It was one of the secret opinions, such as we all have, of Peter Brench that his main success in life would have consisted in his never having committed himself about the work, as it was called, of his friend, Morgan Mallow. This was a subject on which it was, to the best of his belief, impossible, with veracity, to quote him, and it was nowhere on record that he had, in the connection, on any occasion and in any embarrassment, either lied or spoken the truth. Such a triumph had its honour even for a man of other triumphs—a man who had reached fifty, who had escaped marriage, who had lived within his means, who had been in love with Mrs. Mallow for years without breathing it, and who, last not least, had judged himself once for all. He had so judged himself in fact that he felt an extreme and general humility to be his proper portion; yet there was nothing that made him think so well of his parts as the course he had steered so often through the shallows just mentioned. It became thus a real wonder that the friends in whom he had most confidence were just those with whom he had most reserves. He couldn’t tell Mrs. Mallow—or at least he supposed, excellent man, he couldn’t—that she was the one beautiful reason he had never married; any more than he could tell her husband that the sight of the multiplied marbles in that gentleman’s studio was an affliction of which even time had never blunted the edge. His victory, however, as I have intimated, in regard to these productions was not simply in his not having let it out that he deplored them; it was, remarkably, in his not having kept it in by anything else.
The whole situation, among these good people, was verily a marvel, and there was probably not such another for a long way from the spot that engages us—the point at which the soft declivity of Hampstead began at that time to confess in broken accents to St. John’s Wood. He despised Mallow’s statues and adored Mallow’s wife, and yet was distinctly fond of Mallow, to whom, in turn, he was equally dear. Mrs. Mallow rejoiced in the statues—though she preferred, when pressed, the busts; and if she was visibly attached to Peter Brench it was because of his affection for Morgan. Each loved the other, moreover, for the love borne in each case to Lancelot, whom the Mallows respectively cherished as their only child and whom the friend of their fireside identified as the third—but decidedly the handsomest—of his godsons. Already in the old years it had come to that—that no one, for such a relation, could possibly have occurred to any of them, even to the baby itself, but Peter. There was luckily a certain independence, of the pecuniary sort, all round: the Master could never otherwise have spent his solemn Wanderjahre 1 in Florence and Rome and continued, by the Thames as well as by the Arno and the Tiber, to add unpurchased group to group and model, for what was too apt to prove in the event mere love, fancy-heads of celebrities either too busy or too buried—too much of the age or too little of it—to sit. Neither could Peter, lounging in almost daily, have found time to keep the whole complicated tradition so alive by his presence. He was massive, but mild, the depositary of these mysteries—large and loose and ruddy and curly, with deep tones, deep eyes, deep pockets, to say nothing of the habit of long pipes, soft hats, and brownish, greyish, weather-faded clothes, apparently always the same.
He had ‘written,’ it was known, but had never spoken—never spoken, in particular, of that; and he had the air (since, as was believed, he continued to write) of keeping it up in order to have something more—as if he had not, at the worst, enough—to be silent about. Whatever his air, at any rate, Peter’s occasional unmentioned prose and verse were quite truly the result of an impulse to maintain the purity of his taste by establishing still more firmly the right relation of fame to feebleness. The little green door of his domain was in a garden-wall on which the stucco was cracked and stained, and in the small detached villa behind it everything was old, the furniture, the servants, the books, the prints, the habits, and the new improvements. The Mallows, at Carrara Lodge, were within ten minutes, and the studio there was on their little land, to which they had added, in their happy faith, to build it. This was the good fortune, if it was not the ill, of her having brought him, in marriage, a portion that put them in a manner at their ease and enabled them thus, on their side, to keep it up. And they did keep it up—they always had—the infatuated sculptor and his wife, for whom nature had refined on the impossible by relieving them of the sense of the difficult. Morgan had, at all events, everything of the sculptor but the spirit of Phidias—the brown velvet, the becoming beretto, the ‘plastic’ presence, the fine fingers, the beautiful accent in Italian, and the old Italian factotum. He seemed to make up for every thing when he addressed Egidio with the ‘tu’ and waved him to turn one of the rotary pedestals of which the place was full. They were tremendous Italians at Carrara Lodge, and the secret of the part played by this fact in Peter’s life was, in a large degree, that it gave him, sturdy Briton that he was, just the amount of going abroad he could bear. The Mallows were all his Italy, but it was in a measure for Italy he liked them. His one worry was that Lance—to which they had shortened his godson—was, in spite of a public school, perhaps a shade too Italian. Morgan, meanwhile, looked like somebody’s flattering idea of somebody’s own person as expressed in the great room provided at the Uffizzi museum for Portraits of Artists by Themselves. The Master’s sole regret that he had not been born rather to the brush than to the chisel sprang from his wish that he might have contributed to that collection.
It appeared, with time, at any rate, to be to the brush that Lance had been born; for Mrs. Mallow, one day when the boy was turning twenty, broke it to their friend, who shared, to the last delicate morsel, their problems and pains, that it seemed as if nothing would really do but that he should embrace the career. It had been impossible longer to remain blind to the fact that he gained no glory at Cambridge, where Brench’s own college had, for a year, tempered its tone to him as for Brench’s own sake. Therefore why renew the vain form of preparing him for the impossible? The impossible—it had become clear—was that he should be anything but an artist.
‘Oh dear, dear!’ said poor Peter.
‘Don’t you believe in it?’ asked Mrs. Mallow, who still, at more than forty, had her violet velvet eyes, her creamy satin skin, and her silken chestnut hair.
‘Believe in what?’
‘Why, in Lance’s passion.’
‘I don’t know what you mean by “believing in it.” I’ve never been unaware, certainly, of his disposition, from his earliest time, to daub and draw; but I confess I’ve hoped it would burn out.’
‘But why should it,’ she sweetly smiled, ‘with his wonderful heredity? Passion is passion—though of course, indeed, you, dear Peter, know nothing of that. Has the Master’s ever burned out?’
Peter looked off a little and, in his familiar, formless way, kept up for a moment a sound between a smothered whistle and a subdued hum. ‘Do you think he’s going to be another Master?’
She seemed scarce prepared to go that length, yet she had, on the whole, a most marvellous trust. ‘I know what you mean by that. Will it be a career to incur the jealousies and provoke the machinations that have been at times almost too much for his father? Well—say it may be, since nothing but clap-trap, in these dreadful days, can, it would seem, make its way, and since, with the curse of refinement and distinction, one may easily find one’s self begging one’s bread. Put it at the worst—say he has the misfortune to wing his flight further than the vulgar taste of his stupid countrymen can follow. Think, all the same, of the happiness—the same that the Master has had. He’ll know.’
Peter looked rueful. ‘Ah, but what will he know?’
‘Quiet joy!’ cried Mrs. Mallow, quite impatient and turning away.
He had of course, before long, to meet the boy himself on it and to hear that, practically, everything was settled. Lance was not to go up again, but to go instead to Paris, where, since the die was cast, he would find the best advantages. Peter had always felt that he must be taken as he was, but had never perhaps found him so much as he was as on this occasion. ‘You chuck Cambridge then altogether? Doesn’t that seem rather a pity?’
Lance would have been like his father, to his friend’s sense, had he had less humour, and like his mother had he had more beauty. Yet it was a good middle way, for Peter, that, in the modern manner, he was, to the eye, rather the young stockbroker than the young artist. The youth reasoned that it was a question of time—there was such a mill to go through, such an awful lot to learn. He had talked with fellows and had judged. ‘One has got, to-day,’ he said, ‘don’t you see? to know.’
His interlocutor, at this, gave a groan. ‘Oh, hang it, don’t know!’
Lance wondered. ‘”Don’t”? Then what’s the use———?’
‘The use of what?’
‘Why, of anything. Don’t you think I’ve talent?’
Peter smoked away, for a little, in silence;. then went on: ‘It isn’t knowledge, it’s ignorance that—as we’ve been beautifully told—is bliss.’
‘Don’t you think I’ve talent?’ Lance repeated.
Peter, with his trick of queer, kind demonstrations, passed his arm round his godson and held him a moment. ‘How do I know?’
‘Oh,’ said the boy, ‘if it’s your own ignorance you’re defending———!’
Again, for a pause, on the sofa, his godfather smoked. ‘It isn’t. I’ve the misfortune to be omniscient.’
‘Oh, well,’ Lance laughed again, ‘if you know too much———!’
‘That’s what I do, and why I’m so wretched.’
Lance’s gaiety grew. ‘Wretched? Come, I say!’
‘But I forgot,’ his companion went on—’you’re not to know about that. It would indeed, for you too, make the too much. Only I’ll tell you what I’ll do.’ And Peter got up from the sofa. ‘If you’ll go up again, I’ll pay your way at Cambridge.’
Lance stared, a little rueful in spite of being still more amused. ‘Oh, Peter! You disapprove so of Paris?’
‘Well, I’m afraid of it.’
‘Ah, I see.’
‘No, you don’t see—yet. But you will—that is you would. And you mustn’t.’
The young man thought more gravely. ‘But one’s innocence, already———’
‘Is considerably damaged? Ah, that won’t matter,’ Peter persisted—’we’ll patch it up here.’
‘Here? Then you want me to stay at home?’
Peter almost confessed to it. ‘Well, we’re so right—we four together—just as we are. We’re so safe. Come, don’t spoil it.’
The boy, who had turned to gravity, turned from this, on the real pressure in his friend’s tone, to consternation. ‘Then what’s a fellow to be?’
‘My particular care. Come, old man’—and Peter now fairly pleaded—I’ll look out for you.’
Lance, who had remained on the sofa with his legs out and his hands in his pockets, watched him with eyes that showed suspicion. Then he got up. ‘You think there’s something the matter with me—that I can’t make a success.’
‘Well, what do you call a success?’
Lance thought again. ‘Why, the best sort, I suppose, is to please one’s self. Isn’t that the sort that, in spite of cabals and things, is—in his own peculiar line—the Master’s?’
There were so much too many things in this question to be answered at once that they practically checked the discussion, which became particularly difficult in the light of such renewed proof that, though the young man’s innocence might, in the course of his studies, as he contended, somewhat have shrunken, the finer essence of it still remained. That was indeed exactly what Peter had assumed and what, above all, he desired; yet, perversely enough, it gave him a chill. The boy believed in the cabals and things, believed in the peculiar line, believed, in short, in the Master. What happened a month or two later was not that he went up again at the expense of his godfather, but that a fortnight after he had got settled in Paris this personage sent him fifty pounds.
He had meanwhile, at home, this personage, made up his mind to the worst; and what it might be had never yet grown quite so vivid to him as when, on his presenting himself one Sunday night, as he never failed to do, for supper, the mistress of Carrara Lodge met him with an appeal as to—of all things in the world—the wealth of the Canadians. She was earnest, she was even excited. ‘Are many of them really rich?’
He had to confess that he knew nothing about them, but he often thought afterwards of that evening. The room in which they sat was adorned with sundry specimens of the Master’s genius, which had the merit of being, as Mrs. Mallow herself frequently suggested, of an unusually convenient size. They were indeed of dimensions not customary in the products of the chisel and had the singularity that, if the objects and features intended to be small looked too large, the objects and features intended to be large looked too small. The Master’s intention, whether in respect to this matter or to any other, had, in almost any case, even after years, remained undiscoverable to Peter Brench. The creations that so failed to reveal it stood about on pedestals and brackets, on tables and shelves, a little staring white population, heroic, idyllic, allegoric, mythic, symbolic, in which ‘scale’ had so strayed and lost itself that the public square and the chimney-piece seemed to have changed places, the monumental being all diminutive and the diminutive all monumental; branches, at any rate, markedly, of a family in which stature was rather oddly irrespective of function, age, and sex. They formed, like the Mallows themselves, poor Brench’s own family—having at least, to such a degree, a note of familiarity. The occasion was one of those he had long ago learnt to know and to name—short flickers of the faint flame, soft gusts of a kinder air. Twice a year, regularly, the Master believed in his fortune, in addition to believing all the year round in his genius. This time it was to be made by a bereaved couple from Toronto, who had given him the handsomest order for a tomb to three lost children, each of whom they desired to be, in the composition, emblematically and characteristically represented.
Such was naturally the moral of Mrs. Mallow’s question: if their wealth was to be assumed, it was clear, from the nature of their admiration, as well as from mysterious hints thrown out (they were a little odd!) as to other possibilities of the same mortuary sort, that their further patronage might be; and not less evident that, should the Master become at all known in those climes, nothing would be more inevitable than a run of Canadian custom. Peter had been present before at runs of custom, colonial and domestic—present at each of those of which the aggregation had left so few gaps in the marble company round him; but it was his habit never, at these junctures, to prick the bubble in advance. The fond illusion, while it lasted, eased the wound of elections never won, the long ache of medals and diplomas carried off, on every chance, by every one but the Master; it lighted the lamp, moreover, that would glimmer through the next eclipse. They lived, however, after all—as it was always beautiful to see—at a height scarce susceptible of ups and downs. They strained a point, at times, charmingly, to admit that the public was, here and there, not too bad to buy; but they would have been nowhere without their attitude that the Master was always too good to sell. They were, at all events, deliciously formed, Peter often said to himself, for their fate; the Master had a vanity, his wife had a loyalty, of which success, depriving these things of innocence, would have diminished the merit and the grace. Any one could be charming under a charm, and, as he looked about him at a world of prosperity more void of proportion even than the Master’s museum, he wondered if he knew another pair that so completely escaped vulgarity.
‘What a pity Lance isn’t with us to rejoice!’ Mrs. Mallow on this occasion sighed at supper.
‘We’ll drink to the health of the absent,’ her husband replied, filling his friend’s glass and his own and giving a drop to their companion; ‘but we must hope that he’s preparing himself for a happiness much less like this of ours this evening—excusable as I grant it to be!—than like the comfort we have always—whatever has happened or has not happened—been able to trust ourselves to enjoy. The comfort,’ the Master explained, leaning back in the pleasant lamplight and firelight, holding up his glass alooking round at his marble family, quartered more or less, a monstrous brood, in every room—’the comfort of art in itself!’
Peter looked a little shily at his wine. ‘Well—I don’t care what you may call it when a fellow doesn’t—but Lance must learn to sell, you know. I drink to his acquisition of the secret of a base popularity!’
‘Oh yes, he must sell,’ the boy’s mother, who was still more, however, this seemed to give out, the Master’s wife, rather artlessly conceded.
‘Oh,’ the sculptor, after a moment, confidently pronounced, ‘Lance will. Don’t be afraid. He will have learnt.’
‘Which is exactly what Peter,’ Mrs. Mallow gaily returned—’why in the world were you so perverse, Peter?—wouldn’t, when he told him, hear of.’
Peter, when this lady looked at him with accusatory affection—a grace, on her part, not infrequent—could never find a word; but the Master, who was always all amenity and tact, helped him out now as he had often helped him before. ‘That’s his old idea, you know—on which we’ve so often differed: his theory that the artist should be all impulse and instinct. I go in, of course, for a certain amount of school. Not too much—but a due proportion. There’s where his protest came in,’ he continued to explain to his wife, ‘as against what might, don’t you see? be in question for Lance.’
‘Ah, well,’—and Mrs. Mallow turned the violet eyes across the table at the subject of this discourse,—’he’s sure to have meant, of course, nothing but good; but that wouldn’t have prevented him, if Lance had taken his advice, from being, in effect, horribly cruel.’
They had a sociable way of talking of him to his face as if he had been in the clay or—at most—in the plaster, and the Master was unfailingly generous. He might have been waving Egidio to make him revolve. ‘Ah, but poor Peter was not so wrong as to what it may, after all, come to that he will learn.’
‘Oh, but nothing artistically bad,’ she urged—still, for poor Peter, arch and dewy.
‘Why, just the little French tricks,’ said the Master: on which their friend had to pretend to admit, when pressed by Mrs. Mallow, that these æsthetic vices had been the objects of his dread.
‘I know now,’ Lance said to him the next year, ‘why you were so much against it.’ He had come back, supposedly for a mere interval, and was looking about him at Carrara Lodge, where indeed he had already, on two or three occasions, since his expatriation, briefly appeared. This had the air of a longer holiday. ‘Something rather awful has happened to me. It isn’t so very good to know.’
‘I’m bound to say high spirits don’t show in your face,’ Peter was rather ruefully forced to confess. ‘Still, are you very sure you do know?’
‘Well, I at least know about as much as I can bear.’ These remarks were exchanged in Peter’s den, and the young man, smoking cigarettes, stood before the fire with his back against the mantel. Something of his bloom seemed really to have left him.
Poor Peter wondered. ‘You’re clear then as to what in particular I wanted you not to go for?’
‘In particular?’ Lance thought. ‘It seems to me that, in particular, there can have been but one thing.’
They stood for a little sounding each other. ‘Are you quite sure?’
‘Quite sure I’m a beastly duffer? Quite—by this time.’
‘Oh!’ and Peter turned away as if almost with relief.
‘It’s that that isn’t pleasant to find out.’
‘Oh, I don’t care for “that,” said Peter, presently coming round again. ‘I mean I personally don’t.’
‘Yet I hope you can understand a little that I myself should!’
‘Well, what do you mean by it?’ Peter sceptically asked.
And on this Lance had to explain—how the upshot of his studies in Paris had inexorably proved a mere deep doubt of his means. These studies had waked him up, and a new light was in his eyes; but what the new light did was really to show him too much. ‘Do you know what’s the matter with me? I’m too horribly intelligent. Paris was really the last place for me. I’ve learnt what I can’t do.’
Poor Peter stared—it was a staggerer; but even after they had had, on the subject, a longish talk in which the boy brought out to the full the hard truth of his lesson, his friend betrayed less pleasure than usually breaks into a face to the happy tune of ‘I told you so!’ Poor Peter himself made now indeed so little a point of having told him so that Lance broke ground in a different place a day or two after. ‘What was it then that—before I went—you were afraid I should find out?’ This, however, Peter refused to tell him—on the ground that if he hadn’t yet guessed perhaps he never would, and that nothing at all, for either of them, in any case, was to be gained by giving the thing a name. Lance eyed him, on this, an instant, with the bold curiosity of youth—with the air indeed of having in his mind two or three names, of which one or other would be right. Peter, nevertheless, turning his back again, offered no encouragement, and when they parted afresh it was with some show of impatience on the side of the boy. Accordingly, at their next encounter, Peter saw at a glance that he had now, in the interval, divined and that, to sound his note, he was only waiting till they should find themselves alone. This he had soon arranged, and he then broke straight out. ‘Do you know your conundrum has been keeping me awake? But in the watches of the night the answer came over me—so that, upon my honour, I quite laughed out. Had you been supposing I had to go to Paris to learn that?‘ Even now, to see him still so sublimely on his guard, Peter’s young friend had to laugh afresh. ‘You won’t give a sign till you’re sure? Beautiful old Peter!’ But Lance at last produced it. ‘Why, hang it, the truth about the Master.’
It made between them, for some minutes, a lively passage, full of wonder, for each, at the wonder of the other. ‘Then how long have you understood———’
‘The true value of his work? I understood it,’ Lance recalled, ‘as soon as I began to understand anything. But I didn’t begin fully to do that, I admit, till I got là-bas.’
‘Dear, dear!’—Peter gasped with retrospective dread.
‘But for what have you taken me? I’m a hopeless muff—that I had to have rubbed in. But I’m not such a muff as the Master!’ Lance declared.
‘Then why did you never tell me———?’
‘That I hadn’t, after all’—the boy took him up—’remained such an idiot? Just because I never dreamed you knew. But I beg your pardon. I only wanted to spare you. And what I don’t now understand is how the deuce then, for so long, you’ve managed to keep bottled.’
Peter produced his explanation, but only after some delay and with a gravity not void of embarrassment. ‘It was for your mother.’
‘Oh!’ said Lance.
‘And that’s the great thing now—since the murder is out. I want a promise from you. I mean’—and Peter almost feverishly followed it up—’a vow from you, solemn and such as you owe me, here on the spot, that you’ll sacrifice anything rather than let her ever guess———’
‘That I’ve guessed?’—Lance took it in. ‘I see.’ He evidently, after a moment, had taken in much. ‘But what is it you have in mind that I may have a chance to sacrifice?’
‘Oh, one has always something.’
Lance looked at him hard. ‘Do you mean that you’ve had———?’ The look he received back, however, so put the question by that he found soon enough another. ‘Are you really sure my mother doesn’t know?’
Peter, after renewed reflection, was really sure. ‘If she does, she’s too wonderful.’
‘But aren’t we all too wonderful?’
‘Yes,’ Peter granted—’but in different ways. The thing’s so desperately important because your father’s little public consists only, as you know then,’ Peter developed—’well, of how many?’
‘First of all,’ the Master’s son risked, ‘of himself. And last of all too. I don’t quite see of whom else.’
Peter had an approach to impatience. ‘Of your mother, I say—always.’
Lance cast it all up. ‘You absolutely feel that?’
‘Well then, with yourself, that makes three.’
‘Oh, me!‘—and Peter, with a wag of his kind old head, modestly excused himself. ‘The number is, at any rate, small enough for any individual dropping out to be too dreadfully missed. Therefore, to put it in a nutshell, take care, my boy—that’s all—that you’re not!’
‘I’ve got to keep on humbugging?’ Lance sighed.
‘It’s just to warn you of the danger of your failing of that that I’ve seized this opportunity.’
‘And what do you regard in particular,’ the young man asked, ‘as the danger?’
‘Why, this certainty: that the moment your mother, who feels so strongly, should suspect your secret—well,’ said Peter desperately, ‘the fat would be on the fire.’
Lance, for a moment, seemed to stare at the blaze. ‘She’d throw me over?’
‘She’d throw him over.’
‘And come round to us?’
Peter, before he answered, turned away. ‘Come round to you.’ But he had said enough to indicate—and, as he evidently trusted, to avert—the horrid contingency.
Within six months again, however, his fear was, on more occasions than one, all before him. Lance had returned to Paris, to another trial; then had reappeared at home and had had, with his father, for the first time in his life, one of the scenes that strike sparks. He described it with much expression to Peter, as to whom—since they had never done so before—it was a sign of a new reserve on the part of the pair at Carrara Lodge that they at present failed, on a matter of intimate interest, to open themselves—if not in joy, then in sorrow—to their good friend. This produced perhaps, practically, between the parties, a shade of alienation and a slight intermission of commerce marked mainly indeed by the fact that, to talk at his ease with his old playmate, Lance had, in general, to come to see him. The closest, if not quite the gayest, relation they had yet known together was thus ushered in. The difficulty for poor Lance was a tension at home, begotten by the fact that his father wished him to be, at least, the sort of success he himself had been. He hadn’t ‘chucked’ Paris—though nothing appeared more vivid to him than that Paris had chucked him; he would go back again because of the fascination in trying, in seeing, in sounding the depths—in learning one’s lesson, in fine, even if the lesson were simply that of one’s impotence in the presence of one’s larger vision. But what did the Master, all aloft in his senseless fluency, know of impotence, and what vision—to be called such—had he, in all his blind life, ever had? Lance, heated and indignant, frankly appealed to his godparent on this score.
His father, it appeared, had come down on him for having, after so long, nothing to show, and hoped that, on his next return, this deficiency would be repaired. The thing, the Master complacently set forth, was—for any artist, however inferior to himself—at least to ‘do’ something. ‘What can you do? That’s all I ask!’ He had certainly done enough, and there was no mistake about what he had to show. Lance had tears in his eyes when it came thus to letting his old friend know how great the strain might be on the ‘sacrifice’ asked of him. It wasn’t so easy to continue humbugging—as from son to parent—after feeling one’s self despised for not grovelling in mediocrity. Yet a noble duplicity was what, as they intimately faced the situation, Peter went on requiring; and it was still, for a time, what his young friend, bitter and sore, managed loyally to comfort him with. Fifty pounds, more than once again, it was true, rewarded, both in London and in Paris, the young friend’s loyalty; none the less sensibly, doubtless, at the moment, that the money was a direct advance on a decent sum for which Peter had long since privately prearranged an ultimate function. Whether by these arts or others, at all events, Lance’s just resentment was kept for a season—but only for a season—at bay. The day arrived when he warned his companion that he could hold out—or hold in—no longer. Carrara Lodge had had to listen to another lecture delivered from a great height—an infliction really heavier, at last, than, without striking back or in some way letting the Master have the truth, flesh and blood could bear.
‘And what I don’t see is,’ Lance observed with a certain irritated eye for what was, after all, if it came to that, due to himself too—’What I don’t see is, upon my honour, how you, as things are going, can keep the game up.’
‘Oh, the game for me is only to hold my tongue,’ said placid Peter. ‘And I have my reason.’
‘Still my mother?’
Peter showed, as he had often shown it before—that is by turning it straight away—a queer face. ‘What will you have? I haven’t ceased to like her.’
‘She’s beautiful—she’s a dear, of course,’ Lance granted; ‘but what is she to you, after all, and what is it to you that, as to anything whatever, she should or she shouldn’t?’
Peter, who had turned red, hung fire a little. ‘Well—it’s all, simply, what I make of it.’
There was now, however, in his young friend, a strange, an adopted, insistence. ‘What are you, after all, to her?‘
‘Oh, nothing. But that’s another matter.’
‘She cares only for my father,’ said Lance the Parisian.
‘Naturally—and that’s just why.’
‘Why you’ve wished to spare her?’
‘Because she cares so tremendously much.’
Lance took a turn about the room, but with his eyes still on his host. ‘How awfully—always—you must have liked her!’
‘Awfully. Always,’ said Peter Brench.
The young man continued for a moment to muse—then stopped again in front of him. ‘Do you know how much she cares?’ Their eyes met on it, but Peter, as if his own found something new in Lance’s, appeared to hesitate, for the first time for so long, to say he did know. ‘I’ve only just found out,’ said Lance. ‘She came to my room last night, after being present, in silence and only with her eyes on me, at what I had had to take from him; she came—and she was with me an extraordinary hour.’
He had paused again, and they had again for a while sounded each other. Then something—and it made him suddenly turn pale—came to Peter. ‘She does know?’
‘She does know. She let it all out to me—so as to demand of me no more than that, as she said, of which she herself had been capable. She has always, always known,’ said Lance without pity.
Peter was silent a long time; during which his companion might have heard him gently breathe and, on touching him, might have felt within him the vibration of a long, low sound suppressed. By the time he spoke, at last, he had taken everything in. ‘Then I do see how tremendously much.’
‘Isn’t it wonderful?’ Lance asked.
‘Wonderful,’ Peter mused.
‘So that if your original effort to keep me from Paris was to keep me from knowledge———!’ Lance exclaimed as if with a sufficient indication of this futility.
It might have been at the futility that Peter appeared for a little to gaze. ‘I think it must have been—without my quite at the time knowing it—to keep me!‘he replied at last as he turned away.
we aRen’T aT all like you. They keep us apart, for your protection. There’ll be a blue sign at the entrance to any ferry port or motorway services: you take this lane and we’ll take that. Fifty feet on there’ll be red-and-white MarroBar between the lanes, in case you have a last-minute change of allegiance. You won’t, though. You’ll keep right, our lane will turn left, and you’ll never think of us again. In your life you’ll have more conversations with optimists and murderers than you will with lorry drivers.
And yet there are more of us than there are of farmers, police and teachers combined. Our average age is 53. We’re male, and white, and we have bad backs. We’re twice as likely as you to be divorced or separated. But we don’t ask for your sympathy. Read the stickers: all we ask is for your cyclists not to pass us on the inside. There are 700,000 goods vehicle drivers in Britain and we are all self-medicating with bacon rolls. We’re three per cent of the workforce, 20 per cent of the studio audience for Top Gear, and 40 per cent of the petition to have it put back on TV. They say we’re the core of the UKIP vote, but they shouldn’t take us for granted. As the lorry driver said to the politician: if you can’t see my mirrors, I can’t see you.
When it comes to illegals, we know what the media won’t tell you. We catch them sneaking round the back of our trailers. We find them crawling behind the cartons in the load. You probably know the global economic push factors or whatever, but we know how they smell. We’re the ones who have to drag them out of the space above the axles. They’re in the shadows whenever we turn our back — it’s like a horror film. As long as their country is a nightmare and ours is a dream, they’ll come in the night. But you’re the ones who are sleepwalking.
On this one trip I’ll tell you about, I was doubling with another driver and we were homeward bound through Calais. If immigration is a horror film then Calais is the scene where the zombies are massing. You see them out of the corner of your eye at first, when you’re still a couple of hundred kilometres out. Say you’re pulling in to Saint-Quentin for diesel. You give them the hard eye and they act casual, hands in their pockets — but no one’s fooled. Because they’re Somali and Rwandan zombies, not Parisian zombies with berets and baguettes. A blind lefty could pick them out of a line up.
The illegals can pick out the lefties, too. They’re the ones driving home from a little place with lavender and wi-fi. They always call it a ‘little place’. If it was their own lady parts they were referring to, they couldn’t be more coy. They keep to their side of the services, topping up their tanks while the euro is so weak. They think the illegals should be allowed in, but when they say ‘in’, they don’t mean in their car. It would be easy to do — it’s not as if the Border Force ever look in the boot of a family motor — but that isn’t how liberals think. They’re intellectually fearless, rather than actually brave.
So the zombies creep towards our lorries instead. We’ll be in Saint-Quentin, filling up, and all the time we’ve got one eye on the pump and the other on the illegals. Take your eye off and they’ll sidle up to the trailer and do the stupid stuff they do. As if we’re not going to look in the back before we get to the ferry port. As if we’re not going to go up on the gantry and find them clinging on, and tell them to eff off. If there’s one English phrase they’re going to learn, it’s that. I feel sorry for them, for what it’s worth. They’re desperate and they’re not very bright and I know this because there are three easier ways of getting across the Channel than stowing away in an HGV.
On this one trip I’m telling you about, we were double manning, as I say, and so my co-driver — I’ll call him Mr Hyde because he’s yellowish and rough — he could stand on the other side of the trailer and shoo the illegals away while I filled up the diesel. And on this trip we had a journalist along too. I’ll call him Clark Kent but you know his name — he’s famous for slagging off restaurants. And once every six months he writes about a burning social issue so people won’t start thinking: hang on, you’re just a tiring man who doesn’t enjoy eating out anymore.
I suppose the six months had come up on his tachograph because here he was, sitting up in the cab, dropping his aitches to make us feel at home. The boss had said to be nice to him. She’d given me 500 extra in cash, with a warning that she’d take it back off my wages if the famous man didn’t have a nice day. The 500 was still in its manila envelope, safely tucked under my seat.
Once I’d done the diesel fill I climbed into the cab. Clark Kent had set up a webcam on the dashboard because apparently he was live-streaming the whole thing. Mr Hyde didn’t want to be in the shot, so the camera was just on me and Clark. It sat there on the dashboard like the unblinking Eye of Islington.
‘So what do these buttons do?’ Clark was saying. ‘Do you have alarms and whatnot?’
‘Those are the temp dials for the trailer. That one turns on the stereo.’
‘Oh, do you listen to music?’
I wondered what he thought we might listen to — the speeches of Enoch Powell — but the camera was on so I just said, ‘Yeah, whatever’s on the radio.’
‘Mind if I twiddle?’
‘Be my guest.’
‘I haven’t used one of these things for years,’ said Clark, prodding away. (I honestly don’t know what he meant. His fingers, maybe.)
He found Autoroute FM, which does bad French songs on a playlist, and he thought it very droll. We all laughed about it. It was hilarious that foreigners had radio stations featuring hits of the 60s, 70s and 80s. We rolled on towards Calais.
‘You don’t talk much,’ said Clark to Mr Hyde.
In fact I’d told him not to talk, because I knew how that would end.
‘He’s just tired,’ I said. ‘He was on until we picked you up in Reims.’
‘You take the driving in turns, do you?’
‘No,’ I said, ‘we take Benzedrine and fondle each other to stay awake.’
Actually I said, ‘Yeah, in the EU it’s four-and-a-half hours each, then switch. We have a digi-card that keeps track of our hours.’
‘It must get tiring.’
‘No worse than journalism, I suppose. You have deadlines, don’t you?’
‘Tell me about it. Before I came out for this trip I had to do a Michelin-starred place in Maidstone. It was utterly bogus, and then I had to write it up on the ferry. I couldn’t work out if I was furious or seasick.’
‘Still,’ I said, ‘I’d swap with you.’
‘You say that, but there are only so many menus a man can read before he wonders if this is really his life’s main course.’
I wondered if he talked like that when the cameras weren’t on. I had a flash of what it would be like being married to him. I was exhausted already, and we’d only just met.
We reached the turn-off for Arras, which is where the zombie menace starts to be obvious. There was a bunch of them lurking on the slip road, all bones and nylon parkas.
‘Christ,’ said Clark. ‘You weren’t joking.’
‘No one believes it until they see with their own eyes. It’s a plague.’
Clark talked to the webcam. ‘I can see one or two dozen dark-skinned males, loitering by the exit from these services.’
‘More like three or four dozen,’ I said. ‘There’ll be more of them hiding behind that toilet block.’
‘Do you feel sympathy?’
‘We can’t, can we? It’s us who get punished when one of them stows away. We get an eight grand fine. Two strikes and we lose our licence.’
‘Still, they’re human beings. Don’t you feel compassion?’
He gave me the same look as when he’d seen my UKIP flag on the back wall of the cab — as if I wasn’t necessarily evil, but that I couldn’t be expected to know any better.
‘I have to think of my career,’ I said. ‘I’m in it for the long haul.’
He laughed, at least. ‘But seriously, don’t you feel any empathy?’
‘Do you? When one of your reviews shuts down an eatery?’
‘That’s different though, isn’t it? No one forces a Michelin chef to serve me a flightless vol-au-vent.’
Mr Hyde scowled at him and said in his Italian accent, ‘No one forces these scum to hide in my lorry.’
Clark turned to look at him. ‘I feel like we haven’t met.’
I laughed to calm things down. ‘Ignore him, his mother’s an I-Tie – he’s practically an immigrant himself.’
