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By Chelsea Quinn Yarbro
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1983 Chelsea Quinn Yarbro
All rights reserved.
IN THE DREAM, A storm was brewing: enormous, impossibly black clouds roiled at the horizon, flickering now and again with varicolored light. The wild and desolate landscape was transformed in this eerie prelude. Buttes became castles, rocks appeared to move as the lightning played over them.
The Troubadour, his lute held by the pegbox and slung over his shoulder so that he seemed a hunchback, paused on a promontory to stare in awe at the sky. His face was wan in this livid, unnatural illumination. He was at once caught in the fascination of tumultuous nature as much as he was repelled by the force of the coming tempest. Two songs burgeoned in him only to die on his lips as he realized how inadequate words and music were, how trivial even the best tune became when confronting the majesty of thunder. He felt the first drops spatter on his face and, shaken out of his reverie, turned his attention to finding shelter.
"This part is too slow," Jehanne Bliss said critically as she reviewed the Dream. "Have production trim it by a minute or so. The part about the colored lightning can go." She moved the contraption, which had engulfed most of her head, away and rose from her custom-made recliner. She was a tall woman, and quite attractive, though not truly beautiful and definitely not pretty. Most men called her stunning; women said she was striking. It was a subtle but telling distinction. "Come on, Tony. What's the problem."
Antony MacKenzie did not respond at once, and when he did, he spoke slowly. "Leave it."
"Leave it?" Jehanne Bliss echoed him in disbelief. "Tony, this section is already dragging, and you're trying to keep me from cutting it when you know it's over length?"
He looked up at her, nodding once. "That's right. Keep it the way it is."
She made no attempt to conceal her irritation. "You've seen the whole tape yourself. You know that the advertisers won't stand for so much cerebral stuff. They want more action, more symbols, more depth." There were times that she felt Antony MacKenzie was a complete novice in the Dream field, instead on one of its pioneers. "The realities of this business," she said with overly meticulous care, "— that's business, Doctor MacKenzie — demand that Dream time not last much more than twenty minutes per episode. You're suggesting that I waste six of those twenty minutes with this guy looking at the weather."
"Yes, I am." He got up from the small conference table. "You asked my opinion, Hank, and I gave it to you. That's all." Jehanne Bliss was five-foot-ten and used to being the tallest person in the room: Antony MacKenzie had a good five inches on her, and now he used them for emphasis. He stood quite near her, forcing her to look up at him. "There are considerations beyond the immediate ones. You've said so yourself. You remember the Dream that Eric Lowell did before he killed himself? You took on all the network brass to put that Dream on without any tampering whatever. It broke a dozen rules, but it is a classic. We both know that, and there's hardly anyone in the field who doesn't wish he could find another one like it. It was worth fighting for. So is this."
"Maybe." She folded her arms, contradicting the reasonable tone of her voice. "But this isn't Eric Lowell. Eric had five solid years of top-selling Dream behind him. His following would watch anything he Dreamed. We all knew that Eric was one of the greats."
"And you only bet on sure things?" Tony suggested, not quite able to keep the malice out of his voice.
Jehanne put her hands on her hips and strode across her office. The gesture was not the least provocative, though it should have been. "This kid — and that's all he is, Tony — has done six, count them, six full Dreams. That isn't very much. His track record so far is spotty, and our regional reports are incomplete. We have nothing to trade with. Do you still want me to keep this storm thing in?"
He shrugged, sighing a little. "I've noticed that once he picks an image, he uses it a lot. This is the third time he's used lightning in this Dream, and every time it's been more spectacular. I think he's building up to something very powerful and that without this interlude, some of the force will be lost. If you don't keep this part in, it will come back to haunt you later."
"An aesthetic judgment, Tony?" Jehanne had stopped and was regarding him evenly. "A little out of your province, isn't it?"
Tony answered her wearily. "You asked me; I told you." He knew her well enough to recognize her frame of mind now, and felt it was useless to challenge her. "Do you want anything else, or should I leave?"
She went back to her recliner and pulled the viewing contraption forward again. "Stick around. I'm checking out the latest auditions. You might help me to spot someone worth developing."
This was the part he liked least, and he made little attempt to disguise it. "If you insist."
"Tony, for Chrissake! ..." she said, exasperated. "You're the one who worked out the screening technique, not me."
"I'm aware of that." His voice was heavy as he sank into one of the low, form-adapting chairs away from the small conference table. His face at that moment was unreadable, yet it was a beautiful face, like a saint in an icon. The austerity of his classic features only enhanced them. His large eyes were turquoise except when he was angry or fatigued: now they were the color of slate.
