by Athena Andreadis
Note: this is part of a series in which I discuss works of the contributors to The Other Half of the Sky. Links to other entries in the series appear at the end of each discussion. The article originally appeared at Starship Reckless and recent discussions within the SFF community make it particularly relevant.
By 2011 I had reached the point where I found SFF-as-usual intolerable, as a cross-section of my blog entries will attest. The blinkered parochialism, the impoverished imagination, the retreading of exhausted tropes and regressive clichés left me annoyed and – the kiss of death – bored. So before giving up on the genre altogether, I went out into the edges where the shrubs aren’t all pruned into the same shape and looked around for unruly life.
One of the names that popped up was Aliette de Bodard, a French-Vietnamese computer engineer. Her two major worlds are a fantasy Aztec universe in which gods are real; and a near-future SF one in which North America is divided between two superpowers: a still-powerful Aztec oligarchy (Mexica) controls the South, an empire of pre-Manchu-invasion Han Chinese (Xuya) the West. There’s a shrunken USA in the Northeast and both Incan and Mayan polities are still extant.
The Mexica are an continuation of the pre-conquista Aztec culture whereas the Xuya are a Confucian society that has retained extended families, age seniority, scholar supremacy and ancestral worship, though its women can attain high official positions as well as practice polyandry. Two Xuyan stories were originally on the site: “The Lost Xuyan Bride” and “The Jaguar House, In Shadow”. I liked them for reasons of both style and content, including the non-Anglo settings and minor-key endings, and said to myself, This is prime space opera material. Let’s see if her future Xuyan stories unfold amid the stars.
To my delight, the Xuyan stories that followed the first two (“The Shipmaker”; “Shipbirth”; “Scattered along the River of Heaven”; “Heaven under Earth”; “Immersion”; “The Weight of a Blessing”; On a Red Station, Drifting; “The Waiting Stars”) indeed took to the stars and made the universe larger and deeper. Several ingredients got added when de Bodard made her cultures interstellar: memory implants that literally allow “worthy” descendants to get advice from their ancestors; Minds (hybrids of Iain Banks and Farscape equivalents) who run starships and space stations, their abodes designed by feng shui adepts; and the Dai Viet spacefaring culture, a “softer” Confucian society based on extrapolation of an imperial Viet on earth that threw off both French and Chinese invaders, though it must still fight the other powers (Mexica, Xuyan and the generically named Galactics, European/US proxies) to maintain territory and status.
Within this setting, de Bodard explores the rewards and problems of extended families and of hierarchical societies; the wounds and scars of imperialism and colonization and the shortcomings of different types of ruling structures; the clashes between societies and between classes within each culture; alternative family arrangements (from male pregnancy to lesser/greater partners in dyadic marriages, the ranking determined by collective standards); the promise and danger of immersive, invasive neurotechnology; the dilemmas of creating Minds, Borg-like immortals embedded in starships and space stations, born at great peril by human mothers and considered family members – genii loci and living ancestors in one.
As a representative slice of this universe, the novella On a Red Station, Drifting (Immersion Press, $14.95 print, $2.99 digital) takes place on Prosper, a Dai Viet space station inhabited by essentially a large extended family of distant relatives plus a small Xuyan contingent. The story centers on the conflict between two powerful women: Lê Thi Linh, a scholar and magistrate in political exile who requests asylum on the station, and her cousin, Lê Thi Quyen, who has become stationmistress by default. Added to the mix are the station Mind who is slowly but inexorably failing, the agendas of other members of the Lê immediate family, and the strain put on Prosper’s people and resources by the faraway yet intrusive interstellar wars.
The story starts in media res, as is de rigueur for SF, and shifts back and forth between Linh and Quyen as (unreliable) narrators. Both are supremely capable and accustomed to authority, yet have cracks in their self-esteem for reasons related to their status. As a result, they are hypersensitive to slights, real and perceived. Their prickly pride and the Dai Viet culture’s standards of obliqueness and reticence set up the stage for a confrontation that pulls others into its vortex. During the ensuing battle of wills, many of the characters in Red Station cross into gray ethical territory or outright emotional cruelty.
De Bodard navigates deftly through this complex, polyphonic structure that’s part family saga, part cultural and political exploration, part space opera – but (happily) without blazing plasma guns, macho messiahs or standard father/son convolutions. None of the story’s devices are original but many are freshly recast: the unstable AI (de Bodard’s Minds are direct descendants of Joan Vinge’s Mactavs in “Tin Soldier”, including their gender); the space station in jeopardy (in this subcategory, Red Station ties as my favorite with C. J. Cherryh’s Downbelow Station and M. J. Locke’s Up Against It); neural/VR familiars (here explicit ancestral presences); design magicians (in this universe, the multi-skilled engineers who shape the stations/ships and their resident Minds).
The family dynamics are complex but clear and, as is typical of de Bodard’s stories, center on interactions between second-degree relatives rather than the more common first-degree ones. The two principals are well realized, with all their strengths, flaws and blind spots – though Linh is given more distinguishing small idiosyncrasies than Quyen. However, secondary characters remain quasi-generic types, with the partial exception of Quyen’s tortured brother-in-law and the fleetingly glimpsed but unforgettable Grand Master (Mistress) of Design.
There’s enormous tension in the story despite its leisurely pace, generated by the jeopardies inherent in the situation (annihilation of Prosper and its people is a real possibility and can come from several directions, including their own side) and also from the fact that none of the many subplots are completely resolved. Nor are any of the characters, several chafing against societal roles and expectations, fully reconciled to their fates or to each other. In this, Red Station is far closer to mainstream literary novels than the neatly tied endings common in SFF.
The style, straightforward with occasional flourishes, serves the story well: the membrane of illusion is never punctured. Vivid touches, from subtly nuanced poetry to mention of war-kites (a Yoon Ha Lee influence?) to xanh (read cricket) fights do much to make the Viet culture come to life – although if you’ve read other stories in this universe, you notice the recycling of fish sauce, zither sounds and wall calligraphy as cultural shorthands.
The most striking attributes of Red Station are not its intricate worldbuilding and plot, unusual and well-executed as they are. What makes it stand out is that its two fulcrums are women who clash over primary power, not over lovers, children or proxy power through male relatives; and that the story is set entirely within the Dai Viet context, making it the norm rather than an “exotic” variant juxtaposed to a more easily recognized “default”. Similar recastings distinguish all of de Bodard’s space operas and I, for one, hope she continues telling us stories of this universe. She deserves her recent Nebula award.
Cover art by Nhan Y Doanh
In the same series:
Fadz can be found occasionally updating his blog (http://www.fadzjohanabas.com), sharing random thoughts on Twitter (Fadz_Johanabas), and lurking around on Google+ (still getting acquainted with it).
Flight of the Ibis
“Master, I am afraid.”
Issa kept his eyes trained on the curved ceremonial dagger resting on a bed of rare white silk. Even in the dim slivers of light whispering through the stone grills on the ceiling, the ebony dagger made from star metal gleamed, as if glowing with an inner light of its own. Clear, crystalline veins ran along its length, glittering like the Red Sea at midday.
“Only the bravest of men could say what you have said.” The High Priest of Amun kept a respectful distance behind Issa, but his soft voice carried clear and pure in the high-ceilinged Hypostyle Hall. “What you have been committed to is a rare and great honor, child.”
Issa sighed, his shoulders slumped. “The honor, the burden, is too great for me to bear. This was supposed to be my brother’s destiny, not mine.”
“And who are you to question the wisdom of the Gods?”
Issa turned to face the High Priest. The tall, austere man’s forehead was creased with stern lines. Standing this close, he looked more imposing in his leopard skin cloak, his shaved and oiled head gleaming.
“Forgive me, Master. I did not mean to be impudent.”
Issa expected to be chastised, but he did not expect to hear the chuckle escaping the High Priest’s lips.
“There is nothing to forgive, child. The Gods’ works are beyond our understanding. Have faith that they have chosen you for a reason.”
“I am just a scribe.”
“Just a scribe? You sound ashamed when you should be proud. I have seen you in the Hall of Records late at night, translating ancient scripts for others to print. Your work is exemplary. You are not just a scribe.”
For a brief moment, Issa’s chest rose with pride. To his knowledge, the High Priest never praised anyone. Then he looked at his right arm, dangling shriveled and useless like a dry branch. When he looked up, he knew the High Priest noticed where his eyes had lingered.
“You have survived, you have prospered all your life without the use of your right arm. Do not think yourself unworthy in the eyes of the Gods. They have chosen you, child.”
Issa nodded and kept his eyes on the floor between them, humbled by the High Priest’s words. He still had doubts, but he did not wish to shame himself further in front of his revered Master.
“Come, child. There is something you need to see.”
The High Priest walked past Issa to the back of the great hall. Issa followed quietly, and stopped to face the wall that was filled from ceiling to floor with hieroglyphic murals recording the history of Mother Kemet and the city of Waset from its founding. He watched as the High Priest disappeared into the darkness and reappeared in another pool of light near the eastern end of the wall.
“Here,” he said. “Read this.”
Having spent years as a temple scribe, Issa knew the murals decorating the back wall by heart. The High Priest was standing before the section that depicted the arrival of the Aether, encompassing the Heavens over a thousand years ago during the construction of the Great Pyramid of Khufu. Along with the Aether, the Gods had returned and raised their children out of darkness and ignorance. The High Priest pointed at a picture of an ibis, the representation of the great vessel lying dormant just outside the walls of Ipet-Sut. Beside it was an empty space the length of two hands.
“Your place, child, is here on this wall. This empty space will be adorned with the record of your sacrifice. Not even I am worthy of that honor.”
Issa felt his breath catch. Never in his life had he dreamed of being remembered by people other than his parents. He felt his shoulders weighted down by an oppressive weight. This was not what he wanted.
“The eclipse will not take place for another three days,” the High Priest added, not taking his eyes off the wall. “Go home. Make peace with your family, with yourself.”
“What if I do not come back?”
“I have faith in you even though you lack faith in yourself.”
* * *
The ship Issa boarded docked just before the branching of the Nile at the Delta, where the wide waters churned yellow with mud. Issa could see barges of varying sizes transporting trade goods and foodstuffs down- and upriver. After his father had sent him to Ipet-Sut at the heart of Waset at the age of six, Issa managed to visit his home in Lower Kemet three, at most five times a year. Even so, not much had changed in the past fifteen years. The smell of dried fish hung heavy in the humid air, burying deep into his nostrils. Flies abounded, flying between people and wares. Issa took off his white linen headdress and swatted the insects that buzzed too close.
The sandals he wore did not help much in preventing mud from soaking his feet. Issa sloshed and shouldered his way through the throng of folks congregating around the dock. Men and women alike haggled for wares at the top of their lungs, from wheat and other grains, to clothing and jewelry, and to the finer barley beers of Upper Kemet. The fineries here were crude compared to those made by master craftsmen of Waset; people of the Delta would never be able to afford such jewelry. The market scene was both familiar and alien to Issa at the same time.
More than once he had to nudge and force his way through the crowd. More than once he had to avert his gaze from people who openly stared and pointed at his shriveled right arm. Likely they were jeering at him, calling him a living mummy, a name he had earned among the scribes and temple workers. Had he slung his palette over his shoulder as tradition dictated, common folk would show him more respect. But soon enough Issa would be the center of the whole of Kemet’s attention. He needed this anonymity. Nevertheless, some of them noticed the fine quality of his linen tunic, for they lowered their eyes and made way for him to pass by.
Just before he left the market, Issa saw a poster made of papyrus paper nailed onto a board. The black ink print showed an illustration of the great vessel back in Waset, and below it was news of the ritual that would take place during the eclipse. Not many people of the Delta knew how to read, but Issa was thankful his name had not been mentioned. He stared at the illustration for a while before continuing his walk home.
By the time Issa’s house was within his sight, the sun was well into its descent toward the western horizon. His mud-caked legs ached, and his mouth and throat were parched from the sweltering heat. The square single storey mud-brick hut was just as he remembered. His father’s fishing net was splayed on a rope tied between two stunted mangrove trees, signaling that he was home. The old net was well-maintained, obvious even from afar. Salted fish lay on the ground near the net. Issa could not help but wonder if his parents’ life would go on as usual like this when he was no longer around. Issa pushed the thought away and strode home.
He hesitated in front of the crude door made of planks. He heard his parents conversing with each other, but the words were too muffled for him to make out. He settled with just listening to the tone and sound of their voices.
“Mother,” Issa finally called out when he could no longer bear standing in silence. “Father?”
His mother pulled opened the door and rushed out to wrap him in a tight embrace. She stood on tiptoes for she was almost a full head shorter than him, but that did not make her grip any less strong. Issa breathed in her comforting scent of earth and salted fish.
“I had hoped you would come back to see us. The Gods have answered my prayers.” She held his arms and studied him. “You haven’t been eating well. What do they feed you there? You’re all bones!”
He in turn studied her. The fine linen tunic he had brought home for her was stained and yellowed with use. He should have stopped by the marketplace in Waset to buy more for her. She wore no finery, and her shoulder-length hair had more white than he remembered. Her olive skin was tanned brown where his was much fairer from spending all those years indoors. Her fingers were rough and calloused, and Issa felt a pang of guilt; his left hand, though permanently stained with layers of ink, was soft as a babe’s skin.
“You look no better off yourself,” Issa replied with a smile.
“Come, make yourself comfortable. I am preparing dinner.”
Issa followed his mother into the small hut and saw his father sitting by the window, repairing his second net. Age was catching up to him, but he was still the strong, broad-shouldered man Issa remembered. His father stopped mending the net and bored straight into Issa’s eyes.
“What are you doing here? You are supposed to be at the temple for the ritual.”
“The High Priest sent me home. I have time.”
His father grunted and continued mending his net. Issa settled down on his own rickety bed and burned into his memory the familiarity of his home: the scents of fish and stew being cooked, his mother humming an old lullaby in the kitchen, the swishing sound of shuffling net, the soft heat emanating from the ochre walls, warmed by the sun, and the cool floor at his feet. Outside, the riverbank was teeming with life. The calls of ibises and geese lulled Issa into closing his heavy lids.
When his mother woke him up, the sun was setting, bathing the land with an orange glow. Dinner was served on the uneven surface of the wooden table, illuminated by the single oil lamp in the hut. Issa stretched and yawned as his mother retreated to put food into clay bowls. The three of them ate in silence until midway, when his father spoke up.
“You are going back to Waset in the morning?”
Issa played with his food, weighing his answer. He looked at each of his parents’ faces in turn. “I do not want to go back there.”
The initial silence was deafening. When his father spoke again, his voice was soft and even, the growl of a leopard ready to pounce. “Are you out of your mind? Do you wish to shame our family?”
“I do not wish for anything, Father. This fate is not mine. Akil was supposed to be the one.”
“Your brother is dead!” His father’s fist slammed onto the table, toppling his bowl with a loud clang, spilling stew and bread on the floor.
“And I wish to live.”
Issa heard his mother catch her breath and felt her holding his knee. This was breaking her heart, he knew, but surely they understood his predicament?
“What do you plan to do then?” He pointed at Issa’s right arm. “You’re useless as a fisherman.”
Issa registered the disgusted look in his father’s face before he stormed out of the hut. They had never been close. Akil was the one who had been close to his father’s heart. Akil was learning to be a fisherman just like his father, as was tradition with firstborn sons, before he was enlisted into the army. Akil looked handsome and majestic driving a chariot. He was deadly with a bow. The Vizier himself had taken personal interest in Akil’s meteoric rise in ranks, and approached him not long ago with an offer of a lifetime. Akil had agreed, committing his family with this great honor.
That was before they carried him back home from a skirmish with an arrow shaft protruding from his chest.
Issa was never close with his father, but he had never looked at Issa with open disgust and hostility either. He turned to his mother for support, but he could only see the tears welling in her eyes.
* * *
Issa sat on a stump by the riverbank. He watched the ibises scattered across the marshy shallows, their pristine white feathers making them look like a layer of cloud had settled on the surface of the river. Their stilt-like legs made tiny ripples on the otherwise calm waters, and their discordant warbles broke the stillness of the air. Issa ignored the mosquitoes, only once in a while scratching his neck or legs. At night, the riverbank looked even more beautiful, and the Nile gave off an ethereal bluish-green glow, reflecting the Aether that spread across the Heavens.
It was never truly dark, not even in the deepest of night. Issa craned his neck and studied the sky. The moon hung low in the heavens, a pale round eye that watched over the world in silence. Beyond and around it were the majestic clouds of Aether, nebulous masses of blue and green and orange, and every shades in between. The Aether had always been a mystery to the brightest of scholars, appearing one night and bringing gradual enlightenment. Showers of rock and metal that fell from the Aether teemed with beautiful, unfamiliar plant life. Scholars knew there was more to the Aether than they currently knew, possibly more complex life as well, perhaps the dwelling of the Gods themselves, but it was always beyond the reach of humans.
Issa tried not to think about what he should be facing instead of cowering here at home. In some of the ancient papyrus scrolls he transcribed, the heavens at night had been said to be black velvet, littered with cold, distant points of light called stars and constellations. Issa tried to imagine a dark, empty sky, but couldn’t. The ever-shifting clouds of Aether were so beautiful, so divine. A small part of him was curious about the Aether and what lay beyond it. But a bigger, dominant part of him was deeply rooted in the harsh lands of Mother Kemet, and among the scrolls in the sacred Hall of Records.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?”
Issa’s mother stood beside him with a woolen shawl slung across her shoulders. Issa leaned against her and felt her trace the contours of his face.
“I miss Akil.” Issa held an unspoken jealousy toward his elder brother for his charm and strength, but most of all for his wholeness, for his ability to use both arms. He still did, even though his elder brother had passed away. But he loved Akil, and missed him dearly.
“As do I,” his mother replied. “A mother is not meant to outlive her children.”
“Is he still angry?”
“Your father is grieving over one son, and now he has to start grieving for the only one he has left.”
“He hates me, doesn’t he?”
Issa’s mother let out a long sigh and sat next to him. “Angry, yes. But your father can never hate you.”
“You saw his face. There was nothing but contempt.”
Issa’s mother took his atrophied right hand in hers. “When you were born, the midwives found your birthing cord wrapped around your arm. They knew it was dead, and they thought you were better off left in the wilds, as it would be kinder for you and for us.”
Issa felt himself stiffen. He had never heard this tale before. “Why didn’t you?” he whispered.
“I was weak and only half awake. It was your father who stayed their hands. He said you were a blessing from the gods.”
Issa choked back his tears. His father had said those words.
“And he is right. You are a blessing. Your father sent you to the Temple of Light to learn to read and write, not because of your arm, but because you were quick to learn everything. He knew you were meant for great heights.”
“I do not wish to die.”
“None of us do. It pains me to think you will no longer come and visit. I am happy you came back.”
“You made my favorite dishes.”
“It is the least I can do for you.”
Issa turned to see silent tears flowing freely from his mother’s eyes, glittering like precious diamonds from the southern lands. She was looking at the heavens, and her shoulders were straight and unmoving, but she did not try to hide her tears.
“I don’t know what to decide, Mother.”
She turned to face him then, and cupped his face in her warm hands. “Whatever it is you decide, know that you will not cause us shame. We are proud of you.” She kissed his forehead and stood up, squeezing his shoulders one last time before walking back into their hut.
Issa stayed seated on the stump long after the calls of the ibises had subsided, and the only sounds he heard were the lapping of the river on the shore, and the songs of the crickets. When he entered his home, both his parents were already asleep. He committed their peaceful forms into memory before drifting off to slumber.