‘I’m a racist,’ said Mr Hyde. ‘There. Put that in your bloody newspaper. I hate illegals because I love the UK.’
I shushed him. ‘He means that if it was your mother the illegals were moving in next door to, you’d see it differently. If your kids couldn’t get a flat because immigrants get higher on the housing list, you’d be sick of it.’
‘Then you’re complaining about a social housing shortage, aren’t you, not an immigration crisis.’
‘You say potato.’
‘Actually I say croquette of heritage King Edwards a l’hollandaise, and I wouldn’t mind if these people made a new life next door to me.’
Mr Hyde opened his mouth but I shot him a look to shut up.
‘Please,’ I said, ‘you’re in the wrong lorry if you want to talk about the philosophy of it all. All we can do is show you what it’s really like out here on the frontline, and your readers can make up their own minds.’
‘Alright, fair enough. Then I think my first question would be: how do the stowaways make it through, if you’re always checking your lorries?’
‘Some drivers are careless, aren’t they? Me, I won’t stop within a hundred kilometres of Calais, but there’s always some Charlie who lets his hours expire and has to pull over. By the end of your statutory break, you’ll have illegals in your load, in your wheel arches, in your engine compartment. You’d be amazed at the gaps they squeeze into.’
‘Don’t the border guys find them? They have scanners, no?’
‘They’re only human. Zombies will always get through if they’re well-enough hidden. And some of the drivers, for a fee, have ways of hiding them.’
‘Really? There are drivers who’d risk that?’
I had to smile. ‘Listen, what do you make in a year?’
He winked at the camera. ‘I make 52 Saturdays less dull.’
‘Well I make 28k, with an ex and a current and four teenage kids. If I was unpatriotic, I could triple my money. Not all illegals are skint, you know.’
‘Are you serious?’
‘The situation is what’s serious. Ever since the Trojan horse, there’s been people smuggling. Ever since Han Solo took Obi Wan Kenobi’s money, in a galaxy far, far away.’
‘I’m warming to our chauffeur,’ said Clark to the camera. ‘I came expecting that a lorry driver would be unreconstructed, but maybe there’s more to this profession than I gave it credit for. Have your say by using the hashtag #stowaways.’
We drove through the outskirts of Calais. I pulled into the HGV lane and we joined the queue for the ferry port. In their own lanes the normals rolled past, refugees from their little places. Behind the glass you could see their lips moving as they argued whether there would have been time to stop at the last supermarket, to stock up on saucisson and those French school exercise books, the ones with the graph paper pages.
Clark said, ‘What would you do, if you found someone in the back of this lorry right now? What would you say to them?’
‘Well for a start I’d need to scrape the Brie off them. We’re carrying eighteen thousand kilos of it.’
‘Seriously?’ I put my hand over the webcam, making sure to cover the mic as well as the lens. ‘The two of us would drag him out and give him a kicking. Because one, the load would be contaminated and the company would have to write off a hundred grand. And two, you need to get the word out that you don’t mess with British lorries. An old-fashioned kicking sends that message in every language the illegals speak.’
‘God! Have you ever done that?’
‘All of us have done it. It’s standard.’
I took my hand off the webcam and he said into it, ‘Our driver has just told me something profoundly shocking about what happens to stowaways if they’re discovered.’
‘Your readers should try being out here before they judge us.’
He looked into the camera again. ‘Now I don’t even know what I expected. I thought we’d found some common ground, but I have to say I’m shocked and disappointed. It’s as if these lorries have space for 40 tonnes of cargo but no room for basic humanity.’
‘Nice. Did you write that one before you came out?’
Now he put his own hand over the camera. ‘Look, don’t take it personally. You show up with your UKIP flag and talk about beating up the little man, of course I’m going to make you look like a dick. What did you think? I’m doing my job, same as you.’
It was awkward after that, in the cab. At the end of the Customs queue I stopped the lorry and it made those hissing, sighing noises — as though it was powered by sadness under unbelievable pressure. The Border Force people put their scanners over the load and then gave us the manual checks, starting at the back of the trailer and working their way forward to the cab. When they saw Clark Kent it was like Christmas for them. In their commando jumpers, bless — they couldn’t get enough of him. And in fairness he was a gentleman — he signed autographs, and posed for selfies, and turned the webcam round to live stream them. They mugged for the camera and they weren’t even bothered with our passports — we could have travelled on our library cards.
Afterwards on the ferry, Clark seemed subdued. The fans had been spun sugar for him, and we were kryptonite. We took him to the lorry drivers’ lounge, away from the hoi-polloi, and I even bought him a coffee and a Chelsea bun. I wondered if he was going to review it, but he only set up his phone to film us, then sipped his drink and stared out at the waves.
‘Cheer up,’ I said. ‘You’ll never have to see us again after Dover.’
‘There is that, I suppose.’
‘Then why the long face? Do you have a terrine that you’re overdue to be angry about?’
‘It’s just that I feel so sorry for them. They’re so thin, aren’t they? And their eyes, when they were waiting on that slip road. Just so absolutely despairing. Imagine not being allowed into the country.’
‘Imagine having to come into the country, though. Imagine having to drop off 90,000 rounds of brie and drive home to Ruislip in the rain. Imagine having to read your restaurant reviews every Saturday morning.’
‘That’s life though, isn’t it? Turns out people will cling on to your axles for a chance at it.’
‘I suppose I’m just used to seeing them.’
‘Well I’m not. Seeing them desperate for what we have, it makes you realise what we’ve got.’
‘There you go — you’ve taken the first step. The next is to admit they’ll destroy what we have unless we keep them out.’
He shook his head. ‘I won’t ever take that step. That’s the difference between you and me, I suppose.’
‘We’re different, I’ll give you that.’
We looked out together through the scratched Perspex windows. I’ve never got why people like the sea. It’s cold and unreliable. On dry land it would be a cat or an economist. Luckily we were almost into Dover already — it’s barely a ditch, the English Channel. If I was an illegal I’d rent a pedallo.
‘Is there any ground we haven’t covered today?’ said Clark. ‘Anything you’d like to say that you haven’t had the chance to?’
‘Just that I hope this has let people see what it’s really like. Out here we’re simple people, operating on the simple facts, and the fact is we can’t be having stowaways.’
‘Well, thank you for your time,’ said Clark, turning off the camera on his phone.
The three of us went to the lorry deck, down through the layers of car drivers to where the real business of the day was parked. While we waited to disembark, I made Clark pack away the webcam. When the ramp came down, we rolled out through the port. There was a chippie van in the first layby — First Plaice — and I pulled in because it was late and we hadn’t eaten.
I sent Mr Hyde down to fetch us all fish and chips. I gave him the manila envelope of cash from under my seat. I told him to keep the change. He shook my hand and that was it — he was gone. I watched him disappear in the off-side wing mirror. I watched until he was just a speck — just a germ — although it’s worth bearing in mind that objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.
The layby was quiet. A few seagulls stalked about, stabbing in the dust for old chips. You could see the white cliffs over the roofs of the warehouse buildings. In fairness, they’re off-white.
After five full minutes, Clark Kent finally got it. ‘He’s not coming back, is he?’
‘Not unless he gets homesick and wants us to take him on the return trip.’
Clark began laughing and shaking his head. ‘My God.’
‘You write one word about this and I’ll swear you were in on it.’
‘Right. Of course. But I mean… Christ. Do you know where he’s from?’
‘Syria. Most of them can pass for Italian. I’ll only take them if they’ve got convincing papers.’
He said nothing, only shook his head and looked out at the gulls.
‘You know what?’ he said after a while. ‘I haven’t had fish and chips for I don’t know how long.’
We got cod-and-large times two and leaned against the bumper to eat them. I splashed vinegar on mine. Clark drizzled it on his. He sniffed the bottle and winced. The seagulls made those calls they make, of dead souls mocking the living.
‘How many times have you done this?’
‘Do they pay you for it?’
I shook my head. ‘Don’t take it personally, but you’re the first passenger I’ve taken a fee for.’
‘So why do you do it?’
‘It’s the kick, isn’t it? To be different inside. Last freedom we’ve got.’
‘What made you start?’
‘Like you said, it’s different once you’ve seen their eyes. You realise if they can carry all that, maybe you can take some of the load. You might as well help — life’s over so fast.’
‘It’s a short trip in a long vehicle.’
I sighed. ‘You do write this stuff in advance.’
‘It was going to be my title for the piece.’
The gulls went up a gear, distraught at all their liberty.
‘How are your fish and chips?’ I said.
He frowned at his Styrofoam tray. ‘Fine,’ he said. ‘A little rustic.’
This all happened a long time ago, in the early decades of the Second Republic, when I was a boy growing up in Upper Pannonia. Life was very simple then, at least for us. We lived in a forest village on the right bank of the Danubius, my parents, my grandmother, my sister Friya, and I. My father Tyr, for whom I am named, was a blacksmith, my mother Julia taught school in our house, and my grandmother was the priestess at the little Temple of Juno Teutonica nearby.
It was a very quiet life. The automobile hadn’t yet been invented then – all this was around the year 2650, and we still used horse-drawn carriages or wagons – and we hardly ever left the village. Once a year, on Augustus Day – back then we still celebrated Augustus Day – we would all dress in our finest clothes and my father would get our big iron-bound carriage out of the shed, the one he had built with his own hands, and we’d drive to the great municipium of Venia, a two-hour journey away, to hear the imperial band playing waltzes in the Plaza of Vespasian. Afterward there’d be cakes and whipped cream at the big hotel nearby, and tankards of cherry beer for the grownups, and then we’d begin the long trip home. Today, of course, the forest is gone and our little village has been swallowed up by the ever-growing municipium, and it’s a twenty-minute ride by car to the center of the city from where we used to live. But at that time it was a grand excursion, the event of the year for us.
I know now that Venia is only a minor provincial city, that compared with Londin or Parisi or Roma itself it’s nothing at all. But to me it was the capital of the world. Its splendors stunned me and dazed me. We would climb to the top of the great column of Basileus Andronicus, which the Greeks put up eight hundred years ago to commemorate their victory over Caesar Maximilianus during the Civil War in the days when the Empire was divided, and we’d stare out at the whole city; and my mother, who had grown up in Venia, would point everything out to us, the senate building, the opera house, the aqueduct, the university, the ten bridges, the Temple of Jupiter Teutonicus, the proconsul’s palace, the much greater palace that Trajan VII built for himself during that dizzying period when Venia was essentially the second capital of the Empire, and so forth. For days afterward my dreams would glitter with memories of what I had seen in Venia, and my sister and I would hum waltzes as we whirled along the quiet forest paths.
There was one exciting year when we made the Venia trip twice. That was 2647, when I was ten years old, and I can remember it so exactly because that was the year when the First Consul died – C. Junius Scaevola, I mean, the Founder of the Second Republic. My father was very agitated when the news of his death came. “It’ll be touch and go now, touch and go, mark my words,” he said over and over. I asked my grandmother what he meant by that, and she said, “Your father’s afraid that they’ll bring back the Empire, now that the old man’s dead.” I didn’t see what was so upsetting about that – it was all the same to me, Republic or Empire, Consul or Imperator – but to my father it was a big issue, and when the new First Consul came to Venia later that year, touring the entire vast Imperium province by province for the sake of reassuring everyone that the Republic was stable and intact, my father got out the carriage and we went to attend his Triumph and Processional. So I had a second visit to the capital that year.
Half a million people, so they say, turned out in downtown Venia to applaud the new First Consul. This was N. Marcellus Turritus, of course. You probably think of him as the fat, bald old man on the coinage of the late 27th century that still shows up in pocket change now and then, but the man I saw that day – I had just a glimpse of him, a fraction of a second as the consular chariot rode past, but the memory still blazes in my mind seventy years later – was lean and virile, with a jutting jaw and fiery eyes and dark, thick curling hair. We threw up our arms in the old Roman salute and at the top of our lungs we shouted out to him, “Hail, Marcellus! Long live the Consul!”
(We shouted it, by the way, not in Latin but in Germanisch. I was very surprised at that. My father explained afterward that it was by the First Consul’s own orders. He wanted to show his love for the people by encouraging all the regional languages, even at a public celebration like this one. The Gallians had hailed him in Gallian, the Britannians in Britannic, the Japanese in whatever it is they speak there, and as he traveled through the Teutonic provinces he wanted us to yell his praises in Germanisch. I realize that there are some people today, very conservative Republicans, who will tell you that this was a terrible idea, because it has led to the resurgence of all kinds of separatist regional activities in the Imperium. It was the same sort of regionalist fervor, they remind us, that brought about the crumbling of the Empire two hundred years earlier. To men like my father, though, it was a brilliant political stroke, and he cheered the new First Consul with tremendous Germanische exuberance and vigor. But my father managed to be a staunch regionalist and a staunch Republican at the same time. Bear in mind that over my mother’s fierce objections he had insisted on naming his children for ancient Teutonic gods instead of giving them the standard Roman names that everybody else in Pannonia favored then.)
Other than going to Venia once a year, or on this one occasion twice, I never went anywhere. I hunted, I fished, I swam, I helped my father in the smithy, I helped my grandmother in the Temple, I studied reading and writing in my mother’s school. Sometimes Friya and I would go wandering in the forest, which in those days was dark and lush and mysterious. And that was how I happened to meet the last of the Caesars.
There was supposed to be a haunted house deep in the woods. Marcus Aurelius Schwarzchild it was who got me interested in it, the tailor’s son, a sly and unlikable boy with a cast in one eye. He said it had been a hunting lodge in the time of the Caesars, and that the bloody ghost of an Emperor who had been killed in a hunting accident could be seen at noontime, the hour of his death, pursuing the ghost of a wolf around and around the building. “I’ve seen it myself,” he said. “The ghost, I mean. He had a laurel wreath on, and everything, and his rifle was polished so it shined like gold.”
I didn’t believe him. I didn’t think he’d had the courage to go anywhere near the haunted house and certainly not that he’d seen the ghost. Marcus Aurelius Schwarzchild was the sort of boy you wouldn’t believe if he said it was raining, even if you were getting soaked to the skin right as he was saying it. For one thing, I didn’t believe in ghosts, not very much. My father had told me it was foolish to think that the dead still lurked around in the world of the living. For another, I asked my grandmother if there had ever been an Emperor killed in a hunting accident in our forest, and she laughed and said no, not ever: the Imperial Guard would have razed the village to the ground and burned down the woods, if that had ever happened.
But nobody doubted that the house itself, haunted or not, was really there. Everyone in the village knew that. It was said to be in a certain dark part of the woods where the trees were so old that their branches were tightly woven together. Hardly anyone ever went there. The house was just a ruin, they said, and haunted besides, definitely haunted, so it was best to leave it alone.
It occurred to me that the place might just actually have been an imperial hunting lodge, and that if it had been abandoned hastily after some unhappy incident and never visited since, it might still have some trinkets of the Caesars in it, little statuettes of the gods, or cameos of the royal family, things like that. My grandmother collected small ancient objects of that sort. Her birthday was coming, and I wanted a nice gift for her. My fellow villagers might be timid about poking around in the haunted house, but why should I be? I didn’t believe in ghosts, after all.
But on second thought I didn’t particularly want to go there alone. This wasn’t cowardice so much as sheer common sense, which even then I possessed in full measure. The woods were full of exposed roots hidden under fallen leaves; if you tripped on one and hurt your leg, you would lie there a long time before anyone who might help you came by. You were also less likely to lose your way if you had someone else with you who could remember trail marks. And there was some occasional talk of wolves. I figured the probability of my meeting one wasn’t much better than the likelihood of ghosts, but all the same it seemed like a sensible idea to have a companion with me in that part of the forest. So I took my sister along.
I have to confess that I didn’t tell her that the house was supposed to be haunted. Friya, who was about nine then, was very brave for a girl, but I thought she might find the possibility of ghosts a little discouraging. What I did tell her was that the old house might still have imperial treasures in it, and if it did she could have her pick of any jewelry we found.
Just to be on the safe side we slipped a couple of holy images into our pockets – Apollo for her, to cast light on us as we went through the dark woods, and Woden for me, since he was my father’s special god. (My grandmother always wanted him to pray to Jupiter Teutonicus, but he never would, saying that Jupiter Teutonicus was a god that the Romans invented to pacify our ancestors. This made my grandmother angry, naturally. “But we are Romans,” she would say. “Yes, we are,” my father would tell her, “but we’re Teutons also, or at least I am, and I don’t intend to forget it.”)
It was a fine Saturday morning in spring when we set out, Friya and I, right after breakfast, saying nothing to anybody about where we were going. The first part of the forest path was a familiar one: we had traveled it often. We went past Agrippina’s Spring, which in medieval times was thought to have magical powers, and then the three battered and weather beaten statues of the pretty young boy who was supposed to be the first Emperor Hadrianus’s lover two thousand years ago, and after that we came to Baldur’s Tree, which my father said was sacred, though he died before I was old enough to attend the midnight rituals that he and some of his friends used to hold there. (I think my father’s generation was the last one that took the old Teutonic religion seriously.)
Then we got into deeper, darker territory. The paths were nothing more than sketchy trails here. Marcus Aurelius had told me that we were supposed to turn left at a huge old oak tree with unusual glossy leaves. I was still looking for it when Friya said, “We turn here,” and there was the shiny-leaved oak. I hadn’t mentioned it to her. So perhaps the girls of our village told each other tales about the haunted house too; but I never found out how she knew which way to go.
Onward and onward we went, until even the trails gave out, and we were wandering through sheer wilderness. The trees were ancient here, all right, and their boughs were interlaced high above us so that almost no sunlight reached the forest floor. But we didn’t see any houses, haunted or otherwise, or anything else that indicated human beings had ever been here. We’d been hiking for hours, now. I kept one hand on the idol of Woden in my pocket and I stared hard at every unusual-looking tree or rock we saw, trying to engrave it on my brain for use as a trail marker on the way back.
It seemed pointless to continue, and dangerous besides. I would have turned back long before, if Friya hadn’t been with me; but I didn’t want to look like a coward in front of her. And she was forging on in a tireless way, inflamed, I guess, by the prospect of finding a fine brooch or necklace for herself in the old house, and showing not the slightest trace of fear or uneasiness. But finally I had had enough.
“If we don’t come across anything in the next five minutes -” I said.
“There,” said Friya. “Look.”
I followed her pointing hand. At first all I saw was more forest. But then I noticed, barely visible behind a curtain of leafy branches, what could have been the sloping wooden roof of a rustic hunting lodge. Yes! Yes, it was! I saw the scalloped gables, I saw the boldly carved roof-posts.
So it was really there, the secret forest lodge, the old haunted house. In frantic excitement I began to run toward it, Friya chugging valiantly along behind me, struggling to catch up.
And then I saw the ghost.
He was old – ancient – a frail, gaunt figure, white-bearded, his long white hair a tangle of knots and snarls. His clothing hung in rags. He was walking slowly toward the house, shuffling, really, a bent and stooped and trembling figure clutching a huge stack of kindling to his breast. I was practically on top of him before I knew he was there.
For a long moment we stared at each other, and I can’t say which of us was the more terrified. Then he made a little sighing sound and let his bundle of firewood fall to the ground, and fell down beside it, and lay there like one dead.
“Marcus Aurelius was right!” I murmured. “There really is a ghost here!”
Friya shot me a glance that must have been a mixture of scorn and derision and real anger besides, for this was the first she had heard of the ghost story that I had obviously taken pains to conceal from her. But all she said was, “Ghosts don’t fall down and faint, silly. He’s nothing but a scared old man.” And went to him unhesitatingly.
Somehow we got him inside the house, though he tottered and lurched all the way and nearly fell half a dozen times. The place wasn’t quite a ruin, but close: dust everywhere, furniture that looked as if it’d collapse into splinters if you touched it, draperies hanging in shreds. Behind all the filth we could see how beautiful it all once had been, though. There were faded paintings on the walls, some sculptures, a collection of arms and armor worth a fortune.
He was terrified of us. “Are you from the quaestors?” he kept asking. Latin was what he spoke. “Are you here to arrest me? I’m only the caretaker, you know. I’m not any kind of a danger. I’m only the caretaker.” His lips quavered. “Long live the First Consul!” he cried, in a thin, hoarse, ragged croak of a voice.
“We were just wandering in the woods,” I told him. “You don’t have to be afraid of us.”
“I’m only the caretaker,” he said again and again.
We laid him out on a couch. There was a spring just outside the house, and Friya brought water from it and sponged his cheeks and brow. He looked half starved, so we prowled around for something to feed him, but there was hardly anything: some nuts and berries in a bowl, a few scraps of smoked meat that looked like they were a hundred years old, a piece of fish that was in better shape, but not much. We fixed a meal for him, and he ate slowly, very slowly, as if he were unused to food. Then he closed his eyes without a word. I thought for a moment that he had died, but no, no, he had simply dozed off. We stared at each other, not knowing what to do.
“Let him be,” Friya whispered, and we wandered around the house while we waited for him to awaken. Cautiously we touched the sculptures, we blew dust away from the paintings. No doubt of it, there had been imperial grandeur here. In one of the upstairs cupboards I found some coins, old ones, the kind with the Emperor’s head on them that weren’t allowed to be used any more. I saw trinkets, too, a couple of necklaces and a jewel-handled dagger. Friya’s eyes gleamed at the sight of the necklaces, and mine at the dagger, but we let everything stay where it was. Stealing from a ghost is one thing, stealing from a live old man is another. And we hadn’t been raised to be thieves.
When we went back downstairs to see how he was doing, we found him sitting up, looking weak and dazed, but not quite so frightened. Friya offered him some more of the smoked meat, but he smiled and shook his head.
“From the village, are you? How old are you? What are your names?”
“This is Friya,” I said. “I’m Tyr. She’s nine and I’m twelve.”
“Friya. Tyr.” He laughed. “Time was when such names wouldn’t have been permitted, eh? But times have changed.” There was a flash of sudden vitality in his eyes, though only for an instant. He gave us a confidential, intimate smile. “Do you know whose place this was, you two? The Emperor Maxentius, that’s who! This was his hunting lodge. Caesar himself! He’d stay here when the stags were running, and hunt his fill, and then he’d go on into Venia, to Trajan’s palace, and there’d be such feasts as you can’t imagine, rivers of wine, and the haunches of venison turning on the spit – ah, what a time that was, what a time!”
He began to cough and sputter. Friya put her arm around his thin shoulders.
“You shouldn’t talk so much, sir. You don’t have the strength.”
“You’re right. You’re right.” He patted her hand. His was like a skeleton’s. “How long ago it all was. But here I stay, trying to keep the place up – in case Caesar ever wanted to hunt here again – in case – in case – ” A look of torment, of sorrow. “There isn’t any Caesar, is there? First Consul! Hail! Hail Junius Scaevola!” His voice cracked as he raised it.
“The Consul Junius is dead, sir,” I told him. “Marcus Turritus is First Consul now.”
“Dead? Scaevola? Is it so?” He shrugged. “I hear so little news. I’m only the caretaker, you know. I never leave the place. Keeping it up, in case – in case – “
But of course he wasn’t the caretaker. Friya never thought he was: she had seen, right away, the resemblance between that shriveled old man and the magnificent figure of Caesar Maxentius in the painting behind him on the wall. You had to ignore the difference in age – the Emperor couldn’t have been much more than thirty when his portrait was painted – and the fact that the Emperor was in resplendent bemedalled formal uniform and the old man was wearing rags. But they had the same long chin, the same sharp, hawklike nose, the same penetrating icy-blue eyes. It was the royal face, all right. I hadn’t noticed; but girls have a quicker eye for such things. The Emperor Maxentius’ youngest brother was who this gaunt old man was, Quintus Fabius Caesar, the last survivor of the old imperial house, and, therefore, the true Emperor himself. Who had been living in hiding ever since the downfall of the Empire at the end of the Second War of Reunification.
He didn’t tell us any of that, though, until our third or fourth visit. He went on pretending he was nothing but a simple old man who had happened to be stranded here when the old regime was overthrown, and was simply trying to do his job, despite the difficulties of age, on the chance that the royal family might someday be restored and would want to use its hunting lodge again.
But he began to give us little gifts, and that eventually led to his admitting his true identity.
For Friya he had a delicate necklace made of long slender bluish beads. “It comes from Aiguptos,” he said. “It’s thousands of years old. You’ve studied Aiguptos in school, haven’t you? You know that it was a great empire long before Roma ever was?” And with his own trembling hands he put it around her neck.
That same day he gave me a leather pouch in which I found four or five triangular arrowheads made of a pink stone that had been carefully chipped sharp around the edges. I looked at them, mystified. “From Nova Roma,” he explained. “Where the redskinned people live. The Emperor Maxentius loved Nova Roma, especially the far west, where the bison herds are. He went there almost every year to hunt. Do you see the trophies?” And, indeed, the dark musty room was lined with animal heads, great massive bison with thick curling brown wool, glowering down out of the gallery high above.
We brought him food, sausages and black bread that we brought from home, and fresh fruit, and beer. He didn’t care for the beer, and asked rather timidly if we could bring him wine instead. “I am Roman, you know,” he reminded us. Getting wine for him wasn’t so easy, since we never used it at home, and a twelve-year-old boy could hardly go around to the wineshop to buy some without starting tongues wagging. In the end I stole some from the Temple while I was helping out my grandmother. It was thick sweet wine, the kind used for offerings, and I don’t know how much he liked it. But he was grateful. Apparently an old couple who lived on the far side of the woods had looked after him for some years, bringing him food and wine, but in recent weeks they hadn’t been around and he had had to forage for himself, with little luck: that was why he was so gaunt. He was afraid they were ill or dead, but when I asked where they lived, so I could find out whether they were all right, he grew uneasy and refused to tell me. I wondered about that. If I had realized then who he was, and that the old couple must have been Empire loyalists, I’d have understood. But I still hadn’t figured out the truth.
Friya broke it to me that afternoon, as we were on our way home. “Do you think he’s the Emperor’s brother, Tyr? Or the Emperor himself?”
“He’s got to be one or the other. It’s the same face.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, sister.”
“The big portrait on the wall, silly. Of the Emperor. Haven’t you noticed that it looks just like him?”
I thought she was out of her mind. But when we went back the following week, I gave the painting a long close look, and looked at him, and then at the painting again, and I thought, yes, yes, it might just be so.
What clinched it were the coins he gave us that day. “I can’t pay you in money of the Republic for all you’ve brought me,” he said. “But you can have these. You can’t spend them, but they’re still valuable to some people, I understand. As relics of history.” His voice was bitter. From a worn old velvet pouch he drew out half a dozen coins, some copper, some silver. “These are coins of Maxentius,” he said. They were like the ones we had seen while snooping in the upstairs cupboards on our first visit, showing the same face as on the painting, that of a young, vigorous bearded man. “And these are older ones, coins of Emperor Laureolus, who was Caesar when I was a boy.”
“Why, he looks just like you!” I blurted.
Indeed he did. Not nearly so gaunt, and his hair and beard were better trimmed; but otherwise the face of the regal old man on those coins might easily have been that of our friend the caretaker. I stared at him, and at the coins in my hand, and again at him. He began to tremble. I looked at the painting on the wall behind us again. “No,” he said faintly. “No, no, you’re mistaken – I’m nothing like him, nothing at all – ” And his shoulders shook and he began to cry. Friya brought him some wine, which steadied him a little. He took the coins from me and looked at them in silence a long while, shaking his head sadly, and finally handed them back. “Can I trust you with a secret?” he asked. And his tale came pouring out of him.
A glittering boyhood, almost sixty years earlier, in that wondrous time between the two Wars of Reunification: a magical life, endlessly traveling from palace to palace, from Roma to Venia, from Venia to Constantinopolis, from Constantinopolis to Nishapur. He was the youngest and most pampered of five royal princes; his father had died young, drowned in a foolish swimming exploit, and when his grandfather Laureolus Caesar died the imperial throne would go to his brother Maxentius. He himself, Quintus Fabius, would be a provincial governor somewhere when he grew up, perhaps in India or Nova Roma, but for now there was nothing for him to do but enjoy his gilded existence.
Then death came at last to old Emperor Laureolus, and Maxentius succeeded him; and almost at once there began the six-year horror of the Second War of Reunification, when somber and harsh colonels who despised the lazy old Empire smashed it to pieces, rebuilt it as a Republic, and drove the Caesars from power. We knew the story, of course; but to us it was a tale of the triumph of virtue and honor over corruption and tyranny. To Quintus Fabius, weeping as he told it to us from his own point of view, the fall of the Empire had been not only a harrowing personal tragedy but a terrible disaster for the entire world.
Good little Republicans though we were, our hearts were wrung by the things he told us, the scenes of his family’s agony: the young Emperor Maxentius trapped in his own palace, gunned down with his wife and children at the entrance to the imperial baths. Camillus, the second brother, who had been Prince of Constantinopolis, pursued through the streets of Roma at dawn and slaughtered by revolutionaries on the steps of the Temple of Castor and Pollux.
Prince Flavius, the third brother, escaping from the capital in a peasant’s wagon, hidden under huge bunches of grapes, and setting up a government-in-exile in Neapolis, only to be taken and executed before he had been Emperor a full week. Which brought the succession down to sixteen-year-old Prince Augustus, who had been at the university in Parisi. Well named, he was: for the first of all the Emperors was an Augustus, and another one two thousand years later was the last, reigning all of three days before the men of the Second Republic found him and put him before the firing squad.
Of the royal princes, only Quintus Fabius remained. But in the confusion he was overlooked. He was hardly more than a boy; and, although technically he was now Caesar, it never occurred to him to claim the throne. Loyalist supporters dressed him in peasant clothes and smuggled him out of Roma while the capital was still in flames, and he set out on what was to become a lifetime of exile.
“There were always places for me to stay,” he told us. “In out-of-the-way towns where the Republic had never really taken hold, in backwater provinces, in places you’ve never heard of. The Republic searched for me for a time, but never very well, and then the story began to circulate that I was dead. The skeleton of some boy found in the ruins of the palace in Roma was said to be mine.
After that I could move around more or less freely, though always in poverty, always in secrecy.”
“And when did you come here?” I asked.
“Almost twenty years ago. Friends told me that this hunting lodge was here, still more or less intact as it had been at the time of the Revolution, and that no one ever went near it, that I
could live here undisturbed. And so I have. And so I will, for however much time is left.” He reached for the wine, but his hands were shaking so badly that Friya took it from him and poured him a glass. He drank it in a single gulp. “Ah, children, children, what a world you’ve lost! What madness it was, to destroy the Empire! What greatness existed then!”
“Our father says things have never been so good for ordinary folk as they are under the Republic,” Friya said.
I kicked her ankle. She gave me a sour look.
Quintus Fabius said sadly, “I mean no disrespect, but your father sees only his own village. We were trained to see the entire world in a glance. The Imperium, the whole globe-spanning Empire. Do you think the gods meant to give the Imperium just to anyone at all? Anyone who could grab power and proclaim himself First Consul? Ah, no, no, the Caesars were uniquely chosen to sustain the Pax Romana, the universal peace that has enfolded this whole planet for so long. Under us there was nothing but peace, peace eternal and unshakeable, once the Empire had reached its complete form. But with the Caesars now gone, how much longer do you think the peace will last? If one man can take power, so can another, or another. There will be five First Consuls at once, mark my words. Or fifty. And every province will want to be an Empire in itself. Mark my words, children. Mark my words.”
I had never heard such treason in my life. Or anything so wrongheaded.
The Pax Romana? What Pax Romana? Old Quintus Fabius would have had us believe that the Empire had brought unbroken and unshakeable peace to the entire world, and had kept it that way for twenty centuries. But what about the Civil War, when the Greek half of the Empire fought for fifty years against the Latin half? Or the two Wars of Unification? And hadn’t there been minor rebellions constantly, all over the Empire, hardly a century without one, in Persia, in India, in Britannica, in Africa Aethiopica? No, I thought, what he’s telling us simply isn’t true. The long life of the Empire had been a time of constant brutal oppression, with people’s spirits held in check everywhere by military force. The real Pax Romana was something that existed only in modern times, under the Second Republic. So my father had taught me.
But Quintus Fabius was an old man, wrapped in dreams of his own wondrous lost childhood. Far be it from me to argue with him about such matters as these. I simply smiled and nodded, and poured more wine for him when his glass was empty. And Friya and I sat there spellbound as he told us, hour after hour, of what it had been like to be a prince of the royal family in the dying days of the Empire, before true grandeur had departed forever from the world.
When we left him that day, he had still more gifts for us. “My brother was a great collector,” he said. “He had whole houses stuffed full of treasure. All gone now, all but what you see here, which no one remembered. When I’m gone, who knows what’ll become of them? But I want you to have these. Because you’ve been so kind to me. To remember me by. And to remind you always of what once was, and now is lost.”
For Friya there was a small bronze ring, dented and scratched, with a serpent’s head on it, that he said had belonged to the Emperor Claudius of the earliest days of the Empire. For me a dagger, not the jewel-handled one I had seen upstairs, but a fine one all the same, with a strange undulating blade, from a savage kingdom on an island in the Oceanus Magnus. And for us both, a beautiful little figurine in smooth white alabaster of Pan playing on his pipes, carved by some master craftsman of the ancient days.
The figurine was the perfect birthday gift for grandmother. We gave it to her the next day. We thought she would be pleased, since all of the old gods of Roma are very dear to her; but to our surprise and dismay she seemed startled and upset by it. She stared at it, eyes bright and fierce, as if we had given her a venomous toad.
“Where did you get this thing? Where?”
I looked at Friya, to warn her not to say too much. But as usual she was ahead of me.
“We found it, grandmother. We dug it up.”
“You dug it up?”
“In the forest,” I put in. “We go there every Saturday, you know, just wandering around. There was this old mound of dirt – we were poking in it, and we saw something gleaming – “
She turned it over and over in her hands. I had never seen her look so troubled. “Swear to me that that’s how you found it! Come, now, at the altar of Juno! I want you to swear to me before the Goddess. And then I want you to take me to see this mound of dirt of yours.”
