You know, I swore I wouldn’t do this, I really did. Australian SF is such a small world. There are so few of us regularly pushing the plough. I don’t want to piss off anyone, don’t want to create enemies or hatreds. I decided early in the piece: if I was going to read books for food I would steer clear of negative reviews, particularly of works by people who could conceivably stalk me through the corridors of a Con one day, holding a copy of my review in one hand and a very large steak knife in the other…
Sigh. Sometimes it can’t be helped. Sometimes you find yourself with a rapidly approaching deadline, only one book one the shelf, and a heart that sinks further the more you read…
Traci Harding’s Book Of Dreams is not so much a curate’s egg of a book as a curate’s scrambled egg. The central idea is a good one: a young man must embark on a journey of self-discovery through his interior landscape in order to discover his heritage, and use that self-knowledge to save the land to which he is inextricably linked. It’s just that the writing is so clumsy, the characters so stereotypical and one-dimensional, and the events recorded so dependant upon coincidence after coincidence that it’s not very long at all before the suspension of disbelief is shattered and all that is left is a growing sense of frustration at seeing such a good idea wasted.
To top it off, once you do get to the denouement it is almost quite literally ‘Then he woke up and it was all a dream’, followed by such a rushed and patchy epilogue that it is impossible to believe it anything other than a hasty attempt to cover up all the obvious mistakes dotted through the book, as if it was too late in the publishing process to insist on any more edits, and a big fat band-aid was the only solution. It’s hard to believe a book conceived in such a way was not given the benefit of a 6-month pause, a strict editor, and a damn good final edit before making it into final print.
However, there was one loophole, I thought. The book details the adventures of a mainly young cast of characters, and much of its language and mindset is that of a person younger than my crusty 32 years. Maybe the faults lie not with the book. Maybe it’s me. Maybe I’m looking at it from the wrong point of view. There’s a possibility that this book is aimed at a more youthful audience, at kids, to be not-very-precise. So I found one, and forced him to read the thing (actually, he chose to read it one night when we were having some reading time, but it sounds more fun if I tell it this way) What did he think? Well, step forward, guest reviewer Blake Triffitt:
“It was quite interesting, but most of it was pretty boring. A small weird creature is guarding this parcel, and when the hero Kyle goes to pick up the parcel the creature runs away. Up until then it was interesting. It just became boring after that. The little creature runs away and doesn’t tell him anything, and I thought finding out would be interesting, but it wasn’t. The thing that made me pick up the Book of Dreams was the title, because it sounded like it could be exciting. The characters were boring except Kyle. He was better than the others because he saw the tiny small creatures.”
So what do you do with a book that’s too badly written for adults and simply too boring to sustain the interests of the younger audience? Hope for better next time? There are too many books in the world, too many writers I haven’t yet read. Onwards and upwards, fair reader, and maybe next month I’ll be able to report once more from the sunny side of the street.
From the Old Shelf
So this month I drew down Slippage, the 1998 short story collection from Harlan Ellison. It’s a solid collection, with the usual highly-personalized and interesting introduction by Ellison himself, but these days there seems to be something missing from Ellison’s fiction. It might seem hard to kick out at a guy who’s almost 70 and who has provided the genre with an awful lot of highlights, but there’s nothing in here that reaches the glorious heights of “Shatterday” or “The Beast That Shouted Love At The Heart Of The World” or Ellison’s best collections of the late 60’s and 70’s. Nevertheless, this is still a damn good collection of tales and had they been produced by someone without Ellison’s pedigree it would be considered an accurate summation of their talent.
Karin Lowachee’s Burndive, the second book in her Hub universe has just arrived on bookshelves this month. Ideomancer editor Marsha Sisolak caught up with Lowachee to pose questions about her writing just before she takes off for the World Fantasy Convention.
Marsha Sisolak : How has your life changed since winning the Warner Aspect first novel contest?
Karin Lowachee : The biggest change is now I have a publisher who is interested in my work so a lot of the stress (not all, but a lot of it) has decreased — you know, the stress of “needing to get published because I want to do this for a living.” I don’t take it for granted, however. Anything can happen and before I know it, I can be back to square one. I try to keep grounded by supporting a healthy pessimism.
Lowachee fact: She chose writing over her art as a means of expressing herself because writing is still fun even when she’s forced to do it, and she knew that she could write under the gun and not totally frustrate herself.
MS : As a writer, what kinds of things do you do to flesh out your characters? How do you make them come alive for you?
KL : It’s an organic process for me. I don’t sit with a sheet of paper (or a computer file) and list characteristics of my people. It’s very much like meeting people in real life. You start to know a little bit, usually what they look like first, and then you get information in weird and wonderful ways. Lateral information. You can know right off some intense things that has gone on in their lives, first, or you can start with the trivial things. Sometimes I do backtrack, because as I get to know them better, some early “preconceived notions” turn out to be false. Like in real life.
On a more literal level, sometimes I see actors who evoke that character (in more than just looks), and it’s helpful to watch them. Things become more three dimensional when you have a live “model” to be inspired from. You see twitches and mannerisms a lot easier. I take from that too. But only if someone inspires me. I don’t necessarily go looking. Actors just jump out at me sometimes in a weird coincidental kind of way.
Lowachee fact: Her earliest memory is in Guyana at nine months, on a dirt road, when her mum handed her over to her great-aunt, and she was very unhappy about it.
MS : In your fiction, you’re not afraid to tackle some tough issues like estrangement and alienation. What other issues would you like to address in the future?
