HUGO AWARD-WINNING SCIENCE FICTION & FANTASY MAGAZINE
The Discovered Country
The trees of Farside are incredible. Fireash and oak. Greenbloom and maple. Shot through with every color of autumn as late afternoon sunlight blazes over the Seven Mountains’ white peaks. He’d never seen such beauty as this when he was alive.
The virtual Bentley takes the bridge over the next gorge at a tire-scream, then speeds on through crimson and gold. Another few miles, and he’s following the coastal road beside the Westering Ocean. The sands are burnished, the rocks silver-threaded. Every new vista a fabulous creation. Then ahead, just as purple glower sweeps in from his rear-view over those dragon-haunted mountains, come the silhouette lights of a vast castle, high up on a ridge. It’s the only habitation he’s seen in hours.
This has to be it.
Northover lets the rise of the hill pull at the Bentley’s impetus as its headlights sweep the driveway trees. Another turn, another glimpse of a headland, and there’s Elsinore again, rising dark and sheer.
He tries to refuse the offer to carry his luggage made by the neat little creature that emerges into the lamplit courtyard to greet him with clipboard, sharp shoes, and lemony smile. He’s encountered many chimeras by now. The shop assistants, the street cleaners, the crew on the steamer ferry that brought him here. All substantially humanoid, and invariably polite, although amended as necessary to perform their tasks, and far stranger to his mind than the truly dead.
He follows a stairway up through rough-hewn stone. The thing’s name is Kasaya. Ah, now. The east wing. I think you’ll find what we have here more than adequate. If not . . . Well, you must promise to let me know. And this is called the Willow Room. And do enjoy your stay . . .
Northover wanders. Northover touches. Northover breathes. The interior of this large high-ceilinged suite with its crackling applewood fire and narrow, deep-set windows is done out in an elegantly understated arts-and-craftsy style. Amongst her many attributes, Thea Lorentz always did have excellent taste.
What’s struck him most about Farside since he jerked into new existence on the bed in the cabin of that ship bound for New Erin is how unremittingly real everything seems. But the slick feel of this patterned silk bedthrow . . . The spiky roughness of the teasels in the flower display . . . He’s given up telling himself that everything he’s experiencing is just some clever construct. The thing about it, the thing that makes it all so impossibly overwhelming, is that he’s here as well. Dead, but alive. The evidence of his corpse doubtless already incinerated, but his consciousness—the singularity of his existence, what philosophers once called “the conscious I,” and theologians the soul, along with his memories and personality, the whole sense of self which had once inhabited pale jelly in his skull—transferred.
The bathroom is no surprise to him now. The dead do so many things the living do, so why not piss and shit as well? He strips and stands in the shower’s warm blaze. He soaps, rinses. Reminds himself of what he must do, and say. He’d been warned that he’d soon become attracted to the blatant glories of this world, along with the new, young man’s body he now inhabits. Better just to accept it that rather than fight. All that matters is that he holds to the core of his resolve.
He towels himself dry. He pulls back on his watch—seemingly a Rolex, but a steel model, neatly unostentatious—and winds it carefully. He dresses. Hangs up his clothes in a walnut paneled wardrobe that smells faintly of mothballs, and hears a knock at the doors just as he slides his case beneath the bed.
“Yes? Come in . . . ”
When he turns, he’s expecting another chimera servant. But it’s Thea Lorentz.
This, too, is something they’d tried to prepare him for. But encountering her after so long is much less of a shock than he’s been expecting. Thea’s image is as ubiquitous as that of Marilyn Monroe or the Virgin Mary back on Lifeside, and she really hasn’t changed. She’s dressed in a loose-fitting shirt. Loafers and slacks. Hair tied back. No obvious evidence of any make-up. But the crisp white shirt with its rolled up cuffs shows her dark brown skin to perfection, and one lose strand of her tied back hair plays teasingly at her sculpted neck. A tangle of silver bracelets slide on her wrist as she steps forward to embrace him. Her breasts are unbound and she still smells warmly of the patchouli she always used to favor. Everything about her feels exactly the same. But why not? After all, she was already perfect when she was alive.
“Well . . . !” That warm blaze is still in her eyes, as well. “It really is you.”
“I know I’m springing a huge surprise. Just turning up from out of nowhere like this.”
“I can take these kind of surprises any day! And I hear it’s only been—what?—less than a week since you transferred. Everything must feel so very strange to you still.”
It went without saying that his and Thea’s existences had headed off in different directions back on Lifeside. She, of course, had already been well on her way toward some or other kind of immortality when they’d lost touch. And he . . . Well, it was just one of those stupid lucky breaks. A short, ironic keyboard riff he’d written to help promote some old online performance thing—no, no, it was nothing she’d been involved in—had ended up being picked up many years later as the standard message-send fail signal on the global net. Yeah, that was the one. Of course, Thea knew it. Everyone, once they thought about it for a moment, did.
“You know, Jon,” she says, her voice more measured now, “you’re the one person I thought would never choose to make this decision. None of us can pretend that being Farside isn’t a position of immense privilege, when most of the living can’t afford food, shelter, good health. You always were a man of principle, and I sometimes thought you’d just fallen to . . . Well, the same place that most performers fall to, I suppose, which is no particular place at all. I even considered trying to find you and get in touch, offer . . . ” She gestures around her. “Well, this. But you wouldn’t have taken it, would you? Not on those terms.”
He shakes his head. In so many ways she still has him right. He detested—no, he quietly reminds himself—detests everything about this vast vampiric sham of a world that sucks life, hope, and power from the living. But she hadn’t come to him, either, had she? Hadn’t offered what she now so casually calls this. For all her fame, for all her good works, for all the aid funds she sponsors and the good causes she promotes, Thea Lorentz and the rest of the dead have made no effort to extend their constituency beyond the very rich, and almost certainly never will. After all, why should they? Would the gods invite the merely mortal to join them on Mount Olympus?
She smiles and steps close to him again. Weights both his hands in her own. “Most people I know, Jon—most of those I have to meet and talk to and deal with, and even those I have to call friends—they all think that I’m Thea Lorentz. Both Farside and Lifeside, it’s long been the same. But only you and a very few others really know who I am. You can’t imagine how precious and important it is to have you here . . . ”
He stands gazing at the door after she’s left. Willing everything to dissolve, fade, crash, melt. But nothing changes. He’s still dead. He’s still standing here in this Farside room. Can still even breathe the faint patchouli of Thea’s scent. He finishes dressing—a tie, a jacket, the same supple leather shoes he arrived in—and heads out into the corridor.
Elsinore really is big—and resolutely, heavily, emphatically, the ancient building it wishes to be. Cold gusts pass along its corridors. Heavy doors groan and creak. Of course, the delights of Farside are near-infinite. He’s passed through forests of mist and silver. Seen the vast, miles-wide back of some great island of a seabeast drift past when he was still out at sea. The dead can grow wings, sprout gills, spread roots into the soil and raise their arms and become trees. All these things are not only possible, but visibly, virtually, achievably real. But he thinks they still hanker after life, and all the things of life the living, for all their disadvantages, possess.
