Read an Excerpt
A Morning in Vermillion
188.8.131.52.021: Males are to wear dress code #6 duringinter-Collective travel. Hats are encouraged but notmandatory.
It began with my father not wanting to see the Last Rabbit and endedup with my being eaten by a carnivorous plant. It wasn’t really whatI’d planned for myself— I’d hoped to marry into the Oxbloods andjoin their dynastic string empire. But that was four days ago, before Imet Jane, retrieved the Caravaggio and explored High Saffron. So insteadof enjoying aspirations of Chromatic advancement, I was wholly immersed within the digestive soup of a yateveo tree. It was all frightfullyinconvenient.
But it wasn’t all bad, for the following reasons: First, I was lucky tohave landed upside down. I would drown in under a minute, which wasfar, far preferable to being dissolved alive over the space of a few weeks.Second, and more important, I wasn’t going to die ignorant. I had discoveredsomething that no amount of merits can buy you: the truth. Notthe whole truth, but a pretty big part of it. And that was why this was allfrightfully inconvenient. I wouldn’t get to do anything with it. And thistruth was too big and too terrible to ignore. Still, at least I’d held it in myhands for a full hour and understood what it meant.
I didn’t set out to discover a truth. I was actually sent to the Outer Fringesto conduct a chair census and learn some humility. But the truth inevitablyfound me, as important truths often do, like a lost thought in need of a mind. I found Jane, too, or perhaps she found me. It doesn’t really matter. We foundeach other. And although she was Grey and I was Red, we shared a commonthirst for justice that transcended Chromatic politics. I loved her, and what’smore, I was beginning to think that she loved me. After all, she did apologizebefore she pushed me into the leafless expanse below the spread of theyateveo, and she wouldn’t have done that if she’d felt nothing.
So that’s why we’re back here, four days earlier, in the town of Vermillion,the regional hub of Red Sector West. My father and I had arrivedby train the day before and overnighted at the Green Dragon. We hadattended Morning Chant and were now seated for breakfast, disheartenedbut not surprised that the early Greys had already taken the bacon,and it remained only in exquisite odor. We had a few hours before ourtrain and had decided to squeeze in some sightseeing.
“We could always go and see the Last Rabbit,” I suggested. “I’m toldit’s unmissable.”
But Dad was not to be easily swayed by the rabbit’s uniqueness. Hesaid we’d never see the Badly Drawn Map, the Oz Memorial, the colorgarden and the rabbit before our train departed. He also pointed outthat not only did Vermillion’s museum have the best collection of Vimtobottles anywhere in the Collective, but on Mondays and Thursdays theydemonstrated a gramophone.
“A fourteen- second clip of ‘Something Got Me Started,’ ” he said, as ifsomething vaguely Red- related would swing it.
But I wasn’t quite ready to concede my choice.
“The rabbit’s getting pretty old,” I persisted, having read the safetybriefing in the “How Best to Enjoy Your Rabbit Experience” leaflet, “andpetting is no longer mandatory.”
“It’s not the petting,” said Dad with a shudder, “it’s the ears. In anyevent,” he continued with an air of finality, “I can have a productive andfulfilling life having never seen a rabbit.”
This was true, and so could I. It was just that I’d promised my bestfriend, Fenton, and five others that I would log the lonely bun’s Taxanumber on their behalf and thus allow them to note it as “proxy seen”in their animal- spotter books. I’d even charged them twenty- five centseach for the privilege— then blew the lot on licorice for Constance anda new pair of synthetic red shoelaces for me.
Dad and I bartered like this for a while, and he eventually agreed tovisit all of the town’s attractions but in a circular manner, to save on shoeleather. The rabbit came last, after the color garden.
