THE MAMMOTH BOOK OF NEBULA AWARDS SF
Edited by Kevin J. Anderson
Kevin J. Anderson
For forty-five years, the members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) have been reading, pondering, dickering over, and selecting the most exceptional works in the genre. Each year, they present the prestigious Nebula Award for Best Novel, Novella (17,500-40,000 words), Novelette (7,500-17,500 words), and Short Story (less than 7,500 words). The first ceremonies, in 1965, honored works by Frank Herbert, Brian W. Aldiss, Roger Zelazny, and Harlan Ellison. Not a bad start.
Throughout each year, the fifteen hundred or so members of SFWA send in recommendations to call attention to works they find worthy of consideration. If a story or novel receives enough recommendations within a year of publication, the work is included on that year’s Preliminary Ballot. The full members of SFWA vote on the shortlisted works to winnow them down to four candidates in each category (a special jury can also add works that they feel slipped through the cracks), and that’s the final Nebula ballot, from which the winners are chosen.
Hence, the contents of this Showcase.
The genre’s rival award, the Hugo, is chosen by the readers and fans, the equivalent of the People’s Choice Awards. The Hugo and Nebula audiences’ tastes don’t always agree, but both awards are an impressive feather in an author’s cap. For me, the final ballots serve another vital purpose: providing SF and fantasy readers with a cream-of-the-crop reading list.
When I grew up as a kid in small-town Wisconsin, with a whole section of the public library devoted to science fiction (as denoted by little rocket stickers on the spines), it was hard to know where to start. The section was daunting and huge — six whole shelves filled with science fiction books! I could have begun at the top and worked my way down, which would have made me very familiar with Asimov, Bradbury, and Clarke, but I would never have made it to Zelazny. Obviously, not a good system.
Instead, I turned to the Nebula Awards anthologies for a selection of each year’s best work; from there, with a checklist of past Nebula novel winners, I was steered toward such masterpieces as Ringworld, The Forever War, Rendezvous with Rama, Man Plus, Gateway, Stardance, and many others. I studied the works, learned from them, and (most of all) enjoyed them.
By age twelve I was already an aspiring writer sending stories out in the mail, and starting my pile of rejection slips. My interest in writing did not go unnoticed, and teachers began to encourage me. I got connected with a local book-review service and found myself with as many free novels as I could read, so long as I turned in reviews afterward. (I was only fifteen at the time, and “book review” felt more like a “book report.”) The book review editor encouraged me to attend a local science fiction convention in Madison, Wisconsin — WisCon. He even loaned me the $15 membership fee. That was where I met my very first real-live New York editor, David Hartwell. I was just a high-school kid, too shy to talk much, and I wondered if all professional editors wore such strange neckties. (Hartwell, by the way, is also Tor’s editor for this very book, and we have worked together on other projects as well.)
After graduating from the University of Wisconsin, I moved away from the Midwest — still wanting to be an author — and took a job in the San Francisco area as a technical writer for a large research laboratory. There I discovered a much wider world of fandom, other like-minded aspiring authors, writers’ workshops, and frequent conventions. I attended my first Nebula Awards ceremony in 1985 at the swanky Claremont Hotel in Oakland, California (nobody told me I wasn’t supposed to wear my battered Star Wars T-shirt), where I watched Orson Scott Card receive the Nebula for Ender’s Game.
I published my first professional stories, sold my first novel, then three more novels, joined SFWA as a full member — and suddenly authors and publishers began sending me novels and stories to consider for the Nebula Award. Instead of just looking at each year’s nominees and winners as a list of good fiction to read, I could cast my vote, add my recommendation to books and stories that I found particularly noteworthy. It was a heady responsibility (and a tough task for a relatively slow reader). Just keeping up with all the best writing was nearly impossible.
Each year’s Nebula Awards Showcase certainly helps.
Tastes and styles have changed over the years, but the works that are recommended and nominated by SFWA members always form a melting pot of science fiction and fantasy: bold ideas, excellent world-building, clear and precise prose, or mind-bending experimental writing — the whole gamut.
This volume is no different. Reading these stories, you will find a wide range of colorful fantasy, experimental speculative fiction, steampunk, edgy near-mainstream, and hard SF. The tales will take you from the distant past, to a skewed modern day, to the far future, as well as to sideways points in between. Tor Books has generously allowed us the space to include not only the winning works in the three short-form categories, but also all of the nominees in the Novelette and Short Story categories. I guarantee that you’ll love something here.
Let the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America show you our best.
FINAL 2009 NEBULA BALLOT
“Hooves and the Hovel of Abdel Jameela,” Saladin Ahmed (Clockwork Phoenix 2, Norilana Books, July 2009)
“I Remember the Future,” Michael A. Burstein (I Remember the Future, Apex Publications, November 2008)
“Non-Zero Probabilities,” N. K. Jemisin (Clarkesworld, November 2009)
“Spar,” Kij Johnson (Clarkesworld, October 2009)
“Going Deep,” James Patrick Kelly (Asimov’s Science Fiction, June 2009)
“Bridesicle,” Will McIntosh (Asimov’s Science Fiction, January 2009)
“The Gambler,” Paolo Bacigalupi (Fast Forward 2, Pyr Books, October 2008)
“Vinegar Peace (or, the Wrong-Way, Used-Adult Orphanage),” Michael Bishop (Asimov’s Science Fiction, July 2008)
“I Needs Must Part, the Policeman Said,” Richard Bowes (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, December 2009)
“Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast,” Eugie Foster (Interzone, February 2009)
“Divining Light,” Ted Kosmatka (Asimov’s Science Fiction, August 2008)
“A Memory of Wind,” Rachel Swirsky (Tor.com, November 2009)
The Women of Nell Gwynne’s, Kage Baker (Subterranean Press, June 2009)
Arkfall, Carolyn Ives Gilman (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, September 2009)
Act One, Nancy Kress (Asimov’s Science Fiction, March 2009)
Shambling Towards Hiroshima, James Morrow (Tachyon, February 2009)
Sublimation Angels, Jason Sanford (Interzone, October 2009)
The God Engines, John Scalzi ( Subterranean Press, December 2009)
The Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi (Night Shade Books, September 2009)
The Love We Share Without Knowing, Christopher Barzak (Bantam, November 2008)
Flesh and Fire, Laura Anne Gilman (Pocket, October 2009)
The City & The City, China Miéville (Del Rey, May 2009)
Boneshaker, Cherie Priest (Tor, September 2009)
Finch, Jeff VanderMeer (Underland Press, October 2009)
The Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation
Star Trek, JJ Abrams, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (Paramount, May 2009)
District 9, Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell (Tri-Star, August 2009)
Avatar, James Cameron (Fox, December 2009)
Moon, Duncan Jones and Nathan Parker (Sony, June 2009)
Up, Bob Peterson and Pete Docter (Disney/Pixar, May 2009)
Coraline, Henry Selick (Laika/Focus, February 2009)
Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy
Hotel Under the Sand, Kage Baker (Tachyon, July 2009)
Ice, Sarah Beth Durst (Simon & Schuster, October 2009)
Ash, Malinda Lo (Little, Brown and Company, September 2009)
Eyes Like Stars, Lisa Mantchev (Feiwel and Friends, July 2009)
Zoe’s Tale, John Scalzi (Tor Books, August 2008)
When You Reach Me, Rebecca Stead (Wendy Lamb Books, July, 2009)
The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, Catherynne M. Valente (Catherynne M. Valente, June 2009)
Leviathan, Scott Westerfeld (Simon Pulse, October 2009)
HOOVES AND THE HOVEL OF ABDEL JAMEELA
FROM THE AUTHOR: “Hooves and the Hovel of Abdel Jameela” is actually a prosification of a very short poem I wrote years ago. The poem consisted entirely of a single image — an old man somewhere in the medieval Islamic world defying the narrow-minded by declaring his love for a hooved woman. Translating this image into a story, of course, introduced deeper demands in terms of plot and character. These demands eventually led to the story that appears here. Most of the characters’ names, by the way, are vaguely allegorical or otherwise playful — “Abdel Jameela,” for instance, might be roughly translated as “servant (or slave) of beauty.”
AS SOON AS I arrive in the village of Beit Zujaaj I begin to hear the mutters about Abdel Jameela, a strange old man supposedly unconnected to any of the local families. Two days into my stay the villagers fall over one another to share with me the rumors that Abdel Jameela is in fact distantly related to the esteemed Assad clan. By my third day in Beit Zujaaj, several of the Assads, omniscient as “important” families always are in these piles of cottages, have accosted me to deny the malicious whispers. No doubt they are worried about the bad impression such an association might make on me, favorite physicker of the Caliph’s own son.
The latest denial comes from Hajjar al-Assad himself, the middle-aged head of the clan and the sort of half-literate lout that passes for a Shaykh in these parts. Desperate for the approval of the young courtier whom he no doubt privately condemns as an overschooled sodomite, bristlebearded Shaykh Hajjar has cornered me in the village’s only café — if the sitting room of a qat-chewing old woman can be called a café by anyone other than bumpkins.
I should not be so hard on Beit Zujaaj and its bumpkins. But when I look at the gray rock-heap houses, the withered gray vegetable-yards, and the stuporous gray lives that fill this village, I want to weep for the lost color of Baghdad.
Instead I sit and listen to the Shaykh.
“Abdel Jameela is not of Assad blood, O learned Professor. My grandfather took mercy, as God tells us we must, on the old man’s mother. Seventy-and-some years ago she showed up in Beit Zujaaj, half-dead from traveling and big with child, telling tales — God alone knows if they were true — of her Assad-clan husband, supposedly slain by highwaymen. Abdel Jameela was birthed and raised here, but he has never been of this village.” Shaykh Hajjar scowls. “For decades now — since I was a boy — he has lived up on the hilltop rather than among us. More of a hermit than a villager. And not of Assad blood,” he says again.
I stand up. I can take no more of the man’s unctuous voice and, praise God, I don’t have to.
“Of course, O Shaykh, of course. I understand. Now, if you will excuse me?”
Shaykh Hajjar blinks. He wishes to say more but doesn’t dare. For I have come from the Caliph’s court.
“Yes, Professor. Peace be upon you.” His voice is like a snuffed candle.
“And upon you, peace.” I head for the door as I speak.
The villagers would be less deferential if they knew of my current position at court — or rather, lack of one. The Caliph has sent me to Beit Zujaaj as an insult. I am here as a reminder that the well-read young physicker with the clever wit and impressive skill, whose company the Commander of the Faithful’s own bookish son enjoys, is worth less than the droppings of the Caliph’s favorite falcon. At least when gold and a Persian noble’s beautiful daughter are involved.
For God’s viceroy the Caliph has seen fit to promise my Shireen to another, despite her love for me. Her husband-to-be is older than her father — too ill, the last I heard, to even sign the marriage contract. But as soon as his palsied, liver-spotted hand is hale enough to raise a pen…
Things would have gone differently were I a wealthy man. Shireen’s father would have heard my proposal happily enough if I’d been able to provide the grand dowry he sought. The Caliph’s son, fond of his brilliant physicker, even asked that Shireen be wedded to me. But the boy’s fondness could only get me so far. The Commander of the Faithful saw no reason to impose a raggedy scholar of a son-in-law on the Persian when a rich old vulture would please the man more. I am, in the Caliph’s eyes, an amusing companion to his son, but one whom the boy will lose like a doll once he grows to love killing and gold-getting more than learning. Certainly I am nothing worth upsetting Shireen’s coin-crazed courtier father over.
For a man is not merely who he is, but what he has. Had I land or caravans I would be a different man — the sort who could compete for Shireen’s hand. But I have only books and instruments and a tiny inheritance, and thus that is all that I am. A man made of books and pittances would be a fool to protest when the Commander of the Faithful told him that his love would soon wed another.
I am a fool.
My outburst in court did not quite cost me my head, but I was sent to Beit Zujaaj “for a time, only, to minister to the villagers as a representative of Our beneficent concern for Our subjects.” And my fiery, tree-climbing Shireen was locked away to await her half-dead suitor’s recovery.
“O Professor! Looks like you might get a chance to see Abdel Jameela for yourself!” Just outside the café, the gravelly voice of Umm Hikma the café-keeper pierces the cool morning air and pulls me out of my reverie. I like old Umm Hikma, with her qat-chewer’s irascibility and her blacksmithish arms. Beside her is a broad-shouldered man I don’t know. He scuffs the dusty ground with his sandal and speaks to me in a worried stutter.
“P-peace be upon you, O learned Professor. We haven’t yet met. I’m Yousef, the porter.”
“And upon you, peace, O Yousef. A pleasure to meet you.”
“The pleasure’s mine, O Professor. But I am here on behalf of another. To bring you a message. From Abdel Jameela.”
For the first time since arriving in Beit Zujaaj, I am surprised. “A message? For me?”
“Yes, Professor. I am just returned from the old hermit’s hovel, a half-day’s walk from here, on the hilltop. Five, six times a year I bring things to Abdel Jameela, you see. In exchange he gives a few coins, praise God.”
“And where does he get these coins, up there on the hill?” Shaykh Hajjar’s voice spits out the words from the café doorway behind me. I glare and he falls silent.
I turn back to the porter. “What message do you bear, O Yousef? And how does this graybeard know of me?”
Broad-shouldered Yousef looks terrified. The power of the court. “Forgive me, O learned Professor! Abdel Jameela asked what news from the village and I… I told him that a court physicker was in Beit Zujaaj. He grew excited and told me beg upon his behalf for your aid. He said his wife was horribly ill. He fears she will lose her legs, and perhaps her life.”
“His wife?” I’ve never heard of a married hermit.
Umm Hikma raises her charcoaled eyebrows, chews her qat, and says nothing.
Shaykh Hajjar is more vocal. “No one save God knows where she came from, or how many years she’s been up there. The people have had glimpses only. She doesn’t wear the head scarf that our women wear. She is wrapped all in black cloth from head to toe and mesh-masked like a foreigner. She has spoken to no one. Do you know, O Professor, what the old rascal said to me years ago when I asked why his wife never comes down to the village? He said, ‘She is very religious’! The old dog! Where is it written that a woman can’t speak to other women? Other women who are good Muslims? The old son of a whore! What should his wife fear here? The truth of the matter is—”
“The truth, O Shaykh, is that in this village only your poor wife need live in fear!” Umm Hikma lets out a rockslide chuckle and gives me a conspiratorial wink. Before the Shaykh can sputter out his offended reply, I turn to Yousef again.
“On this visit, did you see Abdel Jameela’s wife?” If he can describe the sick woman, I may be able to make some guesses about her condition. But the porter frowns.
“He does not ask me into his home, O Professor. No one has been asked into his home for thirty years.”
Except for the gifted young physicker from the Caliph’s court. Well, it may prove more interesting than what I’ve seen of Beit Zujaaj thus far. I do have a fondness for hermits. Or, rather, for the idea of hermits. I can’t say that I have ever met one. But as a student I always fantasized that I would one day be a hermit, alone with God and my many books in the barren hills.
That was before I met Shireen.
“There is one thing more,” Yousef says, his broad face looking even more nervous. “He asked that you come alone.”
My heartbeat quickens, though there is no good reason for fear. Surely this is just an old hater-of-men’s surly whim. A physicker deals with such temperamental oddities as often as maladies of the liver or lungs. Still… “Why does he ask this?”
“He says that his wife is very modest and that in her state the frightening presence of men might worsen her illness.”
Shaykh Hajjar erupts at this. “Bah! Illness! More likely they’ve done something shameful they don’t want the village to know of. Almighty God forbid, maybe they—”
Whatever malicious thing the Shaykh is going to say, I silence it with another glare borrowed from the Commander of the Faithful. “If the woman is ill, it is my duty as a Muslim and a physicker to help her, whatever her husband’s oddities.”
Shaykh Hajjar’s scowl is soul-deep “Forgive me, O Professor, but this is not a matter of oddities. You could be in danger. We know why Abdel Jameela’s wife hides away, though some here fear to speak of such things.”
Umm Hikma spits her qat into the road, folds her powerful arms, and frowns. “In the name of God! Don’t you believe, Professor, that Abdel Jameela, who couldn’t kill an ant, means you any harm.” She jerks her chin at Shaykh Hajjar. “And you, O Shaykh, by God, please don’t start telling your old lady stories again!”
The Shaykh wags a finger at her. “Yes, I will tell him, woman! And may Almighty God forgive you for mocking your Shaykh!” Shaykh Hajjar turns to me with a grim look. “O learned Professor, I will say it plainly: Abdel Jameela’s wife is a witch.”
“A witch?” The last drops of my patience with Beit Zujaaj have dripped through the water clock. It is time to be away from these people. “Why would you say such a thing, O Shaykh?”
The Shaykh shrugs. “Only God knows for certain,” he says. His tone belies his words.
“May God protect us all from slanderous ill-wishers,” I say.
He scowls. But I have come from the Caliph’s court, so his tone is venomously polite. “It is no slander, O Professor. Abdel Jameela’s wife consorts with ghouls. Travelers have heard strange noises coming from the hilltop. And hoofprints have been seen on the hill-path. Cloven hoofprints, O Professor, where there are neither sheep nor goats.”
“No! Not cloven hoofprints!” I say.
But the Shaykh pretends not to notice my sarcasm. He just nods. “There is no strength and no safety but with God.”
“God is great,” I say in vague, obligatory acknowledgment. I have heard enough rumor and nonsense. And a sick woman needs my help. “I will leave as soon as I gather my things. This Abdel Jameela lives up the road, yes? On a hill? If I walk, how long will it take me?”
“If you do not stop to rest, you will see the hill in the distance by noontime prayer,” says Umm Hikma, who has a new bit of qat going in her cheek.
“I will bring you some food for your trip, Professor, and the stream runs alongside the road much of the way, so you’ll have no need of water.” Yousef seems relieved that I’m not angry with him, though I don’t quite know why I would be. I thank him then speak to the group.
“Peace be upon you all.”
“And upon you, peace,” they say in near-unison.
In my room, I gather scalpel, saw, and drugs into my pack — the kid-leather pack that my beloved gifted to me. I say more farewells to the villagers, firmly discourage their company, and set off alone on the road. As I walk, rumors of witches and wife-beaters are crowded out of my thoughts by the sweet remembered sweat-and-ambergris scent of my Shireen.
After an hour on the rock-strewn road, the late-morning air warms. The sound of the stream beside the road almost calms me.
Time passes and the sun climbs high in the sky. I take off my turban and caftan, make ablution by the stream, and say my noon prayers. Not long after I begin walking again, I can make out what must be Beit Zujaaj Hill off in the distance. In another hour or so I am at its foot.
It is not much of a hill, actually. There are buildings in Baghdad that are taller. A relief, as I am not much of a hill-climber. The rocky path is not too steep, and green sprays of grass and thyme dot it — a pleasant enough walk, really. The sun sinks a bit in the sky and I break halfway up the hill for afternoon prayers and a bit of bread and green apple. I try to keep my soul from sinking as I recall Shireen, her skirts tied up scandalously, knocking apples down to me from the high branches of the Caliph’s orchard trees.
The rest of the path proves steeper and I am sweating through my galabeya when I finally reach the hilltop. As I stand there huffing and puffing my eyes land on a small structure thirty yards away.
If Beit Zujaaj Hill is not much of a hill, at least the hermit’s hovel can be called nothing but a hovel. Stones piled on stones until they have taken the vague shape of a dwelling. Two sickly chickens scratching in the dirt. As soon as I have caught my breath a man comes walking out to meet me. Abdel Jameela.
He is shriveled with a long gray beard and a ragged kaffiyeh, and I can tell he will smell unpleasant even before he reaches me. How does he already know I’m here? I don’t have much time to wonder, as the old man moves quickly despite clearly gouty legs.
“You are the physicker, yes? From the Caliph’s court?”
No “peace be upon you,” no “how is your health,” no “pleased to meet you.” Life on a hilltop apparently wears away one’s manners. As if reading my thoughts, the old man bows his head in supplication.
“Ah. Forgive my abruptness, O learned Professor. I am Abdel Jameela. Thank you. Thank you a thousand times for coming.” I am right about his stink, and I thank God he does not try to embrace me. With no further ceremony I am led into the hovel.
There are a few stained and tattered carpets layered on the packed-dirt floor. A straw mat, an old cushion, and a battered tea tray are the only furnishings. Except for the screen. Directly opposite the door is a tall, incongruously fine cedar-and-pearl latticed folding screen, behind which I can make out only a vague shape. It is a more expensive piece of furniture than any of the villagers could afford, I’m sure. And behind it, no doubt, sits Abdel Jameela’s wife.
The old man makes tea hurriedly, clattering the cups but saying nothing the whole while. The scent of the seeping mint leaves drifts up, covering his sour smell. Abdel Jameela sets my tea before me, places a cup beside the screen, and sits down. A hand reaches out from behind the screen to take the tea. It is brown and graceful. Beautiful, if I am to speak truly. I realize I am staring and tear my gaze away.
The old man doesn’t seem to notice. “I don’t spend my time among men, Professor. I can’t talk like a courtier. All I can say is that we need your help.”
“Yousef the porter has told me that your wife is ill, O Uncle. Something to do with her legs, yes? I will do whatever I can to cure her, Almighty God willing.”
For some reason, Abdel Jameela grimaces at this. Then he rubs his hands together and gives me an even more pained expression. “O Professor, I must show you a sight that will shock you. My wife… Well, words are not the way.”
With a grunt the old man stands and walks halfway behind the screen. He gestures for me to follow then bids me stop a few feet away. I hear rustling behind the screen, and I can see a woman’s form moving, but still Abdel Jameela’s wife is silent.
“Prepare yourself, Professor. Please show him, O beautiful wife of mine.” The shape behind the screen shifts. There is a scraping noise. And a woman’s leg ending in a cloven hoof stretches out from behind the screen.
I take a deep breath. “God is Great,” I say aloud. This, then, is the source of Shaykh Hajjar’s fanciful grumbling. But such grotesqueries are not unheard of to an educated man. Only last year another physicker at court showed me a child — born to a healthy, pious man and his modest wife — all covered in fur. This same physicker told me of another child he’d seen born with scaly skin. I take another deep breath. If a hooved woman can be born and live, is it so strange that she might find a mad old man to care for her?
“O my sweetheart!” Abdel Jameela’s whisper is indecent as he holds his wife’s hoof.
And for a moment I see what mad Abdel Jameela sees. The hoofs glossy black beauty, as smoldering as a woman’s eye. It is entrancing….
“O, my wife,” the old man goes on, and runs his crooked old finger over the hoof-cleft slowly and lovingly. “O, my beautiful wife…” The leg flexes, but still no sound comes from behind the screen.
This is wrong. I take a step back from the screen without meaning to. “In the name of God! Have you no shame, old man?”
Abdel Jameela turns from the screen and faces me with an apologetic smile. “I am sorry to say that I have little shame left,” he says.
I’ve never heard words spoken with such weariness. I remind myself that charity and mercy are our duty to God, and I soften my tone. “Is this why you sent for me, Uncle? What would you have me do? Give her feet she was not born with? My heart bleeds for you, truly. But such a thing only God can do.”
Another wrinkled grimace. “O Professor, I am afraid that I must beg your forgiveness. For I have lied to you. And for that I am sorry. For it is not my wife that needs your help, but I.”
“But her — pardon me, Uncle — her hoof.”
“Yes! Its curve! Like a jet-black half-moon!” The old hermit’s voice quivers and he struggles to keep his gaze on me. Away from his wife’s hoof. “Her hoof is breathtaking, Professor. No, it is I that need your help, for I am not the creature I need to be.”
“I don’t understand, Uncle.” Exasperation burns away my sympathy. I’ve walked for hours and climbed a hill, small though it was. I am in no mood for a hermit’s games. Abdel Jameela winces at the anger in my eyes and says “My… my wife will explain.”
I will try, my husband.
The voice is like song and there is the strong scent of sweet flowers. Then she steps from behind the screen and I lose all my words. I scream. I call on God, and I scream.
Abdel Jameela’s wife is no creature of God. Her head is a goat’s and her mouth a wolfs muzzle. Fish-scales and jackal-hair cover her. A scorpion’s tail curls behind her. I look into a woman’s eyes set in a demon’s face and I stagger backward, calling on God and my dead mother.
Please, learned one, be calm.
“What… what…” I can’t form the words. I look to the floor. I try to bury my sight in the dirty carpets and hard-packed earth. Her voice is more beautiful than any woman’s. And there is the powerful smell of jasmine and clove. A nightingale sings perfumed words at me while my mind’s eye burns with horrors that would make the Almighty turn away.
If fear did not hold your tongue, you would ask what I am. Men have called my people by many names — ghoul, demon. Does a word matter so very much? What I am, learned one, is Abdel Jameela’s wife.
For long moments I don’t speak. If I don’t speak this nightmare will end. I will wake in Baghdad, or Beit Zujaaj. But I don’t wake.
She speaks again, and I cover my ears, though the sound is beauty itself.
The words you hear come not from my mouth, and you do not hear them with your ears. I ask you to listen with your mind and your heart. We will die, my husband and I, if you will not lend us your skill. Have you, learned one, never needed to be something other that what you are?
Cinnamon scent and the sound of an oasis wind come to me. I cannot speak to this demon. My heart will stop if I do, I am certain. I want to run, but fear has fixed my feet. I turn to Abdel Jameela, who stands there wringing his hands.
“Why am I here, Uncle? God damn you, why did you call me here? There is no sick woman here! God protect me, I know nothing of… of ghouls, or—” A horrible thought comes to me. “You… you are not hoping to make her into a woman? Only God can…”
The old hermit casts his eyes downward. “Please… you must listen to my wife. I beg you.” He falls silent and his wife, behind the screen again, goes on.
My husband and I have been on this hilltop too long, learned one. My body cannot stand so much time away from my people. I smell yellow roses and hear bumblebees droning beneath her voice. If we stay in this place one more season, I will die. And without me to care for him and keep age’s scourge from him, my sweet Abdel Jameela will die, too. But across the desert there is a life for us. My father was a prince among our people. Long ago I left. For many reasons. But I never forsook my birthright. My father is dying now, I have word. He has left no sons and so his lands are mine. Mine, and my handsome husband’s.
In her voice is a chorus of wind chimes. Despite myself, I lift my eyes. She steps from behind the screen, clad now in a black abaya and a mask. Behind the mask’s mesh is the glint of wolf-teeth. I look again to the floor, focusing on a faded blue spiral in the carpet and the kindness in that voice.
But my people do not love men. I cannot claim my lands unless things change. Unless my husband shows my people that he can change.
Somehow I force myself to speak. “What… what do you mean, change?”
There is a cymbal-shimmer in her voice and sandalwood incense fills my nostrils. O learned one, you will help me to make these my Abdel Jameela’s.
She extends her slender brown hands, ablaze with henna. In each she holds a length of golden sculpture — goatlike legs ending in shining, cloven hooves. A thick braid of gold thread dances at the end of each statue-leg, alive.
Madness, and I must say so though this creature may kill me for it. “I have not the skill to do this! No man alive does!”
You will not do this through your skill alone. Just as I cannot do it through my sorcery alone. My art will guide yours as your hands work. She takes a step toward me and my shoulders clench at the sound of her hooves hitting the earth.
“No! No… I cannot do this thing.”
“Please!” I jump at Abdel Jameela’s voice, nearly having forgotten him. There are tears in the old man’s eyes as he pulls at my galabeya, and his stink gets in my nostrils. “Please listen! We need your help. And we know what has brought you to Beit Zujaaj.” The old man falls to his knees before me. “Please! Would not your Shireen aid us?”
With those words he knocks the wind from my lungs. How can he know that name? The Shaykh hadn’t lied — there is witchcraft at work here, and I should run from it.
But, Almighty God, help me, Abdel Jameela is right. Fierce as she is, Shireen still has her dreamy Persian notions — that love is more important than money or duty or religion. If I turn this old man away…
My throat is dry and cracked. “How do you know of Shireen?” Each word burns.
His eyes dart away. “She has… ways, my wife.”
“All protection comes from God.” I feel foul even as I steel myself with the old words. Is this forbidden? Am I walking the path of those who displease the Almighty? God forgive me, it is hard to know or to care when my beloved is gone. “If I were a good Muslim I would run down to the village now and… and…”
And what, learned one? Spread word of what you have seen? Bring men with spears and arrows? Why would you do this? Vanilla beans and the sound of rain give way to something else. Clanging steel and cleanburning fire. I will not let you harm my husband. What we ask is not disallowed to you. Can you tell me, learned one, that it is in your book of what is blessed and what is forbidden not to give a man golden legs?
It is not. Not in so many words. But this thing can’t be acceptable in God’s eyes. Can it? “Has this ever been done before?”
There are old stories. But it has been centuries. Each of her words spreads perfume and music and she asks, Please, learned one, will you help us? And then one scent rises above the others.
Almighty God protect me, it is the sweat-and-ambergris smell of my beloved. Shireen of the ribbing remark, who in quiet moments confessed her love of my learning. She would help them.
Have I any choice after that? This, then, the fruit of my study. And this my reward for wishing to be more than what I am. A twisted, unnatural path.
“Very well.” I reach for my small saw and try not to hear Abdel Jameela’s weird whimpers as I sharpen it.
I give him poppy and hemlock, but as I work Abdel Jameela still screams, nearly loud enough to make my heart cease beating. His old body is going through things it should not be surviving. And I am the one putting him through these things, with knives and fire and bone-breaking clamps. I wad cotton and stuff it in my ears to block out the hermit’s screams.
But I feel half-asleep as I do so, hardly aware of my own hands. Somehow the demon’s magic is keeping Abdel Jameela alive and guiding me through this grisly task. It is painful, like having two minds crammed inside my skull and shadow-puppet poles lashed to my arms. I am burning up, and I can barely trace my thoughts. Slowly I become aware of the she-ghoul’s voice in my head and the scent of apricots.
Cut there. Now the mercury powder. The cauterizing iron is hot. Put a rag in his mouth so he does not bite his tongue. I flay and cauterize and lose track of time. A fever cooks my mind away. I work through the evening prayer, then the night prayer. I feel withered inside.
In each step Abdel Jameela’s wife guides me. With her magic she rifles my mind for the knowledge she needs and steers my skilled fingers. For a long while there is only her voice in my head and the feeling of bloody instruments in my hands, which move with a life of their own.
Then I am holding a man’s loose tendons in my right hand and thick golden threads in my left. There are shameful smells in the air and Abdel Jameela shouts and begs me to stop even though he is half-asleep with the great pot of drugs I have forced down his throat.
Something is wrong! The she-ghoul screams in my skull and Abdel Jameela passes out. My hands no longer dance magically. The shining threads shrivel in my fist. We have failed, though I know not exactly how.
No! No! Our skill! Our sorcery! But his body refuses! There are funeral wails in the air and the smell of houses burning. My husband! Do something, physicker!
The golden legs turn to dust in my hands. With my ears I hear Abdel Jameela’s wife growl a wordless death-threat.
I deserve death! Almighty God, what have I done? An old man lies dying on my blanket. I have sawed off his legs at a she-ghoul’s bidding. There is no strength save in God! I bow my head.
Then I see them. Just above where I’ve amputated Abdel Jameela’s legs are the swollen bulges that I’d thought came from gout. But it is not gout that has made these. There is something buried beneath the skin of each leg. I take hold of my scalpel and flay each thin thigh. The old man moans with what little life he has left.
What are you doing? Abdel Jameela’s wife asks the walls of my skull. I ignore her, pulling at a flap of the old man’s thigh-flesh, revealing a corrupted sort of miracle.
Beneath Abdel Jameela’s skin, tucked between muscles, are tiny legs. Thin as spindles and hairless. Each folded little leg ends in a miniscule hoof.
Unbidden, a memory comes to me — Shireen and I in the Caliph’s orchards. A baby bird had fallen from its nest. I’d sighed and bit my lip and my Shireen — a dreamer, but not a soft one — had laughed and clapped at my tender-heartedness.
I slide each wet gray leg out from under the flayed skin and gently unbend them. As I flex the little joints, the she-ghoul’s voice returns.
What… what is this, learned one? Tell me!
For a long moment I am mute. Then I force words out, my throat still cracked. “I… I do not know. They are — they look like — the legs of a kid or a ewe still in the womb.”
It is as if she nods inside my mind. Or the legs of one of my people. I have long wondered how a mere man could captivate me so.
“All knowledge and understanding lies with God,” I say. “Perhaps your husband always had these within him. The villagers say he is of uncertain parentage. Or perhaps… Perhaps his love for you… The crippled beggars of Cairo are the most grotesque — and the best — in the world. It is said that they wish so fiercely to make money begging that their souls reshape their bodies from the inside out. Yesterday I saw such stories as nonsense. But yesterday I’d have named you a villager’s fantasy, too.” As I speak I continue to work the little legs carefully, to help their circulation. The she-ghoul’s sorcery no longer guides my hands, but a physicker’s nurturing routines are nearly as compelling. There is weakness here and I do what I can to help it find strength.
The tiny legs twitch and kick in my hands.
Abdel Jameela’s wife howls in my head. They are drawing on my magic. Something pulls at— The voice falls silent.
I let go of the legs and, before my eyes, they begin to grow. As they grow, they fill with color, as if blood flowed into them. Then fur starts to sprout upon them.
“There is no strength or safety but in God!” I try to close my eyes and focus on the words I speak but I can’t. My head swims and my body swoons.
The spell that I cast on my poor husband to preserve him — these hidden hooves of his nurse on it! O, my surprising, wonderful husband! I hear loud lute music and smell lemongrass and then everything around me goes black.
When I wake I am on my back, looking up at a purple sky. An early morning sky. I am lying on a blanket outside the hovel. I sit up and Abdel Jameela hunches over me with his sour smell. Farther away, near the hill-path, I see the black shape of his wife.
“Professor, you are awake! Good!” the hermit says. “We were about to leave.”
But we are glad to have the chance to thank you.
My heart skips and my stomach clenches as I hear that voice in my head again. Kitten purrs and a crushed cardamom scent linger beneath the demon’s words. I look at Abdel Jameela’s legs.
They are sleek and covered in fur the color of almonds. And each leg ends in a perfect cloven hoof. He walks on them with a surprising grace.
Yes, learned one, my beloved husband lives and stands on two hooves. It would not be so if we hadn’t had your help. You have our gratitude.
Dazedly clambering to my feet, I nod in the she-ghoul’s direction. Abdel Jameela claps me on the back wordlessly and takes a few goatstrides toward the hill-path. His wife makes a slight bow to me. With my people, learned one, gratitude is more than a word. Look toward the hovel.
I turn and look. And my breath catches.
A hoard right out of the stories. Gold and spices. Jewels and musks. Silver and silks. Porcelain and punks of aloe.
It is probably ten times the dowry Shireen’s father seeks.
We leave you this and wish you well. I have purged the signs of our work in the hovel. And in the language of the donkeys, I have called two wild asses to carry your goods. No troubles left to bother our brave friend!
I manage to smile gratefully with my head high for one long moment. Blood and bits of the old man’s bone still stain my hands. But as I look on Abdel Jameela and his wife in the light of the sunrise, all my thoughts are not grim or grisly.
As they set off on the hill-path the she-ghoul takes Abdel Jameela’s arm, and the hooves of husband and wife scrabble against the pebbles of Beit Zujaaj Hill. I stand stock-still, watching them walk toward the land of the ghouls.
They cross a bend in the path and disappear behind the hill. And a faint voice, full of mischievous laughter and smelling of early morning love in perfumed sheets, whispers in my head. No troubles at all, learned one. For last night your Shireen’s husband-to-be lost his battle with the destroyer of delights.
Can it really be so? The old vulture dead? And me a rich man? I should laugh and dance. Instead I am brought to my knees by the heavy memory of blood-spattered golden hooves. I wonder whether Shireen’s suitor died from his illness, or from malicious magic meant to reward me. I fear for my soul. For a long while I kneel there and cry.
But after a while I can cry no longer. Tears give way to hopes I’d thought dead. I stand and thank Beneficent God, hoping it is not wrong to do so. Then I begin to put together an acceptable story about a secretly wealthy hermit who has rewarded me for saving his wife’s life. And I wonder what Shireen and her father will think of the man I have become.
Saladin Ahmed was born in Detroit. He has been a finalist for the Campbell Award for Best New Science Fiction or Fantasy Writer and the Harper’s Pen Award for Best Sword and Sorcery / Heroic Fantasy Short Story. His fiction has appeared in magazines and podcasts including Strange Horizons, Orson Scott Card’s InterGalactic Medicine Show, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Apex Magazine, and PodCastle, and has been translated into Portuguese, Czech, and Dutch. His fantasy novel Throne of the Crescent Moon is forthcoming from DAW Books. His website is www.saladinahmed.com.
I REMEMBER THE FUTURE
Michael A. Burstein
FROM THE AUTHOR: When Apex Publications decided to publish a collection of my award-nominated short stories, I asked the readers of my LiveJournal if they could help me come up with an appropriate title. My high school friend Andrew Marc Greene suggested the title I Remember the Future as a fitting one for the type of stories I tend to write. I agreed, but that meant writing a new story with that title as well. I kept running the phrase “I Remember the Future” over and over in my head, but no story idea came to mind. And then on the afternoon of Tuesday, March 18, 2008, we heard the news that Arthur C. Clarke had died. (Oddly, because Clarke lived in a time zone farther east, he died on Wednesday, March 19, but those of us living in the West heard the news on Tuesday. It’s almost like time travel.)
Late that night, as I stared into a mirror and thought about how the last of the Big Three was gone, I suddenly realized what this story had to be about. I quickly shared the idea with my wife, Nomi, and then jotted down a bunch of notes so I wouldn’t forget it. I also called Janna Silverstein, since I needed to tell another science fiction and fantasy writer about the epiphany I just had, and it was too late to call anyone on the East Coast. “I Remember the Future” is about an elderly science-fiction writer named Abraham Beard (the name is a joke between my high school friend Charles Ardai and me, as we both have used it for writers or editors who are characters in our stories). Abraham has spent his life writing of various hopeful futures, and he is disappointed that none of them have come to pass. He reaches out to his adult daughter Emma, to connect with the future one last time, but Emma and her own family are moving away, and she rejects his overtures as being too little, too late. From Emma’s perspective, her father spent far too much of his life pursuing his writing career with his head lost in the clouds and too little time connecting with his family. Abraham acknowledges this in the story when he says, “I consider once again telling her what I’ve told her before: that times were tough, that money was tight, and that Sheila and I both had to work to support Emma properly. But then I recall the many times I shut the door of my home office on Emma to meet a deadline, and I realize that the chance for apologies and explanations has passed far into the mists of time.” As the story ends, Abraham connects with his other progeny, the characters he created in his infinite worlds.
The story is somber but hopeful. I had fun writing the selections from Abraham’s own novels that I worked throughout the narrative, as I had to capture the feel of science fiction from the various decades of the twentieth century. The story also tackles head-on the minor controversy that nowadays many science fiction and fantasy writers are looking to the past more than to the future; the story suggests that we should embrace that past rather than reject it. As Shakespeare said in The Tempest, “What’s past is prologue.”
“I Remember the Future” isn’t my first foray into recursive science fiction meant to honor those writers who came before us; my Hugo nominees “Cosmic Corkscrew” and “Paying It Forward” also show my interest in this theme.
“I Remember the Future” is dedicated to Arthur C. Clarke.
I REMEMBER THE FUTURE.
The future was glorious once. It was filled with sleek silver spaceships, lunar colonies, and galactic empires. The horizon seemed within reach; we could almost grasp the stars if we would but try.
I helped to create that future once. We created it out of our blood, sweat, and tears for a penny a word. We churned that future out onto reams of wood pulp paper, only to see the bitter acids of the decades eat it away. I can still smell the freshness of that world, amidst the stale odors left in the libraries, real ink on real paper.
But I despair that no one else does.
Smith turned to Angela, whose face was obscured by the glass plate of her helmet. Despite the higher gravity and the bulkiness of his environmental suit, he felt like jumping a hundred feet into the vacuum.
“What is it?” she asked. She reached over with her gloved hands to take the object from him.
“Gently,” he said as he handed over the sheet. “It’s paper. Real paper.”
Angela took it and handled it almost reverently. Once again, she looked around the large cavern at the many inscribed marble columns, flashing her light into every dark corner.
“Paper? That dead wood stuff you told me about? Made from trees?”
Smith nodded. “It’s true. We’ve found the ancient lost library of New Earth. And maybe, just maybe, in these volumes we’ll find the final clue that will lead us to the location of the original human home world.”
The Searchers (1950)
The day after my diagnosis, Emma comes to visit me at home. When she rings the bell, I get up from my seat in the living room, where I’ve been watching Forbidden Planet on DVD for the past hour, and I shuffle over to the front door at the end of the hall.
A cold wind blasts me as I creak open the door. I shiver momentarily as Emma strides past me.
As I shut the door, she opens the hall closet and lets her hands dance upon the hangers. She ignores the empty wooden ones and selects a blue plastic one.
“It’s the middle of the day and you’re still in your bathrobe?” she asks me as she slips off her overcoat.
“I’m retired and it’s the weekend,” I say. “Why should I get dressed up?”
“Because your only daughter is coming to visit? Oh, never mind.” She hangs up her coat.
“Where’s Frank and the kids?” I ask her.
She sniffs. “They decided to stay at home.”
The kids decided to stay at home. My grandchildren, Zachary and Kenneth. Or Zach and Ken, as Emma told me they prefer to be called. I haven’t seen them in months. “They didn’t feel like schlepping out to Queens?”
“It’s too cold.”
“So why the visit?”
Emma purses her lips and glances at the floor. “I thought it would be nice to see you.”
I know there must be more to it than that, but I don’t press it. Emma will tell me in her own sweet time. “Are you hungry?” I ask as we walk to the living room. “Do you want something to eat?”
She smiles. “What are you going to offer this time? A red pepper? A clementine?”
As it so happens, the refrigerator crisper holds many peppers and clementines, but I refuse to give Emma the satisfaction. “I thought you might want some ice cream.”
“Ice cream?” she asks with bemusement. “Sure, I’d love some ice cream. Where is it?”
“It’s in the freezer,” I tell her, although it should be obvious. Where else does one keep ice cream?
The first thing Larry noticed was the cold. It filled the core of his being, then slowly began to recede as tendrils of warmth entered his body.
Then he noticed a faint white light blinking in the distance. Either the light became larger or it moved closer, and it continued to pulsate in a regular rhythm.
And finally he heard a hiss, the sound of air leaking quickly across a barrier. He tried to breathe and felt as if his lungs were filled with liquid. He tried again—
—when suddenly a door swung open, and Larry realized that he was floating vertically in a round glass chamber. The gelatinous liquid surrounding him quickly drained, and Larry fell into the arms of two men in silver jumpsuits.
“Easy now,” the taller one said. “Your muscles need time to adjust.”
Larry shook off their support. “I’m fine,” he croaked. He coughed up some fluid and spoke again. “I don’t need any help.”
“If you say so,” the taller man said.
“I do, indeed,” Larry answered. He stretched out of his stoop, and although his legs felt like they would give way, he refused to give these strangers the satisfaction of seeing him fall.
“Where am I? What’s going on?” he asked.
“All in due time,” the shorter man said in a thin, reedy voice.
Larry turned to stare at him. “I am Larry Garner, the richest man on Earth, and I demand you tell me what’s going on, now!”
The two men looked at each other, and the shorter one shrugged. “Usually, we give people more time to adjust, but if you insist—”
“You’re in the future,” the man said. “It’s two thousand years since you died.”
The Unfrozen (1955)
“Earth to Dad? Hello? Are you there?”
Emma is waving a hand in front of my face.
“Sorry,” I say. “I was just thinking. My mind—”
“Was elsewhen. Yeah, I’ve heard that before.”
I realize that we are sitting in the dining room and that Emma has scooped two bowls of ice cream, one for each of us. I pick up my spoon and take a bite. It’s butter pecan.
I hate butter pecan, but I bought some for when Zach and Ken were last here.
The ice cream is very badly freezer-burned. It’s so cold against my tongue that it hurts. I put the spoon down into the bowl and watch Emma eat her ice cream.
“You can take the rest of it when you leave,” I say. “The kids might enjoy it.”
Emma gives me a half-smile. “Even with the cold outside, it’ll probably still melt before I get it home.”
“Oh,” I say.
We sit in silence for a few moments, the only sound the tick of the analog clock in the other room, the clock my wife, Sheila, bought when we got married, the clock that hangs above the flatscreen television set that Emma and Frank gave me for my last birthday.
“So, how are things?”
“Things are good.”
“The kids doing well at school?”
“Yeah.” Emma smiles. “Zach did a PowerPoint presentation on blogging for one of his teachers.”
I nod and try to keep my face neutral, but Emma sees right through me. “You disapprove?”
“It’s not that,” I say. “It’s just—”
“I know what it is. Rant number twenty-three.”
“I’m not that predictable.”
She crosses her arms. “Fine. Then what were you thinking?”
I pause for a moment, but she doesn’t sound sarcastic so I say, “When I was growing up, the future seemed so full of possibilities.”
“We have possibilities, Dad.”
I shake my head. “We’ve turned inward. All of us have. We used to dream of a world as big as the sky. Now we’re all hunched over our tiny screens.”
Emma rolls her eyes. “Like I said, rant number twenty-three. Within three sentences, you’re going from the Internet to the lack of a manned space program again.”
“You don’t think it’s a problem?”
“It’s just that I’ve heard it before.”
“The more true something is, the more it bears repeating.”
“Nothing bears repeating if you can’t do anything about it.” She sighs. “I mean, seriously, what did you ever expect me to do at the age of twelve when you first warned me about the eventual heat-death of the universe?”
The starship HaTikvah had finally made it to the edge of the universe. A hopeful mood filled the souls of the fifty thousand humans and aliens who occupied the ship, each the last of their kind.
On the bridge, Captain Sandra McAllister spoke into her intercom. “Fellow sentients,” she said, “this is the proverbial ‘it.’ The universe is ending, the embers of the stars are fading into nothing, and in a moment we’ll tap into the power of Black Hole Omega. If all goes according to plan, we’ll break out of our dying universe and into a new one, one that’s young and vibrant. Our own personal lives will continue, but more importantly, we will continue to exist in order to be able to remember all of those who came before us.”
McAllister turned to her first officer and said, “Any time you’re ready, Jacob. Push the button.”
Jacob nodded and reached out with his spindly fingers to the Doorway Device. But just as he was about to depress the red button, a blast rocked the ship.
“What was that?” he cried out.
Virilion, the ship’s robotic helmsman, replied in a croak, “It’s the Nichashim! They’ve come to stop us!”
McAllister narrowed her eyes. “Like hell they will,” she said. “Virilion, fire at will! Blast them out of our sky!”
Fire and Ice (1980)
“You don’t need to shout.”
“You were gone again,” she says.
“Perhaps,” I say, “I’m turning inward because I’m getting old.”
For the first time since she came into the house today, Emma looks worried. “You’re not that old, Dad.”
I smile at Emma to keep her from noticing the wetness I feel in my eyes. “That’s nice of you to say, but it’s not true. I am old.”
“You’re only as old as you feel. You told me that once.”
I shake my head. “It’s hard to feel young when so many of my colleagues are gone.” First Robert, then Isaac, now Arthur, I think, although I don’t say it aloud. I know Emma too well; she might laugh at me for placing myself among such giants.
Instead, she doesn’t seem to know what to say in response. She fidgets for a few seconds, eats some more ice cream, and then changes the subject.
“Listen, Dad, I’m here because I have news.”
“Funny, so do I. You go first.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, I’m sure. What is it?” I ask.
She takes a deep breath and looks me in the eye. “We’re moving to California.”
Jackie looked at the gleaming silver spaceship with portholes running all up and down its sides. She felt more excited than she ever had before in her six years of life. Soon, her family would leave behind this polluted, depressing planet for a new world filled with cool green fields, rich with possibilities.
Jackie’s mother and father held tightly onto her hands as the three of them walked in the line out onto the launching pad. The hoverlift floated next to them, carrying their luggage, while Jackie’s robot dog kept running ahead and back toward Jackie, matching her excitement.
Finally, after what seemed like hours but Jackie knew was only minutes according to her chronometer, Jackie and her parents made it to the open hatch of the spaceship. A stewardess, her hair dyed platinum blonde, stood at the doorway greeting the immigrants with a big smile. She took their tickets and welcomed them aboard.
“Is this really it, Dad?” Jackie asked.
Her father removed the pipe from his mouth and smiled. “It is indeed,” he said. “Goodbye, Earth! Next stop, Mars!”
The Burns Family on Mars (1960)
“Dad? You’re gone again.”
“No, I’m not,” I say.
“So,” Emma says. “We’re moving to California.”
She takes a deep breath. “Frank’s got a new job. UCLA is offering him a tenured position. Full professor.”
“UCLA. Hmm. California.” I try to sound as noncommittal as possible, although Emma must know how much this news hurts me.
“From what I hear, California is a nice place.”
She frowns and looks puzzled. “Aren’t you going to object?”
“Are you asking me to?”
“Don’t you even want to know why we’re moving?”
“You told me — Frank’s got a job offer.” I pause. “What about you?”
“What about me?”
“I don’t think you’ll be able to keep working at the New-York Historical Society if you’re living in L.A. Have you found a job at a museum there?”
Now she pauses before speaking. “I’m not planning to get another job, at least not right away.”
“I want to be there full time for the kids.”
I stare into her eyes, seeing the six-year-old girl who wanted nothing more than to be the first astronaut to walk on Jupiter. “Is that really what you want?”
She glares at me. “I think at least one parent should be devoted full time to raising the kids.”
I feel the sting of her words. I consider once again telling her what I’ve told her before: that times were tough, that money was tight, and that Sheila and I both had to work to support Emma properly. But then I recall the many times I shut the door of my home office on Emma to meet a deadline, and I realize that the chance for apologies and explanations has passed far into the mists of time.
Allen Davidoff walked around the floating cube of mist, careful not to let any of the tendrils touch him. There was nothing else on this planet for miles around.
The Keeper, still covered entirely in her white garment, walked three paces behind him until he finally came to a stop.
He turned to face her. “Impressive,” he said. “An atmospheric phenomenon?”
She laughed and her hazel eyes twinkled. “You are pretending to be the fool,” she said. “You know better than that.”
Allen nodded; she was right. He did know better, but he had previously allowed his hopes to be raised during his quixotic quest only to have them dashed time and time again.
