I‘ll admit it: when the package finally arrived and the editor handed this book over to me, I approached it with a more than dubious eye. I have a problem with golden-eyed wunderkind boys-of-the-moment. They so rarely turn out to be what was promised. Hey, I’m still hurt that The Knack didn’t turn out to be the new Beatles. I’d heard a lot of raving about Miéville (there are hermit monks living on the sides of undiscovered mountains in the heart of Africa that have heard a lot of raving about Miéville) but this was my first taste of his product. Thankfully, it tasted good.
Miéville’s writing flows. His prose is liquid and beautifully paced, and his talent for scene setting and naming reminds me of Gene Wolfe or even Poul Anderson. For the most part, the tradition of naming characters so that their name reflects the greater portion of their personality is a dead one, as obvious and annoying as comic book characters who have the same first and last initial. But Miéville’s lyricism enables him to pull it off: characters like Bellis Coldwine, Uther Doul, Tintinabullum, Tanner Sack, the Brucolac; all have characters that are extensions of both the meaning and tone of their names, and all leave the page as fully realised people.
And Miéville writes characters, not mouthpieces, perhaps better than any new writer I’ve come across in a long time. There is not a character in this book, no matter how minor, who lacks dreams and ambitions. Most of them run both true and contrary to the plot they are helping to advance. They are complex beings, and Miéville takes the time to paint them in realistic hues.
Thus, when a character who is so loyal to Armada (the floating city, made from pirated and scavenged ships, that lies at the heart of the novel) that he has himself surgically altered in order to perform his duties better performs an action that is a betrayal of everything the City stands for, we believe his reasons for doing so. What would be an obvious plot point in the hands of a lesser writer fails to stick in our craw: we understand the character’s needs and beliefs, and the contrariness of his act is justifiable to our understanding of him. When a character who spends the greater part of the novel attempting to remain in perfect control of her emotions allows herself to be suckered in again and again by people she finds sympathy with we aren’t annoyed, we’re understanding. Real people inhabit this incredible made-up world, and they are the weight by which the reader anchors himself to the leaps of fantasy that Miéville engages in.
And it’s a good job his characters are real, because Miéville obviously delights in pouring the fantastic upon the amazing when it comes to the creation of the world they live in. A city made from the hulls of pirated ships (and even a whale carcass); an island inhabited by a race of mosquito-people; an inter-dimensional beast so large it can be tethered to the base of an island city and used to pull it across oceans; a break in the surface of the world where an alien race crashed and broke open the fabric of reality (The Scar of the title): written in black and white they sound like the tropes of the worst 50’s Monsterama you’ve ever watched. Yet Miéville binds them together so strongly and so well that you never once doubt their veracity. This is a world where the miraculous can not only be achievable, it can achieve mundanity.
Too often in Fantasy novels the characters seem amazed at the facts of their own world. Miéville knows that we live in a world where something as amazing as re-usable spaceships are so boring as to be un-newsworthy, and he invests his characters with that same sense of mental adaptability. The world of The Scar is a world where surgically grafting alien and mechanical parts onto living flesh is so common it is used as a form of punishment: once you’ve seen one half-woman half-tractor, you’ve seen ‘em all.
I realise that if you’ve read either of Mievelle’s two previous books (King Rat and Perdido Street Station) then I’m in all likelihood preaching to the converted. And probably preaching with the zeal of the reformed smoker to boot. But in a field where the object of the game is to provide glimpses of the Fantastic, of the Other, there are few writers that I’ve read who can create such a genuinely mystifying and incredibly different world and then make it seem a homogeneous whole, rather than ‘Earth Plus One New Thing’.
And Miéville works ostensibly in Fantasy, a field littered with pale Tolkien clones and more cartoon dragons, witches, and blokes with big swords than any sensible bookshelf needs, which makes his work all the more exciting and original. Hell, he even has a dragon (of sorts), and witches (of sorts), and a bloke with a bloody big sword, and they’re all still exciting, original, and more importantly, real. And while the book has weaknesses (there are a few too many said-bookisms for my taste, too many people retorting and opining and speaking in adjectives) it is nowhere near enough to create a pause in the obsessive page turning. The need to find out what happens next when reading this book is not just inherent, it’s compulsive. And that’s a very good thing indeed.
Post Hugo Footnote: Okay, so those of you who know the Hugo results should realise two things now: a) how strong my predictive powers are and b) how much weight MY word has in that halls of power. So congratulations to Michael Swanwick, and you can make that 100 denarii you owe me now!
If Greg Bear‘s work isn’t already on your shelf, you shouldn’t have any trouble finding it in your local bookstore.
One of his short stories is currently being made into a feature-length film by C4, a Melbourne-based production company. The story is “Petra,” which first appeared in Omni magazine, back in February of 1982.
20 years later….
So much has changed. “Petra” came out of a typewriter. Omni is dead. A host of electronic magazines have risen to take its place.
And now there’s going to be a movie.
I wanted to ask Greg Bear some questions. I did.
Andy Miller: “What did you find strange or surprising about “Petra” when you first wrote it? How do you see it now?”
Greg Bear: “I was pleased with “Petra” because it combines gargoyles with theology, which is only natural, right? And because I’ve long doubted that God micromanages our affairs. It’s often seemed to me, however, that we could equate the manipulating fingers of God with the rules science has discovered, rules that govern our existence. Thus, if God has died, or moved on, the rules are gone as well….”
AM: “Creationists still raise a fuss over the teaching of evolution in American schools. How can science education be improved? How can it result in more freedom from religion? a more ‘grown up’ society? What can the scientific community do to make this happen?”
GB: “This is a huge topic. Creationists tend to be fundamentalists, and fundamentalists like to tell God (and you and me) how to behave. I try not to, personally. Science tries to discover the rules of our existence without assuming that God does everything for us — an assumption that it seems to me is embodied in the doctrine of free will for all God’s creatures. Science and science education can be improved by dropping the outmoded reductionist and materialist tyranny of the twentieth century without losing the honesty and discipline of trying to see things as they are, without imposing your own list of desires on reality. In other words, we should regard nature as we regard God. Observe — record — be humble — don’t dictate.”
AM: “What’s the relationship of today’s fantasy and science fiction to the stories of the Torah, the Bible, the Koran, etc.?”
GB: “A lot of fantasy and a fair amount of science fiction assumes religious underpinnings. Harlan Ellison seems to tap into Jewish myth in his Outer Limits episode “The Demon with the Glass Hand,” Walter M. Miller, Jr., gives us a Catholic perspective in A Canticle for Leibowitz, James Blish assumes Milton and Dante to be essentially realists in A Case of Conscience and Black Easter. And so on…. But by and large, science fiction explores the world of scientific culture, and the implications of scientific discovery — power over the material world — to our existence.”
AM: “What do you think is going to be lost or gained by the adaptation of “Petra” to film? What must remain intact?”
