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Stories by Suzy McKee Charnas, Ted Chiang, Avram Davidson, Karen Joy Fowler, Paul McAuley, Brian Stableford, and others.
The theme of this anthology is "endangered species", loosely interpreted to include in some cases the human race. The contents are four excellent reprints and a dozen new stories, including a new novella from Ted Chiang, one of the hottest young story ...
Stories by Suzy McKee Charnas, Ted Chiang, Avram Davidson, Karen Joy Fowler, Paul McAuley, Brian Stableford, and others.
The theme of this anthology is "endangered species", loosely interpreted to include in some cases the human race. The contents are four excellent reprints and a dozen new stories, including a new novella from Ted Chiang, one of the hottest young story writers in SF. This is a distinguished original anthology fit to put on the shelf beside Starlight.
At the publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management software (DRM) applied.
Suzy McKee Charnas, a born and bred New Yorker, has lived with her husband in New Mexico for the past thirty years. She has taught high school and university classes and still gladly does teaching or speaking engagements in the areas of writing and SF. Her first novel, Walk to the End of the World (1974), was a John VV. Campbell Award finalist. The Conqueror's Child, the fourth book of the series begun with Walk, completed that extensive fiction project in 1999. Various SF and fantasy books and stories have won her the Hugo Award, the Nebula Award, and the Mythopoeic Society's Award for young-adult fantasy. She ventured into theater by turning her prize-winning novella "Unicorn Tapestry" into a play, first staged at the MagicTheatre in San Francisco in 1991. She has recently revised the lyrics and written several new songs for the musical Nosferatu, by British composer Bernard J. Taylor.
She says of "Listening to Brahms" that "this is the only story I have written that was first told to me in a dream on the sunny terrace of a seaside restaurant by a human-sized lizard sitting across the table from me. I did not remember a word this creature had said when I woke up, but a few days later I sat down and wrote this story in a sustained burst of clear energy. The original germ of 'Brahms' had been a scrap of conversation overheard at a concert in Santa Fe; unable to come up with the fictional context that I knew lurked behind this brief dialog, I had written down the lines and stuck them in a drawer to ripen. It was months later that the lizard-person narrated the story itself to me in my sleep. I do not know what all this means with regard to a) the creative process, b) astral travel to alien planets and/or restaurants, or c) the actual future of the human species. Maybe when you've read the story, you can tell me."
LISTENING TO BRAHMS
SUZY MCKEE CHARNAS
Entry 1: They had already woken up Chandler and Ross. They did me third. I was supposed to be up first so I could check the data on the rest of our crew during their cold sleep, but how would a bunch of aliens know that?
Our ship is full of creatures with peculiar eyes and wrinkled skin covered with tiny scales, a lot like lizards walking around on their hind legs. Their skins are grayish or greenish or even bluish sometimes. They have naked-looking faces—no hair—with features that seem polished smooth. The first ones I met had wigs on, and they wore evening clothes and watered-silk sashes with medals. I was too numb-brained to laugh, and now I don't feel like it. They all switched to jumpsuits once the formalities were over. I keep waiting for them to unzip their jumpsuits and then their lizard suits and climb out, regular human beings. I keep waiting for the joke to be over.
They speak English, some with accents, some not. They have breathy voices and talk very softly to us. That may be because of what they have to say. They say Earth burned itself up, which is why we never got our wake-up signal and were still in the freezer when they found us. Chandler believes them. Ross doesn't. I won't know what the others think until they're unfrozen.
I sit looking through the view plate at Earth, such as it is. I know what the lizards say is true, but I don't think I really believe it. I think mostly that I'm dead or having a terrible dream.
Entry 2: Steinbrunner killed himself (despite their best efforts to prevent anything like that, the lizards say). Sue Anne Beamish, fifth to be thawed, won't talk to anybody. She grits her teeth all thetime. I can hear them grinding whenever she's around. It's very annoying.
The lead lizard's name is Captain Midnight. He says he knows it's not the most appropriate name for a space-flight commander, but he likes the sound of it.
It seems that on their home planet the lizards have been fielding our various Earth transmissions, both radio and TV, and they borrow freely from what they've found there. They are given native names, but if they feel like it later they take Earth-type names instead. Those on Captain Midnight's ship all have Earth-type names. Luckily the names are pretty memorable, because I can't tell one alien from another except by the name badges they wear on their jumpsuits. I look at them sometimes and I wonder if I'm crazy. Can't afford to be, not if I've got to deal on a daily basis with things that look as if they walked out of a Walt Disney cartoon feature.
They revive us one by one and try to make sure nobody else cuts their wrists like Steinbrunner. He cut the long way, that can't be fixed.
I look out the viewplate at what's left of the earth and let the talk slide over me. We can't raise anything from down there. I can't raise anything inside me either. I can only look and look and let the talk slide over me. Could I be dead after all? I feel dead.
Entry 3: Captain Midnight says now that we're all up he would be honored beyond expression if we would consent to come back to Kondra with him and his crew in their ship. Kondra is their name for their world. Chu says she's worked out where and what it is in our terms, and she keeps trying to show me on the star charts. I don't look; I don't care. I came up here to do studies on cryogenic nutrition in space, not to look at star charts.
It doesn't matter what I came up here to do. Earth is a moon with a moon now. Nutrition doesn't mean anything, not in connection with anything human. There's nothing to nourish. There's just this airless rock, like all the other airless rocks rolling around in space.
I took the data the machines recorded about us while we slept, and I junked it. Chu says I did a lot of damage to some of our equipment in the process. I didn't set out to do that, but it felt good, or something like good, to go on from wiping out information to smashing metal. I've assured everybody that I won't freak out like that again. It doesn't accomplish anything, and I felt foolish afterward. I'm not sure they believe me. I'm not sure I believe my own promise.