He passes many fine-looking paintings as he descends the stairs. They have a Pre-Raphaelite feel, and from the little he knows of art, seem finely executed, but he doesn’t recognize any of them. Have these been created by virtual hands, in some virtual workshop, or have they simply sprung into existence? And what would happen if he took that sword which also hangs on display, and slashed it through a canvas? Would it be gone forever? Almost certainly not. One thing he knows for sure about the Farside’s vast database is that it’s endlessly backed up, scattered, diffused, and re-collated across many secure and heavily armed vaults back in what’s left of the world of the living. There are very few guaranteed ways of destroying any of it, least of all the dead.
Further down, there are holo-images, all done in stylish black and white. Somehow, even in a castle, they don’t even look out of place. Thea, as always, looks like she’s stepped out of a fashion-shoot. The dying jungle suits her. As does this war-zone, and this flooded hospital, and this burned-out shantytown. The kids, and it is mostly kids, who surround her with their pot bellies and missing limbs, somehow manage to absorb a little of her glamour. On these famous trips of hers back to view the suffering living, she makes an incredibly beautiful ghost.
Two big fires burn in Elsinore’s great hall, and there’s a long table for dinner, and the heads of many real and mythic creatures loom upon the walls. Basilisk, boar, unicorn . . . Hardly noticing the chimera servant who rakes his chair out for him, Northover sits down. Thea’s space at the top of the table is still empty.
In this Valhalla where the lucky, eternal dead feast forever, what strikes Northover most strongly is the sight of Sam Bartleby sitting beside Thea’s vacant chair. Not that he doesn’t know that the man has been part of what’s termed Thea Lorentz’s inner circle for more than a decade. But, even when they were all still alive and working together on Bard On Wheels, he’d never been able to understand why she put up with him. Of course, Bartleby made his fortune with those ridiculous action virtuals, but the producers deepened his voice so much, and enhanced his body so ridiculously, that it was a wonder to Northover they bothered to use him at all. Now, though, he’s chosen to bulk himself out and cut his hair in a Roman fringe. He senses Northover’s gaze, and raises his glass, and gives an ironic nod. He still has the self-regarding manner of someone who thinks themselves far more better looking, not to mention cleverer, than they actually are.
Few of the dead, though, choose to be beautiful. Most elect for the look that expresses themselves at what they thought of as the most fruitful and self-expressive period of their lives. Amongst people this wealthy, this often equates to late middle age. The fat, the bald, the matronly and the downright ugly rub shoulders, secure in the knowledge that they can become young and beautiful again whenever they wish.
“So? What are you here for?”
The woman beside him already seems flushed from the wine, and has a homely face and a dimpled smile, although she sports pointed teeth, elfin ears and her eyes are cattish slots.
“Name’s Wilhelmina Howard. People just call me Will . . . ” She offers him a claw-nailed hand to shake. “Made my money doing windfarm recycling in the non-federal states. All that lovely superconductor and copper we need right here to keep our power supplies as they should be. Not that we ever had much of a presence in England, which I’m guessing is where you were from . . . ?”
He gives a guarded nod.
“But isn’t it just so great to be here at Elsinore? Such a privilege. Thea’s everything people say she is, isn’t she, and then a whole lot more as well? Such compassion, and all the marvelous things she’s done! Still, I know she’s invited me here because she wants to get hold of some of my money. Give back a little of what we’ve taken an’ all. Not that I won’t give. That’s for sure. Those poor souls back on Lifeside. We really have to do something, don’t we, all of us . . . ?”
“To be honest, I’m here because I used to work with Thea. Back when we were both alive.”
“So, does that make you an actor?” Wilhelmina’s looking at him more closely now. Her slot pupils have widened. “Should I recognize you? Were you in any of the famous—”
“No, no.” As if in defeat, he holds up a hand. Another chance to roll out his story. More a musician, a keyboard player, although there wasn’t much he hadn’t turned his hand to over the years. Master of many trades, and what have you—at least, until that message fail signal came along.
“So, pretty much a lucky break,” murmurs this ex take-no-shit businesswoman who died and became a fat elf, “rather than any kind of lifetime endeavor . . . ?”
Then Thea enters the hall, and she’s changed into something more purposefully elegant—a light gray dress that shows her fine breasts and shoulders without seeming immodest—and her hair is differently done, and Northover understands all the more why most of the dead make no attempt to be beautiful. After all, how could they, when Thea Lorentz does it so unassailably well? She stands waiting for a moment as if expectant silence hasn’t already fallen, then says a few phrases about how pleased she is to have so many charming and interesting guests. Applause follows. Just as she used to do for many an encore, Thea nods and smiles and looks genuinely touched.
The rest of the evening at Elsinore passes in a blur of amazing food and superb wine, all served with the kind of discreet inevitability which Northover has decided only chimeras are capable of. Just like Wilhelmina, everyone wants to know who he’s with, or for, or from. The story about that jingle works perfectly; many even claim to have heard of him and his success. Their curiosity only increases when he explains his and Thea’s friendship. After all, he could be the route of special access to her famously compassionate ear.
There’s about twenty guests here at Elsinore tonight, all told, if you don’t count the several hundred chimeras, which of course no one does. Most of the dead, if you look at them closely enough, have adorned themselves with small eccentricities; a forked tongue here, an extra finger there, a crimson badger-stripe of hair. Some are new to each other, but the interactions flow on easy rails. Genuine fame itself is rare here—after all, entertainment has long been a cheapened currency—but there’s a relaxed feeling-out between strangers in the knowledge that some shared acquaintance or interest will soon be reached. Wealth always was an exclusive club, and it’s even more exclusive here.
Much of the talk is of new Lifeside investment. Viral re-programming of food crops, all kinds of nano-engineering, weather, flood, and even birth control—although the last strikes Northover as odd considering how rapidly the human population is decreasing—and every other kind of plan imaginable to make the earth a place worth living in again is discussed. Many of these schemes, he soon realizes, would be mutually incompatible, and potentially incredibly destructive, and all are about making money.
Cigars are lit after the cheeses and sorbets. Rare, exquisite whiskeys are poured. Just like everyone else, he can’t help but keep glancing at Thea. She still has that way of seeming part of the crowd yet somehow apart—or above—it. She always had been a master of managing social occasions, even those rowdy parties they’d hosted back in the day. A few words, a calming hand and smile, and even the most annoying drunk would agree that it was time they took a taxi. For all her gifts as a performer, her true moments of transcendent success were at the lunches, the less-than-chance-encounters, the launch parties. Even her put-downs or betrayals left you feeling grateful.
Everything Farside is so spectacularly different, yet so little about her has changed. The one thing he does notice, though, is her habit of toying with those silver bangles she’s still wearing on her left wrist. Then, at what feels like precisely the right moment, and thus fractionally before anyone expects, she stands up and taps her wine glass to say a few more words. From anyone else’s lips, they would sound like vague expressions of pointless hope. But, coming from her, it’s hard not to be stirred.
Then, with a bow, a nod, and what Northover was almost sure is a small conspiratorial blink in his direction—which somehow seems to acknowledge the inherent falsity of what she has just done, but also the absolute need for it—she’s gone from the hall, and the air suddenly seems stale. He stands up and grabs at the tilt of his chair before a chimera servant can get to it. He feels extraordinarily tired, and more than a little drunk.
