Vacancy and ariel, p.9

Vacancy & Ariel, page 9


Vacancy & Ariel

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  His vision clouds, his eyes are failing or perhaps they are occluded by a pale exhaust, a cloud-like shadow of the thing draining from him, for he glimpses furtive shapes and vague lusters within the cloud; but they are unimportant—the one wish he sustains, the one issue left upon which he can opine, is that she be done with him, and he knows that she is nearly done. His being flickers like a shape on a silent screen, luminous and frail. But then she dwindles, she folds in upon herself, shrinking to a point of blue light, and is gone. Her absence restores to him an inch of will, an ounce of sensitivity, yet he’s not grateful. Why has she left him capable of feeling only a numb horror and his own hollowness? He wants to call her back, but has no voice. In frustration, he strains against his unreal bonds, causing his head to wobble and fall, and sits staring at his feet. Sluggish, simple thoughts hang like drool from the mouth of whatever dead process formed them, the final products of his mental life.

  After a while, an eon, a second, he realizes that the pain has diminished, his vitality is returning, and manages to lift his head when he hears a click and sees the door being cautiously opened. A woman with frizzy blond hair peeks in. He knows her—not her name, but he knows her and has the urge to warn her against something.

  “Cliff!” she says, relief in her voice, and starts toward him, bursting through the door.

  Two explosions, two blasts of fire, splinter the wood and fling her against the wall, painting it with a shrapnel of blood, hair, scraps of flesh and bone. She flops onto the floor, an almost unrecognizable wreckage, face torn away, waist all but severed, blood pooling wide as a table around her. But Cliff recognizes her. He remembers her name, and he begins to remember who she was and why she was here and what happened to her. He remembers nights and days, he remembers laughter, the taste of her mouth, and he wants to turn from this grisly sight, from the burnt eye and the gristly tendons and the thick reddish black syrup they’re steeping in. He wants to yell until his throat is raw, until blood sprays from his mouth; he wants to shake his head back and forth like a madman until his neck breaks; he wants very badly to die.

  From outside comes the sound of voices, questioning voices, muted voices, and then a scream. Cliff understands now how this will end. The police, a murder trial, and a confinement followed by an execution. As Marley recedes from life, from the world, he is re-entering it, reclaiming his senses, his memories, and he struggles against this restoration, trying with all his might to die, trying to avoid an emptiness greater than death, but with every passing moment he increases, he grows steadier and more complete in his understanding. He understands that the law of karma has been fully applied. He understands the careless iniquity of humankind and the path that has led him to this terrible blue room. With understanding comes further increase, further renewal, yet nonetheless he continues to try and vomit out the remnant scrapings of his soul before Shalin returns to gloat, before one more drop of torment can be exacted, before his memories become so poignant they can pierce the deadest heart. He yearns for oblivion, and then thinks that death may not offer it, that in death he may find worse than Shalin, a life of exquisite torment. That in mind, he forces himself to look again at Marley’s disfigured face, hoping to discover in that mask of ruptured sinews and blackened tissue, with here and there a patch of skull, and, where her neck was, amidst the gore, the blue tip of an artery dangling like a blossom from a flap of scorched skin…hoping to discover an out, a means of egress, a crevice into which he can scurry and hide from the light of his own unpitying judgment. He forces himself to drink in the sight of her death; he forces himself and forces himself, denying the instinct to turn away; he forces himself to note every insult to her flesh, every fray and tatter, every internal vileness; he forces himself past the borders of revulsion, past the fear-and-trembling into deserts of thought, the wastes where the oldest monsters howl in the absence; he forces himself to persevere, to continue searching for a key to this doorless prison until thick strands of saliva braid his lips and his hands have ceased to shake and cracked saints mutter prayers for the damned and blood rises in clouds of light from the floor, and in a pocket of electric quiet he begins to hear the voice of her accusatory thoughts, to respond to them, defending himself by arguing that it was she who originally forced herself on him, and how could he have anticipated any of this, how can she blame him? You should have known, she tells him, you should have fucking known that someone like you, a jerk with a trivial intelligence and the morals of a cabbage and a blithe disregard for everything but his own pleasure, must have broken some hearts and stepped on some backs. You should have known. Yeah, he says, but all that’s changed. I’ve changed. With a last glimmer of self-perception, he realizes this slippage is the start of slide that will never end, the opening into a hell less certain than the one that waits upon the other side of life. He feels an unquiet exultation, a giddy merriment that makes him dizzy and, if not happy, then content in part, knowing that when they come for him, the official mourners, the takers under, the guardians of the public safety, those who command the cold violence of the law, they’ll find him looking into death’s bad eye, into the ruined face of love, into the nothing-lasts-forever, smiling bleakly, blankly…



  Lucius Shepard

  For many of us, the Ace Double Novels of the ’50s and ’60s have long been a source both of pleasure and nostalgia. This new double volume from Subterranean Press stands squarely in that distinguished tradition, offering a pair of colorful, fast-paced novellas from one of the finest writers currently working in any genre: Lucius Shepard.

