Science Fiction & Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

The Astrakhan, the Homburg, and the Red Red Coal

The Astrakhan, the Homburg, and the Red Red Coal

“Paris? Paris is ruined for me, alas. It has become a haven for Americans — or should I say a heaven? When good Americans die, perhaps they really do go to Paris. That would explain the flood.”

“What about the others, Mr. Holland? The ones who aren’t good?”

“Ah. Have you not heard? I thought that was common knowledge. When bad Americans die, they go to America. Which, again, would explain its huddled masses. But we were speaking of Paris. It was a good place to pause, to catch my breath. I never could have stayed there. If I had stayed in Paris, I should have died myself. The wallpaper alone would have seen to that.”

“And what then, Mr. Holland? Where do good Irishmen go when they die?”

“Hah.” He made to fold his hands across a generous belly, as in the days of pomp — and found it not so generous after all, and lost for a moment the practised grace of his self-content. A man can forget the new truths of his own body, after a period of alteration. Truly Paris had a lot to answer for. Paris, and what had come before. What had made it necessary.

“This particular Irishman,” he said, “is in hopes of seeing Cassini the crater-city on its lake, and finding his eternal rest in your own San Michele, within the sound of Thunder Fall. If I’ve only been good enough.”

“And if not? Where do bad Irishmen go?”

It was the one question that should never have been asked. It came from the shadows behind our little circle; I disdained to turn around, to see what man had voiced it.

“Well,” Mr. Holland said, gazing about him with vivid horror painted expertly across his mobile face, “I seem to have found myself in Marsport. What did I ever do to deserve this?”

There was a common shout of laughter, but it was true all the same. Marsport at its best is not a place to wish upon anyone, virtuous or otherwise; and the Blue Dolphin is not the best of what we have. Far from it. Lying somewhat awkwardly between the honest hotels and the slummish boarding-houses, it was perhaps the place that met his purse halfway. Notoriety is notoriously mean in its rewards. He couldn’t conceivably slum, but neither — I was guessing — could he live high on the hog. Even now it wasn’t clear quite who had paid his fare to Mars. The one-way voyage is subsidised by Authority, while those who want to go home again must pay through the nose for the privilege — but even so. He would not have travelled steerage, and the cost of a cabin on an aethership is . . . significant. Prohibitive, I should have said, for a man in exile from his own history, whose once success could only drag behind him now like Marley’s chains, nothing but a burden. He might have assumed his children’s name for public purposes, but he could not have joined the ship without offering his right one.

No matter. He was here now, with money enough for a room at the Dolphin and hopes of a journey on. We would sit at his feet meanwhile and be the audience he was accustomed to, attentive, admiring, if it would make him happy.

It was possible that nothing now could make him exactly happy. Still: who could treasure him more than we who made our home in a gateway city, an entrepôt, and found our company in the lobby of a cheap hotel?

“Marsport’s not so dreadful,” the same voice said. “It’s the hub of the wheel, not the pit of hell. From here you can go anywhere you choose: by canal, by airship, by camel if you’re hardy. Steam-camel, if you’re foolhardy. On the face of it, I grant you, there’s not much reason to stay — and yet, people do. Our kind.”

“Our kind?”

There was a moment’s pause, after Mr. Holland had placed the question: so carefully, like a card laid down in invitation, or a token to seal the bet.

“Adventurers,” the man said. “Those unafraid to stand where the light spills into darkness: who know that a threshold serves to hold two worlds apart, as much as it allows congress between them.”

“Ah. I am afraid my adventuring days are behind me.”

“Oh, nonsense, sir! Why, the journey to Mars is an adventure in itself!”

Now there was a voice I did recognise: Parringer, as fatuous a fool as the schools of home were ever likely to produce. He was marginal even here, one of us only by courtesy. And thrusting himself forward, protesting jovially, trying to prove himself at the heart of the affair and showing only how very remote he was.

“Well, perhaps. Perhaps.” Mr. Holland could afford to be generous; he didn’t have to live with the man. “If so, it has been my last. I am weary, gentlemen. And wounded and heart-sore and unwell, but weary above all. All I ask now is a place to settle. A fireside, a view, a little company: no more than that. No more adventuring.”

“Time on Mars may yet restore your health and energy. It is what we are famous for.” This was our unknown again, pressing again. “But you are not of an age to want or seek retirement, Mr. . . . Holland. Great heavens, man, you can’t be fifty yet! Besides, the adventure I propose will hardly tax your reserves. There’s no need even to leave the hotel, if you will only shift with me into the conservatory. You may want your overcoats, gentlemen, and another round of drinks. No more than that. I’ve had a boy in there already to light the stove.”

