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Authors: Gwyneth Jones

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Phoenix Café

BOOK: Phoenix Café
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Phoenix Café

G W Y N E T H    J O N E S

This is a work of fiction. The city, charcters an devents to be found in these pages are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual places or persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

 

PHOENIX CAFÉ

Digital copyright © 2011 by Gwyneth Jones

 

All rights reserved.

 

First published by Victor Gollancz, London UK, 1997

First published in the USA by Tor (Tom Doherty Associates) New York, 1998.

 

Digital ISBN: 978-1-933500-70-6

 

Cover illustration based on The_old_Sycamore_tree_in_Netanya.

Photo by avishai teicher via Wikimedia Commons

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_old_Sycamore_tree_in_Netanya.jpg

 

 

 

I am grinding away on a series of different effects…I am becoming a very slow worker (but) it is imperative to work a good deal to achieve what I seek: “instantaneity” above all…the same light everywhere….
Claude Monet

 

Comme devant un paysage enseveli sous la pluie, nous nous représentons ce qu’il eut été dans le soleil, ansi Thérèse découvrait la volupté
Francois Mauriac
Thérèse Desqueyroux
 
 


Blood and Fire

 

1
A Prisoner of Conscience
 

i

Far in the blurred distance, a jet of red tumbled from the fountain of life. As she became puzzled that the blood should still be liquid after so long she began to wake. The surface under her, a mixture of tackiness and unpleasant slither, struck cold as she moved. Drops of scarlet were gathering like raindrops on her fingertips now and running off into the air. She was kneeling, arms outstretched, staring at the blood.

She woke: lying on a bed-with-legs, on a hygienically wrapped mattress, in her police cell. The wrapping, meant to swallow all her body’s minor effluent, had become fully charged several prisoners ago; it ate nothing now. Her blanket was shoved down onto the floor in the narrow space between the end of the bed and the wall. The cell was always chilly, but she’d decided she would rather get used to the cold than endure the blanket’s slimy touch.

She had been working for the Aleutian Mission when she was arrested, helping converts to die their first death. The missionaries of the alien faith, the Church of Self, taught that human beings were
no different flesh.
Like their immortal alien rulers, the humans were each of them eternal aspects of God the WorldSelf: reborn time and again through lives without end. If only they would throw off the superstition of permanent death they would realize the truth. In this city, the most resistant to Aleutian influence, the Mission had a small but enthusiastic following among the poor, and an uneasy tolerance from the rich. A steady stream of proselytes reached the moment when they must reject their old ways in an ecstatic act of faith. Catherine had been assisting at a conversion ceremony, which had run into trouble with the human authorities. The arrest was illegal; she’d been committing no crime. But she was glad of the confrontation. The Mission needed publicity.

She recalled that she’d been in the apartment’s dry-shower stall with the rich boy when the orthodoxy raiders had arrived. The two of them had written on the wall, in huge dripping letters, in English: DONE BECAUSE WE ARE TOO MANY. He was fluent in several human languages, and a student of English literature. Many of the young people in the hives were like that: they had nothing to do, and the free grid was full of knowledge. Such a nice boy—rich only by comparison with the rest of her congregation, old-fashioned, gentle and serious. She would have liked to hold him back from salvation a little longer. But he knew what he wanted. He had been very earnest about it, eager and composed while the others were running wild. Then the orthodox humans had arrived. She remembered fire, confusion, a roar of foul energy rushing through the warm smell of blood. Someone, probably the building, must have called the police.

She took stock, once again, of her simple home. The walls were covered in rows of glossy ceramic squares: light blue and white, alternately. Every third square was decorated with a bunch of dim pink roses tied in a ribbon. Catherine had counted the roses, and their leaves. She knew the gradation of wear and tear whereby the flowers near the ceiling were clearly colored, while those at human shoulder and hip height were almost obliterated. The floor was not tiled but its bare grey concrete was perfectly in period. In one corner stood the covered waste bucket. Beside it, a powder-water washing unit and a smooth niche—a recent intrusion in the ancient wall covering—that held a drinking-water button. No other furniture. In the wall opposite her bed stood her front door: a handsome elderly slab of metal, ornately hinged, and riveted and hatched.

