Short Story Study 1: Support Material
Welcome to the support material for Short Story Study 1. We've put extra short stories which will extend your reading experience and skills of analysis as you work through the stories in the texbook.
When our first child was born, my wife asked me to promise that we would never lie to him. This struck me as rather an odd request, but since she was still labour-sweaty and clutching the crumpled little scrap of our combined genes, I agreed and went away to buy her some flowers. It never occurred to me that it had been anything other than a hormone-induced moment of neurosis until our son Tom was six, and I came upon her explaining to him that lying was a bad thing to do to other people and threw a moral shadow over the self (not in those words, of course, but to that effect).
‘You’ve broken your promise,’ she said later that evening. ‘You’ve been telling him lies. You absolutely promised you wouldn’t, Nick, you know you did.’
‘What lies?’ I said. ‘I don’t recall telling him anything other than what was either factual or so subjective that it hardly matters.’
She threw her hands up. ‘You told him that you’d done ten years hard labour in Wormwood Scrubs and escaped by pretending to be the prison matron.’
‘That’s a story, not a lie,’ I said defensively. ‘And I make my living writing things like that. Rather a good living too.’
‘You write stories for adults,’ she said, sounding skeptical of my readership’s maturity, ‘but you promised you’d tell the truth to our son.’
‘I don’t know what you’re fussing about,’ I said. ‘One of the many things that children lack nowadays is the presence of at least one flagrant liar in their lives. I’m not talking about tuppeny-ha’penny liars, but ones of real polish. The star-spangled liar that goes the whole hog with a lie. No half measures. They should be made National Treasures or whatever, like that baking woman on telly. One really good fiction is at least as beneficial for you as a sponge cake. They make life worth living.’
‘They make a trail of chaos wherever they go,’ she said. ‘Children don’t know what to believe. And they tell their primary teachers that their father is a convicted felon who can’t come to the school play because he’s with his parole officer.’
‘Not knowing what to believe is the human condition. At least children have several interesting lies to choose from. And anyway, it’s only a problem for primary teachers who actually listen to children. Mine never did. I always thought it was how they kept their sanity, not listening to us.’
‘I can’t think how you got like this,’ she said. ‘Your parents are so normal. You were relatively normal until Tom was born. You had your moments, I admit – like telling the vicar that you’d once been woman and would it be a problem if both of us turned up for the wedding in a dress – but I always managed to laugh it off. Now I’m worried that it’s going to affect Tom somehow.’
‘You mean, give him an imagination? Heaven forbid,’ I said.
‘He’s at a crucial developmental stage,’ she said, prissily.
‘For goodness sake. You sound like one of those woeful child head-shrinking books that turn out kids like your nephew. He’s a pitiable little scrap of no fun at all. And anyway, I’m like this because my parents are so bloody normal. At least we had Bixbite. Now there was a liar for the ages.’
My wife snorted and went to sleep. She managed to radiate displeasure even when she was unconscious. I lay awake and thought about my Great Aunt Bixbite, my paternal grandmother’s sister. I have always been grateful to Bixbite, whose singular talent had been a dogged evasion of the truth whenever it reared its head. That, and very large earrings. She gave her address as Copper Gulch Homestead in the Wah Wah Mountains of Utah and correspondence always seemed to reach her. Or it didn’t and she wasn’t bothered about it. She had told my own primary teacher that I was really a member of the deposed royal house of Romania, being brought up in the safety of dullest Peckham so that I could overthrow Ceacescu and reclaim my throne. Mrs Wilmot had been sworn to secrecy – which she breached regularly until the secret reached my mother’s ears and was hastily set right.
Bixbite must have been in her seventies when I was a child, so I was in the fortunate position of never knowing much about her earlier life. It was, therefore, a blank canvas on which she could embroider the most complete and outrageous fictions. Children are extremely shrewd; I knew that they were lies even when she was telling them, but it seemed both natural and appropriate to believe them not because they were factually plausible, but because she was so committed to telling them. And she brooked no disbelief. As an adult, I’ve frequently seen people in many walks of life glide across a total lack of skill, assets, and benefit to others on the basis of commitment to their own self-image, and I still don’t see any difference between that and what Bixbite did. At least she wasn’t trying to sell houses, or trade mortgage-backed securities, or flog used cars.
My boringly normal parents found Bixbite’s Christmas visit an annual nightmare. Once she announced that she was going to Afghanistan to fight the Soviet occupation with the Mujahadeen and had therefore decided to leave her money to a donkey sanctuary in Plymouth. My mother was drinking what she called ‘Christmas tea’ – Twinings fortified with sherry, a tradition which was abandoned after Bixbite’s death – and staring at the toast rack as Bixbite explained how she planned to find her contact in the Khyber Pass. When she departed on New Year’s day my parents spent the afternoon getting quite drunk and reminding my brother and I that truth and sobriety were virtues, and that the company of people like Bixbite encouraged neither.