That was presumptuous. Manners inhibited me from twisting around and staring, but no one objects to a little honest subterfuge. I rose, took two paces towards the fire and pressed the bell by the mantelshelf.

“My shout, I think. Mr. Holland, yours I know is gin and French. Gentlemen . . . ?”

No one resists an open invitation; Marsporter gin is excellent, but imported drinks come dear. The boy needed his notebook to take down a swift flurry of orders.

“Thanks, Barley.” I tucked half a sovereign into his rear pocket — unthinkable largesse, but we all had reasons to treat kindly with Barley — and turned to face my cohort.

On my feet and playing host, I could reasonably meet them all eye to eye, count them off like call-over at school. Hereth and Maskelyne, who were not friends but nevertheless arrived together and sat together, left together every time. Thomson who rarely spoke, who measured us all through his disguising spectacles and might have been a copper’s nark, might have been here to betray us all except that every one of us had reason to know that he was not. Gribbin the engineer and van Heuren the boatman, Poole from the newspaper and the vacuous Parringer of course, and Mr. Holland our guest for the occasion, and —

And our unannounced visitor, the uninvited, the unknown. He was tall even for Mars, where the shortest of us would overtop the average Earthman. Mr. Holland must have been a giant in his own generation, six foot three or thereabouts; here he was no more than commonplace. In his strength, in his pride I thought he would have resented that. Perhaps he still did. Years of detention and disgrace had diminished body and spirit both, but something must survive yet, unbroken, undismayed. He could never have made this journey else. Nor sat with us. Every felled tree holds a memory of the forest.

The stranger was in his middle years, an established man, confident in himself and his position. That he held authority in some kind was not, could not be in question. It was written in the way he stood, the way he waited; the way he had taken charge so effortlessly, making my own display seem feeble, sullen, nugatory.

Mr. Holland apparently saw the same. He said, “I don’t believe we were introduced, sir. If I were to venture a guess, I should say you had a look of the Guards about you.” Or perhaps he said the guards, and meant something entirely different.

“I don’t believe any of us have been introduced,” I said, as rudely as I knew how. “You are . . . ?”

Even his smile carried that same settled certainty. “Gregory Durand, late of the King’s Own,” with a little nod to Mr. Holland: the one true regiment to any man of Mars, Guards in all but name, “and currently of the Colonial Service.”

He didn’t offer a title, nor even a department. Ordinarily, a civil servant is more punctilious. I tried to pin him down: “Meaning the police, I suppose?” It was a common career move, after the army.

“On occasion,” he said. “Not tonight.”

If that was meant to be reassuring, it fell short. By some distance. If we were casting about for our coats, half-inclined not to wait for those drinks, it was not because we were urgent to follow him into the conservatory. Rather, our eyes were on the door and the street beyond.

“Gentlemen,” he said, “be easy.” He was almost laughing at us. “Tonight I dress as you do,” anonymous overcoat and hat, as good as a nom de guerre on such a man, an absolute announcement that this was not his real self, “and share everything and nothing, one great secret and nothing personal or private, nothing prejudicial. I will not say “nothing perilous,” but the peril is mutual and assured. We stand or fall together, if at all. Will you come? For the Queen Empress, if not for the Empire?”

The Empire had given us little enough reason to love it, which he knew. An appeal to the Widow, though, will always carry weight. There is something irresistible in that blend of decrepit sentimentality and strength beyond measure, endurance beyond imagination. Like all her subjects else, we had cried for her, we would die for her. We were on our feet almost before we knew it. I took that so much for granted, indeed, it needed a moment more for me to realise that Mr. Holland was still struggling to rise. Unless he was simply slower to commit himself, he whose reasons — whose scars — were freshest on his body and raw yet on his soul.

Still. I reached down my hand to help him, and he took it resolutely. And then stepped out staunchly at my side, committed after all. We found ourselves already in chase of the pack; the others filed one by one through a door beside the hearth, that was almost always locked this time of year. Beyond lay the unshielded conservatory, an open invitation to the night.

An invitation that Mr. Holland balked at, and rightly. He said, “You gentlemen are dressed for this, but I have a room here, and had not expected to need my coat tonight.”

