Science Fiction & Fantasy

FEAR CITY by F. Paul Wilson

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Fiction

The Passenger

It was a pilgrimage and he was its goal.

This understanding had taken years, had the passenger the means or desire to measure them; decades to be convinced of any purpose beyond curiosity to the parade outside his walls. In the first months, he had cowered behind the furnishings, terrified almost to insanity by the ceaseless, silent mass of flesh quivering against one side of his prison.

At any moment, he could slide his eyes that way and make out a hundred bodies, hung with broad-tipped tentacles, moving with a boneless grace as if the atmosphere outside his prison were liquid. It could have been, for all he knew.

A hundred bodies: they could be the same as the hundred before or different. He still couldn’t tell any of them apart. Were only those of the same size and shape allowed to see him? They wore and carried nothing. He was fond of the notion that there were some religious or cultural mores that said they should come before him as he was, for they had never provided him clothing.

Other things, yes. Every few days, or weeks, or months, a panel on the far wall from his bed would glow. He’d learned to set his fingers properly in the seven slots beside the panel to trigger it to slide open. Behind the panel would be a box.

He would open it, of course, despite what he’d come to expect of its contents. At first, the sight of charred and melted wood and plastic, stained with blood, had provoked him to rage. He had cursed his captors, spat at the transparency keeping him from them, them from him, tried with ingenuity to kill himself with whatever sad relic or trophy they’d provided. They had never reacted, beyond simply causing him to slip into unconsciousness while they repaired what damage he’d managed to inflict on himself.

Eventually, he’d stopped. What was the point? The pilgrimage of watchers never ended. The boxes with their pitiful cargo continued to come. He began to sort their contents carefully. When he slept, anything he hadn’t touched or handled would be removed from his prison. He made sure to touch it all. When a new box was due, anything he had left on the floor would also disappear like a dream, so he began to sort out what mattered to him.

There was nothing useful. Bits of fabric—never enough for clothing, even when he tried to hoard some. The smell of burned flesh usually clung to it. Metal and plastic, usually bent or damaged beyond recognition. Once in a while, a package that seemed intact. Another passenger’s personal possessions, he assumed, better protected than other things.

While these were the most distressing gifts from his captors, he treated them with care. The opaque walls of his prison were uneven, with plentiful ledges. He filled these with trinkets from the dead. He slept watched over by the images of other men’s mothers and wives, and spent hours contemplating the fates of children whose faces were not reflections of his own.

If he slid his eyes that way, to watch his watchers, he knew it would be the same sight as every other minute since he came to be here, but the thought brought the involuntary glance. Tentacles, overlapping either because they wanted to or there was no room to avoid touching, made the same corrugated pattern as always. Each body was topped with seven small red eyes, pupilled in black, rolling in unison to face him, to track him as their owner moved along from one side of the wall to the other.

He looked away. There had been a time when he tried to communicate or at least learn by watching the watchers. After that had been a time of anger and depression, of attempts at self-destruction when nothing in the room could be defaced—attempts that availed him only intimate memories of futility.

Then he had stopped caring. He had remained motionless, waiting to die. They wouldn’t allow his body to fail. He would wake to find himself nourished, no matter how hard he resisted sleep. But he could allow his brain to die. And he tried.

And had almost succeeded. But that was when his captors, though they seemed incapable of communicating with him or understanding him, began giving him the boxes of belongings. Every item tore his heart; every one reconnected his humanity.

At last, one gave him a purpose to match the unknown one sending the aliens sliding past his prison day in, day out. It was a child’s box of markers. He held them against his cheek when he found them, breathing in a faint scent of corruption as well as the clean promise of colour. He cried for the child who had lost them, then, with painful care — he’d never been an artist — used the markers to draw a stick figure child on the floor.

