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The Glad who Sang a Mermaid in from the Probability Sea

Sand between my toes and the songs of the seas in my ears. Two songs, two seas. The water sea belongs to me because it lives and dies with me, with its perfect blue (I made it perfect) sheening to the horizon and the pure white froth of its mighty yet playful breakers. The probability sea belongs to me as it belongs to all, and owns all, having birthed all.

More song. Laughter-song. A mother. Her weans. The grave laughter-song of love.

And the smell of seaweed in my nostrils, sparking a joyous hunger. I throw back my head and see that the sun fills its decreed place in the sky, and I roar my delight in my creation as I turn, stretching my arms wide to embrace.

Oh, lady.

Oh, weans.


Once there was a ship that sailed the seas of The World. The ship was real – some friends once saw it sail – but now it has become in the Ironfolk mind like a myth, for all they know is that it had a name, and that it played an important part in ... something or other. That's what's been lost to them: what it was it did; why it was important. But its name is still remembered: the rusty little ferry was called the Ten Per Cent Extra Free.

The Ironfolk revere names, though often they get them wrong.

I slaved aboard a different vessel called the Ten Per Cent Extra Free, a vessel that sailed the probability sea. I was one of a hundred hundred slaves on a ship of crafted metal whose sleek lines and curved shine and unthinkable size – it was a month's walk from one end to the other – made a joke of its name. The joke, had the Ironfolk but realized it, was not on the dented ferry – of which they recalled so little – but on the great cargo vessel, for its presumption: it was one of many, and thereby unimportant; the ferry was one of one.

I slaved, and like the other slaves I sometimes schemed for the overthrow of the Ironfolk, secure in the knowledge that our plans – however intricate and perfect – would never fruit; our plotting was an irresponsible sport, hardly more. We moved from system to system, picking up extra Finefolk slaves to replace those who died of pining or of beating. But, more important, we embarked Ironfolk families by the hundred; rich families and soft families, usually, but often with the look of defeat in their eyes. We were not allowed to go too close to them, for fear that we might steal their weans – as if we would wish to (although sometimes the weans fled to us, recognizing that the same light shone in us as shone in them). The families were leaving their homes and the crowding of the Galaxy, leaving to be taken to new and echoing worlds across the great ocean. The Spiral of Andromeda was beckoning them, flaunting its faded starry finery at them, promising – false-promising – that all was fresh and virginal there.

The Ironfolk have a liking for virginity, believing it to be the natural order of things. This is one of the tapestry of beliefs that has always shielded their eyes from the reality of the universe. Virgin purity is something that must be created; reality is rough and promiscuous and noisy, with whisky on her breath. Andromeda herself was not like that, mind you: she was flashy and could be strident, but her mother had invented her as pure, and she remained that way all her days, shining as brightly as the stars of the spiral which bears her name. The most exquisite of her many sensualities was the dirt under her fingernails.

The Spiral of Andromeda is absent from my sky. I have no wish always to see reminders of my time of slavery.


Qinefer, my flass, is telling the weans a story. They are draped, one to either side, across her thighs as she sits cross-legged on the sand; their eyes are upturned shiningly towards hers, which are brown and deep like peaty, slow-moving river water. Tickles and hair-tugs punctuate the tale.

"So Brightjacket speaks again to the gathering," she says, for she is well past the once-upon-a-times in her telling, "and this time he punches his chest like so and he draws himself up to his finest height, and he says, 'The Ironfolk will see us dead, or will bend us to their chores. Have they not already banished the songs out of the streams? Is not even the cool voice of moonlight stilled, so that she and the wind can no longer sing their wistfulness together in the pine-branches? Have they not cast their nets of crafted metal across all the land, caging us? Yes!' – and here he strikes his chest again, only harder (harder than I would strike yours, my little glad) – 'All of this destroying they have done in their lack of grace, and there is no one who can tell when they will cease to do so. We have watched them in silence, if we have dared not to flee.'"

It's an old story, of course, one that dates right back to the times on Earth before it melded with The World. I grin and listen in on it, pretending that she won't know I'm doing so.

"'The Ironfolk's railways,' says Brightjacket, 'are like the spores of a dandelion clock, drifting everywhere, coming down anywhere, stiffening the land's music – our music – with the crafted metal of which they are shaped. When was the last time the Finefolk could dance in the Vale of White Horse? Or in a ring around the Cairngorms? Or among the tors – the tors our folk built – of Dartmoor? Twenty years? Fifty?'

"And the eldern among them nod, as so do the fly weans – even those who can ill recall ten years past, leave alone fifty. For metal that is shaped is graver to our kind than viper's bite or scorpion's sting – which are, my bonny young flass, more painful far than even your mother's skelp."

The two of them laugh together, the mother and her daughter. In this moment the two of them are of a single age. Which is as it should be. For all her words, Qinefer has felt neither snake's nor scorpion's wrath; the creatures of my world are peaceful with us, obeying the notes I instructed the inshore breeze to pluck on the sea-reeds. But I gave her my memories when first she swam ashore from the probability sea, which is why she knows of bites and stings. And why she knows the story of Brightjacket, and of how he led our kind to the Freedom. Though some memories I kept from her.

"'You nod in the simulation of wisdom!' cries Brightjacket angrily, and all hush at the anger in his voice. 'Wooden puppets can nod like that, when their strings are tweaked!' he says. 'But wisdom is more than knowing, or its pretence: wisdom is also doing, when the doing is wise!'

"None of them there like this overmuch. The eldern can recollect the times before the Ironfolk came, and all the Earth was a room for play. Even after, once the shaping of metal had begun, there were places in plenty where people could escape its bindings. Such places, indeed, there yet were; but they were shrinking, like rainpools in the hot sunlight. Always there still seemed to be enough, even if this year's enough had to be a bit less than the last year's. Even here where they've forgathered, deep in a cavern that some forgotten hand once carved out beneath Snowdon, it's as if they can hear the dead noise of the chains wafting close to them. What Brightjacket was doing, my wind-haired ones, was looking ahead, seeing a time when the rainpools would be all gone, as the interstices in the net of the railways were filled in by the roads where crafted-metal creations likewise roared. The seas were not immune to these monsters, and neither the skies overhead – although not even Brightjacket foresaw how the scattered metal birds would one day flock. Our folk have never been too good at looking forward, you see: that's another thing the assembly doesn't like – being reminded of the future.