I adored her. She was about five foot three with the green eyes of a witch and a great rope of silver hair which she wore in a long plait wound around her head. Although I understand from my father that she was beautiful as a young woman, she cultivated a rather forbidding countenance in later life. She looked as if her greatest pleasure came from supervising the vicarage bring-and-buy sale. You knew that she was about to come out with an absolute peach of falsity when she fixed her great green eyes on you and spoke very slowly and clearly. It was impossible to look away from that gaze, which made you feel like water swirling around the plughole in a great gurgling suck.
She met my wife just after we had begun going out at university. I was rather disappointed to find that my wife agreed with my mother about Bixbite’s effect on my imagination.
‘Is her name really Bixbite?’ my wife-to-be had said.
‘No,’ I said shortly. ‘It’s actually Marigold. Marigold Crichton. But she’s Great Aunt Bixbite to you and me.’
‘Because that is what she wants to be called,’ I said, wondering if my girlfriend, who was perfect in all other respects, was a secret agent of my mother’s.
Shortly after graduating, I sold my first novel, which involved an elderly woman who reclaims her youth by going to Soviet Afghanistan to fight with the Mujahadeen, where she dies a glorious death. The Times called it an ‘exhilarating yarn reminiscent of Greene’. Bixbite sent me a note of congratulations saying that she had enjoyed it, though she couldn’t imagine where I had got such ideas.
Soon after my second novel appeared, I received a phone call from the police in Gloucester. Bixbite had been knocked down by a Post Office van and killed. I went to the local hospital to collect her things and to arrange for her body to be buried. She looked small and fragile and emptied, denuded of the shield of jaw-dropping lies which had protected her from the insults of life, British weather, boring primary teachers – but not Post Office vans. The paperwork concerning Mrs Marigold Crichton, of the Mill Place retirement village (‘Supporting you in dignity and luxury through your golden years’), who had had breast cancer twice, a hip replacement, and an overdue library book (The Shell Seekers, by Rosamund Pilcher – the only thing I found ignoble and embarrassing about Bixbite), I burned as soon as I could since it seemed to have nothing to do with the woman who had set me on the writer’s path. She was buried in Peckham cemetery, where I could keep an eye on her, and I insisted on a sumptuous monument in white marble which cost a fortune and would inconvenience everyone else in the cemetery row. On it, I had inscribed:
Beloved Aunt of Thomas and Great Aunt of Nicholas
Of Copper Gulch Homestead
Wah Wah Mountains, UT
I must go down to the sea again
The first babies born with it were surgically corrected. It was a minor interdigital anomaly and not that unusual, said paediatric surgeons. We had once had fins, which became wings, then arms, and finally mammalian fingers, so the reappearance of webbing between the fingers was nothing new. In regional conferences, surgeons surprised each other with the number of children showing such a reappearance, but the journals did not make a connection between this atavism and the fact that nine-tenths of the affected babies were born in island nations quickly being submerged by the rising seas.
It was only when children began to be born in landlocked countries like Nepal, Kazakhstan, and Bolivia, with undeniable signs of some devolutionary process, of their cells feeling that they must go down to the sea again, that relevant agencies took it seriously. In a world reduced to one of two responses – civil disobedience or lipid apathy – no one knew quite how to respond to these new creatures (or rather, extremely old creatures, which had reinserted themselves into family trees like a bad driver coming up the hard shoulder, determined to push in). The children had functional lungs and could use their extremities as either hand or fin, so there was no immediate reason to panic.
Different nations responded differently. The Oceanic Federation, where most of the first children had been born, realized that the children were functional on land but thrived in the water. Released into the ocean, they formed schools and shoals around the age of six, and largely left their parents. With the fishing industry dead anyway, the OFe government banned fishing in its waters and mostly left them to it. Persistent parents tried to track their children with solar-powered drones that buzzed about the insatiable Pacific like a cloud of flies, but the children did not like this. They would lure the drones to water level with the promise of a wave or kiss for landlubberish parents, before dismembering and drowning the drones.
The Chinerican Union responded commercially. Within months a range of products under the brand My Little Atavism was launched. The wealthy could feed, clothe, accessorize, track, and share the growth of their merkids. The poor equipped theirs with harpoons, and there were a few mass-harpoonings in the schools of the fish-children. Those religious figures who had railed against the idea of evolution now saw, variously, vindication and divine judgment in the babies made in the image of some fish-god.
It was difficult to taxonomise the fish that mankind was returning to. Apart from the Chinerican children, whose aberrant violence was a product of culture – they had been exposed to violent television and the strange doctrine of the individual, which had rightly proven too much for their ichthyian brains – the new generation of human-fish were more admirable than their parents.
They were peaceful, community-minded, and as frugal in satisfying their limited needs as their human ancestors had been spendthrift. They made their own entertainment without resort to, or understanding of, the problems of speech, vicariousness, or electricity. It was difficult to tell whether they had the capacity for abstract thought; the children became increasingly private as they grew, until one morning a window, a front door, would be found open and the child gone, down to the sea which called them so ineluctably.