In search of some air, he follows a stairway that winds up and up. He steps out high on the battlements. He hears feminine chuckles. Around a corner, shadows tussle. He catches the starlit glimpse of a bared breast, and turns the other way. It’s near-freezing up out on these battlements. Clouds cut ragged by a blazing sickle moon. Northover leans over and touches the winding crown of his Rolex watch and studies the distant lace of waves. Then, glancing back, he thinks he sees another figure behind him. Not the lovers, certainly. This shape bulks far larger, and is alone. Yet the dim outlines of the battlement gleam though it. A malfunction? A premonition? A genuine ghost? But then, as Northover moves, the figure moves with him, and he realizes that he’s seeing nothing but his own shadow thrown by the moon.
He dreams that night that he’s alive again, but no longer the young and hopeful man he once was. He’s mad old Northy. Living, if you call it living, so high up in the commune tower that no one else bothers him much, and with nothing but an old piano he’s somehow managed to restore for company. Back in his old body, as well, with his old aches, fatigues and irritations. But for once, it isn’t raining, and frail sparks of sunlight cling to shattered glass in the ruined rooms, and the whole flooded, once-great city of London is almost beautiful, far below.
Then, looking back, he sees a figure standing at the far end of the corridor that leads through rubble to the core stairs. They come up sometimes, do the kids. They taunt him and try to steal his last few precious things. Northy swears and lumbers forward, grabbing an old broom. But the kid doesn’t curse or throw things. Neither does he turn and run, although it looks as if he’s come up here alone.
“You’re Northy, aren’t you?” the boy called Haru says, his voice an adolescent squawk.
He awakes with a start to new light, good health, comforting warmth. A sense, just as he opens his eyes and knowledge of who and what he is returns, that the door to his room has just clicked shut. He’d closed the curtains here in the Willow Room in Elsinore, as well, and now they’re open. And the fire grate has been cleared, the applewood logs restocked. He reaches quickly for his Rolex, and begins to relax as he slips it on. The servants, the chimeras, will have been trained, programmed, to perform their work near-invisibly, and silently.
He showers again. He meets the gaze of his own eyes in the mirror as he shaves. Whatever view there might be from his windows is hidden in a mist so thick that the world beyond could be the blank screen of some old computer from his youth. The route to breakfast is signaled by conversation and a stream of guests. The hall is smaller than the one they were in last night, but still large enough. A big fire crackles in a soot-stained hearth, but steam rises from the food as cold air wafts in through the open doors.
Dogs are barking in the main courtyard. Horses are being led out. Elsinore’s battlements and towers hover like ghosts in the blanketing fog. People are milling, many wearing thick gauntlets, leather helmets, and what look like padded vests and kilts. The horses are big, beautifully groomed but convincingly skittish in the way that Northover surmises expensively pedigreed beasts are. Or were. Curious, he goes over to one as a chimera stable boy fusses with its saddle and reins.
The very essence of equine haughtiness, the creature tosses its head and does that lip-blubber thing horses do. Everything about this creature is impressive. The flare of its nostrils. The deep, clean, horsey smell. Even, when he looks down and under, the impressive, seemingly part-swollen heft of its horsey cock.
“Pretty spectacular, isn’t he?”
Northover finds that Sam Bartleby is standing beside him. Dressed as if for battle, and holding a silver goblet of something steaming and red. Even his voice is bigger and deeper than it was. The weird thing is, he seems more like Sam Bartleby than the living Sam Bartleby ever did. Even in those stupid action virtuals.
“His name’s Aleph—means alpha, of course, or the first. You may have heard of him. He won, yes didn’t you . . . ?” By now, Bartleby’s murmuring into the beast’s neck. “The last ever Grand Steeple de Paris.”
Slowly, Northover nods. The process of transfer is incredibly expensive, but there’s no reason in principle why creatures other than humans can’t join Farside’s exclusive club. The dead are bound to want the most prestigious and expensive toys. So, why not the trapped, transferred consciousness of a multi-million dollar racehorse?
“You don’t ride, do you?” Bartleby, still fondling Aleph—who, Northover notices, is now displaying an even more impressive erection—asks.
“It wasn’t something I ever got around to.”
“But you’ve got plenty of time now, and there are few things better than a day out hunting in the forest. Suggest you start with one of the lesser, easier, mounts over there, and work your way up to a real beast like this. Perhaps that pretty roan? Even then, though, you’ll have to put up with a fair few falls. Although, if you really want to cheat and bend the rules, and know the right people, there are shortcuts . . . ”
“As you say, there’s plenty of time.”
“So,” Bartleby slides up onto the saddle with what even Northover has to admit is impressive grace. “Why are you here? Oh, I don’t mean getting here with that stupid jingle. You always were a lucky sod. I mean, at Elsinore. I suppose you want something from Thea. That’s why most people come. Whether or not they’ve got some kind of past with her.”
“Isn’t friendship enough?”
Bartleby is now looking down at Northover in a manner even more condescending than the horse. “You should know better than most, Jon, that friendship’s just another currency.” He pauses as he’s handed a long spear, its tip a clear, icy substance that could be a diamond. “I should warn you that whatever it is you want, you’re unlikely to get it. At least, not in the way you expect. A favor. For some cherished project, maybe?” His lips curl. “But that’s not it with you, is it? We know each other too well, Jon, and you really haven’t changed. Not one jot. What you really want is Thea, isn’t it? Want her wrapped up and whole, even though we both know that’s impossible. Thea being Thea just as she always was. And, believe me, I’d do anything to defend her. Anything to stop her being hurt . . . ”
With a final derisory snort and a spark of cobbles, Bartley and Aleph clatter off.
The rooms, halls, and corridors of Elsinore are filled with chatter and bustle. Impromptu meetings. Accidental collisions and confusions that have surely been long planned. Kisses and business cards are exchanged. Deals are brokered. Promises offered. The spread of the desert which has now consumed most of north Africa could be turned around by new cloud-seeding technologies, yet still, there’s coffee, or varieties of herb tea if preferred.
No sign of Thea, though. In a way she’s more obvious Lifeside, where you can buy as much Thea Lorentz tat as even the most fervent fanatic could possibly want. Figurines. Candles. Wallscreens. Tee shirts. Some of it, apparently, she even endorses. Although always, of course, in a good cause. Apart from those bothersome kids, it was the main reason Northover spent so much of his last years high up and out of reach of the rest of the commune. He hated being reminded of the way people wasted what little hope and money they had on stupid illusions. Her presence here at Elsinore is palpable, though. Her name is the ghost at the edge of every conversation. Yes, but Thea . . . Thea . . . And Thea . . . Thea . . . Always, always, everything is about Thea Lorentz.
He realizes this place she’s elected to call Elsinore isn’t any kind of home at all—but he supposes castles have always fulfilled a political function, at least when they weren’t under siege. People came from near-impossible distances to plead their cause, and, just as here, probably ended up being fobbed off. Of course, Thea’s chimera servants mingle amid the many guests. Northover notices Kasaya many times. A smile here. A mincing gesture there.
He calls after him the next time he sees him bustling down a corridor.
“Yes, Mister Northover . . . ?” Clipboard at the ready, Kasaya spins round on his toes.
