Authors: Howard V. Hendrix
Tags: #science fiction, #sci-fi, #high tech, #space opera, #angels
BORGO PRESS BOOKS BY HOWARD V. HENDRIX
Better Angels: A Science Fiction Novel
Bright with Excessive Dark: Further Collected Stories
Dark with Excessive Bright: Further Collected Stories
Empty Cities of the Full Moon: A Science Fiction Novel
Human in the Circuit: Collected Stories
Lightpaths: A Science Fiction Novel
Perception of Depth: Collected Stories
Standing Wave: A Science Fiction Novel
Copyright © 1999, 2012 by Howard V. Hendrix
Published by Wildside Press LLC
To those who have kept faith,
my sincere thanks.
LIKE THE PRESENT
Waves of light rippled the starry darkness. Jacinta had an eerie sense of being underwater in a moonlit pool, of looking up at the mercury-shimmering underside of the sky just at the moment a piece of that sky broke loose—precisely at the instant a mirror-bright stone fell through the hole in heaven it had made.
The hole promptly filled itself in, the sky unfunhoused itself, the universe unwarped back to mirror smoothness. The mercury droplet of broken sky kept falling, however, intact and growing larger. At the same time it moved more slowly, the way a stone falls more slowly through water than through air.
Strange as what she was looking at undeniably was, even stranger was the fact that she was seeing it at all. Or was she? The ghost people around her, with whom Jacinta now clasped hands and tried to chantsong along, claimed awesome powers for their singing—including the capability of their songs to create in physical space the images and objects about which they sang.
Extremely powerful auditory hallucinations? Or something more?
Stranger still, however, was the fact that she was really seeing what she was looking at, knowing in depth exactly what was being shown her without knowing how she knew. The big “mercury” droplet’s splashing against some obstacle—that was the Allessan contact ship’s bubble of force bursting in the Great Accident, the Error, the Miscalculation.
The Accident revealed (and Jacinta saw, inside the bubble) a mirror sphere made of innumerable smaller pieces, a dance hall mirrorball hurtling through space. All human civilization, religion, controlled fire, the first chipped-pebble stone tool, not to mention the lost age of disco that had danced Jacinta’s childhood—all stood many millions of years into the future and after the fact of what she was looking at.
As she observed more closely, she saw that the smaller mirrors of the mirrorball were actually not squares at all but myriad, shining, overlapping wings. In the forms those wings were attached to some might see angelic beings of pure intuition, others demons of unalloyed malevolence, still others aliens—a space-cantina bestiary of creatures dressed in light-powered livesuits, moving with starling-flock simultaneity.
Seeing the irreparable damage the Accident had done to those crewmembers who were the ship they sailed, Jacinta recalled the ghost people’s stories that each individual of all that crew’s many species were always and forever in direct mental communication with all the others. She wondered what sort of alien pain and otherworldly grief they might have felt at the deaths of so many of their shipmates.
‘Direct mental communication’—is that what’s happening to me? Jacinta asked herself as she listened to the ghost people singing. Is what I’m experiencing not a hallucination but the beginnings of that telepathy, that fullness of empathy the ghost people claim their totemic mushroom bestows upon them? When I introduced TV to them, they said television and global communication did not surprise them. They claim the natural world is always broadcasting cloudforest television into their heads. Are they serious?
Or is this all simply madness?
A shiver ran through her. The tribe—no, they weren’t really a tribe, since they had no chief, but what were they, then? “Hunting-gathering group?” “Tepuians?” “Ghost people,” as their neighbors had referred to them, with superstitious awe in their voices? Despite all the time she had spent with them, despite her ethnobotanical training, despite the readiness with which they (whatever the correct term) had welcomed her from the first, at this moment, among these isolated, mushroom-worshipping, hunting-gathering, insect-eating, dark-skinned, black haired, almond-eyed people dressed in purple and black loin clothes and robes woven in snaking double-helical patterns, Jacinta felt distinctly culture-shocked.
She hated that phrase, “almond-eyed.” What did that make her—blueberry-eyed? Honey blonde? Some other type of food?
Around her the ghost people’s strange song continued, telling of the damaged ship made of wild angels. The song sounded quite mad indeed, particularly as it went on to narrate how and why the ship was sent from the heart of the galaxy—or rather, Jacinta knew, from the Allesseh, hanging 3,000 light years above the galaxy’s center. According to old Kekchi, the ghost people’s mindtime-traveling “Wise One,” the Allesseh was already known to earthly astronomers—but only very indirectly, for they knew the Allesseh not in itself but only by the vast antimatter fountain associated with it. Earthly scientists had never quite managed to satisfactorily explain the existence of that fountain.
