Read an Excerpt
Looking for Truth in a Wild Blue Yonder & the Starship Mechanic
By Ken Scholes, Jay Lake, Gregory Machess, Stephan Mariniere
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2009 Jay Lake and Ken Scholes
All rights reserved.
Ten years after my parents died, my therabot, Bob, informed me that I should seek help elsewhere. I blinked at his suggestion.
"I've already tried chemical intervention," I told his plastic grin. "It didn't work." I scowled, but that did nothing to de-brighten his soothing, chipper voice.
"Booze doesn't count, Charlie."
"I tried weed, too."
Bob shook his head. "Nothing therapeutic there, either, I'm afraid." He sighed and imitated the movements of pushing himself back from his imitation wood desk. "You are experiencing what we like to call complicated grief."
Complicated grief. As if I hadn't heard that one before.
Dad had died badly. He'd been on one of the trains that got swallowed by the Sound back on the day we lost Seattle. He'd called me from his cell phone with his last breath, as the water poured in, to let me know he wasn't really my father.
We lost the signal before he could tell me who he actually was. Naturally, I called Mom. She answered just before the ceiling of the store she was shopping in collapsed.
Both parents in one day. Fuck yes, complicated grief.
And a side helping of unknown paternity.
Bob continued. "Ten years is a long time, Charlie. I want you to call this number and ask for Pete." His eyes rolled in their sockets as his internal processors accessed his files. My phone chirped when his text came through. He extended a plastic tentacle tipped with a three-fingered white clown's glove. "I hope you find your way."
I scowled again and shook his offered hand. "So you're firing me as a patient?"
"Be well," he said. His eyes went dead and his hand dropped back to the artificial oak surface of his desk.
* * *
I met Pete in an alley on the back of Valencia, behind an old bookstore that still dealt in paper. I transferred funds to an offshore account that then moved it along, scrubbing the transaction as it passed through its various stops along the way before his phone chirped. When it chirped, he extended a smart-lock plastic bag to me. A small, withered blue thing sloshed about in it. At first, I thought it was a severed finger or something far worse. (Or better, depending upon one's fetishes.) I held the bag up to the flickering light of the dirty street lamp.
The blue thing looked like an asparagus tip, only it wriggled.
"Find someplace safe and quiet," Pete said. "Preferably indoors with a lock. Eat it with water."
"I'm not putting this in my mouth."
Pete shrugged. He was a scrawny kid, his tattooed face stubbly in the dim light, long red hair cascading over his shoulders. "Doesn't matter to me. But the wild blue yonder are especially good for your situation. Complicated grief, right?" I nodded because his eyes — one brown and one bright yellow — told me that he probably knew it from experience. "Eat this. Spend a weekend sweating and naked on the floor. You'll be a new man."
"Naked and sweating?" I looked at the baggie again, then back to Pete. "And how do you know Bob?" I couldn't imagine a therabot needing a dealer.
Pete smiled. "We're colleagues."
The smile widened even further. "I'm a back-alley grief counselor."
Slipping my wild blue yonder into my pocket, I left Pete in his alley and turned myself towards home.
* * *
I ate the wild blue yonder and stripped down in my living room. I put on some retro music — Zeppelin, I think — and stretched out on the floor.
It worked fast.
Light and sound from within me, building in magnitude until the nausea clenched my stomach and I sat up. My living room had become a purple field beneath swollen stars. Something like crickets sang all around, and I saw a girl sitting on a stump in the middle of the clearing. In the distance, deep blue trees swayed under a windless summer night sky.
"You must be Charlie," she said.
I was naked still, but for some reason I was unafraid and unashamed. "I am," I told her, standing. "Who are you? And where am I at?"
"I'm Verity." She tossed her long brown hair and batted the lids of her big brown eyes. "And you are in the wild blue yonder."
She wore a silver gown that flowed like mercury over the curves of her body. When she stood up too, I saw she was taller than me by at least a foot. "I'm sorry about your mother," she said, "and the man you thought was your father."
I blinked. "How do you know all of this?"
She shrugged. "I'm Verity."
We stood there, looking at each other, as an enormous moon rose to the south. A minute passed. "So how does this work?" I asked.
"Simple. I run. You chase me."
And then she ran.
* * *
As Pink Floyd said, I ran like hell. Or maybe I chased like hell. I didn't give a shit about Pete anymore. Or Bob. Or all the lost millions in the Pacific Northwest, Hawaii, Japan, and everywhere the sea had come crawling up onto land with bloody salted fingers and needle teeth.
Verity ran before me. With her she carried the hard burden of truth like a seed in the claws of a nuthatch. She sped over this strange blue landscape, her legs as perfect as I'd ever seen on a woman. Michelangelo would have cried to sculpt her. I would have cried to catch her.
But it wasn't that perfect ass I craved. It wasn't those high, firm breasts that I could imagine bobbing with each leaping step. It wasn't that trailing hair that I could wrap around my body.