Friya gave me a panic-stricken glance.
Hesitantly I said, “We may not be able to find it again, grandmother. I told you, we were just wandering around – we didn’t really pay attention to where we were – “
I grew red in the face, and I was stammering, too. It isn’t easy to lie convincingly to your own grandmother.
She held the figurine out, its base toward me. “Do you see these marks here? This little crest stamped down here? It’s the Imperial crest, Tyr. That’s the mark of Caesar. This carving once belonged to the Emperor. Do you expect me to believe that there’s Imperial treasure simply lying around in mounds of dirt in the forest? Come, both of you! To the altar, and swear!”
“We only wanted to bring you a pretty birthday gift, grandmother,” Friya said softly. “We didn’t mean to do any harm.”
“Of course not, child. Tell me, now: where’d this thing come from?”
“The haunted house in the woods,” she said. And I nodded my confirmation. What could I do? She would have taken us to the altar to swear.
Strictly speaking, Friya and I were traitors to the Republic. We even knew that ourselves, from the moment we realized who the old man really was. The Caesars were proscribed when the Empire fell; everyone within a certain level of blood kinship to the Emperor was condemned to death, so that no one could rise up and claim the throne in years hereafter.
Some minor members of the royal family did manage to escape, so it was said; but giving aid and comfort to them was a serious offense. And this was no mere second cousin or great-grandnephew that we had discovered deep in the forest: this was the Emperor’s own brother. He was, in fact, the legitimate Emperor himself, in the eyes of those for whom the Empire had never ended. And it was our responsibility to turn him in to the quaestors. But he was so old, so gentle, so feeble. We didn’t see how he could be much of a threat to the Republic. Even if he did believe that the Revolution had been an evil thing, and that only under a divinely chosen Caesar could the world enjoy real peace.
We were children. We didn’t understand what risks we were taking, or what perils we were exposing our family to.
Things were tense at our house during the next few days: whispered conferences between our grandmother and our mother, out of our earshot, and then an evening when the two of them spoke with father while Friya and I were confined to our room, and there were sharp words and even some shouting. Afterward there was a long cold silence, followed by more mysterious discussions. Then things returned to normal. My grandmother never put the figurine of Pan in her collection of little artifacts of the old days, nor did she ever speak of it again.
That it had the imperial crest on it was, we realized, the cause of all the uproar. Even so, we weren’t clear about what the problem was. I had thought all along that grandmother was secretly an Empire loyalist herself. A lot of people her age were; and she was, after all, a traditionalist, a priestess of Juno Teutonica, who disliked the revived worship of the old Germanic gods that had sprung up in recent times – “pagan” gods, she called them – and had argued with father about his insistence on naming us as he had. So she should have been pleased to have something that had belonged to the Caesars. But, as I say, we were children then. We didn’t take into account the fact that the Republic dealt harshly with anyone who practiced Caesarism. Or that whatever my grandmother’s private political beliefs might have been, father was the unquestioned master of our household, and he was a devout Republican.
“I understand you’ve been poking around that old ruined house in the woods,” my father said, a week or so later. “Stay away from it. Do you hear me? Stay away.”
And so we would have, because it was plainly an order. We didn’t disobey our father’s orders.
But then, a few days afterward, I overheard some of the older boys of the village talking about making a foray out to the haunted house. Evidently Marcus Aurelius Schwarzchild had been talking about the ghost with the polished rifle to others beside me, and they wanted the rifle. “It’s five of us against one of him,” I heard someone say. “We ought to be able to take care of him, ghost or not.”
“What if it’s a ghost rifle, though?” one of them asked. “A ghost rifle won’t be any good to us.”
“There’s no such thing as a ghost rifle,” the first speaker said. “Rifles don’t have ghosts. It’s a real rifle. And it won’t be hard for us to get it away from a ghost.”
I repeated all this to Friya.
“What should we do?” I asked her.
“Go out there and warn him. They’ll hurt him, Tyr.”
“But father said – “
“Even so. The old man’s got to go somewhere and hide. Otherwise his blood will be on our heads.”
There was no arguing with her. Either I went with her to the house in the woods that moment, or she’d go by herself. That left me with no choice. I prayed to Woden that my father wouldn’t find out, or that he’d forgive me if he did; and off we went into the woods, past Agrippina’s spring, past the statues of the pretty boy, past Baldur’s Tree, and down the now-familiar path beyond the glossy-leaved oak.
“Something’s wrong,” Friya said, as we approached the hunting lodge. “I can tell.”
Friya always had a strange way of knowing things. I saw the fear in her eyes and felt frightened myself.
We crept forward warily. There was no sign of Quintus Fabius. And when we came to the door of the lodge we saw that it was a little way ajar, and off its hinges, as if it had been forced. Friya put her hand on my arm and we stared at each other. I took a deep breath.
“You wait here,” I said, and went in.
It was frightful in there. The place had been ransacked – the furniture smashed, the cupboards overturned, the sculptures in fragments. Someone had slashed every painting to shreds. The collection of arms and armor was gone.
I went from room to room, looking for Quintus Fabius. He wasn’t there. But there were bloodstains on the floor of the main hall, still fresh, still sticky.
Friya was waiting on the porch, trembling, fighting back tears.
“We’re too late,” I told her.
It hadn’t been the boys from the village, of course. They couldn’t possibly have done such a thorough job. I realized – and surely so did Friya, though we were both too sickened by the realization to discuss it with each other – that grandmother must have told father we had found a cache of Imperial treasure in the old house, and he, good citizen that he was, had told the quaestors. Who had gone out to investigate, come upon Quintus Fabius, and recognized him for a Caesar, just as Friya had. So my eagerness to bring back a pretty gift for grandmother had been the old man’s downfall. I suppose he wouldn’t have lived much longer in any case, as frail as he was; but the guilt for what I unknowingly brought upon him is something that I’ve borne ever since.
Some years later, when the forest was mostly gone, the old house accidentally burned down. I was a young man then, and I helped out on the firefighting line. During a lull in the work I said to the captain of the fire brigade, a retired quaestor named Lucentius, “It was an Imperial hunting lodge once, wasn’t it?”
“A long time ago, yes.”
I studied him cautiously by the light of the flickering blaze. He was an older man, of my father’s generation.
Carefully I said, “When I was a boy, there was a story going around that one of the last Emperor’s brothers had hidden himself away in it. And that eventually the quaestors caught him and killed him.”
He seemed taken off guard by that. He looked surprised and, for a moment, troubled. “So you heard about that, did you?”
“I wondered if there was any truth to it. That he was a Caesar, I mean.”
Lucentius glanced away. “He was only an old tramp, is all,” he said, in a muffled tone. “An old lying tramp. Maybe he told fantastic stories to some of the gullible kids, but a tramp is all he was, an old filthy lying tramp.” He gave me a peculiar look. And then he stamped away to shout at someone who was uncoiling a hose the wrong way.
A filthy old tramp, yes. But not, I think, a liar.
He remains alive in my mind to this day, that poor old relic of the Empire. And now that I am old myself, as old, perhaps, as he was then, I understand something of what he was saying. Not his belief that there necessarily had to be a Caesar in order for there to be peace, for the Caesars were only men themselves, in no way different from the Consuls who have replaced them. But when he argued that the time of the Empire had been basically a time of peace, he may not have been really wrong, even if war had been far from unknown in Imperial days.
For I see now that war can sometimes be a kind of peace also: that the Civil Wars and the Wars of Reunification were the struggles of a sundered Empire trying to reassemble itself so peace might resume. These matters are not so simple. The Second Republic is not as virtuous as my father thought, nor was the old Empire, apparently, quite as corrupt. The only thing that seems true without dispute is that the worldwide hegemony of Roma these past two thousand years under the Empire and then under the Republic, troubled though it has occasionally been, has kept us from even worse turmoil. What if there had been no Roma? What if every region had been free to make war against its neighbors in the hope of creating the sort of Empire that the Romans were able to build? Imagine the madness of it! But the gods gave us the Romans, and the Romans gave us peace: not a perfect peace, but the best peace, perhaps, that an imperfect world could manage. Or so I think now.
In any case the Caesars are dead, and so is everyone else I have written about here, even my little sister Friya; and here I am, an old man of the Second Republic, thinking back over the past and trying to bring some sense out of it. I still have the strange dagger that Quintus Fabius gave me, the barbaric-looking one with the curious wavy blade, that came from some savage island in the Oceanus Magnus. Now and then I take it out and look at it. It shines with a kind of antique splendor in the lamplight. My eyes are too dim now to see the tiny imperial crest that someone engraved on its haft when the merchant captain who brought it back from the South Seas gave it to the Caesar of his time, four or five hundred years ago. Nor can I see the little letters, S P Q R, that are inscribed on the blade. For all I know, they were put there by the frizzy-haired tribesman who fashioned that odd, fierce weapon: for he, too, was a citizen of the Roman Empire. As in a manner of speaking are we all, even now in the days of the Second Republic. As are we all.
During the early years of the Ming Dynasty, one young woman in particular was praised for her beauty. Of course there were other beauties, but wherever Liling went, admirers clapped, as if she were on stage rather than in her own life, or they bowed— and sometimes they did both—for they were captivated by her coiffed hair, her straight, small shoulders, her perfect, blushing skin, and her hands—so exquisite, so delicate, able to express everything in the most minuscule gesture. Liling leant on silken pillows embroidered with all the colors of the rainbow.
But she could not walk. At least not very far. Her feet had been bound at birth and now the deformed stubs at the ends of her legs could barely support her. Slaves bore her where she wanted to go, the poles of the litter supported on their shoulders, which in warm weather were oiled to glisten. In that case she would drape silk scarves over her face to prevent the sun from damaging her skin.
The purpose of binding women’s feet, as I’m sure you know, was to make them attractive to men. The bound feet grew no longer than three inches. The permanent contortion of the foot excited the men, but why, I cannot say. Then again, with such small feet, the women’s bodies swayed, sometimes precariously. The men liked that, found it erotic. It also allowed them to think that the women needed their strong arms. Parents bound their daughters’ feet to ensure that they would find husbands with money.
Liling was happy, but, she thought, she would be so much happier if she could walk without always being about to tip over. She longed to explore the city on her own. She wanted to dance, if only for an hour. Her younger brother told her of his adventures in the city. How he ran and jumped and leapt over obstacles. How he climbed stairs and played games with his friends.
One day Little Brother came home wet. His hair was wet, there were drops of water on his hanfu. His feet were wet, his black cotton shoes soaked. “Where have you been, Little Brother?” Her voice was sweet, lulling, as it always was.
“Swimming,” said Changming.
Liling knew that people who lived near the shore often swam, but her family were not near the shore. She knew that fishermen fished in the sea. She knew that fish and octopi swam in the sea. But—had Changming gone swimming in the sea?
“I’m learning,” her brother said. “At school. At school I am learning to swim.”
“At school? I thought you were studying letters and numbers at school.”
“I am. But there is also swimming. We swim in the pool at school.”
“The pool at school,” she repeated, as if it were the most astonishing rhyme in the world. “The pool at school,” she said again.
When her mother and father called Liling and Changming to dinner, she made up her mind.
“Papa,” she said. “I want to learn to swim.”
Her father’s eyebrows went up. As if each were a little springbox or a rolled scroll.
“Females do not swim,” he said, and his voice was low, as if he didn’t want anyone to hear it. Maybe he thought a servant would overhear.
Liling adopted her calmest manner but she did not lower her voice from its natural range.
“I want to. I believe it will be good for me.”
“Females have no need to swim,” her father countered.
“I am female, Papa, and I have a need to swim.”
Her father laid down his chopsticks and propped his chin on his hands. The rice in the centered bowl was still steaming. He brought his teacup to his mouth and sipped. At last he spoke. “What is this need?” he asked. “Have we not provided you with everything you need?”
“No, Papa,” she said, not so much stubbornly as assuredly. “You see, my Lotus shoes”—by which she meant her deformed feet—“prevent me from learning about the world. And I am desirous of learning the world.”
“Desirous,” Papa said. “Perhaps you mistake the world for a husband. You will find a husband.”
“Yes, Papa, I know. But first I must learn to swim.”
Mama and Little Brother were as still as statues as this conversation continued. They were afraid Papa might stomp out of the room or lash out at Liling for her unconscionable request. Did she think she was above the rules? She was her father’s favorite, yes, but he had to conform too. He too was bound—to convention.
“Must?” her father said.
“I am telling you the truth, Papa. You must take my word for it.”
“Must and must again.”
She said nothing.
“Your need is strong.”
She looked straight into his eyes and did not flinch.
“So be it,” he said, whereupon Mama, Little Brother, and even Liling relaxed their shoulders and sighed with relief.
The first time she dipped her foot in water she thought the water was like silk that moved of its own volition. It seemed as if a silk scarf were draped over her foot. She sat on the edge of the pool, that one foot—the right foot—dangling in water, and not until she became accustomed to the sensation did she lower her left foot. The water seemed to be cool and warm at the same time. Her brother demonstrated dog paddling, and then her father taught her to float.
She closed her eyes and she was floating on air. When she opened them again, she almost went under, but her father held her up with his strong arms and hands. Changming taught her the breast stroke. After she learned them, she practiced the breast stroke, the backstroke, the butterfly each day. It did not happen overnight, but eventually she had the hang of it. Now she felt as if she were crossing miles, though it was only the length of the pool. Freedom, she thought. I now know what freedom is.
Her small shoulders strengthened. She thought she might grow wings, because swimming was a kind of flying.
Did Liling drown? Her family may have thought so, but no, she did not drown. She swam the Yangzi. She swam the Nile. She swam the Mississippi and the St. Lawrence. She swam the Panama Canal and the English Channel. The Volga. The Dnieper. The Rhine. The Baltic Sea and the Vistula and the Seine. The Po and the Tiber. The Zambezi. She swam so far and so much that in time she forgot the names of some of the places she’d visited.
She skipped the Amazon. She had no wish to be nibbled to death by piranhas.
She never returned. She did not want a husband. She wanted to see the world.
Her parents missed her. Papa scolded himself for letting her learn to swim. Mama scolded Papa for letting Liling learn to swim. Little Brother would inherit all their earthly riches, which he would have gladly given up if only Liling came back. He missed his sister! Indeed, he missed her so much that he never again wanted to swim, not even in a pool. He thought it was his fault that she had gone away, and he’d been so proud of his big sister, her beauty, her intelligence. Her power, because he had felt that. Her power. Her strength. But he also thought: She must never have loved us. Any of us.
Licensed from Press53, LLC. Copyright 2018 by Temporium by Kelly Cherry.
One of the robots offered to carry Pico for the last hundred meters, on its back or cradled in its padded arms; but she shook her head emphatically, telling it, “Thank you, no. I can make it myself.” The ground was grassy and soft, lit by glowglobes and the grass-colored moon. It wasn’t a difficult walk, even with her bad hip, and she wasn’t an invalid. She could manage, she thought with an instinctive independence. And as if to show them, she struck out ahead of the half-dozen robots as they unloaded the big skimmer, stacking Pico’s gifts in their long arms. She was halfway across the paddock before they caught her. By then she could hear the muddled voices and laughter coming from the hill-like tent straight ahead. By then she was breathing fast for reasons other than her pain. For fear, mostly. But it was a different flavor of fear than the kinds she knew. What was happening now was beyond her control, and inevitable … and it was that kind of certainty that made her stop after a few more steps, one hand rubbing at her hip for no reason except to delay her arrival. If only for a moment or two….
“Are you all right?” asked one robot.
She was gazing up at the tent, dark and smooth and gently rounded. “I don’t want to be here,” she admitted. “That’s all.” Her life on board the Kyber had been spent with robots — they had outnumbered the human crew ten to one, then more — and she could always be ruthlessly honest with them. “This is madness. I want to leave again.”
“Only, you can’t,” responded the ceramic creature. The voice was mild, unnervingly patient. “You have nothing to worry about.”
“The technology has been perfected since —”
It stopped speaking, adjusting its hold on the colorful packages.
“That’s not what I meant,” she admitted. Then she breathed deeply, holding the breath for a moment and exhaling, saying, “All right. Let’s go. Go.”
The robot pivoted and strode toward the giant tent. The leading robots triggered the doorway, causing it to fold upward with a sudden rush of golden light flooding across the grass, Pico squinting and then blinking, walking faster now and allowing herself the occasional low moan.
“Ever wonder how it’ll feelf” Tyson had asked her.
The tent had been pitched over a small pond, probably that very day, and in places the soft, thick grasses had been matted flat by people and their robots. So many people, she thought. Pico tried not to look at any faces. For a moment, she gazed at the pond, shallow and richly green, noticing the tamed waterfowl sprinkled over it and along its shoreline. Ducks and geese, she realized. And some small, crimson-headed cranes. Lifting her eyes, she noticed the large, omega-shaped table near the far wall. She couldn’t count the place settings, but it seemed a fair assumption there were sixty-three of them. Plus a single round table and chair in the middle of the omega — my table — and she took another deep breath, looking higher, noticing floating glowglobes and several indigo swallows flying around them, presumably snatching up the insects that were drawn to the yellow-white light.
People were approaching. Since she had entered, in one patient rush, all sixty-three people had been climbing the slope while shouting, “Pico!
Hello!” Their voices mixed together, forming a noisy, senseless paste. “Greetings!” they seemed to say. “Hello, hello!”
They were brightly dressed, flowing robes swishing and everyone wearing big-rimmed hats made to resemble titanic flowers. The people sharply contrasted with the gray-white shells of the robot servants. Those hats were a new fashion, Pico realized. One of the little changes made during these past decades … and finally she made herself look at the faces themselves, offering a forced smile and taking a step backward, her belly aching, but her hip healed. The burst of adrenaline hid the deep ache in her bones. Wrestling one of her hands into a wave, she told her audience, “Hello,” with a near-whisper. Then she swallowed and said, “Greetings to you!” Was that her voice? She very nearly didn’t recognize it.
A woman broke away from the others, almost running toward her. Her big, flowery hat began to work free, and she grabbed the fat, petalish brim and began to fan herself with one hand, the other hand touching Pico on the shoulder. The palm was damp and quite warm; the air suddenly stank of overly sweet perfumes. It was all Pico could manage not to cough. The woman —- what was her name? — was asking, “Do you need to sit? We heard… about your accident. You poor girl. All the way fine, and then on the last world. Of all the luck!”
Her hip. The woman was jabbering about her sick hip.
Pico nodded and confessed, “Sitting would be nice, yes.”
A dozen voices shouted commands. Robots broke into runs, racing one another around the pond to grab the chair beside the little table. The drama seemed to make people laugh. A nervous, self-conscious laugh. When the lead robot reached the chair and started back, there was applause. Another woman shouted, “Mine won! Mine won!” She threw her hat into the air and tried to follow it, leaping as high as possible.
Some man cursed her sharply, then giggled.
Another man forced his way ahead, emerging from the packed bodies in front of Pico. He was smiling in a strange fashion. Drunk or drugged… what was permissible these days? With a sloppy, earnest voice, he asked, “How’d it happen? The hip thing … how’d you do it?”
He should know. She had dutifully filed her reports throughout the mission, squirting them home. Hadn’t he seen them? But then she noticed the watchful, excited faces — no exceptions — and someone seemed to read her thoughts, explaining, “We’d love to hear it firsthand. Tell, tell, tell!”
As if they needed to hear a word, she thought, suddenly feeling quite cold.
Her audience grew silent. The robot arrived with the promised chair, and she sat and stretched her bad leg out in front of her, working to focus her mind. It was touching, their silence… reverent and almost childlike… and she began by telling them how she had tried climbing Miriam Prime with two other crew members. Miriam Prime was the tallest volcano on a brutal super-Venusian world; it was brutal work because of the terrain and their massive lifesuits, cumbersome refrigeration units strapped to their backs, and the atmosphere thick as water. Scalding and acidic. Carbon dioxide and water made for a double greenhouse effect…. And she shuddered, partly for dramatics and partly from the memory. Then she. said, “Brutal,” once again, shaking her head thoughtfully.
They had used hyperthreads to climb the steepest slopes and the cliffs. Normally hyperthreads were virtually unbreakable; but Miriam was not a normal world. She described the basalt cliff and the awful instant of the tragedy; the clarity of the scene startled her. She could feel the heat seeping into her suit, see the dense, dark air, and her arms and legs shook with exhaustion. She told sixty-three people how it felt to be suspended on an invisible thread, two friends and a winch somewhere above in the acidic fog. The winch had jammed without warning, she told; the worst bad luck made it jam where the thread was its weakest. This was near the mission’s end, and all the equipment was tired. Several dozen alien worlds had been visited, many mapped for the first time, and every one of them examined up close. As planned.
“Everything has its limits,” she told them, her voice having an ominous quality that she hadn’t intended.
Even hyperthreads had limits. Pico was dangling, talking to her companions by radio; and just as the jam was cleared, a voice saying, “There… got it!”, the thread parted. He didn’t have any way to know it had parted. Pico was falling, gaining velocity, and the poor man was ignorantly telling her, “It’s running strong. You’ll be up in no time, no problem….”
People muttered to themselves.
“Oh my,” they said.
Their excitement was obvious, perhaps even overdone. Pico almost laughed, thinking they were making fun of her storytelling … thinking, What do they know about such things! … Only, they were sincere, she realized a moment later. They were enraptured with the image of Pico’s long fall, her spinning and lashing out with both hands, fighting to grab anything and slow her fall any way possible —
— and she struck a narrow shelf of eroded stone, the one leg shattered and telescoping down to a gruesome stump. Pico remembered the painless shock of the impact and that glorious instant free of all sensation. She was alive, and the realization had made her giddy. Joyous. Then the pain found her head — a great nauseating wave of pain — and she heard her distant friends shouting, “Pico? Are you there? Can you hear us? Oh Pico… Pico! Answer us!”
She had to remain absolutely motionless, sensing that any move would send her tumbling again. She answered in a whisper, telling her friends that she was alive, yes, and please, please hurry. But they had only a partial thread left, and it would take them more than half an hour to descend… and she spoke of her agony and the horror, her hip and leg screaming, and not just from the impact. It was worse than mere broken bone, the lifesuit’s insulation damaged and the heat bleeding inward, slowly and thoroughly cooking her living flesh.
Pico paused, gazing out at the round-mouthed faces.
So many people and not a breath of sound; and she was having fun. She realized her pleasure almost too late, nearly missing it. Then she told them, “I nearly died,” and shrugged her shoulders. “All the distances traveled, every imaginable adventure… and I nearly died on one of our last worlds, doing an ordinary climb….”
Let them appreciate her luck, she decided. Their luck.
Then another woman lifted her purple flowery hat with both hands, pressing it flush against her own chest. “Of course you survived!” she proclaimed. “You wanted to come home, Pico! You couldn’t stand the thought of dying.”
Pico nodded without comment, then said, “I was rescued. Obviously.” She flexed the damaged leg, saying, “I never really healed,” and she touched her hip with reverence, admitting, “We didn’t have the resources on board the Kyber. This was the best our medical units could do.”
Her mood shifted again, without warning. Suddenly she felt sad to tears, eyes dropping and her mouth clamped shut.
“We worried about you, Pico!”
“All the time, dear!”
“… in our prayers …!”
Voices pulled upon each other, competing to be heard. The faces were smiling and thoroughly sincere. Handsome people, she was thinking. Clean and civilized and older than her by centuries. Some of them were more than a thousand years old.
Look at them! she told herself.
And now she felt fear. Pulling both legs toward her chest, she hugged herself, weeping hard enough to dampen her trouser legs; and her audience said, “But you made it, Pico! You came home! The wonders you’ve seen, the places you’ve actually touched… with those hands…. And we’re so proud of you! So proud! You’ve proven your worth a thousand times, Pico! You’re made of the very best stuff —!”
— which brought laughter, a great clattering roar of laughter, the joke obviously and apparently tireless.
Even after so long.
They were Pico; Pico was they.
Centuries ago, during the Blossoming, technologies had raced forward at an unprecedented rate. Starships like the Kybei and a functional immortality had allowed the first missions to the distant worlds, and there were some grand adventures. Yet adventure requires some element of danger; exploration has never been a safe enterprise. Despite precautions, there were casualties. People who had lived for centuries died suddenly, oftentimes in stupid accidents; and it was no wonder that after the first wave of missions came a long moratorium. No new starships were built, and no sensible person would have ridden inside even the safest vessel. Why risk yourself? Whatever the benefits, why taunt extinction when you have a choice.
Only recently had a solution been invented. Maybe it was prompted by the call of deep space, though Tyson used to claim, “It’s the boredom on Earth that inspired them. That’s why they came up with their elaborate scheme.”
The near-immortals devised ways of making highly gifted, highly trained crews from themselves. With computers and genetic engineering, groups of people could pool their qualities and create compilation humans. Sixty-three individuals had each donated moneys and their own natures, and Pico was the result. She was a grand and sophisticated average of the group. Her face was a blending of every face; her body was a feminine approximation of their own varied bodies. In a few instances, the engineers had planted synthetic genes — for speed and strength, for example — and her brain had a subtly different architecture. Yet basically Pico was their offspring, a stewlike clone. The second of two clones, she knew. The first clone created had had subtle flaws, and he was painlessly destroyed just before birth.
Pico and Tyson and every other compilation person had been born at adult size. Because she was the second attempt, and behind schedule, Pico was thrown straight into her training. Unlike the other crew members, she had spent only a minimal time with her parents. Her sponsors. Whatever they were calling themselves. That and the long intervening years made it difficult to recognize faces and names. She found herself gazing out at them, believing they were strangers, their tireless smiles hinting at something predatory. The neat white teeth gleamed at her, and she wanted to shiver again, holding the knees closer to her mouth.
Someone suggested opening the lovely gifts.
A good idea. She agreed, and the robots brought down the stacks of boxes, placing them beside and behind her. The presents were a young tradition; when she was leaving Earth, the first compilation people were returning with little souvenirs of their travels. Pico had liked the gesture and had done the same. One after another, she started reading the names inscribed in her own flowing handwriting. Then each person stepped forward, thanking her for the treasure, then greedily unwrapping it, the papers flaring into bright colors as they were bent and twisted and torn, then tossed aside for the robots to collect.
She knew none of these people, and that was wrong. What she should have done, she realized, was go into the Kybei’s records and memorize names and faces. It would have been easy enough, and proper, and she felt guilty for never having made the effort.
It wasn’t merely genetics that she shared with these people; she also embodied slivers of their personalities and basic tendencies. Inside Pico’s sophisticated womb, the computers had blended together their shrugs and tongue clicks and the distinctive patterns of their speech. She had emerged as an approximation of every one of them; yet why didn’t she feel a greater closeness? Why wasn’t there a strong, tangible bond here?
Or was there something — only, she wasn’t noticing it?
One early gift was a slab of mirrored rock. “From Tween V,” she explained. “What it doesn’t reflect, it absorbs and reemits later. I kept that particular piece in my own cabin, fixed to the outer wall —”
“Thank you, thank you,” gushed the woman.
For an instant, Pico saw herself reflected on the rock. She looked much older than these people. Tired, she thought. Badly weathered. In the cramped starship, they hadn’t the tools to revitalize aged flesh, nor had there been the need. Most of the voyage had been spent in cold-sleep. Their waking times, added together, barely exceeded forty years of biological activity.
“Look at this!” the woman shouted, turning and waving her prize at the others. “Isn’t it lovely?”
“A shiny rock,” teased one voice. “Perfect!”
Yet the woman refused to be anything but impressed. She clasped her prize to her chest and giggled, merging with the crowd and then vanishing.
They look like children, Pico told herself.
At least how she imagined children to appear… unworldly and spoiled, needing care and infinite patience….
She read the next name, and a new woman emerged to collect her gift. “My, what a large box!” She tore at the paper, then the box’s lid, then eased her hands into the dunnage of white foam. Pico remembered wrapping this gift — one of the only ones where she was positive of its contents — and she happily watched the smooth, elegant hands pulling free a greasy and knob-faced nut. Then Pico explained:
“It’s from the Yult Tree on Proxima Centauri 2.” The only member of the species on that strange little world. “If you wish, you can break its dormancy with liquid nitrogen. Then plant it in pure quartz sand, never anything else. Sand, and use red sunlight —”
“I know how to cultivate them,” the woman snapped.
There was a sudden silence, uneasy and prolonged.
Finally Pico said, “Well… good….”
“Everyone knows about Yult nuts,” the woman explained. “They’re practically giving them away at the greeneries now.”
Someone spoke sharply, warning her to stop and think.
“I’m sorry,” she responded. “If I sound ungrateful, I mean. I was just thinking, hoping … I don’t know. Never mind.”
A weak, almost inconsequential apology, and the woman paused to feel the grease between her fingertips.
The thing was, Pico thought, that she had relied on guesswork in selecting these gifts. She had decided to represent every alien world, and she felt proud of herself on the job accomplished. Yult Trees were common on Earth? But how could she know such a thing? And besides, why should it matter? She had brought the nut and everything else because she’d taken risks, and these people were obviously too ignorant and silly to appreciate what they were receiving.
Rage had replaced her fear.
Sometimes she heard people talking among themselves, trying to trade gifts. Gemstones and pieces of alien driftwood were being passed about like orphans. Yet nobody would release the specimens of odd life-forms from living worlds, transparent canisters holding bugs and birds and whatnot inside preserving fluids or hard vacuums. If only she had known what she couldn’t have known, these silly brats…. And she found herself swallowing, holding her breath, and wanting to scream at all of them.
Pico was a compilation, yet she wasn’t.
She hadn’t lived one day as these people had lived their entire lives. She didn’t know about comfort or changelessness, and with an attempt at empathy, she tried to imagine such an incredible existence.
Tyson used to tell her, “Shallowness is a luxury. Maybe the ultimate luxury.” She hadn’t understood him. Not really. “Only the rich can master true frivolity.” Now those words echoed back at her, making her think of Tyson. That intense and angry man … the opposite of frivolity, the truth told.
And with that, her mood shifted again. Her skin tingled. She felt nothing for or against her audience. How could they help being what they were? How could anyone help their nature? And with that, she found herself reading another name on another unopened box. A little box, she saw. Probably another one of the unpopular gemstones, born deep inside an alien crust and thrown out by forces unimaginable….
There was a silence, an odd stillness, and she repeated the name.
“Opera? Opera Ting?”
Was it her imagination, or was there a nervousness running through the audience? Just what was happening —?
“Excuse me?” said a voice from the back. “Pardon?”
People began moving aside, making room, and a figure emerged. A male, something about him noticeably different. He moved with a telltale lightness, with a spring to his gait. Smiling, he took the tiny package while saying, “Thank you,” with great feeling. “For my father, thank you. I’m sure he would have enjoyed this moment. I only wish he could have been here, if only…”
Father? Wasn’t this Opera Ting?
Pico managed to nod, then she asked, “Where is he? I mean, is he busy somewhere?”
“Oh no. He died, I’m afraid.” The man moved differently because he was different. He was young — even younger than I, Pico realized — and he shook his head, smiling in a serene way. Was he a clone? A biological child? What? “But on his behalf,” said the man, “I wish to thank you. Whatever this gift is, I will treasure it. I promise you. I know you must have gone through hell to find it and bring it to me, and thank you so very much, Pico. Thank you, thank you. Thank you!”
An appropriate intruder in the evening’s festivities, thought Pico. Some accident, some kind of tragedy… something had killed one of her sixty-three parents, and that thought pleased her. There was a pang of guilt woven into her pleasure, but not very much. It was comforting to know that even these people weren’t perfectly insulated from death; it was a force that would grasp everyone, given time. Like it had taken Midge, she thought. And Uoo, she thought. And Tyson.
Seventeen compilated people had embarked on Kyber, representing almost a thousand near-immortals. Only nine had returned, including Pico. Eight friends were lost… Lost was a better word than death, she decided… And usually it happened in places worse than any Hell conceived by human beings.
After Opera — his name, she learned, was the same as his father’s — the giving of the gifts settled into a routine. Maybe it was because of the young man’s attitude. People seemed more polite, more self-contained. Someone had the presence to ask for another story. Anything she wished to tell. And Pico found herself thinking of a watery planet circling a distant red-dwarf sun, her voice saying, “Coldtear,” and watching faces nod in unison. They recognized the name, and it was too late. It wasn’t the story she would have preferred to tell, yet she couldn’t seem to stop herself. Coldtear was on her mind.
Just tell parts, she warned herself.
What you can stand!
The world was terran-class and covered with a single ocean frozen on its surface and heated from below. By tides, in part. And by Coldtear’s own nuclear decay. It had been Tyson’s idea to build a submersible and dive to the ocean’s remote floor. He used spare parts in Kyber’s machine shop — the largest room on board — then he’d taken his machine to the surface, setting it on the red-stained ice and using lasers and robot help to bore a wide hole and keep it clear.
Pico described the submersible, in brief, then mentioned that Tyson had asked her to accompany him. She didn’t add that they’d been lovers now and again, nor that sometimes they had feuded. She’d keep those parts of the story to herself for as long as possible.
The submersible’s interior was cramped and ascetic, and she tried to impress her audience with the pressures that would build on the hyperfiber hull. Many times the pressure found in Earth’s oceans, she warned; and Tyson’s goal was to set down on the floor, then don a lifesuit protected with a human-shaped force field, actually stepping outside and taking a brief walk.
“Because we need to leave behind footprints,” he had argued. “Isn’t that why we’ve come here? We can’t just leave prints up on the ice. It moves and melts, wiping itself clean every thousand years or so.”
“But isn’t that the same below?” Pico had responded. “New muds rain down — slowly, granted — and quakes cause slides and avalanches.”
“So we pick right. We find someplace where our marks will be quietly covered. Enshrouded. Made everlasting.”
She had blinked, surprised that Tyson cared about such things.
“I’ve studied the currents,” he explained, “and the terrain —”
“Are you serious?” Yet you couldn’t feel certain about Tyson. He was a creature full of surprises. “All this trouble, and for what —?”