KL : A specific one that jumps to mind immediately is the shades of insanity vs. sanity. I don’t quite think I’m “done” with the issues that I’m currently writing about, though. I think there’s a lot more I’d like to say about the nature of family and love and loyalty. The nature of abuse and exploitation. The issues of self-esteem. Human issues; the way people interrelate and all of the many, many complications in that. The obsession with celebrity was really interesting to tackle and I’m not sure I’m finished with that yet. I was just talking to a friend of mine about the “youth vibe” in fiction; about how difficult it is to not just depict a true youth or pop culture, but to get the vibe right beyond just slang vocabulary. I’m interested in that on a social level. I think a lot of that is probably bleeding through in my SF.
Lowachee fact: She’d ideally love a tiger or a wolf for a pet, and more prosaically, a horse and the regular dog and cat. And a bird. She saw the cutest bat once. Okay, she’d like a zoo. Minus the bug exhibit.
MS : Do you have plans to continue writing books in this universe? Are there any other universes you want to explore?
KL : I will continue to write in this universe for a least one more novel. Then I will probably take a break and explore other stories. But I’ll come back to this universe at some point as the muse strikes me. I love the characters too much.
But I never want to go past my expiration date with the universe. I’m pretty adamant about not doing that. I won’t write a story in the Warchild universe if I think something good can’t be added to the world. I don’t plan on ever backpedaling with my fiction. It’s about becoming a better writer. I don’t think standing still with your writing will allow you to get better.
MS : And do you have another universe to explore?
KL : Yeah. Kernals of ideas, some that are a bit beyond kernal. But none that are so far as fleshed out in my mind as this one. This one, so far, is Home. But definitely…I want to go to other places. I have other places to go to, not necessarily in science fiction. I hope my readers follow! But, even if they don’t, I can’t write for them completely. If I get bored with my own work…well, I don’t want that to ever happen.
When asked, “Who’s hotter, Ioan or Jared?” : One cannot judge such things. I might be biased because I’ve met Jared. If you can arrange for me to meet Ioan, then I can make a more informed decision.
MS : Who are some of your favorite speculative fiction authors? What do you hope to emulate about them?
KL : It’s probably no surprise that I love CJ Cherryh. She was one of the first, if not the first, “adult” SF writer I got into in a serious way. So her influence is felt. Others are Maureen F. McHugh, Guy Gavriel Kay, Katharine Kerr. A lot of writers I admire aren’t published yet. <g> As for what I hope to emulate in them? It varies. I actually would rather learn by osmosis, so I don’t analyse things too closely. That, and sometimes I have to not read my favorite authors because I’m too afraid my osmosis will pick up their voice unconsciously, and that would just be irritating to me. But obviously things like point of view, characterization, world-building…these are things that I’m constantly learning. And learning quicker by trying to do it in my own work. Not just by reading. Reading helps a lot, obviously, but sometimes it can be intrusive. I actually read more nonfiction when I write. Nonfiction and fiction not in the SF genre.
Lowachee fact: Karin spent nine months in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, inside the Arctic Circle and tried the usual cliché touristy things: spent time in an iglu and ate raw caribou and beluga.
MS : What’s your favorite comment to receive from a fan?
KL : They all are quite pleasantly surprising, as mushy as that sounds. The ones that make me smile a lot are when they accuse me of causing much sleepless nights because they couldn’t put the book down, or when they’ve read it cover-to-cover quite a few times, and all within a week or something. I mean, because *I* rarely do that. To have someone say they do that with your own book shows a level of love for the story that is really amazing to me. I love the artwork that they’ve done. If your work inspires people to be creative in their own personal way — that’s truly a compliment. Readers who are really affected by the book on an emotional level, in very personal ways — that was something I couldn’t predict. The response from readers has been the most fun, the most gratifying and energizing part of being published. It’s the thing you can’t anticipate. Writing is so solitary, your stories are in your own head for so long, and then it’s just between you and some friends or you and your editor; and then it’s put out to the wider world and perfect strangers respond to it in unexpected ways…and it shifts your reality a bit. In a good way.
Lowachee fact: She’d like to visit Japan and go crazy on sushi and anime.
MS : While Burndive has been out in bookstores for less than a month, eager readers want to know how long they have to wait for the third novel in the Hub universe. Have you an estimate? Where are you in the writing right now?
KL : I’m about 130+ pages into the book (manuscript format). There is a bit of a ways to go, but I can be a fast writer if I want. I predict this book will be the longest, but you never know. With any luck I’d like to see it out in a year, but that’s up to the publisher. And when I finish it.
MS : All I can say is that she can’t finish it soon enough for this reader.
Karin Lowachee’s saga of Hub politics and intrigue, continues the spiraling themes of estrangement and confrontation compounded by secret motivations where her first novel, Warchild, began.
Ryan Azarcon is a teenager in the midst of a struggle — separating himself from the adults around him: Mom Lau, Austro’s senior public affairs officer; Cairo, his father, a renowned starship captain with the reputation of choosing personal goals over those of the Hub admiralty; and his only consistent male role model and bodyguard, Sid, who complicates matters by sleeping with Ryan’s mother.
Ryan is not your typical protagonist. He’s not the easiest character to empathize with. He comes from a privileged background with money to provide his latest whim and is considered the “Hot #1 Bachelor” on Austro station. Plus, he’s turned to sailing on Silver, the drug of choice among users, and avoiding all that contributes to his unhappiness, including memories of an attack he witnessed on an embassy in Hong Kong. When his father’s actions trigger an assassination attempt on Ryan at a dance club, blowing holes in his protective avoidance, his father, whom he’s only seen thrice before, places him in protective custody — on Cairo’s starship, Macedon. Ryan, resentful, unwillingly navigates the emotional storm between himself and his father, discovering secrets that threaten a precarious peace process between the Hub, the striviirc-na, and the symps, the human sympathizers with the alien strits.