Biologists predicted an eventual diversity of species and subspecies. The chordata diversified into vertebrate and invertebrate, and vertebrate to jawless fishes, tetrapods, bony fishes and so on. So these children’s offspring would eventually diversify into different species, like a remix of the evolutionary chart-topper, homo sapiens. Nobody mentioned what would happen when there inevitably came the equivalent of a shark.
David had wanted Elisa to sit beside him, but in the general rush to the Thanksgiving table a line of scrimmage was established between them. He looked sadly at her over the dinner rolls, squashed between large blonde cousins, her long black plaits and turquoise earings like a pool in black sands. His heart sank when he saw his youngest sister Chloe swap seats to get beside Elisa, and still further when he heard her say, 'So you're a Navajo? But you're, like, so white.'
David forbore from saying that Chloe looked human and that appearances could therefore be deceiving. Elisa's smile was beginning to freeze on her face. She had already sat in stolid silence while his Great Aunt explained the framed 1950s record covers, which had been designed by a relative whose lack of talent was almost dizzying, and which were the family's joke heirlooms. It had been tacitly agreed that Thanksgiving grace would be omitted lest Great Aunt make known more of her nineteenth-century views about Providence, Gratitude, and the American Obligation to Civilize the West (or south-west, as New Mexico was).
'Do you have a cool name?' Chloe ploughed on relentlessly. 'You know, like Big Chief Little Feather or something?'
'Chloe,' David said menacingly.
'Actually, I do,' said Elisa. 'It's Pocahontas Redskin Tumbling Buffalo.' She sighed. 'Some people were against it, but my parents were, like, really native, you know? Sometimes it was hard to get all our names in the wigwam. Powwows were over before they'd announced the whole family.'
David's mother shook with silent laughter. 'I'm just interested,' said Chloe petulantly. 'Not all of us can be cool minorities.' She reached for the spinach with an oddly showy gesture as David made I-am-so-sorry and I-will-make-this-up-to-you signs to Elisa.
'That's quite a sparkler,' said his other sister, Hayden. 'Is it real?'
Chloe preened. 'I'm glad someone noticed. I thought I was going to be reaching for stuff all night. Of course it's real. It's a Tiffany. It's a little present to me.'
'I think it's lovely,' said Great Aunt. 'Really elegant. Meaningful. It'll be an heirloom.' For a horrendous moment David thought she was going to explain the word to Elisa. She contented herself with saying, 'They last a lot longer than blankets.'
'What on earth for?' said Hayden to her sister.
'To remind me that I made it,' said Chloe indignantly. David buried his head in his hands. 'I love diamonds,' said Chloe. She turned to Elisa and gestured with her fork to the heavy silver and turquoise necklace. 'Although yours is also nice. Is it indian turquoise?' She managed to pronounce it injun.
'It's a squash blossom necklace, isn't it?' said David's father, glaring at his youngest daughter.
Elisa nodded. 'It's over a hundred years old.'
'Wow,' said Hayden. 'That must be incredibly valuable.' Chloe began to make huffing noises at the Tiffany end of the table. 'How did you come to have it?'
'The first of our people to learn silversmithing was Atsidi Sani, who learned from a Mexican called Nakai Tsosi. Atsidi passed the knowledge to his four sons: Big Black, Red Smith, Little Smith, and Burnt Whiskers, and to his brother, Slender Maker of Silver. My great-grandmother was Slender Maker of Silver's wife. This necklace was my mother's gift to me. It's silver and turquoise from our family to remind me that we've always made it.'
There was the sublime silence of a point having been made. 'Fine,' said Chloe sulkily. 'I get it. Story with a moral. Like how Magpie caught the sun or something.'
'Raven,' said Hayley.
'I've got a headache,' her sister said. 'I'm going to lie down.' She departed the table in a waft of French perfume, Great Aunt in tow.
'Let's give thanks,' said Hayley.
It was Daze's idea; Arj and me, we were just the followers, so we got a different kind of counselling, without the shots and the deep-fried implant treatment. I still don't know whether I was happier that we got off lightly or angry because it made us look like Daze's moronic dweebies.
I figured out later that she must have yanked the hair from Min Jeong's head as we went in. We were herded out of the tube towards the entrance, this big school group shoving and swinging headsets and noters before they got us lined up for swiping in. I don't even remember where Min Jeong was, but I do remember Daze being jumpy as a cat until we got through security and into the labs themselves.
We had a hologuide - it was the same guy who took us through the observatory last year and the space med hospital the year before; he was beginning to feel like an old friend -but there was a real teaching assistant to crack heads and keep order and make sure no one stole anything or disgraced the school. It must have been a pretty awful job because they changed every term, so we never bothered learning their names. They were all ex-illegals anyway, Min-- something-or-other, so they were just called Minion. Either they didn't get it or they didn't care: they just exhibited the same impassive stare and body-blocked you if you stepped out of line.
