Dreaming Down Underby Jack Dann, Janeen Webb
The Very Best of Australian Speculative Fiction!
David J. Lake
Rowena Cory Lindquist
Steven… See more details below
The Very Best of Australian Speculative Fiction!
David J. Lake
Rowena Cory Lindquist
- Tom Doherty Associates
- Publication date:
- Edition description:
- First Edition
- Product dimensions:
- 6.00(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.38(d)
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ENTRE LES BEAUX MORTS EN VIE
(AMONG THE BEAUTIFUL
Le Chateau de la Mort Dorée known as Fool's-Death House in the vernacular was situated half-way up the vertical flank of a mountain not ten minute's powered flight from Jungfrau, in the region that had once been called Switzerland. Sandwiched between stone and air, the sprawling, rococo structure with its four hundred luxury rooms and five banquet halls looked like a pimple on a granite giant's cheek. Tunnels, elevators and airships provided the usual means of gaining access. Only a few people dared to climb in person. The view from the Chateau's tiered terraces was spectacular enough to negate the need for such foolhardy, if courageous, gestures.
Yet some people still made the effort. Ordinary people, of course; never the reves themselves, although this was one of their favourite sites. Of anyone on Earth and off, the reves knew best how fragile life could be. Yet how resilient.
All this passed through Martin Winterford's mind as he stepped off the airship and onto the Chateau's wide receiving platform. Buffeted by the crisp, mountain wind, and with the setting sun hidden behind a mile of solid rock, he experienced a moment of near-satori. This, the first time he had visited the Chateau, would possibly be the last in his lifetime. Although he would no doubt return many times, if he chose to accept his uncle's ultimatum, it would be as a reve, and he would no longer be, by ancient definition,alive.
He tried to reassure himself that, living or dead, by whatever definition, it made no difference to him but the doubt still nagged two hours later, as La Célébration Annuelle began.
* * *
"Je vois que vous êtes en souffrance le changement," said a melodic voice. "Apprendez-vous déjà le français?"
Martin turned. A tall woman in a white silk ball-gown, complete with gloves, fan and blonde coiffure, had come up behind him. The skin of her shoulders and throat was bare and very pale, flawless. Her eyes were the deepest brown he had ever seen, her lips the richest red.
"I'm sorry, but I don't speak Old French," he said, raising his champagne flute to cover his uneasiness. Make-up couldn't hide the truth, not from so close. Not that she wanted to, either, or else she wouldn't have left her shoulders and throat exposed. The woman was a reve.
"Pas mal," continued the woman. "Vous aurai beaucoup du temps à combler son retard."
He shook his head, nervousness becoming irritation at her persistence. If she wanted to be fashionable, why didn't she find someone else to do it with?
With an amused smile perhaps at his expense, he couldn't tell she raised her fan and indicated that he should follow her into the next room. Martin hesitated for a moment, then obeyed. He had nothing better to do. The party, for all its glamour and opulence, had proved to be slightly dull. Its many cliques left him wandering alone, wary of intruding.
"You'll have to pardon me," said the woman over her shoulder as she led him through the crowd, past two tables piled high with exotic hors d'oeuvres and wines, mostly untouched. He caught a hint of delicate perfume in her wake. "We like to have our little games. Someone must educate the newcomers, put them through a rite of passage. That is our purpose here at the Chateau unofficially, at least. It's important, n'est-ce pas?"
Martin simply nodded at first. The woman's perfect English, with its qualifiers and clauses, threw him so off-balance that what she actually said didn't register until they were half-way across the room.
"You know?" he exclaimed, wondering what had given him away. He had chosen his outfit carefully: a black suit with ruffs at neck and collars, leather shoes and skull-cap. He had hoped to remain anonymous.
"Of course," said the woman. "I am observant. There are three hundred and twenty-seven guests attending this soiree, of which seventy-nine are revenants. Two hundred and forty-five are government officials: doctors, diplomats and examiners, mainly, all known to me either personally or by reputation. That leaves three." Her eyes twinkled. "You are clearly not a waiter, for you cannot speak French. Besides, your age seems about right."
Martin didn't bother denying the truth. If games were her metier, then he would acknowledge defeat early. Either that, or risk arousing a deeper interest that he could not afford to indulge.