“I was just wondering, seeing as you seem to be about so much, if there happen to be more than one of you here at Elsinore?”
“That isn’t necessary. It’s really just about good organization and hard work.”
“So . . . ” Was that really slight irritation he detected, followed by a small flash of pride? “ . . . you can’t be in several places at once?”
“That’s simply not required. Although Elsinore does have many shortcuts.”
“You mean, hidden passageways? Like a real castle?”
Kasaya, who clearly has more important things than this to see to, manages a smile. “I think that that would be a good analogy.”
“But you just said think. You do think?”
“Yes.” He’s raised his clipboard almost like a shield now. “I believe I do.”
“How long have you been here?”
“Oh . . . ” He blinks in seeming recollection. “Many years.”
“And before that?”
“Before that, I wasn’t here.” Hugging his clipboard more tightly than ever, Kasaya glances longingly down the corridor. “Perhaps there’s something you need? I could summon someone . . . ”
“No, I’m fine. I was just curious about what it must be like to be you, Kasaya. I mean, are you always on duty? Do your kind sleep? Do you change out of those clothes and wash your hair and—”
“I’m sorry sir,” the chimera intervenes, now distantly firm. “I really can’t discuss these matters when I’m on duty. If I may . . . ?”
Then, he’s off without a backward glance. Deserts may fail to bloom if the correct kind of finger food isn’t served at precisely the right moment. Children blinded by onchocerciasis might not get the implants that will allow them to see grainy shapes for lack of a decent meeting room. And, after all, Kasaya is responding in the way that any servant would—at least, if a guest accosted them and started asking inappropriately personal questions when they were at work. Northover can’t help but feel sorry for these creatures, who clearly seem to have at least the illusion of consciousness. To be trapped forever in crowd scenes at the edges of the lives of the truly dead . . .
Northover comes to another door set in a kind of side-turn that he almost walks past. Is this where the chimera servants go? Down this way, Elsinore certainly seems less grand. Bright sea air rattles the arrowslit glass. The walls are raw stone, and stained with white tidemarks of damp. This, he imagines some virtual guide pronouncing, is by far the oldest part of the castle. It certainly feels that way.
He lifts a hessian curtain and steps into a dark, cool space. A single barred, high skylight fans down on what could almost have been a dungeon. Or a monastic cell. Some warped old bookcases and other odd bits of furniture, all cheaply practical, populate a roughly paved floor. In one corner, some kind of divan or bed. In another, a wicker chair. The change of light is so pronounced that it’s a moment before he sees that someone is sitting there. A further beat before he realizes it’s Thea Lorentz, and that she’s seated before a mirror, and her fingers are turning those bangles on her left wrist. Frail as frost, the silver circles tink and click. Otherwise, she’s motionless. She barely seems to breathe.
Not a mirror at all, Northover realizes as he shifts quietly around her, but some kind of tunnel or gateway. Through it, he sees a street. It’s raining, the sky is reddish with windblown earth, and the puddles seem bright as blood. Lean-to shacks, their gutters sluicing, line something too irregular to be called a street. A dead power pylon leans in the mid-distance. A woman stumbles into view, drenched and wading up to the knee. She’s holding something wrapped in rags with a wary possessiveness that suggests it’s either a baby or food. This could be the suburbs of London, New York, or Sydney. That doesn’t matter. What does matter is how she falls to her knees at what she sees floating before her in the rain. Thea . . . ! She almost drops whatever she’s carrying as her fingers claw upward and her ruined mouth shapes the name. She’s weeping, and Thea’s weeping as well—two silver trails that follow the perfect contours of her face. Then, the scene fades in another shudder of rain, and Thea Lorentz is looking out at him from the reformed surface of a mirror with the same soft sorrow that poor, ruined woman must have seen in her gaze.
“This, er . . . ” he gestures.
She stands up. She’s wearing a long tweed skirt, rumpled boots, a loose turtleneck woolen top. “Oh, it’s probably everything people say it is. The truth is that, once you’re Farside, it’s too easy to forget what Lifeside is really like. People make all the right noises—I’m sure you’ve heard them already. But that isn’t the same thing.”
“Going there—being seen as some virtual projection in random places like that—aren’t you just perpetuating the myth?”
She nods slowly. “But is that really such a terrible thing? And that cat-eyed woman you sat next to yesterday at dinner. What’s her name, Wilhelmina? Kasaya’s already committed her to invest in new sewerage processing works and food aid, all of which will be targeted on that particular area of Barcelona. I know she’s a tedious creature—you only have to look at her to see that—but what’s the choice? You can stand back, and do nothing, or step in, and use whatever you have to try to make things slightly better.”
“Is that what you really think?”
“Yes. I believe I do. But how about you, Jon? What do you think?”
“You know me,” he says. “More than capable of thinking several things at once. And believing, or not believing, all of them.”
“Doubting Thomas,” she says, taking another step forward so he can smell patchouli.
“Here of all places, why not?”
For a while, they stand there in silence.
“This whole castle is designed to be incredibly protective of me,” she says eventually. “It admits very few people thus far. Only the best and oldest of friends. And Bartleby insists I wear these as an extra precaution, even though they can sometimes be distracting . . . ” She raises her braceletted wrist. “As you’ve probably already gathered, he’s pretty protective of me, too.”
“We’ve spoken. It wasn’t exactly the happiest reunion.”
She smiles. “The way you both are, it would have been strange if it was. But look, you’ve come all this incredible way. Why don’t we go out somewhere?”
“You must have work to do. Projects—I don’t know—that you need to approve. People to meet.”
“The thing about being in Elsinore is that things generally go more smoothly when Thea Lorentz isn’t in the way. You saw what it was like last night at dinner. Every time I open my mouth people expect to hear some new universal truth. I ask them practical questions and their mouths drop. Important deals fall apart when people get distracted because Thea’s in the room. That’s why Kasaya’s so useful. He does all that’s necessary—joins up the dots and bangs the odd head. And people scarcely even notice him.”
“I didn’t think he likes it much when they do.”
“More questions, Jon?” She raises an eyebrow. “But everything here on Farside must still seem so strange to you, when there’s so much to explore . . . ”
Down stairways. Along corridors. Through storerooms. Perhaps these are the secret routes Kasaya hinted at, winding through the castle like Escher tunnels in whispers of sea-wet stone. Then, they are down in a great, electric-lit cavern of a garage. His Bentley is here, along with lines of other fine and vintage machines long crumbled to rust back on Lifeside. Maseratis. Morgans. Lamborghinis. Other things that look like Dan Dare spaceships of Faberge submarines. The cold air reeks of new petrol, clean oil, polished metal. In a far corner and wildly out of place, squatting above a small black pool, is an old VW Beetle.
“Well,” she says. “What do you think?”
He smiles as he walks around it. The dents and scratches are old friends. “It’s perfect.”
“Well, it was never that. But we had some fun with it, didn’t we?”
“How does this work? I mean, creating it? Did you have some old pictures of it? Did you manage to access—”
“Jon.” She dangles a key from her hand. “Do you want to go out for a drive, or what?”
