Desolation Roadby Ian McDonald
It all began thirty years ago on Mars, with a greenperson. But by the time it all finished, the town of Desolation Road had experienced every conceivable abnormality from Adam Black's Wonderful Travelling Chautauqua and Educational ‘Stravaganza (complete with its very own captive angel) to the Astounding Tatterdemalion Air Bazaar. Its inhabitants ranged from
It all began thirty years ago on Mars, with a greenperson. But by the time it all finished, the town of Desolation Road had experienced every conceivable abnormality from Adam Black's Wonderful Travelling Chautauqua and Educational ‘Stravaganza (complete with its very own captive angel) to the Astounding Tatterdemalion Air Bazaar. Its inhabitants ranged from Dr. Alimantando, the town’s founder and resident genius, to the Babooshka, a barren grandmother who just wants her own child—grown in a fruit jar; from Rajendra Das, mechanical hobo who has a mystical way with machines to the Gallacelli brothers, identical triplets who fell in love with—and married—the same woman.
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By Ian McDonald
Prometheus BooksCopyright © 1988 Ian McDonald
All right reserved.
Chapter OneFor three days Dr. Alimantando had followed the greenperson across the desert. Beckoned by a finger made from articulated runner beans, he had sailed over the desert of red grit, the desert of red stone, and the desert of red sand in pursuit of it. And each night, as he sat by his fire built from scraps of mummified wood, writing in his journals, the moonring would rise, that tumbling jewel-stream of artificial satellites, and it would draw the greenperson out of the deep places of the desert.
On the first night the meteors were flickering high in the stratosphere when the greenperson came to Dr. Alimantando.
"Let me near your fire, friend, let me have warmth, give me shelter, for I am of a warmer age than this." Dr. Alimantando gestured for the greenperson to draw closer. Observing the strange, naked figure, Dr. Alimantando was moved to ask, "What manner of a creature are you?"
"I am a man," said the greenperson. His mouth, his lips, his tongue, showed leaf-green as he spoke. His teeth were small and yellow like nibs of maize. "What are you?"
"I also am a man."
"Then we are the same. Stoke up the fire, friend, let me feel the blaze." Dr. Alimantando kicked a knot of grey wood and sparks fled upward into the night. After a time the greenperson said, "Have you water, friend?"
"I have, but I want to be careful with it. I don't know how long I will be crossing this desert, or if I will find any water on my journey."
"I will lead you to water tomorrow, friend, if you will give me your flask tonight."
Dr. Alimantando was still for a long time beneath the tumbling lights of the moonring. Then he unhooked one of his flasks from his pack and passed it over he flames to the greenperson. The greenperson drained the flask dry. The air about him sparkled with an aroma of verdure, like forests after spring rain. Then Dr. Alimantando slept and did not dream at all.
The next morning there was only a red rock by the embers of the fire where the greenperson had sat.
On the second night Dr. Alimantando made camp and ate and wrote in his journal. Then he sat, just sat, made vast with the exhilaration of the desert of stone. He had sailed and sailed and sailed, away from the hills of Deuteronomy, away from the desert of red grit, through the desert of red stone, across a land of chasms and fissures, like a petrified brain, over polished stone pavements, between eroded pinnacles of dark volcanic glass, through forests petrified for a billion years, down water-courses dry a billion years, through wind-sculpted palisades of ancient red sandstones, over haunted mesas, plunging over thin granite lips into infinite echoing canyons, gripping wide-eyed with terror to every handhold as the wind-board's promagnetic levitators fought to hold it aloft. He had run before the long wind, he had sailed and sailed and sailed until the first pinpricks of the evening stars pierced the sky.
As he sat thus, bluehot lasers flickered fitfully across the vault above him, and the greenperson came to him again.
"Where is the water you promised?" asked Dr. Alimantando.
"Everywhere was water once and will be water again," said the greenperson. "This stone once was sand once and will be sand again on a beach a million years from here."
"Where is the water you promised?" cried Dr. Alimantando.