Jacinta was following the chantsong with only a part of her mind. Distracted, she found herself thinking of her brother Paul instead, her only and last visitor from the supposedly civilized world—with whom she had not parted on the most pleasant of terms....
“So that’s what all this is about, then?” Paul had said, smacking his forehead with the palm of his left hand as he rose shakily to his feet. “These people have been collecting rocks for millennia because mushrooms ‘told’ them to? And you believe that? How long have you been eating this druggie fungus of theirs? It’s pushing you over the edgeless edge, sis. We’ve got to get you out of here, get this crap out of your system—”
“No, Paul.” Jacinta shook her head and slowly rose from her squatting position to stand upright. “My mission here is too important to be absorbed into anyone else’s—even yours. The work is not yet finished so the ghost people can leave.”
“Singing the mountain to the stars,” she explained. “The quartz they’ve collected is not something you shape into a crude tool—it’s something you worship as a totem. Their very existence here is proof of the fisherfolk hypothesis, of neanderthalensis in the New World. That’s why Fash got so hot to bring a major expedition here once he found out about them. That’s why we have to hurry—before the rest of the world finds them and destroys their uniqueness.”
Jacinta reached toward her brother, but then hesitated, drew back.
“Think of it, Paul,” she said, trying to explain. “These people and their culture are one of the last outposts of a lost empire of wood and song. They’re a thread that, on this different continent, in this cave, found its way back to the source of the world songweb. Synergy and coevolution. For them, every sound has a form. They can read the musical notation of time’s signature. According to their myths, Song, shaped information, makes the world. Once we have sung and thought critical information densities into these quartz collecting columns, they will translate and amplify it so we can dissociate ourselves from the gravitational bed of local spacetime. Then we can join in the Allesseh, the great Cooperation, the telepathic harmony of all myconeuralized creatures throughout the galaxy—”
“Wrong!” Paul shouted, shaking his sandy-haired head in disgust. “A crazy ethnobotanist and forty-odd half-naked aborigines as humanity’s first ambassadors to the galaxy? Do you have any idea how insane that sounds?”
With the expanded empathy the ghost people’s prized fungus had already granted her, Jacinta saw the swelling rage igniting deep inside Paul’s skull, saw a vision of an icy bright pinpoint exploding outward like a cold Big Bang, a blizzard of invisible light radiating out of Paul’s temples, a crown of white thorns working its way to his forehead from the inside to finally storm outward in all directions, away and away. Paul paced heavily and furiously in the mud, the terrible anger rising through him, seemingly bringing with it all the memories of all Jacinta’s strange times past.
“I thought you were acting crazy,” he yelled, “when you said you were getting secret personal messages from TV programs! I thought you were acting crazy when you said you were under surveillance by a secret network of shadowy operatives! I thought you were acting crazy when you were convinced They were monitoring your thoughts through some guy trained as a ‘telepathic receiver’ living in an apartment down the hall! I thought you were acting crazy before, but this—this is the craziest of all!”
In full fury her short, wiry-muscled brother ran about on the death island, kicking fiercely at the phallus-brain shapes of the ghost people’s totemic mushroom where it grew by the dozen, rising out of the corpsebeds of the ghost people’s deceased members. Again and again Paul kicked, desecrating corpse after corpse. The fungal fruiting bodies split apart against his muddy, boot-clad feet, tender new flesh defiled.
When, breathless, Paul at last stopped his sacrilege, Jacinta was already plopped down in the mire, rubbing tears from her eyes.
“You’ll never understand, will you?” she moaned. “Yeah, you’re right—out there I am crazy, a freak! Always trapped between what I am and what I’m supposed to be! Always letting people down! No more! This is my world now, these are my people. It’s better here! Paul, please, get beyond your demons! Don’t you see? We were meant to be telepaths, part of the Great Cooperation, but we went wrong, we were overlooked, we developed consciousness and intellect, but not the fullness of empathy we misunderstand as telepathy. All human history is a result of a mistake, an accident.”
She turned to him, almost pleading. “The contact ships missed us, every one. We became a preterite planet, but now we have a chance to gain our rightful inheritance, our place in the bliss of the Cooperation! Stay with us! Come with us!”
