Authors: Eric Brown
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Science Fiction
'I survive. I live from day to day – a Meridian day which humanity has created from one eternal stretch of daylight.'
Meridian, twenty light years from Earth and with just a tiny scattering of inhabitable islands, seems the perfect place for Bob Benedict to escape the tragedy of his past. Here he can live out his days in drug abuse, despised by and despising the self-obsessed community of artists who make up the population of the colony planet: the Altereds who have swapped human form for animal, and the Augmenteds who have boosted their minds with computers. But when Bob meets Fire, the daughter of the formidable Tamara Trevellion, the most ruthlessly ambitious of the artists, he is drawn into a world of corruption and murder that is far darker than his past. Soon it's all he can do just to survive...
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© Eric Brown 1992, 2011
Cover © Dominic Harman
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Electronic version by Baen Books
Also by Eric Brown
The Kings of Eternity
Guardians of the Phoenix
New York Dreams
New York Blues
New York Nights
Gilbert and Edgar on Mars
The Extraordinary Voyage of Jules Verne
A Writer's Life
The Angels of Life and Death
The Fall of Tartarus
Parallax View (with Keith Brooke)
The Time-Lapsed Man
The Mammoth Book of New Jules Verne Adventures (with Mike Ashley)
I live from day to day — a Meridian day which humanity has created from one eternal stretch of daylight.
At night, as the floating mylar shield occludes the sun and casts its comprehensive penumbra across the archipelago, I sit on the patio and watch the pterosaurs make their way towards the beckoning aurora of Brightside. The migration of birds has always filled me with sadness and regret, a sense of being left behind. After the heat, the wind from Darkside blows, chilling me. In the early hours of darkness I often contemplate the past even though the past is no refuge — and the series of events which brought me here.
Looking back on it, my meeting with Fire Trevellion came about quite by accident, which is how those events which change your life tend to happen. I still cannot decide whether I regret accepting Abe Cunningham's invitation to accompany him to the party thrown by the Altered artist Tamara Trevellion. The repercussions were both tragic and, for me at least, life-saving — but something visceral urged me to go, perhaps the instinct for self-preservation. I'd become something of a recluse of late, and that morning Abe must have realised that I was slipping again and in need of help. He invited me to the event to take my mind off whatever was eating me up, guilt and regret, as ever — though all Abe could see was the distance in my eyes and the leached pallor of my skin.
I'd slept badly that night, plagued by dreams of the accident. For what seemed like hours — longer, in fact, than the actual incident — I was locked in the command web of the smallship. The auxiliaries were dead and I was piloting the 'ship through the storm on manual, with the aid of a malfunctioning computer. I relived the horror of the flight in slow-motion. As each problem arrived hard upon the last, I watched myself make the wrong decision time after time, a snowball effect of errors leading inexorably to the final catastrophe. In the nightmare I experienced again the terror I had felt at the time; not the fear of my responsibility for the one hundred passengers, but the sickening dread of losing my own life. It was ironical that when I awoke screaming from the dream an instant before the impact, the terror I experienced was the remorse I carried for the dead passengers. I had emerged alive from the wreckage — if not in one piece, then with relatively minor injuries. I could be put back together, cured in body if not in mind. For the passengers, though, there was no cure.
I lay awake for a long time, staring up at the apex of the dome. I tried to get back to sleep, but images crowded in, ready to coalesce into nightmare.
I took refuge on the patio, purposefully ignoring the half-shell on the coffee table as I passed through the lounge. The warmth of the old day was tempered by a chill breeze blowing in from the tundra and ice of Darkside. In the direction of Brightside, the leading edge of the shield had slipped over the horizon, shutting out the glare of Beta Hydri. The only light came from the diamond-hard points of stars in the void above Darkside. To east and west, the strip of sea that encircled the planet from pole to pole coruscated like a band of silver lamé. The islands of the archipelago showed as dark knobs, stretching away around the curve of the planet like the individual vertebra of a giant, basking leviathan. During daylight hours, the view from the dome was one of incomparable beauty, with the aurora of Brightside competing for attention with the snow-capped mountains of the sun-deprived hemisphere. At night, when the darkness was complete but for the meagre illumination of the stars, the effect was sinister. That night, the void of deep space reminded me too much of my final run.
I could not sleep, and I could not stay awake without hearing again the abbreviated screams of the passengers, so as ever there was only one thing I could do.
