A Tale of New Hope City is the first story I ever got paid for. I sold it to Dave Felts for issue 4 of his magazine Maelstrom Speculative Fiction back in September of 1999. (Dave now runs SFReader.com, which you may enjoy) I'm re-publishing the story here because you currently can't find it anywhere else, and who knows? You might dig it. I just figured out how to do the jump thing on my posts so you don't have to scroll through the whole story to see what the post before this one was. I'll run the story behind the story in a few days. Remind me if I forget. Have fun!
A TALE OF NEW HOPE CITY
by Matthew Sanborn Smith
Dev's song rains down on me in the cold twilight of New Hope City while the roofrunners untint their optical flaps. For the first time today the City of Brass can be viewed by the naked eye without nerve damage. Dev's a friend of mine, a scanner who spends his evenings deprived of four senses at the base of one of New Hope's catch towers, smelling the molecules that float through its thirty story filters. The Citymind determines what his data indicates, prioritizes responses and alerts the proper servants. Dev sings low priorities to me, what the Aesthetic Guard passes over. I only act on vandalism and disfigurement. I'm a free-lance street-sweeper without compensation. I don't need it; I'm Latimer Vul.
Yes, that Latimer Vul. Four deaths away from patriarch of one of the richest clans on the planet. And although four isn't a long wait, I'll never take the position. I no longer have the stomach for the business. Until someone has sense enough to cut me off, I'll spend the family's money on my own pursuits, as I do tonight.
Dev, in my inner ear, drives out the sound of the city's fires which roar like rolling thunder on a barren plain. I kick the husk of an augmented sea urchin, and watch it skitter across the smooth, rounded rooftop of the never-used Gardxeek embassy while my friend sings of Hemel Govins. Govins has escaped Environment, not quite a crime in itself. But he's moving upspace in blatant violation of his civil contract. He's reclaimed his Grind persona; he intends to return to work. Grind is a vandal by trade. He destroys Beauty, the highest law, and therefore forfeits his legal right to life. But at the moment, I am the only person outside the city's life force who knows where he is and what he is doing. I am the only one who can stop him.
I put the gelatinous oxygen mask to my face. It's a onetime man-o-war, now augmented beyond recognition by my own design. Slavery is the lot of our people. We enslave the lower animals to the point that they are no longer themselves, bending the wills of their selfsongs to our convenience. In turn, the higher animal, the Gardxeek, enslave humanity in a similar if less purposeful way.
The day our races met, we had the superior technology. Overwhelmingly so. And though incapable of the telepathic feats of the higher animal, our minds were faster, more perceptive. Smarter. The day our races met, humanity surrendered unconditionally.
I pinch the SECURE nerve cluster. The mask reaches into the pores of my face and neck with hundreds of jelly-like fingers and holds on, sealing my lungs from the outside world. I steel myself against the burning sensation. It will pass as I draw my attention from it. It has to pass. I try not to think about emergencies. In case of an emergency the mask will work its fibers straight into my windpipe. I wonder if I'll be able to remain conscious through that ordeal.
Running along the gleaming roof, my padded boots thump softly until that final leap and soon I fly high above the thick air traffic on finely machined wings and jet power, savoring the last sliver of sunlight already lost to those below and the rush of air through my flapping coat. Though too far away to warm me, the crackle of New Hope's enormous open fires remains in my mind as I move into a thinning atmosphere and consider my prey.
The desire to escape Environment suggests chemical imbalance. Some say that it's a twisted world in which we live when a criminal signs a contract and is surrounded by beauty and pleasure for its duration. Beauty unimagined by the most civil of people, contributors to all manner of things pleasant. Just two generations ago, offenders had the other side of the coin bounced off their skulls; They experienced the most hellish and ugly of sentences in punishment for what they had done. Today, our hormonalists tell us that was wrong. Not only were we committing a crime ourselves, but we were saturating the violator's body with a proclivity toward more destruction. I've heard guards say that the current program encourages repeat offenders as well, that if others were aware of our program, everyone would break the law. But that's why Environment is kept secret, isn't it? Their arguments aren't sound anyway. I've never gone back.
