Last Plane to Heaven is the final and definitive short story collection of award-winning SF author Jay Lake, author of Green, Endurance, and Kalimpura.
Long before he was a novelist, SF writer Jay Lake, was an acclaimed writer of short stories. In Last Plane to Heaven, Lake has assembled thirty-two of the best of them. Aliens and angels fill these pages, from the title story, a hard-edged and breathtaking look at how a real alien visitor might be received, to the savage truth of "The Cancer Catechisms." Here are more than thirty short stories written by a master of the form, science fiction and fantasy both.
This collection features an original introduction by Gene Wolfe.
|Publisher:||Tom Doherty Associates|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
JAY LAKE was a prolific writer of science fiction and fantasy, as well as an award-winning editor, a popular raconteur and toastmaster, and an excellent teacher at the many writers' workshops he attended. His novels included Tor's publications Mainspring, Escapement, and Pinion, and the trilogy of novels in his Green cycle - Green, Endurance and Kalimpura. Lake was nominated multiple times for the Hugo Award, the Nebula Award, and the World Fantasy Award. He won the John W. Campbell Award for best new writer in 2004, the year after his first professional stories were published. In 2008 Jay Lake was diagnosed with colon cancer, and in the years after he became known outside the sf genre as a powerful and brutally honest blogger about the progression of his disease. Jay Lake died on June 1, 2014.
Read an Excerpt
Last Plane to Heaven
The Final Collection
By Jay E. Lake
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2014 Joseph E. Lake, Jr.
All rights reserved.
Last Plane to Heaven: A Love Story
I went to Outer Mongolia for the first time in 1990. Parts of this story are true, and happened to me then. Most of it is made up. You decide what to believe.
Nichols tried to light a cigarette, one of those fucking Paki horse turds. "Know why God made the 'stans?" His palm cupped the flame against the steppe winds. Must've been burning his fingers, but if he didn't care, I sure as hell didn't.
"Hell if I know." The dust out here was like to drive me to tears, Oakley wraparounds or not. That shit got in the cracks of everything. My shoulders ached like a son of a bitch, too, after standing around all day with a SAM tube on my shoulder. I shifted the Stinger, listening for that familiar tubercular roar of old Sov-built engines. The Antonov was overdue.
He got his horse turd lit, took a long, coughing drag. "Shit's got to come out somewhere, that's why." A gap-toothed grin, where a couple of Uzbek hash merchants had kicked him hard a few months back. He'd eaten their ears a bit later. "The 'stans are the asshole of the Earth. America, we're the tits. Land of milk and honey."
Tits was right, I thought. But honey? Something chattered out there. I scanned the northeast over the hardpan. Nothing but scattered grass and endless identical miles, while the dust was making a silver-brown hash of the Gobi sky.
No sign of the Antonov.
Maybe I'd heard the windsock snapping.
"Ain't you gonna ask?" he said, after another deep drag.
"Where the world's pussy is?"
I knew better than to walk into that one, so I just returned his grin. I still had all my teeth.
"Aw, fuck it." Nichols pitched the flaring cigarette into the wind. It bounced past the wheel ruts on the desert floor then vanished into dust, leaving a flare on my vision.
"Don't do that shit, man."
"Snipers?" His laugh was as harsh as his cigarettes. "Here? Hiding behind what? The sky, maybe. You're the pussy, Allen. Pussy of the world, right here."
"Snipers my ass." I was less confident than him on that. Not much less, but a careful troopie lived to see chow call. "Only you can prevent forest fires."
"Smokey the fucking Mongolian bear!"
Then the Antonov was overhead, growling out of the dust in a reek of fuel and old metal, the pilot looking for the windsock.
* * *
Say what you want about Sov technology, the shit they built just keeps working. That old An-17 had probably been flying, badly, when I was playing kill-the-ragheads in the Oregon forests as a kid. It was still flying badly now. As the fly-guys say, any landing you walk away from is a good landing.
The south Gobi is a series of very shallow valleys bordered by low ridges a half dozen klicks apart. The desert is sort of like prairie gone bad, with stubby, dried grasses, the odd flower, and a hell of a lot of gravel. If you look up and down the valleys, you can see the edge of the world.
The strip here was a windsock stuck in the hardpan. Every now and then someone got tired of the planes bouncing in their wheel ruts and replanted the windsock fifty yards farther east. There was an archaeology of occupation and warfare written in the tracks of old landing gear.
Most of the Westerners in the 'stans were like Nichols. Smart enough, and stone killers in a firefight or on a silent op, but pretty much baboons otherwise. A million years ago they would have been the big apes throwing shit from the trees. Now they're out here capping ragheads and steppe weasels. I guess that beats breaking elbows for money back home.
I tried explaining Temujin to Nichols one time as we were burning some idealistic kids out of an eight-hundred-year-old temple. Blue-faced demons crisped to winter ash while their ammo cooked off in a funeral cantata. He'd just laughed and told me to go back to college if I didn't like it here.