Jehanne had almost settled in for her next spate of Dream screening, but the look of him stopped her. "Look, Tony, I know that a lot of our commercial realities don't mesh very well with the artistic integrity of some of the Dreamers, but hell, we don't even know whether or not Dreams are art. After all, everyone dreams."
"Small d," he said quietly.
"But they do it," she insisted.
"True enough, as far as it goes, but," he reminded her, "not everyone dreams consistently or coherently. If they did, this industry, as you insist on calling it, would not exist. For one thing, there would be no need of it." He crossed his arms and waited for her to dispute this, as he knew she would.
Surprisingly, she only shrugged and prepared to adjust her head to the monitor. This was a larger and bulkier version of the commercial receivers found in almost every home in the country, strictly a utilitarian model, but it had a number of functions not available to the average Dreamee, a few of which might have shocked the dreaming public. "Tony," Jehanne said before she secured the sensors to her temples, "I know you don't approve of some of the things I've done recently, but they are — "
"That's neither here nor there," he put in, hoping to avoid another needlessly painful discussion.
"But I want you to understand," she persisted, and there was sincerity in her voice that he found difficult to ignore.
"I understand," he assured her with a determined display of patience.
"No you don't." She moved the monitor aside. "You see, Tony, I know that you're probably right about the compromises I have to make. They're not very good decisions, really. I'm aware of that, truly. But try to see what I'm doing here, will you?" She had Tony's full attention now. "The position I'm in, right now, could mean a lot. If I can show that I've got a good eye and a strong track record with my Dreams and Dreamers, I stand a good chance of being promoted to the Directorial Board. Once I'm there, I'll be in a good position to help change things. For the time being, I've got to play it their way, so bear with me. It isn't easy for either of us, Tony."
"And if they're stringing you along?" he could not resist asking.
"Don't be silly. I'm damn good; you know it, I know it and they know it. They're not going to turn away someone who picks winners most of the time." Her smile was arrogant, but there was a curious fear at the back of her eyes. "Once I make Director, there are a lot of things I'll do differently."
"They're cynical men, Hank. They've offered that carrot to a great many producers who never made it into the Directorial offices." He said this mildly, since he was afraid for her.
"Figures don't lie," she responded promptly, though her smug insouciance was not entirely convincing, even to her. "Another two Dreams with six-month durability and a good repeat pattern, and they'll have to give it to me. They'll have to. Because if they don't, one of the rival networks will."
"If you insist," he said, no longer wanting to challenge her. "Go ahead. Check out the auditions. If you find something you want me to have a look at, holler." He reached into his satchel and pulled out a well-thumbed book.
"You and your reading," Jehanne scoffed in an indulgent tone.
"I like books, remember?" He had already opened the volume to a marked page.
"I remember." She drew the monitor over her head and set the sensors in place.
The first audition was not promising — simply a series of vignettes culled from previous popular Dreams and slightly altered into a familiar but new form. The second was hopeless. The third had potential — a great deal of imagination but no structure whatsoever. Jehanne made a note to herself to have this one checked again in six months, after the would-be Dreamer had taken a little more schooling. The fourth and fifth were hopeless. The sixth showed talent as well as a profound psychological disturbance. She tapped the hold button and called out to Tony, "You interested in incest fantasies? I've got a dilly of a one on."
"No, thanks," Tony said without looking up from his book.
"It's really something," she went on, "not just the usual mother-son fixation, but the whole family is involved. Some of it is pretty sadistic, some of it masochistic. You ought to have a look at it. You could do a fantastic monograph on it for one of the journals."
"I have already," he said quietly, not looking up from the page. "And see what it got me."
"Suit yourself." She went back to her viewing. The eighth audition was something special, and she ran it twice before she said with awakening excitement, "Tony, I think we've got one."
He flinched at the "we," and took a moment to close his book so that he could compose his thoughts. "Sorry," he said by way of excuse when he turned to her. "I wanted to finish a paragraph."
"Take a look at this. It's promising," she said with a caution born of previous disappointments. "Have a look. Tell me what you think." She got up and moved aside so that he could use the recliner and monitor.
The recliner was uncomfortable for him, but he was secretly glad of it. He slid into the chair, familiar dread working a knot into his stomach. This was the part that he hated most. He adjusted the monitor sensor contacts and leaned back, letting his mind go blank. It was a pleasant sensation, he thought, but he knew it would not last. The monitor picked up his eye tension and breathing rate, humming into life as he relaxed. The Dream audition erupted into his mind.
