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The Year's Best Science Fiction
Thirty-First Annual Collection
By Gardner Dozois
St. Martin's Griffin Copyright © 2014 Gardner Dozois
All rights reserved.
The Discovered Country
IAN R. MacLeod
British writer Ian R. MacLeod was one of the hottest new writers of the nineties, publishing a slew of strong stories in Interzone, Asimov's Science Fiction, Weird Tales, Amazing, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and elsewhere, and his work continues to grow in power and deepen in maturity as we move through the first decades of the new century. Much of his work has been gathered in four collections: Voyages By Starlight, Breathmoss and Other Exhalations, Past Magic, and Journeys. His first novel, The Great Wheel, was published in 1997. In 1999, he won the World Fantasy Award with his novella "The Summer Isles," and followed it up in 2000 by winning another World Fantasy Award for his novelette "The Chop Girl." In 2003, he published his first fantasy novel and his most critically acclaimed book, The Light Ages, followed by a sequel, The House of Storms, in 2005, and then by Song of Time, which won both the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the John W. Campbell Award in 2008. A novel version of The Summer Isles also appeared in 2005. His most recent books are a new novel, Wake Up and Dream, and a big retrospective collection, Snodgrass and Other Illusions: The Best Short Stories of Ian R. MacLeod. MacLeod lives with his family in the West Midlands of England.
Here he tells an evocative and emotionally powerful story of someone sent on a mission to a virtual utopia reserved only for the superrich who have died on our mundane Earth, a sort of literal afterlife. It's a smart, tense, and tricky story in which the stakes are high and nothing is what it seems.
The trees of Farside are incredible. Fireash and oak. Greenbloom and maple. Shot through with every colour of autumn as late afternoon sunlight blazes over the Seven Mountains' white peaks. He'd never seen such beauty as this when he was alive.
The virtual Bentley takes the bridge over the next gorge at a tyrescream, then speeds on through crimson and gold. Another few miles, and he's following the coastal road beside the Westering Ocean. The sands are burnished, the rocks silver-threaded. Every new vista a fabulous creation. Then ahead, just as purple glower sweeps in from his rear- view over those dragon-haunted mountains, come the silhouette lights of a vast castle, high up on a ridge. It's the only habitation he's seen in hours.
This has to be it.
Northover lets the rise of the hill pull at the Bentley's impetus as its headlights sweep the driveway trees. Another turn, another glimpse of a headland, and there's Elsinore again, rising dark and sheer.
* * *
He tries to refuse the offer to carry his luggage made by the neat little creature that emerges into the lamplit courtyard to greet him with clipboard, sharp shoes and lemony smile. He's encountered many chimeras by now. The shop assistants, the street cleaners, the crew on the steamer ferry that brought him here. All substantially humanoid, and invariably polite, although amended as necessary to perform their tasks, and far stranger to his mind than the truly dead.
He follows a stairway up through rough-hewn stone. The thing's name is Kasaya. Ah, now. The east wing. I think you'll find what we have here more than adequate. If not ... Well, you must promise to let me know. And this is called the Willow Room. And do enjoy your stay ...
* * *
Northover wanders. Northover touches. Northover breathes. The interior of this large high-ceilinged suite with its crackling applewood fire and narrow, deep-set windows is done out in an elegantly understated arts-and-craftsy style. Amongst her many attributes, Thea Lorentz always did have excellent taste.
What's struck him most about Farside since he jerked into new existence on the bed in the cabin of that ship bound for New Erin is how unremittingly real everything seems. But the slick feel of this patterned silk bedthrow ... The spiky roughness of the teasels in the flower display ... He's given up telling himself that everything he's experiencing is just some clever construct. The thing about it, the thing that makes it all so impossibly overwhelming, is that he's here as well. Dead, but alive. The evidence of his corpse doubtless already incinerated, but his consciousness—the singularity of his existence, what philosophers once called "the conscious I," and theologians the soul, along with his memories and personality, the whole sense of self which had once inhabited pale jelly in his skull—transferred.
The bathroom is no surprise to him now. The dead do so many things the living do, so why not piss and shit as well? He strips and stands in the shower's warm blaze. He soaps, rinses. Reminds himself of what he must do, and say. He'd been warned that he'd soon become attracted to the blatant glories of this world, along with the new, young man's body he now inhabits. Better just to accept it that rather than fight. All that matters is that he holds to the core of his resolve.
He towels himself dry. He pulls back on his watch—seemingly a Rolex, but a steel model, neatly unostentatious—and winds it carefully. He dresses. Hangs up his clothes in a walnut panelled wardrobe that smells faintly of mothballs, and hears a knock at the doors just as he slides his case beneath the bed.
"Yes? Come in ..."