"Come with me, friend." The greenperson led him to a notch in the red cliff and there, in the deeper darkness, was the chuckling of lonely, clear water, trickling from a crack in the rock and dropping into a small dark pool. Dr. Alimantando filled his water flasks but did not drink. He was afraid of defiling the ancient lonely water. Where the greenperson had stood, pale green shoots now pushed through the damp imprints of his feet. Then Dr. Alimantando slept and did not dream that night at all.
The next morning there was a withered gray tree by the embers of the fire where the greenperson had sat.
Upon the third night after the third day, when he had sailed the desert of red sand, Dr. Alimantando built his fire and made his camp and wrote his observations and speculations into his leather-bound journals in his fine, delicate hand, all loops and curlicues. He was weary that night; the passage of the desert of sand had drained him dry. At first he had tingled with exhilaration and wind-driven sand as he rode the wind-board up and over, up and over, up and over the ever-breaking waves of sand. He had ridden the red sand and the blue sand, the yellow sand and the green sand, the white sand and the black sand, wave after wave after wave until the waves broke him and left him drained dry, exhausted to face the desert of soda and the desert of salt and the desert of acid. And beyond those deserts, in the place beyond exhaustion, was the desert of stillness, where could be heard the ringing of distant bells, as if from the campaniles of cities buried a billion years beneath the sand, or from the campaniles of cities a billion years yet unborn that would stand there. There, at the heart of the desert, Dr. Alimantando stopped, and beneath a sky huge with the riding lights of a SailShip arriving at the edge of the world, the greenperson came a third time to him. He squatted upon his heels beyond the edge of the firelight, drawing figures in the dust with his forefinger.
"Who are you?" asked Dr. Alimantando. "Why do you haunt my nights?"
"Though we journey through different dimensions, like you I am a traveller across this dry and waterless place," said the greenperson.
"Explain these 'different dimensions.'"
"Time and space. You space, I time."
"How can this be?" exclaimed Dr. Alimantando, who was passionately interested in time and temporality. Because of time he had been driven out of his home in the green hills of Deuteronomy, labeled "demon" and "wizard" and "eater of children" by neighbours who could not accommodate his harmless and creative eccentricity within their tightly defined world of cows, clapboard houses, sheep, silage and white picket fences. "How can you travel in time, something I have sought to accomplish for years?"
"Time is a part of me," said the greenperson, standing tall and brushing his body with his fingertips. "So I have learned to control it as I have learned to control any other part of my body."
"Can this skill be taught?"
"To you? No. You are the wrong colour. But one day you will learn a different way, I think"
Dr. Alimantando's heart leaped.
"How do you mean?"
"That's for you to decide. I am here only because the future demands it."
"You riddle much too well for me. Say what you mean. I can't abide obtuseness."
"I am here to lead you to your destiny."
"Unless I am here, certain trains of events will not come to pass; this my fellows have decided, for all time and space is theirs to manipulate, and they have sent me to guide you to your destiny."
"Be more explicit, man!" cried Dr. Alimantando, his quick temper flaring. But the firelight flickered and the sky-filling sails of the Praesidium vessel twinkled in the light of the vanished sun, and the greenperson was gone. Dr. Alimantando waited in the lee of his wind-board, waited until his fire died to red-glowing embers. Then, when he knew the greenperson would not be returning that night, he slept, and dreamed a steel dream. In this dream titanic machines the colour of rust peeled back the skin of the desert and laid iron eggs in its tender flesh. The eggs hatched into squirming metal larvae, hungry for hematite, magnetite and kidney ore. The steel maggots built for themselves a towering nest of chimneys and furnaces, a city of belching smoke and hissing steam, of ringing hammers and flying sparks, of rivers of white molten steel and pulpy white worker drones who served the maggots.
The next morning Dr. Alimantando woke to find the wind had risen in the night and covered the wind-board with sand. Where the greenperson had squatted at the edge of the firelight was a cracked boulder of green malachite.