The Citymind has projected Govins' trajectory as bringing him to the home of Thyla Balessey, one of the most well known manmakers in the business, whose career has spanned the past eighty years. She courts rich boys at their clans' request, seduces them, teaches them how to seduce, and turns them into rich men while making herself fabulously wealthy. Wealthy enough to own her own home miles above the city. The thin air and the cold discourage visitors, but my jets boost me to where wings alone can't. Her home floats upon contragravs as if it were as light as a speck and not several thousand tons. It is exquisite, as if a snowflake had tried to imitate a Gardxeek: pure white and as delicate and intricately styled as a sugar sculpture for the marriage of the queen. How will I enter? Even if Thyla knew me, I wouldn't be welcome. My saving grace is that her other guest, also uninvited, is even less welcome.
I feel a chill along my spine. An entry has been provided. A hole, a disgraceful, hideous hole mars the side of this masterpiece. Freezing wings tight against my body, I swoop inside to an empty room with two doors and a single pool of amber liquid. It's a sealant pool of pressure-reactive Thikwater, I've seen them in research laboratories where air locks are too awkward or expensive. I reach into a pocket for a handful of augmented water spiders and toss them onto the pool. A low hum reaches my earpiece as the spiders convert the vibration of the sealant skin to a subsonic tattle tale. Grind entered the house this way. I check my tanks, over three and a half hours of air left. There's a closed system on the other side of this pool; I can't remove the mask yet.
A short swim, maybe twelve feet later and I rise up into --What? There's air here, my eardrums pop with the change in pressure, but I don't have time to tell if it's breathable. My mask holds onto me with a terrified determination. I find Govins in his old Grind persona, a human drill bent on destruction. He tears through a mural in the style of Nehu. Probably an original Nehu, never before seen by the public. With quick thrusts of his arms, the powdered-diamond/steel sleeves of Grind's outfit scope past his hands like the Chinese yo-yos of the Second Universe, spinning at incredible speeds, boring through anything they touch. They twist while they extend, like sheets of paper rolling into tighter and tighter cones, becoming even smaller than his hands at the ends to pulverize the mirror-stone wall. The sound is like metal grinding teeth into dust and amplified to drive a man insane. There's a stab in my heart and I act on it instead of my brain.
I'm out of the pool in an instant and tackling him from behind. I knock the wind out of him but the enhancer servos of his suit give his arms enough strength to crack across my head like it's a melon. By the time I shake sense into myself, he's standing above me and striking. I roll out from under him an instant before his drill/arms hit the floor. Stone particles wash into my hair in a searing whirlwind and only panic forces my body to its feet, I'm a mouse, running and never scratching. Dammit! I should have gone for his head before he knew I was in the room. My woozy head will mean my death.
"Who are you?" he screams, "One of Jury's people?"
I stagger to the farthest wall, propping myself up for half a hopeful second. Grind lashes out again. I jump to the left. A sharp pain explodes from my hip when my feet hit the floor but I'm still together. Grind's drills break through the wall behind me. A false wall, it crumples easily, as easily as my legs when I feel what's on the other side.
It's a man. Or a boy, depending on whether or not he's one of Thyla's clients and whether or not she's finished her job with him. It doesn't seem that she has. He's on a positioning rack, the kind used by torturers and rapists, human and otherwise. The rack has curled him into a fetal position and the dampening hood that covers his head doesn't seem to have done much good in the face of the Grind's cacophony. The man/boy jerks his head around, trying to shake off the hood. The bulge of a breathing mask distends the hood and a small group of air tanks sit patiently at his feet. But his presence is not what astounds us. The lattice is.
An energy lattice extends from his head to fill the room in all directions now that the barrier of the false wall has been destroyed. It's his mind, or at least a part of it, I know it instinctually, though I've never "seen" a mind before in my life. It's peeled away from him and stretched out on telepathic pegs as if it is being dissected. My head throbs just looking at the thing. So much information! It overwhelms, vaster than the Xynine Libraries and more intrusive than a hyper-glot injection. And, from out of the shadows of my past, that damned memory jumps me again.
The background memories aren't sharp and present tense like the rest. After three patience-stretching months, Cineri Degarse had failed to make payment for services rendered. I was sent to make restoration. I see the cuts inside my eyelids every night, the shape they make glows red against a black field. A cut from the right edge of the boy's lip and up through his left eye was first and then one more long one from right cheek to jaw. He was ten years old, Degarse's grandson. His angelic face was the family's greatest asset. I made the two cuts quickly, the flesh feeling like thick pudding through the razor's handle. Everything I did after that was just making hamburger so the clan surgeons had nothing with which to work. His shrill screams subsided outside my head but not inside when I sprayed his face with coagulant and ran. It was necessary that the boy should live, the family's humiliation had to last for a century. I felt the slices in my stomach as I made them on his face. I can still feel them today, just the first two long ones, two sides of a broken angle that never quite meet. They're cold in my stomach, not like his bleeding face. Every day for a thousand centuries my soul must now atone.
