4.

     Once upon a time the three crones might have stood at a crude, warp-weighted loom, much as did Arachne... or Penelope, weaving as she waited for Ulysses. Now they sat on padded stools. Their broad, vertical floor loom looked no more than a few centuries old. Perhaps some visiting hero had been a skilled carpenter, and knocked it together for them before he...
     Before he what? None of the possible scenarios Pavlos could imagine coming out of this meeting included his being allowed to leave. They had some use for him, to be sure, these ancient meddlers. And they'd had long practice dealing with "heroes" who wanted to take home souvenirs and a story.
     Moira beckoned him forward to be presented, but Pavlos interrupted before she began the introductions, partly to keep from falling into another awestruck trance.
     "I know their names." He gestured to the old "woman" who sat a bit apart from the loom, with a basket full of woolly skeins at her feet and bottles of dye at her side. She rhythmically drew threads from the basket, winding each on a wooden frame, then painting on various colors with a blur of brevity. On finishing each, she wound the thread quickly onto a bobbin.
     Something about her activity shuck Pavlos as -- strange. It was as if he watched a stroboscopic image -- like that of a top spinning or an engine turning -- and for every "thread" he saw painted and wound, ten thousand were actually handled.
     "Your name is Clotho," he said. She smiled at him crookedly, apparently giving him her entire attention, yet never stopping her work.
     "You have also been called Urda, and U-dzu. You prepare the thread."
     He turned to the weaver. She was the oldest hag. She looked as frail as a springtime icicle... as thin and friable as late summer grass.
     "This is Lachesis," he went on, pointing to the weaver, who didn't even glance at Pavlos. Her hands dipped, with the same stroboscopic effect, into a bag on her lap, constantly bringing forth fresh bobbins of thread, tying the free ends into place upon the tapestry, then flying through the innumerable bobbins, weaving them among each other and the straight strands of warp.
     "Her name means She Who Knows Sorrow. She has also been called Verdani. The Norsemen knew her, as well."
     The third crone actually paused in her work, and grinned at Pavlos. She seemed the youngest of the three, though not as fresh as Moira. She was the first to speak.
     "Well educated, aren't you, hero? Then you know, of course, what these are?"
     She held a pair of bronze cloth shears up to the filtered afternoon sunlight. The sight of them made Pavlos want to quail, but he forced himself to stand erect instead.
     "I know what they are, Atropos. You seem to be a bit lazy in their use, right now."
     The third hag frowned for a moment. But Clotho immediately exploded in mirth. She put down her dyes and cackled dryly, slapping her thighs. Slowly, Atropos resumed her cruel smile.
     "Very brave and humorous, hero. When Moira told us of you, we thought you were one of the weak ones. Perhaps not.
     Her Greek was even more archaic than Moira's. Pavlos had to concentrate to understand the heavily inflected speech.
     "You are right," Atropos went on. "I am lazy because Lachesis, my dear sister" -- she motioned to the weaver, who never once looked up -- "has this last century insisted that I give her more length in the average thread... even though they are more numerous than ever. Clotho and I have been humoring her, though it is we who will decide when this silly phase comes soon to end."
     With that she grimaced and leaned over to snip with the shears. With each "click" a rain of tiny bobbins fell to the floor. Pavlos winced as the clacking speeded up to a high-pitched burr.
     "Well!" Clotho cried out. "Now comes the part I like second best! Now that introductions are over, hero, what is your first remark?"