“You’ll freeze without it. Perhaps you should stay in the warm.” Perhaps we all should, but it was too late for that. Our company was following Durand like sheep, trusting where they should have been most wary. Tempted where they should have been resistant, yielding where they should have been most strong.

And yet, and yet. Dubious and resentful as I was, I too would give myself over to this man — for the mystery or for the adventure, something. For something to do that was different, original, unforeseen. I was weary of the same faces, the same drinks, the same conversations. We all were. Which was why Mr. Holland had been so welcome, one reason why.

This, though — I thought he of all men should keep out of this. I thought I should keep him out, if I could.

Here came Durand to prevent me: stepping through the door again, reaching for his elbow, light and persuasive and yielding nothing.

“Here’s the boy come handily now, just when we need him. I’ll take that, lad,” lifting Barley’s tray of refreshments as though he had been host all along. “You run up to Mr. Holland’s room and fetch down his overcoat. And his hat too, we’ll need to keep that great head warm. Meanwhile, Mr. Holland, we’ve a chair for you hard by the stove . . .”

• • • •

The chairs were set out ready in a circle: stern and upright, uncushioned, claimed perhaps from the hotel servants’ table. Our companions were milling, choosing, settling, in clouds of their own breath. The conservatory was all glass and lead, roof and walls together; in the dark of a Martian winter, the air was bitter indeed, despite the stove’s best efforts. The chill pressed in from every side, as the night pressed against the lamplight. There was no comfort here to be found; there would be no warmth tonight.

On a table to one side stood a machine, a construction of wires and plates in a succession of steel frames with rubber insulation. One cable led out of it, to something that most resembled an inverted umbrella, or the skeleton of such a thing, bones of wind-stripped wire.

“What is that thing?”

“Let me come to that. If you gentlemen would take your seats . . .”

Whoever laid the chairs out knew our number. There was none for Durand; he stood apart, beside the machine. Once we were settled, drinks in hand — and most of us wishing we had sent for something warmer — he began.

“Nation shall speak peace unto nation — and for some of us, it is our task to see it happen. Notoriously, traditionally we go after this by sending in the army first and then the diplomats. Probably we have that backwards, but it’s the system that builds empires. It’s the system of the world.

“Worlds, I should say. Here on Mars, of course, it’s the merlins that we need to hold in conversation. Mr. Holland —”

“I am not a child, sir. Indeed, I have children of my own.” Indeed, he travelled now under their name, the name they took at their mother’s insistence; he could still acknowledge them, even if they were obliged to disown him. “I have exactly a child’s understanding of your merlins: which is to say, what we were taught in my own schooldays. I know that you converse with them as you can, in each of their different stages: by sign language with the youngster, the nymph, and then by bubbling through pipes at the naiad in its depths, and watching the bubbles it spouts back. With the imago, when the creature takes to the air, I do not believe that you can speak at all.”

“Just so, sir — and that is precisely the point of our gathering tonight.”

In fact the point of our gathering had been ostensibly to celebrate and welcome Mr. Holland, actually to fester in our own rank company while we displayed like bantam cocks before our guest. Durand had co-opted it, and us, entirely. Possibly that was no bad thing. He had our interest, at least, if not our best interests at heart.

“It has long been believed,” he said, “that the imagos —”

“— imagines —”

— to our shame, that came as a chorus, essential pedantry —

“— that imagos,” he went on firmly, having no truck with ridiculous Greek plurals, “have no language, no way to speak, perhaps no wit to speak with. As though the merlins slump into senescence in their third stage, or infantilism might say it better: as though they lose any rational ability, overwhelmed by the sexual imperative. They live decades, perhaps centuries in their slower stages here below, nymph and naiad; and then they pupate, and then they hatch a second time and the fire of youth overtakes them once more: they fly; they fight; they mate; they die. What need thought, or tongue?

“So our wise men said, at least. Now perhaps we are grown wiser. We believe they do indeed communicate, with each other and perhaps their water-based cousins too. It may be that nymphs or naiads or both have the capacity to hear them. We don’t, because they do not use sound as we understand it. Rather, they have an organ in their heads that sends out electromagnetic pulses, closer to Hertzian waves than anything we have previously observed in nature. Hence this apparatus,” with a mild gesture towards the table and its machinery. “With this, it is believed that we can not only hear the imagos, but speak back to them.”

A moment’s considerate pause, before Gribbin asked the obvious question. “And us? Why do you want to involve us?”

“Not want, so much as need. The device has existed for some time; it has been tried, and tried again. It does work, there is no question of that. Something is received, something transmitted.”