Morris and Myers say they won't go with the Kondrai. They say they want to stay here in our vessel just in case something happens down there or in case some other space mission survived and shows up looking for whatever's left, which is probably only us.
Captain Midnight says they can rig a beacon system on our craft to attract anybody who does come around and let them know where we've gone. I can tell the lizards are not going to let Morris and Myers stay here and die.
They say, the Kondrai do, that they didn't actually come here for us. After several generations of receiving and enjoying Earth's transmissions, Kondran authorities decided to borrow a ship from a neighboring world and send Earth an embassy from Kondra, a mission of goodwill.
First contact at last, and there's nobody here but the seven of us. Tough on the Kondrai. They expected to find a whole worldful of us, glued to our screens and speakers. Tough shit all around.
I have dreams so terrible there are no words.
Entry 4: There's nothing for us to do on the Kondran ship, which is soft and leathery inside its alloy shell. I have long talks with Walter Drake, who is head of the mission. Walter Drake is female, I think. Walter Duck.
If I can make a joke, does that mean I'm crazy?
It took me a while to figure out what was wrong with the name. Then I said, "Look, it's Sir Walter Raleigh or Sir Francis Drake."
She said, "But we don't always just copy. I have chosen to commemorate two great voyagers."
I said, "And they were both males."
She said, "That's why I dropped the Sir."
Afterward I can't believe these conversations. I resent the end of the world—my world, going on as a bad joke with Edgar Rice Burroughs aliens.
Myers and Morris play chess with each other all day and won't talk to anybody. Most of us don't like to talk to each other right now. We can't look in each other's eyes, for some reason. There's an excuse in the case of not looking the lizards in the eyes. They have this nictitating membrane. It's unsettling to look at that.
All the lizards speak English and at least one other Earth language. Walter Drake says there are several native languages on Kondra, but they aren't spoken in the population centers anymore. Kondran culture, in its several major branches, is very old. It was once greater and more complex than our own, she says, but then it got simple again, and the population began to drop. The whole species was, in effect, beginning to close down. When our signals were first picked up, something else began to happen: a growing trend toward population increase and a young generation fascinated by Earth culture. The older Kondrai, who had gone back to living like their ancestors in the desert, didn't object. They said fine, let the youngsters do as they choose as long as they let the oldsters do likewise.
I had to walk away when Walter Drake told me about this. It started me thinking about my own people I left back on Earth, all dead now. I won't put their names down. I was crying. Now I've stopped, and I don't want to start again. It makes my eyes hurt.
Walter Drake brought me some tapes of music that they've recorded from our broadcasts. They collect our signals, everything they can, through something they call the Retrieval Project. They reconstruct the broadcasts and record them and store the recordingsin a huge library for study. Our classical music has a great following there.
I've been listening to some Bach partitas. My mother played the piano. She sometimes played Bach.
Entry 5: Sibelius, Symphony No. 2 in D, Op. 43; Tchaikovsky, Variations on a Rococo Theme, Op. 33; Rachmaninoff, Symphonic Dances, Op. 45; Mozart, Clarinet Quintet in A major, K581; Sibelius, Symphony No. 2 in D, Op. 43; Sibelius, Symphony No. 2 in D, Op. 43.
Entry 6: Chandler is alive, Ross is alive, Beamish is alive, Chu is alive, Morris is alive, Myers is alive, and I am alive. But that doesn't count. I mean I can't count it. Up. To mean anything. Why are we alive?
Entry 7: Myers swallowed a chess piece. The lizards operated on him somehow and saved his life.
Entry 8: Woke up from a dream wondering if maybe we did die in our ship and my "waking life" in the Kondran ship is really just some kind of after-death hallucination. Suppose I died, suppose we all actually died at the same moment Earth died? It wouldn't make any difference. Earth's people are all dead and someplace else or nowhere, but we are here. We are separate.
They're in contact with their home planet all the time. Chu is fascinated by their communications technology, which is wild, she says. Skips over time or folds up space—I don't know, I'm just a nutrition expert. Apparently on Kondra now they are making up their own human-style names instead of lifting them ready-made. (Walter Drake was a pioneer in this, I might point out.) Captain Midnight has changed his name. He is henceforth to be known as Vernon Zeno Ellerman.
Bruckner and Mahler symphonies, over and over, fill a lot of time. Walter Drake says she is going to get me some fresh music, though I haven't asked for any.
Entry 9: Beamish came and had a talk with me. She looked fierce.
"Listen, Flynn," she said, "we're not going to give up."
"Give up what?" I said.
"Don't be so obtuse," she said between her teeth. "The human race isn't ended as long as even a handful of us are still alive and kicking."
I am alive, though I don't know why (I now honestly do not recall the exact nature of the experiments I was onboard our craft to conduct). I'm not sure I'm kicking, and I told her so.
She grinned and patted my knee. "Don't worry about it, Flynn. I don't mean you should take up where you left off with Lily Chu." That happened back in training. I didn't even remember it until Beamish said this. "Nobody's capable right now, which is just as well. Besides, the women in this group are not going to be anybody's goddamn brood mares, science-fiction traditions to the contrary."
"Oh," I said. I think.
She went on to say that the Kondrai have or can borrow the technology to grow children for us in vitro. All we have to do is furnish the raw materials.
I said fine. I had developed another terrible headache. I've been having headaches lately.
After she left I tried some music. Walter Drake got me Boris Godunov, but I can't listen to it. I can't listen to anything with people's voices. I don't know how to tell this to Walter Drake. Don't want to tell her. It's none of her business anyhow.
Entry 10: Chu and Morris are sleeping together. So much for Beamish's theory that nobody is capable. With Myers not up to playing chess yet, I guess Morris had to find something to do.
Chu said to me, "I'm sorry, Michael."
I felt this little, far-off sputtering like anger somewhere deep down, and then it went out. "That's okay," I said. And it is.