“The steering even pulls the same way. It’s amazing . . . ”
Out on roads that climb and camber, giving glimpses through the slowly thinning mist of flanks of forest, deep drops. Headlights on, although it makes little difference and there doesn’t seem to be any other traffic. She twiddles the radio. Finds a station that must have stopped transmitting more than fifty years ago. Van Morrison, Springsteen, and Dylan. So very, very out of date—but still good—even back then. And even now, with his brown-eyed girl beside him again. It’s the same useless deejay, the same pointless adverts. As the road climbs higher, the signal fades to a bubbling hiss.
“Take that turn up there. You see, the track right there in the trees . . . ?”
The road now scarcely a road, the Beetle a jumble of metallic jolts and yelps. He has to laugh, and Thea laughs as well, the way they’re being bounced around. A tunnel through the trees, and then some kind of clearing, where he stops the engine and squawks the handbrake, and everything falls still.
“Do you remember?”
He climbs out slowly, as if fearing a sudden movement might cause it all to dissolve. “Of course I do . . . ”
Thea, though, strides ahead. Climbs the sagging cabin steps.
“This is . . . ”
“I know,” she agrees, testing the door. Which—just as it had always been—is unlocked.
This, he thinks as he stumbles forward, is what it really means to be dead. Forget the gills and wings and the fine wines and the spectacular food and the incredible scenery. What this is, what it means . . .
The same cabin. It could be the same day. Thea, she’d called after him as he walked down the street away from an old actors’ pub off what was still called Covent Garden after celebrating—although that wasn’t the word—the end of Bard on Wheels with a farewell pint and spliff. Farewell and fuck off as far as Northover was concerned, Sam Bartleby and his stupid sword fights especially. Shakespeare and most other kinds of real performance being well and truly dead, and everyone heading for well-deserved obscurity. The sole exception being Thea Lorentz, who could sing and act and do most things better than all the rest of them combined, and had an air of being destined for higher things that didn’t seem like arrogant bullshit even if it probably was. Out of his class, really, both professionally and personally. But she’d called to him, and he’d wandered back, for where else was he heading? She’d said she had a kind of proposal, and why didn’t they go out for a while out in her old VW? All the bridges over the Thames hadn’t yet been down then, and they’d driven past the burned-out cars and abandoned shops until they came to this stretch of woodland where the trees were still alive, and they’d ended up exactly here. In this clearing, inside this cabin.
There’s an old woodburner stove that Northover sets about lighting, and a few tins along the cobweb shelves, which he inspects and settles on a tin of soup, which he nearly cuts his thumb struggling to open, and sets to warm on the top of the fire as it begins to send out amber shadows. He goes to the window, clears a space in the dust, pretending to check if he turned the VW’s lights off, but in reality trying to grab a little thinking time. He didn’t, doesn’t, know Thea Lorentz that well at this or any point. But he knows her well enough to understand that her spontaneous suggestions are nothing if not measured.
“Is this how it was, do you think?” she asks, shrugging off her coat and coming to stand behind him. Again, that smell of patchouli. She slides her arms around his waist. Nestles her chin against his shoulder. “I wanted you to be what I called producer and musical director for my Emily Dickinson thing. And you agreed.”
“Not before I’d asked if you meant roadie and general dogsbody.”
He feels her chuckle. “That as well . . . ”
“What else was I going to do, anyway?” Dimly, in the gaining glow of the fire, he can see her and his face in reflection.
“And how about now?”
“I suppose it’s much the same.”
He turns. It’s he who clasps her face, draws her mouth to his. Another thing about Thea is that, even when you know it’s always really her, it somehow seems to be you.
Their teeth clash. It’s been a long time. This is the first time ever. She draws back, breathless, pulls off that loose-fitting jumper she’s wearing. He helps her with the shift beneath, traces, remembers, discovers, or rediscovers, the shape and weight of her breasts. Thumbs her hardening nipples. Then, she pulls away his shirt, undoes his belt buckle. Difficult here to be graceful, even if you’re Thea Lorentz, struggle-hopping with zips, shoes, and panties. Even harder for Northover with one sock off and the other caught on something or other, not to mention his young man’s erection, as he throws a dusty blanket over the creaky divan. But laughter helps. Laughter always did. That, and Thea’s knowing smile as she takes hold of him for a moment in her cool fingers. Then, Christ, she lets go of him again. A final pause, and he almost thinks this isn’t going to work, but all she’s doing is pulling off those silver bracelets, and then, before he can realize what else it is she wants, she’s snapping off the bangle of his Rolex as well and pulling him down, and now there’s nothing else to be done, for they really are naked.
Northover, he’s drowning in memory. Greedy at first, hard to hold back, especially with the things she does, but then trying to be slow, trying to be gentle. Or, at least, a gentleman. He remembers, anyway—or is it now happening?—that time she took his head between her hands and raised it to her gaze. You don’t have to be so careful, she murmurs. Or murmured. I’m flesh and blood, Jon. Just like you . . .
He lies back. Collapsed. Drenched. Exhausted. Sated. He turns from the cobweb ceiling and sees the Rolex lies cast on the gritty floor. Softly ticking. Just within reach. But already, Thea is stirring. She scratches, stretches. Bracelet hoops glitter as they slip back over her knuckles. He stands up. Pads over to a stained sink. There’s a trickle of water. What might pass for a towel. Dead or living, it seems, the lineaments of love remain the same.
“You never were much of a one for falling asleep after,” Thea comments, straightening her sleeves as she dresses.
“Not much a man, then.”
“Some might say that . . . ” She laughs as she fluffs her hair. “But we had something, didn’t we, Jon? We really did. So why not again?”
There it is. Just when he thinks the past’s finally over and done with. Not Emily Dickinson this time, or not only that project, but a kind of greatest hits. Stuff they did together with Bard on Wheels, although this time it’ll be just them, a two-hander, a proper double act, and, yes Jon, absolutely guaranteed no Sam fucking Bartleby. Other things as well. A few songs, sketches. Bits and bobs. Fun, of course. But wasn’t the best kind of fun always the stuff you took seriously? And why not start here and see how it goes? Why not tonight, back at Elsinore?
As ever, what can he say but yes?
Thea drives. He supposes she did before, although he can’t really remember how they got back to London. The mist has cleared. She, the sea, the mountains, all look magnificent. That Emily Dickinson thing, the one they did before, was a huge commercial and critical success. Even if people did call it a one-woman show, when he’d written half the script and all of the music. To have those looks, and yet to be able to hold the stage and sing and act so expressively! Not to mention, although the critics generally did, that starlike ability to assume a role, yet still be Thea Lorentz. Audrey Hepburn got a mention. So did Grace Kelly. A fashion icon, too, then. But Thea could carry a tune better than either. Even for the brief time they were actually living together in that flat in Pimlico, Northover sometimes found himself simply looking—staring, really—at Thea. Especially when she was sleeping. She just seemed so angelic. Who are you really? he’d wondered. Where are you from? Why are you here, and with me of all people?
He never did work out the full chain of events that brought her to join Bard on Wheels. Of course, she’d popped up in other troupes and performances—the evidence was still to be found on blocky online postings and all those commemorative hagiographies, but remembrances were shaky and it was hard to work on the exact chain of where and when. A free spirit, certainly. A natural talent. Not the sort who’d ever needed instructing. She claimed that she’d lost both her parents to the Hn3i epidemic, and had grown up in one of those giant orphanages they set up at Heathrow. As to where she got that poise, or the studied assurance she always displayed, all the many claims, speculations, myths and stories that eventually emerged—and which she never made any real attempt to quash—drowned out whatever had been the truth.