“Trust me, Pico. Trust me!”
Tyson had had an enormous laugh. His parents, sponsors, whatever—an entirely different group of people — had purposefully made him larger than the norm. They had selected genes for physical size, perhaps wanting Tyson to dominate the Kyber’s crew in at least that one fashion. If his own noise was to be believed, that was the only tinkering done to him. Otherwise, he was a pure compilation of his parents’ traits, fiery and passionate to a fault. It was a little unclear to Pico what group of people could be so uniformly aggressive; yet Tyson had had his place in their tight-woven crew, and he had had his charms in addition to his size and the biting intelligence.
“Oh Pico,” he cried out. “What’s this about, coming here? If it’s not about leaving traces of our passage . . . then what!”
“It’s about going home again,” she had answered.
“Then why do we leave the Kyber! Why not just orbit Coldtear and send down our robots to explore?”
“Indeed! Because!” The giant head nodded, and he put a big hand on her shoulder. “I knew you’d see my point. I just needed to give you time, my friend.”
She agreed to the deep dive, but not without misgivings.
And during their descent, listening to the ominous creaks and groans of the hull while lying flat on their backs, the misgivings began to reassert themselves.
It was Tyson’s fault, and maybe his aim.
No, she thought. It was most definitely his aim.
At first, she thought it was some game, him asking, “Do you ever wonder how it will feel? We come home and are welcomed, and then our dear parents disassemble our brains and implant them —”
Quiet,” she interrupted. “We agreed. Everyone agreed. We aren’t going to talk about it, all right?”
A pause, then he said, “Except, I know. How it feels, I mean.”
She heard him, then she listened to him take a deep breath from the close, damp air; and finally she had strength enough to ask, “How can you know?”
When Tyson didn’t answer, she rolled onto her side and saw the outline of his face. A handsome face, she thought. Strong and incapable of any doubts. This was the only taboo subject among the compilations — “How will it feel?” — and it was left to each of them to decide what they believed.
Was it a fate or a reward? To be subdivided and implanted into the minds of dozens and dozens of near-immortals….
It wasn’t a difficult trick, medically speaking.
After all, each of their minds had been designed for this one specific goal. Memories and talent; passion and training. All of the qualities would be saved — diluted, but, in the same instant, gaining their own near- immortality. Death of a sort, but a kind of everlasting life, too.
That was the creed by which Pico had been born and raised.
The return home brings a great reward, and peace.
Pico’s first memory was of her birth, spilling slippery-wet from the womb and coughing hard, a pair of doctoring robots bent over her, whispering to her, “Welcome, child. Welcome. You’ve been born from them to be joined with them when it is time… We promise you. ..!”
Comforting noise, and mostly Pico had believed it.
But Tyson had to say, “I know how it feels, Pico,” and she could make out his grin, his amusement patronizing. Endless.
“How?” she muttered. “How do you know — ?”
“Because some of my parents … well, let’s just say that I’m not their first time. Understand me?”
“They made another compilation?”
“One of the very first, yes. Which was incorporated into them before I was begun, and which was incorporated into me because there was a spare piece. A leftover chunk of the mind —”
“You’re making this up, Tyson!”
Except, he wasn’t, she sensed. Knew. Several times, on several early worlds, Tyson had seemed too knowledgeable about too much. Nobody could have prepared himself that well, she realized. She and the others had assumed that Tyson was intuitive in some useful way. Part of him was from another compilation? From someone like them? A fragment of the man had walked twice beside the gray dust sea of Pliicker, and it had twice climbed the giant ant mounds on Proxima Centauri 2. It was a revelation, unnerving and hard to accept; and just the memory of that instant made her tremble secretly, facing her audience, her tired blood turning to ice.
Pico told none of this to her audience.
Instead, they heard about the long descent and the glow of rare life-forms outside — a thin plankton consuming chemical energies as they found them — and, too, the growing creaks of the spherical hull.
They didn’t hear how she asked, “So how does it feel? You’ve got a piece of compilation inside you… all right! Are you going to tell me what it’s like?”
They didn’t hear about her partner’s long, deep laugh.
Nor could they imagine him saying, “Pico, my dear. You’re such a passive, foolish creature. That’s why I love you. So docile, so damned innocent —”
“Does it live inside you, Tyson?”
“It depends on what you consider life.”
“Can you feel its presence? I mean, does it have a personality? An existence? Or have you swallowed it all up?”
“I don’t think I’ll tell.” Then the laugh enlarged, and the man lifted his legs and kicked at the hyperfiber with his powerful muscles. She could hear, and feel, the solid impacts of his bootheals. She knew that Tyson’s strength was nothing compared to the ocean’s mass bearing down on them, their hull scarcely feeling the blows… yet some irrational part of her was terrified. She had to reach out, grasping one of his trouser legs and tugging hard, telling him:
“Don’t! Stop that! Will you please… quit!?”
The tension shifted direction in an instant.
Tyson said, “I was lying,” and then added, “About knowing. About having a compilation inside me.” And he gave her a huge hug, laughing in a different way now. He nearly crushed her ribs and lungs. Then he spoke into one of her ears, offering more, whispering with the old charm, and she accepting his offer. They did it as well as possible, considering their circumstances and the endless groaning of their tiny vessel; and she remembered all of it while her voice, detached but thorough, described how they had landed on top of something rare. There was a distinct crunch of stone. They had made their touchdown on the slope of a recent volcano — an island on an endless plain of mud — and afterward they dressed in their lifesuits, triple-checked their force fields, then flooded the compartment and crawled into the frigid, pressurized water.
It was an eerie, almost indescribable experience to walk on that ocean floor. When language failed Pico, she tried to use silence and oblique gestures to capture the sense of endless time and the cold and darkness. Even when Tyson ignited the submersible’s outer lights, making the nearby terrain bright as late afternoon, there was the palpable taste of endless dark just beyond. She told of feeling the pressure despite the force field shrouding her; she told of climbing after Tyson, scrambling up a rough slope of youngish rock to a summit where they discovered a hot-water spring that pumped heated, mineral-rich water up at them.
That might have been the garden spot of Coldtear. Surrounding the spring was a thick, almost gelatinous mass of gray-green bacteria, pulsating and fat by its own standards. She paused, seeing the scene all over again. Then she assured her parents, “It had a beauty. I mean it. An elegant, minimalist beauty.”
Then someone muttered, “I can hardly wait to remember it,” and gave a weak laugh.
The audience became uncomfortable, tense and too quiet. People shot accusing looks at the offender, and Pico worked not to notice any of it. A bitterness was building in her guts, and she sat up straighter, rubbing at both hips.
Then a woman coughed for attention, waited, and then asked, “What happened next?”
Pico searched for her face.
“There was an accident, wasn’t there? On Coldtear… ?”
I won’t tell them, thought Pico. Not now. Not this way.
She said, “No, not then. Later.” And maybe some of them knew better. Judging by the expressions, a few must have remembered the records. Tyson died on the first dive. It was recorded as being an equipment failure — Pico’s lie — and she’d hold on to the lie as long as possible. It was a promise she’d made to herself and kept all these years.
Shutting her eyes, she saw Tyson’s face smiling at her. Even through the thick faceplate and the shimmering glow of the force field, she could make out the mischievous expression, eyes glinting, the large mouth saying, “Go on back, Pico. In and up and a safe trip to you, pretty lady.”
She had been too stunned to respond, gawking at him.
“Remember? I’ve still got to leave my footprints somewhere —”
“What are you planning?” she interrupted.
He laughed and asked, “Isn’t it obvious? I’m going to make my mark on this world. It’s dull and nearly dead, and I don’t think anyone is ever going to return here. Certainly not to here. Which means I’ll be pretty well left alone —”
“Your force field will drain your batteries,” she argued stupidly. Of course he knew that salient fact. “If you stay here —!”
“I know, Pico. I know.”
“But why —?”
“I lied before. About lying.” The big face gave a disappointed look, then the old smile reemerged. “Poor, docile Pico. I knew you wouldn’t take this well. You’d take it too much to heart… which I suppose is why I asked you along in the first place…” And he turned away, starting to walk through the bacterial mat with threads and chunks kicked loose, sailing into the warm current and obscuring him. It was a strange gray snow moving against gravity. Her last image of Tyson was of a hulking figure amid the living goo; and to this day, she had wondered if she could have wrestled him back to the submersible — an impossibility, of course — and how far could he have walked before his force field failed.
Down the opposite slope and onto the mud, no doubt.
She could imagine him walking fast, using his strength… fighting the deep, cold muds… Tyson plus that fragment of an earlier compilation — and who was driving whom? she asked herself. Again and again and again.
Sometimes she heard herself asking Tyson, “How does it feel having a sliver of another soul inside you?”
His ghost never answered, merely laughing with his booming voice.
She hated him for his suicide, and admired him; and sometimes she cursed him for taking her along with him and for the way he kept cropping up in her thoughts…” Damn you, Tyson. Goddamn you, goddamn you…!”
No more presents remained.
One near-immortal asked, “Are we hungry?”, and others replied, “famished,” in one voice, then breaking into laughter. The party moved toward the distant tables, a noisy mass of bodies surrounding Pico. Her hip had stiffened while sitting, but she worked hard to move normally, managing the downslope toward the pond and then the little wooden bridge spanning a rocky brook. The waterfowl made grumbling sounds, angered by the disturbances; Pico stopped and watched them, finally asking, “What kinds are those?” She meant the ducks.
“Just mallards,” she heard. “Nothing fancy.”
Yet, to her, they seemed like miraculous creatures, vivid plumage and the moving eyes, wings spreading as a reflex and their nervous motions lending them a sense of muscular power. A vibrancy.
Someone said, “You’ve seen many birds, I’m sure.”
Of a sort, yes. …
“What were your favorites, Pico?”
They were starting uphill, quieter now, feet making a swishing sound in the grass; and Pico told them about the pterosaurs of Wilder, the man-sized bats on Little Quark, and the giant insects — a multitude of species thriving in the thick, warm air of Tau Ceti I.
“Bugs,” grumbled someone. “Uggh!”
“Now, now,” another person responded.
Then a third joked, “I’m not looking forward to that. Who wants to trade memories?”
A joke, thought Pico, because memories weren’t tradable properties. Minds were holographic — every piece held the basic picture of the whole and these people each would receive a sliver of Pico’s whole self. Somehow that made her smile, thinking how none of them would be spared. Every terror and every agony would be set inside each of them. In a diluted form, of course. The Pico-ness Made manageable. Yet it was something, wasn’t it? It pleased her to think that a few of them might awaken in the night, bathed in sweat after dreaming of Tyson’s death… just as she had dreamed of it time after time… her audience given more than they had anticipated, a dark little joke of her own…
They reached the tables, Pico taking hers and sitting, feeling rather self-conscious as the others quietly assembled around her, each of them knowing where they belonged. She watched their faces. The excitement she had sensed from the beginning remained; only, it seemed magnified now. More colorful, more intense. Facing toward the inside of the omega, her hosts couldn’t quit staring, forever smiling, scarcely able to eat once the robots brought them plates filled with steaming foods.
Fancy meals, Pico learned.
The robot setting her dinner before her explained, “The vegetables are from Triton, miss. A very special and much-prized strain. And the meat is from a wild hound killed just yesterday —”
“As part of the festivities, yes.” The ceramic face, white and expression-less, stared down at her. “There have been hunting parties and games, among other diversions. Quite an assortment of activities, yes.”
“For how long?” she asked. “These festivities… have they been going on for days?”
“A little longer than three months, miss.”
She had no appetite; nonetheless, she lifted her utensils and made the proper motions, reminding herself that three months of continuous parties would be nothing to these people. Three months was a day to them, and what did they do with their time? So much of it, and such a constricted existence. What had Tyson once told her? The average citizen of Earth averages less than one off-world trip in eighty years, and the trends were toward less traveling. Spaceflight was safe only to a degree, and these people couldn’t stand the idea of being meters away from a cold, raw vacuum.
“Cowards,” Tyson had called them. “Gutted, deblooded cowards!”
Looking about, she saw the delicate twists of green leaves vanishing into grinning mouths, the chewing prolonged and indifferent. Except for Opera, that is. Opera saw her and smiled back in turn, his eyes different, something mocking about the tilt of his head and the curl of his mouth.
She found her eyes returning to Opera every little while, and she wasn’t sure why. She felt no physical attraction for the man. His youth and attitudes made him different from the others, but how much different? Then she noticed his dinner — cultured potatoes with meaty hearts — and that made an impression on Pico. It was a standard food on board the Kybei. Opera was making a gesture, perhaps. Nobody else was eating that bland food, and she decided this was a show of solidarity. At least the man was trying, wasn’t he? More than the others, he was. He was.
Dessert was cold and sweet and shot full of some odd liquor.
Pico watched the others drinking and talking among themselves. For the first time, she noticed how they seemed subdivided — discrete groups formed, and boundaries between each one. A dozen people here, seven back there, and sometimes individuals sitting alone — like Opera — chatting politely or appearing entirely friendless.
One lonesome woman rose to her feet and approached Pico, not smiling, and with a sharp voice, she declared, “Tomorrow, come morning… you’ll live forever…!”
Conversations diminished, then quit entirely.
“Plugged in. Here.” She was under the influence of some drug, the tip of her finger shaking and missing her own temple. “You fine lucky girl… Yes, you are…!”
Some people laughed at the woman, suddenly and without shame.
The harsh sound made her turn and squint, and Pico watched her straightening her back. The woman was pretending to be above them and uninjured, her thin mouth squeezed shut and her nose tilting with mock pride. With a clear, soft voice, she said, “Fuck every one of you,” and then laughed, turning toward Pico, acting as if they had just shared some glorious joke of their own.
“I would apologize for our behavior,” said Opera, “but I can’t. Not in good faith, I’m afraid.”
Pico eyed the man. Dessert was finished; people stood about drinking, keeping the three-month-old party in motion. A few of them stripped naked and swam in the green pond. It was a raucous scene, tireless and full of happy scenes that never seemed convincingly joyous. Happy sounds by practice, rather. Centuries of practice, and the result was to make Pico feel sad and quite lonely.
“A silly, vain lot,” Opera told her.
She said, “Perhaps,” with a diplomatic tone, then saw several others approaching. At least they looked polite, she thought. Respectful. It was odd how a dose of respect glosses over so much. Particularly when the respect wasn’t reciprocated, Pico feeling none toward them….
A man asked to hear more stories. Please?
Pico shrugged her shoulders, then asked, “Of what?” Every request brought her a momentary sense of claustrophobia, her memories threatening to crush her. “Maybe you’re interested in a specific world?”
Opera responded, saying, “Blueblue!”
Blueblue was a giant gaseous world circling a bluish sun. Her first thought was of Midge vanishing into the dark storm on its southern hemisphere, searching for the source of the carbon monoxide upflow that effectively gave breath to half the world. Most of Blueblue was calm in comparison. Thick winds; strong sunlight. Its largest organisms would dwarf most cities, their bodies balloonlike and their lives spent feeding on sunlight and hydrocarbons, utilizing carbon monoxide and other radicals in their patient metabolisms. Pico and the others had spent several months living on the living clouds, walking across them, taking samples and studying the assortment of parasites and symbionts that grew in their flesh.
She told about sunrise on Blueblue, remembering its colors and its astounding speed. Suddenly she found herself taking about a particular morning when the landing party was jostled out of sleep by an apparent quake. Their little huts had been strapped down and secured, but they found themselves tilting fast. Their cloud was colliding with a neighboring cloud — something they had never seen — and of course there was a rush to load their shuttle and leave. If it came to that.
“Normally, you see, the clouds avoid each other,” Pico told her little audience. “At first, we thought the creatures were fighting, judging by their roaring and the hard shoving. They make sounds by forcing air through pores and throats and anuses. It was a strange show. Deafening. The collision point was maybe a third of a kilometer from camp, our whole world rolling over while the sun kept rising, its bright, hot light cutting through the organic haze —”
“Gorgeous,” someone said.
A companion said, “Quiet!”
Then Opera touched Pico on the arm, saying, “Go on. Don’t pay any attention to them.”
The others glanced at Opera, hearing something in his voice, and their backs stiffening reflexively.
And then Pico was speaking again, finishing her story. Tyson was the first one of them to understand, who somehow made the right guess and began laughing, not saying a word. By then everyone was on board the shuttle, ready to fly; the tilting stopped suddenly, the air filling with countless little blue balloons. Each was the size of a toy balloon, she told. Their cloud was bleeding them from new pores, and the other cloud responded with a thick gray fog of butterflylike somethings. The some-things flew after the balloons, and Tyson laughed harder, his face contorted and the laugh finally shattering into a string of gasping coughs.
“Don’t you see?” he asked the others. “Look! The clouds are enjoying a morning screw!”
Pico imitated Tyson’s voice, regurgitating the words and enthusiasm. Then she was laughing for herself, scarcely noticing how the others giggled politely. No more. Only Opera was enjoying her story, again touching her arm and saying, “That’s lovely. Perfect. God, precious…!״
The rest began to drift away, not quite excusing themselves.
What was wrong?
“Don’t mind them,” Opera cautioned. “They’re members of some new chastity faith. Clarity through horniness, and all that.” He laughed at them now. “They probably went to too many orgies, and this is how they’re coping with their guilt. That’s all.”
Pico shut her eyes, remembering the scene on Blueblue for herself. She didn’t want to relinquish it.
“Screwing clouds,” Opera was saying. “That is lovely.”
And she thought:
He sounds a little like Tyson. In places. In ways.
After a while, Pico admitted. “I can’t remember your father’s face. I’m sure I must have met him, but I don’t —”
“You did meet him,” Opera replied. “He left a recording of it in his journal — a brief meeting — and I made a point of studying everything about the mission and you. His journal entries; your reports. Actually, I’m the best-prepared person here today. Other than you, of course.”
She said nothing, considering those words.
They were walking now, making their way down to the pond, and sometimes Pico noticed the hard glances of the others. Did they approve of Opera? Did it anger them, watching him monopolizing her time? Yet she didn’t want to be with them, the truth told. Fuck them, she thought; and she smiled at her private profanity.
The pond was empty of swimmers now. There were just a few sleepless ducks and the roiled water. A lot of the celebrants had vanished, Pico realized. To where? She asked Opera, and he said:
“It’s late. But then again, most people sleep ten or twelve hours every night.”
He nodded. “Enhanced dreams are popular lately. And the oldest people sometimes exceed fifteen hours —”
He shrugged and offered a smile.
“What a waste!”
“Of time?” he countered.
Immortals can waste many things, she realized. But never time. And with that thought, she looked straight at her companion, asking him, “What happened to your father?”
“How did he die, you mean?”
A little nod. A respectful expression, she hoped. But curious.
Opera said, “He used an extremely toxic poison, self-induced.” He gave a vague disapproving look directed at nobody. “A suicide at the end of a prolonged depression. He made certain that his mind was ruined before autodocs and his own robots could save him.”
“Yet I can’t afford to feel sorry,” he responded. “You see, I was born according to the terms of his will. I’m 99 percent his clone, the rest of my genes tailored according to his desires. If he hadn’t murdered himself, I wouldn’t exist. Nor would I have inherited his money.” He shrugged, saying, “Parents,” with a measured scorn. “They have such power over you, like it or not.”
She didn’t know how to respond.
“Listen to us. All of this death talk, and doesn’t it seem out of place?” Opera said, “After all, we’re here to celebrate your return home. Your successes. Your gifts. And you… you on the brink of being magnified many times over.” He paused before saying, “By this time tomorrow, you’ll reside inside all of us, making everyone richer as a consequence.”
The young man had an odd way of phrasing his statements, the entire speech either earnest or satirical. She couldn’t tell which. Or if there was a which. Maybe it was her ignorance with the audible clues, the unknown trappings of this culture… Then something else occurred to her.
“What do you mean? ‘Death talk…”‘
“Your friend Tyson died on Coldtear,” he replied. “And didn’t you lose another on Blueblue?”
He nodded gravely, glancing down at Pico’s legs. “We can sit. I’m sorry; I should have noticed you were getting tired.”
They sat side by side on the grass, watching the mallard ducks. Males and females had the same vivid green heads. Beautiful, she mentioned. Opera explained how females were once brown and quite drab, but people thought that was a shame, and voted to have the species altered, both sexes made equally resplendent. Pico nodded, only halfway listening. She couldn’t get Tyson and her other dead friends out of her mind. Particularly Tyson. She had been angry with him for a long time, and even now her anger wasn’t finished. Her confusion and general tiredness made it worse. Why had he done it? In life the man had had a way of dominating every meeting, every little gathering. He had been optimistic and fearless, the last sort of person to do such an awful thing. Suicide. The others had heard it was an accident — Pico had held to her lie — but she and they were in agreement about one fact. When Tyson died, at that precise instant, some essential heart of their mission had been lost.
Why? she wondered. Why?
Midge had flown into the storm on Blueblue, seeking adventure and important scientific answers; and her death was sad, yes, and everyone had missed her. But it wasn’t like Tyson’s death. It felt honorable, maybe even perfect. They had a duty to fulfill in the wilderness, and that duty was in their blood and their training. People spoke about Midge for years, acting as if she were still alive. As if she were still flying the shuttle into the storm’s vortex.
But Tyson was different.
Maybe everyone knew the truth about his death. Sometimes it seemed that, in Pico’s eyes, the crew could see what had really happened, and they’d hear it between her practiced lines. They weren’t fooled.
Meanwhile, others died in the throes of life.
Uoo — a slender wisp of a compilation—was incinerated by a giant bolt of lightning on Miriam II, little left but ashes, and the rest of the party continuing its descent into the superheated Bottoms and the quiet Lead Sea.
Opaltu died in the mouth of a nameless predator. He had been another of Pico’s lovers, a proud man and the best example of vanity that she had known — until today, she thought — and she and the others had laughed at the justice that befell Opaltu’s killer. Unable to digest alien meats, the predator had sickened and died in a slow, agonizing fashion, vomiting up its insides as it staggered through the yellow jungle.
Boo was killed while working outside the Kyber, struck by a mote of interstellar debris.
Xon’s lifesuit failed, suffocating her.
As did Kyties’s suit, and that wasn’t long ago. Just a year now, ship time, and she remembered a cascade of jokes and his endless good humor. The most decent person on board the Kyber.
Yet it was Tyson who dominated her memories of the dead. It was the man as well as his self-induced extinction, and the anger within her swelled all at once. Suddenly even simple breathing was work. Pico found herself sweating, then blinking away the salt in her eyes. Once, then again, she coughed into a fist; then finally she had the energy to ask, “Why did he do it?”
“Who? My father?”
“Depression is… should be… a curable ailment. We had drugs and therapies on board that could erase it.”
“But it was more than depression. It was something that attacks the very old people. A kind of giant boredom, if you will.”
She wasn’t surprised. Nodding as if she’d expected that reply, she told him, “I can understand that, considering your lives.” Then she thought how Tyson hadn’t been depressed or bored. How could he have been either?
Opera touched her bad leg, for just a moment. “You must wonder how it will be,” he mentioned. “Tomorrow, I mean.”
She shivered, aware of the fear returning. Closing her burning eyes, she saw Tyson’s walk through the bacterial mat, the loose gray chunks spinning as the currents carried them, lending them a greater sort of life with the motion… And she opened her eyes, Opera watching, saying something to her with his expression, and her unable to decipher any meanings.
“Maybe I should go to bed, too,” she allowed.
The park under the tent was nearly empty now. Where had the others gone?
Opera said, “Of course,” as if expecting it. He rose and offered his hand, and she surprised herself by taking the hand with both of hers. Then he said, “If you like, I can show you your quarters.”
She nodded, saying nothing.
It was a long, painful walk, and Pico honestly considered asking for a robot’s help. For anyone’s. Even a cane would have been a blessing, her hip never having felt so bad. Earth’s gravity and the general stress were making it worse, most likely. She told herself that at least it was a pleasant night, warm and calm and perfectly clear, and the soft ground beneath the grass seemed to be calling to her, inviting her to lay down and sleep in the open.
People were staying in a chain of old houses subdivided into apartments, luxurious yet small. Pico’s apartment was on the ground floor, Opera happy to show her through the rooms. For an instant, she considered asking him to stay the night. Indeed, she sensed that he was delaying, hoping for some sort of invitation. But she heard herself saying, “Rest well, and thank you,” and her companion smiled and left without comment, vanishing through the crystal front door and leaving her completely alone.
For a little while, she sat on her bed, doing nothing. Not even thinking, at least in any conscious fashion.
Then she realized something, no warning given; and aloud, in a voice almost too soft for even her to hear, she said, “He didn’t know. Didn’t have an idea, the shit.” Tyson. She was thinking about the fiery man and his boast about being the second generation of star explorers. What if it was all true? His parents had injected a portion of a former Tyson into him, and he had already known the early worlds they had visited. He already knew the look of sunrises on the double desert world around Alpha Centauri A; he knew the smell of constant rot before they cracked their airlocks on Barnard’s 2. But try as he might —
“— he couldn’t remember how it feels to be disassembled.” She spoke without sound. To herself. “That titanic and fearless creature, and he couldn’t remember. Everything else, yes, but not that. And not knowing had to scare him. Nothing else did, but that terrified him. The only time in his life he was truly scared, and it took all his bluster to keep that secret —!”
Killing himself rather than face his fear.
Of course, she thought. Why not?
And he took Pico as his audience, knowing she’d be a good audience. Because they were lovers. Because he must have decided that he could convince her in his fearlessness one last time, leaving his legend secure. Immortal, in a sense.
That’s what you were thinking. . .
. . . wasn’t it?
And she shivered, holding both legs close to her mouth, and feeling the warm misery of her doomed hip.
She sat for a couple more hours, neither sleeping nor feeling the slightest need for sleep. Finally she rose and used the bathroom, and after a long, careful look through the windows, she ordered the door to open, and stepped outside, picking a reasonable direction and walking stiffly and quickly on the weakened leg.
Opera emerged from the shadows, startling her.
“If you want to escape,” he whispered, “I can help. Let me help you, please.”
The face was handsome in the moonlight, young in every fashion. He must have guessed her mood, she realized, and she didn’t allow herself to become upset. Help was important, she reasoned. Even essential. She had to find her way across a vast and very strange alien world. “I want to get back into orbit,” she told him, “and find another starship. We saw several. They looked almost ready to embark.” Bigger than the Kybei, and obviously faster. No doubt designed to move even deeper into the endless wilderness.
“I’m not surprised,” Opera told her. “And I understand.”
She paused, staring at him before asking, “How did you guess?”
“Living forever inside our heads…. That’s just a mess of metaphysical nonsense, isn’t it? You know you’ll die tomorrow. Bits of your brain will vanish inside us, made part of us, and not vice versa. I think it sounds like an awful way to die, certainly for someone like you —”
“Can you really help me?”
“This way,” he told her. “Come on.”
They walked for an age, crossing the paddock and finally reaching the wide tube where the skimmers shot past with a rush of air. Opera touched a simple control, then said, “It won’t be long,” and smiled at her. Just for a moment. “You know, I almost gave up on you. I thought I must have read you wrong. You didn’t strike me as someone who’d go quietly to her death…”
She had a vague, fleeting memory of the senior Opera. Gazing at the young face, she could recall a big, warm hand shaking her hand, and a similar voice saying, “It’s very good to meet you, Pico. At last!”
“I bet one of the new starships will want you.” The young Opera was telling her, “You’re right. They’re bigger ships, and they’ve got better facilities. Since they’ll be gone even longer, they’ve been given the best possible medical equipment. That hip and your general body should respond to treatments —”
“I have experience,” she whispered.
“Experience.” She nodded with conviction. “I can offer a crew plenty of valuable experience.”
“They’d be idiots not to take you.”
A skimmer slowed and stopped before them. Opera made the windows opaque — “So nobody can see you” — and punched in their destination, Pico making herself comfortable.
“Here we go,” he chuckled, and they accelerated away.
There was an excitement to all of this, an adventure like every other. Pico realized that she was scared, but in a good, familiar way. Life and death. Both possibilities seemed balanced on a very narrow fulcrum, and she found herself smiling, rubbing her hip with a slow hand.
They were moving fast, following Opera’s instructions.
“A circuitous route,” he explained. “We want to make our whereabouts less obvious. All right?”
“Are you comfortable?”
“Yes,” she allowed. “Basically.”
Then she was thinking about the others — the other survivors from the Kyber — wondering how many of them were having second or third thoughts. The long journey home had been spent in cold-sleep, but there had been intervals when two or three of them were awakened to do normal maintenance. Not once did anyone even joke about taking the ship elsewhere. Nobody had asked, “Why do we have to go to Earth?” The obvious question had eluded them, and at the time, she had assumed it was because there were no doubters. Besides herself, that is. The rest believed this would be the natural conclusion to full and satisfied lives; they were returning home to a new life and an appreciative audience. How could any sane compilation think otherwise?
Yet she found herself wondering.
Why no jokes!
If they hadn’t had doubts, wouldn’t they have made jokes!
Eight others had survived the mission. Yet none were as close to Pico as she had been to Tyson. They had saved each other’s proverbial skin many times, and she did feel a sudden deep empathy for them, remembering how they had boarded nine separate shuttles after kisses and hugs and a few careful tears, each of them struggling with the proper things to say.
But what could anyone say at such a moment? Particularly when you believed that your companions were of one mind, and, in some fashion, happy. …
Pico said, “I wonder about the others,” and intended to leave it at that. To say nothing more.
“From the Kyber. My friends.” She paused and swallowed, then said softly, “Maybe I could contact them.”
“No,” he responded.
She jerked her head, watching Opera’s profile.
“That would make it easy to catch you.” His voice was quite sensible and measured. “Besides,” he added, “can’t they make up their own minds? Like you have?”
She nodded, thinking that was reasonable. Sure.
He waited a long moment, then said, “Perhaps you’d like to talk about something else?”
He eyed Pico, then broke into a wide smile. “If I’m not going to inherit a slice of your mind, leave me another story. Tell… I don’t know. Tell me about your favorite single place. Not a world, but some favorite patch of ground on any world. If you could be anywhere now, where would it be? And with whom?
Pico felt the skimmer turning, following the tube. She didn’t have to consider the question — her answer seemed obvious to her — but the pause was to collect herself, weighing how to begin and what to tell.
“In the mountains on Erindi 3,” she said, “the air thins enough to be breathed safely, and it’s really quite pretty. The scenery, I mean.”
“I’ve seen holos of the place. It is lovely.”
“Not just lovely.” She was surprised by her authority, her self-assured voice telling him, “There’s a strange sense of peace there. You don’t get that from holos. Supposedly it’s produced by the weather and the vegetation…. They make showers of negative ions, some say…. And it’s the colors, too. A subtle interplay of shades and shadows. All very one-of-a- kind.”
“Of course,” he said carefully.
She shut her eyes, seeing the place with almost perfect clarity. A summer storm had swept overhead, charging the glorious atmosphere even further, leaving everyone in the party invigorated. She and Tyson, Midge, and several others had decided to swim in a deep-blue pool near their campsite. The terrain itself was rugged, black rocks erupting from the blue-green vegetation. The valley’s little river poured into a gorge and the pool, and the people did the same. Tyson was first, naturally. He laughed and bounced in the icy water, screaming loud enough to make a flock of razor-bats take flight. This was only the third solar system they had visited, and they were still young in every sense. It seemed to them that every world would be this much fun.
She recalled — and described — diving feet first. She was last into the pool, having inherited a lot of caution from her parents. Tyson had teased her, calling her a coward and then worse, then showing where to aim. “Right here! It’s deep here! Come on, coward! Take a chance!”
The water was startlingly cold, and there wasn’t much of it beneath the shiny flowing surface. She struck and hit the packed sand below, and the impact made her groan, then shout. Tyson had lied, and she chased the bastard around the pool, screaming and finally clawing at his broad back until she’d driven him up the gorge walls, him laughing and once, losing strength with all the laughing, almost tumbling down on top of her.
She told Opera everything.
At first, it seemed like an accident. All her filters were off; she admitted everything without hesitation. Then she told herself that the man was saving her life and deserved the whole story. That’s when she was describing the lovemaking between her and Tyson. That night. It was their first time, and maybe the best time. They did it on a bed of mosses, perched on the rim of the gorge, and she tried to paint a vivid word picture for her audience, including smells and the textures and the sight of the double moons overhead, colored a strange living pink and moving fast.
Their skimmer ride seemed to be taking a long time, she thought once she was finished. She mentioned this to Opera, and he nodded soberly. Otherwise, he made no comment.
I won’t be disembodied tomorrow, she told herself.
Then she added, Today, I mean today.
She felt certain now. Secure. She was glad for this chance and for this dear new friend, and it was too bad she’d have to leave so quickly, escaping into the relative safety of space. Perhaps there were more people like Opera… people who would be kind to her, appreciating her circumstances and desires… supportive and interesting companions in their own right… And suddenly the skimmer was slowing, preparing to stop.
When Opera said, “Almost there,” she felt completely at ease. Entirely
calm. She shut her eyes and saw the raw, wild mountains on Erindi 3, storm clouds gathering and flashes of lightning piercing the howling winds. She summoned a different day, and saw Tyson standing against the storms, smiling, beckoning for her to climb up to him just as the first cold, fat raindrops smacked against her face.
The skimmer’s hatch opened with a hiss.
Sunlight streamed inside, and she thought: Dawn. By now, sure… Opera rose and stepped outside, then held a hand out to Pico. She took it with both of hers and said, “Thank you,” while rising, looking past him and seeing the paddock and the familiar faces, the green ground and the giant tent with its doorways opened now, various birds flying inside and out again… and Pico most surprised by how little she was surprised, Opera still holding her hands, and his flesh dry, the hand perfectly calm.
The autodocs stood waiting for orders.
This time, Pico had been carried from the skimmer, riding cradled in a robot’s arms. She had taken just a few faltering steps before half-crumbling. Exhaustion was to blame. Not fear. At least it didn’t feel like fear, she told herself. Everyone told her to take it easy, to enjoy her comfort; and now, finding herself flanked by autodocs, her exhaustion worsened. She thought she might die before the cutting began, too tired now to pump her own blood or fire her neurons or even breathe.
