Dutch author Thomas Olde Heuvelt has a new story up at Tor.com: The Ink Readers of Doi Saket:
It was during a night in the twelfth lunar month of this year when two strong hands pushed young Tangmoo down into the bed of the Mae Ping River, and by doing so, ironically, fulfilled his only wish. Tangmoo flailed his arms wildly, churning up the swirling water. The whites of his eyes reflected flashes from the fireworks as his smothered cries rose in bubbles to the surface, where they burst in silence: help, help, help, help!
These filtered cries of alarm were mistaken by a pair of dragonflies fused in flight, their only wish to remain larvaless and so prolong their love dance endlessly, for the dripping of morning dew. So unsettled was the pair that their breaths caught, and for a second, just when the male ejaculated, they separated. Force of habit subsequently incited them to repeat this in all their future climaxes, making their fondest wish actually come true.
But this was a chance circumstance. The point here is that young Tangmoo screamed, and his lungs filled with water, and please, he did not want to die this way. – continue reading!
This is something of a historical win as, as far as we can ascertain, Aliette is the first ever European writer to win a Nebula in the entire history of the award. Congratulations to Aliette and here’s hoping for the continuation of greater diversity in the field’s awards.
“Immersion” is also a current Hugo Award nominee.
Today’s Tuesday Fiction is by Victor Fernando R. Ocampo. Victor is from the Philippines, and his work has been published in the Philippine Free Press and the anthologies Philippine Speculative Fiction (Volume 6), The Ayam Curtain, and Fish Eats Lion: New Singaporean Speculative Fiction. His story “Here Be Dragons” won first prize at the Romeo Forbes Children’s Literature competition in 2012 and was published by Canvas Press. He lives in Singapore, by the side of foggy Bukit Timah hill, with his lovely wife and two spunky daughters.
The story was first published in Bewildering Stories in 2012.
Victor Fernando R. Ocampo
For the third time since he had crawled out of the wreckage, Felix pressed the power button on his phone. He hoped against hope that something, anything, would happen, but nothing did. It was exactly the same as the last time. His phone was inert, impotent.
“Why am I even alive?” he groaned, oppressed by the silence, of the shapelessness of evening.
Frustrated, he removed the back cover and took the battery out. He placed it between his palms and shook it desperately. For added measure, he prayed to St. Isidore, the patron saint of the Internet. “Help me,” he asked softly. “Spare me one small charge, please, just enough for a status update, just enough for a text.”
The young man required only enough power to send a quick word for help—one small blip to tell the world where he was and that he was okay. But St. Isidore’s help line, it seemed, was otherwise engaged. His phone remained stubbornly, obstinately dead.
Despite the wracking pain, he knew that he had no choice but to walk if he wanted to be rescued. “Forgive me,” he asked his passel of precious saints. “But if you wanted to really help me, you should have just killed me. At least I’d be with her.”
Felix had totaled his car on a remote and desolate stretch of highway. He hadn’t gone on a road trip in a long while, not since he’d lost his wife in the nightmare of the previous year. Now his foolhardy journey had almost cost him his life. “You’re not the type to travel by yourself,” she had once warned him. “We’re so used to being together. It would be hell to be on the road alone.”
He shook himself from the prison of memory and inventoried his things. The watch she had given him for his birthday had stopped ticking. There was a big, ugly gash on its beveled glass. His messenger bag, the one she had lovingly picked out from the recyclables store, was badly scratched but still intact. Nothing else in his car seemed worth saving.
Felix stared at the dark road that stretched out towards the horizon. The sodium vapor lamps had been spaced apart too far apart. They left only small islands of light in the vast ocean of darkness.
Before he took his first unsteady step, he made a sign of the cross and offered a prayer to St. Jude. Felix felt his soul sallow and threadbare. He needed to arm himself against the shadows. The night was still young and he worried about what further troubles lay ahead.
“Stop using prayer as a good luck charm,” his wife had chided him. “It’s not a religion for you anymore. It’s voodoo.” His little leaps of faith unnerved everyone he knew. But he didn’t really care about what anyone thought anymore. Pain and loss had a way of turning even the smallest of comforts into crutches and somehow his constant calls for intercession made him feel less desperate, less powerless, less alone.
Felix squinted and followed the thin line of orange lights that seemed to lead towards infinity. To his relief, he spotted a bus stop about half a kilometer away. “Someone will pass by for sure,” he thought. That would be his ticket back to civilization. The young man felt for his bus card in his pocket. He took it out and stared at it for a few seconds, as if to assure himself that it was really there. Satisfied, he started walking towards his lonely destination.
The night was neither cold nor excessively humid but Felix turned his collar up as a precaution. He had walked about a hundred meters when he remembered that he’d left something of heartbreaking importance, something that he couldn’t live without. He slapped his forehead in dismay and quickly ran back to his car.
“Where is that glove compartment?” he thought, as he searched the wreckage frantically. The front of the car was hopelessly crumpled. For a minute, he thought that what he was looking for was lost forever and started to hyperventilate.
“St. Anthony, patron saint of lost things… please help me find it. St Jude, patron saint of lost causes. Please have mercy on me.” He closed his eyes and repeated the litany in his head like a nervous tick. He forced himself to take deep breaths until his feelings of panic were checked. “I can’t have lost it,” he repeated, cracking his knuckles. “I won’t ever lose it.”
Felix took a step back to calculate where the glove compartment lay under the car’s twisted frame. When he settled on a spot, he started to remove as much metal and plastic as he could. What began as a careful, studied process slowly escalated into a frenzy of destruction. He tore through the wreckage until he found what he was searching for—a woman’s red turtleneck, carefully preserved in a still-intact plastic package. It had been protected from the crash by a magazine and an old rubber sleeve. The young man slowly pulled out his shrink-wrapped treasure. He opened the package then gently stuck his nose in. His wife’s sweet scent still lingered on the fabric.