So, having conceded to at least include the rabbit in the morning’s entertainment,Dad returned to his toast, tea and copy of Spectrum as I lookedidly about the shabby breakfast room, seeking inspiration for the postcardI was writing. The Green Dragon dated from before the Epiphany and, likemuch of the Collective, had seen many moments, each of them slightlymore timeworn than the one before. The paint in the room was peeling,the plaster molding was dry and crumbly, the linoleum tabletops wereworn to the canvas and the cutlery was either bent, broken or missing.
But the hot smell of toast, coffee and bacon, the flippant affability of thestaff and the noisy chatter of strangers enjoying transient acquaintancegave the establishment a peculiar charm that the reserved, eminentlyrespectable tearooms back home in Jade- under- Lime could never match.I noticed also that despite the lack of any Rules regarding seat plans in“ non- hue- specific” venues, the guests had unconsciously divided theroom along strictly Chromatic lines. The one Ultraviolet was respectfullygiven a table all to himself, and several Greys stood at the door waitingpatiently for an empty table even though there were places available.We were sharing our table with a Green couple. They were of matureyears and wealthy enough to wear artificially green clothes so thatall could witness their enthusiastic devotion to their hue, a proudfullyexpensive and tastelessly ostentatious display that was doubtlessfinanced by the sale of their child allocation. Our clothes were dyed ina conventional shade visible only to other Reds, so to the Greens sittingopposite we had only our Red Spots to set us apart from the Greys, andwere equally despised. When they say red and green are complementary,it doesn’t mean we like each other. In fact, the only thing that Reds andGreens can truly agree on is that we dislike Yellows more.
“You,” said the Green woman, pointing her spoon at me in an exceptionallyrude manner, “fetch me some marmalade.”
I dutifully complied. The Green woman’s bossy attitude was not atypical.We were three notches lower in the Chromatic scale, which officiallymeant we were subservient. But although lower in the Order, we werestill Prime within the long- established Red- Yellow- Blue Color Model,and a Red would always have a place in the village Council, somethingthe Greens, with their bastard Blue- Yellow status could never do. It irritatedthem wonderfully. Unlike the dopey Oranges, who accepted theirlot with a cheery, self- effacing good humor, Greens never managed torise above the feeling that no one took them seriously enough. The reasonfor this was simple: They had the color of the natural world almost exclusively to themselves, and felt that the scope of their sight- gift shouldreflect their importance within the Collective. Only the Blues could evenbegin to compete with this uneven share of the Spectrum, as they ownedthe sky, but this was a claim based mainly on surface area rather than avariety of shades, and when it was overcast, they didn’t even have that.
But if I thought she was ordering me about solely due to my hue, I wasmistaken. I was wearing a NEEDS HUMILITY badge below my Red Spot. It relatedto an incident with the head prefect’s son, and I was compelled to wear itfor a week. If the Green woman had been more reasonable, she would haveexcused me the errand due to the prestigious 1,000 MERITS badge that I alsowore. Perhaps she didn’t care. Perhaps she just wanted the marmalade.I fetched the jar from the sideboard, gave it to the Green, noddedrespectfully, then returned to the postcard I was writing. It was of Vermillion’sold stone bridge and had been given a light blue wash in thesky for five cents extra. I could have paid ten and had one with greenedgrass, too, but this was for my potential fiancée, Constance Oxblood, andshe considered overcolorization somewhat vulgar. The Oxbloods werestrictly old- color and preferred muted tones of paint wherever possible,even though they could have afforded to decorate their house to thehighest chroma. Actually, much to them was vulgar, and that includedthe Russetts, whom they regarded as nouveau couleur. Hence my status as“potential fiancé.” Dad had negotiated what we called a “half promise,”which meant I was first- optioned to Constance. The agreement fell shortof being reciprocal, but it was a good deal— a concession that, despitebeing a Russett and three generations from Grey, I might be able to see agoodly amount of red, so couldn’t be ignored completely.
“Writing to Fish- face already?” asked my father with a smile. “Hermemory’s not that bad.”
“True,” I conceded, “but despite her name, constancy is possibly herleast well- defined attribute.”
“Ah. Roger Maroon still sniffing about?”