"Where are you taking me?" he asked, more curious than concerned for the moment.
"Does it matter?" She fluttered her fake eyelashes and pouted like a teenager. "Our table is boring, boring, boring. It lacks interesting conversation or interesting people to make conversation, perhaps I should say. I was in the process of looking for someone to liven up the evening when I spotted you." Her smile returned as they weaved past a cluster of potted palms and through an arched entrance-way. "Would you care to join us?"
Martin side-stepped a waiter carrying a tray of garishly coloured drinks. The banquet hall looked like something plucked from Eighteenth Century Europe, with gilded walls, a string quarter playing in one corner and crystal chandeliers suspended from a high, domed ceiling. He raised his voice to be heard over a melange of music and speech filling the room.
"Do I have a choice?"
"Of course. Don't be obtuse, my dear. You have a choice in everything."
Again the coquettish flutter that did nothing to ease his disquiet. The echo of his uncle's words was uncanny. But before he could answer, the woman brought him to a halt with a hand on his chest.
"Ah," she said, "here we are. Why don't you take a seat ... I'm sorry? I didn't catch your name."
Martin faltered. The table before them held six "people". He stared at them dumbly until he realised that they were all staring back at him just as hard.
He turned to face the woman who had led him to the table. Only then did he realise that her words had been a question. He almost blurted out his full name before natural caution caught up.
"My name is Martin," he managed. "And ?"
"Allow me to introduce you." The woman gestured around the table with a flourish of her fan. A fat man in purple robes was Professor Algiers Munton of the Revenation Institute in New York. M. Elaine Bennett, a narrow-faced, female reve dressed in simple grey peasant attire, hailed from Port Moresby. The sexless mod with orange veins glowing under its ceremonial skin and the AI node sporting the usual black suit preferred by the AI conglomerates for formal occasions were Alkis and PERIPETY-WEYN, both from the Moon's Armstrong Base. An android rem from Attar, judging by its coat of arms, was being ridden by someone called "Le Comptable Froid", or "Count" to his friends, who had been unable to make the physical journey from that remote moonlet to Earth in time for the Celebration. All indicated their pleasure at meeting him with nods, smiles or brief but sincere hellos.
Only the last member of the small party, a bald young man wearing a blue period suit, remained silent when introduced as "Spyro Xenophou", and went otherwise almost pointedly unexplained.
Martin swallowed, his mouth dry, after greeting them all in return. What had his uncle said when news of his application had arrived? No true aliens, but plenty that seem alien ...? As a summary of his current situation, that would do as well as any other.
"Sit, sit." The woman reve, he reminded himself, although the distinction seemed like splitting hairs in such a crowd ushered Martin towards a chair. "Or leave. If you're going to make a fool of me by declining my invitation, then at least do so quickly. Don't allow me to waste any further breath. Air is rarefied so high in the mountains, you know."
"I beg to disagree," broke in the Count via his rem, its artificial voice smooth but eerily inhuman. The lag between Earth and Attar was much smaller than Martin would have credited, so-called instantaneous transmissions still usually taking a second or two. "Had I access to atmosphere as `rarefied' as yours," the Count said, "I could increase my profit by four hundred percent."
"Don't be such a wet blanket," chided the woman with fleeting moue. "And don't interrupt. I haven't finished introductions yet."
Martin lowered himself with a sigh of relief into the only available seat, either a genuine antique or a very good copy of a Louis XIV. "Please," he said. "I'd be grateful."
"Of course. I, dear Martin, am the Reve Guillard although you can call me Marianne if you prefer. I am most pleased to make your acquaintance."
Without the slightest self-consciousness, the immortal woman extended her hand to be kissed.
The only other reve at the table, Elaine Bennett, smiled at the expression on Martin's face as he reached out to clasp the cold, perfect fingers. The Reve Guillard had been a contemporary of Paul Merrick the world's first reve and founder of the Plutocracy. Her age was therefore somewhere between four hundred and eighty and five hundred years. Martin felt like he was touching a precious work of art, or a shrine. His lips tingled when she withdrew her hand, as though some of her had rubbed off on him.
"I am honoured, M. Guillard," he said.