“— But?”

“But the first man who tried it, its inventor occupies a private room — a locked room — in an asylum now, and may never be fit for release.”

“And the second?”

“Was a military captain, the inventor’s overseer. He has the room next door.” There was no equivocation in this man, nothing but the blunt direct truth.

“And yet you come to us? You surely don’t suppose that we are saner, healthier, more to be depended on . . . ?”

“Nor more willing,” Durand said, before one of us could get to it. “I do not. And yet I am here, and I have brought the machine. Will you listen?”

None of us trusted him, I think. Mr. Holland had better reason than any to be wary, yet it was he whose hand sketched a gesture, I am listening. The rest of us — well, silence has ever been taken for consent.

“Thank you, gentlemen. What transpired from the tragedy — after a careful reading of the notes and as much interrogation of the victims as proved possible — was that the mind of an imago is simply too strange, too alien, for the mind of a man to encompass. A human brain under that kind of pressure can break, in distressing and irrecoverable ways.”

“And yet,” I said, “we speak to nymphs, to naiads.” I had done it myself, indeed. I had spoken to nymphs on the great canals when I was younger, nimble-fingered, foolish, and immortal. For all the good it had done me, I might as well have kept my hands in my pockets and my thoughts to myself, but nevertheless. I spoke, they replied; none of us ran mad.

“We do — and a poor shoddy helpless kind of speech it is. Finger-talk or bubble-talk, all we ever really manage to do is misunderstand each other almost entirely. That ‘almost’ has made the game just about worth the candle, for a hundred years and more — it brought us here and keeps us here in more or less safety; it ferries us back and forth — but this is different. When the imagos speak to each other, they speak mind-to-mind. It’s not literally telepathy, but it is the closest thing we know. And when we contact them through this device, we encounter the very shape of their minds, almost from the inside; and our minds — our individual minds — cannot encompass that. No one man’s intellect can stand up to the strain.”

“And yet,” again, “here we are. And here you are, and your maddening machine. I say again, why are we here?”

“Because you chose to be” — and it was not at all clear whether his answer meant in this room or in this hotel or in this situation. “I am the only one here under orders. The rest of you are free to leave at any time, though you did at least agree to listen. And I did say ‘one man’s intellect.’ Where one man alone cannot survive it without a kind of mental dislocation — in the wicked sense, a disjointment, his every mental limb pulled each from each — a group of men working together is a different case. It may be that the secret lies in strength, in mutual support; it may lie in flexibility. A group of officers made the endeavour, and none of them was harmed beyond exhaustion and a passing bewilderment, a lingering discomfort with each other. But neither did they make much headway. Enlisted men did better.”

He paused, because the moment demanded it: because drama has its natural rhythms and he did after all have Mr. Holland in his audience, the great dramatist of our age. We sat still, uncommitted, listening yet.

“The enlisted men did better, we believe, because their lives are more earthy, less refined. They live cheek by jowl; they sleep all together and bathe together; they share the same women in the same bawdy-houses. That seems to help.”

“And so you come to us? To us?” Ah, Parringer. “Because you find us indistinguishable from common bloody Tommies?”

“No, because you are most precisely distinguishable. The Tommies were no great success either, but they pointed us a way to go. The more comfortable the men are with each other, physically and mentally, the better hope we have. Officers inhabit a bonded hierarchy, isolated from one another as they are from their men, like pockets of water in an Archimedes’ screw. Cadets might have done better, but we went straight to the barracks. With, as I say, some success — but enlisted men are unsophisticated. Hence we turn to you, gentlemen. It is a bow drawn at a venture, no more: but you are familiar with, intimate with the bodies of other men, and we do believe that will help enormously; and yet you are educated beyond the aspiration of any Tommy Atkins — some of you beyond the aspiration of any mere soldier, up to and including the generals of my acquaintance — and that too can only prove to the good. With the one thing and the other, these two strengths in parallel, in harmony, we stand in high hopes of a successful outcome. At least, gentlemen, I can promise you that you won’t be bored. Come, now: will you play?”

“Is that as much as you can promise?” Thomson raised his voice, querulous and demanding. “You ask a lot of us, to venture in the margins of madness; it seems to me you might offer more in return.”

“I can offer you benign neglect,” Durand said cheerfully. “Official inattention: no one watching you, no one pursuing. I can see that enshrined in policy, to carry over ad infinitum. If you’re discreet, you can live untroubled hereafter; you, and the generations that follow you. This is a once-and-for-all offer, for services rendered.”