When he turns, he's expecting another chimera servant. But it's Thea Lorentz.
* * *
This, too, is something they'd tried to prepare him for. But encountering her after so long is much less of a shock than he's been expecting. Thea's image is as ubiquitous as that of Marilyn Monroe or the Virgin Mary back on Lifeside, and she really hasn't changed. She's dressed in a loose-fitting shirt. Loafers and slacks. Hair tied back. No obvious evidence of any make-up. But the crisp white shirt with its rolled up cuffs shows her dark brown skin to perfection, and one lose strand of her tied back hair plays teasingly at her sculpted neck. A tangle of silver bracelets slide on her wrist as she steps forward to embrace him. Her breasts are unbound and she still smells warmly of the patchouli she always used to favour. Everything about her feels exactly the same. But why not? After all, she was already perfect when she was alive.
"Well ...!" That warm blaze is still in her eyes, as well. "It really is you."
"I know I'm springing a huge surprise. Just turning up from out of nowhere like this."
"I can take these kind of surprises any day! And I hear it's only been—what?—less than a week since you transferred. Everything must feel so very strange to you still."
It went without saying that his and Thea's existences had headed off in different directions back on Lifeside. She, of course, had already been well on her way toward some or other kind of immortality when they'd lost touch. And he ... Well, it was just one of those stupid lucky breaks. A short, ironic keyboard riff he'd written to help promote some old online performance thing—no, no, it was nothing she'd been involved in—had ended up being picked up many years later as the standard message-send fail signal on the global net. Yeah, that was the one. Of course, Thea knew it. Everyone, once they thought about it for a moment, did.
"You know, Jon," she says, her voice more measured now, "you're the one person I thought would never choose to make this decision. None of us can pretend that being Farside isn't a position of immense privilege, when most of the living can't afford food, shelter, good health. You always were a man of principle, and I sometimes thought you'd just fallen to ... Well, the same place that most performers fall to, I suppose, which is no particular place at all. I even considered trying to find you and get in touch, offer ..." She gestures around her. "Well, this. But you wouldn't have taken it, would you? Not on those terms."
He shakes his head. In so many ways she still has him right. He detested—no, he quietly reminds himself—detests everything about this vast vampiric sham of a world that sucks life, hope and power from the living. But she hadn't come to him, either, had she? Hadn't offered what she now so casually calls this. For all her fame, for all her good works, for all the aid funds she sponsors and the good causes she promotes, Thea Lorentz and the rest of the dead have made no effort to extend their constituency beyond the very rich, and almost certainly never will. After all, why should they? Would the gods invite the merely mortal to join them on Mount Olympus?
She smiles and steps close to him again. Weights both his hands in her own. "Most people I know, Jon—most of those I have to meet and talk to and deal with, and even those I have to call friends—they all think that I'm Thea Lorentz. Both Farside and Lifeside, it's long been the same. But only you and a very few others really know who I am. You can't imagine how precious and important it is to have you here ..."
* * *
He stands gazing at the door after she's left. Willing everything to dissolve, fade, crash, melt. But nothing changes. He's still dead. He's still standing here in this Farside room. Can still even breathe the faint patchouli of Thea's scent. He finishes dressing—a tie, a jacket, the same supple leather shoes he arrived in—and heads out into the corridor.
Elsinore really is big—and resolutely, heavily, emphatically, the ancient building it wishes to be. Cold gusts pass along its corridors. Heavy doors groan and creak. Of course, the delights of Farside are near-infinite. He's passed through forests of mist and silver. Seen the vast, miles-wide back of some great island of a seabeast drift past when he was still out at sea. The dead can grow wings, sprout gills, spread roots into the soil and raise their arms and become trees. All these things are not only possible, but visibly, virtually, achievably real. But he thinks they still hanker after life, and all the things of life the living, for all their disadvantages, possess.
He passes many fine-looking paintings as he descends the stairs. They have a Pre- Raphaelite feel, and from the little he knows of art, seem finely executed, but he doesn't recognise any of them. Have these been created by virtual hands, in some virtual workshop, or have they simply sprung into existence? And what would happen if he took that sword which also hangs on display, and slashed it through a canvas? Would it be gone for ever? Almost certainly not. One thing he knows for sure about the Farside's vast database is that it's endlessly backed up, scattered, diffused and re-collated across many secure and heavily armed vaults back in what's left of the world of the living. There are very few guaranteed ways of destroying any of it, least of all the dead.
Further down, there are holo-images, all done in stylish black and white. Somehow, even in a castle, they don't even look out of place. Thea, as always, looks like she's stepped out of a fashion-shoot. The dying jungle suits her. As does this war-zone, and this flooded hospital, and this burnt-out shanty town. The kids, and it is mostly kids, who surround her with their pot bellies and missing limbs, somehow manage to absorb a little of her glamour. On these famous trips of hers back to view the suffering living, she makes an incredibly beautiful ghost.