"'All the time it's getting worse,' he says into the silence of their resentment. 'Soon there will be no room for us even to pipe simple Changing-spells on a fipple-flute, or to sing the song that brings Sirius's winter rising.'

"'But what can we do?' says an eldern dismissively – or maybe it was several eldern, or all of them together, their beards making a sound like cuckoo-spit shaking loose. 'We cannot fight the Ironfolk, not without weapons of crafted metal we can't; and they alone of all the Earth's creatures have ears that are deaf to our music. I have myself hurled a Chord-of-dying straight into the face of one, and he heard not a gnat's whine!'

"'You're right,' says Brightjacket forthrightly. 'We cannot fight them. The time when we could have done that is a million years gone. And we cannot stay, and let ourselves be destroyed. So surely you must see there is only one course open to us?'

"All is silence again. They know what he is talking about – naturally they do, for our folk have never been without wits, although often stupid, and blinkered, and loath to change their doings. But knowing a thing and admitting you know it are two quite different matters."

"Like you not knowing that Daddy's been listening to you the past few minutes?" says Larksease. She looks at me, then cringes back into the crook of her mother's arm as I glower my most impressively.

"That's not quite the same," says Qinefer, a laugh briefly splitting her voice into separate strands, "but it's near enough. Now, pay attention to me, you impudent minx – and you, too, my twitch-nosed buffo – and let your father do as he wills. Otherwise you'll never know what happened to Brightjacket."

They pay dutiful attention, even though they've heard a thousand times what happened to Brightjacket.

"'We cannot fight, and we cannot survive if we but bide,' he says at last, his chin in his palm as if he were thinking all this afresh. 'So what is there that is left for us to do? Why – we must surely flee!'

"This makes a growl rise above the heads of young and old alike, as if Snowdon had heard Brightjacket's words and was registering gruff disapproval. If you've never heard an angry mountain speak its anger, then you don't know what anger sounds like." Two pairs of wide eyes on hers. "For a while it looks as if they may join their voices in a song that would rend Brightjacket one limb from the other, but he holds out his palms to them, and at last the moment is past.

"Another eldern pushes his way to the fore. 'Our people do not flee!' he bellows. 'We have always faced down peril. We are not cowards, are we?'

"And there's a huge bay of agreeing to this, of course. Fine words are always good to cheer to; they've killed more armies than weapons have. Not one of the folk gathered there wants to stand up and say, 'Yes, I'm a coward. I admit it, and I want to save my furry skin.' Not one of them except Brightjacket, but he doesn't put it quite that way.

"'It is our duty,' he says gravely, 'to do all that we can to preserve our kind. To stay here is to accept not just our own deaths but also those of our weans; and from their weans we would be taking away the chance of their first opening of their eyes. Can any among you here say that we have the right to throw away those lives?'

"Once again there's a hubbub. Some folk say he's right; others say he's just weaving spoken-words, making a Deceiving-chord too subtle for any of them to recognize as such. But the end of it all – and the end is a long time in coming, I assure you – is that more than three-fourths of the folk in the cavern say that Brightjacket's right, and that only flight can save the Finefolk. But where can they flee to? Even the ocean's deeps are being plumbed by the Ironfolk and their tools of crafted metal.

"'To the stars,' says Brightjacket in response to their question, and he begins to laugh a little-boy laugh. 'To the stars – that's a place where we gallant lads and fair lasses can hide from the Ironfolk.'

"I told you that our folk are not fine at looking to the future, so no one thinks to say there are only so many stars in the skies, and that sooner or later the Ironfolk will take themselves and their machines to those places, too. If anyone thinks of that, they believe it to be so many millions of years away it hardly matters. Even Brightjacket – who keeps quiet on the subject, as he would – believes that at least thousands of years must go by before the Ironfolk learn the simplest music, let alone the complicated harmonies that must be meshed to open the pathways across the greater seas to the stars. And he's right, of course – the Ironfolk have still never learned to play the living music, and I doubt very much if they even know it exists. What he doesn't reckon on – none of them do – is that the crafted-metal machines might become strong enough to batter their way across the interstellar oceans; and then, later, discover a way of skipping across the crests of the probability waves."


When I gave Qinefer my memories, there were a few I held back, not wishing that she should live a life of fear. By the time the Ironfolk had discovered how to skip the waves, they'd also encountered enough of our worlds to have found out about the living music. I doubt if any of them will ever learn to play it, still less to sing it; yet they are aware enough of its existence to know that they should fear it, and to take precautions against letting any of our kind give voice. They know, too, that it is their crafted metal that stiffens the living music in us; that is why, when they come to each new world, they swiftly ring it with their steel-and-aluminum space-sailing vessels, so preventing as many as possible of us from opening up the oceanic pathways and escaping. The rest of us can soon be caught and enslaved; all the Ironfolk need to do is capture one of us alive, and threaten to cut out his or her vocal cords with a steel knife ... The rest submit themselves, rather than hear that happen.

My world was taken that way. I remember it as if it were only a century or two ago. Qinefer's recital of a bugaboo tale for the weans, even though I know it better than she does, has picked the scabs off memories. Ours was a well populated world, with upwards of a hundred thousand of us – almost as many as had once dwelt on Earth. Perhaps fifty score escaped; another fifty score died in futile fighting; the rest of us were loaded into colony vessels much like the Ten Per Cent Extra Free, so that we could slave for their owners and in due course their passengers. In the last, of course, we were intended to be still slaving for them on the worlds in the Spiral of Andromeda.

The inside of the Ten Per Cent Extra Free was a horrible place of silence. Oh, there were spoken-words of course, both Ironfolk and Finefolk, but the metal walls shut us off even from the faint music of starlight. There were birds aboard, but they were kept frozen in the hold; I do not know if this was to spite us, or just if the Ironfolk were not only deaf to birds' singing but also blind to the colors of their feathers and the thought-focusing hardness of their eyes. Not even the soft susurration of insects was permitted: they were killed on sight, or poisoned in their nests.