     She sat expectantly, like an artist awaiting worship, but equally willing to accept vehement detestation as a form of praise.
     Pavlos forced himself to answer, feeling a desperate need to maintain momentum until he had a chance to think.
     "Your job was to prepare the thread that makes up the length and tone of a man's life. I'd like to know how you accomplish that."
     The hag was startled for a moment. The expression looked so unaccustomed on her toothless, satisfied face, that Pavlos felt an instant's triumph. Any uncertainty he caused these furies was a momentary victory for his sanity.
     "The first!" she cried in sudden delight. "The first hero to ask me that!
     "Always they ask the stupid questions, like 'Who gave you the right'... or 'Why'..." Her voice became mockingly querulous.
     Pavlos remained silent. Those were the questions he had wanted to ask next.
     "At last a practical hero!" Clotho went on. "No prayers to the dead little gods, or futile attempts to exorcise us by calling on One who is too big, and has forgotten we exist... no, this hero has gained my favor! Come, hero! I will show you how it is done!"
     She reached for his hand. When she touched it Pavlos felt a brief thrill of power, as if her aura were something palpable and electric.
     But her skin felt rough and dry. Her grip was very strong as she pulled him out the broad portico and down the marble steps of the front face of the temple, into the late afternoon shadows.
     He was almost dragged through an overgrown carpet of grass and native flax, across an open area toward a forest-shrouded building on the other side.
     A small tholos, a roofed circle of marble columns, faced the temple across the open meadow. It stood beneath a great cedar, the largest Pavlos had ever seen. The fluted pillars of the ancient structure were laced with almost microscopic filigree that had a sort of metallic sheen. But in between, the openings were blocked by massive slabs of undressed stone, which clashed with the original design.
     With surprising agility, the ancient fury pulled him along up the short stairs to the narrow portico. There she stopped Pavlos and motioned him to be still as she dragged aside a granite stone blocking the doorway.
     Clotho looked quickly about the rim of the opening, as if watching for something trying to escape. When finally satisfied she grinned at him and crooked a finger in sly invitation.
     "So you wanted to see how it begins, did you? Then look!" she hissed. "No more than a handful of men have ever seen what you now see."
     Pavlos peered into the dimness. Beyond the trapezoid of light cast on the floor by the doorway, the interior was gloomy as a starless night.
     Yet, off toward the back, there seemed to be a faint glow. It shimmered with a suggestion of an outline that changed before he could grasp it. His mind struggled, and failed to form a straightforward image.
     "It looks like... like a hole. Yes, it's like a deep hole in space, but with a hint of light at the end. It feels like I'm trying to see through my blind spot."
     "Blind spot... hole in space? Yes! Yes!" she cried.
     "You fool! Idiot! You are the smartest of all your race of apes to visit us, and still you don't recognize this?"
     She whacked him on the arm and almost knocked him over. He would have a welt from that blow.
     Smartest of all? No, Pavlos thought. I'm merely the latest. I'm probably the first arrival who has heard of Einstein... who knows, at least in abstract, that space has shape and texture, almost like her "cloth." I've heard of black holes and antimatter, and I've seen the special effects in those American science fiction films. Perhaps that has prepared me.
     But prepared me to do what? To devise glib theories, certainly. I can think of a half-dozen fanciful concepts to explain this, whereas all the other heroes had to think in terms of "miracles" and "magic."
     Big deal, as Frank would say. Perhaps they were better off at that.