Chandler has been spending all his time in the communications cell of the ship with another lizard, one with a French name that I can't remember. Chandler tells us he's learning a lot aboutKondran life. I tune him out when he talks like this. I never go to the communications cell. The whole thing gives me a headache. Everything gives me a headache except music.
Entry 11: I was sure it would be like landing in some kind of imitation world, a hodgepodge of phony bits and pieces copied from Earth. That's why I wouldn't go out for two K-days after we landed.
Everybody was very understanding. Walter Drake stayed on board with me.
"We have fixed up a nice hotel where you can all be together," she told me, "like the honored guests that you are."
I finally got off and went with the others when she gave me the music recordings to take with me. She got me a playback machine. I left the Mozart clarinet quintet behind, and she found it and brought it after me. But I won't listen to it. The clarinet sound was made by somebody's living breath, somebody who's dead now, like all of them. I can't stand to hear that sound.
The hotel was in a suburb of a city, which looked a little like LA, though not as much as I had expected. Later sometime I should try to describe the city. There's a hilly part, something like San Francisco, by the sea. We asked to go over there instead. They found us a sort of rooming house of painted wood with a basement. Morris and Chu have taken the top floor, though I don't think they sleep together anymore.
Ross has the apartment next door to me. She's got her own problems. She threw up when she first set foot on Kondra. She throws up almost every day, says she can't help it.
There are invitations for us to go meet the locals and participate in this and that, but the lizards do not push. They are so damned considerate and respectful. I don't go anywhere. I stay in my room and listen to music. Handel helps me sleep.
Entry 12: Four and a half K-years have passed. I stopped doing this log because Chandler showed me his. He was keeping a detailed record of what was happening to us, what had happened,what he thought was going to happen. Then Beamish circulated her version, and Dr. Birgit Nilson, the lizard in charge of our mental health, started encouraging us all to contribute what we could to a "living history" project.
I was embarrassed to show anybody my comments. I am not a writer or an artist like Myers has turned out to be. (His pictures are in huge demand here, and he has a whole flock of Kondran students.) If Chandler and Beamish were writing everything down, why should I waste my time doing the same thing?
Living history of what, for whom?
Also I didn't like what Chandler wrote about me and Walter Drake. Yes, I slept with her. One of us would have tried it, sooner or later, with one lizard or another. I just happened to be the one who did. I had better reasons than any of the others. Walter Drake had been very kind to me.
I was capable all right (still am). But the thought of going to bed with Lily or Sue Anne made my skin creep, though I couldn't have said why. On the Kondran ship I used to jerk off and look at the stuff in my hand and wonder what the hell it was doing there: Didn't my body know that my world is gone, my race, my species?
Sex with Walter Drake is different from sex with a woman. That's part of what I like about it. And another thing. Walter Drake doesn't cry in her sleep.
Walter and I did all right. For a couple of years I went traveling alone, at the government's expense—like everything we do here—all over Kondra. Walter was waiting when I got back. So we went to live together away from the rooming house. The time passed like a story or a dream. Not much sticks in my head now from that period. We listened to a lot of music together. Nothing with flutes or clarinet, though. String music, percussion, piano music, horns only if they're blended with other sounds—that's what I like. Lots of light stuff, Dukas and Vivaldi and Milhaud.
Anyway, that period is over. After all this time Chu and Morris have committed suicide together. They used a huge old pistolone of them must have smuggled all this way. Morris, probably. He always had a macho hang-up.
Beamish goes around saying, "Why? Why?" At first I thought this was the stupidest question I'd ever heard. I was seriously worried that maybe these years on Kondran food and water had addled her mind through some weird allergic reaction.
Then she said, "We're so close, Flynn. Why couldn't they have waited? I wouldn't have let them down."
I keep forgetting about her in vitro project. It's going well, she says. She works very hard with a whole team of Kondrai under Dr. Boleslav Singh, preparing a cultural surround for the babies she's developing. She comes in exhausted from long discussions with Dr. Boleslav Singh and Dr. Birgit Nilson and others about the balance of Earth information and Kondran information to be given to the human babies. Beamish wants to make little visitors out of the babies. She says it's providential that we were found by the Kondrai—a race that has neatly caught and preserved everything transmitted by us about our own culture and our past. So now all that stuff is just waiting to be used, she says, to bridge the gap in our race's history. "The gap," that's what she calls it. She has a long-range plan of getting a ship for the in vitros to use when they grow up and want to go find a planet they can turn into another Earth. This seems crazy to me. But she is entitled. We all are.
I've moved back into the rooming house. I feel it's my duty, now that we're so few. Walter has come with me.
Entry 13: Mozart's piano concertos, especially Alfred Brendel's renditions, all afternoon. I have carried out my mission after all—to answer the question: What does a frozen Earthman eat for breakfast? The answer is music. For lunch? Music. Dinner? Music. This frozen Earthman stays alive on music.
Entry 14: A year and a half together in the rooming house, and Walter Drake and I have split up. Maybe it has nothing to do with being in the rooming house with the other humans. Divorce is becoming very common among young Kondrai. So is somethinglike hair. They used to wear wigs. Now they have developed a means of growing featherlike down on their heads and in their armpits, etc.
When Walter came in with a fine dusting of pale fuzz on her pate, I told her to pack up and get out. She says she understands, she's not bitter. She doesn't understand one goddamned thing.
Entry 15: Beamish's babies, which I never went to see, have died of an infection that whipped through the whole lot of them in three days. The Kondran medical team taking care of them caught it, too, though none of them died. A few are blind from it, perhaps permanently.
Myers took pictures of the little corpses. He is making paintings from his photos. Did I put it in here that swallowing a chess piece did not kill Myers? Maybe it should have, but it seems nothing can kill Myers. He is as tough as rawhide. But he doesn't play chess, not since Morris killed himself. There are Kondrai who play very well, but Myers refuses their invitations. You can say that for him at least.