We plotted. We dreamed strange, music-less dreams. Some of us cursed Brightjacket, wherever he might now be, for having led our folk out into the archipelagos of the probability sea; others, wiser, knew that he had at least postponed our fate until now, which was something we should be thanking him for. There was much foolish talk of sundering the walls of the vessel, so that air and water and bodies and all would be flushed out into the ocean voids. It seemed like a pointless aim for rebellion, whatever its appeal – that kind of death, bathed in the chants of starlight, must surely be better than the life we were leading, but we had no wish to die. Besides, there were weans and other innocents among the Ironfolk families who had been brought on board; did we want their metal blood on our hands?

But, if we could have found a way of leaving, we'd have taken it. Or if we'd known how to wrest control of the Ten Per Cent Extra Free from its officers, then we'd have done that, too.

Scheming is as good as a log fire for keeping the body warm; that's really why we plotted such a lot.

I had a secret which I talked about to none, not even the flass who then shared my bunk and my hopes – and whose name I have written out of my memories. She would never consciously have let the knowledge of my secret color her thoughts, but others might have detected it nevertheless; and then I might have been surrounded by hotheads, demanding that I lead them in a doomed revolt against our oppressors.

Buried in my meager baggage was a tiny five-stringed harp. It had been crafted worlds away from where I had settled myself to live; its wood was of a mustard yellow unlike any I had elsewhere seen (although there are copses of it here on this world of mine). My mother had given it to me at one of the times I had wedded a flass, and had lied to me, as mothers do, that it was once her own grandmother's, even though it was patently new-made. The strings on it were not to my liking – the first thing that I did after my wedding was replace them with good twisted fishgut – but the frame was well enough constructed to sound a fine note. The whole instrument was barely bigger than my flattened pair of hands, and it could sustain only the simplest of melodies – certainly nothing of the complexity of even a Changing-spell – yet it made a pretty noise, a merry tinkle, like the sound early-morning mist makes on glass, which you can hear only if you listen carefully enough.

Why the Ironfolk guards should have let me keep it, I have no idea. They had searched through the few belongings they'd allowed us to bring with us – not once but twice or three times, hurling anything that looked in the slightest like it could make music into one of their cruel shredding machines. (The tale was told that sometimes, for the sport of hearing screams, they did this also to Finefolk weans, but this I never saw myself, and I believe it to have been only a story.) Perhaps they had never seen a harp so small, so that when they came across it in their rootling they thought it was something else. Maybe the Ironfolk have objects of quite different purpose that look like that. I have no knowledge. Whatever the truth was, I was not going to give them the instrument if they were too stupid to see it when it was in front of their eyes.

Not, I repeat, that it was in itself much good for anything. Even had it been a full clarsach – the most alive of all instruments – it would have been unable to play any living music in that vessel, surrounded as it was by crafted metal. It was a toy, and had never been anything more; here on the Ten Per Cent Extra Free it was just a way of reminding myself of the music I had once played, when I had been free to walk on worlds. There is a pleasure to be found in painful nostalgia; sometimes, when all slept but me, I plinked a lifeless note or two and tormented myself ecstatically. So softly did I pluck its fishgut strings that even the flass slenderly snoring beside me was unwakened.

But once an Ironfolk warder heard.

I have no inkling of why I didn't know that he was coming. Normally we Finefolk could tell where they were even as far as a league away, with their iron-nailed boots clanging echoes out of the loathed steel walkways. Or the guards would come to an aluminum door which would slide back from them into its aluminum niche, the scrape of the two aluminums together sounding out an alarm that struck across voices and, as it was this time, snores. (Some Ironfolk snore hardly at all, which is very strange. But, to make up for that, those that snore loudest make a deafening din.) Perhaps I was thinking too much of the fact that we were nearing the time when the Ten Per Cent Extra Free would throw herself clear of the Galaxy and set out across the gulf to the Spiral of Andromeda; that would be the moment when all of us knew that our last farewells had truly been said to our homeworlds. Perhaps I was too engaged in my delightful misery to hear what my ears were trying to tell me. Or perhaps I was, secretly, eager to be discovered – as if the part of me that did not enjoy the pain wanted an end of it, and of the little instrument that conjured it.

The door to our cabin – mine and my flass's – was not of the sort that slid away like a horse's pizzle, but it was of painted aluminum all right, and its crash against the painted aluminum wall as he threw it open returned me from wherever my sadness had blown me. I saw his eyes – his sightless Ironfolk eyes – bulge like a frog's when he saw what I was doing. In a second there was a heavy metal weapon in his hand – one of the spitting-weapons, that could be built light but are instead built heavy by the Ironfolk, to enhance their bullying demeanor. I sat on my bunk, half-raised, staring over my slumbering flass not so much at the intruder but at the serpent-eye black of his weapon's nozzle. I could hear his muscles tense as he prepared to make me die (although I kindly know he knew it not) with its dart, and I prepared myself for that; I would not have brought death willingly upon me, of course, but my sorrow was great enough that I had little regret about dying.

Which would have happened, except that the scream of metal against metal had woken my flass. Just as the guard's finger stressed she raised herself up on her elbows, taking the dart in the center of her forehead. At once the tiny metal point spread its evil cacophony all through her, and her body flailed its revulsion; the pain was overly great for her to scream before she died, or even to try to sing the notes of the Dying-song.

I think the guard was too terrified to shoot at me after that; I know he had not had the intention of bringing about a dying. The lives of we slaves had not been expensive up until now, but the Ten Per Cent Extra Free was close to the time of leaving the Galaxy, so hereafter our numbers could not be simply replenished by a raid or a trade. The Ironfolk forget that even their "harmless" trinket darts, loaded with synthetic stuffs that render Ironfolk themselves sleepy but not damaged, being tipped with metal are death to us. They also forget that they are all, sometimes, guilty of forgetting; the guard was likely to be punished for doing something that his punishers did as often as he. He had not a wish to add a further dying to the tally.