There must be more wrapped up in this even than Durand suggested or we guessed. A way to speak to the imagines might prove only the gateway to further secrets and discoveries. If we could speak directly to the chrysalid pilots of the aetherships, perhaps we might even learn to fly ourselves between one planet and another, and lose all our dependence on the merlins . . .

That surely would be worth a blind eye turned in perpetuity to our shady meeting-places, our shadier activities.

Mr. Holland thought so, at least. “Say more, of how this process works. Not what you hope might come of it; we all have dreams. Some of us have followed them, somewhat. I am here, after all, among the stars,” with a wave of his hand through glass to the bitter clarity of the Martian night sky. “How is it that you want us to work together? And how do we work with the machine, and why above all do we have to do it here, in this wicked cold?”

“To treat with the last first: Mr. Heaviside has happily demonstrated here as well as on Earth, that aetheric waves carry further after dark. We don’t know how far we need to reach, to find a receptive imago; we stand a better chance at night. Besides, you gentlemen tend to forgather in the evenings. I wasn’t certain of finding you by daylight.”

Someone chuckled, someone snorted. I said, “I have never seen an imago fly by night, though. I don’t believe they can.”

“Not fly, no: never that. But neither do they sleep, so far as we can tell. All we want to do — all we want you to do — is touch the creature’s mind, fit yourselves to the shape of it and find whether you can understand each other.”

“I still don’t understand how you mean us to achieve that?”

“No. It’s almost easier to have you do it, than to explain how it might be done. We’re stepping into an area where words lose their value against lived experience. It’s one reason I was so particularly hoping to enlist your company, sir,” with a nod to Mr. Holland, “because who better to stand before the nondescript and find means to describe it? If anyone can pin this down with words, it will be you. If anyone can speak for us to an alien power —”

“Now that,” he said, “I have been doing all my life.”

The run of laughter he provoked seemed more obligatory than spontaneous, but came as a relief none the less. Durand joined in, briefly. As it tailed away, he said, “Very well — but there is of course more to it than one man’s dexterity with language. Our wise men speak of the, ah, inversion of the generative principle, as a bonding-agent stronger than blood or shared danger or duty or sworn word — but again, there is more than that. You gentlemen may be a brotherhood, drawn from within and pressed close from without; we can make you something greater, a single purpose formed from all your parts. The wise men would have me flourish foreign words at you, gestalt or phasis or the like; but wise men are not always the most helpful.

“Let me rather say this, that you all have some experience of the demi-monde. By choice or by instinct or necessity, your lives have led you into the shadows. This very hotel is a gateway to more disreputable ventures. There is an opium den behind the Turkish bath, a brothel two doors down. I do not say that any of you is a libertine at core: only that the life you lead draws you into contact and exchange with those who avoid the light for other reasons.

“I will be plain. Mr. Holland, you have a known taste for absinthe and for opium cigarettes. Mr. Parringer, laudanum is your poison; Mr. Hereth, you stick to gin, but that jug of water at your elbow that you mix in so judiciously is actually more gin, and you will drink the entire jugful before the night is out. Mr. Gribbin — but I don’t need to go on, do I? You each have your weaknesses, your ways of setting yourselves a little adrift from the world.

“We need to take you out of yourselves more thoroughly in order to bind you into a single motive force, in order to create the mind-space wherein you might meet an imago and make some sense of it. I have brought an alchemical concoction, a kind of hatchis, more potent than any pill or pipe or potion that you have met before.”

He laid it on a tray, on a table that he set centre-circle between us all: a silver pot containing something green and unctuous, an array of coffee-spoons beside.

“Something more from your wise men, Mr. Durand?”

“Exactly so.”

“I’m not sure how keen I am, actually, to swallow some hellbrew dreamed up in a government laboratory.” Gribbin leaned forward and stirred it dubiously. There were gleams of oily gold amidst the green. “Does nobody remember The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde?”

“‘Can anyone forget it?’ should rather be your question,” Mr. Holland observed. “Stevenson was as much a master of delicate, fanciful prose as he was of a strong driving story. But he — or his character, rather, his creation: do we dare impute the motives of the dream unto the dreamer? — he certainly saw the merits of a man testing his own invention on himself, before bringing it to the public.” Even huddled as he was against the ironwork of the stove, he could still exude a spark of knowing mischief.