Who would have guessed that a bleakly modern poor ward police station had such hidden depths? What would she do today? Count the tiles again. Think. Dream. Make up poetry. She might ask for art materials, but she wasn’t sure about that. She must not be too comfortable. She sat up, swung her legs over the edge of the bed (it was made of tubular metal) and went to have breakfast at the water niche. She must drink. She gulped—the supply was generous—until her stomach rebelled. Her hands and arms were still streaked with dried blood, so were her clothes. She was refusing to wash because the blood was evidence. She leaned her forehead against the wall. This was by no means the first time Catherine had embarked on a hunger strike in a prison cell, but she didn’t know how much a human body could take. Today, the fifth day, she felt weak. The inert slab of door opened, without warning.

“Come with me Miss,” sighed the policeman.

In the front office there was no one about but the duty sergeant. The place had been cleared of traffic. Catherine looked up and saw that the regulation camera light was dark.

“What’s going on?” She tugged her arm free from the gendarme’s kindly grip. “If you are at last going to charge me, I insist on it being on the record. I want a camera here.” Her head suddenly began to ache. She leaned on the desk, trying to make it look like an insolent gesture, and noticed the blood under her fingernails, a band of rust across the top of each nailbed. This was a pitiful sort of livespace. Yet some obscure news agency might use her, and others might pick up on it. She imagined herself reproduced: a barefoot young woman with her long dark curly hair in a mess—unmistakably a young woman, the stained and disheveled sexless clothes of the underclass shaped by her breasts, buttocks, waist. Would that be interesting material, in the machines’ reckoning? Interesting enough to be selected? She hoped so. The hallowed female flesh of the rich, exposed in public. The blood might help.

“There’ll be no charges. We’re sending you home.”

“No—? But that’s ridiculous! What about multiple murder?” She bit her lip. Nothing is as ridiculous as a dissident begging to be locked up. She attempted sarcasm. “I didn’t know the Church of Self Mission had such powerful immunity. Can we make this official?”

“There’s a cab outside. We’ve called your guardian, so he knows you’re coming.”

Catherine recoiled. “Maitri? You shouldn’t have done that. I’m an adult.”

“Lord Maitri, yes. His lordship’s been very worried.”

The sergeant, who had been pretending to study the flat screen in his desk top, finally consented to meet her eyes. They were old acquaintances. All the police of this ward knew her, the young lady brought up by the aliens who worked among the poorest of the poor. She heard in her mind the words he refused to speak.
Oh Miss Catherine why? How can you help those poor people and get them to trust you, knowing you’re going to set them hacking each other to pieces? Do you know what it’s like for my men, having to clear up after one of your “conversion ceremonies”? It’s filthy work. You’re not one of them Mission people. How can you do it?

“I
am
‘one of them,’” she said, as if he had spoken aloud. She summoned her resources. The light was out, but they couldn’t really stop the monitoring inside a police station, could they? Surely that was impossible. She must not miss this opportunity to serve the cause. “The conversion ceremony is neither murder nor suicide. It is a valid act of faith. If you people believe I’m doing wrong, then
charge me,
so I can make my case in public, as is my legal right.”

He didn’t answer. There was a sour smell; it seemed to be coming from Catherine’s clothes. It had a color: dinge grey, like the ashes of burnt rubbish. It was the smell of the hives…. The sergeant ought to hate her. Catherine’s people had stolen a world. Stolen it, played with it, broken it, thrown it on the dump: the waste heap where this city’s poor endured their hopeless lives. She lurched against the desk, longing for his violence, the consolation so long refused: punish me!

“D’you want breakfast before you go?” he asked.
She can’t help it, he was telling himself, silently. Poor kid, it’s true. She’s quite insane.

“No thank you.”

“A cup of coffee?”

“No.” She made a last effort. “What about
my
rights? If I’m not to be charged, what about the orthodoxers? Get it straight. Either you charge me with murder; or with assisting group suicide—which is not much of a felony—or else you admit that my converts and I were attacked in the peaceful expression of our difference. It was unprovoked gender violence. I want to make a complaint.”

“Go home, Miss Catherine,” said the sergeant wearily.

The other officer took her arm. She shook him off and walked away, with what dignity she could muster. Her head was spinning.