Felix put the keepsake inside his bag and resumed his solitary walk to the bus stop. The terminal was unlike any he had ever seen. There was no sign indicating what station it was, nor in fact, any identifying marks at all. There were no bus schedules detailing arrival and departure times, or none of the billboards that cluttered other shelters. There was only a small laminated notice, attached to one post, reminding commuters to “Select Option 2 for a return ride.”
Felix didn’t have to wait too long before something appeared in the distance. Like the stop it attended, the city bus that arrived was odd and strange. It was a heavy-duty Hino coach, with a low non-step floor and a spacious box-like interior. He remembered seeing a vehicle like this before, somewhere in the lumber of his grandfather’s dusty photos. An unsettled feeling came over him and he had to stop himself from running away.
The vehicle was painted sky blue all over, except for a white stripe that wrapped around the cabin, below the large plastic windows. A sign on the windshield said “AIRCON” and above it was an LED board that read “Non-Stop.” Both flanks were decorated with three white hearts. The smaller ones said “Save Gas,” while the big heart had “Love Bus” in bold, red and yellow lettering. As it pulled up in front of him, he noticed that despite the vintage design the bus seemed newly manufactured. So new, in fact, that the chassis was spotless and the rubber on the tires showed no signs of wear. The surreal cleanliness added to his growing anxiety and his body made an involuntary shiver.
He made the sign of the cross three times before getting on board. As he entered, he asked the crisply-uniformed driver where the bus was headed. The man shook his head and did not speak. He pointed instead to the modern ticket reader behind him. Felix tried to engage him in conversation, but as soon as the driver’s gaze fell on him, Felix shut his mouth. The man’s eyes blazed like hollow furnaces, burning away all questions, cauterizing all speech.
Felix flashed his bus card. Two options appeared on a small screen, simply labeled with the numerals “1” and “2”.
“You are young. Choose Option 2, my boy,” the coach’s solitary passenger told him. “I’ve selected Option 1 already. That way one of us will see where each one goes.”
“Thank you, sir,” Felix said as he moved uncertainly down the cabin. He sat opposite his fellow commuter, an old European man dressed in a black cassock, with a white Roman collar around his hearty neck.
The young man whispered another prayer of thanks. What luck that he was traveling with a priest. The presence of a man of God dispeled much of his naked fears and for the first time since his accident, he felt the faint flicker of hope.
“Thank the Lord that you are here,” the priest said. “I was slowly going mad by myself. What is your name, my son?”
“My name is Felix del Mundo,” he answered softly, nervously, like a child’s prayer.
“I’m pleased to meet you, Felix,” the old man said, in a deep reassuring voice. “I am Father Vladimir of the Society of Jesus.”
“I’m pleased to meet you too, Father,” he replied, as he dusted the chair with his handkerchief. “There’s something creepy about the bus driver. He didn’t want to talk to me.”
“I don’t think he can speak. I’ve tried to converse with him for the best part of this ride. He simply took my last obolus, my last coin, and sent me to my seat.”
“Do you have any idea where he’s taking us? The sign on the bus says ‘Non-Stop,’ but where is it non-stop to?”
“I wish I knew, my son,” the priest said. “Your stop is the only one I’ve seen since coming aboard. The odd thing is that this isn’t the same bus I started riding. I distinctly recall boarding a white LiAZ tourist coach.”
“I’m not sure I get what you mean. But, yes, something isn’t right,” Felix concurred. His dusting became more frantic. “I’ve never seen this kind of bus before. What stop did you board at, Father?”
“I… I don’t remember, actually,” Father Vladimir muttered. “I was coming back to Estragon from a big Semiotics conference. At some point I think I was in a car accident. I still have my luggage with me.”
“Estragon?” the young man asked. “Where on Earth is …oh my God! We’re dead, Father. I think we’re dead!” The young man said with a start, seized suddenly by the unforgiving inevitability of mortality. “I saw this in a movie once. Think about it. We were both in car accidents, in different countries! How did we get here? That can’t be a coincidence. My God, we’re dead!”
Felix hung his head with the grim realization, and raked his hands through his hair repeatedly, trying to overcome a sudden urge to scream. “Here I was thinking how lucky I was to escape without a scratch.” Felix took out his hanky and brushed the back of the seat in front of him. He cleaned it thoroughly before banging his head against the foam cushion.
The priest let a few moments of silence pass before speaking. “Calm yourself, my son. We don’t know that for sure, do we? I certainly don’t feel dead, but then again I’ve never been dead before. There could be other possibilities.”
“What other possibility is there?” Felix asked, befuddled by the unfamiliar logic of their situation. “We must be dead, and this bus is our hearse. It’s too much of a coincidence to ignore.”
“There is… there is coincidence, and then there is synchronicity,” Father Vladimir continued. “When two things happen together, that doesn’t always need to mean anything.”
“Sorry, Father, I don’t know what you’re talking about,” the young man said, cracking his knuckles anxiously.
“Sometimes things just happen together, and there’s really no connection between them. That’s called ‘coincidence.’ However, if you do find something, like an idea or a plan that connects the two, that’s actually called ‘synchronicity.’ I believe what happened to us was pure coincidence. My accident and your accident are not connected. Yes, we’re on a strange bus heading to an unknown destination, but that doesn’t mean we’re on an omnibus to the afterlife. Think about it, if we’re dead, shouldn’t there be more people on this bus? Thousands of people die every day.”