“Then I’ve really found it?” he asked.
She nodded. “You have indeed.”
Allen looked back into the white mist. “It’s the Gateway of Time,” he said. “I can go anywhen into the time stream I want.”
“It’s the Gateway of Time,” the Keeper echoed. “You can go to any time period and any location in the universe you want. But there is one problem.”
Allen waited. The Keeper remained silent as Allen’s watch ticked off the seconds, and so finally he asked, “What’s the problem?”
The Keeper grinned evilly. “The only problem is, once you’ve made your choice and entered the past, you can never return. The trip is one way and final.”
“So choose wisely.”
Amidst the Mists (1991)
“I hope it works out for you,” I say. “You know that I only want what’s best for you and the kids.”
If she notices that I don’t mention Frank, she doesn’t say anything about it. Instead, she nods and says, “You said before that you had news as well.”
I open my mouth to tell her about my diagnosis, as I had planned to do when she first called to tell me that she and the family wanted to see me, but then I hold back. I’m not dying yet, but I am old. My doctors say that my mind is not as sharp as it once was and my years are drawing to a close. If I tell her, maybe she and Frank will postpone the move, or at least stay closer to New York City, so I can keep seeing them in my dwindling, final days.
The last man on Earth said farewell to the spaceship carrying the rest of humanity to the stars. As the ship became a tiny dot in the sky, he took a deep breath of the fresh air and smiled. Someone had to watch over the planet as it was dying, and it was only right, he felt, that it should be he, and only he.
The Final Days of Planet Earth (1970)
I decide not to tell Emma about the diagnosis. It wouldn’t be fair to her or the kids to add that factor into the equation. But she’s waiting for me to tell her my news, and I only have one other piece of news to share. It’s extremely private, and possibly just the first symptom of my oncoming dementia, but I’ve felt the need to tell someone. And Emma is here, and Sheila is no longer here.
“Emma, may I confide in you?”
She tilts her head. “You never have before.”
I open my mouth to object, and then realize that she has a point.
“Well, I want to confide in you now. You know all those stories, all those novels that I wrote?”
“Yes,” she says flatly. “What about them?”
“My entire life, I never felt like I was coming up with anything on my own.” I stare over her shoulder. “Sometimes, when I was lying awake at two or three in the morning, I would get the feeling that the images in my mind weren’t just things I was making up myself. I felt as if I was a conduit, as if I had lifted an antenna into some sort of cosmic fog and that I was receiving messages, real messages, from the future in my dreams.”
Emma sits stoically as I tell her this. I don’t know what reaction I am hoping for, but Emma rolling her eyes is definitely not it. Still, it’s what she gives me.
“So what’s the news?”
“I’m not really sure,” I say. “You know how I haven’t written anything new for five years now? That’s because the messages stopped. Except…”
“The dreams have started up again. I’ve been waking up again in the middle of most nights, feeling as if the future is trying to reach me one more time. But as soon as I wake up, the images the future is trying to send me recede into the distance.”
She sighs and stands up; I can’t tell if she’s angry or just frustrated. “You’re bouncing story ideas off of me again, aren’t you?”
“No,” I say, shaking my head. “No, I’m not. This is really happening to me.”
Emma’s expression is pitiful. “So that’s your excuse,” she says softly. “The future was really trying to contact you, and that’s why you always had your head lost in the clouds.”
I try to protest, but, ironically, I have no words. Emma picks up the bowls and used spoons and takes them into the kitchen. I hear her wash them quickly and leave them on the drainer while I sit at the table, unsure of what to say to her to make it all better.
She emerges from the kitchen and dashes through to the hall closet. I hear her put on her coat, and then she is back in the dining room, standing over me.
“Dad, you were always so busy living in the future that you never enjoyed your present. And now you don’t even live in the future anymore. You’re living in the past.”
With that, she walks out of the room and out of the house.
Over the next few days, Emma uses my spare set of keys to let herself into the house. She barely nods hello to me as she climbs to the attic and sifts through the boxes, packing away those few remnants that she wants from her childhood.
I want Emma to leave the photographs, but I’ve come to realize that she’s going to have to take them with her anyway if I want my grandsons to continue to remember what their grandfather and grandmother looked like. Emma tells me that she will scan the photos into her computer and send me back the originals, and I just nod.
The days pass far too quickly. Finally, the last morning arrives in which Emma will be coming over to take the last few boxes of possessions. What she doesn’t know as she is driving over is that this morning is also the morning of my final moments on this Earth. And in my final moments on this Earth, I am redeemed.
I am lying in my bed, wearing my favorite blue pajamas and peering through my glasses at the small print of a digest magazine. A half-eaten orange on a plate sits on my end table; I can still taste the juice on my tongue and feel a strand of pulp between two right molars.
And then it begins.
A slight breeze wafts toward me from the foot of my bed. I move my magazine aside and look, but I see nothing there but the wall and the closed bathroom door.
As I begin to read again, another breeze flutters my pages. Then the breeze builds, until a gust of wind flows past.
A tiny crack appears in midair, hovering about six and a half feet above the red-carpeted floor. The crack expands into a circular hole. White light emanates from the hole, which gets wider and wider, until it becomes a sphere about six feet in diameter, crackling softly with electricity. A human figure in a silver spacesuit, its face obscured by a helmet, emerges from the sphere with a loud popping sound.
I know this is no illusion, that whatever is happening in front of me is real. I manage to keep my composure and ask, “Who are you?”
The figure grabs hold of its helmet, breaks the seals, and pulls it off.
The astronaut is a woman. She shakes her long blonde hair out of her face and smiles. “You know who I am, Abe. Take a good look.”
I do, and I feel a chill. “It can’t be.”
She nods. “It is.”
“You’re Sandra McAllister. But you’re fictional. You don’t exist. I made you up.”
“Yes, you did make me up. But I do exist.”
“I don’t understand.”
“We figured you might not, but we don’t have a lot of time, so listen carefully. As far as our scientists have been able to determine, every time you wrote a story, you created a parallel universe, a place where the people you thought of really existed. Apparently, your brain has some connection on a quantum level with the zero-point energy field that exists in the multiverse. You’ve managed to bend reality, our reality, so that we ended up existing for real.”
“That’s not possible,” I say.
“You’re a rational man, Abe, I understand that. So explain my presence some other way.”
I know in my heart and soul that I am not hallucinating. And with the impossible eliminated, I am left with the improbable.
“So you’re real?”
“Not just me,” Sandra says.
I start thinking of all the characters I created throughout my career. “Jackson Smith and Angela Jones? Larry Garner? Jackie Burns? Allen Davidoff? They’re all real?”
Sandra nods after I recite each name. “They’re all real. We’re all real.”
“Even if so, how did you break through the barrier between universes? It’s not possible.”
“It is if you harness the energy of a black hole using the Doorway Device.”
I am puzzled for just a moment, and then light dawns. I recall the details of the story cycle from which Sandra comes. “The HaTikvah spaceship,” I say.
“And the Nichashim,” she adds.
I goggle. “You’re mortal enemies,” I say. “I wrote you that way. How can you be working together?”
“The Nichashim understand that you created them, too. We’ve got the two ships tethered together in orbit around New Black Hole Omega.”
I can’t help it; I flip the sheet off of my frail body and swing my legs around so I can stand up and face Sandra. “That’s far too dangerous, Sandra. You could lose both ships in a blink.”
“Which is why you must hurry.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Why do you think I came here?”
“Um, to say hello? To let me know that I didn’t live my life in vain?”
She rolls her eyes. “To rescue you. To cure you of your oncoming sickness, and to impart to you the same immortality you generously granted to all of us.”
“Rescue me? You’re using all that energy just to rescue me?”
She shrugged. “You’re our father. Why wouldn’t we?”
I feel tears starting in my eyes, and I move forward and hug Sandra as tightly as I can. She holds me as I cry.
“It’s all right, Father,” she says. “We’ve come for you. Welcome home.”
The last bit I can only guess at, as I was already gone by then. But the way I see it, as Emma was turning her keys in the lock, the house rumbled, and she heard a loud pop and whoosh coming from upstairs.
“Dad? Dad?” she called out, but I wasn’t there to answer her.
She dashed up the stairs and turned right, toward her father’s bedroom. She pushed the door open to discover her father already gone, amidst a trace of ozone.
I remembered the future.
And in turn, the future remembered me.
Michael A. Burstein was born in New York City, where he attended Hunter College High School in Manhattan. He has physics degrees from Harvard College and Boston University, and he attended the Clarion Workshop in 1994. His short fiction has been nominated for ten Hugos and four Nebulas; in 1997 he won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. From 1998 to 2000 he served as secretary of SFWA. He and his wife, Nomi, live with their twin daughters in Brookline, Massachusetts, where he is an elected Library Trustee and Town Meeting Member.
N. K. Jemisin
FROM THE AUTHOR: It should be pretty obvious that the bulk of the story is a pastiche of my perfectly ordinary daily life in Brooklyn — riding the shuttle to work, traipsing to the farmers’ market, thinking scornful thoughts about tourists as if I didn’t just move here a few years ago myself, and so on. But there’s an understated sort of magic in Brooklyn which I can feel throughout these perfectly ordinary walks and encounters. It rides my skin like humidity, thrums underneath every conversation. The awareness of this is what marks a true New Yorker, I think. You move here, feel out of place for awhile, and then suddenly snap! There’s this moment where you feel it. You can look at another person who belongs here, who feels that same magic, and you know. It’s like a secret handshake, except New Yorkers would never be so gauche. They’d just glance at each other. That would be enough.
So with “Non-Zero Probabilities,” all I did was make that undercurrent of perpetual strangeness explicit. I’m thrilled with the response this story has gotten, but I completely didn’t expect it, because as the story itself notes — what does it matter whether a city reacts to one improbable disaster (say, 9/11) or another (probability gone haywire)? The city remains, and reacts, the same. That’s where the real magic lies.
IN THE MORNINGS, Adele girds herself for the trip to work as a warrior for battle. First she prays, both to the Christian god of her Irish ancestors and to the orishas of her African ancestors — the latter she is less familiar with, but getting to know. Then she takes a bath with herbs, including dried chickory and allspice, from a mixture given to her by the woman at the local botanica. (She doesn’t know Spanish well, but she’s getting to know that, too. Today’s word is suerte.) Then, smelling vaguely of coffee and pumpkin pie, she layers on armor: the Saint Christopher medal her mother sent her, for protection on journeys. The hair-clasp she was wearing when she broke up with Larry, which she regards as the best decision of her life. On especially dangerous days, she wears the pan ties in which she experienced her first self-induced orgasm post-Larry; they’re a bit ragged after too many commercial laundromat washings, but still more or less sound. (She washes them by hand now, with Woolite, and lays them flat to dry.)
Then she starts the trip to work. She doesn’t bike, though she owns one. A next-door neighbor broke an arm when her bike’s front wheel came off in mid-pedal. Could’ve been anything. Just an accident. But still.
So Adele sets out, swinging her arms, enjoying the day if it’s sunny, wrestling with her shitty umbrella if it’s rainy. (She no longer opens the umbrella indoors.) Keeping a careful eye out for those who may not be as well-protected. It takes two to tango, but only one to seriously fuck up some shit, as they say in her ’hood. And lo and behold, just three blocks into her trip there is a horrible crash and the ground shakes and car alarms go off and there are screams and people start running. Smoke billows, full of acrid ozone and a taste like dirty blood. When Adele reaches the corner, tensed and ready to flee, she beholds the Franklin Avenue shuttle train, a tiny thing that runs on an elevated track for some portions of its brief run, lying sprawled over Atlantic Avenue like a beached aluminum whale. It has jumped its track, fallen thirty feet to the ground below, and probably killed everyone inside or under or near it.
Adele goes to help, of course, but even as she and other good Samaritans pull bodies and screaming wounded from the wreckage, she cannot help but feel a measure of contempt. It is a cover, her anger; easier to feel that than horror at the shattered limbs, the truncated lives. She feels a bit ashamed, too, but holds onto the anger because it makes a better shield.
They should have known better. The probability of a train derailment was infinitesimal. That meant it was only a matter of time.
Her neighbor — the other one, across the hall — helped her figure it out, long before the math geeks finished crunching their numbers.
“Watch,” he’d said, and laid a deck of cards facedown on her coffee table. (There was coffee in the cups, with a generous dollop of Baileys. He was a nice-enough guy that Adele felt comfortable offering this.) He shuffled it with the blurring speed of an expert, cut the deck, shuffled again, then picked up the whole deck and spread it, still facedown. “Pick a card.”
Adele picked. The Joker.
“Only two of those in the deck,” he said, then shuffled and spread again. “Pick another.”
She did, and got the other Joker.
“Coincidence,” she said. (This had been months ago, when she was still skeptical.)
He shook his head and set the deck of cards aside. From his pocket he took a pair of dice. (He was nice enough to invite inside, but he was still that kind of guy.) “Check it,” he said, and tossed them onto her table. Snake eyes. He scooped them up, shook them, tossed again. Two more ones. A third toss brought up double sixes; at this, Adele had pointed in triumph. But the fourth toss was snake eyes again.
“These aren’t weighted, if you’re wondering,” he said. “Nobody filed the edges or anything. I got these from the bodega up the street, from a pile of shit the old man was tossing out to make more room for food shelves. Brand new, straight out of the package.”
“Might be a bad set,” Adele said.
“Might be. But the cards ain’t bad, nor your fingers.” He leaned forward, his eyes intent despite the pleasant haze that the Baileys had brought on. “Snake eyes three tosses out of four? And the fourth a double six. That ain’t supposed to happen even in a rigged game. Now check this out.”
Carefully he crossed the fingers of his free hand. Then he tossed the dice again, six throws this time. The snakes still came up twice, but so did other numbers. Fours and threes and twos and fives. Only one double six.
“That’s batshit, man,” said Adele.
“Yeah. But it works.”
He was right. And so Adele had resolved to read up on gods of luck and to avoid breaking mirrors. And to see if she could find a four-leafed clover in the weed patch down the block. (They sell some in Chinatown, but she’s heard they’re knockoffs.) She’s hunted through the patch several times in the past few months, once for several hours. Nothing so far, but she remains optimistic.
It’s only New York, that’s the really crazy thing. Yonkers? Fine. Jersey? Ditto. Long Island? Well, that’s still Long Island. But past East New York everything is fine.
The news channels had been the first to figure out that particular wrinkle, but the religions really went to town with it. Some of them have been waiting for the End Times for the last thousand years; Adele can’t really blame them for getting all excited. She does blame them for their spin on it, though. There have to be bigger “dens of iniquity” in the world. Delhi has poor people coming out of its ears, Moscow’s mobbed up, Bangkok is pedophile heaven. She’s heard there are still some sundown towns in the Pacific Northwest. Everybody hates on New York.
And it’s not like the signs are all bad. The state had to suspend its lottery program; too many winners in one week bankrupted it. The Knicks made it to the Finals and the Mets won the Series. A lot of people with cancer went into spontaneous remission, and some folks with full-blown AIDS stopped showing any viral load at all. (There are new tours now. Double-decker buses full of the sick and disabled. Adele tries to tell herself they’re just more tourists.)
The missionaries from out of town are the worst. On any given day they step in front of her, shoving tracts under her nose and wanting to know if she’s saved yet. She’s getting better at spotting them from a distance, yappy islands interrupting the sidewalk river’s flow, their faces alight with an inner glow that no self-respecting local would display without three beers and a fat payday check. There’s one now, standing practically underneath a scaffolding ladder. Idiot; two steps back and he’ll double his chances for getting hit by a bus. (And then the bus will catch fire.)
In the same instant that she spots him, he spots her, and a grin stretches wide across his freckled face. She is reminded of blind newts that have light-sensitive spots on their skin. This one is unsaved-sensitive. She veers right, intending to go around the scaffold, and he takes a wide step into her path again. She veers left; he breaks that way.
She stops, sighing. “What.”
“Have you accepted—”
“I’m Catholic. They do us at birth, remember?”
His smile is forgiving. “That doesn’t mean we can’t talk, does it?”
“I’m busy.” She attempts a feint, hoping to catch him off-guard. He moves with her, nimble as a linebacker.
“Then I’ll just give you this,” he says, tucking something into her hand. Not a tract, bigger. A flyer. “The day to remember is August 8th.”
This, finally, catches Adele’s attention. August 8th: 8/8 — a lucky day according to the Chinese. She has it marked on her calendar as a good day to do things like rent a Zipcar and go to Ikea.
“Yankee Stadium,” he says. “Come join us. We’re going to pray the city back into shape.”
“Sure, whatever,” she says, and finally manages to slip around him. (He lets her go, really. He knows she’s hooked.)
She waits until she’s out of downtown before she reads the flyer, because downtown streets are narrow and close and she has to keep an eye out. It’s a hot day; everybody’s using their air conditioners. Most people don’t bolt the things in the way they’re supposed to.
“A PRAYER FOR THE SOUL OF THE CITY,” the flyer proclaims, and in spite of herself, Adele is intrigued. The flyer says that over 500,000 New Yorkers have committed to gathering on that day and concentrating their prayers. That kind of thing has power now, she thinks. There’s some lab at Princeton — dusted off and given new funding lately — that’s been able to prove it. Whether that means Someone’s listening or just that human thoughtwaves are affecting events as the scientists say, she doesn’t know. She doesn’t care.
She thinks, I could ride the train again.
She could laugh at the next Friday the 13th.
She could — and here her thoughts pause, because there’s something she’s been trying not to think about, but it’s been awhile and she’s never been a very good Catholic girl anyway. But she could, maybe, just maybe, try dating again.
As she thinks this, she is walking through the park. She passes the vast lawn, which is covered in fast-darting black children and lazily sunning white adults and a few roving brown elders with Italian ice carts. Though she is usually on watch for things like this, the flyer has distracted her, so she does not notice the nearby cart-man stopping, cursing in Spanish because one of his wheels has gotten mired in the soft turf.
This puts him directly in the path of a child who is running, his eyes trained on a descending Frisbee; with the innate arrogance of a city child he has assumed that the cart will have moved out of the way by the time he gets there. Instead the child hits the cart at full speed, which catches Adele’s attention at last, so that too late she realizes she is at the epicenter of one of those devastating chains of events that only ever happen in comedy films and the transformed city. In a Rube Goldberg string of utter improbabilities, the cart tips over, spilling tubs of brightly colored ices onto the grass. The boy flips over it with acrobatic precision, completely by accident, and lands with both feet on the tub of ices. The sheer force of this blow causes the tub to eject its contents with projectile force. A blast of blueberry-coconut-red hurtles toward Adele’s face, so fast that she has no time to scream. It will taste delicious. It will also likely knock her into oncoming bicycle traffic.
At the last instant the Frisbee hits the flying mass, altering its trajectory. Freezing fruit flavors splatter the naked backs of a row of sunbathers nearby, much to their dismay.
Adele’s knees buckle at the close call. She sits down hard on the grass, her heart pounding, while the sunbathers scream and the cart-man checks to see if the boy is okay and the pigeons converge.
She happens to glance down. A four-leafed clover is growing there, at her fingertips.
Eventually she resumes the journey home. At the corner of her block, she sees a black cat lying atop a garbage can. Its head has been crushed, and someone has attempted to burn it. She hopes it was dead first, and hurries on.
Adele has a garden on the fire escape. In one pot, eggplant and herbs; she has planted the clover in this. In another pot are peppers and flowers. In the big one, tomatoes and a scraggly collard that she’s going to kill if she keeps harvesting leaves so quickly. (But she likes greens.) It’s luck — good luck — that she’d chosen to grow a garden this year, because since things changed it’s been harder for wholesalers to bring food into the city, and prices have shot up. The farmers’ market that she attends on Saturdays has become a barterers’ market, too, so she plucks a couple of slim, deep-purple eggplants and a handful of angry little peppers. She wants fresh fruit. Berries, maybe.
On her way out, she knocks on the neighbor’s door. He looks surprised as he opens it, but pleased to see her. It occurs to her that maybe he’s been hoping for a little luck of his own. She gives it a think-over, and hands him an eggplant. He looks at it in consternation. (He’s not the kind of guy to eat eggplant.)
“I’ll come by later and show you how to cook it,” she says. He grins.
At the farmers’ market she trades the angry little peppers for sassy little raspberries, and the eggplant for two stalks of late rhubarb. She also wants information, so she hangs out awhile gossipping with whoever sits nearby. Everyone talks more than they used to. It’s nice.
And everyone, everyone she speaks to, is planning to attend the prayer.
“I’m on dialysis,” says an old lady who sits under a flowering tree. “Every time they hook me up to that thing I’m scared. Dialysis can kill you, you know.”
It always could, Adele doesn’t say.
“I work on Wall Street,” says another woman, who speaks briskly and clutches a bag of fresh fish as if it’s gold. Might as well be; fish is expensive now. A tiny Egyptian scarab pendant dangles from a necklace the woman wears. “Quantitative analysis. All the models are fucked now. We were the only ones they didn’t fire when the housing market went south, and now this.” So she’s going to pray, too. “Even though I’m kind of an atheist. Whatever, if it works, right?”
Adele finds others, all tired of performing their own daily rituals, all worried about their likelihood of being outliered to death.
She goes back to her apartment building, picks some sweet basil, and takes it next door. Her neighbor seems a little nervous. His apartment is cleaner than she’s ever seen it, with the scent of Pine-Sol still strong in the bathroom. She tries not to laugh, and demonstrates how to peel and slice eggplant, salt it to draw out the toxins (“it’s related tonightshade, you know”), and sauté it with basil in olive oil. He tries to look impressed, but she can tell he’s not the kind of guy to enjoy eating his vegetables.
Afterward they sit, and she tells him about the prayer thing. He shrugs. “Are you going?” she presses.
“Why not? It could fix things.”
“Maybe. Maybe I like the way things are now.”
This stuns her. “Man, the train fell off its track last week.” Twenty people dead. She has woken up in a cold sweat on the nights since, screams ringing in her ears.
“Could’ve happened anytime,” he says, and she blinks in surprise because it’s true. The official investigation says someone — track worker, maybe — left a wrench sitting on the track near a power coupling. The chance that the wrench would hit the coupling, causing a short and explosion, was one in a million. But never zero.
“But… but…” She wants to point out the other horrible things that have occurred. Gas leaks. Floods. A building fell down, in Harlem. A fatal duck attack. Several of the apartments in their building are empty because a lot of people can’t cope. Her neighbor — the other one, with the broken arm — is moving out at the end of the month. Seattle. Better bike paths.
“Shit happens,” he says. “It happened then, it happens now. A little more shit, a little less shit…” He shrugs. “Still shit, right?”
She considers this. She considers it for a long time.
They play cards, and have a little wine, and Adele teases him about the overdone chicken. She likes that he’s trying so hard. She likes even more that she’s not thinking about how lonely she’s been.
So they retire to his bedroom and there’s awkwardness and she’s shy because it’s been awhile and you do lose some skills without practice, and he’s clumsy because he’s probably been developing bad habits from porn, but eventually they manage. They use a condom. She crosses her fingers while he puts it on. There’s a rabbit’s foot keychain attached to the bed railing, which he strokes before returning his attention to her. He swears he’s clean, and she’s on the pill, but… well. Shit happens.
She closes her eyes and lets herself forget for awhile.
The prayer thing is all over the news. The following week is the runup. Talking heads on the morning shows speculate that it should have some effect, if enough people go and exert “positive energy.” They are careful not to use the language of any particular faith; this is still New York. Alternative events are being planned all over the city for those who don’t want to come under the evangelical tent. The sukkah mobiles are rolling — though it’s the wrong time of year — just getting the word out about something happening at one of the synagogues. In Flatbush, Adele can’t walk a block without being hit up by Jehovah’s Witnesses. There’s a “constructive visualization” somewhere for the ethical humanists. Not everybody believes God, or gods, will save them. It’s just that this is the way the world works now, and everybody gets that. If crossed fingers can temporarily alter a dice throw, then why not something bigger? There’s nothing inherently special about crossed fingers. It’s only a “lucky” gesture because people believe in it. Get them to believe in something else, and that should work, too.
Adele walks past the Botanical Gardens, where preparations are under way for a big Shinto ritual. She stops to watch workers putting up a graceful red gate.
She’s still afraid of the subway. She knows better than to get her hopes up about her neighbor, but still… he’s kind of nice. She still plans her mornings around her ritual ablutions, and her walks to work around danger-spots — but how is that different, really, from what she did before? Back then it was makeup and hair, and fear of muggers. Now she walks more than she used to; she’s lost ten pounds. Now she knows her neighbors’ names.
Looking around, she notices other people standing nearby, also watching the gate go up. They glance at her, some nodding, some smiling, some ignoring her and looking away. She doesn’t have to ask if they will be attending one of the services; she can see that they won’t be. Some people react to fear by seeking security, change, control. The rest accept the change and just go on about their lives.
“Miss?” She glances back, startled, to find a young man there, holding forth a familiar flyer. He’s not as pushy as the guy downtown; once she takes it, he moves on. The prayer for the soul of the city is tomorrow. Shuttle buses (“Specially blessed!”) will be picking up people at sites throughout the city.
WE NEED YOU TO BELIEVE, reads the bottom of the flyer.
Adele smiles. She folds the flyer carefully, her fingers remembering the skills of childhood, and presently it is perfect. They’ve printed the flyer on good, heavy paper.
She takes out her St. Christopher, kisses it, and tucks it into the rear folds to weight the thing properly.
Then she launches the paper airplane, and it flies and flies and flies, dwindling as it travels an impossible distance, until it finally disappears into the bright blue sky.
N. K. Jemisin is a New York City author. Although she has written novels since childhood (to varying degrees of success), she began writing short stories in 2002 after attending the Viable Paradise writing workshop. Thereafter she joined the BostonArea SF Writers Group (now BRAWLers), until 2007 when she moved to New York. She is currently a member of the Altered Fluid writing group.
Jemisin’s short fiction has been published in a variety of print, online, and audio markets, including Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, Postscripts, and Jim Baen’s Universe. She was the first recipient of the Speculative Literature Foundation’s Gulliver Travel Research Grant, which was awarded for her short story sample “L’Alchimista.” This story and “Cloud Dragon Skies” received Honorable Mentions in two editions of The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, and her short story “Playing Nice With God’s Bowling Ball” received an Honorable Mention in The Year’s Best Science Fiction. Her short story “Cloud Dragon Skies” was also on the Carl Brandon Society’s “Recommended” shortlist for the Parallax Award. This story, “Non-Zero Probabilities,” also appeared on the 2010 Hugo Awards Ballot. Her first novel, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, was published by Orbit Books. It is the first of a trilogy, and has received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Library Journal. A full bibliography of her work can be found at nkjemisin.com.
James Patrick Kelly
FROM THE AUTHOR: “Going Deep” marked my twenty-fifth appearance in the June issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine. Although this streak started entirely by chance, in time it became a centerpiece of my career: most of my Nebula nominees were children of June. I am eternally grateful to the three editors who published these stories, Shawna McCarthy, Gardner Dozois, and Sheila Williams. However, all things must pass, and “Going Deep” is my last June story — for now, at least. Thanks much to my friends and colleagues for the honor of ending my run with a nomination.
MARISKA SHIVERED WHEN she realized that her room had been tapping at the dreamfeed for several minutes. “The Earth is up,” it murmured in its gentle singing accent. “Daddy Al is up and I am always up. Now Mariska gets up.”
Mariska groaned, determined not to allow her room in. Recently she had been dreaming her own dreams of Jak and his long fingers and the fuzz on his chin and the way her throat tightened when she brushed up against him. But this was one of her room’s feeds, one of the best ones, one she had been having as long as she could remember. In it, she was in space, but she wasn’t on the moon and she wasn’t wearing her hardsuit. There were stars every way she turned. Of course, she’d seen stars through the visor of her helmet but these were always different. Not a scatter of light but a swarm. And they all were singing their names, calling to her to come to them. She could just make out the closest ones: Alpha Centauri. Barnard’s. Wolf. Lalande. Luyten. Sirius.
“The Earth is up, Daddy Al is up, and I am always up,” her room insisted. “Now Mariska gets up.” If she didn’t wake soon, it would have to sound the gong.
“Slag it.” She rolled over, awake and grumpy. Her room had been getting on her last nerve recently When she had been a little girl, she had roused at its whisper, but in the last few weeks it had begun nagging her to wake up. She knew it loved her and was only worried about her going deep, but she was breathing regularly and her heartbeat was probably in the high sixties. It monitored her, so it had to know she was just sleeping.
She thought this was all about Al. He was getting nervous; so her room was nervous.
“Dobroye utro,” said Feodor Bear. “Good morn-ing Mar-i-ska.” The ancient toy robot stood up on its shelf, wobbled, and then sat down abruptly. It was over a century old and, in Mariska’s opinion, needed to be put out of its misery.
“Good morning, dear Mariska,” said her room. “Today is Friday, June 15, 2159. You are expected today in Hydroponics and at the Muoi swimming pool. This Sunday is Father’s Day.”
“I know, I know.” She stuck her foot out from underneath the covers and wiggled her toes in the cool air. Her room began to bring the temperature up from sleeping to waking levels.
“I could help you find something for Daddy Al, if you’d like.” Her room painted Buycenter icons on the wall. “We haven’t shopped together in a while.”
“Maybe later.” Sometimes she felt guilty that she wasn’t spending enough time with her room, but its persona kept treating her like a baby. Still calling him Daddy Al, for example; it was embarrassing. And she would get to all her expectations eventually. What choice did she have?
The door slid aside a hand’s width and Al peered through the opening.
“Rise and shine, Mariska.” His smile was a crack on a worried face. “Pancakes for breakfast,” he said. “But only if you get up now.” He blew a kiss that she ducked away from.
“I’m shining already,” she grumbled. “Your own little star.”
As she stepped through the cleanser, she wondered what to do about him. She knew exactly what was going on. The Gorshkov had just returned from exploring the Delta Pavonis system, which meant they’d probably be hearing soon from Natalya Volochkova. And Mariska had just turned thirteen; in another year she’d be able to vote, sign contracts, get married. This was the way the world worked: now that she was almost an adult, it was time for Al to go crazy. All her friends’ parents had. The symptoms were hard to ignore: embarrassing questions like where was she going? and who was she going with? and who else would be there? He said he trusted her but she knew he’d slap a trace on her if he thought he could get away with it. But what was the point? This was the moon. There were security cams over every safety hatch. How much trouble could she get into? Walk out an airlock without a suit? She wasn’t suicidal — or dumb. Have sex and get pregnant? She was patched — when she finally jumped a boy, pregnancy wouldn’t be an issue. Crash from some toxic feed? She was young — she’d get over it.
The fact that she loved Al’s strawberry pancakes did nothing to improve her mood at breakfast. He was unusually quiet, which meant he was working his courage up for some stupid fathering talk. Something in the news? She brought her gossip feed up on the tabletop to see what was going on. The scrape of his knife on the plate as she scanned headlines made her want to shriek. Why did he have to use her favorite food as a bribe so that he could pester her?
“You heard about that boy from Penrose High?” he said at last. “The one in that band you used to like… No Exit? Final Exit?”
“You’re talking about Last Exit to Nowhere?” That gossip was so old it had curled around the edges and blown away. “Deltron Cleen?”
“That’s him.” He stabbed one last pancake scrap and pushed it into a pool of syrup. “They say he was at a party a couple of weeks ago and opened his head to everyone there; I forget how many mindfeeds he accepted.”
“So?” She couldn’t believe he was pushing Deltron Cleen at her.
“You knew him?”
“I’ve met him, sure.”
“You weren’t there, were you?” He actually squirmed, like he had ants crawling up his leg. “When it happened?”
“Oh sure. And when he keeled over, I was the one who gave him CPR.” Mariska pinched her nose closed and puffed air at him. “Saved his life — the board of supers is giving me a medal next Thursday.”
“This is serious, Mariska. Taking feeds from people you don’t know is dangerous.”
“Unless they’re schoolfeeds. Or newsfeeds. Or dreamfeeds.”
“Those are datafeeds. And they’re screened.”
“God feeds, then.”
He sank back against his chair. “You’re not joining a church, are you?”
“No.” She laughed and patted his hand. “I’m okay, Al. Trust me. I love you and everything is okay.”
“I know that.” He was so flustered he slipped his fork in his pants pocket. “I know,” he repeated, as if trying to convince himself.
“Poor Del is pretty stupid, even for a singer in a shoutcast band,” she said. “What I heard was he accepted maybe a dozen feeds, but I guess there wasn’t room in his head for more than him and a couple of really shallow friends. But he just crashed is all; they’ll reboot him. Might even be an improvement.” She reached across the table, picked up Al’s empty plate, and slid it onto hers. “You never did anything like that, did you?” She carried them to the kitchen counter and pushed them through the processor door. “Accept mindfeeds from perfect strangers?”
“Not strangers, no.”
“But you were young once, right? I mean, you weren’t born a parent?”
“I’m a father, Mariska.” He swiped his napkin across his lips and then folded it up absently. “You’re a minor and still my responsibility. This is just me, trying to stay in touch.”
“Extra credit to you, then.” She check-marked the air. “But being a father is complicated. Maybe we should work on your technique?”
The door announced, “Jak is here.”
“Got to go.” Mariska grabbed her kit, kissed Al, and spun toward the door in relief. She felt bad for him sometimes. It wasn’t his fault he took all the slag in the Talking to Your Teen feed so seriously.
Of course, the other reason why Al was acting up was because Mariska’s genetic mother was about to swoop down on them. The Gorshkov had finally returned after a fifteen-year mission and was now docked at Sweetspot Station. Rumor was that humankind had a terrestrial world to colonize that was only three years away from the new Delta Pavonis wormhole. Natalya Volochkova was on the starship’s roster as chief medical officer.
Mariska didn’t hate her mother, exactly. How could she? They had never met. She knew very little about Volochkova and had no interest in finding out more. Ever, never. All she had from her were a couple of fossil toys: Feodor Bear and that stupid Little Mermaid aquarium. Collector’s items from the twenty-first century, which was why Mariska had never been allowed to play with them.
What she did hate was the idea that decisions this stranger had made a decade and a half ago now ruled her life. She was Volochkova’s clone and had been carried to term in a plastic womb, then placed in the care of one Alfred DeFord, a licensed father, under a term adoption contract. Her genetic mother had hired Al the way that some people hired secretaries; three fifths of Volochkova’s salary paid for their comfortable, if unspectacular, lifestyle. Mariska knew that Al had come to love her over the years, but growing up with an intelligent room and a hired father for parents wouldn’t have been her choice, had she been given one.
As if parking her with a hired father wasn’t bad enough, Volochkova had cursed Mariska with spacer genes. Which was why she had to suffer though all those boring pre-space feeds from the Ed supers and why everyone was so worried that she might go deep into hibernation before her time and why she’d been matched with her one true love when she had been in diapers.
Actually, having Jak as a boyfriend wasn’t all that much of a problem. She just wished that it didn’t have to be so damn inevitable. She wanted to be the one to decide that a curly black mop was sexier than a blonde crewcut or that thin lips were more kissable than thick or that loyal was more attractive than smart. He was fifteen, already an adult, but still lived with his parents. Even though he was two years older than she was, they were in the same semester in the spacer program.
Jak listened as Mariska whined, first about Volochkova and then about Al’s breakfast interrogation, as they skated to the hydroponics lab. He knew when to squeeze her hand, when to emit understanding moans and concerned grunts. This was what he called taking the weight, and she was gratified by his capacity to bear her up when she needed it. They were good together, in the 57th percentile on the Hammergeld Scale, according to their Soc super. Although she wondered if there might be some other boy for her somewhere, Mariska was resigned to the idea that, unless she was struck by a meteor or kidnapped by aliens, she would drag him into bed one of these days and marry him when she turned fourteen and then they would hibernate happily ever after on their way to Lalande 21185 or Barnard’s Star or wherever.
“But we were there, ’Ska,” Jak said, as the safety hatch to the lab slid aside. “Del asked you to open your head.” He bent over to crank the rollers into the soles of his shoes.
“Which is why we left.” She pulled a disposable green clingy from the dispenser next to the safety door and shrugged into it. “Which is why we were already in Chim Zone when the EMTs went by, which means we weren’t really there. How many times do I have to go over this?” She gave him a friendly push toward his bench and headed toward her own, which was on the opposite side of the lab.
Mariska checked the chemistry of her nutrient solution. Phosphorus was down 50ppm so she added a pinch of ammonium dihydrogen phosphate. She was raising tomatoes in rockwool spun from lunar regolith. Sixteen new blossoms had opened since Tuesday and needed to be pollinated; she used one of the battery operated toothbrushes that Mr. Holmgren, the Ag super, favored. Mariska needed an average yield of 4.2 kilograms per plant in order to complete this unit; her tomatoes wouldn’t be ripe for another eight weeks. Jak was on tomatoes, too; his spring crop had had an outbreak of mosaic virus and so he was repeating the unit.
Other kids straggled into the lab as she worked. Grieg, who had the bench next to hers, offered one of his lima beans, which she turned down, and a hit from his sniffer, which she took. Megawatt waved hello and Fung stopped by to tell her that their Corshkov tour had been rescheduled for Tuesday, which she already knew.
After a while, Random ambled in, using a vacpac to clean up the nutrient spills and leaf litter. He had just washed out of the spacer program but his mother was a Med super so he was hanging around as a janitor until she decided what to do with him. Everyone knew why he had failed. He was a feed demon; his head was like a digital traffic jam. However, unlike Del Cleen, Random had never once crashed. They said that if you ever opened yourself wide to him, even just for an instant, you would be so filled with other people’s thoughts that you would never think your own again.
He noticed her staring and saluted her with the wand of his vacuum cleaner. It was funny, he didn’t look all that destroyed to Mariska. Sleepy maybe, or bored, or a little high, but not as if he had had his individuality crushed. Besides, even though he was too skinny, she thought he was kind of cute. Not for the first time, she wondered what their Hammergeld compatibility score might be.
Mariska felt the tingle of Jak offering a mindfeed. She opened her head a crack and accepted.
=giving up for today= She was relieved that Jak just wanted to chat. =you?=
=ten minutes= Mariska was still getting used to chatting in public. She and Jak had been more intimate, of course, had even opened wide for full mental convergence a couple of times, but that had been when they were by themselves, sitting next to each other in a dark room. Swapping thoughts was all the mindfeed she could handle without losing track of where she was. After all, she was still a kid.
=how’s your fruit set?= Jak’s feed always felt like a fizzing behind her eyes.
=fifty, maybe sixty= She noticed Random drifting toward her side of the lab. =this sucks=
=spacers got to eat=
Jak’s pleasant fizz gave way to a bubble of annoyance. =you’re a spacer=
Mariska had begun to have her doubts about that, but this didn’t seem like the right time to bring them up, because Random had shut his vacuum off and slouched beside her bench in silence. His presence was a kind of absence. He seemed to have parked his body in front of her and then forgotten where he had left it.
“What?” She poked his shoulder. “Say something.”
Jak bumped her feed. =problem?=
All kids of spacer stock were thin but, with his spindly limbs and teacup waist and translucent skin, Random seemed more a rumor than a boy. His eyelids fluttered and he touched his tongue to his bottom lip, as if he were trying to remember something. “Your mother,” he said.
Mariska could feel a ribbon of dread weave into her feed with Jak. She wasn’t sure her feet were still on the floor.
=nothing= Mariska clamped her head closed, then gave Jak a feeble wave to show everything was all right. He didn’t look reassured.
“What about my mother?” She hissed at Random. “You don’t even know her.”
He opened his hand and showed her a small, brown disk. At first she thought it was a button but then she recognized the profile of Abraham Lincoln and realized that it was some old coin from Earth. What was it called? A penalty? No, a penny.
“I know this,” said Random. “Check the date.”
She shrank from him. “No.”
Then Jak came to her rescue. He rested a hand on Random’s shoulder. “Be smooth now.” It didn’t take much effort to turn the skinny kid away from her. “What’s happening?”
Random tried to shrug from Jak’s grip, but he was caught. “Isn’t about you.”
“Fair enough.” Jak always acted polite when he was getting angry. “But here I am. You’re not telling me to go away, are you?”
“He says it’s about Natalya Volochkova,” said Mariska.
Random placed the penny on Mariska’s bench. “Check the date.”
Jak picked the penny up and held it to the light. “2018,” he read. “They used to use this stuff for money.”
“I know that,” Mariska snapped. She snatched the penny out of his hand and shoved it into the front pouch of her tugshirt.
Random seemed to have lost interest in her now that Jak had arrived. He switched on the vacpac, bent over, and touched the wand to a tomato leaf on the deck. It caught crossways for a moment, singing in the suction, and was gone. Then he sauntered off.
“What’s this got to do with your mother?” asked Jak.
Mariska had been mad at Random, but since he no longer presented a target, she decided to be mad at Jak instead. “Don’t be stupid. She’s not my mother.” She saw that Grieg was hunched over his beans, pretending to check the leaves for white flies. From the way his shoulders were shaking, she was certain that he was laughing at her. “Let’s get out of here.”
Jak looked doubtfully at the chemical dispensers and gardening tools scattered across her bench. “You want to clean up first?”
“No.” She peeled off her clingy and threw it at the bench.
Jak tried to cheer her up by doing a flip-scrape in the corridor immediately in front of the hydroponics safety hatch. He leapt upwards in the Moon’s one-sixth gravity, flipped in midair and scraped the rollers on the bottom of his shoes across the white ceiling, skritch, skritch, leaving skid marks. He didn’t quite stick the landing and had to catch himself on the bulkhead. “Let Random clean that.” His face flushed with the effort. “That slaghead.”
“You’re so busted,” said Mariska, nodding at the security cam. “They’re probably calling your parents even as we speak.”
“Not,” said Jak. “Megawatt and I smeared the cams with agar last night.” He smiled and swiped a lock of curly hair from his forehead. “From Holmgren’s own petri dishes. All they’ve got is blur and closeups of bacteria.”
He looked so proud of himself that she couldn’t help but grin back at him. “Smooth.” Her Jak was the master of the grand and useless gesture.
He reached for her hand. “So where are we going?”
They skated in silence through the long corridors of Hai Zone; Jak let her lead. He was much better on rollers than she was — a two-time sugarfoot finalist — and matched her stroke-for-stroke without loosening or tightening his feathery grip.
“You were mad back there,” said Jak.
“Have you heard from your mother yet?”
“I told you, she’s not my mother.”
“Sure. Your clone, then.”
Technically, Mariska was Natalya Volochkova’s clone, but she didn’t bother to correct him. “Not yet. Probably soon.” He gave her hand a squeeze. “Unless I get lucky and she lets me alone.”
“I don’t see why you care. If she comes to visit, just freeze her out. She’ll leave eventually.”
“I don’t want to see them together. Her and Al.” She could just picture Volochkova in their flat. The heroic explorer would sneer at the way her hired father had spent the money she had given them. Then she would order Al around and turn off her room’s persona and tell Mariska to grow up. As if she wasn’t trying.
“Move out for a while. Stay with Geetha.”
Mariska made a vinegar face. “Her little brother is a brat.”
“Come stay with us then. You could sleep in Memaw’s room.” Jak’s grandmother had been a fossil spacer, one of the first generation to go to the stars; she had died back in February.
“Sure, let’s try that one on Al. It’ll be fun watching the top of his head blow off.”
“But my parents would be there.”
Being Jak’s girlfriend meant having to tolerate his parents. The mom wasn’t so bad. A little boring, but then what grownup wasn’t? But the dad was a mess. He had washed out of the spacer program when he was Jak’s age and his mother — Memaw — had never let him forget it. The dad put his nose in a sniffer more than was good for anyone and when he was high, he had a tongue on him that could cut steel.
“Weren’t your parents there when you and Megawatt set off that smoke bomb in your room?”
Jak blushed. “It was a science experiment.”
“That cleared all of Tam Zone.” She pulled him to a stop and gave him a brush kiss on the cheek. “Besides, your parents aren’t going to be patrolling the hall at all hours. What if I get an overpowering urge in the middle of the night? Who’ll protect you?”
“Urge?” He dashed ahead, launched a jump 180, and landed it, skating backwards, wiggling his cute ass. “Overpowering?” His stare was at once playful and hungry.
“Show off.” Mariska looked away, embarrassed for both of them. Jak was so pathetically eager; it wasn’t right to tease him about sex. It had seemed like a grownup thing to say, but just now she wasn’t feeling much like an adult. She needed to get away from Jak. Everybody. Be by herself.
She decided to cue a fake call. When her fingernail flashed, she studied it briefly then brought it to her ear. “It’s Al,” she said. “Sorry, Jak, I’ve got to go.”
The swimming pool in Muoi Zone was one of the biggest in the Moon’s reservoir system, but Mariska liked it because it didn’t have a sky projected on its ceiling. Somehow images of stars and clouds made the water seem colder, even though all the Moon’s pools were kept at a uniform 27° Celsius. And she felt less exposed looking up at raw rock. The diving platforms at the deep end were always crowded with acrobats; in the shallows little kids stood on their hands and wiggled their toes and heaved huge, quivering balls of water high into the air. Their shouts of glee echoed off the low ceiling and drowned in the blue expanse of the pool.
The twenty-five lanes were busy as usual with lap swimmers meeting their daily exercise expectation. Mariska owed the Med supers an hour in the pool four times a week. She sat at the edge in lane twelve and waited for an opening. She was wearing the aquablade bodysuit that Al had bought for her birthday. Jak had wanted her to get a tank suit or a two-piece, but she had chosen the neck-to-knee style because her chest was still flat as the lunar plains. That was why she didn’t like to swim with Jak — when they stood next to each other in swimsuits, she looked like his baby sister.
She eased into the cool water just behind an old guy in a blue Speedo and cued up the datafeed she was supposed to review on ground squirrels.
=The hibernating Spermophilus tridecemlineatus can spend six months without food. During this period its temperature drops to as low as 0° Celsius. With a heart rate at one percent of its active state and oxygen consumption at two percent, the squirrel can survive solely on the combustion of its lipid reserves, especially unsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids.=
As Mariska’s heart rate climbed to its target of 179 beats per minute, her deep and regular breathing and the quiet slap of water against her body brought on her usual swimming trance. For a brief, blue moment doing the right thing was easy: just bounce off the two walls connected by the black lane line.
Then her thoughts began to tumble over one another. Everything was stuck together, just like in the Love Gravy song. Al and Jak and Volochkova and her life on the moon and her future in space and sex and going deep and the way her room wouldn’t let her grow up and Feodor Bear and pancakes and tomatoes and what did Random want with her anyway?
=The gene regulating the enzyme PDK4 (pyruvate dehydrogenase kinase isoenzyme 4) switches the squirrel’s metabolism from the active to the hibernating state by inhibiting carbohydrate oxidation.=
She tried to remember exactly when she had decided to block out everything about Natalya Volochkova, but she couldn’t. She had a vague memory that it had been her room’s idea. She had asked it why her mother had abandoned her and her room had said that maybe grownups didn’t always have choices but that had only made her upset. So her room had told Mariska that she was a special girl who didn’t need a mother and that she should never ask about her again. Ever. Never. Or had that been in a dreamfeed?
=…mitochondrial functions are drastically reduced… =
Mariska felt as if she were swimming through the data in the feed. She was certain that she would never remember any of it. And Mr. Holmgren was going to have a meltdown when he saw how she had left her bench in the lab and she’d probably flunk tomatoes just like Jak had.
=In 2014 the first recombinant ground squirrel and human genes resulted in activity of PTL — pancreatic triacylglycerol lipase — in both heart and white adipose tissue under supercooling conditions.=
What had happened in 2018? She had never much cared for history. The Oil Crash must have started around that time. And Google 3.0. The founding of Moonbase Zhong? A bunch of extinctions. Datafeeds, sure, but mindfeeds didn’t come until the eighties. When did the fossil spacers launch the first starship?
As she touched the wall a foot tapped her on the shoulder. She twisted out of her flip turn and broke the surface of the water, sputtering. Random was standing at the edge of the pool, staring at her. His bathing suit had slid down his bony hips. “My penny,” he said. “Can I have it back now?” His pale skin had just a tinge of blue and he was shivering.
Random spilled his bundle of clothes onto the floor in front of her locker; he had the handle of a lunch box clamped between his teeth. Mariska slithered into her tube top as he set the lunch box on the bench between them. It had a picture of an apple on it; the apple was wearing a space helmet.
“This isn’t funny, Random.” Mariska slipped an arm into the sleeve of her tugshirt. “Are you stalking me?”
“No.” He punched the print button on the processor and an oversized pool towel rolled from the output slot above the lockers. “Not funny at all.”
She sealed the front placket of the tug and plunged both hands into its pouch. There it was. She must have taken the penny without realizing it. She extended the coin to him on her palm.
“First we talk, then you get the penny.” She closed her fist around it. “What’s this about?”
“I said already.” Random stripped off his wet bathing suit. “Your mother.” He crammed it into the input slot and began to dry himself with the towel.
Mariska set her jaw but didn’t correct him. “What about her?”
“She’s a fossil. The penny could have been hers.”
“Okay.” She wasn’t sure she believed this, but she didn’t want him to think that she didn’t know if it were true. The heroic fossils had been the first humans to go to the stars. They had volunteered to be genetically altered so that they could hibernate through the three-year voyage to the wormhole at the far edge of Oort Cloud and then hibernate again as their ships cruised at sublight speeds through distant solar systems. Most of the fossils were dead, many from side effects of the crude genetic surgery of the twenty-first century. “So?”
“She probably has stuff. Or maybe you have her stuff?”
“To trade.” He wrapped the towel around his waist and opened his lunch box. It was crammed with what looked to Mariska like junk wrapped in clear guardgoo. “Like my goods.” Random pulled each item out as if it were a treasure.
“Vanilla Girl.” He showed her the head of a doll with a patch over one eye. “Pencil,” he said. “Never sharpened.” He arranged an empty Coke bubble, a paper book with the cover ripped off, a key, a purple eyelight, a pepper shaker in the shape of a robot, and a thumb teaser on the bench. At the bottom of the lunch box was a tiny red plastic purse. He snapped it open and shook it so that she could hear coins clinking. “Please?”
Mariska dropped the penny into the purse. “How did you find out she’s a fossil?”
“It’s complicated.” He tapped his forehead and she felt a tingle as he offered her a feed. “Want to open up?”
“No.” Mariska folded her arms over her chest. “I don’t think I do.” She was chilled at the thought of losing herself in the chaos of feeds everyone claimed were churning inside Random’s head. “You’ll just have to say it.”
