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Authors: Brian Stableford

The Dragon Man

BOOK: The Dragon Man
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THE DRAGON MAN

THE DRAGON MAN

Brian Stableford

 

THE DRAGON MAN

Copyright © 2009 by Brian Stableford

All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced in any

form without the expressed written consent of the

publisher. Printed in the United States of America.

www.wildsidepress.com

CHAPTER I

When she returned home after the funeral, the first impression that took form in Sara’s mind was that everything had happened very quickly, in a mere matter of days. When she had thought about it for a while, though, she realized that her involvement in the Dragon Man’s life-story had actually begun some time before she first spoke to him. Their fates had intersected even before she was forced to contact him about the perfume of her rose, and long before she first caught sight of his remarkable face.

Eventually, when she had put all the pieces of the story together, to her own satisfaction, she concluded that the Dragon Man’s part in her life-story had begun on her sixth birthday....

* * * *

On her sixth birthday, which fell on the eleventh of July 2374, five of Sara’s parents decided at breakfast that they would take her to Blackburn to see the fire fountain in the New Town Square.

Father Lemuel could have come, but he didn’t. He went back to his cocoon, saying, as he usually did when he left parental meetings, that he was “going to work,” although Sara had once overheard Mother Quilla say that “Lem hasn’t done a stroke of real work since he turned a hundred.” Father Stephen and Mother Verena both worked away from the hometree somewhere in ManLiv, so they couldn’t come. They called their own robocab to take them in the opposite direction.

“Maybe we ought to have called three cabs,” Mother Jolene said, as the greater part of the family piled into the Blackburn-bound vehicle. “Five adults and a growing child would be a squeeze even if Steve’s legs didn’t take up more room than he can possibly need.”

Father Stephen was the tallest of Sara’s parents, although he wasn’t an athlete. When Sara had asked him why, he’d explained to her that he hadn’t actually planned to be as tall as he was; he’d just kept on growing a little longer than was fashionable nowadays.

“If all nine of us ever go out together,” Mother Maryelle said, in response to Mother Jolene, “we’ll have to hire a bus.”

“It’ll never happen,” said Father Aubrey. “Lem comes out of his cocoon to attend house-meetings, but it’ll take more than one of Sara’s birthdays to get him out of the house.”

Sara had overheard more than one of her parents complain about Father Lemuel’s “attitude problems”. Mother Verena had said only three days before that “Lem only applied to be a parent now because he doesn’t want to die without exercising his license.” The remark had stuck in Sara’s mind, even though she wasn’t entirely sure what Mother Verena meant, because she’d been struck by the way that Mother Maryelle’s reply had been delivered in the same severe tone that she used whenever she accused Sara of being naughty.

“Without Lem’s money,” Mother Maryelle had said, “we wouldn’t have been able to afford a top-of-the-range hometree in such a good location.” Sara wasn’t sure why the hometree was so special, although she had been told several times that it was a whole kilometer away from its nearest neighbor.

When the robocab rolled out of the driveway into the lane Sara pressed her face to the window, which was made of transparent plastic and therefore incapable of displaying any other world than the one that was both real and present. All she could see through it was what was actually there, but that was the whole point; the journey was new to her, and she wanted to savor it.

Sara had looked out into the town through the picture window in her bedroom. She had seen the fire fountain that way—but looking through a picture window wasn’t the same as being there. She had seen thousands of different places through the window, as many real as virtual, but she couldn’t remember having been any further in the flesh than the lanes and fields around the hometree’s garden. The last time she had been taken to Blackburn by her parents she had been a baby, unable to take notice of what was happening. She was old enough now to have learned to program the picture window herself, so that she could look out of it at any place in the real world or the virtual multiverse she cared to visit, but seeing the world wasn’t the same thing as being able to go there.

Seen through her bedroom window, Blackburn was an uninteresting place by comparison with others Sara had looked at, but the fact that she could actually go there made it a great deal more exciting than any virtual world—even the virtual worlds contained in Father Lemuel’s cocoon, which could be touched as well as seen and heard, unlike those she could look into wearing her own hood.

Sara didn’t like using the hood to go into virtual worlds, partly because they never seemed quite as real as they appeared to be when seen through her bedroom window, and partly because the hood was what she wore to go to school. Now that she was six she would have to be at school for five hours a day instead of two, for at least another
thirteen years
—which seemed, at present, an eternity.

Blackburn also seemed more exciting, as the robocab turned the corner into the main road, than ManLiv or Manhattan, Morecambe or Madras. All those were places to which she would one day be able to go, if she wanted to, but Blackburn was the one and only place she could go
now
. She was already looking forward to setting foot on the pure white flagstones of New Town Square—which was actually very old now, having been called “New” when the town was rebuilt at the beginning of the twenty-second century, after the Crash. She’d checked it out in her window before running downstairs to join her eager parents, so she knew that the fire fountain stood in the north-western corner of the square, where the Cloistered Facade almost met the Municipal Parade.

Sara didn’t want to miss a thing. She wanted to be able to tell her best friend Gennifer all about her excursion, although Gennifer was sure to be unimpressed. Gennifer lived way up north, in Keswick, so she not only had a town right on her doorstep, but a lake called Derwent Water within walking distance.

As the cab accelerated along the road Sara looked back to see if she could still see her hometree. The only visible part of it was the top of the green crown that entitled it to be called a hometree rather than a mere house, and even that soon passed out of sight, giving her a slight thrill of detachment.

The road was like a groove cut into the countryside—which, Sara realized, was why she couldn’t see the traffic on it when she opened her bedroom window to look out over the fields beyond the garden hedge. The grass-covered banks to either side were starred with colored flowers, but that seemed a poor substitute for a long view over the fields, taking in facfarms and SAPorchards, other people’s hometrees and distant skymasts.