He gestured with his spitting-weapon at me, and I made my eyes flare as if in fear of it. I curbed the grief I felt for my flass, although I vowed that one day in the Spiral of Andromeda I would find a place far from the crafted metal so that I could sing for her her Dying-song in all its entirety. I picked myself off my bunk and moved away from her, as he had indicated. Another jerk of the weapon, and I threw my pitifully small harp towards him across the metal floor.

He crunched it underfoot, adding a second murder to his first; I heard its tiny scream as what little of the living music it had managed to hold fled from it.

Then we were walking along empty gray corridors, him at my back with his spitting-weapon still raised, as if there were somewhere that I could escape to. The odd thing was this: throughout all, I had been able to hear that, incredible as it still seems, there was music of a sort in the weapon. It was dull and barely thinking, like that of a fallen tree, and it was more of a malignant discord than anything else, but the fact that it was nevertheless there struck me as a marvel. The thing was of crafted metal – surely it, which killed the living music in all it touched and stiffened music merely by its proximity, could not itself be a vessel for the music? I began to wonder if perhaps we of the Finefolk were not, in a way, even more ignorant of the Ironfolk: they at least are aware of the existence of the living music, even though they cannot know or understand it; whereas we have never known that their shaped-metal implements could have music at all. I still cannot decide if this was a great insight of mine, or if it was merely that my senses were deceiving me in my sadness for my dead flass.

We were in a bigger room, and there were others – no other Finefolk, of course, for this was not a room where our kind would normally be expected to go, but instead an Ironfolk place. They were in clothes like my guard's, but some had colored ribbons stitched to them, as if a cloud-blackened sky could be brightened by a paintbrush: the Ironfolk cannot see that dead colors are less brilliant than living darkness. The one who had brought me here held out the dead fragments of my harplet, the regretted trophy of his kill; he jabbered spoken-words whose meaning I could not care to understand, for I was trying to hear the silence of the mustard-yellow splinters in his hand.

One of the ones wearing dead ribbons beat me about the face with the heels of his hands, then clenched a fist to strike me harder – enraged, I think, that the blood coming from my nose was straw-yellow rather than a treacly red; but he was held back by a bark from another, and he dropped his arm to his side.

The beating had cleared my head; I made to thank my assailant, but was told curtly to hold my peace.

"We'll have to make an example of it," said the one who had spoken to my attacker and then to me. "Who knows how many others of the slugglies might be harboring instruments, like this one? We can't risk their starting to play the bloody things once we're in fastspace." He looked directly at me. "I'm sorry about that, buster."

For a moment he seemed partly to be one of us. Confused, I fluted some notes at him, imitations of living song, but it was clear he knew nothing of them. Then I tried spoken-words, but he told me once more to be quiet.

"Kill it?" said another. "Something dramatic? Feed it into a recyc and show the mess on holo all over the ship? Stuff the thing out a lock?"

The one who seemed to be their leader shook his head, which is the Ironfolk signal of negation. "No. We'll give it a pod. After we've left the Galaxy."

"But that's ..." began the one who had slapped me.

"Cruel. Yes. But with the veneer of clemency. There will be no blood. If it were seen to be killed, that just might be enough to trigger the slugglies into rising against us. There are nearly ten thousand of them, remember, Coutts. But that's not the main worry. I'm more concerned with what the passengers might think."

"Passengers – huh!" This was one of the others. He made as if to spit, but didn't. "Bunch of no-hopers. Cattle. Can't think why we don't just flush them out the locks. Save the cost of carrying them. No one would know."

"Silence, Wren." The leader spoke almost silently himself, his crude Ironfolk words harsh with sibilants, like a weasel moving rapidly through dry grass. "Some of the passengers – many of them – feel sorry for the slugglies, and the kids take to them. Easy enough when you see them here on ship, like pretty children themselves; the passengers don't know how they live on their homeworlds. The passengers don't know they're animals. The slugglies are too human. So we can't hazard this thing's death rousing sympathies in the wrong places. Yet we need to get the message through to its fellows. So we put it in a pod and send it off into space. Then we have an amnesty for a few days, so the slugglies can hand in any instruments they've managed to smuggle aboard, or make."

I learned more as they continued to talk. The "pod" they had been speaking of was nothing to do with plants but instead like a lifeboat on a world-bound vessel; it was normally to be used for escape only when the main craft was certainly doomed. The Ten Per Cent Extra Free, like other large vessels, had thousands of these plastic pods. Because it was not seen as practicable to give each of them all the machinery necessary to act as fully independent spacecraft (it never having occurred to the Ironfolk that the true way of making such things would be for each glad or flass to fashion their own, so that it would sing in harmony with them), they were rigged with standard gear. Moving at a creep across rather than swiftly above the surface of the probability sea, a pod would head for the nearest sunlike star, and hope to find worlds there. At the same time, though, it would release a burst of high-pitched sounds which could flip along the crests of the waves, so that other Ironfolk might hear the call for help. The cruelty of the leader's punishment was that he planned to release the pod with me in it far out in the intergalactic ocean, with the nearest sunlike star many lifetimes' journey away. All things would be reused inside the pod, so that I would neither starve nor suffocate; I would merely live out my decades and die insane from loneliness, if I did not take my own life before.

It was a good Ironfolk plan, but the leader had forgotten that I and my kind were not Ironfolk. I could simply sleep out the millennia if I chose. Even if I could not have done so, most of us are poor at thinking of what is to come; the flasses and glads would have seen me go and wished me a good voyage, little thinking of the consequences facing me. As it was, they were going to dance that one of us at least had escaped from tyranny into freedom. They might be inspired to make instruments of their own, so as to be caught and rewarded as I had been.

I tried to explain this to the leader, but he would not hear. I wonder if the Ten Per Cent Extra Free reached the Spiral of Andromeda, or if some one of our kind found a way, despite the prisoning metal, of coaxing an instrument into singing the living music.


"Next," Qinefer is saying, "Brightjacket takes the grumbling sigh of a cloud that is lit by fires from beneath, and he lays the higher and the lower notes over the melody that wet wood makes in flames, and this he meshes into the rest of the glorious harmony that he is making. But still, even after all this, he is not done; for no chord is complete without humor. He takes a blade of grass between his thumbs and blows on it, making a raucous fartlike blare; this he captures with his hands before it can flee, and he casts it into the harmony. Yet still he is not done ..."

