Previously: Ianno Starling takes a hike. The trials of the trail. He becomes one with the trail. He succumbs to an easily preventable infection. He falls down a hole.
Starling rode through the heavens on fever-wings. He saw mighty mountains crashing and breaking against an ocean of stone, felt a wind of whispers dash him against the gel-dome of the stars, heard a strain of music that filled him with such terrific nostalgia he felt as if he had returned to the womb, and pain, pain in his leg, in his skin, in his bones, when he woke up and remembered that he would soon die.
He felt that his body was the dream, and his dreams the true reality, the long walk and the humiliation before and the life of failure and success and love and hate that preceded it just another night, and he imagined as he woke that he curled up in a pea pod sleep, and when he slept again he woke in a stampede of colors, blooming in paint out of rust-colored moss in his childhood home as in the distance a woman called his name.
The dreams faded, the pain faded, all but an ache through all of his muscles, and he floated in the dark and waited to wake.
He groaned. "Call me Starling." He reached for his forehead and, to his surprise, found his forehead.
"Starling." He knew the voice from somewhere, a woman's voice, alto, husky, a throat worn by laughter, and he strained to recall her face. He sat up, or thought he did, and groped around himself. He was laid on a luscious, thick carpet, soaked with water, as were his clothes. His mouth was completely parched.
"There's a pitcher of water on the floor to your right," she said. He groped in the dark, then panic struck.
He struggled to gain his feet, but collapsed halfway. Shapeless afterimages drifted in front of him, and he lurched through the emptiness of space. "I'm blind." His grasping hand knocked over something smooth and cold, and he clutched the pitcher to himself and drank as he wept.
Laughter. The woman seemed to be standing above him, an arm's length away, and her laughter burbled and pealed, and he felt himself imagining that it had been dammed up for mysterious ages.
"You're not blind. It's dark. The furnishings in this house are old, and the dimmest light would make them crumble."
She laughed again, a short laugh of pure joy. "It is my pleasure to welcome to Dolphin Cottage. Can you stand? I'll give you a tour. Oh, the wall's just a little farther that way. Good."
He trembled as he stood. His body was wiry, rangy, unfamiliar, and as he tried to remember how he had come to this place all he could remember was a dust-colored blur.
"I'm Glimmer. It's nice to meet you."
"How did you know my name?" He remembered flashes of dreams, shouting into the void, conversing with himself, and groaned.
"That was a nasty infection," she said. "I did what I could, I cooled you down with the sprinkler system, but I'm surprised you lived."
"Yeah, I've got a stubborn streak." He lurched towards her, but his feet squelched in his wet boots and he stumbled and fell. "Could you give me a hand?"
She laughed again. "No."
He mumbled and cursed under his breath. She laughed again. "I would if I could, you know?"
"What's the problem? You'd die if you touched a man?"
"I'm made of sugar. I dissolve in the rain."
He grunted. His boots clung to his wet socks as he yanked them off. He felt for the scar under his wet pant leg, and felt vaguely uncomfortable, as if he were groping another man's leg. "I was overweight when I started walking, if you can believe it."
"Oh." She sounded genuinely interested. "Where did you come from?"
"Scandi. It's a country about... how long was it? A hundred day's walk east of here?"
"I don't know that place." Her voice drooped. "Oh! The tour! You are currently on the observation deck of Dolphin Cottage. It's where most tours end up, but since you came in from the ceiling you're a special case."
He stood up, trying to process the words. "Observation?"
"Yes, Dolphin Cottage was built as the penthouse of Dolphin Tower, rising another four stories above that building's already considerable height. I believe the main antenna remains above ground."
He ran his fingers across the wall. Smooth, cold, like glass.
"That's the main window. The binoculars are to your right - the Master let schoolkids use them for free - but I'm afraid we don't have the best view anymore."
There were, indeed, swivel-mounted binoculars there, of advanced construction, if his fingers didn't lie. "What happened?"
"Nothing catastrophic, well, not after the first... but we cleaned up after that as best as we could. Then the dam burst, and... sediment... and... a really long time passed..."
"Who are you?" He was steadier now, and he made for the sound of her voice. It echoed from further down the room, with no sound of footsteps.
"I'm Glimmer," she said. "I take care of this building. Would you like to meet me? Come on, follow my voice."
He felt along the window, then a wall made of something that had grain like wood but was as hard as rock. "This door was always closed when the Master was around," said Glimmer. "He liked people so much, but at a distance. Watch the stairs."
"What do you mean, meet you?"
"Meet me. In person."
"Oh." A tribe of pale, blind cannibals living in caves and eating travelers disappeared from his mind's eye. "Infrared cameras. Speakers in the ceiling. I get it."
"You understand!" She sounded excited. "Your people must have recovered a lot more."
"So are you taking me to, what, a quarantine room or something? I don't want to get you sick."
"Watch out for the last step... No, I wouldn't worry about that." She giggled. "This room is Master's biolab. Be careful not to break anything. It should all be dead but let's not take chances. Anything you'd like to touch?"
"No? Let's move on to the map room. There's a lovely globe in here you can feel..."
She took him through a small gym, a cramped rock garden, a workshop (he thrilled as he turned the bit on a huge lathe), a radio room, and a wind tunnel. "Would you like to clean up? I'm afraid I can't prepare a meal. Next is the Master's quarters."
It was a room smaller than his prison cell would have been, but it had an enclosed shower, a kitchenette, and a stiff bed. "There are drawers in the wall behind the bed with clean clothes. They should tailor themselves for you, if not let me know and I'll zap 'em. Don't grab the stiff ones, you can't take them into light." Her voice seemed to echo from the hallway outside. "We put soap directly into the shower water. Don't eat the food, it's all bad. The big bottle on the sink is depilatory gel."
She left him alone to clean up in the dark. The gel removed his beard but left welts on his chin. Glimmer burst into laughter when he emerged. "I should have known your skin chemistry would be different," she said. "And that outfit... such a creative combination!"
The pants, shirt, and coat had indeed tailored themselves, writhing and shrinking and stretching, but in a style he was unfamiliar with, tight and loose in all the wrong places. The immense shoes in the closet refused to tailor themselves, so with bare feet he followed Glimmer's voice through the halls.
"All those places were on the way to Master's room. It wasn't a very good tour." She sounded somewhat penitent. "I just wanted to meet you, and it's been so long... ah, this door only opens manually. There's a lever... yes, there, just above your hand, and another one the same height on the other side. Pull them both at the same time."
The door slid backwards and to the side. The air ahead of him was still, dry, smelled of grease and citrus. "Walk straight forward... a little too far, take a step backward. Now turn to your right... stop there, and walk forward."
The tiles were cold under his bare feet. The stillness was absolute. A chill ran through him as he padded through the dark.
"Stop! The wall's ahead of you. Feel your way down it, to the left. There's a recessed drawer there, turn the handle ninety degrees clockwise and pull it out." The handle was covered in dust, but the drawer slid out smoothly.
"I have a request for you..."
A light flared in front of him, and he yelped and covered his face. As his eyes adjusted he found that it was only a faint glow, enough to cast deep shadows of machinery in the room around him.
"Wherever you're going..."
The drawer held wires and pipes, woven around each other like a nest, and inside was a lump of metal, roughly heart-shaped, with illuminated indicator dots and lines, all pulsing in time with Glimmer's voice.
"Will you take me with you?"