Random dropped the towel on the floor and pulled on his janitor’s greens. She was disgusted to see that he didn’t bother with underwear. “When the Corshkov came back,” he said, “everyone was happy.” He furrowed his brow, trying to remember how to string consecutive sentences together. “Happy people talk and make feeds and party all over. That’s how I know.” He nodded as if that explained everything.
Mariska tried not to sound impatient. “Know what?”
“It’s a beautiful planet.” Random made a circle with his hands, as if to present the new world to her. “Check the feeds, you’ll see. It’s the best ever. Even better than Earth, at least the way it is now, all crispy and crowded.”
“Okay, so it’s the Garden of slagging Eden. So what does that have to do with all this crap?”
“Crap?” He drew himself up, and then waved the pepper shaker at her. “My goods aren’t crap.” He set it carefully back in the lunch box and began to gather up the rest of his odd collection.
“Sorry, sorry, sorry.” Mariska didn’t want to chase him away — at least not yet. “So it’s a beautiful planet. And your goods are great. Tell me what’s going on?”
He stacked the Coke bubble and the eyelight on top of the book but then paused, considering her apology. “Most of the crew of the Gorshkov are going back.” He packed the pile away. “It’s their reward, to live on a planet with all that water and all that sky and friendly weather. Going back…” he tapped the bench next to her leg “… with their families.”
Mariska’s throat was so tight that she could barely croak. “I’m not her family.”
“Okay.” He shrugged. “But anything you want to trade before you go — either of you…”
Mariska flung herself at the security door.
“Just asking,” Random called after her.
When she burst into the kitchen, Al was arranging a layer of lasagna noodles in a casserole. Yet another of her favorite dishes; Mariska should have known something was wrong. She gasped when he looked over his shoulder at her. His eyes were shiny and his cheeks were wet.
“You knew.” She could actually hear herself panicking. “She wants to drag me off to some stinking rock twenty light years away and you knew.”
“I didn’t. But I guessed.” The weight of his sadness knocked her back onto one of the dining room chairs. “She stopped by right after you left. She’s looking for you.”
“I’m not here.”
“Okay.” He picked up a cup of shredded mozzarella and sprinkled it listlessly over the noodles.
“You can’t let her do this, Al. You’re my daddy. You’re supposed to protect me.”
“It’s a term contract, Mariska. I’m already in the option year.”
“Slag the contract. And slag you for signing it. I don’t want to go.”
“Then don’t. I don’t think she’ll make you. But you need to think about it.” He kept his head down and spooned sauce onto the lasagna. “It’s space, Mariska. You’re a spacer.”
“Not yet. I haven’t even passed tomatoes. I could wash out. I will wash out.”
He sniffed and wiped his eyes with his sleeve.
“I don’t understand,” she said. “Why are you taking her side?”
“Because you’re a child and she’s your legal parent. Because you can’t live here forever.” His voice climbed unsteadily to a shout. Al had never shouted at her before. “Because all of this is over.” He shook the spoon at their kitchen.
“What do you mean, over?” She thought that it wasn’t very professional of him to be showing his feelings like this. “Answer me! And what about Jak?”
“I don’t know, Mariska.” He jiggled another lasagna noodle out of the colander. “I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
She stared at his back. The kitchen seemed to warp and twist; all the ties that bound her to Al were coming undone. She scraped her chair from the table and spun down the hall to her room, bouncing off the walls.
“Hello Mariska,” said her room as the door slid shut. “You seem upset. Is there anything I can… ?
“Shut up, shut up, shut up.”
She didn’t care if she hurt her room’s feelings; it was just a stupid persona anyway. She needed quiet to think, sort through all the lies that had been her life. It must have been some other girl who had drawn funny aliens on the walls or listened to the room tell stories — lies! — about a space captain named Mariska or who had built planets inhabited by unicorns and fairies and princesses in her room’s simspace. She didn’t belong here. Not in this goddamn room, not on the moon, not anywhere.
Then it came to her. She knew what she had to do. Only she wasn’t sure exactly how to do it. But how hard could going deep be? It was in her genes — her mother’s genes. Slag her. Everyone so worried that she would go deep without really meaning to. So that must mean that she could. That’s how the fossils had done it, before there were hibernation pods and proper euthermic arousal protocols.
She didn’t know what good going deep would do her. It was probably stupid. Something a kid would do. But that was the point, wasn’t it? She was just a kid. What other choice did she have?
She lay back on her bed and thought about space, about stepping out of the airlock without anything on. Naked and alone, just like she had always been. The air would freeze in her lungs and they would burst. Her eyes would freeze and it would be dark. She would be as cold as she had ever been. As cold as Natalya Volochkova, that bitch.
The Earth is up,” the room murmured. “And I am always up. Is Mariska ready to get up yet?”
Mariska shivered from the cold. That wasn’t right. Her room was supposed to monitor both its temperature and hers.
“The Earth is up, and I am always up,” cooed her room. It wasn’t usually so patient.
Mariska stretched. She felt stiff, as if she had overdone a swim. She opened her eyes and then shut them immediately. Her room had already brought the lights up to full intensity. It was acting strangely this morning. Usually it would interrupt one of her dreams, but all that she had in her head was a vast and frigid darkness. Space without the stars.
Mariska yawned and slitted her eyes against the light. She was facing the shelf where Feodor Bear sat. “Dobroye utro,” it said. The antique robot bumped against the shelf twice in a vain attempt to stand. “Good morn-ing Mar-i-ska.” There was something wrong with its speech chip; it sounded as if it were talking through a bowl of soup.
“Good morning, dear Mariska,” said her room. “Today is Wednesday, November 23, 2163. You have no bookings scheduled for today.”
That couldn’t be right. The date was way off. Then she remembered.
The door slid open. She blinked several times before she could focus on the woman standing there.
Mariska knew that voice. Even though it had a crack to it that her room had never had, she recognized its singing accent.
“Where’s Al?” When she sat up the room seemed to spin.
“He doesn’t live here anymore.” The woman sat beside her on the bed. She had silver hair and a spacer’s sallow complexion. Her skin was wrinkled around the eyes and the mouth. “I can send for him, if you like. He’s just in Muoi Zone.” She seemed to be trying on a smile, to see if it would fit. “It’s been three years, Mariska. We couldn’t rouse you. It was too dangerous.”
She considered this. “Jak?”
“Three years is a long time.”
She turned her face to the wall. “The room’s voice — that’s you. And the persona?”
“I didn’t want to go to Delta Pavonis, but I didn’t have a choice. I’m a spacer, dear, dear Mariska. Just like you. When they need us, we go.” She sighed. “I knew you would hate me — I would have hated me. So I found another way to be with you; I spent the two months before we left uploading feeds. I put as much of myself into this room as I could.” She gestured at Mariska’s room.
“You treated me like a kid. Or the room did.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t think I’d be gone this long.”
“I’m not going to that place with you.”
“All right,” she said. “But I’d like to go with you, if you’ll let me.”
“I’m not going anywhere.” Mariska shook her head; she still felt groggy. “Where would I go?”
“To the stars,” said Natalya Volochkova. “They’ve been calling you. Alpha Centauri. Barnard’s. Wolf. Lalande. Luyten. Sirius.”
Mariska propped herself on a elbow and stared at her. “How do you know that?”
She reached out and brushed a strand of hair from Mariska’s forehead. “Because,” she said, “I’m your mother.”
James Patrick Kelly has had an eclectic writing career. He has written novels, short stories, essays, reviews, poetry, plays, and planetarium shows. His most recent book, a collection of stories, was The Wreck of the Godspeed. His novella Burn was awarded the Nebula in 2007, his only win in twelve nominations — but who’s counting? He has won the Hugo Award twice and his fiction has been translated into eighteen languages. With John Kessel he is coeditor of Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology, Rewired: The Post-Cyberpunk Anthology, and the The Secret History of Science Fiction. He writes a column on the Internet for Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine and is on the faculty of the Stonecoast Creative Writing MFA Program at the University of Southern Maine and the Board of Directors of the Clarion Foundation. Hear him read “Going Deep” and many other stories on his podcasts: James Patrick Kelly’s StoryPod on Audible.com and the Free Reads Podcast. His website is www.jimkelly.net.
FROM THE AUTHOR: One of my writing friends once described my writing process as thinking up a bunch of hopefully cool ideas, throwing them up against the wall, and seeing what stuck. I hope that’s not completely accurate, but I do tend to be driven by overt ideas and interesting characters, and underlying themes or resonance tends to develop outside my awareness. In other words, as a writer I’m not terribly self-aware, so writing about my writing can be a struggle.
This same writing friend pointed out that almost all of my fiction to date explores romantic love. It astonished me that I had never noticed. I write love stories — who’d have thought?
“Bridesicle” is a love story. It didn’t start out that way, though. I originally wrote “Bridesicle” from the perspective of Lycan, a man visiting a cryogenic dating center who, unbeknownst to his potential mates, can’t afford to save any of them. In the original story Mira, who is the protagonist in the final version, was one of a number of women Lycan “dated” at the center. I posted the original story for my online writing group to critique, and they politely panned it. Mary Robinette Kowal suggested the story would work better from the perspective of one of the women trapped at the center and, after a few weeks of acclimating to the idea that I should toss the original story in its entirety and start over, I tossed the original story in its entirety and started over. So I have Mary to thank for guiding me toward the story as it was published in Asimov’s.
While I’m not exactly suffering from imposter syndrome, to say I was stunned to learn that “Bridesicle” had been nominated for a Nebula Award would be an understatement. When I began writing at age thirty-nine it never occurred to me that I might turn out to be any good at it. I wrote because I discovered I loved it more than anything I had ever done, and eighty-eight straight rejections to begin my career didn’t deter me, because I just flat-out love to write. I fully expect the day of the Nebula Awards to be the second-best day of my life. The best was my wedding day. Originally I ranked the birth of my twins, Miles and Hannah, second, and the Nebulas third, but my wife Alison reminded me that the day of their birth actually sucked pretty badly.
THE WORDS WERE gentle strokes, drawing her awake.
“Hello. Hello there.”
She felt the light on her eyelids, and knew that if she opened her eyes they would sting, and she would have to shade them with her palm and let the light bleed through a crack.
“Feel like talking?” A man’s soft voice.
And then her mind cleared enough to wonder: where was her mom? She called into the corners of her mind, but there was no answer, and that could not be. Once she’d let mom in, there was no tossing her out. It was not like letting Mom move into her apartment; there was no going back once mom was in her mind, because there was no body for mom to return to.
So where was she?
“Aw, I know you’re awake by now. Come on, sleeping beauty. Talk to me.” The last was a whisper, a lover’s words, and Mira felt that she had to come awake and open her eyes. She tried to sigh, but no breath came. Her eyes flew open in alarm.
An old man was leaning over her, smiling, but Mira barely saw him, because when she opened her mouth to inhale, her jaw squealed like a sea bird’s cry, and no breath came, and she wanted to press her hands to the sides of her face, but her hands wouldn’t come either. Nothing would move except her face.
“Hello, hello. And how are you?” The old man was smiling gently, as if Mira might break if he set his whole smile loose. He was not that old, she saw now. Maybe sixty. The furrows in his forehead and the ones framing his nose only seemed deep because his face was so close to hers, almost close enough for a kiss. “Are you having trouble?” He reached out and stroked her hair. “You have to press down with your back teeth to control the air flow. Didn’t they show you?”
There was an air flow — a gentle breeze, whooshing up her throat and out her mouth and nose. It tickled the tiny hairs in her nostrils. She bit down, and the breeze became a hiss — an exhale strong enough that her chest should drop, but it didn’t, or maybe it did and she just couldn’t tell, because she couldn’t lift her head to look.
“Where—” Mira said, and then she howled in terror, because her voice sounded horrible — deep and hoarse and hollow, the voice of something that had pulled itself from a swamp.
“It takes some getting used to. Am I your first? No one has revived you before? Not even for an orientation?” The notion seemed to please him, that he was her first, whatever that meant. Mira studied him, wondering if she should recognize him. He preened at her attention, as if expecting Mira to be glad to see him. He was not an attractive man — his nose was thick and bumpy, and not in an aristocratic way. His nostrils were like a bull’s; his brow Neanderthal, but his mouth dainty. She didn’t recognize him.
“I can’t move. Why can’t I move?” Mira finally managed. She looked around as best she could.
“It’s okay. Try to relax. Only your face is working.”
“What happened?” Mira finally managed.
“You were in a car accident,” he said, his brow now flexed with concern. He consulted a readout on his palm. “Fairly major damage. Ruptured aorta. Right leg gone.”
Right leg gone? Her right leg? She couldn’t see anything except the man hanging over her and a gold-colored ceiling, high, high above. “This is a hospital?” she asked.
“No, no. A dating center.”
“What?” For the first time she noticed that there were other voices in the room, speaking in low, earnest, confidential tones. She caught snippets close by:
“…neutral colors. How could anyone choose violet?”
“…last time I was at a Day-Glows concert I was seventeen…”
“I shouldn’t be the one doing this.” The man turned, looked over his shoulder. “There’s usually an orientation.” He raised his voice. “Hello?” He turned back around to face her, shrugged, looking bemused. “I guess we’re on our own.” He clasped his hands, leaned in toward Mira. “The truth is, you see, you died in the accident…”
Mira didn’t hear the next few things he said. She felt as if she were floating. It was an absurd idea, that she might be dead yet hear someone tell her she was dead. But somehow it rang true. She didn’t remember dying, but she sensed some hard, fast line — some demarcation between now and before. The idea made her want to flee, escape her body, which was a dead body. Her teeth were corpse’s teeth.
“…your insurance covered the deep-freeze preservation, but full revival, especially when it involves extensive injury, is terribly costly. That’s where the dating service comes in—”
“Where is my mother?” Mira interrupted.
The man consulted his palm again. He nodded. “You had a hitcher. Your mother.” He glanced around again, raised his hand as if to wave at someone, then dropped it.
A hitcher. What an apropos term. “Is she gone?” Mira wanted to say, “Is she dead?” but that had become an ambiguous concept.
“Yes. You need consistent brain activity to maintain a hitcher. Once you die, the hitcher is gone.”
Like a phone number you’re trying to remember, Mira thought. You have to hold it with thought, and if you lose it, you never get it back. Mira felt hugely relieved. From the moment she waked, she kept expecting to hear her mother’s voice. Now she knew it wouldn’t come, and she could relax. She felt guilty for feeling relieved that her mother was dead, but who would blame her? Certainly not anyone who’d known her mother. Certainly not Lynn.
“I have a sister,” she said. “Lynn.” Her jaw moved so stiffly.
“Yes, a twin sister. Now that would be interesting.” The man grinned, his eyebrows raised.
“Is she still alive?”
“No,” he said in a tone that suggested she was a silly girl. “You’ve been gone for over eighty years, sleeping beauty.” He made a sweeping gesture, as if all of that was trivial. “But let’s focus on the present. The way this works is, we get acquainted. We have dates. If we find we’re compatible,” he raised his shoulders toward his ears, smiled his dainty smile, “then I might be enticed to pay for you to be revived, so that we can be together.”
“So. My name is Red, and I know from your readout that your name is Mira. Nice to meet you, Mira.”
“Nice to meet you,” Mira murmured. He’d said she died in a car accident. She tried to remember, but nothing came. Nothing about the accident, anyway. The memories that raced up at her were arguments — arguments with her mother. An argument at a shopping mall. Mom hating everything Mira liked, trying to get Mira to go to the Seniors section and buy cheap, drab housedresses. Mom had had no control of Mira’s body (she was only a hitcher, after all), but there are lots of ways to control.
“So. Mira.” Red clapped his hands together. “Do you want to bullshit, or do you want to get intimate?”
The raised eyebrows again, the same as when he made the twins comment. “I don’t understand,” Mira said.
“Weeeell. For example, here’s a question.” He leaned in close, his breath puffing in her ear. “If I revived you, what sorts of things would you do to me?”
Mira was sure that this man’s name was not Red, and she doubted he was here to revive anyone. “I don’t know. That’s an awfully intimate question. Why don’t we get to know each other first?” She needed time to think. Even just a few minutes of quiet, to make sense of this.
Red frowned theatrically. “Come on. Tease me a little.”
Should she tell Red she was gay? Surely not. He would lose interest, and maybe report it to whoever owned the facility. But why hadn’t whoever owned the facility known she was gay? Maybe that was to be part of the orientation she’d missed. Whatever the reason, did she want to risk being taken out of circulation, or unplugged and buried?
Would that be the worst thing?
The thought jangled something long-forgotten. Or more like deeply forgotten; everything in her life was long-forgotten. She’d thought something along those lines once, and there had been so much pain that the pain still echoed, even without the memory. She reached for the memory, but it was sunk deep in a turgid goo that she encountered whenever she tried to remember something. Had she really been able to effortlessly pull up memories when she was alive, or was that just how she remembered it?
“I’m just—” she wanted to say “not in the mood,” but that was not only a cliché, but a vast understatement. She was dead. She couldn’t move anything but her face, and that made her feel untethered, as if she were floating, drifting. Hands and feet grounded you. Mira had never realized. “I’m just not very good at this sort of thing.”
“Well.” Red put his hands on his thighs, made a production of standing. “This costs quite a bit, and they charge by the minute. So I’ll say goodbye now, and you can go back to being dead.”
Go back? “Wait!” Mira said. They could bring her back, and then let her die again? She imagined her body, sealed up somewhere, maybe for years, maybe forever. The idea terrified her. Red paused, waiting. “Okay. I would…” She tried to think of something, but there were so many things running through her mind, so many trains of thought she wanted to follow, none of them involving the pervert leaning over her.
Were there other ways to get permanently “revived”? Did she have any living relatives she might contact, or maybe a savings account that had been accruing interest for the past eighty years? Had she had any savings when she died? She’d had a house — she remembered that. Lynn would have inherited it.
“Fine, if you’re not going to talk, I’ll just say goodbye,” Red snapped. “But don’t think anyone else is coming. Your injuries would make you a costly revival, and there are tens of thousands of women here. Plus men don’t want the women who’d been frozen sixty years before the facility opened, because they have nothing in common with those women.”
“Please,” Mira said.
He reached for something over her head, out of sight.
Mira dreamed that she was running on a trail in the woods. The trail sloped upward, growing steeper and steeper until she was running up big steps. Then the steps entered a flimsy plywood tower and wound up, up. It was dark, and she could barely see, but it felt so good to run; it had been such a long time that she didn’t care how steep it was. She climbed higher, considered turning back, but she wanted to make it to the top after having gone so far. Finally she reached the top, and there was a window where she could see a vast river, and a lovely college campus set along it. She hurried over to the window for a better view, and as she did, the tower leaned under her shifting weight, and began to fall forward. The tower built speed, hurtled toward the buildings. This is it, she thought, her stomach flip-flopping. This is the moment of my death.
Mira jolted awake before she hit the ground.
An old man — likely in his seventies — squinted down at her. “You’re not my type,” he grumbled, reaching over her head.
“Hi.” It came out phlegmy; the man cleared his throat. “I’ve never done this before.” He was a fat man, maybe forty.
“What’s the date?” Mira asked, still groggy.
“January third, twenty-three fifty-two,” the man said. Nearly thirty years had passed. The man wiped his mouth with the back of his wrist. “I feel a little sick for being here, like I’m a child molester or something.” He frowned. “But there are so many stories out there of people finding true love in the drawers. My cousin Ansel met his second wife Floren at a revival center. Lovely woman.”
The man gave her a big, sloppy smile. “I’m Lycan, by the way.”
“I’m Mira. Nice to meet you.”
“Your smile is a little wavery, in a cute way. I can tell you’re honest. You wouldn’t use me to get revived and then divorce me. You have to watch out for that.” Lycan sat at an angle, perhaps trying to appear thinner.
“I can see how that would be a concern,” Mira said.
Lycan heaved a big sigh. “Maybe meeting women at a bridesicle place is pathetic, but it’s not as pathetic as showing up at every company party alone, with your hands in your pockets instead of holding someone else’s, or else coming with a woman who not only has a loud laugh and a lousy sense of humor, but is ten years older than you and not very attractive. That’s pathetic. Let people suspect my beautiful young wife was revived. They’ll still be jealous, and I’ll still be walking tall, holding her hand as everybody checked her out.”
Lycan fell silent for a moment. “My grandmother says I’m talking too much. Sorry.”
So Lycan had a hitcher. At least one. It was so difficult to tell — you got so good at carrying on two conversations at once when you had a hitcher.
“No, I like it,” Mira said. It allowed her precious time to think. When she was alive, there had been times in Mira’s life when she had little free time, but she had always had time to think. She could think while commuting to work, while standing in lines, and during all of the other in-between times. Suddenly it was the most precious thing.
Lycan wiped his palms. “First dates are not my best moments.”
“You’re doing great.” Mira smiled as best she could, although she knew the smile did not reach her eyes. She had to get out of here, had to convince one of these guys to revive her. One of these guys? This was only the third person to revive her in the fifty years that the place had been open, and if the first guy, the pervert, was to be believed, she’d become less desirable the longer she was here.
Mira wished she could see where she was. Was she in a coffin? On a bed? She wished she could move her neck. “What’s it like in here?” she asked. “Are we in a room?”
“You want to see? Here.” Lycan held his palm a foot or so over her face; a screen embedded there flashing words and images in three dimensions transformed into a mirror.
Mira recoiled. Her own dead face looked down at her, her skin grey, her lips bordering on blue. Her face was flaccid — she looked slightly unbalanced, or mentally retarded, rather than peaceful. A glittering silver mesh concealed her to the neck.
Lycan angled the mirror, giving her a view of the room. It was a vast, open space, like the atrium of an enormous hotel. A lift was descending through the center of the atrium. People hurried across beautifully designed bridges as crystal blue water traced twisting paths through huge transparent tubes suspended in the open space, giving the impression of flying streams. Nearby, Mira saw a man sitting beside an open drawer, his mouth moving, head nodding, hands set a little self-consciously in his lap.
Lycan took the mirror away. His eyes had grown big and round.
“What is it?” Mira asked.
He opened his mouth to speak, then changed his mind, shook his head. “Nothing.”
“Please, tell me.”
There was a long pause. Mira guessed it was an internal dispute. Finally, Lycan answered. “It’s just that it’s finally hitting me at a gut level: I’m talking to a dead person. If I could hold your hand, your fingers would be cold and stiff.”
Mira looked away, toward the ceiling. She felt ashamed. Ashamed of the dead body that housed her.
“What’s it like?” he whispered, as if he were asking something obscene.
Mira didn’t want to answer, but she also didn’t want to go back to being dead. “It’s hard. It’s hard to have no control over anything, not when I can be awake, or who I talk to. And to be honest, it’s scary. When you end this date I’m going to be gone — no thoughts, no dreaming, just nothingness. It terrifies me. I dread those few minutes before the date ends.”
Lycan looked sorry he’d asked, so Mira changed the subject, asking about Lycan’s hitchers. He had two: his father and his grandmother.
“I don’t get it,” Mira said. “Why are there still hitchers if they’ve figured out how to revive people?” In her day, medical science had progressed enough that there was hope of a breakthrough, and preservation was common, but the dead stayed dead.
“Bodies wear out,” Lycan said, matter-of-factly. “If you revive a lady who’s ninety-nine, she’ll just keep dying. So, tell me about yourself. I see you had a hitcher?”
Mira told Lycan about her mother, and Lycan uttered the requisite condolences, and she pretended they were appropriate. She held no illusions about why she had agreed to host her mother. It was, in a sense, a purely selfish motive: she knew she couldn’t live with the guilt if she said no. It was emotional blackmail, what her mother did, but it was flawlessly executed.
But I’m dying. Mira, I’m scared. Please. Even across eighty years and death, Mira could still hear her mother’s voice, its perpetually aggrieved tone.
An awful darkness filled her when she thought of her mother. She felt guilty and ashamed. But what did she have to feel ashamed of? What do you owe your mother if the only kindness she had ever offered was giving birth to you? Do you owe her a room in your mind? What if you loved a woman instead of a “nice man,” and your mother barely spoke to you? How about if your soulmate died, painfully, and your mother’s attempt to console you was to say, “Maybe next time you should try a man.” As if Jeanette’s death justified her mother’s disapproval.
“What if I actually find someone here, and she agrees to marry me in exchange for being revived?” Lycan was saying. “Would people sense she was too good-looking to be with me, and guess that I’d met her at a bridesicle place? We’d have to come up with a convincing story about how and where we met — something that doesn’t sound made-up.”
Lycan shrugged. “That’s what some people call this sort of place.”
Then even if someone revived her, she would be a pariah. People would want nothing to do with her. Her mother’s voice rang in her mind, almost harmonizing the line.
I want nothing to do with you. You and your girlfriend.
“I’m afraid it’s time for me to say goodbye. I should circulate. But maybe we can talk again?” Lycan said.
She didn’t want to die again, didn’t want to be thrown into that abyss. She had so much to think about, to remember. “I’d like that,” was all she said, resisting the urge to scream, to beg this man not to kill her. If Mira did that, he’d never come back. As he reached over to turn her off, Mira used her last few seconds to try to reach for the memory of her accident. It sat like a splinter under her skin.
Lycan came back. He told her it had been a week since his first visit. Mira had no sense of how much time had passed, the way you do when you’ve been asleep. A week felt the same as thirty years.
“I’ve talked to eleven women, and none of them were half as interesting as you. Especially the women who died recently. Modern women can be so shallow, so unwilling to seek a common ground. I don’t want a relationship that’s a struggle — I want to care about my wife’s needs, to be able to say, ‘no, honey, let’s go see the movie you want to see,’ and count on her saying, ‘no, that’s okay, I know how much you want to see that other one.’ And sometimes we would see her movie, and sometimes mine.”
“I know just what you mean,” Mira said, in what she hoped was an intimate tone. As intimate as her graveyard voice could manage.
“That’s why I came to the bottom floor, to the women who died one hundred, one hundred and twenty-five years ago. I thought, why not a woman from a more innocent time? She would probably be more appreciative. The woman at the orientation told me that choosing a bridesicle instead of a live woman was a generous thing to do — you were giving a life to someone who’d been cheated out of hers. I don’t kid myself, though — I’m not doing this out of some nobility, but it’s nice to think I’m doing something good for someone, and the girls at the bottom need it more than the girls at the top. You’ve been in line longer.”
Mira had been in line a long time. It didn’t seem that way, though. It had only been, what, about an hour of life since she died? It was difficult to gauge, because she didn’t remember dying. Mira tried to think back. Had her car accident been in the city, or on a highway? Had she been at fault? Nothing came, except memories of what must have been the weeks leading up to it, of her mother driving her crazy.
Once she took in her mother, she could never love again. How could she make love to someone with her mother watching? Even a man would have been out of the question, although a man was out of the question in any case.
“It’s awkward, though,” Lycan was saying. “There aren’t any nice ways to tell someone that you aren’t interested. I’m not in practice rejecting women. I’m much more familiar with the other end of the equation. If you weren’t in that drawer, you probably wouldn’t give me a second glance.”
Mira could see that he was fishing, that he wanted her to tell him he was wrong, that she would give him a second glance. It was difficult — it wasn’t in her nature to pretend that she felt something she didn’t. But she didn’t have the luxury of honoring her nature.
“Of course I would. You’re a wonderful man, and good looking.”
Lycan beamed. What is it about us, Mira wondered, that we will believe any lie, no matter how outrageous, if it’s flattering?
“Some people just spark something in you, make you breathe fast, you know?” Lycan said. “Others don’t. It’s hard to say why, but in those first seconds of seeing someone,” he snapped his fingers, “you can always tell.” He held her gaze for a moment, something that was clearly uncomfortable for him, then looked at his lap, blushing.
“I know what you mean,” Mira said. She tried to smile warmly, knowingly. It made her feel like shit.
There was constant murmur of background chatter this time.
…through life and revival, to have and to hold…
“What is that I’m hearing? Is that a marriage ceremony?” Mira asked.
Lycan glanced over his shoulder, nodded. “They happen all the time here. It’s kind of risky to revive someone otherwise.”
“Of course,” Mira said. She’d been here for decades, yet she knew nothing about this place.
“There’s something I have to tell you,” Lycan said. It was their sixth or seventh date. Mira had grown fond of Lycan, which was a good thing, because the only thing she ever saw was Lycan’s doughy jowls, the little bump of chin poking out of them. He was her life, such as it was.
“What is it?” Mira asked.
He looked off into the room, sighed heavily. “I’ve never enjoyed a woman’s company as much as yours. I have to be honest with you, but I’m afraid if I am I’ll lose you.”
Mira tried to imagine what this man could possibly say that would lead her to choose being dead over his company. “I’m sure that won’t happen, whatever it is. You can trust me.”
Lycan put his hand over his eyes. His chest hitched. Mira made gentle shushing sounds, the sort of sounds her mother had never made, not even when Jeanette died.
“It’s okay,” she cooed. “Whatever it is, it’s okay.”
Lycan finally looked at her, his eyes red. “I really like you, Mira. I think I even love you. But I’m not a rich man. I can’t afford to revive you, and I never will. Not even if I sold everything I owned.”
She hadn’t even realized how much hope she was harboring until it was dashed. “Well, that’s not your fault, I guess.” She tried to sound chipper, though inside she felt black despair.
Lycan nodded. “I’m sorry I lied to you.”
Mira didn’t have to ask why he came here pretending to be looking for a wife if he couldn’t afford to revive anyone. The women here must all be kind to him, must hang on his every word in the hope that he’d choose them and free them from their long sleep. Where else would a man like Lycan get that sort of attention?
“Can you forgive me?” Lycan asked, looking like a scolded bulldog. “Can I still visit you?”
“Of course. I’d miss you terribly if you didn’t.” The truth was, if Lycan didn’t visit Mira would be incapable of missing anyone. No one else was visiting, or likely to stumble upon her among the army of bridesicles lined shoulder-to-shoulder in boxes in this endless mausoleum.
That was the end of it. Lycan changed the subject, struck up a conversation about his collection of vintage gaming code, and Mira listened, and made “mm-hm” sounds in the pauses, and thought her private thoughts.
She found herself thinking about her mom more than Jeanette. Perhaps it was because she’d already learned to accept that Jeanette was gone, and mom’s death was still fresh, despite being not nearly as heartbreaking. After Jeanette died, Mira had worked through her death until there were no new thoughts she could possibly think. And then she had finally been able to let Jeanette rest….
She had the most astonishing thought. She couldn’t believe it hadn’t occurred to her until now. Mira had worked for Capital Lifekey, just like Jeanette. Preservation had been part of Jeanette’s benefits package, just like Mira’s.
“Lycan, would you do something for me?” It felt as if an eternity rode on the question she was about to ask.
“Would you run a search on a friend of mine who died?”
“What’s her name?”
“Jeanette Zierk. Born twenty-two twenty-four.”
Mira was not as anxious as she thought she should be as Lycan checked, probably because her heart could not race, and her palms could not sweat. It was surprising how much emotion was housed in the body instead of the mind.
Lycan checked. “Yes. She’s here.”
“She’s here? In this place?”
“Yes.” He consulted the readout, pulling his palm close to his nose, then he pointed across the massive atrium, lower down than they were. “Over there. I don’t know why you’re surprised, if she was stored she’d be here — it’s a felony to renege on a storage contract.”
Mira wished she could lift her head and look where he was pointing. She had spent the last few years of her life accepting that Jeanette was really gone, and would never come back. “Can you wake her, and give her a message from me? Please?”
Lycan was rendered momentarily speechless.
“Please?” Mira said. “It would mean so much to me.”
“Okay. I guess. Sure. Hold on.” Lycan stood tenuously, looked confused for a moment, and then headed off.
He returned a moment later. “What message should I give her?”
Mira wanted to ask Lycan to tell Jeanette she loved her, but that might be a bad idea. “Just tell her I’m here. Thank you so much.”
Maybe it was someone else, or Mira’s imagination, but she felt sure she heard a distant caw of surprise. Jeanette, reacting to the news.
Soon Lycan’s smiling face poked into view above her. “She was very excited by the news. I mean, out of her head excited. I thought she’d leap out of her crèche and hug me.”
“What did she say?” Mira tried to sound calm. Jeanette was here. Suddenly, everything had changed. Mira had a reason to live. She had to figure out how to get out of there.
“She said to tell you she loved you.”
Mira sobbed. He had really talked to Jeanette. What a strange and wonderful and utterly incomprehensible thing.
“She also said she hoped you didn’t suffer much in the accident.”
“It wasn’t an accident,” Mira said.
It just came out. She said it without having thought it first, which was a strange experience, as if someone had taken control of her dead mouth and formed the words, rode them out of her on the hiss of air coursing through her throat.
There was a long, awkward silence.
“What do you mean?” Lycan said, frowning.
Mira remembered now. Not the moment itself, but planning it, intending it. She had put on her best tan suit. Mother kept asking what the occasion was. She wanted to know why Mira was making such a fuss when they were only going to Pan Pietro for dinner. She said that Mira wasn’t as beautiful as she thought she was and should get off her high horse. Mira had barely heard her. For once, she had not been bothered by her mother’s words.
“I mean it wasn’t an accident,” she repeated. “You were honest with me, I want to be honest with you.” She did not want to be honest with him, actually, but it had come out, and now that it was out she didn’t have the strength to draw it back in.
“Oh. Well, thank you.” Lycan scratched his scalp with one finger, pondering. Mira wasn’t sure if he got what she was saying. After all their conversation, she still had little sense of whether Lycan was intelligent or not. “You know, if I figure out a way to revive you, you could come with me to my company’s annual picnic. Last year I announced to my whole table that I was going to win the door prize, and then I did!”
Lycan went on about his company picnic while Mira thought about Jeanette, who had just told Mira she loved her, even though they were both dead.
Far too soon, Lycan said goodbye. He told Mira he would see her on Tuesday, and killed her.
The man hovering over her was wearing a suit and tie, only the suit was sleeveless and the tie rounded, and the man’s skin was bright orange.
“What year is it, please?” Mira said.
“Twenty-four seventy-seven,” he said, not unkindly.
Mira couldn’t remember the date Lycan had last come. Twenty-four? It had been twenty-three something, hadn’t it? It was a hundred years later. Lycan had never come back. He was gone — dead, or hitching with some relative.
The orange man’s name was Neas. Mira didn’t think it would be polite to ask why he was orange, so instead she asked what he did for a living. He was an attorney. It suggested to Mira that the world had not changed all that much since she’d been alive, that there were still attorneys, even if they had orange skin.
“My grandfather Lycan says to tell you hello,” Neas said.
Mira grinned. It was hard to hold the grin with her stiff lips, but it felt good. Lycan had come back after all. “Tell him he’s late, but that’s okay.”
“He insisted we talk to you.”
Neas chatted amiably about Lycan. Lycan had met a woman at a Weight Watchers meeting, and his wife didn’t think it was appropriate that he visit Mira anymore. They had divorced twenty years later. He died of a heart attack at sixty-six, was revived, then hitched with his son when he reached his nineties. Lycan’s son had hitched with Neas a few years ago, taking Lycan with him.
“I’m glad Lycan’s all right,” Mira said when Neas had finished. “I’d grown very fond of him.”
“And he of you.” Neas crossed his legs, cleared his throat. “So tell me Mira, did you want to have children when you were alive?” His tone had shifted to that of a supervisor interviewing a potential employee.
The question caught Mira off guard. She’d assumed this was a social call, especially after Neas said that Lycan had insisted they visit her.
“Yes, actually. I had hoped to. Things don’t always work out the way you plan.” Mira pictured Jeanette, a stone’s throw away, dead in a box. Neas’s question raised a flicker of hope. “Is this a date, then?” she asked.
“No.” He nodded, perhaps to some suggestion from one of his hitchers. “Actually we’re looking for someone to bear a child and help raise her. You see, my wife was dying of Dietz Syndrome, which is an unrevivable illness, so she hitched with me. We want to have a child. We need a host, and a caregiver, for the child.”
“I see.” Mira’s head was spinning. Should she blurt out that she’d love the opportunity to raise their child, or would that signal that she was taking the issue too lightly? She settled on a thoughtful expression that hopefully conveyed her understanding of the seriousness of the situation.
“We would marry for legal reasons, of course, but the arrangement would be completely platonic.”
“Yes, of course.”
Neas sighed, looking suddenly annoyed. “I’m sorry Mira, my wife says you’re not right.” Neas was very upset. He stood, reached over Mira’s head. “We’ve interviewed forty or fifty women, but none are good enough,” he added testily.
“No, wait!” Mira said.
Mira thought fast. What had she done to make the wife suddenly rule her out? The wife must feel terribly threatened at the idea of having a woman in the house, raising her child. Tempting her husband. If Mira could allay the wife’s fears…
“I’m gay,” she said.
Neas looked beyond surprised. Evidently Lycan hadn’t realized who Jeanette was, even after carrying the verbal love note. Friends could say they loved each other. Neas said nothing, and Mira knew they were having a powwow. She prayed she’d read the situation correctly.
“So, you couldn’t fall in love with me?” Neas finally asked. It was such a bizarre question. Neas was not only a man, he was an orange man, and not particularly attractive.
“No. I’m in love with a woman named Jeanette. Lycan met her.”
There was another long silence.
“There’s also this business about your auto accident not being an accident.”
Mira had forgotten. How could she so easily forget that she killed herself and her own mother? Maybe because it had been so long ago. Everything from before her death seemed so long ago now. Like another lifetime.
“It was so long ago,” Mira murmured. “But yes, it’s true.”
“You took your mother’s life?”
“No, that’s not what I intended.” It wasn’t. Mira hadn’t wanted her mother dead, she just wanted to escape her. “I fled from her. Just because someone is your mother doesn’t mean she can’t be impossible to live with.”
Neas nodded slowly. “It’s difficult for us to imagine that. Hitching has been a very powerful experience for us. Oona and I never dreamed we could be this close, and we’re happy to have dad and grandfather and great-grandmother as companions. I know I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
“I can see how it could be beautiful,” Mira said. “It’s like a marriage, I think, but more so. It magnifies the relationship — good ones get closer and deeper; bad ones become intolerable.”
Neas’s eyes teared up. “Lycan said we can trust you. We need someone we can trust.” He kept on nodding for a moment, lost in thought. Then he waved his hand; a long line of written text materialized in the air. “Do you believe in spanking children?” he asked, reading the first line.
“Absolutely not,” Mira answered, knowing her very existence depended on her answers.
Mira’s heart was racing so fast it felt as if there were wings flapping in her chest. Lucia was sleeping, her soft little head pressed to Mira’s racing heart. The lift swept them up; the vast atrium opened below as people on the ground shrank to dots.
She wanted to run, but kept her pace even, her transparent shoes thwocking on the marble floor.
She cried when Jeanette opened her eyes, swept her fingers behind Jeanette’s bluish-white ear, lightly brushed her blue lips.
Jeanette sobbed. To her, it would have been only a moment since Lycan had spoken to her.
“You made it,” Jeanette croaked in that awful dead voice. She noticed the baby, smiled. “Good for you.” So like Jeanette, to ask for nothing, not even life. If Jeanette had come to Mira’s crèche alive and whole, the first words out of Mira’s stiff mouth would have been “Get me out of here.”
Vows from a wedding ceremony drifted from a few levels above, the husband’s voice strong and sure, the wife’s toneless and froggy.
“I can’t afford to revive you, love,” Mira said, “but I’ve saved enough to absorb you. Is that good enough? Will you stay with me, for the rest of our lives?”
You can’t cry when you’re dead, but Jeanette tried, and only the tears were missing. “Yes,” she said. “That’s a thousand times better than good enough.”
Mira nodded, grinning. “It will take a few days to arrange.” She touched Jeanette’s cold cheek. “I’ll be back in an eyeblink. This is the last time you have to die.”
Mira reached up, and Jeanette died, for the last time.
Will McIntosh’s work has appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction: Best of the Year, the acclaimed anthology The Living Dead, Strange Horizons, Interzone, and many other venues. A New Yorker transplanted to the rural South, Will is a psychology professor at Georgia Southern University, where he studies Internet dating, and how people’s TV, music, and movie choices are affected by recession and terrorist threat. Last December he became the father of twins.
NEBULA AWARD WINNER »»
From the author: Science fiction and fantasy are the literature of the edge. We have resources that other genres don’t because we are not restricted by naturalistic (or realistic) conventions. We can create outrageous thought experiments and explore human nature through situations that just can’t exist in the real world. Sometimes our medium for exploring human nature isn’t even human.
A lot of SF and fantasy explores concepts and worlds that are out there on the edge, but there are limits to how close to the edge we like to go when we’re discussing human experience. There’s a reason: they’re not very pleasant to read, for me anyway. Stories like Richard Matheson’s “Born of Man and Woman” leave me a little soul-sick. They are horrific, and they are also asking disturbing questions about what makes us loving, or keeps us alive. Or human. They’re not very pleasant, but they are saying and doing something fiction that is pulled back from the edge does not. Hearing it — saying it — is worth it. When I wrote “Spar,” I was trying to see how close to the edge I could bear to get, as both reader and writer. As it happened, it was far enough out that I didn’t know whether I could get it published, even in SF and fantasy markets. I am so glad that Clarkesworld did so, and to know that people are reading past the horror to the heart of it.
IN THE TINY lifeboat, she and the alien fuck endlessly, relentlessly.
They each have Ins and Outs. Her Ins are the usual: eyes, ears, nostrils, mouth, cunt, ass. Her Outs are also the common ones: fingers and hands and feet and tongue. Arms. Legs. Things that can be thrust into other things.
The alien is not humanoid. It is not bipedal. It has cilia. It has no bones, or perhaps it does and she cannot feel them. Its muscles, or what might be muscles, are rings and not strands. Its skin is the color of dusk and covered with a clear thin slime that tastes of snot. It makes no sounds. She thinks it smells like wet leaves in winter, but after a time she cannot remember that smell, or leaves, or winter.
Its Ins and Outs change. There are dark slashes and permanent knobs that sometimes distend, but it is always growing new Outs, hollowing new Ins. It cleaves easily in both senses.
It penetrates her a thousand ways. She penetrates it, as well.
The lifeboat is not for humans. The air is too warm, the light too dim. It is too small. There are no screens, no books, no warning labels, no voices, no bed or chair or table or control board or toilet or telltale lights or clocks. The ship’s hum is steady. Nothing changes.
There is no room. They cannot help but touch. They breathe each other’s breath — if it breathes; she cannot tell. There is always an Out in an In, something wrapped around another thing, flesh coiling and uncoiling inside, outside. Making spaces. Making space.
She is always wet. She cannot tell whether this is the slime from its skin, the oil and sweat from hers, her exhaled breath, the lifeboat’s air. Or come.
Her body seeps. When she can, she pulls her mind away. But there is nothing else, and when her mind is disengaged she thinks too much. Which is: at all. Fucking the alien is less horrible.
She does not remember the first time. It is safest to think it forced her.
The wreck was random: a mid-space collision between their ship and the alien’s, simultaneously a statistical impossibility and a fact. She and Gary just had time to start the emergency beacon and claw into their suits before their ship was cut in half. Their lifeboat spun out of reach. Her magnetic boots clung to part of the wreck. His did not. The two of them fell apart.
A piece of debris slashed through the leg of Gary’s suit to the bone, through the bone. She screamed. He did not. Blood and fat and muscle swelled from his suit into vacuum. An Out.
The alien’s vessel also broke into pieces, its lifeboat kicking free and the waldos reaching out, pulling her through the airlock. In.
Why did it save her? The mariner’s code? She does not think it knows she is alive. If it did it would try to establish communications. It is quite possible that she is not a rescued castaway. She is salvage, or flotsam.
She sucks her nourishment from one of the two hard intrusions into the featureless lifeboat, a rigid tube. She uses the other, a second tube, for whatever comes from her, her shit and piss and vomit. Not her come, which slicks her thighs to her knees.
She gags a lot. It has no sense of the depth of her throat. Ins and Outs.
There is a time when she screams so hard that her throat bleeds.
She tries to teach it words. “Breast,” she says. “Finger. Cunt.” Her vocabulary options are limited here.
“Listen to me,” she says. “Listen. To. Me.” Does it even have ears?
The fucking never gets better or worse. It learns no lessons about pleasing her. She does not learn anything about pleasing it either; would not if she could. And why? How do you please grass and why should you? She suddenly remembers grass, the bright smell of it and its perfect green, its cool clean soft feel beneath her bare hands.
She finds herself aroused by the thought of grass against her hands, because it is the only thing that she has thought of for a long time that is not the alien or Gary or the Ins and Outs. But perhaps its soft blades against her fingers would feel like the alien’s cilia. Her ability to compare anything with anything else is slipping from her, because there is nothing to compare.
She feels it inside everywhere, tendrils moving in her nostrils, thrusting against her ear drums, coiled beside the corners of her eyes. And she sheathes herself in it.
When an Out crawls inside her and touches her in certain places, she tips her head back and moans and pretends it is more than accident. It is Gary, he loves me, it loves me, it is a He. It is not.
Communication is key, she thinks.
She cannot communicate, but she tries to make sense of its actions.
What is she to it? Is she a sex toy, a houseplant? A shipwrecked Norwegian sharing a spar with a monolingual Portuguese? A companion? A habit, like nailbiting or compulsive masturbation? Perhaps the sex is communication, and she just doesn’t understand the language yet.
Or perhaps there is no It. It is not that they cannot communicate, that she is incapable; it is that the alien has no consciousness to communicate with. It is a sex toy, a houseplant, a habit.
On the starship with the name she cannot recall, Gary would read aloud to her. Science fiction, Melville, poetry. Her mind cannot access the plots, the words. All she can remember is a few lines from a sonnet, “Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments” — something something something — “an ever-fixèd mark that looks on tempests and is never shaken; it is the star to every wand’ring bark….”
She recites the words, an anodyne that numbs her for a time until they lose their meaning. She has worn them treadless, and they no longer gain any traction in her mind. Eventually she cannot even remember the sounds of them.
If she ever remembers another line, she promises herself she will not wear it out. She will hoard it. She may have promised this before, and forgotten.
She cannot remember Gary’s voice. Fuck Gary, anyway. He is dead and she is here with an alien pressed against her cervix.
It is covered with slime. She thinks that, as with toads, the slime may be a mild psychotropic drug. How would she know if she were hallucinating? In this world, what would that look like? Like sunflowers on a desk, like Gary leaning across a picnic basket to place fresh bread in her mouth. The bread is the first thing she has tasted that feels clean in her mouth, and it’s not even real.
Gary feeding her bread and laughing. After a time, the taste of bread becomes “the taste of bread” and then the words become mere sounds and stop meaning anything.
On the off-chance that this will change things, she drives her tongue through its cilia, pulls them into her mouth, and sucks them clean. She has no idea whether it makes a difference. She has lived forever in the endless reeking fucking now.
Was there someone else on the alien’s ship? Was there a Gary, lost now to space? Is it grieving? Does it fuck her to forget, or because it has forgotten? Or to punish itself for surviving? Or the other, for not?
Or is this her?
When she does not have enough Ins for its Outs, it makes new ones. She bleeds for a time and then heals. She pretends that this is a rape. Rape at least she could understand. Rape is an interaction. It requires intention. It would imply that it hates or fears or wants. Rape would mean she is more than a wine glass it fills.
This goes both ways. She forces it sometimes. Her hands are blades that tear new Ins. Her anger pounds at it until she feels its depths grow soft under her fist, as though bones or muscle or cartilage have disassembled and turned to something else.
And when she forces her hands into the alien? If intent counts, then what she does, at least, is a rape — or would be if the alien felt anything, responded in any fashion. Mostly it’s like punching a wall.
She puts her fingers in herself, because she at least knows what her intentions are.
Sometimes she watches it fuck her, the strange coiling of its Outs like a shockwave thrusting into her body, and this excites her and horrifies her; but at least it is not Gary. Gary, who left her here with this, who left her here, who left.
One time she feels something break loose inside the alien, but it is immediately drawn out of reach. When she reaches farther in to grasp the broken piece, a sphincter snaps shut on her wrist. Her arm is forced out. There is a bruise like a bracelet around her wrist for what might be a week or two.
She cannot stop touching the bruise. The alien has had the ability to stop her fist inside it, at any time. Which means it has made a choice not to stop her, even when she batters things inside it until they grow soft.
This is the only time she has ever gotten a reaction she understands. Stimulus: response. She tries many times to get another. She rams her hands into it, kicks it, tries to tears its cilia free with her teeth, claws its skin with her ragged, filthy fingernails. But there is never again the broken thing inside, and never the bracelet.
For a while, she measures time by bruises she gives herself. She slams her shin against the feeding tube, and when the bruise is gone she does it again. She estimates it takes twelve days for a bruise to heal. She stops after a time because she cannot remember how many bruises there have been.
She dreams of rescue, but doesn’t know what that looks like. Gary, miraculously alive pulling her free, eyes bright with tears, I love you he says, his lips on her eyelids and his kiss his tongue in her mouth inside her hands inside him. But that’s the alien. Gary is dead. He got Out.
Sometimes she thinks that rescue looks like her opening the lifeboat to the deep vacuum, but she cannot figure out the airlock.
Her anger is endless, relentless.
Gary brought her here, and then he went away and left her with this thing that will not speak, or cannot, or does not care enough to, or does not see her as something to talk to.
On their third date, she and Gary went to an empty park: wine, cheese, fresh bread in a basket. Bright sun and cool air, grass and a cloth to lie on. He brought Shakespeare. “You’ll love this,” he said, and read to her.
She stopped him with a kiss. “Let’s talk,” she said, “about anything.”
“But we are talking,” he said.
“No, you’re reading,” she said. “I’m sorry, I don’t really like poetry.”
“That’s because you’ve never had it read to you,” he said.
She stopped him at last by taking the book from his hands and pushing him back, her palms in the grass; and he entered her. Later, he read to her anyway.
If it had just been that.
They were not even his words, and now they mean nothing, are not even sounds in her mind. And now there is this thing that cannot hear her or does not choose to listen, until she gives up trying to reach it and only reaches into it, and bludgeons it and herself, seeking a reaction, any reaction.
“I fucking hate you,” she says. “I hate fucking you.”
The lifeboat decelerates. Metal clashes on metal. Gaskets seal.
The airlock opens overhead. There is light. Her eyes water helplessly and everything becomes glare and indistinct dark shapes. The air is dry and cold. She recoils.