The breeze strengthened and carried Dr. Alimantando away from the heart of the desert. He breathed in the wine-sharp air and listened to the crack of the wind in the sails and the whisper of windblown sand streaming away before him. He felt the sweat dry on his skin and the salt-burn etch into his face and hands.
He sailed and he sailed and he sailed, all morning. The sun had just reached its zenith when Dr. Alimantando saw his first and last mirage. A line of pure, shining silver ran straight through his musings on time and its travellers: purest, bright-shining silver, running east-west above a line of low bluffs which seemed to mark the end of the desert of sand. Drawing nearer, Dr. Alimantando discerned dark shadows in the silver glare and a reflected green glow, as if from green things that might be growing there.
Trick of a dry mind, he told himself, portaging the floating wind-board up a faint track through the cave-riddled bluffs, but on reaching the top of the rise he saw that it was not a trick of a dry mind, nor any mirage. The glow of greenness was indeed the glow of green growing things, the shadow the dark silhouette of a peculiar outcropping of rock which bore on its summit an antennae-feathery microwave relay tower, and the line of silver was precisely that, two sets of parallel steel standard-gauge railroad tracks catching the sun.
Dr. Alimantando walked a little while in the green oasis remembering what green smelled like, what green looked like, how green felt under his feet. He sat listening to the chuckling of water running through the cascading system of little irrigation ditches and the patient chunk, creak of the wind-pumps drawing it up from some stratum of subterranean aquifer. Dr. Alimantando helped himself to bananas, figs and pomegranates and ate a moody lunch in the shade of a cottonwood tree. He was glad to be at the end of the stern desert lands, yet the spiritual wind that had carried him through that separate landscape had died out of him. The sun beamed down on the bee-buzzy oasis and Dr. Alimantando slipped into a lazy, comfortable siesta.
An indefinite time later he was woken by a sting of grit on his cheek. For a closed-eyed, lazy moment the significance escaped him. Then realization struck him like a nail hammered between his eyes. He sat bolt upright, shivered to the pith by a bolt of pure horror.
In his haste he had forgotten to tether the wind-board.
Carried off by the rising wind, the loose wind-board bobbed and swooped across the dry flats. Helpless, Dr. Alimantando watched his only means of deliverance sail away from him across the High Plains. He watched the bright green sail until it vanished into a speck of colour-blindness on the horizon. Then for a long and stupid time he stood trying to think what to do, but he could not think of anything but that mocking, bobbing wind-board. He had lost his destiny, he had let it sail away from him on the wind. That night the greenperson would step out of time to talk with him but he would not be there because he had missed his destiny and all those trains of events that the great minds of the greenpersons had foreseen would never come to be. All gone. Sick with stupidity and disgust, Dr. Alimantando set down his pack and hoped for rescue. Perhaps a train might come up the line. Perhaps a train might come down the line. Perhaps he might tinker with some mechanism in the relay tower to signal his distress through the airwaves. Perhaps the owner of this fertile, green, deceptively soft place might help him. Perhaps ... perhaps. Perhaps this was all just a siesta dream from which he might waken to find his battered wind-board floating beside him.
Perhapses led to if-onlys. If only he had not fallen asleep, if only he had tied that rope ... if only.
A molar-grating subsonic rumble shook the oasis. The air shivered. Water trembled in drops from the leaves of the plants. The metal relay tower shuddered and Dr. Alimantando leaped to his feet in consternation. There seemed to be some disturbance beneath the desert for the surface boiled and moiled as if some huge object was tumbling and turning deep below. The sand blistered into a great red boil and burst, shedding torrents of sliding grit, to reveal an enormous boxlike thing, bright orange, with soft rounded edges, emerging from under the Great Desert. Its mountainous flanks bore the word ROTECH lettered in black. Drawn by his fatal curiosity, Dr. Alimantando crept nearer to the edge of the bluffs. The orange box-thing, big as a house, sat on the desert floor, humming potently.
"An orph," whispered Dr. Alimantando, heart pounding in awe.
-Good afternoon, man! said a sudden voice inside Dr. Alimantando's head.
"What?" yelped Dr. Alimantando.