Anyway, Minion split us into groups and sent us off with different versions of the hologuide. We had this enormous workform that counted for half the semester's grade and although it was mostly nonsense, it was uncopyable nonsense, so there was no point in letting the one interested kid do the work and then forcing them to do a mass vomit to all of us.
It was kind of interesting, I suppose. We were there for units about genetic testing, cloning and biosecurity (for Biotech), and Optimal Nation and Biosecurity (for Civics). Basically, the labs did the testing which made sure that We stayed the way We wanted to be: a carefully-preserved national biobalance of Caucasoid; Indigenoid, and Negroid, all genetically distinct and guaranteed glitch-free. If you didn't fit this profile, you were illegal, which meant that you were either a Min, clone from the Korean cloning explosion, or a genetic mistake.
I could never work out why everyone objected to the Mins. They may have been genetic clones, but the ones we saw all looked different. They were good at different things, and even if they tended to produce almost identical results on any kind of test, they seemed different. My parents, who were both biotech scientists, said it was because those Mins had been exposed to different environments, and that it was an epigenetic difference, rather than a genuine genetic variation. Then, to make sure they'd driven home the point, they'd drone on about what a shock everyone got in 2025 when they discovered that Korea had been plugging holes in its dwindling population by cloning. There were entire cities full of identical people, churned out like bao on a production line.
We closed the borders to them and boatloads were machine-gunned on sight because apparently they didn't qualify as people. But a handful came in legally, the ones with special scientific skills. They were always snaffled by the government and put to work at the Human Enhancement Program, making sure we'd all live to 300. It was legally fuzzy whether they'd be included in this life extension. They weren't allowed to partner or reproduce in our community, and there was no point in trying it among themselves because of inbreeding depression.
It wasn't like it was some big political move by Daze - I think she just hated Min Jeong because her maths results were better, and because Min Jeong was there, and defenceless, and Daze was, let's face it, a bully. But she was a funny, clever, beautiful bully who could be kind to her friends, and so Arj and I didn't say anything when we could have.
We'd done the whole tour - the open bits, anyway - and they were't going to show us the horrible bits, where they took bone marrow samples from illegals or tested telomere extension nanobots on the duds (I only know they did that because my mother used to threaten me with it when I was a kid). We were in the last lab with an actual human, this cute caucasoid guy in a white coat who was obviously enjoying showing off and winding up the hologuide. He used a lot of inapps and the hologuide used them back, but our Minion didn't bat an eyelid. Or wouldn't have, if he'd had them.
'How did you do that?' said Daze, flutteirng her eyelashes at him.
'I wrote a few new subroutines for him,' said the tech, turning a megawatt smile on for Daze. 'Isn't that right, Tweeker?' he said to the hologuide. The guide uttered an absolutely filthy inapp in return. It sounded really weird just before he returned to his normal guiding speech explaining that this last lab was the culmination of all the others, where the tests were actually done and final entries to the Optimal Nation Index made. I saw the Minion blink when he said Index.
'Can we try it?' said Daze sweetly. 'Can you do a test on us?'
The guy laughed. 'Why? You worried that you're a dud? Or a Min?' We all laughed. Silky-haired, grey-eyed Daze was a poster child for Optimal Nation (literally - she'd actually been on an Awesome Australia biosecurity poster when she was a kid. They'd posed her agaiinst a background of terrifying, fuzzily-identical Mins, all clamouring to breach our borders and breed their way to individuality).
'I just wanted to see the process,' she said. She leaned over him a bit. 'End to end.' The poor guy was lost.
'OK,' he said, completely oblivious to the rest of the group watching Daze do her thing, unabashed. 'I need a sample.'
I was waiting for her to order me or Arj to offer up our heads for plucking, but she rummaged a hand among her own dreads and gave a pull, wince, draw, and hand one of her own hairs over.
The guy took it from her, snipped the epithelial end of it into a tiny tube and added a drop of catalyzer. Then he snapped it closed and put it inside a black box. 'The black box of truth,' he said, smiling winsomely at Daze.
'Now don't hang onto my blueprint and clone me,' she said. 'There's only one of me to go around.'
I couldn't stand it. 'How long does it take?'
The tech looked briefly astonished that the background had spoken. 'Uh, about thirty for a norm, less if it's a Min or a Dud. An alar...' A red light was winking silently on the box.
'An alarm?' said Daze, innocently.
'Yeah...it detects the signature sequence for Mins, because they're basically all the same...' he said over his shoulder, scooting towards the screen. It displayed the bands of DNA hidden inside Daze's epithelial, but on the bottom was a scrolling second band labelled Kim Min Soo. Even from ten feet away I could see they were identical.
'But you're...you're not a...?' I looked at Daze stupidly. 'Are you?'
She rolled her eyes. ' 'Course not, stupid. It wasn't my sample.'
'Whose was it?' I knew even as I asked. Daze jerked an elbow at Min Jeong, who stood in the middle of the group, unnoticed and inoffensive, looking impassively ahead.
'Daze, you didn't.'