He expected the vivid lines to be gone when he awoke, fingers cramped around the markers. But his captors had left them. So he added a dog, a ball, a tree, a house, a rabbit, a book! The markers failed him, dry halfway through the shining red of a bicycle. He flung them away, and cried, turning his back to the wall of watchers.

Sleeping, he dreamed for the first time in years of home, a dream that for once didn’t spiral into the nightmare of chase, burning, struggle, and capture, a dream that gave him up peacefully to reality.

There he found his captors had left him something of their own. On the floor was a seven-sided sheet of white. There was a tray containing greasy sticks, each about the length of his hand, in a variety of colors. They were awkward to hold, but he grabbed them eagerly and waved them happily at his watchers as if they’d respond. Or as if he’d recognize a response if they did.

Another hundred beings slid past. It took each exactly fifteen heartbeats to glide from one end of his wall to the other. Always.

Sixty-three years had passed since. He knew precisely, because that sheet of white had marked the beginning of his purpose. There were a few years lost in the beforetime. Ten years ago, the sad packages from other passengers had stopped appearing behind the panel. It didn’t matter. He no longer remembered his age when he arrived in this place, but he could rely on nature ending his imprisonment in the not-too-distant future, regardless of the devoted attention of his captors.

He surveyed this day’s work. The colors were subtle, layered in explanations of light and shadow, refinements he’d begun several pieces ago. The centerpiece, a bridge, swept upwards, its luminous archways of stone almost hanging in air. The Legion marching across moved in trained synchrony, save for the eyes of one man looking out as if wary of surprise attack. There were storm clouds on the horizon, and dewdrops on the moss in the foreground.

There were probably errors throughout the scene, he worried, as he always did. But the errors were irrelevant; he’d done his best. This one was ready to go. He rolled it up, the motion inflaming the soreness in his joints, and leaned it against the panel. Like all the others, it would be gone when he awoke.

Boneless grace studded with eyes; could any even see the colors he intended?

He’d learned his art. It was, after all, a way to communicate, and he’d hoped until hope died this medium would be the breakthrough allowing him to reach the intelligence that held him here, that marched in unending ranks just to look at him. But there had been no response beyond the disappearance of only finished works, those he rolled up and placed near the panel. He didn’t bother wondering anymore if they valued his art or washed off his colors to return the paper to him in some frenzied economy. It was enough he completed each image.

#

It took three sets of hands to open the roll safely. When it was spread on the seven-sided table specially built for this purpose, they ever-so-gently slid the holding bars over each edge, each bar locking in place with a light snick of contact. Only then did they release their careful grip.

The lights around the table dimmed, isolating the brightness glowing down on colors and shapes. The encircling six didn’t speak for a long moment, their faces lost in shadows, their thoughts in reverence. They were a close group, drawn together years before by common interests and goals, held together by a responsibility none could escape. These rooms, the automated equipment, and, most importantly, the wonderful artwork such as the latest supine before them, had been their discovery.

“The Romans,” said Dr. Susan Crawley softly, drawing in a slow breath around the unfamiliar word. “I’ve read about them. Earth, early 13th century, I think. They were conquerors, builders…definitely pre-Industrial.”

“Well, this proves what I have been saying all these years,” Dr. Tom Letner’s voice held its customary fine and precise diction in the dark, as if those lips never slurred into shipslang after a few beers. “He must have been an historian.”

Someone keyed the room lights to full brightness again. Bedlam erupted as others vehemently countered the physicist’s assertion. The loudest voice belonged to Lt. Tony Shrib. “All it proves is He was well-read. Susan here is an engineer, for star’s sake, and she knows about these Remans.”

“Romans,” Susan corrected under her breath. She ignored the continuing, well-worn arguments. What was new lay before her. Her eyes moved hungrily over the scene on the table, feasting on its complexity; she admired the stonework of the bridge, the odd moisture on a plant whose name she would have to look up in a text. All were images strange and exotic to the shipborn. Of those party to the secret of this art, only Master Electrician Huong Trang could claim to have set foot on the planet glorified by the Artist and Huong stubbornly refused to discuss what he remembered, as if the memories were sweeter for the hoarding.