The alien does not react to the light, the hard air. It remains inside her and around her. They are wrapped. They penetrate one another a thousand ways. She is warm here, or at any rate not cold: half-lost in its flesh, wet from her Ins, its Outs. In here it is not too bright.
A dark something stands outlined in the portal. It is bipedal. It makes sounds that are words. Is it human? Is she? Does she still have bones, a voice? She has not used them for so long.
The alien is hers; she is its. Nothing changes.
No. She pulls herself free of its tendrils and climbs. Out.
Kij Johnson is the author of several novels and more than thirty fantasy, science fiction, and slipstream stories; winner of the 2009 World Fantasy Award; and a finalist for the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Awards. She is also the winner of the Theodore Sturgeon Award for best short story of the year, and the IAFA’s Crawford Award, for best new fantasist of the year. She is the vice chairman for the Clarion West Writers Workshop, and an associate director for the Center for the Study of Science Fiction at the University of Kansas, where she teaches an annual summer workshop on the novel. She lives in Seattle.
SFWA AUTHOR EMERITUS — NEAL BARRETT, JR.
SFWA inaugurated the Author Emeritus program in 1995 to recognize and appreciate senior writers in the genres of science fiction and fantasy who have made significant contributions to our field but who are no longer active or whose excellent work is no longer as well known as it once was. SFWA is proud to name Neal Barrett, Jr. this year’s Author Emeritus.
Within the past fifty years, Neal Barrett, Jr. has penned such lauded works as Prince of Christler-Coke (2004), Dawn’s Uncertain Light (1989), Through Darkest America (1987), and over 50 other novels in the fields of science fiction, fantasy, western, and mystery. His short works, which number more than 70, have appeared in such major magazines such as Amazing, Galaxy, Omni, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine.
His early inspirations included the Barsoom books of Edgar Rice Burroughs, as well as the science fiction of such well-known magazines as Planet Stories, Startling Stories, Astounding, and If. Neal has also lent his enormous talent to the world of juveniles writing Hardy Boys adventures as Franklin W. Dixon and Tom Swift stories as Victor Applegate. He’s also produced novelizations of Judge Dredd and Dungeons & Dragons, and put some time in writing comic scripts for Batman, Predator, Dark Horse Presents, and others. He continues to write and publish. His most recent stories appear at Subterranean Press, and collected in Perpetuity Blues and Other Stories from Golden Gryphon Press.
NEAL BARRETT, JR.: WRITER OF EXCELLENCE, AND MY BROTHER
Joe R. Lansdale
First off, don’t misspell his name.
It’s Neal, not Neil.
His first name, as well as his last, has been misspelled as much as my last name, and he hates that. I know. Just to get him going I used to write him letters with his name misspelled, and he in turn would write me letters with Lansdale spelled Landsdale, with two Ds. He always told me that the first D was silent.
But back to my purpose for being here with you on the printed page.
It’s hard to express how honored, how excited I am that my good friend, and great writer, Neal Barrett, Jr., is receiving this award.
For years, Neal has been a favorite writer of mine, and I have actually been amazed at the lack of attention his work has received, compared to that of some others.
Don’t misunderstand me. I wish all those others the best. I am not saying they are not deserving of their recognitions.
But Neal Barrett, Jr. is an amazing stylist and creator of some of the most original fiction ever consigned to paper, or computer screen. And to be honest, he has been taken for granted. He has not been without respect or influence. He has taught many a new writer a thing or two with his smooth prose, humorous point of view, and brilliant ideas.
I am one of those influenced by him, and maybe, considering that admission, I should apologize to him and readers everywhere. I may have learned a thing or two from the master, but Neal, he’s still the man.
I met Neal… Oh, my God! I met Neal in the mid-seventies, though he may not remember it. Met him in Houston, Texas, at a science-fiction convention. I brought a few things of his I had, asked him to sign, and he did. I was there not only because I was a fan of his, knew he was going to be there, but because I, too, wanted to write, and my wife insisted I go because she knew how deeply I loved his work and wanted to meet him.
I had already sold a few nonfiction articles, and maybe even a piece of fiction or two, but what I remember was, when I first met him and told him I badly wanted to write full time. He told me “Good luck.”
Seemed he hadn’t figured that whole full time thing out himself. At least not then. That was to come later.
I also remember that there were some young writers there, my age, a little older in some cases, or a little younger, who wouldn’t give me the time of day. They treated my like a leper. I’ve never forgotten that. I don’t hate them for it, but somewhere in the back of my mind I made a little mark in a mental book, and that mark is still as darkly blood red and clear in my brain as the first day I made it. They knew not what they did. But I damn sure did.
Neal was different. I’ve never forgotten how kindly he treated a stranger who desperately wanted to make a career as a writer.
Bless you for that, Neal. You have no idea how encouraging that was then.
Neal gave me advice. Most of it simple and direct.
Keep doing it, and keep trying to do it better. This is really the only advice that matters.
It may not sound profound, but it was exactly what I needed at the time. It was nice to meet one of your heroes and find out they were as special as you hoped they would be.
A few years later I met Neal again, at AggieCon, and this time we really hit it off. Maybe it’s because I complimented his work again. Neal enjoys that sort of thing, and, he should.
His work is worth complimenting.
After that meeting, we not only became fast friends, I soon had the privilege of reading some of his works as they came out of his typewriter, via Xerox and mail. That’s how we did it in the old days.
It was a real treat to read stories and books by Neal before they were printed. It was great to spend time on the phone talking. We talked about everything under the sun, but mostly we talked about writing. Of course we met in person as often as possible, but we certainly burned those phone wires down, and faxed each other back and forth. In fact, one time Neal sent me a fax sheet with only a spot on it. It said, “Smell. Indian Food.”
He, who had introduced me to it, knew how much I loved Indian food, so he sent me the fax, called me a few minutes later.
He said, “Did you smell?”
“Yep,” I said. “Even though I knew better.”
“Knew you would,” he said, and hung up.
But the thing that is more important to me, even than the writing, good as it is, is Neal himself. We have been close friends for over thirty years. We’ve had ups and downs over this and that, but never any ups and downs where one of us fell off the seesaw. In the end, we were always there to balance each other out. We love each other as family.
Me and Neal, we’ve had some odd adventures together. We attract weirdness alone, but together, we seem to pull it out of the woodwork.
I adore Neal’s wit. I adore his honesty and loyalty. I adore that he sees curiosity in things other people take for granted, or think of as everyday. He is like a small child when it comes to that. And in many other ways. I think his wife will stand by that statement as well.
Like me, he loves animals. I adore that. I also adore that he adores his wife.
Hell, I love the guy. My whole family does.
And because of that, along with the fact I think he is a worthy recipient of this honor, I write this from the heart: I love you, Neal. I’m glad you are being honored in this way, and I’ve yet to forgive you for giving me a gift of a dollar bill torn in half.
Neal Barrett, Jr.
FROM THE AUTHOR: I chose this story for the collection because it came to me in one of those pleasant moments when a writer feels he’s truly done it right this time — that he’s pierced that barrier between the world that seems real, and that other state of being, the one we’ve feared all along.
I was a child growing up where “John-William’s mother” grew up, and during the very same years. I listened to the radio, read the funnies, and was deathly afraid of the dark. For me, that awesome, timeless moment between daylight and dark was, as John-William’s mother recalls, “like sorrow come to stay.” I also heard the same grandmother tales that frightened John-William’s mother, and carried many nightmare memories for years. I can’t say what was real and what wasn’t in John-William’s mother’s life, and very possibly she couldn’t either. But that’s the point here, isn’t it? I sincerely hope you enjoy the story, and thank you for the privilege of having it appear in this volume.
JOHN-WILLIAM’S MOTHER TURNS the water on low and peels carrots in the sink. Wet skins slick-slick quick off the cutter and stick in a huddle where they fall. This is what skins like to do. They like to huddle up, stick with their own kind. Peel a potato and a carrot in the sink, they won’t speak at all, they’ll bunch up with someone they know. Like nigger-folks and whites, thinks John-William’s mother. That’s what Jack used to say. One’s dark and one’s not. One’s that snake in the Garden, would’ve stuck it in Eve, but couldn’t figure how.
John-William’s mother drops carrots in a pot, puts the pot on the stove. Leaves the skins alone, leaves them where they fell. They look like bird tongues to John-William’s mother, cut-cut dagger tongues, curled up at the end. She thinks about birds, big old black birds, harelipped fat birds without any tongues. “ ’weet! ’weet!” go the birds, poor little birds without any tongues. Poke in a peel now, that’d be fine, stick a little tongue in a pointy yellow bill.
John-William’s mother peers out the screen door. The birds have black ruffle necks and glitter-green eyes. They perch on phone wires just behind the house. Birds in twos now, birds in threes, birds like notes on the music at Mama Sarah’s house. Note birds hop from one wire to the next. Hop down, hop up, up and down again. The birds play “Summit Ridge Drive,” play “Chatanooga Choo Choo,” and “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” When she hears those songs, John-William’s mother gets a tingle where a tingle shouldn’t ought to be.
“Not if you’re a lady,” giggles John-William’s mother, “not ’less you come from the Wilcher branch of the tree.”
The fan on the counter hum-hums to the left, hum-hums to the right, gives a little jerk and starts back again. John-William’s mother smells Camay soap and Lipton iced tea. Smells meatloaf and pepper and water on the stove. Flour and catsup and old coffee grounds. Summer sucks Oklahoma heat through the open screen door, mingles with the smells from inside. John-William’s mother draws damp hair off her neck, pins it up back. Her dress is stuck to her skin. She pulls at her collar, lets the breeze in. Lord God, too hot for underwear in August. Grandmas and aunts in Shawnee and Maud can keep their corsets and their buttons and their snaps. This is Oke City, and a girl can jiggle what she likes down here.
John-William’s mother peeks down for a look. They’re still down there, and still looking fine. You can say what you like about your big old melons, sagging on the vine when you’re still eighteen. There’s not a man living doesn’t have a liking for a grown-up woman’s got a pair of thirty-fours poking right up like happy puppy dogs.
John-William’s mother looks past her pretties, down past her tummy, feels a little shudder, feels a little warm start to grow, thinks, for an instant, why not leave the pot a’bubble, run back to bed and have a little tingle, who’s going to know? Blushes at the image like a movie show flicking in her head, raises the lid off the carrots, which don’t need checking at all…
…stops right there, holds the steamy lid in her hand, stops there and listens, hears it coming, hears it on the way, long before it gets there at all. Sets down the lid, drops her apron on a chair, kicks off her flats, and walks out the screen door. The steps are still warm. She pulls up her skirt, leans back against the door. If some old man gets a peek, well maybe she’ll let him have two.
There’s no wind at all, but it’s better out back than inside.
Still a little light, but the sky’s turning dull pewter-gray, turning dishwater blue, like the bottom of a worn-out pan. John-William’s mother doesn’t like this time of day, doesn’t now and never did. When she was little on the farm she’d sit on the back porch steps past Mama’s kitchen door. The wood was dull gray, worn by lye soap and long dead years. Sit real still and look past the gravel back yard, past the hen house and the barn, past the smoke house and the dirt storm cellar with its tin door in the ground. Out past the pile where Papa put things he meant to fix, and never did. A plow with no handles, busted wagon wheels, the carcass of a Ford, its rusty hide now a 12-gauge target, fine as Irish lace. Broken shovels, dull washtubs with the bottoms burned out.
And, past the orchard and the fence and the fields full of rattle-paper corn, to the land that stretched forever to the sky.
That’s when John-William’s mother sat still as mice and held her breath. Held it, and waited for the last pallid whisper of the light to disappear, waited for the day to give a final sigh and slide away.
You had to watch close. It happened, just like that, and it was gone. It wasn’t day and it wasn’t night; it was something in between. Every color died and the faraway fields began to smudge against the sky. The barn, the hen house, the rusted-out Ford began to blur, grow faint and indistinct, dull and undefined. The dark descended and sucked the day dry.
And it was then when John-William’s mother, Betty Ann, heard the great stone clock, felt it strike deep, deep within the earth, felt it beat against her heart. When the time was just right, at the moment in between, she listened, and heard what the clock had come to say…
Not just before, Betty Ann
And not just after, Betty Ann.
Not quite day
And not quite night,
What it is, Betty Ann,
Is getting dark again…
That’s when the big clock stopped for a beat, and the world grew silent and still. It seemed to Betty Ann like sorrow had come to stay, as if all the lonely had spilled out from the day. Grandmaw Wilcher said this was the moment dark came to snatch life away. “You can see it if you look real close,” Grandmaw Wilcher said. “You might see a dead bird out in the yard, claw feet stickin’ right up, bill wide open, sucking for a last breath of air. You might see a rock or a stick you was lookin’ right at, and now it’s not there. For a blink, for a wink, you’re seeing things gone, things that were there a minute or so before. It might be a toad, it might be a stone, it might be someone you know.”
Mama told Betty Ann not to listen to Grandmaw’s trash, said she wasn’t right in the head. And maybe that was so, but every night after, Betty Ann ran back in, safe inside before the night caught her, caught her right between the light and dark, fled to the good smell of cornbread and jelly, to the oilcloth mustard-yellow bright, to the table set with cold ham and beans, the cloth still sticky from the noon summer meal. The kerosene lamp warmed her soul, and her mother brought cool cream butter in a bowl and said, “Time you came in, Betty Ann, it’s getting dark again…”
In spite of the prickly sullen heat, Betty Ann, John-William’s mother, feels a chill. She knows what’s happened. She’s waited just a beat, just a breath too long and the dark has caught her there, standing outside her kitchen door. Caught her as the night swept in and drew its cape across the yard and the trees and the house next door, and nearly got Betty Ann, John-William’s mother, too. John-William’s mother doesn’t even look back. Looking back’s like Grandmaw said, when you saw, from the corner of your eye, things that were missing, things that had been there just a blink before.
Betty Ann, John-William’s mother, moves quickly inside, shuts the screen door, snaps the latch, stops, pauses just a minute, listens, almost certain she can hear that great stone clock beat down-down-down, deep in the earth and far away.
Betty Ann checks the meatloaf and the carrots, pulls an Old Gold from the pack on the counter, leans in, and lights it from the stove.
John-William’s mother, Jack’s wife, Betty Ann, gets a jelly glass of water, reaches past the Sunbeam mixer and flips on the Philco radio, watches the dial begin to glow, settles in a breakfast room chair. Old familiar voices make her smile. The Kingfish tries to talk Andy into some fool scheme. Betty Ann knows exactly what’ll happen next. Andy falls for it, like Andy always does. Amos has to come in and straighten the whole mess out.
Lord, they were funny. Better than Benny or Fred Allen, either one. Jack wouldn’t listen, wouldn’t stay in the room if they were on. Said they weren’t even coloreds on the show, said niggers weren’t like that at all. Said they stole stuff fast as you could blink, didn’t matter what it was.
The very next time Betty Ann looks up, the dark has creeped in from outside, hid the catsup and the flour in shadow. All she can see is the dim blue flame below the pot.
If I had any sense, thinks Betty Ann, I’d’ve opened a can of tuna fish instead of heating up the kitchen on a hot summer night. John-William didn’t care, long as there were cookies or pies or something sweet in the house.
John-William’s mother thinks he ought to be home right now. She doesn’t like him out at night, but boys didn’t know about the dark, didn’t know what happens out there when the sun goes down and the day hides out of sight.
Amos ’n’ Andy were gone. The radio plays a song she likes a lot.
It must have been moonglow,
Way out to the sea…
She and Jack used to hear it all the time when they’d take his daddy’s big LaSalle out and park. That was when they first began to date, before they even thought about getting married or anything else besides parking, feeling up, and having fun. And even after that, sometimes, before Jack pumped her up like a tub with John-William inside, they’d hear that song and everything would be fine. Betty Ann’s father didn’t trust Jack at all. He knew what they were doing in the back of that LaSalle. Jack didn’t wear overalls, wore a Searsucker suit and a snappy bow tie. He came from Paul’s Valley, which didn’t say much, even for an Oklahoma town. Still, like Betty Ann’s mother Sarah said, anyone don’t have shit on his shoes is worth looking at twice. Well that was a lie, considering Mr. Searsucker suit didn’t hang around all that long after John-William’s mother, Betty Ann, brought two more babies in the world who curled up and died.
John-William’s mother walks from one shadow room to the next. The furniture is dim, like chairs and tables and beds all covered in a ghosty kind of light, the pale green glow like the fireflies John-William’s mother used to capture in a jar.
It was the first brick house she’d ever lived in in her life. The first time she’d lived in town except once. Betty Ann and her mother had moved to Atoka from the farm when Mama Steck took sick and they had to live there till she died. When it happened, Betty Ann was right there, Betty Ann saw it, watched the night come until the room was inky black, watched while it hovered over Mama Steck a while, then plunged down into that dry and withered mouth and sucked her life away. Betty Ann peed her britches right then, and never, ever, told Mother what she saw.
Jack’s wife, John-William’s mother, walks through the dark, walks from one room to the next. To the living room, the big bedroom where she sleeps alone now, through the bathroom and John-William’s room, even in the closets, out through the doorway that leads to the shed that sags against the house. Light from a half-moon slants through the holes that Jack never fixed. Truth to tell, Jack never fixed shit, never put a nail in a wall, never fixed a leak.
Lord, what a mess, thinks John-William’s mother, Betty Ann. It’s like your whole life’s stacked up in there, gathering dust, soaking up time, hours used up and tossed away, moments dead and gone, rusted and frozen where they lay. Jack’s hammers and his nails and his saws and his files and his broken axe, waiting to finish some goddamn thing he never even started at all. John-William’s bike, broken and twisted, one wheel missing and one wheel bent. Wasn’t anyone going to fix it. Why in heaven’s name was she hanging onto that?
Just too much to bother about, thinks John-William’s mother, and not enough time, not any time at all….
Betty Ann, John-William’s mother, perches on the edge of the tub and turns on the hot water tap. John-William’s clothes are wadded in a pile. He’d ridden out for crawdads with bacon on a string, down by the creek behind the park. He’d gotten all soaked, peeled everything off, left it on the floor. John-William’s mother gave him a proper scolding, the boy knew better than that. She’d scrubbed him good, tossed socks and underpants into the bin. Picked up his shirt and shook her head. His brand new Ferdinand the Bull shirt and already ruined for good.
In John-William’s pockets she found a Krazy Kat button and a string from a top, a cap from a Nehi Orange and a broken lead soldier with his legs cut off above the knees. When Betty Ann was fifteen, she stayed with her cousin Helen for a while. One night they drove into Lawton for a picture show and ice cream. Helen took her daddy’s new Packard. They were supposed to be back before dark. They told Helen’s daddy they had a flat. What happened was they met two soldiers in town from Fort Sill. The soldiers were both nineteen. They had a pint of gin and a carton of Wings cigarettes. Helen made Betty Ann drive while she and the best-looking boy sat and giggled in the back. Betty Ann knew they were doing more than that.
Betty Ann and the other soldier spread a blanket on the grass. Helen and her friend never left the back seat. Betty Ann couldn’t stand the taste of gin. She drank a little all the same and smoked a lot of cigarettes. She let the boy kiss her, and he kissed real fine. After a while she let him reach in and touch her breasts. Just on the tops and not any lower than that. She hadn’t meant to but the boy was real nice and he came from out of state. He said he’d like to see her naked. Betty Ann said absolutely not. They kissed a lot more. Betty Ann was flattered he was getting so hot. The cigarettes made her too dizzy to stop. She let him get on top and rub against her through his clothes. His hardness touched her once and that was that. The boy made a noise and walked off in the grass for some time. On the way home, when they’d let the soldiers off, Helen made Betty Ann tell her everything that happened in the grass. Then Helen told Betty Ann things she hadn’t even thought about before.
John-William’s mother lets the water run in the tub. Back in the bedroom she peels the sticky dress up over her head, drops it on the floor. Just like John-William, she thinks. Doesn’t get all his bad habits from Jack. On the way back she stops, stands there in the hall. Something seems to move, something in the almost not quite corner in the dark. Something nearly there, something nearly out of sight. John-William’s mother turns around fast. Gives a little jump, a little start. And there’s Betty Ann looking back, just as surprised, just as naked as Betty Ann herself. Betty Ann knows she ought to look away, knows she shouldn’t stand there staring in her birthday suit. Still, the sight in the mirror holds her fixed, holds her still, like a doe caught frightened in the light.
My lord, who’s that, thinks John-William’s mother. It sure isn’t me, isn’t anyone that I ever knew! It looks like her. But it can’t be John-William’s mother, can’t be Jack’s wife. Betty Ann feels sticky from the heat, from the sweat between her breasts, from the tingle in her nipples, from the heat between her knees. The woman in the mirror has beaded points of light in the dark between her thighs, has slick-silver flesh, has an opalescent glow like she’s just stepped out of a moonlit sea. The woman in the mirror doesn’t think about meatloaf at all, doesn’t think about carrots on the stove. She thinks about the soldier and the need in his eyes and the hard thing pressed against her belly that night.
The woman in the mirror remembers every feeling, every moment with the soldier in the grass, later with a boy named Freddie and one named Alex, and Bob after that, and every single night, every morning with Jack, even the moments when he hit her too hard, when her face swelled up and she went out back to cry….
Goodness sake, thinks John-William’s mother, uneasy with the thoughts in her head, and the warm spots farther down than that. “Well that’s what you get,” she thinks out loud, “gawking at yourself like a Fort Worth floozie struttin’ down Third Avenue.”
John-William’s mother remembers the water in the tub. Lord, she’d gone and left it on. There’d be water running out the door, into the hall and onto the carpet, and Jack’s wife, Betty Ann, running naked ’round the house with a mop and John-William’s supper in the stove.
Betty Ann stops right there and frowns at the tub. She’s real sure she turned the water on, but there isn’t a drip or a drop, and the tub’s dry as a bone. Betty Ann shakes her head, says “Well, I declare,” pads in her bare feet back down the hall, back to the kitchen, back to the stove, back to the counter and the peels in the sink, back to the meatloaf in the stove. Walks to the screen to check the latch. Stops, looks out the back. Remembers where she is and has to laugh. No one walks around naked in the kitchen, bare ass naked, not a stitch at all, even in the dark. If Jack came in right then he’d think she was crazy as a loon. Which doesn’t much matter, she remembers, Jack’s not coming back at all.
Betty Ann stands at the screen and looks out. Doesn’t seem that long ago she was watching the light slink away, waiting for the dark to slide in. She looks past the drive to the Hooper’s back yard. The walls are black, the roof has faded into night. She can see the Prewitts’ fence, but the Kamps are out of sight. John-William’s mother looks up as something flutters in the night. Just for an instant, it hangs there, a smudge against the inky sky. Maybe it has red eyes, she thinks. Maybe its tongue is colored orange.
A wind hot as syrup fills the night. Betty Ann’s heart skips a beat. Skips two, hesitates, decides to try again. Betty Ann catches her breath, backs away from the door, leans against the sink. Lets her eyes touch the room. The garbage can, the broom, the chair, and the stove. She opens the pot, peers inside. The carrots are limp, dry as brittle leaves. The pale blue flame has gone out. She opens the oven door. The meatloaf is cold, pink, with little eyes of fat. The radio is dead, the refrigerator, too. The lights, the gas.
Turn on the faucet. A sputter and a cough. Betty Ann tries the phone. “Hello? Hello?” Just like in the movies. Nobody’s there.
Betty Ann walks naked through the gray heavy gauze of her first brick house. She’d been real scared once before, when she and John-William were alone and Jack was in Tulsa overnight. Something had scratched on the window and made wet steps on the lawn. In the morning, there was nothing there to see. The next night Jack was snoring by her side, but Betty Ann didn’t sleep for a week.
“It’s all right,” she says, “everything’s fine. Everything’s off right now, but it’ll all go on again.” Her voice sounds funny in the still and empty house. She feels her way back to the kitchen, finds her Old Golds, a box of matches on the sink. Paws through the junk drawer, finds a wad of string, pencil stubs, and dry fountain pens. No candles at all.
John-William’s mother moves back down the hall. Looks in the mirror. Can’t hardly see herself at all. Lights a kitchen match. Betty Ann naked, skin white as tallow in the flare of sudden light. The living room carpet’s black as tar. The easy chairs are blurs against the greater dark. Feels for the sofa. Can’t find it anywhere at all. The match doesn’t work. She tries another and another after that. Tosses the box on the floor.
Moving real slow, doesn’t want to bump her toes. Opens the front door a crack. Can’t see much better than she did in the back.
The houses across the street are just like hers. Stubby brick, living room, bedrooms, kitchen in the back. Arch across the porch. Now all the houses are solemn and gray, all the color drained out, the life washed away. No lights in the windows, no lights at all.
Betty Ann opens the door a little wider, a little wider still. One bare foot outside and then the next. John-William’s mother, Jack’s wife, Betty Ann, stands naked on the hot front porch. Night wind brushes her flesh, tickles her breasts, whispers naughties in her ear.
Betty Ann stands very, very still. She can’t remember when she last stood out in the night. Didn’t flee, didn’t run when the big clock deep in the earth warned everyone the light was dying and the dark was sweeping in, told everyone to hurry, get safe inside.
Still, it isn’t so bad if you stand real still, if you don’t think hard — if you don’t let the dark know you’re there. It can’t see everything, can it? A whole world of night out there, it can’t watch every leaf, every stone, every time a dog does his business on the lawn….
It comes to her then, like the secret was there all the time, like she knew it in her head. Grandmaw didn’t know it all — she knew the scary part, knew about the bad, but she didn’t know the rest. All you have to do is stand very, very still, listen, listen, to the great stone clock down deep-deep within the earth, listen to it tick-tick-tick away the quiet moments, the hours, the long years of the night. Don’t move, don’t breathe, feel the silence and the wind, feel the whisper of the dark against your skin….
John-William’s mother, Jack’s wife, Betty Ann, peers into the dark, looks into the inky night for a very long time, and after a while she wonders if she might not be Betty Ann standing naked on the porch, she might be Betty Ann dreaming somewhere, Betty Ann back at Mama’s on the farm, looking at the rusty old Ford. She might be Betty Ann having ice cream with Johnny Two Horse, who said he was pure Cherokee. She liked Johnny Two Horse a whole lot, kissed him twice till Mama found out he wasn’t white, washed her mouth with soap and put a stop to that.
Johnny Two Horse kissed her again, or maybe it was only the hot breeze sliding in upon the night to sweep the dream away. And, when she peered once more into the dark, Betty Ann could see things she hadn’t seen before. The houses and the lawns and the trees looked different now, like the shiny things you get when they send your pictures back. Everything that used to be black was murky gray, and everything white went just the other way. It didn’t seem wrong, turned inside out, it seemed, to Betty Ann, the way things ought to be. Maybe the way things had been all along and were getting right again.
Up past the Harpers and the Smiths and the Roers, where the street lamp stood on the corner, something seemed to shimmer, seemed to tremble, seemed to hide behind a veil, like looking through Grandmaw’s glasses where the world was all a blur. Betty Ann blinked and the blur went away.
Then, for an instant, something was there and something not, something just beyond the corner, something coming, something waiting, something maybe in-between, something not quite ready, something not really there.
Betty Ann feels her mouth go dry, feels her legs go weak, backs up against the cold brick wall, backs up, finds the wall isn’t there, knows, for sure, that isn’t right at all. Walls stay where they are, where a wall’s supposed to be. Betty Ann tries again, staggers, very nearly falls, slips through the wall, through the wires, through the wood, through the pipes and the nails, through the cobwebs and little dead spiders and bugs that huddle there.
John-William’s mother, Sarah’s daughter, Betty Ann, walks through the curtains that trickle like powder, like snow, like ash, before her eyes, walks through the sofa that crumbles into dust, into the hall where the walls begin to vanish, into the kitchen where the stove, the mixer, and the radio sigh and fall away.
Betty Ann stands naked, looks through the screen door, where it used to be, looks for the black birds singing on the wire, black birds white now, sees them on the ground, lying on their backs with their little beaks open, claws up in the air.
“Well my goodness,” says Betty Ann, “now isn’t that a sight to see. Why, it’s like Andy always says, ‘You neber do knows what gon’ be happ’nin’ but you kin bets it will.’ ”
John-William’s mother laughs at the thought, walks back through where her first brick home used to be. Stops, for a moment, glances at the mirror in the hall. The mirror’s not there but someone is, someone Betty Ann thinks she ought to know. Just for an instant, just for a blink, then just as quickly gone.
Betty Ann stands outside where the porch used to be, stands there naked and watches the corner past the Smiths and the Harpers and the Roers, looks at the lamp that’s black instead of white, at the murky light on the street down below. Now, the thing on the corner, the thing that seemed to shimmer, seemed to tremble, seemed to hide behind a veil, isn’t something maybe there anymore, isn’t something maybe not, isn’t waiting in-between anymore….
John-William’s mother can feel her heart pound, feel the big clock down far-far below begin to chime. Whatever wasn’t there is coming on slow, dark and heavy, faint and distant, closer, closer still, hardly even there, turning, turning, past the Roers and the Smiths and the Harpers, coming right up to where John-William’s mother stands naked where her first brick house used to be….
They glide down the street now, slide on in without a sound, slip on in without a hum from their engines, a whisper from their tires. One before the other, one behind the next, hazy Buicks, Franklins, and Cords. Cloudy Chryslers, Lincolns, and Fords. Plymouths, Packards, Porsches, and Rolls, dusty and obscure. Duesenbergs, Dodges, Ramblers, and Olds, scarcely present, hardly there at all. Studebakers, Chevys, Rovers, and nearly invisible Saabs. Bentleys, Austins, Minors, and — goodness sakes, cars Betty Ann never heard about before.
They keep on coming, gliding down the street in a motion so slight they hardly stir the air. Each one black where they ought to be white, white where the black ought to be. Everything backwards, inside out. Just the way the big stone clock down, down, way below likes to see.
Betty Ann knows she shouldn’t ought to move, shouldn’t do anything at all. Ought to just mind her own business, shouldn’t ought to pry. Still, she feels she’s got to know, got to see what it’s all about, got to know why these peculiar cars are driving by. Ought to see who, ought to see what’s inside.
Betty Ann walks naked in the street, gets close to the windows, peers inside an old Franklin, looks inside a Saab. Can’t see anything at all. The glass in each and every window is cold, cold, icy to the touch, covered with frost, dark and river deep.
John-William’s mother wipes a little hole free and peers inside a l930 Cadillac. And, to Betty Ann’s surprise, there’s Grandmaw Wilcher sitting up straight, straight as you please, hand-bones clutching the wheel, shriveled, shrunk, stiff as a board, hair hanging this way and that.
“Grandmaw Wilcher,” Betty Ann says, “why, you can’t even drive!” Driving she is, though, nothing you can do about that.
There’s no one she knows in the Lincoln or the Cord. No one in the Nash. Helen, though, is there in the back seat of the Packard, caught in what seems intimate, dark coagulation with the soldier boy from Fort Sill. Ruin and rot have set in and a coat of fuzzy green. Still, Helen looks happy as a clam and, as Betty Ann’s mother Sarah always said, happy’s better than not.
Mama Steck looks not much worse than the night Betty Ann watched the dark slide in and slide out again, and suck her life away. Betty Ann can’t recall anyone drove a Studebaker back then, but there’s lots she can’t recall.
“Jack, Jack, Jack,” thinks John-William’s mother, as she peeks into the LaSalle, “I got to say you do look a sight.” Except for the blight and the ruin and the dent where she’d hit him with the axe. Except for that and the gross degeneration — well, time is going to take a toll, that and ancient ulceration of the soul — “Told you to stop,” says Betty Ann. “Told you hit me one more time, that’s it, and by God it’s just what you did, you got nothing to complain about that.”
Papa is in the rusted-out Ford, not looking all that good, something like tar and tallow dried on his overalls down into his shoes and some distortion of the bones.
Betty Ann thinks she might cry when she gets to the Chevy, she knew she’d find him there. That truck had hit him head on, wrapping the brand new Schwinn around him twice, penetrating bodily parts, leaving limbs twisted, badly out of whack.
Still, he did the best he could, God bless him, holding the wheel real steady, one hand sort of going this way, the other going that.
“You were my pride,” says Betty Ann, “and I never forgot you, not for a minute, John-William, not for all the years that passed. I kept that Krazy Kat button and the Nehi cap as well. You tore that Ferdinand shirt real bad, but I don’t guess you care about that.”
Betty Ann opens the door, and slides real quiet inside. Looks at JohnWilliam, pictures in her head that he’s looking back.
Just for a moment, no more than that, Betty Ann glances behind her, sees the two she lost sitting quiet, sitting still, looks there once and doesn’t look back.
Nobody said it was time to drive on, but real soon everybody did. Rolling down the window, she listened to the music playing on the car radios: “Moonlight Cocktail,” “Twilight Time,” “One for My Baby,” “Laura,” “Willow Weep for Me.”
And, coming from somewhere, out of the hot and inky night, just before the clock deep-deep in the earth strikes again, a whisper in the hot night air:
Not just before, Betty Ann,
And not just after,
It’s not getting dark, Betty Ann,
The dark’s already here….
FROM THE AUTHOR: “The Gambler” was conceived while I was still working at High Country News, an environmental news magazine that covers the Western United States. As the online editor, one of my jobs was to find ways to increase hits and web traffic, and it quickly became apparent that a simple blog post and an in-depth piece of investigative journalism had exactly the same value in terms of hits and traffic revenue. “The Gambler” was an attempt to follow the implications of this to its logical conclusion. One of the great kicks for me about “The Gambler” was later hearing that it found its way to the offices of Gawker Media and was circulated amongst the people who are actively building the new media future. As a science fiction writer, that’s pretty much the best reward I could ever ask for.
MY FATHER WAS a gambler. He believed in the workings of karma and luck. He hunted for lucky numbers on license plates and bet on lotteries and fighting roosters. Looking back, I think perhaps he was not a large man, but when he took me to the muy thai fights, I thought him so. He would bet and he would win and laugh and drink laolao with his friends, and they all seemed so large. In the heat drip of Vientiane, he was a lucky ghost, walking the mirror-sheen streets in the darkness.
Everything for my father was a gamble: roulette and blackjack, new rice variants and the arrival of the monsoons. When the pretender monarch Khamsing announced his New Lao Kingdom, my father gambled on civil disobedience. He bet on the teachings of Mr. Henry David Thoreau and on whisper sheets posted on lampposts. He bet on saffron-robed monks marching in protest and on the hidden humanity of the soldiers with their well-oiled AK-47s and their mirrored helmets.
My father was a gambler, but my mother was not. While he wrote letters to the editor that brought the secret police to our door, she made plans for escape. The old Lao Demo cratic Republic collapsed, and the New Lao Kingdom blossomed with tanks on the avenues and tuk-tuks burning on the street corners. Pha That Luang’s shining gold chedi collapsed under shelling, and I rode away on a UN evacuation helicopter under the care of kind Mrs. Yamaguchi.
From the open doors of the helicopter, we watched smoke columns rise over the city like nagas coiling. We crossed the brown ribbon of the Mekong with its jeweled belt of burning cars on the Friendship Bridge. I remember a Mercedes floating in the water like a paper boat on Loi Kratong, burning despite the water all around.
Afterward, there was silence from the land of a million elephants, a void into which light and Skype calls and email disappeared. The roads were blocked. The telecoms died. A black hole opened where my country had once stood.
Sometimes, when I wake in the night to the swish and honk of Los Angeles traffic, the confusing polyglot of dozens of countries and cultures all pressed together in this American melting pot, I stand at my window and look down a boulevard full of red lights, where it is not safe to walk alone at night, and yet everyone obeys the traffic signals. I look down on the brash and noisy Americans in their many hues, and remember my parents: my father who cared too much to let me live under the self-declared monarchy, and my mother who would not let me die as a consequence. I lean against the window and cry with relief and loss.
Every week I go to temple and pray for them, light incense and make a triple bow to Buddha, Damma, and Sangha, and pray that they may have a good rebirth, and then I step into the light and noise and vibrancy of America.
My colleagues’ faces flicker gray and pale in the light of their computers and tablets. The tap of their keyboards fills the newsroom as they pass content down the workflow chain and then, with a final keystroke and an obeisance to the “publish” button, they hurl it onto the net.
In the maelstrom, their work flares, tagged with site location, content tags, and social poke data. Blooms of color, codes for media conglomerates: shades of blue and Mickey Mouse ears for Disney-Bertelsmann. A red-rimmed pair of rainbow Os for Google’s AOL News. Fox News Corp. in pinstripes gray and white. Green for us: Milestone Media — a combination of NTT DoCoMo, the Korean gaming consortium Hyundai-Kubu, and the smoking remains of the New York Times Company. There are others, smaller stars, Crayola shades flaring and brightening, but we are the most important. The monarchs of this universe of light and color.
New content blossoms on the screen, bathing us all in the bloody glow of a Google News content flare, off their WhisperTech feed. They’ve scooped us. The posting says that new earbud devices will be released by Frontal Lobe before Christmas: terabyte storage with PinLine connectivity for the Oakley microresponse glasses. The technology is next-gen, allowing personal data control via Pin-Line scans of a user’s iris. Analysts predict that everything from cell phones to digital cameras will become obsolete as the full range of Oakley features becomes available. The news flare brightens and migrates toward the center of the maelstrom as visitors flock to Google and view stolen photos of the iris-scanning glasses.
Janice Mbutu, our managing editor, stands at the door to her office, watching with a frown. The maelstrom’s red bath dominates the newsroom, a pressing reminder that Google is beating us, sucking away traffic. Behind glass walls, Bob and Casey, the heads of the Burning Wire, our own consumer technology feed, are screaming at their reporters, demanding they do better. Bob’s face has turned almost as red as the maelstrom.
The maelstrom’s true name is LiveTrack IV. If you were to go downstairs to the fifth floor and pry open the server racks, you would find a sniper sight logo and the words SCRY GLASS — knowledge is power stamped on their chips in metallic orange, which would tell you that even though Bloomberg rents us the machines, it is a Google-Nielsen partnership that provides the proprietary algorithms for analyzing the net flows — which means we pay a competitor to tell us what is happening with our own content.
LiveTrack IV tracks media user data — Web site, feed, VOD, audiostream, TV broadcast — with Google’s own net statistics gathering programs, aided by Nielsen hardware in personal data devices ranging from TVs to tablets to ear buds to handsets to car radios. To say that the maelstrom keeps a finger on the pulse of media is an understatement. Like calling the monsoon a little wet. The maelstrom is the pulse, the pressure, the blood-oxygen mix; the count of red cells and white, of T-cells and BAC, the screening for AIDS and hepatitis G… It is reality.
Our service version of the maelstrom displays the performance of our own content and compares it to the top one hundred user-traffic events in real-time. My own latest news story is up in the maelstrom, glittering near the edge of the screen, a tale of government incompetence: the harvested DNA of the checkerspot butterfly, already extinct, has been destroyed through mismanagement at the California Federal Biological Preserve Facility. The butterfly — along with sixty-two other species — was subjected to improper storage protocols, and now there is nothing except a little dust in vials. The samples literally blew away. My coverage of the story opens with federal workers down on their knees in a $2 billion, climate-controlled vault, with a dozen crime scene vacuums that they’ve borrowed from LAPD, trying to suck up a speck of butterfly that they might be able to reconstitute at some future time.
In the maelstrom, the story is a pinprick beside the suns and pulsing moons of traffic that represent other reporters’ content. It doesn’t compete well with news of Frontal Lobe devices, or reviews of Armored Total Combat, or live feeds of the Binge-Purge Championships. It seems that the only people who are reading my story are the biologists I interviewed. This is not surprising. When I wrote about bribes for subdivision approvals, the only people who read the story were county planners. When I wrote about cronyism in the selection of city water recycling technologies, the only people who read were water engineers. Still, even though no one seems to care about these stories, I am drawn to them, as though poking at the tiger of the American government will somehow make up for not being able to poke at the little cub of New Divine Monarch Khamsing. It is a foolish thing, a sort of Don Quixote crusade. As a consequence, my salary is the smallest in the office.
Heads swivel from terminals, look for the noise: Marty Mackley, grinning.
“You can thank me…” He leans down and taps a button on his keyboard. “Now.”
A new post appears in the maelstrom, a small green orb announcing itself on the “Glamour Report,” Scandal Monkey blog, and Marty’s byline feeds. As we watch, the post absorbs pings from software clients around the world, notifying the millions of people who follow his byline that he has launched a new story.
I flick my tablet open, check the tags:
According to Mackley’s story, Double DP the Russian mafia cowboy rapper — who, in my opinion, is not as good as the Asian pop sensation Kulaap, but whom half the planet likes very much — is accused of impregnating the fourteen-year-old daughter of his face sculptor. Readers are starting to notice, and with their attention Marty’s green-glowing news story begins to muscle for space in the maelstrom. The content star pulses, expands, and then, as though someone has thrown gasoline on it, it explodes. Double DP hits the social sites, starts getting recommended, sucks in more readers, more links, more clicks… and more ad dollars.
Marty does a pelvic grind of victory, then waves at everyone for their attention. “And that’s not all, folks.” He hits his keyboard again, and another story posts: live feeds of Double’s house, where… it looks as though the man who popularized Redneck Russians is heading out the door in a hurry. It is a surprise to see video of the house, streaming live. Most freelance paparazzi are not patient enough to sit and hope that maybe, perhaps, something interesting will happen. This looks as though Marty has stationed his own exclusive papcams at the house, to watch for something like this.
We all watch as Double DP locks the door behind himself. Marty says, “I thought DP deserved the courtesy of notification that the story was going live.”
“Is he fleeing?” Mikela Plaa asks.
Marty shrugs. “We’ll see.”
And indeed, it does look as if Double is about to do what Americans have popularized as an “OJ.” He gets into his red Hummer. Pulling out.
Under the green glow of his growing story, Marty smiles. The story is getting bigger, and Marty has stationed himself perfectly for the development. Other news agencies and blogs are playing catch-up. Follow-on posts wink into existence in the maelstrom, gathering a momentum of their own as newsrooms scramble to hook our traffic.
“Do we have a helicopter?” Janice asks. She has come out of her glass office to watch the show.
Marty nods. “We’re moving it into position. I just bought exclusive angel view with the cops, too, so everyone’s going to have to license our footage.”
“Did you let Long Arm of the Law know about the cross-content?”
“Yeah. They’re kicking in from their bud get for the helicopter.”
Marty sits down again, begins tapping at his keyboard, a machinegun of data entry. A low murmur comes from the tech pit, Cindy C. calling our telecom providers, locking down trunklines to handle an anticipated data surge. She knows something that we don’t, something that Marty has prepared her for. She’s bringing up mirrored server farms. Marty seems unaware of the audience around him. He stops typing. Stares up at the maelstrom, watching his glowing ball of content. He is the maestro of a symphony.
The cluster of competing stories are growing as Gawker and Newsweek and Throb all organize themselves and respond. Our readers are clicking away from us, trying to see if there’s anything new in our competitor’s coverage. Marty smiles, hits his “publish” key, and dumps a new bucket of meat into the shark tank of public interest: a video interview with the fourteen-year-old. On-screen, she looks very young, shockingly so. She has a teddy bear.
“I swear I didn’t plant the bear,” Marty comments. “She had it on her own.”
The girl’s accusations are being mixed over Double’s run for the border, a kind of synth loop of accusations:
“And then he…”
“And I said…”
“He’s the only one I’ve ever…”
It sounds as if Marty has licensed some of Double’s own beats for the coverage of his fleeing Humvee. The video outtakes are already bouncing around YouTube and MotionSwallow like Ping-Pong balls. The maelstrom has moved Double DP to the center of the display as more and more feeds and sites point to the content. Not only is traffic up, but the post is gaining in social rank as the numbers of links and social pokes increase.
“How’s the stock?” someone calls out.
Marty shakes his head. “They locked me out from showing the display.”
This, because whenever he drops an important story, we all beg him to show us the big picture. We all turn to Janice. She rolls her eyes, but she gives the nod. When Cindy finishes buying bandwidth, she unlocks the view. The maelstrom slides aside as a second window opens, all bar graphs and financial landscape: our stock price as affected by the story’s expanding traffic — and expanding ad revenue.
The stock bots have their own version of the maelstrom; they’ve picked up the reader traffic shift. Buy and sell decisions roll across the screen, responding to the popularity of Mackley’s byline. As he feeds the story, the beast grows. More feeds pick us up, more people recommend the story to their friends, and every one of them is being subjected to our advertisers’ messages, which means more revenue for us and less for everyone else. At this point, Mackley is bigger than the Super Bowl. Given that the story is tagged with Double DP, it will have a targetable demographic: thirteen-to twenty-four-year-olds who buy lifestyle gadgets, new music, edge clothes, first-run games, boxed hairstyles, tablet skins, and ringtones: not only a large demographic, a valuable one.
Our stock ticks up a point. Holds. Ticks up another. We’ve got four different screens running now. The papcam of Double DP, chase cycles with views of the cops streaking after him, the chopper lifting off, and the window with the fourteen-year-old interviewing. The girl is saying, “I really feel for him. We have a connection. We’re going to get married,” and there’s his Hummer screaming down Santa Monica Boulevard with his song “Cowboy Banger” on the audio overlay.
A new wave of social pokes hits the story. Our stock price ticks up again. Daily bonus territory. The clicks are pouring in. It’s got the right combination of content, what Mackley calls the “Three Ss”: sex, stupidity, and schadenfreude. The stock ticks up again. Everyone cheers. Mackley takes a bow. We all love him. He is half the reason I can pay my rent. Even a small newsroom bonus from his work is enough for me to live. I’m not sure how much he makes for himself when he creates an event like this. Cindy tells me that it is “solid seven, baby.” His byline feed is so big he could probably go independent, but then he would not have the resources to scramble a helicopter for a chase toward Mexico. It is a symbiotic relationship. He does what he does best, and Milestone pays him like a celebrity.
Janice claps her hands. “All right, everyone. You’ve got your bonus. Now back to work.”
A general groan rises. Cindy cuts the big monitor away from stocks and bonuses and back to the work at hand: generating more content to light the maelstrom, to keep the newsroom glowing green with flares of Milestone coverage — everything from reviews of Mitsubishi’s 100 mpg Road Cruiser to how to choose a perfect turkey for Thanksgiving. Mackley’s story pulses over us as we work. He spins off smaller additional stories, updates, interactivity features, encouraging his vast audience to ping back just one more time.
Marty will spend the entire day in conversation with this elephant of a story that he has created. Encouraging his visitors to return for just one more click. He’ll give them chances to poll each other, discuss how they’d like to see DP punished, ask whether you can actually fall in love with a fourteen-year-old. This one will have a long life, and he will raise it like a proud father, feeding and nurturing it, helping it make its way in the rough world of the maelstrom.
My own little green speck of content has disappeared. It seems that even government biologists feel for Double DP.
When my father was not placing foolish bets on revolution, he taught agronomy at the National Lao University. Perhaps our lives would have been different if he had been a rice farmer in the paddies of the capital’s suburbs, instead of surrounded by intellectuals and ideas. But his karma was to be a teacher and a researcher, and so while he was increasing Lao rice production by 30 percent, he was also filling himself with gambler’s fancies: Thoreau, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Sakharov, Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi. True gamblers, all. He would say that if white South Africans could be made to feel shame, then the pretender monarch must right his ways. He claimed that Thoreau must have been Lao, the way he protested so politely.
In my father’s description, Thoreau was a forest monk, gone into the jungle for enlightenment. To live amongst the banyan and the climbing vines of Massachusetts and to meditate on the nature of suffering. My father believed he was undoubtedly some arhat reborn. He often talked of Mr. Henry David, and in my imagination this falang, too, was a large man like my father.
When my father’s friends visited in the dark — after the coup and the countercoup, and after the march of Khamsing’s Chinese-supported insurgency — they would often speak of Mr. Henry David. My father would sit with his friends and students and drink black Lao coffee and smoke cigarettes, and then he would write carefully worded complaints against the government that his students would then copy and leave in public places, distribute into gutters, and stick onto walls in the dead of night.
His guerrilla complaints would ask where his friends had gone, and why their families were so alone. He would ask why monks were beaten on their heads by Chinese soldiers when they sat in hunger strike before the palace. Sometimes, when he was drunk and when these small gambles did not satisfy his risk-taking nature, he would send editorials to the newspapers.
None of these were ever printed, but he was possessed with some spirit that made him think that perhaps the papers would change. That his stature as a father of Lao agriculture might somehow sway the editors to commit suicide and print his complaints.
It ended with my mother serving coffee to a secret police captain while two more policemen waited outside our door. The captain was very polite: he offered my father a 555 cigarette — a brand that already had become rare and contraband — and lit it for him. Then he spread the whisper sheet onto the coffee table, gently pushing aside the coffee cups and their saucers to make room for it. It was rumpled and torn, stained with mud. Full of accusations against Khamsing. Unmistakable as one of my father’s.
My father and the policeman both sat and smoked, studying the paper silently.
Finally, the captain asked, “Will you stop?”
My father drew on his cigarette and let the smoke out slowly as he studied the whisper sheet between them. The captain said, “We all respect what you have done for the Lao Kingdom. I myself have family who would have starved if not for your work in the villages.” He leaned forward. “If you promise to stop writing these whispers and complaints, everything can be forgotten. Everything.”
Still, my father didn’t say anything. He finished his cigarette. Stubbed it out. “It would be difficult to make that sort of promise,” he said.
The captain was surprised. “You have friends who have spoken on your behalf. Perhaps you would reconsider. For their sake.”
My father made a little shrug. The captain spread the rumpled whisper sheet, flattening it out more completely. Read it over. “These sheets do nothing,” he said. “Khamsing’s dynasty will not collapse because you print a few complaints. Most of these are torn down before anyone reads them. They do nothing. They are pointless.” He was almost begging. He looked over and saw me watching at the door. “Give this up. For your family, if not your friends.”
I would like to say that my father said something grand. Something honorable about speaking against tyranny. Perhaps invoked one of his idols. Aung San Suu Kyi or Sakharov, or Mr. Henry David and his penchant for polite protest. But he didn’t say anything. He just sat with his hands on his knees, looking down at the torn whisper sheet. I think now that he must have been very afraid. Words always came easily to him, before. Instead, all he did was repeat himself. “It would be difficult.”
The captain waited. When it became apparent that my father had nothing else to say, he put down his coffee cup and motioned for his men to come inside. They were all very polite. I think the captain even apologized to my mother as they led him out the door.