When Issa woke up late in the morning, his father was nowhere to be seen, along with both his nets. His mother had prepared a simple breakfast of bread and fruits, and she sat looking at him as he ate. Issa knew he had to return to Waset no matter what he would decide. He owed the High Priest of Amun that much. Issa and his mother wept their goodbyes, and when there were no tears left to shed, she packed food for his trip upriver. She gave him another long hug before he left, and he felt his feet heavier with every step away from home.
As he reached the last hillock before the dock, Issa saw his father waiting there. Issa hesitated at first, but approached him nonetheless. They stood looking at each other for long moments, his much taller and broader father looking as imposing as the High Priest. He suddenly broke the tense stillness by embracing Issa in a fierce hug.
“I love you, son. I’m proud of you.”
Issa’s breath caught in his throat. His father had never said those words before, not to him, not to Akil. He returned his father’s embrace.
“I love you, Father.”
“The Gods watch over you.”
Throughout the trip upriver, Issa kept replaying the conversations he had with his parents. It was all that kept him from running away. When he finally reached Ipet-Sut, the whole temple grounds were abuzz with talks of a substitute. He rushed to meet the High Priest of Amun with both dread and hope warring in his head.
“Issa, I knew you’d come back.” The High Priest was smiling.
“Is it true? There is a substitute?”
“The other High Priests did not share my faith in you. They feared you would not come back, and this opportunity comes only once.”
“If I choose not to proceed? What happens then?”
The lines on the High Priest’s face deepened with his frown. He studied Issa’s face before replying. “You will continue to work as temple scribe. Your flair for the written word is much too precious to waste. But is that what you want?”
“I need time to think.”
Issa wanted to say more, but the High Priest had already turned his back. Issa felt hurt by the curt dismissal, but more than that, for the first time in months he felt a glimmer of hope.
* * *
Before he left, Issa’s mother had told him that his life was in the Gods’ hands, and that there was nothing finer a mother could ask for her son. When he stepped into the sacred lake just outside the Temple of Amun with the first rays of sunlight, Issa knew the Gods had given him a choice, that he was no longer forced to sacrifice his life because of circumstance.
Priests from each of the temples within the grounds of Ipet-Sut attended him in this ritual cleansing. They had shaven off every strand of hair from his body so that he could immerse himself into the still, pristine waters of the sacred lake and emerge anew, reborn with no sins, no wrongs. They lathered him with scented oils until his body gleamed as much as the vessel waiting between the Avenues of Ram and Sphinx. Finally they clothed him with a simple robe of finest white silk and clamped a thick belt of pure gold around his waist. Its weight made his steps heavy, but his spirit was light. He knew he had made the right choice.
The procession line was long and grand. Issa sat on a palanquin carried by ten temple guards, behind the statue of Amun carried by four guards. The priests behind him chanted an ancient prayer praising all the major Gods watching over Mother Kemet, their voices beautiful and resounding throughout Ipet-Sut.
Issa had seen the vessel since its construction, but it still took his breath away. Shaped like an arrowhead, the vessel had been forged from rocks and metals that fell from the Aether. Hieroglyphic reliefs were carved into its white outer surface. It was said that Thoth Himself had appeared in the young Pharaoh’s dream one night and inspired the god-king to gather sky rocks and metals and craft them into such a vessel that would unlock the mysteries of the Aether. Pharaoh himself had designed and overseen the completion of the vessel. He had named it Ibis, after the sacred bird of the Gods.
As he stepped off the palanquin to stand on a platform in front of the vessel, Issa noticed a detail he had never seen before. Near the narrow, pointed bow, a relief of a masculine face with closed eyes and mouth had been carved, beautiful and perfectly symmetrical. The vessel itself was large, the length of six great elephants from bow to stern, and three from wingtip to wingtip. The face was only slightly larger than a man’s, but it stood out in its fine detail.
Two young priests helped Issa shrug off his belt and robe, and he stood naked on the platform in front of the whole of Waset. Priests in their finest white linen tunics stood around the platform and vessel in a horseshoe pattern, readying themselves for the ritual. Common folk crammed against one another farther off, and Issa did not know if his parents were among them. He hoped they were safe at home. Then he saw another smaller procession making its way toward a higher-raised platform not far from where he was standing. Pharaoh Ramses himself was at the head of the procession, followed closely by his Great Wife and the Vizier. High Priests of each temple walked behind them at a respectful distance, their leopard skin cloaks billowing in the desert wind. As Pharaoh, his Vizier and his Great Wife stepped onto the pavilion, one of the High Priests broke off from the procession and walked toward Issa’s platform. It was none other than the High Priest of Amun, Issa’s master and mentor.
“I told you I have faith in you, did I not?” The High Priest awarded Issa with a warm smile.
Issa nodded at the High Priest and turned his head toward the pavilion. “He is beautiful.” He had never seen Pharaoh up close before. The god-king was a child, his bare chest oiled, golden headdress and beard rings glinting sunlight, bathing him in a halo. The boy, the god-king, was all Issa could concentrate on.
The High Priest chuckled. “He has that effect on people.” Then he cleared his throat to gain Issa’s full attention. “I will ask you this again, child. Are you ready to face your destiny?”
This time, there was no hesitation. “I am, Master.”
“May the Gods welcome you into their arms. It is time.”
Both of them looked up, and saw a small dark shadow creeping at the right edge of the great fiery orb. The eclipse had begun. The High Priest took out the ebony ceremonial dagger and laid it flat on his palms.
“Ptah, Hathor, Osiris, Maat, Horus, Thoth. Amun-Ra!” The invocation of the Gods were soft at first, spoken by the male priests that surrounded Issa’s platform. Issa felt the skin at the back of his neck prickle with each name.
“Ptah, Hathor, Osiris, Maat, Horus, Thoth. Amun-Ra!” This time, melodic female voices joined in, and the chant became a song, rising in volume and intensity.
“Ptah, Hathor, Osiris, Maat, Horus, Thoth. Amun-Ra!”
The chant continued as the shadow crept further to engulf the sun. Before long, Issa could only concentrate on the resounding “Amun-Ra!” His heart was beating faster; he still felt fear deep inside. He looked up at the progressing eclipse.
As the shadow completed a full circle, the last rays of the sun flared brilliantly, as if unwilling to give up its dominance. Then, true darkness. In those brief moments, Issa finally saw the black velvet sky he had read in the ancient scrolls. A fat tear rolled down his cheek. After that brief darkness, the Aether gradually reappeared, visible as it always was during the night.
Issa knelt down before the High Priest and tried his best to calm his shaking body. He knew the only part not shaking was his dead right arm. Issa chose to face his fears and searched for the calm within his soul.
“Osiris, take my soul and guide me. Amun, take me home.” His voice was barely a whisper, but he saw the High Priest smiling his approval.
Just as the High Priest repositioned the dagger and held its hilt in his right hand, a flock of ibises flew overhead, warbling their discordant song above the voices of the chanting priests. After they had passed, a single white feather floated earthward, and landed at the tip of Issa’s head.
“The Gods have spoken, child,” the High Priest said with an awed edge in his voice. “Your sacrifice has been accepted. May your journey be blessed.”
Issa heard another resounding “Amun-Ra!” His heart beat so hard his chest felt like bursting. He closed his eyes and faced heavenward.
The blade plunged deep into his chest, and his heart stopped beating altogether.
* * *
The whole congregation, including Pharaoh, held their breath as Issa’s form slumped onto the platform. With another brilliant flare, the sun returned in all its glory. The only sound heard throughout the hallowed grounds of Ipet-Sut was that of the billowing winds that carried sand and desert heat.
For long moments, nothing happened. Then, a silver glow came to life on the hieroglyphic depressions on the vessel, Ibis. The High Priest, who was the closest to the vessel, kept his eyes on the carved face on the vessel.
The eyes became slits of golden light at first, but gradually both lids opened fully and blinked like a human’s would. The mouth opened and closed, as if testing the function of the lips.
“I remember that body.” The voice that came from the mouth was raspy and metallic, but rang clear throughout temple grounds. “I remember you.”
The High Priest knew the face was talking to him. He bowed low.
“I have a name. I cannot remember.”
“You were once Issa. You are now Ibis.”
“It is a good name.”
“Your parents will be well taken care of. They will not want for anything their whole lives.”
“Thank you, Master.”
With that, Ibis gazed heavenward. A deep rumble growled at its stern, and intense white flames spewed forth. Heat emanated from the vessel as it angled upward until the arrowhead pointed straight at the heavens.
With a mighty blast, Ibis shot upward, flying toward the Aether.
Ibis surged ever forward, drawn toward a purpose delayed, but not forgotten.
Tuesday Fiction: “You Cannot Fight the War for Reason: Wearing the Wrong Trousers” by Aditya Bidikar
Today’s Tuesday Fiction is by Aditya Bidikar from India. When he started writing at the age of eleven, Aditya Bidikar wanted to be Edgar Allan Poe when he grew up. He later found out how Poe died, and decided to strike out on his own.
You Cannot Fight the War for Reason: Wearing the Wrong Trousers
1. Death of the Ancients
Ten years after the plague, twenty-one months after the Age Riots began, I was standing outside the shack of one Marion Crow, artist, male, and in his middle forties before he became immortal. It was a cold day, the chill had crept into my shoes and was making its way up my feet. I wiggled my toes and looked up at the crumbling building—possibly a mansion back in the day. It was surrounded by a garden that had lizards like trees have leaves and leaves like people have eyes. Near the fence was an easel that evidently hadn’t been used in months; the unfinished painting standing on it was faded and covered in dust, its reds and blues almost invisible under the dirty ochre. It was a painting of two flowers engaged in the act of blossoming. The models were obviously long dead.
I pulled my coat around me and headed up the garden path to the house. Even this early in the evening, a dim light had been lit in the living room, it showed through the ragged curtains in the windows.
I decided to knock—the flickering light seemed to indicate that electricity was too much to hope for—then I waited for Marion Crow to appear.
He did not look immortal. He was wearing a stained vest and a pair of shorts, and looked like he hadn’t washed in years. His face, though as dull and lined as one would expect after all he had lived through, was lit with excitement. Apparently my visit was highly anticipated.
“Mr. Crow?” I said. “Carter.”
“At last!” he said. “I was hoping you’d respond. Come in, come in! I’ll make tea.” And he turned abruptly and walked back in, and I followed him into the house.
The room we sat in was large and dingy, and most of the doors that opened into the rest of the house were padlocked. The windows had been framed in putty to keep out the cold, but really, you could only have told the difference if you’d had a thermometer.
Marion made a baroque brown tea, and told me about himself as he did so. Nothing I hadn’t already found out in my research—scholarship at eighteen, famous at twenty-one, married at twenty-three, married at twenty-five, disrepute at thirty-three, married at thirty-seven, dead to the world, including his most recent wife, at forty.
After handing me my cup, he dragged a plastic chair near the armchair in which I was seated and planted himself on it, then wiggled his bottom around till he was comfortable. He tried not to let me see him shiver from the cold.
“Now then,” he said. “Let’s begin at the start.”
“Absolutely,” I said, and pulled out my notebook.
He was shocked. “A notebook?! Don’t you have a recorder?” I shook my head. “You’re conducting this important an interview—something to be preserved for the ages—and you don’t have a recorder? What kind of reporter are you?”
“I work better with a notebook.” He shook his head in disappointment. “I could bring a recorder.”
He shook his head again. “This is shoddy, very shoddy,” he repeated a few times, and then he leaned back in his chair, resigned to his testament being documented in pencil.
“So,” I said. “How have you been?”
“I came here six months ago. I had nowhere else to go. This house belonged to my son. He killed himself five years after the plague.”
“How old was he?”
“Twenty-three, physically. Real terms, twenty-eight. I know. Prime of his life. No idea why he offed himself. We weren’t…close.”
I nodded. He continued, “Before this I was living with conservationists. There were seven of us oldies. Rations were limited. And after a point, I think, they didn’t really want us. It made them feel good, yes. But also miserable. We left them no privacy. So I left voluntarily. I think I was just afraid they’d give us up at some point.”
He paused. “It’s strange. You’d think someone would detect a pattern to the Age Riots. Looking back, it makes sense. But I think someone should have sat up on the day of the plague and said, yes, this is what is going to happen. Old people will die. There was so much obfuscation. Wilful, like. ‘This is a property murder, obviously.’ or ‘That guy had too much money for his own good.’ Sheh. It just took two months to get from that to ‘Kill the oldies’ slogans being recited on marches with police protection.
“And even then, people just rationalised it all. The earth can’t support an abiding population of seven billion, it needs to be brought down. And old people are the perfect candidates. That was….”
“Anton Black,” I filled in. “I remember the scandal that caused. He was thrown out by his university. I think some group even tried to burn down his house.”
“Of course,” said Marion. “Truly revolutionary ideas have to be outraged at. They show us too much about ourselves. But a few months later, people came around right enough. There were so many rationales. I used to keep track. Robotic production lines being shut down to make for jobs, which were crucial now, because speed wasn’t really important anymore.
“I was in England during the New Workers Union meeting in Manchester. Saw it live on tv. They said we oldies were taking their jobs. They had a grotesque effigy of this half old man, half old woman thing. They burned it at the end of the meeting. Scary it was. In India, they kept repeating like children, ‘Old people need medicines and we can’t afford them, we can’t afford them.’ And as always, it was too late till you paid attention to Africa.”
He was silent for a few moments, collecting his thoughts. He started swinging his legs, and then he stopped.
He sighed. “Some said the plague might have caused it. Changed people’s minds in fundamental ways. So foolish. I think it was the prospect of spending eternity with so many people around you, staring at the same faces, faces that remind you of the past. Of when people could grow old and die. Immortality was a gift, and you didn’t know where it came from. You didn’t want it jinxed by us, a reminder shoved in your face all your life.”
Marion Crow sat with his hands clutched together between his legs. He let me finish my scratchy writing. He looked at me almost expectantly. Perhaps he wanted to see if I would contradict him. Perhaps he wanted to be called wrong. I kept silent and he continued.
“I started running soon after I came back from England. I knew there was little time. And I knew you youngsters would not wait.”
“How do you know we started it?” I asked, cocking an eyebrow.
“Tell me, which side is stronger? Had more to profit? Who was on the offensive?”
“Half a billion have died. You can’t know who struck first.”
“Half a billion old people have died. What are the young casualties? One? A hundred? A thousand? Insignificant losses.”
“You can’t say those lives didn’t matter!” I exclaimed, pointing my pencil at him.
“You attacked us! We were simply trying to stay alive! Don’t you understand that?”
We were both silent for a few minutes. I tried to listen for the ticking of a clock, but I couldn’t hear one.
“Half a billion dead,” Marion said softly, “and they call them riots. Fewer have died in wars. Give it a euphemism and put it out of your mind. And they say people can never agree on something. You were complicit in the design. All of you. You agreed to forget.
“We don’t feel the need to remember stuff these days. We have too much time. Ever since you stopped aging, it’s been coming. When you stop killing, and the excitement goes away, you’ll get slower and slower until time moves like gravy.”
“That’s true even today,” I said in an attempt to lighten the mood, but it came out fatuous.
“Hah.” He got up from his chair and started pacing around the room. “Tell me. What’s your age?”
“Thirty-six this June,” I said.
“No-no. Before you stopped aging.”
I shrugged. “Twenty-six.”
“Now tell me, how many people have you seen in the last two months that were physically older than thirty-five?”
“I don’t know….”
“Take your time, think about it.”
He went and stood in front of a window, facing me. The curtain was torn in a few places, and the light of a streetlamp showed through behind him. One shaft of light lit his balding pate. He was a lawyer summing up, but looked like a street-side preacher.
“I….” I began.
“I’ll tell you. None. Apart from me, you can’t have seen any. There aren’t any left. Anyone older than you can tolerate. The ones there are have gone underground. Living like rats, with a few sympathisers showing them crumbs once in a while. Living in people’s basements and being parasites. Until they get tired too.
“They are already dead. They just don’t know it. But I’m tired of playing dead. I’m tired of living to rules I didn’t choose. I’m…I’m ready to start living again.
“Do you realise what I’m saying? I’m the last person you’ll ever see above the age of thirty-five. And I’m not going to hide anymore.”
I stared at him. His eyes pled me to believe him, to grant his premise, to realise the magnificence of the situation.
I scribbled in my notebook. ‘Poser,’ I wrote.
2. The Whole World Is Sitting Up to See
In a different city, far, far ago, while still mortal, still struggling my way between other bright, shiny journalists, and still young enough to have my mind changed through epiphanies, I was hitchhiking the last leg of a journey to an event that was supposed to be a scoop. It was winter then too, and I was chilly cold, my face pasty and drawn. The train journey to the city hadn’t done me any favours, but thankfully I still looked good enough not to be a serial killer, and it wasn’t hard to get a lift. I got out of the third car and headed towards the observatory that was my destination.
There was a small crowd in the lobby, and I saw that the mad professor was flitting from group to group, with his coat gathered in one hand like a dress, and the other hand supporting a tottery pair of spectacles. Everyone present seemed to be a reporter, and the professor was talking to each and every person, it seemed.
I headed to the bar to get a whiskey and heat myself up a bit. But before I got there, the professor saw me and made his way towards me, slinking between clumps of people.
“My dear,” he said, shaking my hand enthusiastically. “You’re late! I’ve been waiting.” I started to answer, but he ignored me and continued, “you do realise I simply couldn’t have begun without you. This is an important event in world history. I could never have forgiven myself for the sacrilege of it. My, if you had been any later, we’d have had to reschedule!” I grinned. “But you’re here now, and….” and then he saw someone else and flitted off without completing the sentence.
Tony, a handsome young man I had been to university with, sidled up to me and whispered, “He used the same shtick on me. He says something like that to all the more successful ones. Apparently his mother thinks I’m a good omen and therefore essential to success.”
“There are so many people here,” I said. “Are they all reporters?”
“Yup. Most of them, anyway. There’s some aristocracy and some rich slugs, but they’re all outside, waiting for the show. Wait till you see the number of people there. And he talked to every single one. And it’s being transmitted live.”
“Yes, he said that in the invite. Anyway, how have you been?”
After dawdling around the pre-appetisers (served with drinks) for about fifteen minutes, both of us headed inside. Our credentials were checked, and we were led through the observatory, out the rear exit and onto huge grounds where seemingly thousands of chairs had been arranged in identical rows, facing away from the observatory and towards, it seemed, a gigantic screen that the organisers had forgotten to put in. Most of the seats were filled. I found it hard to believe that the loon had talked to each buzzing idiot. There seemed to be hundreds of cameras placed all around, covering every inch of the grounds to the horizon and back, unwilling to miss the tiniest action. Tony had told me that all the cameras belonged to a single channel, and I wondered how many editors were working them.
I peered into the distance, trying to make out what it was the seats were pointed towards. But before I could see, I was tapped on my shoulder by an usher and guided to the seat beside Tony’s. He was waving a glossy programme at me. I picked up mine, and saw that someone had sat on it before my arrival. I suspected Tony.
The programme elucidated how we, the select few, were lucky enough to be a part of this great gig, how we were, live rather than on television, about to see the spectacle of our lifetime. Which was, obviously, going to change our very perception of the world we inhabited. The many miraculous wonders of fulsome Urbania were as nothing to this, the true, quiet miracle of an amalgamation of nature and technology—well, more the latter than the former, but that was forgivable, a minor gaffe in a magnificently ambitious undertaking.
The hot lights ranging over the lawns dimmed, and with them the hubbub of conversation on the grounds. A large holographic stage flickered into view in front of us—a background that was cunningly disguised as an off-white terracotta sheet, beige floorboards and an oversized brown podium which was a magnified and tarted-up version of the actual lectern to the right of the hologram, where the professor would be standing. The professor approached his lectern, and, with him, a larger, slightly duller version of him walked onto the stage and towards the podium.
