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About the Author
Bruce Sterling (1954) is an American science fiction author, journalist, and futurist. He is considered one of the founders of the cyberpunk movement along with William Gibson, John Shirley, and others. He is also included in the cyberpunk anthology Mirrorshades. Some of his most famous works of fiction include Swarm, Distraction, and Heavy Weather. Since 2003 he has blogged for Wired.
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By Bruce Sterling
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1977 Bruce Sterling
All rights reserved.
An Unfortunate Occurrence and Its Remedy
We all have some emptiness in our lives, an emptiness that some fill with art, some with God, some with learning. I have always filled the emptiness with drugs.
Because of this I found myself, duffel bag in hand, ready to go on a whaling voyage on that obscure planet, Nullaqua.
The Nullaquan dustwhale is the only source of the drug syncophine. At the time of my voyage, knowledge of this fact was becoming more and more widely spread. Because I had learned it, I, John Newhouse, was living with nine others on 488 Piety Street in the Highisle, Nullaqua's largest city.
The two-story metal building was known simply as the New House to us, its inhabitants. We were a motley group; the only things uniting us were our extra-Nullaquan origins and our connoisseur's delight in Flare, the initiate's term for syncophine. We were all human beings or close facsimiles thereof. First among us was white-haired old Timon Hadji-Ali. Timon never told us his age, but he was obviously at that period when the body's own subconscious wish to die begins to take precedence over the ego's desire for life. I often heard him speak of his friendship, centuries ago, with Ericald Svobold, the legendary discoverer of syncophine. Now, however, pessimism had overcome old Timon, and for years he had refused any rejuvenation. He wanted only to spend the last of his life depleting his slowly amassed capital and savoring Flare's fierce brain-kick. In matters of policy concerning our little group, we usually deferred to him as he still had the most money.
Second was Agathina Brant, a large, muscular woman with a ramrod posture. She was evidently a retired military officer, and she was extremely terse, even sullen. She almost always wore a uniform, clean but old. There was no telling which one of humanity's numberless armies had issued it. She never told us; I suspect that she sewed it herself. Her addiction was extremely strong.
Third and fourth were a married couple, Mr. and Mrs. Undine. Her maiden name was Stuart; his, Foster. They also were quite old. One could tell their age from their unnatural grace and the occasional archaisms in their speech. They were handsome people, if you discounted their barrel chests and the rather tasteless jewelry grafted into their bodies. As they never tired of telling us, they had both lived through several marriages and could not stand the idea of the pain involved in breaking up their latest one. They had resolved to commit suicide together, preferably by overdose. Many times I was tempted to advise them to use a poison other than syncophine, but that, I thought, might be a boorish invasion of their privacy.
The fifth of our company was a poet named Simon. Through cosmetic surgery he had acquired a kind of haggard handsomeness, although his eyes were of different colors. In an attempt to "return to the roots" as he told us, he had bought a primitive stringed instrument and was trying to teach himself to play it, in order to accompany himself while chanting his own works. We had soundproofed his upstairs room. Syncophine, he said, "stimulated his brain." There was certainly no denying that.
Simon was accompanied by a mousy woman named Amelia, who had long brown hair parted severely in the middle. Her father was a scholar, and sent her enough money for her own support and that of her quasi-melodious companion. She had lived with us for a month before trying syncophine. Now she was developing a taste for it.
Our seventh was a neuter, Daylight Mulligan. It was a charming conversationalist, and its speech revealed a great breadth of knowledge. It and I might have become close friends were it not for its extreme paranoia regarding anyone possessing organs of reproduction. It itself had, of course, been neatly cloned, and its suspicions had some justification in that it had a definite sexual appeal for members of both sexes. It was often melancholy, perhaps tormented by guilt. The antique Timon told me once that it had been responsible for the double suicide of a married couple, friends of its, who both wanted to commit—or attempt to commit—adultery with it. This may or may not have been true.
Our eighth was an extremely tall, almost cadaverous woman named Quade Altman. Born on a planet with a gravity half that of Nullaqua, or of Earth for that matter, she approached eight feet. She was always pale, her sunken eyes ringed with delicate blues and purples. She often complained of dizzy spells. She spent a lot of time supine, working on her three-dimensional mosaics.