“Are you for real, Father? I’m sorry, but you don’t talk like a regular person.”
“Well, this is far from a regular situation,” Father Vladimir said. “I’m not sure we are even in the regular world anymore. We could be dreaming, or unconscious.”
“So are you saying that this is only in my mind?” Felix asked uneasily. He looked out the plastic windows with uncharacteristic diffidence as the bus swept by endless fallow fields wrapped in darkness. The pall of night reminded him of the vacancy, the finality of oblivion, but something in his heart told him this wasn’t death.
After a period of reflection he said, “Maybe you’re right, Father. I always thought that there would be a big tunnel of light when you died, and that the people you loved would be waiting for you somewhere. No, I don’t feel like we’re dead at all.”
“Don’t be too put out,” Father Vladimir said quietly. “This is all much too strange, even for me. I wouldn’t blame you at all for feeling moribund.”
The old man droned on about death and the persistence of memory but Felix just couldn’t focus enough to listen.
“It’s moving too fast to jump off,” the young man remarked. “I just want to get off. Perhaps if we rush the driver together we can overpower him.”
“And then what?” the priest asked. “We would just be lost. It would be better for us to reach a destination first, at least before we contemplate such actions. I don’t think either of us would like to be trapped out there. It’s nothing but a brutal wasteland.”
Felix said nothing. This had been the second time in his life that he had wanted to jump from a moving bus. The first was in New York City, a little more than five years ago. With his student visa expiring, he had no choice but to return to the land of his birth. The young man had been so used to life in America, that Promised Land for all Filipinos, that his trip back home had seemed like a punishment, an exile to limbo after his brief taste of heaven. On the bus he had fought a great urge to run away, and he would probably have done so, if a beautiful young woman hadn’t sat right next to him. Like Felix she was also on her way to Manila. By some odd twist of fate, they ended up spending the next fifteen hours together. In those long golden hours, they became fast friends. Before they knew it, their relationship blossomed into something else. A year later, the two of them were married.
“We feel most mortal before dawn, they say,” Father Vladimir said, trying to comfort his brooding companion. “Let us keep our wits about us and not lose hope. Who knows what destiny waits at the end of this ride?”
“Thank you, Father,” Felix sighed. He knew that the old man was trying to make him feel better. “It’s just that being trapped on this bus is driving me nuts. I wish we knew where we were going. It doesn’t really matter where. I just want to get somewhere and get the hell off.”
“I can’t honestly say that I am not worried,” the old man mumbled. “But Milton said that the mind is its own place. In itself it can make a heaven of Hell, and a hell of Heaven. Perhaps we can lighten our mood with a change of topic. Let me think… hmm… my life’s work, my magnum opus if I may, is a lexicon of dreams. I have been compiling it for decades. Shall we talk about dreams instead?”
“You study dreams?” Felix asked, momentarily distracted. He had dreamed of his wife every single night since her death. Different dreams, different situations, but always with one thing in common: every night she would tell him to come and find her. His anxiety returned, and Felix took out his handkerchief and started folding it into a four-point pocket square.
“Yes, I study them, looking for a common language to define their meaning.”
“So can you interpret dreams, Father?” he asked, tucking the pocket square back into his pants.
“In a manner of speaking, I can,” the priest explained. “For example, according to my research, if you dream of riding on a bus to nowhere, it means that you feel you’re being carried along by events beyond your control.”
“So…you think that we are in a dream right now?” the young man said, looking around the strange bus and weighing the unreality of their situation. “I suppose that’s possible. I could be in a coma somewhere.”
“When you wake, or think you do, what would you say of this evening?” the old man asked. “I have an interesting thought experiment. Let’s say that we are indeed just dreaming, and you are dreaming that you’re riding a bus to places unknown, what is your inescapable tragedy, my son?”
“I haven’t said a prayer to St. Christopher yet,” Felix said abruptly. He had wanted to ask the old man about his dreams, but couldn’t bring himself to open his heart to a stranger.
“Sorry? What do you mean?”
“St. Christopher. He’s the patron saint of travelers.”
“And buses, I imagine,” the priest added. “Forgive me, but I feel as if there is some truth that you are denying. However, I suppose Carl Jung can wait, if you’re not comfortable with confessions.”
The old man looked out to the manifold darkness and became lost in his own thoughts.
After a while, the young man began to feel irritable and a bit lightheaded. “Father,” he asked. “Do you have anything to eat?” In his rush to drive back to the city, Felix had forgotten to have dinner. Now he felt the deleterious effects of hunger, as his blood sugar started to drop precipitously. “Is it possible to feel hungry in a dream?” He thought, “If I die now, this won’t be suicide. The saints will let me see her. Please St. Jude, St. Anthony, let me see her. We need to be together.”
“Ah, hunger…another great leitmotif. Knut Hamsun used it well,” Father Vladimir murmured, still lost in his thoughts. The priest had spent too much time in the bus alone, and succumbed readily to the temptation to forage in his mind for conundrums and verities.
“Father, I have diabetes,” Felix cried out. He knew that his wife wouldn’t have approved of a diabetic coma, not after she had spent so much time mothering his illness. “I feel dizzy.”
“Oh! I’m sorry. Where is my head today?” the priest said, with much embarrassment. Father Vladimir opened one of his large valises, inside which he had an enormous bag of chocolates, bottles of mineral water, and a crumbly cake packed securely in a sturdy Styrofoam box. “I was on my way to a party for the children of my orphanage. I suppose this is as noble a use for these victuals.”