When he reached the podium, he shuffled his papers for show, coughed to adjust the voice magnification, and began to speak.
“Ever since humanity stepped out of the gutter,” he said, “we have meditated upon the nature of life. From our earliest conjectures of the heart being the centre of all things and the vague, deceptive and still-disputed concept of the immortal soul, we have imagined the grand scheme of things and our place in it, and, according to ego, reached some conclusions as well. Keppler and Galileo were persecuted for being proponents of the heliocentric view of astronomy, and there are still people who do not believe in evolution, who would like to pass off their belief in magic as something scientific. Tonight is not for them.
“The human body is made of tiny cells. We are, at conception, one single cell formed of two halves, and then we multiply. At some point, whether in the womb or outside it, we achieve identity. But we remain, in essence, a collection of cells. These cells function as per their nature. Some of them existed before humanity was born, and they adapted and became a part of us. Without cells, we would not be people. Our food is their food—we sustain them. Their waste is our waste, we excrete what they have thrown out. But these little cells—do they know who they serve? Do they have any awareness that together they have a consciousness? Can they fathom this consciousness? They have their own attributes as non-sentient creatures, but they come together to make up a thinking human being—or in many cases, a sentient being who chooses not to think.”
He paused, and a few moments later some of the audience realised they were supposed to laugh. They did, and the professor continued.
“Just as we are made up of tiny particles that have no idea of the big picture, might we ourselves not be only the first step in sentience? Might we not create—rather than beget—a new form of life? And just like the cells in our body, could we perhaps not be simply a part of this being?
“Think about it. Why can’t we make a creature which consists of human beings acting as individual cells? Thousands, if not millions, of men and women, functioning together, just as most humans do anyway: going to work, eating, sleeping, and multiplying. If they were all connected in a machine, performing designated functions. And if the machine comes to life, who is to say that it might not actually be life? And who knows, maybe it will have a mind of its own.
“It would live on a scale that we might not understand. A century might be like a day to it. Seventy years—the average human lifespan—would be, for it, the life-cycle of a single cell, a blink in a life that might last aeons beyond our reckoning.
“We have been looking for immortality ever since we plumbed the depths of scientific discovery. Our genes are immortal—they propagate through one human generation to the next without skipping a beat. But, for once, we might make something that will rival the gene in the long run. Something we made might finally catch up with what made us. We could raise our fists to the heavens and say, ‘We are as Gods!’
“And the reason you are all here today, my people,” he said with a grin, “is that everything I have just told you…is no longer hypothetical.”
There was a silence. And then there were murmurs in the audience, and, in the pause that the professor had left, it grew to a gigantic droning. The professor grinned as he seized that moment—his chance to pose as a genius madman. He raised his voice to overpower the noise, and he screeched in a calculatedly manic tone. “Yes!” he said. “What you’re now thinking is exactly what I’m saying. When he wrote of evolution, Darwin couldn’t have dreamed of this moment. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you…the future!“
He pointed behind him with a flourish, and the hologram vanished, and hundreds of blinding focus lights turned on and pointed into the distance, and, blinking and shading our eyes, we gazed into tomorrow.
3. The Last Bastion of the Middle Age
“Tell me,” said Marion Crow, “what’s your theory on the plague? Why do you think humanity became immortal? Everyone has a pet idea, right?”
“I’m…I’m not sure, actually,” I said. “I was an atheist before, but obviously, the voices…they made me doubt that. But I still don’t believe most of the religious theories. It doesn’t take much to impose irrational reasoning on a perfectly rational phenomenon. There’s this one theory that appeals to me. Some people call it ‘the Tented Pants.'”
“I don’t think I know that one. Is it new?”
“Fairly. I don’t suppose you’d hear of it, holed up in here. You don’t even have electricity, do you?”
“I do. But I don’t use it. I don’t want to attract attention.”
“Well, this theory says that the intensity of human desire for the impossible—for immortality—stretched the fabric of reality into contorting itself, you know, like…erotic desire—”
“Oh. That’s quite clever. But not very rational, is it?” I looked abashed. “But it makes more sense than the monolith theory, anyway—one doubts if reality reads human fiction. But what about the voices in our heads. Religious theories at least take them into account.”
“Yes, but they don’t make sense either. I mean, really. Angels told us that we would live forever? Without telling us anything else? And the nightmares? Everyone on earth having them at the same time?”
“How do you explain them?”
“Unconscious telepathy, perhaps?” Marion snorted. “Hey, when you’re trying to explain people no longer aging—at all—you’ve got to think beyond everyday science, okay?”
“No, I agree. Was a time, I used to go with whatever took my fancy. Alien astronauts, dolphins, planetary spin, quantum, anything that was whimsical enough. For about four years, I stuck with the Mother Earth hypothesis. Considering the way we’ve been messing up the world, it makes sense if the world decided to let us confront the problems we would have otherwise left behind. But…since you started killing us, I’ve been wondering….” He leaned forward in a conspiratory way. “What if the voices lied to us?”
He leaned back and grinned, letting his words sink in.
“What do you mean by that?” I asked.
“What if,” he said, “when you’ve killed me—by that, when you’ve killed every old and middle-aged person—what if you then start growing old again? What if, one day, you turn fifty, instead of being perpetually twenty-six? How will you live with yourself? That’ll fuck you right up, won’t it?”
“Why are you talking to me like that? I didn’t do anything.”
“Of course you didn’t do anything. No one did anything, not you, not the government, no one. It was all them, not you. They’re killing a bunch of oldies. Who cares? We’ve got enough left. They just killed my dad. But nuh-uh, I didn’t say anything when they killed my next-door neighbour. Fair enough. You never saw that was the bloody problem—you just shut up and ignored it. Put your fingers in your ears so you couldn’t hear the screaming. The world went crazy and you let it.
“But I can tell you what’s going to happen. One fine day, someone will decide that twenty-six is old enough. So you’ll be killed. Yes, you. Then they’ll realise that the children are not going to grow up. They won’t want to bear the little shits screeching all the time, all their immortal lives. So they’ll kill every kid—from two to nineteen—who the hell needs the brats? Then they’ll fuck each other and watch tv for a few years. And then what are they going to do? They’ll have all eternity to themselves, and nothing to do. And whatever made us immortal is going to have a big laugh at that.”
4. New Life
The professor stood back from the podium and turned, and all of us stood up and looked into the distance, trying to fight the atmospheric dark compromising our visions, to try and see what happened before anybody else did.
We almost didn’t notice the chairs disappearing, and the scores of androids meandering through the crowd, walking up to each clump of onlookers. I looked at the one standing beside me—it was a replica of the professor, although its beard was a tad too silvery, and its eyes a little too glassy. It spoke in the professor’s voice.
“I have been programmed to be your host for the evening. If you have any questions, fire away, please.”
“Anything?” Tony asked.
“Absolutely,” it said.
“How many other scientists did the professor cheat out of credit?”
“I’m afraid I won’t answer that.”
Tony grinned at me. Everyone around us started scrambling for information.
“How many people are in it, this future?”
“Fifteen hundred as of now. But there will be larger versions made. Once we have the funding and the volunteers. This is a prototype, so to speak, modelled mainly after invertebrates.”
“Who is in control in there?” I asked.
“That is the point—nobody. Everyone fulfils individual functions. The mental functioning has been divided into sixteen sections, none of which supersedes the rest. It is impossible for any one person to take control of the whole. Anything that you see it doing, it is doing. It is therefore a somewhat basic…organism, as of now.”
“Yes, but how do we believe that?”
“There will be tests and verification, I assure you.”
The people in our group looked at each other sceptically.
“Is it all computerised?” one asked.
“Mostly. But there are mechanical parts, just to keep everyone on their toes.”
“Can the professor communicate with it?”
“That isn’t a valid question for now, I’m sorry. That would require a creature with a much more complex design.”
“How big is it?” and “What does it look like?”
“Quite big, and you’ll see soon enough.”
The ground beneath us started vibrating, and a low hum filled the air. The android offered each of us a pair of binocular glasses, and we all shut up and watched.
At first, we could see nothing. But then, flashes of silver and gold appeared, reflecting the focus lights back at us. We concentrated on making out shapes, and we saw a giant stump with tentacles rising in the air.
A hush had fallen over the crowd. I broke it.
“What is that?” I asked.
“Functionally, you could call it a hand,” the android replied.
I looked around me, and saw that people were either staring with their mouths wide open, or muttering to themselves.
“How far is it from here?” somebody asked.
“Around five kilometres.”
We tried to get our minds around the sheer size of the creature.
“Wow,” Tony said. “That thing must shit a lot.”
The android smiled. “It will.”
“So how would that work?”
“The cells—the people inside—process material as usual. The plumbing collects it all and expels it from the body, along with garbage, dust and recyclable waste—separated, of course.”
“Could it shit on us?” someone said. A snicker went through the group.
“Theoretically, it could,” said the android gravely. “But it won’t be incorporated into regular society just yet, thank you very much.”
I tore my eyes away from the giant hand to see what the professor was doing. He was kneeling down, with his hands on his head, weeping openly.
Then I asked, “Isn’t it going to do more?”
“Um, it will,” said the android. I wondered why the hesitation.
As we watched, a clicking sound started to fill the air, getting louder, faster and more insistent. And then, much faster than it had risen, the hand fell back to the ground with a god-awful thump.
The gathering dissolved into commotion. Everyone talked to each other. The androids refused to tell us what was happening, all of them stared into the distance. The professor too. His face gone ashen white, he looked exactly like one of his androids.
A coterie of bodyguards came and picked the professor up off the ground and walked him inside. Reporters surrounded him in an instant, but the bodyguards roughly shoved them off him.
We realised that nothing more was about to happen, and the crowd started trickling out of the observatory.
Outside, Tony and I split without a goodbye, and I headed towards the train station. I had intended to stay the night, but it seemed pointless.
On the train, I was almost alone in my compartment. There was an old woman asleep with her cheek against the windowpane, and a good-looking man somewhat younger than me. I tried to read, but the lights kept flickering. The stop-and-start of the train at each station refused to let me sleep. I wanted to reach out of the window and feel the air running through my fingers like I used to when I was a child, but the new gauze reinforcing made that impossible.
I stared at the young man, and watched him read. After a while, he looked up and saw me staring. I held his gaze. He came and sat beside me.
We whispered to each other for some time, and then I took him by the hand and led him into the toilet.
When I got back home, I went to sleep without filing my story.
The next day, I checked the paper out of curiosity and found no mention of last night. The tv channel had, I later found out, cut transmission halfway through the professor’s speech. None of the national newspapers talked about the event. There were questions raised on the interweb, and some mavericks working for the smaller press responded, but the matter sank leaving little trace. I couldn’t even find out if anyone had been injured during the incident.
The professor, now lost without the support of previous charity, made some soft noises about starting again. Three weeks afterwards, he was killed, reportedly by a group of creationists, who left a cryptic symbol carved into his chest. Nobody was able to understand what the symbol stood for.
5. Here to Leave
When I left, late at night, Crow’s place seemed shabbier than when I had arrived. It took me a while to start my car—it was freezing cold by then, and the mandatory water-based engines had yet to be perfected—but the journey home was not as difficult as one might imagine. The GPS traffic monitoring system had already made driving easier than ever, and I got greens almost all the way. I was only stopped by the police twice—no more than in the daytime—and just once they checked my trunk for an illegal passenger. I saw two homeless people cuddling on a footpath, asleep, covered in newspaper, their breaths steaming into the air and mingling together. For a few moments I entertained thoughts of a stray hook-up in a bar, but I was too tired for the nauseating small talk that functions as foreplay.
My apartment building, in the brighter end of town, greeted me as a long-awaited friend, and I hurried into its centrally-heated womb. I had been living there for six years, and never had I loved it as much as I did right then. I saw a light on under my door, and I opened it apprehensively. I was greeted by the smells of warm cooking and the tinkling of utensils from the kitchen. I smiled to myself.
My girlfriend came out of the kitchen wiping her hands on a dishcloth. After seventeen years together, I should have expected she’d want to be there to greet me after such an important occasion, but I guess Crow’s pessimism had rubbed off on me a little. I replied to her smile by giving her a long, tender kiss.
“How did it go with the old man?” she asked me.
“It’s dealt with,” I replied.
She grinned. “Oh, I’m so proud of you, darling. Dinner?”
We laid the table together. We sat down, and she dipped a finger in the sauce and held it out for me to taste. I gave it a delicate lick, and sucked on her finger. I licked my lips. “Beautiful,” I said. “Stimulating. Insurmountable.”
We decided to rush through dinner to get to the good stuff.
Afterwards, curled up on the sofa together, both of us a little sweaty and trying to catch our breaths, I told her about my interview with Mr. Marion Crow. Between tentative licks to her brow, and gentle bites to her earlobes, I managed to fill her in on large bits of the conversation—how Marion had eluded hunters, lived off the grid, tried and failed to save others, and of course, his ridiculous claim. At last, I stroked her below her belly button, and she sighed. She took my hand and led it lower.
“Mmhh,” she said.
“Don’t you want to hear more?” I asked her.
“Tomorrow,” she said. “Tomorrow.”
First published in Kindle Magazine, February 2011 (Fiction Special)
Today’s Tuesday Fiction is by Harry Markov from Bulgaria.
Harry Markov is a writer, reviewer and columnist with a predominant interest in the weird, the fantastic and the horrifying. His non-fiction has appeared in Innsmouth Free Press, Beyond Victoriana, The Portal, Pornokitsch and The World SF blog. Most recently he has become an assistant to US publicist Jaym Gates. Currently he is the assistant editor at the Horror podcast Tales to Terrify. You can follow @HarryMarkov on Twitter and find his personal opinions and updates over at Through a Forest of Ideas.
This is the story’s first publication.
There was once a girl, walking on a road in the desert. Yes, she was a girl and not stars. One human girl, who felt the sand brand her soles and thirst shrivel her throat, and not a constellation. Which constellation, she did not remember, for her time up in the heavens was a haze. They were so indistinct and overdressed in fragments, they seemed imaginary. This, had said the gods, was how it was supposed to be. Which gods, she again could not recall. What she knew was that once, a long time ago, she had belonged to the land, and that now she had come to find love. That she had to remember. Hold on to it, keep it captive, lest it run away from her memory. There was her, the sky and love. Why she chose to find love also strayed from her mind, but the need was there, a dagger slipped between her ribs, cleaving each inhale into tiny halves.
What she did know was that the gods had struck a bargain with her. While everything else blurred like rippled water, the wager with the gods rang with clarity. It was the sole proof of certainty, one which she would not discard as a dream. Her name was one of the things lost in the ripples. Her heritage and the names of her family, she couldn’t mouth, even when their ghosts danced on her tongue. Was she regal or was she common folk? Did her spine, straight as a spear, speak of her high rank? Or did her feet, oblivious to the furnace-hot sand, say otherwise?
She couldn’t know, couldn’t decide, and it gnawed on her. Could she find love, when she didn’t even know herself? Uneasy, uneasy. But this was her choice. Uneasy, but hers alone. Her heart confided so, and it made this choice all the more treasured. She had to find love, the man to pull this dagger from her chest, the one who had promised her happiness with his voice. And she would do that, no matter how long she had to walk on this road, which seemed to tie the world like a ribbon.
Then, while the sky held the colors of ripe peach, a roar stomped the silence. The girl looked up, searching for storm clouds, but every single one cushioned the sky in cheerful hues. The sound rumbled nearer, like thunder.
She turned. Behind her, a cart in green heaved up the road, riding as fast as a doe, but without an animal pulling it. It was made like a box. Foreign. The thunder must be encased within, she thought, with sorcery. She didn’t remember ever seeing sorcery done before her, and it was wondrous.
She watched as the cart approached, made of metal. It crawled to a halt; the train of dust behind it pooled around. A sheet of see-through crystal slid down. Inside, two crones smiled. Cheerful, wizened, clad in colors tight to their bodies, and black eye patches of crystal over both eyes.
“Dear God!” the first crone exclaimed. “What are you doing here half naked in a sheet? In the middle of the desert, of all places!” There was worry in her voice, woven over scolding.
The girl looked at her linen robes and observed the clothing of the crones, which bothered her. It revealed the body, while constricting it all the same.
“Are you in some kind of trouble?” the second crone asked.
“I am searching for a man,” the girl said, hesitant with the new language. The goddesses had parted with this gift to understand the new speech. To talk no matter where her feet would step.
“Aren’t we all, sugar. Hop in the car and we will take you to Reno. There are plenty of men there. And you are so pretty, they’ll all go gaga over you,” the first crone said.
A small door parted in the back and the girl sat in the car. She almost gasped at how cool it was. The witches must have trapped a wind inside this…car.
“That’s how I met my third husband, you know,” the crone continued. “I wanted a man from Reno, and I bagged me one.”
“No, no, Isabelle. That was how I met my third husband. You married your number three, when I divorced my number one,” the second crone corrected her with a tsk and a finger in the air, and the car carried the three onward, smoothly as if on water.
“My name is Margo,” the second crone said and turned around from her right seat, her smile a crack among a web of wrinkles. “And this is Isabelle. We are going to Reno, because the old retirement home is no fun at all. The old people there drive me nuts. Like a hospital. Always moaning.
“I say, it’s not like we are in Purgatory, girls. But they only quiet down when ‘The Bold and The Beautiful’ is on. And who are you, my dear?”
The girl startled. For one, she could not imagine a woman talking so fast. For another, she didn’t even know what name to entitle herself. She didn’t know her own and she did not know the names of this land.
She repeated what she had just heard. “Isabelle.”
“Oh, Izzy, did you hear that? She has the same name as you do. Isn’t that marvelous?” Margo said.
“Yipikaye, Margo. Now zip it. I’m driving here.”
“Don’t mind Izzy, sunshine. She is a bit grouchy when she is behind the wheel. Now, tell me more about that man of yours.”
“He sang to me.” Isabelle started, uncertain at first whether she should be confiding at all. “Promised that his heart is mine. I decided to follow my heart and so I’m here, searching. To sing and find him like he did me.”
“Oh, so lovely. Did you hear that, Izzy? This is like all those love stories Kitty used to read. Sweet on the uptake that one, but dramatic and unstable. An artist, you know.” She pronounced those words as if Kitty had enraptured herself in a mystery, which was permitted to be spoken of only in a whisper.
“Bah, an artist. She drew cartoons, but wanted attention and drama. Now, Isabelle, listen carefully. My seventh said the exact same things to me, but in the end he left me with this Chevy.”
“Oh no, Izzy. Albert never had a dime to begin with. He left you without your silverware and your grandmother’s pearls. The Chevy was from Gideon, number five.”
On it went, almost blindingly fast, the two women caught in their thoughts, too long shared to know which memory belonged to whom. The two women lived as one, grinding the words and sewing fractured stories with their crack-lipped smiles.
And Isabelle listened, hearing about this world as knowledge rose like a tide during a storm. Commonplace tales and objects lapped over each other, or crashed together, blistering to foam, and giving way to new ones. There were cars, TV, Reno, cherry pie, poodles, and someone named Lady Gaga, who according to Izzy needed a stray jacket.
Looking into this world was like peering into the night sky, because it was borderless, because it had no end to its depth. And yes, it even captured a bit of that cosmic chill, because even while people were people, this Earth resembled nothing of the home she had left before she ascended to the stars.