The next step for Ryan is to learn to accept his father, and that proves far more difficult for him than learning to deal with a symp like Jos Musey. It isn’t until another assassination forces their return to Austro and Ryan is kidnapped that he finally matures enough to see what needs to be done — both for his own healing and that of his father.
Lowachee provides a compelling read. She hooked me in the opening pages and kept that need to find out what happens next alive until I reached the end. She doesn’t use traditional chapters to divide her story, but relies on segmenting the tale into three sections. This contributes to the smooth story telling and heightens the reader’s inability to put the book down anywhere in the middle. The character-driven tale in a realistic and fully developed setting with a complex plotline does the rest.
If the author has any weaknesses, I had a hard time spotting them. I grew impatient at one point with a bit of description that pulled me away from the story and wondered how her editor let it slide past, so pacing is the only thing I can vaguely point to, although I couldn’t find that segment when I looked for it. Nevertheless, her character development, world building, and use of conflict on multiple levels (within self, between individuals, and societal), more than make up for any hidden flaws.
While reading her first book, Warchild, will give you a complete background to the political impetus guiding her trilogy, this second book will stand on its own. My recommendation is to read both in order. Lowachee does take risks in both books — with the first, she begins in second person present tense, which can be disconcerting for the reader, then switches; in this one she uses a difficult point-of-view character — and she succeeds with both. It’s plain to see why the judges in Warner Aspect’s First Novel Contest chose her first novel above all other competitors, and, based on that one and Burndive, why they were right to do so. This is a book you can’t afford to miss.
Meanwhile, I’m counting the months until her third book is finished and out in print. I’ve started a support group for my son and a friend of his. There’s always room for a few more members.
Mr. Trubel, how would you like to be immortal?”
Thirty at the most, clean-cut, clean-shaven, nervously twisting the lower button of his suit jacket between his thumb and forefinger, the young man sitting on Ed Trubel’s living room couch had looked as earnest as they come, until he asked that question. Conditioned by decades of dealing with marketers of all sorts, Ed’s guard went up without conscious effort.
“Just what are you selling, sir?”
“The name’s Henry Banks, and I’m not selling anything,” replied the young man.
“I am ninety-six years old, Mr. Banks, so I know a sales pitch when I hear one.”
“Well, Mr. Trubel,” said Banks with a shrug, “I really don’t want to sell you anything. It’s actually the other way around — I want to buy something you have.”
“How’s that?” asked Ed, trying in vain to think of anything he owned that anyone else might want to buy.
“I want to buy your memories.”
“Excuse me?” said Ed, noting with surprise that he could still be surprised.
“I’m with a company called Mnemos; you may have seen some of our ads.” Banks waited for a response from Ed; when none came he continued. “We have developed a process to record and store people’s memories so that others may view them at a later time. We’re trying to build a complete archive of memories encompassing all aspects of life, and you, Mr. Trubel have had certain experiences that are pretty much unique.”
“You mean I’ve been in space,” said Ed after a split-second’s thought.
“That’s right. And it doesn’t look like they’ll be sending anyone else up there for a long time…”
The veil of decades disappeared and memories flooded Ed’s mind. Seeing the Odyssey explode in a ball of flame; standing at her crew’s funeral; sitting in a lounge with the other astronauts and watching the President announce the end of manned spaceflight; leaving space camp for the final time, knowing that everything he’d devoted his life to was gone.
Banks’s voice brought Ed back to reality. The pain receded and dulled, becoming only a vague, disembodied ache.
“Yes…you were saying?”
“Since they aren’t planning to send anyone else into space, it’s all the more important that we record your memories of being up there, so that all of humanity can relive your experiences.”
“So that’s it, is it? You want to store my memories of being in space so that anyone who wants to can just, what, plug himself into some machine and know what it felt like to be up there?”
“Something like that.”
“I don’t think that’s possible, Mr. Banks,” said Ed after a pause. “Being in space is like nothing else in the world. You might be able to record what I remember seeing or hearing, but there’s just no way you can record how it felt; the feeling’s just too big, too different. You can’t possibly know what it was like without actually being up there.”
“Mr. Trubel,” said Banks, smiling, “I can’t tell you how many times people have told me that our equipment couldn’t possibly do their memories justice. And you know what? They were wrong every time. We’d record their memories and then let them experience the recording, and they couldn’t tell it apart from the genuine memory. There is no sensation that human beings can experience that we can’t record and reproduce.”
He paused for a moment, letting his words sink in.
“Think about it, Mr. Trubel. The whole world seeing space through your eyes, reliving your experiences, for the rest of history. And not simply reliving, no, I’m talking about your memories becoming indistinguishable from their own. It really is a kind of immortality I’m offering you, don’t you think?”
“I suppose it is,” said Ed. Too bad I won’t be around to enjoy it.
“So how about it, Mr. Trubel?” said Banks. “Will you allow us to record your memories of space?”
He looked at Ed, his eyebrows raised expectantly, his whole body tense in anticipation of Ed’s answer. An old salesman’s trick, and yet Ed caught himself falling for it, and thought, this kid’s good.
“You said you wanted to buy my memories,” said Ed. “How much are you expecting to pay?”
Banks straightened up, relaxed.
“Well, I believe that the standard rate is one thousand dollars,” he said with a half-smile, then, after a pause, “but, given the unique nature of your memories, I think we could go as high as three thousand.”
Two months’ pension, thought Ed. It certainly was a good price. And yet, a part of him found the whole idea unsettling, even disturbing. Perhaps it was just the suddenness of it all, but Ed knew better than to ignore such feelings.
“Is it all right if I think about it for a few days?” he asked.