Opera was standing nearby, almost smiling, his pleasure serene and chilly and without regrets.
He hadn’t said a word since they left the skimmer.
Several others told her to sit, offering her a padded seat with built-in channels to catch any flowing blood. Pico took an uneasy step toward the seat, then paused and straightened her back, saying, “I’m thirsty,” softly, her words sounding thoroughly parched.
“Pardon?” they asked.
“I want to drink… some water, please…?”
Faces turned, hunting for a cup and water.
It was Opera who said, “Will the pond do?” Then he came forward, extending an arm and telling everyone else, “It won’t take long. Give us a moment, will you?”
Pico and Opera walked alone.
Last night’s ducks were sleeping and lazily feeding. Pico looked at their metallic green heads, so lovely that she ached at seeing them, and she tried to miss nothing. She tried to concentrate so hard that time itself would compress, seconds turning to hours, and her life in that way prolonged.
Opera was speaking, asking her, “Do you want to hear why?”
She shook her head, not caring in the slightest.
“But you must be wondering why. I fool you into believing that I’m your ally, and I manipulate you —”
“Why?” she sputtered. “So tell me.”
“Because,” he allowed, “it helps the process. It helps your integration into us. I gave you a chance for doubts and helped you think you were fleeing, convinced you that you’d be free… and now you’re angry and scared and intensely alive. It’s that intensity that we want. It makes the neurological grafts take hold. It’s a trick that we learned since the Kybei left Earth. Some compilations tried to escape, and when they were caught and finally incorporated along with their anger —”
“Except, I’m not angry,” she lied, gazing at his self-satisfied grin.
“A nervous system in flux,” he said. “I volunteered, by the way.”
She thought of hitting him. Could she kill him somehow?
But instead, she turned and asked, “Why this way? Why not just let me slip away, then catch me at the spaceport?”
“You were going to drink,” he reminded her. “Drink.”
She knelt despite her hip’s pain, knees sinking into the muddy bank and her lips pursing, taking in a long, warmish thread of muddy water, and then her face lifting, the water spilling across her chin and chest, and her mouth unable to close tight.
“Nothing angers,” he said, “like the betrayal of someone you trust.”
True enough, she thought. Suddenly she could see Tyson leaving her alone on the ocean floor, his private fears too much, and his answer being to kill himself while dressed up in apparent bravery. A kind of betrayal, wasn’t that? To both of them, and it still hurt….
“Are you still thirsty?” asked Opera.
“Yes,” she whispered.
“Then drink. Go on.”
She knelt again, taking a bulging mouthful and swirling it with her tongue. Yet she couldn’t make herself swallow, and after a moment, it began leaking out from her lips and down her front again. Making a mess, she realized. Muddy, warm, ugly water, and she couldn’t remember how it felt to be thirsty. Such a little thing, and ordinary, and she couldn’t remember it.
“Come on, then,” said Opera.
She looked at him.
He took her arm and began lifting her, a small, smiling voice saying, “You’ve done very well, Pico. You have. The truth is that everyone is very proud of you.”
She was on her feet again and walking, not sure when she had begun moving her legs. She wanted to poison her thoughts with her hatred of these awful people, and for a little while, she could think of nothing else. She would make her mind bilious and cancerous, poisoning all of these bastards and finally destroying them. That’s what she would do, she promised herself. Except, suddenly she was sitting on the padded chair, autodocs coming close with their bright, humming limbs; and there was so much stored in her mind — worlds and people, emotions heaped on emotions — and she didn’t have the time she would need to poison herself.
Which proved something, she realized.
Sitting still now.
Sitting still and silent. At ease. Her front drenched and stained brown,
but her open eyes calm and dry.
As soon as they called the First Class passengers I stepped to the head of the line, hurried down to my seat and braced myself for the crowd that came slumping past minutes later with their loose, swollen bags. Any of them could stop, pretend to cough or adjust a strap, and a runty hand could pull out a cobbled together shank which he’d stick into my chest, my neck, my cheek where it would clatter against my teeth, again and again, sinking through the soft meat of my eye. I left my seatbelt unbuckled, ready to fly up and fight my way back to American soil. When the stewardesses began their pantomime of safety I was able to relax a little, probably only because by that time I’d finished two vodka tonics. I was hoping to drink myself to sleep, but as we reached cruising altitude and the ice in my drink tumbled under the collar of my shirt, I knew I wouldn’t be so lucky this time.
When I was first told they were sending me to this country to do an accounting of the Canadian mining firm’s books, I told them I couldn’t. I said, “My wife is sick.”
There was silence on the other end of the line and I was suddenly unsure if I’d ever met the man to whom I was speaking. I’d assumed he was the same Steve we’d had over for dinner a few years earlier. My wife had made enchiladas with mole sauce. Steve had picked around the plate, ate half his salad and a few scoops of refried beans, leaving two perfectly formed enchiladas like a big old fuck-you to his hostess who’d spent hours in the kitchen, lifting the skin off broiled peppers.
The man on the phone eventually said, “I’m sorry to hear about that.” Another pause, as though this made what came next acceptable, “Your flight’s tomorrow, at seven.”
“A.M.” he explained.
As turbulence wobbled the plane I leaned my head into the oily leather seat and breathed deep, but this made the pressure in my chest expand into a lead weight.
Half-way through the flight the woman beside me turned and grinned until I stopped pretending to be asleep. She was an American, a Mississippian, she clarified, and was going down to visit her daughter, who was about to marry a young man from the country’s elite. She wore a beige suit like an ill-fitting exoskeleton. Every inch of exposed skin – face, neck, hands – was layered with foundation and powder so a smell of petroleum oozed out from beneath gusts of perfume. Her eyes were small and a beautiful blue, startling to find rooted in that puffy, twitching face.
“They’re very nice people,” she said, then admitted that in fact she’d never met them. “But they own three coffee plantations. The wedding is going to be at one of them.”
Despite her grin, she was clearly horrified that her daughter was about to be swallowed up by a family of brown people, no matter how rich they might be, no matter how comforting the word plantation.
“You know, they’re not actually Hispanic, they’re Spanish. I mean, they have no Indian blood at all.”
Eventually, she left me alone and began searching through her cavernous plaid handbag, setting off an incessant clinking of lipstick cases against her cell phone, wallet, makeup case, the tinny rattle of loose change. At one point she pulled out a photograph in a gaudy metal frame. In it a beautiful young woman in a tight fitting white dress leaned against a stone wall. The woman stared for a few minutes then, with an elaborate sigh, dropped the frame back into the purse.
I’m sure I looked like a compatriot, an overweight, middle-aged man with thinning hair gone white expect a few strands of black that looked permanently wet. The starched collar of my button-down shirt, the faint pinstripe on my suit pants, and the shine of my black shoes all suggested not only that we were both Americans, but that back home we might even have been friends, would’ve invited each other over for dinner parties where we’d drink too much, flirt clumsily at the fridge, then turn our energies to moaning about our ingrate children, the awfulness of youth in general, and the folly of anyone who disagreed with us about anything. And, I knew, we were compatriots of a sort, but I was too tired, too angry at being on that plane when I should’ve been home with Joyce.
I’d promised no more trips after she got sick. I told her I’d work from home, or at least from the American headquarters of the firms I audited. But, it turned out, this wasn’t possible, and so every few months I was off again – Zimbabwe, Peru, Bolivia, South Africa – in each place working to make sense of the tangle of fraud that constituted the local office’s financial records. I had a particular talent for this, an ability to see through bureaucratic madness and to articulate a legally defensible financial record. Typically, I went down to the capitals of these godforsaken places and took a limo to my hotel – the nicest in the country, holdovers from colonial days – and the next morning another limo would ferry me to the offices that were always staffed half with gringos who looked like they’d had too much local rum, and half by locals who hadn’t quite learned how to smother their bitter scent. I was given my own office, usually that of some recently fired executive, and I would make sense of the confusion they’d all bred in their frenzy to pull minerals from the earth.
We descended through a scrim of clouds. The city clung to a tangle of ravines at the foot of sheer, black mountains, the lower slopes of which were smothered with shanty-towns. The downtown was marked by dull gray buildings and a few half-finished concrete towers. Our plane touched down with a jolt, the seatbelt cut into my gut, then we seemed to be rising again before slamming down a second time, the engines whirring, the smell of burning rubber filling the cabin. Then we were there, trembling on the runway.
None of the three men holding name-signs were waiting for me when I came through customs. The glass doors weren’t tinted and the near-equatorial sun set off a pulsing headache behind my eyes. When I checked my cell phone, set up with world-wide access, it said, Looking for Service.
Maybe it was my exhaustion, my hangover, or the soldier who stepped away from the wall, eyeing my bag, but I felt suddenly weightless and lost, as though waking from one dream into another when I should’ve been back in the real world, not caught in this greasy airport with the high, rising scream of a woman at the customs point as soldiers tossed her underwear, her socks, her shirts to the floor, then held up a pair of blue jeans and scythed them in half with a knife. Whatever the reason, I panicked and joined a clump of passengers heading for the glass doors.
“Excuse me?” an American voice said. There beside me were two young hippy travelers, a boy and a girl, both grinning like idiots. They wore loose, dirty clothes that might’ve been hemp and stank of patchouli and sweat. Loose leather sandals showed off filthy feet, toenails blackened with grime, feet they surely planned to tan before going back home with dysentery and a few snapshots of indigenous kids atop a trash heap.
“Do you know which way the train is?” the girl asked.
“There’s no train,” I said, hurrying after the crowd.
As we rushed along, the tall, thin boy held up a travel guide and said, “No, it says there’s one that goes into the city center.” He said this with a kind of desperation, which was understandable. Stretching out around the airport was a dead zone of warehouses with metal shutters pulled over the doors. Power lines sagged from leaning poles. All this made it look that if there had once been a city here it had long ago been abandoned.
“No,” I said, “the book’s wrong. There’s no train.” I quickened my pace, hoping in their confusion they’d fall away.
“So, how do we get to the city?” the girl asked, scurrying to keep up.
“Take the bus,” I said, pointing at the crowd ahead of us, which bulged around the doors before squeezing out, like a clot of blood from a narrow wound. “Or a taxi.”
“Dude, isn’t that expensive?” the boy said.
“Depends on what you think of as expensive,” I said.
The girl was still smiling, bobbing her head as though we were listening to a good, thick reggae beat. Then we were outside in the too-bright light. Sitting at the otherwise empty curb was a black SUV and in it were two men wearing sunglasses. They leaned forward and though it was possible they were just trying to get a better glimpse of the American girl’s thin white shirt, I felt sure they were waiting for me and so I started walking faster, pushing through the crowd. Behind me the American kids were shouting. I hunched down and jogged to the orange bus. In that SUV a rifle could be sliding up between the men, scope swirling out of focus before sharpening in on the white hairs at the back of my head.
The bus driver was leaning in the open door and for a moment my Spanish abandoned me. I gestured at the door and nodded. I glanced back at the SUV. One of the men was standing in the street, pointing. Finally, I found the word, “Abierto.”
“Lo siento,” the driver said, stepping aside. I sank into a narrow green seat, my legs pinched up against my gut, suitcase and briefcase piled to my chin.
At that moment, I finally paused to wonder what in the hell I was doing. My limo driver was probably inside right now, he’d probably just gone to the bathroom, but here I was, in the open, jammed into this bus which was already filling up with peasants hauling bags of all shapes and sizes they’d managed to smuggle past the driver who screamed at everyone to toss their luggage onto the roof.
“Is this taken?” The American girl was smiling at me, pointing at the empty six inches of seat.
Once settled, her leg pressing against mine, she held out a hand. “I’m Allie.”
“Robert,” I said. Her hand was slim and cool and in the midst of my confusion, I held on too long, until she was forced to pull back with a pitying smile.
Soon, every seat was full and the aisle was packed. The American boy, Billy, was pinned between two fat ladies, his spiky blond hair brushing the ceiling as the bus lurched away.
“Is this your first time here?” Allie said, leaning across me to look out the window so her breast rested on my arm. I tried to see the road behind us, to see if the SUV was there, but the angle was wrong.
“No,” I lied, because it was easier.
“It’s mine. But I was in Mexico last year for a couple months. In the Yucatan.”
I tried to smile, though my mouth was so dry my lips stuck against my teeth.
We passed a few dozen warehouses and pulled up onto a truck clogged highway. Men bent beneath enormous piles of sticks, or stones walked along the road, their faces gray with the diesel and dust kicked up. We passed a line of auto-body shops where cars sat stripped and piles of tires leaned toward the street. Mangy dogs and naked children scampered in and out of the open garages while shirtless men hefted greasy tools and wiped their sweating faces with handkerchiefs.
“Dude,” Billy shouted, leaning toward our seat. “Have you ever been to Tonterrico? I hear the waves are awesome.”
I didn’t answer, all my energy focused on ignoring the puddle of what was possibly piss sticking my shoes to the floor.
At the bus station, I paid for my ticket and those of the kids, who patted their pockets as though they’d lost their wallets. I’d hoped this generosity would be enough to get rid of them, but they followed me to the hotel shuttle. There was no sign of the SUV, and as I was ushered to a plush red seat by a man in a tuxedo shirt and bow-tie, I felt a measure of calm returning. While the driver stood in the door to see if there were other passengers – there weren’t – I noticed that neither of the kids had backpacks, or, for that matter, bags of any kind. They looked tired and unwashed, though that, I knew, might be an affectation.
“Are you staying at the Palacio?” I said. These kids were pretending to be vagabonds, and so I knew they’d never put up the cost of the room, which was, considering the general destitution of this entire region, extravagant. But now that my confusion had receded, I felt sorry for them. They were scared and lost and I could help them out, a little.
Allie said, “We don’t have a reservation, but maybe. Is it nice?”
I said it was unquestionably the best.
“Well, so maybe we will,” Billy said, plastering his face against the window.
As the shuttle pulled away, Allie started telling a story about the time she’d traveled to Saint Petersburg and ended up getting in a cab whose driver promised to take her to a club.
“He said it was the hip new place. Then we got off the road and were driving through these warehouses and I got pretty nervous. I mean, I thought he was going to rape me or something, but then we turned a corner and there was this one warehouse, with lights and techno music. I guess I was just relieved, so I didn’t think it was so weird when the driver got out of the car. The music was so loud it was like shaking your head apart, and he opened the door for me. I didn’t step inside. I could see that the place was empty, I mean, almost empty, except this huge speaker stack and these towers of strobe lights and then I noticed like four or five guys, all holding baseball bats and on the ground in front of them was this guy, all beaten up. The guy on the floor looked up and shouted, “Help!” He was American. I started running. If I’d been wearing sandals I’d be dead. I ran and ran and that fat fuck of a cabbie couldn’t keep up and eventually I hid in this empty warehouse. I could hear the men go by, looking for me, and they came by again later. I was hiding behind this stack of metal barrels, but if they came into the warehouse they totally would’ve seen me. It was the middle of the night, you know, but I ran out and went to another warehouse, in case they decided to search that first one and I heard them, shouting, a ways off. When it was light I snuck out and walked back to the city along the train tracks. It was pretty goddamn scary, though.”
In all likelihood this was a myth she’d heard while traveling, or one she’d read on the internet. That it wasn’t true didn’t matter, what mattered was telling the story and the practice this gave her. In a few months she’d come down from the remote mountains to get drunk in gringo bars on the coast and talk about all the crazy stuff she’d seen. It wouldn’t matter if anything she said was true, because facts weren’t important, what was important was the idea of herself that traveling confirmed: she was brave and adventurous and open-minded and now she could go home thirty pounds lighter and filthy, which would frighten her parents enough to allow her to live off their money for a few more years.
“That’s totally fucked up, man,” Billy said, his face up against the window as we pulled past the gray government buildings. “Hey, isn’t that the Department of Interior?”
“So, are you traveling, or what?” Allie said, picking at the dirt ground under her nails.
“No, I’m here for work.”
“Where do you work?”
“I’m a consultant.”
“For what, the government?” From the hardening of her consonants it was clear she had me figured out: I was a bad guy and she was more than eager to judge, not all that different from my daughters, both of whom fancied themselves world savers. They had the security to use their educations and opportunities however they saw fit – one was an Assistant D.A. in New Jersey and the other was a school teacher in Brooklyn – all because I’d worked my entire life to make enough money so they could attend Columbia and Brown.
“Not the government,” I said. “Independent companies.”
“What kind of companies?”
“A mining company. I’m auditing their operations here.” I said this in a rush as though I was flustered, which I guess I was. That’s how I got any time my daughters started in on universal health care, or how awful American foreign policy was. Susan, our oldest, the teacher, was home helping Joyce while I was away and for her I’d pounded a sign into the front lawn: Thank You, George Bush.
Allie just stared, as though waiting for horns to sprout from my forehead. Billy was still muttering about this building and that building and the civil war.
“Aqui, El Palacio,” the driver said, easing to a stop.
I left the American kids frowning at the glimmering façade of the hotel and hurried into the revolving door. The lobby, with its slick stone floors and dribbling fountain, was empty except for a cluster of boys in bright red jackets and black pants who looked desperate to snatch my bag away.
In my reserved room I went to the drawer of the bedside table and found the promised handgun and shoulder hostler. I splashed cold water on my face, dried it on a plush towel, lay down on the slightly lumpy mattress, and watched the jerking ceiling fan.
I woke to the knocking at the door and groped for the gun, nearly falling out of bed, shouting, “Hold on. Just hold on.”
Through the peephole I saw a bellboy. He was barely five feet tall and so thin his arms and hands looked withered, his fingers long and spindly. He rattled away in Spanish, spraying spit.
“What?” I said. “English. Speak English.”
“Guests, down.” He pointed at the floor. “Wait. You. Guests.”
“Who? Who is it?”
He shook his misshapen head and pulled his lips up into what he must’ve imagined was a smile.
“Why didn’t you call?”
“No phone work,” he said, pointing into my room. “Guests. Down. Bar.” Then, probably sensing I wasn’t going to tip, he shuffled away.
I checked the phone. There was no dial tone, just a blank space. I checked my cell, hoping to call Joyce and make sure Susan had arrived. The phone said, Looking for Service. Before leaving the room I grabbed my briefcase. You could never be sure with these companies. They were often frantic and might want to see something to comfort them right away.
The bar was off the lobby, through a frosted glass door. I let my eyes adjust to the darkness, taking in the sour smell of bleach, half-full ashtrays, and rum. An oily sunset was smeared across the one window.
From a booth near the window a woman waved. It was Allie, and beside her was Billy. They were drinking tall, fruit-adorned cocktails.
“We were waiting,” she said, pointing at their drinks in which quivered flecks of poisonous ice. “Someone’s got to pay for these drinks, after all.”
Still in something of a daze, I joined them, settling the briefcase on my lap. The waiter appeared and soon we were sipping a round of beers.
“Are you staying here?” I asked, not quite able to pull myself fully into the waking world.
“Dude, are you crazy?” Billy said. “This place costs a fortune.”
“We found a hostel,” Allie said. “Not too far away.”
“Well, that’s great,” I said, tipping my bottle at them, then taking a sip and trying not to gag.
“But we thought we’d come and meet you for dinner.” She reached across the table to pat my hand, as though they felt sorry for me. At that moment her smile reminded me of Susan, with that smug twist to her mouth. I’d assumed these kids were in their early twenties, but now I thought they might be the same age as my daughters, late-twenties, on the cusp of realizing that life wasn’t a game, that it was hard and ruthless and that the main thing was to keep from getting completely and totally screwed over by others.
“Sure,” I said. “We can get some dinner. I bet the food’s OK here.”
“Don’t be silly,” Allie said, leaning forward to slap my shoulder. “Not here. We know a great place nearby.”
“Is that a good idea? The food can be pretty dodgy down here.” I touched the gun under my arm.
“Come on,” Billy said, biffing me on the shoulder. “We’ll be fine, man. It’ll be an adventure.” He stared at the briefcase on my lap, seemed about to say something, then just grinned dopily.
I should’ve gone to my room and back to sleep. Maybe it was exhaustion, or maybe, like that idiot Billy said, I just wanted to do something different, something that might help me slip for a moment out of my life.
“Just don’t order salad. You’ll be fine,” Allie said. “And you better get the check, big guy,” she said, then threw back her head and chugged the rest of her beer, clinking the bottle down on the table. Gasping for breath, she said, “Ready?”
They refused my offer of a taxi and so we walked, gathering attention on every street – three gringos ripe for a mugging, or, if the locals were feeling more industrious, a kidnapping. The chances of this increased the farther we walked, out of the governmental area, through what counted here as a “middle class” neighborhood and past a hostel with a few gringos hanging around out front. I asked if that’s where they were staying and they smiled dimly.
We walked on, into a slum. The narrow passageways between crumbling concrete walls were littered with garbage and an open sewer trickled down the middle. All the children were barefoot and ravenous, dark eyes glittering as they displayed their stumpy teeth. A clutch of them gathered around us, tugging at our pockets and sleeves and smearing swarms of bacteria over my fingers and the brass lock on my briefcase, so eventually I cradled it against my chest. What the hell am I doing here, I kept thinking, but I didn’t turn back. I began to wonder if I’d picked up some tropical bug and was in the early stages of delirium. Sweat soaked my back. I touched the handle of the gun again and again for comfort.
This was probably just the sort of thing Susan had done during her recent trip across India. She’d come back with a new wardrobe of sari’s, a streak of red dye in her light brown hair, and stories about the noble poor and our responsibility to them. Like Allie and Billy, Susan had played at destitution, renting rooms from families in remote villages where she could’ve easily been raped or killed. During her recent visit she’d worn me out with her stories and self-righteousness. One night, after listening to awful, jangling music for an hour, I’d helped Joyce to bed, hooked up the tubes, and said, “Well, that was quite a performance.”
“Performance?” she said, in the raspy near-whisper that was all she’d been able to manage for the past year. The brittle strands of her hair clung to the crisp pillowcase.
“Susan,” I said, kissing her papery cheek. “That music.”
Joyce closed her eyes and said, softly, “I thought it was beautiful.”
“Beautiful?” I said. She opened her eyes and at that moment she looked frightened of me. I tried to calm myself. “Don’t be silly, Joyce. It was awful.”
“No,” she said, closing her eyes again. “No, Robert.” And then she was asleep. Music leaked up from below for hours and I ground my teeth until my jaw throbbed.
I told myself that Allie and Billy weren’t much different from my daughters, which is obviously part of the reason I went with them: I wanted to protect them and, in so doing, I thought maybe I could teach them something useful. The longer I was around them, the more ragged they looked. Both were severely under weight, especially Allie, whose jaw was drawn so tight it looked painful, and she had the wild look of hunger, the kind of fear that could get her into real trouble. There was something black and feral in her eyes, as though they didn’t quite see you, only what she could get from you. She’d carried her Central American adventure too far and soon, if she wasn’t careful, would end up truly lost.
At the door of the restaurant the urchins fell away. At first my relief they were gone was so great I didn’t notice that the restaurant doubled as a brothel, but by the time we were seated at a rickety plastic table, I’d noticed the sickly girls, none older than sixteen, lined up against the far wall, shifting their legs apart so their tiny dresses rode higher. The bar stools were full of heavy men wearing cowboy hats which they tipped back on their heads to peer at us through the smoke-haze.
“Apparently,” Allie said, scooting up to the table, “the tacos here are killer.”
A tiny Indian woman with wildly unkempt hair took our order. I lied and said I’d eaten but that dinner was on me, of course. A few urchins approached the door warily, eager for us to emerge, drunk, easy targets.
When the food came the American kids bent over the paper plates and crammed everything into their mouths, even the lettuce, sauce dripping over their dirty hands, which they licked clean like dogs. I signaled to the waitress for another round of tacos, and they tore into them, letting out little groans of pleasure. Wiping their mouths on their sleeves, without a word of thanks, they pushed their plates away and grinned at me.
“Hey,” Allie said, sitting up straighter. She pointed at me. “Do you have any money?”
“What?” I said. “Of course.”
“So, like, do you think we could borrow some?” She cocked her head and grinned and when she did I noticed she was missing several teeth, as though they’d been pried from her raw, red gums.
“To buy stuff,” she said, so brightly, so stupidly that I pulled out my wallet.
“How much?” I said, peering at the lump of nearly useless local money and the crisp American bills behind.
“I mean, whatever you can spare.” She was still smiling, but it had a harder edge now. This wasn’t the first time she’d asked someone for money.
I pulled out two American twenties and handed them across the table. She squinted at them as though not quite believing I was so cheap, then slipped them beneath the table.
“That’s great. Thanks,” she said.
“Hold on.” I pulled out another two twenties.
“Thank you,” she said softly, folding the bills carefully and tucking them away. “I’ll pay you back.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
Done with me now, the American kids started yakking about something, music, I thought, though the arcane names of bands, or brands, or TV shows proved impenetrable. I fell into the role of observer, watching men slip in from the street, skirt the far wall until they reached the line of girls, one of which would peel off and lead the man through a curtained doorway. One of the girls had noticed me watching and kept catching my eye, smiling, maybe thinking I’d be good for a big tip.
“So, are you like actually going up to the mine?” Allie said, cutting Billy off in the middle of one of his stories.
“The mine, are you going there?” She was squinting, as though I was far away.
“No. There’s plenty of work to do at the headquarters.”
“Yeah, I bet,” she said, propping her knobby elbows on the table.
Like my daughters, this girl clearly had some fantasy about a world made up of good guys and bad guys. This was a liberal delusion, one that sensible people eventually realized was a limited and immature way of seeing the world.
“I’ve heard about that mine,” Allie said.
I knew she meant in Harper’s. Susan had mailed me a copy of the issue. The article focused on the displacement of the local population and the tensions this generated within the community and the possibility that it might reignite the civil war. In truth, I’d only skimmed the pages, bloated as they were with nonsense.
“I guess that makes you an expert, doesn’t it?” I said.
“I think it’s pretty fucked up,” she said. “I mean, how can you work for that company? They’re stealing those people’s lands.”
“Those people don’t own the land. That’s the point.”
“That’s such bullshit!” she shouted, slapping the table. The men at the bar turned on their stools.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” I said, just above a whisper. “The opportunities that mine presents for this country outweigh the concerns of a few subsistence farmers.” I hated myself for getting sucked in, but I’d never been able to stop myself. Thanksgiving dinners always ended in acrimony in our house.
“Of course it does!” Allie was shouting now. Everyone was watching us. “Opportunities for the rich who’ve raped this country for hundreds of years, and for North American corporations. Which I guess is what your job is, right? Grease the fucking gears.”
There was something in her tone that made me think she wasn’t just someone who’d stumbled across an article, which had mentioned, now that I thought about it, the presence of international human rights organizations, serving as observers and even human shields for the local communities when the mining company sent in men to burn the villages. Seeing her indignation, I began to wonder if maybe she was one of these. Even brainless Billy could’ve been an activist.
“I think you’re simplifying things. The world isn’t that easy,” I said.
“It’s not?” she shouted. “What’s so complicated? Thieves come down and steal land, property, goods, and call themselves a company. That’s how it’s always been.” Her face was red and the cords of her neck stood out. A little vein pulsed along her forehead. Billy watched all this with a bemused smile, as though we were speaking a foreign language.
“That’s how a child thinks,” I said. “Just because you read something in a magazine doesn’t mean you understand anything.”
“What the fuck are you talking about? What fucking magazine? I guess you,” she lunged forward, trying to poke me in the chest, but the table caught her in the stomach, “are just naturally full of fucking wisdom, aren’t you?”
Before I could say anything she stood and stomped to the bar, squeezing in between two men. Billy fussed with the label on his bottle, then followed. They whispered together furiously while I finished my beer and gestured for another. Little peaks of their bitching rose into audibility every now and then. When I’d nearly finished my new beer, they went and sat at another table, back near the prostitutes.
Maybe at that point I should’ve left. But I’d seen the way the men in the bar were looking at the American kids, and though they were strangers, I felt responsible for them. I ordered another beer, told the waitress I was paying for everything the Americans had, and snuck a look at my cell phone, which was still getting no service. Though the lopsided clock on the wall said it was only six o’clock, dark had fallen. Back home, Joyce would be exhausted, barely able to shuffle to the bathroom where she’d strain to urinate, and then brush her teeth. Susan would have to help lift her mother into bed, hook up the tubes and set the level of the oxygen. These are things I’d done every day for the past year when I was home and I’d come to think of them as rites no one knew how to enact but me. I hated when reality imposed on this feeling, as it continually did when we had to hire nurses to help while I was abroad. This time, Joyce said she didn’t want a stranger. She couldn’t stand another bored, tired nurse changing her bed pan, lifting her frail shoulders from the sheets to slip her nightgown off before sponging her down, massaging her legs and slipping a clean gown over her head. I’d written out how to do all this in explicit detail for Susan, but I was worried something would go wrong. Joyce might die and even though I knew this was inevitable, knew that soon enough she’d be gone, I wasn’t ready for it and couldn’t accept it. And now I was here, thousands of miles away and out of touch. I wanted to be there, to take care of her, to sit up in bed when I heard her sighing in pain, or just shifting her hips. I was alert in a way I haven’t been since Susan was born and for the first few weeks had only been able to sleep nestled between us. All that time I slept thinly, always aware of her delicate body on the mattress. Instead of thrashing around in the sheets as I usually did I was suddenly calm and careful, and it was how I felt taking care of Joyce, the slight weight of her body in my arms as I cradled her and lifted her up and set her down in the soft seat of her wheelchair. But what was I suppose to do when the man who might’ve been Steve called? If I’d refused to come down here, they’d have fired me, had nearly already done so because of my “personal conflicts” that were “hindering my accountability,” and if that happened we’d be left without health insurance.
Distracted by these thoughts, I didn’t notice the two men join Billy and Allie. The men looked about the same age as the Americans, but were of a whole other world. Both men had cowboy hats tipped down over their narrow faces. I’d seen men like this all over the world, charming enough on the surface, but an inch down they were criminals. I could tell from the way they sat in their chairs that beneath their shirts were knives, or guns. The two men laughed, stood up, and gestured to the Americans. Allie and Billy complied. They knocked at a door on the back wall, which opened a crack, then let them in.
By the time I fumbled up out of my seat and across the room, the door was closed. The nearest prostitute grinned at me, tugging down the neck of her blouse.
I knocked and waited. While I did, I reached into my jacket and lifted the gun half an inch out of the holster, let it fall back. In my other hand I gripped my briefcase, full of financial papers and spreadsheets and my laptop computer. When no one answered my knocks I turned to the bartender, who avoided looking at me. “Abierto la puerta,” I said. The bartender smiled at me, then nodded and stepped around the bar and unlocked the door.
“Dancing,” he said, speaking Spanish slowly, as if I was a child. “Good dancing.”
A steep flight of stairs led down into a room that pulsed with blue light and a dense, throbbing music. The stairwell was smothered with water sodden posters – political ads, deodorant advertisements, and what looked like rock bands, men and women studded with piercings, sticking their tongues out and flicking off the camera as they danced atop blood red letters that had blistered and burst apart. The door above slammed, a lock thrown.
The music was too loud to hear voices in the room, the walls of which seemed to be shaking with the violent strobe light, and it took me a moment to recognize Allie and Billy at a table near a low wooden platform out of which rose a greasy metal pole. The Americans were laughing, bent doubled over as if in pain, and the two men they’d been talking with were smiling and smoking, holding what must have been joints out as the kids straightened up. There were half a dozen other tables, only one of which was occupied by a single man in a long trenchcoat, a baseball cap pulled low over his face. I sat at the table nearest the stairs, turning my chair so I could see if someone came down. A tiny, shriveled woman stepped from the shadows, her old body grotesquely squeezed into a leather bra and panties, her loose, cellulite thighs quivering as she stepped beside me and glared until I ordered a beer. Watching her slink back to the bar in the corner I noticed a wall, covered with leather straps, whips, and a long, thin machete.
I jumped when the music cut off, just long enough to hear Allie say, “Exactly. That’s exactly what I’m –,” and then the music erupted again, a crashing heavy-metal that felt as if it was scraping the inside my eyes. A silvery cloud drifted along the low ceiling filling the room with the overripe stink of marijuana.
At the far end of the wooden stage a heavy black curtain was pushed aside and a young woman walked out unsteadily on high, silver stilettos and nothing else, her small, high breasts not moving even when she tottered into the bright puddle of a spot light. She stopped in the middle of the stage and stood smiling shyly, her skin shining blue with sweat, or oil. She stared straight ahead, blinking heavily in the spot light, smiling. One of the men at Allie and Billy’s table stood up, stretching his arms over his head, leaning down to whisper something to Allie, who laughed and nodded. Slowly, as if everyone wasn’t watching, the man walked to the wall beside the bar and took down a short-handled black leather whip with three strands that sagged at the ends. Hefting it to test the weight, he walked back to his table, made another joke then, as the music rose to an even more frantic pitch, stepped onto the stage beside the woman.
I stared at my beer, but I could hear the wet, heavy snap of the whip and once I heard, through the din of the music a single cry of pain. Only when the music shifted between songs and I heard a woman’s voice, “No, I’m serious,” did I look up.
Allie was being pushed toward the stage by one of the other men, his mouth open, teeth flashing. Allie tried to turn, but the man grabbed her arms and spun her around to face the stage on which the naked girl was bent over, her face hidden by a fall of hair. Allie shook her head, but the man on the stage leaned down, grabbed her wrist and jerked her onto the stage. Billy, I noticed, was staring at his hands in his lap, as if about to go to sleep. The man on the stage held the whip out toward Allie. She turned to step down, but the man grabbed her arm and pulled her back and thrust the whip into her hand. I couldn’t tell, with the flashing light, with the blue haze, with the pounding music, but I thought she might be crying as she looked down at the whip in her hand, but I know that as she stepped up beside the kneeling girl she looked up, back at me, as if she’d known all along I was there. I put my hand on my gun, out of fear I guess, but also because I felt sure at that moment that I was in danger, that after she was done with the girl, she’d come for me. Then the fear left her face and Allie twirled the whip around head and gyrated her hips. Beneath the music I could hear the men cheering as I scrambled out of my seat, knocking over the untouched beer on my table and ran up the stairs, slipping so I hit my knee painfully, so that I limped through the door after knocking wildly until it was opened.