“As flies to stinkwort. And you mustn’t call her Fish- face.”
“More butter,” remarked the Green woman, “and don’t dawdle thistime.”
We finished breakfast and, after some last- minute packing, descendedto the reception desk, where Dad instructed the porter to have our suitcasesdelivered to the station.
“Beautiful day,” said the manager as we paid the bill. He was a thin man with a finely shaped nose and one ear. The loss of an ear was not unusual,as they could be torn off annoyingly easily, but what was unusual wasthat he’d not troubled to have it stitched back on, a relatively straightforwardprocedure. More interesting, he wore his Blue Spot high up on hislapel. It was an unofficial but broadly accepted signal that he knew howto “fix” things, for a fee. We’d had crayfish for dinner the night before,and he hadn’t punched it out of ration books. It had cost us an extra halfmerit, covertly wrapped in a napkin.
“Every day is a beautiful day,” replied my father in a cheery manner.
“Indeed they are,” the manager countered genially. After we hadexchanged feedback— on the hotel for being clean and moderately comfortable,and on us, for not bringing shame to the establishment by poortable manners or talking loudly in public areas— he asked, “Do youtravel far this morning?”
“We’re going to East Carmine.”
The Blue’s manner changed abruptly. He gave us an odd look, handedback our merit books and wished us a joyously uneventful future beforeswiftly moving to attend someone else. So we tipped the porter, reiteratedthe time of our train and headed off to the first item on our itinerary.
“Hmm,” said my father, staring at the Badly Drawn Map once we haddonated our ten cents and shuffled inside the shabby yet clean maphouse,
“I can’t make head nor tail of this.”
The Badly Drawn Map might not have been very exciting, but it wasvery well named. “That’s probably why it survived the deFacting,” I suggested,for the map was not only mystifying but mind- numbingly rare.
Aside from the Parker Brothers’ celebrated geochromatic view of the PreviousWorld, it was the only pre- Epiphanic map known. But somehowits rarity wasn’t enough to make it interesting, and we stared blankly forsome minutes at the faded parchment, hoping to either misunderstandit on a deeper level or at least get our money’s worth.
“The longer and harder we look at it, the cheaper the entrance donationbecomes,” Dad explained.
I thought of asking how long we’d have to stare at it before they owedus money, but didn’t.
He put his guidebook away, and we walked back out into the warmsunlight. We felt cheated out of our ten cents but politely left positivefeedback, since the drabness of the exhibit was no fault of the curator’s.
“Why was the hotel manager so dismissive of East Carmine?”
“The Outer Fringes have a reputation for being unsociably dynamic,”he said after giving my question some thought, “and some consider thateventfulness may lead to progressive thought, with all the attendantrisks that might bring to the Stasis.”
It was a diplomatically prescient remark, and one that I had cause toconsider a lot over the coming days.
“Yes,” I said, “but what do you think?”
“I think we should go and see the Oz Memorial. Even if it’s as dullas magnolia, it will still be a thousand times more interesting than theBadly Drawn Map.”
We walked along the noisy streets toward the museum and soaked in thehustle, bustle, dust and heat of Vermillion. All about us were the traders whodealt with daily requisites: livestock herders, barrow boys, water sellers, piemen,storytellers and weight guessers. Catering for more long- term needswere the small shops, such as repairers, artifact dealers, spoon traders andcalculating shops that offered addition and subtraction while you waited.Moderators and loopholists were hirable by the minute to advise on mattersregarding the Rules, and there was even a shop that traded solely in floaties,and another that specialized in postcode genealogy. Amid it all I noticed astronger- than- usual presence of Yellows, presumably to keep an eye out forillegal color exchange, seed trading or running with a sharp implement.
