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Hugo and Nebula Award-winning authors Jeanne and Spider Robinson offer a magnificent new novel in the Stardance trilogy. Thanks to the benevolent Starmind, Earth is in a utopian state of peace and prosperity. But just as humanity reaches the brink of final evolution, a terrorist sect threatens to destroy the Starmind.
1 December 2064 Rhea Paixao was considered odd even by other writers. But some things are universal. Like most of her colleagues, Rhea got some of her best writing done in the bathroom.
And this was her favorite bathroom. She stopped in the doorway and examined it before entering. She had known it since earliest childhood, and the passage of time and changing fashions had altered it very little.
True, it now contained a modern toilet and bath; there was such a thing as carrying quaintness too far. But the wall opposite her was simply that, a wall, not programmable in any way: it displayed nothing, could not even become a mirror. An actual silvered-glass mirror hung on the wall, over the sink, its image speckled and distorted by surface impurities. Between mirror and sink, offset to the left, was a widget that had once been used to hold toothbrushes and a plastic cup of germ culture. Farther to the left was an antique cast-iron radiator, unused in decades. The sink itself had mechanical taps, two of them, completely uncalibrated; one had to adjust the flow-rate and temperature by hand with each use. There was a depression behind the rim meant to hold a decomposing lump of phosphate soap. And slung beneath the sink was an antique seldom seen anymore in 2064: a spring-loaded roller intended to hold a roll of toilet paper. (There was no roll there now, of course-but there had been for years after people stopped using the horrid stuff. Nana Fish had insisted on it. Even after she had broken down and accepted modern plumbing, Nana had insisted on keeping a roll of the Stone Age tissue handy, "just in case." She went back to the days when machinery used to fail all the time.) Every time Rhea saw that roller, she wanted to giggle.
The room was, in fact, almost a microcosm of the town around it. From its earliest days, Provincetown had always conceded as little as possible to the passing of years, changing only with the greatest reluctance and even then pretending not to. That had been the town's-most of Cape Cod's-stock in trade for centuries now ... and a good living there was in it, too. Even in these days, when "progress" was no longer quite as dirty a word as it had once been, there were still people who would pay handsomely for the illusion of an allegedly simpler time. P-Town, as the natives called it, was tailor-made for the role.
She stepped into the bathroom and let the door close behind her. No terminal in here, no phone, rotten ventilation-it was possible to make the mirror steam up-and nothing in the room accepted voice commands. In here, all three avatars of the house's AI were blind, deaf, mute and impotent. The wind outside was clearly audible through the walls. Rhea loved this bathroom more than even she suspected. She had plotted out at least three books here, and worked on a thousand poems, songs, articles and stories. At age fifteen, she had renounced Catholicism forever in this very room ... sitting on that same oaken toilet seat over there!
Just like that, a perfectly good story idea popped into her head-
She gave it a lidded glance, not wanting to seem too interested, and sauntered to the toilet. It followed her, and her pulse quickened. Studiously ignoring the idea, she urinated, let the commode cleanse and dry her, and went to the sink. Again it was at her shoulder. She used her dental mouthwash, making a rude production of it, and spat noisily into the porcelain sink. The idea did not take offense.
She continued to ignore it, studied herself in the mirror. Still a couple of years to go before her fortieth birthday. Black hair, black eyes that others called "flashing," coffee-with-cream complexion. Exotic high-cheeked Portuguese features that always reminded Rhea of old 2-D pictures of Nana Fish as a girl, back in the twentieth century, an impression reinforced by the old-fashioned nightgown and robe she wore now. She ran water and splashed some on her face, rubbing especially at her eyes and cheeks and lips as though her makeup could be washed off, a childhood habit so trivial it wasn't worth unlearning. Colly was asleep, and Rand was not expecting her back in the bedroom any time soon so far as she knew; there was time to dally at least briefly with the idea. She studied it out of the corner of her eye: a short-story idea probably, really no more than a situation-but one she knew she could do something good with.