He just takes photographs and paints.
I'm not really too sorry about the babies. I don't know which would be worse, seeing them grow up as a little clutch of homeless aliens among the lizards or seeing them adapt and become pseudo-Kondrai. I don't like to think about explaining to them how the world they really belong to blew itself to hell. (Lily Chu is the one who went over the signals the Kondrai salvaged about that and sorted out the sequence of events. That was right before she killed herself.) We slept through the end of our world. Bad enough to do it, worse to have to talk about it. I never talk about it now, not even with the Kondrai. With Dr. Birgit Nilson I discuss food, of course, and health. I find these boring and absurd subjects, though I cooperate out of politeness. I also don't want to get stuck on health problems, like Chandler, who has gone through one hypochondriacal frenzy after another in the past few years.
Beamish says she will try again. Nothing will stop her. Sheconfided to Ross that she thinks the Kondrai deliberately let the babies die, maybe even infected them on purpose. "They don't want us to revive our race," she said to Ross. "They're trying to take our place. Why should they encourage the return of the real thing?"
Ross told me Beamish wants her to help arrange some kind of escape from Kondra, God knows to where. Ross is worried about Beamish. "What," she says, "if she goes off the deep end and knifes some innocent lizard medico? They might lock us all up permanently."
Ross does not want, to be locked up. She plays the cello all the time, which used to be a hobby of hers. The lizards were only too pleased to furnish her an instrument. A damn good one, too, she says. What's more, she now has three Kondrai studying with her.
I don't care what she does. I walk around watching the Kondrai behave like us.
I have terrible dreams, still.
Symphonic music doesn't do it for me anymore, not even Sibelius. I can't hear enough of the music itself; there are too many voices. I listen to chamber pieces. There you can hear each sound, everything that happens between each sound and each other sound near it.
They gave me a free pass to the Library of the Retrieval Project. I spend a lot of time there, listening.
Entry 16: Fourteen K-years later. Beamish eventually did get three viable Earth-style children out of her last lot. Two of them drowned in a freak accident at the beach a week ago. The third one, a girl named Melissa, ran away. They haven't been able to find her.
Our tissue contributions no longer respond, though Beamish keeps trying. She calls the Kondrai "Snakefaces" behind their backs.
Her hair is gray. So is mine.
Kondran news is all about the growing tensions between Kondra and the neighbor world it does most of its trading with. I don'tknow how that used to work in economic terms, but apparently it's begun to break down. I never saw any of the inhabitants of that world, called Chadondal, except in pictures and Kondran TV news reports. Now I guess I never will. I don't care.
Something funny happened with the flu that killed all of Beamish's first babies. It seems to have mutated into something that afflicts the Kondrai the way cancer used to afflict human beings. This disease doesn't respond to the cure human researchers developed once they figured out that our cancer was actually a set of symptoms of an underlying disease. Kondran cancer is something all their own.
They are welcome to it.
Entry 17: I went up into the sandhills to have a look at a few of the Old Kondrai, the ones who never did buy into imitation Earth ways. Most of them don't talk English (they don't even talk much Kondran to each other), but they don't seem to mind if you hang around and watch them a while.
They live alone or else in very small settlements on a very primitive level, pared down to basics. Your individual Old Kondran will have a small, roundish stone house or even a burrow or cave and will go fetch water every day and cook on a little cell-powered stove or a wood fire. They usually don't even have TV. They walk around looking at things or sit and meditate or dig in their flower gardens or carve things out of the local wood. Once in a while they'll get together for a dance or a sort of mass bask in the sun or to put on plays and skits and so on. These performances can go on for days. They have a sort of swap economy, which is honored elsewhere when they travel. You sometimes see these pilgrims in the city streets, just wandering around. They never stay long.
Some of the younger Kondrai have begun harking back to this sort of life, trying to create the same conditions in the cities, which is ridiculous. These youngsters act as if it's something absolutely basic they have to try to hang on to in the face of an invasion of alien ways. Earth ways.
This is obviously a backlash against the effects of the Retrieval Project. I keep an eye on developments. It's all fascinating and actually creepy. To me the backlash is uncannily reminiscent of those fundamentalist-nationalist movements—Christian American or Middle-Eastern Muslim or whatever—that made life such hell for so many people toward the end of our planet's life. But if you point this resemblance out, the anti-Retrieval Kondrai get furious because, after all, anything Earth-like is what they're reacting against.
I sometimes bring this up in conversation just to get a rise out of them.
If I'm talking to Kondrai who are part of the backlash, they invariably get furious. "No," they say, "we're just trying to turn back to our old, native ways!" They don't recognize this passion itself as something that humans, not Kondrai, were prone to. From what I can gather and observe, fervor, either reactionary or progressive, is something alien to native Kondran culture as it was before they started retrieving our signals. Their life was very quiet and individualized and pretty dull, as a matter of fact.
Sometimes I wish we'd found it like that instead of the way it had already become by the time we got here. Of course the Old Kondrai never would have sent us an embassy in the first place.
I talk to Dr. Birgit Nilson about all this a lot. We aren't exactly friends, but we communicate pretty well for a man and a lizard.
She says they have simply used human culture to revitalize themselves.
I think about the Old Kondrai I saw poking around, growing the kind of flowers that attract the flying grazers they eat, or just sitting. I like that better. If they were a dying culture, they should have just gone ahead and died.
Entry 18: Ross has roped Chandler into her music making. Turns out he played the violin as a kid. They practice a lot in the rooming house. Sometimes Ross plays the piano, too. She's better on the cello. I sit on my porch, looking at the bay, and I listen.
Ross says the Kondrai as a group are fascinated by performance. Certainly they perform being human better and better all the time. They think of Earth's twentieth century as the Golden Age of Human Performance. How would they know? It's all secondhand here, everything.