At first there was a figure in the distance, a dark speck in the fulvous landscape. This was high desert, with bleached scrub and tawny rocks and dusty sand blowing. The figure, a black blot in the colorless world, stumbled through it with the automatic, lurching movements of utter exhaustion. Slowly the figure became clearer. Now it was possible to see that it was a man of early middle age, stalwart, but with a countenance marred by dissipation and cynical indulgence. The tattered clothes had once been velvet finery and, though it was now empty, the rapier scabbard that hung at his side was gold-inlaid. He looked up once toward the sun, stifled a cry, and forced himself to go on.
Far in the distance there were three figures emerging from a steep-sided ravine. These men were mounted on fast horses. Their capes billowed out behind them like scraps of night. They came with the determination and singleness of purpose of hunters. Though they were too far away to make out their features, still, it was impossible not to see the fixed expressions on their hard faces.
Tony breathed in sharply. This was something very special. He gave the totality of the images his entire attention, thinking that the vision of this Dream was so complete that he could feel his eyelids become hot and grainy as he let the Dream continue.
The dark riders drew nearer, pursuing the lone figure, their pace increasing as the distance between them narrowed. The fleeing man heard the approaching hoof beats but would not permit himself to turn, to look back and see those inexorable men coming down on him. Malevolence radiated from the riders, chilling the day, bringing winter to this furnace landscape. Against his will, the lone man broke into a shambling run, acknowledging in his futility his own defeat.
The parched land.
Terror closed in with the riders as they caught up with the man, drawing around him. Their prey fell as they flanked him; the gilt lacings on his ruined jacket gleamed through the dust. He lay face down, sobbing now as the first of the mounted men leaned out of his saddle and prodded him with the butt end of his whip.
"On your feet!" he ordered.
The fallen man could not speak, but he shook his head. He lifted himself from his prone position. His face was bruised and ravaged, but his eyes were clear, unforgiving. His breath came roughly and though he did not stand and dust smirched his body, though he was as tattered as his clothes, still he was defiant. As the whip-butt prodded him again, his fingers closed on it and he made a last, hopeless attempt to strike back as he pulled the whip sharply down.
The rider swayed in the saddle, then tugged the whip from his captive's hands. "Take him!" he cried to the others. "But remember that His Eminence wants him alive."
As the hunted man was dragged to his feet by the other two riders, he began to curse.
Tony pulled the monitor from his head and sat for a time, staring at the wall, his eyes almost the color of lapis lazuli.
"Well?" Jehanne said after a few minutes. "What do you think? Have we got a Dreamer or not?"
He nodded slowly. "The Dream is damned unpolished and the focus isn't very steady, but yes, this sure as hell is a Dreamer. Who is it?" In spite of himself he could feel the old enthusiasm awaken in him. Sternly he tried to master it, but had to admit that he was not successful. Raw talent excited him: he could not change that.
Jehanne consulted the audition cards. "Name of Honor Gordon. The first name's okay, but we'll have to do something about the last. It ought to be more powerful if this is the way she's going to Dream."
"A woman?" Tony asked, startled. He was generally able to pick out the women's auditions but this one surprised him. Most women did not present images so uncompromisingly stark as this one. There would have been, he thought inconsequently, a lizard on a rock, or a desert rat running for its burrow.
"Is it? Yeah, I guess it is." She turned the card over. "Honor Gordon, 18 Galveston Plaza. What a shitty place to live. No wonder she Dreams like that. City, State, et cetera, et cetera. Education completed: fifteenth level. Not bad. She's probably bright. Employed by Corso Brothers Seed Company as a plant inspector. Great. She's a gardener."
"Hardly that," Tony corrected her. "Have you seen the Corso Brothers factory? Miles of hydroponic installations, artificial lights and all the allowed growth promoters. It's no different than working in a factory making microchips except that the end product is plants, not calculators." He leaned back again in the chair. "Does the Dream hold up? Is it just this one image, or is there more? Does she know who that victimprotagonist is and what he did to be hunted? Who is His Eminence?"
"It's not on the audition," Jehanne said. "There's not enough time for that. But given a chance, I bet you she'll fill in the blanks. You must think so, too, or you wouldn't be asking those questions." She had drawn up a chair opposite him and now she sat down, elbows on her knees and chin propped on her linked hands. Her smile was eager. "What do you think, Tony? Do I go with it?"
Excerpted from Hyacinths by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro. Copyright © 1983 Chelsea Quinn Yarbro. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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