She carried me: my past and my future.
How the hell had Pete known to give this to me; how had this wild blue yonder reached so far into time and my soul?
My thoughts fell aside as she ran. Reason gave way to desire. Logic yielded to need. The chase gave way to the run. The ground vanished. We sprinted across a stark, unyielding field of stars. They flared, dying as every hydrogen cycle eventually does, all of time compressed in a dozen falls of those perfect feet; then we ran through the salt sea, the world-girding amnion which had birthed all of evolution's ambitions. The seas boiled and dried and vanished in wispy, weeping gasses; we ran on roads of light, leaping from quantum packet to quantum packet.
Across time, across space, across the seventy-two acres of my neural net, until sufficient self-awareness finally returned to me for me to understand I would never catch up to the truth by chasing it. Grief is the Grendel-monster in the watery cave of the human heart. I pursued Grendel's mother, and she would have her vengeance on me if I dispatched her son.
So I stopped, caught in a moment of wisdom, and let Verity, the cup-bearer of my grief, come to me. The universe is circular, after all, endless in the manner of an egg, and if you wait long enough your own light will come back to you.
In ceasing my chase of Verity, she soon ran into my arms.
* * *
We collapsed in a tangle of limbs and clothing amid lush mounds of mint and violets. Scent, suddenly the world was scent; and the sweet smell of Verity's sweat which made me want to turn to her and place my lips upon the yoke of her neck and breathe her in.
Think, man, think. You're not here for this.
"You caught me," she whispered, and her tongue slipped into my ear.
I wriggled away. "We're not doing that chase, either."
"What do you want, Charlie?" Her breath was a furnace of passion warming me down to bones I'd forgotten I ever had.
"Truth," I said. The answer surprised me.
"No one wants truth, Charlie. They want certainty. They want forgiveness. They want love. Truth is like a dead city, a million watery graves. It doesn't compromise and it gives nothing back."
"Relief." This time I almost sobbed the word. "I want relief."
Truth. Who was my dad? What had my mom meant by this? Whose lie had determined the pattern of my life? Had Mom cheated on Dad? Had he come along after she was pregnant with me, and accepted another man's get as his own child?
I slowly realized that it didn't matter. The ghosts of the past ten years, what Bob had so patiently (as if a machine could be otherwise) talked me through, past, around, away from, out from beneath: those ghosts were of my own making.
Mom's unquiet spirit might haunt the desolate ruins of Auburn, Washington, sleeping beneath the hard, frozen waters. Dad's fetch might ride the rusted rails beneath the Puget Sea. So what?
"I live today," I told Verity.
"Is that the truth?"
"We can only go forward." I set my hand upon her breast, cupping the firm nipple through the flowing silver of her dress.
"I'm not real," she whispered in my ear again.
Tell that to my gonads, I thought, but that didn't matter now. "Is this what I was supposed to find?" She touched my hand, the curves of her flesh proud but not overflowing my grip, and I ached to draw her clothing away and set my lips to suckling.
"You came into this world damp and frightened. Your parents left this world damp and frightened."
"Even my dad?" I meant my biological father, the progenitor that Dad had almost told me about before being erased under a billion gallons of seawater.
It was just a splash, really, good news from outer space. Even if the clouds hadn't dissipated for three years after.
"Even your dad," she said. "Him."
So Dad-the-sperm-donor had been in the Northwest, too. Or Hawaii. Or coastal Alaska. Or Japan. Or on a ship at sea.
I hoped all three of their ghosts were happy somewhere, around some spiritual campfire trading stories about the boy I'd been. I wished them well, the love of each other, and even the love of me.
The past belonged to them, swept away along with the legacy of a sixth of the planet.
The future belonged to, well, maybe not me, but at the least to itself.
* * *
Roger Waters wailed from my speakers. I swear it had been Robert Plant when I first tripped out. I lay flat, drained. My thigh was sticky where I'd come at some point. I looked down to find my torso covered with blue lip prints.
I touched myself and flinched. No. Hickeys. What kind of drug trip left you with hickeys, for the love of god?
Aching, I dragged myself to my feet, turned down the stereo, and stepped into my kitchenette for some apple juice. Something was missing. Something was wrong.
I probed my thoughts, like a tongue questing for a missing tooth.
My parents were still present in my absence. But the paralyzing pain, the near-total abrogation of self and initiative, seemed to be gone, finally. After all these years. Was this what normal life was like? No wonder Bob had fired me.
As for Pete, the back-alley grief counselor, I owed him everything.
Heading for the tiny bedroom, I noticed something out of place in my living room as well. I stopped to look around. A woman's silver dress was draped across the back of my couch, as if stripped in a moment of wild passion. I touched the hickeys again.
What was real?
What was true?
Something stirred in the next room. A wall of seawater finally come to claim me as well? Or the future, waiting with bruised lips and the longest legs I'd ever seen on a woman?