Unusually for a regional hub, Vermillion was positioned pretty muchon the edge of the civilized world. Beyond it to the east were only theRedstone Mountains and isolated outposts like East Carmine. In theuninhabited zone there would be wild outland, megafauna, lost villagesof untapped scrap color and quite possibly bands of nomadic Riffraff.It was exciting and worrying all in one, and until the week before, Ihadn’t even heard of East Carmine, let alone thought I would be spendinga month there on Humility Realignment. My friends were horrified,expressed low- to- moderate outrage that I should be treated this way andproclaimed that they would have started a petition if they could havetroubled themselves to look for a pencil.
“The Fringes are the place of the slack- willed, slack- jawed andslack- hued,” remarked Floyd Pinken, who could comfortably boast allthree of those attributes, if truth be known.
“And be wary of losers, self- abusers, fence leapers and fornicators,”added Tarquin, who, given his family history, would not have seemedout of place there either.
They then informed me that I would be demonstrably insane to leavethe safety of the village boundary for even one second, and that a trip tothe Fringes would have me eating with my fingers, slouching and withhair below the collar in under a week. I almost decided to buy my wayout of the assignment with a loan from my twice- widowed aunt Beryl,but Constance Oxblood thought otherwise.
“You’re doing a what?” she asked when I mentioned the reason I wasgoing to East Carmine.
“A chair census, my poppet,” I explained. “Head Office is worriedthat the chair density might have dropped below the proscribed 1.8 perperson.”
“How absolutely thrilling. Does an ottoman count as a chair or a verystiff cushion?”
She went on to say that I would be showing significant daring andcommendable bravery if I went, so I changed my mind. With the prospectof joining the family of Oxblood and of myself as potential prefectmaterial, I was going to need the broadening that travel and furniturecounting would doubtless bring, and a month in the intolerably unsophisticatedOuter Fringes might well supply that for me.
The Oz Memorial trumped the Badly Drawn Map in that it was bafflingin three dimensions rather than just two. It was a partial bronze of agroup of oddly shaped animals, the whole about six feet high and fourfeet across. According to the museum guide, it had been cut into piecesand dumped in the river three centuries before as part of the deFacting,so only two figures remained of a possible five. The best preserved wasthat of a pig in a dress and a wig, and next to her stood a bulbous- bodiedbear in a necktie. Of the third and fourth figures there remained almostnothing, and of the fifth, only two claw- shaped feet truncated at theankles, modeled on no creature living today.
“The eyes are very large and humanlike for a pig,” said my father,peering closer. “And I’ve seen a number of bears in my life, but none ofthem wore a hat.”
“They were very big on anthropomorphism,” I ventured, which waspretty much accepted fact. The Previous had many other customs thatwere inexplicable, none more so than their propensity to intermingle fact with fiction, which made it very hard to figure out what had happenedand what hadn’t. Although we knew that this bronze had beencast in honor of Oz, the full dedication on the plinth was badly eroded, soit remained tantalizingly unconnected to any of the other Oz referencesthat had trickled down through the centuries. Debating societies hadpondered long and hard over the “Oz Question,” and published manyscholarly tracts within the pages of Spectrum. But while remnants of TinMen had been unearthed by salvage teams, and Emerald City still existedas the center of learning and administration, no physical evidence ofbrick roads had ever been found anywhere in the Collective, either ofnatural or synthetic yellow— and naturalists had long ago rejected thepossibility that monkeys could fly. Oz, it was generally agreed, had beena fiction, and a fairly odd one. But in spite of that, the bronze remained.It was all a bit of a puzzle.
After that, we paused only briefly to look at the exhibits in themuseum, and only those of more than passing interest. We stopped andstared at the collection of Vimto bottles, the preserved Ford Fiesta withits obscene level of intentional obsolescence, then at the Turner, whichDad thought “wasn’t his best.” After that, we made our way to the floorbelow, where we marveled at the realistic poses in the life- size Riffraffdiorama, which depicted a typical Homo feralensis encampment. It wasall disturbingly lifelike and full of savagery and unbridled lust, and wasfor the most part based upon Alfred Peabody’s seminal work, Seven Minutesamong the Riffraff. We stared at the lifeless mannequins with a smallcrowd of schoolchildren, who were doubtless studying the lower orderof Human as part of a Historical Conjecture project.