I returned to the lounge and emptied the contents of the half-shell into the burner. Then I carried the apparatus back to the patio and sat with it on my lap. There was a certain pre-administrative ritual to be followed, and this always had the effect of heightening the anticipation. I thought back twenty years to the summer of my sixteenth birthday, and the holiday I had taken on an island in Greece. I concentrated on the event that had made that holiday so special. Holding the image of the girl in my mind's eye, I lit the burner and inhaled the pungent fumes. What I was doing was dangerous, of course; with the visions of the accident so clear in my mind, there was always the possibility that I might pitch myself into a fugue more vivid and terrible than anything I had experienced in my nightmares. But in the event I need not have worried... The fumes infused my senses and reality went into a slow dissolve. Over the period of a few seconds I became oblivious of my identity, of my adult cares and worries. When I opened my eyes I was a naive youth of sixteen again, standing on the white sands of a Mediterranean beach with all my life ahead of me. For the next eight hours I relived the bliss of that holiday; for that long I was spared the agony of guilt.
It was daylight by the time I came to my senses. The sun burned fifteen degrees above the fiery horizon of Brightside. The emptiness of the coming day was accentuated by the memories of my holiday. From time to time, as I sat on the patio and stared out across the glittering ocean to the rearing, green islands, my pulse quickened at the recollection of shared intimacies, as fresh in my mind as if I'd experienced them just yesterday: then I would realise, with a sudden sense of loss, that the love I had known was twenty years gone and as many light years away.
I climbed unsteadily from the foam-form, staggered into the lounge and inspected the half-shell. It was empty, coated with a light dusting of powder which would have no effect at all. I checked the small wooden box I kept concealed behind the tape-case — but this, too, was empty. Part of me, the fifty percent of Bob Benedict which knew that refuge in the drug was no salvation at all, saw this as the perfect opportunity to break my dependency. The other part, weak and irresponsible, managed to convince myself that I needed a supply of the powder on hand in case the nightmares became just
much; and anyway, how much stronger would be my resolve to kick the habit if I could do so while I had a supply in the dome. Happy with this skewed logic, I replaced the box and decided to make the trip to Brightside in the next day or two. Then the screen chimed and my heart skipped, as if the communication were a summons from my conscience.
The lean, leonine face of my neighbour, Abe Cunningham, stared out at me. Behind him, his pterosaur hooked its scythe-like beak over his shoulder and regarded me with beady eyes.
"Bob, are you doing anything today?" The calls from a hundred exotic birds and beasts made his words indistinct.
"Actually... I have a couple of dozen people coming round for a party this afternoon—" I stopped myself before I began to sound too self-piteous.
Abe opened his mouth. "Ah... That's a real pity. I wanted to share this twenty-five year old single malt I've just had Telemassed in from Earth." He held up a chunky, old-fashioned bottle. "You sure you can't make it?"
"Well, as a matter of fact... I possibly could put them off."
Abe smiled. "Good man. See you in an hour?"
I showered and changed, welcoming the sudden and unexpected diversion. On the way down the steps to the tiny beach and the jetty where I moored my launch, I tried to shake the lingering visions of last night's hallucination. As I cast off and steered the launch out across the open sea, the image of the girl's face receded, became indistinct, so that her features might have belonged to any one of the actresses I saw on vid-shows every day. But still, on some subconscious level, I was filled with a residual sadness, a sense of loss that even the prospect of whiling away the day at Abe's could not banish.
Reality was all very well, but it had nothing on the induced euphoria of an artificially recollected past.
I opened the throttle and accelerated across the calm, flat ocean, pointing the launch in the direction of the next island in the chain. Seaspray drenched me in a cool, jewelled shower. The narrow strip of sea which circumnavigated the planet was the only habitable region on the globe, and the long archipelago which straddled a quarter of the hemisphere from the north pole to the equator was where ninety-nine percent of citizens on Meridian made their home. In the social hierarchy of the planet, Abe and myself came somewhere near the bottom; we owned small islands at the end of the chain, near the pole. The larger islands towards the equator were the exclusive province of the Altered and the Augmented, a select clique of self-styled cultural aristocrats who over the years had turned Meridian into something of a noted artists' colony.