They didn’t finish the full tour. Already, the offers were pouring in. He followed her once to pre-earthquake, pre-nuke Los Angeles, but by then people weren’t sure what his role exactly was in the growing snowball of Thea Lorentz’s fame. Flunky, and neither was he. Not that she was unfaithful. At least, not to his knowledge. She probably never had the time. Pretty clear to everyone, though, that Thea Lorentz was moving on and up. And that he wasn’t. Without her, although he tried getting other people involved, the Emily Dickinson poem arrangements sounded like the journeymen pieces they probably were. Without her, he even began to wonder about the current whereabouts of his other old sparring partners in Bard on Wheels.
It was out in old LA, at a meal at the Four Seasons, that he’d met, encountered, experienced—whatever the word for it was—his first dead person. They were still pretty rare back then, and this one had made its arrival on the roof of the hotel by veetol just to show that it could, when it really should have just popped into existence in the newly-installed reality fields at their table like Aladdin’s genie. The thing had jittered and buzzed, and its voice seemed over-amplified. Of course, it couldn’t eat, but it pretended to consume a virtual plate of quail in puff pastry with foie gras in a truffle sauce, which it pretended to enjoy with virtual relish. You couldn’t fault the thing’s business sense, but Northover took the whole experience as another expression of the world’s growing sickness.
Soon, it was the Barbican and the Sydney Opera House for Thea (and how sad it was that so many of these great venues were situated next to the rising shorelines) and odd jobs or no jobs at all for him. The flat in Pimlico went, and so, somewhere, did hope. The world of entertainment was careering, lemming-like, toward the cliffs of pure virtuality, with just a few bright stars such as Thea to give it the illusion of humanity. Crappy fantasy-dramas or rubbish docu-musicals that she could sail through and do her Thea Lorentz thing, giving them an undeserved illusion of class. At least, and unlike that idiot buffoon Bartleby, Northover could see why she was in such demand. When he thought of what Thea Lorentz had become, with her fame and her wealth and her well-publicized visits to disaster areas and her audiences with the Pope and the Dalai Lama, he didn’t exactly feel surprised or bitter. After all, she was only doing whatever it was that she’d always done.
Like all truly beautiful women, at least those who take care of themselves, she didn’t age in the way that the rest of the world did. If anything, the slight sharpening of those famous cheekbones and the small care lines that drew around her eyes and mouth made her seem even more breathtakingly elegant. Everyone knew that she would mature slowly and gracefully and that she would make—just like the saints with whom she was now most often compared—a beautiful, and probably incorruptible, corpse. So, when news broke that she’d contracted a strain of new-variant septicemic plague when she was on a fact-finding trip in Manhattan, the world fell into mourning as it hadn’t done since . . . Well, there was no comparison, although JFK and Martin Luther King got a mention, along with Gandhi and Jesus Christ and Joan of Arc and Marilyn Monroe and that lost Mars mission and Kate and Diana.
Transfer—a process of assisted death and personality uploading—was becoming a popular option. At least, amongst the few who could afford it. The idea that the blessed Thea might refuse to do this thing, and deprive a grieving world of the chance to know that somehow, somewhere, she was still there, and on their side, and sorrowing as they sorrowed, was unthinkable. By now well ensconced high up in his commune with his broom and his reputation as an angry hermit, left with nothing but his memories of that wrecked piano he was trying to get into tune, even Northover couldn’t help but follow this ongoing spectacle. Still, he felt strangely detached. He’d long fallen out of love with Thea, and now fell out of admiring her as well. All that will-she won’t-she crap that she was doubtless engineering even as she lay there on her deathbed! All she was doing was just exactly what she’d always done and twisting the whole fucking world around her fucking little finger. But then maybe, just possibly, he was getting the tiniest little bit bitter . . .
Back at Elsinore, Kasaya has already been at work. Lights, a low stage, decent mics and pa system, along with a spectacular grand piano, have all been installed at the far end of the great hall were they sat for yesterday’s dinner. The long tables have been removed, the chairs re-arranged. Or replaced. It really does look like a bijou theatre. The piano’s a Steinway. If asked, Northover might have gone for a Bechstein. The action, to his mind, and with the little chance he’s even had to ever play such machines, being a tad more responsive. But you can’t have everything, he supposes. Not even here.
The space is cool, half-dark. The light from the windows is settling. Bartleby and his troupe of merry men have just returned from their day of tally-ho slaughter with a giant boar hung on ropes. Tonight, by sizzling flame-light out in the yard, the dining will be alfresco. And after that . . . Well, word has already got out that Thea and this newly arrived guy at Elsinore are planning some kind of reunion performance. No wonder the air in this empty hall feels expectant.
He sits down. Wondrous and mysterious as Thea Lorentz’s smile, the keys—which are surely real ivory—gleam back at him. He plays a soft e-minor chord. The sound shivers out. Beautiful. Although that’s mostly the piano. Never a real musician, Northy. Nor much of a real actor, either. Never a real anything. Not that much of a stagehand, even. Just got lucky for a while with a troupe of traveling players. Then, as luck tends to do, it ran out on you. But still. He hasn’t sat at one of these things since he died, yet it couldn’t feel more natural. As the sound fades, and the gathering night washes in, he can hear the hastening tick of his Rolex.
The door at the far end bangs. He thinks it’s most likely Kasaya. But it’s Thea. Barefoot now. Her feet sip the polished floor. Dark slacks, an old, knotted shirt. Hair tied back. She looks the business. She’s carrying loose sheaves of stuff—notes, bits of script and sheet music—almost all of which he recognizes as she slings them down across the gleaming lid of the piano.
“Well,” she says, “shall we do this thing?”
Back in his room, he stands for a long time in the steam heat of the shower. Finds he’s soaping and scrubbing himself until his skin feels raw and his head is dizzy. He’d always wondered about those guys from al-Qaeda and Hezbollah and the Taliban and New Orthodoxy. Why they felt such a need to shave and cleanse the bodies they would soon be destroying. Now, though, he understands perfectly. The world is ruined and time is out of joint, but this isn’t just a thing you do out of conviction. The moment has to be right, as well.
Killing the dead isn’t easy. In fact, it’s near impossible. But not quite. The deads’ great strength is the sheer overpowering sense of reality they bring to the sick fantasy they call Farside. Everything must work. Everything has to be what it is, right down to the minutest detail. Everything must be what it seems to be. But this is also their greatest weakness. Of course, they told Northy when they took off his blindfold as he sat chained to a chair which was bolted to the concrete floor in that deserted shopping mall, we can try to destroy them by trying to tear everything in Farside apart. We can fly planes into their reactors, introduce viruses into their processing suites, flood their precious data vaults with seawater. But there’s always a backup. There’s always another power source. We can never wreck enough of Farside to have even a marginal effect upon the whole. But the dead themselves are different. Break down the singularity of their existence for even an instant, and you destroy it forever. The dead become truly dead.