It's a beautiful country, Mongolia. All the 'stans are beautiful in their way. Xin Jiang, too. Nichols was wrong about this being the asshole of the earth. God had made these countries, all right, to remind us all how damned tough the world was. And how beauty could rise from the hard choices and broken lives.
Then God in His infinite wisdom had chosen to people these lands with some of the toughest sons of bitches to ever draw breath. These people could hold a grudge for a thousand years and didn't mind eating bullets to avenge their honor.
Fuck you very much, God, for Your beauty and Your terror. Not to mention Sov aircraft to dust us off to the brothels of Ulan Bator every once in a while. Nothing expressed God's love for His world like warm North Korean beer and elderly Chechen hookers.
* * *
"Yo, Allen, get in here!"
It was Korunov. His head bobbed out the weathered orange door of the ger that served as our HQ. Ex-KGB counterintel guy. He'd spent a lot of time at the USA-Canada Institute, back when that was still cranking, and spoke with the damnedest accent. His voice was part Alabama cornpone and part Ukrainian street hustler, squeaking out of a two-hundred-kilo butterball.
Hell, he must have been thin once. Nobody starts out life that kind of fat.
Korunov considered himself a man of the world. He was also the paymaster of our little unit, so when he yo'd, I ho'd.
Nichols and Korunov were crowded into the ger along with Batugan—our Mongolian controller back in UB and the only man to get off the Antonov upon arrival. As always, the pilot remained on board to keep his points hot. Plus Hannaday was there. He was an Agency cowboy I'd last seen on the wrong end of a Glock in Kandahar two years earlier. Whipcord thin, still wearing the same damned Armani suit.
How the fuck had that spook gotten into the camp without me seeing him? My legs still ached whenever it got chilly. I briefly considered firing off my Stinger inside the ger, just punching the warhead into Hannaday's chest, but that would have pretty much toasted us all.
"Stow it," growled Korunov. Two hundred kilos or not, that man could and did snap necks.
"What's he doing here?" I wouldn't meet Hannaday's gaze. "He's worse trouble than the insurgency."
Batugan gave me his oily smile. I don't think he had any other kind, truth be told. "Mr. Hannaday has bought out your contracts."
"My contract wasn't up for sale to him."
Korunov got too close to me. "Sit. Listen."
I laid the Stinger against the tent walls, loosed the holster on my Smitty, then pulled up one of those little orange Mongolian stools. I never took my eyes off Hannaday's hands. "Listening, sir."
"You should be—" Batugan began, but Korunov interrupted. "Not your show anymore, Genghis."
The fat man's voice dropped, sympathy or perhaps an attempt at camaraderie, as he turned to me. "Our financial backers have pulled out. Batugan flew here to cut us loose."
Cut us loose here? We were a training cadre. They brought in kids with attitude, we ran them through some high-fatality training, they pulled them back out to go fight the bad guys. There was no way out but by plane. That way the kids wouldn't run off. And no one ever came around asking inconvenient questions about the row of graves on the far side of the ger camp.
You could make it out by truck. Damned long haul, though, and you had to pack along enough water and fuel. Didn't matter anyhow. There weren't any trucks in camp right now, just a couple of old Chinese-surplus BJC jeeps.
Not a lot of landmarks in the south Gobi. Sure as hell no roads.
"So?" I wasn't a decision maker. Why were they telling me?
Korunov chose his words carefully. "Mr. Hannaday here is bankrolling airfare back to Los Angeles or Frankfurt, plus a generous kill fee."
I finally met Hannaday's eyes. They gleamed that same eerie blue as back in Kandahar. His smile died there.
"I don't care what he wants. I'd rather walk than take his money."
"That's why we need you, Mr. Allen," Hannaday said. "The unit listens to you." There was something wrong with his voice—it grated, almost fading out.
With that clue, even in the shadowed ger, I could make out a scar seaming his throat. It was a glossy trail just above the crisp Windsor knot of his tie. I'd lost my best knife in that throat, the day he shot me.
"You don't talk right, I don't walk right." Which was why I trained instead of killed these days. "I think we've done enough for each other." I stood, grabbed my missile rack.
"Allen." It was Korunov.
I owed him. Lots. I stopped to listen. "Yeah?"
"We don't have seats on the plane. None of us. Not without Mr. Hannaday."
I had eleven guys outside who were real good at knocking over airplanes, Nichols chief among them. But I also had eleven guys outside who weren't going to be happy about hiking out of the south Gobi.
"We got return bonds, Sergei," I told Korunov softly.
He shrugged, his face impassive. "If we were elsewhere, we could cash them. Mr. Hannaday bought the air transport contract from Batugan before he bought our paper."
I had my Smitty out and two rounds in Batugan, one in each thigh. The Mongolian fell off his stool sobbing, curling to clutch at his legs. Neither Hannaday nor Korunov moved. Neither one drew down on me.