Durand smiled. “I would be only too happy to swallow my own spoonful, to show you gentlemen the way — but alas, my duty is to the device, not to the entente. You will need me sober and attentive. Besides which, I am not of your persuasion. I should only hold you back. Let me stress, though, that senior officers and common troops both have trod this path before you, and not been harmed. Not by the drug. Think of the hatchis as grease to the engine, no more; it will ease your way there and back again. Now come: I promised you adventure, and this is the beginning. Who’s first to chance the hazard?”

There is a self-destructive tendency in some men that falls only a little short of self-murder. We have it worse than most; something not quite terror, not quite exhilaration drives us higher, faster, farther than good sense ever could dictate. Some consider it a weakness, evidence of a disordered nature. I hope that it’s a badge of courage acquired against the odds, that we will fling ourselves from the precipice in no certain knowledge of a rope to hold us, no faith in any net below.

Of course it was Mr. Holland who reached first, to draw up a noble spoonful and slide it into his mouth. No tentative sips, no tasting: he was all or nothing, or rather simply all.

The surprise was Parringer, thrusting himself forward to do the same, gulping it down wholesale while Mr. Holland still lingered, the spoon’s stem jutting from between his full contented lips like a cherry-stem, like a child’s lollipop.

Where Parringer plunged, who among us would choose to hold back? A little resentfully, and with a great many questions still unasked, we fell mob-handed on the spoons, the jar, the glistening oleaginous jelly.

• • • •

It was bitter on my tongue and something harsh, as though it breathed out fumes, catching at the back of my throat before it slithered down to soothe that same discomfort with a distraction of tastes behind a cool and melting kiss. Bitter and then sour and then sweet, layer beneath layer, and I couldn’t decide whether its flavours were woven one into another or whether its very nature changed as it opened, as it bloomed within the warm wet of my mouth.

He was right, of course, Durand. Not one of us there was a stranger to the more louche pleasures of the twilit world. Myself, I was a smoker in those days: hashish or opium, anything to lift me out of the quotidian world for an hour or a night. In company or alone, sweating or shivering or serene, I would always, always look to rise. Skin becomes permeable, bodies lose their margins; dreams are welcome but not needful, where what I seek is always that sense of being uncontained, of reaching further than my strict self allows.

From what he said, I took Durand’s potion to be one more path to that effect: slower for sure, because smoke is the very breath of fire and lifts as easily as it rises, while anything swallowed is dank and low-lying by its nature. I never had been an opium-eater, and hatchis was less than that, surely: a thinner draught, ale to spirits, tea to coffee. Sunshine to lightning. Something.

If I had the glare of lightning in my mind, it was only in the expectation of disappointment: rain, no storm. I never thought to ride it. Nor to find myself insidiously companion’d — in my own mind, yet — where before I had always gone alone.

Even in bed, even with a slick and willing accomplice in the throes of mutual excess, my melting boundaries had never pretended to melt me into another man’s thoughts. Now, though: now suddenly I was aware of minds in parallel, rising entangled with mine, like smoke from separate cigarettes caught in the same eddy. Or burning coals in the same grate, fusing awkwardly together. Here was a mind cool and in command of itself, trying to sheer off at such exposure: that was Gribbin, finding nowhere to go, pressed in from every side at once. Here was one bold and fanciful and weary all at once, and that was surely Mr. Holland, though it was hard to hold on to that ostensible name in this intimate revelation. Here was one tentative and blustering together, Parringer of course . . .

One by one, each one of us declared an identity, if not quite a location. We were this many and this various, neither a medley nor a synthesis, untuned: glimpsing one man’s overweening physical arrogance and another’s craven unsatisfied ambition, sharing the urge to seize both and achieve a high vaulting reach with them, beyond the imagination of either. Even without seeing a way to do that, even as we swarmed inconsequentially like elvers in a bucket, the notion was there already with flashes of the vision. Perhaps Durand was right to come to us.

Durand, now: Durand was no part of this. Walled off, separated, necessary: to us he was prosthetic, inert, a tool to be wielded. He stood by his machine, fiddling with knobs and wires, almost as mechanical himself.

Here was the boy Barley coming in, no part of anything, bringing the hat and overcoat he’d been sent for. At Durand’s gesture he dressed Mr. Holland like a doll, as though he were invalid or decrepit. Perhaps we all seemed so to him, huddled in our circle, unspeaking, seeming unaware. The truth was opposite; we were aware of everything, within the limits of our bodies’ senses. We watched him crouch to feed the stove; we heard the slide and crunch of the redcoal tipping in, the softer sounds of ash falling through the grate beneath; we felt the sear of heat released, how it stirred the frigid air about us, how it rose towards the bitter glass.