Here in the present I tear at my mask, and consequently my skin before finding its RELEASE nerve cluster and I vomit violently. My diaphragm's reflex to take in breathable air where there is none nearly kills me. The mask to my face for a moment and then it's away while I heave again, almost dry this time. I think I am going to die choking, I can feel my head exploding from the pressure of my body's convulsions. But the lattice blinks out and I wipe my face on a white sleeve, reattaching the bloody mask before collapsing onto my back on the cool, cool floor and thanking God for the relief. I don't care at this point what happens to me, as long as the lattice doesn't come back and sweet air fills my lungs.
"What is this all about?" comes the faraway scream. I turn my head to see her climbing over Grind's supine form. Thyla Balessey, manmaker. Pearls drip from her wet black curls like drops of mother's milk and her white gown flows about her as if it were a living thing. Beneath her transparent breathing mask she is the loveliest twenty-nine year old I have ever laid eyes on. She has enough money to be. Even now, in her late nineties. She runs to the boy/man while cooing and strokes his bare flesh with sculpting hands. "There now, my baby, it's all right. It's all right, Thyla's here now for you. Be calm." Once he has relaxed, she adjusts his hood and turns to us. We get to our feet, Grind and I, with great care. He looks as dizzy as I feel. "What the hell are you doing here?" She screams. The boy/man doesn't react to her screech; She's completely shut off his senses through his hood.
"You," she says, pointing a long finger at Grind, "You I know. I might have expected your employer not to have enough sense to wait for it. And you," to me, "Whoever you are, get out and take this trash with you."
Grind just shakes his head. Shakes it slowly and doesn't stop. He draws himself to his full five-eight, takes a deep breath and is himself again. "No," he says. "I'm not leaving until I've gotten what I came for." Without even looking in that direction, Grind throws an arm back into the Nehu and I dive for him, not fast enough. He breaks through and I find that this wall, too, conceals a room without doors. And something else. That for which Grind has thrown away his eventual freedom. It's just an oversized book on an ornate desk.
"Take a good look at it, Dodger," Govins says to me. "Cuz you won't see it again. There's stuff in that book that predicts the future and you ain't in it."
"You idiots!" Thyla yells. "That's not what you want. This is." The lattice flickers, and its subliminal effect is enough to throw us to our knees. She seems immune to the overwhelming power of a human mind released, but I’m convinced that telepathy is something our race should never know. "This boy is the source." she says. "That book is all your employer deserves. It's just a shadow of the boy, recorded by my hand!"
"Don't do that again!" Grind commands. His arm fires at her and she screams. The drill stops in mid-flight. She isn't harmed, only scared enough to reveal what she shouldn't have. IT is there, in response to her cry. The Gardxeek, a member of that alien race that was the greatest discovery in human history. The most awe-inspiringly beautiful things in the known universe. The highest expression of God's highest law. I've never seen one in person, not many have. They've never visited our world before. Slack-jawed, I curse the Nehu as it had been, the boy as he had been, the sunset in the Glastra range. My groin tingles with warmth and I curse every work of art that has touched my life as a grotesque mockery of splendor in the face of this creature.
Feel the thing's mind! As strong as a sun, like the rest of its race. It grabs Grind and gives him pain. Pain without respite. Pain beyond any human thought other than itself. Grind spasms and screams and soils himself without thought. His diamond/steel drill arms flex and shoot around the room, carving it like I carved the young Degarse’s face. I stand on the edge of the pain and feel its heat burn me. The creature takes pleasure in it. Then, above everything, comes a sudden piercing whistle and Grind falls motionless while the Gardxeek howls across our minds like the cracking open of the world.
Enraptured by the sight of the alien, enveloped by the sound, I see Thyla's mad dash only from the corner of my eye. She plunges into the pool which boils for a moment and then there is silence, inside my head and out. Grind might be dead, I can't tell from here. However he is, I might soon join him. The alien is coming for me.
It's a capital offense for a human to deface a Gardxeek, even in self-defense. But I can't die. I have to live, not for myself, but to balance the scales I threw off-kilter with nothing more than the sharp piece of metal I held in my hand. I have to spend my life in payment for my crime, even though my place in Hell is already assured. My manglers might have a chance on the alien's soft side, but my work would be aborted by the destruction. Aside from that, I don't want to deface it, no fiber of my being wants to touch or alter its perfection.