I've been asked to join a nutritional-study team heading for Kondra-South, where some trouble spots are developing. I have declined. I don't care if they starve or why they starve. I had enough of looking at images of starvation on Earth, where we did it on a terrific scale. What a performance that was!
Also I don't want to leave here because then I wouldn't get to hear Ross and Chandler play. They do sonatas and duets and they experiment, not always very successfully, with adapting music written for other instruments. It's very interesting. Now that Ross is working on playing the piano as well as the cello, their repertoire has been greatly expanded.
They aren't nearly as good as the great musical performers of the Golden Age, of course. But I listen to them anyway whenever I can. There's something about live music. You get a hunger for it.
Entry 19: Myers has gone on a world tour. He is so famous as an artist that he has rivals, and there are rival schools led by artists he himself has trained. He spends all his time with the snakes now, the ones masquerading as artists and critics and aesthetes. He hardly ever stops at the rooming house or comes by here to visit.
Sue Anne Beamish and I have set up house together across the bay from the rooming house. She's needed somebody around her ever since they found the desiccated corpse of little Melissa in the rubbish dump and worked out what had been done to her.
The Kondran authorities say they think some of the Kondrachalikipon (as the anti-Retrieval-backlash members call themselves now, meaning "return to Kondran essence") were responsible. The idea is that these Kondracha meant what they did as a symbolic rejection of everything the Retrieval Project hasretrieved and a warning that Kondra will not be turned into an imitation Earth without a fight.
When Dr. Birgit Nilson and I talked about this, I pointed out that the Kondracha, if it was them, didn't get it right. They should have dumped the kid's body on the Center House steps and then called a press conference. Next time they'll do it better, though, being such devoted students of our ways.
"I know that," she said. "What is becoming of us?"
Us meant "us Kondrai," of course, not her and me. She likes to think that we Earth guests have a special wisdom that comes from our loss and from a mystical blood connection with the culture that the Kondrai are absorbing. As if I spend my time thinking about that kind of thing. Dr. Birgit Nilson is a romantic.
I don't talk to Sue Anne about Melissa's death. I don't feel it enough, and she would know that. So many died before, what's one more kid's death now? A kid who could never have been human anyway because a human being is born on Earth and raised in a human society, like Sue Anne and me.
"We should have blown their ship up and us with it," she says, "on the way here."
She won't come with me to the rooming house to listen to Ross and Chandler play. They give informal concert evenings now. I go, even though the audience is 98 percent lizard, because by now I know every recording of chamber music in the Retrieval Library down to the last scrape of somebody's chair during a live recital. The recordings are too faithful. I can just about tolerate the breath intake you hear sometimes when the first violinist cues a phrase. It's different with Ross and Chandler. Their live music makes the live sounds all right. Concerts are given by Kondran "artists" all the time, but I won't go to those.
For one thing, I know perfectly well that we don't hear sounds, we human beings, not sounds from outside. Our inner ear vibrates to the sound from outside, and we hear the sound that our own ear creates inside the head in response to that vibration. Now, how canthe Kondran ear be exactly the same as ours? No matter how closely they've learned to mimic the sounds that our musicians produced, Kondran ears can't be hearing what human ears do when human music is played. A Kondran concert of human music is a farce.
Poor Myers. He missed the chance to take pictures of Melissa's dead body so he could make paintings of it later.
Entry 20: They are saying that the reason there's so much crime and violence now on Kondra isn't because of the population explosion at all. Some snake who calls himself Swami Nanda has worked out how the demographic growth is only a sign of the underlying situation.
According to him Kondra made an "astral agreement" to take in not only us living human survivors but the souls of all the dead of Earth. Earth souls on the astral plane, seeing that there were soon going to be no more human bodies on Earth to get born into, sent out a call for new bodies and a new world to inhabit. The Kondran souls on the astral plane, having pretty much finished their work on the material world of Kondra, agreed to let human souls take over the physical plant here, as it were. Now the younger generation is all Earth souls reborn as Kondrai on this planet, and they're re-creating conditions familiar to them from Earth.
I have sent this "Swami" four furious letters. He answered the last one very politely and at great length, explaining it all very clearly with the words he has stolen for his stolen metaphysical concepts.
Oh, yes: Another dozen K-years have passed. I might as well just say years. Kondran years are only a few days off our own, and Chandler has stopped keeping his Earth-time calendar since he's gotten so deep into music.
Chandler is now doing some composing, Ross tells me.
Ross rebukes me when I call the Kondrai snakes, talking to me as gently and reasonably as the Kondrai themselves always talk to us. That makes me sick, which is pretty funny when I recall howshe used to vomit every day when we first came here. So she can stop telling me how to talk and warning me that it's no good to be a recluse. No good for what? And what would be better?
Nobody ever taught me to play any instrument. My parents said I had no talent, and they were right. I'm a listener, so I listen. I'm doing my job. I wouldn't go to the rooming house and talk to Ross at all except for the music. They are getting really good. It's amazing. Once in a while I spend a week at the Retrieval Library listening to the really great performances that are recorded there, to make sure my taste hasn't become degraded.
It hasn't. My two crewmates are converting themselves, by some miracle of dedication, into fine performers.
Last night I had to walk out in the middle of a Beethoven sonata to be alone.
Entry 21: Sue Anne had a stroke last week. She is paralyzed down her left side. I am staying with her almost constantly because I know she can't stand having the snakes around her anymore.
She blames me, I know, for having cooperated with them. We all spent hours and hours with their researchers, filling out their information about our dead planet. How could we have refused? In the face of their courtesy and considering how worried we all were about forgetting Earth ourselves, how could we? Besides, we really had nothing else to do.
She blames me anyhow, but I don't mind.
