

He was being offered a great prize indeed. It was a clever one, as well.

If he chose, for instance, to ask for another Golden Age in Athens, he was certain the city would, indeed, see some return to greatness… to whatever extent it would not interfere with these Norns’ overall plan for this era.

Or he could ask to have his favorite nephew, Theagenis, cured of his emphysema and go on to be the Olympic runner he dreamed of becoming.

But whatever he asked for, someone unknown to Pavlos would suffer to counterbalance the boon he handed out. And there was another disadvantage. Anything they gave him could be readily repealed if he succeeded in killing himself.

In the feathery unreality of his encounter with the Fates, he now found a plan crystallizing with stark and terrible clarity.

The one advantage humanity had, at the moment, was its new technology. It was no accident, he now saw, that so much had been learned by men in the short time since these creatures had last been visited by a hero. The Spark itself was making a countermove, at last.

It was a weak move, at best. Clotho, Atropos, and Lachesis could stave off anything, even a nuclear strike, by merely sensing an intent in the weave and severing the instigators from the tapestry.

Still, they knew less about humanity now than they had in millennia. They were confused geographically and technically. If the trend could continue while they stayed complacently ignorant of what was going on for another century… until another “hero” came…

By then there might be colonies on Mars… or psychics, trained through biofeedback to hide their thoughts. Perhaps those hidden mental powers Moira had mentioned might have a flowering, if given only a few more decades free from knowledgeable interference.

As a hero he knew his model had to be Leonidas at Thermopylae. His job was simply to buy time.

“I know what I want as my boon,” he said at last.

“I want none of the things you mentioned, for even I will admit the aesthetic beauty of this tapestry. I do not love Clotho for her dyes of cruelty and hate, nor Atropos for her untimely knife, but I would regret seeing Lachesis’s lovely patterns wrecked for the sake of a selfish wish. Those I love will care for themselves and each other… fate permitting.”

Atropos and Clotho stared at him. Moira looked puzzled. Lachesis cast him a sidelong glance. For a brief instant he thought he saw a smile flicker before she returned to the weave. Twice for one hero, Pavlos thought. The others will think you’re flirting.

“Then what is your boon?” Clotho asked sharply. “Do not ask for what we cannot give. You know the conditions!”

Pavlos bowed his head.

“I understand. My request will easily fall under them.

“All I want is to sit before this great loom, out in the sunshine, and contemplate the very latest work that you have done.”

“No!” Atropos cried. She hissed at Pavlos and waved the shears dangerously close to his bobbin. “We will not take the loom outside.”

“But why not?” he asked. “You are all strong enough. And it won’t interrupt your work for more than a few minutes.”

Pavlos tried to stay calm, but internally he was shivering. Now he had to stand by it, but that part about taking the loom outside had only been an afterthought, suggested against the vague chance that Frank might see something of sufficient strangeness, from his eyrie in space, to make him think twice about sending a search party after his missing friend. If, by some miracle, the American had heard Pavlos’s earlier rantings, or was picking up this very conversation via the transceiver in Pavlos’s backpack, he just might add two and two and have the wisdom to keep his mouth—his very mind—shut about this plateau for the rest of his life.

Anyway, he had made his request; now he had to stand by it.

“Besides,” he said, “you ladies all look as if you could use some fresh air.”

Moira laughed.

“He’s right, sister. You act as though we were still at war and had to hide from Zeus’s sky tower. How long has it been since you saw some sun?”

Her manner was hearty. Yet Pavlos thought he detected a hidden note of uncertainty in her voice.

“Clotho and I make the decisions here,” Atropos threatened. “We outvote you, young Nemesis, remember?”

With a whoop and a cackling laugh, Lachesis stood up. She seemed so frail and tottering that a small breeze might blow her over, yet she beamed and her eyes danced with deviltry.

Pavlos was only slightly more shocked than the others when the frail old Fury stooped, grunted, and lifted the loom into the air.

Moira shouted with delight and ran to keep the tapestry from tangling as it fed out behind the loom. Pavlos took a position by Lachesis’s side. Not knowing whether she heard him or not, he kept up a running set of instructions to guide her down the steps.

His old scoutmaster would have been proud.

Stunned, Atropos was forced to drop Pavlos’s bobbin and step back. The eldest Norn walked blithely past her and out on to the lawn.

The sun was just rising as Lachesis set the loom to earth. She straightened and dusted her hands. For just an instant Pavlos saw somewhat beyond her apparent form, and was struck by the stark blue power and clarity of her aura, pulsing in momentary visibility around her.