The priest took out some paper plates and used the handle of a plastic fork to cut the cake. He carved out a big piece and handed it to Felix, along with a bottle of mineral water. “Smačnoho!” he exclaimed. “That means bon appetit.”
“Thank you. That was surprisingly delicious,” Felix said, gobbling his share with desperate gusto. “What kind of cake was it?”
“Kiev cake,” the old man answered proudly. “It’s a divine confection, isn’t it? It’s made of two airy layers of meringue with hazelnuts, chocolate glaze, and a butter-cream filling. It’s very rich, like the culture of my people.”
After they finished eating, the young man excused himself to take a nap. When he woke up it was still night time. In the bus he did not dream, and that bothered him greatly. He realized how deeply he needed the comfort of seeing his wife every night, even if it was just a shade of her memory.
The young man noticed that Father Vladimir had also fallen asleep. He wondered how long they had been traveling. He looked at his watch but remembered that it was still broken. He tried to recall the details of his accident, but his memory now seemed fuzzy. It was as if it had happened a very long time ago. He took his phone out of his bag and checked it again. “Please, I just want to see her picture,” he prayed, but his phone remained hopelessly dead.
A voice boomed suddenly in the darkness: “Come on, let’s get to work! In an instant it will all vanish and we’ll be alone again, in the middle of nothingness!”
“Dios ko po!” Felix cried out, startled by the old man’s declamation. “Sorry, I didn’t know you were awake, Father.”
“Nothing like a quote from Samuel Beckett to start the day,” Father Vladimir said gruffly. “Night and sleep came and went but we did not dream. At least I didn’t.”
“But it’s still night,” Felix protested. “In fact, I think it’s still the same night. Everything is exactly the same. Nothing’s changed since we ate and slept.”
“Forget the night, my son! Beckett said that nothing matters but writing and this applies to us now,” the priest said, with a distressed tone and an odd, vacant look. “I think I have figured out where we are. We are not dead. We are not dreaming. We are in a story. Oh heavens, this would be such a contrived, self-referential plot if that were true!”
“We are trapped… in a story?” Felix asked warily, as he got up and moved a few rows behind his companion. The young man wondered if their situation had finally taken its toll on the old man’s sanity. He started a silent litany to St. Dymphna, the patron saint of mental health, just in case.
“Yes, I believe so,” Father Vladimir repeated, suddenly livid at their situation. “We are trapped in a cliché. I had hoped if someone ever put me in a story I would be in something literary, not genre—some novel of ideas or lofty philosophical fiction. But two strangers trapped in a single point in space and time, waiting for Godot all eternity? Maybe this is purgatory…”
“Father,” Felix cut in. “I’m a Business major with an MBA. I’m not so deeply into Philosophy. I have no idea what you’re rambling about and, frankly, you’re scaring me.” He crossed himself silently and said another prayer to St. Dymphna. For good measure, he added another to the martyr St. Sebastian, the patron saint of cranky people.
“I… I’m sorry.” Fr. Vladimir apologized profusely. The young’s man’s worried tone had returned him to his senses. “It’s just that I have dedicated my life to words and meanings. If my absurdist conjecture was true, then this would be the equivalent of hell for me.”
“Hell on a bus? This is hell?” Felix asked. He hadn’t thought about that possibility. Now it became his turn to get upset. There were things that Felix had done in his life that he wasn’t proud of, and Catholic tradition wasn’t particularly kind to sinners. Besides, there was no truer hell for him than any place where his lost love wasn’t.
“This ride… this infernal ride has both of us undone,” the priest reflected. “Let us talk about more pleasant things instead. I myself love to read. Do you like to read, my young friend?”
“Sometimes,” Felix answered, fitfully. “Business books on my tablet mostly. It’s more convenient to read them in the toilet that way.”
“Touché,” Father Vladimir said, suddenly tired beyond belief and without a single word to say.
They remained silent after that. Felix felt his fellow passenger didn’t really converse, but rather lectured; Father Vladimir lamented the decline of Philosophy in an age of restless, clueless youth.
The young man looked out through the dark windows, searching for the moon or the stars, anything that would help him determine the passage of time. There was nothing in all directions but a desolate landscape, one that mirrored the hollowness in his soul. “Just take me away, my love,” he whispered, longingly, forgetting which saint reunited soul-mates and lovers.
After a while, the oppressive monotony of the road began to affect him. Without the company of his wife or the distraction of his phone, Felix’s mind started to root for something to do. Eventually, he decided to move back towards his companion and brave another conversation.
“Father, you mentioned Waiting for Godot earlier. I saw that play in college. Isn’t it the one about the two bums who wait for this guy who never shows? I remember it.”
“You do?” the old man said, his face lighting up. “Godot is a difficult work. Not everybody likes it. Why do you remember it?”
“My wife played one of the characters, the one called ‘Lucky.’ I could never forget it.”
“Is that so? Where is your wife now?” Father Vladimir asked.
Felix absentmindedly reached inside his bag. He squeezed the plastic with her shirt tenderly, before continuing in a pained, halting voice. “She died of leukemia a year ago. Her… her scent is still with me, though.”
He pulled out the precious, shrink-wrapped relic, and showed it to the priest. “It’s like I’ve vacuum packed her ghost.”
“I am so sorry to hear that, my son,” Father Vladimir said sadly. “And I am sorry for intruding on your personal life again.”
“No, it’s alright,” Felix said. “I like talking about her. It keeps her memory alive. Her life was all about that —keeping memories alive. She was an ethno-linguist. After we came back from the US, we traveled around the provinces collecting stories from indigenous tribes. She had wanted to record them all, before they faded away forever.”