A wave of self-immolation is going on among young Kondrai. They find themselves an audience and set themselves afire, and the watching Kondrai generally stand there as if hypnotized by the flames and do nothing.
Dr. Birgit Nilson told me, "Your entire population died out; many of them burnt up in an instant. This created much karma, and those who are responsible must be allowed to pay."
"You're a Nandist, then," I said. "Swami Nanda and his reincarnation crap."
"I see no other explanation," she said.
"It all makes sense to you?" I said.
"Yes." She stroked her cheek with her orange-polished talons. "It's a loan: We have lent our beautiful material world and our species's bodies in exchange for your energetic souls and your rich, passionate culture."
They are the crazy ones, not us.
Entry 22: Some wild-eyed young snake with his top feathers dyed blue took a shot at the swami this morning with an old-fashioned thorn gun.
They caught him. We watched on the news. The would-be assassin sneers at the camera like a real Earth punk. Sue Anne glares back and snorts derisively.
Entry 23: Dreamed of my mother at her piano, but her hands were Kondran hands. The fingers were too long, and the nails were set like claws, and her skin was covered in minute, grayish scales.
I think she was playing Chopin.
Entry 24: Sometimes I wish I were a writer, to do all this justice. I might have some function as a survivor.
Look at Sue Anne: Except for some terrible luck, she would have created out of us a new posterity.
Myers is doing prints these days, but not on Earth themes anymore, though the Kondrai beg him to concentrate on what's "native" to him. He says his memory of Earth is no longer trustworthy, and besides, images of Kondra are native to the eyes of reborn Earth souls now. He accepts Nandism openly and goes around doing Kondran landscapes and portraits and so on. Well, nobody will have to miss any of that in my account, then. They can always look at Myers's pictures.
Walter Drake died last winter of Kondran cancer. I went to the funeral. For the first time I wore makeup.
Myers, the arrogant son of a bitch, condescended to share a secret with me. He used this face paint, plus a close haircut or a feathered cap, to go out incognito among the snakes so he can observe them undisturbed. Age has smoothed his features andmade him thin, like most Kondrai, and he's been getting away with it for years. Well, good for him. Look at what they're trying to get away with along those lines!
Being disguised has its advantages. I hadn't realized the pressure of being stared at all the time in public until I moved around without it.
They said, "Ashes to ashes and dust to dust," and I got dizzy and had to sit down on a bench.
Entry 25: Four more years. My heart still checks out, Dr. Birgit Nilson tells me. I put on makeup and hang out in the bars, watching TV with the Kondrai, but not too often. Sometimes they make me so damn nervous, even after so long here. I forget what they are and what I am. I forget myself. I get scared that I'm turning senile.
When I get home Sue Anne gives me this cynical look, and my perspective is restored. I play copy-tapes of Dvoák for her. Also Schubert. She likes the French, though. I find them superficial.
To hear Brahms and Beethoven and Mozart, I go to the rooming house. I go whenever Ross and Chandler play. While the music sounds the constant crying inside me gets so big and so painful and beautiful that I can't contain it. So it moves outside me for a while, and I feel rested and changed. This is only an illusion, but wonderful.
Entry 26: Poor Myers got caught in a religious riot on the other side of the world. He was beaten to death by a Kondracha mob. I guess his makeup job was careless. Dr. Birgit Nilson, much aged and using a cane, came to make a personal apology, which I accepted for old times' sake.
"We caught two of them," she said. "The ringleaders of the Kondracha group that killed your poor Mr. Myers."
"Kondrachalations," I said. Couldn't help myself.
Dr. Birgit looked at me. "Forgive me," she said. "I shouldn't have come."
When I told Sue Anne about this, she slapped my face. Shehasn't much strength even in her good arm these days. But I resented being hit and asked her why she did it.
"Because you were smiling, Michael."
"You can't cry all the time," I said.
"No," she said. "I wish we could."
Dr. Birgit Nilson says that Kondrai are now composing music in classical, popular, and "primitive" styles, all modeled on Earth music. I have not heard any of this new music. I do not want to.
Entry 27: At least Sue Anne didn't live to see this: They are now grafting lobes onto their ugly ear holes.
No, that's not the real news. The real news is about Kondra-South, where a splinter group of Kondracha extremists set up a sort of purist, Ur-Kondran state some years ago. They use only their version of Old Kondran farming methods, which is apparently not an accurate version. Their topsoil has been rapidly washing away in the summer floods.
Now they are killing newborns down there to have fewer mouths to feed. The pretext is that these newborns look like humans and are part of the great taint that everything Earthish represents to the pure. The official Kondrachalikipon line is that they are feeding themselves just fine, thank you. The truth seems to be mass starvation and infanticide.
After Sue Anne died, I moved back into the rooming house. I have a whole floor to myself and scarcely ever go out. I watch Kondran TV a lot, which is how I keep track of their politics and so on. I've stopped looking for false notes that would reveal to any intelligent observer the hollowness of their performance of humanity. There isn't much except for my gut reaction. The Kondran claim to have preserved human culture by making it their own would be very convincing to anyone who didn't know better. Even their game shows look familiar. Young Kondrai go mad for music videos and deafening concerts by their own groups like the Bear Minimum and Dead Boring. I stare and stare at the screen, looking for slip- ups. I am not sure that I would recognize one now if I saw one.
I hate the lizards. I miss her. I hate them.
Entry 28: Ross and Chandler have done the unthinkable. At last night's musicale they sprang one hell of a surprise.
They have trained two young Kondrai to a degree that satisfies them (particularly Gillokan Chukchonturanfis, who plays both violin and viola).
Now the four of them are planning to go out and perform in public together as the Retrieval String Quartet.
The Lost Earth String Quartet I could stomach, maybe. Or the Ghost String Quartet, or the Remnant String Quartet. But then, of course, how could Kondran musicians be in it?
I walked out in protest.