Outside the bar I got lost immediately, but kept hobbling until I found a larger street, lined with auto-body shops, against the fences of which snarling black dogs hurled themselves. I walked along the side of the road, tucking the gun back into the holster, my briefcase in the other hand, glancing back until I spotted a cab and flagged it down.
Now it’s nearly morning. Allie and Billy are surely dead, raped and tortured and robbed, all because they thought life was a game. In a few hours, the men from the mining company will come for me. We’re having breakfast here before heading to the office. It’s all there on my itinerary. The phone in my room is still dead. My cell phone still has no service and of course there’s no internet, so I can’t check on Joyce, can’t make sure Susan arrived, that they’re all still safe.
There’s nothing more to write. But I can’t stop thinking about what must’ve happened to Allie. I can’t stop thinking there must have been something I could have done to save her, to keep her safe.
In a few weeks her mother will start to worry. In a month she’ll call the embassy and her daughter’s degenerate friends to see if they’ve heard anything. She’ll sit up for hours, staring into the brittle, suburban dark, unable to even begin to imagine what might have happened, or what the world that swallowed her daughter was like. With no answers, there’ll be nothing she can do but wait and hope for some final word, for anything other than the silence.
The transport, once owned by an outer system cartel and appropriated by Earth’s Pacific Community after the Quiet War, ran in a continuous, ever-changing orbit between Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. It never docked. It mined the solar wind for hydrogen to mix with the gram of antimatter which could power it for a century, and once or twice a year, during its intricate gravity-assisted loops between Saturn’s moons, maintenance drones attached remora-like to its hull, and fixed whatever its self-repairing systems couldn’t handle.
Ben Lo and the six other members of the first trade delegation to Proteus since the war were transferred onto the transport as it looped around Titan, still sleeping in the hibernation pods they’d climbed into in low Earth orbit. Sixty days later, they were released from the transport in individual drop capsules of structural diamond, like so many seeds scattered by a pod.
Swaddled in the crash web that took up most of the volume of the drop capsule’s little bubble, Ben Lo, woken only a day ago, was as weak and unsteady as a new-born kitten. The sun was behind the bubble’s braking sail. Ahead, Neptune’s oceanic disc was tipped in star-sprinkled black, subtly banded with blue and violet, its poles capped with white cloud, its equator streaked with cirrus. Proteus was a tiny crescent shining off to one side. The transport had already dwindled to a bright point amongst the bright points of the stars, on its way to spin up around Neptune, loop past Triton, and head on out for the next leg of its continuous voyage, halfway across the solar system to Uranus.
Proteus was a tiny crescent shining off to one side of Neptune, a battered ball of rock and ice, like so many of the moons of the outer planets. Over billions of years, most of the rock had sunk to its core and an enhanced view showed that its icy, dirty white surface was splotched with a scattering of large impact craters with dark interiors, like well-used ash trays, and dissected by stress fractures, some running halfway round the little globe.
The spy was falling towards this little moon in a thin transparent bubble of carbon, wearing a paper suit and a diaper, and trussed up in a cradle of smart cabling like an early Christian martyr. He could barely move a muscle. Invisible laser light poured all around him – the capsule was opaque to the frequency used – gently pushing against the braking sail which had unfolded and spun into a twenty-kilometre diameter mirror after the capsule had been released by the transport. Everything was fine.
The capsule said, ‘Only another twelve hours, Mr Lo. I suggest that you sleep. Elfhame’s time zone is ten hours behind Greenwich Mean Time.’
Had he been asleep for a moment? Ben Lo blinked and said, ‘Jet lag,’ and laughed.
‘I don’t understand,’ the capsule said politely. It didn’t need to be very intelligent. All it had to do was control the attitude of the braking sail, and keep its passenger amused and reassured until landing.
Ben Lo couldn’t explain. An unsettling feeling, a yawning sense of dislocation and estrangement, had suddenly washed over him. How strange that he was there, in a tiny capsule falling towards a cold dead moon millions and millions of miles from everything he knew. How had it happened? When he’d been a child, spaceships had been crude, disposable chemical rockets. The space shuttle exploding. The first men on the Moon. President Kennedy’s assassination. No, that had been before he’d been born . . . For a moment, his sense of dislocation threatened to swallow him whole, but then he had it under control, he remembered where he was, where he was going. It was the treatment, he thought. The treatment and the hibernation.
Somewhere down there on Proteus, in one of the smaller canyons, was Ben Lo’s first wife. But he mustn’t think of that. Not yet. Because if he did . . . no, he couldn’t remember. Something bad, though.
‘I can offer a variety of virtualities,’ the capsule said. Its voice was a husky contralto. It added, ‘Certain sexual services are also available.’
‘What I’d like is a chateaubriand steak butterflied and well-grilled over hickory wood, a Caesar salad, and a 1998 Walnut Creek Cabernet Sauvignon.’
‘I can offer a range of nutritive pastes, and eight flavours of water, including a balanced electrolyte,’ the capsule said. A prissy note had edged into its voice. It added, ‘I would recommend that you restrict intake of solids and fluids until you reach your destination.’
Ben Lo sighed. ‘How about you give me an inflight movie? Show me Wings of Desire.’
Despite its minuscule intelligence, the capsule had a greater memory capacity than all the personal computers on Earth at the end of the millennium. Ben Lo had downloaded his media archives into one corner of it.
‘But it’s partly in black and white!’ the capsule said ‘And flat. And utilises only two senses-’
‘Once upon a time, capsule, there was a man who was very old, and became young again, and found that he’d lost himself. Run the movie, and you’ll understand a little bit about me.’
The moon and Neptune dwindled to a bright star. The star went out. The film began.
Falling through a cone of laser light, the man and the capsule watched the story of an angel becoming a human being, out of love.
The capsule collapsed its sail as it skimmed the moon’s surface, shed the last of its relative velocity in the inertia buffers of the target zone. And then it was down, and was almost immediately picked up by a striding tripod that looked like a prop from The War of the Worlds, and carried into a steeply sloping tunnel, through a triple set of airlocks, into something like the emergency room of a hospital.
With the other members of the trade delegation, Ben Lo was decanted, stripped, washed, and dressed in fresh paper clothes. Somewhere in the parade of nurses and technicians he thought he glimpsed someone he knew, or thought he knew. A woman, her familiar face grown old, eyes faded blue in a face as wrinkled as a turtle’s . . . But then he was lifted onto a gurney and wheeled away.
Waking, he had problems with remembering who he was. A universally impersonal hotel room, could be anywhere on Earth except for the fractional gravity. A ship that was changing its delta vee, an orbital habitat, or one of the smaller outer system moons.
And what role was he playing?
He sat up, moving carefully because any sudden movement could catapult him across the room, asked the big window to depolarise. It was night, outside. The shadow a steep dark mountainside or perhaps a vast building loomed across a gulf of black air, a necklace of lights wound at its base, shimmering on a river down there . . .
Proteus. Neptune. The trade delegation. And the thing he couldn’t think about, which was fractionally nearer the surface now, like a word at the back of his tongue. He could feel it, but he couldn’t shape it. Not yet.
He stripped in the small, brightly lit bathroom and turned the walls to mirrors and looked at himself. He was too young to be who he thought he was. No, that was the treatment, of course. His third. Then why was his skin this colour? He hadn’t bothered to tint it for . . . How long?
That sci-fi version of Othello, a century and a half ago, when he’d been a movie star. He remembered the movie vividly, although not the making of it. But that was the colour he was now, his skin a rich, dark mahogany, gleaming as if oiled in the lights, his hair a cap of tight black curls.
He slept again, and dreamed of his childhood home. San Francisco. Sailboats scattered across the blue bay. He’d had a little boat, a Laser. The cold salt smell of the sea. The pinnacles of the rust-red bridge looming out of banks of fog, and the fog horn booming mournfully. Cabbage leaves in the gutters of Spring Street. The crowds swirling under the crimson and gold neon lights of the trinket shops of Grant Avenue, and the intersection at Grant and California tingling with trolley car bells.
He remembered everything as if he had just seen it in a movie. It was a side effect of the treatment he’d just had. He’d been warned about it, but it was still unsettling. The woman he was here to . . . Avernus. That was her name now. But when they had been married, a hundred and sixty odd years ago, she had been called Barbara Reiner. He tried to remember the taste of her mouth, the texture of her skin, and could not.
The next transport would not swing by Proteus for a hundred and seventy days, so there was no hurry to begin the formal business of the trade delegation. For a while, its members were treated as favoured tourists, in a place which had no tourist industry at all.
The sinuous rill canyon that housed Elfhame had been ploughed to an even depth of a kilometre, sprayed with layers of insulation, and sealed under a construction diamond and fullerene roof and pressurised to seven hundred millibars with a nitrox mix enriched with one per cent carbon dioxide to stimulate plant growth. Its sides were raked to form a deep vee in profile, with a long narrow lake lying at the bottom like a black ribbon, dusted with a scattering of pink and white coral cays. The Elfhamers called it the Skagerrak. Steep terraces rose above it. There were narrow vegetable gardens, rice paddies and farms on the higher levels, close to the lamps which, strung from the roof, gave an insolation equivalent to that of the surface of Mars; below them, amongst pocket parks and linear strips of designer wilderness, houses clung to the steep slopes or perched on platforms or bluffs, all with panoramic views of the lake at the bottom and screened from their neighbours by soaring ginkgoes, cypress, palmettoes, bamboo (which grew to fifty metres in the microgravity) and dragon’s blood trees. All the houses were large and individually designed; Elfhamers went in for extended families. At the lowest levels were the government buildings, commercial malls and parks, the university and hospital, and the single hotel, which bore all the marks of having been recently constructed for the trade delegation. And then there was the lake, the Skagerrak, with its freshwater corals and teeming fish, and slow waves ten metres high. The single, crescent-shaped beach of black sand at what Elfhamers called the North End was very steeply raked, and constantly renewed; the surfing was fabulous.
There were ziplines with T-bar seats, like ski lifts, strung up the steep terraces, and train capsules shuttled along a line that followed the western shore of the lake, but people mostly bounded around in huge kangaroo leaps, or flew using kites or foil wings and little handheld airscrews – the gravity was so low, 0.007g, that human flight was ridiculously easy. Children rode airboards or simply jumped from terrace to terrace, which strictly speaking was illegal, but even adults did it sometimes, and it seemed to be one of those laws to which no one paid much attention unless someone got hurt. It was possible to break a bone if you jumped from the top of the canyon and managed to land on one of the lakeside terraces, but you’d have to work at it.
The entire place, with its controlled, indoor weather, its bland affluence and universal cleanliness, was ridiculously vulnerable. It reminded Ben Lo of nothing so much as an old-fashioned shopping mall, the one in Santa Monica, for instance. He’d had a bit part in a movie set in that mall, somewhere near the start of his career. He was still having trouble with his memory. He could remember every movie he’d made, but couldn’t remember making any one of them.
He asked his guide if it was possible to get to the real surface. She was taken aback by the request, then suggested that he could access a mobot using the point-of-presence facility of his hotel room.
‘Several hundred were released fifty years ago, and some of them are still running, I suppose. Really, there is nothing up there but some industrial units.’
‘I guess Avernus has her labs on the surface.’
Instantly, the spy was on the alert, suppressing a thrill of panic.
His guide was a very tall, thin, pale girl called Marla. Most Elfhamers were descended from Nordic stock, and Marla had the high cheekbones, blue eyes, blond hair, and candid manner of her counterparts on Earth. Like most Elfhamers, she was tanned and athletically lithe, and wore a distractingly small amount of fabric: tight shorts, a band of material across her small breasts, plastic sandals, a comms bracelet.
At the mention of Avernus, Marla’s eyebrows dented over her slim, straight nose. She said, ‘I would suppose so, yah, but there’s nothing interesting to see. The programme it is reaching the end of its natural life, you see. The surface is not interesting, and it is dangerous. The cold and the vacuum, and still the risk of micrometeorites. Better to live inside.’
Like worms in an apple, the spy thought. The girl was soft and foolish, very young and very naïve. It was only natural that a member of the trade delegation would be interested in Elfhame’s most famous citizen. She wouldn’t think anything of this.
Ben Lo blinked and said, ‘Well, yes, but I’ve never been there. It would be something, for someone of my age to set foot on the surface of a moon of Neptune. I was born two years before the first landing on Earth’s moon, you know. Have you ever been up there?’
Marla’s teeth were even and pearly white, and when she smiled, as she did now, she seemed to have altogether too many. ‘Of course, in virtuality. Also places on Earth. London, Shanghai, Antarctica. It is part of our education.’
They were sitting on the terrace of a café that angled out over the lake. Resin tables and chairs painted white, clipped bay trees in big pots, terracotta tiles, slightly sticky underfoot, like all the floor coverings in Elfhame. Bulbs of chilled schnapps in an ice bucket.
Ben Lo tipped his chair back and looked up at the narrow strip of black sky and its strings of brilliant lamps that hung high above the steep terraces on the far side of the lake. He said, ‘You can’t see the stars. You can’t even see Neptune.’
‘Well, we are on the far side,’ Marla said, reasonably. ‘But if you like, I can arrange a link with a mobot on the surface.’
‘That’s nice, but it isn’t the same as being there.’
Marla laughed. ‘Oh, yah. I forget that you were once a capitalist’ – the way she said it, he might have been a dodo, or a dolphin – ‘from the United States of the Americas, as it was called then. That is why you put such trust in what you call real. But really it is not such a big difference. You put on a mask, or you put on a pressure suit. It is all barriers to experience. And you would need training before you could go outside, many hours, so it would be much easier to use a mobot link, and little different, I think.’
Ben Lo didn’t press the point. His guide was perfectly charming, if earnest and humourless, and brightly but brainlessly enthusiastic for the party line, like a cadre from one of the supernats. She was transparently a government spy, and was recording everything – she had shown him the little button camera and asked his permission.
‘Such a historical event this is, Mr Lo, that we wish to make a permanent record of it. You will I hope not mind?’
So now he changed the subject, and asked why there were no sailboats on the lake, and then had to explain to Marla what a sailboat was.
Her smile was brilliant when she finally understood. ‘Oh yah, there are some who use such boards on the water, like surfing boards with sails.’
‘The waves are very high, so it is not easy a sport. Not many are allowed, besides, because of the film.’
It turned out that there was a monomolecular film across the whole lake, to stop great gobs of it floating off into the lakeside terraces.
Marla’s watch chirped. It was tattooed on her slim, tanned wrist. ‘Now it will rain soon,’ she said. ‘We should go inside, I think. I can show you the library this afternoon. There are several real books in it that one of our first citizens brought all the way from Earth.
When he wasn’t sight-seeing or attending coordination meetings with the others in the trade delegation (he knew none of them well, and they were all so much younger than him, as bright and enthusiastic as Marla), Ben Lo spent a lot of time in Elfhame’s library. He told Marla that he was gathering background information that would help finesse the target packages of economic exchange, and she said that it was good, this was an open society, they had nothing to hide. Of course, he couldn’t use his own archive, which was under bonded quarantine, but he was happy enough typing away at one of the library terminals for hours on end, and after a while Marla left him to it. He also made use of various mobots to explore the surface, especially around Elfhame’s roof.
And then there were the diplomatic functions to attend: a party in the prime minister’s house, a monstrous construction of pine logs and steeply pitched roofs of wooden shingles cantilevered above the lake; a reception in the assembly room of the parliament, the Riksdag; others at the university and the Supreme Court. Ben Lo started to get a permanent crick in his neck from looking up at the faces of his etiolated hosts while making conversation.
At one, held in the humid, rarefied atmosphere of the research greenhouses near the top of the east side of Elfhame, Ben Lo glimpsed Avernus again. His heart lifted strangely, and the spy broke off from the one-sided conversation with an earnest hydroponicist and pushed through the throng towards his target, the floor sucking at his sandals with each step.
The old woman was surrounded by a gaggle of young giants, set apart from the rest of the party. The spy was aware of people watching when he took Avernus’s hand, something that caused a murmur of unrest amongst her companions.
‘An old custom, dears,’ Avernus told them. ‘We predate most of the plagues that made such gestures taboo, even after the plagues were defeated. Ben, dear, what a surprise. I had hoped never to see you again. Your employers have a strange sense of humour.’
A young man with big, red-framed data glasses said, ‘You know each other?’
‘We lived in the same city,’ Avernus said, ‘many years ago.’ She had brushed her vigorous grey hair back from her forehead. The wine-dark velvet wrap did not flatter her skinny old-woman’s body. She said to Ben, ‘You look so young.’
‘My third treatment,’ he confessed.
Avernus said, ‘It was once said that in American lives there was no second act – and now biotech has given almost everyone who can afford it a second act, and for some a third one, too. But what to do with them? One simply can’t pretend to be young again – one is too aware of death, and has too much at stake, too much invested in self, to risk being young.’
‘There’s no longer any America,’ Ben Lo said. ‘Perhaps that helps.’
‘To be without loyalty,’ the old woman said, ‘except to one’s own continuity.’
The spy winced, but did not show it.
The old woman took his elbow. Her grip was surprisingly strong. ‘Pretend to be interested, dear,’ she said. ‘We are having a delightful conversation in this delightful party. Smile. That’s better.’
Her companions laughed uneasily at this. Avernus said quietly to Ben, ‘You must visit me.’
‘I have an escort.’
‘Of course you do. I’m sure someone as resourceful as you will think of something. Ah, this must be your guide. What a tall girl.’
Avernus turned away, and her companions closed around her, turning their long bare backs on the Earthman.
Ben Lo asked Marla what Avernus was doing there. The contrast between his memories of his wife and what she had become, what she was now, was dizzying. He could hardly remember what they had talked about. Meet. They had to meet. They would meet.
It was beginning.
Marla said, ‘It is a politeness to her. Really, she should not have come, and we are glad she is leaving early. You do not worry about her, Mr Lo. She is a relic of the previous administration. Would you like to see the new strains of Chlorella we use to manufacture complex hydrocarbons?’
Ben Lo smiled diplomatically. ‘It would be very interesting.’
There had been a change of government on Proteus, after the war. It had been less violent than a revolution, more like a change of climate. Before the Quiet War (that was what it was called on Earth, for although tens of thousands had died in the war, none had died on Earth), Proteus had been loosely allied with, but not committed to, an amorphous group that wanted to exploit the outer reaches of the solar system, beyond Pluto’s orbit; after the war, Proteus had dropped its expansionist plans and sought to re-establish links with the trading communities of Earth.
Avernus had been on the losing side of the change in political climate. Brought in by the previous regime because of her skills in gengineering vacuum organisms, she found herself sidelined and ostracised, her research group disbanded and replaced by government cadres, funds for her research suddenly diverted to new projects. But her contract bound her to Proteus for the next ten years, and the new government refused to release her. She had developed several important new dendrimers, light harvesting molecules used in artificial photosynthesis, and established several potentially valuable gene lines, including a novel form of photosynthesis based on a sulphur-spring Chloroflexus bacterium. The government wanted to license them, but to do that it had to keep Avernus under contract, even if it would not allow her to work.
Avernus wanted to escape, and Ben Lo was there to help her. The Pacific Community had plenty of uses for vacuum organisms – there was the whole of the Moon to use as a garden, to begin with – and was prepared to overlook Avernus’s political stance in exchange for her expertise and knowledge.
He was beginning to remember more and more, but there was still so much he didn’t know. He supposed that there were instructions that had been buried for security reasons, and would emerge in due course. He tried not to worry about it.
Meanwhile, the meetings of the trade delegation and Elfhame’s industrial executive finally began. Ben Lo spent most of the next ten days in a closed room dickering with Parliamentary speakers on the Trade Committee over marginal rates for exotic organics. When the meetings were finally over, he slept for three hours and then, still logy from lack of sleep but filled with excess energy, went body surfing at the beach of black sand at the North End. It was the first time he had managed to evade Marla. She had been as exhausted as him by the rounds of negotiations, and he had promised that he would sleep all day so that she could get some rest.
The surf was tremendous, huge smooth slow glassy swells falling from thirty metres to batter the soft, sugary black sand with giant’s paws. The air was full of spinning globs of water, and so hazed with spray, like a rain of foamy flowers, that it was necessary to wear a filter mask. It was what the whole lake would be like, without its monomolecular membrane.
Ben Lo had thought he would still have an aptitude for body surfing, because he’d done so much of it when he had been living in Los Angeles, before his movie career really took off. But he was as helpless as a kitten in the swells, his boogie board turning turtle as often as not, and twice he was caught in the undertow. The second time, a giantess got an arm around his chest and hauled him up onto dry sand.
After he had hawked up a couple of lungs-full of fresh water, he managed to gasp his thanks. The woman smiled. She had black hair in a bristle cut, and startlingly green eyes. She was very tall, very thin, and completely naked. She said, ‘At last you are away from that revisionist bitch.’
Ben Lo sat up, abruptly conscious, in the presence of this young naked giantess, of his own nakedness. ‘Ah. You are one of Avernus’s—’
The woman walked away with her boogie board under her arm, pale buttocks flexing. The spy unclipped the ankle line which tethered him to his rented board, bounded up the beach in two leaps, pulled on his shorts, and followed.
Sometime later, he was standing in the middle of a vast red-lit room at blood heat and what felt like a hundred per cent humidity. Racks of large-leaved plants receded into infinity; those nearest him towered high above, forming a living green wall. His arm stung, and the tall young woman, naked under a green gown open down the front, masked and wearing disposable gloves, deftly caught the glob of expressed blood – his blood – in a capillary straw, sprayed the puncture wound with sealant, and went off with her samples.
A necessary precaution, the old woman said. Avernus. He remembered now. Or at least could picture it. Taking a ski lift all the way to the top. Through a tunnel lined with tall plastic bags in which green Chlorella cultures bubbled under lights strobing in fifty millisecond pulses. Another attack of memory loss – they seemed to be increasing in frequency. Stress, he told himself.
‘Of all the people I could identify,’ Avernus said, ‘they had to send you.’
‘Ask me anything,’ Ben Lo said, although he wasn’t sure that he recalled very much of their brief marriage.
‘I mean identify genetically. We exchanged strands of hair set in amber, do you remember? I kept mine. It was mounted on a ring.’
‘I didn’t think that you were sentimental.’
‘It was my idea, and I did it with all my husbands. It helped me to remember what I once was.’
‘You were my wife, once upon a time.’
‘I was a silly young fool.’
‘I must get back to the hotel soon. If they find out I’ve been wandering around without my escort they’ll start to suspect.’
‘Good. Let them worry. What can they do? Arrest me? Arrest you?’
‘I have diplomatic immunity.’
Avernus laughed. ‘Ben, Ben, you always were so status conscious. That’s why I left. I was just another thing you’d collected. A trophy, like your Porsche or your Picasso.’
He didn’t remember.
‘It wasn’t a very good Picasso. One of his fakes – do you know that story?’
‘I suppose I sold it.’
The young woman in the green gown came back. ‘A positive match,’ she said. ‘Also, he is doped up with immunosuppressants and testosterone.’
‘That’s because of the treatment,’ the spy said glibly. ‘Is this where you do your research?’
‘Of course not. They would notice if you turned up there. This is one of the pharm farms. They grow tobacco here, with human genes inserted to make various immunoglobulins. They took away my people, Ben, and replaced them with spies. Ludmilla is one of my original team. They put her to drilling new agricultural tunnels.’
‘We are alone here,’ Ludmilla said.
‘Or you would have made your own arrangements.’
‘I hate being dependent on people. Especially from Earth, if you’ll forgive me. And especially you. The others in your trade delegation, are they part of this?’
Just a cover,’ the spy said. ‘They know nothing. They are looking forward to your arrival in Tycho. The laboratory is ready to be fitted out to your specifications.’
‘I swore I’d never go back, but they are fools here. They stand on the edge of greatness, the next big push, and they turn their backs on it and burrow into the ice like maggots.’
The spy took her hands in his. Her skin was loose on her bones, and dry and cold despite the humid heat of the hydroponic greenhouse. He said, ‘Are you ready? Truly ready?’
She did not pull away. ‘I have said so. I will submit to any test, if it makes your masters happy. Ben, you are exactly as I remember you. It is very strange.’
‘The treatments are very good now. You must use one.’
‘Don’t think I haven’t, although not as radical as yours. I like to show my age. You could shrivel up like a Struldbrugg, and I don’t have to worry about that, at least. That skin colour, though. Is it a fashion?’
‘I was Othello, once. Don’t you like it?’ Under the red lights his skin gleamed with an ebony lustre.
‘I always thought you’d make a good Iago, if only you had been clever enough. I asked for someone I knew, and they sent you. It almost makes me want to distrust them.’
‘We were young, then.’ He was trying and failing to remember his life with her, and a tremendous feeling of nostalgia for what he could not remember swept through him. Tears grew like big lenses over his eyes and he brushed them into the air and apologised.
‘I am here to do a job,’ he said, more for his benefit than hers.
Avernus said, ‘Be honest, Ben. I was only a passing whim. I don’t suppose you remember much about us.’
‘Well, it was almost two centuries ago.’
Avernus said, ‘When we got married, I was stupid with love. It was in the Wayfarer’s Chapel? Do you remember that? The day hot and very dry, with a Santa Ana blowing, and Channel Five’s news helicopter hovering overhead. You were already famous, and two years later we were divorced, and you were so famous I hardly recognised you.’
They talked a little while about his career. The acting, the successful terms as state senator, the unsuccessful term in Congress, the fortune he had made in land deals after the partition of the USA, his semi-retirement in the upper house of the Pacific Community parliament. It was a little like an interrogation, but he didn’t mind it. At least he knew that part of the story. The bare bones of it, anyway.
The tall young woman, Ludmilla, took him back to the hotel. It seemed natural that she should stay for a drink, and then that they should make love, with a languor and then an urgency that surprised him, although he had been told that restoration of his testosterone levels would sometimes cause emotional or physical cruxes that would require resolution. Ben Lo had made love in microgravity many times, but never before with someone who had been born to it. Afterwards, Ludmilla rose up from the bed and moved gracefully about the room, dipping and turning as she pulled on her scanty clothes.
‘I will see you again,’ she said, and then she was gone.
The negotiations resumed, a punishing schedule taking up at least twelve hours a day. And there were the briefings and summary sessions with the other delegates, as well as the other work the spy had to attend to when Marla thought he was asleep. Fortunately, he had a kink which allowed him to build up sleep debt and get by on an hour a night. He’d sleep when this was done, all the way back to Earth with his prize. Then at last everything was in place, and he had only to wait.
Some days later there was another reception, this time in the little zoo halfway up the west side. The Elfhamers were running out of novel places to entertain the delegates. Most of the animals looked vaguely unhappy in the microgravity and none were very large. Bushbabies, armadillos and mice; a pair of hippopotami no larger than domestic cats; a knee-high pink elephant with some kind of skin problem behind its disproportionately large ears.
As Ben Lo came out of the rest room Ludmilla brushed past, saying, ‘When can she go?’
‘Tonight, if she’s ready,’ the spy said.
Marla was feeding peanuts to the dwarf elephant. Ben Lo said, ‘Aren’t you worried that the animals might escape? You wouldn’t want mice running around your Shangri-La.’
‘They have a kink in their metabolism,’ Marla said. ‘An artificial amino acid they require. That girl who talked to you, do you know she was once one of Avernus’s assistants?’
The spy was instantly alert. ‘I met her once, when I was trying out body surfing. She propositioned me, if you can believe that.’
Marla said nothing.
‘I can’t make any kind of deal on my own. If someone wants anything, they must present it to the delegation, through the proper channels. All she wanted was sex. And I turned her down.’
‘You are an oddity here, it is true. I suppose some women would sleep with you out of curiosity.’
‘But you have never asked, Marla. I’m mortified.’
He said it playfully, but he knew that Marla suspected something, wondered if the precautions he and Ludmilla had taken, when she had led him to Avernus, and afterwards, had been enough. It didn’t matter. Everything was in place and soon he would be gone.
They came for him that night, but he was awake and dressed, counting off the minutes until his little bundle of surprises started to unpack itself. There were two of them, armed with tasers and sticky-foam canisters. The spy blinded them with homemade capsicum spray (he’d stolen chilli pods from one of the hydroponic farms and suspended a water extract in a perfume spray) and killed them as they blundered about, screaming and pawing at their eyes. One of them was Marla, the other a muscular man who must have spent a good portion of each day in a centrifuge gym. The spy disabled the sprinkler system, set fire to his room, kicked out the window, and ran.
There were police waiting outside the main entrance of the hotel. The spy ran right over the edge of the terrace and landed two hundred metres down amongst blue pines grown into bubbles of soft needles in the microgravity. Above, the fire touched off the homemade plastic explosive and a fan of burning debris shot out above the spy’s head, seeming to hover in the black air for a long time before beginning to flutter down towards the Skagerrak. Briefly, he wondered if any of the delegation had survived. It didn’t matter. The enthusiastic and naïve delegates had always been expendable.
Half the lights were out in Elfhame, and all of the transportation systems; the city comms was crashing and resetting every five minutes, and the braking lasers were sending twenty-millisecond pulses to a narrow wedge of the sky. It was a dumb bug, only a thousand lines long. The spy had laboriously typed it from memory into the library system, which connected with everything else. It wouldn’t take long to trace, but by then other things would start happening.
The spy crouched in the cover of the bushy pine trees. One of his teeth was capped. He pried it loose and unravelled the length of monomolecular diamond wire coiled inside.
In the distance, people called to each other over a backdrop of ringing bells and sirens and klaxons. Flashlights flickered in the darkness on the far side of the Skagerrak’s black gulf; on the terrace above the spy’s hiding place, the police seemed have brought the fire in the hotel under control. Then the branches of the pines started to doff as a wind got up; the bug had reached the air conditioning. In the darkness below, waves grew higher on the Skagerrak, sloshing and crashing together, as the wind drove waves towards the beach at the North End and reflected waves clashed with those coming onshore. The monomolecular film over the lake’s surface was not infinitely strong. The wind began to tear spray from the tops of the towering waves, and filled the lower level of the canyon with flying foam flowers. Soon the waves would grow so tall that they’d spill over the lower levels.
The spy counted out ten minutes, and then began to bound up the ladder of terraces, putting all his strength into his thigh and back muscles. Most of the setbacks between each terrace were no more than thirty metres high; for someone with muscles accustomed to one g, it was easy enough to scale them with a single jump in the microgravity, even from a standing start.
He was halfway there when the zoo’s elephant charged past him in the windy semidarkness. Its trunk was raised above its head and it trumpeted a single despairing cry as it ran over the edge of the narrow terrace. Its momentum carried it a long way out into the air before it began to fall, outsized ears flapping as if trying to lift it. Higher up, the plastic explosive charges the spy had made from sugar, gelatine and lubricating grease blew out hectares of plastic sheeting and structural frames from the long greenhouses.
The spy’s legs were like wood when he reached the high agricultural regions; his heart was pounding and his lungs were burning as he tried to strain oxygen from the thin air. He grabbed a fire extinguisher and mingled with panicked staff, ricocheting down long corridors and bounding across wind-blown fields of crops edged by shattered glass walls and lit by stuttering red emergency lighting. He was only challenged once, and struck the woman with the butt end of the fire extinguisher and ran on without bothering to check whether or not she was dead.
Marla had shown him the facility where they stored genetic material on one of her endless tours. Everything was kept in liquid nitrogen, and there was a wide selection of Dewar flasks. He chose one about the size of a human head, filled it, and clamped on the lid.
Then through a set of double pressure doors, banging the switch which closed them behind him, setting down the flask and dropping the coil of diamond wire beside it, stepping into a dressing frame and finally pausing, breathing hard, dry-mouthed and suddenly trembling, as the pressure suit was assembled around him. As the gold-filmed bubble was lowered over his head and clamped to the neck seal, Ben Lo started, as if waking. Something was terribly wrong. What was he doing here?
Dry air hissed around his face; head-up displays stuttered and scrolled down. The spy walked out of the frame, stowed the diamond wire in one of the suit’s utility pockets, picked up the flask of liquid nitrogen, and started the airlock cycle, ignoring the suit’s recitation of a series of safety precautions while the room revolved and opened on a flood of sunlight.
The spy came out at the top of Elfhame’s South End. He bounded around the tangle of pipes and fins of some kind of distillery or cracking plant, and saw the railway arrowing away across a cratered plain towards a close, sharply curved horizon. The single rail hung from smart A-frames whose carbon-fibre legs compensated for movements in the icy surface. Thirteen hundred kilometres long, it described a complete circle around the little moon from pole to pole, part of the infrastructure left over from Elfhame’s expansionist phase, when it was planned to string sibling settlements all the way around the moon.
The spy kangaroo-hopped along the sunward side of the railway, heading south towards the rendezvous point he had agreed. The ground was rippled and cracked and blistered, covered in fine ice dust that sprayed out from the cleats of his boots at each touchdown. In five minutes, the canyon had disappeared beneath the horizon behind him.
‘That was some diversion,’ a voice said over the open channel. ‘I hope no one was killed.’
‘Just an elephant, I think. Although if it landed in the lake it might have survived.’ He wasn’t about to tell Avernus about Marla and the policeman.
The spy stopped in the shadow of a carbon-fibre pillar, and scanned the terrain ahead of him. The mobots hadn’t been allowed into this area. The land curved away to the east and south like a warped checkerboard. A criss-cross pattern of ridges marked out regular squares about two hundred metres on each side, and each square was a different colour. Vacuum organisms. He’d reached the experimental plots.
Avernus said over the open channel, ‘I can’t see the pickup.’
He started along the line again. ‘I’ve already signalled to the transport using the braking lasers. It’ll be here in less than an hour. We’re a little ahead of schedule.’