GB: “I try not to tell filmmakers what to do. From what I’ve seen, Simon understands the story and will do a fine job bringing it to the screen.”
That’s Simon Ryan, of C4, the film’s producer.
I asked him some questions too.
Andy Miller: “It’s been over 20 years since the story first appeared. Why make a movie of it now?”
Simon Ryan: “When C4 began as a 3d animation and effects company nearly 5 years ago, we contacted Greg Bear to see if he was open to the idea of making a computer game based on the Eon trilogy. While that never came to fruition for various reasons, Greg continued to keep in touch with us. He’s been an avid fan of animation since seeing the classic works of Ray Harryhausen as a youngster.
“As a company we had struggled to find a story that we could animate that was not only original, but also ideally suited to being told as an animation. While I hadn’t read all of Greg’s work, I knew his style and ideas would be perfect.
“In August 2001, I was in the U.S. to attend the Siggraph convention in Los Angeles. I saw this as an opportunity to meet Greg and discuss the possibilities. When we met I told him that what we would particularly like is a modern fable. Greg gave me a copy of Bears Fantasies, a beautiful collection of his short fantasy (rather than science fiction) stories. It’s not a widely published book, and while I knew it existed I hadn’t been able to find a copy. Greg told me a little about “Petra” and I was immediately aware that this was exactly the sort of story we were after. An hour after returning to the hotel, having read the story I was really excited. “Petra” had a great setting, extraordinary characters, and a message for a world which seemed to be gradually moving away from the traditional age-old reliance on an unseen being we call God.”
AM: “What can you tell us about the computer animation, the desired look or feel of the film?”
SR: “As you can imagine Notre Dame cathedral will be an amazing setting. Of course it won’t look much like it does today. Shielded from the light by giant canvasses, it will be dark, smokey and claustrophobic. Parts of it will be crumbling and decayed, other parts will have grown or mutated, as it is influenced by the minds and imaginations of it’s inhabitants. The characters contained within are a myriad of humans, monsters, statue-saints and wraiths.
“While the animation itself is of the same genre as say Shrek or Toy Story the visuals themselves will be closer to those found in Satyricon or the midian underworld of Clive Barker’s Nightbreed.”
AM: “How does “Petra” relate to C4’s other work?”
SR: “To date C4 has worked primarily in the games industry. Everything from ingame assets and models to FMV’s (Full Motion Video that a player gets at the beginning or during cut scenes of a game). While this has been our ‘bread and butter’ it has always been our intention to move into storytelling animation.”
C4 commissioned Adam Browne for the adaptation. Adam was a featured writer in Ideomancer last year, and you’ll find his “Captain Thankless” in the anthology Ideomancer Unbound.
What follows is my second interview with Adam.
Andy Miller: “Why should we read the story AND see the movie?”
Adam Browne: “It’s a good question — every time a book I love gets adapted for cinema, they GET IT WRONG — so what is the point of seeing the film? Often, the adaptation is an interesting movie, Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch is an example, but it’s not a patch on the original.
“There are two ways of going wrong in an adaptation. There’s the danger of being too respectful of the text, ending up with something like Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring, which, in adhering too closely to Tolkein, was overlong and pretty much lacked a third act…. On the other hand there’s the temptation to take liberties — Disney’s Alice in Wonderland is the most egregious example: Carroll’s beautiful dream-novel was Disneyfied into something sickeningly nice, offensively inoffensive….
“An example of an adaptation that went right, however, was 2001: A Space Odyssey. Apart from being made by a consummate genius at the height of his powers, the piece of prose it adapted wasn’t a novel, it was a short story — ‘The Sentinel’ by A.C. Clarke. And because it was a short story, cinema was able to do the idea justice — actually expanding on the central notion rather than lopping at it, shrinking it down to fit the confines of what can be conveyed onscreen.
“The same goes for “Petra”. Greg Bear’s vision is masterfully conveyed by his prose, but the core idea and the themes are big ones, bigger perhaps than the original short story. In fact, whenever I read it I always feel slightly surprised that he’s managed to pack so much into so small a space.
“There’s so much visual potential in the story too. The cathedral where it’s set is reminiscent of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts School; an interior space, but with infinite potential, labyrinthine, almost fractal. It’s a perfect place to let the visual imagination play…. I hope to build on Bear’s vision to create a vivid, thought-provoking, fantastical world — a hallucinogenic science fantasy dream-adventure; its hero a voyeuristic gargoyle leaping about the surreal tatters and fecund, fetid halls of a future-Gothic Notre Dame.”
AM: “What are the greatest challenges that you face, in adapting “Petra”?”
AB: “Even Jean-Luc Godard claimed that films should have a beginning, a middle and an end, “although not necessarily in that order”. The circular framework of Bear’s original story disguises the fact that it doesn’t have much of an end — a climax, but little resolution. I think the film would be ill-served by sticking to the original convoluted structure — the fantastic ideas could be lost in unnecessary complexities and florid plotting. I’ll have to straighten the story’s spine in order to make it acceptable as cinema…. Although of course this is a difficulty facing most writers who tackle adaptations of prose. There is the additional difficulty of writing science fiction for the cinema — how to convey tricky ideas without bogging down in pages of expository dialog. This is one not many filmmakers have successfully solved. A lot of science fiction movies just dispose of the ideas in favour of guns and explosions. Others, like 2001, assume that the audience is intelligent enough to work it out for themselves. I hope to tread a fine line between those extremes.
“Another problem is just doing justice to the original. I remember first reading this story in the 80s in an anthology called Mirror Shades. It was my first exposure to Bear; I’ve read most everything he’s written since. He’s great, as much a part of the canon of must-read science fiction writers as Asimov or Clarke. I love Bloodmusic, Eon, Anvil of Stars, and his short stories are classics…. His recurring character Olmy is kind of a hero of mine — I want to BE Olmy. I only hope I can capture the excitement and sense of wonder of his writing.
“All that said, this is something of a dream job — the story’s a satisfying and visually rich blend of crazy science fiction and magic realism and rich rotting gothic sensibilities — full of cinematic pluripotentialities — in many ways the script is writing itself.”
AM: “What is the ‘spirit’ of this piece, and how is it especially relevant today?”
AB: “One of Greg Bear’s big themes is the exploration of the idea that the observer changes the reality, and not just on the quantum level of things either — this from Moving Mars, for example: “The universe stores the results of its (mathematical) operations as Nature. I do not confuse Nature with Reality…. The results change if the rules change.”… And Bear’s scientists are forever changing the rules, forever arguing, and very convincingly too, that objective and subjective reality are at one level thoroughly interchangeable.
“In “Petra”, the arbiter of objective reality manifests as God, who, we learn as the story starts, is dead. As a result reality has become threadbare and hallucinatory: “With the passing of God’s watchful gaze, humanity…became the only cohesive force in the chaos.” The universal laws are held together with spit and string in isolated bastions such as Notre Dame Cathedral.