Then, just as suddenly, she was an old crone once more. With a cackling grin, she stood aside and bowed to him. Moira came up, carrying a stool, and set it before the loom.

Pavlos stood still for a minute. His fate was set. In his case it was a path of his own choosing. Heroes were unique in that fashion, he now realized. He would sacrifice himself in a useless delaying action, but not by their whim. Heroes alone pick their own way of ending.

Another thing. No other hero had so upset this household. He was sure of that. Atropos and Clotho would not soon forgive him for what he had done and would do this day.

He felt a great wash of appropriateness as he shrugged off his pack. He upturned the rucksack, spilling the contents on the ground.

With great dignity he stooped and brought up the helm of Theseus. Before sitting on the padded stool he carefully placed it over his head.

“Now,” he commanded. “Please be so kind as to point out Athens for me.” Bustling, crowded, noisy streets… Everywhere the dawn colors, gray and brown, blending with the soot and smoggy haze… babies crying… street vendors calling… a worker wandering home drunk, praying that he won’t be possessed by the evil again and beat his wife and children… And dreams… the dreams of millions of people soon to awaken. Dreams that twist and curl and wave like smoke… like drifting, myriad strands of thread, struggling to cut loose and flyElsewhere, patricians arguing… soldiers dying… fanatics of every stripe, free to choose whatever extreme ideology fit, so long as it matched the fanatical dye… and many good men and women here and there, whose minds would cloud briefly, long enough to make some colored-in mistakeHatreds persistent in spite of reason… love and honor persisting as well… beauty trying, an echo, ineradicable, of hope

The images leapt at Pavlos, filling his brain with more information than he thought he could ever handle. He saw not through people’s eyes, but their hearts; and the cumulation of power coursed through him like a hot flux.

He reached out and caressed the pattern, and somehow he felt the individual threads, their textures, their will to fly.

His hand, unguided, passed over and held one thread, floating above the others. It was not his own, he could tell, but one with whom he felt a kindred current. He ran his fingernail along its side, and was surprised to find that the paint flaked off like a molted skin.

“Enough!” Atropos shook his shoulder. She had joined them at last, wearing a heavy shawl over her head.

“You have been sitting there, talking to yourself, for two sixtieths of the daylight. That’s all we can spare you. Get up, so we can move the loom back inside and begin our questioning!”

Pavlos blinked. Was that all the time it had been? It had felt like forever. So many things he had witnessed… things taking place in the world right now.

The cruelties were unchanged from those he had seen in the racks. They were larger, more subtle, perhaps… more indiscriminate. But the tapestry showed that the old evils were persistent.

Yet something was different. The pattern of the weave, certainly, was opening up, reflecting man’s new mobility.

But hidden in the opening was something else. Something Pavlos could not readily define, but which he was determined to protect.

He sighed. Well, at least he had kept the world free of their meddling for a few minutes. It was a good thought.

And now it was time to go.

Atropos stood nearby, holding what he supposed was his bobbin. Pavlos rose and bowed respectfully to Lachesis. “Thank you. I now know that it is the dye to blame. Your pattern is lovely.

Clotho, veiled like Atropos, snorted. But Lachesis smiled.

“With your permission,” he went on, “I would like to touch the weave one last time.

The eldest nodded even before Atropos could object.

He stepped up to the loom and ran his hand along the surface, right to left.

Five billion threads.

Atropos held her shears up next to his own thread. His hand approached hers.

The color of the threads guided him. One large spool held thread the color of spite, the other that of contempt. He grabbed those, ignoring the other two, and pulled.

The threads stretched as he leapt backward and, for an instant, he felt triumphant as Clotho and Atropos staggered.

But the tension held when he had pulled two meters taut. Try as he might, he could stretch no further.

Atropos regained her balance. Her nimbus became visible, a fiery dirty yellow. She hissed at him.

“You try to tweak our noses? Why, hero? You know you cannot harm the threads without a more powerful weapon than you have. One of your guns might, but you have none. So why do you ask for the mercy of my knife?”

She pondered for a moment.

“That’s it, isn’t it? You want to end your existence before we can question you! Clotho! Go and get your dyes! This one knows something. I shall enjoy tearing it out of him!”

Pavlos felt despair. His plan had failed and, worse, he didn’t doubt Clotho’s power to make him do whatever she wished.

Could he reach his own bobbin and cut it himself?

As if sensing his desperate thoughts, Atropos snorted her contempt and threw his thread down into the jumbled mass along the weave. Never in a century could he find it by himself.