The woman waved her fan; in another age, another body, she might have blushed. "C'est peu de," she said. "And please do call me Marianne. I'd hate to have to insist."
"Thank you." He felt dizzy; the rush of blood to his face threatened to overwhelm his brain. As he tried to regain his composure, he was acutely aware of the silent young man watching him closely, almost resentfully. It bothered him, but he couldn't afford to let it distract him.
Perhaps sensing the new arrival's discomfort, the AI node stepped in to fill the silence. "We were discussing the latest trend," PERIPETYWEYN said. "Le mode du temps, as it were. M. Bennett noted some interesting parallels between it and the French Revolution."
"Naturally she would," M. Guillard said, assuming control of the conversation with confident ease. "And she is correct: there are superficial parallels. The term `plutocracy' was not chosen lightly, you know."
"And not without a sense of humour," said the mod, Alkis.
"Yes." M. Guillard cast the cyborg an ambiguous look. "Paul always liked puns. But the similarities run no deeper than that. The trend for things Old French is deliberate, not symbolic of some deeper human conflict. How could there be a French Revolution today when the members of the ruling class, no matter how wealthy they might be, are already dead? Besides, next year it might be Twenty-First Century America that takes our fancy, or White Russia."
"Each with its own revolution," the mod observed.
"Yes, yes, Alkis. That too is deliberate. We gravitate towards potent times in order to stave off boredom "
"Or to allay subconscious guilt," interrupted M. Bennett with a grimace. "Or fear."
"Nonsense. You imagine cause in a world of effects."
"I feel it." M. Bennett met the Reve Guillard's stare unflinchingly. "In my youth, I felt it too."
"Naturellement, ma chère. And that is why you are here: because you are something of a radical. We require diversity and dissent if we are to remain vital." M. Guillard flapped once with her fan, and sighed theatrically. "Do you see what I mean now, Martin?" she asked, pinning him with her wide, brown eyes. "These are old arguments, centuries-worn and boring, boring, boring! Why don't you tell us about yourself instead? Who invited you here this evening?"
Martin leaned forward and chose his words with care. "My sponsor, ah, Gerome Packard, thought it might be a good idea."
"Did he, now? That sounds like uncommonly good sense from dear Gerome."
"He said it would help me acclimatise."
"Socially, yes. Physically, probably not. No-one can predict with certainty the effects of revenation on a given individual."
"I take it, then," put in the mod, "that you are aspiring to the Change?"
Martin felt sweat bead on the back of his neck. Maybe one day, I'll be like her the Reve Guillard. "My application was approved five weeks ago," he said to avoid a direct answer.
"Interesting." The mod folded its glowing hands on the table. "Of all the alternatives presently available, revenation remains the only proven means of achieving extreme human longevity. I envy you the opportunity."
"Thank you, Sir." Coming from a mod, that was candour indeed. "Sometimes I wonder whether it's really going to happen."
"No doubt. You must be nervous," said Professor Munton. "I would be, in your shoes."
Seeking a distraction, Martin hailed a waiter. One appeared instantly at his shoulder. He offered to pay the round, but only Professor Munton joined him in ordering a drink. None of the others required fluid intake, being either self-sufficient within themselves or partial to other means of gaining nutrients.
"How long until your birthday?" asked the AI node when the waiter had departed.
"One month," Martin answered, realising that the topic would not be so easily evaded.
"I presume you are cognisant of the risks, then?"
"Yes." That Martin could answer with certainty. His Uncle Arthur had more frequent dealings with the Plutocracy than most people; he had made sure that Martin knew what was at stake. "Of every ten thousand inductees, one will never wake from the death-sleep."
"And a dozen others will experience difficult transitions," added M. Bennett, glancing at the bald young man. "Even today, after hundreds of years of research, a sound awakening alone is no guarantee of success."
With a jolt, Martin suddenly realised what Spyro Xenophou was. Braving the young man's dark stare, he asked him directly: "When was your birthday?"
"In June," M. Guillard answered for him. "You'll have to forgive my ward, Martin. He woke six weeks ago and hasn't spoken since. Part of him resists; the fear of death is strong in him still." She shrugged. "It is often that way with the more established families, although that seems paradoxical."