Typically, it was Huong who interrupted her pleasure. “My friends,” he said in his gentle, clear voice—the voice that had reproached them so many times before. “My colleagues. Is it not time?”

The good-natured bickering faltered and stopped. The others, all officers or senior scientists, found good reasons to look anywhere but at Huong’s stern face. He recaptured their attention by placing one blunt-fingered hand firmly on the surface of the art.

Dr. Natalie Emil, a trim woman in her late forties whose love for the art was matched only by her love for her patients in the ship’s hospital—and truth be told, for her mother’s legacy of Earth chocolate—cried out, “Careful!”

The sacrilegious hand stayed where it was. “Is it not time?” Huong insisted, looking from one to the other in turn. “Has He not suffered long enough?”

The ship’s senior psychologist, Dr. Wayne Simmons, shook his mane of heavy gray hair, his eyes troubled behind their thick lenses. “We don’t dare release Him from the sim program. You know that, Huong. We can’t predict what the effect on His mind would be. We don’t have the facilities on this ship to ensure His recovery.”

Huong lifted his hand, prompting at least one sigh of relief, then waved it eloquently over the artwork imprisoned on the table. “And we don’t want this to stop, do we.”

Susan felt the blood draining from her face. She didn’t need to glance at her colleagues to know they too would be showing signs of shock. How dare Huong accuse them of—of what?

“We cherish the Artist’s work,” she said involuntarily. “How is that wrong? Despite His weakness, He’s valued by all of us.” Susan looked pleadingly at her peers, was strengthened by Natalie’s nod of support, by Tony’s smile. “You’ve seen for yourself how our shipmates flock to the Gallery to see His images of our heritage. We’ve arranged school tours. We let anyone order a reproduction for their quarters. We—”

“We imprison Him in His dream of Earth. We ensure He continues to produce what we crave,” Huong said heavily. “And we wait for Him to die and release us from our conscience.”

“No! How dare you—” Wayne’s hand touched hers briefly. Susan calmed herself but refused to back down. “You’ve never been comfortable with our decision, Huong. I understand your feelings about it—”

“I don’t think you do. I don’t think any of you really do.” The Master Electrician walked to the side of the room they usually avoided. He activated the sole control on its surface, turning the blank surface into a one-way view of a room, larger than most of the quarters on the colony ship Pilgrim III. The room’s sole occupant squatted naked and old on the floor, colors in those marvelous hands poised to coax shape and texture from the empty page.

Just as the Artist had done each and every day since they had discovered His existence. Almost ten years ago, yet Susan remembered it as if it had been yesterday. They’d searched for the release catches, frantic to rescue the imprisoned stranger, only to be stopped by Wayne and Natalie, their medical experts. It was obviously a sim chamber, like enough to the hundreds on the Pilgrim III to be recognizable, if far more elaborate. The planetborn visited the sims regularly, having come on-ship with their private recorded scenes from the verdant world left behind ready to comfort them when the shipworld became too strange to bear.

The shipborn entered the chambers as part of their schooling, a refresher course built from open skies, scented winds, and uneven ground. It was a matter of pride to avoid them as adults, to prefer acclimation to the Ship, though all recognized the coming generations would need the sims and more to prepare for their new home.

But no one lingered in the sims more than a day at a time. Only those who could accept leaving Earth had boarded the Ship; to admit otherwise was to unsettle one’s own sanity and disturb those around you. And there was work to be done, the carefully planned busyness designed to occupy minds tempted to hold on to the past. Survival for all meant looking to the future, not dwelling on what was now forever beyond their reach.