     The hag pointed at the shimmering, burning blackness at the rear of the building. Pavlos turned to watch her, feeling the cottony numbness pack more fully than ever around his mind.
     "That's where you come from, hero," she announced with dry satisfaction.
     "See the threads? You probably can't, with them in their natural colors, and not gathered into skeins or bobbins. But if I let them, they would fly free into the sky, to tangle with each other as they liked... each the essence of a human soul, good for a hundred years or perhaps more!
     "Some do get away. A few fly off to annoy us. Some become 'great teachers and leaders'..." Her voice was thick with sarcasm. "We manage to kill them off eventually by finding the part of the tapestry which avoids control, where there is a gap that influences the threads around it. Then we choke it off, at last."
     "But where...?"
     "Fool! Look at it! It is a gateway that was pushed into this world... my world... fifty thousand years ago!" Clotho shook her fist into the gloom, menacingly.
     "We greeted their emissaries courteously, at first... or as courteously as they had any right to expect. Oh, they were great ones for having ideas. Claimed to be as old as we were and interested in learning from us. They settled down here and soon began meddling with our human pets! They said humans showed promise'!"
     Clotho sniffed.
     "Oh, you were fairly bright. How you worshiped us! But naturally you lacked the Spark. No ambition at all. No curiosity. And your lives were shorter than this!" She snapped her fingers. "Well, our visitors wanted to let you have some experience with the Spark. They said that maybe if you were given some for a while, along with guidance, you'd start making it yourselves. Hah!
     "Oh, we cooperated, for a time, though you never did seem about to learn anything. Finally we started to argue over what kind of experience humans needed.
     "Zeus agreed with us... at first... him in his sky tower with his thunderbolts..."
     "Zeus!"
     "Aye." She looked at him archly. "He was their leader. A tricky devil, and worse still with the one you now call Prometheus at his side. He was strong, too. Like the time he helped us do in Aesculapius... But he went sissy in the end, like the rest of his folk."
     "You mean the ancient Greek deities all had some basis in -- "
     "Who said all of them? I'm being kind to a smartaleck hero by telling it in a way he can understand! Like wearing this shape was originally for you humans' benefit, until we grew accustomed to it and found that it suited our purposes.
     "Anyway, who cares what their names were. We killed them all in the end. Or drove them back through their hole. That is all that matters! They got most of us, too; but still we won!"
     She crowed and shook her fist at the sky.
     "The hole's still open," Pavlos pointed out. "Is this other ancient race responsible for the threads?"
     Clotho paused to look at him, head cocked, as if torn between ripping him to shreds for his insolence, or rewarding him for being clever.
     "Yes!" she hissed. "We can't close it, or keep them from maintaining a narrow contact with your race. They send a thread of Spark for every human child born, without which you'd all be animals again! Each thread is tied to a life. Break a man's thread, and he dies!"
     Pavlos nodded. "Then you are the Fates, the Norns -- "
     "True enough. And we use their 'gifts' as we wish. We're making a beautiful tapestry out of the threads. When we're finished, we'll wipe out every last one of you, and stuff it down that hole to show them what became of their 'Grand Experiment'!"
     Her laughter was shrill and loud. It grew and grew until Pavlos had to retreat with his hands over his ears. The sound chased him down the steps and out onto the lawn. When it finally subsided, he could still feel the echo vibrating in his bones.
     He looked back once, as he trudged in the gathering twilight toward the main temple. Clotho was still inside the smaller building. He caught a glimpse of her, surrounded by a fiery nimbus as she leapt and hopped about the chamber, grabbing nothings out of midair and stuffing them into a bag.