She will carry on the account of Brightjacket's making for a long while yet; the weans love to build the harmony in their minds, so that they may hear it for themselves. She is inventive in this, never building the same chord from one telling of the tale to the next, and they joyously never correct her, as they might if she made some trifling other detail different. Yet she does not know the true harmony that opens up the pathways through the sea, for that is another memory I have failed to give her.

"Mummy," says Harum at last, after Brightjacket's chord has been made, "how do the ships of the Ironfolk sail the sea?"

It is not a question that either of the weans have thought to ask before, and Qinefer glances at me, requesting that I explain; this is yet a further knowledge that I have held to myself. I twitch my eyes, refusing her request; my grin is required to mollify her.

Yes, she is inventive. The weans are satisfied by her explanation.


In the beginning there was only the probability sea, the nothingness where everything was waiting for something to happen. The eldern might say that what happened was the mothering of the Finefolk, but that is not truth. We do not know what happened to churn the featureless serenity of the ocean, and perhaps it is impertinent of us even to speculate. But something touched its waters into motion, something sent waves rippling across it; so that, whereas before there had been nothingness, as all the probabilities were perfectly matched and balanced, now there were regional asymmetries – like temperature discretenesses in the waters of a worldly ocean. And as with those variations, on occasion fluid nothingness was frozen into a more tangible beingness – a minuscule crystal of ice – a locus where the probabilities were restricted, so that the future was no longer a choice from an infinity of potentials, merely from a great many.

Probability was the living music.

Countless times a note of living music was instantly mated with a negation-of-living one, such that both vanished in their birthing of fresh nothingness, as if a spider devoured not only her mate but also herself; but this was not always the case. Sometimes the living notes escaped the seductions of their anti-living counterparts, so that both remained solitary, unable to return to the formlessness of the once-tranquil sea. The living notes might sometimes then come together, growing just as tiny crystals of ice can grow out of brine to create something huge – a stately, lumbering ice-mountain. Not all did this; some were too fleet-moving, and for others the conditions in the sea around them were ... not quite favorable. And the same occurred for the pieces of frozen counter-music, of course; hugely large or infinitesimally small, they still pattern the surface of the probability ocean, seeking to mate with the living; in their different ways, both the Ironfolk and the Finefolk know this to be true, but knowledge of the truth has brought to neither of the kinds of folk any proper understanding of the life-negating counter-music.

The waters of the probability ocean are never still. They wash around the ice-bits remorselessly. Sometimes they melt away a piece; sometimes they bring some of the counter-music up close enough to the shore that much is reduced to water. But over everything there is a balance, so that what is lost back into formlessness in one place emerges from it in another.

To the Ironfolk the pieces of frozen probability are something less wonderful: they are particles either of matter or of energy – for the Ironfolk do not realize, in their hearts, that energy is merely fleeter matter, singing the same song but more nimbly; and nor do the Ironfolk know that nothing in the probability ocean is truly disassociated from all else, so that nothing can be particulate. Yet even the Ironfolk have recognized, in a smallest way, the waves on the waters. Where the pieces of living music are very tiny, the eddies around them are accordingly so; and they may build to become standing waves, as I have seen in fjords. These minuscule ripples, too, the Ironfolk call particles, even though they know that they are not that but fluctuations on the surface of the probability sea.

In the gulfs between worlds the waves have a chance to grow much greater, so that they are like those of inland seas. It was the discovery that they could make their craft flit from crest to crest of these that enabled the Ironfolk to travel so very rapidly among the stars; though they will never discover what the Finefolk have always known, that it is possible to create music in resonance with the waves of the particle sea, so that we pass through it instantly along uncluttered pathways.

As they skip the crests of the rollers between the stars, the Ironfolk's vessels cast up a great spray of droplets. Pieces of living music and counter-music are condensed from the waters, only to mate with each other and instantaneously vanish again. These pieces of stiffened probability may take many forms and magnitudes: most are only notes, mere crystals, smaller than a crystal of physical water could ever be, and too small to have a shape; others may be much larger, may be chords of a mountain's size, and their forms may be whatever the whim of chance decrees, from a fire-nostrilled dragon to a cloud of light. But the Ironfolk are unaware of them, for these manifestations last no more than seconds, at the very most, before being negated by their dark counterparts; they might last longer were the Ironfolk astute enough to seek them, for the focus of a hearer's interest is another way of making music resonate with the ocean. But the Ironfolk, of course, don't think to do so.

The gulfs between the stars are as nothing to those between the island galaxies. Here the waves, undisrupted by islands of frozen probability, can build up to become truly mighty rollers – as vast beside those that range between the stars as those are to the minuscule eddies about the nucleus of an atom. Here, too, the Ironfolk's vessels may move at their fastest speeds, for the distance between one crest and the next is so unimaginably greater. And their bows cast up an accordingly greater spray, whose droplets of music, much larger and more capable of coalescing like-to-like, can last for minutes or even hours. Here, because of their size, there is less variability in the forms of the pieces of frozen probability; most are too large to be anything but suns, or to sound as anything less than an inferno of chords.

The Ironfolk's intergalactic vessels leave behind them in the blackness of the probability ocean, all unknowing, trails of swiftly failing suns, like luminous pearls streaming from a broken necklace onto the surface of a worldly midnight sea, briefly floating before they sink from sight.

Like choirs, dying.


"They're arguing for a long time once finally Brightjacket's harmony is struck. Who shall go to the Freedom first? The eldern are saying – not all of them, for your Daddy is one of them who does not agree – that the one to take the pathway should be someone so old that he (they prefer it be a glad, as they are eldern) can remember a time before the Ironfolk came to plague us. The weans, on the other side, are plaintive that their youth gives them the right to go first to where all shall once again be young like they are; for, if you think about it, it is memory of a fixed place that gives us Finefolk our ages. Those of intervening years are shouting that ... well, you can imagine the kerfuffle: worse than you two at bath-time. In the end it is Brightjacket who resolves the dilemma, by the simple means of taking the first step himself.

