Read an Excerpt
By Paul Di Filippo
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2009 Paul Di Filippo
All rights reserved.
The publication of my story "Kid Charlemagne" in 1987 felt like a personal landmark. I had achieved a certain "mature" voice—admittedly borrowed in large part from Ballard and Delanyl—and the subject matter struck me as topical and trendily cyberpunkish. As if to acknowledge this, the members of SFWA put the story on the final Nebula ballot, my first appearance in such august company. Naturally enthused, I decided that the story would be the first in a series, and wrote two more: "Aurorae" and "A Game of Go."
Had I learned nothing from my earlier failure with a similar strategy involving my "Blackwood Beach" stories? (See my previous collection Shuteye for the Timebroker for that saga.) Apparently not.
Neither sequel sold. They have resided unread for twenty years in a box, the paper clips in the corners of the manuscripts disseminating a rusty shadow onto the title pages. I always thought they had merit, but avoided reading them again after they racked up so many rejections. Too melancholy a task.
However, time mitigates all tragedies, and I have now gone back to these might-have-been tales for another look.
Guess what? I think they still deserve to see the light of day.
So, without any alterations to make them au courant, relying instead on a certain prescience and period charm they seem to exhibit, I present these two further tours of the Hesperides, my own Vermilion Sands.
Once I had a friend who turned his television set into an aquarium.
This was some while back. I believe it was toward the end of the Wilderness Years, say '92. Yes, that sounds about right. That was the year the Columbus Quincentenary was in full swing, and it seemed you couldn't turn your TV on, day or night, without being deluged with docudramas and historical puffery narrated by a host of vacuous celebrities who were barely certain of their own birthdates. Combined with the likelihood that President Robertson would be giving one of his interminable homilies, all this was enough to drive my friend round the bend.
So he removed the digitized, multi-window CRT, scooped out the solid-state guts, sprayed the inside of the empty cabinet with some plaz, affixed a plate of glass to the viewing side and made it watertight with more plaz, hinged the top—and presto: an aquarium. Add a filtration system, some colorful tropical fish, and he had a constantly changing display more intriguing than any number of soap operas.
My friend was quite satisfied with his labors at first. Everyone congratulated him on his wit. But feeding the fish and cleaning the aquarium became something of a chore. That was when he discovered the one problem with his elaborate joke.
The fish being alive, he couldn't just turn them off.
* * *
The clustered cockle-shell pleasure-boats bobbed beneath the stars like a frivolous fleet a—sea to fish for ghosts and dreams. Gentle swells slapped their hulls, with a reiterated sound like a fat wet fish falling on a dock. To the east, the archipelago of the Hesperides glimmered like diamonds on a black cloth.
Leaning on the rail of the Jenny Wren, my nostrils full of the pregnant sea, I thought—not for the first time—how it was a curious fact that those islands never looked so beautiful as when most distant. Now, for instance, with their colored lights strung on them like fallen stars, they seemed the innocent abode of a happy, noble people. But of course, when we returned tonight we would encounter only the same familiar indolent faces and braying voices. Tendentious authors of popular or highbrow trash, self-infatuated beauties, the elderly and self-righteous captains of industry—the whole ensemble that constituted the clotted cream of international society. In a nutshell, people who tended to color-co-ordinate their clothes and their pets—some of whom turned out to be their spouses.
And I—God forgive me—had somehow become a part of it And not the least reprehensible member, either.
I thought briefly of jumping overboard, and attempting the three- mile swim to the California coast on the far side of the islands. By tomorrow night, with a little luck hitching rides, I could be back at my old job in LA, washing cars.
I got as far as picturing myself hoisting a leg over the rail, when a gentle pop sounded at my elbow. A Champagne cork shot past me in a graceful catenary out to sea. I envisioned the Hughes Aircraft Jarvis-model rocket now taking off from Matagorda Island like a Champagne cork of the gods. The splashdown we were all gathered for would not be long now.
I turned to my left, fearing Jasmine. But it was only Mireault, the French Ambassador, a petite man with slick hair and a thin mustache, dressed in next year's fashionable formal-wear.
"M'sieur, I have taken a fancy to you," he said, more than a little drunkenly. "You do not seem so—how is one to put this politely?—so enamored of your own qualities as the rest of these beautiful people. Although you are indeed handsome, and could be excused for entertaining a certain vanity."
He burped effusively at this point, like a well-fed infant, and begged my pardon before continuing.
"In any case, please join me in a glass of our host's fine Champagne. We must be ready to toast the coming spectacle."
His little hands poured a glass for me, and I took it, all thoughts of any long cold swim being shoved to the background by the anticipated pleasure of the drink. Thus do comforts continually elbow aside harsh duties. Mireault next reached up under his left armpit. In the darkness, he looked like some tuxedoed monkey scratching himself, until I saw that he was merely retrieving a second glass from where he had had it snugged between bicep and chest. He filled it for himself.