Reno, Isabelle soon learned, was a country of a city and geometry come alive. Houses and buildings of commerce flanked all sides like cinder blocks with outer ribs and windows with light as bright as the sun.
But this was the boring part, Izzy had said.
“Wait till we reach the casinos,” she said, and laughed.
The casinos were downtown and downtown seemed like day, even if they had arrived at night. The buildings were like stars themselves, burning with color, birthing hues as the lights mixed in the space between the buildings. And the buildings themselves looked like hive blocks, lit in honey gold.
Reno swelled with people, none like the other, voices opposed in disharmony, but entangled in one tide of noise that was the city’s heartbeat.
Margo and Izzy wanted to go gambling, but when the guards refused to let Isabelle in with a tunic, they took to the stores. Soon Isabelle wore a pair of jeans, flats, and a loose-fitting silver blouse. ‘To complement your silver hair,’ Margo had said, then winked.
And the night went on, spinning and spinning; Isabelle was a leaf caught in a whirlpool. The noise never slept. Neither did the people. The Peppermill casino hooted owl-like and rustled its doors as if they were feathers, people always entering and leaving. The restlessness caught Isabelle’s heart. She trailed behind Izzy and Margo, drinking in the sights, a luminous tapestry with people laughing, people crying, people kissing, and metal clapping against metal, applauding and consenting to every action.
Izzy and Margo attacked the slot machines, which were treasure chests with levers. Isabelle learned to put in a coin, then pull the lever, and the trickster chest would either swallow or give her treasure. Isabelle found her slot machines generous. Within hours, the sound of coins clacking down like a torrent became a given. ‘Beginner’s luck,’ Izzy had grunted.
The three left the casino with green pieces of paper. “Money,” as Margo had mentioned, “makes the world go round and you, darling, are sitting on the throne of this carousel tonight.”
Before the night ended, all had one more place to go.
“Oh honey, you have to sing and find your man,” Margo chirped. “I hate these karaoke places. The people sound like kittens with bags of dirt tied to their feet, but Westend Bar is the place to be, if you want to sing. Not too crowded and less drunken Germans.”
So, Westend Bar it was.
Isabelle wasn’t sure she could do it; the songs were all foreign. The light that bathed her erased the people in the audience and she was supposed to sing.
Fear patted her chest, but when the music came, it folded its tail and fled. The song “Golden Earrings” was picked by Margo, who informed everyone she begat her third son on it and it felt romantic.
Her lungs filled with air, her mind with the song, and Isabelle hummed along with the melody, which trembled unsteadily. Then the words trickled, drops of sound that fluttered in the microphone.
Isabelle sang and moved as the music coiled, smoky and thick with breath. Word by word, verses trembled into the air, fragile and wanting, full of promise and instruction. Isabelle allowed for the sounds to claim her as the sea did the shore, dragging it into its depth. She spoke of love, of earrings and magic, hoping she could lure such luck to her side with her fingers and voice.
The last note rolled from the speaker and then like a lake the room had stilled. Isabelle breathed in, terrified of letting the breath flee. Terrified that it would be shredded by the dagger in her chest and that silence would answer her pain.
It wasn’t all silence. The audience cried for her, but her love held his mouth tightlipped and wordless. And this is how she lost her first star, leaked into the ether, back to the night sky. It caused no pain of the body, but she did fell less, even if her heart weighed more with sadness.
She had many more stars. The audience loved her, but no love was found.
From scalding Reno, Isabelle traveled West. Paid for buses and poked at destinations on maps. She hiked the highways and scrambled over the stones on dirt roads. The desert ended and forests held the land in their roots.
She sang at village gatherings. Their songs were on her lips lithe and jerking, wild as their hearts were here in the wilderness. She sang as much to find love as to bring joy to others. Her hopes lay on all the young men, but she also listened for when they grabbed a guitar and sang themselves.
When the night was not spent in songs, she worked in the fields as all others had. Work did not befit her, she soon discovered. Her body was soft, beautiful and untaught, made for admiration as it would seem. However, she recognized a connection with the land whenever she breathed in the scent of the fresh soil in the gardens. She often did that, and with no inhibitions, for the inhales brought shadows of memories, the texture of petals on her fingers, and a beat in her ears, which caused her to sway.
She had been in Seattle, city of rains, tailoring her words to frivolous melodies in the city’s streets, casting a net amongst the men. Nimble fingers slinked the music in their hearts and fed the city’s beat with waving threads. It gave her pleasure to twirl in the stranded-in-motion public stage. Music abounded, and her heart did too. So many lyrics, so many notes and genres.
Yes, she allowed the music to rob her of stars, but she possessed numbers beyond what she could count. After all, how large was the world?
And her love was looking for her, too; that was why she listened as much as she sang. She went to concerts, which swallowed her whole, but no man there was her love.
The men on stage entranced and clutched with their biting voices, but their voices ran thin with emotion. Unsubstantial. Tired. Hollow and lost in repetition, meaning long since worn out, but drunken on violence.
After Seattle, Isabelle went to San Francisco, a city of hills, bridges and mists hanging like mantles after dark. It was a city of all kinds of love; men loving women, women loving men, men loving men and women loving women. But even here she could not find her beloved one.
“Go to LA, Bella, darling. That’s where all the stars go,” Jenna, a bar waitress, had said. By then, Isabelle had tried her hand at many a trade. Waitressing seemed the easiest to land. Bars and clubs welcomed her as if she was long lost ilk, and did so without unnecessary paperwork. It seemed paper and proof served as the blood for this world. Squares and rectangles of it preceded or trailed behind a person like ever-knowing ghosts. Nothing was ever forgotten. And everybody wanted to know, to peruse the papers and judge.
In the bars, it seemed the reverse. Hands grabbed her and men whispered obscenities, invitations and compliments, souring her mood, but they never questioned her. Never wanted to know where she came from or, if they did, they didn’t mean it. She never enjoyed it, but she also felt safe.
However, the work brought true merits. Mopping the bar late at night, while the regulars remained like debris after the tide. And when the tide departed, leaving the silence and the hushed music from the speakers, fuzzy with its own drained insomnia, they talked, piecing a mosaic of this world. It was tragic and joyous. Alien, without losing its novelty, and, she finally learned, truly unending in all dimensions. An abyss from people pressed flat and racing with the horizons.
Isablle feared that what she wished for could not be obtained. She moved to LA, doing what she did best. Wait tables, wait on customers, wait for human stars, because her love could only be divine. A man with a voice so pressing it could puncture the skies and seduce a constellation couldn’t be anything else than one of these stars.
Then, one day, a star talked to her.
“Are you the girl I keep hearing about?”
No hellos. No entrée. Straight to the heart of the matter. Stars had no time to spare, Isabelle deduced.
“Could be. What have you heard?” She talked fast. An octave higher. Reflex, habit she had picked up from Jenna, who was adamant: ‘A waitress will avoid any man, if she is a good girl.’ Here Jenna had fanned her hands and wagged them up and down, her way of underlining things of importance. ‘Just be all smiles and they’ll think you are a virgin, a Christian, or both. No one likes those girls.’
Isabelle obeyed, even threw a couple of our Lord and Savior’s into her replies, and her customers wanted nothing more than a friendly ear.
“The girl that sings in the morning traffic jams. An apparition that walks among the cars, covered in exhaust fumes. That you?” He propped an elbow on the counter and bared an ivory-white smile just like a cowboy.
“One and the same. Great attraction for the bar and it’s exercise.”
In her boredom, Isabelle did sing during the morning traffic jam. Just two, three songs from a loudspeaker she had found discarded on the sidewalk one day. With so many cars stalled in one place, who knew, maybe she could find her lover among them. She could not wait any longer. She had to act, and, in a city full of failed dreams and desperation, what other alternatives did she have? As long as it achieved the goal, she didn’t have to like it, or others enjoy it.
“Judging by the empty tables, I assume your voice isn’t that sensational.” The smile never wavered, his humor biting and piquant.
“Hah, well you caught me. I don’t walk around with a company logo. We’re not like Hooters, you know.”
She smiled and waited for the chuckle. It came, and the magic of Hooters had worked again. It stood for something, when men fantasized about it and women acknowledged it without necessary comments.
“You’ll sing for me, right? I am not about to get stuck in traffic for a live performance, you know.”
She turned her back. He was a star among men. She had not heard him sing, but she couldn’t waste a star on one man alone.
“When I sing, I sing for a crowd.”
“Attention whore, then? Heck, I am not surprised. What can a waitress want more?”
The way he talked was generally nauseating. As in pus from a wound nauseating, but there was a charm to his mouth and its slights.
It was a false rejection. This was far from over, and it was simplified enough for him to catch on.
“You know who I am, right?”
She has learned, from the movies, that this is his trump card. The big guns. Something he likes to express with a confidence that is not his.
“Yes.” No, not really.
“Cold.” He paused, and in the meantime she turned with her back to him. “Okay, okay. Let’s rewind a bit. How about a dinner? LA atmosphere to make you reconsider?”
It didn’t take much. The ‘yes’ fluttered out of its own accord. So they went out on the dinner, then he took her back to his hotel suite. There, on the king-sized bed with champagne-stained sheets, he talked and talked.
He was in a band, as Isabelle was certainly aware, but he had decided to crash after touring, because a lead singer slash song writer needed to chill. And finish work on his newest album. He assured her his new songs would make her listen to him, and only him. All of this delivered with words jumping like frogs and hands jerking into a puppet play. She laughed, knowing there was only one voice she would ever listen to. She doubted it was as insecure as his.
They had sex. His fingers snared her waist, pressing, prying, praising. She responded, passive at first, as if she was the shore waiting for the water to lick it. Then attentive, snaking her limbs over his body. Palms on necks and shoulder blades, knees in between thighs or in the air. Quivering spines, fluttering lungs, skin impearled with sweat.
“Was it as good for you as it was for me?” Dealbreaker question, but she didn’t groan.
She didn’t lie. She had enjoyed it. It was the first time she had done it on Earth after her descent, so she had no basis for comparison, but it was nice. The way he kept his body skin to skin with hers, nose harbored in the crook of her neck, and his toe flicking hers.
She wanted the attention, the interest, to give her venues to sing. The bigger the chance to find her love. And what if this man with his greedy hands was her singer?
She knew love didn’t burst in an instant. She watched soaps. It wasn’t a nova. It brewed. It was a star shaping, slow and monolithic. One could learn to love, to take time to recognize it, like fading blindness from watching an eclipse. But this rockstar wasn’t her betrothed. His voice cut and jarred, lacerated and crashed against the ear with cries.
When he touched her, many times again anew, he palmed flesh, stole her heat, swallowed her in his embrace, pickpocketed her breath, but never once did he pry with his soul between her ribs, where the invisible dagger sat lodged, bleeding her feelings into the ether. He didn’t make her gasp and inhale in liberation.
She didn’t protest. Her man wouldn’t come wrapped in silk. Another lesson swiftly learned from TV, from those stories on Hallmark, fleeting articles, and conversations between other waitresses. You had to be proactive. Search, scheme, and fight for your man. However, now, she couldn’t step away, become anonymous, a voice, unattached in the mass. Paparazzi had pegged her. Her life had become immersed in flashes, cameras snapping like turtles and a whirlwind of attention.
She quit her job when he agreed to let her sing on stage. The moment was ripe with opportunity. He held the microphone as Isabelle stepped on the stage, the cable rolled around his fingers like her hair was almost every night. The music came. Intentionally slow, wordless tragedy, caught by vibrations in the air. And there she was to weave a story into royal cloth. The song startled the silence with booming shivers from the speakers, familiar and unknown, like every song she’d sung. The sentiment remained the same.
She was a fisherwoman. The stage her shore. The lights and underlying darkness, the sea. Her voice was the hook, the song the bait. Her heart the line. She was patient, liberated in the euphoria.
The magic dispelled. Final tunes rolled into a resonating quiet, in which a new star floated away from her chest, but no one called back, even if the crowd roared like a waterfall.
Another failed night, but a career was launched. The girl made from stars became a star again. Thousands learned her name, but she forgot that of the rock star, who was soon after no longer a star. Whatever her voice touched turned platinum. Her voice toured the world and she sang, feeding off every genre, hooked on how the crowd cooed after each surprise and how it fulfilled her own pleasure.
But as the songs flocked to the charts, so did the stars fall away from her being. Her nervousness grew to a fever. Where was he? How was she to find her man?
Weren’t her songs snaring the world? Possessing the cables that stringed the horizons, sewing sound to ear? Wasn’t she imbued in the air? How come this was not enough?
She drilled the pavement with her Dior stilettos, haste adding a rattle to her gait. The crowds pushed and pulled, pausing to muse about her, to recognize the star amongst their nameless waves of bodies. Through Moss Lipow sunglasses, she ignored the foam these mundane pale faces made. The lack of eye contact would dissuade passers-by from contact. If not, the bodyguards would.
Fine day to travel by foot. Right. A senseless decission.
“Yes, Amanda. I’ll be there. As I said, I did not choose to walk all the way to the studio. Blasted car choked on me. I’ll refrain from buying Japanese shit again.” She wanted to hiss, but her PR had insisted on no fits in public. The world didn’t need a second Naomi.
Amanda was a good friend. Excellent manager, but a perfectionist right down to her DNA, which triggered heart attacks at every detour and alteration.
Isabelle had to mumble, distract, chop and scatter away the worry. After all, Amanda had a knack for making money and she did it best when she was calm.
“Yes, we’re already in the subway.”
“I don’t mind bumping into people.” She paused when Amanda hummed into the receiver. “Okay, I hate it. Sweat, odor, feels like indigestion. But these are the sacrifices one has to make for the career. See my devotion to you. Now, breathe. Your performance record will be perfect.”
She clamped her cellphone to her ear like a shell, hoping to hear the ocean lost in transmission and was disgusted and scared as memory of the sound came unbidden. She felt trapped and drowning in a box, left to sink. Inside the station, the space flooded in another swirling mass.
But in the cacophony, a song rose. A man dominated the landscape of sounds, acapella. His calloused vocal cords, his husky tones wrapped inside her chest, a steady pull.
She found him in the corner, dressed in rags, but radiant. Singing of a girl in the skies above, a form to be traced in the dark, dotted together by stars.
Isabelle switched to loudspeaker and forwarded the sound for Amanda to hear. It was a trance and a breath of a dream, familiar, almost material, rolling as vibrations on the skin, making her inhale as if the air contained his voice. Deep feeling breath, sealing it inside her chest and not handing it out.
“Your second album would have made music history, if you sounded like that.” Isabelle could imagine Amanda drooling.
“I know,” Isabelle replied, though she wasn’t listening. The lump of pressure in her chest throbbed as if scratched and she still didn’t want to exhale.
“I’d cut his vocal cords, if that would make me sound even remotely like him,” she said, and turned away to catch the train. All the while that voice, now sewn to her memory, nagged as if she was supposed to remember something. As if she had to do something.
And right damn, she had to. She had to climb those charts back to the heavens. Back to stardom. Back to shining oh-so-brightly.
“Science fiction writers, I am sorry to say, really do not know anything. We can’t talk about science, because our knowledge of it is limited and unofficial, and usually our fiction is dreadful.”
When Margaret Atwood stated that she does not write science fiction (SF) but speculative literature, many SF denizens reacted with what can only be called tantrums, even though Atwood defined what she means by SF. Her definition reflects a wide-ranging writer’s wish not to be pigeonholed and herded into tight enclosures inhabited by fundies and, granted, is narrower than is common: it includes what I call Leaden Era-style SF that sacrifices complex narratives and characters to gizmology and Big Ideas.
By defining SF in this fashion, Atwood made an important point: Big Ideas are the refuge of the lazy and untalented; works that purport to be about Big Ideas are invariably a tiny step above tracts. Now before anyone starts bruising my brain with encomia of Huxley, Asimov, Stephenson or Stross, let’s parse the meaning of “a story of ideas”. Like the anthropic principle, the term has a weak and a strong version. And as with the anthropic principle, the weak version is a tautology whereas the strong version is an article of, well, religious faith.
The weak version is a tautology for the simplest of reasons: all stories are stories of ideas. Even terminally dumb, stale Hollywood movies are stories of ideas. Over there, if the filmmakers don’t bother with decent worldbuilding, dialogue or characters, the film is called high concept (high as in tinny). Other disciplines call this approach a gimmick.
The strong version is similar to supremacist religious faiths, because it turns what discerning judgment and common sense classify as deficiencies to desirable attributes (Orwell would recognize this syndrome instantly). Can’t manage a coherent plot, convincing characters, original or believable worlds, well-turned sentences? Such cheap tricks are for heretics who read books written in pagan tongues! Acolytes of the True Faith… write Novels of Ideas! This dogma is often accompanied by its traditional mate, exceptionalism – as in “My god is better than yours.” Namely, the notion that SF is intrinsically “better” than mainstream literary fiction because… it looks to the future, rather than lingering in the oh-so-prosaic present… it deals with Big Questions rather than the trivial dilemmas of ordinary humans… or equivalent arguments of similar weight.
I’ve already discussed the fact that contemporary SF no longer even pretends to deal with real science or scientific extrapolation. As I said elsewhere, I think that the real division in literature, as in all art, is not between genre and mainstream, but between craft and hackery. Any body of work that relies on recycled recipes and sequels is hackery, whether this is genre or mainstream (as just one example of the latter, try to read Updike past the middle of his career). Beyond these strictures, however, SF/F suffers from a peculiar affliction: persistent neoteny, aka superannuated childishness. Most SF/F reads like stuff written by and for teenagers – even works that are ostensibly directed towards full-fledged adults.
Now before the predictable shrieks of “Elitist!” erupt, let me clarify something. Adult is not a synonym for opaque, inaccessible or precious. The best SF is in many ways entirely middlebrow, as limpid and flowing as spring water while it still explores interesting ideas and radiates sense of wonder without showing off about either attribute. A few short story examples: Alice Sheldon/James Tiptree’s A Momentary Taste of Being; Ted Chiang’s The Story of Your Life; Ursula Le Guin’s A Fisherman of the Inland Sea; Joan Vinge’s Eyes of Amber. Some novel-length ones: Melissa Scott’s Dreamships; Roger Zelazny’s Jack of Shadows; C. J. Cherryh’s Downbelow Station; Donald Kingsbury’s Courtship Rite. Given this list, one source of the juvenile feel of most SF becomes obvious: fear of emotions; especially love in all its guises, including the sexual kind (the real thing, in its full messiness and glory, not the emetic glop that usurps the territory in much genre writing, including romance).
SF seems to hew to the long-disproved tenet that complex emotions inhibit critical thinking and are best left to non-alpha-males, along with doing the laundry. Some of this comes from the calvinist prudery towards sex, the converse glorification of violence and the contempt for sensual richness and intellectual subtlety that is endemic in Anglo-Saxon cultures. Coupled to that is the fact that many SF readers (some of whom go on to become SF writers) can only attain “dominance” in Dungeons & Dragons or World of Warcraft. This state of Peter-Pan-craving-comfort-food-and-comfort-porn makes many of them firm believers in girl cooties. By equating articulate emotions with femaleness, they apparently fail to understand that complex emotions are co-extensive with high level cognition.
Biologists, except for the Tarzanist branch of the evo-psycho crowd, know full well by now that in fact cortical emotions enable people to make decisions. Emotions are an inextricable part of the indivisible unit that is the body/brain/mind and humans cannot function well without the constant feedback loops of these complex circuits. We know this from the work of António Damasio and his successors in connection with people who suffer neurological insults. People with damage to that human-specific newcomer, the pre-frontal cortex, often perform at high (even genius) levels in various intelligence and language tests – but they display gross defects in planning, judgment and social behavior. To adopt such a stance by choice is not a smart strategy even for hard-core social Darwinists, who can be found in disproportionate numbers in SF conventions and presses.