There weren’t as many other vehicles on the road as Sara had expected, but they were various in type. She was surprised to observe that only one robocab in three wore the blue-and-silver livery of Blackburn. Her parents never used any other, so all the cabs that had ever come into the hometree’s drive had worn those colors, but there were plenty of cabs on the road displaying ManLiv’s red-and-sky-blue, and it didn’t take long to spot half a dozen other combinations. Some must be from Preston, but she had no idea where the rest might be based.

When Sara looked across at the southbound carriageway, she could see that the cabs there were dutifully flocking together as they coordinated their cruising speeds in the inside lane. The middle lane was the province of trucks, which came in many different shapes and sizes. There were occasional private cars too, but they were mostly uncustomized, as soberly clad as the trucks. The bikes in the outermost lane—the human drivers’ lane—were even more brightly-decorated than the cabs, because bikes were what people rode for pleasure rather than purpose. Their riders were more colorful still.

“Bikers put extra surskins on over their smartsuits,” Father Aubrey told her, when he noticed that Sara’s flickering gaze had begun following the speeding machines on their own northbound carriageway as they zoomed past the cabs and trucks.

“I know,” Sara told him. “Ms. Mapledean told us.” Ms. Mapledean was her class-teacher.

Father Aubrey frowned slightly, but he went on stubbornly, as if he were determined to find something to tell her that she didn’t already know. “Their smartsuits could protect them from the wind perfectly well,” he said, “but putting on the extra layer is like putting on a new personality. Bikers love to deck themselves out like birds in fancy plumage—much fancier than those silly things fashionable women in ManLiv have taken to wearing.”

“Actually, they’re more like wasps displaying warning coloration,” Father Stephen put in, while Mother Jolene rolled her eyes in protest against Father Aubrey’s insult to “fashionable women”.

“They’re not like wasps at all,” Father Aubrey retorted. “You shouldn’t say things that might confuse Sara. It’s all about enjoyment—the speed trip.”

“There’s no need to sound so wistful, Aubie,” Mother Quilla said. “If it’s what you fancy....”

“I’m a parent now,” Father Aubrey said. “There’ll be time enough to get back into the fast lane when Sara’s grown up.”

“Bikers are slugs with delusions of grandeur,” Father Gustave observed. “If you want to savor speed, you have to get a powerglider. That really does justify dressing up like a bird and pretending to be a hawk among the sparrows.”

“Airspeed isn’t really speed at all, Gus,” Father Aubrey said, hotly. “If you haven’t got the ground beneath your wheels, you don’t get the sensation of traveling at all.”

Sara had tried flying like a bird in virtual space, not just in her hood but in Father Lemuel’s cocoon, which was equipped to provide a much better simulation of reality. On that particular occasion the simulation had worked a little too well; she’d felt giddy and more than a little sick. If her Internal Technology hadn’t calmed her down she might actually have been sick—which would have annoyed Father Lemuel dreadfully. Father Lemuel wasn’t any more prone to annoyance than her other parents, but he was exceedingly fond of his cocoon and the wealth of virtual experience it provided.

The roadside scenery began to improve as the robocab came into the outskirts of the town, where there were walls and hedges with gardens and houses lurking behind. Sara caught fleeting glimpses of glittering walls that were quite unlike the bark-like exterior of her own hometree; hereabouts there were houses that did not try to hide their artificiality behind a vegetal mask, but seemed proud to be carved out of polished stone and roofed in stern jet black.

As the cab moved into denser but less varied traffic, slowing down as it neared the town centre, buildings clustered about the very edge of the road, looming up into the sky. There was an abundance of picture windows close to ground-level, many of them offering displays of goods and services for sale, although most were blank because they could only offer images of virtual worlds to people on the inside. A few offered views of barren deserts and ice-fields, teeming cities or lush forests to any and all passers-by, as if taking care to remind them that Blackburn, like everywhere else on the planet, was part of a Global Village, a Commonwealth of Souls.

Sara would have preferred to leave the cab some distance from the New Town Square and walk along one or two of those fascinating streets, but her parents always seem to be worried about “overtiring” her. They still seemed to think that she’d only just learned to walk. She had complained about it once to Mother Quilla, who had apologized and explained that it was because parents had no real idea of the rate at which children changed—but it hadn’t stopped her. Fortunately the traffic-management system forced the robocab to set them down in the south-eastern corner of the square, so they had a lot of shop-fronts to walk past as they made their way around, many of which were discreetly set back in the slightly mysterious alcoves of the Cloistered Facade.

“Thanks,” said Father Gustave, as they all got out. He was speaking to Father Aubrey, who’s offered him a supportive hand.

“We aim to please, sir,” the cab’s Artificial Intelligence replied, automatically. “We hope to have the pleasure of your patronage again.”

By the time they got half way along the cloister, Sara had stopped peering into the picture-windows on her right because her eyes had fixed themselves on the prospect ahead—not so much on the fire fountain itself, oddly enough, but on the crowd gathered around it.

The fact that there were twenty-five or thirty adults standing around the fire fountain was uninteresting, so Sara was hardly aware of it. The fact that they had brought their own children was a different matter.

Sara had met hundreds of other children in dozens of different virtual spaces, in addition to the fifteen classmates of her own age who were her regular companions in school. She often played with other children, in the many and various ways that children could play together while they were wearing hoods in their separate rooms. She was perfectly used to being with other children—but the only one she had ever met “in the flesh” was an older boy named Mike whom she had encountered on two occasions, quite by chance, when her parents had taken her for a walk in the countryside surrounding her hometree.

BOOK: The Dragon Man
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