"Not really," said the AI node. "Social evolution, albeit relatively rapid in the last five hundred years, still has a long way to go before it eradicates the base impulses present in every human. The concept of passing through death is still paralysing, I am told, even among those for whom revenation is a common occurrence."
"That would not be the case if it were available to all who wanted it," said M. Bennett. "By restricting the process, we perpetuate a class system that is both prejudicial and morally abhorrent."
"The system of Houses makes perfect sense, and you know it," M. Guillard insisted. "Otherwise there would be chaos. Even with the present ratio of one reve for every four thousand natural humans, there are problems."
"I must concur," said the android. "By removing the tools of government from the hands of the short-lived, Earth and the rest of the System has achieved the kind of long-term stability only dreamed about in pre-history."
"But at what cost?" M. Bennett accentuated her point with one finger on the table-top. "The Plutocracy is in-bred and constantly at risk of stagnation."
"Hence the revolutionary trends," said the mod. "Balance, feedback, homeostasis."
"Desperation," retaliated M. Bennett. "We may reach for the stars, but inside we are all still frightened children in need of reassurance."
Martin sank back into his seat, glad that the spotlight had drifted from him. Both his sponsor and uncle had warned him to steer clear of such debates, to be wary of associating with any one camp among the reves. There would plenty of time for that after his induction. If things went as planned, he would have centuries in which to grapple with the arguments for and against although he believed that he already understood it well enough to reach his own conclusion. The problem was that it kept changing.
Revenation was an expensive process, restricted by necessity to the few. Applicants had not only to demonstrate fitness but ability to pay their way through the process and out the other side. A single immortal life would be an expensive burden upon the welfare system if that person proved to be unproductive. As result, only wealthy families could afford to raise a member to reve status. And the wealthiest families already contained significantly large numbers of reves; some had even brought their line to an end in order to spare a single member from death, although this practice had waned over the years. Hence the appearance illusory or not of in-breeding, and of decadence.
Watching M. Guillard speak, with her many gestures and flourishes, the often direct way she manipulated conversation to suit her own agenda, Martin was reminded of his school-years, and the rumours that had circulated among his fellow students. The reves were vampires, he had been told once: un-dead and un-living creatures frozen forever in a state of inanimate animation. Infrequent glimpses had confirmed this impression: of pallid, beautiful people riding past in patient comfort; aloof and isolated, even dismissive at times. Although information was wide-spread about the truth, it had only added to their mysteriousness: cut a reve and it failed to bleed; bury another, and it could be exhumed without damage a month or a century later; expose a third to deadly viruses and its pseudo-animate cells would be completely unaffected.
Yet inflict upon any reve a magnetic field of more than a few thousand Tesla and he or she would experience spasms, even unconsciousness. Or put it to the flame and watch it burn like summer kindling to nothing, as though its life had vanished in a single, sudden flash.
Reves were potentially immortal, and some such as M. Bennett, a reve herself would add immoral to the charge. In his younger years, Martin had hated and feared them. But now he was among them, potentially about to become one of them. He found the thought wildly disorienting.
The string quartet playing in the background had acquired a singer. To the tune of an ancient folk-song, she began to recite:
On the golden hill where the sun once stood,
and the blood-red man with hearts for eyes
sold words that sung of forever, forever,
Paul Merrick found his first love, and died.
Martin wondered to himself whether the man who had given immortality to the world had felt the same confusion when choosing life over mortal passion. Perhaps he was still feeling it today. Sadly, Martin was unable to question him directly, since the reve had departed for Capella two hundred years ago. And in the end, he supposed, there could only be one answer.
Humanity's ambassador to the stars was only nominally human. That fact alone spoke volumes.
Survival of the fittest ...
"To which Familial Affiliate do you belong, Martin?" asked Professor Munton, startling him out of his reverie.
Martin inwardly cursed himself for not paying attention. The question, easily anticipated once the subject had been brought up, was one he had nonetheless hoped to avoid. Confronted with it, he mentally tossed a coin, and honesty won. In the back of his mind, he heard his uncle curse in turn.
"None," he replied to the fat man's question.
"Impossible," stated M. Bennett. "There hasn't been a foundling House for three hundred years."