Seeing as it didn’t exist as a real object, they had to show him the Rolex he’d be wearing through a set of VR gloves and goggles. Heavy-seeming of course, and ridiculously over-engineered, but then designer watches had been that way for decades. This is what you must put on along with your newly assumed identity when you return to consciousness in a cabin on board a steamer ferry bound for New Erin. It many ways, the watch is what it appears to be. It ticks. It tells the time. You’ll even need to remember to wind it up. But carefully. Pull the crown out and turn it backwards—no, no, not now, not even here, you mustn’t—and it will initiate a massive databurst. The Farside equivalent of an explosion of about half a pound of semtex, atomizing anything within a three meter radius—yourself, of course, included, which is something we’ve already discussed—and causing damage, depending on conditions, in a much wider sphere. Basically, though, you need to be within touching distance of Thea Lorentz to be sure, to be certain. But that alone isn’t enough. She’ll be wearing some kind of protection which will download her to a safe backup even in the instant of time it takes the blast to expand. We don’t know what that protection will be, although we believe she changes it regularly. But, whatever it is, it must be removed.
A blare of lights. A quietening of the murmurous audience as Northover steps out. Stands center stage. Reaches in his pocket. Starts tossing a coin. Which, when Thea emerges, he drops. The slight sound, along with her presence, rings out. One thing to rehearse, but this is something else. He’d forgotten, he really had, how Thea raises her game when you’re out here with her, and it’s up to you to try to keep up.
A clever idea that went back to Bard on Wheels, to re-reflect Hamlet through some of the scenes of Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, where two minor characters bicker and debate as the whole famous tragedy grinds on in the background. Northover doubts if this dumb, rich, dead audience get many of the references, but that really doesn’t matter when the thing flows as well as it does. Along with the jokes and witty wordplay, all the stuff about death, and life in a box being better than no life at all, gains a new resonance when it’s performed here on Farside. The audience are laughing fit to bust by the end of the sequence, but you can tell in the falls of silence that come between that they know something deeper and darker is really going on.
It’s the same when he turns to the piano, and Thea sings a few of Shakespeare’s jollier songs. For, as she says as she stands there alone in the spotlight and her face glows and those bangles slide upon her arms, the man that hath no music in himself, the motions of his spirit are dull as night. She even endows his arrangement of Under the Greenwood Tree, which he always thought too saccharine, with a bittersweet air.
This, Northover thinks, as they move on to the Emily Dickinson section—which, of course, is mostly about death—is why I have to do this thing. Not because Thea’s fake or because she doesn’t believe in what she’s doing. Not because she isn’t Thea Lorentz any longer and has been turned inside out by the dead apologists into some parasitic ghost. Not because what she does here at Elsinore is a sham. I must do this because she is, and always was, the treacherous dream of some higher vision of humanity, and people will only ever wake up and begin to shake off their shackles when they realize that living is really about forgetting such illusions, and looking around them, and picking up a fucking broom and clearing up the mess of the world themselves. The dead take our power, certainly—both physically and figuratively. The reactors that drive the Farside engines use resources and technologies the living can barely afford. Their clever systems subvert and subsume our own. They take our money, too. Masses and masses of it. Who’d have thought that an entirely virtual economy could do so much better than one that’s supposedly real? But what they really take from us, and the illusion that Thea Lorentz will continue to foster as long as she continues to exist, is hope.
Because I did not stop for death . . . Not knowing when the dawn will come, I open every door . . . It all rings so true. You could cut the air with a knife. You could pull down the walls of the world. Poor Emily Dickinson, stuck in that homestead with her dying mother and that sparse yet volcanic talent that no one even knew about. Then, and just when the audience are probably expecting something lighter to finish off, it’s back to Hamlet, and sad, mad Ophelia’s songs—which are scattered about the play just as she is; a wandering, hopeless, hopeful ghost—although Northover has gathered them together as a poignant posy in what he reckons is some of his best work. Thea knows it as well. Her instincts for these things are more honed than his ever were. After all, she’s a trouper. A legend. She’s Thea Lorentz. She holds and holds the audience as new silence falls. Then, just as she did in rehearsal, she slides the bangles off her arm, and places them atop the piano, where they lie bright as rain circles in a puddle.
“Keep this low and slow and quiet,” she murmurs, just loud enough for everyone in the hall to hear as she steps back to the main mic. He lays his hands on the keys. Waits, just as they always did, for the absolute stilling of the last cough, mutter, and shuffle. Plays the chords that rise and mingle with her perfect, perfect voice. The lights shine down on them from out of sheer blackness, and it’s goodnight, sweet ladies, and rosemary for remembrance, which bewept along the primrose path to the grave where I did go . . .
As the last chord dies, the audience erupts. Thea Lorentz nods, bows, smiles as the applause washes over her in great, sonorous, adoring waves. It’s just the way it always was. The spotlight loves her, and Northover sits at the piano for what feels like a very long time. Forgotten. Ignored. It would seem churlish for him not to clap as well. So he does. But Thea knows the timing of these things better than anyone, and the crowd loves it all the more when, the bangles looped where she left them on the piano, she beckons him over. He stands up. Crosses the little stage to join her in the spotlight. Her bare left arm slips easy around his waist as he bows. This could be Carnegie Hall. This could be the Bolshoi. The manacling weight of the Rolex drags at his wrist. Thea smells of patchouli and of Thea, and the play’s the thing, and there could not, never could be, a better moment. There’s even Sam Bartleby, who sat grinning but pissed-off right there in the front row and well within range of the blast.
They bow again, thankyouthankyouthankyou, and by now Thea’s holding him surprisingly tightly, and it’s difficult for him to reach casually around to the Rolex, even though he knows it must be done. Conscience doth make cowards of us all, but the time for doubt is gone, and he’s just about to pull and turn the crown of his watch when Thea murmurs something toward his ear which, in all this continuing racket, is surely intended only for him.
“What?” he shouts back.
Her hand cups his ear more closely. Her breath, her entire seemingly living body, leans into him. Surely one of those bon mots that performers share with each other in times of triumph such as this. Just something else that the crowds love to see.
“Why don’t you do it now?” Thea Lorentz says to Jon Northover. “What’s stopping you . . . ?”
He’s standing out on the moonlit battlements. He doesn’t know how much time has passed, but his body is coated in sweat and his hands are trembling and his ears still seem to be ringing and his head hurts. Performance come-down to end all performance come-downs, and surely it’s only a matter of minutes before Sam Bartleby, or perhaps Kasaya, or whatever kind of amazing Farside device it is that really works the security here at Elsinore, comes to get him. Perhaps not even that. Maybe he’ll just vanish. Would that be so terrible? But then, they have cellars here at Elsinore. Dungeons, even. Put to the question. Matters of concern and interest. Things they need to know. He wonders how much full-on pain a young, fit body such as the one he now inhabits is capable of bearing . . . He fingers the Rolex, and studies the drop, but somehow he can’t bring himself to do it.
When someone does come, it’s Thea Lorentz. Stepping out from the shadows into the spotlight glare of the moon. He sees that she’s still not wearing those bangles, but she keeps further back from him now, and he knows it’s already too late.
“What made you realize?”
She shrugs. Shivers. Pulls down her sleeves. “Wasn’t it one of the first things I said to you? That you were too principled to ever come here?”
“That was what I used to think as well.”