Quickly, he looked about for an alternate plan. He saw the tholos, the small shrine by the great cedar, only a hundred meters away across the grassy meadow. Could he get inside and launch himself into the “other universe”…? It might be possible even to survive, to get help, as well as deny the Fates his mind.

Pavlos’s shoulders slumped. He remembered the size of the granite slab that blocked the doorway. By the time he moved it, if he could budge it at all, Clotho and Atropos could physically capture him.

Clotho approached, two bottles in her hand. An instinct he never knew he had told him the colors were Torment and Submission.

In an instant, he knew at last what a hero was. A hero died of no wound in the back. A hero was a gesture… a defiance. In moments he might be their willing slave, but now he had the Spark, and speech. “Cavernous shades! You dotard remnants of a wrong path taken! Know this! That you have kept the child restrained too long! That you have filled the world with woe too long! And you have taken undue liberties for ages too long without measure!”

The helm of Theseus rang with his extemporaneous words. He felt a return of the thrill he’d had on first seeing it. The power coursed through him, imagined as he knew it to be… imagined as the sense of rightness he could feel streaming to him from the tiny building behind him, under the giant cedar. He held the bobbins of Clotho and Atropos tightly, keeping the tension in their threads, like bowstrings. “This then, you devious crones! Know that your time is short! Your days are numbered! Yes, they are numbered in seconds!”

Atropos had stopped. She and Moira stared at him. Lachesis watched with a sober expression, eyes darting from him to her sisters and back.

But Clotho shifted her weight from foot to foot, apparently unamused and unimpressed. Her boredom was his end, he knew. There would be time for only a few more words.

Ah, good-bye, life. How sweet to die a hero! “Watch then, you degenerate and pathetic creatures of the past, as I, and all humanity, do curse your threads and, in so doing, seal your eventual doom!”

He meant it merely for show. A handwave that might or might not be a potent curse. Superstitious he knew them to be, at some deep level. Otherwise they would not be caught up in all of this allegorical rigmarole. Perhaps he could leave them with an uncertainty… a faint, nagging doubt that might keep them company in their cold evenings.

He plucked a horsehair from his helmet, and held it out. He brought its tip against one of the taut threads and said, “There is an end to all things, ladies. And your time is certainly long overdue.”

No one was more surprised than he when the tip of the horsehair erupted in flame. A slender column of actinic light appeared before Pavlos. It speared down from the sky to land with searing brilliance upon one of the threads.

The smell of ozone filled the air as the bolt of light hunted, wavered, then burned into the slender strand.

Atropos screamed, dropping her shears.

Her nimbus ballooned outward in a violent display of pain. Within it, she whirled and capered and finally spun about to run headlong toward the supposed safety of the temple.

Pavlos suddenly felt a twang, as the fury’s life thread parted! Her aura erupted as she was halfway to her destination, sending an explosion of sparks into the air. When they had fallen to earth, Atropos was gone.

“Zeus!” Clotho bellowed. She dropped her pigments and clawed at the sky.

“You’re dead!” she screamed. “I pulled you down myself! The Sky Tower is no more!”

The column of light hunted, then shifted toward the other thread, Clotho’s.

“A little farther south!” Pavlos cried out in English. “Steady, you fumble-thumbs Yankee! Steady!”

Clotho howled as the pencil of brilliance struck its mark.

“You!” She pointed at Pavlos. “You knew of this! This is what you meant by ‘planes’ and your new science! You men have learned to fly like gods, and throw their lightning!”

The thread began to smoke. Pavlos felt a numbness take over him… a tremendous need to stand perfectly still. “Steady, steady…”

“I’ll fix this!” Clotho cried. She plucked her sister’s shears from the ground. “I’ll kill billions until I get those in your sky tower!”

She ran toward the loom, fire and death in her eyes.

And tripped over Moira’s outstretched foot.

The pillar of light wavered, almost missing its target. The burning went on, but Clotho was apparently made of tougher substance than her sister. She scrabbled on the ground toward him.

“How!” she hissed at him, as her aura began to show ugly discolorations. “How are you doing what the gods could not?”

Pavlos knew how he must look to her. The helm of Theseus might be appropriate for doing heroic deeds, but not for saying what he had to say to her. He removed it, being careful to keep his left hand, holding the bobbin, still.

“That’s a very good question, and you deserve an answer,” he told her.

Deus ex machina,” he said, as blithely as he could. Then he strained against the tension and felt a snapping parting with the past.

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