Ninth and next to last was my own mistress of the moment, Millicent Farquhar. Millicent was short, snub-nosed, red-haired, closer to plump than thin. I had met her on Reverie a year before, just before going to Nullaqua. After a particulary abandoned party, I had awakened to find myself in her bed. We had been introduced, but we had forgotten one another's names. Our mutual rediscovery had been very pleasant, and we had spent the last year in something like contentment.
Last, me, John Newhouse. Understand that I am not the same person who underwent the adventures I am about to describe. The personality is a changing, fleeting thing, and except for a few memories, now blurring, I have nothing to do with the man who called himself by my name at that time.
But that John Newhouse, then, was the son of a lumber baron on the planet Bunyan and was as well educated as that planet could manage. For political reasons and those of vanity, I claimed to have been born on Earth. Like most sectarian planets, Nullaqua has an exaggerated respect for anything Terran. The lie helped.
I was five feet ten inches tall and had very dark hair, growing rather sparse in the back, although I refused to admit it. I parted it on the left. My eyes were also dark, and the left one had a slight grayish spot, almost a cataract, where I had once ill-advisedly dropped syncophine optically. I was pale from long amounts of time spent indoors, but I was capable of tanning very deeply. My nose had perhaps too pronounced a hook to be called handsome. I was—let me confess it—somewhat of a dandy, and I was fond of wearing rings, usually five at a time. I owned two dozen. I was thirty-five—forgive me, reader, have I not sworn honesty—I was forty-three standard years old.
I will not name my father. I took the name Newhouse from my abode, as was once the custom on Earth. Before my whaling voyage, I earned my living exporting high-quality syncophine to my numerous friends back on Reverie. While not spectacularly profitable, it was a pleasant way to spend one's time. My hobby was developing cheaper and more efficient ways of extracting syncophine from the basic oil.
It was a snug, almost smug existence. Then came disaster.
The expansion of the syncophine trade had not gone unnoticed. The bureaucrats of the Confederacy, that loose and steadily weakening association of worlds, issued a decree. Nullaqua heard, and, amazingly, obeyed.
We first heard of the news from our dealer, a Nullaquan named Andaru. Andaru was a retired whaler, and he supplied us with what he called gut oil at an almost nominal fee. There was no other demand for the product; the intestinal oil could not be burned, and Nullaquans refused to eat it, deeming it poisonous. More fools they, we thought.
On the seventeenth day of the tenth month of the year, Andaru knocked at the door and I answered it.
"It's Andaru," I said loudly to the rest, who were eating in the kitchen.
"Good. Wonderful. Fantastic," they all said. Their moods never failed to alter for the better at the prospect of another gallon.
"And there's someone with him," I continued more quietly, as a young man with a sharp nose and blond hair like tangled nylon stepped out from behind the Nullaquan and extended his hand. I shook it.
"Hi, I'm Dumonty Calothrick, just call me Monty," he said cheerfully. "Just dropped in from off planet, heard of the opportunities here, y'know—" Here he winked broadly at me and made a quick squeezing motion with the thumb and forefinger of his right hand where Andaru was unable to see. "I kind of asked around, met your friend here, thought I might come along, kind of seek you out, maybe," here a look of ingenous bewilderment "maybe ask your advice?"
"Come in, please, and seat yourselves," I said. "Wait ... have you eaten?"
"Yes," said the Nullaquan. "No, sure haven't," Calothrick said.
"Right through there, then, please," I said, "Pick up a plate and introduce yourself to the rest of the household while I discuss business with our mutual acquaintance."
"Thank you, Mr. Uh ..."
"Newhouse," I said, waving him on.
"Ain't you gonna eat, John?" Andaru said.
"I've eaten," I lied. It was Agathina Brant's turn to cook, and it damaged my digestion to witness the woman's heresies with food. I have always prided myself on my ability with what the Terrans used to call le good cuisine.
"How much did you bring?" I asked.