"That's correct," said M. Guillard. "Unless wait! Martin, you wouldn't be the son of that engineer we've been hearing about, would you? Alex Winterford, wasn't that his name?"
He shrugged. There was no use denying it. "At your service."
"Oh, tremendous!" The fat scholar clapped once. "Marianne, what a coup! The founding father of the House Winterford, right here at our table! You couldn't have brought anybody more interesting to talk to had it been Paul Merrick himself! Tell me, Martin "
"Attends, Algiers." M. Guillard raised a finger to her lips. "Don't jinx the poor boy before his time. Let him tell his own story at his own pace."
"Do I have to?" Although Martin didn't want to sound churlish, he couldn't help it.
"Of course not, as I said before." M. Guillard winked. "You can leave if you'd rather not talk."
"I'd rather not do either, to be honest."
"Tish. What do you fear? That we will embarrass you, or judge you? If the latter, please bear in mind the diverse natures arrayed at this table. Surely you realise that our opinions will be firmly divided?"
"Too true." The mod's skin rippled a pale green.
"And you shouldn't be afraid of your innocence, if that's the case," said M. Bennett, regarding Martin with intense eyes. "It is your very naivety we crave. So much time has passed since someone new joined our ranks that any uncorrupted viewpoint is welcome."
"`Uncorrupted', Elaine?" asked M. Guillard. "By what, exactly?"
"By reves, of course, Marianne." M. Bennett scowled across the table at the older woman. "Or `tous les beaux morts en vie', if you prefer. There are none in his immediate family. The only one he's ever met in person, prior to now, would be his sponsor and then only after his application was approved. His viewpoint will be quite external to our affairs, and all the more valuable for it."
"Is that true, Martin?" asked the rem. "You came this far without a patron ward, or even a beneficiary?"
Martin studied the faces watching him expectantly, and realised just how expertly he had been trapped. To refuse an answer now would be insulting, and to answer incompletely would only encourage more questions. Still, just because he had been backed into a cul-de-sac didn't mean he had to abandon common sense. He would be better off revealing a measure of the truth before all of it was pried out of him, hoping all the while that they would grow tired of him sooner rather than later.
"Yes," he said. "A paternal great-uncle ran a water mine on Titan for a while, I think, and my grandmother helped design a starship, but none of my blood ancestors came close to meeting the fiscal requirements."
"What changed?" prompted the mod.
"My Uncle Arthur and Aunt Sue both forewent their reproductive rights to further their careers," he explained with deliberate paucity of detail. "At the same time, my father followed my grandmother into aerospace design and patented an improvement on the Komalchi drive. These three incomes combined were enough to guarantee either myself or my sister a hearing from the Applications Board."
M. Bennett frowned at that. "I've heard of whole families pooling their resources large families, too and not coming close."
"Didn't you catch the names, Elaine?" asked M. Guillard, her smile as cutting as a shark's. "Arthur Winterford, despite his short-lived status, is Chief Executive Officer of the American Multi-Immersal Conglomerate, which currently controls twenty-seven percent of the System's broadcast media. And Martin's mother's sister, Susan Firth, prefers to operate under the nom de plume `Jenny Martinez' in order to avoid accusations of nepotism."
Among the raised eyebrows, where allowed by physique, and the silent surprise evident in every stare, only one voice stood out:
M. Guillard pursed her lips in annoyance. "Really, Count. You can't be that isolated, can you? M. Martinez is the author credited with the resurgence of the novel the planet's first best-seller in four hundred years."
"News to me, I'm afraid." The rem turned to face Martin. "The AMIC and Komalchi connections both make sense, though. Your grandmother must be proud to have such successful children."
"She would have been, I'm sure. She died when I was fifteen, just before I made my primary application."
"I'm sorry. Is there a connection between the two events?"
"Obviously there is," said the AI node before Martin could answer: "Mortality."
Martin confirmed this with a nod, unwilling to elaborate how close to the mark the AI node's guess was. His uncle's grief had been profound at the death of his mother. Restricted by breeding laws to families no larger than four, with only one child inheriting that generation's right to reproduce in turn, mortal humanity had become well-used to uncles and aunts leaving their estates to siblings' progeny. In Martin's case, and his sister's, that had amounted to a fortune almost too vast to comprehend. When his uncle had first suggested that they should use this capital to advance one family member to reve status thereby removing him or her forever from the threat of age and natural death he had in part been motivated by that grief, and fear that another loved-one would succumb before he did. At least this way, one child would have a chance of avoiding the fate awaiting the remainder of his family.