We are into day three of the Double DP bonanza, and the green sun glows brightly over all of us, bathing us in its soothing, profitable glow. I am working on my newest story with my Frontal Lobe ear buds in, shutting out everything except the work at hand. It is always a little difficult to write in one’s third language, but I have my favorite singer and fellow countryperson Kulaap whispering in my ear that “Love Is a Bird,” and the work is going well. With Kulaap singing to me in our childhood language, I feel very much at home.
A tap on my shoulder interrupts me. I pull out my ear buds and look around. Janice, standing over me. “Ong, I need to talk to you.” She motions me to follow.
In her office, she closes the door behind me and goes to her desk. “Sit down, Ong.” She keys her tablet, scrolls through data. “How are things going for you?”
“Very well. Thank you.” I’m not sure if there is more that she wants me to say, but it is likely that she will tell me. Americans do not leave much to guesswork.
“What are you working on for your next story?” she asks.
I smile. I like this story; it reminds me of my father. And with Kulaap’s soothing voice in my ears I have finished almost all of my research. The bluet, a flower made famous in Mr. Henry David Thoreau’s journals, is blooming too early to be pollinated. Bees do not seem to find it when it blooms in March. The scientists I interviewed blame global warming, and now the flower is in danger of extinction. I have interviewed biologists and local naturalists, and now I would like to go to Walden Pond on a pilgrimage for this bluet that may soon also be bottled in a federal reserve laboratory with its techs in clean suits and their crime scene vacuums.
When I finish describing the story, Janice looks at me as if I am crazy. I can tell that she thinks I am crazy, because I can see it on her face. And also because she tells me.
“You’re fucking crazy!”
Americans are very direct. It’s difficult to keep face when they yell at you. Sometimes, I think that I have adapted to America. I have been here for five years now, ever since I came from Thailand on a scholarship, but at times like this, all I can do is smile and try not to cringe as they lose their face and yell and rant. My father was once struck in the face with an official’s shoe, and he did not show his anger. But Janice is American, and she is very angry.
“There’s no way I’m going to authorize a junket like that!”
I try to smile past her anger, and then remember that the Americans don’t see an apologetic smile in the same way that a Lao would. I stop smiling and make my face look… something. Earnest, I hope.
“The story is very important,” I say. “The ecosystem isn’t adapting correctly to the changing climate. Instead, it has lost…” I grope for the word. “Synchronicity. These scientists think that the flower can be saved, but only if they import a bee that is available in Turkey. They think it can replace the function of the native bee population, and they think that it will not be too disruptive.”
“Flowers and Turkish bees.”
“Yes. It is an important story. Do they let the flower go extinct? Or try to keep the famous flower, but alter the environment of Walden Pond? I think your readers will think it is very interesting.”
“More interesting than that?” She points through her glass wall at the maelstrom, at the throbbing green sun of Double DP, who has now barricaded himself in a Mexican hotel and has taken a pair of fans hostage.
“You know how many clicks we’re getting?” she asks. “We’re exclusive. Marty’s got Double’s trust and is going in for an interview tomorrow, assuming the Mexicans don’t just raid it with commandos. We’ve got people clicking back every couple minutes just to look at Marty’s blog about his preparations to go in.”
The glowing globe not only dominates the maelstrom’s screen, it washes everything else out. If we look at the stock bots, everyone who doesn’t have protection under our corporate umbrella has been hurt by the loss of eyeballs. Even the Frontal Lobe/Oakley story has been swallowed. Three days of completely dominating the maelstrom has been very profitable for us. Now Marty’s showing his viewers how he will wear a flak jacket in case the Mexican commandos attack while he is discussing the nature of true love with DP. And he has another exclusive interview with the mother ready to post as well. Cindy has been editing the footage and telling us all how disgusted she is with the whole thing. The woman apparently drove her daughter to DP’s mansion for a midnight pool party, alone.
“Perhaps some people are tired of DP and wish to see something else,” I suggest.
“Don’t shoot yourself in the foot with a flower story, Ong. Even Pradeep’s cooking journey through Ladakh gets more viewers than this stuff you’re writing.”
She looks as though she will say more, but then she simply stops. It seems as if she is considering her words. It is uncharacteristic. She normally speaks before her thoughts are arranged.
“Ong, I like you,” she says. I make myself smile at this, but she continues. “I hired you because I had a good feeling about you. I didn’t have a problem with clearing the visas to let you stay in the country. You’re a good person. You write well. But you’re averaging less than a thousand pings on your byline feed.” She looks down at her tablet, then back up at me. “You need to up your average. You’ve got almost no readers selecting you for Page One. And even when they do subscribe to your feed, they’re putting it in the third tier.”
“Spinach reading,” I supply.
“Mr. Mackley calls it spinach reading. When people feel like they should do something with virtue, like eat their spinach, they click to me. Or else read Shakespeare.”
I blush, suddenly embarrassed. I do not mean to imply that my work is of the same caliber as a great poet. I want to correct myself, but I’m too embarrassed. So instead I shut up, and sit in front of her, blushing.
She regards me. “Yes. Well, that’s a problem. Look, I respect what you do. You’re obviously very smart.” Her eyes scan her tablet. “The butterfly thing you wrote was actually pretty interesting.”
“Yes?” I make myself smile again.
“It’s just that no one wants to read these stories.”
I try to protest. “But you hired me to write the important stories. The stories about politics and the government, to continue the traditions of the old newspapers. I remember what you said when you hired me.”
“Yeah, well.” She looks away. “I was thinking more about a good scandal.”
“The checkerspot is a scandal. That butterfly is now gone.”
She sighs. “No, it’s not a scandal. It’s just a depressing story. No one reads a depressing story, at least, not more than once. And no one subscribes to a depressing byline feed.”
“A thousand people do.”
“A thousand people.” She laughs. “We aren’t some Laotian community weblog, we’re Milestone, and we’re competing for clicks with them.” She waves outside, indicating the maelstrom. “Your stories don’t last longer than half a day; they never get social-poked by anyone except a fringe.” She shakes her head. “Christ, I don’t even know who your demographic is. Centenarian hippies? Some federal bureaucrats? The numbers just don’t justify the amount of time you spend on stories.”
“What stories do you wish me to write?”
“I don’t know. Anything. Product reviews. News you can use. Just not any more of this ‘we regret to inform you of bad news’ stuff. If there isn’t something a reader can do about the damn butterfly, then there’s no point in telling them about it. It just depresses people, and it depresses your numbers.”
“We don’t have enough numbers from Marty?”
She laughs at that. “You remind me of my mother. Look, I don’t want to cut you, but if you can’t start pulling at least a fifty thousand daily average, I won’t have any choice. Our group median is way down in comparison to other teams, and when evaluations come around, we look bad. I’m up against Nguyen in the Tech and Toys pool, and Penn in Yoga and Spirituality, and no one wants to read about how the world’s going to shit. Go find me some stories that people want to read.”
She says a few more things, words that I think are meant to make me feel inspired and eager, and then I am standing outside the door, once again facing the maelstrom.
The truth is that I have never written popular stories. I am not a popular story writer. I am earnest. I am slow. I do not move at the speed these Americans seem to love. Find a story that people want to read. I can write some follow-up to Mackley, to Double DP, perhaps assist with sidebars to his main piece, but somehow, I suspect that the readers will know that I am faking it.
Marty sees me standing outside of Janice’s office. He comes over.
“She giving you a hard time about your numbers?”
“I do not write the correct sort of stories.”
“Yeah. You’re an idealist.”
We both stand there for a moment, meditating on the nature of idealism. Even though he is very American, I like him because he is sensitive to people’s hearts. People trust him. Even Double DP trusts him, though Marty blew his name over every news tablet’s front page. Marty has a good heart. Jai dee. I like him. I think that he is genuine.
“Look, Ong,” he says. “I like what you do.” He puts his hand around my shoulder. For a moment, I think he’s about to try to rub my head with affection and I have to force myself not to wince, but he’s sensitive and instead takes his hand away. “Look, Ong. We both know you’re terrible at this kind of work. We’re in the news business, here. And you’re just not cut out for it.”
“My visa says I have to remain employed.”
“Yeah. Janice is a bitch for that. Look.” He pauses. “I’ve got this thing with Double DP going down in Mexico. But I’ve got another story brewing. An exclusive. I’ve already got my bonus, anyway. And it should push up your average.”
“I do not think that I can write Double DP sidebars.”
He grins. “It’s not that. And it’s not charity; you’re actually a perfect match.”
“Is it about government mismanagement?”
He laughs, but I think he’s not really laughing at me. “No.” He pauses, smiles. “It’s Kulaap. An interview.”
I suck in my breath. My fellow countryperson, here in America. She came out during the purge as well. She was doing a movie in Singapore when the tanks moved, and so she was not trapped. She was already very popular all over Asia, and when Khamsing turned our country into a black hole, the world took note. Now she is popular here in America as well. Very beautiful. And she remembers our country before it went into darkness. My heart is pounding.
Marty goes on. “She’s agreed to do an exclusive with me. But you even speak her language, so I think she’d agree to switch off.” He pauses, looks serious. “I’ve got a good history with Kulaap. She doesn’t give interviews to just anyone. I did a lot of exposure stories about her when Laos was going to hell. Got her a lot of good press. This is a special favor already, so don’t fuck it up.”
I shake my head. “No. I will not.” I press my palms together and touch them to my forehead in a nop of appreciation. “I will not fuck it up.” I make another nop.
He laughs. “Don’t bother with that polite stuff. Janice will cut off your balls to increase the stock price, but we’re the guys in the trenches. We stick together, right?”
In the morning, I make a pot of strong coffee with condensed milk; I boil rice noodle soup and add bean sprouts and chiles and vinegar, and warm a loaf of French bread that I buy from a Vietnamese bakery a few blocks away. With a new mix of Kulaap’s music from DJ Dao streaming in over my stereo, I sit down at my little kitchen table, pour my coffee from its press pot, and open my tablet.
The tablet is a wondrous creation. In Laos, the paper was still a paper: physical, static, and empty of anything except the official news. Real news in our New Divine Kingdom did not come from newspapers, or from television, or from handsets or ear buds. It did not come from the net or feeds unless you trusted your neighbor not to look over your shoulder at an Internet café and if you knew that there were no secret police sitting beside you, or an owner who would be able to identify you when they came around asking about the person who used that workstation over there to communicate with the outside world.
Real news came from whispered rumor, rated according to the trust you accorded the whisperer. Were they family? Did they have long history with you? Did they have anything to gain by the sharing? My father and his old classmates trusted one another. He trusted some of his students, as well. I think this is why the security police came for him in the end. One of his trusted friends or students also whispered news to official friends. Perhaps Mr. Inthachak, or Som Vang. Perhaps another. It is impossible to peer into the blackness of that history and guess at who told true stories and in which direction.
In any case, it was my father’s karma to be taken, so perhaps it does not matter who did the whispering. But before then — before the news of my father flowed up to official ears — none of the real news flowed toward Lao TV or the Vientiane Times. Which meant that when the protests happened and my father came through the door with blood on his face from baton blows, we could read as much as we wanted about the three thousand schoolchildren who had sung the national anthem to our new divine monarch. While my father lay in bed, delirious with pain, the papers told us that China had signed a rubber contract that would triple revenue for Luang Namtha Province and that Nam Theun Dam was now earning BT 22.5 billion per year in electricity fees to Thailand. But there were no bloody batons, and there were no dead monks, and there was no Mercedes-Benz burning in the river as it floated toward Cambodia.
Real news came on the wings of rumor, stole into our house at midnight, sat with us and sipped coffee and fled before the call of roosters could break the stillness. It was in the dark, over a burning cigarette that you learned Vilaphon had disappeared or that Mr. Saeng’s wife had been beaten as a warning. Real news was too valuable to risk in public.
Here in America, my page glows with many news feeds, flickers at me in video windows, pours in at me over broadband. It is a waterfall of information. As my personal news page opens, my feeds arrange themselves, sorting according to the priorities and tag categories that I’ve set, a mix of Muang Lao news, Lao refugee blogs, and the chatting of a few close friends from Thailand and the American college where I attended on a human relief scholarship.
On my second page and my third, I keep the general news, the arrangements of Milestone, the Bangkok Post, the Phnom Penh Express — the news chosen by editors. But by the time I’ve finished with my own selections, I don’t often have time to click through the headlines that these earnest news editors select for the mythical general reader.
In any case, I know far better than they what I want to read, and with my keyword and tag scans, I can unearth stories and discussions that a news agency would never think to provide. Even if I cannot see into the black hole itself, I can slip along its edges, divine news from its fringe.
I search for tags like Vientiane, Laos, Lao, Khamsing, China-Lao friendship, Korat, Golden Triangle, Hmong independence, Lao PDR, my father’s name… Only those of us who are Lao exiles from the March Purge really read these blogs. It is much as when we lived in the capital. The blogs are the rumors that we used to whisper to one another. Now we publish our whispers over the net and join mailing lists instead of secret coffee groups, but it is the same. It is family, as much as any of us now have.
On the maelstrom, the tags for Laos don’t even register. Our tags bloomed brightly for a little while, while there were still guerrilla students uploading content from their handsets, and the images were lurid and shocking. But then the phone lines went down and the country fell into its black hole and now it is just us, this small network that functions outside the country.
A headline from Jumbo Blog catches my eye. I open the site, and my tablet fills with the colorful image of the three-wheeled taxi of my childhood. I often come here. It is a node of comfort.
Laofriend posts that some people, maybe a whole family, have swum the Mekong and made it into Thailand. He isn’t sure if they were accepted as refugees or if they were sent back.
It is not an official news piece. More, the idea of a news piece. SomPaBoy doesn’t believe it, but Khamchanh contends that the rumor is true, heard from someone who has a sister married to an Isaan border guard in the Thai army. So we cling to it. Wonder about it. Guess where these people came from, wonder if, against all odds, it could be one of ours: a brother, a sister, a cousin, a father….
After an hour, I close the tablet. It’s foolish to read any more. It only brings up memories. Worrying about the past is foolish. Lao PDR is gone. To wish otherwise is suffering.
The clerk at Novotel’s front desk is expecting me. A hotel staffer with a key guides me to a private elevator bank that whisks us up into the smog and heights. The elevator doors open to a small entryway with a thick mahogany door. The staffer steps back into the elevator and disappears, leaving me standing in this strange airlock. Presumably, I am being examined by Kulaap’s security.
The mahogany door opens and a smiling black man who is forty centimeters taller than I and who has muscles that ripple like snakes, smiles and motions me inside. He guides me through Kulaap’s sanctuary. She keeps the heat high, almost tropical, and fountains rush everywhere around. The flat is musical with water. I unbutton my collar in the humidity. I was expecting air-conditioning, and instead I am sweltering. It’s almost like home. And then she’s in front of me, and I can hardly speak. She is beautiful, and more. It is intimidating to stand before someone who exists in film and in music but has never existed before you in the flesh. She’s not as stunning as she is in the movies, but there’s more life, more presence; the movies lose that quality about her. I make a nop of greeting, pressing my hands together, touching my forehead.
She laughs at this, takes my hand, and shakes it American-style. “You’re lucky Marty likes you so much,” she says. “I don’t like interviews.”
I can barely find my voice. “Yes. I only have a few questions.”
“Oh no. Don’t be shy.” She laughs again, and doesn’t release my hand, pulls me toward her living room. “Marty told me about you. You need help with your ratings. He helped me once, too.”
She’s frightening. She is of my people, but she has adapted better to this place than I have. She seems comfortable here. She walks differently, smiles differently; she is an American, with perhaps some flavor of our country, but nothing of our roots. It’s obvious. And strangely disappointing. In her movies, she holds herself so well, and now she sits down on her couch and sprawls with her feet kicked out in front of her. Not caring at all. I’m embarrassed for her, and I’m glad I don’t have my camera set up yet. She kicks her feet up on the couch. I can’t help but be shocked. She catches my expression and smiles.
“You’re worse than my parents. Fresh off the boat.”
“I am sorry.”
She shrugs. “Don’t worry about it. I spent half my life here, growing up; different country, different rules.”
I’m embarrassed. I try not to laugh with the tension I feel. “I just have some interview questions,” I say.
“Go ahead.” She sits up and arranges herself for the video stand that I set up.
I begin. “When the March Purge happened, you were in Singapore.”
She nods. “That’s right. We were finishing The Tiger and the Ghost.”
“What was your first thought when it happened? Did you want to go back? Were you surprised?”
She frowns. “Turn off the camera.”
When it’s off she looks at me with pity. “This isn’t the way to get clicks. No one cares about an old revolution. Not even my fans.” She stands abruptly and calls through the green jungle of her flat. “Terrell?”
The big black man appears. Smiling and lethal. Looming over me. He is very frightening. The movies I grew up with had falang like him. Terrifying large black men whom our heroes had to overcome. Later, when I arrived in America, it was different, and I found out that the falang and the black people don’t like the way we show them in our movies. Much like when I watch their Vietnam movies, and see the ugly way the Lao freedom fighters behave. Not real at all, portrayed like animals. But still, I cannot help but cringe when Terrell looks at me.
Kulaap says, “We’re going out, Terrell. Make sure you tip off some of the papcams. We’re going to give them a show.”
“I don’t understand,” I say.
“You want clicks, don’t you?”
She smiles. “You don’t need an interview. You need an event.” She looks me over. “And better clothes.” She nods to her security man. “Terrell, dress him up.”
A flashbulb frenzy greets us as we come out of the tower. Papcams everywhere. Chase cycles revving, and Terrell and three others of his people guiding us through the press to the limousine, shoving cameras aside with a violence and power that are utterly unlike the careful pity he showed when he selected a Gucci suit for me to wear.
Kulaap looks properly surprised at the crowd and the shouting reporters, but not nearly as surprised as I am, and then we’re in the limo, speeding out of the tower’s roundabout as papcams follow us.
Kulaap crouches before the car’s onboard tablet, keying in pass codes. She is very pretty, wearing a black dress that brushes her thighs and thin straps that caress her smooth bare shoulders. I feel as if I am in a movie. She taps more keys. A screen glows, showing the taillights of our car: the view from pursuing papcams.
“You know I haven’t dated anyone in three years?” she asks.
“Yes. I know from your Web site biography.”
She grins. “And now it looks like I’ve found one of my countrymen.”
“But we’re not on a date,” I protest.
“Of course we are.” She smiles again. “I’m going out on a supposedly secret date with a cute and mysterious Lao boy. And look at all those papcams chasing after us, wondering where we’re going and what we’re going to do.” She keys in another code, and now we can see live footage of the paparazzi, as viewed from the tail of her limo. She grins. “My fans like to see what life is like for me.”
I can almost imagine what the maelstrom looks like right now: there will still be Marty’s story, but now a dozen other sites will be lighting up, and in the center of that, Kulaap’s own view of the excitement, pulling in her fans, who will want to know, direct from her, what’s going on. She holds up a mirror, checks herself, and then she smiles into her smartphone’s camera.
“Hi everyone. It looks like my cover’s blown. Just thought I should let you know that I’m on a lovely date with a lovely man. I’ll let you all know how it goes. Promise.” She points the camera at me. I stare at it stupidly. She laughs. “Say hi and good-bye, Ong.”
“Hi and good-bye.”
She laughs again, waves into the camera. “Love you all. Hope you have as good a night as I’m going to have.” And then she cuts the clip and punches a code to launch the video to her Web site.
It is a bit of nothing. Not a news story, not a scoop even, and yet, when she opens another window on her tablet, showing her own miniversion of the maelstrom, I can see her site lighting up with traffic. Her version of the maelstrom isn’t as powerful as what we have at Milestone, but still, it is an impressive window into the data that is relevant to Kulaap’s tags.
“What’s your feed’s byline?” she asks. “Let’s see if we can get your traffic bumped up.”
“Are you serious?”
“Marty Mackley did more than this for me. I told him I’d help.” She laughs. “Besides, we wouldn’t want you to get sent back to the black hole, would we?”
“You know about the black hole?” I can’t help doing a double-take.
Her smile is almost sad. “You think just because I put my feet up on the furniture that I don’t care about my aunts and uncles back home? That I don’t worry about what’s happening?”
She shakes her head. “You’re so fresh off the boat.”
“Do you use the Jumbo Café—” I break off. It seems too unlikely.
She leans close. “My handle is Laofriend. What’s yours?”
“Littlexang. I thought Laofriend was a boy—”
She just laughs.
I lean forward. “Is it true that the family made it out?”
She nods. “For certain. A general in the Thai army is a fan. He tells me everything. They have a listening post. And sometimes they send scouts across.”
It’s almost as if I am home.
We go to a tiny Laotian restaurant where everyone recognizes her and falls over her and the owners simply lock out the paparazzi when they become too intrusive. We spend the evening unearthing memories of Vientiane. We discover that we both favored the same rice noodle cart on Kaem Khong. That she used to sit on the banks of the Mekong and wish that she were a fisherman. That we went to the same waterfalls outside the city on the weekends. That it is impossible to find good dum mak hoong anywhere outside of the country. She is a good companion, very alive. Strange in her American ways, but still, with a good heart. Periodically, we click photos of one another and post them to her site, feeding the voyeurs. And then we are in the limo again and the paparazzi are all around us. I have the strange feeling of fame. Flashbulbs everywhere. Shouted questions. I feel proud to be beside this beautiful intelligent woman who knows so much more than any of us about the situation inside our homeland.
Back in the car, she has me open a bottle of champagne and pour two glasses while she opens the maelstrom and studies the results of our date. She has reprogrammed it to watch my byline feed ranking as well.
“You’ve got twenty thousand more readers than you did yesterday,” she says.
I beam. She keeps reading the results. “Someone already did a scan on your face.” She toasts me with her glass. “You’re famous.”
We clink glasses. I am flushed with wine and happiness. I will have Janice’s average clicks. It’s as though a bodhisattva has come down from heaven to save my job. In my mind, I offer thanks to Marty for arranging this, for his generous nature. Kulaap leans close to her screen, watching the flaring content. She opens another window, starts to read. She frowns.
“What the fuck do you write about?”
I draw back, surprised. “Government stories, mostly.” I shrug. “Sometimes environment stories.”
“I am working on a story right now about global warming and Henry David Thoreau.”
“Aren’t we done with that?”
I’m confused. “Done with what?”
The limo jostles us as it makes a turn, moves down Hollywood Boulevard, letting the cycles rev around us like schools offish. They’re snapping pictures at the side of the limo, snapping at us. Through the tinting, they’re like fireflies, smaller flares than even my stories in the maelstrom.
“I mean, isn’t that an old story?” She sips her champagne. “Even America is reducing emissions now. Everyone knows it’s a problem.” She taps her couch’s armrest. “The carbon tax on my limo has tripled, even with the hybrid engine. Everyone agrees it’s a problem. We’re going to fix it. What’s there to write about?”
She is an American. Everything that is good about them: their optimism, their willingness to charge ahead, to make their own future. And everything that is bad about them: their strange ignorance, their unwillingness to believe that they must behave as other than children.
“No. It’s not done,” I say. “It is worse. Worse every day. And the changes we make seem to have little effect. Maybe too little, or maybe too late. It is getting worse.”
She shrugs. “That’s not what I read.”
I try not to show my exasperation. “Of course it’s not what you read.” I wave at the screen. “Look at the clicks on my feed. People want happy stories. Want fun stories. Not stories like I write. So instead, we all write what you will read, which is nothing.”
“No.” I make a chopping motion with my hand. “We newspeople are very smart monkeys. If you will give us your so lovely eyeballs and your click-throughs we will do whatever you like. We will write good news, and news you can use, news you can shop to, news with the ‘Three Ss.’ We will tell you how to have better sex or eat better or look more beautiful or feel happier or how to meditate — yes, so enlightened.” I make a face. “If you want a walking meditation and Double DP, we will give it to you.”
She starts to laugh.
“Why are you laughing at me?” I snap. “I am not joking!”
She waves a hand. “I know, I know, but what you just said ‘double’—” She shakes her head, still laughing. “Never mind.”
I lapse into silence. I want to go on, to tell her of my frustrations. But now I am embarrassed at my loss of composure. I have no face. I didn’t used to be like this. I used to control my emotions, but now I am an American, as childish and unruly as Janice. And Kulaap laughs at me.
I control my anger. “I think I want to go home,” I say. “I don’t wish to be on a date anymore.”
She smiles and reaches over to touch my shoulder. “Don’t be that way.”
A part of me is telling me that I am a fool. That I am reckless and foolish for walking away from this opportunity. But there is something else, something about this frenzied hunt for page views and click-throughs and ad revenue that suddenly feels unclean. As if my father is with us in the car, disapproving. Asking if he posted his complaints about his missing friends for the sake of clicks.
“I want to get out,” I hear myself say. “I do not wish to have your clicks.”
I look up at her. “I want to get out. Now.”
“Here?” She makes a face of exasperation, then shrugs. “It’s your choice.”
“Yes. Thank you.”
She tells her driver to pull over. We sit in stiff silence.
“I will send your suit back to you,” I say.
She gives me a sad smile. “It’s all right. It’s a gift.”
This makes me feel worse, even more humiliated for refusing her generosity, but still, I get out of the limo. Cameras are clicking at me from all around. This is my fifteen minutes of fame, this moment when all of Kulaap’s fans focus on me for a few seconds, their flashbulbs popping.
I begin to walk home as paparazzi shout questions.
Fifteen minutes later I am indeed alone. I consider calling a cab, but then decide I prefer the night. Prefer to walk by myself through this city that never walks anywhere. On a street corner, I buy a pupusa and gamble on the Mexican Lottery because I like the tickets’ laser images of their Day of the Dead. It seems an echo of the Buddha’s urging to remember that we all become corpses.
I buy three tickets, and one of them is a winner: one hundred dollars that I can redeem at any TelMex kiosk. I take this as a good sign. Even if my luck is obviously gone with my work, and even if the girl Kulaap was not the bodhisattva that I thought, still, I feel lucky. As though my father is walking with me down this cool Los Angeles street in the middle of the night, the two of us together again, me with a pupusa and a winning lottery ticket, him with an Ah Daeng cigarette and his quiet gambler’s smile. In a strange way, I feel that he is blessing me.
And so instead of going home, I go back to the newsroom.
My hits are up when I arrive. Even now, in the middle of the night, a tiny slice of Kulaap’s fan base is reading about checkerspot butterflies and American government incompetence. In my country, this story would not exist. A censor would kill it instantly. Here, it glows green; increasing and decreasing in size as people click. A lonely thing, flickering amongst the much larger content flares of Intel processor releases, guides to lowfat recipes, photos of lol-cats, and episodes of Survivor! Antarctica. The wash of light and color is very beautiful.
In the center of the maelstrom, the green sun of the Double DP story glows — surges larger. DP is doing something. Maybe he’s surrendering, maybe he’s murdering his hostages, maybe his fans have thrown up a human wall to protect him. My story snuffs out as reader attention shifts.
I watch the maelstrom a little longer, then go to my desk and make a phone call. A rumpled hairy man answers, rubbing at a sleep-puffy face. I apologize for the late hour, and then pepper him with questions while I record the interview.
He is silly looking and wild-eyed. He has spent his life living as if he were Thoreau, thinking deeply on the forest monk and following the man’s careful paths through what woods remain, walking amongst birch and maple and bluets. He is a fool, but an earnest one.
“I can’t find a single one,” he tells me. “Thoreau could find thousands at this time of year; there were so many he didn’t even have to look for them.”
He says, “I’m so glad you called. I tried sending out press releases, but…” He shrugs. “I’m glad you’ll cover it. Otherwise, it’s just us hobbyists talking to each other.”
I smile and nod and take notes of his sincerity, this strange wild creature, the sort that everyone will dismiss. His image is bad for video; his words are not good for text. He has no quotes that encapsulate what he sees. It is all couched in the jargon of naturalists and biology. With time, I could find another, someone who looks attractive or who can speak well, but all I have is this one hairy man, disheveled and foolish, senile with passion over a flower that no longer exists.
I work through the night, polishing the story. When my colleagues pour through the door at 8 A.M. it is almost done. Before I can even tell Janice about it, she comes to me. She fingers my clothing and grins. “Nice suit.” She pulls up a chair and sits beside me. “We all saw you with Kulaap. Your hits went way up.” She nods at my screen. “Writing up what happened?”
“No. It was a private conversation.”
“But everyone wants to know why you got out of the car. I had someone from the Financial Times call me about splitting the hits for a tell-all, if you’ll be interviewed. You wouldn’t even need to write up the piece.”
It’s a tempting thought. Easy hits. Many click-throughs. Ad-revenue bonuses. Still, I shake my head. “We did not talk about things that are important for others to hear.”
Janice stares at me as if I am crazy. “You’re not in the position to bargain, Ong. Something happened between the two of you. Something people want to know about. And you need the clicks. Just tell us what happened on your date.”
“I was not on a date. It was an interview.”
“Well then publish the fucking interview and get your average up!”
“No. That is for Kulaap to post, if she wishes. I have something else.”
I show Janice my screen. She leans forward. Her mouth tightens as she reads. For once, her anger is cold. Not the explosion of noise and rage that I expect. “Bluets.” She looks at me. “You need hits and you give them flowers and Walden Pond.”
“I would like to publish this story.”
“No! Hell, no! This is just another story like your butterfly story, and your road contracts story, and your congressional bud get story. You won’t get a damn click. It’s pointless. No one will even read it.”
“This is news.”
“Marty went out on a limb for you—” She presses her lips together, reining in her anger. “Fine. It’s up to you, Ong. If you want to destroy your life over Thoreau and flowers, it’s your funeral. We can’t help you if you won’t help yourself. Bottom line, you need fifty thousand readers or I’m sending you back to the Third World.”
We look at each other. Two gamblers evaluating one another. Deciding who is betting, and who is bluffing.
I click the “publish” button.
The story launches itself onto the net, announcing itself to the feeds. A minute later a tiny new sun glows in the maelstrom.
Together, Janice and I watch the green spark as it flickers on the screen. Readers turn to the story. Start to ping it and share it amongst themselves, start to register hits on the page. The post grows slightly.
My father gambled on Thoreau. I am my father’s son.
Paolo Bacigalupi’s writing has appeared in the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine, High Country News, and Salon.com. It has been anthologized in various Year’s Best collections, nominated for three Nebula and four Hugo Awards, and won the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award for best SF short story of the year. His short story collection, Pump Six and Other Stories, was a 2008 Locus Award winner for Best Collection, and his debut novel, The Windup Girl, was named by Time magazine as one of the ten best novels of 2009. Ship Breaker, his first young adult novel, was released in May 2010 from Little, Brown.
(or, The Wrong-Way, Used-Adult Orphanage)
FROM THE AUTHOR: I wrote “Vinegar Peace” — in August of 2007 — because I had to. Our thirty-five-year-old son, Jamie, died on the morning of April 16, 2007, as one of thirty-two victims of a disturbed shooter on the campus of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia. Jamie, an accomplished digital artist who did lovely covers for four or five of my books, was holding forth in Room 2007 of Norris Hall in his German class more than two hours after his eventual murderer had slain two students in a dormitory on another part of campus. The administration failed to issue a warning — a warning that might well have saved many lives — in a timely fashion. However, some of its members secured their own offices and notified family members of this initial event; and so the worst school shooting in the history of the United States claimed our son, four other faculty members (including a man, Dr. Librescu, who had survived the Holocaust and who held a table against his classroom door until all his own students could escape), four of Jamie’s students, and twenty-one other young people in Norris Hall, not to mention the first two victims in West Ambler-Johnston dorm. Another twenty-eight students were wounded by bullets or injured leaping from upper-story windows. Some of them will live with their injuries the rest of their lives.
“Vinegar Peace” grew from this disaster and from a grief that I cannot imagine ever laying totally aside. Jeri and I mourn Jamie’s loss every day in some private way, and we think continually of all the other parents and loved ones of the slain and injured who will carry a similar burden with them until they die. We think, too, of the parents and loved ones of the dead and wounded from the United States’ optional war in Iraq, who long for their dead and who pray for their injured with an intensity not a whit different from our own. How ironic that our son died on American soil. How sad the wasted potential and the disfigured lives resulting from violence everywhere. And forgive me the inadequacy of these remarks. Clearly, I wrote this story because I could not address either my outrage or my grief in any other way. Finally, allow me to thank Sheila Williams for accepting the story for Asimov’s, Tony Smith for featuring it both on a podcast on StarShipSofa and in an anthology of StarShipSofa stories, and Diane Severson for a moving, heartfelt reading of the piece.
ON THURSDAY EVENING, your doorbell rings. Two small men in off-white shirts and black trousers, like missionaries of a dubious religious sect, stand outside your threshold giving you scary pitying looks.
Are you Ms. K—? they ask.
When you assent, they say they’ve come to transport you to the Vinegar Peace Wrong-Way, Used-Adult Orphanage thirty minutes north of your current residence in a life-help cottage of the Sour Thicket Sanatorium, where your father died seven years ago. But you don’t wish to be transported anywhere.
The smaller of the two small men, seizing your arm above the elbow, says that an order has come down and that they must establish you, before 8:30 P.M., in a used-adult orphanage — upon penalty of demotion for them and unappealable eviction for you. If you don’t cooperate, they will ransack your cottage and throw you out on the street with your musty belongings.
Why now? you ask. Neither stooge manifests a glimmer of humanity. After all, you’ve been an orphan — as they insist on terming your condition — since you were a vigorous fifty-nine. They should show some respect.
The man holding your bicep smirks. That’s why they call it a Wrong-Way, Used-Adult Orphanage, he says. You get into one not because you’ve lost a parent. Your last living child has to die.
Jesus! blurts the other man. That goes against all our training.
You say nothing. You feel as if someone has opened a trap in your stomach and shoved in a package of wet cement. You sink to your knees, but not all the way because the smaller small man refuses to release your arm.
You feel you’ve just climbed twelve sets of stairs. Someone has injected stale helium into your head, inflating it to beach-ball size.
O God, you cry. O God, O God.
Even to yourself you sound like a scared puppy, not a woman. Your only living offspring, one of only two who bore your genes, has just died in the interminable War on Worldwide Wickedness, probably in a snowy province of R—.
Because Elise and her earlier-lost brother died childless years after Mick, your husband, passed away, you have passed from a state of natural, late-life orphanhood to the sad, wrong-way orphancy of the issue-shorn. Only someone similarly bereft can know your devastation.
Put your stuff in two plastic duffels, the cruel stooge says: Only two.
Please don’t make me leave my home, you beg of him. Just give me a knock-me-out so I can die.
Your lightheadedness persists: your dead daughter swims before your eyes like a lovely human swan, but the rock in your stomach keeps you from taking pleasure in her shock-generated image.
Against your will, you must say goodbye to Elise forever, as you once did to Mick and later to your darling son Brice.
Eventually, despite your protests, you cram clothing and toiletries into a duffel bag, and some file discs and image cubes into another. Then the cruel stooge and his only slightly kinder partner escort you out to the van for transport to Vinegar Peace.
Mr. Weevil, director of this Wrong-Way, Used-Adult Orphanage, looks maybe twenty-six, with slicked-back hair you’ve seen before on leading men in old motion pictures, but he greets you personally in the rotunda-like foyer, points you to a chair, and triggers a video introduction to the place. His head, projected on a colossal screen at gallery level, spiels in a monotone:
The death of your last surviving child (good riddance) in the War on Worldwide Wickedness makes you too valuable (unfit) to continue residing among the elder denizens (constipated old fools) of your life-help cottage (costly codger dump). So we’ve brought you here to shelter (ware house) you until our Creator calls you to an even more glorious transcendent residency above (blah-blah, blah-blah).
The talking head of Mr. Weevil — whose living self watches with you, his hands clasped above his coccyx — remarks that you can stroll inside the orphanage anywhere, but that you can never leave — on pain of solo confinement (for a first violation) or instant annihilation (for any later misstep).
The building has many mansions (rooms), viz., 1) Cold Room, 2) Arboretum, 3) Mail Room, 4) Guest Suite, 5) Chantry, 6) Sleep Bay, 7) Refectory, 8) Furnace Room, and 9) Melancholarium. Orphans will, and should, visit all nine rooms at some point, for every room will disclose its significance to its visitors, and these elucidations will charge any resident’s stay with meaning.
Don’t be alarmed, the director’s talking head concludes, if I haven’t mentioned a room you view as necessary. The existence of restrooms, closets, offices, kitchens, servant quarters, attics, basements, secret nooks, and so forth, goes without saying.
A young woman dressed like the men who snatched you from your lodgings takes your elbow — gently — and escorts you from the rotunda. And as Mr. Weevil’s body glides smoothly away, his face fades from the gallery-level screen.
Where are we going? you ask the woman.
She smiles as she might at an infant mouthing a milk bubble.
Where are the other residents? Will I have my own room?
That the director included a dormitory in his list of mansions suggests otherwise, but you have to ask. Still, you have begun to think you’re in a reeducation camp of some sort. Your stomach tightens even as you tighten your hold on the duffels, which now feel as heavy as old lead sash weights.
Miss, you plead. Why am I here? Where are we going?
She stops, stares you in the eye, and says, Oldsters who’ve lost children in the war often make trouble. Hush. It isn’t personal. We’re sheltering all orphaned adults in places like this, for everybody’s benefit. You’ll meet other orphans soon, but now Mr. Weevil’d like you to visit the refrigitorium.
The Cold Room. Relax, Ms. K—. It’s nice. It’s a surprise, sort of.
It’s a surprise, all right, and no sort of about it. Your escort has abandoned you inside the Cold Room, which drones like a refrigerator but sparkles all about you as if you were its moving hub. Ice coats the walls in ripples and scales, each its own faintly glowing color.
Effigies of frozen liquid occupy shallow niches about the walls, and you soon find that three of these, interleaved with simulacra of unfamiliar persons, commemorate your dead: Mick, Brice, and Elise.
As if over a skin of crushed ping-pong balls, you totter gingerly to each beloved ice figure in turn.
Tears spontaneously flow, only to harden on the planes of your face. You clutch your gut and bend in agony before each image of loss. You sob into the chamber’s dull hum, stupidly hopeful that no one’s wired it for video or sound, and that your pain has no commiserating spies.
You’ve done this before. Must you indulge again? Have you no shame?
Over time your tears reliquefy, and the ice effigies glisten more wetly. The Cold Room has grown imperceptibly warmer. The ice on its walls stays solid, but the statues — by design or accident, but more likely the former — begin to shimmer and melt. Do they stand on hotplates or coil about intricate helices of invisible heating wires? Whatever the case, they dissolve. They go. And there’s no reversing the process.
So much water collects — from your tear ducts and the desolidifying statues — that puddles gather in the floor. Even the ceiling drips.
If you stay here out of a misbegotten desire to honor your treasured dead, you’ll wind up drenched, ill, and soul-sick.
Freezing, sweating, weeping, you back away. You must.
You have a slick card in hand: a floor diagram of the Vinegar Peace Wrong-Way, Used-Adult Orphanage. YOU ARE HERE, it asserts in a box next to the blueprint image of the Cold Room, BUT YOU COULD BE HERE.
An arrow points to Room 2, the Arboretum. Well, you could use a sylvan glade about now — an orchard or a grove — and because you walk purposefully, the room pops up just where the arrow indicates.
Like the Cold Room, the Arboretum is unlocked. Unlike the Cold Room, it soars skyward four or more floors, although its dome has an ebony opaqueness that hides the stars. You gape. Willows stretch up next to sycamores, oaks shelter infant firs and pines, disease-free elms wave in the interior breeze like sea anemones in a gnarl of current, and maples drop whirling seeds, in windfalls lit like coins by the high fluorescents.
Twilight grips the Arboretum.
Out of this twilight, from among the pillars of the trees, figures in cloaks of pale lemon, lime, lavender, ivory, blue, pink, orange, and other soft hues emerge at intervals. They amble forward only a little way, find a not-too-nearby tree, and halt: they decline to impose themselves.
None of these persons qualifies as a wrong-way orphan because all are too young: between thirty and forty. All stand on the neat margins of this wood like passengers with tickets to bleak destinations. Although none seems fierce or hostile — just the opposite, in fact — you prepare yourself to flee, if your nerve fails you. Your heart bangs like an old jalopy engine.
Pick one of us, a woman in a lavender cape tells you. She speaks conversationally from under a willow in the middle distance, but you hear her just fine. The acoustics here are excellent: maybe she’s been miked.
Pick one of you for what?
Condolence and consolation: as a sounding board for whatever feeds your angst. The woman advances one tree nearer.
You snort. You’ve had more sounding boards than a cork-lined recording room. Why take on another?
The people in coats and capes approach in increments, picking new trees much nearer you. They appear devoid of menace, but you think again about fleeing. Even in this twilight, their pastel garments are tinged by the shade thrown by overarching foliage: a disquieting phenomenon.
Pastel shades, you think. These people are pastel shades.
Soon your gaze picks up a man approaching steadily through a sycamore copse, a figure in gray twill pants and a jacket the pale ash of pipe dottle. He has boyish features, but crow’s feet at his eyes and a salt-and-pepper beard lift him out of the crib of callow naïfs. He wears a mild don’t-patronize-me smile and doesn’t stop coming until he stands less than an arm’s length away.
Ah, Ms. K—, I’m delighted to see you, despite the inauspicious circumstances that bring you here. His elevated vocabulary satirizes itself, deliberately. Call me Father H—. He gives his hand, which you clasp, aware now the pastel holograms beneath the trees have retreated. Their withdrawal has proceeded without your either ignoring or fully remarking it.
You’re not wearing colors, you tell Father H—.
Tilting his head, he says, Colors?
A host of pastel shades besieged me just now, but you, well, you wear heartsick gray. To illustrate, you pinch his sleeve.
Father H— laughs. Gray’s the pastel of black, and I’m a child of the cloth who always wears this declension.
If you say so, you reply skeptically.
He chuckles and draws you — by his steps rather than his hand — into the nearest glimmering copse. Tell me about Elise, he says. Tell me all about Elise.
Later, drained again, you return to the entry clearing still in the father’s company, unsure of the amount of time that has passed but grateful for the alacrity with which it has sped. Twilight still reigns in the Arboretum, but the clock-ticks in your heart hint that you have talked with Father H— forever. You touch his shoulders and yank him to you in an irrepressible hug.
Thank you, you tell him. Thank you. I may be able to sleep now.
The gray-clad pastor separates from you and smiles through his beard. I’ve done nothing, Ms. K—.
You’ve done everything.
His smile turns inward, but you feel like a little boy who makes mud pies and carries them to the hungry.
Padre H— takes your plastic card, which he calls a crib sheet, and accompanies you to the mailroom.
If you use this thing — he fans himself with the card, like some dowager aunt in an airless August sanctuary — you’ll look like a clueless newbie. He chuckles and shakes his head.
Am I the only one?
Hardly. Soldiers die every hour. But try to look self-assured — as if you belong.
The corridor now contains a few used-adult orphans, some walking in wind suits, some pushing mobile IVs, some hobbling on canes or breathing through plastic masks as they enter lifts or try the stairs. None looks self-assured, but all appear to know their way about. None wears an institutional gown, but beiges, browns, and sandy hues characterize the garments they do wear.
Raw depression returns to knot your stomach and redden your eyes. One or two residents glance toward you, but no one speaks.
Friendly bunch, you mumble.
They just don’t trust anyone they haven’t met, says Father H—. And who can blame them? You could be a security creep or an insurance snoop.
Carrying these bags?
What better way to insinuate yourself among them?
You enter the Mail Room by a door near the screen on the second gallery. This shadowy chamber teems with ranks of rainbow-colored monitors, not with persons, and Father H— bids you goodbye. (Where is he going? Maybe to hear the confession of a sinful yew?)
A young person in a milky-orange vest approaches. You can’t really tell if she’s male or female, but you decide to think of her as a woman.
May I help you?
I don’t know. I’ve just come. You hoist your duffels, aware now that they prove absolutely nothing.
Tell me your name, ma’am.
You do, and she takes you to a monitor, keyboards briefly, and summons a face-on portrait of Elise in her battle regalia. Several other people sit in this room (you realize now) before pixel images of their dead, trying to talk with them, or their spirits, through arthritic fingertips. You touch the liquid shimmer of the screen with an index finger, and Elise’s skin blurs and reshapes after each gentle prod. Your guide asks if you would like to access any family messages in her unit file, for often soldiers leave private farewells in their unclassified e-folders.
You murmur a supplicating Please.
A message glows on the monitor: either Elise’s last message or the message that she arranged to appear last.
Do you remember when Brice died? (Well, of course you do.) I recall you telling somebody after they’d shipped Brice’s body home, Elise was Mick’s and Brice was mine; now I’m forever bereft. You didn’t see me in the corner, you had no idea I’d heard.
From that day on, Mama, I began thinking, What can I do to become yours, if I’m not yours now?
Then it hit me: I had to change myself into the one you claimed — without betraying Dad or Brice or my own scared soul. So I tried to become Brice without pushing away Dad or undoing myself.
As soon as I could, I enlisted. I trained. I went where they sent me. I did everything you and they said, just like Brice, and you sent me messages about how proud you were — but also how scared.
If you’re reading this, your fears have come true, and so has my wish to do everything just like Brice, even if someone else had to undo me for me to become just what you loved. With all my heart, I wish you pleasant mourning, Mama, and a long bright day.
You read this message repeatedly. You must wipe your eyes to do so, also using the linen tail of your blouse to towel the keyboard and your hands.
Upsettingly, you have something else to tell Father H— about Elise, and indeed about yourself.
The young woman, or young man, from the Mail Room gives you directions to your next stop. You ride a slow glass-faced elevator up two gallery levels to the Guest Suite, which has this legend in tight gold script across its smoky door:
Grief is a species of prestige. — Wm. Matthews
A bellhop — or an abrupt young man in the getup of a bellhop — takes your duffels. I’ll carry these to the Sleep Bay, ma’am, he says. Stow them there later, under your cot or whatever. And he swings away.
Old people in brown evening clothes stand at the bar sipping whiskey or imported dusky beer. A gaunt pretty woman detaches herself from the bar and moves insouciantly into your space. Her nose tip halts only inches from your own.
It’s terrible when a child dies, she declares, but people treat you so well, at least for a while.
You take a step back. Is that right?
Didn’t you find that to be true after your son was killed?
I suppose. I didn’t know much of anything then. I just sort of— You stop, stymied by the task of saying exactly what you found to be true.
An IED transformed our son into rain. It fell red, you understand, but he scarcely suffered. And afterward — afterward, everyone was very sweet. For as long as they could stand to be, of course.
You gape at the woman.
To save him from an IED, I could have used an IUD — but that occasion was so long ago I never imagined a child of mine facing such danger. You just don’t think.
That’s true, you reply, because You just don’t think rings with more truth than any other utterance out of her mouth.
(And, by the way, has she just equated an Improvised Explosive Device with an intrauterine contraceptive?)
And, she continues, people’s kindness toward the bereaved merits our notice and gratitude. She waves at the bar — at the banks of flowers, an alcove of evening clothes, the teeming buffet, a table of architecturally elaborate desserts.
You say: I’d prefer people rude and my children still alive.
Come now, the woman counters. Bereavement bestows glamour. Pick out a gown, have a dry martini.
No, you say. You plant a dismissive kiss on the woman’s papery brow and weave your way back to the door.
The nearby glass-faced elevator drops you into the mazelike basement of the Wrong-Way, Used-Adult Orphanage, where you sashay, as if by instinct, to the Chantry. The Chantry now accommodates Father Hand several old-looking women, virtual babushkas, so unlike the denizens of the Guest Suite that they appear to belong to a different species.
These women groan on kneelers before the altar at which Father H— stands, his arms spread like those of the military effigy impaled on an olivewood cross hanging overhead. They wear widows’ weeds, which strain at the seams about their arms, waists, and hips. Maybe the father has shrived them. Now, though, he blesses a monstrance of tiny spoiled rice cakes and a syringe of red-wine vinegar, and moves along the altar rail to dispense these elements.
Ms. K—, he says upon noticing you. ’S great to see you again.
You stand inside the door, appalled and humbled by the warrior Christ floating in shadow above the altar. It wears Brice’s face, but also Elise’s, and surely the faces of all the babushkas’ lost children. You see that two or three of these wrong-way orphans have stuffed their smocks with tissues or rags, and that a few, whatever their burdens of flesh, look barely old enough to have babies, although they wouldn’t be kneeling here — would they? — if that were true. They gaze up raptly, not at the padre but at the suspended effigy: Sacrificer and Sacrificed.
The father nods a welcome. Care to join these communicants?
I’m not of your creedal persuasion, Father.
Oh, but you are, Ms K—. He gestures welcomingly again. The Church of the Forever Bereft. Come. I’ve got something better than mud pies. He lifts the chalice and nods at the monstrance: A little better, anyway.
You walk to the front and kneel beside a woman with a heart-shaped face and the eyes of a pregnant doe. She lays her hand on your wrist.
Our kids didn’t deserve to die, she says. Them dying before us turns everything upside-down. And when our high and mighty mucky-mucks aren’t having whole towns blown up, they spew bunkum to keep us quiet.
Bunk cum? you ask yourself, too confused to take offense. But maybe you should tell the father how you slew Elise.
Says Father H—: The more the words the less they mean.
—Yeah, say several women. —We know that’s scriptural. —You said a throat’s worth. —Selah to that, Padre. And so on.
Let me give you vinegar peace, he interrupts their outburst. Take, eat; take, drink: the flesh and blood of your offspring in remembrance of a joy you no longer possess; in honor of a sacrifice too terrible to share.
He lays a rice cake on each tongue and follows it with a ruby squirt of vinegar.
You can hardly keep your head or your eyelids up. The evening — the devastating news — your exile from your life-help cottage — have exhausted you beyond mere fatigue, and you collapse over the altar rail. Father H— lifts your chin and pulls your lip to give you the elements.
The babushka with the heart-shaped face braces you to prevent your rolling to the floor. You behold her from one bloodshot eye, knowing you must seem to her a decrepit old soul: a fish with fading scales and a faint unpleasant smell.
The Eucharist clicks in: You see Brice and Elise as preschool children. In stained shorts and jerseys, they dangle a plump Siamese kitten between them and grin like happy little jack-o-lanterns. Click. In some adolescent year they are videotaping each other with recorders long since obsolete. Then — click — you’re gaping at a ticket stub, drawn months later from a jacket pocket, from a ballgame you attended the day before you got word of Brice’s death. Click. Elise poses saucily in an icegreen gown with a long-stemmed rose between her teeth. Click. Much too soon: Elise in khaki.