'What? I know I'm fine. But it's really obvious - it's been obvious for ages, but we're all so sure that we've only let the ones in that we want. She's a -----ing Min and this was the only way to prove it.'
The tech stood up. 'OK, it's true - if this genuinely wasn't your sample. This is an illegal Min, not on the Index of permitted Mins in the country. I'll have to call the director. You know this means you can't go yet? Until we've got all this cleared up.' There was a groan of frustration from everyone else. Min Jeong stood, frozen, in the centre, her eyes watching the screen unscrolling her DNA, forever in lock step with the file copy. She didn't speak. Not even when two security women took her away, she still didn't speak. I saw her exchange one look with the Minion, who made a face of distaste and turned away. Then she was gone.
Daze had to give another sample, to prove that she really was herself, and then they let us go. I saw the cute tech bump her and I knew we'd hear more about him all weekend and probably all next week. She needed it anyway; her biotech marks were down.
I think this is where I'm supposed to say something about how discovery involves courage and a proper ethical framework. That's what the counsellor keeps saying, and why I'm having to write this boring reflection. I know that Daze broke the rules and we're all supposed to be horrified, but I'm glad she caught out Min Jeong. Our value is only so high because we keep others' low. That's the way it works: it's a zero-sum game, the Optimal Nation. They should thank Daze, really. She didn't just discover a Min. She added value to us.
The Missing 40,000
I explain my job in terms of watching a bad movie, one that made you acutely aware of just how much time you’d lost by watching it. Somehow those 120 minutes seem more valuable than any other 120 minute block of time you ever had. Things which get lost acquire the same desperate character. They become more valuable because they’re framed by this irrevocable lostness. We mind more the loss of things which were simply a burden when present, whether it’s time, spectacles, other people, loose change. Our calculations always drag the lost things in, just to rub salt in the wound. If I’d had that dollar. If I hadn’t seen that shitty movie. If my mother was still here. Funny thing though – we obsess over what we lose, but don’t become any more careful with what we’ve got.
It’s typical that I’d turn out to have lost the only file requested. I do an OK job; being a records clerk isn’t brain surgery, though I rule over plenty of manila files which included it. Most hospitals are gradually getting rid of hard copy file rooms – you can legally dispose of records after seven years, though a lot of places keep them for much longer, just out of laziness and a habit of not making decisions which have a final character. Nobody in a hospital’s paid enough to do that.
Anyway, it didn’t look as if I was going to demonstrate competence with the life of Edgar Robert Frend, D.O.B. 01.21.1979 MH? (MH is mental health – the question mark means ‘probably’ which means that Edgar was definitely a mental health case but probably did substances, so could have been in a renal ward, or fallen over after the substances, so maybe ER or orthopaedics, or couldn’t explain what was wrong with him, in which case he’d likely have been sent to speech pathology. That’s where all the West Harper basket cases go, because the girls who work there are kind and pretty and used to doing a lot more with sad people than just working on their plosives.
West Harper isn’t a particularly efficient place, but it is kind, in a vague, absent-minded maiden-aunt way. We’re even like that geographically; the name is meaningless because there’s no Harper of which we’re West. Nobody even knows who or what Harper was. The records were all burned in a library fire ages ago, leaving us a dislocated demographic fragment, 40,000 souls strong, floating in the middle of one of the middle states, with a river flowing through to nowhere much and into which no one can step twice.
Edgar Robert Frend caught my eye because we shared a birthday. That would have put me in the same school year as him, if he’d been born here. Hardly anyone moves away from West Harper, so school get togethers are pretty laid back. But I Googled him anyway, breaking my principle of avoiding Google because sooner or later it’ll put me out of a job. There were some scratchy images in black and white which turned out to be a Missing Persons photo, showing a confused-looking guy about my age who had gone walking from his home in Cincinnati and never returned. Seven years ago. Probably not my Frend.
I flicked through the files again: there was a Freind, Bertha and a Frendam, Douglas but no Frend, Edgar. I was about to type a standard sorry-we-can’t-process-your-request reply when I saw, under Edgar’s Missing Persons photo, another image, of a Bertha Freind. Same name as the file behind me. I freewheeled my seat down the aisle of files and grabbed it.
Bertha was on the same missing persons site as Edgar, the pavement pounder of Cincinnati. Bertha was from Kentucky somewhere. She had taken her kids to a strip mall in 1973 for an afternoon’s shopping. The kids and the car and the shopping were found in the parking lot, but Bertha had vanished into thin air. It was definitely the same Bertha Freind. I didn’t know how many women could have had parents cruel enough to make them Bertha, and misspell their own surname, all on July 2nd, 1952.
I sat for a second or two, thinking about the odds of it all. Not really thinking, I guess. More like measuring in awe. The same feeling you get when you stand under the Statue of Liberty and think about her sheer size. (Not that I’ve don’t that – I haven’t been out of West Harper since I was a kid. Not many people here travel much, which is no shame in a nation where 70% of us don’t have passports).