“Do they really eat their own babies?” asked one of the pupils as shestared with horrified fascination at the tableau.
“Absolutely,” replied the teacher, an elderly Blue who should haveknown better, “and you, too, if you don’t respect your parents, observethe Rules and finish up your vegetables.”
Personally, I had doubts about some of the more ridiculous claimsregarding Riffraff. But I kept them to myself. Conjecture was a dishmostly served up wild.
As it turned out, the phonograph would not be demonstrated, becauseboth it and the music disc had been put “beyond use” with a very largehammer. This wasn’t a result of mischief, but a necessary outcome ofLeapback Compliance issues, as some fool hadn’t listed the device onthis year’s exemption certificate. The staff at the museum seemed a trifle annoyed about this, as the destruction of the artifact reduced the Collective’sdemonstrable phonographs to a solitary machine in Cobalt’sMuseum of the Something That Happened.
“But it wasn’t all bad,” added the curator, a Red with very bushy eyebrows.
“At least I can lay claim to being the last person ever to hearMr. Simply Red.”
After giving detailed feedback, we left the museum and headed offtoward the Municipal Gardens.
We paused on the way to admire an impressive wall painting of greatantiquity that was emblazoned across the gable end of a brick house.It invited a long- vanished audience to “Drink Ovaltine for Health andVitality,” and there was an image of a mug and two odd- looking buthappy children, their football- sized eyes staring blankly out at the worldwith obvious satisfaction and longing. Although faded, the red componentsin the lips and script were still visible. Pre- Epiphanic wall paintingswere rare and, when they depicted the Previous, creepy. It was theeyes. Their pupils, far from being the fine, neat dot of normal people’s,were unnaturally wide and dark and empty— as though their headswere somehow hollow— and this gave their look of happiness a peculiarand contrived demeanor. We stood and stared at it for a moment, thenmoved on.
Any colorized park was a must- see for visitors, and Vermillion’s offeringcertainly didn’t disappoint. The color garden, laid out within the citywalls, was a leafy enclave of dappled shade, fountains, pergolas, gravelpaths, statuary and flowerbeds. It also had a bandstand and an ice creamstall, even if there was no band, nor any ice cream. But what made Vermillion’spark really special was that it was supplied by color piped directfrom the grid, so it was impressively bright. We walked up to the maingrassed area, just past the picturesque, ivy- gripped Rodin, and stared atthe expanse of synthetic green. It was a major improvement on the parkback home, because the overall scheme was tuned for the predominanceof Red eyes. In Jade- under- Lime the bias was more toward those whocould see green, which meant that the grass was hardly colored at all andeverything red was turned up far too bright. Here the color balance waspretty much perfect, and we stood in silence, contemplating the subtleChromatic symphony laid out in front of us.
“I’d give my left plum to move to a Red sector,” murmured Dad in arare display of crudeness.
“You already pledged the left one,” I pointed out, “in the vague hopethat Old Man Magenta would retire early.”
“Last autumn, after the incident with the rhinosaurus.”
“What a dope that man is,” said Dad, shaking his head sadly. OldMan Magenta was our head prefect and, like many Purples, would havetrouble recognizing himself in a mirror.
“Do you think that’s really the color of grass?” asked Dad after apause.
I shrugged. There was no real way of telling. The most we could saywas that this was what National Color felt the color of grass should be.Ask a Green how green grass was and they’d ask you how red was anapple. But interestingly, the grass wasn’t uniformly green. An area the sizeof a tennis court in the far corner of the lawn had changed to an unpleasantbluey- green. The discordancy was spreading like a water stain, andthe off- color area had also taken in a tree and several beds of flowers,which now displayed unusual hues quite outside Standard BotanicalGamut. Intrigued, we noticed there was someone staring into an accesshatch close to the anomaly, so we wandered over to have a look.We expected him to be a National Color engineer working on theproblem, but he wasn’t. He was a Red park keeper, and he glanced at ourspots, then hailed us in a friendly manner.