  Ariel brilliantly transmutes some traditional SF concepts—alien incursions, the mysteries of quantum physics—into an astonishing, often moving reflection on love and obsession, memory and identity, and the archetypal conflict that stands at the heart of an infinite multitude of worlds.

  Vacancy & Ariel Copyright © 2009 by Lucius Shepard.

  All rights reserved.

  “Ariel” Copyright © 2003. First appeared in Asimov’s.

  Dust jacket and interior illustrations Copyright © 2009

  by J.K. Potter. All rights reserved.

  Interior design Copyright © 2009 by Desert Isle Design, LLC.

  All rights reserved.

  First Edition



  Subterranean Press

  PO Box 190106

  Burton, MI 48519


  WHEN I WAS a younger and more impulsive man, I took a nihilistic delight in the denial of God and the virtues of family, of social and religious virtues of any kind. I believed them to be lies told the ignorant in order to pacify them, and to a great degree I still believe this. I held to the conviction that all life was at heart the expression of an infantile natural fury, that any meaning attributed to it was imposed and not implicit, and that any striving was in essence a refusal to accept the fact of hopelessness. I waved the banner of these views despite exulting in the joys of my young life and seeking to disprove on a personal level the dry, negative philosophies that I publicly espoused. Now, less certain of the world, I have set down that banner and am content with a quiet cynicism, an attitude forced upon me by an event whose nature—though I pretend to understand it—has complicated the world beyond my capacity to absorb. My conception of reality has been enlarged to incorporate an element of predestination, to accept that there is if not a force that controls our lives, then at least a grand design, a template into which all our actions are contrived to fit. Perhaps it is a nihilistic force, perhaps it has a different end. One way or another, we are creatures made of fate.

  At the age of nineteen, while a student at Cal Tech, stoned on a quantity of excellent post-Taliban Afghani hash, I jotted down a series of mathematical propositions—fantasies, really—that soon thereafter was turned into breakthrough work by my best friend, Rahul Osauri. Those few minutes of inspired scribbling comp
rise the sum of my experience of the world of genius, but Rahul, born in India on the Malabar Coast, was a genius every waking moment of his life. He understood what I had merely glimpsed and with my permission, for I perceived no great value in what I had done, he set to work investigating the potentials of my crude conception and not only crafted of it a new model of the universe, but devised engineering applications that enabled the exploration of territories whose existence until that point had been purely speculative. Seven years later he died when the classified project informed by my moment of inspiration was destroyed in an explosion. I was at the time an associate professor of history at the University of Michigan (I had dropped my physics major and transferred to UCLA during my junior year in order to pursue a brunette coed with beautiful legs) and ten days after Rahul’s death, in early December, I was summoned to a meeting with Patrick Karlan, the head of the department. On entering his office I found two men waiting, neither of them Professor Karlan and both radiating a police vibe, causing me to speculate that the sophomore with whom I’d had an affair the previous semester had spilled the beans. The older of the two, a gray-haired patrician sort wearing pinstripes and a foulard tie, surveyed me with an expression of undisguised distaste, taking in my long hair and jeans and patched car coat. He asked if I was the Richard Cyrus who had attended Cal Tech with Rahul Osauri.

  “Dick Cyrus,” I said. “Nobody’s called me Richard since grammar school.”

  The gray-haired man stared at me incuriously.

  “I hate the name Richard,” I went on, growing more nervous by the second and talking in order to conceal it. “It’s a kid thing, y’know. There was this quarterback at Georgia. Richard Wycliff. He killed the University of Florida four straight years. I hated the bastard.”

  “Very well. Dick.”

  “I asked my dad if I could change my name to Frank,” I said, trying to be disingenuously friendly. “Didn’t go over too well, so I settled on Dick.”

  “Excellent choice,” said the second man with more than a little sarcasm.

  The gray-haired man introduced himself as Paul Capuano and offered credentials that established him as an official with the NSC. He did not bother to introduce the second and younger man, who stood attentive at his shoulder throughout the interview—less an aide, it appeared, than a slim blue-suited accessory—and he cautioned me that everything said would be privy to the Official Secrets Act, briefed me on the penalties I risked should I breach security, and began to question me about my relationship with Rahul and my involvement with his work.

  “You’ve made quite a lot of money as a result of your youthful indiscretions,” Capuano said after we had done with the preliminaries.

  “I don’t consider smoking a bowl of hash that much of an indiscretion,” I said. “As for the money, I came up with the basic concept—Rahul thought I should share in any profits resulting from his patents. I never expected there would be any practical applications.”

  Sitting in Professor Karlan’s chair, Capuano studied me coldly from across the desk and I felt a twinge of paranoia. “Something wrong with my having profited?” I asked.

  “There’s a question as to whether the patents were modified after Osauri began working for the government. Though the devices themselves have nothing to do with the project, it’s possible there may be some technical problem with legality.”