"Since we have a whole bottle to consume, Mr Fallows," he declaimed, "and the show will not start for some time yet, let us offer several preliminary toasts."
I raised my glass in acquiescence. This queer duck of a Frenchman didn't bother me half as much as other, more permanent residents of the islands, and I was willing to humor him. I was just grateful he wasn't Jasmine.
"You first," I generously allowed.
"Very well, then. To the Hesperides, as lovely a resort as any I have ever seen." He drained his glass, and I mine. He replenished them without a spill, despite the boat's hobbyhorsing. Now that I had been dragged out of my reflections, I could hear the breeze-borne chatter and clink of glasses, arrogant male laughter and the hysterical screams of women from the surrounding boats. I felt as if we were staining the suffering sea.
As if reading my thoughts, Mireault said, "Of course, I hate and detest resorts, so my compliment was not much of one, I fear. Allow me to try again. To America, which wisely abandoned fission power. Unlike my own poor country."
He knocked back another glass. When he lowered his face, I thought I detected a melancholy tear or two.
"I'm sorry," I said. "The loss of life, the damaged countryside—It was horrible. Twice as bad as Chernobyl, wasn't it?"
"Pah!" he almost spat. "People, trees, these are not the things that really count. No, sir, you have missed the point of the tragedy entirely. Don't you know what our meltdown destroyed? A whole cuisine! The Perigeaux region uninhabitable! You have not lived until you have tasted true Perigord cooking. And now none of us shall again."
I had to laugh at the sheer brazenness of the man, and I did. It felt good, to let the laughter, however black, tumble out, unenforced and wild. When I stopped, we leaned together on the burnished aluminum and drank. His hip touched mine with more than accidental force, but I could not find it in me to rebuff the mild come-on.
My laughter acted as a lure cast into the night. Like a voracious fish intent on consuming the hapless angler, Jasmine swarmed back along the dying sound and found me. I could tell by the expression on her too-perfect face that she was afraid I was having fun without her.
"Martin, dearest," she said, sweeping in upon Mireault and me, "whatever are you doing, languishing here in the stem?"
She was really wired tonight, more so than I had seen her in weeks, since she had died in front of twenty million people. The actress in her was in total control, turning every gesture and speech into a flamboyant bid for center-stage. She wore some new perfume that I hadn't seen her buy. It smelled like an Egyptian orgy.
"We are lubricating," I said, "the passage of time with the oil of intoxication."
Mireault smiled and bowed. Jasmine extended her hand and had it kissed. "And your charming friend?" she asked.
I introduced the dapper Ambassador. Jasmine's smile grew hollow when she realized he had no connection with show-business, and she went all stiff and mean.
"Well, if you must get cocked, come join the rest of us and be sociable. That's what you're here for, isn't it? Besides, we'll be getting underway soon. There's a prize for the first boat to reach the capsule, and Colin's determined to win it"
She pivoted and walked brusquely off, knowing I would follow like her lapdog.
Because, of course, I was.
In the bow, people stood elbow to elbow, swilling Piper-Heidsieck like water and gossiping. Soft blue bi-O-lites mounted on poles cast a subtle glow, more shadow than light. Many of the women wore eco- necklaces, another product of Fermenta A.B., the Swedish biotech firm that had made a fortune with last years lifegems. The clear tubes contained a kind of brine that was home to some diatoms, algae, and a few other simple organisms. (I believe one or two krill per necklace were the highest lifeforms contained.)
The material was oneway-permeable to air and the owner's metabolic residues, which input was enough to sustain the whole miniature ecosystem for a few years.
I thought the jewelry was rather cruel. Imagine flaunting trapped creatures like that....
Among the rest of the giddy passengers, I looked back and upward, to see Colin Trollinger, the famous cinema director, who was our unbearably gracious host, standing at the controls of his craft. The long blonde hair he was affecting this month, implanted at no little expense in a fashionable Brazilian clinic, waved in the night-breeze.
"There she is!" someone on our boat shouted. Immediately Colin flicked on a searchlight, which probed to the south, where the capsule was expected. More shouts and beams followed from our sister ships, till the night was filled with noise and light.
At last one of the criss-crossing shafts caught the descending, chute-strung capsule full on, and we were off toward it, engines roaring.
It looked so small and fragile, I wondered that anyone could have trusted himself to a flight in it But that was what Hughes, McDonnell Douglas, General Dynamics, Textron, and their lesser competitors were known for: quick, no-frills, cheap orbital service, in competition with the NASA and ESA shuttles, where everything was triple-redundant, with prices to match.