Sensing my hesitation, the Gardxeek leaps, like my heart leaps in anticipation of doom. It wraps its soft side about me in an instant and I'm within. I can move; there's room. I imagine I can smell its digestive juices dripping slowly down the fleshy walls around me. This will be a slow and painful death.
But that whistle caused it pain, made it drop Grind. I might yet live, giggling at the thought. Adjusting the sonic booster on my throat, I whistle, heightening the pitch and amplifying it to unbearable levels. The sound may stun it, even kill it and killing Gardxeek isn't illegal, only defacing them. The thing can be frozen after that and preserved for everyone. But I don't hear any howling this time and there's no other reaction from the creature aside from its fiery muscles wrapping slowly and tightly about me in an almost comfortable (for It) meal time chew. Perhaps its auditory sensors are outside, located on its hard side. I feel its body pushing in on me from all sides, its juices burning the clothes from my body as well as the flesh. I'm going to die. Dear God, I'm going to die!
To hell with scale balancing! I can't die because I don't want to die! It’s instinct, buried deep down inside genes thousands of generations old. In the throes of death, while my movements are thick and sluggish and the Gardxeek's muscles twist me back slowly to crack my spine like a lobster tail, I see the truth. The truth about my life and the truth about my people. In the name of beauty we've let these monsters toy with our lives, accepting their killing, their torture and their enslavement of our race as part of the Artist's masterpiece. We've centered our highest ideals around their appearance like a pathetic arrangement of flowers.
I must cut the cord between myself and my mother species, These are my last thoughts, fed by a hyperactive subconscious, spastically flailing against the coffin lid, piecing together its ideas in a clumsy, half-done fashion and hastily regurgitating them, almost prematurely into my consciousness.
Thyla ran and scooped something up into her arms before
--- cut the umbilical --
diving into the pool. She drowned the whistling. She grabbed
cut the cord of life ---
one of the boy/man's tanks, punctured by Grind's fit!
In the last moment of utter lucidity granted to us by nature before everything is taken away, I hear my own voice, from outside itself, chiding me like an older sibling trying to teach a younger. "Not that cord, that cord!"
Yes. It's right and it's clear. For what other reason do we need air tanks in this room? My left hand, pressed against the sonic booster, edges down involuntarily and with a strength no human being should possess. The finger shears between my glove's little and ring fingers find the edges of my air hose where it meets the fleshy mask. I take the deepest breath I've ever taken.
And I cut the cord.
There's the howl I expected before! Only so much greater this time. It vibrates my bones almost to shattering.
Oxygen is deadly to organic molecules, tears them apart like vultures ripping at a fresh carcass, and we've survived exposure and even used it to our benefit only through millennia of evolution. But what if you're from a place where oxygen doesn't exist? No need for your cells to develop the molecular tongs and oven mitts that ours have. Not only no need but no possible way. What if your genetic line's very first exposure to a fatally corrosive substance comes from a little creature inside your belly?
I smile as it releases me because I know it won't come after me ever again. Grind's inferior mask will work for me; I can't be choosy about where my next breath comes from. If it wasn't for that breath, I'd scream a scream of joy that would shake Thyla's home off of it's contragravs and into the icy ocean miles below, because I know my race will survive.
Making my way to the positioning rack, I tear the hood from Opliam Degarse’s disfigured face and his eye grows wide with amazement. This is my atonement, to give him this gift. I return the air hose to the burning, dying thing, and Thyla drops to the ground beside me, rocking slowly to the most moving songs of death ever visited upon human ears and minds. Who knew they could be so much more beautiful in dying than in life? We shall burn them! Burn them all in an orgy of exquisite destruction, for we now know their secret and will unlock it with our very breath. Shivering in sweat-soaked leather, I weep and the fiery spectrum of color blurs before me. I’m Latimer Vul and my work is done. It’s night in New Hope City.
Oh, man. The BF noticed me staring intently at the screen & said "what's wrong? What's up with--oh, you're reading."
I had a gut reaction to be upset at the first blows to the mural (an original Nehu!), but I was too busy getting a sense of the whole space & finding out what would happen next. By the time you released me & I could have been upset about the mural, you'd made your point.
And this was over 10 years ago? Nice.
You're awesome, Elke. I'm glad you enjoyed it, Don't get in trouble for reading!
This reminds me, I have to post the story behind the story. Not right now, I have to write other stuff, but I hope I remember soon.
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