“That is a worthy endeavor,” Father Vladimir said solemnly. “Oral traditions are important and they must be preserved.”
“That’s what she always told me,” the young man went on. “She used to dream about a giant computer somewhere in the clouds. It was a place where she could store all these dying stories. In my own dreams my wife keeps asking me to come and find her. I guess in a way I’ve been doing that ever since.”
“I have heard of such places,” the priest whispered, “at least in literature.”
“Anyway… getting back to Beckett,” Felix continued, somewhat embarrassed he had revealed so much. “I was thinking about what you said about synchronicity. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I’m in a situation that’s just like the only play I can remember. I believe there’s some greater design at work here. In the tribal stories my wife collected, there’s always a man that goes on a quest to the land of the dead. Father, what if this wasn’t coincidence but synchronicity?”
“That’s… not how it works,” the priest said, “How do you know that what you perceive is true and not simply what you would like to see?” Besides, these Orpheus-type stories always end in tragedy. Haven’t you suffered enough? She’s dead, my son. Let her go.”
“I can’t do that, Father,” the young man said, turning towards the darkness. “I have nothing but my faith left. I’m… scared out of my mind… but I have faith that this bus is where I need to be right now. I also have faith that I will find my beloved Dolores again, no matter how long it takes me.”
“‘Dolores’—what a lovely name,” Father Vladimir noted. “It means ‘sorrow’ in Spanish, and your name ‘Felix’ means ‘happy’ in Latin. Happiness is searching for Sorrow. That is all so tragically poetic.”
Felix said nothing and excused himself. He couldn’t tell if the priest was being sympathetic or condescending. He grabbed his messenger bag and moved again to the rear of the bus. After he sat down, he took out his phone and removed the battery. He warmed it in his hands, praying to St. Jude to give him one last burst of power. He returned the battery to his phone and hit the power button. It was still dead.
The bus continued on in the darkness. There were no other stops.
After their third cycle of sleep, Felix finally saw something that looked like a destination, a gigantic tower looming in the distance. As they got closer he realized that it looked oddly familiar. In fact, it looked exactly like something from his childhood prayer books, a picture of the Tower of Babel.
“Incredible!” Father Vladimir exclaimed. “It is Brueghel the Elder’s painting come to life!”
The digital signboard above the driver flashed three times. The words changed from “Non-Stop” to “The Infinite Library.” Finally, the bus passed through the building’s soaring gates and came to a halt near a low parking garage. There a group of monkeys were waiting with a notice board. The sign read: “Welcome Father Vladimir of Estragon, SJ—Semiotician, Philosopher and Dream Bibliographer.”
“I guess this is our stop,” the priest said cautiously.
“Father, those monkeys are dressed like people,” Felix said. “Who are they? What are they? What is this place?”
“Hmmm…our bus says we are at a place called the Infinite Library,” Father Vladimir ventured.
“Those creatures… They seem to be expecting you,” Felix said. A pang of suspicion began to gnaw at his mind. “Did you know that we were headed here?”
“This is as much as a surprise to me as it is to you, my son,” the old man answered. “But as it happens, I do know where we are. I first read about this place a very long time ago, when I was but a child. My family had a complete set of the Anglo-American Cyclopedia. It was all there, in a thick volume for the letter ‘I’, along with ‘India,’ ‘Idiom’ and the ‘Immaculate Conception.’ I remember that the ‘Infinite Library’ is where all that has ever been written and all that will ever be written is recorded and preserved for all eternity. If that’s true, I cannot wait to step inside.”
The LED display flashed three times again before changing to “Please wait for the Return Bus.” All the lights powered down and the driver stepped out for a smoke. It was then that Felix realized that the man on the wheel was almost skeletally thin, a shadow of death himself.
The leader of the monkeys boarded the bus and greeted them in perfect, if archaic, English, one pregnant with meaning and epic formality. They extended an invitation for the old man to visit the library.
“I must follow my guides,” Father Vladimir said, collecting his luggage.
“What about me?” Felix asked. Though he was terrified of the strange creatures, the young man refused to be left alone in the dark. “You can’t leave me Father, please.”
“You chose Option 2, did you not? That means you have a return ticket. Just wait for the bus to be ready,” the priest reminded him. “My son, I’m afraid that your grief is still very much in denial. Your beloved wife is gone. This is not your story, go back to the real world. Find yourself someone else. Don’t let your tale end in tragedy.”
“No. There must be a reason I was brought here,” Felix insisted. “Take me with you, please. Someone here may know how to find Dolores.”
“Well… I don’t see any reason why I shouldn’t,” Father Vladimir said, turning to ask the monkeys for permission. “However, if you miss your bus, you may not be able to go back.”
“I’ll take my chances,” the young man insisted.
“It’s a fair bet,” the priest said. “In a place like this, where only infinities matter, I suppose your bus can wait indefinitely.”
They stepped into the library together. The interior was even more massive than the building itself, with endless rows of galleries and hallways that seemed to extend all the way to the clouds. Each gallery, in turn, was connected by a multitude of pillars and spiral staircases that linked everything together into a gigantic labyrinth of knowledge.
Felix noted that each hall and gallery had a brass nameplate over its entranceway. He did a quick survey and read some labels at random: “English 51st Century Fiction,” “Flash Fiction,” “Algorithms and Equations,” “Internet Memes,” “19th Century Erotica,” “Maps and Cartographic Materials,” “Songs and Song Lyrics.” He could not find any sign for an Oral Traditions section. He tried to ask directions from the monkey guides, but each creature pointed to a different doorway.