Ross says I am being unreasonable and cutting off my nose to spite my face, since as a quartet they have so much more music they can play. To hell with Ross. The traitress. Chandler, too.
Entry 29: I cut my hair and put on my makeup and managed to get myself one ticket, not as Michael Flynn the Earthman but as a nameless Kondran. The debut concert of the Retrieval String Quartet is the event of the year in the city: a symbol of the passing of the torch of human culture, they say. An outrage, the Kondracha scream. I keep my thoughts to myself and lay my plans.
Lizards are pouring into the city for the event. Two bombings have already occurred, credit for them claimed by the Kondrachalikipon, of course.
As long as the scaly bastards don't blow me up before I do my job.
The gun is in my pocket, Morris's gun that I took after he and Chu killed themselves. I was a good shot once. My seat is close to the stage and on the aisle, leaving my right hand free. I have had too much bitterness in my life. I will not be mocked and betrayed in the one place where I find some comfort.
Entry 30: Now I know who I wrote all this for. Dear Dr. Herbert Akonditichilka: You do not know me. Until a little while ago I didn't know you either. I am the man who sat next to you inCarnegie Hall last night. Your Kondran version of Carnegie Hall, that is: constructed from TV pictures; all sparkling in crystal and cream and red velvet—handsomer than the real place was, but in my judgment slightly inferior acoustically.
You didn't notice me, Doctor, because of my makeup. I noticed you. All evening I noticed everything, starting with the police and the Kondracha demonstration outside the hall. But you I noticed in particular. You managed to wreck my concentration during the last piece of fine music I expected to hear in my life.
It was the Haydn String Quartet Number One in G, Opus 77. I sat trying to hear the effect of having two Kondrai among the players, but your damned fidgeting distracted me. Just my luck, I thought. A Kondran who came for a historic event, though he has no feeling for classical Earth music at all. All through the Haydn you sat locked tight except for these tiny, spasmodic movements of your head, arms, and hands. It was a great relief to me when the music ended and you joined the crashing applause. I was so busy glaring at you that I missed seeing the musicians leave the stage.
I watched you all through the interval. I needed something to fix my attention on while I waited. The second piece was to be one of my favorites, the Brahms String Quartet Number Two in A minor, Opus 51. I had chosen the opening of that quartet as my signal. I meant to see to it that the Brahms would never be played by the traitors Ross and Chandler and the two snakes they had trained. In fact, no one was ever going to hear Ross and Chandler play anything again.
What would happen to me afterward I didn't know or care (though it crossed my mind in a farcical moment that I might be rescued as a hero by the Kondracha).
I wondered if you would be a problem—an effective interference, once the first note of the Brahms piece sounded and I began to make my move. I thought not.
You were small and thin, Dr. Akonditichilka, neatly dressed in your fake blazer with the fake gold buttons; a thick thatch of whitetop feathers; a round face, for a lizard; and glasses that made your eyes enormous. I wondered if you had ruined your eyesight studying facsimile texts taken from Earth transmissions. I could see by the grayed-off skin color that you were elderly, like so many in this audience, though probably not as old as I am.
You fell into conversation with the Kondran on your left. I realized from what I could overhear that the two of you had met for the first time earlier that same day. She was now exploring the contact. "Oh," she said, "you're a doctor?"
"Retired," you said.
"You must meet Mischa Two Hawks," she said, "my escort tonight. He's a retired doctor, too."
The seat to her left was empty. Retired doctor Mischa Two Hawks may have withdrawn to the men's room or gone out in the lobby for a smoke.
You must understand; my mind made automatic translations as fast as the thought finished: Imitation retired, imitation doctor Mischa S. (for Stolen names) Two Hawks was in the imitation men's room or smoking an imitation cigarette.
His companion, an imitation woman in a green, imitation wool dress, wore a white wig with a blue-rinse tint. God, how Beamish used to rage over the tendency of Kondran females to choose the most traditional women's styles as models! Beamish would have been proud of my work tonight, I thought.
Green Wool Dress, whose name I had not caught, said to you, "The lady with you this afternoon at the gallery—is she your wife? And where is she tonight?"
You shook your head, and your glasses flashed. It pleases me that the nictitating membrane prevents you snakes from wearing contact lenses.
"We used to go to every concert in the city together," you said. "We both love good music, and there is no replacement for hearing it live. But she's been losing her hearing. She doesn't go anymore; it's too painful for her."
"What a pity," Green Wool Dress said. "To miss such a great event! Wasn't the first violinist wonderful just now? And, so young, too. It was amazing to hear him."
Damned right it was. Chandler had literally played second fiddle to his own student, Chukchonturanfis. For that alone I could have killed my old crewmate.
I shut my eyes and thought about the gun in my pocket. It was a heavy goddamned thing. I thought about the danger of getting it caught in the cloth as I pulled it out, of missing my aim, of my elderly self being jumped by you two elderly aliens before I could complete my job. I thought of Chandler and Ross, no spring chickens themselves anymore, soon to die and leave me alone among you. The whole thing was a sort of doddering comedy.
Another Kondran, heavyset for a lizard and bald, worked his way along the row of seats. He hovered next to Green Wool Dress, clearly wanting to sit down. She wouldn't let him until she had made introductions. This was, of course, retired doctor Mischa Two Hawks.
"Akonditichilka," you said with a little bow. "Herbert." And the two of you shook hands across Green Wool Dress. All three of you settled back to chat.
Suddenly I heard your voices as music. You, Doctor, were the first violin, with your clear, light tenor. Dr. Two Hawks's lower register made a reasonable cello. Green Wool Dress, who scarcely spoke, was second violin, of course, noodling busily along among her own thoughts. And I was the viola, hidden and dark.
If this didn't stop I knew I would use the gun right now, on you and then on myself. I listened to the words you were saying instead of your voices. I grabbed onto the words to keep control.
