Authors: Geoff Ryman
Tags: #Romance, #Science Fiction, #SciFi-Masterwork, #Fantasy
Good, right, fine, she thought, sucking her finger, and growing savage. I've just injected myself with virus.
Then she dropped the boots. She heard a splash. Oh God, she thought, I've dropped them in a puddle
Her hand plashed in stale water. She found them, dripping wet, and held them out, well away from her body. She stood up and hit her head on a rack, pushed it over in a rage, got her feet tangled up in dead clothing, dropped the boots again, paddled in the dark to find them, stood up, snarled and took a deep breath.
More than anything else, Milena hated losing her dignity. She forced herself to be calm, and trembling very slightly, began to swing the racks towards her, juddering on their little wheels. She made a more orderly progress.
Milena went on in the darkness until she was lost. Under her hands, she felt the cheap burlap, the frail seams, the loose threads like cobwebs. She felt the scratchiness of dusty sequins in clumps. It was as if all theatre had died around her, leaving only husks behind. What if there isn't an orchestra? she wondered. Oh come on, Milena, who do you think is making the music, ghosts?
She began to imagine some very strange things. The music was too loud. Music was never that loud. You could stand in the middle of the orchestra next to the kettle drums and it wouldn't be that loud. And there was a shrill, unnatural tone to it that hurt Milena's ears.
Distracted, she scraped her head on brick. She crouched blindly under an arch and saw light. Light! Like in a forest just at dawn, grey daylight.
But the music! The music was louder than before, and she could see the rough texture of the bricks in the wall; she was yards away from it. There was no orchestra. There was no room for an orchestra.
But an orchestra screeched at her. The flutes were like knives, slicing into her head, the walls were being beaten like drums. Milena covered an ear with one hand, and moved back a rack of clothing with the other. She ducked down, in a kind of terror, and drew back a velvet dress, like a curtain.
There was a window to the outside world. A window in a bridge? Milena had never seen that. In the light, there were mounds of paper, heaps of it, stacked up in columns or fallen sideways across the floor. Paper was wealth, and Milena's eyes boggled in her head.
Sitting slumped in front of it was a Polar Bear.
Effendim, excuse me, you're not supposed to call them that, Milena reminded herself. They are GEs, genetically engineered people.
GEs had been human once. Effendim,
human, now. They had recoded their genes for work in the Antarctic, before the Revolution. It was a sickness, to be pitied. This GE was huge and shaggy, covered in fur of varying chestnut colours, staring ahead, mouth hanging open. The eyes did not blink, but seemed to ripple and glisten with a life of their own, wide and black and unseeing.
The music was coming from nowhere.
The monstrous voice was singing in German, with a voice like a steam whistle.
ewig blauen licht die Fernen
everywhere and eternally, the distance shines bright and blue
The viruses knew all the words, knew all the notes. The effect was to make the music wearisome to Milena, like a thrice-told joke. The mystery of where it was coming from simply made her feel very creepy. She looked instead at the posters of beautiful paintings curling on the wall. There were books as well, books turned face downwards on the desk. There was a scattering of what looked like wafers, something to eat. Books, paper, Milena had never seen such wealth or such waste.
Milena knew about the wealth of Bears, GEs. Bears, GEs, lived outside the Consensus. They were deliberate outlaws, selling Antarctic nickel. This one was massive, burly. What a gorilla, thought Milena. This one's trouble, she decided.
The music settled into silence.
The giant voice throbbed. Earwigs yourself, thought Milena. The GE looked stunned as if the music were a blow to the head. Finally the song fell silent and it was as if the entire building sighed with relief.
The GE moved. It fumbled behind itself without turning, sending a cascade of paper pouring out over the edge of the desk. Out from under it emerged a small, metal box with switches. The GE felt for one of them.
An electronic device.
Milena lived in a world without much electricity. Pulse weapons and poverty, sheer numbers, and a shortage of metal had made domestic electronics a part of history.
'Where did you get that?' Milena asked, stepping forward, forgetting herself for once.
Milena had a clock in her mind, a viral calculator. It added up the cost of the metal, and the cost of manufacture, all in terms of labour-hours. The electronic device was the most expensive thing she had ever seen.
The GE squinted at her, as if across the Grand Canyon. Its mouth hung open. Finally it spoke.
'China, I believe,' the GE said. The voice was high and rasping. The GE was a woman.
Milena had heard stories of Polar women. They gave birth on the ice, and stood up, and went straight back to work, blasting rocks. Milena's prejudices lined up in place. The creature spoke again, with a delicious, rambling delicacy.
'You wouldn't happen to have any alcoholic beverages about your person, would you?'
'Milena was by now out of step with the conversation. She had forgotten the question she had asked and was trying to work out what the answer, 'China, I believe,' could possibly mean. Distracted, she gave her head a little shake.
'No,' Milena said. 'I don't like poisoning myself.'
'Tuh!' said the GE. It was a chuckle that became a shudder. She stood up. She was nearly twice the height of Milena, and had to shuffle to turn around in the enclosed space. With slow Weariness, she began to ransack her desk. She pushed over more piles of paper, and swept a resin tray of wafers onto the floor.
It occurred to Milena that she was being ignored.
'Effendim?' she said, crisply, meaning excuse me, sorry to trouble you. 'I've come to change these boots.'
As she said it, Milena thought: GEs aren't part of the Consensus. This person does not work here. It's not her job to find me boots.
The GE lurched around to look at her. 'You,' she said, 'are a ponce.' The consonant sounds were incised with a laboured precision. Milena was mortified into silence.
I know who this is, thought Milena.