“Where?” Paul asked, winded, seeming suddenly tired but still unwilling to concede a single point. “Where are you taking them? Where are they taking you? I don’t get it, Jacs. If you really think these ghost people prove your theories right, then why are you trying to help them escape the scrutiny of your colleagues? If you’re really trying to preserve their culture from our civilization, then why’d you bring all that high-tech gear up here for them to mess with? Industrial autoclaves. Diamond saws. Generators. Power cables. Foldout satellite dishes. Uplink antennas. Language acquisition and translation programs. Cameras and optidisk player recorders. Fifty microscreen TV sets—fifty!”
Jacinta, still shocked and numbed by her brother’s profanation of the ghost people’s funerary isle, said nothing. Her brother in his ranting barely noticed.
“I saw what was going on in all those small side chambers on the way down here,” he said. “Don’t think I didn’t. All those alcoves with power lines and cables snaking into them. In one room naked tepui kids were watching a Chinese television documentary on Han dynasty artifacts—real-time computer translated into French! In another I saw a young ‘indigene’ watching an American news broadcast about an Indian monsoon. In another your friend Talitha was checking an enormous crystal column for flaws as it came out of an extrusion autoclave! Someone else was carving up quartz bricks with a diamond saw right next door. I saw tepui kids randomly sampling music—madrigals and rap, Tibetan temple gongs and rock ’n’ roll, Sufi chants and Europop and worldbeat. Do you want me to ignore the evidence of my own eyes? Doesn’t that exposure alter their ‘lifeways’?”
Jacinta’s numbness and shock, however, still had not lifted enough to allow her the energy to reply.
“That wasn’t the strangest, either,” her brother continued. “A boy and an oldster, both in loincloths, sitting in front of computer terminals, running through complex mathematical equations! Then what looked like star charts and astrogation data zipping across screens in front of half dozen operators of various ages. Think, Jacinta! Doesn’t all that already change the ways of these people beyond recovery?”
At last Jacinta started to rouse herself from her numbness, but her brother in his ranting noticed not at all.
“Why should I want to stay here, Jacinta?” he concluded. “Why should I want to end up a flipped out fungus-head—excuse me, ‘myconeural symbiont’—with a parasite mushroom growing inside my skull? Like these throwbacks? Is that the kind of life you want?”
“They’re happy!” Jacinta shouted, turning reddened eyes on Paul—eyes that would not break contact, would not flicker away this time, no matter how much he might have wished it. “We are happy! What kind of life would I have out there in your ‘real’ world? In and out of institutions all my life, dosed up on ‘meds,’ watched over by high-school dropout ‘psychiatric aides’ in case I ‘go off’—giving them the chance to execute a well-planned ‘take down’ so they can strap me into a floor-bolted cot in the ‘time out’ room? Out there, even freedom is my jail—a prison as big as the world! No thanks. Not while there’s even a chance of real freedom, and the stars.”
They both felt like crying. It was all wrong, all so wrong.
“Jacs, we’ve never institutionalized you,” Paul said, a quaver in his voice. “All I want to do is take you home.”
“This is my home,” Jacinta said, turning away.
“What about Mom and Dad?” he asked. “What about Professor Manikam and your career?”
“Tell them I quit school,” she said without turning around. “Tell them I quit work. Tell them I disappeared into the backcountry. Tell them I went native, stopped communicating, fell beyond reach. Tell mom and dad they only gave us everything so we would owe everything to them.”
“What about me then, you ingrate?” Paul shouted, his sorrow turning once more to anger. “I came all the way down here after you! What about me, huh? What would your mushroom people do if I grabbed one of these long bones from their graveyard here, clubbed you over the head with it, and took you out of here in a fireman’s carry? Have they foreseen that future? Would they try to stop me?”
“Probably not,” Jacinta said with a deep sigh, turning slightly toward him, glancing over her shoulder. “But I would. I’ll fight you to the last breath. I won’t let you sentence me to a life in prison—not even if it’s ‘for my own good.’ Not even if I should be ‘grateful’ to you for doing it. Leave me here, or you better leave me alone.”
In the flash of determination in her eyes as she turned away, Paul must have seen something too strong for him to challenge. He turned away too, then. After a moment, Jacinta turned and watched him go, plodding away through the shallow water, squelching back tiredly through the plain of muck, flashlight flickering before him in the hollow emptiness of the cave. She watched as Paul came onto solid ground again and kept walking, never looking back.