5.

     Pavlos slowly felt a return to lucidity. He had recollections of wandering in the storeroom in back, searching among the memorabilia... for what, he couldn't remember. He recalled walking among the great stacks of folded tapestry, drifting dazedly, open to the holographic images that flashed at him from the past.
     And he remembered pawing through his pack, in the storeroom, inspecting each item as if for the first time. For an hour he shouted into the transceiver, screaming what would have to be incoherence to his friend the astronaut. Frank never replied.
     He had probably been out of line of sight. Or perhaps the ancient mountain was shielded, somehow.
     And maybe it was best Frank hadn't heard him, after all.
     For a while he watched Clotho at work, affixing her dyes to overlay the natural colors of the threads she had harvested. Finally, he sickened of her happy labor and went out into the night for a walk.

     He had only their word for it that they were immortal.
     Pavlos wondered about that. He still had his machete; and except for Moira, they looked like helpless old women. He had never killed before, although he had been willing to in the past, in border skirmishes and on expeditions into lawless lands. Surely he had the will now.
     But Clotho had been terribly strong. And then there were the other heroes to consider.
     Surely some of them must have tried a frontal assault. Obviously none had succeeded.
     Similarly, escape was probably impossible. It was too obvious an idea. All they had to do, probably, was have Atropos pick out his thread from among the five billion and snip it. He would fall in the darkness, or be bitten by a snake, and that would be that.
     Morosely, he looked up at the sky, with the bitterly clear stars shining overhead. Mount Ossa bulked darkly against the distant skyline.
     He considered prayer. The same logic held of course. It was an obvious thing to try... and had never worked, apparently. Still, it might be worth it to make the effort.
     Pavlos had never been a religious man. Nevertheless, he cast his thoughts outward for a time. It brought upon him a poignancy like nothing he had ever known; but when he turned around, the predicament remained the same.
     With shoulders hunched, he turned away from the chill and slowly climbed the broad steps into the temple. Moira awaited him, standing a few feet from the loom where Lachesis and Atropos continued their labors untiring.
     He watched them for a while. Lachesis's fingers were a blur, yet there was a fascination to the rhythmic pattern of her movements. He tried to see the beauty translating from the whirling motions of her hands to the pattern of the weave, but was distracted by the incessant clicking of Atropos's shears. He couldn't make himself believe that he was seeing his own human society in the making, from moment to moment before him, in the microscopic lengthening of the abstract tapestry.
     "Lately some of the patterns have developed a degree of spontaneity," Moira said from beside him. "Not only are there more threads than ever, but Lachesis seems to have been giving them their head in contacting one another. It makes little sense, geographically. People seem to be on the move more... and the rate of travel has surprised us.
     "I thought you controlled everything we do," Pavlos said bitterly.
     "That is true to an extent," Moira agreed, "though what is controlled consists primarily in who a person meets during his life. Lachesis handles this by having thread contact thread -- and in the way men and women feel about one another when they meet. That part is managed by Clothe's dyes. Finally Atropos chooses the moment of death, constrained by the pattern in the tapestry.
     "Thus it is Clotho, primarily, who drives the theme of mankind's weaving, for her colors constrain Lachesis to fit them together in an arrangement that has meaning. Of late, however, our eldest sister seems to have become more imaginative in her patterning, causing threads to hop about like fleas upon a rug. We do not know why she is moving you humans about the world so, these days... Lachesis has not spoken to us for centuries, now. We are very interested in finding out how you are managing it physically. That is one reason why Clotho was so glad to learn that a hero had finally come.
     Pavlos paused.
     "You mean you don't know -- ?" Then he stopped. By lamplight he saw something he had not noticed before. Four very large bobbins hung at the edge of the tapestry. Their size alone was hint enough, but when he saw the long, totally straight trace of those threads, visible among all of the others and leading interminably back into the weave, Pavlos felt a cold elation.
     With a cry he leapt forward, the machete gleaming bright in his hand. He seized the large bobbins in his left hand and brought the machete down with all his might.
     He felt a slicing... a sudden parting. His blood surged with battle fever. But when he looked down he saw the stump that his blade had become. Four gleaming pieces of steel lay on the ground.
     He opened his left hand. The large bobbins were intact, still connected by undamaged thread to the loom. But also in his palm was a curling mass of tiny tendrils, attached to tiny balls smaller than ants.
     There was a sound like thunder.
     Lachesis finally took notice of him, barely. Almost as an afterthought, she pushed him aside. The force sent him reeling, the bobbins torn from his grasp. He slipped on the smooth marble floor and skittered until he tumbled, jarringly, into a massive pillar.
     Atropos laughed.
     "Good try, hero! Only one in ten thinks of that! And only a few are strong enough to break steel on us!"
     Moira came up to him, smiling with a certain degree of pity. She offered her hand. It was such a natural gesture that Pavlos took it unconsciously. His ears were ringing and the rumble of thunder was growing.
     Atropos peered at the section of the weave he had attacked. "And a stronger hero, even still! Not mighty enough to break our threads, I fear... but the first in a long time powerful enough to snap a few humans he grabbed along by mistake!"
     "What?" Pavlos felt dizzy. Suddenly he remembered the curling wisps, the tiny, antlike bobbins in his hand.
     "As I see it --" Atropos looked closely "-- you snipped almost a hundred of them... not more than a few leagues from here!"
     She sounded impressed. Pavlos stared.
     The growling sound drifted in from the open portico, now punctuated with distant coughs and pops. Only slowly did Pavlos come to recognize it. With leaden footsteps, he followed it outside.
     Flame leapt from a mountainside no more than twenty miles away. Several explosions followed one another, pealing across the hills like funeral drums. The tiny speck flickered with a hot, blue glare for long minutes, before settling down to a lingering, crimson flame.
     "... a plane crash," Pavlos muttered to himself, the cottony numbness gathering around him once again in a protective embrace. "Something straying from the main routes... maybe a military jet."
     Moira stood beside him, watching the disaster slowly burn down. Finally she asked, "What is a 'plane'? And what is a -- a 'military jet'?"

6.