She had heard of the Bear who Loves Opera. GEs were wealthy. This one was wealthy enough to buy a ticket for the first night of each production. She sat in the same seat each time, and left without talking to anyone. Milena never went to the opera herself. Though she did not admit it, Milena did not respond deeply to music. She had never seen the Bear who Loves. It was rather like meeting a legend. Milena watched as the GE began to empty the drawers of her desk, shaking out the contents over the floor. The GE found something.
'Bastard,' the GE murmured.
Milena was unaccustomed to harsh language. She herself might have committed an error of social judgement, but enough was enough.
'Are you talking to me?' Milena demanded.
'Oh, no,' said the GE in blank surprise. 'I was talking to this empty whisky bottle.'
The GE held up the bottle for Milena to see, and then tossed it aside. It clinked against glass as it shattered. Somewhere in the darkness, there was a mound of broken whisky bottles.
'Did you know?' said the GE. 'This used to be a distillery warehouse? I've made
most exciting discoveries.'
She was tugging at a drawer that was stuck. It suddenly came free, sowing its contents about the floor like seed — pens, earrings, more wafers, used handkerchiefs, spools of thread, a shower of loose and rusty needles, and a Georgian silver ear-pick.
Lodged in one corner of the drawer was a full bottle. The GE held it up. 'God,' she said, 'is a distiller.' She grinned, and her teeth were black and green rotting stumps.
they dig her up? thought Milena.
The Bear was covered in dandruff. Silver flakes of it clung to the tips of her fur all over her body, and she was panting like a dog. A long pink tongue hung out of her mouth, curled and quivering, to cool. She took a great swig of alcohol. 'Gaaah!' she exclaimed, as if breathing fire, and wiped her mouth on her arm.
Milena felt a sudden wrench of amusement. She had a vision of the GE leading a troglodyte existence in this nest of paper and music.
here?' Milena asked.
'It would be better if I did,' said the GE. Her fur dangled into her eyes, making her blink continually. 'This is where I hide instead.' She hugged the bottle. 'Since you don't like poisoning yourself, perhaps you'd like to look at this.'
She passed a thick, broad, bound wad of paper from the desk. Milena needed both hands to accept it from her. The paper was beautiful to touch, heavy and creamy, ochre around the edges. On the cover, printed in large Gothic lettering was its title.
Das Lied von der Erde.
Song of the Earth.
Milena had never seen a musical score. They were a waste of paper, and cellulose was needed to feed the yeasts and hybridomas that were the cultures
the Party. She flicked through it and found it disappointing. Yes, yes, the notes were all there.
'I take it,' the Polar Bear said, 'that the reading of music presents you with no difficulties.'
'No,' said Milena, innocently. Who couldn't read music?
The Bear smiled wistfully. 'Of course not,' she whispered. She reached forward. It was alarming how far she could reach. Gently she coaxed the score out of Milena's hands. 'But you haven't
how to read music. If you haven't learned it, it isn't yours.' She took a mouthful of whisky and sloshed it around her teeth like mouthwash. She put the bottle down, and seemed to forget that Milena was there. She turned to the end
the score, all its vast bulk over to one side, threatening to tear the ancient binding in half. The GE spat the whisky onto the floor. Then she began to sing.
She sang the end. '...
ewig blauen licht die Fernen...
She's forgotten I'm here, thought Milena.
The GE sang better than
electronic device. Her voice was warm and strong, a fine mezzo, clear but weighty as if pushed from behind by something vast. Milena blinked. The GE was singing very well indeed.
There were long periods of silence, when unheard music played. Then
again, each time softer than before, the voice throbbing without going harsh. A technique.
Unlike the recording, it was not too loud. The GE stared in silence for some moments and then looked up.
'Oh, sorry,' she said. 'There's a pile of boots over there.' She jerked a thumb over her shoulder. Milena peered helplessly into the darkness.
'Golly,' said the Polar Bear. 'I keep forgetting you people can't see in the dark. Shall I find a pair for you?' Her voice seemed to float, airily.
'That would be very kind,' said Milena. 'Size six. Something less floppy?'
The GE took the pirate boots and shuffled off into the racks. Her feet were bare. The fur on top of them swept across dust and whisky, making streaks on the floor to mark her passage.
Milena didn't know what to think. She felt she had been humbled in some way, and that made her annoyed. She suspected that she deserved it, and that made her worried.
The GE was gone for some time. 'Who's been pushing over all the racks?' her small voice wondered out of the darkness.
Milena looked at the phantasmagorical waste on the desk and the floor. Books, more books, papers with pawprints across them, old coins. These were real things, the real things that Milena had never seen. She began to feel an ache of jealousy, an ache of nostalgia. This is history, she thought, let the Vampires see this. She picked up a thick black book and opened up its crinkly pages, and realised that it had not been printed. The lettering, in fantastic sweeps and swirls of black ink, had been written by hand.
Penetrating Wagner's Ring,
the lettering said with an excess of eloquent strokes.
'Not a fortunate title,' murmured Milena, a smile creeping sideways across her face.
It was an exposition of the Ring cycle. There were drawings of all the characters, slightly amateurish in execution. Each one was identified, not by name, but by a series of notes. The last page said only 'Conclusion: the Ring cycle is a symphony.' It was written in gold.
'That's not right,' said Milena. It was not what her viruses told her.
But the clock in her mind told her the labour-hours it must have taken.
'Bugger,' said a voice, and a rack of dresses collapsed somewhere in the darkness. Milena hurriedly dropped the book. The GE emerged carrying boots.
'Typical of me, somehow, that title,' the GE said.
She's seen me reading her book, Milena thought, and went rigid with embarrassment.
'I console myself,' the GE continued, 'with the thought that there was a book of piano exercises that really did call itself
Fingering for Your Students.
Here are your boots. Try them for size.'