-Good afternoon, man. I apologize for not greeting you more readily, but you see, I am dying, and I am finding the process most troublesome.
-I am dying; my systems are failing, snapping like threads, my once-titanic intellect is plunging toward idiothood. Look at me, man, my beautiful body is scarred, blistered, and stained. I am dying, abandoned by my sisters, who have left me to die in this dreadful desert rather than on the edge of the sky as an orph should, shields down and blazing to brief stellar glory in the upper atmosphere. A curse upon those faithless sisters! I tell you, man, if this is what the younger generation has come to, then I am glad to be leaving this existence. If only it weren't so undignified. Perhaps you can help me to die with dignity.
"Help you? You? You're an orph, a servant of the Blessed Lady; you should help me! Like you, I am abandoned here, and if I am not aided, my demise will shortly follow your own. I have been abandoned here by capricious fate, my means of transport has failed me."
-You have feet.
"Surely you're joking."
-Man, do not trouble me with your petty needs. I am past aiding you. I cannot transport you away from this place; I cannot transport myself even. Both you and I will remain here, in the place I have created. Admittedly, your presence here is unscheduled, much less official; the Five Hundred Year Plan does not allow settlement in this micro-environment for another six years, but you may stay here until a train comes past to take you somewhere.
"And how long will that be?"
-I am sorry, but that is the forecast of the Five Hundred Year Plan. The environment I have prepared is admittedly rough and ready, but it will support and sustain you and after my death you will have access to all the equipment within me. Now, if you have quite finished troubling me with your woes, may I address myself to mine?
"But you must take me away from here! It is not my destiny to be ... whatever it is you want for me ..."
-Communications systems warden.
"A communications systems warden: there are great events I must set in motion elsewhere!"
-Whatever your destiny, it must be worked out here from now on. Now, kindly spare me your whinings, man, and let me die with a little dignity.
"Die? Die? How can a machine, a ROTECH environmental engineering module, an orph, die?"
-I will answer this one question, and then I will answer no more. The life of an orph is long, I myself am almost seven hundred years old, but we are no less mortal than you, man. Now, give me peace and commit my soul to the care of Our Lady of Tharsis.
The pervasive hum ceased abruptly. Dr. Alimantando held his breath in anticipation until it was uncomfortable, but the orph sat unchanging and unchanged on the red sand. In reverent silence Dr. Alimantando explored the little handmade kingdom the orph had bequeathed to him. He found particularly fine caves threading the outcrop of rock which bore the microwave relay; these Dr. Alimantando chose for his home. His few possessions seemed trivial in the large round caverns. He unrolled his quilt bag to air and went to pick dinner.
Darkness was falling. The first jewels of the moon-ring were shining in the sky. Up there the unfeeling orphs were rolling and tumbling, forever caught in the act of falling. Trapped by soil and gravity, their moribund sister cast giant purple shadows across the sand. Dr. Alimantando ate a spiritless supper and went to sleep. At two minutes of two a great voice woke him up.
-God rot ROTECH! it cried. Dr. Alimantando hurried through the pitch-black caves to see what was happening. The night air hummed with power, searchlight beams lanced the darkness, and sections of the orph's mighty body slid in and out, open and shut. The orph sensed Dr. Alimantando shivering in his nightshirt, and transfixed him like a martyred saint with its search-lights.
Excerpted from Desolation Road by Ian McDonald Copyright © 1988 by Ian McDonald. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Ian McDonald is the author of Planesrunner, Be My Enemy, and Empress of the Sun, in the Everness series. He has written thirteen science fiction novelsincluding the 2011 John W. Campbell Memorial Award winner for Best Novel, The Dervish Houseas well as Brasyl, River of Gods, Cyberabad Days, Ares Express, Desolation Road, King of Morning, Queen of Day, Out on Blue Six, Chaga, and Kirinya. He's been nominated for every major science fiction award, and even won some. McDonald also works in television and in program developmentall those reality shows have to come from somewhereand has written for screen as well as print. He lives in Northern Ireland, just outside Belfast, and loves to travel.
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