     Pavlos rubbed his eyes, peered about in the gloom of the storeroom, and wondered how long he had been asleep. He sat by the eastern wall, in a circle of helmets, scrolls, ancient artifacts, and articles from his pack, letting his gaze rest on each item in turn.
     Weapons, texts, personal items from a hundred brave men. Each hero must have striven in his own way to overcome the ancient creatures who dwelt here. And each instead served them, by reporting the state of the world he knew.
     His gaze fell on the transceiver, still turned on and apparently operational, yet also apparently useless. Frank had never answered. Now Pavlos hoped he never would. If he heard Pavlos's story, he would undoubtedly think his friend delirious, and have a helicopter sent out.
     The helicopter would, of course, burn like the jet did, as would anything humanity sent against these hags.
     The door at the far end scraped open. Footsteps whispered softly in the dust, and Moira appeared at the end of a nearby aisle.
     "Atropos and Clotho want to see you," she said.
     "What do they want?"
     Moira shrugged "They will want to ask you questions, to have all of your knowledge. They are curious about some of the changes that have taken place in the physical lives of men.
     Pavlos held the bronze helmet on his lap, fingering the design along its crest. "How can you manipulate us without knowing anything about our science, our machines... our weapons?"
     "They hardly matter, do they?" She sighed. "Have they changed your emotions? The way you treat each other? The savagery and misery -- "
     "Which Clotho colors in!"
     "Which she only exaggerates! They are there anyway, to a lesser extent!" Moira snapped. There was power in her voice, and irritation. Pavlos also thought he detected a note of defensiveness. "It would be impossible for her to corrupt you if you had not the seed already, in copious supply."
     Pavlos looked down, avoiding her gaze.
     Moira glared for a moment, then shrugged again.
     "We were surprised, three heroes ago, to learn of gunpowder. The last hero told us of steamships. Clotho added some new pigments to see what wars would match the scale of your new toys. The pattern of the weave became more uniform."
     She looked pensive for a moment.
     "I will admit that I've become curious, these last few years. The number of new threads Clotho collects shows a massive birthrate, as if you humans were testing our power, somehow.
     "And there have been times when I have seen things in the air, like the rocs of elder days; things that fly growling through the sky. I have recently come to think that they might not be natural, but something caused by man. Are they these 'planes' you spoke of? They fly so swift and free" -- her expression grew distant -- "much as I once flew, before the war that brought down Zeus's sky tower and ended the glory of my race.
     Pavlos hardly paid attention to her words; he remembered something she had said earlier:
     "Clotho added some new pigments to see what wars would match the scale of your toys."
     No wonder we've gone so long without nuclear war,
he thought. In our natural hues we're too sensible to go that far. Now, though...
     Pavlos shook himself away from that thought. He looked up at Moira. "Where do you fit into all this?" he asked. "Your name, I know -- "
     "Means 'Fate,' yes. Another of your nations called me Nemesis." Her eyes seemed to shine, as she remembered. "When we agreed, at first, to the experiment proposed by the emissaries from the Other Place, I was the one who was the most enthusiastic. I worked with the emissary whom you now call Prometheus. I weeded and pruned. I ran to and fro across the globe, tending mankind like my own personal garden.
     "You needed so much work, in the beginning." Moira smiled distantly. "It is true that the Spark of Imagination and Ambition needs practice. Your ancestors were always hiding from it, or misusing it terribly. They wasted it on 'magic tricks' and mental powers for which they were simply unready. It took us long to suppress those powers deep within you, until such a time as you were ready for them.
     "Yet still I remember the most precocious of my children. Aesculapius, who had so much Spark of his own that he had to be destroyed. Alcestis, who spontaneously invented self-sacrifice, something we had never known. And sweet Odin, who visited me when I was Mimir, sitting by the gateway beneath the Great Tree, long before the terrible war, and offered me his eye in exchange for wisdom."
     Moira frowned.
     "Then came the day when Zeus declared you ready, and my sisters became afraid. Even I, your eldest mother, who was Gaea and Demeter and Amaterasu, thought you were unripe and dangerous.
     "I helped my elder siblings pull down the sky tower and drive Prometheus into the Gateway. The last I saw of him was his smile. He winked at me, then disappeared. Within a day, the threads began arriving; and Clotho found she no longer had the power to end your race, merely to warp it.
     "To do even that much we had to make our transumptive personas almost real. To gain control over the potency of the threads, we were forced to weave ourselves into the tapestry, giving, for this epoch, our very lives into yarn to be woven therein.
     "Is it any wonder, then, that my sisters and I grow bored or bitter at the passage of time? There was a sweetness that I once knew, in wearing this form, but now I cannot remember it. Now even a rare visitor excites in me no more than a vague unease... and a wish that somehow this labor could come to an end."
     Pavlos began to speak; but something powerful stopped him as he looked at her distant, unfocused gaze. It was as if his ancestors had reached out to stifle him with a warning. Something of the experience of his forebears told him it was better to stay small and quiet during the confession of a goddess.
     As if to verify this, Moira's eyes shifted to gaze upon his. They were now steely and alert. If lightning had flashed from them he would not have been surprised.
     "So get thee up, thou lean-thighed Athenian, and bring toys to demonstrate them," she said. "You will get to ask of us one great reward, as heroes are privileged to do, before giving us your mind and becoming immortal in our memories.
     Pavlos hurriedly swept the items on the floor together and stuffed them into his pack. At this stage disobedience was the farthest thing from his mind.