To be fair, cortical emotions may indeed inhibit something: shooting reflexes, needed in arcade games and any circumstance where unthinking execution of orders is desirable. So Galactic Emperors won’t do well as either real-life rulers or fictional characters if all they can feel and express are the so-called Four Fs that pass for sophistication in much of contemporary SF and fantasy, from the latest efforts of Iain Banks to Joe Abercrombie.
Practically speaking, what can a person do besides groan when faced with another Story of Ideas? My solution is to edit an anthology of the type of SF I’d like to read: mythic space opera, written by and for full adults. If I succeed and my stamina holds, this may turn into a semi-regular event, perhaps even a small press. So keep your telescopes trained on this constellation.
Note: This is part of a lengthening series on the tangled web of interactions between science, SF and fiction. Previous rounds: Why SF needs…
…science (or at least knowledge of the scientific process): SF Goes McDonald’s — Less Taste, More Gristle
…empathy: Storytelling, Empathy and the Whiny Solipsist’s Disingenuous Angst
…literacy: Jade Masks, Lead Balloons and Tin Ears
…storytelling: To the Hard Members of the Truthy SF Club
Athena Andreadis brief bio:
Athena Andreadis was born in Greece and lured to the US at age 18 by a full scholarship to Harvard, then MIT. She does basic research in molecular neurobiology, focusing on mechanisms of mental retardation and dementia. She is an avid reader in four languages across genres, the author of To Seek Out New Life: The Biology of Star Trek and writes speculative fiction and non-fiction on a wide swath of topics. Her work can be found in Harvard Review, Belles Lettres, Strange Horizons, Crossed Genres, Stone Telling, Cabinet des Fées, Bull Spec, Science in My Fiction, SF Signal, The Apex Blog, World SF, SFF Portal, H+ Magazine, io9, The Huffington Post, and her own site, Starship Reckless.
Today’s Tuesday Fiction is by Indrapramit Das from India. Indrapramit Das is a writer and artist from Kolkata, India, currently living in Vancouver, Canada. His fiction has appeared in Apex Magazine, Flash Fiction Online, Redstone Science Fiction, and New Scientist CultureLab, and is forthcoming in The Speculative Ramayana Anthology (Zubaan Books, India). He has written reviews for Strange Horizons and Tangent Online. For more, go to his website, or visit his Flickr page or deviantART page.
I remember the first time my mother took me to see the city where I was born. She was a young woman then. There were seabirds rippling through the warm white sky high above her head, drifting like ashes on the summer breeze. I was in her lap, slightly nauseous from the motion of our vessel on the cresting waves.
“Look, sweetheart,” she said, her chin moving against my head as she spoke. Her strong hands clasped me under my armpits and lifted me up to get a better view over the side of the boat. I looked out at the sea.
“We’re here. Kolkata,” she said softly into my ear, and even then I remembered being astonished at how beautifully sad her voice was, saying the name of the city where she and I took our first breaths. I looked, and saw only endless miles of undulating water. But I followed her pointing finger to the silver line of the horizon, and found the skyline of a city shimmering there like a mirage. She said no more, lifting me off her lap and patting me on the back. “Go play,” she said, staring out at the distant city.
I watched one of the crew cut fish on the wooden deck, his smile broad and white against his dark skin.
“Do you live here in Kolkata?” I asked him, fascinated by this new Atlantis at the edge of my world, this sea-city that twinkled over the water as if it were a dream, a myth made real by my mother.
“No, little one,” he said to me. “We used to live in Kolkata, but now only fish live there. So we sail our boats, and we catch them,” he held one up, its gills sucking at the moist air. “And we eat them.” Disconcerted, I ran to the other side of the boat and clung to the edge, pulling myself up with quivering arms. I just managed to see the dark green line of the mainland. It was still there.
I walked back to my mother. She was marked out in the line of tourists taking photos of the sunken city by the crimson pennant of her dupatta lashing around her neck in the wind. She touched my head, nails raking through my short-cropped hair.
“Remember this. Before it’s gone forever,” she said to me.
“The British called it Calcutta, we called it Kolkata, and now it’s just the sea,” she once told me, holding my hand firmly to keep me from tumbling over the rails of the tour boat (she took me on the same tour many times, as I grew older, and I struggled to keep her from holding my hand). Despite this remark, I noticed that she still called the city, or whatever part of it still showed itself to her, Kolkata. It is now part of the Bay of Bengal. Even seas have names, after all, because we need to call them something. Kolkata is still my mother’s city, and I have always envied that. She was alive in this Atlantis of the Indias, and lived to tell its tale.
The boat under my feet feels familiar. High tide swallows more of the city than I remember. I look at the few lights flickering in the windows of twilit high-rises reaching out of the water. Despite what that stranger on the boat told me as a child, the fishermen have since inherited what remains here, living in the abandoned apartments behind those windows. Kerosene lamps burn where electric lights once glowed and boats sail down avenues of water where once cars, buses and auto-rickshaws made their way in a noxious haze of fumes.
The lamplight from the buildings throws quivering streaks on the water. Through the windows I see the shadows of families against flame-yellowed walls, going about their lives in rooms much like the ones my parents lived in. The women use chopped furniture or other flammable leftovers of urban civilization to make their cooking fires next to the apartment windows, as once they burned firewood under the open sky behind their huts and houses on the mainland to prepare meals. The smoke from their fires trickles in white streamers from the buildings, pushed outside by the flapping of hand-fans. From the rooftops of the drowned buildings the men of the city watch the tour boats pass by while spreading their nets out to dry, filling the evening air with the stench of dying sea creatures.
I wonder what it is like to wake to a city filled by the sea, in apartments and offices filled with the damp relics of middle classes vanished to the slowly shrinking mainland. To see the sun rise over these flooded urban chasms, to crawl out of an open window and into a boat, and sail through a vanishing city reaping the fish and crustaceans that have reclaimed it.
I wouldn’t be able to live here. I can almost smell the bitter air my mother once described to me, now clean and salty but for the hint of diesel from the motorized tour boats. I can see the haphazard metropolis in the photos I gleaned from her old, scratched discs and yellowed newspaper cuttings.
I think of my father smiling, one hand on the peachlike mass of my mother’s belly (full with me), in his last photo with her, taken days before he disappeared during the first chaotic floods that heralded my birth. I have inherited his receding hairline. I look around my hometown, at the relics of its skyline as it perseveres above the tide. I have rarely thought about the fact that my father might still be down there in one of the city’s weed-choked, fish-thronged streets, his skeleton calcifying into a coral statue. If the city were to sink forever, what pilgrimage would my mother make? What marker would tell her where her husband, whom she loved for just three years, lay at rest? It matters little now. I knew neither my father nor this city, except from my mother’s words.
“It’s still here,” I say, and open the lid of the urn. The ashes land on the waves of Kolkata, where they swirl away, a liquid ghost.
First published in Flash Fiction Online in July 2010.
Today’s Tuesday Fiction is the continuation of ‘The City of Silence’ by Ma Boyong from China. You can read Part One of this story here. Ma Boyong (in accordance with Chinese custom, Mr. Ma’s name is given in the order of surname followed by given name) is a popular Beijing-based writer of short stories and novels. His work fuses Western convention with traditional Chinese elements. His satire is well known in mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. His work has previously appeared in English in TRSF. “The City of Silence” was translated by Ken Liu.
Besides writing and translating speculative fiction, Ken Liu also practices law and develops software for iOS and Android devices. His fiction has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, TRSF, and Panverse 3, among other places. He lives near Boston, Massachusetts, with his wife, artist Lisa Tang Liu, and they are collaborating on their first novel.
The City of Silence
translated by Ken Liu
Out of habit, Arvardan did not say the words aloud. He wasn’t certain if the words were healthy, and so asked his question only with his eyes.
“You can speak as freely as you like in here. This damned device won’t work here.” The woman pointed to his Listener. There was no warning beep. It didn’t seem to hear the two sensitive words in her speech: “freely” and “damned.”
Arvardan remembered the man he had seen a week ago at the bus stop. If he took off his Listener, would what happened to that man also happen to him? The woman saw that he was hesitant. She pointed to the lead-grey curtain at the door: “Don’t worry. This can shield off the signal for the Listener. No one will know.”
“Who, are, you? What, is, this, place?”
Arvardan took off the Listener. He spoke in a low voice. It was still too difficult for him to shift out of the manner of speech demanded by the appropriate authorities.
“This is the Talking Club. Here, you may speak as you like,” said another man as he got up. He was tall and thin, the glasses over his nose particularly thick.
Arvardan mumbled, but could not speak out loud. He was embarrassed by the stares of the four others, and his face flushed bright red. The woman who had opened the door for him gave him a sympathetic look: “You poor thing. Don’t be so tense. Everyone is like this when they first arrive. Over time you’ll get used to it.”
She put a hand on Arvardan’s shoulder: “Actually, we’ve met. At least I’ve seen you, but you haven’t seen me.” As she spoke, she reached up and let down her hair. The black tresses fell to her shoulders, and in that moment Arvardan thought she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.
Arvardan finally spoke a whole sentence, though the words still did not flow smoothly. “I…remember you, remember your voice.”
“Really?” The woman laughed. She sat him on a couch, and handed him a glass of water. Arvardan noticed that this was an old-fashioned glass, etched with a flowery pattern. The water inside the glass gave off a faint fragrance. Arvardan tried a sip. The sweet taste was particularly stimulating for a tongue that had grown used to distilled water.
“This wasn’t easy to obtain. Even we can’t get it every week.” The woman sat next to him, looking intently at him with her dark eyes. “How did you find out about us?”
Arvardan explained the process by which he had discovered the sequence of clues. The other four nodded in approval.
“Smart man. Your brain hasn’t become mush,” said a thirty-something man with a few extra pounds. His voice was very loud.
The middle-aged man with glasses put his hands together in a gesture of agreement. “You are a natural for membership in the Talking Club.”
“Alright,” the fat man said, “let’s give a round of applause to formally welcome the new member.”
The other four applauded, and the sound of their clapping filled the small bedroom. Arvardan lifted the glass to them, embarrassed. When the applause died down, he timidly lifted his head, and asked, “Can I ask a question? What exactly is the Talking Club?”
The woman who had brought him in responded:
“The Talking Club is a gathering where we can say anything we want. There are no sensitive words here, and no healthy Web. This is a space to release your soul and stretch out your body.”
“Our principle is just this: talk,” added the middle-aged man, and he adjusted his glasses.
“But, what can I talk about?”
“Anything. You can talk about anything in your heart.” The middle-aged man smiled.
This is an audacious gathering. It’s clearly criminal, Arvardan thought. But he found himself attracted to the idea of being a criminal in this way.
“Of course, we need to make certain things clear,” the woman said. “Talking is dangerous. Every member faces the danger of arrest by the appropriate authorities. State agents may break through the door at any moment, and capture us under the charges of illegal assembly and using illegal language. You have the right to refuse to join us, and leave immediately.”
Arvardan listened to the woman’s warning. He hesitated. But he thought that if he left now, then he would go back to his life, suffocating in a quagmire. Arvardan had not known he had such a strong yearning to talk.
“I will not leave. I will join you, talking.”
“Perfect! Oh, why don’t we start with self-introductions?” The woman was delighted. She stood up. “Let’s start with me. My name is Artemis. As for my Web Access Serial? To hell with it. Who cares? I have my own name.”
Her words made everyone, including Arvardan, laugh. Then she continued. “Still, Artemis is just a pseudonym. She’s a goddess from Greek mythology.”
“Right. It’s not the same as the name on my Personal Identification Card.”
“Aren’t you sick of the name they have for you in their files? I want to give myself a name that I like, even if there’s just one place to use it. In the Talking Club we each have picked a name for ourselves. That’s how we address one another.”
Arvardan nodded thoughtfully. He understood Artemis’s feeling. When using the BBS forums, he had hoped to pick a name that he liked, and not be assigned a user name.
Through Artemis’s self-introduction, Arvardan learned that she was a staffer at the Department of Web Security, BBS Section. She was twenty-three, single, and hated cockroaches and spiders. Her hobbies included sewing and gardening, and the flowers in the bedroom were secretly cut and brought back by her from outside the Capital.
Next was the middle-aged man. His name was Lancelot. He was forty-one, an engineer at the Capital Electric Plant. The name “Lancelot” came from the Arthurian legends, and belonged to a faithful knight. Lancelot was married and had two children: a boy (aged three) and a girl (aged four). They liked lemon-flavored candy the most. Lancelot hoped he would be able to bring the kids to the next gathering of the Club. The children were still learning to talk, and he wanted them to learn real speech.
The thirty-something overweight man was a Web Regulator for the Department of Web Security, named Wagner. This surprised Arvardan. He had had the impression that Web Regulators were all cold, expressionless men, but the man before Arvardan was corpuscular, oily, and his mustache curled up spiritedly at the ends. He loved cigars and the opera, and took advantage of the special privileges available to Web Regulators to obtain them.
“Wagner got us the curtains that can shield the signals from the Listener,” Artemis added. Wagner tipped an imaginary hat and bowed to her.
The fourth member of the Talking Club was a woman in a black uniform. She had just turned thirty. Her name was Duras, and she worked as an editor at the Capital Daily Times. She was even thinner than Artemis, and her high cheeks contrasted with her sunken eyes. Her thin lips didn’t part much from each other even when she spoke, and never revealed her teeth. She liked cats and dogs, even though she had no pets now.
“It’s you next,” Artemis said to Arvardan. Arvardan took a minute to think, and then introduced himself to the group, stammering many times. When he tried to describe his hobbies, for a moment he couldn’t think of any. He had never had to think about hobbies before.
Artemis put her hand on his shoulder again, and tried to help him. “Well, what’s the one thing you really want to do?”
“I can really say anything?”
“Anything. There are no restrictions here.”
Arvardan thought that he had finally found an opportunity. He cleared his throat, scratched his head, and broke into a loud, crisp shout: “Fuck you, you sonovabitch!”
All the others were stunned. Wagner was the first to recover. He held onto his cigar with his teeth and applauded vigorously. Then he took the cigar in his hand, and loudly exclaimed: “Fantastic! This should be our formal membership oath.”
Artemis and Duras both giggled. Arvardan thought that, beyond the novelty of speaking with the Club, he really enjoyed the sense of contempt for the appropriate authorities in voicing the string of swearwords.
Artemis tilted her head and asked him, “What do you wish to name yourself?”
“Ummm…Wang Er,” Arvardan said. This was a Chinese name. He had once had a Chinese friend who loved to tell stories. In all his stories, the main character was named Wang Er.
The mood in the bedroom was now friendly and easy, and conversation became more natural. Everyone got into a comfortable position, and Artemis refilled everyone’s cup from a kettle from time to time. Arvardan gradually let go of his tension, and felt that his brain had never been so relaxed.
Artemis filled his cup with sweet water again, “It’s impossible to speak freely in our daily lives. We need this space. But we can’t openly advertise for membership, and it’s far too risky to try to find new members through physical contact. So Lancelot designed a system of clues and hints, and Wagner and I used our system access privileges to leave the clues in places. Only those who discovered and solved the clues would find the Club.”
“My system wasn’t designed just for safety,” Lancelot said. He took off his glasses and carefully polished them. “It’s also a qualifying exam for potential new members. Members of the Talking Club must be in possession of intelligence and wisdom, passionate, and full of yearning for freedom.”
Wagner held his cigar between two fingers, flicked the ash into an ashtray, then said loudly, “In my experience, most applicants for permission to use the BBS service are nostalgic for the past or desire something new and fresh in their lives. They think that the BBS forums will show them something different from daily life—of course, reality is far otherwise since the State’s control over the BBS forums is even stricter than the regulation of email—but their desire indicates that they want to be free. Thus, we hide our clues in the BBS documents so that only applicants for BBS service can find them. And only those who are smart and observant can find all the hints and follow their trail to find this place.”
“You are the second person to find the Talking Club. The first was Miss Duras,” Artemis said to Arvardan. Arvardan gazed at Duras in admiration. Duras lightly said, “It’s no big deal. My job is all about playing with words.”
Arvardan remembered the crazy man he had met at the bus stop a week ago. He told the others his story. When he was finished, Lancelot shook his head, and sighed.
“I’ve seen this sort of thing too. It happened to a colleague of mine. This shows the necessity for something like the Talking Club as a pressure-release valve. Living constantly under the restrictions imposed by sensitive words will drive people crazy because they can neither think nor express themselves.”
Wagner moved his heavy body to the side. “This is exactly what the appropriate authorities want to see. Then only the stupid will survive. A society full of stupid men is a stable one.”
“You are also a member of the appropriate authorities, Mr. Wagner,” Artemis said lightly as she refilled Wagner’s cup.
“Miss Artemis, I’m an ordinary man just like any other, with the sole distinction that I’m allowed to use a few more sensitive words.”
Everyone laughed. Arvardan had never seen so many people speak so much. He found, to his own surprise, that he quickly felt at home among these people. The distance and sense of unfamiliarity between them melted away quickly. Also, his dizziness and congested chest, problems that had become habits, disappeared.
Quickly the topic of conversation turned from the Talking Club itself to broader interests. Artemis sang a song; Lancelot told a few jokes; Duras told everyone about the customs of the southern provinces of the State; Wagner even sang an aria from an opera. Even though Arvardan couldn’t understand a word of this last contribution, he did not hold back his applause. In a shielded corner of the Capital, five individuals unwilling to sink into silence were enjoying a most precious luxury—talking.
“Wang Er, do you know Nineteen Eighty-Four?” Artemis asked. She sat down next to Arvardan.
Arvardan shook his head. “I only know that nineteen eighty-four is part of my Web Access Serial.”
“It’s a book.”
“Book?” This was an old word. Now that computer technology had advanced to the point that all information was contained by the Web, anyone could go to the online library to get the digital editions of published material. The appropriate authorities considered physical books to be an unnecessary waste, and they had gradually disappeared.
Wagner said, “It is understandable that the appropriate authorities prefer electronic books. With electronic books, all you need is FIND and REPLACE to eliminate all unhealthy words in a book and decontaminate it. But to correct and edit physical books would take forever.”
“Nineteen Eighty-Four is a great book. It’s what an old philosopher predicted about our modern world,” Artemis said earnestly. “Long ago, the book perceived the struggle between restraint and freedom over the flesh and over the soul. It’s the foundation of the Talking Club.”
“How can one read this book?” Arvardan asked, staring into Artemis’s dark eyes.
“We can’t find a paper copy, and of course the online library won’t have it.” Lancelot shook his head, and then broke into another smile. He gestured with his left hand at Duras. “Our Miss Duras should be proud of her memory. When she was young, she was fortunate enough to have read this book, and could recall most of it.”
“Wonderful! Then she wrote it out, right?”
“That would be far too dangerous. Right now, owning physical books is a great crime, and would risk exposing the Talking Club. Instead, every time the Talking Club meets, we ask Miss Duras to recite some of it.”
Everyone quieted. Duras stood up and walked to the middle of the room. Arvardan casually put his arm around Artemis’s shoulders, and she leaned towards him, her hair drifting between them. A faint feminine fragrance found its way to his nose and caused his heart to skip a few beats.
Duras’s voice was not loud, but clear and forceful. Her memory was indeed amazing: not only did she remember the plot, but she could even recount many of the details and recite entire passages verbatim. Duras got to the part where Julia pretended to fall and secretly handed a note with the words “I love you” to Winston. Duras’s retelling was so lively that she captivated everyone. Artemis was especially absorbed in the story, and didn’t notice Arvardan’s eyes, which never left her.