Their motley group walked to the central rotunda from where each of the halls for the living languages radiated like spokes. They stepped into a mirror-like portal, and suddenly the signs in the library changed. Instead of language families, the two of them now passed row upon row of galleries dedicated to individual authors. Father Vladimir stopped by the entrance to one of these, a doorway with a brass plate that read: “The Works of Karl Rahner,” and spoke to one of the librarians.
Felix wondered where the priest’s own writings were located. From his companion’s great eloquence, he imagined that it would be a huge gallery. He tried to ask the librarian a few questions, but he seemed only interested in theological polemic. The strange man barely even acknowledged his presence.
Felix left the gallery and began to wander aimlessly through the labyrinth of books. Eventually he came across the room that housed Father Vladimir’s work. Unlike Rahner’s numerous lexicons, this collection consisted of only one bookshelf. There was a thick encyclopedia of dreams, and various books on Faith and Theodicy, as well as many slim folios investigating Liturgy, Charity and the Importance of Sacrifice. He noticed that for some reason there was not a single volume on Love. Felix wondered if the old priest had ever known true love.
He stepped into another mirror-like door and found that the hallway signs had changed to modes of communication. He was in a gallery called “The Cradle of Literature,” where to his delight there were hundreds of music players laid out neatly on the tables. He picked through the gramophones, walkmans, iPods, and strange listening devices that looked like quivering crystals, until he saw one whose power source was compatible with his phone. He pried the back cover open and removed the battery.
Just then a librarian came out of a side door and accosted him. “Sir, you are not allowed to do that,” she said. The young woman looked into the intruder’s face and her eyes widened in stunned recognition. “Oh, my God,” she whispered. “You… you found me.”
For what seemed like an eternity, Felix and the librarian stared at each other, not stirring, not talking; for fear that the other might disappear like a dream. They stood apart, separated by a hyperbolic space, as if they could not touch each other without shattering.
Finally his heart could bear no more, and the young man jumped towards his lost love. He gathered her in his strong arms. “Dolor,” he cried softly. “I’ve missed you so much.”
No words or explanations were needed. The two remained locked in an embrace, cocooned in the library’s strange twilight, when Father Vladimir and the bus driver found them.
“I am truly sorry to break you up,” the priest said, “but I am told that Felix has to go back now.”
“Can I stay, please?” he begged the bus driver. But the skeletal man just shook his head, his face impassive as chalcedony, as he pointed a bony hand towards the exit. Felix felt a shiver that chilled him to the marrow.
“Father, help me! We can’t lose each other again,” Felix cried, his tears flowing freely. He got down on his knees and took the priest’s hand. He whispered a silent prayer to his favorite, St. Jude, and to St. Raphael, whom he now remembered as the patron of soulmates and lovers. His mind composed a desperate canticle to his beloved saints, calling for their intercession, and the compassion of their sacred thaumaturgies. “You said my story shouldn’t end in tragedy,” he said to Father Vladimir. “You have the power to change that.”
The priest heaved a sigh and looked away into the distance. He seemed older, a man filled with the melancholy regret that came with age. “Have you seen my gallery?” he asked. “It’s not as big as I’d hoped. I suppose I still have much work to do before they compare me to Rahner. Right now I feel like that Kiev cake we ate on the bus, all filling and no substance. After watching you and your wife here, maybe I should go back and write about Love.”
Father Vladimir held onto the young man’s hand, contemplating the fragility of existence and the resilience of lovers.
“It’s my story that’s not yet complete,” he said, finally. “Give me your ticket, my son.”
Felix wiped the tears from his eyes, and fished the ticket from his pocket. He picked up the battery he had dropped and slipped it into his phone. It turned on with a full charge.
“This is a multi-band phone,” he said, as he handed it to the priest. “Wherever you are in the world it will pick up the nearest signal. You should be able to call for help. Thank you. Thank you so much!”
“I am a man of the cloth and a soldier to Ignatius. To give and not to count the cost is our motto,” Father Vladimir declared. “Besides, what fool would not do this for love? It trumps all religions and philosophies. Your Godot has come, my son. I must go and find mine.”
As he was about to leave, the old man started chuckling, out of character. He turned back towards Felix and said: “Do you know why your batteries ran out? You had your music playing in a nonstop loop.”
“Yes, I know, Father. I forgot to switch it off,” Felix answered. “I think I was listening to The Police.”
“How prescient,” Father Vladimir mused, as he read the album’s name from the phone’s music player. “Synchronicity.”
The winners of our Silvia Moreno-Garcia Week giveaway – chosen at random – are number 6: Pete and number 17) Bret. Congratulations! You will be contacted shortly.
We’ll be back tomorrow with a new short story.
Mexican author (and Apex Book of World SF 2 contributor) Silvia Moreno-Garcia is fundraising for her first novel, the YA Young Blood, about vampires in Mexico City:
Domingo collects garbage for a living, carefully finding treasures where others see nothing. One night, the teenager meets a vampire in Mexico City’s subway. She is Atl, descendant of Aztec blood-drinkers with a very exclusive diet: she will only drink the blood of the very young. She’s also the member of an important Northern narco family. And she’s hiding in Mexico City.
But there are rival vampires hot on her trail, determined to squash Atl and win these drug wars.
Atl doesn’t want to end up with her head chopped off and carried in a cooler.
Domingo just wants a friend, even if she’s got some baggage. Hey, we’ve all got to die some day.
Rewards include e- and paper copies of the novel, chapbooks and other goodies.
TEASER: Chapter 1
Collecting garbage sharpens the senses. It allows one to notice what others do not see. Where most people spy a pile of junk, the rag-and-bone man sees treasure: empty bottles that might be taken to the recycling centre, computer innards which can be re-used, furniture in decent shape. The garbage collector is always looking. It is a profession.