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 fly...

Elsewhere, 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 mistake...

Hatreds 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.

8.

     "... I thought you were delirious! Those random mutterings about mythological women, controlling humankind with magical needles and thread -- "
     "Of course, Frank. What else were you to think?" Pavlos held the microphone of the small transceiver close to his mouth. He rested with one elbow on the top step of the broad temple stylobate. He was relieved to find his American friend relatively calm. Only a small tremor in the voice from the tiny speaker gave clue to the shock he had experienced.
     "Well, Pav, what was I to do? I was just about to call the police to get some search-and-rescue started when I realized it was sunrise, down there. So I took a chance and warmed up the spyscope to take a look."
     "And saw --"
     "And saw a tapestry fifty feet or longer... with colors I'd never seen before! Shit. You were sitting there, those women standing around, then you touched that damned loom thing and something happened to me!"
     Pavlos nodded. "So you decided to take a chance."
     "Yeah. I mean, what the hell, right? Everyone else up here was asleep. I figured, what would it hurt to burn a thread?"
     "I had no idea your experimental weapons were that good, Frank."
     "Nor I! I wish to heaven I could remember what I did to keep the beam tight and steady like that! Speaking of which, you did some pretty fine fire control, helping me get that second witch. I almost had heart failure when the first one exploded like that!"
     Pavlos laughed. It was good to know that Frank was going to be all right. An awful burden had fallen upon Pavlos, and he would need a friend with whom he could share it.
     "Okay, Frank. Then there won't be any trouble at your end?"
     "Trouble? What, me worry?" There was only a slight touch of hysteria in Frank's laughter. "Look, Pav, I gotta go. Talk to you later. The commander's up and he'll be wondering what I've been up to all night!" The carrier wave cut off with a subdued "click," but the astronaut's tinny laughter seemed to hang in the air.
     Pavlos put down the microphone. He stretched back to rest his elbows on the granite platform and allowed the sunshine to do its work on him.
     The loom was a few feet away. Lachesis sat in her accustomed chair, once again making a blur of her hands as she shuttled five billion bobbins in intricate patterns through the warp of the tapestry. The rhythmic pumping of the foot pedal sounded like a heartbeat. There was a hint of smile on her parched, ancient face, and once again she seemed oblivious to everything but her art.
     Out on the lawn two seared brown patches stood out against the green. Beyond them he saw Moira leaving the Gateway shrine, carrying a covered basket.
     She mounted the wide steps of the portico, a distant expression of bemusement on her face.
     "They are still coming through," she said. "I'm not as nimble as Clotho was, so a fair number of the newborn threads escaped. That was what we had agreed to allow soon, anyway.
     Pavlos nodded. "I've been thinking about it, and I've come to believe you're right. Starting off by letting a few percent run wild -- that would be a fair experiment. If we humans have learned to use the Spark properly -- maybe even well enough to dispense with the threads altogether -- then those children will show it soon enough.
     "And if not?"
     Pavlos shrugged. He could not help glancing at Lachesis.
     The crone had dropped her bobbins and now held Atropos' shears. The clicking sound of lifelines parting went on for a moment, then she sat back and examined. The ghost of a smile returned. She went back to work, weaving.
     "We could have taken this thing no further if we tried," Moira assured him. "Lachesis is less fragile than Atropos and Clotho. I doubt it is within the realm of man or god to thwart her. Indeed, this whole affair probably came about because she finally tired of Clotho's garish, unnatural colors, and Atropos's meddling. In the last fifty years she has been forcing Atropos to allow the average lifespan to increase. This may be what she was leading up to.
     "I doubt very much if she'll let me wash Clotho's dyes out of the bobbins already in place. There will have to be a transition, or the tapestry will look disjointed -- something she will never allow.
     "But I will try to clean a few of the uglier threads, or snip them. She won't mind that. And from this day forth the new threads will wear their natural colors... for well or ill."
     Moira looked Pavlos in the eyes.
     "You know how hard this is, to forswear all but the smallest interference. I am an old goddess, and I will find it hard to change. Even you may find yourself tempted to go too far, when you start feeling more and more of your power as a god."
     Pavlos felt a moment's irritation. They had disagreed about this earlier. "I'm not a god, I tell you. Stop saying that!"
     She smiled, and touched his arm lightly.
     "Not a hero, then not a god? Pavlos Apropoulos, you did not hear yourself, perhaps, when you cursed my sisters and called down thunderbolts?"
     "I told you, those were --"
     "'Laser' bolts instead, yes. And your friend, who is also only a man, managed to overcome all of the safeguards on that secret weapon in his sky tower, and his doubts on hearing your weird tale through that talking box --"
     "Radio."
     "And you do not think these are the acts of gods?"
     Pavlos shrugged. Moira made him uncomfortable. There were too many things to think about... things that would take time and open air to consider... a desert somewhere, or a mountaintop.
     "By the way," Moira interrupted his train of thought. Her tone was no longer imperious, but that of an experienced elder speaking to a younger peer. "You should know that your presence will be required here in a year's time, when the summer solstice comes."
     Pavlos looked at her. Somehow she had made her appearance softer. She must have taken the time to comb and braid her hair properly. In her hand, the basket throbbed with the healthy kicking of a hundred thousand newly sparked, undyed threads. She cradled the basket, smiling happily.
     "Why that day, in particular?" Pavlos asked.
     Her smile widened.
     "Because today's events made it clear to me that the One still exists, and has finally intervened again. I decided, therefore, to make peace.
     "On that day, an emissary will come through the Gateway. It will be only for a visit," she soothed. "So you needn't fear any more meddling.
     "I merely want you here so that Prometheus can see how big, strong, and handsome his many times grandson has grown.
     Pavlos was astonished to find himself blushing. He looked down at his feet while, a few meters away, Lachesis worked her pedals and wove her bobbins. The fresh air carried sounds of a new pattern forming.