Abe's island, despite its presumed lowly social status, was unique and, so far as I was concerned, of far more interest than the pretentiously landscaped islands owned by the wealthier citizens. Abe and his wife had arrived on Meridian ten years ago and set up a sanctuary and breeding centre for the planet's endangered species, which due to the precarious ecology of the stationary world were many. The green hump of the island was dotted with dozens of sparkling domes, like silver dewdrops in the sunlight. These were the reconstructed habitats of the planet's fauna.
Abe stood on the landing stage, hands on hips. His commanding presence was a reassuring feature of my visits to his island. He watched my approach with the pterosaur, as gaunt and beaked as Abe himself, beside him.
I tossed him the rope and he made it fast around a post, then gave me a hand from the launch. "Bob, it's been weeks. You ought to come over more. Don't wait to be asked."
I promised I would visit more often in future — a promise I must have made every month since my arrival on Meridian a year earlier. We strolled along the jetty and up the path towards Abe's villa on the highest point of the island. We passed domes and cages holding all manner of exotic birds and animals, the air shrill with their cries. Abe's pterosaur waddled in our wake like an obedient child.
He showed me through the dome to the verandah overlooking the stepped terracing of the island, the blue sea and the other islands stretching away into the distance. We sat in the shade on a long foam-form, and Abe made a ceremony of opening the whisky and pouring two generous measures into iced tumblers. Abe was a man of few pretensions and even fewer pleasures: scotch — and not the drink itself so much as the occasion of its sampling — was one of his rare indulgences.
We chatted of nothing in particular for a while, the latest news from Earth, gossip from around the archipelago. Our silences were easy, periods of reflection rather than anticipation of what we might say next. Abe mentioned what he was working on now — a breeding programme involving the last surviving rabbit-analogues on the planet — and I sat back and listened, admiring the view. Flights of pterosaurs formed vortices in the distance, like computer-generated pixels illustrating thermal dynamics. On one of the larger islands, far to the south, artists competed in a smoke-sculpting contest. Towering columns, depicting mythic figures from the history of Earth, billowed in the brilliant blue sky.
I drained my first glass and Abe took great pleasure in pouring a second. Already the liquid was having an effect, making my thoughts lazy and diffuse.
In the early days of our friendship, I often wondered why Abe bothered with me. He was thirty years my senior, moderately successful at what he did, and in control of his life. As I got to know him better, I came to see that we had certain things in common. Perhaps because we were both reserved and rather introspective, we shared a suspicion of the Altereds and the Augmenteds on the higher islands. We were the only non-artists to own islands in the chain, and neither of us had capitulated to vanity and had our forms altered, either to enhance our human appearance or, as was becoming increasingly popular with a certain clique of frivolous artisans, to imitate species as varied as mythical animals and alien lifeforms. In fact, Abe wore his grey hair long and had cultivated a paunch over the past few months, as if in defiance of prevailing somatic aesthetics. Nor were we Augmented — the small occipital computer I had at the base of my skull, which I had used to interface with the controls of my smallship, was sealed now and redundant. We had only our own intellect to fall back on, unlike the Augmenteds who wore computers like yokes and spent much of their time wired into some abstract metaphysical realm at many removes from everyday reality.
Perhaps another reason for his friendliness was the fact that just over a year ago he had lost his wife in an accident on Brightside. It had happened a month before my arrival; Abe, understandably, had never mentioned the incident. All I knew was what I had heard second-hand from mutual acquaintances, and all
knew was that, in the aftermath of the accident, Abe had rushed his wife to a hospital on Main island, but by the time he arrived she was beyond help.
There were a number of pictures of Patricia Cunningham in the villa: a smiling, fair-haired woman in her early fifties. Others showed Abe and Patricia together: they had seemed a happy couple, and I'd often caught myself wondering if having someone and losing them was more terrible than never having had anyone at all.
Occasionally, while wasting time in the isolation of my own dome, I thought of the widower in his hilltop eyrie. He was just as isolated as I was, with his scotch and his memories, and I frequently felt bad about not taking up his offer of open house. But the guilt never lasted all that long: I had my own memories, and my own means of dealing with them.
"You really should stop me going on like this," Abe said, at the end of a rambling monologue on the subject of his latest project. "No wonder you don't come up here so often. I'm sorry — I'm a fauna bore."
Beside him, the pterosaur stropped its bill on an extended wing. I gestured and said something to the effect that I enjoyed hearing about his work; which was true. Listening to the details of other people's lives, I temporarily forget those of my own.