“Then what made you change your mind?”
Her eyes look sadder than ever. More compassionate. He wants to bury his face in her hair. After all, Thea could always get more out of him than anyone. So he tells her about mad old Northy, with that wrecked piano he’d found in what had once been a rooftop bar up in his eyrie above the commune, which he’d spent his time restoring because what else was there to do? Last working piano in London, or England, most likely. Or the whole fucking world come to that. Not that it was ever that much of a great shakes. Nothing like here. Cheaply built in Mexico of all places. But then this kid called Haru comes up, and he says he’s curious about music, and he asks Northy to show him his machine for playing it, and Northy trusts the kid, which feels like a huge risk. Even that first time he sits Haru down at it, though, he knows he’s something special. He just has that air.
“And you know, Thea . . . ” Northover finds he’s actually laughing. “You know what the biggest joke is? Haru didn’t even realize. He could read music quicker than I can read words, and play like Chopin and Chick Corea, and to him it was all just this lark of a thing he sometimes did with this mad old git up on the fortieth floor . . .
“But he was growing older. Kids still do, you know, back on Lifeside. And one day he’s not there, and when he does next turn up, there’s this girl downstairs who’s apparently the most amazing thing in the history of everything, and I shout at him and tell him just how fucking brilliant he really is. I probably even used the phrase God-given talent, whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean. But anyway . . . ”
Northover sighs. This is the hard bit, even though he’s played it over a million times in his head. “They become a couple, and she soon gets pregnant, and she has a healthy baby, even though they seem ridiculously young. A kind of miracle. They’re so proud they even take the kid up to show me, and he plongs his little hands on my piano, and I wonder if he’ll come up one day to see old Northy, too. Given a few years, and assuming old Northy is still alive, that is, which is less than likely. But that isn’t how it happens. The baby gets sick. It’s winter and there’s an epidemic of some new variant of the nano flu. Not to say there isn’t a cure. But the cure needs money—I mean, you know what these retrovirals cost better than anyone, Thea—which they simply don’t have. And this is why I should have kept my big old mouth shut, because Haru must have remembered what I yelled at him about his rare, exceptional musical ability. And he decides his baby’s only just starting on his life, and he’s had a good innings of eighteen or so years. And if there’s something he can do, some sacrifice he can make for his kid . . . So that’s what he does . . . ”
“Oh, come on, Thea! I know it’s not legal, either Lifeside or here. But we both know it goes on. Everything has its price, especially talent. And the dead have more than enough vanity and time, if not the application, to fancy themselves as brilliant musicians, just the same way they might want to ride an expensive thoroughbred, or fuck like Casanova, or paint like Picasso. So Haru sold himself, or the little bit that someone here wanted, and the baby survived and he didn’t. It’s not that unusual a story, Thea, in the great scheme of things. But it’s different, when it happens to someone you know, and you feel you’re to blame.”
“I’m sorry,” she says.
“Do you think that’s enough?”
“Nothing’s ever enough. But do you really believe that whatever arm of the resistance you made contact with actually wanted me, Thea Lorentz, fully dead? What about the reprisals? What about the global outpouring of grief? What about all the inevitable, endless let’s-do-this-for-Thea bullshit? Don’t you think it would suit the interests of Farside itself far better to remove this awkward woman who makes unfashionable causes fashionable and brings attention to unwanted truths? Wouldn’t they prefer to extinguish Thea Lorentz and turn her into a pure symbol they can manipulate and market however they wish? Wouldn’t that make far better sense than whatever it was you thought you were doing?”
The sea heaves. The whole night heaves with it.
“If you want to kill me, Jon, you can do so now. But I don’t think you will. You can’t, can you? That’s where the true weakness of whoever conceived you and this plan lies. You had to be what you are, or were, to get this close to me. You had to have free will, or at least the illusion of it . . . ”
“What the hell are you saying?”
“I’m sorry. You might think you’re Jon Northover—in fact, I’m sure you do—but you’re not. You’re not him really.”
“No. Hear me out. You and I both know in our hearts that the real Jon Northover wouldn’t be here on Farside. He’d have seen through the things I’ve just explained to you, even if he had ever contemplated actively joining the resistance. But that isn’t it, either. Not really. I loved you, Jon Northover. Loved him. It’s gone, of course, but I’ve treasured the memories. Turned them and polished them, I suppose. Made them into something realer and clearer than ever existed. This afternoon, for instance. It was all too perfect. You haven’t changed, Jon. You haven’t changed at all. People, real people, either dead or living, they shift and they alter like ghosts in reflection, but you haven’t. You stepped out of my past, and there you were, and I’m so, so, sorry to have to tell you these things, for I fully believe that you’re a conscious entity that feels pain and doubt just like all the rest of us. But the real Jon Northover is most likely long dead. He’s probably lying in some mass grave. He’s just another lost statistic. He’s gone beyond all recovery, Jon, and I mourn for him deeply. All you are is something that’s been put together from my stolen memories. You’re too, too perfect.”
“You’re just saying that. You don’t know.”
“But I do. That’s the difference between us. One day, perhaps, chimeras such as you will share the same rights as the dead, not to mention the living. But that’s one campaign too far even for Thea Lorentz—at least, while she still has some control over her own consciousness. But I think you know, or at least you think you do, how to tune a piano. Do you know what inharmonicity is?”
“Of course I do, Thea. It was me who told you about it. If the tone of a piano’s going to sound right, you can’t tune all the individual strings to exactly the correct pitch. You have to balance them out slightly to the sharp or the flat. Essentially, you tune a piano ever so marginally out of tune, because of the way the strings vibrate and react. Which is imperfectly . . . Which is . . . I mean . . . Which is . . . ”
He trails off. A flag flaps. The clouds hang ragged. Cold moonlight pours down like silver sleet. Thea’s face, when he brings himself to look at it, seems more beautiful than ever.
The trees of Farside are magnificent. Fireash and oak. Greenbloom and maple. Shot through with every color of autumn as dawn blazes toward the white peaks of the Seven Mountains. He’s never seen such beauty as this. The tide’s further in today. Its salt smell, as he winds down the window and breathes it in, is somehow incredibly poignant. Then the road sweeps up from the coast. Away from the Westering Ocean. As the virtual Bentley takes a bridge over a gorge at a tire-scream, it dissolves in a roaring pulse of flame.
A few machine parts twist jaggedly upward, but they settle as the wind bears away the sound and the smoke. Soon, there’s only sigh of the trees, and the hiss of a nearby waterfall. Then, there’s nothing at all.
Originally published in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, September 2013.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ian R MacLeod has been writing and selling stories and novels of speculative and fantastic fiction for almost thirty years. Amongst many accolades, his work has won the Arthur C Clarke Award, the World Fantasy Award (twice) and the Sidewise Award for alternate fiction (three times). He took a Law degree and drifted into the English Civil Service, but writing was always his first love and ambition. He has recently released a short story collection, Frost On Glass, and has a new novel, Red Snow, due out shortly.He lives in the riverside town of Bewdley, in the United Kingdom.
Also by this Author
PURCHASE THIS ISSUE:
ISSN 1937-7843 Clarkesworld Magazine © 2006-2015 Wyrm Publishing. Robot illustration by Serj Iulian.