Domingo was always looking for garbage and he was always looking at people. It was his hobby. The people, not the garbage. He walked around Mexico City in his blue plastic jacket, head bobbed down, and while he tossed a bottle into a plastic bag he paused to observe the people eating at a restaurant. He looked at the maids as they got up early and purchased bread at the bakery. He saw the people in shiny cars zoom by and the people without any cash jump onto the back of the bus, hanging with their nails and their grit to the metallic shell of the moving vehicle.
Domingo had spent most of the day outside, pushing a shopping cart with his findings, and listening to his portable music player. It got dark and he bought himself dinner at a taco stand. Then it started to rain so he headed into the subway station.
He spent a lot of time in the subway system. He used to sleep in the subway cars when he was a street kid making a living by washing windshields at cross streets.
Those days were behind. He had a place to sleep and lately he collected junk for an important rag-and-bone man, focusing on gathering used thermoplastic clothing for him. He complemented his income with other odd jobs, with the recycled bottles and the interesting items he fished from the garbage. Domingo was well-fed and he had enough money to buy tokens for the public baths once a week.
He felt like he was really going places but entertainment was still out of his reach. He had his comic books and graphic novels to keep him company but most of the time, when he was bored, he watched people as they walked around the subway lines.
It was easy because few of them paid attention to the teenager leaning against the wall, backpack dangling from his left shoulder. He, on the other hand, paid attention to everything. He constructed lives for the people who shuffled in front of him. This one looked like a man who worked selling life insurance. That one was a secretary, but not with a good firm because her shoes looked cheap. Here came a con artist and there went a lovelorn housewife.
Domingo imagined names and biographies for them as he leaned against the cool wall tiles and bobbed his head to the sound of the music. It was Michael Jackson for the day.
After an hour of people watching, Domingo went to look at the large TV screens in the concourse. There were six of them, all showing different shows. Domingo spent fifteen minutes staring at Japanese music videos, then he switched to the news.
Six dismembered bodies found in Ciudad Juarez. Vampire drug-wars rage on.
Domingo read the headline slowly. Images flashed on the video screen of the subway station. Cops. Long shots of the bodies. The images dissolved, showing a young woman holding a can of soda in her hands. She winked at him.
Domingo waited to see if the next news items would expand on the drug-war story. He was fond of yellow journalism. He also liked stories and comic books about vampires; they seemed exotic. There were no vampires in Mexico City: their kind had been a no-no for the past thirty years, around the time the Federal District became a city-state.
The next story was of a pop-star, the singing sensation of the month, and then there was another ad, this one for a shoulder-bag computer. Domingo sulked, changed the tune on his music player.
He looked at another screen with pictures of blue butterflies fluttering around. Domingo took a chocolate from his pocket and tore the wrapper.
He wondered if he shouldn’t head to Santino’s party. Santino lived in a vecindad downtown and though his home was a one-bedroom, they were throwing an all-night party on the roof where there was plenty of space. But Santino was friends with El Chacal and Domingo didn’t want to see that guy. Besides, he’d probably have to contribute to the beer budget. It was the end of the month. Domingo was short on cash.
Domingo pondered his options.
A woman wearing a black vinyl jacket walked by him, holding a leash. Her Doberman must have been genetically modified. The animal was huge and looked mean.
Domingo recognized her. He’d seen her twice before, riding the subway late at nights, always with the dog. Heavy boots upon the white tiles, bob cut black hair, with a regal stance and a sharp, aquiline face. The way she moved, it made him think of water. Like she was sliding on water.
She moved her face a small fraction, glancing at him. It was nothing but a glance, but the way she did it made Domingo feel like he’d been doused with a bucket of ice water. Something bored into him, snaked around his throat, and he felt the need to follow her.
Domingo stuffed the remaining chocolate back in his pocket, took off his headphones and walked behind her quickly, squeezing through the doors of the subway car she was boarding.
He sat across from her and was able to get a better look at the woman. She was older than him, early twenties, with large eyes that gave her an air of innocence which was quickly dispelled by the stern mouth. The woman was cute, in an odd way.
He noticed her gloves. Black vinyl which matched the jacket. She wasn’t wearing a fancy outfit but there was definitely something special about it. He suspected it was more expensive that it seemed.
The subway car stopped and Domingo fidgeted, wondering where she was headed. The woman patted the dog’s head.
He was looking at her discreetly and he knew how to do discreet, so he was a bit surprised when she turned and stared right back at him.
Domingo froze and swallowed. He found his tongue with some effort.
“Hey,” he said, smiling. “How are you doing tonight?”
She did not smile back. Her lips were pressed together in a precise and unyielding line. He hoped she wasn’t thinking of letting the dog loose on him for staring at her.
The subway car was almost deserted and when she spoke her voice seemed to echo around them even though she spoke very softly.
“Should you be out by yourself at this time of the night?”
“What do you mean?”
“How old are you?”
“Seventeen,” he replied, lying only by two months. “It’s early. It’s just before midnight.”
“No,” he scoffed. “I live on my own.”
“Ah, a man about town.”
There was laughter in her voice even though she didn’t laugh. It made him stand up and he was ready to push his little shopping cart away, to leave her alone. She turned her head away from him and he assumed this was goodbye. Goodnight.
“I’m looking for a friend,” she said unexpectedly.
Domingo blinked. He nodded, uncertain. – donate!
Today’s Tuesday Fiction is by Geetanjali Dighe. Geetanjali lives in Mumbai. She publishes IndianSF (IndianSF.wordpress.com), a bi-monthly magazine that features science fiction and fantasy stories. Her work has appeared in Daily Science Fiction and Muse India. On Twitter she is @GeetanjaliD.