With a silent thanks to Bob and Pete, I stepped into the wild blue yonder, looking for truth. Or at least whatever might come next.
I was finally done with what had come before.
The floor of Borderlands Books had been polished to mirror brightness. A nice trick with old knotty pine, but Penauch would have been a weapons-grade obsessive-compulsive if he'd been human. I'd thought about setting him to detailing my car, but he's just as likely to polish it down to aluminum and steel after deciding the paint was an impurity.
When he discovered that the human race recorded our ideas in books, he'd been impossible to keep away from the store. Penauch didn't actually read them, not as such, and he was most reluctant to touch the volumes. He seemed to view books as vehicles, launch capsules to propel ideas from the dreaming mind of the human race into our collective forebrain.
Despite the fact that Penauch was singular, unitary, a solitary alien in the human world, he apparently didn't conceive of us as anything but a collective entity. The xenoanthropologists at Berkeley were carving Ph.D.s out of that particular clay as fast as their grad students could transcribe Penauch's conversations with me.
He'd arrived the same as David Bowie in that old movie. No, not Brother from Another Planet; The Man Who Fell to Earth. Tumbled out of the autumn sky over the Cole Valley neighborhood of San Francisco like a maple seed, spinning with his arms stretched wide and his mouth open in a teakettle shriek audible from the Ghost Fleet in Suisun Bay all the way down to the grubby streets of San Jose.
* * *
The subject's fallsacs when fully deployed serve as a tympanum, producing a rhythmic vibration at a frequency perceived by the human ear as a high-pitched shriek. Xenophysiological modeling has thus far failed to generate testable hypotheses concerning the volume of the sound produced. Some observers have speculated that the subject deployed technological assistance during atmospheric entry, though no evidence of this was found at the landing site, and subject has never indicated this was the case.
— Scholes, Jen West. A Reader's Guide to Earth's Only Living Spaceman. Feldman, Jude A. San Francisco: Borderlands Books, 2014.
* * *
It was easier keeping Penauch in the bookstore. The owners didn't mind. They'd had hairless cats around the place for years — a breed called sphinxes. The odd animals served as a neighborhood tourist attraction and business draw. A seven-foot alien with a face like a plate of spaghetti and a cluster of writhing arms wasn't all that different. Not in a science fiction bookstore, at least.
Thing is, when Penauch was out in the world, he had a tendency to fix things.
This fixing often turned out to be not so good.
No technology was involved. Penauch's body was demonstrably able to modify the chitinous excrescences of his appendages at will. If he needed a cutting edge, he ate a bit of whatever steel was handy and swiftly metabolized it. If he needed electrical conductors, he sought out copper plumbing. If he needed logic probes, he consumed sand or diamonds or glass.
It was all the same to Penauch.
As best any of us could figure out, Penauch was a sort of tool. A Swiss army knife that some spacefaring race had dropped or thrown away, abandoned until he came to rest on Earth's alien shore.
And Penauch only spoke to me.
* * *
The question of Penauch's mental competence has bearing in both law and ethics. Pratt and Shaw (2013) have effectively argued that the alien fails the Turing test, both at a gross observational level and within the context of finer measurements of conversational intent and cooperation. Cashier (2014) claims an indirectly derived Stanford-Binet score in the 99th percentile, but seemingly contradicts herself by asserting that Penauch's sentience is at best an open question. Is he (or it) a machine, a person, or something else entirely?
— Browne, S. G. "A Literature Review of the Question of Alien Mentation." Journal of Exogenic Studies II.4 (August 2015).
* * *
The first time he fixed something was right after he'd landed. Penauch impacted with that piercing shriek at 2:53 p.m. Pacific Time on Saturday, July 16, 2011, at the intersection of Cole and Parnassus. Every window within six blocks shattered. Almost a hundred pedestrians and shoppers in the immediate area were treated for lacerations from broken glass, over two dozen more for damage to hearing and sinuses.
I got to him first, stumbling out of Cole Hardware with a headache like a cartoon anvil had been dropped on me. Inside, we figured a bomb had gone off. The rising noise and the vibrating windows. All the vases in the homeware section had exploded. Luckily I'd been with the fasteners. The nails sang, but they didn't leap off the shelves and try to make hamburger of me.
Outside, there was this guy lying in a crater in the middle of the intersection, like Wile E. Coyote after he'd run out of Acme patented jet fuel. I hurried over, touched his shoulder, and realized what a goddamned mess he was. Then half a dozen eyes opened, and something like a giant rigatoni farted before saying, "Penauch."
Weird thing was, I could hear the spelling.
Though I didn't know it in that moment, my old life was over, my new one begun.
Penauch then looked at my shattered wristwatch, grabbed a handful of BMW windshield glass, sucked it down, and moments later fixed my timepiece.
For some value of "fixed."
Excerpted from Two Stories by Ken Scholes, Jay Lake, Gregory Machess, Stephan Mariniere. Copyright © 2009 Jay Lake and Ken Scholes. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.