“Enough now, lad. Leave us be until I call again.”

“Yes, sir.”

He picked up the tray from the table and bore it off towards the door, with a rattle of discarded spoons. Durand had already turned back to his machine. We watched avidly, aware of nothing more intently than the little silver pot and its gleaming residue. We knew it, when the boy hesitated just inside the door; we knew it when he glanced warily back at us, when he decided he was safe, when he scooped up a fingerful from the pot’s rim and sucked it clean.

We knew; Durand did not.

Durand fired up his machine.

• • • •

We had the boy. Not one of us, not part of us, not yet: we were as unprepared for this as he was, and the more susceptible to his fear and bewilderment because we were each of us intimately familiar with his body, in ways not necessarily true of one another’s.

Still: we had him among us, with us, this side of the wall. We had his nervous energy to draw on, like a flame to our black powder; we had his yearning, his curiosity. And more, we had that shared knowledge of him, common ground. Where we couldn’t fit one to another, we could all of us fit around him: the core of the matrix, the unifying frame, the necessary element Durand had not foreseen.

• • • •

Durand fired up his machine while we were still adjusting, before we had nudged one another into any kind of order.

He really should have warned us, though I don’t suppose he could. He hadn’t been this way himself; all he had was secondhand reports from men more or less broken by the process. We could none of us truly have understood that, until now.

We weren’t pioneers; he only hoped that we might be survivors. Still, we deserved some better warning than we had.

• • • •

We forget sometimes that names are not descriptions; that Mars is not Earth; that the merlins are no more native than ourselves. We call them Martians sometimes because our parents did, because their parents did before them, and so back all the way to Farmer George. More commonly we call them merlins because we think it’s clever, because they seem to end their lives so backward, from long years of maturity in the depths to one brief adolescent lustful idiocy in the sky. When we call them imagos — or imagines — because they remind us of dragonflies back home, if dragonflies were built to the scale of biplanes.

Which they are not. The map is not the territory; the name is not the creature. Even redcoal is not coal, not carbon of any kind, for all that it is mined and burned alike. We forget that. We name artefacts after the places of their manufacture, or their first manufacture, or the myth of it; did the homburg hat in fact see first light in Bad Homburg, or is that only a story that we tell? Does anybody know? We let a man name himself after his children, after a country not relevant to any of them, not true to any story of their lives. We assert that names are changeable, assignable at whim, and then we attach unalterable value to them.

Durand had given no name to his machine. That was just as well, but not enough. He had given us a task to do, in words we thought we understood; he had laid the groundwork, given us an argument about the uses of debauchery and then a drug to prove it; then he flung us forth, all undefended.

He flung us, and we dragged poor Barley along, unwitting, unprepared.

• • • •

It started with a hum, as he connected electrical wires to a seething acid battery. Lamps glowed into dim flickering life. Sparks crackled ominously, intermittently, before settling to a steady mechanical pulse. A steel disc spun frantically inside a cage.

Nothing actually moved, except fixedly in place; and even so, everything about it was all rush and urgency, a sensation of swift decisive movement: that way, through the run of frames and wires to the umbrella-structure at the far end of the table. There was nothing to draw the eye except a certainty, logic married to something more, an intangible impulsion. That way: through and up and out into the night.

And none of us moved from our places, and yet, and yet. The machine hurled us forth, and forth we went.

If we had understood anything, we had understood that the machine would bring an imago’s voice to us, and we would somehow speak back to it, if we could think of anything to say. That would have been Mr. Holland’s lot, surely; he was never short of things to say.

We had misunderstood, or else been misdirected. Unless the drug seduced us all into a mutual hallucination, and in plain truth our intelligences never left that room any more than our abandoned bodies did. But it seemed to us — to all of us, united — that we were shot out like a stone from a catapult; that we streaked over all the lights of Marsport and into the bleak dark of the desert beyond; that we hurtled thus directly into the static mind of an imago at rest.

• • • •

No creature’s thoughts should be . . . architectural. Or vast. At first we thought we were fallen into halls of stone, or caverns water-worn. But we had found our shape by then, in the flight from there to here; we might fit poorly all together, but we all fitted well around Barley. And something in that resettling, that nudging into a new conformation, caused a shift in our perspective. A thought is just an echo of the mind-state it betrays, as an astrakhan overcoat is a memory of the lambs that died to make it.