O God, you say under the floating soldier Christ. Forgive, my children, my failure to march ahead of you….
Who helps you to the Sleep Bay on an upper gallery you cannot, in your febrile state, tell. But when you arrive, you find this space larger than the fenced-in confines of a refugee camp, with so many used adults milling about that it seems, also, a vast carnival lot. TVs on poles rest at intersections amidst the ranks and files of cots and pallets, most of these showing black-and-white military sitcoms from your girlhood, with a smattering in color from more recent years:
There’s Rin Tin Tin. There’s F Troop. There’s Hogan’s Heroes. There’s Sergeant Bilko. There’s McHale’s Navy. There’s Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. There’s M*A*S*H. There’s China Beach Follies. There’s My Mama, the Tank. There’s I Got Mine at Gitmo. There’s Top Gun, 2022. There’s… but they just go on and on, the noise of gunshots, choppers thwup-thwuping, IEDs exploding, and combatants crying out in frustration, anger, or pain punctuating almost every soundtrack.
The young woman — anyway, the young person — from the Mail Room waves at you across an archipelago of pallets.
Ms. K—! she shouts. Over here, over here!
And you stagger toward her through the crowds, past heaped and denuded cots, past old folks and younger folks: some blessedly zonked, some playing card games like Uno, Old Maid, pinochle, or CutThroat, and some gazing ceiling-ward as if awaiting the Voice of God the Freshly Merciful. One bearded old guy chunks invisible missiles at the actors in I Got Mine at Gitmo.
Barely upright, you make it to the person who called to you.
These are your duffels, she says. This is your pallet — unless you’d like to look for something nearer a wall.
Where are the restrooms?
She points. Through there, Ms. K—. You peer down a crooked aisle of bedding at a wall of wrong-way, used-adult orphans obstructing any view of the lavatories she has tried to point out. I know, I know: Just walk that way and ask again.
No, you say. No. You crawl onto the raised pallet — it’s resting on a pair of empty ammo crates — and curl up in a fetal hunch between your duffels. The woman, the person, touches your shoulder gently, and departs.
Before you can fall asleep, a line of people forms in the aisle. Your pallet rests at its head while its tail snakes back into the depths of the bay like a queue from Depression Era newsreels.
Everybody has photographs or image cubes of their slain warrior children, and as the line advances the people in it squat, kneel, or sit to show them to you, even though you see in each face either Brice’s or Elise’s, no matter how minimal the resemblance or how weary your vision.
—Very pretty. —Very handsome. — A smart-looking fella. —What a shame you’ve lost her. — How can he be gone? —Golly, what a smile!…
You compliment ten or twelve orphaned parents in this way until your tiredness and the faces of Brice and Elise, rising through the images of these other dead children, make it impossible to go on. Still horizontal, you press your palms to your eyes and shake like a storm-buffeted scarecrow.
Leave her alone, somebody says. For Pete’s sake, let the woman rest.
A hand shoves your head down into your rough olive-green blanket, but the voice that you attach to the hand’s body roars, Heal, O Lord, heal! Take her hurt away tonight, and torment her no more!
But you don’t want that. You don’t. All you want is sleep and the honest-to-God resurrection of three particular persons, but sleep is all you’re likely to get. Somebody big perches on the pallet edge and lullabies in a guttural whisper All the Pretty Little Horses; he kneads your spine with fingers that feel more like metal bolts than flesh and bone. And despite the Sleep Bay’s din and stench (and despite the hole in the middle of your chest), you drift down into a Lost Sea of Consciousness and let go of all pain but a last acrid fuse of heartbreak….
A twin rumble ghosts through the Sleep Bay, an outer one from the old orphans waking to face their pain afresh and an inner one from your complaining gut. You sit up and peer about at this new Reality.
The lavatories have to be packed — so, casting about for a solution, you find a wide-mouthed jar inside one of the crates supporting your pallet. After shaping a tent with your blanket, you relieve your bladder — no easy task — into the jar and stand there amidst the chaos wondering how to proceed.
Slops! Slops! cries an electronic voice, and a simulacrum of a person, smaller than the small cruel man who helped transport you from your life-help cottage, rolls through the crowd with a slotted tray hooked to its midsection.
It takes jars, bottles, beakers, and suchlike from other bleary residents and rattles them into the partitioned tray going before it like an antique cowcatcher. You hand over yours uncertainly.
The simulacrum — a dormitron or a refectorian, depending on its duty du jour — asks what you’d like for breakfast. You recoil at taking anything edible from this rolling slops collector, but say, Some toast, I guess, it really doesn’t matter, to keep from stalling it by saying nothing. It rolls on.
Another refectorian — for at mealtimes the Sleep Bay becomes the Refectory — cruises up behind a serving cart, the cart a part of its own fabricated anatomy, and lets you fumble at its topmost shelf for a cup of tea and a slice of toast and persimmon jam. Other such simulacra tend to others there in the bay, sometimes dropping plastic crockery or spilling sticky liquids. From a few pallets away, a woman as thin as a spaghetti strap sidles into your space.
What did your children like to eat? she asks.
Your dead kids — what’d they like to eat? You can get it here, whatever it was. I always do — what mine ate, I mean. I eat it for them and feel connected to them the rest of the hideous day.
Our son liked cold pizza; our daughter even colder fresh fruit.
Want me to get you tidbits of those things?
The strap-thin woman mumbles into a diamond of perforations on her inner wrist. They’re on their way, she tells you afterward.
And so you wind up with two slices of cold garbage-can pizza and a bowl of even colder cantaloupe, pineapple, muskmelon, and kiwi wedges, which you down between bites of pizza. Your benefactor watches in approval, then asks you to tell a breakfast story about Brice and Elise.
A breakfast story!
You think first of a morning on which teenager Brice sat slumped at the table, his eyes lazing in their sockets like gravid guinea pigs. Mick directed him to have some juice and cereal, to clean up afterward, and to take his sister to school, but Brice dawdled. Stop dicking around, Mick cried. Then, infuriated, he wrestled Brice from his chair, apparently to frog-march him to the cupboard, but Brice flopped deadweight to the floor; and though Mick twisted, prodded, and even tried to snatch him erect, neither his body nor his smirk budged, and he remarked, dryly, that Mick’s parenting skills had gone so far south that he’d just resorted to all-out child abuse. Stunned, Mick let Brice go and stormed outside. You and Elise exchanged stunned looks of your own.
Come on, the woman prompts again: Every mama has a breakfast story.
So you tell about the time when Brice and Elise, then nine and five, got up early one morning and made Mick and you breakfast in bed: mounds of toast, two eggs each, orange juice, and so on. But thinking it olive oil, they had scrambled the eggs in rancid tuna juice, and despite their hard work and the eggs’ lovely sunrise yellowness, you had to throw them out.
The eggs, you say, not the kids. Mick and I felt like total Eggs Benedict Arnolds. Just like I feel now.
The woman laughs and then purses her lips in sympathy. Good story, Ms. K—. Just remember: You’ll always feel like that. She grimaces grotesquely, as much for her sake as yours, and places a call via her wrist perforations to somebody in another part of the Refectory.
Meanwhile, the servitors roll on.
Feeling each of your years as a blood-borne needle of sleet, you ride a glass-faced lift to the Chantry level and follow the wives of two sick old men to the Furnace Room, which turns out to be an intensive care unit (ICU) for last-leggers and a crematorium for those who don’t make it. Indeed, when you arrive, an orderly slouches past pushing a sheeted figure on a gurney toward an oven down a claustrophobia-inducing tributary corridor. You think about following this gurney but instead continue to tag along behind the ICU widows and at length reach the care unit’s hub.
The arc of the hub’s perimeter is lined with windowed rooms in which you can see the orphans in extremis. They lie here in weirdly tilted beds, attended by dormitrons and tightlipped RNs. Tubes and electrodes sprout from their bodies like odd mechanical fungi. All of them seem to be equipped with oxygen masks, tracheotomies, or respirators. Even over the machines laboring to sustain them, you can hear them breathing from fifty or sixty feet away.
Father H—, a gray silhouette against a luminous white backdrop, stands at the bedside of one such person. His posture tells you he is listening to the patient’s whispers or measuring his or her laggard unassisted breaths. The TV set in this room, muted, runs through a succession of familiar images from the War on Worldwide Wickedness: statues toppling, buildings dropping in cascades of dust and smoke, warriors on patrol through rubble-strewn courtyards or past iced-over stone fountains.
The patient couldn’t care less. Neither could you, if this enterprise had not also devoured Brice and Elise, many thousands of their contemporaries, and so many civilian slammies — as the media now insists on calling civilian natives of foreign war zones — that not even the Pan Imperium can number them.
Mr. Weevil, the director, enters from an outer corridor with several cronies, five or six small men and women, wearing ivory smocks and sneakers. They float past you to a treatment unit. Mr. Weevil slides the glass door open and calls the doctor and his team to the portal to report on the patient’s condition.
Dr. S—, a cadaverous Dravidian with lemur eyes, flatly and loudly says that his patient is a near goner whose lungs need help, whose liver has badly deteriorated, whose kidneys have failed, and whose blood, despite a full course of antibiotics, still teems with pernicious microbes.
None of this person’s organs retains its original life-sustaining function, says Dr. S—, and he must soon die. I say must in the sense of an eminent inevitability, not as a Hippocratic recommendation.
The doctor might just as well have spoken over a PA system. His words echo through the hub like the pronouncement of a god.
Helplessly, you step forward. I’ll bet he can still hear, you say.
Everybody turns to look. You bear their gazes as the Incredible He-She at an old-time freak show would bear those of a paying crowd.
What? Mr. Weevil says. What did you say?
I said I’ll bet he can still hear. Hearing is the last of the senses to go, so even this patient may still be able to hear you.
Dr. S—’s mouth quirks sourly. And what good does that do him? None. No good at all.
The director and his cronies agree, as do the RNs and the promoted dormitrons at the doctor’s back. You dwindle before them like a melting ice statue in a time-lapse video. Amazingly, not one of these obtuse brains gets the poignant underlying import of your observation.
Mr. Weevil turns to address the doctor: Every life has huge merit, of course, but we really need that bed. Carry on! He and his smock-clad retinue exit the intensive care hub while Dr. S— and his team fall back into the treatment unit to await the convenient inevitable.
Appalled, you walk about the hub in rings of increasing size until Father H— comes out and hails you as he might a lost friend. Ah, Ms. K—, what a surprise and a treat to see you!
What day is it, Padre?
Friday — another good Friday — why do you ask?
You hear the stress on good, but not the Easter-designating capital G that would turn your fugue into an enacted allegory. You note that it’s been little more than twelve hours since two cruel stooges informed you of Elise’s death.
And a little over two years since you learned of Brice’s, he says gently.
You smile and ask after the women who journeyed to the Furnace Room to visit their spouses.
Their hearts will grow heavier soon, Father H— says. Given their ages, how could they not?
They’ll die without seeing the war’s end.
‘War Is Peace,’ Orwell said. Besides, who will? Who sees anything well finished, even one’s own life? It’s little different from those medieval stonemasons who worked on cathedrals.
I don’t like your analogy, you tell him.
Father H— laughs heartily. Of course you don’t: it stinks.
Moments later, he leads you to the mouth of a nearby tunnel.
Care to visit the ovens, Ms. K—?
You like this question less than you did his cathedral analogy because it suggests an analogy even more distasteful. But what else do you have to do?
As you walk, the father offers you a rice cake and an ampoule of red-wine vinegar from a communion kit sewn into his jacket lining. For your spiritual sustenance, he says, but you bemusedly shake your head.
Two gurneys trundle up behind you, one pushed by a dormitron, the other by a young woman in uniform. To let them pass in tandem, you press your backs to opposite walls of the tunnel. The first gurney takes a corridor to the left; the second, bearing not only a body but a casket draped in a flag of the nation’s newly adopted colors, swings right. You raise an eyebrow at the father.
Vinegar Peace cremates our war dead as well as wrong-way orphans, he explains. Which way would you like to go?
You answer by angling right. Far down this corridor you see a wide brick apron before double crematory doors and ranks of scarlet-draped caskets before these doors. An honor guard in full dress stands at formal ease to one side of the tunnel; a military choir on crepe-decorated risers, to the other.
Both contingents await you in this incarnadine cul-de-sac; in fact, when you have almost drawn close enough to read the soldiers’ nametags, they crack to attention and a pitch pipe sounds. They then begin to sing, the expanded honor guard and the choir, as if triggered by your arrival as auditors. You recognize the melody as a halt-footed variation on an old hymn’s tune:
If we were ever sorry,
Oh, we would never tell —
We’re gravely in a hurry
To sleep at last in hell.
‘Pro patria mori’
Is our true warrior’s cry.
We never, ever worry;
We boldly spit and die.
Out for patriot glory,
Brave maid and gallant stud,
We all revere Bold Gory —
Its Red, its Wine, its Blood!
The choristers conclude fortissimo and stand at ease again. The Red, Wine, and Blood — Bold Gory — has recently replaced the Red, White, and Blue — Old Glory —, and these soldiers gladly hymn the new banner’s praises.
Two members of the honor guard open the double doors of the oven, and Father H— nods you forward, as if accustomed to this ritual.
Go in? you ask him. Really?
Just for a look-see. You might not think so, but it’s an honor, their approving you for an impromptu tour.
Most young enlistees have living parents. You’re a proxy.
A soldier yanks the scarlet banner from a coffin and brings it to you as if to throw it over your shoulders. Its stars and stripes are mutedly visible as different shades of red. You lift a hand, palm outward. No thank you.
Our dead would wish us to robe you in it, the soldier says.
You count sixteen coffins — one of them minus its patriotic drapery. Who are your dead today? you wonder aloud.
Sixteen trainees in a reconstructed Osprey vertical takeoff/landing aircraft, he says. It crashed a half-mile from camp, the third bird this year. He again offers the scarlet flag.
No, I can’t. I’m partial to the old version, even at its foulest.
The soldier courteously withdraws, to redrape the naked coffin.
Father H— takes your arm and leads you straightaway into the oven.
The Cold Room had ice effigies. The Furnace Room — or this part of its crematory extension — has a cindery floor and dunes of ash. When its doors close behind you, you stand in the gray hemi sphere like snow-globe figures, lit by thin skylights. Black scales etch continents and islands on the walls, and the sooty dunes, when you move, suck at you like whirl pools. The furnace scares you. It seems both an execution chamber and a tomb, full of drifting human fallout.
I thought the ash and bone fragments were collected to give to the families, and that everything else went up the smokestack.
Some ovens work more efficiently than others, the father replies.
You walk deeper into this peculiar space and kneel before an ashen dune. You run your hands into it and let its motes sift through your fingers like desiccated rain. You rub your wrists and arms with it. You pour its grayness over your head in a sort of baptism, a dry baptism befitting your age and orphanhood. You scrub it into your clothes and run your tongue around your mouth to taste its grit.
Father H— breaks a dozen ampoules of red-wine vinegar over the ashes before you and stirs the bitter into the bleak. He shapes a pie from this mixture and urges you to follow suit. You obey. After a while, you’ve made a dozen or so together, but still must make a dozen more for the unfed soldiers in the tunnel. Kneeling, you work side by side to accomplish that task.
Weeks go by before you visit the Melancholarium.
Father H— has told you that it’s a memory room that only two people at a time may enter: an orphaned couple, or the only surviving orphan and a person of his or her choice. No one may enter alone, or in a party of three or more. None of these rules makes much sense, but little about Vinegar Peace ever does, even if it sometimes seems to have a coherent underlying principle of organization that you can’t fathom owing to an innate personal failing.
Meanwhile, you’ve grown used to the noisy Sleep Bay, learned when to visit the crowded jakes, perfected the art of getting servitors to do your bidding, and made enough friends to feel — well, if not connected, at least not entirely estranged from the protocols of what passes for normal life here. You no longer bolt up when bombs go off at Fort Pugnicose (where many of the recruits for the War on Worldwide Wickedness train), or when air-raid sirens wail in the galleries, or when some of the older orphans sidle up to your cot at night and plead, Take me home, take me home. Even the twilight influx of dispossessed oldsters, addle-wits with confusion writ large in their pupils, has ceased to faze you. After all, they’ll adjust… maybe.
Then a dormitron sporting Henry Kissinger glasses and nose gives you a pass to visit the Melancholarium.
The name itself sabotages the place. Just hearing it, who’d want to go there? You, indeed, would rather return to your life-help cottage in Sour Thicket. Vinegar Peace isn’t a concentration camp, but neither is it a Sun City spa. It’s a training facility for people with little time to make use of that training in the Real World, which in your opinion no longer exists.
Choose somebody to go with you, the dormitron says.
You pick Ms. B—, the strap-thin woman who asked you to tell her a breakfast story, and one morning in your second month of residency, the two of you ride a lift to the fifth level and walk together to a tall cylindrical kiosk where a familiar-looking young person, probably female, seats you next to each other at a console and fits you both with pullover goggles.
You walk side by side into the Melancholarium. Now, though, Ms. B— is no longer Ms. B— but your late husband Mick, whose hand you hold as you approach the gurney on which Elise lies in a pair of jeans and a blue chambray shirt open at the collar. Her clothing is so blatantly neither a gown nor a full dress uniform that the simplicity of her look — her sweet girlishness — briefly stops your breath, as hers is stopped. You reach to touch her. Mick seizes your wrist, not to prevent you but instead to guide your fingers to Elise’s arm, which you both clutch for as long as you have now endured in this grand human depository. Or so it oddly seems.
Elise’s red-tinged hair, which the military cut short, now hangs behind her off the gurney. It sparkles like a sequined veil. The expression on her face suggests neither terror nor pain, but serenity; and if you addressed her, saying, Elise, it’s time to get up, come out to the porch to see the sun shining on the spider webs in the grass, you believe with the same soft ferocity that you once believed in God that she will obey — that she’ll open her eyes, sit up, and embrace you briefly before striding out of the Melancholarium into the stolen remainder of her life.
You kiss Elise’s brow. Leaning across her, you give her the hug that she’d give you if only the same green power seethed there. Her body has a knobby hardness that would estrange you from her if you didn’t love her so much. All your pity re-collects and flows from your bent frame into her unyielding one. She has the frail perdurability of Cold Room effigies — but none of their alienness — and so she has finally become yours, although neither you nor anybody else can own her now. When her smoke rises through the crematory flue, it won’t dissipate until your smoke also rises and clasps her last white particles to yours. Then both clouds will drift away together.
You step back. Mick gives you room. You want to freeze this tableau and visit it like a window decorator, keeping its centerpiece — Elise — intact but endlessly rearranging the furniture and flowers. You kiss her brow again, hold her hands, and finger the runnels in her jeans.
You undo the buttons next to her heart to confirm a report that three high-caliber rounds inflicted her nonsustainable injuries. You find and examine them with a clinical tenderness. You must know everything, even the worst, and you rejoice in the tameness of her fatal mutilation.
Joyce, Mick says, the first time anyone has spoken your given name in so long that it jars like a stranger’s. Are you okay?
You embrace, leaning into each other. Of course, it isn’t really Mick holding you upright in the vivid deceit of the Melancholarium, but so what, so what?
You pull back from his image and murmur, Mick, her hands…
What about them?
They’re so cold, colder than I thought possible.
Yes, Mick says, smiling, but if you rub them, they warm up.
On your journey back to the Sleep Bay, you tell Ms. B—, Mick would never have said that. That was you.
Ms. B— says, Well, I’ve never seen such a pretty kid.
You should have seen Brice.
Stop it. I was just being polite. You should’ve seen mine: absolute lovelies fed into the chipper by tin-men with no guts or gadgets.
You don’t reply because you notice a short tunnel to a door with a red neon sign flashing over it: exit and then the same word inside a circle with a slash through it. You think about detouring down this tunnel and even try to pull Ms. B— along with you. She resists.
Stop it, she says. You can check out whenever you feel like it. Just don’t try to leave. Don’t you know that by now?
I’ve heard there’s an escape, you say. A way to get out alive.
That’s not it, Ms. B— says, nodding at the flashing exit/don’t exit sign.
Don’t you even want to hear?
Enlist? Is that it? Sign up to wage war on the wicked? Well, that’s a crock, too.
I’m sure it is.
Okay, then — what is it, your secret way to get out?
Adoption, you tell her. The padre says that if a soldier with six tours adopts you, you’re no longer a wrong-way orphan and you can leave.
Ms B— regards you as if you’ve proposed sticking nasturtiums down the barrel of an enemy soldier’s rifle. Oh, I’ve heard that, too, it’s a fat load of bunkum.
You don’t reply, but you also don’t go down the tunnel to try the door with the contradictory flashing messages. You return with your friend to the Sleep Bay without raising the subject again.
But it makes sense, doesn’t it? A decent orphanage adopts out its charges. If you believe, just believe, somewhere there’s a compassionate Brice or Elise, a person who’s survived six tours and wants nothing more than to rescue some poor wrong-way orphan from terminal warehousing. Such people do exist. They exist to lead you from Vinegar Peace to a place of unmerited Milk and Honey.
That night, huddled on your cot amid the hubbub in the Sleep Bay, you envision a woman very like Elise sitting with you on a porch in late autumn or early winter. You sit shivering under scarlet lap robes, while this person whispers a soothing tale and tirelessly rubs your age-freckled hands.
Michael Bishop published his first story, “Piñon Fall,” in Galaxy over forty years ago. Since that time, living in Pine Mountain, Georgia, with his wife, Jeri, an elementary school counselor, he has published seven story collections and many novels, including the Nebula Award-winning No Enemy But Time, the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award-winning Unicorn Mountain, and the Locus Award-winning Brittle Innings, which Twentieth Century Fox optioned for a film in 1993 and bought outright in 1995. (To date, no film has been made.) The Bishops have a daughter, Stephanie Loftin (a fitness trainer), and two grandchildren, Annabel and Joel.
In 1996, LaGrange College in LaGrange, Georgia, secured Bishop as its writer-in-residence. He teaches creative-writing courses and January interim-term courses (including “Art & Story: Graphic Literature in Contemporary World Culture”), and has assisted other department members in organizing three art-and-literature conferences called Slipstreaming in the Arts. In April 2007, Bishop’s anthology A Cross of Centuries: Twenty-five Imaginative Tales About the Christ appeared from Thunder’s Mouth Press. Currently, he is compiling a collection of his Georgia-based stories, Other Arms Reach Out to Me; marketing a mainstream novel, An Owl at the Crucifixion; and slowly working on a novel about Jonathan Swift visiting many of the invented lands in his classic satire, Gulliver’s Travels. In the fall of 2009, PS Publishing in England released a reprint anthology that Bishop coedited with Steven Utley, Passing for Human, with an original digital-collage cover by Jamie Bishop.
I NEEDS MUST PART, THE POLICEMAN SAID
FROM THE AUTHOR: In his generous essay/review of my novelette, Richard Larson refers to the story as a “speculative memoir,” a blend of speculative fiction with memoir. It’s the story of a narrator with the same name as the author who gets sick, nearly dies, goes into a hospital, is operated on, and released. The story involves memory and hallucination. I wanted among other things to make the reader feel the ways that dream and memory overlap and the way Time carries the world we once knew away from us. Over the years, friends and lovers and family members, sick and sometimes dying lay in hospital beds and spoke of their dreams and hallucinations. I’d seen more than one while still alive go off to another kingdom and look back on this world as a semi-stranger. I was afraid of this, kept a pen and notebook with me at all times and wrote down what I saw while conscious or remembered when I woke up.
Before I got sick I’d been listening to a John Dowland song, “Now, Oh Now, I Needs Must Part.” The aptness of the lyrics and the way they tied into hallucinations of my own evoked the Philip K. Dick title, Flow My Tears the Policeman Said, for which he also used a John Dowland lyric.
Shortly after I got out of the hospital the National Public Radio show RadioLab broadcast an episode titled “Memory and Forgetting,” about how memory is created and implanted, manipulated and lost. They also did a show on sleep and explored the fringes of that land in which we spend so much of our time.
As I write this essay, the place in which my story is mainly set, the legendary Greenwich Village institution Saint Vincent’s Hospital, harbor for the Village poor in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, beacon in the nightmare landscape of AIDS in the 1980s, is in the process of closing its doors. It’s being described as a casualty of the changing urban demographics, of modern medical practice. I think of it as having been carried away in the stream of time which moves ceaselessly as we sleep or are distracted or lie sick in bed and leaves only our flawed and distorted memories.
In the predawn one morning last April, I woke up from a violent and disturbing dream. In it, I was somewhere that I realized was the Southwest with three other guys whom I knew in the dream but didn’t quite recognize when I thought about them later.
All of us were engaged in smuggling something — drugs as it turned out. We were tough. Or they were anyway, big guys with long hair and mustaches. There was, I knew, another bunch of guys much tougher than us with whom we didn’t get along and there were cops.
The end of the dream was that I heard police sirens and was scared but relieved because they weren’t as bad as the other guys. The last image in the dream, however, was the cops smashing two of the big guys’ faces right into the adobe wall of the building we stayed in. And I knew, in the way one does in dreams, that the other guy and I were in for something as bad or worse. Then I woke up before dawn in my apartment on MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village.
From the time I was a small boy I’ve been afraid of the long marches of the night, the time in the dark when the lights inside me went out. The fear that would hit me as my head was on the pillow was that I, the one falling asleep, would not be the one who woke up.
Imagining the fragility of my identity chilled me. I did fall asleep again though and dreamed once more.
This time, I saw the main cop with his short white hair and gray suit sitting in his car, smoking a cigarette, staring blue eyed and expressionless at me. I was much younger than I am now, maybe in my mid-twenties instead of my sixties.
In my dream, I realized that I had been looking at a computer and had viewed all this on some kind of a website.
When I awoke this time, the sun was up. Except for my having seen it as a website, the dream seemed like a fragment of the past, a time when I might, in fact, have found myself in places almost as bad as the dream.
I felt sick, my stomach was upset, every bone and muscle ached, and each move I made took an effort.
Nothing seemed to have led up to this illness. I’d been to the theater the night before with my friend Ellen. We’d seen a show with music about eighteenth century boy sopranos (played by women) and abducted orphans.
A few hours before that, an affair I’d been having for some time with a guy named Andre was broken off very suddenly. The man with whom Andre lived had called me up and said that Andre had told him everything. They both wanted me to stay away from him from now on. It was a once-a-week thing that had become routine and boring, as I told the man, and I asked him to say good-bye to Andre for me.
I’m a veteran of more than forty years in Manhattan and normally neither big, melodramatic Broadway shows nor sudden disruptions in love cause the kind of distress I felt that morning.
Even as I wondered if I should call my doctor, I was aware of a kind of web stream that ran constantly in a corner of my brain. The fever dream took the form of a constant Google search complete with web pages and blogs I couldn’t remember looking for.
Pictures and stories with elusive contexts appeared. At one point, I found myself looking at the profiles of the members of a tough cop unit somewhere in the Southwest. It had short bios, photos of them with mustaches and holsters and masklike sunglasses.
As I wondered why and how I had looked this up, I saw a familiar face with a white crewcut and expressionless cop eyes.
I remembered I wanted to call my doctor. As I dialed the number, I thought of the tune and lyrics of a song I’d been listening to recently. It was by John Dowland, a poet and composer who was kind of the Kurt Cobain of Elizabethan England. Something in the melancholy grace of the tune, the resignation of the song’s lyrics had caught me.
Now, oh now I needs must part,
Parting though I absent mourn.
Absence can no joy impart:
Joy once fled cannot return.
Maybe this attachment had been a kind of harbinger, some part of my consciousness telling me I had started dying. I wondered how Dowland’s song “Flow My Tears,” had affected Philip K. Dick when he’d used it in a title.
Somehow the call to the doctor never got made. I couldn’t remember what day it was. People who phoned me — friends, the godchildren who in sentimental moments I thought of as my kids, the woman who had been my work-wife before I retired from the university — seemed concerned.
Many things ran on the screen inside my head. The Macabres when I found myself looking at their site seemed like many a New York late seventies punk group. The photos showed the musicians — emaciated, decked in bondage accessories, with their hair hacked off at odd angles. A bit of one of their songs played. Then police sirens wailed just like they had when my friends and I had gotten caught.
I realized that the sirens were my phone ringing. A friend who had once been a nurse wanted the telephone number of my medical group and the number of someone who could take me there next morning.
That night was especially awful: a long confusion of dreams. Chris, my speculative fiction godchild who lives in Ohio, seemed almost frantic. He kept calling me but I was too sick to talk to him for more than a minute or two.
When I looked at my inner computer screen it showed me palm trees and bright sun and elephants. The Macabres now worked nearly naked in a prison chain gang. A woman with the face of a peacock seemed very familiar. I thought I spotted the policeman with the blue eyes that gave away nothing. He looked right at me and was about to speak
Then my doorbell sounded and it was my friend Bruce who was there to take me to the doctor’s. With his help I walked the few blocks to my medical group office on Washington Square. A very concerned doctor ordered me into Saint Vincent’s hospital. Shortly afterward Bruce escorted me to the emergency room admittance desk. Then he hugged me and was off to another job and I was in the power of the hospital.
There was no waiting. I identified myself, was given a form to fill out, and was shown right into the middle of the beds and gurneys, patients, and orderlies. Numbers flashed on computer screens, and machines beeped.
Nurses and doctors clustered around an enormously fat, comatose woman then dispersed. A social worker took the life history of an elderly black man who very patiently explained to her how he had lost everything he had ever had and lived now in a shelter. A moaning patient rolled by on a gurney hung with IV bags. Two cops wheeled in a shooting victim.
Then an orderly threw back the curtains around a bed and told me to come inside. My clothes were taken away. I was dressed in two gowns, one worn forward, the other backward, and socks with skid-proof soles. I was bled and examined and hauled through cold corridors and x-rayed.
Tubes got attached to me. A catheter was stuck up my urinary tract; at one point a very new intern tried to stick a tube down my throat and I choked and gagged. A horrible brown goop came up my guts and into my mouth and nose. My hospital gowns got soaked and there was commotion. People talked about me as if I was dead or not there.
It reminded me of an accident scene. I heard police radios, saw flares illuminating a nighttime car crash. I saw a familiar picture on a computer screen. It was in black and white, a 1950s newspaper shot.
A kid in his late teens had been thrown onto the branch of a tree by the force of a collision. He hung there bent at the waist over the branch of the tree, his loafers gone, his legs still in jeans, his upper body bare. The cool striped shirt he wore now hung down over his head. That was probably for the best: the face and eyes under those circumstances are not something you’d want to see.
That image haunted me at fourteen. I had imagined myself dramatically dead in just that manner, if only I could drive and had a car.
“That photograph was his own private version of the old primitive painting, ‘Death On A Pale Horse,’ ” I read on a screen in front of me and realized I was looking at a website about me.
Then the screen was gone and I was back in the tumult of the emergency room. “Intestinal blockage — massive fluid build-up,” said a female resident. “It’s critical.”
“Rejected the drain,” said the intern who had failed to get it in.
A male nurse spoke quietly to me like I was a frightened animal, put his hand on my chest to calm me, and stuck the tube into my nose and down my throat in a single gesture. A tall, wheeled IV pole with hooks that held my drains, feeding bag, urine bag, and various meters was attached to me.
Doctors examined me further. I felt like my insides were grinding themselves apart. A bag hanging next to my head rapidly filled with brown goop that had been inside me.
It was very late at night when I was wheeled onto elevators and off them, then down silent corridors. I was still dirty and wearing the damp hospital gowns when I was brought into a ward on the twelfth floor.
A young Asian nurse named Margaret Yang took over. Before I was placed on a bed, she called and four orderlies appeared. Women talking in the accents of Puerto Rico, Ukraine, and Jamaica, brought me into a bathroom, sponged me off, put me under shower water, and turned me around under it saying, as I tried to cover myself, “It’s okay. You are as God made you.”
Only when I was clean, in clean clothes and on a bed looking out at the night did I remember that I had been in this hospital forty-two years before.
When I was a kid first coming into the city from Long Island, I woke one night with no idea who I was or where I was. The place I was in seemed vast, chilly, and sterile. The lighted windows in the brownstones across the street revealed stylish apartments and I knew it looked like a magazine cover without knowing what that was or how I knew this.
A nurse told me I’d been found facedown in a hallway, bleeding from a cut on my forehead and without any wallet or ID. I had lots of alcohol and a couple of drugs in my bloodstream.
A very old nun, thin and stiff, her face almost unlined, came around late in that night. She inspected the bandage on my forehead and talked about Dylan Thomas. I was still enough of a Catholic kid to feel embarrassed talking to a nun while sitting on a bed in just a hospital gown.
“He was brought here not ten or twelve years ago after a hard night’s drinking. He died from that and pneumonia on the floor just below this one.
“I thought of him when I saw you,” she said, looking at me calmly. “I wonder if you, too, are a young man who has an uneasy relationship with death.”
I said I didn’t know if I was or even who I was.
“Time will reveal those things,” she said. “You’re still very young.”
Then I found myself looking at that long-ago night on a computer screen. It was all conveyed in images: a New Yorker cover of figures silhouetted against the lighted windows of their brownstones, a figure of a nun that seemed almost translucent.
What appeared at first to be the famous drawing of the young Rimbaud unconscious in a bed after being shot by his lover Verlaine turned out to be a photo of Dylan Thomas dead in Saint Vincent’s Hospital — and became me at twenty-one with my poet’s hair and empty, blue amnesiac eyes.
I pulled back from the screen and saw all around me a vast dark space with green globes rotating through it. Then I squinted and saw that the globes were the glowing screens that monitored each patient in this hospital. Beyond us, further out in the endless dark, were other screens in other hospitals, stretching on into infinity.
Apparently I called out, because then Nurse Yang was speaking to me, asking if I was okay. The universe and the globes disappeared. Saint Vincent’s, as I saw it all these years later, seemed a small, slightly shabby, and intensely human place.
“I’m so glad,” I told her. “You people have saved my life.”
She was amused and said that this was what they tried to do for everyone brought in here but that it was always nice to be appreciated. When she started to leave, I got upset and she showed me how to ring for help if I needed it.
After she was gone I lay in the cool quiet with the distant sound of hospital bells and the voices of the women at the nurses’ station. But I didn’t sleep.
My fear that all trace of me would be lost while I slept was out and active that night. Lying there, it seemed likely that this person with a search engine installed in his head was not the me who had existed a few days ago.
Drugs and the tubes siphoning the liquid out of my guts and into plastic bags had eased my pain and I did drift off every once in a while. But nurses and orderlies came and woke me quite regularly to take my signs and measure my temperature.
At one moment I would be awake in the chill quiet of that hospital with a view out the window of the Con Edison building and the Zeckendorf Towers at Union Square visible over the low buildings of Greenwich Village.
In the next, I’d be looking at a computer screen that showed a map of the old Village — a vivid 1950s touristy affair with cartoon painters in berets and naked models, beatnik kids playing guitars in Washington Square and Dylan Thomas with drinks in both hands at the bar of the White Horse Inn.
Awake again in the dark, I waited, listened, half expecting the old nun to reappear. Instead what I got was a moment’s glimpse of the white-haired cop who had watched me get beaten. He looked at me now with the same deadpan.
I came out of a doze, awakened by a gaggle of bright-eyed young residents. “Mr. Bowes,” one of them, a woman with an Indian accent, said, “we were all amazed by the x-rays of your intestines. It was the talk of the morning rounds.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because of the blockage they were extremely distended. You came very close to having a rupture which would have been very bad. You could easily have died.” All of them, a small Asian woman, a tall rather dizzy-looking blond American boy, and a laid-back black man nodded their agreement and stared at me fascinated.
“How did this happen?” I wanted to know.
“We believe it was from twenty-three years ago when you had cancer and they removed part of your colon,” she said. “After all this time, the stitching began to unravel and adhered to the other side of your intestines.”
Other doctors appeared: the gastroenterological resident spoke to me, my own internist popped in. They told me that I was out of immediate danger. Sometimes the blockage eased all by itself. Sometimes it required surgery. The surgeon would see me the next day.
My bedside phone had now been connected. I made some calls. People came by, friends and family, old flames and godchildren. They brought flowers and disposable razors, my CD player, a notebook, they gave me backrubs and went out and asked questions at the nurse’s station. They established my presence, showed the world that I was someone who was loved and cared for.
Margaret Yang came and sat for a while, talked to my sister Lee who was visiting, about this unique old hospital and how they were all devoted to it. I wanted to hang on to everyone, nurses, friends, family who was there in the bright daylight.
They had brought me the Dowland CD. The countertenor sang:
Part we must though now I die,
Die I do to part with you.
Gradually on that lovely spring day with the sun pouring down on the old bricks of the Village, twilight gave way tonight. Lights in the hospital dimmed, the halls got quiet.
When I was operated on for cancer it was uptown at Mt. Sinai. The ward I was in overlooked Central Park and at night in the intensity of my illness and fear and the drugs inside me, I saw lights passing amid the leafless winter trees.
And I imagined an alternate world called Capricorn where people dying of cancer in this world appeared to the population as glowing apparitions.
The night before that operation, I awoke with the feeling I was falling through the furniture, through the floor, and into Capricorn.
Remembering that, I saw a picture of myself, ethereal and floating amid a stand of winter trees in a hospital bed. The white-haired cop was showing it to me on a screen.
“When we spotted that we knew you were in no way run-of-the-mill,” he said. “Our seeing you like this confirmed an initial report from when you were in this place as a kid with a busted head and no memory. Someone spoke to you and said you had an uneasy relationship with death and the potential to see more than the world around you.”
Some people have the gift of being perfect hospital visitors. The flowers my friend Mark brought the next morning looked like a Flemish still life, his conversation was amusing and aimless.
He sat beside my bed that morning and I told him about a book I’d once written.
“The first things I wrote after I had cancer was a fantasy novel called Feral Cell. In it, people dying of cancer in this world are worshipped in an adjacent world named Capricorn. They call our world ‘Cancer’ and call themselves the ‘Capri.’
“The faithful among them find ways of bringing a few people who are doomed on our world over to theirs. To prevent us from drifting back here, we are dressed in the skins of deceased Capri, drink their blood, which is called the Blood of the Goat, and are objects of awe.
“But there are others on that world — decadent aristocrats, of course — who hunt us. They throw silver nets over us and drag us down. They skin us and drain our blood and use those things to cross into this world.”
“That must almost have made getting sick worthwhile,” he said.
“The future New York City I depicted in the book — turn of the third millennium Manhattan — was all open-air drug markets and rival gangs of roller skaters and skateboarders clashing in the streets. What we got, of course, was gentrification and Disneyland.
“A lot of being sick is like one long nightmare. In my Capricorn everything was terror and magic. At night, patients in a children’s cancer ward could be seen floating amid the trees of a sacred grove.”
Mark walked with me as I pushed my IV stand around the floor. One of the hall windows overlooked Seventh Avenue. Outside on a glorious day in spring, traffic flowed south past the Village Vanguard jazz club.
“The low buildings make it look like the 1950s,” Mark said.
“Time travel,” I said.
It was a quiet Sunday. Later that afternoon, my godchild Antonia was giving me a backrub. Suddenly a dark-haired woman, not tall but with great presence and wearing a red dress suit, appeared. She introduced herself as the one who would be my surgeon if the intestinal blockage didn’t ease. And I knew that it hadn’t and wouldn’t and that she would operate on me.
As night came and friends and family had departed, I thought of Jimmy when he was a patient at this hospital. Jimmy had been a friend of mine in the years of AIDS terror. He designed and constructed department store window displays.
Since I’d first known him he talked about the little people inside his head, the ones he relied on for his ideas.
“Last night they put on this show with fireflies and ice floes. Perfect for Christmas in July,” he’d say. “Sadly, what I’m looking for is ideas for Father’s Day which is, as always, a wilderness of sports shirts and fishing tackle.”
Just before Jimmy died in this very hospital, I came into his room and found him in tears.
“They’re all sprawled on the stage dead,” he told me.
Without being aware of a transition to sleep, somewhere in the night I became part of a Milky Way of bodies lying hooked up to lighted screens. I saw all of us, patients here and across the world, floating in a vast majestic orbit.
Then the cop, tough, his blue eyes giving away nothing, watched as I looked at the photo he’d handed me.
It showed me in my dream of the Southwest along with my companions who would later get arrested and beaten into pulp.
“How did you know these guys?” he asked.
“I was a friend of one of them. Louis.”
“Friend, you mean like a boyfriend?” He displayed no attitude but past experience with cops made me wary. I shook my head.
Then he told me, “It must be tough for someone like you. Kind of comfortable, retired, having something like this from his past brought up after all these years.”
“Nothing like that happened to me. It’s just a dream.”
“A dream, maybe, but made up of bits of your past.”
Then I heard voices and he was gone. Lights went on in my room and curtains got drawn around the other bed. Since my arrival I had been the only patient in the room. That ended.
The new patient cried out as they moved him. Through an opening in the curtain, I saw nurses and orderlies transfer him to the bed. Then they stood back and two young surgeons from the emergency room approached. From their talk, I learned that the patient had been in some kind of an incident that had damaged his scrotum.
The doctors spoke to him. “We saved one testicle and your penis,” they said. “But we couldn’t save the other.”
The patient asked a question too mumbled for me to hear and a doctor said, “Yes, you’ll have full function.”
Then they were gone and almost immediately the kid slept and snored. His name, I found out later, was Jamine Wilson and he was nineteen.
Dawn was just about to break. I opened the notebook and wrote out a will, divided my possessions among my siblings and friends. Making out a will was a way of trying to hold onto myself, to indicate that I still knew who I was and what was mine.
That afternoon my sister Lee visited me. I had named her my executor. I dreaded the thought of living in a coma and said I didn’t want extreme measures to be taken to keep me alive if I couldn’t be revived. She went out to the desk and informed them of this.
Then we talked and listened to Jamine Wilson in the next bed on his phone. He talked about buying hot iPods. He called a woman and told her to bring him burgers and fries from McDonald’s.
He lived in a halfway house to which he didn’t want to return. A social worker came by and informed him that he would have to be out of the hospital the next morning. He ignored her.
“Where are you now,” he asked the woman on the phone. “Can’t you get on the subway?”
My sister left when they came to take me downstairs for x-rays. They gave me barium and recorded its progress through my digestive tract. I was there for hours, lying flat on a cold metal slab while they took each series of shots, resting, sleeping sometimes on the metal slab, until it was time for the next pictures.
It reminded me of the esoteric forms of modeling. Hand models, foot models; unprepossessing people with one exquisite feature. “Intestine model, that’s me,” I told the technician who smiled and didn’t understand.
I dozed and saw a screen that read, “An example of his early modeling work.” And there I was, very young, in Frye boots and jeans and leather jacket, a kerchief tied around my neck but with my hands cuffed behind me. It looked like some S&M scenario I might once have posed for. But the setting was the Southwest of that dream.
Then they woke me up and took some more x-rays.
When I got back to the room, Jamine’s hospital lunch was untouched beside his bed. I had taken nothing by mouth for days. He looked up at me dark and angry. Our eyes met and for a moment I saw a bit of myself: the kid in the nightmare, the one who’d ended up in this hospital with his memory gone. And I think, maybe, he saw something similar.
“Where are you now?” he asked someone on the phone then said, “You were there five minutes ago.”
Some time later, his caller finally arrived whizzing down the hall on a motorized wheelchair, the McDonald’s bag on her lap. She was Hispanic with eyes that looked hurt or afraid.
She maneuvered her chair next to the bed. The two of them ate. He chewed noisily, talked while he did. “I was so scared,” he said, “when I saw all the blood. And it took so long for them to call for help.”
The cell phone rang and he talked to someone. Shortly afterward a girl and a guy in their late teens came down the hall on their chairs. These were his friends from the halfway house. They seemed oddly impressed by whatever had happened to him.
Before the evening was over there were five wheelchairs in the room and I realized that Jamine, too, must have one. I was surprised by how quiet and lost everyone but Jamine seemed. At some point they were told they had to leave. My roommate turned off his phone and went back to sleep.
The room, the ward, the floor, the hospital grew silent.
“The place ran with ghosts,” Randall, an old queen I knew from when I was first in the city had said about the very classy hospital uptown where he had been for major heart surgery.
“They came and talked to me at night, taunted me. An awful man I lived with when I was young and stupid and new to New York, was cruising the halls like it was still 1925. He was a cruel bastard, physically abusive, and I’d walked out on him. He told me he was waiting for me, that sooner or later he’d have me again.”
Randall liked to have me stay at his place once or twice a week. It was an easy gig. He really got off on having a young guy around. Give him a chance encounter in his own apartment with a twenty-two-year-old in jockey shorts and he was happy.
“I know when I pop off that awful sadist will be waiting for me, and I’m afraid,” he said.
I smiled like he had made a joke and he shook his head and looked sad. He died at that hospital a year later and I felt bad. He’d been good to me, generous, kind. I liked him well enough then but I really understood him now.
Deep in the night the cop and I stood at the window and looked at the very late traffic flowing south on Seventh Avenue. I could tell by the car models that it was the late 1960s. The constant flow of traffic downtown was like the passage of time.
“We can do it, you know,” he said. “Bring you back forty years to face trial.”
“For what?” I asked. “What crimes did I ever commit that were worth that kind of attention?”
“Look at yourself.” Again the screen came up and it was the three guys whose faces I could almost remember and myself all in boots and jeans and leather vests and kerchiefs around our necks. Like musicians on an album cover imitating desperados.
The one farthest away from me handed a cloth bag to the next guy who handed a smaller brown paper package to the guy next to me who handed me a white packet and I turned and handed a glassine envelope to someone not in the picture: like a high school textbook illustration of a drug distribution system.
“A kid died from something you sold,” the cop said. The screen showed a girl, maybe eighteen, sprawled on the floor of a suburban bedroom with a needle in her arm and a Jim Morrison poster on the wall.
“None of that ever happened,” I said. “I never did anything like that.”
“We don’t plant this stuff. It was inside you. Back in 1969 a family wants vengeance,” he replied.
I saw myself from behind kneeling with my hands tied at my back. All around on the sand, my clothes lay in strips where they’d been cut off me. My belt and my boots were tossed aside; the kerchief I’d worn around my neck was now tied over my eyes. Behind me the three other guys all hung by their necks from the branches of a tree.
The cop said, “You’ll wish they’d hanged you, too. What the family wants to do will make what happened to that black kid in your room a joke.”
Then I saw myself frontally. Mutilated and bleeding to death into the sand, my mouth open in a silent scream.
That woke me and I lay in my hospital bed in the first dawn light. But I had trouble shaking the dream.
Greenwich Village was partly an Irish neighborhood in the days gone by and Saint Vincent’s still reflected that. My nurse that morning was Mary Collins, an old woman originally from Kerry with a round unlined face, the last of the breed. I’d established my credentials, told her about my grandparents from Aran.
After the policeman had mentioned that initial report, I’d asked Mary Collins about the nun I’d talked to. She looked at me and said, “You saw Sister Immaculata. I haven’t thought about her in years. They said she roamed the halls and talked to the patients. Some of them she comforted, others she frightened.”
“But she was real.”
She shrugged. “Well, when I first worked here, they told stories about catching glimpses of her. But I never did.”
Behind the curtains around the other bed, Nurse Yang spoke quietly to Jamine. “No matter what our health issues, we need to eat healthy food. Try this orange juice.”
“I’m not hungry.”
“Try it for me.” And we heard him slurp some orange juice.
“She has the patience of Job,” murmured Mary Collins and turned to leave.
I said, “There’s this guy I keep seeing in my dreams. He looks like a cop, shows me all kinds of things, threatens to drag me back to face punishment for crimes I never committed.”
Nurse Collins paused. In the silence, I heard Margaret Yang say, “Would you try this cereal?”
“His name wouldn’t be McGittrick would it?” Mary Collins asked.
“I don’t know.”
“Immaculata and McGittrick both — ah, you are a rare one! If that’s how it is, tell him to back away. While you’re a patient in this hospital, you’re ours not his.” She winked and nodded at me and I guessed she was doing for me what Nurse Yang was doing for my roommate.
Word came that my surgery was scheduled for that night. The exact time was not set. Jamine was on his cell phone. He was due to be released from the hospital that afternoon and sent back to his halfway house. I wondered about the pain he didn’t seem to be feeling and the desperate moment that had left him partially castrated.
Lying there, I thought of people I knew who had come out of surgery with hallucinations attached to their brain like parasites.
A few years before, an old professor of mine was not doing well after heart surgery. He was incoherent. Things hung in the balance and then with his eyes shut and seemingly unconscious, he said quite clearly, “Surgeon Major Herzog of the Israeli Air Medical Brigade orders you to get off your asses and get me cured.”
“Herzog straightened things out,” my professor told me a few days later when he had rallied and begun recovery. “The first time I saw him was shortly after the operation. I came to and he was standing in full uniform at the end of my bed reading the computer screen. He told me I was someone they needed to have alive and he was going to save me. Then he changed some of the instructions on the screen.”
No one on the staff had ever heard of Surgeon Major Marvin Herzog. The doctors attributed the now rapid recovery not to a series of crisp orders and clandestine changes in the patient’s treatment but to the body’s wonderful will to live.
A week or two later when I visited him at home, my professor told me, “Doctor Herzog said last night that usually they don’t let people like me see him. But he thinks I can handle it. He explained how his unit oversees everybody who’s under anesthesia…”
As he went on, I had realized he was still talking to his imaginary Doctor and maybe always would.
Finally I was wheeled out for more x-rays. When I came back hours later, doctors, nurses, and Jamine’s social worker were in attendance. His motorized chair, a shabby, beat-up item, had been brought into the room. When he was helped into it, he screamed with pain. A hurried conference took place out in the hall. The patient was helped back into bed.
Late that night, he was still there, talking quietly into his cell phone. It had been arranged that he was to be sent, not to his halfway house, but to a rehab facility. He seemed pleased. Was it for this that he or someone else had used the knife?
McGittrick had noticed him. Was that a first sighting, like Immaculata observing me all those years ago?
That night I waited at the window feeling very small and lonely and watched the taillights of the cars as they rushed into the past.
A woman I know underwent a long and intense operation for cancer. During the hospitalization that followed she was well taken care of by the hospital nurses and orderlies and seemed to love them.