“Of course, Mr. Trubel, take as much time as you want. I realize that what I’m asking is very unusual, but, once you think it over, I think you’ll find that there really are no drawbacks.” Banks reached into his jacket pocket and took out a contact card. “Please don’t hesitate to give me a call if you have any further questions,” he said, handing Ed his card.
Ed saw Banks out and then returned to his living room. He flipped a switch, and a panel in one of the walls slid aside, revealing Ed’s study, which housed a small shrine to man’s conquest of space. Shelves with models of space vessels from Sputnik I to the ill-fated Odyssey, walls lined with dozens of photographs, holograms, and posters of astronauts and ships, a small display case with several moon rocks and Mars rocks, and a thick folder with perhaps four dozen newspaper clippings — all that remained of the first thirty-one years of Ed’s life.
Ed remembered the days, over half a century earlier, when it seemed that mankind was only a few years away from establishing a permanent foothold in space. But the space program was expensive, and its tangible benefits few. It was, according to its opponents, an inefficient use of the taxpayers’ money. Little by little, the opposition directed resources away from the space program, waiting for an opportunity to strike the final blow. And so when the Odyssey went up in smoke, so did the space program’s future. The program was quickly and quietly dismantled, its constituents sold off to industry. Now, the space program amounted to improving communications satellites and growing various exotic materials in the zero-gravity environment of space.
But if Banks’s claims about recorded memories were true, Ed could make it possible for people to authentically experience being in space without having to go there. Space without a space program! Without the endless simulations and training exercises, without the waiting, without the ever-present fear of something going wrong, without the tears when something did. If the technology had been around when Ed was young, perhaps he wouldn’t have had to…
Suddenly, Ed knew exactly why he had been reluctant to agree to Banks’s offer. If recorded memories of being in space had existed seven decades earlier, he would never have joined the space program. Going into space simply wouldn’t have been worth the sacrifices if he could have experienced it through someone else’s memories. If he agreed to record his memories for Mnemos, he’d be doing more damage to the space program than financial troubles ever could; he’d be undermining the main reason for its existence. No one would want to go into space if they could bring space into their living room for the tiniest fraction of the cost. Mankind would remain forever earthbound, content with second-hand memories of spaceflight, like a hatchling that dreams that it is an eagle soaring high but never stretches its wings to discover that it is itself an eagle. In his time, Ed had seen humanity give up too many of its dreams for the sake of convenience, and he could not aid in the destruction of another.
Overwhelmed by the weight of the realization, Ed sat down. His gaze fell on an old photograph standing on the table before him, and froze there. It was a photo of the crew from his first mission — himself, Jim Lamming, who was his mentor in those days, and Luca Sciarelli, whose jokester demeanor belied an uncompromising perfectionism. Seeing the photo, Ed was struck by the thought that simply refusing Mnemos was not enough. If Mnemos had come to him, surely they’d go to the other ex-astronauts. He had to make sure none of them would cooperate.
Slowly and methodically, Ed went through his old papers, looking for the names of those who had been in space. When he was done, he fished out his old wireless computer, which he hadn’t used in months. Thankfully, it still worked. He accessed the appropriate archive database and compared his personal list with the official records going back to ten years before his own first spaceflight. Ed had lost touch with most of the other astronauts very soon after leaving the space program; but now, seeing their names again brought back a myriad of associations, and it required all of Ed’s concentration to keep from lapsing into a daydream of reminiscences. It took him several hours, but Ed finally put together a complete list of everyone who had been in space in the last ten years of the program.
Looking over the list of names before him, he was seized by a wave of panic — what if he hadn’t gone back far enough? What if there was some hundred-and-fifteen-year-old man out there who was in space twenty years before him?
There was only one way to make sure. Ed reconnected to the archive and searched through the records for all the astronauts going back one hundred years, or thirty-three years before his own first flight. The final list had one hundred and seventy-four names, and by the time he was satisfied that his list was complete, it was past midnight.
Ed was exhausted, but he couldn’t permit himself to rest. He accessed the census records, and looked up every one of the names on his list. He was looking for contact information so that he could get in touch with them before Mnemos did, but, instead, one after the other, the names on his list acquired dates of death to go with them. When he’d gone through about half the names without finding anyone who was still alive, a sneaking suspicion crept into Ed’s mind, barely on the edge of awareness. He didn’t allow it to distract him, and kept searching through the archives.
By the time Ed was done, it was morning, but he had learned what he needed to. He checked over the list three times to make sure, and finally accepted the fact that every name on the list was followed by a date of death. Time had conspired with their aging bodies and, one by one, all the men and women who had been his surrogate family in the microcosm of the space program had succumbed to one ailment or another. Unable to stay awake any longer, Ed fell asleep at his desk.
When he awoke, it was dark outside. Disoriented, Ed straightened up too quickly and let out a moan as surges of pain shot through his shoulders, neck and back. As the pain receded, awareness came, and with it a profound sadness. Ed was humanity’s only remaining spacefarer, the last member of a priesthood whose god was dead.
Ed closed his eyes and conjured up the memories of his first space mission. He recalled the anxiety before takeoff, the anticipation during the ascent, and the immense feeling of wonder that seized him when he looked down at earth for the first time. He conversed with his crewmates, Jim and Luca, dimly aware that they were now dead. Step by step, he called up the events of his mission, trying his hardest to remember every detail, every aspect. He was in the middle of a spacewalk when the stars started spinning about him, pulsing and dilating, faster and faster and faster, until he was surrounded on all sides by brilliant, blinding, unbearable light. Suddenly and without warning, the light went out, and Ed Trubel collapsed at his desk, dead.