“The author of Nineteen Eighty-Four predicted the progress of totalitarianism, but could not predict the progress of technology.” Wagner gave his opinion as Duras paused for a drink. Arvardan thought that Wagner’s appearance belied his quickness: he was a very perceptive technocrat.
“In Oceania, it was still possible to pass secret notes to each other and express one’s hidden thoughts. But now things are different. The appropriate authorities have forced all of us to live on the Web, where even if we wanted to pass secret notes to each other the Web Regulators would see everything. There is no place to hide. And in real life? We still have to contend with the Listener.” Wagner knocked his cigar against his thighs. “To put it simply: technology is neutral. But the progress of technology will cause a free world to become ever freer, and a totalitarian world to become ever more repressive.”
“This seems like the pronouncement of some philosopher,” Artemis said, winking at Arvardan. She retrieved some cookies from a drawer and handed them to everyone.
“Isn’t this just like how the bits are just 1’s and 0’s, but some will make them into useful tools, while others will make them into malicious viruses?” Arvardan said. Wagner snapped his fingers happily. “Very good, Wang Er. That’s exactly it. You are a credit to programmers.”
Duras looked at the clock hanging on the wall, and reminded the other four that time was up. The Talking Club could not meet for too long each time. The longer their Listeners remained shielded and off the grid, the greater the risk of exposure.
“All right. Let’s take the final half-hour to complete today’s activities.”
Artemis cleaned away the empty cups on the table, and Lancelot and Wagner both got up to stretch out their shoulders and backs, a bit sore from sitting for so long. Only Duras remained seated without moving.
“Activities? What activities?” Arvardan asked. What would the Talking Club do other than talk?
“Oh, right. We do have other activities.” Artemis moved her bangs out of the way, and gave him a seductive smile. “We still have to have frank exchanges with each other.”
“Yes, fucking, to speak plainly.”
Arvardan’s face turned white, and his breathing quickened. His stomach felt as if it had just been injected with air chilled to thirty degrees below zero. He couldn’t believe his ears.
Of course, the appropriate authorities did permit sexual activities, but only between married couples. And there was a complex set of algorithms that computed the legally permitted frequency and lengths of their couplings based on the couple’s age, physical health, income level, professions, environment, climate, and record of rule-violations. As for unmarried individuals such as Arvardan, it was completely illegal to engage in any sexual activity whatsoever (including masturbation) or to read or view any material related to sex—all immoral words having been eliminated from the List of Healthy Words in any case.
“The Talking Club has freedom of speech, as well as the freedom to go to bed with anyone,” Artemis said without any embarrassment. “We talk to each other, and then choose whoever we like to make love with, just as we choose to speak the words that we like.”
Lancelot saw the awkward expression on Arvardan’s face. He walked over and lightly clapped Arvardan’s shoulders. He said, gently, “Of course, we won’t force anyone. This is all built on the foundation of consenting adults. I still have to leave early to pick up my kids. You have just the right number without me.”
Arvardan’s face flushed bright red. He felt hot, like the CPU in his computer during the summer. He couldn’t even lift his eyes to look at Artemis. He had desired female company for so long, but this was the first time he had been so close to that goal.
Lancelot said his goodbyes to everyone. Artemis left the bedroom to Wagner and Duras, and took the hand of Arvardan, who was close to panicking, and led him to another bedroom. This one clearly belonged to Artemis herself. The room was appointed simply, very neat and clean.
Artemis took the initiative. Under her seductive ministrations, Arvardan gradually let himself go, and allowed the primitive desires hidden deep within his heart to come out. He had yearned for any kind of release from his dry, boxed-in life by imagining the smooth, mellow voice of a real woman, and now his dreams were finally coming true. Arvardan did not know if there was a distinction between his desire for her and his desire to say “Fuck you, you sonovabitch,” but now was not the time for analysis.
When he woke up, he saw that Artemis was lying beside him, her naked body like a white jade statue. Even in sleep, her pose was beautiful. He lifted himself, yawned, and then Artemis opened her eyes.
“Feels good, doesn’t it?” she asked.
“Yes….” Arvardan didn’t know what else to say. He paused, then said hesitantly, “Before, with Lancelot and Wagner, did you also…ummm, what I mean is, like we did just now?”
“Yes,” Artemis said, gently. She sat up, her hair hanging over her shoulder to cover her chest. Her forthrightness confused Arvardan. There was an uncomfortable lull in the room, and then Artemis broke the silence: “You remember the story today? The woman in the story handed the man a note that said, ‘I love you.'”
“Yes,” Arvardan said.
“The word ‘love’ does not exist in the List of Healthy Words promulgated by the appropriate authorities.” Artemis’s eyes were filled with regret and loss.
“I love you,” Arvardan said, without thinking. He knew that it was possible to say anything he wanted in this room.
“Thank you.” Artemis gave him a perfunctory smile. She put on her clothes and hurried Arvardan to do the same. Arvardan was a bit disappointed. She had not responded as enthusiastically as he had wished, but as though what he had just said was not all that important.
By now Duras and Wagner had already left. Artemis walked him to the door, handed him his Listener, and then reminded him, “Once outside, remember not to mention anything about the Talking Club or anyone here. Outside of the Talking Club, we are strangers.”
“I understand,” Arvardan said. He turned to leave.
Arvardan turned at her words. Before he knew what was happening, two soft lips covered his lips, then a low voice sounded by his ear. “Thank you. I love you too.”
Arvardan felt his eyes grow wet. He put on the Listener, opened the door, and walked back into the suffocating world. But now he was in a very different mood from when he had first showed up.
After this, Arvardan’s mental condition clearly improved. He carefully treasured the joy of having a secret club. Every week or two weeks, the five members met. They talked, sang, or listened to Duras tell the story of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Arvardan enjoyed frank exchanges with Artemis a few more times, and occasionally did the same with Duras. Now he had two personas: one was Arvardan, who existed in real life and on the Web, and the other was Wang Er, member of the Talking Club.
At one meeting, Arvardan asked, “Are we the only ones who gather to talk in private in the whole State?”
“It is said that there are some places in the State, far from the Capital and deeply hidden in the mountains, where the truly radical not only gather to talk, but organize for violence. They shout as they rush at the State’s agents, and even curse at the firing squads as they are executed,” Wagner said.
“Can we join them?” Arvardan asked.
“Only if you are willing to give up your safe and still-comfortable life. The radicals live in places so desolate that except for free speech there is nothing else, not even enough clean water,” Wagner said, a little coldly.
Arvardan flinched and did not pursue the topic further. He certainly desired talk, but not to the point where he was willing to give up all that he had, little though it was. Distilled water was still better than no water. The Talking Club provided sufficient nourishment to sustain the dried husk of his spirit. Bottom line: he was easily satisfied.
At another meeting, the topic of conversation turned to sensitive words. Arvardan remembered that long ago—his memory was growing hazy—the appropriate authorities had actually issued a List of Sensitive Words. People who ran the various Web sites were told to refer to it secretly in administering the sites. He was not sure how that system had evolved into the present one. That day, Wagner brought a bottle of wine for the occasion and was in good spirits. He explained to them the history of the “shielding” system. As a Web Regulator, he had access to the historical records for this process.
Initially, the State only shielded certain sensitive words, but the State quickly discovered that this was essentially useless. Many simply mixed in special characters or numbers or misspelled words to get around the inspection system. The appropriate authorities had to respond by trying to shield these variant spellings. But, as everyone knew, the combinations of different characters to approximate the appearance of different words were virtually limitless. Provided you had some imagination, it was always possible to come up with a novel combination and get your meaning across. For example, the word “politics” could be written as “polit/cs,” “政itics,” “pol/itic$,” etc., etc.
After the appropriate authorities finally caught on to the problem, they took a new tack. Since it was not possible to filter out all possible combinations of characters that might spell out a word, the solution was to forbid the use of anything except real dictionary words. This procedure was initially very successful. The number of rule-violators went down significantly. But very soon people discovered it was possible to use puns, homonyms, or rhyming slang to continue to express the same dangerous ideas. Even if the appropriate authorities filtered out all sensitive words and all possible puns and homonyms with those words, it was useless. Imaginative citizens gave their creativity free rein, and used metaphor, metonymy, analogy, etymology, rhyming slang, and other rhetorical tricks to substitute non-sensitive words for sensitive ones. The human mind was far more creative than the computer. The computer might shield off one path, but the people had many more paths to choose from.
This contest, under the surface, seemed to go the way of the people. But then, a man who could think outside the box appeared. It was unclear who he really was: some said that he was the chief administrator at the appropriate authorities; others said that he was a dangerous man who had been arrested for using too many sensitive words. He was the cause of the turn in the tide of the battle between the State and the people.
He suggested to the appropriate authorities that the regulations should no longer explain what was forbidden. Instead, the regulations should set forth what could be said, and how to say it. The appropriate authorities immediately took this advice, and issued new regulations. The List of Sensitive Words was eliminated, and in its place was the List of Healthy Words.
This time, the people were on the losing side. In the past, they had delighted in playing cat-and-mouse games with the appropriate authorities on the Web and in daily life. But now the appropriate authorities had them by the throat, since the entire framework and building blocks of language were now under their control.
Nonetheless, the people refused to give up. They began to select words from the List of Healthy Words and use them in novel combinations to express illegal meanings. For example, writing “stabilize” twice in a row meant “topple,” “stabilize” plus “prosperity” meant “shield.” The appropriate authorities had to keep an eye on this sort of trend, and, day after day, eliminate more and more words from the List of Healthy Words to prevent their use in these new roles.
“So long as the world even contained two words or even two letters, then it would be possible to continue the free exchange of ideas—you know Morse code?”
Wagner paused, drained his cup, and gave a satisfied burp.
“But, the price for this war is the loss of language. Our ability to express ourselves continues to get poorer, and more dry and banal. More and more, people will choose silence. But this is a good thing as far as the appropriate authorities are concerned.” Lancelot had a worried expression on his face, and rhythmically knocked against the desk. “If you think about it, isn’t it the people’s desire for freedom the very thing that’s pushing language to the edge of death? Ironic, isn’t it? The appropriate authorities will have the last laugh.”
“No, no. They will not understand the emotion behind laughter,” Wagner said.
“Actually, I think the appropriate authorities have always operated in a state of fear. They are terrified that people will have the use of too many words, and express too many thoughts, making their control difficult,” Artemis put on the stiff, cold expression she wore for work, and imitated the common speech pattern: “Let us build a healthy and stable Web!”
Duras, Lancelot, and Wagner all burst into laughter. The only one who didn’t laugh was Arvardan. He was stuck on the last thing Lancelot had said: in the war between the people and the appropriate authorities, the final conclusion was the death of language. Then the Talking Club was nothing more than a chance to enjoy the brief, final quiet moment that came from pulling shut the curtains on the windows of a train speeding toward the edge of a cliff.
Duras could not attend the frank exchange phase of the Talking Club that time because it was her time of the month, and she left early. Artemis washed the cups and smiled at the three men: “Should we try a three-on-one?”
Lancelot patted Arvardan on the shoulder. “I have some things I want to discuss with Wang Er. We’ll stay here a bit.” Artemis took Wagner to the other bedroom. Arvardan was confused, unsure of what Lancelot wanted.
Lancelot sat back on the couch. The engineer’s expression became serious. “Wagner has told you about the radical organizations?”
“What do you think of them?”
“I admire them. But I’m not sure if it’s necessary to go that far. Men cannot live on words alone.” Although Arvardan had never been to the mountains, he had heard plenty about their desolation.
Lancelot laughed bitterly and drained the coffee cup in front of him. “I was once a member of the radicals. But now I’m a deserter.”
Arvardan stared at him.
“In the beginning, I had lots of ideals. I went to the mountains and joined them. But when the rush of freedom had passed, what followed was only constant deprivation and suffering. I wavered and finally abandoned my friends, snuck back to the Capital, and now I hide in a girl’s bedroom, chat, fuck, and drink coffee, and say I’m satisfied with my life.”
“You regret leaving?”
“My regret is not what’s important.” Lancelot handed a piece of paper to him. The paper was thin, light, and had a single address written on it.
“Memorize it and swallow the paper,” Lancelot said. “This is how you get to the mountains and get in touch with them. If you change your mind about your life, you can go any time.”
“Have you given this to the others too?”
“No. The Talking Club is enough for the rest of us. But something is different about you. You remind me a lot of the younger me. Though you look quiet, inside you there is a dangerous spark. I have lost the ambition and the will to change the world, but I do not want to see everyone become like me.”
“You don’t need to promise me anything. This is only an option, that’s all.”
After returning home from the Talking Club, Arvardan lay on his cot with his hands under his head, and sank into thought. He was infatuated with Artemis and could not help himself. Arvardan envied Winston from Duras’s telling of Nineteen Eighty-Four. He and Julia had their own room, a world that belonged only to the two of them.
(He also thought about what Lancelot had said to him about the radicals, but soon he put it out of his mind—the image of radicals hiding in the mountains was simply not as alluring as the body of Artemis.)
Once, when he was engaging in a “frank exchange” with Artemis, he had revealed his thoughts to her. She didn’t answer him directly, but only said that the relationship between them could not go beyond what they had—the limit of what was possible. The appropriate authorities would not be napping forever. “We can only compress our emotional lives into the weekly meetings of the Talking Club. It’s already a great luxury,” she said, as she gently stroked his chest. “In the Talking Club, we are Artemis and Wang Er. But any other time, you are ARVARDAN19842015BNKF, and I am ALICE19387465BJHD.”
Arvardan could only sigh in response. He really shouldn’t have asked for more.
Along with his emotions, the Web also changed. Ever since he had joined the Talking Club, Arvardan had gradually begun noticing some of the hidden aspects of the Web. Just as Wagner had said, the war between the people and the appropriate authorities never ended. Always, thought and speech leaked from the cracks.
Arvardan noticed that within the formulaic emails and BBS forum posts were hidden many details that were worth paying attention to, just like his “title.” There were all kinds of codes and hidden meanings. These puzzles came from different individuals, and the format and decoding technique differed for each. Arvardan didn’t know what was hidden behind some of the codes, but one thing was certain: the Talking Club was not the only underground gathering. Wagner was right: always, individuals were attempting to use “healthy” words to express “unhealthy” thoughts.
In the past, Arvardan had only vaguely felt that he was being constrained, but now he could see clearly the pulsing arteries and veins of this system, and the various tricks played on him by the appropriate authorities. The freedom that he enjoyed at the Talking Club only made him even more aware of the lack of freedom in his life.
“Fuck you, you sonovabitch!”
At every meeting, the three male members would shout this curse out loud. They understood very well that this had no effect on the appropriate authorities, but they loved the feeling the curse brought them.
One week, Arvardan was particularly busy. His colleague, for unknown reasons, had been shielded. This meant that the whole project fell on his shoulders. The project involved designing a piece of software, for the appropriate authorities, which would be used to control the energy distribution for a new, high-powered, active Listener. (It was unusual for Arvardan to be told this much, but since his colleague was gone, his superiors had to give him the bigger picture.) The software was complex, and he had to spend more than twelve hours a day working in front of the computer, only pausing to eat, take a drink of distilled water, or nap briefly on his cot when his body could no longer take the abuse. His room was filled with the stench of sweaty socks and shirts.
Coincidentally, the heating system in his room failed. The grey radiators became ice cold and no longer circulated hot water. Arvardan checked them and realized the problem wasn’t with the pipes. Since his neighbors were suffering the same fate, it meant that the heating system was failing as a whole. The one positive effect of this failure was that it reduced the stench in his room. The negative effect, however, was that his room turned into an ice cellar. The low temperature covered everything in the already-uncomfortable room with an additional layer of frost. The only source of warmth in the room was the computer. Arvardan put on all his winter clothes, crawled into bed, and pointed the exhaust fans of the computer towards him.
The appropriate authorities decided that “heat” and “furnace” and other similar words were also temporarily sensitive words, so Arvardan had no way of drafting a complaint to the heating supply agencies. All he could do was to wait quietly. Other than his fingers moving over the keyboard, he tried to remain very still, so as to conserve body heat. On the fourth day after the heating system failed, the radiators finally began to clatter and rattle with the sound of hot water flowing through them. The room warmed up again, and “heat” and “furnace” and similar words returned to the List of Healthy Words. So emails and BBS forum posts were filled with sentiments like “We congratulate the appropriate authorities for restoring heat so quickly to bring warmth to the people in need!” and “The people’s government loves the people!” etc.
But this was too late for Arvardan. He fell sick with a cold, a terrible cold. His head hurt as though someone had shot a dumdum bullet into his skull. All he could do was to lie on his bed and wait for the doctor. The doctor arrived at his home, put him on an IV, gave him some nameless pills, and told him to rest. This sickness lasted several days, and he had to give up that week’s Talking Club meeting. His body just wasn’t up for it, and Arvardan thought he was going to die.
Arvardan lay on his bed, filled with regret. The Talking Club was his only joy in life, and now he couldn’t even go. He covered his head with his blanket and thought, Would Wagner bring something special to the meeting this time? Would Lancelot bring his two children? And Artemis…. If Arvardan weren’t there, who would she have a “frank exchange” with? Wagner or Lancelot? He also thought about Duras. At the last meeting, Duras had reached the point in the story where Winston told Julia, in their secret meeting room, “We are the dead.” Julia also said, “We are the dead.” And a third voice then said, “You are the dead.”
Duras had stopped when she got to this point. Arvardan had desperately wanted to know that happened next. Who was the third voice? Was it the Party? Would Winston and Julia be arrested? What was going to happen to them?
“Let it be a cliffhanger,” Artemis said to him. “Then the whole next week our lives will be spent in the joy of anticipation.” And then the two went back to the joy of frankly exchanging.
Arvardan’s sickness lasted ten days before he recovered. The first thing he did after he felt well enough was to get up and look at the calendar on the wall. Today was Sunday, a Talking Club meeting day. Arvardan had missed one meeting, and he felt like a man dying of starvation. Even in his sleep he dreamed of talking at the Talking Club.
Arvardan washed his face and carefully shaved off his thick stubble with a rusty razor. He brushed his teeth and smoothed down his bed hair with a towel and some warm water. Due to his sickness, the appropriate authorities had issued him some extra supplies, including two croissants, two ginger beers, and a packet of fine sugar. He wrapped these carefully in a plastic bag, and put the package inside his coat pocket to bring to the Talking Club to share with everyone.
Arvardan got off the bus, felt for the package hidden inside his coat, and walked towards the Simpson Tower. Halfway there, he lifted his head, and an icy chill seized his heart, forcing him to stop in his tracks.
Something was very wrong.
He looked up to the fifth floor. Before, the window from Artemis’s apartment that faced the street had been covered by pink curtains, but now the curtains were pulled to the sides, and the window was wide open. If there was a meeting of the Talking Club today, Artemis would never have left the shielding curtains open. And keeping the windows open was odd, period. In the Capital, the air outside was terribly murky. No one would have opened the windows to let in “fresh air.”
There was no Talking Club today. Something else was going on. Arvardan stared at the window, and his heart began to beat furiously. He took his hand out of his pocket, put a cigarette in his mouth, then leaned against a utility pole, and forced himself to be calm so as not to raise the suspicion of passing pedestrians. Suddenly he saw something that made him almost faint. A single idea filled his mind.
“There would be no meeting of the Talking Club this week. There will never be a meeting again,” he mumbled to himself, his face the color of ashes.