"'Bout a gallon, as usual. 'Fraid it's the last one you're gonna get."
"Oh?" I said. "That's a shock, Andaru. Are you leaving the business?"
"I got to. It's illegal now."
Ice grew in my veins at the words. "Who says so?" I said.
"The Confederacy does; heard the news just yesterday."
"The Confederacy?" I repeated numbly.
"Yeah, the Confederacy, you know, skinny little fellows that float between the stars and tell folks how to get along."
"But they have no authority over plenetary affairs"
"Well, they made Nullaqua what you might call a polite request."
"And Nullaqua obeyed it."
"Why not? We got nothing to lose by being nice to the Confederacy as far as I can see."
I saw a slim ray of hope. "But you have something to lose, though."
"Yeah, there's that," he admitted, "but listen, they say some folks have been using this gut oil to make drugs with."
"No! You don't say!" I said. The bucolic Nullaquans have virtually no concept of drug abuse, sticking to tobacco and cheap beer.
"What wonderful food!" came the sudden voice of Dumonty Calothrick from the kitchen. I grimaced.
"So this is our last gallon."
"Yep. Everyone I know who sells it is closin' up shop."
"They don't want to break the law."
"They sure don't. That's a sin."
I knew better than to press the old Nullaquan. Besides, he had all the native's aversion to water, and, unlike him, I did not have a thick, puffy growth of hair in my nostrils to filter out unpleasantness. "How much for this last jug, then?"
"One monune and thirty-six pennigs."
"Right you are," I said, counting out the money onto his calloused palm. We exchanged expressions of mutual esteem. I opened the door for him and he left.
Then I sat down slowly on the comfortless whalehide couch to think things over. I felt a sudden itch for a quick blast of Flare, but, unlike the others, I kept my cravings rigidly under control.
"When you've finished eating come in here," I shouted. "I've got news."
I took the jug in my lap and pried the lid off. I sniffed. It was the usual high-quality stuff. I resealed it.
They were out in three minutes. "Bad news, "I said. "The Confederacy has declared Flare illegal and Nullaqua is going along. This—" I thumped it—"is our last jug."
Their faces fell in unison. It was a disturbing sight. We turned to Timon for advice. "I—" he began.
"Oh well, I've got a little bit here with me, let's do up some," Calothrick interrupted brightly. He took a plastic packet out of the breast pocket of his checkered shirtjac and pulled an eyedropper out of his belt. The group quickly shuffled themselves into a circle on the carpet as Calothrick opened the packet and sucked up a dropperful of the liquid.
Timon frowned. "I suggest we ration what we have left. If the Nullaquans refuse to supply us we will have to send out one of our number to get it for us. Straight from the source. From a whale."
Daylight Mulligan clapped its hands. "Bravo, Timon," it said. Mrs. Undine passed it the dropper; it opened its mouth and squirted a quick blast onto its tongue.
"Which one of us?" said Quade Altman, in falsetto.
"Well, the women are out," said Mr. Undine. "I hear that whalers don't allow them on board."
"So will someone have to make the complete trip?" said Simon the poet, his brain now well stimulated.
"Oh, yes," said Timon. "And as they last six months, I suggest we choose someone as quickly as possible. Toward the end things may grow uncomfortable." Simon and Amelia both looked suddenly frightened. Mr. and Mrs. Undine held hands.
"I nominate John Newhouse," said Agathina Brant suddenly. Everyone looked startled; she spoke so seldom.
"Let's draw straws," I said quickly.
"John, you're the best choice," said Mr. Undine, in obvious relief. "You have the resilience of youth, certainly."
I countered, "But you have the experience of age. Surely that counts for more."
"But you have sharp wits. And resourcefulness. None of us can deny that," said Simon.
"Yes, Simon, but think how your poetry could gain from the trip," I said.
"But you have experience. You know what oil to get and how to brew it," Daylight Mulligan said. It had me there. More than anything else, this sealed my fate.
Things looked black. Surely, I thought, Millicent will defend me. I looked at her.
"Yes, and you can get a job, John," she said. "You can cook. You're a good cook. You won't have any trouble."