  I understood from this that nothing was wrong with the patents—I was being threatened, and none too subtly.

  “What do you want?” I asked. “I don’t know anything about your project.”

  “That’s not altogether true.” Capuano removed a folded sheet of paper from the inside pocket of his jacket and read from it: “‘I bet I know what you’re doing. I imagine the project to be something like an arcade machine. You know, the ones with the toy crane mounted in a plastic cube that you manipulate with a joystick, trying to snag a wristwatch from a heap of cheap pins and rings and combs.’” He glanced up at me. “Recognize it?”

  “Yeah. It’s an email I sent Rahul. But he never responded. He certainly never said I was right.”

  “We know that.” Capuano’s haughty tone suggested that there was little that “we” did not know. “Nevertheless, it demonstrates that you understood what he was up to.”

  “I was Rahul’s friend,” I said. “I know what excited him about the idea. It wasn’t tough to figure out what he’d try to do. But understand his work? I don’t think so. Rahul was on another plane, man. I couldn’t even follow his first equations. They might have been magic spells for all I knew.”

  “We’re having the same difficulty. Dr. Osauri left coded notes. But”—his smile was thin as a paper cut—“we’ll get it eventually.”

  “The other scientists on the project…”

  “All dead. Computer files obliterated. It was a very large explosion.” Another smile, as if he found the idea of very large explosions heart-warming.

  He picked up a remote from the desktop and switched on Professor Karlan’s television, a flat panel screen mounted on a side wall. “We’ve prepared something for you to watch. I remind you, things will go badly if you reveal one detail of what you’re about to see.”

  An instant later the screen flickered, then displayed a low altitude aerial shot of what looked to be an old bomb crater, its sides scoured clean of vegetation, with a concrete bunker set at the bottom. Atop the bunker was a microwave array. Surrounding this depression was a dense growth of brush and young trees, all lightly dusted with snow.

  “This is Tuttle’s Hollow in the Alleghenies,” said Capuano, pausing the disc. “The lack of vegetation in the hollow is due to a heavy use of microwave radiation. Your friend was using a sophisticated version of your toy crane, a scoop made of bonded particles, to pluck objects from other dimensions.”

  “Other universes,” I said. “At least that was the gist of my idea. That there are an infinite number of universes diverging on the quantum level. Constantly separating and combining.”

  “Fine…universes,” Capuano said. “Most of what Osauri brought back were small bits of flora and fauna. They were photographed and then microwaved out of existence to prevent contagion. But to continue your metaphor, one day they snagged the wristwatch.”

  He fast-forwarded, and the image of a monitor screen appeared; the picture displayed on the screen was a shifting map of fiery many-colored dots, but within them I made out a shape described in faint tracer lines of reddish-orange light. A winged shape with a rounded section atop it.

  “We think it’s a vehicle,” Capuano said.

  “Why would you think that? It could be anything.”

  He fast-forwarded again. “This is post-explosion. Keep your eye on the bottom of the hollow.”

  The hollow looked even more like a crater, wisps of smoke rising from every surface. The bunker had vanished. I could see nothing worth notice—then I spotted movement beneath the smoke. Seconds later, a figure leaped from the smoke, landing atop a boulder that projected from the side of the hollow about halfway up. A leap, I’d estimate, of some fifty feet. The figure crouched there a moment. A tall biped, perhaps eight feet and a little more. Anthropomorphic, but incredibly thin. Spidery arms and legs. And, judging by its swelling chest and flaring hips, a female. Either it wore a form-fitting garment of grayish-white material or else that was the color of its skin. Its face was indistinguishable, its hair black and trimmed close to the scalp. In one of its hands was a red pack or case. As I watched it made a second leap that carried it to the rim of the hollow, where it crouched for several seconds more before striding into the brush.

  “All right!” I said. “ET!”

  “Exactly,” said Capuano. “We’ve combed the area and haven’t found a trace of her.”

  I had a thought. “She might not look the same when you find her.”

  “Why’s that?”

  “It’s only a hypothesis. But since so much of the idea has proved out, maybe it’s worth mentioning.”

sp; “Please,” Capuano said. “Mention it.”

  “Ever hear of Springheel Jack?”

  He shook his head.

  “Springheel Jack was the inspiration for my idea. I can’t recall the date when he initially appeared, but it was in Victorian England. People reported seeing an unnaturally tall, thin, deformed figure who could leap over rooftops. Over the years he continued to appear, and the interesting thing is that the reports, instead of getting wilder…you know how people exaggerate. Like when somebody sees a UFO? The next day someone else sees ten. Bigger ones. And the next person sees fifty. Well, in Jack’s case each subsequent sighting described him as being more and more human and increasingly less capable of superhuman feats. So when Rahul and I were refining my idea, we decided it was likely that all the universes would be strongly anthropic. In other words, the observer creates reality.”

  “I know what ‘anthropic’ means,” said Capuano with a touch of defensiveness.

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