He saw a contraption that looked like a radar dish, hidden in a corner on this side of the street. Arvardan knew exactly what this was. It was what he had been designing the software for: the new, high-powered, active Listener. The device was capable of sending out active electromagnetic waves to capture vibrations made by voices against walls and windows from a distance, and examine such speech for sensitive words.
If such a device had been installed right near Artemis’s home, then that meant the Talking Club was completely exposed to the view of the appropriate authorities. The active Listener’s penetrating waves would easily pierce through the lead curtains, and transmit the Club members’ words verbatim to the ears of the appropriate authorities.
This invention defined a new era. The appropriate authorities no longer had to wait passively for warnings. Instead, they could at any time actively inspect any speech made by anyone. Arvardan could easily imagine what had happened next. Everything that Artemis and the others said was recorded by the appropriate authorities. Then the police broke into her apartment and arrested all the members of the Talking Club who were present. After they conducted a search, all that was left was the empty room and the empty windows.
Arvardan felt a knife was being twisted in his heart. He did not think that he was fortunate to have escaped capture. His stomach churned, and nausea rose from his stomach to his mouth. He wanted to vomit, but he couldn’t—”vomit” was itself a sensitive word. His body, only just recovered, could not take the hit. He began to shake as though he was suffering chills.
He dared not continue forward. He turned around, boarded another bus, and shut his mouth even tighter. When Arvardan returned to his own building, he saw that another active Listener was being installed nearby. The dark antenna extended into the sky, and along with the other antennas around the Capital, it wove an invisible, giant Web in the sky that covered everything.
He dared not stop to look. Keeping his head low, he walked past the active Listener, and returned home without stopping. Then he hid his face in the pillow, but dared not cry out loud. He couldn’t even say, “Fuck you, you sonovabitch.”
After that, Arvardan’s life returned to normal—just like before, it was stagnant, restrained, passionless, healthy, and without any vulgar joys. Lancelot had said that the result of the war was that the people’s desire for freedom would push language to the edge of death. The death of the Talking Club led to the deletion of “talking,” “opera,” “frank,” and “exchange” from the List of Healthy Words.
Although it was still possible to use numbers, the number “1984” was shielded. One morning, without any warning, Arvardan was simply assigned a new Web Access Serial that no longer contained that string of numerals. This also meant that programmers like Arvardan had to constantly ensure that their programs did not compute illegal numbers. This added greatly to the workload, and Arvardan was even more exhausted.
What happened later in Nineteen Eighty-Four Arvardan would never know. Duras, the only one who did know, had disappeared completely. So what happened to Winston and Julia would forever be a mystery: like the fate of Lancelot, Wagner, Duras, and Artemis.
He worried the most about Artemis. Every time he thought of that name, Arvardan could not control how depressed he became. What happened to her? Was she completely shielded? If that was the case, then the only trace she left in this world would be a pseudonym in the memory of a programmer.
Three weeks after the disappearance of the Talking Club, everything remained calm. No one came after Arvardan. He thought maybe it was because the others had refused to give up any information about him. Or maybe it was because they didn’t really know who he was—the person they knew was a programmer named Wang Er. In the Capital there were thousands of programmers, and Wang Er was just a pseudonym.
Life went on peacefully. No, to be precise, there was one bit of difference. That would be the List of Healthy Words: words disappeared from it at a faster and faster pace. Every hour, every minute, words vanished from it. As the pace of revision for the List quickened, emails and BBS forum posts became more and more vapid and banal. Since people had to use an extremely limited set of words to express an inexpressibly wide range of thoughts, everyone more and more preferred silence. Even the secret codes and hidden clues became fewer.
One day, Arvardan lifted his head from the computer. He stared at the grey, hazy sky outside the window, and his chest spasmed. He coughed in pain, and drained the distilled water from his cup. He threw the disposable plastic cup into the trashcan, also made of plastic. Listening to the dull sound of plastic hitting plastic, he thought his own brain was also filled with a pile of trash. He rapped his knuckles against his skull. Indeed, the same empty dull sound came out.
He put on his coat and filtering mask and walked out the door. He did not wear a portable Listener because it was no longer necessary. The Capital was filled with active Listeners, ever vigilant for the presence of sensitive words. The entire Capital now was just like the Web, healthy and stable.
Arvardan had a legitimate excuse for going outside. He had decided to turn in his permit for BBS service. It was no longer necessary to use this service. Email, BBS forums, Web sites—everything was now the same.
The calendar said it was spring, but outside it was still very cold. Tall, grey buildings stood like a forest of stone in absolute zero. Gusts of wind carrying yellow sand and polluting exhaust gas rushed between them and filled every available space, making it impossible for anyone to escape their suffocating presence. Arvardan put his hands in his pockets, shrank into his coat, and continued to the building for the Department of Web Security.
Suddenly, he stopped, his feet frozen in place, incapable of movement. He saw Artemis, standing under the street light before him and wearing a black uniform. But what a change had come over her! She seemed at least ten years older, her face full of wrinkles. There was none of the vitality of youth left in her. She heard his steps, turned around, and her dark eyes seemed especially empty. She stared past Arvardan into the distance, without focus.
Arvardan had never expected to meet her at this time in this place. His heart, long dormant, now was lit by a few sparks. But his dull and exhausted nerves were incapable of feeling the simple emotion of “excitement.” The two stared at each other for a while. He finally walked next to her, and tentatively moved his lips, as though he wanted to say something to her. But when he took out the latest edition of the List of Healthy Words distributed earlier that day, he found it was empty—even the last word had been shielded by the appropriate authorities.
An address flashed in his mind—luckily, it was not yet possible to shield the mind with technology. Perhaps it was now time to take a trip to the mountains. He had nothing more to lose.
Someone has to do this.
And so, Arvardan maintained his silence. He passed by the expressionless Artemis, and continued his forward progress. His silhouette eventually melted into the equally quiet, grey crowd.
The whole city seemed especially silent.
First published in Chinese in a slightly different form in the December 2005 issue of Science Fiction World.
Today’s Tuesday Fiction is by Ma Boyong from China. Ma Boyong (in accordance with Chinese custom, Mr. Ma’s name is given in the order of surname followed by given name) is a popular Beijing-based writer of short stories and novels. His work fuses Western convention with traditional Chinese elements. His satire is well known in mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. His work has previously appeared in English in TRSF. “The City of Silence” was translated by Ken Liu.
Besides writing and translating speculative fiction, Ken Liu also practices law and develops software for iOS and Android devices. His fiction has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, TRSF, and Panverse 3, among other places. He lives near Boston, Massachusetts, with his wife, artist Lisa Tang Liu, and they are collaborating on their first novel.
The City of Silence
translated by Ken Liu
The year was 2046; the place, the Capital of the State.
The State needed no name because, other than it, there were no states. It was just like the Department of Propaganda kept on emphasizing: there are no other states besides the State, and It is who It is, It has always been and always will be.
When the phone rang, Arvardan was sleeping with his face on the desk in front of the computer. The ringing was insistent, sharp. He rubbed his dry eyes and got up unwillingly. His brain felt heavy and slow.
The room was cramped, the air stagnant. The only window was shut tight. Even if the window were open it would not have helped—the air outside was even murkier. The room was only about thirty meters square. An old army-green cot was in the corner, the serial number painted in white on one leg. Right next to the cot was a computer desk made from thin wooden boards, on top of which sat a pale white computer.
The phone continued, now on its seventh ring. Arvardan realized that he had no choice but to take the call.
“Your Web Access Serial, please.” The voice on the other end was not in any hurry. Indeed, it contained no emotional content whatsoever because it was generated by a computer.
Arvardan automatically recited the string of numerals and letters. At the same time, he felt his chest grow even more congested. He did not like these empty electronic voices. Sometimes he thought, wouldn’t it be nice if the voice on the phone belonged to a real woman, smooth and mellow? Arvardan knew this was an unrealistic fantasy. But a fantasy like that still relaxed his body for a few seconds.
“Your application dated October 4th for an account to participate in the BBS discussion forums has been processed. The appropriate authorities have verified that the information you provided was in order. Please come to the processing center within three days with your Personal Identification Card, your Web Access Permit, your Web Access Serial Card, and other relevant documentation. You will receive your account user name and password then.”
“Understood. Thank, you.” Arvardan carefully chose his words, pausing between each.
It was time to get some work done. Arvardan sat down in front of the computer and moved the mouse. With a faint electronic pop the screen came alive: “Please enter your Web Access Serial and name.” Arvardan entered the requested information. Immediately the indicator LEDs on the front of the computer case began to blink rapidly, accompanied by the low hum of spinning fans.
Every Web user had a Web Access Serial, without which it was impossible to access the Web. This was the only representation of a user on the Web: it could not be changed or deleted. There was a homomorphism between the Web Access Serials and the names on the Personal Identification Cards that everyone carried. Thus, ARVARDAN19842015BNKF was Arvardan and Arvardan was ARVARDAN19842015BNKF. Arvardan knew that some people with poor memories would print their Web Access Serials on the backs of their shirts.
The appropriate authorities explained that the Real ID Web Access System was designed to make administration of the Web more convenient and rational, and eliminate the serious problems caused by anonymity on the Web. Arvardan was unsure what these “serious problems” were. He had never personally used the Web anonymously, and he knew no one who had—indeed, from a technical perspective, it was impossible for anyone to disguise himself on the Web. The appropriate authorities had given this careful thought.
“The appropriate authorities” was a semantically vague phrase that nonetheless was full of authority and the power to intimidate. It was simultaneously general and specific, and included within its meaning a broad range of references. Sometimes, it referred to the State Web Administration Committee, which had issued the Web Access Serial to Arvardan. Other times, it referred to the server that emailed Arvardan the latest Web access announcements and regulations. Yet other times, it referred to the Web Investigation Section of the Department of Public Security. Still other times, it referred to the State News Agency. The “appropriate authorities” were everywhere and responsible for everything. They would always appear at the appropriate time to guide, supervise, or warn.
Now that the Web was almost equivalent to daily life, it was necessary to be ever vigilant and not allow the Web to become a tool for conspirators seeking to destabilize the State—so said the appropriate authorities.
The computer continued to hum. Arvardan knew this was going to take some time. The computer was issued to him by the appropriate authorities, and he was uncertain about its technical specs and hardware configuration. The case was welded shut and could not be opened.
While waiting, Arvardan ferreted out a plastic cup from the mountain of trash at his feet and filled it with distilled water from the drinking spigot at his side. He swallowed a painkiller with the water. The distilled water went down his throat and settled into his stomach. The empty taste nauseated him.
The speakers on the computer suddenly began to play the national anthem. Arvardan put down the cup and refocused his eyes on the computer screen. This meant that he had signed on to the Web. The screen first displayed a notice from the appropriate authorities: plain white background, black text, 14-point font. The notice described the meaning of using the Web and the latest regulations concerning such use.
The notice quickly disappeared. What followed was a desktop background emblazoned with the slogan: “Let us build a healthy and stable Web!” Another window slowly floated up, containing several links: work, entertainment, email, and BBS discussion forums. The BBS link was grayed out, indicating that choice was not yet available to him.
The operating system was simple and clear. The browser had no place to enter an URL. Only the bookmarks menu, which was uneditable, contained the addresses for a few Web sites. The reason for this was simple: all of these Web sites were healthy and positive. If other Web sites had the same content as these, then, logically, having access to these Web sites alone was sufficient. On the other hand, if other sites had different content, then, logically, those other sites must be unhealthy and vulgar and should not be accessed.
Some said that outside the borders of the State there were other Web sites, but those were only urban legends.
Arvardan first clicked “work.” The screen displayed a menu of Web sites and software related to his work.
As a programmer, Arvardan’s daily duty consisted of writing programs in accordance with instructions from his superiors. The work was boring, but it guaranteed a steady income. He did not know what the source code he wrote would be used for. His superiors never gave him such information.
He tried to continue the work left over from yesterday, but he soon felt he couldn’t concentrate. He tried to entertain himself, but the “entertainment” link only contained Solitaire and Minesweeper. According to the appropriate authorities, these two games were healthy: there was no violence and no sex, and they would not give players criminal desires.
A system alert popped up: “You have new mail.” Arvardan had finally found a reason to pause in his work. He quickly moved the cursor onto the “email” link, clicked, and soon a new window appeared on the screen.
Subject: Module/Already/Complete, Start/Current/Project?
WANGHENG10045687XHDI was the Serial of a colleague. The body of the email was written with a series of individual words and certain fixed expressions separated by slashes. This was a format suggested by the appropriate authorities. Although modern mainframe computers could now process natural-language digital texts easily, this style of writing was a gesture on the part of the citizen to indicate that he possessed the proper attitude.
Arvardan sighed. Every time he received a new piece of email, he hoped there would be some fresh stimulus to jolt his nervous system, which was growing duller by the day. On some level, he knew that he would be disappointed each time, but he felt that keeping hope alive at least yielded a few seconds of excitement. It was like his wishing that the voice on the phone would be the smooth and mellow voice of a real woman. If he didn’t keep for himself bits of remote, hopeless hope, Arvardan thought he would go mad sooner or later.
Arvardan clicked “reply,” and then opened a text file with the name “List of Healthy Words” in another window. This file contained the words and fixed expressions that the appropriate authorities required every Web user to use. When they wanted to compose emails or use the discussion forums, they must find the appropriate words from this list with which to express themselves. If the filtering software found any Web user using a word not on this list, then the word would be automatically shielded and replaced with the phrase “Please use healthy language.”
“Shielded” was a technical term. A shielded word was forbidden in writing or in speech. Ironically, “shielded” itself was a shielded word.
The list was updated constantly. Every revision meant that a few more words disappeared from the list. This forced Arvardan to exercise his brain to come up with other words to substitute for the words that were shielded. For example, “movement” used to be allowed, but then the appropriate authorities decided that this was a sensitive word, so Arvardan had to use “change of position” to express the same idea.
He referred to the list and quickly composed a response similar in style to the email he had received. The List of Healthy Words forced people to compress as much information as possible into the fewest words, and to eliminate all unnecessary flourishes and figures of speech. The resulting compositions were like that cup of distilled water: flavorless. Arvardan sometimes thought that one day he would become as bleached out as the emails and distilled water because he wrote such emails and drank such water.
Arvardan sent the email but could not save a copy for himself. His computer had no hard drive, and no slots for floppy disks or CDs or even a USB port. Broadband technology had advanced to the point where software applications could be hosted on remote servers, and individual users needed not suffer any speed issues related to remote access. Thus, there was no need for end users to have hard drives or local storage. Every document or program a user wrote, even every movement of the mouse or keystroke, would be automatically transmitted to the public server of the appropriate authorities. This made administration easier.
After completing the email, Arvardan once again fell back into his anxious, listless mood, which he could not express because “tired,” “annoyed,” and other negative words were all dangerous words. If someone wrote an email to others to complain about such feelings, the recipients would only get an email full of “Please use healthy language.”
This was Arvardan’s life. Today was a little worse than yesterday, but should be a little better than tomorrow. But even this description was imprecise, because Arvardan himself was unclear what constituted “a little better” and what constituted “a little worse.” “Better” and “worse” were variables, but his life was a constant, the value of which was “repression.”
Arvardan set aside the mouse, tilted his head back, and gave a long sigh. (At least “sigh” had not yet been shielded.) He wanted to hum a song, but he couldn’t remember any songs. Instead, he whistled a few times, but it sounded like a dog with tuberculosis barking, and he had to stop. The appropriate authorities were like specters that filled the whole room, giving him no space. He was like a man stuck in a quagmire: as soon as he opened his mouth, mud flowed in, so that he could not even scream for help.
He shook his head restlessly a few times, and his eyes happened to fall on the phone. Suddenly, he remembered that he still had to go to the appropriate authorities to finish the application for the BBS permit. He was glad of an opportunity to be temporarily free of the Web. On the Web he was nothing more than the sum of a series of dry numbers and “healthy words.”
Arvardan put on his coat and covered his mouth with a filtering mask. He hesitated for a moment, and then picked up the Listener and put it over his ears. Then he left his room.
The Capital’s streets had few pedestrians. Now that the Web was everywhere, most chores could be done there. Unlike in the primitive past, people no longer needed to go outside the home for the necessities of daily life. The appropriate authorities did not recommend too many outdoor activities, as they caused people to make physical contact with each other, and what happened after that was difficult to control.
The Listener, a portable language-filtering machine, was designed specifically to prevent that sort of thing. When the wearer said or heard some sensitive word, the Listener automatically gave a warning. Every citizen, before leaving home, must put on this device so they could review and critique their own speech and conversation. When people realized that the Listener was present, they often chose silence. The appropriate authorities were attempting to gradually unify life on the Web and life in the physical world, so that they would be equally healthy.
It was November, and the icy wind drove clouds across a leaden, oppressive sky. Along both sides of the street, utility poles stretched out in two rows like dead trees. Pedestrians wrapped themselves tightly in black or grey coats, shrinking into themselves so that they appeared as quick-moving black dots. A thin miasma covered the whole Capital. Breathing this air without a filtering mask would be a challenge.
Has it already been two months since I last left my room? Arvardan thought, as he stood next to the sign for the bus stop.
A tall man in a blue uniform stood next to Arvardan. He looked suspiciously at Arvardan, wrapped in his black coat. Gradually, he shuffled closer, and, with pretended casualness, said to Arvardan:
“You, have, a, cigarette?”
The man enunciated each word, and paused half a second between them. The Listener was not yet sufficiently advanced to adjust to the unique rhythm and intonation of each person. In response, the appropriate authorities required that all citizens speak in this manner, so that it would be more convenient to check if anyone used words outside the regulations.
Arvardan gave him a quick glance, licked his own dry lips, and replied:
The man was disappointed. Unwilling to give up, he opened his mouth again:
“You, have, a, drink?”
It had been a long time since Arvardan had had any cigarettes or liquor. Perhaps it was due to the shortages, a common problem. But something was amiss: Arvardan’s Listener had not issued a warning. In Arvardan’s experience, whenever supplies of cigarettes, liquor, or other necessities suffered shortages, these words would temporarily become sensitive words that had to be shielded until the supply could be restored.
The man seemed exhausted. His puffy red eyes were a common sight these days, a result of long hours spent on the Web. His hair was a mess, and a few days’ growth of stubble surrounded his mouth. A strong moldy smell dissipated from the collar of the shirt under his uniform. It was obvious that he had not been outside for days.
It was only now that Arvardan realized that the man’s ears were unadorned. The space where the silver-grey Listener should have been was empty. Arvardan was stunned, and for a moment he did not know whether to remind the man or pretend that he hadn’t noticed. He thought, perhaps it would be better to report this to the appropriate authorities.
Now the man inched even closer, and desire and yearning radiated from his eyes. Arvardan’s heart squeezed tight, and unconsciously he took a step back. Was he going to get mugged? Or maybe this man was a sex maniac who had repressed his desires for too long? The man suddenly grabbed his sleeve. Arvardan struggled awkwardly but could not pull himself free. The man did not make another move, but gave a loud yelp, and began to speak to Arvardan in a rapid manner that Arvardan was no longer accustomed to.
“I just want to talk to you, just a few sentences. I haven’t spoken in so long. My name is Hiroshi Watanabe. I’m thirty-two years old. Remember, thirty-two. I’ve always dreamed of having a house by a lake, with a small boat and a fishing pole. I hate the Web. Down with the Web Regulators! My wife has been poisoned by the Web. She only calls me by my Web Access Serial. This whole city is an asylum, and in it the stronger inmates govern the weaker inmates, and turn all the sane people into madmen like themselves. Fuck ‘sensitive words.’ I’ve fucking had it….”