"There is a delay no longer than the beat of a mouse's heart" – she draws the words out, taking the tip of her forefingers to her lips; her eyes are as wide as the weans' – "and then the timbre of the universe's chant changes just a trifle, and all know that Brightjacket is alive and safe on the world that he chose. As the Finefolk listen longer to the washing of the sea-waves, and to the new note he has added to their sound, they learn that Brightjacket is already constructing a further harmony, there on that new world of his, so that he may step yet further out into the ocean's darkness."

She describes it well. I can remember the hush that took the throng of us in that bizarre chamber at the core of Snowdon. Then there was singing and piping that made the air a splash of colors, like the sky at sunrise, mottled like a trout's belly, with scales iridescing in every hue that the sun possesses.

"By the time the Earth had turned once more on its axis, there were fewer than a hundred of the Finefolk left to know it. Those were the ones who wished to stay, who found that the interest of watching the Ironfolk develop their unmusical arts outweighed the disgustingness of having to be so close to them in order to do so. For the rest, there was a universe of worlds that offered welcome. Haven. Peace. The Freedom. Far from the stiffening curse of crafted metal, the Finefolk could become of one song with the worlds they ventured to, as they had been with Earth in the old days, before the Ironfolk's arising.

"That is why, when the Ironfolk conquered the ocean crossings – they talk of conquest, not of befriending – and discovered that so many worlds were populated by Finefolk, who had become blended in so well with their worlds that they might have been there forever, they thought of our kind as being not of Earth at all. We were, instead, relics of some long-forgotten race born elsewhere – on the Galaxy's far side, perhaps, or even in another galaxy. We had, so the Ironfolk said, many millions of years ago traveled in now-long-rotted not-metal ships and been set down everywhere to colonize, but instead of doing so had regressed to become animals. As if the Ironfolk themselves were anything else! Never forget, Larksease and Harum, that you and me and your Daddy are animals, as much as any squid or starling, else you become like the Ironfolk, who think themselves other."

I don't know if what she says is true, although it has seemed so. I do not know if the Ironfolk truly believe us to be like animals, or if they just tell themselves we are, so that it appears less of a sin to them that they should slaughter or enslave us. They have a code which they use in place of cooperation with the universe, but it seems that it can function only if founded on a complicated tapestry sewn from deceptions. Often they use the code to deceive themselves into believing that they wish to perform good actions, when what they really wish is to destroy; far more often, sadly, the deception is another way around, so that they harm the universe, by harming its parts, while convincing themselves that what they are doing is for the good. I have seen Ironfolk condemn to the fire a hundred hundred or more innocents of their own sort – weans included – yet all the while telling themselves (or inventing gods to tell them so) that this is a kindly deed, and virtuous. Such crimes and worse have they performed against the Finefolk; I am sure their hands would more often have been stayed, though, had they let themselves know that we are wiser than they.

It is to the Ironfolk's discredit, of course, that they would contemplate massacring animals of any kind in this way. I am trying to think with their mind; this causes me hurt, and may not be a revealing exercise.


I emerged from the Ten Per Cent Extra Free into light.

All around me the waters of the probability ocean were phosphorescent with the living music, sparked into being by the passage of the vessel. Brilliant runs of notes glissaded in and out of existence; chords clattered audaciously against the blackness, as if in the knowledge that their lives would be short, and so making sure that their effulgence would compensate; here, there, everywhere were cadences that were both born and dying in an instant. The harmony of all this was bizarre, and for the first seconds after the pod crept from the belly of the Ten Per Cent Extra Free it seemed to me unutterably, intolerably discordant; yet almost at once I began to respond to it, recognizing it for the primal assonance of the universe, and therefore the basic assonance of myself.

And there were suns – great rumbustious suns: yellow, like crashes of brazen trumpets; blue, like banks of zithers and oboes; white, like the high notes of an organ as the bass reeds trudge their heavy way beneath. I held my arms against the light, but my ears I did not block, for they revelled in the ever-fading songs.

One song I concentrated on, letting it fill me. With lips rubbery from nervousness and broken from the beating the Ironfolk had given me before consigning me to eternity, I lisped its tune. I eased my whole body into the melody, so that every cell of me was singing the particular song of a bright yellow sun. I could not truly sing the living music, for the pod had much of crafted metal in it; but I could let the living music be in me, for it was loud enough to be heard through the muffling metal webs.

Others of the suns died, but this one, after faltering momentarily, began to proclaim itself with renewed vigor to the universe. I could also, through the pod's transparent front, see it now, less than a light-day away, a brilliant yellow spot against the fuzzy white backdrop of the Galaxy, which was a slanting chant extending diagonally across a side of my field of view.

The pod's sluggish electronic sensors picked up my brightly singing sun – I felt them reacting beneath my feet, like clumsy Ironfolk shambling around on a downstairs floor. Slowly the angle of the Galaxy shifted, so that it became almost horizontal ahead of me where I sat, still clamped into the single padded throne of the pod's bow. The little vessel's own sounds picked themselves up to a higher notch as it fixed its course.

But this I barely heard, for the song of my sun was throughout me; it was me. The Ten Per Cent Extra Free long gone behind me, all of the other suns it had created were now lost to silence; there was only the bright new music of the yellow sun and the supportive, distant monotone chanting of the Galaxy's trillionfold voices.

How long I held the song I do not know. There was a time-telling device aboard the pod, and I scrutinized it some while afterwards, but my punishers had not thought to tell me how to read it. But I know that I sang with the new sun until I sensed that it no longer required me to do so, that henceforth it could carry the burden on its own. And even then I sang a while, too exhausted to cease. I slept several times – I was aware of that – yet it did not stop my singing.

Much later, once I had come here, I tried to recreate that pure song in my mind, but it was lost – for the good, perhaps, for it was not my own song to sing, only to share, as I and Qinefer and Larksease and Harum share it now.