"Let's not reach any hasty conclusions," I said. "Perhaps we should reconsider our situation in a week. It might be possible—"
Then Dumonty Calothrick spoke up. "Why wait? It's wonderful!" he laughed. "No sooner does the problem arise than it is solved. Think, Mr. Newhouse, the lure of adventure, the thrill of an alien planet. Six months before the mast. New sights! New thrills! Romance! Flare by the gallon! Hey, anybody want another quick blast?"
"Why don't you go?" I asked gently.
"Oh, I am, I am! I'm going with you!"CHAPTER 2
The entire habitable portion of Nullaqua lies at the bottom of a monster crater some seventy miles deep and, for the most part, five hundred miles across. Over 90 percent of the planet's atmosphere lies pooled in this vast hollow; the rest of the planet has only a thin scattering of gases and the ruins of two Elder Culture outposts. According to accepted theory, the crater was gouged by a concentrated bombardment of antimatter meteors some billions of years ago. It would have splattered a younger planet but at that time Nullaqua was solid almost to the core. Vast volumes of gas were liberated from the broken rock. After that, the multiple tons of fine dust, caused by the action of the sun on Nullaqua's almost airless surface, sifted or were blown into the crater. This gradual but ceaseless action, continuing even today, has given Nullaqua an ocean of almost monatomic dust, untold miles deep. Nullaqua was given a second chance to create life. This time, she succeeded.
Five hundred years ago Nullaqua was settled by a dour group of religious fanatics. Their creed is now somewhat weakened, but still retains its colorful blasphemies and an exaggerated respect for the law.
It was that respect that now forced me to leave the comfort of my double bed to seek my fortune on the Sea of Dust. With me was young Calothrick; I was unable to dissuade him from coming.
I walked sullenly out of the New House, Calothrick tagging at my heels. We headed toward the docks east of the city. After two blocks he broke the silence.
"What's our first step, Mr. Newhouse?"
"To take all our money out of the bank," I said. "And call me John."
"OK, John. Why? Aren't we going to sign up?"
"This is not a course of action to be rushed into blindly," I said, speaking with excessive clarity. "We have to study the situation, learn the basics of the industry, and some of the slang of the sailors. We have to buy supplies, probably get our hair cut in the current seadog style. We have to look like we know what's what, even if we are off-worlders. As it is you may have trouble getting a berth. You'll have to sign on as an ordinary seaman."
"Ordinary seamen, huh? Well, that's all right with me. I wouldn't want to be better than anyone else."
"Sure," I said. "How much money do you have?"
Calothrick looked startled and unsure. "Not very much. About five hundred monunes."
"That should be enough for your supplies, anyway, with maybe enough left over to buy drinks for the sailors. What's your bank?"
"I haven't had time to deposit it yet, it's all in letters of credit."
I sent Calothrick off to pick up some cash while I rented a room in a tavern at the lip of the cliff above the docks. (The Highisle was half a mile above sea level and thus escaped the worst of the dust pollution below.)
When Calothrick returned I sent him downstairs to buy drinks for sailors and to study their mannerisms. I went out and bought two dustmasks. All sailors wear them. The fine dust, stirred by gusts of wind, can destroy the lungs within a few days. Even the dense thickets of hair in the native Nullaquan's nostrils can't fully filter the stuff, nor can their camellike lashes and thick lids fully shield their eyes. On shore they suffice, but at sea every man jack wears a tight-fitting rubbery mask with a snoutlike round filter and round plastic eyes.
Excerpted from Involution Ocean by Bruce Sterling. Copyright © 1977 Bruce Sterling. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Contents1. An Unfortunate Occurrence and Its Remedy,
2. Boarding Ship,
3. A Conversation with the Lookout,
4. A Strange Revelation,
5. The Lie,
6. The Storm,
8. The Voyage Continues,
9. A Further Conversation with the Lookout,
10. Flying Fish,
11. The Cliffs,
13. A Conversation with a Young Nullaquan Sailor,
14. Desperandum Conducts an Experiment,
15. The Dream,
16. The Voyage Ends,
About the Author,
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