In part, anyway. The rest Martin had no intention of even thinking in such company.
"You mentioned a sister," said M. Bennett. "You were chosen above her, is that correct?"
"No. I'm older and therefore theoretically first in line, yes, but that wasn't really an issue. She wants to have children, you see."
"And you don't?" The question was playfully put by M. Guillard.
Don't I? Martin asked himself, although he knew the only answer he could give: "Whether I failed the examination, or fail at the Change, or not, is irrelevant. I was sterilised at thirteen, and have always expected to be childless. Perhaps a niece or nephew will follow me, one day, if I succeed."
"Nobly put." The ancient reve touched his arm lightly. "Indeed, once a family is established, subsequent revenations from that line become more likely with time. The chances are you will have blood relations to keep you company before long."
"I hope so."
"Certainement." M. Guillard pulled away. "But look, Martin, your glass is empty. Spyro will top you up while you tell us about your plans for the future, if you have any."
"I haven't really thought that far ahead," he lied, handing his glass over. The bald reve took it from him without comment and collected the scholar's as well before heading off through the crowd.
"No?" M. Guillard expressed her disappointment with a sniff, then brightened. "I know what we'll do, then. We'll advise you now. What do you think, Elaine? Plutocrat or star-voyager? How best should Martin while away eternity?"
M. Bennett shrugged noncomittally before suggesting the former. PERIPETY-WEYN, the AI node, immediately disagreed, and went on at length to explain that, in his opinion, the System government was stable, and would be for a very long time; what was needed was not more politicians, but explorers with courage enough to venture into the dark.
"Courage is for the young," said M. Bennett, with which M. Guillard solemnly agreed.
* * *
Martin settled back into his chair to listen while his future was dissected; when pressed for an opinion, he hinted at the possibility of becoming an artist. That was a vocation he had considered as a child, before the death of his grandmother, when life had seemed so much simpler.
Until he made his decision, all he really had to do was watch, and learn. After that, his uncle and fate could toss coins to see what happened next. At least for the moment, he had managed to avoid M. Guillard's probing curiosity.
When the time came, four gruelling hours later, to announce that he had decided to retire for the night, he declined the offer of stimulants from the bar. Although he had enjoyed the company of M. Guillard's friends, he was no match for them intellectually or physically. He had heard that reves could party for days on end; certainly they could discuss a single topic for hours without losing interest. When one's life was measured in centuries, he supposed, the everyday passage of time became somewhat trivial.
He wasn't yet at that stage, and Professor Munton never would be. The fat scholar had left an hour ago, wishing Martin the very best of futures and expressing sincere hope that they would meet again another day.
As Martin bade his own farewells around the table, shaking hands with all but the mod, who deferred physical contact for a simple bow, M. Guillard saved herself and the enigmatic mute deliberately until last.
"It has been a pleasure, Martin," she said when it was her turn, curtsying expertly.
"The honour was mine," he replied, although he hadn't failed to notice the way she had deflected conversation from her own affairs. He knew as little about her now as he had before: that she was a multifaceted enigma twisting like a bauble in one of the chandeliers above their heads, casting brilliant reflections wherever she pleased.
"Mais oui," she purred, gracefully kissing him on both cheeks. "The Celebration will last another three days. Maybe we will meet again before it ends."
"I doubt it," he said. "I leave on the first flight tomorrow morning."
"Well, it was a nice thought." She turned to her companion. "Spyro will walk you to your rooms. I hope you have a pleasant night."
Before Martin could protest that he could find his own way, M. Guillard had whispered something into the ear of the mute reve and glided swiftly away, leaving the two men awkwardly facing each other.
"You don't have to," Martin said, hoping against hope that he would be allowed to leave alone. Whatever had happened to Xenophou before or after the Change, he didn't want to know. The thought was heavy in his mind that he might be like this in a month's time that he too could come out the other side disadvantaged or, worse still, truly dead.
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