“When Friedrich Nietzsche first wrote that ‘God is dead’, he was responding in a poetic way to the moral disorientation inspired by the rise of rationalism and science. Before Copernicus, Newton, Darwin, Einstein, humanity was at the centre of a universe warmed by the stern but caring presence of a big papa creator. Bear’s story works as an allegory, suggesting that with scientific enlightenment (personified in Bear’s story by the Apostle Thomas — Doubting Thomas, the famous empiricist) there comes a necessary change of perspective — that it has come time to look at the universe more clearly, and make sense of it according to what we know.
“This, to me, is what motivates all science fiction — an attempt to invent or discover a universe which is meaningful in the context of the scientific worldview.
“Bear is saying that we are the answer — that reason and intelligence and humanity are God, and with enough maturity we will be able to create a world with beauty and meaning.”
Lilli’s skirts rustled as she hastened along the gravel path. She slowed near the corner of the last castle garden, and under the pretext of rearranging her cloak, checked for observers.
There were none.
She slid aside the vines trailing over the high brick wall to reveal the slatted wood door. Her heart thudded; her chest tightened. Her hand drew forth the key nestled between her breasts, and with one twist, she was free for this small portion of the day, the only time until late tonight, when all — all except two — peacefully slept.
The woods loomed, dark and deep. Lilli leapt over the small drifts of snow, not wishing to leave traces of her passing. Pale sunlight gleamed through patches of clouds. Spring hovered, certainly, but winter had not relinquished its hold.
She dodged among the trees, choosing a new route as always. Twigsnaps muffled beneath her feet. Her slippers were damp, her toes numb by the time she reached their tree.
Another glance all around and Lilli thrust her hand into the rough hole of the trunk, fingertips grazing a soft surface. She gasped, then tugged, twisting the gift to release it from its hiding place, pulling it out into the dying light of day.
A red velvet bag. And inside, a box.
Had Derrick finished—?
Eager fingers wiggled into the soft opening, and knew the crisp-heavy touch of vellum and the satin of wood.
Lilli drew the box out, her teeth nipping the soft flesh of her lower lip. A gift. From him.
In a moment, she had the note open.
My heart bleeds for you.
The corners of her mouth lifted. How sweet. Completely unlike her husband, who never loved her the way he had his first wife. Gerard appreciated her beauty, but only that. Refolding the message, she counted herself fortunate to have discovered someone who cherished her.
She lifted the latch on the box, hinges complaining, her breath catching, note fluttering to the ground.
Bianca’s fresh heart.
Lilli stroked the sticky-cool surface, then sucked her reddened finger, mouth watering. Excitement arced through her, and she smiled. She would repay his love and loyalty with the pleasure of her body. Tonight. Derrick loved to watch their reflections in the mirror, candlelight and shadows twisting in the drafts. Her breath frosted the air, and with a jerk, she snapped the lid shut. But that would be later. After…dinner.
With a graceful stoop, she recovered the note from the ground, and noticed the mark outlined in the snow at the base of the tree.
Not his footprint. Much smaller. Far too small to be Derrick’s.
She swayed; her world twisted.
With dawning horror, she stared at the note, searching for similarities to Derrick’s penmanship, finding none.
Lilli shrieked, then collapsed on the semi-frozen ground, hands to mouth, box spilling open, blood-red organ tumbling out to stain a patch of snow.
She stared at her huntsman’s heart.
The little bitch wanted everything. Beauty. Lover. Mirror.
“May your hair turn brittle as year-old straw, stink like a pig’s trough, and become the colour of cholera!”
From fifty paces away I couldn’t see my opponent’s eyes narrow in concentration, but I pushed the tingle at my scalp away easily. The crowd still cheered, and I lifted an eyebrow in amusement. I was definitely in the back country.
As if I had much choice; there were no more good-sized purses in the cities. In the capital they’d already moved on to other, more complex amusements than the Dozens. All the talent was out here now, and traveling one of the most desolate country circuits in existence still yielded the same income as it always had. But when there were bills to pay, one had to go where the audience was.
At the crossroads and in the villages I was still a celebrity, someone any up-and-coming young thing could make a career from challenging. This boy, for example; perhaps I’d underestimated him. He wasn’t bad for someone born and bred in a dusty backwater town like this. I actually had to expend energy to ward off his attacks.
Of course, despite his efforts my hair stayed black, smooth, and sweaty from the noonday sun. I drew in a breath, glanced at the expectant crowd, gathered my wits. “May you grow like an onion, with your head on the ground and your feet in the air, making women cry whenever they pass!”
The onlookers let out a pleased hiss, torn between fear for their champion and appreciation of a blow well delivered. I saw my opponent turn a shade paler, perhaps a touch translucent in the skin. I felt a smile crease my face, just slightly. It wouldn’t do to look like I was enjoying myself too much; that would be bad form.
He seemed a little befuddled, a touch desperate, and his voice wobbled as he delivered his next shot. “May you live like a chandelier, hanging by day and burning by night!”
I must admit, I felt the rope around my neck for an instant, strong and solid, not just a tickle of forces coming together. I reasserted control and calm within myself reflexively, but it took a second before the sensation vanished, flaring uncomfortably into heat and then nothing at all. The crowd gasped, fell silent. Surely, they must have seen the dangerous anger light in my eyes, for just a moment. The little whelp was crossing the line. People weren’t supposed to get hurt playing the Dozens. Sure, people were humiliated with the staples of the craft – strange odours or odd but temporary physical attributes – but it was a game. You put on a show, shook hands, and parted friends. Even the curses rarely lasted more than an hour, once robbed of the venom that sustained them. That was the trick to it; it was a delicate balancing act, a lesson in control. Enough anger to fuel the curses, just enough so your face was still calm and you wouldn’t lose your temper — and the game.
This pipsqueak of a boy was obviously out to make a name for himself. He wanted a reputation? Well, I’d give him one all right. “May your name be as foul as the fruits of your guts, and your armpits stink yet worse than that!”
It was a clumsy curse. I was still horribly off-balance, shaken more than I would have ever cared to admit out loud. The upstart still staggered, enveloped in a fetid, stinking cloud. The crowd hooted cautiously, encouraged by the jovial, comfortable smile still pasted to my face. They knew something was wrong — with me and with their golden boy.
I was surprised they couldn’t see how the heart had gone out of that smile. I was putting more effort into keeping up the casual facade than the actual curses. So much for not working too hard in this match.
He recovered, dispelling the cloud in a flurry of wind, but his eyes were flashing; there was a barely repressed anger in him now. He was about to lose his temper. This unsophisticated village crowd hadn’t yet seen it, but after years of playing — and winning — the Dozens, I knew when a challenger was about to fall. Still, I steeled myself against whatever he was preparing. Desperate men are the most dangerous, especially when it comes to the amateurs. Hopefully this particular amateur would either learn the rules or keep out of the game for good if I dealt him a sound defeat in addition to a small rebuke.