Henry Banks took off the playback helmet, removed the mnemoviewer electrodes, unstrapped himself from the immersion seat, and shook off the disorientation that accompanied the end of the playback session.
“Find anything useful?” asked Jeffries, the technician in charge of the Postmortem Memory Retrieval System.
Banks looked over at a chamber in the center of the room that contained Ed Trubel’s brain. Since Trubel had been his case, Banks was the one to relive his last memories, the ones whose mental signature was strong enough to be detectable for several days after death. The retrieval system had worked perfectly; Ed Trubel’s final memories were now indistinguishable from Banks’s own. And with those memories, Banks had inherited Trubel’s burden. Banks was the last astronaut.
“Well?” said Jeffries impatiently. “Anything we can use?”
Banks slowly turned his gaze to Jeffries, then past him, out the lab’s window, at the star-studded velvet of the night sky that he had once made his own. He felt his shoulder muscles flex of their own accord and looked down at wings he didn’t have.
“Nah,” he finally said. “There’s nothing in there worth salvaging. Too bad; I bet the old man could have really shown us something.”
GaChaltz was wearing white: a white rayon jumpsuit encrusted with silver rhinestones; white, fuzzy house slippers; and a white train pinned to the crown of her head. The train cascaded down her wide, yellow face like a miniature waterfall and formed a frothy mound in her lap.
From the driver’s side of the parked aircar, I could make out four blue eyes sliding around like over-sized marbles beneath the heavy lace, and I wondered how well she could see. Did she realize her train was on backwards? Probably not, but more than likely she didn’t care. Though the Xunians liked to mimic our quaint Earth customs, they rarely paid enough attention to detail, their attempts sometimes bordering on the ludicrous.
GaChaltz’s attire might raise a few eyebrows where we were headed, but it wasn’t anything I couldn’t explain away. I looked just as ridiculous in my kelly-green acetate bridesmaid dress with the 3/4 length sleeves, but she had picked it out for me. I would’ve preferred something less gaudy, but this was her day, and you always follow the bride’s wishes.
Anyway, her family was paying for it. Paying for it big.
I kicked off the matching pumps; they fell to the floorboard, the shoes pinched like the dickens, and I rubbed one foot over the other, swearing I’d never wear closed-toe heels again.
My personal alarm went off, 7:40 AM blinking in the right-hand corner of my vision, and I turned it off with the blink of an eye, thinking how easily their technology had been incorporated into ours — even the aircar was a product of their gifts and our ingenuity.
Not gifts, I corrected myself, payment for services rendered.
I wondered what could be keeping Dimitri. GaChaltz and I had been waiting in the empty parking lot of the Six Flags Theme Park for over an hour; the church service was scheduled for 8:30 AM, and he was running late with the grooms. The park had officially closed at midnight, but the managers had kept it open exclusively for the Xunian males.
GaChaltz’s alarm must have been synchronized with mine. She leaned forward, peering through the windshield of the aircar, and muttered to herself. Though I only caught a few words — my feminine Xunian wasn’t great but it was passable — I knew they weren’t very nice.
“Patience,” I said and gave GaChaltz’s banana-colored arm a squeeze, hoping she’d understand my all-too-human gesture, “They’ll be out soon. We’ve still got plenty of time.”
She heaved herself back into the seat, slapped her flat three-fingered hands on the dash, and clicked her teeth twice, the Xunian equivalent of a nervous sigh. Accessing her biostats through my personal interface, I compared them to my medical database — everything seemed normal.
A good thing. The fertility treatments she’d undergone the night before weren’t enough to kick her reproductive system into high gear. They only set the stage. She needed an emotional catalyst. Fear was what she needed and the Xunian females couldn’t do it themselves. They were too cautious and over-protective (maybe even too unimaginative) to do it themselves, and they didn’t trust the Xunian males — they were too carefree.
For some reason the Xunian females trusted us, and we had discovered a way to provide it — safely and easily.
I rummaged around in my purse, found a mild narcotic stick, and handed it to her. Without pushing the lace train aside, she snapped the end off the stick and popped it in her mouth.
“I needed that, Corinne,” she said, her voice trilling through a two octave range.
Wedding day jitters? I thought. More likely the rush of hormones. It must be hell at her age.
As if on cue, Dimitri strolled out of the theme park entrance, toting the youngest of the grooms on his hip, toddler-style, while the other four tagged along behind him. The tallest of the five barely reached his shoulders.
The grooms (Dimitri too, to my surprise) were dressed identically: no shirts, black, crushed-velvet tuxedo jackets, silver spandex biking shorts, and black leather cowboy boots. Their citron-colored skin, bright against the monochrome outfits, seemed to glow, and I was reminded of our daughter’s drawing of a night sky — a crayon yellow moon, featureless and full, rising over a black landscape. I realized Tatiana hadn’t drawn any stars in her picture and I wondered why.
When I get home I’ll ask her, I thought. I’ve been so busy with the Xunians I just haven’t had the time. I’ll make it up to her.
I rolled down the window and leaned out. “How’s it going?”
“They’re still at full throttle, and I’m running on empty. Forty-eight hours straight with these guys. I just wish they weren’t so … up all the time. I know they’re more like teenagers by our standards, but where do they get the energy?” Dimitri tried to smile, but it was a bad imitation. His shoulder-length black hair needed a comb, and he sported a five-o’clock shadow, blue-black against his pale skin. “I really need some sleep.”
“You look it, honey. Go home and get some rest. I’ll take it from here. Tatiana’s at daycare so you’ll have the apartment to yourself.” Dimitri always got the worst part of our assignments; unlike the Xunian females, the males never seemed to sleep.