I had some years to watch my sun grow brighter as the pod slowly approached it. During this time I added harmonies to its melody, singing around it, above and below, weaving new things with it: I wove the playful counterpoint of a planet for it, and I dressed that planet in airy grace-notes. I made green sounds, rustling runs of notes for windblown grasslands. I burbled bright streams and grumped great rivers. I sang birdsong – not the songs birds sing but the songs they are. I chuckled heavy animals stumbling through thick bushwork, hissed eels, belched toads and frogs, bellowed whales and breathed moths. I was like a glad lover choosing to clothe my love for the later joy of slowly discovering her nakedness.

I had no need to sing the song of my world's seas. Their song is born from that of the probability ocean.

And then at last I was there, the pod picking out the silvery mote that was my world and heading towards it. I heard all the songs that I had sung being echoed back to me as I hung in orbit.

My world looked and sounded strikingly like the Earth from which Brightjacket had led us.

But without Ironfolk.


"What's it like," says Larksease to her mother, "traveling from world to world along Brightjacket's pathways?"

Qinefer doesn't know, of course – does not really know. This time when she looks to me for assistance I do not simply grin and leave her to it. I turn myself around on my haunches so that I'm facing my family. As always, I'm struck by Qinefer's beauty; I was wise, in the end, not to try to create her. Neither of the weans look in the slightest like either of us, which is as it should be. I lean forward and kiss Larksease and Harum on their warm little foreheads, then permit my lips to dally with Qinefer's for a moment longer.

"They're not Brightjacket's pathways," I say to Larksease with pretended severity. "Just because you hear a bird doesn't mean that it's your bird." Silently I make excuses to myself for myself: our sun is mine because I heard it, and so I am not telling a full truth to Larksease. "The pathways are the universe's; they are the probability sea's freedom of choice. Brightjacket merely found how we could set ourselves in resonance with that freedom of choice."

"Stop splitting hairs, Daddy," says Larksease. "Tell us what it's like."

I hum a short sequence of notes, then stop. I decided, once I had come to my world, that I would never repeat the harmony that Brightjacket found. This was to be all of the universe to me. The stars I created in its skies were merely lights, touched onto the backdrop of the probability sea; the Galaxy and the Spiral of Andromeda I blacked over – all other islands are too distant for my eyes to see. There is nothing in the sky that has been tainted by the Ironfolk's presence except perhaps the sun, which they long ago created through inadvertence; yet even it has surely been purified, made mine – become of the Finefolk's making. Certainly there must be pathways leading from here to the Ironfolk's universe, but I do not wish to discover them. And, most certainly, I do not wish my flass or my weans to dance along them.

I resort to words. To light.

"When the harmony is complete," I say, "you find yourself amid glows of dark coral, as if you were burrowing deep among the petals of a rose with the sunlight shining through them. There is a hot darkness at the heart of the rose, and you rush towards it; the folds brushing you are hot and moistly briny, and you have to make some effort pushing yourself against them. And then, just before you reach the roasting heat of the rose's core, you are released to find yourself standing on the new world. Your whole body is alive with song, and you feel for moments as if the universe had chosen you as the sole instrument through which it will play all of its many musics. That is what it is like to dance the pathways, my weans."

Qinefer is smiling, and looking away from me.

"Is it a nice singing?" asks Harum, his brow wrinkled.

"Yes," Qinefer replies gently before I can speak, surprising me. "But there are nicer ones – like the chorus of lemon juice on your tongue, or the whistling of one mind in tune with another, or ..."

She stops speaking, and her eyes meet mine. All around us is the crashing noise of the probability ocean, dwarfing all other songs. She shrugs, and the children follow the direction of her shoulders skyward, listening.

It is too easy to forget the grand, just because it is always there. It was my only companion for my first years on my world, and it was a long while before I wished for another. Everywhere was new to explore; while like Earth, this is not Earth. In my glee of counterpoint as I'd approached my sun I had left much of the world as mere sketches; the sun itself, and the probability sea, had sung so many of the details. There are beasts undreamt-of by any worldly being – so strange that I still can find no tunes to encompass them. There is one vast plant that gives birth to the clouds of the sky, and another that has the world's rivers for roots, flowing up from the sea and not down to it. There are types of tiny creatures made up only of descants of raw light; they flee shimmering from heavier beings that seem to be nothing but the smell of marsh-gas. How one can be the predator and the other the prey is something that I have never learned, no matter how carefully I have listened.

It was not the total discovery of the secrets of my world that led me to yearn at last for someone beside me – no, not that at all, for I sense the world will never reveal its entirety to me. More it was the growing need to have someone beside me to share my unearthings, so that I would not be singing each new song alone. I can recollect the moment now. I was running my fingers over the gleamy surface of a rock that had split on the heaving of the world beneath it, hearing it sigh the same music as oil on still water, yet hard-edged rather than soft-, and moving my mind to shape a chord in response, when I realized the emptiness of any chord I could create. The notes were all there, each in place and each of the right intensity, and yet the whole was incomplete; much as two strings can be plucked to produce an identical tone, so that you cannot tell if one is sounding or both – and yet you can.

All potentials are present in the probability sea, of course; yet it is easier to spring some of them into stiffenedness than others. Photons are easiest of all, obviously; and, among greater structures, little prompting is required for the sea to produce suns. The various cadenzas I had to sing in order to build my world were many and collectively complicated, but at the heart of each there was simplicity: I had merely to set things in train, leaving the velleities of probability to shape the rest. But a person of the Finefolk – or even, for that matter, of the Ironfolk – is something else entirely: the mind that is capable of abstraction approaches in complexity the most perplexing of the living music, transcending even the creations of Brightjacket in his discovery of the pathways to the Freedom. I was not certain that my own mind was capable of creating such convolutions of harmony as to create its like.

Yet the yen burned on in me.

And there came the day when it must be requited.

I sat upon this very shore, with the sharp white sand abrading my buttocks and thighs caressingly, and stared out across the blue of the worldly sea – my worldly sea. I focused the spark of me until I heard nothing but the sound of its waves, of its deep waters straining against the sludge of its floor, and of its myriad creatures going oozily about their ways or springing all bright and silver-piercing briefly into the sunlight for splashy instants. There were other sea-songs, too: some dark and chillily weightsome, some light like spume on the wind. I could not have counted all the songs, but I forced my mind to draw them together, making threads of them from which I could weave new patterns. The sun rose and the sun set, but still my weaving went on; I was making a canvas of the sea-songs, setting them out as a tableau of sound, so that all of them could be seen there.