“Tread carefully, boy. I’m not sure you know what you’re getting into.” He had fair warning now.
He took a deep breath, glanced, worried, at the crowd, forced the colour out of his cheeks. “May you blight the land you walk upon, bringing sickness and despair to all who lay eyes on you!”
“…wait, Mary…your Johnny’s cursin’ us!”
“…not part of the game…”
“Look away from ‘em! ‘Ware!”
I hadn’t thought land as arid as this could get any worse until the ground around my feet started to crack, streaming backwards through gardens and fields like a snake that stretched over the land, retracing the steps I’d taken this morning. The assembled villagers started to stagger, averting their eyes from myself and the game as the first few fell to the dirt. What the hell was he doing? These were his own people, and they didn’t have the kinds of defenses that those who played the Dozens spent years cultivating.
I’d never thought of myself as a hero or even much of an asset to society, but I sprinted behind the nearest house I could find faster then I’d ever moved anywhere. This was a game, not a weapon. I skidded to a halt behind the ramshackle dwelling, out of the sight of the crowd, spreading my arms wide as if they could catch the magic.
I looked down at the ground below me. I could see it firming up again, wavering between a hard, dead, tan back to normal, and then losing its moisture all over again. I squinted at it. Its natural state — a dry, golden grit that held the promise of both sweat and poverty — could have been the very best lowland soil compared to that grey, stinking, rock-hard ruin. I felt a stab of guilt in my belly; how much could the land here yield? Should I really be taking a purse from these people?
I sucked in a breath and called up my showman’s voice, the loud, disarmingly cheerful tone I always used in public. “Ladies and Gentlemen, please do me the favour of averting your eyes for just a moment.”
Anyone who was still out there was fool enough to deserve what they got. Perhaps I should have been on the road as well, but a direct attack would be the only way to break this boy’s concentration. He showed no signs of stopping, even though the time limit must surely have passed us by. I was one of the few who could both attack and defend simultaneously; it split many people’s focus too many ways at once.
The earth going mad beneath my feet, I waited a moment before I broke cover and walked straight up to him, will focused on keeping my anger at bay.
The power of the curse was like a wall of wind, pushing me back, battering at my defenses. I could tell that it wasn’t directed entirely at me. It was trying to go through me, to wrap its magical fingers around the throats of those cowering on the sidelines. Why did he hate them so much? In a way it didn’t matter. The immediate issue was that if I lost my cool now that would be it for me, for the audience, for the ground where we stood. A new resolve was forming in my belly, fueling my internal shields. Responsibility. I was responsible for these people. I had to protect them like a parent would a child. I didn’t know that I liked it much. That was one of the things I’d always avoided by taking up the traveling life.
As I spread out my inner calm to envelop his curse I realized that there was no getting around it. This little fool was dangerous, and these two-bit villagers didn’t have the wherewithal to deal with him. He’d ignored my warning completely, and that meant only one thing to be done. I’d heard of people having to take such measures in a game of the Dozens, but I’d never thought the onus would fall upon me. It made me shiver, even in the dusty summer heat.
I walked up to him, stumbling over the uneven ground, stopping only when I was close enough to reach out and slap him clean across the face. He fidgeted slightly, unsure of where to look, half-ashamed and disgustingly proud. The ground settled with a self-conscious murmur as his concentration faltered and the strain eased off his face.
I backed up a few paces, rolling up my sleeves. He followed me with his eyes, obviously uncertain as to my next move. I stared straight into his eyes and took a regretful breath. “May your tongue fall silent, weighted down in your mouth with the sins you would inflict upon others!”
It came out…strange. The anger that fueled my words wasn’t my own delicately balanced will, but the righteous wrath of a million masters of the art. I could feel the power of those words suck the energy from my bones and travel straight to their target, over every ponderous inch between us. It left me gasping for breath, feeling a terrible pressure on my chest, but somehow I knew that this curse would stick longer than I would live. The boy staggered under the power of the curse, and was slow to straighten. His mouth worked, ready to shoot another vile barb right back, but…no sound emerged. He coughed, tried again and again to speak, to shout.
I watched him struggle, and was caught between horror and a sudden smugness that was horrible in itself. “It’s no use. I’m sorry, but I tried to warn you. If you can’t play fair, you won’t play at all.”
The words echoed in the terrible silence of the village, driving the chirping birds away in a flurry of frantic wings. The crowd looked like they wished they could do the same, and the sun beat down on my shoulders, bathing everything in the blinding fire of a judgement I wasn’t sure I had the right to make.
His face was pale as he fled, mouth opened in a silent scream. The villagers were equally silent, watching their town champion in a mixture of awe and fear, little children watching their favourite toy burn. The tense quiet was snapped by a deep, gasping sob, a woman weeping with loss.
One older gentleman cleared his throat, stepped forward to touch me on the shoulder. I couldn’t be sure then, but I thought he had been taking the bets before the match. “Ma’am…I’m sorry to interrup’ your thoughts, but…y’have won the purse…but…I do wanna apologize.”
I turned in surprise, reluctantly taking the heavy purse with one hand. “Apologize?”
The man lowered his head, watched the dust swirling over the hard-packed ground, ground that was no longer churning. “Li’l Johnny there’s mother, Mary…” He gestured to the weeping woman. “…well, he was raised to be competitive, ‘n took to it like a duck to water. She wanted him to be the best ‘n all. He’s been a public menace with those powers o’ his, and wasn’t none who would do a thing about it. He’s our player, after all, and jus’ a boy, you see. He was…encouraged to challenge ya after an…incident wit’ the parson’s daughter.” He shrugged. “Nobody else coulda take a firm hand with ‘im. Always was proud. So, I wanna apologize. An’…to thank ya.”
I watched until the figure of the young man had disappeared into a small wooden house, until the cheers died, until the lump of ice in my belly had settled and my hands stopped shaking. It was only then I looked back at the still-shaken but smiling crowd. They were trying to escape responsibility for one of their own, one they had groomed to challenge others.
I weighed the purse in one hand and set it gently on the ground. It didn’t matter if I slept in the fields tonight; this was blood money. Their cheerful, shining eyes turned blank with surprise. They couldn’t even realize that what had just happened had been driven by their own desire for amusement. And I had taken responsibility for them, as a parent would for a child. I’d been used. I hated them, I hated myself, and for the first time in my life, I hated the Dozens.
As a parent would for a child. Well, if I was to be responsible for them, then I’d do my duty indeed. “You know what?”
They must have heard the ragged edge to my voice, seen fire pouring out of the eyes they had only seen calm. They drew back all at once like some giant organism, studded with heads and arms and legs.
“You know what?” I asked, and my voice was soft. “Now, I’m getting angry.”