The man’s words poured out of him like soda from a bottle that had been shaken and the cap then popped. Arvardan’s Listener beeped continuously. He stared in amazement but had no idea how to respond. Even more worrisome, he discovered in himself a sense of sympathy for the man, the sort of sympathy people who suffered from the same disease had for each other. The man had now gone from complaining to simply cursing, the most raw, direct kind of curses that had long been shielded. It had been five or six years since Arvardan himself had last cursed, and even the last time he had heard such language was four years ago.
But now this man was swearing at him in public, as though he wanted to say every single shielded sensitive word in a single breath. Arvardan’s eardrums began to throb with pain from the decibel level and the constant beeping from the Listener.
Just then, two police vehicles appeared at the end of the street, and, lights flashing all the way, rushed towards the bus stop.
The man was still swearing when five or six officers in full riot gear rushed over and pushed him to the ground, beating him with their batons. The man kicked with his legs, and words poured out of his mouth even faster, and the curses grew even coarser. One of the officers pulled out a roll of tape, and with a sharp “pa” tore off a piece which he stuck over the man’s mouth. Immediately before his mouth was taped, the man raised his voice, and heartily yelled at the policeman, “Fuck you, you sonovabitch!” Arvardan watched as his expression turned from madness to a contented smile, as though he was intoxicated with the pleasure and release brought about by the swearwords.
The police scrambled to push the man into one of the cars. One of the officers came to Arvardan. “Is, he, your, friend?”
“I, do, not, know, him,” Arvardan responded in the same way.
The policeman stared at him. He took down Arvardan’s Listener and checked its records. There was no record of Arvardan using any sensitive words. He put the Listener back on Arvardan’s ears and warned Arvardan that everything the man had said was extremely reactionary, and he must immediately forget it. Then the officer turned around, and the police left with the arrested man.
Arvardan sighed with relief. Just now he had, for a second, an impulse to scream at the top of his lungs on this empty street, “Fuck you, you sonovabitch!”
The street quickly returned to its customary quiescence. Ten minutes later, a bus slowly arrived at the station. The rusty doors opened with a clang, and an electronic female voice filled the empty space inside the bus:
“Passengers, please pay attention and use civilized language. Adhere strictly to the List of Healthy Words as you speak.”
Arvardan wrapped his coat even tighter around himself.
About an hour later, the bus arrived at his destination. The cold wind blew in through the broken windows of the bus, frosting Arvardan’s breath. The coal dust and sand in the wind stabbed at his face. He got up, shook the dust off himself like a wet dog shaking off water, and left the bus.
Arvardan needed to go to the appropriate authorities, the Department of Web Security in this case, responsible for processing BBS permit applications. Located across the street from the bus stop, this was a five-story building, cube-shaped, completely covered in grey concrete. If it weren’t for the few windows, the building would be indistinguishable from a solid block of concrete: hard and dead. Even mosquitoes and bats stayed away.
It was also very difficult to obtain a permit to use the BBS forums. An applicant must go through close to twenty procedures and endure a long investigation process before being granted permission to browse the forums. Only after having had permission to browse the forums for three months could one be granted permission to post in designated forums. As for starting your own BBS, that was impossible.
Despite these obstacles, many used the BBS forums because this was the only place on the Web where one could have some limited conversation. Arvardan had decided to apply for a BBS permit simply out of a vague yet stubborn sense of nostalgia. He didn’t know why he wanted to cause so much trouble for himself. Maybe it was just to bring a sense of excitement to his life. Maybe it was to emphasize the bits of connection between himself and the old times. Maybe it was both.
Arvardan vaguely remembered that when he was a kid, the Web was very different. Not that the technology was different, but the culture. He hoped to remember some of the things from that era through the BBS forums.
Arvardan walked into the building. Inside it was just as cold as outside, and even darker. There were no lights in the hallways. The walls, painted in a bluish white, were pasted over with Web-related regulations, policies, and slogans. Sucking the cold air into his lungs, Arvardan shuddered. Only the crack round the door at the end of the hall let in a sliver of light. On the door was a sign: “Department of Web Security, BBS Section.”
Arvardan did not dwell on the irony that in order to use some virtual functionality of the Web, one had to physically come here to apply.
Once he was behind the door, Arvardan immediately felt a blast of hot air. The heat in this room was turned way up, and Arvardan’s hands, feet, and face, all frozen numb, now tingled and began to itch. He wanted to reach out and scratch himself.
An electronic female voice suddenly burst out of the speakers in the ceiling: “Citizen, please remain still as you wait in line.”
Arvardan put down his hand as though he had been given an electric shock, and respectfully waited where he was. He observed the room he was in: a long and narrow lobby, divided in half by a marble counter that rose in the middle like the Great Wall. A fence made of silver-white poles connected the top of the counter to the ceiling.
“Please proceed to window number eight.”
The counter was so tall that Arvardan could not even look over it to see what was on the other side. But he could hear the sound of someone approaching on the other side then sitting down.
“Please place your application documents in the tray.”
The speaker on top of the counter issued the order. Unexpectedly, the voice this time was different. Even though it was still dry and cold, Arvardan could tell that the voice did not belong to a computer—this was the voice of a real woman. He tried to lift his head even higher, but he could see nothing. The counter was just too tall.
“Please put the documents in the tray.”
There was some impatience in the tone when the voice repeated the order.
Yes, this is the voice of a real woman, Arvardan thought. The electronic female voice was always polite and never had any emotion in it. He put his Personal Identification Card, Web Access Permit, Web Access Serial Card, the record of sensitive word violations, and other similar documentation into a small metallic tray, slid the tray into a slot in the side of the counter, and closed the flap over the slot. Immediately he heard a faint whoosh. He guessed that the person on the other side of the counter—perhaps a woman—had pulled the tray out on her side.
“What is the purpose for your application for BBS service?”
The woman’s voice from the speaker was business-like and professional.
“To, increase, Web, related, work, efficiency; to, create, a, healthy, and, stable, Web, environment; to, better, contribute, to, the, motherland.”
Arvardan paused between each word, knowing that this was only a formality. All he had to do was to give the standard answer.
The other side sank into silence. After about two minutes, the speaker came on again.
“The final procedure has been completed. You now have permission to use the BBS forums.”
With a bang, the metallic tray bounced back out of the slot. In it, a few more pieces of paper had been added to the documents Arvardan had provided.
“The appropriate authorities have issued you a user name and password for the BBS service, an index of available forums, a user guide, a copy of the applicable regulations, and the latest List of Healthy Words. Please also check your email inbox.”
Arvardan stepped forward, took out all the things in the tray, and examined them. He was disappointed to see that his BBS user name was identical to his Web Access Serial. He remembered that when he was little it was possible to pick your own BBS forum user name.
Memories of childhood often were mingled with fairy tales and fantasies, however, and might not match reality. The reality now was that you could only use the user name and password issued by the appropriate authorities. The reason was simple: user names and passwords also could contain sensitive words.
He shoved the papers in his coat pocket. The pieces of paper were actually meaningless, as the electronic copies have been sent to his email already. But the appropriate authorities felt that formal documents on paper were helpful in inducing in users the proper feelings of fear and respect.
He hoped that the speaker in the counter would speak a bit more. But he was disappointed by the sound of someone getting up and leaving. Based on the rhythm of the steps, Arvardan was even more certain that the person on the other side was a woman.
The empty electronic female voice again came from the ceiling: “You have completed the necessary procedures. Please leave the Department of Web Security and return to your work.”
Arvardan wrinkled his nose in disgust, and turned to leave the warm lobby and return to the freezing cold hallway.
On the way home, Arvardan curled up in his seat on the bus without moving. The success of obtaining permission to use the BBS service gave him an illusory sense of excitement. His right hand fingered the documents in his pocket as he tried to remember the sound of that mysterious woman’s voice.
It would be so nice to hear that voice again. At the same time he rubbed his thumb lightly over the piece of paper on top of the stack in his pocket, imagining that this document had been touched also by her slender, graceful, ivory-like fingers. He was so excited that he wanted to yell, “Fuck you, you sonovabitch!” The sound of that man cursing was stuck in his mind, and again and again the curse rose to the tip of his tongue.
Suddenly, his finger felt something out of place on the back of the document. Arvardan looked around him, ascertained that there were no other passengers, and carefully took the document out and flipped it over. He examined it carefully in the light from the bus window.
Arvardan realized that the top right corner of the document had been lightly creased by a fingernail. The crease was so light that if Arvardan hadn’t been fingering it so closely he never would have noticed it. The crease was unusual: it was a straight line, but at the end of the line, not far from it, was another very short crease, as though the person had meant to make a dot. The whole thing looked like an exclamation point, or, if you looked at it from the opposite direction, the letter “i.”
He looked through the other papers, and soon discovered that the other four documents also had similar creases. They were shaped differently, but all seemed to be symbols of some sort. Arvardan recalled the order in which the woman from the speaker had mentioned the documents, and began to write the symbols found on each document in order on the steamed-up bus window:
The bus stopped, and a few passengers got on. Arvardan moved his body to cover the writing on the window. Then, pretending to yawn, he lifted his sleeve and erased the letters.
Arriving home, Arvardan took off his coat and filtering mask, and threw the Listener on the cot. Then he fell onto the cot and buried his head in the pillows. Every time he left home to go outside he felt so exhausted afterward, in part because his weakened physique was no longer used to being outside and in part due to the stress of being with the Listener.
When he woke up, he checked his email. His inbox contained two work-related emails from colleagues and five emails containing the electronic copies of the BBS documents from the Department of Web Security.
Arvardan opened the index of BBS forums. All the forums were officially sanctioned. The forums had different subjects, but all basically revolved around how to better cooperate and respond to State directives and how to build a healthy Web. For example, on one of the computer technology forums, the main topic was how to improve the technology for shielding sensitive words.
Amazingly, one of the forums was about games. In it, the main topic of discussion was an online game about how to help others use healthy words. The player could control a little boy to patrol the streets and see if anyone was using sensitive words. If so, the little boy could choose to go up and criticize the offender or report the offender to the police. The more offenders the little boy caught, the higher the score and the better the rewards.
Arvardan opened a few other random forums. Everyone in them was polite, and spoke very healthy language, just like people outside on the streets. No, it was even worse than on the streets. People on the streets at least had opportunities to perform a few private gestures, like how Arvardan had written “title” on the bus window in secret. But on the BBS forums, even the last bits of privacy of the individual were stripped away. The appropriate authorities could examine every mouse movement, every keystroke, every bit that passed through your computer, and there was nowhere to hide.
Disappointment and a sense of loss overwhelmed Arvardan. He closed his eyes and lay back. He had been so naive to think that the BBS forums might be a little more open, but now it was clear that it was even more suffocating than real life. He was stuck in an electronic quagmire, and he couldn’t breathe. “Fuck you, you sonovabitch” once again rose to the tip of his tongue. The urge to shout was so strong that he struggled to contain himself.
Suddenly, he thought of the mysterious “title.” What did that really mean? Five documents, five emails. Maybe the emails had something hidden in them? Perhaps they had something to do with “title”?
Arvardan turned back to the screen and carefully examined the five emails from the Department of Web Security. He opened the emails and saw that each one had a title in larger font at the top. He arranged the titles in the order indicated by the letters in the word “title,” taking each creased letter as indicating the position its corresponding email’s title should be in.
The first word from each title, when put together, formed a sentence: “Navigate To User Education Forum.”
Arvardan remembered that just now he had indeed seen a forum with the name “User Education Forum.” He clicked the link for that forum, hoping that this was not just some coincidence.
The User Education Forum was an administrative forum. All the posts in it were suggestions or complaints about BBS management. The forum moderator was someone named MICHEAL19387465LLKQ. There were few posts and responses, and the forum had little traffic. Arvardan opened the index of all posts in the forum and clicked open each one. The posts seemed completely random, and he could see no pattern.
Arvardan was disappointed. He seemed to have hit another dead end. But he had not been this excited for so long. He stubbornly kept on staring at the screen, trying to hold onto the sense of discovery and excitement, even if illusory, for just a little while longer.
Suddenly, his eyes focused on the user name of the forum administrator. MICHEAL was not the usual spelling for MICHAEL.
He clicked through the posts in the forum again, and noticed that some of the posts were also posted by user names containing unusual spellings for common names.
Following the pattern from before, he took the initial words from the titles of posts by users with unusually spelled names and arranged them in the order of the number portion of the authors’ user names to form a new sentence:
“Every Sunday at the Simpson Tower, fifth floor, suite B.”
There must be some meaning in this. The documents, the emails, and now the forum posts: three times in a row he had put clues together that led to more clues. This was no mere coincidence. Who had hidden these messages in the official documents from the appropriate authorities? What happened every Sunday at the Simpson Tower, fifth floor, suite B?
Arvardan had finally found the excitement long absent from his life. The novelty of the unknown stimulated his long-numbed nerves. More important, these word games, planted in the middle of official documents from the appropriate authorities, gave him the satisfaction of breathing freely, as though a solid iron mask had been punched through with a few air holes.
Let us build a healthy and stable Web!
Fuck you, you sonovabitch!
Arvardan stared at the desktop background on the computer screen, mouthed the curse silently, and lifted his middle finger to the screen.
For the next few days, Arvardan lived in a state of constant, barely subdued excitement. He was like a kid who was trying to hide a mouthful of candy with an innocent smile, and who, after the adults had turned away, broke into a sly grin, enjoying the feeling of having a secret.
Day after day passed; the List of Healthy Words continued to shrink; the air outside the window grew even murkier. This was the way life was. Arvardan had begun to use the List of Healthy Words as a calendar. If three words had been deleted, that meant three days had passed. When seven words had been deleted, Arvardan knew it was Sunday.
Arvardan arrived at the Simpson Tower at noon. The clue that had brought him there did not mention a specific time. Arvardan thought it probably made sense to show up around noon. As he arrived, wearing his dark green army coat, the filtering mask, and the Listener, his heart began to beat irregularly. He had imagined all kinds of possibilities for this moment, and now that the secret to the mystery was about to be revealed, he was nervous. No matter what happens here, it can’t be worse than my life now, Arvardan thought.
He walked into the building, and noticed that there were very few people here as well. The empty halls were filled only with his steps and their echo. An old elevator car had advertisements for “Let’s build a beautiful home on the Web,” and a poster with a man whose face was imbued with truth and justice. The background of the poster was the Flag, and the man pointed at the viewer with his right index finger. Above him was the slogan: “Citizen, I need you to use healthy language.” Arvardan turned away, and saw that the other wall of the elevator car had the exact same poster. There was nowhere to hide.
Luckily, by then he had arrived at the fifth floor. The elevator doors opened, and opposite was the door to suite B. The door was green, the paint chipped, and splats of ink covered the door frame.
Arvardan took a deep breath, and pressed the doorbell.
Arvardan thought the rhythm of the steps within the door sounded familiar, as though he had heard it somewhere. The door cracked open halfway, and a young woman held onto the doorknob as she filled the doorway, leaning forward to stare at Arvardan. She said, suspiciously:
“Who, are, you, looking, for?”
It was the voice behind the counter at the Department of Web Security, BBS Section. She looked beautiful: hunter-green wool sweater, hair worn short in a tight bun in the typical style, skin so fair it was pale, and lips glowing with the flush of health.
Looking into the woman’s eyes, Arvardan hesitated, and then raised his right hand: “Title.”
Arvardan stared at the woman tensely. If the woman reported his strange behavior to the police, then he would be arrested and interrogated as to why he had gone to a stranger’s home. The crime of “willfully lolling about” was only slightly less serious than the crime of “using sensitive words.”
The woman nodded, barely perceptibly, and carefully gestured with her right hand for him to come in. Arvardan was about to speak, but the woman glared at him, and he swallowed and obediently followed her into the apartment.
Once they were in, the woman shut the door immediately, and then pulled a lead-grey curtain over the doorway. Arvardan blinked anxiously, and looked about him. The apartment had two bedrooms and a living room. The living room had a couch and a coffee table, on top of which there were a few bunches of red and purple plastic flowers. Next to one of the walls was a desk with a computer. A common white wall calendar hung on the wall, but the owner had taken care to decorate its edges with pink paper, giving it a homier feel. Arvardan noticed that the shoe rack next to the door held four pairs of shoes, all of different sizes. This meant that he wasn’t the only guest here today.
Arvardan was still uneasy. Suddenly the woman clapped him lightly on the back, indicating that he should continue inside. The two of them went across the living room, through a short hallway, and arrived at a bedroom. The bedroom door was curtained by the same kind of lead-grey curtain. The woman lifted the curtain and pushed open the bedroom door.
Arvardan saw three smiling individuals in a room decorated with real, fresh flowers. The room was also full of many other antiques that existed only in Arvardan’s memory: an Impressionist painting, a wooden sculpture from Uganda, and a silver candelabra. But there was no computer.
As he hesitated, the woman entered the room. She carefully pulled the curtain closed and shut the door. She turned around:
“Welcome to the Talking Club!”
The Talking Club?
END OF PART ONE
Part Two of “The City of Silence” will appear on Tuesday December 6th.
First published in Chinese in a slightly different form in the December 2005 issue of Science Fiction World.
The World SF blog
The World SF blog was set up to increase awareness of the works of speculative fiction being written by people all over the world. The Fiction section of the blog is looking for submissions of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror stories from authors worldwide, especially authors from countries outside the US/UK. We’re also eager to see stories set in those countries, and/or with central characters who originate there. Stories should be in English, and translations are welcome. As we’re unable to pay contributors, we’re particularly looking for reprints, but would also welcome stories that haven’t yet found a home elsewhere.
In short, we need speculative fiction stories by international authors for the blog. Please send some.
What’s Speculative Fiction?
It’s Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror, and anything in between.
Just as Science Fiction defies borders, so it defies definition. Narrowly, it’s stories in which extrapolations of science or technology beyond what is currently known play a significant part. Broadly, it’s about people (whether human or alien) and technological or scientific change. Even more broadly than that, it’s this stuff *points*. Also, that stuff. *Points in a completely different direction*. Space opera, alternate history, hard sf, soft sf, and all points north. It’s only limited by our imaginations.
Fantasy takes readers to other worlds in which magic is real, gods can take a personal interest in the characters’ lives, and anything that may be, can be. If it isn’t set in Medieval Europe, send it to us.
Horror should send a tingle of fear down the reader’s spine. Slash and gore can be scary, but stories that get inside your head, find your private fears, and make them real are truly horrifying.
How often do you publish?
At present, fortnightly, on Tuesdays. Serialised stories will be published across consecutive weeks.
What does the Fiction Editor like?
Stories that evoke emotion in the reader, especially the famous sense of wonder. Stories with memorable characters. Also plot. She’s very fond of plot. Character growth is great. Humour, of the laughing-with rather than the laughing-at kind. However, part of the Fiction Editor’s job here at WorldSF is not to impose her preconceptions, but to be open to the myriad forms stories take.
Do you pay contributors?
What lengths are you looking for?
We’d like stories up to 8,000 words. Longer stories may be serialised. Please don’t send novels, though.
How do we submit?
Contact Fiction Editor Debbie Moorhouse at firstname.lastname@example.org, attaching the file in .DOC or .RTF format, and including your name, country, previous publication details (if any) and a short bio. Bios should be in third person.
When should we expect to hear?
The Fiction Editor intends to acknowledge submissions within two days and to respond with a decision within a month. If you’ve waited significantly longer than that, do query.
Will my story be edited?
Stories will be edited primarily for clarity of language. Edits will be done with changes tracked, and the Fiction Editor is always open to discussion.
And here is a brief overview of Danish Science Fiction Between 2004 and 2007, by Janus Andersen, courtesy of that excellent web site, Concatenation.