The sim chamber hosting the Artist was quite different from those offering education or a harmless moment of blue-skyed nostalgia. It was capable of full life support even if the Ship failed, of remote functions better suited to quarantine facilities. That had been one of their early fears: that He had been a carrier of some disease perilous to the Ship. They’d used the remotes to run tests as He lay unconscious, until they were sure He was nothing more dangerous than a puzzle.

There were recording devices, notes left behind in this secret place. Those had been studied too, though all they offered was a seemingly endless lists of bodily functions, chilling evidence the Artist had indeed been in this chamber every minute since launch.

As vividly, Susan remembered the morning when they’d met, here, to listen with horror as Wayne presented their conclusion: they must do nothing to disturb the Artist within His sim chamber with its automated, if bizarre, treatment. He and Natalie had been utterly convinced and so convincing: Releasing the Artist from his dreams of Earth, replacing them with the here-and-now of the Ship after all this time, would only shatter whatever reality His mind still recognized.

And, unsaid but understood, it would very likely stop His Art.

So they resigned themselves to being His keepers, to hiding the dark secret within the bowels of the Ship, and to sharing the Art with as many as possible. Huong wasn’t the only one to have nightmares since. How dare he set himself as their conscience!

Huong’s small eyes glittered at Susan, as though he heard her thoughts, or as though he were close to tears. His emotions were becoming embarrassingly public as he aged, perhaps a consequence of outliving most who had walked onto the Ship with him. “I’ve found out where He came from,” he said calmly enough. “I know the truth.”

“What?” Tony, the ship’s senior stellar cartographer, ran one hand over his close-cropped hair, then down over his face as if to smooth away an expression he’d rather not share. “How? Where?” Susan understood his dismay. Tony had taken the greatest risk of them all, using his clearance and knowledge to search the Ship’s records for any clue as to the origin of the Artist on the Ship. He’d found nothing: nothing to explain how the ship’s senior psychologist, Dr. Randall Clarke, had been able to requisition then hide the construction of this chamber at the edge of livable gravity inside the immense core of Pilgrim III. Nothing to identify the Artist, even when they’d taken advantage of the automatics and obtained DNA samples from His unconscious body.

Nothing to challenge their assumption that the Artist suffered from some delusional state, some flaw Dr. Clarke had been treating him for in this private, hidden place, some condition too severe to allow exposure to the Ship’s environment or company.

“Our past is recorded in places other than the Ship’s systems, Mr. Bridge Officer,” Huong said with deliberate irony.

“Tell us what you’ve learned,” Wayne ordered impatiently.

Huong spoke slowly, methodically, as if to impress each word on them all. “Did Randall mention his wife to any of you?”

They didn’t look at Susan, but she felt their focus on her. Everyone knew she and Randall had been lovers until his death. “Is this relevant?” she asked coldly.

“Very.”

“Then, no. I didn’t know he had ever married.”

“Oh yes. In fact, Randall was supposed to board with his wife. Yet Tony’s checked the manifest; Ship’s records clearly show Randall arriving alone.”

“Where did you find this information?” Tom demanded. He’d found the datacube giving directions to this place in Randall’s cabin safe—otherwise they might never have discovered it. Sometimes the thought made Susan weak. The beauty and richness of the Artist’s work, languishing as dust-covered rolls on the floor where the automatics dumped them. No classes of school children seeing His work, awed by their own past made manifest. They’d have reached orbit around New Earth 17, moved to the surface and started their new lives all unaware, while the great seed ship reconstructed itself as an orbital platform, its automatics sweeping up and recycling the dead organics of the Artist and His Art. She shivered.

Their attention was distracted by the Artist as he stretched then scratched one wrinkled buttock absently before settling back to his labours.

“Corridor sale.”

Susan blinked, trying to imagine staid, conservative Huong visiting one of the hundreds of junk sales that went on throughout the colonists’ section of the ship. They weren’t particularly legal, but the Captains had long ago relented, second-gen officers tending to be more practical than those raised and trained Earthside. Besides being a useful diversion for the colonists, the sales redistributed personal goods no longer obtainable from their source.