This is the story’s first publication.
I am dying, Manohar. It’s been a long, hard life without you, but at least I met you in this life. Will I meet you on the other side? Will you be waiting for me, as you promised? thought Ratan, half-asleep, on the edge of death, in the middle of the night. Her old and wrinkled body lay on her warm bed.
The fabric of Ratan’s life began to tear, and the glow behind it poured out in rays. The tear stretched softly, like an old paper coming apart at its fibers, and through it a heavenly Goddess appeared by Ratan’s death-side. A Goddess with a glowing face, a golden orb around her head, four arms; and clad in a beautiful red sari decked with golden borders.
“Remember, the wise see only the truth in the mirror, Ratan,” the Goddess said. Mirror? How odd, thought Ratan. “Seek the truth.” The Goddess smiled and beckoned her with outstretched hands.
A dream-like haze came over Ratan, and she barely felt the tug as she came apart, unglued from her body. She quietly died in her sleep. It was the year 2009. She was 95.
When she opened her eyes, she was sitting on a cot in her backyard, outside her house in the village. Manohar’s brown horse, Chetak, was lazily nibbling grass by the guava tree.
A policeman shimmered beside her. He smiled and said in the most gentle way, “Namaste, Ratan. I am your guide. I thought you might find it comfortable to meet me in this attire.”
“Namaste,” Ratan got up and smiled. “Yes. Manohar, my husband, was a Sub-Inspector. He was killed by a dacoit in the jungle when my children were very young.” She paused. “He is here, isn’t he?” she asked gingerly, looking around.
“Ratan,” the guide said, very lovingly, “Manohar as you remember him is not here with us.” Ratan gasped. “This cycle of life and death – it’s an illusion. It’s a kind of art that you have created and loved. Here, there is only Oneness. Many beings choose to discard their identities once they reach here and coalesce into this one truth – this Oneness.”
“No. No. You must be mistaken!” Ratan sat down stunned. “Manohar promised if anything ever happened to him, he would wait for me, meet me when I died. He said so to me himself that morning, when he rode off to catch that dacoit in the jungle. He never came back.” Ratan started sobbing. “I cried for him my whole life. I had to raise five children all on my own. He promised he’d be here.”
“Dear child, this sadness is just your memory. It’s not real,” said the guide.
“Oh! If I could get just one glimpse of him!” Ratan wept.
“Look around you, these surroundings – your body, your tears – they aren’t real.”
Ratan held up her hand. It started to become transparent. She could see Chetak through her hand, and as she watched, the horse started to dissolve. Bewildered, she wiped her tears, but she could not feel her face.
“Have I become a ghost?” she asked and looked for a mirror.
“I am afraid mirrors aren’t allowed in this realm,” the guide said. “Here there is only Oneness. When it is reflected, it creates some resonant infinities that are difficult to attenuate.”
“What?” Ratan remembered something about the Goddess and mirrors. “But I want to see myself.”
Pop! As if on command, her beautiful Burma wood dresser appeared beside them. It was intricately carved, her case of perfumes lay next to the bronze jewelry box; but in place of the full-length oval mirror was an impossibly deep hole.
The guide sighed, and waited. Ratan walked up to the dresser and looked at the mirror. It was a dark tunnel – a hole of nothingness. Puzzled, she peered into it.
It was as if she had dipped her head in an ocean, and was looking at underwater corals. Except that the coral and the seabed were a boiling burning mass, molten and heaving.
Ratan pulled her head quickly out of the mirror. “What happened? What was that?” she said. “Tell me the truth, was that hell?”
“No. It was Aldebaran. You peered into a star,” the guide said.
“You are not in space-time now. You are in another plane – a plane of consciousness. It’s like a dimension… mirrors are gateways to different dimensions here. Let me explain,” said the strange guide. “You can now access any universe, any time, all lives and probabilities. They all exist, in all their possibilities, alongside, beside, below, and above each other. You can jump to any time, any space, any universe.”
“You mean there are parallel universes?”
“Is there a universe where Manohar wasn’t killed?”
“How do I find it?”
“You can look into the mirror and choose.”
“Choose?” Ratan was bewildered, but quickly put her head into the mirror. Sure enough, she saw herself at a function where Manohar was being made the Deputy Commissioner of Police. She saw them living their long life together, and felt all their moments strung out like pearls. She could wear them as an ornament. She pulled back out of the mirror.
“So, by going into the mirror, I can create any life for myself?” She asked.
“Yes, but all those worlds are an illusion – they are Maya. The truth is Oneness,” the guide said.
“But, then, if this is all Oneness, how am I still talking to you?”
“Are you really?”
“Am I talking to myself, then?”
Her voice seemed to echo in the silence.
“Did I create the guide and the Goddess? Is all this my own imagination? Who am I?”
Who wants to know? came her own reply.
Then Ratan looked at the self inside herself. She was now, never and forever, here, there, everywhere and nowhere. She was the reflection mirrored in myriad lives and worlds and times. She was the mirror reflecting herself. Ratan mirrored and saw Manohar. He was her. There were not two, was no other, only awareness. There was only Oneness.
But I can still choose. I can love Manohar, one more time. I can see Manohar come home, riding on Chetak, one more time. Just this once, Ratan thought, and with a quick step, walked through the mirror and plunged into the tunnel.
It was 1914. In the green, misty monsoon dawn, a group of people were on a morning walk in the village, singing patriotic songs, holding candles for the freedom movement. That morning, in that village, Ratan came kicking and crying into the world. Again.