The transport was a small gig with a brute of a motor taking up most of its hull, leaving room for only a single hibernation pod and a small storage compartment. If everything went according to plan, that was all he would need.
At last, at the top of one of his big kangaroo hops, he saw her on the far side of the curved checkerboard of the experimental plots, a tiny figure in a pressure suit standing at what looked like the edge of the world. He change course, bounded across the fields towards her.
The ridges were only a metre high and a couple of metres across, dirty water and methane ice fused smooth as glass. It was easy to leap over each of them – the gravity was so light that the spy could probably get into orbit if he wasn’t careful. Each field held a different growth. A corrugated grey mould that gave like rubber under his boots. Flexible spikes the colour of dried blood, all different heights and thicknesses, but none higher than his knees. More grey stuff, this time mounded in discrete blisters each several metres from its nearest neighbours, with fat grey ropes running beneath the ice. Irregular stacks of what looked like black plates which gave way, half way across the field, to a blanket of black stuff like cracked tar.
The figure had turned to watch him, its helmet a gold bubble that refracted the rays of the tiny intensely bright star of the sun. As the spy made the final bound across the last of the experimental plots – more of the black stuff, like a huge wrinkled vinyl blanket dissected by deep wandering cracks – Avernus said in his ear, ‘You should have kept to the paths.’
‘Any damage I’ve done doesn’t matter now.’
‘Ah, but I think you’ll find it does.’
Avernus was standing on top of a ridge of upturned strata at the rim of a huge crater. Her suit was transparent, after the fashion of the losing side of the Quiet War. It was intended to minimise the barrier between the human and the vacuum environments. She might as well have flown a flag declaring her allegiance to the outer alliance. Behind her, the crater stretched away south and west, and the railway ran right out above its dark floor on pillars that doubled and tripled in height as they stepped away down the inner slope. The crater was so large that its far side was hidden beyond the little moon’s curvature. The black stuff had overgrown the ridge, and flowed down into the crater. Avernus was standing on the only clear spot.
She said, ‘This is my most successful strain. You can see how vigorous it is. You didn’t get that suit from my lab, so I suggest you keep moving around. This stuff is thixotropic in the presence of foreign bodies. It spreads out like thixotropic paint over the neighbouring organisms, but doesn’t overgrow itself.’
The spy looked down, and saw that the big cleated boots of his pressure suit had already sunken to the ankles in the black stuff. He lifted one, then the other; it was like walking in tar. He took a step towards Avernus, and the ground collapsed beneath his boots and he was suddenly up to his knees in black stuff.
‘My suit,’ Avernus said, ‘is coated with the protein by which the strain recognises its own self. You could say I’m like a virus, fooling the immune system. I dug a trench, and that’s what you stepped into. Where is the transport?’
‘On its way, but you don’t have to worry about it,’ the spy said, as he struggled to free himself. ‘This silly little trap won’t hold me for long.’
Avernus stepped back. She was four metres away, and the black stuff was thigh deep around the spy now, sluggishly flowing upwards. The spy flipped the catches on the flask and tipped liquid nitrogen over the stuff. The nitrogen boiled up in a cloud of dense vapour and evaporated. It had made no difference at all to the stuff’s integrity.
A point of light began to grow brighter above the close horizon of the moon, moving swiftly aslant the field of stars.
‘That’s about as useful as pouring water on a lawn,’ Avernus said, and turned and pointed into the black sky. ‘I believe that’s the transport.’
The spy snarled at her. He had sunk up to his waist now.
Avernus said, ‘You never were Ben Lo, were you? Or at any rate no more than a poor copy. The original is back on Earth, alive or dead. If he’s alive, no doubt he’ll claim that this is all a trick of the outer alliance against the Elfhamers and their new allies, the Pacific Community.’
He said, ‘There’s still time, Barbara. We can do this together.’
The woman in the transparent pressure suit turned back to look at him. Sun flared on her bubble helmet.
‘Ben, poor Ben. I’ll call you that for the sake of convenience. That body isn’t yours. Oh, it looks like you, and I suppose the altered skin colour disguises the rougher edges of the plastic surgery. The skin matches your genotype, and so does the blood, but the skin was cloned from your original, and the blood must come from marrow implants. No wonder there’s so much immunosuppressant in your system. If we had just trusted tests on your skin and blood we might not have guessed what you really are. But your sperm – it was all female. Not a single X chromosome. I think you’re probably haploid, a construct from an unfertilised blastula, treated with testosterone so that you’d develop as male. But you aren’t a man. You aren’t even fully human. You’re a weapon. They used things like you as assassins in the Quiet War.’
He was in a pressure suit, with dry air blowing around his face, and displays blinking at the bottom of the clear helmet. A black landscape, and stars high above, and one bright star pulsing, growing closer. A spaceship! That was important, but he couldn’t remember why. He tried to move, and discovered that he was trapped in something like tar that came to his waist. He could feel it clamping around his legs, a terrible pressure that was compromising the heat exchange system of his suit. His legs were freezing cold, but his body was hot, and sweat prickled across his skin, collecting in the folds of the suit’s undergarment.
‘Don’t move,’ a woman’s voice said. ‘It’s like quicksand. It flows under pressure. You’ll last a little longer if you keep still. Struggling only makes it more liquid.’
Barbara. No, she called herself Avernus now. He had the strangest feeling that someone else was there, too, just out of sight. He tried to look around, but it was terribly hard in the half-buried suit. He had been kidnapped. It was the only explanation. He remembered running from the burning hotel . . . He was suddenly certain that the other members of the trade delegation were dead, and cried out, ‘Help me!’
Avernus squatted in front of him, moving carefully and slowly in her transparent pressure suit. He could just see the outline of her face through the gold film of her helmet’s visor.
‘There are two personalities in there. The dominant one let you back, Ben, so that you would plead with me. But don’t plead, Ben. I don’t want my last memory of you to be so undignified, and anyway, I won’t listen. I won’t deny you’ve been a great help. Elfhame always was a soft target, and you punched just the right buttons, and then you kindly provided the means of getting where I want to go. They’ll think I was kidnapped.’ Avernus turned and pointed up at the sky. ‘Can you see? That’s your transport. Ludmilla is going to reprogramme it.’
‘Take me with you, Barbara.’
‘Oh, but I’m not going to Earth. I considered it, but when they sent you I knew that there was something wrong. I’m going out, Ben. Further out. Beyond Pluto, in the Kuiper belt, where there are more than fifty thousand objects with a diameter of more than a hundred kilometres, and a billion comet nuclei ten kilometres or so across. And then there’s the Oort cloud, and its billions of comets. The fringes of that mingle with the fringes of Alpha Centauri’s cometary cloud. Life spreads. That’s its one rule. In ten thousand years my children will reach Alpha Centauri, not by starship, but simply through expansion of their territory.’
‘I remember now. That’s the way you used to talk when we were married. All that sci-fi you used to read.’
‘You don’t really remember it, Ben. It was fed to you. All my old interviews, my books and articles, all your old movies. They did a quick construction job, and just when you started to find out about it, the other one took over.’
‘I don’t think I’m quite myself. I don’t understand what’s happening, but perhaps it is something to do with the treatment I had. I told you about that.’
‘Hush, dear. There was no treatment. That was when they fixed you in the brain of this empty vessel.’
She was too close, and she had half-turned to watch the moving point of light grow brighter. He wanted to warn her, but something clamped his lips and he almost swallowed his tongue. He watched as his left hand stealthily unfastened a utility pocket and pulled out a length of glittering wire as fine as a spider-thread. Monomolecular diamond. Serrated along its length, except for five centimetres at each end, it could easily cut through pressure suit material and flesh and bone.
He knew then. He knew what he was.
The woman looked at him and said sharply, ‘What are you doing, Ben?’
And for that moment he was called back, and he made a fist around the thread and plunged it into the black stuff. The spy screamed and reached behind his helmet and dumped all oxygen from his main pack. It hissed for a long time, but the stuff gripping his legs and waist held firm.
‘It isn’t an anaerobe,’ Avernus said. She hadn’t moved. ‘It is a vacuum organism. A little oxygen won’t hurt it.’
Ben Lo found that he could speak. He said, ‘He wanted to cut off your head.’
‘I wondered why you were carrying that flask of liquid nitrogen. You were going to take it back and what? Use a bush robot to strip my brain neuron by neuron and read my memories into a computer? Turn me into some kind of expert system? Convenient, I suppose, but hardly optimal.’
‘It’s me, Barbara. I couldn’t let him do that.’ His left arm was buried up to the elbow.
‘Then thank you, Ben. I’m in your debt.’
‘I’d ask you to take me with you, but I think there’s only one hibernation pod in the transport. You won’t be able to take your friend, either.’
‘Ludmilla has her family here. She doesn’t want to leave. Or not yet.’
‘I can’t remember that story about Picasso. Maybe you heard it after we – after the divorce.’
‘You told it me, Ben. When things were good between us, you used to tell stories like that.’
‘Tell me it now.’
‘It’s about an art dealer who buys a canvas in a private deal, that is signed “Picasso”. This is in France, when Picasso was working in Cannes, and the dealer travels there to find if it is genuine. Picasso is working in his studio. He spares the painting a brief glance and dismisses it as a fake.’
‘I had a Picasso, once. A bull’s head. I remember that.’
‘You thought it was a necessary sign of your wealth. You were photographed beside it several times. I always preferred Georges Braque myself. Do you want to hear the rest of the story?’
‘I’m still here.’
‘Of course you are, as long as I stay out of reach. Well, a few months later our dealer buys another canvas signed by Picasso. Again he travels to the studio; again Picasso spares it no more than a glance, and announces that it is a fake. The dealer protests that this is the very painting he found Picasso working on the first time he visited, but Picasso just shrugs and says, “I often paint fakes.”’
His breathing was becoming laboured. Was there something wrong with the air system? The black stuff was climbing his chest. He could almost see it move, a creeping flow devouring him centimetre by centimetre.
The star was very close to the horizon, now.
He said, ‘I know a story.’
‘There’s no more time for stories, dear. I can release you, if you want. You only have your reserve air in any case.’
‘No. I want to see you go.’
‘I’ll remember you. I’ll tell your story far and wide.’
Ben Lo heard the echo of another voice across their link, and the woman in the transparent pressure suit stood and lifted a hand in salute and bounded away.
The spy came back, then, but Ben Lo fought him down. There was nothing he could do, after all. The woman was gone. He said, as if to himself, ‘I know a story. About a man who lost himself, and found himself again, just in time. Listen. Once upon a time. . .’
Something bright rose above the horizon and dwindled away into the outer darkness.
As soon as he saw his friend, who had just arrived from back home, in the airport arrivals lounge, he asked him, “Did you bring it?”
His friend gestured to the backpack hanging off of his shoulder as if he was waiting for this question. “You drove me nuts with all your phone calls asking me to bring you a handful of dirt. Do you think you’re the first person to move away from home?” He pulled a bag of dirt out of his backpack.
He looked expressionlessly at his friend who had just come back from the homeland and took the bag of dirt from him. He walked off silently toward the train platform.
He remained silent on board the train as well. He couldn’t hear the creaking of the train’s wheels or the giggling of the young redheads with septum rings or even the shouts of the lads cheering on their football squad. He was staring at the dirt-filled bag in his hands.
The people who walked past him quickly stared at him, thinking he was either drunk or asleep. Even when the conductor asked him for his ticket, he took his ticket out of his pocket and handed it to him without taking his eyes off the bag of dirt. The conductor pursed his lips and scowled as he placed the ticket back into his hand, which was still hanging in the air. It had been three years since he’d left home. In this new country, which would never be home, he’d faced all manner of difficulties. He had spent an entire year in a shelter for refugees and the past two years in a house that felt more like a hovel. He hadn’t had a chance to learn the language of this new place, he hadn’t made any friends, and he couldn’t find stable work that suited him. Days in this new city, which constantly kept him at arm’s length, passed slowly. He’d have gone crazy a long time ago if it weren’t for his mobile phone. His mobile only rang sporadically, but it was a good entertainer. When he dialed a phone number at random, he would instantly apologize: “I’m sorry. I dialed the wrong number!”
“Don’t let it happen again,” the angry voice on the phone would often reply. But it wasn’t a game that he could easily give up. He needed to hear another human being’s voice, if only for a few seconds.
The social services office in the city was pressuring him to get a job, but his first priority was to learn the language, even though there was no one to help him. One day he broke down in the socials services office in front of the social worker whose head looked like a ball with two blue eyes and a sharp tongue. “Please, I’m begging you, give me a chance to learn the language before I start working”.
He took a language class for three months. By the end of it all he could say was “I’m so-and-so, from such-and-such country,” and a few other sentences for everyday life.
Letters from social security began once again rain down on his cold, mute mailbox that only ever contained those dry and emotionless letters.
He had to take a job doing door-to-door advertising. He spent hours walking through the desolate, graveyard-like streets handing out flyers for restaurants, barber shops, and even sex workers. On Wednesdays and Saturdays he distributed the classifieds section too. His toenails turned black and then fell off. The dogs that barked on the other sides of doors as he tried to stuff flyers through the letterbox terrified him. A bitter taste in the back of his throat would nag at him as he continued his route. It wasn’t just the dogs. It was the dogs’ owners, too. They shouted at him, without bothering to look at him or acknowledging his morning greeting: “Don’t put this shit through my door!” Then they would drive off. He would lower his head, bite his tongue, and move on to the next house.
The train stopped at the station before his Some people got off and others got on. The redheads with the septum rings were still laughing as before, but the football fans cheering on their successful team got off the train, holding their beer cans aloft.
He glanced at the girls and then back at his bag. He tightened his grip as though he was worried that someone would steal it from him. The train set off.
He felt alone wherever he went. On trains, in restaurants, at block parties, in crowded shops. He couldn’t bring himself to look other people in the eye. He was worried that someone would speak to him in that language that he couldn’t understand, so he never responded to anyone. He just pretended that he didn’t hear.
He wasn’t speaking his own language either, so he began to worry that he was going to become mute. He started talking to carpets and windows, to clouds and the crosses on top of church spires. He even began speaking to the mannequins in display windows outside shops.
When he got home, he unlocked the door and whispered to the silent dirt lying in the bottom of the bag he was carrying, “Come in.” After he walked in, he said, “I’m sorry for making you leave our country, but I needed you.”
He took the bag into his bedroom and lay it down on his pillow. “No, that isn’t the right place for you!”
He moved the bag into the living room. He didn’t like that either. He was confused now. He tried placing the bag all over his little apartment until he finally decided to keep it in the bathroom. He poured the contents of the bag of dirt onto the cold, humid floor. That tiring, dry, silent dirt, which had witnessed thousands of his footsteps, rose up into a mound on the floor of the bathroom. He could almost hear the dirt wailing as it was poured out, speck by speck, on to that unfamiliar floor.
His heartbeat began to race and tears filled his eyes. He stared at the mound of dirt and as his voice trembled, he said, “I smell the scent of destruction in you, the earth of home.”
He took a big swig from the can of beer he was holding. “It’s been three years since I left you. Forgive me if I’ve forgotten how I used to speak to you. Forgive me if I’ve been rude to you on this dreary evening. Do you remember when the police surrounded our house and then stormed into my bedroom? Do you remember when they broke my pens and burned the pages on which I’d written about my love for you? They did it in front of our very eyes. Do you remember how they confiscated my books and carried them off in dirty bags like frightened rabbits? They handcuffed me in front of your eyes—if you have eyes, I mean—and took me away, kicking me, throwing me like a bag of straw into the back of a Jeep that was almost the same color as you. You stayed silent, Dirt, licking the boots of the security services, failing to feel the pain of my handcuffed wrists!! When they brought me back in the same Jeep a week later, I saw you through the window. My heart almost broke when I saw their tires defiling you.
You watched in silence as the Intelligence Service’s boots drew horrific scenes across your surface as you languished in your soil-silence, your soil-sleep.
Do you remember that autumn when my heart broke?
Yes, of course you do. My darling used to leave a trail across you every afternoon as she made her way to my room. She would put her hands over my expectant eyes and say, laughing “Guess who?” I always played dumb. I traced her hands with my own. They were like two tame pigeons. Then I ran my fingers across her full lips and down to her apple-breasts and her thighs… I’d say, “You’re a fairy!!”
We rolled around like two surging clouds being buffeted by maniacal winds.
My beloved’s footsteps wove a tissue of lies every afternoon. You knew all about the traps that she set out for me, but you never once whispered in my ear: “Watch your step!” You never once said to me, “You fool! Don’t fall for a mirage. Your heart will die of thirst.” You never said, “Put an end to this game. Your heart will be crushed.” We were friends, Dirt. I wrote my best poems about you. I used to smell you as hard as I could. I used to leave your dust on my eyelashes and clothes for weeks at a time, never brushing you off.
I used to say, “This dust is sacred, this is dirt’s dust, the dirt that slumbers outside my front door, the dirt that embraced my suppressed childhood and wasted youth.”
His eyes became redder and redder and the line of beer cans on the mirror shelf emptied one by one, but he continued to stare at the mound of dirt on the bare, silent bathroom floor.
“Now I just drift from place to place. I carry my broken heart with me, but I still haven’t found anyone who can put it back together for me. You’ve seen me bewildered dozens of times—if you can even see that is—but you’ve never once broken your silence. Why didn’t you rise up from beneath my sad footsteps and fly into the sky to tell everyone in this criminal city of my heart’s pain? Why didn’t you warn me about all the traps that were laid out in front of me? I was the one who used to think of you as a mother, as more than a mother.
“I set fire to my house and all my books to protest against my miserable life. I nearly set fire to myself. You observed me silently. Maybe you secretly said to yourself, laughing, “The boy’s lost his mind.”
Protecting you and loving you gave meaning to my life. It used to drive me crazy whenever I heard anyone insult you. I would try to hide you in my eyes and shield you with my gaze. I was ready to give my life for you. But you? Ah. What do you expect me to say now?
“Tell me, what did you do for me when the world came for me and when the mills of hope crushed my heart and made it into a burning paste? What did you do for me when you found me pathetic, miserable, and hungry? I wept for you. I defended you from the wind that wanted to blow you away from my front door. I didn’t sleep so that I could keep the dirt thieves from abducting you and taking you to some unknown land. Tell me—if you have a tongue what did you do for me when I fled to this country that will never be my country?!
“You just watched me—if you can see that is—go from place to place searching for my wandering sense of self, searching for a quiet life, an uncomplicated love. But you couldn’t be home to that life, or to that love.
“You stayed quiet. Just as you are now on the cold, bare floor this silent night. Don’t come to me later and ask, “Why did you bring me to this exile?”
“You’re the one that led me to this sorry state. You’re the one who exiled me. This is all your fault, Dirt. so don’t think that I’m going to put you beside my pillow so that I can smell you every morning and say, “Ohhh, I can smell heaven in your every speck!!” No. No, never. But I will—”
Suddenly undid the buttons of his fly and quickly pulled it out. He began urinating on the mound of dirt; a silent whine reverberated against the cold, moist bathroom floor.
This slender narrative has no pretensions to the regularity of a story, or the development of situations and feelings; it is but a slight sketch, delivered nearly as it was narrated to me by one of the humblest of the actors concerned: nor will I spin out a circumstance interesting principally from its singularity and truth, but narrate, as concisely as I can, how I was surprised on visiting what seemed a ruined tower, crowning a bleak promontory overhanging the sea, that flows between Wales and Ireland, to find that though the exterior preserved all the savage rudeness that betokened many a war with the elements, the interior was fitted up somewhat in the guise of a summer-house, for it was too small to deserve any other name. It consisted but of the ground-floor, which served as an entrance, and one room above, which was reached by a staircase made out of the thickness of the wall. This chamber was floored and carpeted, decorated with elegant furniture; and, above all, to attract the attention and excite curiosity, there hung over the chimney-piece – for to preserve the apartment from damp a fire-place had been built evidently since it had assumed a guise so dissimilar to the object of its construction – a picture simply painted in water-colours, which seemed more than any part of the adornments of the room to be at war with the rudeness of the building, the solitude in which it was placed, and the desolation of the surrounding scenery. This drawing represented a lovely girl in the very pride and bloom of youth; her dress was simple, in the fashion of the day – (remember, reader, I write at the beginning of the eighteenth century), her countenance was embellished by a look of mingled innocence and intelligence, to which was added the imprint of serenity of soul and natural cheerfulness. She was reading one of those folio romances which have so long been the delight of the enthusiastic and young; her mandoline was at her feet – her parroquet perched on a huge mirror near her; the arrangement of furniture and hangings gave token of a luxurious dwelling, and her attire also evidently that of home and privacy, yet bore with it an appearance of ease and girlish ornament, as if she wished to please. Beneath this picture was inscribed in golden letters, “The Invisible Girl.”
Rambling about a country nearly uninhabited, having lost my way, and being overtaken by a shower, I had lighted on this dreary looking tenement, which seemed to rock in the blast, and to be hung up there as the very symbol of desolation. I was gazing wistfully and cursing inwardly my stars which led me to a ruin that could afford no shelter, though the storm began to pelt more seriously than before, when I saw an old woman’s head popped out from a kind of loophole, and as suddenly withdrawn:–a minute after a feminine voice called to me from within, and penetrating a little brambly maze that skreened a door, which I had not before observed, so skilfully had the planter succeeded in concealing art with nature I found the good dame standing on the threshold and inviting me to take refuge within. “I had just come up from our cot hard by,” she said, “to look after the things, as I do every day, when the rain came on–will ye walk up till it is over?” I was about to observe that the cot hard by, at the venture of a few rain drops, was better than a ruined tower, and to ask my kind hostess whether “the things” were pigeons or crows that she was come to look after, when the matting of the floor and the carpeting of the staircase struck my eye. I was still more surprised when I saw the room above; and beyond all, the picture and its singular inscription, naming her invisible, whom the painter had coloured forth into very agreeable visibility, awakened my most lively curiosity: the result of this, of my exceeding politeness towards the old woman, and her own natural garrulity, was a kind of garbled narrative which my imagination eked out, and future inquiries rectified, till it assumed the following form.
Some years before in the afternoon of a September day, which, though tolerably fair, gave many tokens of a tempestuous evening, a gentleman arrived at a little coast town about ten miles from this place; he expressed his desire to hire a boat to carry him to the town of about fifteen miles further on the coast. The menaces which the sky held forth made the fishermen loathe to venture, till at length two, one the father of a numerous family, bribed by the bountiful reward the stranger promised–the other, the son of my hostess, induced by youthful daring, agreed to undertake the voyage. The wind was fair, and they hoped to make good way before nightfall, and to get into port ere the rising of the storm. They pushed off with good cheer, at least the fishermen did; as for the stranger, the deep mourning which he wore was not half so black as the melancholy that wrapt his mind. He looked as if he had never smiled–as if some unutterable thought, dark as night and bitter as death, had built its nest within his bosom, and brooded therein eternally; he did not mention his name; but one of the villagers recognised him as Henry Vernon, the son of a baronet who possessed a mansion about three miles distant from the town for which he was bound. This mansion was almost abandoned by the family; but Henry had, in a romantic fit, visited it about three years before, and Sir Peter had been down there during the previous spring for about a couple of months.
The boat did not make so much way as was expected; the breeze failed them as they got out to sea, and they were fain with oar as well as sail, to try to weather the promontory that jutted out between them and the spot they desired to reach. They were yet far distant when the shifting wind began to exert its strength, and to blow with violent though unequal puffs. Night came on pitchy dark, and the howling waves rose and broke with frightful violence, menacing to overwhelm the tiny bark that dared resist their fury. They were forced to lower every sail, and take to their oars; one man was obliged to bale out the water, and Vernon himself took an oar, and rowing with desperate energy, equalled the force of the more practised boatmen. There had been much talk between the sailors before the tempest came on; now, except a brief command, all were silent. One thought of his wife and children, and silently cursed the caprice of the stranger that endangered in its effects, not only his life, but their welfare; the other feared less, for he was a daring lad, but he worked hard, and had no time for speech; while Vernon bitterly regretting the thoughtlessness which had made him cause others to share a peril, unimportant as far as he himself was concerned, now tried to cheer them with a voice full of animation and courage, and now pulled yet more strongly at the oar he held. The only person who did not seem wholly intent on the work he was about, was the man who baled; every now and then he gazed intently round, as if the sea held afar off, on its tumultuous waste, some object that he strained his eyes to discern. But all was blank, except as the crests of the high waves showed themselves, or far out on the verge of the horizon, a kind of lifting of the clouds betokened greater violence for the blast. At length he exclaimed–”Yes, I see it!–the larboard oar!–now! if we can make yonder light, we are saved!” Both the rowers instinctively turned their heads,–but cheerless darkness answered their gaze.
“You cannot see it,” cried their companion, “but we are nearing it; and, please God, we shall outlive this night.” Soon he took the oar from Vernon’s hand, who, quite exhausted, was failing in his strokes. He rose and looked for the beacon which promised them safety;–it glimmered with so faint a ray, that now he said, “I see it;” and again, “it is nothing:” still, as they made way, it dawned upon his sight, growing more steady and distinct as it beamed across the lurid waters, which themselves be came smoother, so that safety seemed to arise from the bosom of the ocean under the influence of that flickering gleam.
“What beacon is it that helps us at our need?” asked Vernon, as the men, now able to manage their oars with greater ease, found breath to answer his question.
“A fairy one, I believe,” replied the elder sailor, “yet no less a true: it burns in an old tumble-down tower, built on the top of a rock which looks over the sea. We never saw it before this summer; and now each night it is to be seen, at least when it is looked for, for we cannot see it from our village; and it is such an out of the way place that no one has need to go near it, except through a chance like this. Some say it is burnt by witches, some say by smugglers; but this I know, two parties have been to search, and found nothing but the bare walls of the tower.
All is deserted by day, and dark by night; for no light was to be seen while we were there, though it burned sprightly enough when we were out at sea.
“I have heard say,” observed the younger sailor, “it is burnt by the ghost of a maiden who lost her sweetheart in these parts; he being wrecked, and his body found at the foot of the tower: she goes by the name among us of the ‘Invisible Girl.'”
The voyagers had now reached the landing-place at the foot of the tower. Vernon cast a glance upward, the light was still burning. With some difficulty, struggling with the breakers, and blinded by night, they contrived to get their little bark to shore, and to draw her up on the beach: they then scrambled up the precipitous pathway, overgrown by weeds and underwood, and, guided by the more experienced fishermen, they found the entrance to the tower, door or gate there was none, and all was dark as the tomb, and silent and almost as cold as death.
“This will never do,” said Vernon; “surely our hostess will show her light, if not herself, and guide our darkling steps by some sign of life and comfort.”
“We will get to the upper chamber,” said the sailor, “if I can but hit upon the broken down steps: but you will find no trace of the Invisible Girl nor her light either, I warrant.”
“Truly a romantic adventure of the most disagreeable kind,” muttered Vernon, as he stumbled over the unequal ground: “she of the beacon-light must be both ugly and old, or she would not be so peevish and inhospitable.”
With considerable difficulty, and, after divers knocks and bruises, the adventurers at length succeeded in reaching the upper story; but all was blank and bare, and they were fain to stretch themselves on the hard floor, when weariness, both of mind and body, conduced to steep their senses in sleep.
Long and sound were the slumbers of the mariners. Vernon but forgot himself for an hour; then, throwing off drowsiness, and finding his roughcouch uncongenial to repose, he got up and placed himself at the hole that served for a window, for glass there was none, and there being not even a rough bench, he leant his back against the embrasure, as the only rest he could find. He had forgotten his danger, the mysterious beacon, and its invisible guardian: his thoughts were occupied on the horrors of his own fate, and the unspeakable wretchedness that sat like a night-mare on his heart.
It would require a good-sized volume to relate the causes which had changed the once happy Vernon into the most woeful mourner that ever clung to the outer trappings of grief, as slight though cherished symbols of the wretchedness within. Henry was the only child of Sir Peter Vernon, and as much spoiled by his father’s idolatry as the old baronet’s violent and tyrannical temper would permit. A young orphan was educated in his father’s house, who in the same way was treated with generosity and kindness, and yet who lived in deep awe of Sir Peter’s authority, who was a widower; and these two children were all he had to exert his power over, or to whom to extend his affection. Rosina was a cheerful-tempered girl, a little timid, and careful to avoid displeasing her protector; but so docile, so kind-hearted, and so affectionate, that she felt even less than Henry the discordant spirit of his parent. It is a tale often told; they were playmates and companions in childhood, and lovers in after days. Rosina was frightened to imagine that this secret affection, and the vows they pledged, might be disapproved of by Sir Peter. But sometimes she consoled herself by thinking that perhaps she was in reality her Henry’s destined bride, brought up with him under the design of their future union; and Henry, while he felt that this was not the case, resolved to wait only until he was of age to declare and accomplish his wishes in making the sweet Rosina his wife. Meanwhile he was careful to avoid premature discovery of his intentions, so to secure his beloved girl from persecution and insult. The old gentleman was very conveniently blind; he lived always in the country, and the lovers spent their lives together, unrebuked and uncontrolled. It was enough that Rosina played on her mandoline, and sang Sir Peter to sleep every day after dinner; she was the sole female in the house above the rank of a servant, and had her own way in the disposal of her time. Even when Sir Peter frowned, her innocent caresses and sweet voice were powerful to smooth the rough current of his temper. If ever human spirit lived in an earthly paradise, Rosina did at this time: her pure love was made happy by Henry’s constant presence; and the confidence they felt in each other, and the security with which they looked forward to the future, rendered their path one of roses under a cloudless sky. Sir Peter was the slight drawback that only rendered their tete-a-tete more delightful, and gave value to the sympathy they each bestowed on the other. All at once an ominous personage made its appearance in Vernon-Place, in the shape of a widow sister of Sir Peter, who, having succeeded in killing her husband and children with the effects of her vile temper, came, like a harpy, greedy for new prey, under her brother’s roof. She too soon detected the attachment of the unsuspicious pair. She made all speed to impart her discovery to her brother, and at once to restrain and inflame his rage. Through her contrivance Henry was suddenly despatched on his travels abroad, that the coast might be clear for the persecution of Rosina; and then the richest of the lovely girl’s many admirers, whom, under Sir Peter’s single reign, she was allowed, nay, almost commanded, to dismiss, so desirous was he of keeping her for his own comfort, was selected, and she was ordered to marry him. The scenes of violence to which she was now exposed, the bitter taunts of the odious Mrs. Bainbridge, and the reckless fury of Sir Peter, were the more frightful and overwhelming from their novelty. To all she could only oppose a silent, tearful, but immutable steadiness of purpose: no threats, no rage could extort from her more than a touching prayer that they would not hate her, because she could not obey.
“There must he something we don’t see under all this,” said Mrs. Bainbridge, “take my word for it, brother,” she corresponds secretly with Henry. “Let us take her down to your seat in Wales, where she will have no pensioned beggars to assist her; and we shall see if her spirit be not bent to our purpose.”
Sir Peter consented, and they all three posted down, to shire, and took up their abode in the solitary and dreary looking house before alluded to as belonging to the family. Here poor Rosina’s sufferings grew intolerable: before, surrounded by well-known scenes, and in perpetual intercourse with kind and familiar faces, she had not despaired in the end of conquering by her patience the cruelty of her persecutors; nor had she written to Henry, for his name had not been mentioned by his relatives, nor their attachment alluded to, and she felt an instinctive wish to escape the dangers about her without his being annoyed, or the sacred secret of her love being laid bare, and wronged by the vulgar abuse of his aunt or the bitter curses of his father. But when she was taken to Wales, and made a prisoner in her apartment, when the flinty mountains about her seemed feebly to imitate the stony hearts she had to deal with, her courage began to fail. The only attendant permitted to approach her was Mrs. Bainbridge’s maid; and under the tutelage of her fiend-like mistress, this woman was used as a decoy to entice the poor prisoner into confidence, and then to be betrayed. The simple, kind-hearted Rosina was a facile dupe, and at last, in the excess of her despair, wrote to Henry, and gave the letter to this woman to be forwarded. The letter in itself would have softened marble; it did not speak of their mutual vows, it but asked him to intercede with his father, that he would restore her to the kind place she had formerly held in his affections, and cease from a cruelty that would destroy her. “For I may die,” wrote the hapless girl, “but marry another – never!” That single word, indeed, had sufficed to betray her secret, had it not been already discovered; as it was, it gave increased fury to Sir Peter, as his sister triumphantly pointed it out to him, for it need hardly be said that while the ink of the address was yet wet, and the seal still warm, Rosina’s letter was carried to this lady. The culprit was summoned before them; what ensued none could tell; for their own sakes the cruel pair tried to palliate their part. Voices were high, and the soft murmur of Rosina’s tone was lost in the howling of Sir Peter and the snarling of his sister. “Out of doors you shall go,” roared the old man; “under my roof you shall not spend another night.” And the words “infamous seductress,” and worse, such as had never met the poor girl’s ear before, were caught by listening servants; and to each angry speech of the baronet, Mrs. Bainbridge added an envenomed point worse than all.