“I picked up a collection of gossip mags in the last one.” Huong paused patiently as Natalie laughed. “It was worth it. I found our late psychologist—and his wife.”

“In a gossip mag?” Susan said with disbelief.

“The wife, Charlette d’Ord, was an athlete turned sports broadcaster. A bit of a celebrity in her way. I found several images of them together—the captions refer to Randall only as her husband, but you can see him plainly enough. Here.” Huong drew a datacube out of his pocket and tossed it to Susan.

Numbly, she walked over to the nearest reader panel and inserted the ‘cube. The rectangular screen produced an image of a group of people at some public event. Randall’s thin face with its surprisingly sensual lips was easy enough to recognize despite the passage of years. He had one arm possessively around the shoulders of an incredibly beautiful woman. Susan smoothed the skirt over her ample hips before she could resist the impulse.

“I know that face,” Natalie breathed.

So would anyone on the Ship, Susan thought. Those classic features and warm smile were straight from the Artist’s most popular work. Almost every cabin had its copy of the angelic figure hovering, arms spread to shield the Earth from the dark of space, the serene loveliness of the perfect yet so-human face a comfort to folk all too aware they were separated from vacuum by only a hull and skills both a generation stale.

“Pull up the faces behind them,” Huong ordered, as if this revelation wasn’t enough.

Susan did so, watching with the others as three faces from the background became clearer. The centermost, a young man, was plainly not paying attention to the photographer or event. His dark, familiar eyes were fixed on Charlette. Susan turned off the image, inexplicably frightened by the longing captured in that one look.

Huong didn’t object, trapping them instead with his slow voice. “Charlette died in a car accident six months before Pilgrim III began final assembly. The accident took place over one hundred miles from their home. The car contained her luggage and there was an unconfirmed witness’ report that someone else had been driving the car. Randall was apparently questioned by police then released. After all, he was going offworld for the rest of his life. What point in pursuing an investigation?”

Wayne moved closer to the viewscreen covering the opposite wall, his face shadowed and grim as he stared at the Artist. Susan wanted to refuse his vision, to see a patient under sophisticated care, not a victim. Her lips moved numbly: “You’re saying the Artist is that young man in the image. You’re accusing Randall of murdering his wife and somehow arranging to kidnap and imprison her lover, bringing him on the Ship.”

“Randall was on the planning team,” Natalie said reluctantly. “He had the access and opportunity to make modifications.”

“Why?” Susan breathed. “Why—like this?”

Huong answered. “We can guess. Revenge. Randall could be ruthless. We all knew that about him.” No one disagreed. Pilgrim III was immense, as colony ships had to be. It would be their children’s children who reached humanity’s latest new frontier. In the meantime, the Ship was a world onto itself: shelter, workplace, and space for growth. Yet her thousands of inhabitants existed within smaller, insular communities, communities that had to get along or fail to function. The scientific community was one, and Randall had not endeared himself to many in it. Susan was the first to admit that her social standing with her peers had improved after her lover choked to death on his favourite synthetic sweetmeat.

“Now you know what I believe. The Artist is no madman, cared for in an automated sim to calm his delusions and keep him functioning. He is—or was—as sane as any of us before being tortured by our colleague, a man who perverted his knowledge to harm, not heal. The Artist does not belong in this travesty of a life. And so we agree,” Huong said, swiveling to look at each of them, his hand rising slowly as if to lift some curtain. “It is time.”

Wayne shook his head, an identical gesture to his first response to Huong’s plea, and Susan felt her heart starting to pound for no reason she cared to admit. “No,” Wayne replied. “We can’t.”

“Why?” Huong’s eyes blazed. He raised his fists in the air. “In the name of justice! Why not? Don’t you believe me?”