THE END

AUTHOR'S NOTES

My short stories tend to be very unlike my novellas, which, in turn, have a different flavor than my long, generally complex novels.

The short pieces -- when they are not Analog tales about technical gimmickry -- are often attempts to express an epiphany... a hanging note that rings in the reader's mind after the story is put down, resonating in the sound of the language itself. Bradbury does this so very well. James Joyce was a great master. I dare try my hand at their art without needing to believe I can ever match them.

The novelette (7,500 to 17,500 words) and the novella (17,500 to 40,000 words) fill the span between short works of fiction and novels, a treasured zone allowing richer expression of character and setting without requiring the vast complexity or filler material of a novel. I love the novella form.

My novellas tend to deal with myth, or contain mythic elements. This is not hard to see in "The Loom of Thessaly," but it was also true for the first two portions of my book The Postman, which appeared as separate novellas in Asimov's SF Magazine, in 1982 and 1984. Comprising together the first half of the novel, they are the reason why The Postman has a more mythic tone than my other full-length works.

If science fiction has been kind to the short story, it has saved the novella. The vast majority of the tales of this length professionally published in the U.S. appear in the SF magazines and anthologies.

"The Loom of Thessaly" has always been one of my favorite pieces -- despite the horrible pun that it features, near the end. I am one of those who believe that there is such a thing as progress... that we are slowly getting better. One way we do this is by sympathizing with those who lived in the past, who struggled in almost total darkness toward the dim glow of dawn, to bring us where we are.


David Brin is a scientist and best-selling author whose future-oriented novels include Earth, The Postman, and Hugo Award winners Startide Rising and The Uplift War. (The Postman inspired a major film in 1998.) Brin is also known as a leading commentator on modern technological trends. His nonfiction book -- The Transparent Society -- won the Freedom of Speech Award of the American Library Association. Brin's newest novel Kiln People explores a fictional near future when people use cheap copies of themselves to be in two places at once. The Life Eaters -- a graphic novel -- explores a chilling alternative outcome of World War II.


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CONTENTS for THE RIVER OF TIME:

DESTINY:
The Crystal Spheres
The Loom of Thessaly
The Fourth Vocation of George Gustaf

RECOLLECTON:
Senses Three and Six
Toujours Voir
A Stage of Memory

SPECULATION:
Just a Hint
Tank Farm Dynamo
Thor Meets Captain America

PROPAGATION:
Lungfish
The River of Time