* * *
Two big fires burn in Elsinore's great hall, and there's a long table for dinner, and the heads of many real and mythic creatures loom upon the walls. Basilisk, boar, unicorn ... Hardly noticing the chimera servant who rakes his chair out for him, Northover sits down. Thea's space at the top of the table is still empty.
In this Valhalla where the lucky, eternal dead feast forever, what strikes Northover most strongly is the sight of Sam Bartleby sitting beside Thea's vacant chair. Not that he doesn't know that the man has been part of what's termed Thea Lorentz's inner circle for more than a decade. But, even when they were all still alive and working together on Bard On Wheels, he'd never been able to understand why she put up with him. Of course, Bartleby made his fortune with those ridiculous action virtuals, but the producers deepened his voice so much, and enhanced his body so ridiculously, that it was a wonder to Northover they bothered to use him at all. Now, though, he's chosen to bulk himself out and cut his hair in a Roman fringe. He senses Northover's gaze, and raises his glass, and gives an ironic nod. He still has the self-regarding manner of someone who thinks themselves far more better looking, not to mention cleverer, than they actually are.
Few of the dead, though, choose to be beautiful. Most elect for the look that expresses themselves at what they thought of as the most fruitful and self-expressive period of their lives. Amongst people this wealthy, this often equates to late middle age. The fat, the bald, the matronly and the downright ugly rub shoulders, secure in the knowledge that they can become young and beautiful again whenever they wish.
"So? What are you here for?"
The woman beside him already seems flushed from the wine, and has a homely face and a dimpled smile, although she sports pointed teeth, elfin ears and her eyes are cattish slots.
"Name's Wilhelmina Howard. People just call me Will ..." She offers him a claw- nailed hand to shake. "Made my money doing windfarm recycling in the non-federal states. All that lovely superconductor and copper we need right here to keep our power supplies as they should be. Not that we ever had much of a presence in England, which I'm guessing is where you were from ...?"
He gives a guarded nod.
"But isn't it just so great to be here at Elsinore? Such a privilege. Thea's everything people say she is, isn't she, and then a whole lot more as well? Such compassion, and all the marvellous things she's done! Still, I know she's invited me here because she wants to get hold of some of my money. Give back a little of what we've taken an' all. Not that I won't give. That's for sure. Those poor souls back on Lifeside. We really have to do something, don't we, all of us ...?"
"To be honest, I'm here because I used to work with Thea. Back when we were both alive."
"So, does that make you an actor?" Wilhelmina's looking at him more closely now. Her slot pupils have widened. "Should I recognise you? Were you in any of the famous—"
"No, no." As if in defeat, he holds up a hand. Another chance to roll out his story. More a musician, a keyboard player, although there wasn't much he hadn't turned his hand to over the years. Master of many trades, and what have you—at least, until that message fail signal came along.
"So, pretty much a lucky break," murmurs this ex take-no-shit businesswoman who died and became a fat elf, "rather than a any kind of lifetime endeavour ...?"
Then Thea enters the hall, and she's changed into something more purposefully elegant—a light grey dress that shows her fine breasts and shoulders without seeming immodest—and her hair is differently done, and Northover understands all the more why most of the dead make no attempt to be beautiful. After all, how could they, when Thea Lorentz does it so unassailably well? She stands waiting for a moment as if expectant silence hasn't already fallen, then says a few phrases about how pleased she is to have so many charming and interesting guests. Applause follows. Just as she used to do for many an encore, Thea nods and smiles and looks genuinely touched.
* * *
The rest of the evening at Elsinore passes in a blur of amazing food and superb wine, all served with the kind of discreet inevitability which Northover has decided only chimeras are capable of. Just like Wilhelmina, everyone wants to know who he's with, or for, or from. The story about that jingle works perfectly; many even claim to have heard of him and his success. Their curiosity only increases when he explains his and Thea's friendship. After all, he could be the route of special access to her famously compassionate ear.
There's about twenty guests here at Elsinore tonight, all told, if you don't count the several hundred chimeras, which of course no one does. Most of the dead, if you look at them closely enough, have adorned themselves with small eccentricities; a forked tongue here, an extra finger there, a crimson badger-stripe of hair. Some are new to each other, but the interactions flow on easy rails. Genuine fame itself is rare here—after all, entertainment has long been a cheapened currency—but there's a relaxed feeling-out between strangers in the knowledge that some shared acquaintance or interest will soon be reached. Wealth always was an exclusive club, and it's even more exclusive here.
Excerpted from The Year's Best Science Fiction by Gardner Dozois. Copyright © 2014 Gardner Dozois. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Griffin.
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