As we raced across the water, spray drenching everyone's fancy clothes, I couldn't imagine how the original shouter had spotted it. I figured later that it was sighted against the stars it occluded in its passage.
Eventually, the capsule splashed down, its chute billowing in the water around it like a huge jellyfish. We reached it first. I knew Colin would be smugly satisfied. But what thrill could he possible derive, when he was always first?
Our searchlight pinned the capsule to the water like a steel butterfly on shirred velvet. People clustered at the starboard rail. Two of Colin's crew—big, competent, and bored-looking hirelings—were casting magnetic grapples. They caught the capsule and began to haul, their muscles straining. When it bumped our side, it blew its hatch.
Like Venus being born, wearing a silver suit and contoured unpressurised headgear, Nikki Nike emerged.
At that instant, the sky began to bum.
I am going to tell you that the aurorae were the most beautiful things I have ever seen, and you will not believe me, because you weren't there. But it does not matter, because they were.
The aurorae were the most beautiful things I have ever seen.
Convoluted draperies of radiance, they bedecked the sky. Primarily greenish-yellow, they were tinged along their upper edges with a seepage of neon red, as if their namesake, Aurora, had lent them her hot plasma/blood. They stretched for miles in the ionosphere, seeming by perspective's tricks to converge far away from us, as if flowing from some central source.
And flow they did. I had always thought—if I thought of it at all—that the aurorae would be static. But they were not. They pulsed, they crawled, they slithered, like gigantic living things, too high and supernal and proud to recognize the small creatures who watched them.
I stood entranced for an indefinite time—perhaps half an hour. The sheets of cool fire held all my self, dispersed yet intensified.
You must believe me.
When the last one died, I dragged my eyes and soul back to earth. At our ship's bow, her headgear doffed to reveal a black crewcut, stood Nikki Nike, a small sacred circle separating her from the unwontedly silent Hesperideans. Her face seemed to bear some gorgeous afterglow from the heavenly display.
And why not?
She had made it happen.
The Senator from Puerto Rico was trying to charm the skivvies off the Women's Wimbledon winner. I couldn't say as I blamed him, since her plyoskin outfit was little more than a glossy blue lacquer over her formidable physique. Next to them, the Archbishop of New York was arguing politics with the Prime Minister of Ireland. Both had had too much to drink, and they seemed about to come to blows. I hoped they wouldn't. I hated to see women fight. In other corners, drinks hoisted high in a complex social semaphore, other couples and groups played their mindgames on each other. The three-piece band on the stage in the back of the room blasted forth their own quirky version of Stella Fusion's hit, "The Climax Decade Blues." Bodies thronged the sweaty dancefloor.
The single club on the main island of the Hesperides is always called La Pomme d'Or. It's an unbreakable tradition. Its owners—usually stolid businessmen, but sometimes more interesting types—come and go, lasting as long as profits or their ulcers dictate. But the long, low building with its wicker-furnished veranda and glossy mahogany bar has a life and identity of its own. No one would dare rename it. Its last owner hadn't, and he had been almost as much a fixture as the place itself. A man named Hollister, or something like that, who never left the building until certain events that culminated in two deaths forced him out and off the island.
The current owner was Larry Meadows. He stood by the bar now, surveying the organized chaos with a benign gaze. After all, furniture and glasses might get smashed, but he would still have had the honor of hosting the bash. And it wasn't every day—or night—that one's bar was elected to cater the official party following the premiere of a Nike original.
When the boozy fleet had anchored in the Bay, and everyone had been ferried ashore, I had managed to become separated from Jasmine. Now I was contriving earnestly to stay out of her clutches for a bit longer, no easy task in such close quarters. I knew I would pay for my rashness in the morning, but it didn't signify now.
I had to talk to Nikki Nike alone.
Something about the woman had intrigued me deeply. Obviously, the awesome sky-fires she had ignited played a part in my fascination. But she exuded a personal force and charm that had snared me like a net of unbreakable spidersilk. The dignity and aplomb with which she had stepped from the capsule, as if out of Botticelli's painting. The transfiguration lighting up her features after the celestial show. These bespoke a deep inner-directedness, a self-assured capability that transfixed me more strongly than anything sexual.
Ducking behind a dizzy debutante as a shield, I wove my way toward the largest knot of people, knowing I'd find Nikki there.
On the outskirts of the group, I spotted her, trapped in the middle. Still wearing her silver suit, sans headgear, she looked like a chromed product of Detroit or South Korea, save for her face, which was pixieish without the least trace of cloying feyness. Her teeth were very white and small, as she smiled valiantly at the fawning compliments, but her grey eyes looked nervous and weary.
Excerpted from Harsh Oases by Paul Di Filippo. Copyright © 2009 Paul Di Filippo. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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