“Think you can manage by yourself?” He said quietly, a look of concern on his face. The male he carried was oblivious to our conversation as he licked Dimitri’s neck with his broad, black tongue. He was probably engrossed in a highly technical problem and using Dimitri as an erotic stimulus to figure it out.
“I’ve got her with me, remember?” I answered, low enough GaChaltz couldn’t hear, knowing how rude it was in her culture for a female to discuss another female with a male. “If anybody can keep them in line, she can. She’s accustomed to handling ten times that many males. All in a day’s work for her.”
“Of course. I don’t know where my mind is. Too tired to think straight.” He shook his head as if trying to clear the cobwebs.
Dimitri loaded the grooms into the back seat, walked around to the driver’s side, and kissed me. I reached into his jacket, slipped my hand into his prosthetic pouch, and said a few words in the masculine language. They were indecent and crude words by Earth standards, but typical of Xunian males.
“Jesus, Corrine! Where’d you pick that line up?” Dimitri’s face flushed a bright scarlet.
“I have my sources,” I probably had overdone it: pressure was everything. Dimitri had a real talent for the masculine Xunian language. It was one of the reasons we were assigned to the Xunian embassy — that and the fact we were a traditional married couple, female and male, and the Xunians preferred it (although some of them thought I should have more than one husband.)
“Well, your sources have a real potty mouth.” He nodded toward GaChaltz. “She doing okay?”
“As well as can be expected, considering what she’s risking.”
“Damn shame, you know?”
“Yeah,” I said. Damn shame for them. Great opportunity for us.
Glancing over at GaChaltz, I wondered if I would do the same. Would I endanger my health, cut my lifespan by a third, and spend the next few years pushing out babies, in the hopes of producing a female heir? Perhaps. Human women had been sacrificing themselves to produce male heirs for centuries, and most of the time, they never had a choice.
“We go now, Corrine?” GaChaltz said and tapped my arm. “We do not want to be late.”
“Of course,” I said, “Go home, Dimitri. I’ll catch up with you later. GaChaltz and I have a date with a preacher.”
I had never been to southwestern Ohio and understood why now: there was absolutely nothing there. Flat, green fields of corn and ruler-straight roads rushed below us, and it seemed as if little had changed in the farming communities below. Whether by choice or circumstance, the local people lived the way their parents had, and perhaps their grandparents.
When we crested a slight ridge and the church finally came into view, I frowned, thinking I might have programmed in the wrong directions. This single-story, cinder-block building with the dirt parking lot and cow pasture out back couldn’t possibly be our destination, but as we descended, I saw the over-sized sign spelling out The First Tabernacle of Jesus Christ in bold black letters on a white background. Just below it, in smaller letters was a single line: “Welcome, X-ians.”
Not exactly the red carpet treatment, I thought as we landed near the steps of the church.
I looked at the time, noticed we were only ten minutes late, and thought I must have caught a sympathetic wind over Pennsylvania. Traffic had been light to non-existent; few people could afford an aircar. The licensing fees alone cost a small fortune — thank goodness we didn’t have to bother with them. It was one of the perks of being part of the Xunian embassy staff.
Before I could open my door, a tall, gaunt man in his mid-forties wearing a black suit and a toupee two shades darker than his natural hair hurried over to the car. I slipped on my pumps with one hand, knowing I would pay for it later.
“Mrs. Petrovich?” he said as he yanked on the door latch. He smiled broadly, displaying a set of very white and very perfect dentures.
“Reverend Cannelton, excuse me,” I answered, stepping out and trying to maneuver around him. On the trip here, the grooms had been engaged in an intense discussion, and now GaChaltz was having a hard time getting them out of the aircar.
“It’s an immense pleasure to meet you.” He grabbed my hand and shook it vigorously. “I’ve been expecting you and the Xunian ambassador. I feel so honored — ”
“GaChaltz isn’t an ambassador, Reverend. She’s a guest of the embassy. Please, I need to — ,” I said, pulling back my hand.
GaChaltz hissed, as two of the grooms, locked in an awkward embrace, tumbled out of the door. She wedged one foot between the couple, grabbed the taller one by the shoulders, and pried them apart, losing a fuzzy slipper in the process.
“Is there a problem? A family disagreement?” He frowned, and took a cautious step backward.
“Get the other one, Corrine!” GaChaltz said in Xunian.
“You could say that,” I muttered. While GaChaltz scolded one groom, I helped the other to his feet and brushed the gray dust from his jacket. His pouch was distended and bright orange: a clear sign of arousal, both intellectual and sexual. “The males can be very … passionate about their work. Don’t worry about it. It’s very normal for them.”
“Nothing like a good debate to stir things up.” Reverend Cannelton laughed nervously and fidgeted with his wedding band. He had begun to perspire, a musky aroma wafted from him, and his white collar sagged from the heat.
“You have no idea,” I mumbled to myself. It was true — he had no idea at all — but that was how the embassy wanted it. We weren’t being very fair to the good Reverend Cannelton. He thought we had come for a wedding ceremony, and though GaChaltz liked the idea of it, it wasn’t the main reason we were there. It was the sermon afterwards.
“Is he my minister?” GaChaltz said, lining up her grooms next to the aircar. She smacked one on the forearm when he tried to slip his hand into his own pouch, and I was relieved she understood public masturbation was unacceptable.
“What a lovely sound! Almost like doves cooing!” Reverend Cannelton said. “I’ve heard recordings and such, but they definitely don’t do her voice justice.”
GaChaltz pulled the train aside, focused two of her eyes on the Reverend, the other two on me, and smacked her thin lips together.
“He likes the sound of your voice,” I said in feminine Xunian, “Tell him thank you.” I knew she didn’t understand. Females didn’t make small talk with males — even those of another species.