At last the task was done, yet that was only a part of the greater task. There was the shushing of the breeze-blown sand around me to be added to the tableau, and the aloof airs of the reeds, and the thunder of the sky's blue, and the pulse of a hunting cat, and the whipple of falling sycamore seeds, and all the other refrains of my living world. My mind hurt from the strain of keeping this throb of sound alive, and yet I did so; after thought, I realized that the thrum of this mental pain was a part of what I needed also, and so I wove it in among the others, along with my own ragged breathing and the scent of my sweat. And the fleet crescendo of lightning. And the mewling of a gale in the next valley. And the squeak of sap in trees. And the ...

It was done when it was done: I did not have to decree that it was complete.

She walked down from the bladegrass-banks onto the beach. She was finely formed, a flass of such fairness that no glad could have looked upon her without his soul filling with yearning to taste her. My exhaustion fell scraping from my shoulders like a snake's sloughed skin. As she came towards me across the sand, her thighs licking together with the gentle touch of indigo flames shyly playing against a fresh green log, I reached up my arms towards her, ready to embrace her ...

And let them fall again.

She, the encapsulation of all the songs that I had drawn from the world and the sky above it, and even from my own self, had no song of her own: her soul was mute. She looked at me through eyes that were nothing more than eyes. Her perfection was entire – without a line wasted and without an essential line spared. I reached out a hand again, and saw its fingers run over the flawless skin of her belly; I could appreciate intellectually its immaculateness, but no song transmitted itself through those fingers from her flesh.

I said to her in spoken-word: "Welcome." It was the least I could do. Besides, my spirit was telling me that surely all my work had not been in vain, that surely it must be my observing rather than her lack which created an illusion of songlessness.

She said nothing, but just continued contemplating me. I could hear her thoughts, although I could not understand them. They were rational – even clever in a superficial way, like the thoughts of the Ironfolk can be.

I darted a glance at her face again; at those empty eyes.

And recognized them.

Her thoughts were like one of the Ironfolk's because that was what she was; and that was why, also, she was songless, having failed to discover the harmony of the probability sea. It was something I could not give to her – the only thing I had not given to her, for I had woven all the rest of my own music into her. And so she was hollow, like the Ironfolk were.

I didn't know what to do with her. She was alive, insofar as the Ironfolk are alive. My thoughts were in discord: I had created her; I was responsible for her; it was not her fault that she had been created; I could not simply destroy her again; it was not my entitlement.

"What's your name?" she said. Asked as if a name were an arbitrary label, rather than a characteristic as fundamental as one's own song. It was an Ironfolk question; she had not already heard my name. "Where's everyone else? Don't you get lonely, just sitting out here on the beach? Can't you take me to your house? The sun's too hot and bright; my skin is going to burn. This place stinks – all the seaweed, I guess."

And on. The sea turned from blue to gray, and the seaweed did start stinking. Five hundred paces inland there was a scream of protest as rocks that were not meant for building together were forced into a wrong assemblage. A gray cloud – a greasy, dirty, reluctant gray, not the gray of a dove's breast – tried to smother the sun. The sand was coarse and irritating against my skin.

The songs began to leach out of all the things in my world.

I killed her then, telling myself that she anyway had no life. I do not know if that was true or not but I lived long enough among the Ironfolk to learn some of the tricks that they can play with their ethical codes; if I have continued to deceive myself in this, it is because I have never tried to unpick my self-created deception. The world-song I had created in order to spark her from the waves had not entirely fled from me; I was swiftly able to reassemble it and sing it again, without the flass's void at its core.

In a single tick of my heart she faded and was gone, healing the world.


"Are you going to finish the story?"

It is Larksease again. I have been silent for too long, and Qinefer has not desired to take up her thread.

"No," I say. "Not today. Not ever. The story of Brightjacket, and of how he led the Finefolk through the pathways to the stars – that story has no end, will never end. There is no finish to it. Your mother has told you that often enough, has she not?"

There is no finish to any of the stories and songs that make up the probability sea; Larksease and Harum will come to know that.

Harum plucks up to ask me the question that he always asks me, if I am near when his mother is telling this tale. "Daddy, are you Brightjacket?"

And I smile as I always do, and scrabble my fingers through his hair, hearing the harmony of my flesh with his. "No, Harum, you know I am not. Listen to me and tell me if you can hear the name 'Brightjacket' in my song."

He goes through a pantomime of doing so, while his sister looks scornfully on him. She is older, after all – old enough to have forgotten when it was she who asked me the same question.

"No," he says at last. "Your name isn't Brightjacket. It's ... I don't know what it is."

"You will when you're bigger," says Qinefer, cuddling him to her.

He will not, for the probability sea, being all songs, has no name. I once had a name of my own – and for all I know it may have been Brightjacket (although that would conflict with my memories of having seen him as he constructed the chord that led us Finefolk to the Freedom) – but I traded it for Qinefer, unwittingly giving it (although I would have done this willingly) as part of the bargain I made with the probability sea.

For the sea heard my keening as the Ironfolk mermaid I had sung from my worldly ocean faded; it heard the discord of my grief.

Yet in the infinitude of tune that is the probability sea there is no such thing as a clangor that cannot be made melodious – that cannot be complemented with another sound to make a harmonious wholeness. In that moment when I was open to the universe, a broken instrument at its heart making a broken sound, the probability sea moved to make me entire again. It dissolved me back into itself, so that I was thinly scattered at once through all of the ocean; and then it reconstituted me in the instant of my dissolution – as it had to do, if it was to keep its own song entire – reconstituted me as a full chord, my broken discord matched with fresh notes such that the song my being sang was the perfective part of the song of the ocean, and as such its whole.

I looked, on this same beach these years ago, at the flass who was my completion, and her song told me its name was Qinefer. Side-harmonies would become called Larksease and Harum; those were their correct names. She and I may create further embellishments to the joyous chord we are, and they too shall doubtless have names.

But my own song no longer has a name, for it is that of the ocean.

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