Where we fancied that we stood, these grand and pillared spaces — this was an imago’s notion of its night-time world, beyond all heat and passion, poised, expectant. A memory of the chrysalis, perhaps.

Expectant, but not expecting us. Not expecting anything until the sun, the bright and burning day, the vivid endeavour. We came like thieves into a mountain, to disturb the dragon’s rest; we were alien, intrusive, self-aware. It knew us in the moment of our coming.

I have seen set-changes in the theatre where one scene glides inexplicably into another, defying expectation, almost defying the eye that saw it happen. I had never stood in a place and had that happen all about me; but we were there, we were recognised, and its awareness of us changed the shape of its thinking.

Even as we changed ourselves, that happened: as we slid and shifted, as we found our point of balance with Barley serving at the heart of all, as we arrayed ourselves about him. Even Mr. Holland, who would need to speak for us, if anything could ever come to words here; even Parringer, whose motives were as insidious as his manner. There was an unbridgeable gulf between the imago as we had always understood it, flighty and maniacal, and this lofty habitation. A naiad in the depths might have such a ponderous mind, such chilly detachment, but not the frenzied imago, no. Surely not.

Save that the imago had been a naiad before; perhaps it retained that mind-set, in ways we had not expected or imagined. Perhaps it could be contemplative at night, while the sun burned off its intellect and lent it only heat?

It closed in upon us almost geometrically, like tiled walls, if tiles and walls could occupy more dimensions than a man can see, in shapes we have no words for. We should have felt threatened, perhaps, but Barley’s curiosity was matched now by his tumbling delight, and what burns at the core reaches out all the way to the skin. We sheltered him and drew from him and leaned on him, all in equal measure; he linked us and leaned on us and drew from us, in ways for which there never could be words.

• • • •

With so many names for our kind — leering, contemptuous, descriptive, dismissive — we know both the fallibility and the savage power of words. The map seeks to define the territory, to claim it, sometimes to contain it. Without a map, without a shared vocabulary, without a mode of thought in common — well, no wonder men alone went mad here. No wonder men together had achieved so little, beyond a mere survival. Mr. Holland might have flung wit all night with no more effect than a monkey flinging dung against a cliff-face, if we had only been a group forgathered by circumstance, struggling to work together. With the drug to bond us, with each man contributing the heart’s-blood of himself in this strange transfusion, there was no struggle and we found what we needed as the need came to us.

Whether we said what was needed, whether it needed to be said: that is some other kind of question. Did anyone suppose that the confluence of us all would be a diplomat?

The imago pressed us close, but that was an enquiry. There was pattern in the pressure: we could see it, we could read it almost, those of us with finger-talk or bubble-talk or both. What lives, what choices? Swim or fly, drown or burn? Swallow or be swallowed?

We knew, we thought, how to press back, how to pattern a reply. Mr. Holland gave us what we lacked: content, poetry, response. Meaning more than words. Sometimes the map declares the territory.

For he who lives more lives than one

More deaths than one must die.

He would have turned the bitterness all against himself, but our collective consciousness couldn’t sustain that. We all wanted our share, we all deserved it: all but Barley, who had no hidden other self, who’d had no time to grow one.

Suddenly he couldn’t hold us together any longer. Fraying, we fled back to Durand, back to our waiting bodies — and the imago pursued, flying by sheer will in the dreadful night, wreaking havoc in its own frozen body. It followed us to the Dolphin and hurtled against the conservatory where we were anything but sheltered, battering at the windows like a moth at the chimney of a lamp, until the only abiding question was whether the glass would shatter first or the machine, or the creature, or ourselves.

Chaz Brenchley

Chaz BrenchleyChaz Brenchley has been making a living as a writer since the age of eighteen. He is the author of nine thrillers, most recently Shelter; two fantasy series, The Books of Outremer and Selling Water by the River; and two ghost stories, House of Doors and House of Bells. As Daniel Fox, he has published a Chinese-based fantasy series, beginning with Dragon in Chains; as Ben Macallan an urban fantasy series, beginning with Desdaemona. A British Fantasy Award winner, he has also published books for children and more than 500 short stories in various genres. 2014 saw publication of two new books, a short novel—Being Small—and his second collection, Bitter Waters, which won the 2015 Lambda Award for LGBT speculative fiction. He has recently married and moved from Newcastle to California, with two squabbling cats and a famous teddy bear.