For Rhea's kind of writer, plot and theme and even character were always secondary, mere craftsmanship, constructed as needed to flesh out the story. For her, the heart of a story, the first flash that impelled and enabled her to dream up all the rest, was always that special suffering called "antinomy." "Conflict between two propositions which seem equally urgent and necessary," as a professor of hers had once defined it. The juncture between a rock and some hard place. The place right out at the very tip of the sharpest point on the horns of a dilemma. Give someone an impossible choice, and then you had a story. Once the Muse revealed to you a deliciously impossible choice, you could begin deciding what sort of person would squirm most revealingly when confronted with it, and from that you could infer your theme, which gave you your plot.
This idea, for instance ...
It had been born in that brief flash of recollection she'd had as she first walked into the bathroom, of the long-ago night when fifteen-year-old Rhea had made up her mind in the privacy of this very room that she wasn't scared, dammit, Catholicism was bullshit, there was no God. As the adult Rhea had remembered that night, and thought of the Catholic Church for the first time in years, she'd been reminded of an artistically beautiful tragedy she knew about and had never exploited dramatically before.
Donny-Mr. Hansen-and Patty. She could no longer recall Patty's last name. Mr. Hansen had been Rhea's Sunday School teacher, twenty-three and gorgeous and devout in his faith, and every girl in the class had had a crush on him, but they all knew it was hopeless. Donny Handsome (as they called him, giggling, among themselves) was blatantly and terminally in love with Patty, who was also twenty-three, and just as gorgeous and devout, and just as clearly daffy about him. Together they were so beautiful-their love was so beautiful to see-that the girls in Mr. Hansen's class actually forgave her for existing.
Then, a single week before they were to be married, Patty had announced that God had called her to be a nun.
Teenage Rhea had been transfixed by Mr. Hansen's dilemma. He was a good Catholic to the soles of his feet. According to the rules he lived by, he was not even allowed to be sad. Not only could he not argue with Patty, try to change her mind ... he was not allowed to want to. It was his spiritual duty to rejoice for his beloved, and the special grace she had been granted. He had, in the metaphorical terms of his church, been jilted for Christ, and was expected to smile as he gave away the bride.
That had been the beginning of the end of Rhea's faith: seeing Donny Handsome stumble around P-Town like a zombie, smiling aimlessly. She had refused to believe that the universe and butterflies could have been made by so sadistic a God. Now, why hadn't she ever thought to convert such a splendidly awful antinomy into a story before?
Her craft-mind went to work on the idea now. Just put it down, as it had happened? No, it was always best to change it in the telling, she found: the way it changed told you what was most important to keep. Besides, that made it art and not journalism. Did she need the Catholicism angle, for instance? Or could she change it to some other, equally inflexible faith? With celibate clergy ... hmmmm, weren't a lot of those left anymore these days. Weren't a lot of Catholics left, for that matter. Maybe it didn't even need to have religion in it at all. But if not, what else had that same implacable weight?
She tried an old trick. Refine it all down to a single sentence: the sentence that the suffering protagonist screams (even if only inside) at the moment that the point enters the belly. Then throw out everything that doesn't lead inexorably to that scream. Okay, what was Donny Handsome's scream?
My beloved, how can you want to go where I cannot follow?
In the instant of that crystallization, Rhea knew what the story was really about ... and knew that she could not write it. No matter how she disguised it dramatically. Not yet. And maybe never.
She told the story idea to get lost. Until she knew what its ending was.
* * *
She went to the window-missing the sudden chill that used to come from December windows when she was a little girl-and pulled aside the ancient curtain to look out at the night. And was rewarded. In the distance, above the shadowy housetops of P-Town, the silhouette of the Pilgrim Monument showed clearly against the night sky, an eighty-five-meter tower of grey granite-and poised beside it, midway up its length, seeming to be only meters from its crenulated stone windows, was a brilliant crescent moon. The juxtaposition was weirdly beautiful, quintessential Provincetown magic. Rhea became conscious of her breath. It swept her mind clear-of the captive story idea and her ongoing concerns and the day's cares and her self. She watched without thought for a timeless time, long enough for the moon to climb perceptibly higher up the Monument.