The website was called Missing America and claimed to be the definitive site for Missing Persons in the U.S. That’s what I love about the internet: it must be like the early days of print, with everyone making insane claims of having the comprehensive, definitive version, ignoring the fact that humans are intrinsically variation-driven creatures. Underneath Frend and Freind were a couple of other Freinds from the nineteenth century, then a Frendam. Yes, Douglas Arthur Frendam. I began to think of everyone I knew with the time and knowledge to build a hoax website. As I ran through the names which should have been on the tip of my memory’s tongue I felt them all slip away, become vague and indistinct, the way a mental image of a friend turns out to be blurry when you focus on a detail.
I grabbed a file from the shelf at random. Jennifer Louise Martha Burrows. Missing America showed a reward for her, as did their entries for Jeffrey T. Cramer, Adam Lyndsey Walden, Gelby Pachomir Wysniewski, and Lidia Maria Redding, who all lived on my shelves too. The site gave a slew of folk without rewards, whose folders joined the growing pile around my chair. I scrolled and scrolled before hitting a banner in the middle of the entries, like the ones you see in lists of firearms for sale, urging you to call the Samaritans, or talk to someone before you Do Something Rash.
The banner was a click-through link to another site called themissing40k.org Without fanfare, a sober-looking tab opened, with government-approved sans serif, 12-point type explaining stolidly that there were some 40,000 sets of human remains in medical examiners and coroner’s offices around the country. It was, the site said, enough bones to represent the population of a large town.
Was I there, on the site and in the files behind me – the files which suddenly became the only thing I could clearly remember? Of course I was. Did I understand what had happened? Of course I did, or as much as you do, at any rate. It doesn’t—no I’ll put it another way—it can’t bother me. You can only be really bothered by something when there’s a context to fit it into. A way of measuring the lostness you’ve just found out. Some item that’s a lost-two-dollar coin out of your reach. An event which takes exactly the lost two hours to enjoy. Otherwise you’re just adrift, a lost item in a dislocated gyre of other lost items which, by cohering together in some vague no-place, find themselves.
‘But enough about me,’ he says. ‘You had a question.’
‘What’s it like? When you get there.’
He thinks for a minute and says, ‘You stand in a narrow laneway between streets, the walls covered in graffiti by a multitude of hands. At the far end you can see traffic, buildings, the open back of a van. Everything you’d expect at one end of a city laneway.
You start walking down the alley, anxious to get to the other end. You don’t look at the garish picture which, though not to your taste, have been done with some skill. Your mind is occupied with what the street ahead will be like and what kind of people will be on it. Will you stand out? Will you see people you know? (You think of some people you really don’t want to see, people whom it would be distinctly awkward to see in this situation.
At some point you look back over your shoulder and see the street you just left, still behind you, still with traffic and pedestrians, the same things you’d been doing a second ago going on.
What’s to think about? You’re just in a laneway between two similar streets which represents two points in a day in your life. This alley is so unremarkable it doesn’t even have a name, and your time in it so un-unusual tht it doesn’t rate your full attention.
And yet the street at the other end, your destination street, is getting further away. Or maybe you’re getting further away from it. Shouldn’t you have walked the whole length of the alley by now? And how can there be so much graffiti? Shouldn’t someone have cleaned it off.
You keep walking but – you know what I’m going to say. You never reach that end of the alley. After a while (and the length of time depends on your personality) you begin to pay attention to the pictures on the walls. The faces in their super-saturated colours, the tags that make you wonder what was so wrong with the name parents had given the tagger. The windows high above the graffiti still glow with light. An occasional shadow passes across them. Blinds are let down for the end of the day, or maybe it’s the beginning.
Time has lost its shape for you.
You’re tired, but not in your body. You’re tired because you know that you’re going to spend this, this dead time, exactly as you spent your living time – hurrying to a place that’s just like the one you left, ignoring the milions of inbetween moments where you’re shown the faces and works of others in exactly the same posiiton, and believing that this eternal hurrying toward, the gaining, gaining, gaining, is all of it.’
‘But – that can’t be it, surely? Just that?’
‘It’s funny,’ he says, before getting off, ‘I was just going to say that to you.’
For the longest time I preferred to be eyeless.
I have many ways of sensing approaching prey. Mostly it ends up the same way – a colloidal smear along my black-top skin, scraped on by the butter-knife of a car. I can feel the shudder of a car driven too fast and the bounce of the unbelted driver within it. There’s a moment when two tyres lose contact with my skin as the car skids around a corner. A mere human handspan of rubber runs along my hard black carapace, but I can sense that frisson of driver fear, and the frantic over- or under-steering before the lock-shock-skid and eventual crash.
There is a long deep moment of peace before the sirens. The upended wheels spin to a slow stop. The miles that will never be driven sink back into me like untaken breath, the blood dries like a fond tattoo along my cracks.