Out in the lobby there was still no one about, except for a ragged down-and-out hunched on the floor, passively resisting the efforts of a gendarme trying to move him on. The officer who had brought Catherine up from the cells came out of the doorway after her, and was summoned to help. She heard a scuffle begin, decided that it wasn’t her business and then, reluctantly, turned back. They’d given up and were standing irresolute, unwilling to use more force. They were not cruel people. They looked at Catherine hopefully, and a different relation was restored. She’d often helped them with their difficult customers. She’d been brought up by the aliens, who were supposed to be telepathic. They knew, because Catherine had told them, that she read body language: she did not read minds. Yet she could often understand and make herself understood when all other approaches failed.

“It’s your uniforms,” she explained. “I’d guess he’s just been discharged from a hospital or a work camp. Your uniforms mean security—they are comforting; that’s why he’s here.”

“Can you get her to tell you her name, Miss?”

“Her?” That was strange. The poor were neuter to any casual appraisal. And why did they need a name? But she had learned to be patient with the bureaucracy of human kindness.

She looked down at the huddled body. “I doubt it. But I’ll try.” She crouched on her heels. she offered, in the silent, universal, physical language Aleutians called “the Common Tongue.”

A pallid face stared upwards, completely without expression.

“Watch out, Miss. She’s got something alive. It might be dangerous.”

Catherine saw a second pair of eyes, round and bright. They belonged to something clutched tightly against the lost soul’s ragged breast. She saw a bright, scaled, snake-like head, a horny mouth that gaped, emitting a faint hiss. A red-gold ribbon of a tongue flickered. But the illusion of life was perfunctory.

“It’s only a toy.”

The hand and wrist that held the toy snake were wrapped in a strip of cloth. “She seems to be hurt,” said a concerned police voice over Catherine’s shoulder. “If we could at least change that nasty old dressing—”

The girl suddenly came to life, flailing, and fell against Catherine. For a moment she felt, as the police must have felt, soft full breasts under the rags. Startled, she looked again at the curious pallor, slender hands; the artfully delicate contours of the empty face—


she demanded.

Now Catherine was uncomfortable. The genuine young ladies of this city, daughters of rich and powerful people, were extremely well protected. One did not see them on the streets, not even with an armed escort. There must be some very strange story behind this girl’s plight, if she was really what she seemed to be. Catherine shouldn’t get involved. She was on safe ground with the poor: she knew she mustn’t meddle with the rich.

She was ashamed of this worldly-wise reaction.

“How did you get into this state?” she demanded, aloud. “What happened to you?” No response, not a trace.

She took hold of the injured arm. “They say I’m crazy,” she murmured. “I know I’m not, but I think you are. What does it take to drive a person truly mad,
ma semblable, ma soeur?
And have you escaped from it all? Or are you still suffering, wherever you are?”

The dressing was native textile, a kind of material rarely seen among the poor. Cotton? Linen? Nylon? Maitri would know. It had been torn roughly from a larger cloth, something elaborate and embroidered. She glimpsed tragedy. A love-story (did young ladies fall in love? She didn’t know). A botched escape from the gilded prison; a clumsily tended injury. And then what? Abandoned by her lover, driven insane by grief…. She thought of the tiles in the police cell. Maitri would love to hear about them. He adored hunting down overlooked survivals of Old Earth, bygones that nobody valued, forgotten treasure.

The dressing came away. She saw what was underneath.

“Miss Catherine? I’ve some multitype skin here. Can you hold her still?”

“No,” said Catherine, quickly binding up the wrist again. “It’s a scratch. Better leave it alone. Better leave her alone. Nothing can be done.”

She stood. The walls and floor swayed. The police station entrance had a hyper-real, visionary clarity. She saw that she had replaced the dirty dressing, and didn’t remember doing it. She was in no state to play nurse. Catherine was hallucinating. Maybe the lost girl didn’t exist. She was afraid she’d been crawling around on the floor talking to herself; the police must think she was mad.
Nothing can be done, nothing can be done.
She saw the desperate faces of the hives, the packed tenements where the doomed waited to die—so many, so many.

“I want to go home. I’m not well.”

BOOK: Phoenix Café
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