She became aware of herself then, and let the curtain fall closed. She felt a sudden close connection with the child she had once been in this room, in this house, in this town. More than that, deeper than that-a connection with the family that had raised her here, and with their forebears, fishermen and fishermen's wives, back seven or eight generations to old Frank Henrique Paixao, who had gone over the side of a Portuguese whaler in a two-man dory off Newfoundland one cold day in 1904. He and his partner Louis Tomaz had successfully gotten themselves lost in the fog, miraculously survived to reach Glace Bay in Cape Breton, landed there without formalities or paperwork, and somehow made their way overland across the border and down the coast to Massachusetts, eventually fetching up in P-Town. The cod fishing there was as good as they had heard. After five years or so, both men had sent for their families back in Portugal, and settled down to founding dynasties in the New World-just as the Pilgrim Monument was being raised.
Rhea felt that Frank's wife Marion must have seen the Monument and moon looking just like this more than once, and could not help listening for the echo of her ancestor's thoughts. She heard only the sighing of night winds outside.
She sighed in accompaniment, went to the mirror and ran a brush through her hair. She was ready to join Rand in bed. A month he'd been home already, and she was just getting used to having him around again. Every home should have a husband. She shut off the light with a wall switch and left the bathroom, walked down the short hallway to the bedroom. In her mind's eye she was still seeing the slow dance of Monument and moon in the crisp cold starlight as she opened the bedroom door and stepped into the New Mexico desert at high noon.
* * *
Rhea was so startled she closed the door by backing into it. The sudden sense of distance, of vast expanse, was as staggering as the sudden brightness. The horizon was unimaginably far away; she saw a distant dark smudge, bleeding purple from beneath onto the ground below, and realized it was a thunderstorm large enough to drench a county. Between her and the horizon were endless miles of painted desert, broken occasionally by foothills and jagged rock outcroppings; close at hand were scrub hills and cacti and a dry wash. Right before her was an oasis, a natural watering hole. Beside it was an old-fashioned wooden bedframe with a curved solid oak headboard and a thick mattress. On the bed reclined one of Rhea's favorite holostars, dressed only in black silk briefs. He was nearly two meters tall, as dark as her, and glistening with perspiration or oil. He was holding out a canteen toward her, smiling invitingly.
She discovered she was thirsty. Hot in this desert. She stepped forward and accepted the canteen. The hand that offered it was warm. He was real, then. Icy cold water, sweet and pure. He looked even better up close. She handed back the canteen. He moved over to make room. She let the robe fall from her shoulders and drop to the sand. His eyes went up and down her slowly, as she took off the nightgown and dropped that too. She stepped out of her slippers; the sand felt strangely furry. She spun around once, taking in the vast silent desert that receded into infinity in all directions, and leaped into the bed. That started it bouncing, and it did not stop for some time.
She nearly drifted into sleep afterward, the desert sun warm on her back and buttocks and legs. But an inner voice caused her to rouse herself and nudge her celebrity companion. Might as well get it over with. "That was really wonderful, darling," she said sleepily. "All of it. But really-purple rain?"
His famous features melted and ran, becoming the familiar face of her husband. His hair lightened to red and his complexion to fair. "No, honest-I've seen it, outside of Santa Fe. Near the pueblos. Just that color. I've wanted to show it to you." Rand reached out a lazy arm, did something complicated to nothing at all in mid-air, and the desert sun diminished sharply in brightness without leaving the center of the sky. The effect was of a partial eclipse: twilight with the shadows in the wrong places. Power of suggestion made the temperature seem to drop, or perhaps he had dialed that, too; they slid under the covers together.
"I'm glad you did," she said, snuggling. "It's lovely." She looked around at the dusky desert, noting small excellences of detail. An eagle to the east, gliding majestically. Intricate cactus flowers, no two quite alike. Ripples on the surface of the water in the oasis, seeming to be wind-driven. Microfilaments of lightning, convincingly random, flickering in that distant purple rain. "This is the best one yet. Is the music this far along too?"
He shook his head. "Just some ideas, so far. But having the basic visual will help."
"I'm sure it will. It was a beautiful gift, really. The set and the sex. Thank you."
He grinned. "You're welcome. I'm glad you liked it."
"Very much. So ... what's the catch?"
"Catch?" he asked innocently.
The reason she knew there was a catch was because it was not possible for her husband to conceal something important from her, not while making love.
Excerpted from Starmind by Spider Robinson Jeanne Robinson Excerpted by permission.
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