They invented eyes and began sticking them into me. Eyes by the million, like Argus. I still couldn’t see the sun which melted and burned my black skin, or where the rain came from, pooling and drowning me. But the eyes were cats’ eyes, good for seeing in the dark. They have been designed, I think, to give you a fighting chance. The eyes remind you that the road is there and it is red-eyed and wild. It goes on forever – you do not. Respect it.
In fact, I have come to like my eyes. Retro-reflective, softly glowing, showing the whipcords of my lanes, my culverts and bridges, stretching on essentially forever. You seek out my gaze. What shines back at you is no lure of mine – it’s your own desire to push on, your own headlights seeking out glance after glance of mine.
The chatoyancy – that little strip of light reflecting the rounded eye – that you think is the soul looking out at you, is really your own light bouncing off something infinitely dark, dark all the way down.
Look into my eyes, before you skid and scrape yourself over my skin. I do not mislead the gaze. I look into you only as keenly as you look into me. I already know where I’m going. I’ve never needed eyes to see it. I am the Road.
They had a funny little ceremonial parasol - a payung, the director said - which was held over the Candidate’s head. He supposed it marked him out in the crowd. Maybe it was a relic or something from before. He didn’t have any feelings about it, although he stood foolishly, holding it for a few seconds after he had been led to his seat in the Hall of Viewing, and left alone. He just wished it wasn’t blue. It cast an even duller light in the already overcast Martian day, and made him feel more miserable on what was, so far, the most important day of his sixteen-year-long life.
He sat in silence for a moment, looking at all the empty seats around him, trying not to fear what lay behind the vast red curtain that dipped, like a red velvet waterfall, ahead of him. He knew that there had been a time when the Mars colony was populous enough to fill every seat here ten times over. Now the remnants wouldn’t even fill ten rows. Like everything that had been left, slowly rotting away in the failed colony, it had been repurposed as instruction for the remaining people.
It was his right to change seats as often as he wished for as long as the performance lasted. Every seat changed perspective on the Spectacle, so wherever you sat provided a slightly different conclusion. It was wise, therefore, not to hold too much to absolutes, since a slight change of position resulted in a different outcome. It was called the Sedes proposal. He had been taught it in Resilience classes. In fact, what it seemed to mean was that he could have been anyone else, and they could have been him. The point of the proposal was to teach contingency, but he had felt only the dismal sense of displacement, an eternal game of musical chairs, constant changing and setting up again.
Things began to whirr somewhere behind the red curtain. He calmed himself by recalling that there would be only three choices: once chosen, there would be no more change, no more setting up again. Once he had seen whatever the Spectacle was, he would know himself and choose accordingly.
Quite what the Spectacle was, or the nature of the three choices, he did not know. No Candidate did, nor could they tell anyone else, since only one choice led them back to the Colony and the arduous work of setting it to rights, repairing the results of time, neglect, and hubris. What became of those who chose the other paths was unclear – or unknown.
The curtains parted and slid to the side. A wide dark space lay behind them. Feeling stupid, he realized that he was clutching the handle of the little blue canopy and craning forward.
Suddenly a crackle and rift of light broke across the screen. An image flickered into focus. A shuttle, like the ones which left every decade, when the Candidacy was complete. Unlike the shuttle he had seen as a child, this gleamed beneath a bright blue sky which was lit by a yellowish white light. Five figures, tiny and comical, lumbered along a gangway and entered the shuttle. A flurry of movement in the foreground suggested clapping and an audience, but the silence gave nothing away.
They achieved arrow-straight flight from a vast burning ball.
The picture changed. A vast flood of fast-running brown water, its bubbling surface broken by hands reaching, the aerials of cars, the tops of houses. And again, a crowd of people, angry and throwing things, faces etched with hunger. And again, earth razed bare as the Great Trench, with long scrapes where trees had once been. Famine on scorched faces; waters rising and chimneys belching. The wealthy, waving as they departed for other planets, other waystations. A denuded earth and dying beast, a crust scraped bare and ready to be broken open by the volcanic eruptions which were also shown, in brief, before the image froze, capturing the entire panorama of action and reaction in a single frame. The last tree, advanced upon by oxygen recovery plants, and the slow sure path to Mars. The way of life, predatory and terrible, which had built their little colony as an escape from all the mistakes on Earth, before proceeding to repeat them at double the speed.
He put down the payung for a moment and looked at his hands. This, then, was a man. This was the way of him, and this way, trodden deep into the genes as the footprint in wet mud, led to the three choices which spun into view before him.
He was one of these creatures, equipped to learn and to build, to explore and be at peace, but forever impelled to spoil and despoil, to consume and annihilate. And if not him, then his offspring, since this was also the tragedy of his kind, that the whole weary thing had to be decided anew with each soul.
The three choices, then, were to fall in the way of his fellow man, to consume until he was fat with the resources which should be growing on this and other planets in peace and plenty.
Or to fight against it and stand out against his kind, to tug forever against his natural and dreadful design until exhaustion and casuistry did for him.