She walked with help immediately after the operation as you’re supposed to. Everyone was amazed at how quickly she moved, looking around impatiently, fascinated by the other rooms on the floor — the vacant ones with their empty beds, the locked doors that led to conference rooms and doctors’ hideaways.
Later, when reminded of this, she remembered nothing of her treatment. All she could recall was a movie being made night after night in which her body was used to portray a corpse. The ones making the film were criminals, threatening and intimidating her. The hospital workers were helping them. This went on all during her time in recovery.
She wanted to walk as quickly as possible, she said, so she could escape. Her fascination with the rest of the floor was because those were places that figured in the dreams. She pretended to love the staff because she was terrified of them.
By daylight she found them drab and ordinary, devoid of the desperate drama they held during her nights.
Then someone calling my name interrupted me. Word had come that the surgical team was ready and the gurney was on its way.
I went back to my room and the gurney was there. As I was loaded aboard and my IV pole was strapped to its side like a flag, I saw my godchild Antonia, twenty years old, but tiny as a child, come down the hall. Somehow she had gotten into the hospital at that late hour.
In that wonderful place, it was quite alright with everyone that she accompany me down to surgery. “You’ll have to leave before they begin the procedure,” one of the nurses told her.
Off we went and the attendant sang as we rolled along and told me that I was going to be fine. Then deep in the hospital, far into the night, we were in the surgical anteroom. One of the young doctors who had operated on Jamine was part of the team.
He and the others seemed like college students as they joked with Antonia and me while we awaited the surgeon who was late. Then she was there in her red jacket and dress and greeted us all.
I thanked Antonia for being with me as they hooked me up. I held onto the image of her, as everyone smiled at me and I was gone while wondering if I was ever coming back.
When I awoke a young man with a shaved head said, “Good morning, Richard, you’re in surgical recovery. My name is Scott Horton and I’m a nurse. How do you feel?”
“Like I’ve just been hit by a truck but haven’t felt the pain yet,” I said and he grinned, nodded with approval, pleased I was coherent enough to attempt a joke.
Just before I had awakened, in the moment between darkness and light, I had been in the vast space with only the light of the hospital patients’ computer screens revolving around me like suns in galaxies.
In the way it happens in dreams, I knew these were all the unconscious patients in all the hospitals in the world. Together we formed an anima, an intelligence. Most of us were part of this for a few hours, for a day sometimes. For a few it was for months and even years.
The policeman looked up from the computer with his white crewcut, his battered nose, his cigarette.
“Someone told me your name is McGittrick,” I said.
“If that name pleases you…” he shrugged.
“In other words I’m making you up as I go along.”
“Somewhere inside you knew someone oversaw the intersection of one world and the next. First you put a face on that one. Now you’ve found a name for me. Mostly I don’t deal personally with people in your situation. I don’t have to because they aren’t aware of me.
“We could keep you in a coma for as long as you live. Instead we are sending you back a changed man,” he told me. “You’ll never be able to forget what you’ve seen and you’ll never again accept the waking world as the real one.”
I had been going to ask him what he wanted. Instead, I had awakened to find Nurse Horton.
In the bright early morning in the hospital, he showed me a new button on my IV stand. “You press that when you feel any discomfort and the painkiller is injected directly into your bloodstream,” he told me. You can do that at five-minute intervals whenever you feel you need to. I’ll be back to see you very shortly.”
I held his arm and said, “Please don’t go away. I saw this guy just before I came to. The nurse upstairs called him McGittrick. He said they were using my mind while I was unconscious, that he could keep me in a coma for as long as I lived.”
He smiled. “Well you tell McGittrick to back off. You’re my patient. We have you now and we’re not letting go. We’re going to get you cleaned up and I’d like you to walk a little some time today.”
An orderly came in and took my temperature. One of the young doctors who had assisted in the surgery came by. “Things went very well. We’re confident we removed the obstruction. We opened you up along the old cancer surgery scar. We didn’t find any cancer this time.”
Another orderly took blood. Scott returned and the two of them helped me sit up and put my feet over the edge of the bed. “You’re doing great,” he said and the orderly agreed. I slid off the bed and my feet found the floor.
The orderly pushed the IV stand. Scott held me. I walked around the room. The sun was shining outside.
“I think I can do this by myself,” I said. They made me take hold of the handle bar. I pushed it out the door and into the hallway and back again.
“Very good,” they told me, and I lay down on the bed. I was sitting propped up when my sister and brother-in-law came in. My surgeon dropped by in her red suit and talked with us. Everyone seemed very pleased.
When I was alone, Scott brought me some paper and a pen that I asked for. He sat with me for a little while, told me that he was thirty-three years old, that he came from a town outside Boston and lived now in Chelsea within walking distance of the hospital. I wondered who he lived with but didn’t ask.
I wrote Scott a rambling thank you note/love letter and added at the end of it, “People who have hallucinations after operations sometimes don’t seem to come all the way back. Part of them gets lost. The hallucination can be at least as good, as powerful and compelling and meaningful, as real life. Especially since real life is as a patient, the victim of a disease. The hallucination is so engrossing that they don’t want to leave it behind. I’m afraid that will happen with me.”
Scott had gone off duty by the time I finished writing. I spent a very bad night in the recovery ward. People were waxing the floor, cleaning the walls. The nurses were slow to respond. Being awake was a nightmare.
Then McGittrick was with me. “You’re not supposed to talk about what I’ve told you, asshole,” he said. “That other time, you wrote that book about the world where people dying of cancer could become gods. But you made it science fiction and anyway nobody read it so that was okay.
“That young nurse who thinks he’s so tough? ‘We have you now and we’re not letting go,’ he says. When his time comes he will be ours and he won’t even know it’s happened.”
“What’s the point of all this?” I asked.
“You know how people when dying feel themselves drawn toward some kind of glowing light? They find it comforting. Well those globes floating in the flickering brain, the warm light of death and the promise of peace is you and all the other assholes hooked up to machines, each contributing his or her little bit. Last night you were part of the light dying souls were drawn toward. That’s one of the things we do.”
“Why an old cop, why not an angel with a fiery sword?”
“You don’t believe in angels. You have a thing for the law. Your kind usually shows that by being bad and getting caught. The cuffs go on and you swoon. You were too bright to get a criminal record. Our reports say you have promise.”
“Before the operation you were threatening me with mutilation. Now…”
“I’m going to offer you my job.”
“Right,” I said. “But you don’t exist. You told me so.”
He seemed a bit amused. “That’s not as big a deal as you make it seem.”
“And the phony charges?”
“Could also not be a big deal. That depends on you.”
Then he was gone and it was morning. The door of my room was open, the cleaning crew had departed, and the hospital was waking up. Pain had begun to gnaw at my guts. I hit the button, waited a few minutes, and then hit it again.
Scott walked by and I called him. He had just come on duty. He had other patients but he stopped for me. “How are you?”
“Bad night.” I wanted to tell him about the men endlessly cleaning the floor and the smell of ammonia but I didn’t.
“Did McGittrick talk to you again?”
“Sorry I bothered you about that. I feel stupid.” What I was sorry about was having brought him to McGittrick’s attention.
“It’s why I’m here. We’re going to get you ready to return to your ward. I want you to walk before then.”
Later when he was watching me push my IV stand around Recovery, I asked him, “Does everybody in this hospital know about McGittrick?”
He grinned. “If they worked with Mary Collins they do. I started out with her.”
When they came to take me back upstairs Scott said good-bye and I knew it was unlikely I’d ever see him again. Unless, of course, I took McGittrick up on his offer.
When I returned to the twelfth floor, I was in a new room all by myself. Jamine was gone. Even Nurse Yang, busy with her current patients, barely remembered him. That’s how it would be with me.
I hit the painkiller button, got up, and walked. I needed the pole to lean on a little. Nurses and orderlies nodded their approval. I was a model patient, a teacher’s pet.
When my phone rang it was my godchild Chris planning to come in from Ohio and stay with me after I got out of the hospital. Friends came by. Flowers got delivered. I fell asleep, exhausted.
It was getting dark when I awoke and there was commotion and a gigantic man was wheeled in. “Purple,” he said. “Don’t go far from me, girl.” My new roommate had a private healthcare worker. He called her Purple which wasn’t her name and which made her quite angry.
He sang Prince songs. He called people by names he’d given them. He told me he was an architect who had stepped through a door in a half-finished building he’d designed and fallen two floors because there was no floor on the other side. All the bones in his feet had been shattered. It took the healthcare worker and all the orderlies on the floor to help him change his position in the bed.
At one point I dozed off but awoke to hear a Jamaican orderly whom he called Tangerine, saying, “I do not have to take this. I will be treated with respect. My name to you is Mrs. Jackson.”
“Oh Tangerine!” he cried in a despairing voice.
I hit the pain button, got up, and walked to the window overlooking Seventh Avenue. In the night, the streetlights turned from red to green.
McGittrick’s face danced on the window in front of me. A computer screen on a nearby station counter faced the window and was reflected on the dark glass.
When I turned to look the computer screen was blank. I turned back and the face was there. It might have been the drugs or I may have been asleep on my feet. But as hard as I looked McGittrick remained.
Then Jamine’s face appeared on the screen. McGittrick said, “He stands out kind of the way you did, flirting with death but afraid of it. Bear in mind that if you don’t work for us someone else will — maybe him.”
“What exactly would I do?”
“Be around; make sure all is running as it should. Be a cop,” he said. “Think it over.”
“Okay. But when I sleep from now on, you have to stay out of my dreams.”
“You’re not dreaming. It’s just easier to reach you when you’re asleep. But we’ll give you a little time to consider.”
When I came back to my own ward, the nurses at the desk, as if they sensed something about me, looked up as I passed by. When I went into my room the architect was crooning a song to his caregiver who was telling him to shut up.
They stopped when they saw me and I wondered if I was marked somehow.
“Look,” I said, “I’m recovering from major surgery. I need to sleep.” They stared at me, nodded and were quiet. I hit the painkiller button and hit it again every few minutes until I drifted away.
I awoke and it was morning. The architect, quite deferentially, asked if I had slept well. “I made sure all these ladies kept very quiet so you could rest and get better.”
This guy was a harmless lunatic with none of Jamine’s vibes. I thanked him.
Then Mrs. Jackson helped me wash up and I was taken for x-rays. When I returned the architect was gone, brought to another ward for physical therapy, Nurse Collins said.
She was on duty and had come in to check on me. “You’re doing well,” she said. “They didn’t get you this time.”
“Who was Immaculata? Who is McGittrick?”
“I don’t think she was any kind of angel and I don’t think he’s a banshee because I don’t believe in them. Ones like that lurk in the cracks of every hospital there ever was. Most places they don’t even know about it anymore. But they still have them. Give them the back of your hand.”
I’d begun feeling that if I performed certain tasks — walked rapidly three times around the floor, say, then I was practically recovered.
That night I paused on my rounds and looked out the window. The Greenwich Village crowds on a Friday night in spring reminded me of the rush of being twenty and in the city. I thought of Andre and how I’d lost him just before I got sick.
McGittrick was reflected in the window “You know,” he said. “That guy that got away might still be with you if you’d been well when his friend called. We can let you replay that scene.” Cops offer candy when they believe you’re beginning to soften and cooperate. But they still can’t be trusted.
“I enjoy the sweet melancholy of affairs gone by,” I said. “I’d like to be with Andre as if nothing ever happened. But I’d know that wasn’t true and wouldn’t be able to stand it.” As I headed back to my room, I said, “Thanks, though.”
As I hit the pain button, a young guy who’d had an emergency appendectomy was brought into the room. He lay quietly, breathing deep unconscious breaths. I passed into sleep remembering moments when someone with whom I’d made love fell into slumber like this just before I did.
The next morning was a Saturday. A resident and a nurse came in and drew a curtain around my bed. They detached me from the catheter, pulled the feeding tube out of my throat and out through my nose.
That morning I ate liquids for the first time since I’d been there. Everything tasted awful. I forced myself to eat a little JELL-O, drink clear soup and apple juice because that was the way to get better.
Dale, my roommate, cast no aura, had no vibes that I could feel. He was twenty-seven, a film editor who had collapsed in horrible pain on Friday night. He was getting out later that day. His insurance paid for no more than that.
After ten days in the hospital, I was a veteran and showed him how to push his IV rack, how to ring for a nurse.
Mark came by. I told him, “When I wrote Feral Cell, I had the narrator drink blood. Blood of the Goat binds him to the alternate world, Capricorn. Blood of the Crab binds him here. As one world fades the other gets clearer. What I was writing about was being sick. It’s like this other country. You get pulled in there without wanting to and have to haul your ass out.”
He said, “Remember first coming to the city and how hard it was to stick here? Like at any moment the job, the apartment you were sharing, the best friend, the lover would all come loose and you’d be sucked back to Metuchen or Doylestown or Portsmouth. Kind of the same thing.”
The roommate was on the phone. “It felt like a bad movie, waking up and finding all these people staring down at me. The guy in here with me is this amazing Village character.”
He was still on the phone when his lovely Korean girlfriend came in with his clothes. She took his gown off him as he stood talking and dressed him from his skin out. It bothered me that he was getting out and I was still inside. As they left, he turned, waved good-bye, and grinned because he was young and this was all an adventure. I had more in common with Jamine than with this kid.
That evening, I was served a horrible dish of pasta and chicken but it was a test of my recovery and I ate a bit of it.
That night McGittrick said, “If it’s not love that interests you, how about revenge? Ones who screwed you around when you were a kid? You wrote a story about that. We can go deep into the past. You could go back and make sure they never did that to anyone else.”
I shook my head. “The one I most wanted to kill was myself. It took a long time to untangle that. This is who I am,” I told him. “I’m turning down your offer.”
He smiled and shook his head like my stupidity amused him. On the screen, I knelt blindfolded in the desert. “Did you forget about that?” he asked as I walked away.
Sunday morning, as I tried to choke down tasteless jelly on dry toast, a guy named John was brought in to have kidney stones removed. He was tall, thin, and long-haired, almost my age. “I was born on Bank Street, lived in the Village my whole life,” he told me.
There was something in the face with its five o’clock shadow and hawk nose that looked familiar. He was an archetype: the guy who held the dope, the guy who hid the gun, the guy who knew how to get in the back way. He was like Jamine. Like me.
It was confirmed that I was going home the next day. At one point that afternoon my niece walked with me around the floor. When we came to the window on Seventh Avenue, I looked around and realized there’s no way that a computer screen could be reflected from the desk onto the glass.
“Thank you,” I told Margaret Yang later. “You people gave me a life transfusion.”
“We just did our job. You are an interesting patient,” she said. That night when I stopped and looked out, the traffic was a Sunday night dribble without any magic at all.
The next morning, I awoke with the memory of a visitor. The night before I had opened my eyes and seen Sister Immaculata. “I’m disappointed,” she told me. “That you aren’t willing to give others the same chance that was given to you.”
“What chance was that?” I asked.
“You were a stumbling wayfarer,” she said. “We helped you survive in the hope you would eventually help us.”
“What is it that you do?”
“Hope and Easeful Death,” she said with a radiant smile and I realized that I trusted cops more than nuns.
That morning they disconnected me from the last of my attachments. The IV pole was wheeled away.
John was about to go down to the operating room. He would spend this day in the hospital and then be released the next.
“You ever go to Washington Square Park?” he asked. “Look for me around the chess tables in the southwest corner.”
Then my friend Bruce was there, pulling my stuff together, helping me get my pants on, tying my shoes for me. I was in my own clothes and feeling kind of lost.
Nurse Collins was on duty. “Good luck,” she said as I passed the desk for the last time. She looked at me for a long moment. “And let’s hope we see no more of you in here.”
The taxi ride home took only a few minutes. The flight of stairs to my apartment was the first I had climbed in almost two weeks and I had to stop and rest halfway up.
I’d thought that when I got out of the hospital I would magically be well, and had a hundred errands to do. Bruce insisted I get undressed again and helped me into bed.
“When what they gave you in there wears off,” he said. “You will feel like you’ve been hit by a fist the size of a horse.”
He filled my prescriptions for Oxycontin and antibiotics, bought me food we thought I could eat, lay on my couch and looked at a book of Paul Cadmus’s art he’d found on my shelves. I dozed and awoke and dozed some more. People called and asked how I was. A friend brought by a huge basket of fruit.
Bruce taped the phone extension cord to the floor so that I wouldn’t trip on it: more than any other single thing that spelled old age and sickness to me. It struck me as I fell asleep that Bruce was HIV positive and taking a cocktail of drugs to stay alive, yet I was so feeble he was taking care of me.
The second day Bruce came by in the morning, watched to make sure I didn’t fall down in the shower, helped me get dressed, and went with me for a little walk. The third day I got myself dressed.
Late that night, I looked at myself in the mirror. It was a stranger’s face, thin with huge eyes. This was a taste of what very old age would be like. I missed the large ever-present organization devoted to making me better. My life felt flat without the spice of hallucination and paranoia.
The next day my godson Chris came to stay with me. That year we both had works in nomination for a major speculative fiction award. The ceremonies were to be held in New York City.
We were in different categories, fortunately. It was on my mind that if I could attend the ceremonies and all the related events, it would mean I had passed a critical test and was well.
Chris was shocked at first seeing me, though he tried to hide it. When one person is in his sixties and sick and the other less than half his age and well their pace of life differs.
He adapted to mine, walked slowly around the neighborhood with me, sat in the park on the long sunny afternoons, ate in my favorite restaurants where to me the food all tasted like chalk now, read me stories.
The awards that weekend were in a hotel in Lower Manhattan. All the magic of speculative fiction is on the pages and in the cover art. The physical reality is dowdy. Internet photos of the book signing and reception show Chris happy and mugging and me fading out of the picture. Like those sketches Renaissance artists did of youth and old age.
As the awards ceremony dragged on I realized I’d be unable to walk to the dais if I won. I needn’t have worried. A luminary of the field, quite remarkably drunk, after complaining bitterly that he for once hadn’t been nominated, mangled all names and titles beyond recognition, then presented the award to the excellent writer who won. When it was over I rode home in a cab and went to bed.
Chris was nice enough to stay on and keep me company. One day as we walked into the park I saw John, my last roommate at the hospital. Looking as gray and thin as I did, he sat at a chess table in the southwest corner of Washington Square. The chess players share that space with drug dealers and hustlers.
I said hello. He nodded very slightly and I realized he was at work and that he was a spotter.
The spotters are paid to warn dealers if the heat is on the prowl or tip them off that a customer is at hand. I glanced back and saw John watching me.
One evening I took Chris to see a play that was running at a theater around the corner from my place. As we walked down narrow, old Minetta Lane, kids on motorized wheelchairs rolled past the Sixth Avenue end of the lane.
For a moment I saw Jamine. Then I wasn’t sure and then they were gone.
One day on the street we found a guy selling candid black and white photos that his father had taken fifty, forty, thirty years ago on the streets of Greenwich Village. One shot taken from an upstairs window on West Tenth Street and dated 1968 showed the Ninth Circle Bar with young guys in tight jeans and leather jackets standing on the front stairs. I felt a rush of déjà vu.
That night on a website I saw that scene again, the street, the stairs, the figures. But this time there was a close-up. The kid in the center of the group was me. The other guys were my partners in crime from the dream.
I clicked the mouse and the next picture came up. It was a figure in a motorized wheelchair rolling up Minetta Lane toward the camera. My face was a twisted mask. My hands were claws. I was ancient and partially paralyzed: the ultimate nightmare.
“You see how long we’ve been keeping an eye on you. And how long we’ll keep it up,” McGittrick said and I awoke in the dawn light.
That evening when Chris and I kissed good-bye at Penn Station and he went off on the airport train, I felt the most incredible loneliness and loss. He’d been sharing his energy and youth with me and now I was on my own again.
Back downtown, I sat on a bench in Washington Square in the May twilight. Dogs yapped in the runs. As the light went away a jazz quintet played “These Foolish Things.”
McGittrick stood studying me. “Why,” I asked, “was it necessary to screw my head around as you’ve been doing?”
“Think of it as boot camp. Break you down, rebuild you. Would the you who went to sleep the night before you got sick have sat in a public park having this conversation?”
“How did you get into this racket?”
He smiled, “Immaculata recruited me. Said I was a restless soul that wouldn’t be happy unless I got to see a little more of life and death than others did.”
“I’m ready to move on. You’ll understand when you’re in my place.”
My guts, where they had been cut open and stapled back together, still hurt a little. I’d pretty much tapered off the medication but I needed to go home and take half an oxycontin tablet.
I arose and he asked, “Would you rather talk to Sister Immaculata?”
“That’s okay. You’re less scary than a nun.”
“You’ve got a while to decide,” he said. “But not, you know, for ever.”
I nodded and continued on my way. But we both knew how I’d decided.
Sad despair doth drive me hence
This despair unkindness sends
If that parting be offence
It is I which then offends
I had seen death and didn’t want to die. Maybe I was a restless soul or maybe I was too big a coward to face death all at once and forever.
From a little reading I’d done, some research on the Internet, I knew that injury or illness actually can change a personality. What I’d always feared had happened. The one who had gone to sleep that night a few weeks before had awakened as someone else.
And I now was different enough from the one I had been that I didn’t much care about that person who now was lost and gone.
Richard Bowes has lived in Manhattan for most of his adult life. He has published five novels, two collections of stories, and over forty short stories. Bowes has won two World Fantasy Awards, as well as Lambda, International Horror Guild, and Million Writers awards. This is his sixth Nebula Award nomination. Recent and forthcoming stories will appear in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and in the Digital Domains, Wilde Stories, The Beastly Bride, Haunted Legends, Year’s Best Gay Stories, and Naked City anthologies.
Most of these, like this year’s Nebula nominated novelette, “I Needs Must Part, the Policeman Said,” are part of his novel in stories: Dust Devil: My Life In Speculative Fiction.
FROM THE AUTHOR: The idea for “Divining Light” was in my head for a couple of years before I finally figured out how to write it. There were a lot of false starts that ended up in the wastebasket, and I eventually realized that before I could write the story in a way that held together as a narrative, there were several problems I’d first need to overcome — not the least of which being that the science behind the story was so impenetrable.
In “Divining Light,” the whole premise hinges on the reader understanding a twist extrapolated from a loophole in the logic of quantum mechanics. For the story to succeed, the reader had to understand not just the basics of QM, but also my particular spin on it — which in turn would require me to dump about a metric ton of physics into the story.
I knew it would never work.
You can’t say, hey, read this chapter on physics, and then the real story will start on page sixteen. So the big problem became, how do I get the reader to slog through pages and pages of raw physics without realizing it? I’d need to perform an act of prestidigitation, and I really had no idea how to pull it off. It was almost like a math problem. When I looked at it that way, I decided to move my variables around like algebra, throwing in different characters, different conflicts, trying to find a narrative that best tolerated the necessary info-dumps while at the same time serving the themes that grew naturally from the premise. Still, nothing I tried really clicked. At the time, I had a day job in a research lab, so I’d work eight to ten hours in this analytical environment, and then I’d come home and hammer away at a story that was beginning to look more like some dense, technical treatise than any kind of fiction worth reading. It was pretty discouraging.
I ended up shaking the Etch A Sketch one last time and started over. I asked myself what story I wanted to tell from the perspective of the characters, rather than the science. When I focused on that and only that, the writing finally opened up, and I managed to tell the story.
It is impossible that God should ever deceive me, since in all fraud and deceit is to be found a certain imperfection.
I CROUCHED IN THE rain with a gun.
A wave climbed the pebbly beach, washing over my foot, filling my pants with grit and sand. Around me, the rocks loomed black and big as houses.
I shivered as I came back to myself and for the first time realized my suit jacket was missing. Also my left shoe, brown leather, size twelve. I looked for the shoe, scanning the rocky shoreline, but saw only stone and frothy, sliding water.
I took another pull from the bottle and tried to loosen my tie. Since I had a gun in one hand and a bottle in the other — and since I was unwilling to surrender either — loosening my tie was difficult. I used the gun hand, working the knot with a finger looped through the trigger guard, cold steel brushing my throat. I felt the muzzle under my chin — fingers numb and awkward, curling past the trigger.
It would be so easy.
I wondered if people have died this way — drunk, armed, loosening their ties. I imagined it was common among certain occupations.
Then the tie opened, and I hadn’t shot myself. I took a drink from the bottle as reward.
The waves rumbled in. This place was nothing like the dunes of Indiana, where Lake Michigan makes love to the shoreline. Here in Gloucester, the water hates the land.
As a child, I’d come to this beach and wondered where all the boulders came from. Did the tides carry them in? Now I knew better. The boulders, of course, were here all along — buried in soft soils. They are left-behind things. They are what remains when the ocean subtracts everything else.
Behind me, near the road, there is a monument — a list of names. Fishermen. Gloucestermen. The ones who did not come back.
This is Gloucester, a place with a history of losing itself to the ocean.
I told myself I’d brought the gun for protection, but sitting here in the dark sand, I no longer believed it. I was beyond fooling myself. It was my father’s gun, a .357. It had not been fired for sixteen years, seven months, four days. Even drunk, the math came quickly.
My sister Mary had called it a good thing, this new place that was also an old place. A new start, she’d said. You can do your work again. You can continue your research.
Yeah, I’d said. A lie she believed.
You won’t call me, will you?
Of course I’ll call. A lie she didn’t.
I turned my face away from the wind and took another burning swig. I drank until I couldn’t remember which hand held the gun and which the bottle. I drank until they were the same.
During the second week, we unpacked the microscopes. Satish used a crowbar while I used a claw hammer. The crates were heavy, wooden, hermetically sealed — shipped in from some now-defunct research laboratory in Pennsylvania.
The sun beat down on the lab’s loading dock, and it was nearly as hot today as it was cold the week before.
I swung my arm, and the claw hammer bit into the pale wood. I swung again. It was satisfying work. Satish saw me wipe the perspiration from my forehead, and he smiled, straight white teeth in a straight dark face.
“In India,” he said, “this is sweater weather.”
Satish slid the crowbar into the gash I made, and pressed. I’d known him for three days, and already I was his friend. Together we committed violence on the crates until they yielded.
The industry was consolidating, the Pennsylvania lab the latest victim. Their equipment came cheap. Here at Hansen, it was like Christmas for scientists. We opened our boxes. We ogled our new toys. We wondered, vaguely, how we had come to deserve this. For some, like Satish, the answer was complicated and rooted in achievement. Hansen was more than just another Massachusetts think tank after all, and Satish had beaten out a dozen other scientists to work here. He’d given presentations and written up projects that important people liked. For me it was simpler.
For me this was a second chance given by a friend. A last chance.
We cracked open the final wooden crate, and Satish peered inside. He peeled out layer after layer of foam packing material. It was a big crate, but inside we found only a small assortment of Nalgene volumetric flasks, maybe three pounds weight. It was somebody’s idea of a joke — somebody at the now-defunct lab making a statement of opinion about their now-defunct job.
“The frog is in the well,” Satish said, one of his many opaque expressions.
“It certainly is,” I said.
There were reasons for moving here. There were reasons not to. They were the same reasons. Both had everything, and nothing, to do with the gun.
The lab gates are the first thing a person sees when driving up on the property. From the gates, you can’t see the building at all, which in the real estate sector surrounding Boston, speaks not just of money, but money. Everything out here is expensive, elbow room most of all.
The lab is tucked into a stony hillside about an hour upcoast of the city. It is a private, quiet place, shaded by trees. The building itself is beautiful — two stories of reflective glass spread over the approximate dimensions of a football field. What isn’t glass is matte black steel. It looks like art. A small, brick-paved turnaround curves up to the main entrance, but the front parking lot there is merely a decorative ornament — a small asphalt pad for visitors and the uninitiated. The driveway continues around the building where the real parking, the parking for the researchers, is in the back.
That first morning, I parked in front and walked inside.
A pretty blonde receptionist smiled at me. “Take a seat.”
Two minutes later, James rounded the corner and shook my hand. He walked me back to his office. And then came the offer, like this was just business — like we were just two men in suits. But I could see it in his eyes, that sad way he looked at me, my old friend.
He slid a folded sheet of paper across the desk. I unfolded it. Forced myself to make sense of the numbers.
“It’s too generous,” I said.
“We’re getting you cheap at that price.”
“No,” I said. “You’re not.”
“Considering your patents and your past work—”
I cut him off. “I can’t do that anymore.”
“I’d heard that. I’d hoped it wasn’t true.”
“If you feel I came here under false pretenses—” I began climbing to my feet.
“No, no.” He held his hand up to stop me. “The offer stands. We can carry you for four months.” He leaned back in his leather chair. “Probationary researchers get four months to produce. We pride ourselves on our independence; so you can choose whatever research you like, but after four months, it’s not up to me anymore. I have bosses, too; so you have to have something to show for it. Something publishable, or on its way to it. Do you understand?”
“This can be a new start for you,” he said, and I knew then that he’d already talked to Mary. “You did some great work at QSR. I followed your publications; hell, we all did. But considering the circumstances under which you left…”
I nodded again. The inevitable moment.
He was silent, looking at me. “I’m going out on a limb for you,” he said. “But you’ve got to promise me.”
That was the closest he’d come to mentioning it.
I looked away. His office suited him, I decided. Not too large, but bright and comfortable. A Notre Dame engineering diploma graced one wall. Only his desk was pretentious — a teak monstrosity large enough to land aircraft on — but I knew it was inherited. His father’s old desk. I’d seen it once when we were still in college a dozen years ago. A lifetime ago.
“Can you promise me?” he asked.
I knew what he was asking. I met his eyes. Silence. And he was quiet for a long time after that, looking at me, waiting for me to say something. Weighing our friendship against the odds this would come back to bite him.
“All right,” he said finally. “You start tomorrow.”
There are days I don’t drink at all. Here is how those days start: I pull the gun from its holster and set it on the desk in my hotel room. The gun is heavy and black. It says Ruger along the side in small, raised letters. It tastes like pennies and ashes. I look into the mirror across from the bed and tell myself, If you drink today, you’re going to kill yourself. I look into my own gray eyes and see that I mean it.
Those are the days I don’t drink.
There is a rhythm to working in a research laboratory. Through the glass doors by 7:30, nodding to the other early arrivals, then sit in your office until 8:00, pondering this fundamental truth: even shit coffee — even mud-thick, brackish, walkin’-out-the-pot shit coffee is better than no coffee at all.
I like to be the one who makes the first pot in the morning. Swing open the cabinet doors in the coffee room, pop the tin cylinder and take a deep breath, letting the smell of grounds fill my lungs. It is better than drinking the coffee, that smell.
There are days when I feel everything is an imposition — eating, speaking, walking out of the hotel room in the morning. Everything is effort. I exist mostly in my head. It comes and goes, this crushing depression, and I work hard not to let it show, because the truth is that it’s not how you feel that matters. It’s how you act. It’s your behavior. As long as your intelligence is intact, you can make cognitive evaluations of what is appropriate. You can force the day to day.
And I want to keep this job; so I do force it. I want to get along. I want to be productive again. I want to make Mary proud of me.
Working at a research lab isn’t like a normal job. There are peculiar rhythms, strange hours — special allowances are made for the creatives.
Two Chinese guys are the ringleaders of lunchtime basketball. They pulled me into a game my first week. “You look like you can play,” was what they said.
One is tall, one is short. The tall one was raised in Ohio and has no accent. He is called Point Machine. The short one has no real idea of the rules of basketball, and for this reason, is the best defensive player. His fouls leave marks, and that becomes another game — a game within a game — to see how much abuse you can take without calling it. This is the real reason I play. I drive to the hoop and get hacked down. I drive again.
One player, a Norwegian named Umlauf, is six feet eight inches. I marvel at the sheer size of him. He can’t run or jump or move at all, really, but his big body clogs up the lane, huge arms swatting down any jump shot made within reach of his personal zone of asphalt real estate. We play four-on-four, or five-on-five, depending on who is free for lunch. At thirty-one, I’m a few years younger than most of them, a few inches taller — except for Umlauf, who is a head taller than everyone. Trash is talked in an assortment of accents.
Some researchers go to restaurants on lunch hour. Others play computer games in their offices. Still others work through lunch — forget to eat for days. Satish is one of those. I play basketball because it feels like punishment.
The atmosphere in the lab is relaxed; you can take naps if you want. There is no outside pressure to work. It is a strictly Darwinian system — you compete for your right to be there. The only pressure is the pressure you put on yourself, because everyone knows that the evaluations come every four months, and you’ve got to have something to show. The turnover rate for probationary researchers hovers around 25 percent.
Satish works in circuits. He told me about it during my second week when I found him sitting at the SEM. “It is microscopic work,” he said.
A scanning electron microscope is a window. Put a sample in the chamber, pump to vacuum, and it’s like looking at another world. What had been flat, smooth sample surface now takes on another character, becomes topographically complex. Using the SEM is like looking at satellite photography — you’re up in space, looking down at this elaborate landscape, looking down at Earth, and then you turn the little black dial and zoom toward the surface. Zooming in is like falling. Like you’ve been dropped from orbit, and the ground is rushing up to meet you, but you’re falling faster than you ever could in real life, faster than terminal velocity, falling impossibly fast, impossibly far, and the landscape keeps getting bigger, and you think you’re going to hit, but you never do, because everything keeps getting closer and sharper, and you never do hit the ground — like that old riddle where the frog jumps half the distance of a log, then half again, and again, and again, and never reaches the other side, not ever. That’s an electron microscope. Falling forever down into the picture. And you never do hit bottom.
I zoomed in to 14,000X once. Like God’s eyes focusing. Looking for that ultimate, indivisible truth. I learned this: there is no bottom to see.
Satish and I both had offices on the second floor.
Satish was short and thin. His skin was a deep, rich brown. He had an almost boyish face, but the first hints of gray salted his mustache. His features were balanced in such a way that he could have been the fine, prodigal son of any number of nations: Mexico, or Libya, or Greece, or Sicily — until he opened his mouth. When he opened his mouth and spoke, all those possible identities vanished, and he was suddenly Indian, solidly Indian, completely, like a magic trick; and you could not imagine him being anything else.
The first time I met Satish, he clamped both hands over mine, shook, then clapped me on the shoulder and said, “How are you doing, my friend? Welcome to research.” He smiled so wide it was impossible not to like him.
It was Satish who explained that you never wore gloves when working with liquid nitrogen. “Make a point of it,” Satish said. “Because the gloves will get you burned.”
I watched him work. He filled the SEM’s reservoir — icy smoke spilling out over the lip, cascading down to the tile floor.
Liquid nitrogen doesn’t have the same surface tension as water; spill a few drops across your hand and they’ll tend to bounce off harmlessly and run down your skin without truly wetting you — like little balls of mercury. The drops will evaporate in moments, sizzling, steaming, gone. But if you’re wearing gloves when you fill the reservoir, the nitrogen could spill down inside and be trapped against your skin. “And if that happens,” Satish said while he poured. “It will hurt you bad.”
Satish was the first to ask my area of research.
“I’m not sure,” I told him.
“How can you not be sure?”
I shrugged. “I’m just not.”
“You are here. It must be something.”
“I’m still working on it.”
He stared at me, taking this in, and I saw his eyes change — his understanding of me shifting, like the first time I heard him speak. And just like that, I’d become something different to him.
“Ah,” he said. “I know who you are now. You are the one from Stanford.”
“That was eight years ago.”
“You wrote that famous paper on de-coherence. You are the one who had the breakdown.”
Satish was blunt, apparently.
“I wouldn’t call it a breakdown.”
He nodded, perhaps accepting this; perhaps not. “So you still are working in quantum theory?”
“No, I stopped.”
“Quantum mechanics starts to affect your worldview after a while.”
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“The more research I did, the less I believed.”
“In quantum mechanics?”
“No. In the world.”
There are days when I don’t drink at all. On those days, I pick up my father’s .357 and look in the mirror. I convince myself what it will cost me, today, if I take the first sip. It will cost me what it cost him.
But there are also days I do drink. Those are the days I wake up sick. I walk into the bathroom and puke into the toilet, needing a drink so bad my hands are shaking. I look in the bathroom mirror and splash water in my face. I say nothing to myself. There is nothing I would believe.
It is Vodka in the morning. Vodka because vodka has no smell. A sip to calm the shakes. A sip to get me moving. If Satish knows, he says nothing.
Satish studied circuits. He bred them, in little ones and zeroes, in a Thomlin’s Field Programmable Gate Array. The array’s internal logic was malleable, and he allowed selective pressure to direct chip design. Genetic algorithms manipulated the best codes for the task. “Nothing is ideal,” he said. “There’s lots of modeling.”
I didn’t have the slightest idea how it all worked.
Satish was a genius who had been a farmer in India until he came to America at the age of twenty-eight. He earned an electrical engineering degree from MIT. After that, Harvard, and patents, and job offers. “I am just a simple farmer,” he liked to say. “I like to challenge the dirt.”
Satish had endless expressions. When relaxed, he let himself lapse into broken English. Sometimes, after spending the morning with him, I’d fall into the pattern of his speech, talking his broken English back at him, an efficient pidgin that I came to respect for its streamlined efficiency and ability to convey nuance.
“I went to dentist yesterday,” Satish told me. “He says I have good teeth. I tell him ‘Forty-two years old, and it is my first time at dentist.’ And he could not believe.”
“You’ve never been to the dentist?” I said.
“No, never. Until I am in twelfth grade in my village back home, I did not know there was special doctor for teeth. I never went because I had no need. The dentist says I have good teeth, no cavities, but I have stain on my back molars on the left side where I chew tobacco.”
“I didn’t know you chewed.”
“I am ashamed. None of my brothers chew tobacco. Out of my family, I am the only one. I try to stop.” Satish spread his hands in exasperation. “But I cannot. I told my wife I stopped two months ago, but I started again, and I have not told her.” His eyes grew sad. “I am a bad person.”
Satish stared at me. “You are laughing,” he said. “Why are you laughing?”
Hansen was a gravity well in the tech industry — a constantly expanding force of nature, always buying out other labs, buying equipment, absorbing the competition.
Hansen labs only hired the best, without regard to national origin. It was the kind of place where you’d walk into the coffee room and find a Nigerian speaking German to an Iranian. Speaking German because they both spoke it better than English, the other language they had in common. Most of the engineers were Asian, though. It wasn’t because the best engineers were Asian — well, it wasn’t only because the best engineers were Asian. There were also simply more of them. America graduated four thousand engineers in 2008. China graduated more than three hundred thousand. And Hansen was always hungry for talent.
The Boston lab was just one of Hansen’s locations, but we had the largest storage facility, which meant that much of the surplus lab equipment ended up shipped to us. We opened boxes. We sorted through supplies. If we needed anything for our research, we signed for it, and it was ours. It was the opposite of academia, where every piece of equipment had to be expensed and justified and begged for.
Most mornings I spent with Satish. I helped him with his gate arrays. He talked of his children while he worked. Lunch I spent on basketball. Sometimes after basketball, I’d drop by Point Machine’s lab to see what he was up to. He worked with organics, searching for chemical alternatives that wouldn’t cause birth defects in amphibians. He tested water samples for cadmium, mercury, arsenic. Point Machine was a kind of shaman. He studied the gene expression patterns of amphioxus; he read the future in deformities.
“Unless something is done,” he said. “A generation from now, most amphibians will be extinct.” He had aquariums filled with frogs — frogs with too many legs, with tails, with no arms. Monsters.
Next to his lab was the office of a woman named Joy. Sometimes Joy would hear us talking and stop by, hand sliding along the wall — tall, and beautiful, and blind. Did acoustical research of some kind. She had long hair and high cheekbones — eyes so clear and blue and perfect that I didn’t even realize at first.
“It’s okay,” she said. “I get that a lot.” She never wore dark glasses, never used a white cane. “Detached retinas,” she explained. “I was three.”
In the afternoons, I tried to work.
Alone in my office, I stared at the marker board. The great white expanse of it. I picked up the marker, closed my eyes, wrote from memory.
When I looked at what I’d written, I threw the marker across the room.
James came by later that night. He stood in the doorway, cup of coffee in his hand. He saw the papers scattered across the floor. “It’s good to see you working on something,” he said.
“It’s not work.”
“It’ll come,” he said.
“No, I don’t think it will.”
“It just takes time.”
“Time is what I’m wasting here. Your time. This lab’s time.” Honesty welled up. “I shouldn’t be here.”
“It’s fine, Eric,” he said. “We have researchers on staff who don’t have a third of your citings. You belong here.”
“It’s not like before. I’m not like before.”
James looked at me. That sad look back again. His voice was soft when he spoke. “R&D is a tax writeoff. At least finish out your contract. That gives you another two months. After that, we can write you up a letter of recommendation.”
That night in my hotel room, I stared at the phone, sipped the vodka. I imagined calling Mary, dialing the number. My sister, so like me, yet not like me. I imagined her voice on the other end.
This numbness inside of me, strange gravity, the slow accretion of things I could have said, not to worry, things are fine; but instead I say nothing, letting the phone slide away, and hours later find myself at the railing outside, coming out of another stupor, soaked to the skin, watching the rain. Thunder advances from the east, from across the water, and I stand in the dark, waiting for life to be good again.
There is this: the slow dissolution of perspective. I see myself outside myself, an angular shape cast in sodium lights — eyes gray like storm clouds, gray like gunmetal. Because once you’ve learned something, you can’t unlearn it. Darwin once said that the serious study of math endows you with an extra sense, but what do you do when that sense contradicts your other senses?
My arm flexes and the vodka bottle flies end over end into the darkness — the glimmer of it, the shatter of it, glass and asphalt and shards of rain. There is nothing else until there is nothing else.
Satish said, “Yesterday in my car I was talking to my daughter, five years old, and she says, ‘Daddy, please don’t talk.’ I asked her why, and she said, ‘Because I am praying. I need you to be quiet.’ So I asked her what she is praying about, and she said, ‘My friend borrowed my glitter ChapStick and I am praying she remembers to bring it back.’ ”
Satish was trying not to smile. We were in his office, eating lunch across his desk.
He continued. “I told her, well, maybe she is like me and she forgets. But my daughter says, ‘No, it has been more than one week now.’ ”
This amused Satish greatly — the talk of ChapStick, and the prayers of children. We finished our lunches.
“You eat the same thing every day,” I observed.
“I like rice,” he said.
“But every day?”
“You insult me. I am a simple man trying to save for my daughter’s college.” Satish spread his hands in mock outrage. “Do you think I am born with golden spoon?”
In the fourth week, I told him I wasn’t going to be hired after my probationary period.
“How do you know?”
“I just know.”
His face grew serious. “You are certain?”
“In that case, do not worry.” He clapped me on the shoulder. “Sometimes the boat just gets sink, my friend.”
I thought about this for a moment. “Did you just tell me that you win some and you lose some?”
Satish considered this. “Yes,” he said. “That is correct, except I did not mention the win part.”
During my fifth week at the lab, I found the box from Docent. It started as an e-mail from Bob, the shipping guy, saying there were some crates I might be interested in. Crates labeled “Physics,” sitting in the loading dock.
I went down to receiving and looked at the boxes. Got out the crowbar and opened them.
Three of the boxes were of no interest; they held only weights, scales, and glassware. But the fourth box was different. I stared into the fourth box for a long time.
I closed the box again and hammered the lid down with the edge of the crowbar. I went to Bob’s office and tracked down the shipping information. A company called Ingram had been bought by Docent a few years ago — and now Docent had been bought by Hansen. The box had been in storage the whole time.
I had the box taken to my office. Later that day, I signed for lab space, Room 271.
I was drawing on my marker board when Satish walked into my office.
“What is that?” he said, gesturing to what I’d written.
“It is my project.”
“You have a project now?”
“That is good.” He smiled and shook my hand. “Congratulations, my friend. How did this wonderful thing happen?”
“It’s not going to change anything. Just busywork to give me something to do.”
“What is it?”
“You ever hear of the Feynman double-slit?” I asked.
“Physics? That is not my area, but I have heard of Young’s double-slit.”
“It’s the same thing, almost; only instead of light, they used a stream of electrons.” I patted the box on the table. “And a detector. The detector is key. The detector makes all the difference.”
Satish looked at the box. “The detector is in there?”
“Yeah, I found it in a crate today, along with a thermionic gun.”
“A thermionic gun. An electron gun. Obviously part of a replication trial.”
“You are going to use this gun?”
I nodded. “Feynman once said, ‘Any other situation in quantum mechanics, it turns out, can be explained by saying, You remember the case of the experiment with two holes? It’s the same thing.’ ”
“Why are you going to do this project?”
“I want to see what Feynman saw.”
Autumn comes quick to the East Coast. It is a different animal out here, where the trees take on every color of the spectrum, and the wind has teeth. As a boy, before the moves and the special schools, I’d spent an autumn evening camped out in the woods behind my grandparents’ house. Lying on my back, staring up at the leaves as they drifted past my field of vision.
It was the smell that brought it back so strong — the smell of fall, as I walked to the parking lot. Joy stood near the roadway, waiting for her cab.
The wind gusted, making the trees dance. She turned her collar against the wind, oblivious to the autumn beauty around her. For a moment, I felt pity for that. To live in New England and not see the leaves.
I climbed into my rental. I idled. No cab passed through the gates. No cab followed the winding drive. I was about to pull away, but at the last second spun the wheel and pulled up to the turnaround.
“Is there a problem with your ride?” I asked her.
“I’m not sure. I think there might be.”
“Do you need a lift home?”
“I’ll be okay.” She paused. Then, “You don’t mind?”
“It’s fine, seriously.”
She climbed in and shut the door. “Thank you,” she said. “It’s a bit of a drive.”
“I wasn’t doing much anyway.”
“Left at the gate,” she said.
She guided me by stops. She didn’t know the street names, but she counted the intersections, guiding me to the highway, blind leading the blind. The miles rolled by.
Boston. A city that hasn’t forgotten itself. A city outside of time. Crumbling cobblestones and modern concrete. Road names that existed before the Redcoats invaded. It is easy to lose yourself, to imagine yourself lost, while winding through the hilly streets.
Outside the city proper, there is stone everywhere, and trees — soft pine and colorful deciduous. I saw a map in my head, Cape Cod jutting into the Atlantic. The cape is a curl of land positioned so perfectly to protect Boston that it seems a thing designed. If not by man, then by God. God wanted a city where Boston sits.
The houses, I know, are expensive beyond all reason. It is a place that defies farming. Scratch the earth, and a rock will leap out and hit you. People build stone walls around their properties so they’ll have someplace to put the stones.
At her apartment, I pulled to a stop, walked her to her door, like this was a date. Standing next to her, she was almost as tall as me — maybe 5’11”, too thin, and we were at the door, her empty blue eyes focused on something far away until she looked at me, looked, and I could swear for a moment that she saw me.
Then her eyes glided past my shoulder, focused again on some dim horizon.
“I’m renting now,” she said. “Once my probationary period is over, I’ll probably buy a condo closer to work.”
“I didn’t realize you were new to Hansen, too.”
“I actually hired in the week after you. I’m hoping to stay on.”
“Then I’m sure you will.”
“Perhaps,” she said. “At least my research is cheap. It is only me and my ears. Can I entice you in for coffee?”
“I should be going, but another time perhaps.”
“I understand.” She extended her hand. “Another time then. Thank you for the ride.”
I turned to go, but her voice stopped me. “James said you were brilliant.”
I turned. “He told you that?”
“Not me. I talk with his secretary, and James has spoken about you a lot, apparently — your days in college. But I have a question before you go. Something I was wondering.”
She brought her hand up to my cheek. “Why are the brilliant ones always so screwed-up?”
I said nothing, looking into those eyes.
“You need to be careful,” she said. “The alcohol. I can smell it on you some mornings. If I can smell it, so can others.”
“I’ll be fine.”
“No. Somehow I don’t think you will.”
Satish stood in front of the diagram I’d drawn on my white board.
I watched him studying it. “What is this?” he asked.
“The wave-particle duality of light.”
“And these lines?”
“This is the wave part,” I said, pointing at the diagram. “Fire a photon stream through two adjacent slits, and the waves create an image on the phosphorescent screen behind the slits. The frequencies of the waves zero-sum each other at certain intervals, and a characteristic interference pattern is captured on the screen. Do you see?”
“Yes, I think so.”
“But if you put a detector at the two slits…” I began drawing another picture under the first. “Then it changes everything. When the detectors are in place, light stops behaving like a wave and starts acting like a particle series.”
I continued. “So instead of an interference pattern, you get two distinct clusters of phosphorescence where the particles pass through the slits and contact the screen.”
“Yes, I remember now,” Satish said. “This is familiar. I believe there was a chapter on this in grad school.”
“In grad school, I taught this. And I watched the students’ faces. The ones who understood what it meant — who truly understood — always looked troubled by it. I could see it in their expressions, the pain of believing something which can’t be true.”
“This is a famous experiment. You are planning to replicate?”
“Why? It has already been replicated many times; no journal will publish.”
“I know. I’ve read papers on the phenomena; I’ve given class lectures on the details; I understand it mathematically. Hell, most of my earlier research is based on the assumptions that came out of this experiment. But I’ve never actually seen it with my eyes. That’s why.”
“It is science.” Satish shrugged. “You don’t need to see it.”
“I think I do,” I said. “Need to. Just once.”
The next few weeks passed in a blur. Satish helped me with my project, and I helped him with his. We worked mornings in his lab. Evenings we spent in Room 271, setting up. The phosphorescent plate was a problem — then the alignment of the thermionic gun. In a way, it felt like we were partners, almost, Satish and I. And it was a good feeling. After working so long by myself, it was good to be able to talk to someone.
We traded stories to pass the time. Satish talked of his problems. They were the problems good men sometimes have when they’ve lived good lives. He talked about helping his daughter with her homework, and worrying about paying for her college. He talked of his family backhome — saying it fast that way, backhome, so you heard the proper noun; and he talked of the fields, and the bugs, and the monsoon, and the ruined crops. “It is going to be a bad year for sugar cane,” he told me, as if we were farmers instead of researchers. He talked about his mother’s advancing years. He talked of his brothers, and his sisters, and his nieces and nephews; and I came to understand the weight of responsibility he felt.
Bending over the gate arrays, soldering tool in hand, he told me, “I talk too much, you must be sick of my voice.”
“Not at all.”
“You have been a big help me with my work. How can I ever repay you, my friend?”
“Money is fine,” I told him. “I prefer large bills.”
I wanted to tell him of my life. I wanted to tell him of my work at QSR, and that some things you learn, you wish you could unlearn. I wanted to tell him that memory has gravity, and madness a color; that all guns have names, and it is the same name. I wanted to tell him I understood about his tobacco; that I’d been married once, and it hadn’t worked out; that I used to talk softly to my father’s grave; that it was a long time since I’d really been okay.