Just one thing: the Ecluvian Ocean isn’t beautiful. I’m five fathoms down, nose to the glass, and all I see is mud and black weed. Beauty, religion, and rainbows all got left topside. Of the five people crowded into this submersible, there’s nobody here who would wish to see the Ocean again.
Just wanted to make the point.
I first learned about Kandos in the psychiatric unit of our deep core rig, from a woman named Penelope Korvac, an outpatient like me. It was my first visit and the med bay staff sent me the wrong way. Left, left, right, left, they told me, but it wasn’t. It was left all the way. Not a right in sight. Misdirecting an insane person is inexcusable.
Korvac was the statuesque brunette poised on the waiting room’s black plastic cushions when I walked in. She sat quite still, a magazine open in her lap, her scented wrists throttling the dry air. Just another deranged doll, I guessed. But calm on the outside.
The only other person in the room was a teenaged boy, standing with his nose up against one of the view portals, his hair wilder and darker than the weed that billowed beyond the glass.
“Hey. This the psyche unit? I’m lost.” I didn’t care who answered.
The kid just stared at me with placid green eyes. The woman unfroze a smile and reconfigured herself on the cushions. “I certainly hope so. I’ve been waiting two hours already.”
She was attractive, in a chiseled, spiky way. Approachable, certainly, perhaps even reasonable.
“Hope they don’t keep us too long,” I said. “It’s not safe to stay in one place too long. The body transforms eventually. Adapts to the environment. On a bio-molecular level, I mean.” I settled into the cushions while I had her attention.
“Yes,” she said. “I can see how that might happen.”
The kid had turned his attention back to the portal.
“Accelerated devolution of the species,” I elaborated. “Becoming something else. That’s what we’re talking about here. The flesh leading the mind.”
She took a moment to admire the elegance of her own fingernails. “I had a friend once who thought he was becoming a fish.”
“There you are. And how is he now?”
“Cold, wet. Confused.” She slowly leaned forward, and whispered, “But if you are really transmuting, I’d love to hear about it. It must be so interesting.”
I could have been totally honest with her right then. I could have told her that I was perfectly sane, that I had been utterly shit-scared for the last two months, and that I firmly believed that feigning paranoia was my last real hope. But I played the game. Just in case.
“So are you two together?” I nodded towards the boy.
“Yes, we are.”
“He looks like a stray. Haircut and all.”
“My husband makes his own decisions when it comes to personal grooming.” And she didn’t even wink.
I didn’t rise to the obvious line of questions. If she wanted to cradle-snatch, that was her choice. “You been down here long?”
“Just a month. My husband has been assigned to the drilling teams. We only returned from Kandos three months ago.”
I must have looked dumb at that point.
“You have heard of Kandos, haven’t you?” she quizzed.
Vaguely. Some dust ball in the outer rings. It had been surveyed for gems once and turned up dud. “Yeah, I heard of it.”
“My husband and I crossed the bridges.” She spoke the words almost reverently, as if recollecting a famous miracle.
She smiled, a patient tutor. “You don’t know, do you…? About the Bridges.”
I knew there was some mystical bull surrounding Kandos. Despite being an empty husk, the place had become a Mecca for travelers and pilgrims. But I’d never been sure why.
She lowered her voice, as if wary of releasing a great secret. “Nobody knows how and why they form, but the Bridges appear randomly, at any point on the surface. There are four of them, all equal in length and breadth, all materializing the same height from the ground, always intersecting one another at their mid-point.”
She looked away for a moment, perhaps striving to bring the spectacle close again. “They look like cloud formations, but they’re solid. For just a short time. They coalesce like a birthing planet, and then dissolve. Without heat, or fusion or energy storms. And they are absolutely, utterly, the most beautiful things you will ever see — all the colors of the cosmos, shifting into one another, lighting both the ground and the sky above, as high as you can see.”
I wasn’t sure if she was tripping or not. But she seemed to believe herself. “And you crossed them? You walked over them?”
“To the very center, the intersection. My husband and I, together. Hardly anybody has ever done that. The Bridges only solidify for a short time, and it’s almost impossible to locate the points of origin, where they’re low enough to board.”
“So, what did you find?”
She leaned closer, her eyes glittering under the strip lamps. “Everything we’d hoped for. Absolutely everything.”
Being technically unstable of mind, I guess it was okay of me to stare. Whatever else the Bridges had bestowed, they had undoubtedly unhinged the woman’s sanity.
The door to the consultancy room opened and a sallow-faced individual slunk out. A fake. An outrageous fake. I can spot the malingerers at fifty paces.
I cursed him as he slunk away, hoping the bastard hadn’t fouled my pitch. The doctor who followed him to the door was a weathered parchment of a man, his brow a corrugation of dismays. “Mr. Freeman,” he called, peering over a clipboard, “would you like to step inside?”
I glanced at my fellow patients in surprise. “They were here before me….”
“Ms. Korvac has been here all day. She knows it’s not time for her appointment.” He made it sound as condescending as the words allowed.
Korvac graced me with her sweetest smile as I got to my feet. “See you again,” she purred, at the same time returning her attention to the magazine she held.
Hubby didn’t even bat an eyelid.
I make bedrooms. That’s what I do. The sleep chambers that hang like crystal eggs from the underbelly of the rig. If you can sleep for your regulation eight hours, without claustrophobia or dehydrated membranes, it’s all down to me. Don’t thank me now, but I make you comfortable in the dream dimension, give you warmth and moisture, bring you something of the womb. Perhaps not a vocation for heroes or statesmen, but I’m of use, and there’s the essence of it; I’m worthwhile.
And yet I never felt this was my world. I always hung to the last rays of sun that filtered through the topside bedlam, yearned for the light like some energy-crazed protozoan. And that’s my problem; I feel I’m finally losing sight of it. Finally embracing the darkness.
Not that I can tell you any of that, Doctor. No, it sounds far too reasonable. So instead of being the drowning man, grasping for your every sympathetic word, I’ll just stare, wide-eyed. And slowly sink before you.
“I’d really rather you didn’t play with that article,” he grumbled. “It’s very expensive. Thank you so much.”
I put the paperweight down. Beads of sweat were massing in the trenches of my physician’s forehead.
“I need some time to make a considered evaluation of your mental state, Mr. Freeman. Perhaps we could see you again in say — three days time?”
“Sure. Take as long as you need.” Just certify me. Just save me.
Korvac was gone when I left the consulting room. I wasn’t surprised. Disturbed people do strange things.
On the way out I encountered the staff who misdirected me. “I hope that you all become turd-like,” I informed them, “and sink to the bottom of the sea.”
Got the last word on that one.
I wanted to go see Zarah after my ‘interview’. But that was normal; I pretty much wanted to see her before, after and during everything I did. Infatuation is a cruel color for a curse.
I was involved with her even before the Ecluvian Madness had first hit us. Events then had just conspired to push us closer. At least, push me closer to her.