"So I am worth something to you, you son of a bitch." Careful not to point the weapon at Hannaday, I holstered the pistol. "What the fuck do you want, airplane man?"
"Like you, I'm—"
"You'll never be like me, you fucking Langley suit."
"Please," Hannaday said. One hand stroked the knot of his tie. I hoped like hell the scar ached as bad as my legs. "Fort Meade. And, like you, I'm a contractor now." Without looking, he leaned over slightly and slapped Batugan hard. The Mongolian quieted his blubbering.
That drew a reluctant laugh out of me. "Big spookery all get outsourced to India?"
"Pakistan, actually. In the name of funding and plausible deniability."
"Fuck yeah. What's your point?"
"We're going to bring in a special subject. We need your team to play like Ukrainian mercs for about a week. Ride the subject hard, put them in some real fear, then let them be extracted."
Who was he kidding, extracted? I knew what that signified. "What, Delta Force falls out of the sky and caps us all? No thanks." As if this bunch of multinational nimrods could be Ukrainians. Korunov actually was, the real McCoyovich. After the fat man, Nichols with his Paki cigarettes was the safest and sanest of the bunch. There was a reason our little crowd wasn't out eating snakes on the front line.
"No-risk deal," said Hannaday impassively.
"That deal ain't been written yet."
He folded his hands in his lap, a deliberate gesture straight out of interrogation training. "I'll be sitting here with you the whole time."
Well, I could always cap him when the shit went south. Because a situation like he wanted to set up would without question run for the border before it was all over with.
And it ain't like I was walking out of here.
"Fuck you very much," I told Korunov. "I guess we're playing. I'll go get the boys fired up."
"What are you going to tell them?"
"Just some fucking lies. I got a million of 'em." I grabbed my Stinger rack, waved it at Batugan. "You might want to slap a Band-Aid on Ming the Merciless over there before he bleeds out."
"Don't need him anymore," said Hannaday.
I didn't let the door hit me on the ass. Paymaster and contract man could gas all they wanted. I'd chosen my poison.
* * *
It took a little while to get a camp meeting together. Beier, the South African, was somewhere sleeping off a three-day bender, while the Belgians were off dust-wrestling and greasing each other down. Those two boys didn't much like being interrupted at play, so I sent Nichols after them. I rousted the rest of the crew to find Beier.
We wound up in the kitchen ger. It was too damned windy to talk outside. I didn't want to be near the Antonov—for several reasons—nor near Hannaday and Korunov. The Belgians were madder than hell and Beier was propped up against a stack of North Korean beer beneath a line of curing mutton fatback that kept dripping on him. There was a potbellied stove, thankfully cold, stacks of MREs and Chinese canned goods, and us.
I picked my nails with a Bowie knife till everyone quieted down. That was so fucking theatrical it made me want to puke, but this was the kind of shit that worked on these boys. Visible weapons and getting straight to the point.
"Listen up, geniuses. We're stewed and screwed here. Korunov's been forced to accept a transfer of our contracts. We're getting out soon, but there's one more task."
They groaned and cursed in seven languages.
"Yeah," I said. "I know. We got to run a fake hostage situation with a drop-in, pretend to be Ukrainians." Commonwealth of Independent States political bullshit. My guess was we'd be labeled later as Chechens. The ex-Sovs saw them in every shadow the way Americans saw Arabs. "So if you've got a Slavic accent, start using it. If you don't got one, start practicing."
"What happens if we say no?" It was Nichols, speaking quietly for a change. Somehow everyone was suddenly listening.
"You're free to walk home any time."
"We got return bonds." That was Echeverria, the ETA guy for whom all of Europe had gotten too hot. I didn't figure anybody Hannaday swung in here would cop to a Basque accent.
"Yeah. If we can cash 'em. You see an ATM around here, Etchy?"
Nichols again: "So what do we do?"
"Put 'em through the usual course, just don't kill 'em. Scare the hell out of whoever this is. And ..." I glanced at Beier, who appeared to be snoring. "... they keep all their bits and pieces attached and intact."
I figured the marching orders would change between now and then, several times most likely, but I also figured the bits and pieces part would still apply.
"What happens at the end?"
They all got real quiet.
"Staged, boys. And we'll know they're coming."
"I fire no blanks," said one of the Belgians. Everybody laughed except me.
"Think about it. Unless you can grow a truck under you or sprout wings and fly, we're pretty much stuck."
"Knock over the Antonov right now," said Nichols. "And split."
"Nope." I pointed the knife at him. "First off, a couple of stray rounds and that plane's toast. You know what a piece of shit it is. Second off, they don't keep no fucking maps on that thing. Three or four of us know enough to get it flying. None of us know the terrain. Something happens to the pilot, you want to navigate the Gobi from the air by eyeball and dead reckoning? Third, I'd bet money Hannaday's got surprises inside that plane right now, just in case any one of us is a smartass."
"Hannaday?" