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Authors: Anthony Doerr

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FOUR

THESSALY, LAND OF MAGIC

Cloud Cuckoo Land
by Antonius Diogenes, Folio
Δ

Tales of a comic hero who travels to a distant place seeking magic show up in virtually every folklore in virtually every culture. Though several folios of the manuscript that may have narrated Aethon's journey to Thessaly are lost, it's evident that by Folio
Δ
, he has arrived. Translation by Zeno Ninis.

… eager to find evidence of sorcery, I headed straight for the town square. Were the doves on that awning wizards in feathered disguise? Would centaurs stride between the market stalls and deliver speeches? I stopped three maids carrying baskets and asked where I might find a powerful witch who could turn me into a bird: a brave eagle, possibly, or a bright strong owl.

One said, “Well, Canidia here, she can extract sunbeams from melons, turn stones into boars, and pluck stars from the sky, but she can't make you an owl.” The other two tittered.

She continued, “And, Meroë here, she can stop rivers from running, turn mountains to dust, and rip the gods from their thrones, but she can't make you an eagle either,” and all three of their bodies split with laughter.

Undeterred, I went to the inn. After dark, Palaestra, the innkeeper's maid, called me into the kitchen. She whispered that the wife of the innkeeper kept a bedchamber at the top of the house stocked with all sorts of equipment for the practice of magic, bird claws and fish hearts and even bits of corpse flesh. “At midnight,” she said, “if you crouch at the keyhole outside the door of that room, you might find what you seek…”

THE ARGOS

MISSION YEARS 55–58

Konstance

S
he's four. Inside Compartment 17, an arm's reach away, Mother walks on her Perambulator, the gold band of her Vizer sealed over her eyes.

“Mother.”

Konstance taps Mother's knee. Tugs the fabric of her worksuit. No response.

A tiny black creature, no longer than Konstance's pinkie nail, is climbing the wall. Its antennae wave; its leg joints extend, bend, extend again; the jagged tips of its mandibles would frighten her if they weren't so small. She sets a finger in the creature's path and it climbs aboard. It crosses her palm, proceeds to the back of her hand; the intricate complexity of its movements dazzles.

“Mother, look.”

The Perambulator whirs and pivots. Her mother, absorbed in another world, pirouettes, then extends her arms as though soaring.

Konstance presses her hand to the wall: the animal climbs off and continues along its original path, ascending past Father's berth, until it disappears through the joint where wall meets ceiling.

Konstance stares. Behind her Mother flaps her arms.

An ant. On the
Argos
. Impossible. All the grown-ups agree.
Don't worry
, Sybil tells Mother.
It takes children years to learn the difference between fantasy and reality. Some longer than others.

She's five. The ten-and-unders sit in a circle around the classroom Portal. Mrs. Chen says, “Sybil, please display Beta Oph2,” and a black-and-green sphere, ten feet in diameter, materializes in front of them. “These brown patches here, children, are silica deserts at the equator, and we believe that these are bands of deciduous forest in the higher latitudes. We expect that the oceans at the poles, here and here, will freeze over seasonally…”

Several of the children reach to touch the image as it rotates past, but Konstance keeps her hands pinned beneath her thighs. The green patches are beautiful, but the black ones—blank and serrated at the edges—frighten her. Mrs. Chen has explained that these are simply regions of Beta Oph2 that have not yet been mapped, that the planet is still too far away, that as they draw closer Sybil will take more detailed images, but to Konstance they look like chasms a person could fall into and from which a person could never escape.

Mrs. Chen says, “Planetary mass?”

“One-point-two-six Earth masses,” recite the children.

Jessi Ko pokes Konstance's knee.

“Nitrogen in the atmosphere?”

“Seventy-six percent.”

Jessi Ko pokes Konstance's thigh.

“Oxygen?”

“Konstance,” whispers Jessi, “what's round, on fire, and covered with trash?”

“Twenty percent, Mrs. Chen.”

“Very good.”

Jessi leans halfway into Konstance's lap. Into her ear she hisses, “Earth!”

Mrs. Chen glares in their direction and Jessi straightens and Konstance feels heat rush to her cheeks. The image of Beta Oph2 rotates above the Portal: black, green, black, green. The children sing:

You can be one,

Or you can be one hundred and two,

It takes everyone together,

Everyone together,

to get to Beta Oph2.

The
Argos
is an interstellar generation ship shaped like a disk. No windows, no stairs, no ramps, no elevators. Eighty-six people live inside. Sixty were born on board. Twenty-three of the others, including Konstance's father, are old enough to remember Earth. New socks are issued every two mission years, new worksuits every four. Six two-kilo bags of flour come out of the provision vaults on the first of every month.

We are the lucky ones, the grown-ups say. We have clean water; we grow fresh food; we are never ill; we have Sybil; we have hope. If we allocate carefully, everything we have with us is everything we will ever need. Anything we cannot solve for ourselves, Sybil will solve for us.

Most of all, the grown-ups say, we must mind the walls. Beyond the walls waits oblivion: cosmic radiation, zero gravity, 2.73 Kelvin. In three seconds outside the walls, your hands and feet would double in size. The moisture on your tongue and eyeballs would boil away, and the nitrogen molecules in your blood would clump together. You'd suffocate. Then you'd freeze solid.

Konstance is six and a half when Mrs. Chen brings her, Ramón, and Jessi Ko to see Sybil in person for the first time. They arc down corridors, past the Biology Labs, past the doors to Compartments 24, 23, and 22, curling inward toward the center of the ship, and step through a door marked
Vault One
.

“It's very important that we don't bring in anything that might affect her,” says Mrs. Chen, “so the vestibule will clean us. Shut your eyes, please.”

Outer door sealed
, announces Sybil.
Beginning decontamination.

From somewhere deep inside the walls comes a sound like fans accumulating speed. Chilled air whooshes through Konstance's worksuit and a bright light pulses three times on the other side of her eyelids and an inner door sighs open.

They step into a cylindrical vault fourteen feet across and sixteen feet high. At the center, Sybil hangs suspended inside her tube.

“So tall,” whispers Jessi Ko.

“Like a gatrillion golden hairs,” whispers Ramón.

“This vault,” says Mrs. Chen, “has autonomous thermal, mechanical, and filtration processes, independent of the rest of the
Argos
.”

Welcome
, says Sybil, and pinpricks of amber go fluttering down her tendrils.

“You're looking lovely today,” says Mrs. Chen.

I adore visitors
, says Sybil.

“Inside there, children, is the collective wisdom of our species. Every map ever drawn, every census ever taken, every book ever published, every football match, every symphony, every edition of every newspaper, the genomic maps of over one million species—everything we can imagine and everything we might ever need. Sybil is our guardian, our pilot, our caretaker: she keeps us on course, she keeps us healthy, and she safeguards the heritage of all humanity against erasure and destruction.”

Ramón breathes on the glass, puts a finger to the vapor, and draws an
R
.

Jessi Ko says, “When I'm old enough to go to the Library, I'm going straight to the Games Section to fly around Flower-Fruit Mountain.”

“I'm going to play Swords of Silverman,” says Ramón. “Zeke says it goes on for twenty thousand levels.”

Konstance
, Sybil asks,
what will you do when you get to the Library?

Konstance glances over her shoulder. The door they entered through has sealed so tightly behind them that it is indistinguishable from the wall. She says, “What's ‘erasure and destruction'?”

Night terrors come next. After Third Meal is cleaned up, after the other families retire to their compartments, after Father heads back to his plants in Farm 4, Mother and Konstance walk back to Compartment 17 and tidy the various worksuits waiting their turn at Mother's sewing machine—here the bin for malfunctioning zippers, here the bin of scraps, here the loose threads, nothing wasted, nothing lost. They powder their teeth and brush their hair and Mother takes a SleepDrop and kisses Konstance on the forehead and they climb into their respective berths, Mother on the bottom and Konstance on the top.

The walls dim from purple to gray to black. She tries to breathe, tries to hold her eyes open.

Still they come. Beasts with glittering razor-teeth. Slavering devils with horns. Eyeless white larvae swarming inside her mattress. The worst are the ogres with skeleton limbs that come scuttling down the corridor; they tear open the compartment door, climb the walls, and chew through the ceiling. Konstance clings to her berth as her mother is sucked out into the void; she tries to blink but her eyes are boiling; she tries to scream but her tongue has turned to ice.

“Where,” Mother asks Sybil, “does she get it? I thought we were selected for higher cognitive reasoning? I thought we were supposed to have suppressed imaginative faculties.”

Sybil says,
Sometimes genetics surprise us.

Father says, “Thank goodness for that.”

Sybil says,
She'll outgrow it.

She's seven and three-quarters. DayLight dims and Mother takes her SleepDrop and Konstance climbs into her berth. She holds her eyes open with her fingertips. Counts from zero to one hundred. Back to zero again.

“Mother?”

No response.

She slips down the ladder, past her sleeping mother, and out the door, blanket trailing behind. In the Commissary two grown-ups walk on Perambulators, Vizers over their eyes, tomorrow's schedule flickering in the air behind them—
DayLight 110 Tai Chi in Library Atrium, DayLight 130 Bioengineering Meeting
. She whispers down the corridor in her socks, past Lavatories 2 and 3, past the closed doors of a half-dozen compartments, and stops outside the door with the glowing edges marked
Farm 4
.

Inside, the air smells of herbs and chlorophyll. Grow lights blaze at thirty different levels on a hundred different racks, and plants fill the room all the way to the ceiling: rice here, kale there, bok choi growing next to arugula, parsley above watercress above potatoes. She waits for her eyes to adjust to the glare, then spots her father on his stepladder fifteen feet away, entwined in drip tubes, his head in the lettuces.

Konstance is old enough to understand that Father's farm is unlike the other three: those spaces are tidy and systematic, while Farm 4 is a tangle of wires and sensors, grow-racks skewed at every angle, individual trays crowded with different species, creeping thyme beside radishes beside carrots. Long white hairs sprout from Father's ears; he's at least two decades older than the other children's fathers; he's always growing inedible flowers just to see what they look like and muttering in his funny accent about compost tea. He claims he can taste whether a lettuce has lived a happy life; he says one sniff of a properly grown chickpea can whisk him three zillion kilometers back to the fields he grew up in Scheria.

She picks her way to him and pokes his foot. He raises his eyeshade and smiles. “Hi, kid.”

Bits of soil show against the silver of his beard; there are leaves in his hair. He descends his ladder and wraps her blanket around her shoulders and guides her to where the steel handles of thirty refrigerated drawers protrude from the far wall.

“Now,” he says, “what's a seed?”

“A seed is a little sleeping plant, a container to protect the little sleeping plant, and a meal for the little sleeping plant when it wakes up.”

“Very good, Konstance. Who would you like to wake up tonight?”

She looks, thinks, takes her time. Eventually she chooses a handle four from the left and pulls. Vapor sighs out of the drawer; inside wait hundreds of ice-cold foil envelopes. She chooses one in the third row.

“Ah,” he says, reading the envelope. “
Pinus heldreichii
. Bosnian pine. Good choice. Now hold your breath.”

She takes a big inhalation and holds it and he tears open the envelope and onto his palm slides a little quarter-inch seed clasped by a pale brown wing. “A mature Bosnian pine,” he whispers, “can grow thirty meters high and produce tens of thousands of cones a year. They can withstand ice and snow, high winds, pollution. Folded inside that seed is a whole wilderness.”

He brings the seed close to her lips and grins.

“Not yet.”

The seed almost seems to tremble in anticipation.

“Now.”

She exhales; the seed takes flight. Father and daughter watch it sail above the crowded racks. She loses track as it flutters toward the front of the room, then spies it as it settles among the cucumbers.

Konstance pinches it between two fingers, and unclips the seed from its wing. He helps her poke a hole in the gel membrane of an empty tray; she presses the seed in.

“It's like we're putting it to sleep,” she says, “but really we're waking it up.”

Beneath his big white eyebrows Father's eyes shine. He bundles her beneath an aeroponic table, crawls in beside her, and asks Sybil to dim the lights (plants eat light, Father says, but even plants can overeat). She pulls her blanket to her chin, and presses her head against her father's chest as shadows fall over the room, and listens to his heart thrum inside his worksuit, and to conduits hum inside the walls, and to water drip from the long white threads of thousands of rootlets, down through the tiers of plants, into channels
beneath the floor where it is collected to be resprayed once more, and the
Argos
hurtles another ten thousand kilometers through the emptiness.

“Will you tell some more of the story, Father?”

“It's late, Zucchini.”

“Just the part when the witch changes herself into an owl. Please?”

“All right. But only that.”

“Also the part where Aethon turns into a donkey.”

“Fine. But then sleep.”

“Then sleep.”

“And you won't tell Mother.”

“And I won't tell Mother. I promise.”

Father and daughter smile, playing their familiar game, and Konstance wriggles inside her blanket, anticipation rolling through her, and the roots drip, and it is as if they drowse together inside the digestive system of a huge and gentle beast.

She says, “Aethon had just arrived in Thessaly, Land of Magic.”

“Right.”

“But he didn't see any statues come to life or witches flying over rooftops.”

“But the maid at the inn where he was staying,” Father says, “told Aethon that that very night, if he knelt at the door to the room at the top of the house, and peeked through the keyhole, he might see some magic. So Aethon crept to the door and watched the mistress of the house light a lamp, bend over a chest full of hundreds of tiny glass jars, and select one. Then she took off her clothes and rubbed whatever was inside the jar all over her body, head to toe. She took three lumps of incense, dropped them into the lamp, said the magic words—”

BOOK: Cloud Cuckoo Land
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