The disease had appeared in spring, when our twin moons turn red and the topside shines crimson, (though down here in the depths, only our calendars and the darker shades of weed tell us the seasons ever cycle). No one knew how the virus had invaded us, but it broke out in all four of the Company rigs, and the effect was devastating. Victims became subject to hallucinatory episodes, becoming paranoid and deranged. Some experienced a remission before the virus began its systematic destruction of cerebral tissue. From our population of two hundred and thirty people, we sent twenty nine people topside for treatment. There was — and is — no cure. Twenty nine people went up to the light to die.
We’ll none of us ever forget the fear of those months, of greeting one another with charmless smiles, wary of each other’s proximity, fearful of contamination. The bug was transmitted through skin contact only, the medics thought. Maybe. So for three months I stayed solitary, accepting all commissions by communiqué only, seeing only Zarah, my guiding light, my calm at the eye of the storm.
I still remember the sheer terror when I suffered my first hallucination, a preposterous vision of myself growing fins and gills, swimming serenely clear of the rig.
“Jesus, Oh God, I’ve caught it, I’ve caught the bug!” I remember wailing into the viewcom.
“Wait a minute. Just stay calm,” Zarah had advised me. “You don’t know you’ve been infected.”
“I hallucinated, goddammit. That’s the first symptom!”
“What had you been doing?” she asked me.
I explained I had been testing the O2 supply to a new bedchamber, adjusting the filtration.
“And was the oxygen level low?” she’d coolly enquired.
Of course, I’d been hyperventilating to compensate.
She’d smiled like a patient angel.
I really love you, I’d thought. This only goes to prove it.
Zarah knew I’d been for my consultation at the psyche unit today, but she didn’t much care. She didn’t seem to much care for anything I did anymore. It was all part of my rich tragedy.
I found her packing files in the records office, watertight plastic binders with critical personnel discs, all ready to be sent topside for the Company’s scrutiny. I always envied the bastard who got to take them up.
“How did it go?” she asked, not really looking up.
“Fine, I think. I don’t know.”
Her assistant glanced at me and smiled, one of those, ‘I know you’re uncomfortable with me being here, but I’m enjoying every exquisite moment of it’ acknowledgments.
“Can I see you a moment?” I blurted. “In private?”
Zarah glared at me like I had killed her favorite pet. Her co-conspirator threw up her hands in mock exasperation and left the office. She probably would have done the same thing even if I’d said nothing; the opportunity was too good to miss.
“I stand a good chance of being out of here soon.”
“I know.” She kept on packing the files.
“If the Company sections me, I’ll pick up my disability package and get myself topside, start looking for something bigger and better. It could work out good for me.”
“I’m happy for you.”
“Tell me you don’t want to stay down here with all these ghosts…?”
“It works for me. Maybe not for you, but for me.”
“And what if the bug hits again? We’re just lab rats in a tin can.”
She fixed me with a look that told me I was being paranoid again. The virus had all-but disappeared as we’d developed immunity, now throwing up only the occasional isolated case. It was her best look of admonishment, but all I saw were two eyes deeper and more impenetrable than any ocean.
I retreated from the issue, defeated. “I wanted to ask you about a woman. Name of Korvac. I met her today, with her husband, who was about fifteen. You heard of them? I’ve never seen them before.”
She returned her attention to the records on her desk. “The name doesn’t sound familiar. Is she with med staff?”
“She’s a patient.”
“I don’t know her.”
I thanked her for her time, wished her well. I wanted to ask her precisely when and why she’d stopped caring for me, but that suddenly seemed such a long time ago that it had become a matter for posterity.
I left her as I found her, a petite flame-haired secretary, busy with her files.
“I hear some poor bastard tested positive for the bug, the other day.” Simmons delivered the information like it was nothing. He announced it with his back to me, while he was busy threading a plastic hose through a bedchamber’s filtration conduit.
The news shocked me to the core.
“Guy barely even hallucinated, so I heard. He never even suspected it could be the bug. They’re giving him some counseling then taking him topside.”
Counseling? Last rites.
“Guess they think talkin’ to him must pep him up some,” added Simmons.
I felt a slick of sweat sliding through my fingers.
“Maybe advising him on his life insurance…” he chuckled.
My contractor’s pearls of wit were the least precious in the seas. But the blunt artisan was the closest thing to a friend and confidante I had.
I must have been quiet enough for him to turn around.
“You okay?” he asked, grinning. “Not freakin’ out again, are ya? Textbook hypochondriac is what you are — hear about some other guy’s problem and you got a temperature all of a sudden.”
He knew I’d been tested for the bug two months back, and to him, my negative result had made the subject a running gag. Simmons was like that.
“Just makes me want to get clear of this dead-in-the-water tank. Nobody’s safe down here.”
“What you gonna do? Topside? Company’ll never take you on again — not after you’ve been sectioned. If they section you.”
“It’s a whole other world up there now. There’s industry. Business, entertainment, farming. All kinds of work on the atolls. And yeah, they will section me, and I will get my disability. I’ll be certified by the end of the month, just you watch. Whatever it takes.”
Simmons finished feeding the hose through and snapped the conduit cover in place. “Ask me, you’re more than halfway there.” He finished packing his tools. “You wanna grab a drink in the bar?”
Of course I didn’t. But I agreed anyway. We clambered up the ladder from the chamber and back into the main arteriole. The bedchamber was one of five new contracts I had. People were shipping into our miniature Atlantis faster than I could believe. The Company was still ruthlessly recruiting in its drive to scour the bedrock for mineral pay dirt, and there had never been a shortage of gentlemen adventurers. Deluded individuals all.
“You heard of a new arrival by the name of Korvac?” I asked him. “Woman with a kid.”
“Nah, never seen the name. What does she do?”
“She’s a psyche patient.”
“Great. So instead of depth charges, they’re droppin’ psychos. They definitely want to sink the place, I’m tellin’ you. It’s an insurance job.”
But that was the difference between Simmons and I; his paranoia was only play-acting. And he knew it.
“You seen Zarah recently?” he quizzed.
Sore point, but I wasn’t letting on. “Yeah, this morning, why?”
“Ah, she probably told you then. They’re retesting a lot of the Ecluvian cases. The latest guy had a different strain of the bug.”
“You are definitely yanking my chain.”
“Swear to God, man.”
I glanced at him to see if he was grinning, but he wasn’t. And I felt a sudden, cold rage that Zarah hadn’t even bothered to mention it. “So you have any more good news for me,” I snapped, “or are you done pissing on my day?”
“Yeah, one more. It’s your round.”
We’d arrived at the neon signs for the bar, but I’d lost even the thirst I never had.
My follow-up appointment came through in two days, and I was relieved. I’d spent the last two nights sweating over the idea I might not be sectioned, and I just wanted the decision done with. Sure, I could just get myself topside, but without any Company pay-off I’d just be more surface flotsam. Hiding my nerves in front of the doc wasn’t going to be easy.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised to find Korvac in the waiting room again, but I was slightly shocked to see her there. This time without her husband.