Susan answered when no one else spoke. “It doesn’t matter. The Artist lives in His own World, at peace. You know that, Huong. And if we free Him now, so close to His end, what are we offering Him in return? Your theory that all He has suffered was to satisfy one man’s desire for revenge? That whatever purpose He found to sustain Himself has been a lie?” She paused for emphasis. “That His very world is gone?”

Huong’s face was deathly pale. “What do you care about Him?” His finger stabbed the air, first at Natalie, then at Wayne. “You’d keep Him locked away just to hide your mistakes.” His finger stabbed at Tom, “you, for an excuse to break the rules.” Then at Tony, “you’re terrified of the Captains’ judgment. And you.” Susan stared at the now-shaking fingertip targeting her. “you want to keep your lover’s legacy for yourself, don’t you? I know you believe His Art belongs to you.”

“Rant all you want, Huong,” Natalie countered, her voice a shade too calm. “Whatever you think are our reasons, you’ve missed the most important one of all: Our shipmates. They believe the Art they love is the secret work of someone among us, someone keeping our heritage alive in a way no datacube can. Do you wish to tarnish their feelings for His work, turn His accomplishments into this sordid melodrama? We must not consider this one individual above the good of the Ship.”

There was a murmur of agreement; Susan sensed their resolve hardening. So did Huong. “At what cost?” he asked, his passion drained away at last, replaced by disgust. “At what cost,” he repeated.

Susan found nothing to say. Huong turned and left the room, his feet dragging with each step.

“Will he go to the Captains?” Tony asked.

It wasn’t a meaningless concern. They’d used their privileged ranks to hide what they’d found, to produce the Art as if by some miracle. If Huong told now, they would all become suspect. At the very least, they would lose control of their departments to underlings and have their work scrutinized for the remainder of their lives. In many ways, Pilgrim III was not a large ship at all.

“No,” Wayne said, going over to gaze down at the image of the Legion captured in time. One Legionnaire looked back at him, as if seeking an unknown enemy. “Huong protests. He goads us to do what he believes is right. But he also knows we have no choice. The Artist will live a year more at best; perhaps only months. Whatever fantasy fills His mind, whatever beloved view of home comforts Him, let Him keep it. Let Him finish His work. When He is gone—then it will be time to tell His story.” Wayne sighed. “At least, as much of His story as we choose to tell.

“Thanks to Him, humanity will not forget its past.”

#

There was a blank seven-sided canvas ready underneath. He sat on one corner of it, half his mind already planning, the other half gently engaged watching his watchers sliding past, tentacle upon tentacle, eyes rolling from side to side. He believed he understood now. Both their purpose, and his.

He picked up an alien crayon, nodded a proud acknowledgment to the race that forced its guilty millions to parade in shame before him, and prepared to record another piece of human history. As long he lived, Humanity would not be forgotten.

For like that precious bird, kept until death in a glass cage for all to see, wasn’t he the last passenger of Earth?

© 2000 Julie E. Czerneda
First published in Treachery & Treason,
edited by Laura Anne Gilman and Jennifer Heddle
Reprinted by permission of the author.

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Julie E. Czerneda

Julie CzernedaSince 1997, Julie E. Czerneda has turned her love and knowledge of biology into science fiction novels and short stories that have received international acclaim, multiple awards, and best-selling status. A popular speaker on scientific literacy and SF, in 2009 Julie was Guest of Honor for the national conventions of New Zealand and Australia, as well as Master of Ceremonies for Anticipation, the Montreal Worldcon. She’s presently finishing her first fantasy novel, A Turn of Light, to be published by DAW in 2011. Most recently, Julie was a guest lecturer at the National Science Teachers convention in Philadelphia and participated in Laurentian’s Social Science & SF conference. As for new projects, Julie is co-editing Tesseracts 15: A Case of Quite Curious Tales with Susan MacGregor and will be a juror for the 2011 Sunburst Awards. (No matter what, she’ll be out canoeing, too.) For more about Julie’s work, visit www.czerneda.com.