Or to recuse himself from the choice to renounce membership of the whole dreadful tree. And he saw now why only one choice, the second choice, led back to the Colony and the good men and women who lived there, building amid the dust, with the agonizing slowness of people who question every movement. He saw, too, why the gardens had flourished and grown well since they began the rite of Candidacy, for even by renouncing their species and life and all its empty promises, those who chose the third path were still helpful.
It was enough to know that the shuttle carried the takers of the first path off to distant worlds where they could savage and consume each other.
He sat for a long time, his payung discarded, knowing himself and feeling the certainty of it sink into his bones, so soon to feed the grass and seedlings that would feed other men, in other times.
He had tried different ways of making sense of it. Before, he had been halfway to being a believer. Not the happy-clappy, patently-terrified-by-life type from the Christian glee clubs with the quotes from Corinthians on their hoodies and tank tops that said, Sweatin’ for Christ, just quietly confident that things mostly made sense, or could made to with some sincere effort. Then it happened and Father John shrugged and said, ‘Wrong place at the wrong time, son’. Disappointed in the parish priest, his mother started going on about the hand of God touching him.
He read Bible bits that seemed relevant – Ezekial being grabbed by his hair and yanked up to heaven, then spat out back to Chaldea – and none of them were even close to what he had experienced. Then he saw a meme of a lightning strike over the ocean. One huge bolt that broke into six fingers hitting the water. The caption said And damn these six fish in particular. That felt closer to it than Holy Writ. He stopped going to mass. When he bumped into Father John at Kroger and was quizzed about where he’d been he shrugged and said, ‘Wrong place, wrong time’, and pushed his cart on.
He went back to school and the kids stared at the scars. His friends traced them with their fingers. Annie Brizell traced them with a fine-tip sharpie that made him shiver as he looked at her tongue in the corner of her mouth. He didn’t mention the beginning of a growth, or that he had nightmares about being up inside the cloud, where the electrical field was building, the blizzard of ice particles shredding his face, and the sudden incredible attraction downward. Then the discharge, at 300,000 kilometres an hour where he melted into plasma as he struck Sundermeir’s Ridge and woke up, yelling.
The growth refused to stop and the surrounding skin, at the top of his legs, became shiny, then cracked, then slightly scaly. He stopped going to school. He left the house in the morning, took the right turn towards the school bus stop, then struck out across the fields to the old barn at Sundermeir’s Ridge where it had happened. The ground where he had been struck had been plowed over again but he still sat in the shelter of the barn and stared at the spot day after day.
Annie found him there, his knees to his chest, eating his lunch and staring at the long line of the ridge. She sat down beside him. ‘What you got?’
‘PB and J’.
‘Cheese and banana. I know. But it’s actually nice.’
‘Is it true that you got, like, some kind of superpower from the strike?’
He laughed. ‘Is that what they’re saying? That I’m not in school because I’m fighting crime and doing Iron Man shit?’
‘Maybe not Iron Man. He’s just got a fancy suit and a battery in his chest.’
He took a bite of sandwich. ‘No. I didn’t get powers. I got headaches and these scars and two teeth blown out and my clothes shredded but no powers.’ He didn’t mention the growth, which now looked like another penis in the wrong place, or the extent of the skin problem.
She never asked again, which was why they got on as he truanted through the rest of the term and then the long drowsy summer vacation, and through his rages at the thought of having to return to school if he wanted any kind of SATs, and through the coaching over Math and Physics as they squatted over her textbook while the barn fell gradually apart under the sun and wind.
She didn’t ask even when he kissed her but couldn’t meet her eyes because there was something strange going on with his own. The pupil seemed perpetually narrowed, the iris redder than before, filling more of the eye. His nostrils also seemed wrong; narrower and…everything seemed wrong, he thought. Everything. She kissed him back, though, and put her forehead to his and whispered, ‘It’s going to be OK, you know,’ and didn’t touch him anywhere that would worsen his despair.
And then a week before the vacation ended, on an afternoon of storms, the lightning came again. They sat in the barn and watched it pound the ridge and noticed how the hair on each other’s arms stood up as if calling its energy. The growth he could not bear suddenly twitched. As the wind picked up and an icy rain came down, she ran her finger down the ridge of his spine and had touched it before he had time to jerk away.
He bounded to the far end of the rickety barn, shouting at her. ‘I know,’ she shouted back over the rain, ‘I know what you’re becoming!’
Beside himself, almost in tears, he yelled, ‘How could you know anything about me?’
She closed the distance and with surprising strength, pulled open his shirt, exposing the cracked scales that now covered his chest, the growths like terrible flowers which bloomed from his sharp boy’s shoulder-blades, the dark scales which vanished into his waistband. ‘I know,’ she said, yanking at his shirt, ‘because it can’t be anything else.’
And then it was – he was – suddenly free. The scaled tail which the lightning had struck free from some ancient genetic shackle swept out, balanced by the leathery proto-wings; the golden gaze and snarl of the man-dragon looking at the maiden from the seventh heaven of fire.