“Problems?” asked Dad.
“Of the worst sort,” replied the park keeper wearily. “Another blockage.The Council are always promising to have the park repiped, butwhenever they get any money, they spend it on swan early- warning systems,lightning protection or something equally daft.”
It was unguarded talk, but we were Reds, too, so he knew he was safe.We peered curiously into the access hatch where the cyan, yellow andmagenta color pipes fed into one of the many carefully calibrated mixersin order to achieve the various hues required for the grass, shrubs andflowers. From there they would feed the network of capillaries that hadbeen laid beneath the park. Colorizing gardens was a complex task thatinvolved matching the osmotic coefficients of the different plants withthe specific gravities of the dyes— and that was before you got started onpressure density evaporation rates and seasonal hue variation. Coloristsearned their perks and bonuses.
I had a pretty good idea what the problem was, even without lookingat the flow meters. The bluey- green caste of the lawn, the grey appearance of the celandines and the purplish poppies suggested localized yellowdeficiency, and this was indeed the case— the yellow flow meter wasfirmly stuck on zero. But the viewing port was full of yellow, so it wasn’ta supply issue from the park substation.
“I think I know what the problem is,” I said quietly, knowing fullwell that unlicensed tampering with National Color property carried afive- hundred- merit fine.
The park keeper looked at me, then at Dad, then back to me. He bit hislip and scratched his chin, looked around and then lowered his voice.“Can it be easily fixed?” he asked. “We have a wedding at three.They’re only Grey, but we try to make an effort.”
I looked at Dad, who nodded his assent. I pointed at the pipe.
“The yellow flow meter’s jammed, and the lawn’s receiving only thecyan component of the grass- green. Although I would never condoneRule breaking of any sort,” I added, making sure I had deniability ifeverything turned brown, “I believe a sharp rap with the heel of a shoewould probably free it.”
The park keeper looked around, took off his shoe and did what I suggested.Almost instantly there was an audible gurgling noise.
“Well, I’ll be jaundiced,” he said. “As easy as that? Here.”
And he handed me a half merit, thanked us and went off to packageup the grass clippings for cyan- yellow retrieval.
“How did you know about that?” said Dad as soon as we were out ofearshot.
“Overheard stuff, mostly,” I replied.
We’d had a burst magenta feed a few years back, which was excitingand dramatic all at the same time— a cascading fountain of purple allover the main street. National Color was all over us in an instant, andI volunteered myself as tea wallah just to get close. The technical languageof the colorists was fairly obfuscating, but I’d picked up a bit. Itwas every resident’s dream to work at National Color, but not a realisticprospect: Your eyes, feedback, merits and sycophancy had to be beyondexemplary, and only one in a thousand of those who qualified to takethe entrance exam.
We ambled around the garden for as long as time would permit, soakingin the synthetic color and feeling a lot better for it. Unusually, theyhad hydrangeas in both colors, and delicately hand- tinted azaleas thatlooked outside of the CYM gamut: a rare luxury, and apparently a bequestfrom a wealthy Lilac. We noted that there wasn’t much pure yellow in the garden, which was probably a sop to the Yellows in the town. They likedtheir flowers natural, and since they could cause trouble if not accededto, they were generally given their own way. When we passed the lawnon our way out, the grass in the anomaly was beginning to turn back tofresh lawn green, more technically known as 102-100-64. It would beback to full chroma in time for the wedding.
We stepped out of the color garden, and walked back toward the mainsquare. On the way we passed a Leaper who was seated by the side of theroad, covered entirely in a coarse blanket except for his alms arm. I putmy recently acquired half merit in his open palm, and the figure noddedin appreciation. Dad looked at his watch.
“I suppose,” he said with little enthusiasm, “we should go and havethe rabbit experience.”