Instead of telling him these things, I talked about the experiment. That I could do. Always could do.
“It started a half-century ago as a thought experiment,” I told him. “To prove the incompleteness of quantum mechanics. Physicists felt quantum mechanics couldn’t be the whole story, because the math takes too many liberties with reality. There was still that impossible contradiction: the photoelectric effect required light be particulate; Young’s results showed it to be a wave. Only later, of course, when the technology finally caught up to the theory, it turned out the experimental results followed the math. The math says you can either know the position of an electron, or the momentum, but never both. The math, it turned out, wasn’t metaphor at all. The math was dead serious. The math wasn’t screwing around.”
Satish nodded like he understood.
Later, working on his gate arrays, he traded his story for mine.
“There once was a guru who brought four princes into the forest,” he told me. “They were hunting birds.”
“Birds,” I said.
“Yes, and up in the trees, they see one, a beautiful bird with bright feathers. The first prince said, ‘I will shoot the bird,’ and he pulled back on his arrow and shot into the trees. But the arrow missed. Then the second prince tried to shoot, and he, too, missed. Then the third prince. Finally the fourth prince shot high into the trees, and this time the arrow struck and the beautiful bird fell dead. The guru looked at the first three princes and said, ‘Where were you aiming?’
“‘At the bird.’
“‘At the bird.’
“‘At the bird.’
“‘The guru looked at the fourth prince, ‘And you?’
“‘At the bird’s eye.’”
Once the equipment was set up, the alignment was the last hurdle to be cleared. The electron gun had to be aimed so the electron was just as likely to go through either slit. The equipment filled most of the room — an assortment of electronics and screens and wires.
In the mornings, in the hotel room, I talked to the mirror, made promises to gunmetal eyes. And by some miracle did not drink.
One day became two. Two became three. Three became five. Then I hadn’t had a drink in a week.
At the lab, the work continued. When the last piece of equipment was positioned, I stood back and surveyed the whole setup, heart beating in my chest, standing at the edge of some great universal truth. I was about to be witness to something few people in the history of the world had ever seen.
When the first satellite was launched toward the deep space in 1977, it carried a special golden record of coded messages. The record held diagrams and mathematical formulas. It carried the image of a fetus, the calibration of a circle, and a single page from Newton’s System of the World. It carried the units of our mathematical system, because mathematics, we’re told, is the universal language. I’ve always felt that golden record should have carried a diagram of this experiment, the Feynman double-slit.
Because this experiment is more fundamental than math. It is what lives under the math. It tells of reality itself.
Richard Feynman said this about the slit experiment: “It has in it the heart of quantum mechanics. In truth, it contains only mystery.”
Room 271 held two chairs, a marker board, a long lab bench, and several large tables. I’d hung dark canvas over the windows to block out the light. The setup sprawled across the length of the room.
Slits had been cut into sheets of steel that served to divide the areas of the setup. The phosphorescent screen was loaded into a small rectangular box behind the second set of slits.
James came by a little after 5:00, just before going home for the evening.
“They told me you signed up for lab space,” he said.
He stepped inside the room. “What is this?” he said, gesturing to the equipment.
“Just old equipment from Docent. No one was using it, so I thought I’d see if I could get it to work.”
“What are you planning exactly?”
“Replicating results, nothing new. The Feynman double-slit.”
He was quiet for a moment. “It’s good to see you working on something, but isn’t that a little dated?”
“Good science is never dated.”
“But what are you expecting to prove?”
“Nothing,” I said. “Nothing at all.”
The day we ran the experiment, the weather was freezing. The wind gusted in from the ocean, and the East Coast huddled under a cold front. I got to work early and left a note on Satish’s desk.
Meet me in my lab at 9:00.
I did not explain it to Satish. I did not explain further.
Satish walked through the door of room 271 a little before 9:00, and I gestured toward the button. “Would you like to do the honors?”
We stood motionless in the near-darkness of the lab. Satish studied the apparatus spread out before him. “Never trust engineer who doesn’t walk his own bridge.”
I smiled. “Okay then.” I hit the button. The machine hummed.
I let it run for a few minutes before walking over to check the screen. I opened the top and looked inside. And then I saw it, what I’d been hoping to see. The experiment had produced a distinctive banded pattern, an interference pattern on the screen. Just like Young, just like the Copenhagen interpretation said it would.
Satish looked over my shoulder. The machine continued to hum, deepening the pattern as we watched.
“Would you like to see a magic trick?” I asked.
He nodded solemnly.
“Light is a wave,” I told him.
I reached for the detector and hit the “on” switch — and just like that, the interference pattern disappeared.
“Unless someone is watching.”
The Copenhagen interpretation posits this: Observation is a principle requisite of reality. Nothing exists until it is first observed. Until then there are only probability waves. Only possibility.
For purposes of the experiment, these waves describe the probability of a particle being found at any given location between the electron gun and the screen. Until a particle is detected by some consciousness at a specific point along the wave, its location remains theoretical. Therefore, until a particle is observed passing through one slit, it could be equally anticipated to pass through either — and thus will actually propagate through both in the form of probability waves. These wave systems interfere with each other at regular intervals and thereby assemble a visible interference pattern on the capture screen behind the slits. But if a particle is detected by an observer at one slit, then that excludes the possibility of it passing through the other; and if it can’t propagate through both, it can’t compile an interference pattern.
This would seem self-contradictory, except for one thing. Except that the interference pattern disappears if someone is watching.
We ran the experiment again and again. Satish checked the detector results, being careful to note which slit the electrons passed through. With the detectors turned on, roughly half the electrons were recorded passing through each slit, and no interference pattern accrued. We turned the detectors off again — and again, instantly, the interference pattern emerged on the screen.
“How does the system know?” Satish asked.
“How does it know what?”
“That the detectors are on. How does it know the electron’s position has been recorded?”
“Ah, the big question.”
“Are the detectors putting out some kind of electromagnetic interference?”
I shook my head. “You haven’t seen the really weird stuff yet.”
“What do you mean?”
“The electrons aren’t really responding to the detectors at all. They’re responding to the fact that you’ll eventually read the detectors’ results.”
Satish looked at me, blank-faced.
“Turn the detectors back on,” I said.
Satish hit the button. The detectors hummed softly. We let the experiment run.
“It is just like before,” I told him. “The detectors are on, so the electrons should be acting as particles, not waves; and without waves, there’s no interference pattern, right?”
“Okay, turn it off.”
The machine cycled down to silence.
“And now the magic test,” I said. “This is the one. This is the one I wanted to see.”
I hit the “clear” button on the detector, erasing the results.
“The experiment was the same as before.” I said. “With the same detectors turned on both times. The only difference was that I erased the results without looking at them. Now check the screen.”
Satish opened the box and pulled out the screen.
And then I saw it. On his face. The pain of believing something which can’t be true.
“An interference pattern,” he said. “How could that be?”
“It’s called retrocausality. By erasing the results after the experiment was run, I caused the particle pattern to never have occurred in the first place.”
Satish was silent for five full seconds. “Is such a thing possible?”
“Of course not, but there it is. Unless a conscious observer makes an ascertainment of the detector results, the detector itself will remain part of the larger indeterminate system. The detectors don’t induce wave function collapse; consciousness observation does. Consciousness is like this giant roving spotlight, collapsing reality wherever it shines — and what isn’t observed remains probability. And it’s not just photons or electrons. It is everything. All matter. It is a flaw in reality. A testable, repeatable, flaw in reality.”
Satish said, “So this is what you wanted to see?”
“Is it different for you now that you’ve actually seen it?”
I considered this for a moment, exploring my own mind. “Yes, it is different,” I said. “It is much worse.”
We ran the slit experiment again and again. The results never changed. They matched perfectly the results that Feynman had documented decades earlier. Over the next two days, Satish hooked the detectors up to a printer. We ran the tests, and I hit print. We listened as the printer buzzed and chirped, printing out the results.
Satish pored over the data sheets as if to make sense of them by sheer force of will. I stared over his shoulder, a voice in his ear. “It’s like an unexplored law of nature,” I said. “Quantum physics as a form of statistical approximation — a solution to the storage problem of reality. Matter behaves like a frequency domain. Why resolve the data fields nobody is looking at?”
Satish put the sheets down and rubbed his eyes.
“There are schools of mathematical thought which assert that a deeper order lies enfolded just below the surface of our lives. Bohm called it the implicate.”
“We have a name for this, too,” Satish said. He smiled. “We call it Brahman. We’ve known about it for five thousand years.”
“I want to try something,” I said.
We ran the test again. I printed up the results, being careful not to look at them. We turned off the equipment.
I folded both pages in half and slid them into manila envelopes. I gave Satish the envelope with the screen results. I kept the detector results. “I haven’t looked at the detector results yet,” I told him. “So right now the wave function is still a superposition of states. Even though the results are printed, they’re still un-observed and so still part of the indeterminate system. Do you understand?”
“Go in the next room. I’m going to open my envelope in exactly twenty seconds. In exactly thirty seconds, I want you to open yours.”
Satish walked out. And here it was: the gap where logic bleeds. I fought an irrational burst of fear. I lit the nearby Bunsen burner and held my envelope over the open flame. The smell of burning paper. Black ash. A minute later Satish was back, his envelope open.
“You didn’t look,” he said. He held out his sheet of paper. “As soon as I opened it, I knew you didn’t look.”
“I lied,” I said, taking the paper from him. “And you caught me. We made the world’s first quantum lie detector — a divination tool made of light.” I looked at the paper. The interference pattern lay in dark bands across the white surface. “Some mathematicians say there is either no such thing as free will, or the world is a simulation. Which do you think is true?”
“Those are our choices?”
I crushed the paper into a ball. Something slid away inside of me; a subtle change, and I opened my mouth to speak but what came out was different from what I intended.
I told Satish about the breakdown, and the drinking, and the hospital. I told him about the eyes in the mirror, and what I said to myself in the morning.
I told him about the smooth, steel “erase” button I put against my head — a single curl of an index finger to pay for everything.
Satish nodded while he listened, the smile wiped clean from his face. When I finished speaking, Satish put his hand on my shoulder. “So then you are crazy after all, my friend.”
“It’s been thirteen days now,” I told him. “Thirteen days sober.”
“Is that good?”
“No, but it’s longer than I’ve gone in two years.”
We ran the experiment. We printed the results.
If we looked at the detector results, the screen showed the particle pattern. If we didn’t, it showed an interference pattern.
We worked through most of the night. Near morning, sitting in the semidarkness of the lab, Satish spoke. “There once was a frog who lived in a well,” he said.
I watched his face as he told the story.
Satish continued. “One day a farmer lowered a bucket into the well, and the frog was pulled up to the surface. The frog blinked in the bright sun, seeing it for the first time. ‘Who are you?’ the frog asked the farmer.
“The farmer was amazed. He said, ‘I am the owner of this farm.’
“‘You call your world farm?’ the frog asked.
“‘No, this is not a different world,’ the farmer said. ‘This is the same world.’
“The frog laughed at the farmer. He said, ‘I have swum to every corner of my world. North, south, east, west. I am telling you, this is a different world.’ ”
I looked at Satish and said nothing.
“You and I,” Satish said. “We are still in the well.” He closed his eyes. “Can I ask you a question?”
“You do not want to drink?”
“I am curious, what you said with the gun, that you’d shoot yourself if you drank…”
“You did not drink on those days you said that?”
Satish paused as if considering his words carefully. “Then why did you not just say that everyday?”
“That is simple,” I said. “Because then I’d be dead now.”
Later, after Satish had gone home, I ran the experiment one final time. Hit “print.” I put the results in two envelopes without looking at them. On the first envelope, I wrote the words “detector results.” On the second, I wrote “screen results.”
I drove to the hotel. I took off my clothes. Stood naked in front of the mirror.
I put the enveloped marked “detector results” up to my forehead. “I will never look at this,” I said. “Not ever, unless I start drinking again.” I stared in the mirror. I stared at my own gray eyes and saw that I meant it.
I glanced down at the other envelope. The one with the screen results. My hands shook.
I laid the envelope on the desk, stared at it. Keats said, Beauty is truth, truth beauty. What was the truth? Will I drink again? The envelopes knew.
One day, I would either open the detector results, or I wouldn’t.
Inside the other envelope there was either an interference pattern, or there wasn’t. A “yes” or a “no.” The answer was in there. It was already in there.
I waited in Satish’s office until he arrived in the morning. He put his briefcase on his desk. He looked at me, at the clock, then back at me.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“Waiting for you.”
“How long have you been here?”
He glanced around the room. I leaned back in his chair, fingers laced behind my head.
Satish just watched me. Satish was bright. He waited.
“Can you rig the detector to an indicator light?” I asked him.
“How do you mean?”
“Can you set it up so that the light goes off when the detector picks up an electron at the slit?”
“It shouldn’t be hard. Why?”
“Let’s define, exactly, the indeterminate system.”
Point Machine watched the test. He studied the interference pattern. “You’re looking at one-half the wave particle duality of light,” I said.
“What’s the other half look like?”
I turned the detectors on. The banded pattern diverged into two distinct clumps on the screen.
“Oh,” Point Machine said.
Standing in Point Machine’s lab. Frogs swimming.
“They’re aware of light, right?” I asked.
“They do have eyes.”
“But, I mean, they’re aware of it?”
“Yeah, they respond to visual stimuli. They’re hunters. They have to see to hunt.”
“But I mean, aware?”
“What did you do before here?”
“I know that,” Point Machine said. “But what did you do?”
I tried to shrug him off. “There were a range of projects. Solid state photonic devices, Fourier transforms, liquid NMR.”
“They’re complex equations that can be used to translate visual imagery into the language of wave forms.”
Point Machine looked at me, dark eyes tightening. He said again, very slowly, enunciating each word, “What did you do, exactly?”
“Computers,” I said. “We were trying to build a computer. Quantum encryption processing extending up to twelve qubits. We used the Fourier transforms to remodel information into waves and back again.”
“Did it work?”
“Kind of. We reached a twelve-coherence state then used nuclear magnetic resonance to decode.”
“Why only ‘kind of? So then it didn’t work?”
“No, it worked, it definitely worked. Even when it was turned off.” I looked at him. “Kind of.”
It took Satish two days to rig up the light.
Point Machine brought the frogs in on a Saturday. We separated the healthy from the sick, the healthy from the monsters. “What is wrong with them?” I asked.
“The more complex a system, the more ways it can go wrong.”
Joy was next door, working in her lab. She heard our voices and stepped into the hall.
“You work weekends?” Satish asked her.
“It’s quieter,” Joy said. “I do my more sensitive tests when there’s nobody here. What about you? So you’re all partners now?”
“Eric has the big hands on this project,” Satish said. “My hands are small.”
“What are you working on?” she asked. She followed Satish into the lab.
He shot me a look, and I nodded.
So Satish explained it the way only Satish could.
“Oh,” she said. She blinked. She stayed.
We used Point Machine as a control. “We’re going to do this in real-time,” I told him. “No record at the detectors, just the indicator light. When I tell you, stand there and watch for the light. If the light comes on, it means the detectors picked up the electron. Understand?”
“Yeah, I get it,” Point Machine said.
Satish hit the button. I watched the screen, an interference pattern materializing before my eyes — a now-familiar pattern of light and dark.
“Okay,” I told Point Machine. “Now look in the box. Tell me if you see the light.”
Point Machine looked in the box. Before he even spoke, the interference pattern disappeared. “Yeah,” he said. “I see the light.”
I smiled. Felt that edge between known and unknown. Caressed it.
I nodded at Satish, and he hit the switch to kill the gun. I turned to Point Machine. “You collapsed the probability wave by observing the light, so we’ve established proof of principle.” I looked at the three of them. “Now let’s find out if all observers were created equal.”
Point Machine put a frog in the box.
And here it was, the stepping-off point — a view into the implicate, where objective and subjective might be experimentally defined.
I nodded to Satish. “Fire the gun.”
He hit the switch and the machine hummed. I watched the screen. I closed my eyes, felt my heart beating in my chest. Inside the box, I knew a light had come on for one of the two detectors; I knew the frog had seen it. But when I opened my eyes, the interference pattern still showed on the screen. The frog hadn’t changed it at all.
“Again,” I told Satish.
Satish fired the gun again. Again. Again.
Point Machine looked at me. “Well?”
“There’s still an interference pattern. The probability wave didn’t collapse.”
“What does that mean?” Joy asked.
“It means we try a different frog.”
We tried six. None changed the result.
“They’re part of the indeterminate system,” Satish said.
I was watching the screen closely, and the interference pattern vanished. I was about to shout, but when I looked up, I saw Point Machine peeking into the box.
“You looked,” I said.
“I was just making sure the light worked.”
“I could tell.”
We tried every frog in his lab. Then we tried the salamanders.
“Maybe it’s just amphibians,” he said.
“How is it that we affect the system, but frogs and salamanders can’t?”
“Maybe it’s our eyes,” Point Machine said. “It has to be the eyes — coherence effects in the retinal rod-rhopsin molecules themselves.”
“Why would that matter?”
“Our optic nerve cells can only conduct measured information to the visual cortex; eyes are just another detector.”
“Can I try?” Joy interrupted.
I nodded. We ran the experiment again, this time with Joy’s empty eyes pointed at the box. Again, nothing.
The next morning, Point Machine met Satish and me in the parking lot before work. We climbed into my car and drove to the mall.
We went to a pet store.
I bought three mice, a canary, a turtle, and a squish-faced Boston terrier puppy. The sales clerk stared at us.
“You pet lovers, huh?” He looked suspiciously at Satish and Point Machine.
“Oh, yes,” I said. “Pets.”
The drive back was quiet, punctuated only by the occasional whining of the puppy.
Point Machine broke the silence. “Perhaps it takes a more complex nervous system.”
“That shouldn’t matter,” Satish said. “Life is life. Real is real.”
I gripped the steering wheel. “What’s the difference between mind and brain?”
“Semantics,” said Point Machine. “Different names for the same idea.”
Satish regarded us. “Brain is hardware,” he said. “Mind is software.”
The Massachusetts landscape whipped past the car’s windows, a wall of ruined hillside on our right — huge, dark stone like the bones of the earth. A compound fracture of the land. We drove the rest of the way in silence.
Back at the lab, we started with the turtle. Then the mice, then the canary, which escaped, and flew to sit atop a filing cabinet. None of them collapsed the wave.
The Boston terrier looked at us, google-eyed.
“Are its eyes supposed to look like that?” Satish said. “In different directions?”
I put the puppy in the box. “It’s the breed, I think. But all it has to do is sense the light. Either eye will do.” I looked down at man’s best friend, our companion through the millennia, and harbored secret hope. This one, I told myself. This species, certainly, of all of them. Because who hasn’t looked into the eyes of a dog and not sensed something looking back.
The puppy whined in the box. Satish ran the experiment. I watched the screen.
Nothing. There was no change at all.
That night I drove to Joy’s. She answered the door. Waited for me to speak.
“You mentioned coffee?”
She smiled, and there was another moment when I felt sure she saw me.
Hours later, in the darkness, I spoke. “It’s time for me to go.”
She ran a hand along my bare spine.
“Time,” she whispered. “There is no such beast. Only now. And now.” She put her lips again on my skin. “And now.”
The next day, I had James come by the lab.
“You’ve made a finding?” he asked.
James watched us run the experiment. He looked in the box. He collapsed the wave function himself.
Then we put the puppy in the box and ran the experiment again. We showed him the interference pattern.
“Why didn’t it work?” he asked.
“We don’t know.”
“But what’s different?”
“Only one thing. The observer.”
“I don’t think I understand.”
“So far, none of the animals we’ve tested have been able to alter the quantum system.”
He brought his hand to his chin. His brow furrowed. He was silent for a long time, looking at the setup. “Holy shit,” he said finally.
“Yeah,” Point Machine said.
I stepped forward. “We want to do more tests. Work our way up through every phylum, class, and order. Primates being of particular interest, because of their evolutionary connection to us.”
“As much as you want,” he said. “As much funding as you want.”
It took ten days to arrange. We worked in conjunction with the Boston Zoo.
Transporting large numbers of animals can be a logistical nightmare, so it was decided that it would be easier to bring the lab to the zoo than to bring the zoo to the lab. Vans were hired. Technicians were assigned. Point Machine put his own research on hold and assigned a technician to feed his amphibians in his absence. Satish’s research also went on hiatus. “It seems suddenly less interesting,” he said.
James attended the experiment on the first day. We set up in one of the new exhibits under construction — a green, high-ceilinged room that would one day house muntjac. For now, though, it would house scientists. Satish worked the electronics. Point Machine liaisoned with the zoo staff. I built a bigger wooden box.
The zoo staff didn’t seem particularly inclined to cooperate until the size of Hansen’s charitable donation was explained to them by the zoo superintendent. After that, they were very helpful.
The following Monday we started the experiment. We worked our way through representatives of several mammal lineages: Marsupialia, Afrotheria, and the last two evolutionary holdouts of Monotremata — the platypus and the echidna. The next day we tested species from Xenarthra, and Laurasiatheria. The fourth day, we tackled Euarchontoglires. None of them collapsed the wave function; none carried the spotlight. On the fifth day, we started on the primates.
We began with the primates most distantly related to humans.
We tested lemuriforms and New World monkeys. Then Old World monkeys. Finally, we moved to the anthropoid apes. On the sixth day, we did the chimps.
“There are actually two species,” Point Machine told us. “Pan paniscus, commonly called the bonobo, and Pan troglodytes, the common chimpanzee. They’re congruent species, so similar in appearance that by the time scientists caught on in the 1930s, they’d already been hopelessly mixed in captivity.” Zoo staff maneuvered two juveniles into the room, holding them by their hands. “But during World War Two, we found a way to separate them again,” Point Machine continued. “It happened at a zoo outside Hellabrunn, Germany. A bombing leveled most of the town but, by some fluke, left the zoo intact. Or most of it, anyway. When the zookeepers returned, they expected to find their chimps alive and well. Instead, they found dozens of them dead, lying in undamaged cages. Only the common chimps had survived. The Bonobos had all died of fright.”
We tested both species. The machine hummed. We double-checked the results, then triple-checked, and the interference pattern did not budge. Even chimps didn’t cause wave function collapse.
“We’re alone,” I said. “Totally alone.”
Later that night, Point Machine paced the lab. “It’s like tracing any characteristic,” he said. “You look for homology in sister taxa. You organize clades, catalogue synapomorphies, identify the outgroup.”
“And who is the outgroup?”
“Who do you think?” Point Machine stopped pacing. “The ability to cause wave function collapse is apparently a derived characteristic that arose uniquely in our species at some point in the last several million years.”
“And before that?” I said.
“Before that Earth just stood there as so much un-collapsed reality? What, waiting for us to show up?”
Writing up the paper took several days. I signed Satish and Point Machine as coauthors.
Species and Quantum Wave function Collapse.
Eric Argus, Satish Gupta, Mi Chang. Hansen Labs, Boston MA.
Multiple studies have revealed the default state of all quantum systems to be a superposition of both collapsed and un-collapsed probability wave forms. It has long been known that subjective observation is a primary requirement for wave function collapse. The goal of this study was to identify the higher-order taxa capable of inciting wave function collapse by act of observation and to develop a phylogenetic tree to clarify the relationships between these major animal phyla. Species incapable of wave function collapse can be considered part of the larger indeterminate system. The study was carried out at the Boston Zoo on multiple orders of mammalia. Here we report that humans were the only species tested which proved capable of exerting wave function collapse onto the background superposition of states, and indeed, this ability appears to be a uniquely derived human characteristic. This ability most likely arose sometime in the last six million years after the most recent common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees.
James read the abstract. He came to my office.
“But what do the results mean?”
“They mean whatever you think they mean.”
Things moved fast after that. The paper was published in The Journal of Quantum Mechanics, and the phone started ringing. There were requests for interviews, peer review, and a dozen labs started replication trials. It was the interpretations that got crazy though. I stayed away from interpretations. I dealt with the facts. I turned down the interviews.
Satish worked on perfecting the test itself. He worked on downsizing it, minimizing it, digitizing it. Turning it into a product. It became the Hansen double-slit, and when he was done, it was the size of a loaf of bread — with an easy indicator light and small, efficient output. Green for “yes,” and red for “no.” I wonder if he knew then. I wonder if he already suspected what they’d use it for.
“It doesn’t matter what is known,” he said. He touched the box. “It’s about what is knowable.”
He abandoned his gate arrays. Above his work station I found a quote taped to the wall, torn from an old book.
Can animals be just a superior race of marionettes, which eat without pleasure, cry without pain, desire nothing, know nothing, and only simulate intelligence?
In the spring, a medical doctor named Robbins made his interest in the project known through a series of carefully worded letters.
The letters turned into phone calls. The voices on the other end belonged to lawyers, the kind that come from deep pockets. Robbins worked for a consortium with a vested interest in determining, once and for all, exactly when consciousness first arises during human fetal development.
Hansen Labs turned him down flat until the offer grew a seventh figure.
James came to me. “He wants you there.”
“I don’t care.”
“Robbins asked for you specifically.”
“I don’t give a damn. I don’t want any part of it, and you can fire me if you want to.”
James grew a weary smile. “Fire you? If I fired you, my bosses would fire me. And then hire you back. Probably with a raise.” He sighed. “This guy Robbins is a real prick, do you know that?”
“Yeah, I know. I’ve seen him on TV.”
“But that doesn’t mean he’s wrong.”
“Yeah, I know that, too.”
Hansen provided technicians for the testing. The week before the tests were going to occur, I got the call. I’d been expecting it. Robbins himself.
“Are you sure we can’t get you to come?”
“No,” I said. “I don’t think that’s possible.”
“If the issue is monetary, I can assure you—”
There was a pause on the line. “I understand,” he said. “All the same, I wanted to personally thank you. It’s a great thing you’ve accomplished. Your work is going to save a lot of lives.”
I was silent. “How did you get the mothers?”
“They’re committed volunteers, each one. Special women. We’re a large, national congregation, and we were able to find several volunteers from each trimester of pregnancy — though I don’t expect we’ll need more than the first one to prove the age at which a baby is ensouled. Our earliest mother is only a few weeks along.”
I spoke the next words slowly. “You’re fine with them taking the risk?”
“We have a whole staff of doctors attending, and medical experts have already determined that the procedure carries no more risk than amniocentesis. The diode inserted into the amniotic fluid will be no larger than a needle.”
“One thing I never understood about this… a fetus’s eyes are closed.”
“I prefer the word baby,” he said, voice gone tight. “A baby’s eyelids are very thin, and the diode is very bright. We have no doubt they’ll be able to sense it. Then we have merely to note wave function collapse, and we’ll finally have the proof we need to change the law and put a stop to the plague of abortions that has swept across this land.”
I put the phone down. Looked at it. Plague of abortions.
There were men like him in science, too — ones who had all the answers. Fanaticism, applied to any facet of an issue, has always seemed dangerous to me. I picked up the phone again. “You think it’s as simple as that?”
“I do. When is a human life a human life? That is always what this particular argument has been about, has it not? Now we’ll finally be able to prove that abortion is murder, and who could argue? I sense that you don’t like me very much.”
“I like you fine. But there’s an old saying, ‘Never trust a man with only one book.’”
“One book is all a man needs if it’s the right book.”
“Have you considered what you’ll do if you’re proven wrong?”
“What do you mean?”
“What if wave function collapse doesn’t occur until the ninth month? Or the magical moment of birth? Will you change your mind?”
“That’s not going to happen.”
“Maybe,” I said. “But I guess now we find out, don’t we.”
The night before the experiment, I called Point Machine. It was call or drink. And I didn’t want to drink. Because I knew if I drank again, even a single sip, I’d never stop. Not ever.
He picked up on the fifth ring. Faraway voice.
“What’s going to happen tomorrow?” I asked.
There was a long pause. Long enough that I wondered if he’d heard me. “Not sure,” he said. The voice on the other end was coarse and weary. It was a voice that hadn’t been sleeping well. “Entogeny reflects phylogeny,” he said. “Look early enough in gestation and we’ve got gills, a tail, the roots of the whole animal kingdom. You climb the phylogenetic tree as the fetus develops, and the newer characteristics, the things that make us human, get tacked on last. What Robbins is testing for is only found in humans, so my gut tells me he’s wrong, and wave collapse comes late. Real late.”
“You think it works that way?”
“I have no idea how it works.”
The day of the experiment came and went.
The first hint that something went wrong came in the form of silence. Silence from the Robbins group. Silence in the media. No press conferences. No TV interviews. Just silence.
The days turned to weeks.
Finally, a terse statement was issued by the group which called their results inconclusive. Robbins came out a few days later, saying bluntly that there had been a failure in the mechanism of the tests.
The truth was something stranger, of course. And of course, that came out later, too.
The truth was that some of the fetuses did pass the test. Just like Robbins hoped. Some did trigger wave function collapse.
But others didn’t.
And gestational age had nothing to do with it.
Two months later, I received the call in the middle of the night. “We found one in New York.” It was Satish.
“What?” I rubbed my eyes, trying to make sense of the words.
“A boy. Nine years old. He didn’t collapse the wave function.”
“What’s wrong with him?”
“Nothing. He’s normal. Normal vision, normal intelligence. We tested him five times, but the interference pattern didn’t budge.”
“What happened when you told him?”
“We didn’t tell him. He stood there staring at us.”
“It was like he already knew. Like he knew the whole time it wouldn’t work.”
Summer turned to fall. The testing continued.
Satish traveled the country, searching for that elusive, perfect cross-section and a sample size large enough to prove significance. He collected data points, faxed copies back to the lab for safekeeping.
In the end, it turned out there were others. Others who couldn’t collapse the wave function — a certain consistent percentage of the population who looked like us, and acted like us, but lacked this fundamental quality of humanity. Though Satish was careful not to use the term “soul” in his late night phone calls, we heard it in the gaps between the words. We heard it in the things he didn’t say.
I pictured him on the other end of the line, sitting in some dark hotel room, fighting a growing insomnia, fighting the terrible loneliness of what he was doing.
Point Machine sought comfort in elaborately constructed phylogenies and retreated into his cladograms. But there was no comfort for him there. “There’s no frequency distribution curve,” he told me. “No disequilibrium between ethnographic populations, nothing I can get traction on.”
He pored over Satish’s data, looking for the pattern that would make sense of it all.
“Distribution is random,” he said. “It doesn’t act like a trait.”
“Then maybe it’s not,” I said.
He shook his head. “Then who are they, some kind of empty-set? Nonplayer characters in the indeterminate system? Part of the game?”
Satish had his own ideas, of course.
“Why none of the scientists?” I asked him one night, phone to my ear. “If it’s random, why none of us?”
“If they’re part of the indeterminate system, why would they become scientists?”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s like a virtual construct,” Satish said. “You write the code, a series of response algorithms. Wind them up and let them go.”
“This is crazy.”
“I didn’t make the rules.”
“Do they even know what you’re testing them for, when they look at your little light? Do they know they’re different?”
“One of them,” he said. He was silent for a moment. “One of them knew.”
And then days later, the final late night call. From Denver. The last time I’d ever speak to him.
“I don’t think we’re supposed to do this,” he said, voice strangely harsh.
I rubbed my eyes, sitting up in bed.
“I don’t think we’re supposed to build this kind of thing,” he said. “The flaw in reality that you talked about… I don’t think we were expected to take advantage of it this way. To make a test.”
“I saw the boy again.”
“The boy from New York,” he said. “He came here to see me.” And then he hung up.
Ten days later, Satish disappeared, along with his special little box. He got off a plane in Boston, but didn’t make it home. I was at the lab when I got the call from his wife.
“No,” I said. “Not for days.”
She was crying into the phone.
“I’m sure he’s fine,” I lied.
When I hung up, I grabbed my coat and headed for the door. Bought a fifth of vodka and drove home to the hotel.
Stared in the mirror. Eyes gray like storm clouds, gray like gunmetal.
I spun the cap off the bottle and smelled the burn. Music filtered through the thin walls, a soft melody, a woman’s voice. I imagined my life different. I imagined that I could stop here. Not take the first drink.
My hands trembled.
The first sip brought tears to my eyes. Then I upended the bottle and drank deep. I tried to have a vision. I tried to picture Satish happy and healthy in a bar somewhere, working on a three-day binge, but the image wouldn’t come. That was me, not Satish. Satish didn’t drink. I tried to picture him coming home again. I couldn’t see that either.
Do they know they’re different, I’d asked him.
One of them, he’d said. One of them knew.
When the bottle was half empty, I walked to the desk and picked up the envelope marked “screen results.” Then I looked at the gun. I imagined what a .357 round could do to a skull — lay it open wide and deep. Reveal that place where self resides — expose it to the air where it would evaporate like liquid nitrogen, sizzling, steaming, gone. A gun could be many things, including a vehicle to return you to the implicate. The dream within a dream.
I imagined the world like an Escher drawing, part of either of two different scenes, and our brains decide which to see.
The more complex the system, the more ways it can go wrong. Point Machine had said that.
And things go wrong. That spotlight. Little engines of wave function collapse. Humans are blind to the beauty; the truth is beyond us. We can’t see reality as it is: only observe it into existence.
But what if you could control that spotlight, dilate it like the pupil of an eye? Stare deep into the implicate order. What would you see? What if you could slide between the sheaths of the subjective and objective? Maybe there have always been people like that. Mistakes. People who walk among us, but are not us. Only now there was a test. A test to point them out.
And maybe they didn’t want to be found.
I pulled the sheet of paper out of the envelope.
I unfolded it and spread it out flat on the desk. I looked at the results — and in so doing, finally collapsed the probability wave of the experiment I’d run all those months ago.
I stared at what was on the paper, a series of shaded semicircles — a now familiar pattern of light and dark.
Though, of course, the results had been there all along.
Over the last five years, Ted Kosmatka has published more than a dozen stories in places like Asimov’s, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and Subterranean. His writing has been reprinted in seven Year’s Best anthologies, serialized over the radio, performed on stage, and translated into Russian, Hebrew, Polish, and Czech.
Ted was born in Indiana, not far from Lake Michigan. He studied biology at Indiana University and since then has gradually assembled one of those crazy work histories that writers so often seem to have. Among other things, he’s been a zookeeper, a chem tech, and a laborer in a steel mill. More recently, he worked in a research laboratory where he ran an electron microscope. He left the lab in 2009 to take a job writing for a video game company. He now lives with his family in the Pacific Northwest.
A MEMORY OF WIND
FROM THE AUTHOR: In the spring of 2006, I attended a production of Euripedes’ Iphigenia at Aulis at the San Jose Repertory Theatre. It was the U.S. premiere of Don Taylor’s adaptation, featuring the San Francisco Dance Brigade as the Greek chorus. It was an exceptional production, smart and intense and brilliantly acted. I was familiar with the original Greek myth which provides the basis for the play. After Paris abducts Helen, troops mass in the harbor at Aulis under the leadership of King Agamemnon, preparing to make war on Troy. But they can’t leave the harbor — there’s no wind. A priest named Calchus informs Agamemnon that Artemis will only let them sail if he sacrifices his daughter, Iphigenia. So he does.
I had always been a little peeved with what I felt was the traditional interpretation of the myth, which poses Agamemnon as the tragic figure. Taylor’s adaptation of the play moved Clytemnestra into the pivotal role, imagining the tragedy from her perspective, as she is helpless to prevent Agamemnon from killing their daughter (an interpretation which gains emotional freight when you remember that she later kills him in revenge, and then is murdered by their son, Orestes).
While Taylor’s shifting the point of view created an interesting, new way of looking at the myth — and allowed him to comment on the politics of war — I found it unsatisfying. The original myth was about Agamemnon. The reinterpretation was about Clytemnestra. What about Iphigenia? Surely the story of her death was her own, not someone else’s.
So I tried to imagine it.
From a certain perspective, Iphigenia is an unsuitable main character. She has minimal agency. She is young and trapped and sad and passive and dying. It seems much easier to write about Agamemnon, who could call off the sacrifice, or about Clytemnestra, who will eventually have the power to exact revenge. But sometimes we are the ones who are trapped. Sometimes we are the ones who can’t change our fates. Those stories are also important.
AFTER HELEN AND her lover Paris fled to Troy, her husband King Menelaus called his allies to war. Under the leadership of King Agamemnon, the allies met in the harbor at Aulis. They prepared to sail for Troy, but they could not depart, for there was no wind.
Kings Agamemnon, Menelaus, and Odysseus consulted with Calchas, a priest of Artemis, who revealed that the angered goddess was balking their departure. The kings asked Calchas how they might convince Artemis to grant them a wind. He answered that she would only relent after King Agamemnon brought his eldest daughter, Iphigenia, to Aulis and sacrificed her to the goddess.
I began turning into wind the moment that you promised me to Artemis.
Before I woke, I lost the flavor of rancid oil and the shade of green that flushes new leaves. They slipped from me, and became gentle breezes that would later weave themselves into the strength of my gale. Between the first and second beats of my lashes, I also lost the grunt of goats being led to slaughter, and the roughness of wool against calloused fingertips, and the scent of figs simmering in honey wine.
Around me, the other palace girls slept fitfully, tossing and grumbling through the dry summer heat. I stumbled to my feet and fled down the corridor, my footsteps falling smooth against the cool, painted clay. As I walked, the sensation of the floor blew away from me, too. It was as if I stood on nothing.
I forgot the way to my mother’s rooms. I decided to visit Orestes instead. I also forgot how to find him. I paced bright corridors, searching. A male servant saw me, and woke a male slave, who woke a female slave, who roused herself and approached me, bleary-eyed, mumbling. “What’s wrong, Lady Iphigenia? What do you require?”
I had no answers.
I have no answers for you either, father.
I imagine what you did on that night when I paced the palace corridors, my perceptions vanishing like stars winking out of the night sky. You presided over the war council in Aulis. I imagine you standing with the staff of office heavy in your hands — heavy with wood, heavy with burdens.
Calchas, priest of Artemis, bowed before you and the other kings. “I have prayed long and hard,” he said. “The goddess is angry with you, Agamemnon. She will not allow the wind to take your ships to Troy until you have made amends.”
I imagine that the staff of office began to feel even heavier in your hands. You looked between your brother, Menelaus, and the sly Odysseus. Both watched you with cold, expressionless faces. They wanted war. You had become an obstacle to their desires.
“What have I done?” you asked Calchas. “What does the goddess want?”
The priest smiled.
What would a goddess want? What else but virgin blood on her altar? One daughter’s life for the wind that would allow you to launch a fleet that could kill thousands. A child for a war.
Odysseus and Menelaus fixed you with hungry gazes. Their appetite for battle hollowed the souls from their eyes as starvation will hollow a man’s cheeks. Implicit threats flickered in the torchlight. Do as the priest says, or we’ll take the troops we’ve gathered to battle Troy and march on Mycenae instead. Sacrifice your daughter or sacrifice your kingdom.
Menelaus took an amphora of rich red wine and poured a measure for each of you. A drink; a vow. Menelaus drank rapidly, red droplets spilling like blood through the thicket of his beard. Odysseus savored slow, languorous sips, his canny eyes intent on your face.
You held your golden rhyton at arm’s length, peering into redness as dark as my condemned blood. I can only imagine what you felt. Maybe you began to waver. Maybe you thought of my eyes looking up at you, and of the wedding I would never have, and the children I would never bear. But whatever thoughts I may imagine in your mind, I only know the truth of your actions. You did not dash the staff of office across your knee and hurl away its broken halves. You did not shout to Menelaus that he had no right to ask you to sacrifice your daughter’s life when he would not even sacrifice the pleasure of a faithless harlot who fled his marital bed. You did not laugh at Calchas and tell him to demand something else.
You clutched the staff of office, and you swallowed the wine.
I lost so much. Words. Memories. Perceptions. Only now, in this liminality that might as well be death (if indeed it isn’t) have I begun recovering myself.
All by your hand, father. All by your will. You and the goddess have dispersed me, but I will not let you forget.
Next I knew, mother’s hands were on me, firm and insistent. She held her face near mine, her brows drawn with concern.
She and her slaves had found me hunched beside a mural that showed children playing in a courtyard, my hands extended toward the smallest figure which, in my insensibility, I’d mistaken for Orestes. The slaves eyed me strangely and made signs to ward off madness.
“It must have been a dream,” I offered to excuse the strangeness which lay slickly on my skin.
“We’ll consult a priest,” said Clytemnestra. She put her hand on my elbow. “Can you stand? I have news.”
I took a ginger step. My foot fell smoothly on the floor I could no longer feel.
“Good,” said mother. “You’ll need your health.” She stroked my cheek, and looked at me with odd sentimentality, her gaze lingering over the planes of my face as if she were trying to paint me in her memory.
“What is it?” I asked.
“I’m sorry. I just wanted to look at you.” She withdrew her fingers. “Your father has summoned us to Aulis. Achilles wants you as his wife!”
The word wife I knew, but Aulis? Achilles?
“Who?” I asked.
“Achilles!” Clytemnestra repeated. “We’ll leave for Aulis this afternoon.”
I looked into the familiar depths of mother’s eyes. Her pupils were dark as unlit water, but her irises were gone. They weren’t colored; they weren’t white. They were nothing.
Green, I remembered briefly, mother’s eyes are like new green leaves. But when I tried to chase the thought, I could no longer remember what green might be.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“You’re going to be married, my heart,” said mother. “Everything changes all at once, doesn’t it? One day your daughter’s a girl, and the next she’s a woman. One day your family is all together, and the next there’s a war, and everyone’s leaving. But that’s how life is. There’s stasis and then there’s change, and then before you even know what the next stasis is, it’s gone, and all you can do is try to remember it. You’ll understand what I mean. You’re so young. Then again, you’re going to be a wife. So you’re not that young, are you?”
“Who is Achilles?” I repeated.
But mother had already released my hands and begun to pace the room. She was split between high spirits and fretting about the upcoming preparations, with no part of her left for me. She gave orders to her attending slaves. Pack this. Take those. Prepare. Clean. Polish. The slaves chattered like a flock of birds, preening under her attention.
I was not quite forgotten; a lone young girl had been assigned to prepare me for the journey. She approached, her hands filled with wedding adornments. “You’re going to marry a hero,” she said. “Isn’t that wonderful?”
I felt a gentle tugging at my scalp. She began braiding something into my hair. I reached up to feel what. She paused for a moment, and let me take one of the decorations.
I held the red and white thing in my palm. It was delicately put together, with soft, curved rows arrayed around a dark center. A sweet, crushed scent filled the air.
“This smells,” I said.
“It smells good,” said the slave, taking the thing gently from my hand. I closed my eyes and searched for the name of the sweet scent as she wound red-and-white into my bridal wreath.
Once, when I was still a child with a shaved scalp and a ponytail, you came at night to the room where I slept. Sallow moonlight poured over your face and hands as you bent over my bed, your features wan like shadows beneath the yellowed tint of your boar’s tusk helmet. Torchlight glinted off of the boiled leather of your cuirass and skirt.
As a child, I’d watched from time to time from the upper-story balconies as you led your troops, but I’d never before been so close while you wore leather and bronze. Here stood my father the hero, my father the king, the part of you that seemed so distant from the man who sat exhausted at meals eating nothing while mother tried to tempt you with cubes of cheese and mutton, as if you were any hard-worn laborer. Here you stood, transformed into the figure I knew from rumors and daydreams. It seemed impossible that you could be close enough for me to smell olives on your breath and hear the clank of your sword against your thigh.
“I had a sudden desire to see my daughter,” you said, not bothering to whisper.
The other girls woke at the sound of your voice, mumbling sleepily as they shifted to watch us. I felt vain. I wanted them to see you, see me, see us together. It reminded me that I was Iphigenia, daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, niece of Helen, descendent of gods and heroes.
How easy it is to be a thing but not feel it. Greatness slips into the mundanity of weaving, of pitting olives, of sitting cooped up in the megaron during storms and listening to the patter of rain on stone.
“Get up,” you said. “I want to show you something.”
I belted my garment and followed you out of my chamber and down the echoing stairs to the bottom story. Flickers of firelight rumbled through the doors that led to the megaron. The servants who attended the fire through the night gossiped, their laughter rushing like the hiss and gutter of the flames.
You led the way outside. I hung back at the threshold. I rarely left the palace walls, and I never left at night. Yet you stepped outside without so much as turning back to be certain I’d follow. Did it ever occur to you that a daughter might hesitate to accede to her father’s whims? Did you ever think a girl might, from time to time, have desires that outweighed her sense of duty?
But you were right. I followed you onto the portico where you stood, tall and solemn, in your armor.
We descended stone steps and emerged at last beneath the raw sky. A bright, eerie moon hung over the cliffs rocky landscape, painting it in pale light. Fragile dandelion moons blossomed here and there between the limestone juts, reflecting the larger moon above. The air smelled of damp and night-blooming plants. An eagle cried. From elsewhere came a vixen’s answering call.
The smell of your sweat drifted on the night breeze, mixing with horse hair and manure. The combined scents were both foul and tantalizing. When you visited the women’s quarters, it was always after events had ended, when the sweat was stale or washed away. Suddenly, things were fresh and new. You had brought me into the middle of things.
We reached the place where the river cuts through the rocks. You began running. Ahead of us, voices drifted from a copse of trees, accompanied by the clang of metal on metal. I raced behind you, stumbling over the stones that studded the grass. We veered toward the trees. A low fog gathered over the ground, illuminated from above by shifting white streams of moonlight. Needled cedar branches poked through the veil.
I fell behind, gasping with increasingly ragged breath. Your footsteps crunched onto leaves as you crossed into the copse. I trailed after, one hand pressed against the urgent pain in my side.
You turned when I was mere paces behind you. “If you were out of breath, why didn’t you tell me?” you asked while I struggled the last few steps.
I leaned against a cedar to take the weight off of my trembling legs.
Ahead of us, your men stood in the thick foliage, enveloped by the fog. They wore bronze breastplates and thick felt greaves that loomed darkly out of the haze like tree trunks. Their swords emerged from the obscuring whiteness as they swung, metal clanging against metal as blades found each other. The soldiers seemed a ghostly rank of dismembered limbs and armor that appeared with the glint of moonbeams and then vanished into nothing.
The blunt of a sword crashed against a man’s breastplate with a sound like thunder. I cringed. Tears of fright welled in my eyes. I felt exposed beneath the vastness of a sky nothing like the ceilings I’d lived below for most of my life.
You were watching me, your eyes focused on my face instead of on the wonder before us. “I told my hequetai to lead the men in exercises. The fog came up, and look! I had to show someone.”
I tried to give you what you wanted. “It’s marvelous.” My voice quivered with fear that sounded like delight.
“I have an idea,” you said, a wicked smile nestled in your beard.
You scavenged through the leaf fall with rustle and crunch until you prized out a branch the length of my forearm. You tested its weight against your palm and gave it an experimental swing.
“Try this,” you said, presenting me with the branch.
Tentatively, I placed my palm against the bark.
“Go on.” You pointed impatiently at your men battling through the fog. “Pretend you’re a warrior.”
I waved the branch back and forth, the way I thought they wielded their swords. It rattled in my hand.
“Stop,” you commanded. You plucked a dandelion from the ground and laid it across a fallen log. “Here, swing at this. One strong, smooth motion.”
The dandelion was a fragile silver moon. I swung the branch up and out. Its weight dragged me forward. I stumbled across a stone.
You took the branch away. “No. Like this.”
How I loved the smooth motion of your arm as it moved through the air: the strength of your shoulders, the creak of boiled leather moving with your body. I strove to memorize your arcs and footfalls, but when you returned the branch to me, my fingers felt numb and strange around the bark. I flailed at the leaves and your shins until an accidental swing carried me off balance. My foot came down on the tiny moon of the dandelion. It died with a wet noise.
Wounded petals lay crushed against the wood, releasing the scent of moist soil. You took the branch from me and threw it aside.
“It’s a good thing you were born a girl,” you said, tugging playfully at my ponytail.
It was, you know. I’ve never been sorry about that. What I regret most is the children I never bore. I imagined them before you promised me to Artemis: strong boys and dark-haired girls with eyes blue enough to make Zeus lustful. One after the other, each thought-born child disappeared into forgetfulness after you bartered me for wind.
Do you remember that? Perhaps you do. My memories are still strange and partial, like a blanket that has been cut into pieces and then sewn up again. Stitches obscure old connections. The sense of continuity is gone. I no longer remember what it is like to have a normal recollection.
But I’m not speaking solely for your benefit. I need this, too. I cannot articulate the joy of reaching for memories and discovering them present to be touched, and brought forth, and described. I need my memories to transcend the ephemera of thought. I need them to be tangible for the brief moment when they exist as gale winds shrieking in your ear.
I remembered that night when you brought me to see your soldiers for a long time. It was one of the last things Artemis took from me. I’ve pondered it, and polished it, and fretted about it, as if it were a faceted jewel I could turn in my hand and study from many different angles.
Why did you fetch me when you wanted to share that marvel? Why not my mother? Why weren’t you content to share the moment with your men, with whom you’ve shared so many of your days and nights?
Did you really fail to understand why I ran until I staggered rather than ask you to slow down? You seemed confused then, but you’ve never stopped expecting me to stumble after you. You’ve never hesitated to see if I will obey your commands, no matter how wild and cruel, any more than you hesitated that night to see if I would follow you past the palace threshold to a place I’d never been.
Maybe it wasn’t ignorance that made me fear your men in the fog. Maybe it was prescience: things have never ended well for me when you’ve led me out of the world of women and into the world of men.
Clytemnestra completed preparations to leave the palace by noon. She packed me in the wagon with the clothing and the yarn and the dried fruit. I was one more item of baggage to bring to Aulis: a bride for Achilles.
Mother placed Orestes in my lap to hold while she supervised the loading. If she noticed my stillness and silence, she must have believed they were part of a bride’s normal reticence.
The wagon set off under full day’s sun. Our wheels churned dust into the stifling air. It swirled through gaps in our canopy. Choking grains worked their way into our eyes and mouths. I braved more dust to peek through the curtains; beyond our car, the air hung heavy and motionless.
Orestes jounced on my lap as the wagon tumbled over dirt and rocks. He twisted up to look at me, enormous eyes blinking against the dust. He grabbed a lock of my hair in his fists and put it in his mouth, chewing contemplatively.
“Stop that,” said mother, tugging my hair out of his mouth. She inspected the ragged, chewed ends and sighed.