“So you’re moving in here, I guess?” I said, sitting opposite her.
“That’s not what I had in mind,” she replied, running her fingers through her long brown hair.
“And what do you have in mind?”
“Standing by my husband. Gathering experience, knowledge, insight. New perspectives.”
“Guess those Bridges didn’t bring you quite enough, did they. For you to end up here.” Between mental patients, it wasn’t a rude supposition.
She leaned forward, as if to lend weight to her words. “My husband is fifty eight years old, Mr. Freeman. He went up onto the bridges a tired, spent man, with no more dreaming in him.” She leaned back again. “You’ve seen him now.”
Sure I had. And we were sitting in a psychiatric ward.
“We still don’t know what the Bridges are, Mr. Freeman. But my husband and I think of them as hope and fate, as perseverance and adventure. And we sat and embraced where they all met. That’s all I can tell you.”
“So maybe it solved all your problems. That’s great for you. Some of us are in too deep for easy fixes.”
I’d let my guard down and I wasn’t pleased about it. Still, even if she thought I was perfectly rational, nobody would believe her.
“Nothing about finding the Bridges is easy, Mr. Freeman. Even the act of searching for them is an uncertain adventure.”
“Maybe for most of us, a little certainty is what we need.”
She smiled. “Is your life so full and rich that you can happily forgo the chance to completely remake it, to reshape yourself, losing all your failures and fears?”
No. Of course not.
“The Universe is nothing but a collection of mysteries, Mr. Freeman. And it’s given us one to share.”
My Doctor emerged at the door to his consulting room. By his dulled expression, he seemed to have slipped away from life’s ordinary cares just a little more. “Mr. Freeman,” he called. “If you please…?” He gestured to the inside of the room.
I was caught by surprise when Korvac grabbed my sleeve as I stood. She held tightly, speaking in a hushed voice. “Go to Kandos,” she whispered. “Find the Four Bridges. It’s your best hope.”
I was shocked at what she said, not only at the words, but the look in her eyes. It was as if we’d both sliced through all the layers of masquerade for just an instant, revealing a ghastly and irrefutable truth.
She relaxed her grip almost immediately, settling back into the cushions, perfectly placid once more.
My doctor issued a deep sigh of impatience.
I’ve tried, of late, to arrive at a definition of madness. To know its color and form, to understand the guises it takes when it takes one’s hand and leads one, guileless, toward its tricks and traps. But there are many missteps for the unwary.
For while we safely promenade the tunnels of this plastic shell, the ocean beyond teems and broils with a million tiny deaths. And the portals we fashion to look into the dark, show us only our own faces, white as maggots, rippling in the weeds. A legion of untold, routine mortalities, strangers all to the sun.
So, my question, Doctor, is:
How is one supposed to ever truly know oneself?
“Well, Mr. Freeman. I’ve made a very careful evaluation of your state of mind over the last two appointments you’ve had here….”
For God’s sake, man…
“And while I’m not convinced that you are suffering from any recognizable paranoid delusion…”
…can’t you see I’m dying down here?
…I’m quite certain that the impairment to your concentration and rational thinking is of a sufficient order to make your continued employment here unsound, from a safety point of view.”
“Based on this finding, Mr. Freeman, I am empowered by the Company to forthwith release you from your contract. With a full settlement package.”
He delivered the judgment in a weary, monotone voice, but his pronouncement drained me of whatever energy held me upright. I could have leapt over the desk and kissed him. But that would have been the sane thing to do.
“Oh,” I said. “Okay. If you think that’s the best thing.”
I signed all the forms, ended the pact, dreaming all the while of a cool, unprocessed breeze and two bright red moons. A month of graded depressurization and I’d be topside again. The Universe had just morphed.
Korvac had left when I emerged from the consulting room. But it wasn’t like I cared anymore.
I was already swimming up to the light again.
I buzzed Simmons almost immediately, and we met in his apartment, and celebrated over an ancient flask of single malt whisky, laughing and joking until past midnight. And when I finally staggered from his room, it was with some sorrow that I realized that the sight of a door with Simmons’ name and number on it would very soon be a thing of the past.
And I dreamed that night. A rhapsody of color and light, wherein the Universe folded into thin, iridescent ribbons, allowing me to pull myself, hand over hand, through a great and dark void. I saw my mother and my father, beckoning me toward them; I dreamed that I lay my head in Zarah’s lap, and that she told me that I needn’t worry again.
And Korvac. I dreamed of her too. Garbed in sackcloth, like a religious penitent, journeying through the dust storms of Kandos, constantly gazing skyward, ever searching.
I awoke in a burst of cold sweat, my forearms tingling, heart racing. Your best hope, she had said to me. But why?
Something was terribly wrong. The Company hadn’t contested my claim at all. They were just happy to see me gone.
I pulled on my tunic and left the bedchamber, my mind racing. Perhaps I was being paranoid again, but I needed to know. I had to find out just who Korvac was.
By our rig’s timekeeping, it was three in the morning. Crew manned the drill shafts all round the clock, but admin staff would be scarce at this time. It was my intention to gain access to the records office using a card key of Zarah’s that I’d cloned once, when I’d suspected her of seeing someone else.
Being paranoid had its occasional benefits.
I made sure the office was empty before I swiped the key card through. Normally, the room was a hive of bustle, both human and machine; now it was a cold blue tomb, echoes waiting to pounce from every corner. The record files were contained in cylindrical vaults, row upon row of discs containing all relevant personnel information; rank, tax status, medical history, criminal indictments, everything the Company needed to know. Or thought it should know.
It hurt me that locating Korvac’s disc in the second vault was so easy. Painful because there was no way Zarah could not have known of the file. I couldn’t decide whether it had been a deliberate deceit by her, or just apathy. The wound was deep either way.
There was a security code on Zarah’s console, when I loaded the disc. 213232. The date she had arrived at the rig, and her age. Even if I hadn’t seen her key it in so many times, it wouldn’t have taken too long to work out.
The name PENELOPE KORVAC flashed up on screen, along with her other vital stats, age, marital status, company employment history.
I didn’t have to scroll very far to see her profession:
I suppose the notion had entered my mind, but I’d never allowed it enough time to unseat all the ideals that had kept me going; hope, belief in my own tenacity, a faith in some sort of future. Now, as I read, I felt each of these had drifted clear of me, sinking inexorably beyond reach.
PRIMARY VOCATIONAL TRAINING: PSYCHOLOGY COUNSELOR,
SPECIALIZING TREATMENT AND CARE,
TERMINALLY ILL PATIENTS
The tides still rolled far above, all the satellite worlds in the Universe held to their orbits, and each and every comet that traveled the cosmos, still flew true.
But everything had changed.
And all I could do was sit on the floor, knees huddled up to my chin, and tremble. A child lost in the dark.
The ‘summons’ came through the following morning — a mandatory interview with the Company’s medical board. So they could tell me what I already knew.