“Thank you,” she dropped the train back into place.
I checked her biostats and noticed two climbing out of the normal range. She’d peak in the hour.
“Shall we get this started?” I turned to the Reverend.
“Uh, sure, but my wife is still getting things ready. Cecelia’s in the church right now.”
“I’m sure GaChaltz would love to meet her,” I said, hoping GaChaltz would play along.
He looked at me quizzically. “Uh, sure. I guess Cecelia wouldn’t mind — ”
“Well, what are we waiting for?” I smiled my most persuasive smile, took his arm, and steered him toward the steps.
The inside of the church was as unremarkable as the outside. I counted twelve rows of cheap veneer pews, each row able to seat about ten to fifteen people. The concrete walls needed a fresh coat of paint, the previous coat having flaked away in abstract patterns to display the gray primer underneath, and the fake stained glass in the two oblong windows on either side of the pulpit had faded to watery pastels. The only part of the church that seemed well tended was the platform: a solidly-built dais and pulpit of hard rock maple that gleamed in the filtered sunlight. Reverend Cannelton obviously hadn’t spared any expense there.
From the way Cecelia stared at us, I knew she was a little put out. She pushed a pair of cat-eyed glasses up the bridge of her nose and crossed her arms. Her muddy-colored hair wrapped endlessly around her head like a turban, and her charcoal gray, ankle-length dress had pockets.
Pockets. I couldn’t believe it.
“What seems to be the rush?” She rocked back on her heels.
“She’s just eager. You know how a new bride can be,” I said, but I didn’t think Cecelia was buying it.
“I see. I guess you won’t be staying for the sermon afterwards. It was part of the original request from the embassy, but if you’re in such a hurry — ”
“No. We must stay for sermon!” GaChaltz said, her voice almost rising beyond human hearing, “It is important!”
“Of course, we’ll stay,” I said, “After all, it’s her wedding.”
Cecelia shrugged her shoulders. “If you want. We’ll have to forget the music though. The organist isn’t here; she’s out with the flu.”
“Not a problem,” I said.
I helped GaChaltz line up the grooms, the tallest where a human groom would stand, the next as the best man, and the others as groom’s men. I took my usual place as the matron of honor.
During the vows, I monitored her biostats, which were all headed toward the red at breakneck speed. From start to finish, the whole ceremony took eleven minutes and twenty-three seconds. Not too shabby.
We took our seats in the first row. I was on the outside near the aisle, GaChaltz next, and the grooms filled in the rest of the pew. Facing us, Cecelia sat in a folding chair at the back of the dais where she could watch our every move. I didn’t like the looks of it. Not at all.
After a quick gulp from his water glass, Reverend Cannelton opened his book.
“Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, including those who pierced him. All the tribes of the earth will mourn over him. ‘I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End,’ says the Lord God.”
He started out a little rocky, I had to admit, but six minutes into it, he found his groove. His voice took on the quavering resonance typical of fire-and-brimstone preachers. The ominous verses of The Book of Revelations spilled from his mouth, and sweat beaded his upper lip and glistened on his forehead. Spittle flew as he ranted, his fist banging down like the wrath of God Himself. Damn, he was good. I hadn’t seen a performance like that in years — not since I was a young girl and Dad used to sneak me into weekend tent revivals. Mom had put a stop to them when she realized what was happening, but the revivals had already made an impression on me.
The Reverend almost made me want to believe again.
GaChaltz quaked and shivered next to me, and I gripped her hand. All of her biostats were red now. She was peaking, out of control.
When the Reverend reached the opening of the sixth seal, Gachaltz’s readings went off the scale and she collapsed, falling across the lap of the groom next to her.
“What’s happened! Is she all right?” Reverend Cannelton stumbled down from the pulpit. He upset the glass and it shattered on the dais.
The grooms had already gathered GaChaltz up and were carrying her out to the aircar. From my calculations, we had about an hour before she regained consciousness. Maybe less, if the odds were against us.
After I recovered my senses — his sermon had affected me in a very different way — I jumped up and grabbed Reverend Cannelton by the arm.
“She’s fine, Reverend. Nothing to worry about,” I said, “Your passionate delivery overwhelmed her, that’s all. Wonderful sermon. Just wonderful. You certainly have a flair for it, I must say. A real God-given talent.”
“I’m glad you think so, Mrs. Petrovich. But what about — ”
“What would be an appropriate tithe? I’m sure GaChaltz would like to recompense you. Call me later?” I slipped my business card into his hand. “We can settle on a figure. And like I said, wonderful sermon.”
I continued talking as I backed down the aisle, feeling as if I were fleeing the scene of a crime.
We didn’t make it. Less than ten minutes into the trip, GaChaltz started waking up. Very bad news. Scanning the local e-map, I found the coordinates of a motel sixteen miles away and doubled back.
After checking us into two adjoining rooms, I left GaChaltz and her entourage in one and took the other for myself.
The first thing I did was toss the pumps in the wastebasket. I’d probably fish them out later — they were the only shoes I had with me — but it felt good to do it. Then I called Dimitri on my palmpad to let him know what happened.
“Jeez, Corry, I thought you’d be home tonight. I told Tatiana you would.” He didn’t look much better than when I had seen him in the parking lot, but at least he had found the time to shave.
“Sorry, babe. Looks like I’ll be holed up here at least a day or two. You never know with these things. I’d hate to try to move her. Will you call the embassy and let them know? I don’t feel like fooling with them right now.”
I could hear Tatiana in the background, saying mommy over and over again. It almost broke my heart.
“Will do. Do you need some company later? We could catch an air shuttle out …”
Yes! I almost said it. Almost, but I knew it wouldn’t have been fair to either of them.