More dead than alive, Rosina was at last dismissed. Whether guided by despair, whether she took Sir Peter’s threats literally, or whether his sister’s orders were more decisive, none knew, but Rosina left the house; a servant saw her cross the park, weeping, and wringing her hands as she went. What became of her none could tell; her disappearance was not disclosed to Sir Peter till the following day, and then he showed by his anxiety to trace her steps and to find her, that his words had been but idle threats. The truth was, that though Sir Peter went to frightful lengths to prevent the marriage of the heir of his house with the portionless orphan, the object of his charity, yet in his heart he loved Rosina, and half his violence to her rose from anger at himself for treating her so ill. Now remorse began to sting him, as messenger after messenger came back without tidings of his victim; he dared not confess his worst fears to himself; and when his inhuman sister, trying to harden her conscience by angry words, cried, “The vile hussy has too surely made away with herself out of revenge to us;” an oath, the most tremendous, and a look sufficient to make even her tremble, commanded her silence. Her conjecture, however, appeared too true: a dark and rushing stream that flowed at the extremity of the park had doubtless received the lovely form, and quenched the life of this unfortunate girl. Sir Peter, when his endeavours to find her proved fruitless, returned to town, haunted by the image of his victim, and forced to acknowledge in his own heart that he would willingly lay down his life, could he see her again, even though it were as the bride of his son – his son, before whose questioning he quailed like the veriest coward; for when Henry was told of the death of Rosina, he suddenly returned from abroad to ask the cause – to visit her grave, and mourn her loss in the groves and valleys which had been the scenes of their mutual happiness. He made a thousand inquiries, and an ominous silence alone replied. Growing more earnest and more anxious, at length he drew from servants and dependants, and his odious aunt herself, the whole dreadful truth. From that moment despair struck his heart, and misery named him her own. He fled from his father’s presence; and the recollection that one whom he ought to revere was guilty of so dark a crime, haunted him, as of old the Eumenides tormented the souls of men given up to their torturings.
His first, his only wish, was to visit Wales, and to learn if any new discovery had been made, and whether it were possible to recover the mortal remains of the lost Rosina, so to satisfy the unquiet longings of his miserable heart. On this expedition was he bound, when he made his appearance at the village before named; and now in the deserted tower, his thoughts were busy with images of despair and death, and what his beloved one had suffered before her gentle nature had been goaded to such a deed of woe.
While immersed in gloomy reverie, to which the monotonous roaring of the sea made fit accompaniment, hours flew on, and Vernon was at last aware that the light of morning was creeping from out its eastern retreat, and dawning over the wild ocean, which still broke in furious tumult on the rocky beach. His companions now roused themselves, and prepared to depart. The food they had brought with them was damaged by sea water, and their hunger, after hard labour and many hours fasting, had become ravenous. It was impossible to put to sea in their shattered boat; but there stood a fisher’s cot about two miles off, in a recess in the bay, of which the promontory on which the tower stood formed one side, and to this they hastened to repair; they did not spend a second thought on the light which had saved them, nor its cause, but left the ruin in search of a more hospitable asylum. Vernon cast his eves round as he quitted it, but no vestige of an inhabitant met his eye, and he began to persuade himself that the beacon had been a creation of fancy merely. Arriving at the cottage in question, which was inhabited by a fisherman and his family, they made a homely breakfast, and then prepared to return to the tower, to refit their boat, and if possible bring her round. Vernon accompanied them, together with their host and his son. Several questions were asked concerning the Invisible Girl and her light, each agreeing that the apparition was novel, and not one being able to give even an explanation of how the name had become affixed to the unknown cause of this singular appearance; though both of the men of the cottage affirmed that once or twice they had seen a female figure in the adjacent wood, and that now and then a stranger girl made her appearance at another cot a mile off, on the other side of the promontory, and bought bread; they suspected both these to be the same, but could not tell. The inhabitants of the cot, indeed, appeared too stupid even to feel curiosity, and had never made any attempt at discovery. The whole day was spent by the sailors in repairing the boat; and the sound of hammers, and the voices of the men at work, resounded along the coast, mingled with the dashing of the waves. This was no time to explore the ruin for one who whether human or supernatural so evidently withdrew herself from intercourse with every living being. Vernon, however, went over the tower, and searched every nook in vain; the dingy bare walls bore no token of serving as a shelter; and even a little recess in the wall of the staircase, which he had not before observed, was equally empty and desolate.
Quitting the tower, he wandered in the pine wood that surrounded it, and giving up all thought of solving the mystery, was soon engrossed by thoughts that touched his heart more nearly, when suddenly there appeared on the ground at his feet the vision of a slipper. Since Cinderella so tiny a slipper had never been seen; as plain as shoe could speak, it told a tale of elegance, loveliness, and youth. Vernon picked it up; he had often admired Rosina’s singularly small foot, and his first thought was a question whether this little slipper would have fitted it. It was very strange! – it must belong to the Invisible Girl. Then there was a fairy form that kindled that light, a form of such material substance, that its foot needed to be shod; and yet how shod? – with kid so fine, and of shape so exquisite, that it exactly resembled such as Rosina wore! Again the recurrence of the image of the beloved dead came forcibly across him; and a thousand home-felt associations, childish yet sweet, and lover-like though trifling, so filled Vernon’s heart, that he threw himself his length on the ground, and wept more bitterly than ever the miserable fate of the sweet orphan.
In the evening the men quitted their work, and Vernon returned with them to the cot where they were to sleep, intending to pursue their voyage, weather permitting, the following morning.
Vernon said nothing of his slipper, but returned with his rough associates. Often he looked back; but the tower rose darkly over the dim waves, and no light appeared. Preparations had been made in the cot for their accommodation, and the only bed in it was offered Vernon; but he refused to deprive his hostess, and spreading his cloak on a heap of dry leaves, endeavoured to give himself up to repose. He slept for some hours; and when he awoke, all was still, save that the hard breathing of the sleepers in the same room with him interrupted the silence. He rose, and going to the window, looked out over the now placid sea towards the mystic tower; the light burning there, sending its slender rays across the waves. Congratulating himself on a circumstance he had not anticipated, Vernon softly left the cottage, and, wrapping his cloak round him, walked with a swift pace round the bay towards the tower. He reached it; still the light was burning. To enter and restore the maiden her shoe, would be but an act of courtesy; and Vernon intended to do this with such caution, as to come unaware, before its wearer could, with her accustomed arts, withdraw herself from his eyes; but, unluckily, while yet making his way up the narrow pathway, his foot dislodged a loose fragment, that fell with crash and sound down the precipice. He sprung forward, on this, to retrieve by speed the advantage he had lost by this unlucky accident. He reached the door; he entered: all was silent, but also all was dark. He paused in the room below; he felt sure that a slight sound met his ear. He ascended the steps, and entered the upper chamber; but blank obscurity met his penetrating gaze, the starless night admitted not even a twilight glimmer through the only aperture. He closed his eyes, to try, on opening them again, to be able to catch some faint, wandering ray on the visual nerve; but it was in vain. He groped round the room: he stood still, and held his breath; and then, listening intently, he felt sure that another occupied the chamber with him, and that its atmosphere was slightly agitated by an-other’s respiration. He remembered the recess in the staircase; but, before he approached it, he spoke: he hesitated a moment what to say. “I must believe,” he said, “that misfortune alone can cause your seclusion; and if the assistance of a man – of a gentleman…”
An exclamation interrupted him; a voice from the grave spoke his name – the accents of Rosina syllabled, “Henry! – is it indeed Henry whom I hear?”
He rushed forward, directed by the sound, and clasped in his arms the living form of his own lamented girl – his own Invisible Girl he called her; for even yet, as he felt her heart beat near his, and as he entwined her waist with his arm, supporting her as she almost sank to the ground with agitation, he could not see her; and, as her sobs prevented her speech, no sense, but the instinctive one that filled his heart with tumultuous gladness, told him that the slender, wasted form he pressed so fondly was the living shadow of the Hebe beauty he had adored.
The morning saw this pair thus strangely restored to each other on the tranquil sea, sailing with a fair wind for L–, whence they were to proceed to Sir Peter’s seat, which, three months before, Rosina had quitted in such agony and terror. The morning light dispelled the shadows that had veiled her, and disclosed the fair person of the Invisible Girl. Altered indeed she was by suffering and woe, but still the same sweet smile played on her lips, and the tender light of her soft blue eyes were all her own. Vernon drew out the slipper, and shoved the cause that had occasioned him to resolve to discover the guardian of the mystic beacon; even now he dared not inquire how she had existed in that desolate spot, or wherefore she had so sedulously avoided observation, when the right thing to have been done was, to have sought him immediately, under whose care, protected by whose love, no danger need be feared. But Rosina shrunk from him as he spoke, and a death-like pallor came over her cheek, as she faintly whispered, “Your father’s curse – your father’s dreadful threats!” It appeared, indeed, that Sir Peter’s violence, and the cruelty of Mrs. Bainbridge, had succeeded in impressing Rosina with wild and unvanquishable terror. She had fled from their house without plan or forethought, driven by frantic horror and overwhelming fear, she had left it with scarcely any money, and there seemed to her no possibility of either returning or proceeding onward. She had no friend except Henry in the wide world; whither could she go? – to have sought Henry would have sealed their fates to misery; for, with an oath, Sir Peter had declared he would rather see them both in their coffins than married. After wandering about, hiding by day, and only venturing forth at night, she had come to this deserted tower, which seemed a place of refuge. I low she had lived since then she could hardly tell; she had lingered in the woods by day, or slept in the vault of the tower, an asylum none were acquainted with or had discovered: by night she burned the pine-cones of the wood, and night was her dearest time; for it seemed to her as if security came with darkness. She was unaware that Sir Peter had left that part of the country, and was terrified lest her hiding-place should be revealed to him. Her only hope was that Henry would return – that Henry would never rest till he had found her. She confessed that the long interval and the approach of winter had visited her with dismay; she feared that, as her strength was failing, and her form wasting to a skeleton, that she might die, and never see her own Henry more.
An illness, indeed, in spite of all his care, followed her restoration to security and the comforts of civilized life; many months went by before the bloom revisiting her cheeks, and her limbs regaining their roundness, she resembled once more the picture drawn of her in her days of bliss, before any visitation of sorrow. It was a copy of this portrait that decorated the tower, the scene of her suffering, in which I had found shelter. Sir Peter, overjoyed to be relieved from the pangs of remorse, and delighted again to see his orphan-ward, whom he really loved, was now as eager as before he had been averse to bless her union with his son: Mrs. Bainbridge they never saw again. But each year they spent a few months in their Welch mansion, the scene of their early wedded happiness, and the spot where again poor Rosina had awoke to life and joy after her cruel persecutions. Henry’s fond care had fitted up the tower, and decorated it as I saw; and often did he come over, with his “Invisible Girl,” to renew, in the very scene of its occurrence, the remembrance of all the incidents which had led to their meeting again, during the shades of night, in that sequestered ruin.
When I pulled Teresa’s postcard from the mailbox it was three in the afternoon. I didn’t read it at first, just glanced at it quickly as I stepped into the house, the card still clutched in my free hand. I tossed the little bag I was carrying onto the table in the center of the sitting room and went straight into the bath. The day was unusually warm. As I do on such days, I turned on the cold water and began to fill the tub. Rapidly stripping off my clothes, I slipped into the water while it was still running – after first laying my wristwatch and the post card next to the magazines and letters that cluttered the little chair that I left within easy reach.
I scrubbed my head for a moment, then shook it, spraying water over the papers nearby. I grabbed a towel and dried my dripping hand, then picked up Teresa’s card with shaking fingers. I saw a picture of an old tavern, with antique style wood furnishings and blue tables. Among them stood a handsome, dark skinned man. Strands of white lent a magical air to his wispy hair. “Hemingway Bar in Havana,” it said in Spanish on the back of the card. Also on the back, Teresa had faintly scrawled a message in a style a bit like Hemingway’s own: “Roamer of worlds and words – you sailor on terra firma – don’t be surprised by this card. I was going to send it from Havana but suddenly went to Madrid. Expect me at 7:00 on 16 June at the station near the Cafe Regreso. Wear a white suit and shoes and a Panama hat. My heart is still your home.” She added a postscript, “I hope you’ve forgotten the war. But you’re right-which war?” Nor did she forget to append a joke as well. “No doubt this card will reach you the same day I do.”
She knows that my life is nothing but a string of strange coincidences. At any rate, I had only four hours to get to the station where I’d be meeting Teresa. Yet those four hours, which on a normal day would go by in a flash, today seemed like an unbearable torment. I couldn’t believe that she was coming after all this time. I surely needed more than four hours to grasp the idea that we’d be seeing each other again. Of course, I could have just torn up the card, or acted like I’d never received it. But how could I face the way she looked at me when she opened the door and found me here?
I’d known Teresa for five years, since my first visit to Madrid, before my recent transfer to Lisbon. We’d loved each other violently, and hated each other with the same intensity. We’d broken up with each other at least five times, but come back to each other with the same ardor as before, to resume our quarrels with renewed passion. And when I say that we broke up often, I don’t mean the kind of breakups that last a night or two, that we all experience hundreds of times in our love stories, but the sort of separations that last a long time. Which is what happened the last time. I didn’t throw out her things, or put them out of sight, but kept them as they were, just the way she left them – her clothes in the bedroom closet, her beauty aids in the bathroom: a collection by Yves Saint Laurent; perfume by Cartier Must, Coco Chanel, and Paloma Picasso; a bottle of Body Shop shampoo with Brazil nut and honey; containers of white liquid soap scented with musk and essence of plums. On the bathroom windowsill stood the milky white lotion that she used to massage into her body, that after accidentally breaking its original container I wound up keeping in an empty can of Nescafe. I can still remember her laughter when she saw what I’d done with the lotion on the day before she left. I caught her inspecting it, turning it end over end in her hand, and when she noticed me watching her she giggled, saying that she would leave me the stuff so I could use it myself.
Seven months, two weeks, and three days had passed since. that afternoon when – hearing the doorbell ring – she left the house with her little bag. At that moment I stuck my head out the window and saw a strange man waiting for her downstairs. I followed her as she went outside, without her noticing, until she reached the port. There she strode arm-in-arm with the man toward a waiting steamer, over which flew a Cuban flag.
I felt no jealousy. I wasn’t angry that she’d left with another man. Rather, despite my pain at what had happened between us, and not because I am a “modern, liberal” man but because of my sympathy for the sailors of the world, I had made peace with myself, in a way.
Why not? You are the cause, I told myself, and despite your bragging – in your early days with her – about being a “sailor on terra firma,” only travel competes with your love for her. She was the one who was willing to give up her job as a journalist, though haunted by the love of departure. She was the creature for which you were searching, so you could wander with her to perdition over the face of this. globe, while both of you made your country wherever your feet trod the ground. Except that you yourself, since the day you met her, have stayed where you were. In Madrid you were making up excuses, saying, “If only this city were on the sea, I would voyage every day.” Once she asked, “Where would you like to live?” And you answered, “In Lisbon.” “Why?” Teresa wondered. So you told her, quoting a verse by Rafael Al-berti, who had referred to Rome instead, “Lisbon is a danger to wanderers.” Then you followed with, “I love harbors, the way I love Basra.” She didn’t commit herself at the time, but after twenty four days had passed, she asked you to pack your bags and go to Lisbon. She’d asked the newspaper for which she worked to transfer her there, though she hadn’t told you about it. So you went to Lisbon together. Three months and ten days later, she showed you that you had lied, that you didn’t really move the way you did before. “Maybe you’ve aged,” she said. When you denied it, this time by making an excuse about the “ruins of Basra” for after Basra, it’s hard for you to love any harbor – she remarked, “Then it’s war that still paralyzes you?” War? Which war did she mean? The first? The second? Or the third that might yet happen? Or is it the war that rages perpetually there? Perhaps I wouldn’t have thought about what she said too seriously if she hadn’t run off with the Cuban seaman.
Seven months, two weeks, and three days later and I’m thinking about my situation. I’m trying to organize my life without her. Of course, I’ve endured a lot of pain. More than once I’ve wept over her departure. I have thought that her absence would last forever. All during our relationship her desire to cross the Atlantic never abated. Many times she told me about her grandparents, who lived in the Andalusian city of Cadiz before they made their way to Cuba. She was a child in those days, and her mother would show her photos of her family that had moved to “La Habana” after the Spanish Civil War. Her mother later joined them, leaving behind her father, who hated nothing in life more than travel. Twenty five years had gone by since he asked her, “Why did she leave Cadiz for Havana?”
Since her childhood she had dreamed of going to Cuba herself. “What about you?” she asked me. “Yes, we’ll go together,” I told her. “But be careful,” I cautioned, “for no sooner will I fly there than I’ll come back here.” So she wondered, “What is it that binds you to this part of the earth?” When I failed to speak, she answered for me, “I know, you’ll say, Basra. But now there’s no such place as Basra: now there’s only the war.” The war, the war-but which war? Teresa isn’t the first one to say this to me, while I too think that I’m haunted by the war. More than five years and I hadn’t tired of recounting the war’s events to her. No matter the occasion, whether we were sitting in front of the television, or seeing soldiers in the city, or even listening to tapes of music – everything reminded me of the war.
From her side, Teresa forgot none of this, for she described it in a letter she wrote to me before going away – despite the fact that we were living together at the time. The letter was stuck in a sheaf of her old missives, along with some from my brother and sister and friends, which I’d put – as I’ve always done – close to my bath to pull one or more of them out each time I filled the tub. (She hated this habit and told me, “I’m not surprised that you haven’t forgotten the war, for is there one of these letters that doesn’t talk about it, or its miseries?”)
She didn’t know that I put her letters there, too, perhaps because I used to deliberately shove them to the bottom of the pile. I tell you, that letter, which I was reading for the twentieth time, reminded me of all these details. Particularly that I insisted on listening to the music of Boney M (“The Imbeciles,” as Teresa called them), along with “Waltzing Matilda” by Tom Waits (because of my friend Mulhem’s love for it, and which I have liked since the first war, and still do-but which war?).
Even my friends’ complaints about it reminded me of it. “All he cares about is the war,” they’d say, “like a curse that never ceases pursuing him.” She hadn’t forgotten the story of the white suit, the white shoes, and the Panama hat that the tavern owner Matilda had given me as a gift before I left Basra.
In those days, when Teresa heard I’d lost it, she surprised me by buying a white suit and Panama hat and white shoes during one of our trips to Florence. (Yet what would I say to her if she saw me sitting among you, wearing the Caribbean clothes once again, but without the white shoes?)
That day she asked, as she handed me the suit, “Do you know why Matilda gave you this outfit?”
“What do you mean?” I replied defiantly.
“You don’t understand, my dear, that it’s to drag you out of the hell of the war,” she laughed.
“What is the war to me now?” I demanded.
“Enough of this curse that stalks you,” she swore.
The war, the war – but which war? How much have I longed for liberation from it, and to forget the day that it broke out. Yet it seems that destiny has been pursuing me, from the moment I left my country until today. The letters that have come to me through those years are heavy with all that has happened because of it.
The war – how long since it ignited? Fifteen years, nine months, and two days? Or five years, eleven months, three weeks, and three days? Or has it been all our lives? Didn’t it break out when you or I came into the world, in that country which now not only seems so far away on the map but also because of what is happening to it, and what is happening to us, hundreds of light years distant? That country, which I am not the first to forget nor the only one to not think of at all, except for the war.
Teresa used to say to me, “The war is between you and that country!” Not an inappropriate observation, but one that offered me scant consolation. And now, as I tell this story to you, I try to remember other things from it – for example, my friends, my childhood haunts, my first love, my first sexual experience, my first drink – but it’s all futile. All that comes to me is the war. Even if sometimes I succeed in chasing it away, it weighs upon me like the plagues of Egypt, hurtling down upon me like the curse of Yahweh, like the rains of revenge with which He pulverized offending cities at the dawn of the world.
That afternoon in Lisbon, after I finished my bath, and with a headache that had overwhelmed me for hours on end, I decided to put paid to the war completely. I threw away the tape by Boney M and the one with “Waltzing Matilda” on it and put on the white Caribbean suit with the Panama hat. Unfortunately, the shoes were black – in the chaos of my house, I couldn’t find the white ones. Yet I fulfilled Teresa’s wish.
On that midday, I also realized that I loved this woman to the point of worship. My pride would not avail me; my life would be made no easier by giving her up, or even by forgetting her. Never mind that she left me or went out with whichever man she wanted, I still loved her. I’d do whatever she wanted me to do.
Strange how we go around and around; we meet a lot of women, until we get to know one in particular – one who will be the center of the world. No matter who she is or what she does; no matter the wars, both declared and undeclared, that raged between us, there’s only her – and salaam, that’s it. Did I say “salaam“? Was Teresa the alternative to war? Was she peace? I don’t know.
Rather than that question, there were others demanding answers in my head as I drove my car toward the Lisbon train station. I didn’t even notice the distance between my house and Rua dos Douradores until I entered the underground garage at the station. I paid no attention to the time until I came to the platform and the great clock loomed before me: 6: 10 P. M. I still had a lot of time, then – so I went to the newspaper kiosk and bought the Arabic daily Al-Hayat, plus the Spanish paper, El Pais, and the Portuguese paper, Publico, and the Italian one, La Repubblica, and the German Sud-deutsche Zeitung, the British Guardian, and the New York Times. (This is what I normally do when I travel by train or wait in a cafe, to get a kick out of people’s curiosity when they see me reading all those languages!) Then I walked over to the big cafe at the station, the Regreso, where she’d asked me to wait for her at 7:00.
Truly happy I was, and sure that I would surprise Teresa with the white suit and Panama hat, and with the decision that I’d arrived at in my bath that day. I’d tell her that we’d move to the Spanish countryside, or maybe to Tuscany, or, if she wanted, to Paraguay, and raise cattle there. And there we’d live together, forever. I wouldn’t ask her about the Cuban sailor, or about her other men either. Rather, I would just love her more, and I’d forget the war absolutely. And we would have children.
As far as I can recall, it was on a Sunday in summer, on 16 June 1996, to be exact. I was cutting through the station to the Cafe Regreso nearby. After I had scanned the newspapers and tucked them under my arm, I heard someone calling out in Spanish, “Campos, Campos!”
At first I thought that the young man, decked out in a naval uniform, was addressing someone else. Yet when I saw him approach me, then throw his arms around me, I was sure he’d meant me.
“Campos, you obstinate man, how is my Doppelganger doing?” he said.
After I’d broken free of his grip and taken a step back, I realized that we indeed did look alike. Yet I told him, “I’d like you to look me over carefully, and perhaps you’ll realize that you’re overdoing it – for I’m from Basra.”
But he laughed and slapped me on the shoulder. “Strange that you’ve abandoned your dreams – you were always dreaming of Sinbad and Basra.”
I said nothing, but smiled and shrugged my shoulders.
Why not, I thought. I still have fifty minutes ahead of me, and it’s a beautiful story.
I remembered that, since we must make up a story when writing one, then why not do the same when telling one? So I’m inventing the tale as I go along, in order to tell the truth, more or less.
I felt an old longing for the sailor’s uniform I had worn for six months in the late Seventies, when I worked as an interpreter for two East German admirals at the naval base in Basra. Those were my golden days in the service. The married woman who lived next to my grandfather’s house would wait for me with passion, and she would insist that I wear sailor’s clothes whenever we met.
And I still remember, when my employment at the athletic department in the navy ended, and I transferred to al-Mahawil Base near Babylon, how an officer in the artillery battery to which I was assigned screamed at me, “Get rid of those woman’s clothes, you jerk!”
Not satisfied with that, he punished me by making me march up and down the length of the parade ground as he shouted in my ear, “I’m going to show you the real meaning of ‘military,’ and then how we’re going to liberate Palestine!”
“Tell me,” I started to say, when he jumped in.
“Alejandro.” He told me his name before I could ask, as we sat in the Regreso.
“Alejandro, tell me,” I began again, “is the naval service as hated among the other military branches in your country as well?”
He laughed as he pulled two cigarettes out of a pack, offering me one, which I took – despite the fact that I’d quit smoking a long time ago.
“Hombre,” he said, “your favorite Cuban brand.”
“Campos,” he asked as he lit it for me, “how did you forget that?” Then he added as he blew out smoke, “Don’t you remember the infantry officer, Zein al-Abidin, who made us stand in the sun for two days in Buenos Aires when we were coming back on the double?”
“Coming back?” I blurted. “Alejandro, where were we coming back from?”
His face tightened as he looked at me searchingly, then he called to the waiter to bring us two cappuccinos.
“You were always very smart, Campos, always playing different parts,” he said. “Now the deaf man, now the blind man, now the dumb man. How I envy you.”
He paused for a moment to watch my reaction. Then he resumed talking, only this time without looking at me, just inspecting his cigarette that was more than half smoked.
“You’re the guy with the glib, cultured tongue,” Alejandro upbraided me, “who didn’t say anything, not a word, to the officer who punished us in the barracks at Buenos Aires. He abused us because we belonged to the navy – he believed that the naval forces had betrayed the army during the Falklands War, because they had British training.”
I said nothing. The waiter brought us our cappuccinos. Draining his cup completely in one gulp, Alejandro stopped the waiter to ask for another. Then he tossed the stub of his cigarette on the floor.
“You used to say that we had it coming,” he went on, “because we had been there, even though you knew we weren’t in the fighting.”
Pushing my cup toward him, I told him that I’d wait for the one that was coming.
Alejandro took a big swallow. “I used to ask you who was right – us or the English? And you always had the clever answer.”
He stopped again and took another draught. He lit another cigarette, then switched voices.
“I know that if the English are routed,” he imitated me, “the rule of the generals will go on.”
Halting, he added, “Despite the fact that you didn’t back the British.”
The waiter arrived with the third cappuccino, and I began to sip it calmly. We sat together like this for nearly forty minutes. I don’t remember how many cigarettes we smoked or cups of cappuccino we drank, one after the other. Alejandro told story after story about life over there, in the Falklands. I didn’t try to interrupt or contradict him.
And why should I? The young man recited his story with a totally confident demeanor, though I was perplexed by what he was saying. The important thing, of course, wasn’t whether I was convinced by what he said but whether I was convinced by the way he was saying it. I could have stopped him and waved my identity card in front of him, but how could I persuade him of my German nationality when I’d told him in the beginning that I was born in Basra? And when I’d spoken to the waiter in Portuguese? And how could I explain my proficiency in Spanish (though he’d consider my failure to speak with him in his Argentine dialect as being linked to my flight from that country a shrewd attempt on my part to disguise my identity)?
But what is logic to a man who tells a story the way he does (isn’t it possible to make up the tale as we go along? For Alejandro didn’t conjure the past merely in its details) until I felt I’d been with him then myself, as well as in the present. I asked him what he was doing in Lisbon, and he told me about their steamer coming from Argentina. They were on a quick trip to exchange military experience.
“I didn’t go with the others,” he said. “There was something calling out to me, saying, ‘Campos, your double that you lost after the war in Buenos Aires was not killed but escaped to seek harbor in the ports of our Lord.’ The voice said he was the only one who escaped our fate – which is either to be buried, or imprisoned, or exiled.”
Should I have thought the same way as my friend Mulhem, the POW? At the time, I seriously thought – however absurdly – of objecting to what Alejandro was saying.
“Do you see, my friend, Sinbad doesn’t die,” Alejandro said, his mouth stretched in a grin. “I see you as you always describe yourself, a sailor on terra firma.”
After this sentence came out of his mouth, carrying the sound of that beautiful Latin phrase, he added, while pointing at my white suit and Panama, “You’re a Caribbean man – the only thing you lack is a lady dolphin!”
“A lady what?” I asked.
“Don’t you remember the story that the woman who owned the bar told us, about the men from the Amazon in the city of Macondo?”
When I remained silent, he went on. ‘”When a group of these men sees some female dolphins playing,’ she said, ‘they carry them to the land, play with them, then sleep with them the whole night long.'”
Alejandro giggled, winking his eyes. “You know that they grant you a special power.”
His hand didn’t cease playing with the brim of his sailor’s hat, while the smile never left his lips. “And you – where’s your dolphin?” he taunted.
“She left with a Cuban seaman,” I told him. “Do you know that you look just like him?”
He laughed as he asked me, “You won’t forget, naturally.”
I shook my head.
“Amazing,” he exclaimed. “There’s a lot of truth in what you say. We go around and around and around and always wind up with one woman. It doesn’t matter who she is or what she does to us.”
Agreeing, I queried him, “What do you think is the cure then?”
Alejandro looked at me for a long while, until I felt that everything had come to a halt: the beating of my heart, the hubbub of the cafe’s patrons, the smoke wafting in the air.
“Only death will free you from her,” he declared.
“But I don’t feel like dying,” I retorted.
He crushed perhaps his tenth cigarette beneath his foot. “I know this is why you slipped out of the war,” said Alejandro. Then he went quiet for a moment.
“Do you have any dolphin oil?” he asked me suddenly.
“What kind of oil?” I asked, astonished again.
“Campos,” he answered, “you have forgotten a lot in these last years. Didn’t you tell me the story of your trip to the city of Macondo?”
When I didn’t react, he launched in excitedly, “Who but you would wander around the military sites when we were entombed in our trenches there and would tell us one story after another – your stories were like manna from heaven in that hell.”
In that instant it seemed I was once again inspired, and I found myself saying to him, “Do you mean that evening when I landed on the outskirts of the town of Macondo?”
“Yes,” he said eagerly, and then again, as if he didn’t believe it himself, “yes, yes.”
Before opening my mouth again, I consumed the cold, thick dregs of my cappuccino and said, “In the evening, just before sunset, I was meandering down by the river, at the edge of Macondo. The long tables of the smugglers groaned with all the scarcest goods from every comer of the earth: musk oil from the Himalayas, carpets from Samarkand, perfumed soaps by Vichy of Paris, Royal Lavender body lotion from London, clotted cream from Dublin, wild-beast hides from Marrakesh, bottles of tequila from Mexico with small serpents inside, rare birds from the Amazon, ful beans grown by the blacks of the Sudan, little wooden drums from Basra, and aromatic water from Suq al-Shuyukh in southern Iraq.
“In a corner of the market I met a woman selling herbs that cure boils on the skin and tree roots that cleanse the body. Behind pyramids of leaves there were rows of bottles of Johnnie Walker filled with a milky white liquid. I asked her what this was: she explained that it was the ‘essence of female dolphins’ tears.’
“‘If you take some drops of it and put them in your eyes, and rub them on your face and your hands,’ she promised, ‘then the person who loves you will never, ever leave you!'”
At this point, Alejandro stopped me.
“Did you buy a bottle of this stuff?” he drilled me, evidently forgetting that he had just told me he already knew the story. But we both knew that every time we tell a tale, its course always changes.
“Naturally, I tried it,” I assured him, “and it was a wonderful time. There wasn’t a single woman I failed to attract like a magnet-until I met Teresa, for whom I had been looking for a very long time. I didn’t want to spend just a fleeting moment with her – I wanted to spend eternity with her.”
Here I paused, and he waited quietly for me to resume. He seemed drugged by what I was telling him. Slowly. I picked up the thread again.
“My bad luck was that during my absence she began to use the oil on herself, even though I’d hidden it in an empty can of Nescafe. The next day, a strange man appeared at the door. Soon another man appeared, and then another, until one rang the bell and called for Teresa by name. Quickly she came down with her bag without even saying goodbye to me. I followed them to the port – and the man was a Cuban sailor!”
Lighting another cigarette, Alejandro offered me one, but I refused it.
“What are your plans now?” he wanted to know.
“I’ll try to persuade her to come back and live with me in the country,” I said. “I’m sick of the city, and besides, I want to have children with her – it’s better to have them out there.”
“You don’t have to go to the country to have children,” he retorted. “They spring up like weeds wherever you are – even in heaps of garbage. How could you get her back?”
Neither of us spoke for a while, as though we both accepted the way the story ended. Just as one knows that all stories must have an ending, and must end the same way that they began. One part of each story is hollow and turns around and around on itself, until we wind up sitting there not knowing who is telling it. Is it really us, or a voice from inside ourselves? Or is the tale telling us? Roles are swapped in the recounting, and then who is setting a trap for whom? The reality is that we – Alejandro and I – had both forgotten our current business for a while. Thus I forgot simultaneously about my newspapers and the time, and entered into a conversation with him as though we were making up the story ourselves, and living it ourselves, alone.
“What about you, Alejandro?” This time, it was me asking him about his future. “Haven’t you thought about deserting from the army yourself?”
His face brightened, as though he had been waiting for me to ask this question.
“Of course I have,” he said, “and because of this book that I was always telling you about.”
He wasn’t satisfied when I nodded my head, pretending to understand what he meant.
“I want to write a book on Existentialism and the military – but a curse on the army,” he continued. “I just can’t escape. I have four children – they popped up like weeds.”
I was truly saddened. I didn’t know what to say. We both fell silent, and my mind wandered for a long time. An image of myself in naval uniform floated before my eyes. Was it fate that had sent Alejandro to make me long once again to wear those clothes? Were not all the years that I lived through during the war – with all its fire – nor all the time that had passed while I dwelt in these new cities, nor all the women I had known – not even the return of Teresa – able to change what destiny had decreed for me? Nothing, that is, but the appearance of this Argentine man, from out of those wars in distant lands? So many questions rained down upon my head, I was no longer really there – until his voice brought me back.
“What do you want to do now?” he demanded.
I stared at him in confusion, as one waking from a long sleep. I looked up at the big clock that hung over the station platform that I could see from my seat. I saw him smiling as he watched me.
Without warning, I found myself asking, “Alejandro, you know my fondness for sailor suits?”
He nodded. “And you love the Caribbean,” I went on, “and you want to get out of the military, as well I know.”
There was no doubt that he agreed with me; he nodded his head again.
“So what do you think if we traded clothes?”
He gaped at me in shock. “Now?” he stuttered.
“Yes, now,” I said as I stood up. Alejandro wanted to take out his wallet and pay the bill, but I told him not to do it, because we would be coming back. I knew where the WC was, and when I started to walk toward it, he followed me.
Entering two adjoining stalls, we handed each other our clothes over the low concrete wall between them. “You go out before me,” I told him as we were leaving. “I’ll catch up with you.”
“Campos,” he declared, “your genius cannot be stilled.” Then I heard him close the door behind him and climb the stairs that led to the cafe.
Two minutes later, I followed him. When I reached the top of the stairs, I remembered that I had left my identity card and cash in my suit pockets. But I didn’t go to Alejandro, who had returned to the place where we’d been sitting. Instead, I made for the rear door, facing the WC, so that he wouldn’t see me. In seconds I reached the station’s platform.
Glancing up at the huge dial over, head, I saw that the time was exactly 7:00 P.M. Yet there was no need to consult it. The brakes of Teresa’s train as it pulled to a stop screeched in my ears, and I turned away and marched to the station’s exit.