"A beautiful piece, the Haydn," you were saying. "I have played it. Oh, not like these musicians, of course. But I used to belong to an amateur chamber group." (How like you thieving snakes, to mimic our own medical doctors' affinity for music-making as a hobby!) You went on to explain how it was that you no longerplayed. Some slow, crippling Kondran bone disease. Of course—your lizard claws were never meant to handle a bow and strings. What was your instrument? I missed that. You said you had not played for six or seven years now. No wonder you had twitched all through the Haydn, remembering.
Some snake in a velvet suit pushed past, managing to step on both my feet. We traded insincere apologies, and he went on to trample past you and your companions. They were all hurrying back in now. My moment was coming. The row was fully occupied, so I sat down and pretended to skim the program notes for the next piece.
On you went, in that clear, distantly regretful tone. I couldn't stop hearing. "It's been a terrible season for me," you said. "My only grandchild died last month. He was fifteen."
Your voice was not music. It was just a voice, taking a tone I remembered from when I and my crewmates first began to be able to say to each other, "Well, it's all gone, blown up—mankind and womankind and whalekind and everykind smashed to smithereens while we were sleeping." It's how you sound instead of screaming. You have no more actual screaming left in your throat, but you can't stop talking about what is making you scream, because the screaming of your spirit is going on and on.
My eyes locked on the page in front of me. Had you really spoken this way, to two strangers, at a concert? The other two were making sounds of shock and sympathy.
"Cancer," you said, though of course you meant not our kind of cancer but Kondran cancer, and of course even if you were screaming inside it wasn't the same as the spirit of a human being screaming that way.
You leaned forward in your seat to talk across Green Wool Dress to Dr. Two Hawks. "It was terrible," you said. "It started in his right leg. None of the therapy even slowed it down. They did three operations."
I sneaked a look at you to see what kind of expression you woreon your imitation human face while you recited your afflictions. But you were leaning outward to address your fellow doctor, and the back of your narrow lizard shoulders was turned toward me.
Between you two, Green Wool Dress sat with a blank social smile, completely withdrawn into herself. I tried to follow what you were saying, but you got into technical terms, one doctor to another.
The musicians were tuning up their instruments backstage. The gun felt like a battleship in my pocket. Under the dimming lights I could make out the face of Dr. Two Hawks, sympathetic and earnest. Amazing, I thought, how they've learned to produce the effect of expressions like our own with their alien musculature and their alien skin.
"But it's better now than it was at first," Dr. Two Hawks protested (I thought of Beamish's babies and the death of Walter Drake). "I can remember when there was nothing to do but cut and cut, and even then—there was a young patient I remember, we removed the entire hip—oh, we were desperate. Dreadful things were done. It's better now."
All around, oblivious, members of the audience settled expectantly into their seats, whispering to each other, rustling program pages. Apparently I was your only involuntary eavesdropper, and soon that ordeal would be over.
The audience quieted, and here they came: Ross first, then Chandler (the Kondran players didn't matter). Ross first: You wouldn't see the blood on her red dress. No one would understand exactly what was happening, and that would give me time to get Chandler, too. I needed my concentration. My moment was here.
On you went, inexorably, in your quiet, melancholy tone: "As a last resort they castrated him. He lost most of his skin at the end, and he was too weak to sip fluids through a tube. I think now it was all a mistake. We should never have fought so hard. We should have let him die at the start."
"But we can't just give up!" cried Dr. Two Hawks over the applause for the returning musicians. "We must do something!"
And you sighed, Dr. Akonditichilka. "Aaah," you said softly, a long curve of sounded breath in the silence before the players began. You leaned there an instant longer, looking across at him.
Then you said gently (and how clearly your voice still sounds in my mind)—each word a steep, sweet fall in pitch from the one before—"Let's listen to Brahms."
And you sat back slowly in your seat as the first notes rippled into the hall. After a little I managed to uncramp my fingers from around the gun and take my empty hand out of my pocket. We sat there together in the dimness, our eyes stinging with tears past shedding, and we listened.
Copyright © 2000 by Ellen Datlow
“Listening to Brahms” by Suzy McKee Charnas
“The Rift” by Paul J. McAuley
“The Girl Who Loved Animals” by Bruce McAllister
“Sunflowers” by Ian McDowell
“Tenebrio” by Brian Stableford
“Dance of the Yellow-Breasted Luddites” by William Shunn
“Blessed Event” by David J. Schow
“Faded Roses” by Karen Joy Fowler
“Links” by Mark W. Tiedemann
“Chimera 8” by Daniel Abraham
“Bite the Hand” by Michael Cadnum
“The Thing About Benny” by M. Shayne Bell
“Fast Glaciers” by A. R. Morlan
“Now Let Us Sleep” by Avram Davidson
“Seventy-Two Letters” by Ted Chiang
“Endangered Species” by Joe Haldeman
Posted May 21, 2002
While some of the original stories in this volume are weaker than I'd like to see, the two long pieces alone are worth the price of admission. William Shunn's 'Dance of the Yellow-Breasted Luddites' is an old-fashioned brain-engaging SF story with a new-fangled sensibility and sensitivity, about researchers on an interstellar wildlife preserve confronted with a mystery threatening the survival of one of their species. It was nominated for a Nebula Award, and the only thing I don't understand is why I'd never heard of Shunn before. 'Seventy-Two Letters' by Ted Chiang is another magnificent creation from one of the sharpest and least prolific writers in SF today. Every story he writes is a gem, and this one, a kabbalistic steampunk allegory for the Human Genome Project, is no exception. Other very worthwhile stories include 'Links' by Mark W. Tiedemann and 'The Thing About Benny' by M. Shayne Bell, and the reprints by Suzy McKee Charnas, Bruce McAllister, and Avram Davidson are great too. But the two novellas alone make this book worth your attention.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.