“No. I’ll be okay. Let me speak to Tatiana for a minute. Just to tell her good night.”
Hours later, after I stopped feeling sorry for myself, I called the Xunian embassy and requested an emergency drop shipment of food and other necessities. I gave them my location, and they said I’d have it by the end of the day. I crossed my fingers and hoped for the best.
Before I could decide what to do next, the palmpad beeped. It was Cecelia, and I wondered how she had gotten my number. Then I remembered giving the Reverend my card.
“We need to talk,” she said. There was no mistaking the tone of her voice or the hard set of her mouth. She was one very determined woman.
“About what?” I said nonchalantly.
“About the little show you and your aliens put on this morning. Where are you?”
I didn’t say anything; I just stared at her.
Her eyes focused on something in the far corner of the screen. Then she shook her head. “Oh, never mind. I already got your location from a trace route on the call. Easy as pie. See you soon.”
The screen went blank. Smart woman. Very smart.
I lay back on the bed and counted the cracks in the nicotine-stained ceiling, knowing it would be useless to do anything else.
I must have dozed off, because it seemed like only minutes later that I heard a knock. I didn’t need to take a second glance through the peephole to know who it was: the glasses and the hair gave her away — not to mention the pockets.
“I told you I’d find you,” she said, as I opened the motel door. “You think I’m stupid, don’t you? You think I wouldn’t figure out that something strange was going on.”
Far from it, Cecelia, I thought. But I was hoping you’d just let it drop.
“I didn’t think anything. I was trying to do my job.” I closed the door and motioned for her to sit down.
“No thanks. I’m not staying long,” she said and began pacing around the motel room. “The whole ceremony was just window dressing, wasn’t it? A smoke screen. The Xunians were there for the sermon. Right?”
“I said I can’t talk.” I sat down on the bed. I checked GaChaltz’s biostats again, though I really didn’t need to. I needed a distraction anyway; Cecelia was probing into uncomfortable places — places I’d thought I’d come to terms with.
“I know I’m right. You don’t have to tell me. I watched her, that GaChaltz. There was something wrong with her. It was as if the sermon terrified her. And something else. There was something … sexual about the way she acted.”
“Cecelia, you really don’t want to know,” I said. “It could ruin it for us.” I didn’t have the clearance to tell her either, but she had already guessed most of it.
“Us? Who is us?” she said and stopped pacing.
“All of us. Everyone on the planet.”
Finally, she flopped down in the chair facing me.
“Tell me. Now.”
I knew I should’ve stopped then, but I didn’t see any way out of this mess. After all, how much trouble could one woman in rural Ohio stir up? Who would listen to her? I could be risking my job, maybe my whole career, but Cecelia deserved an explanation.
I took a deep breath and smoothed the skirt of my bridesmaid dress. How I hated it: green was never my color.
“The Xunians need us. Or, more specifically, they need your husband’s services.”
“Don’t be coy. Cut to the chase.” She clenched the straps of her purse.
“Your husband’s sermon on Revelations is about the total destruction of the world. It’s Armageddon — ”
“But the Xunians aren’t Christians! You can’t tell me they believe the Holy Bible!”
“It doesn’t matter.” I leaned forward and held my hands out. “Your husband believes. He’s sincere when he quotes scripture, and the Xunians sense his sincerity. They might not understand the text, but the sentiment comes through loud and clear. His words scare the bejesus out of them. That kind of fear, that end-of-the-world terror, acts as a reproductive catalyst on the Xunian female.”
“Not his words,” she said. “God’s Word.”
I shrugged my shoulders. I didn’t want to get into a theological debate with her. “The Xunians come from a world where natural catastrophes are common: earthquakes, floods, meteor strikes, … Such events jump start their reproductive system, shove it into high gear to repopulate their world. Even the threat of such an event can do it.”
I slumped back into the chair. “You realize you can’t repeat this. “You can never tell anyone, not even Reverend Cannelton. It would — ”
“Tell him? Tell him his sermon was used as an aphrodisiac? It would crush him. He thought they came to hear him, to know God’s Word. If he knew the truth — ”
Cecelia lurched from the chair. I flinched, expecting her to swing her purse at me. Instead, she just stood there for a moment, looking down at her own clenched hands. Maybe she was praying.
“Why do you do this?” When she finally did looked up, I saw something in her eyes I didn’t expect. I saw pity. “What could be so important to turn my husband’s life work into a stag film?”
“The Xunian pay us well … in technology. Just in the last few years, we’ve gotten — ”
“For the love of money,” she said, and shook her head. “Don’t come back. You understand? I don’t want those aliens near our church ever again. Find someone else to do your dirty work.” She walked to the door as if to leave. “I’m not one to judge you, Mrs. Petrovich. And I’m not going to try to stop you either. But I don’t have to be a part of it. And neither does my husband.”
The food arrived after eight o’clock and the males were ravenous. GaChaltz was euphoric, high on the rush of hormones and sexual desire. She couldn’t eat.
“This is wonderful, Corrine,” she trilled. “I will have more babies. I will have a girl baby.”
“Of course you will,” I said, knowing the odds were still against her. At this late in life, female births occurred one out of every thirty. But she had hope and that was what mattered.
I went outside, sat in the aircar, and watched the sunset, thinking about Cecelia and the Reverend, wondering if I had done the right thing. I thought about Tatiana — if she was already asleep and how much I wanted to hear her voice right now.
As the night turned chilly, the windows automatically slid up and the heater came on. A dry gust of warm air brushed against my face. It was a great aircar. An expensive one. Its retail value was more than twice my salary, but at that moment, it didn’t seem all that fantastic.
It costs too much, I thought. I really don’t need it.