In truth, I was beyond caring what diplomatic protocols concerned them. It didn’t matter anymore. The only reason I went was because I had nowhere else to go, no one else to speak to. I simply drifted to the appointment, navigating the tunnels and lifts like a corporeal being, condemned to the same weary travail.
In the event, they had little to inform me, and even less to give me any cheer. I was the condemned man, before a jury of my peers, obliged to hear their sentence.
There’s a new strain of the Ecluvian.
Acting more slowly.
Not producing the same symptoms.
We had to be sure.
We’re very sorry.
They had tested thirty-six individuals. Two of us had tested positive. Only two.
I asked them how long they thought I had, and they told me they didn’t know. Perhaps three years. Perhaps three months. There were variables to consider, outside factors.
“And what about Doctor Korvac?” I asked them. “Why couldn’t you have told me? You must have known by then.”
Korvac’s name provoked a flurry of whispers amongst the panel. In the end, one of their number simply said: “Doctor Korvac’s status is still being monitored. She still carries the virus.”
If the hull of the rig had split apart at that moment, and sea water come raging into the room, I could not have been more shocked.
There were no Bridges.
There had been no counseling.
I hadn’t read her file far enough. Former Company psychologist, Doctor Penelope Korvac, was quite insane.
“Thank you again for attending, Mr. Freeman.”
We really are very sorry.
I gathered my things the same afternoon. Tidied more than gathered, there were so few. Just a few books, some clothes, discs from my family. I knew it would only be a day or two before I was authorized for transfer topside — the rig was far too small for surplus dwellers.
I’d decided not to tell Simmons. He’d remember me simply as the affable butt of his wisecracking, his hypochondriac drinking partner. Knowing I had the bug would just drag him down; there was no need.
Zarah was different. Some things had to be settled. For posterity’s sake.
I went to her apartment late in the afternoon, after her shift had finished. Not knowing what I wanted to say, or what I wanted her to say to me, just knowing it was something I had to do.
As it turned out, I arrived just as she’d returned from work, the door to her room still open, her Company tunic thrown untidily on her bunk. When she saw me standing in the doorway, she immediately froze, quickly assessing just how much of a threat I might pose. When I managed a weak smile, the nervousness visibly dissipated.
“Hi,” I said. “How’s it going?”
“Okay,” she mumbled. “Fine.”
“I just came to say goodbye.”
“They’re shipping you out already?”
“Disturbed and diseased. Wouldn’t you?”
She looked at the ground, the walls, anything but me.
“How long had you known that I tested positive for the new strain?”
“A few weeks. No more than that.”
A short silence passed between us.
“There’s just one thing I have to know,” I told her. “Before I go.”
She nodded mutely.
“Was it because of the illness that you stayed away from me?”
She shook her head almost imperceptibly, perhaps unwilling to consolidate the hurt. Until she finally, reluctantly, whispered, “No. It was nothing to do with the illness.”
My guiding light. My calm at the eye of the storm
“Thank you,” I said. “For being honest with me.”
I wanted her warmth so badly, wanted her arms around me, wanted the consolation of her tears. But she had nothing to give.
“Take care,” I said, turning to leave. “Look after yourself.”
I heard her murmur, ‘You too’. But it was a sentiment of no more value than an echo. And I was already walking away.
I’d always thought of myself as a stoic person, resolute in the maw of adversity. But that’s because I never believed I’d be called to the test. Now I found myself completely alone, on a precipice from which there was no route but down, into the abyss. And it terrified me so completely that I hardly knew what to do.
I found myself drifting toward the conservatory, a large domed viewing room in sterile white, with an array of hanging plants for home comforts. Sometimes, in the spring, clusters of bright red weed would drift down from the surface, creating bright streamers in the sea above the viewing dome. Now, it was a simply an ocean of shadows.
I didn’t even see him when I first walked in, but it made sense; he seemed to have a fascination for the depths we inhabited. He was sat on the far side of the room, gazing upward through the plastic screens.
Doctor Korvac’s husband.
He didn’t see me at first, and when he did, he simply looked away. Perhaps because he was just another outcast, hopelessly estranged from reason.
I walked over and sat near to him. “How’s Mrs. Korvac,” I asked him. “Your wife.”
He fixed me with a deadbolt stare and then snorted in amusement. “She’s not my wife. We’re just friends. Traveling together.”
It figured. “So where did you meet?”
“On Kandos.” He looked upward again. “When we found the Bridges.”
He said the words so calmly, and yet each and every syllable was a gear that turned the world so fast that it made me dizzy.
I suddenly wanted to grab him and shake free every iota of truth. “You found the Bridges?”
“We found them together. She came to Kandos because she was ill. She picked up a bug on a rig like this one — it was eating away her mind. She wanted to see the Bridges before she died. I was with a party of merchants, but they were leaving and I wanted to stay. So we hooked up.”
“You really found them?”
“They weren’t like we’d heard — just a rock formation in the desert that looked like four bridges crossing each other. But then something weird happened. It was like all the light in the desert collected and concentrated on that one place. Like being in the middle of an energy storm. But perfectly calm, y’know?”
“How ill was she?”
“She was pretty much beyond help even when I met her. She’d tried not to lose her mind, pushing herself, testing herself all the time. But it was too late.”
I hardly dared ask the question. “The illness stopped after the Bridges, didn’t it? It didn’t get any worse.”
He nodded. “That’s why she came here, where you got research on the bug. To find out why. To tell others.”
To tell me. Deep in the grip of her own imagination, she had surfaced just long enough to try and help me.
I could barely dam the swell of emotion I suddenly felt for this woman who had faced her darkest demons.
“Where is she now?”
“Probably sleeping. She sleeps a lot. I think she likes to dream about the Bridges.”
Of course. She would go back to Kandos. To find herself again. To be saved.
I knew I would probably never see Penelope Korvac again.
“When you see her,” I asked him, “would you thank her for me? For coming here. For telling me her story.”
And he didn’t shy away when I embraced him. Perhaps because he understood that, at that moment, he was Korvac and Zarah, that he was Simmons, and my mother and father, and everybody in my life who had ever brought me close and given me hope.
I’ll tell her, he said.
And he made it a promise.
Of the five of us journeying topside in this submersible, three of us have new contracts up on the atolls. Myself and one other crewmember have been sectioned and given disability pay-offs. Only I — as far as I know — carry a fatal illness.
The submersible will dock with a way station soon, where we’ll be greeted and led to de-pressurization tanks. And I’m wondering if the nurses will be able to tell who we are just by looking at us, by studying our expressions, our body language, the way we speak.
And whether those things will betray my choice, the choice that Penelope Korvac, an insane woman deep beneath the waves, gifted to me: The fraternity of perseverance. The fellowship of faith. The brotherhood of blind hope.
I’m going to Kandos.
To find the Four Bridges.
Wish me luck.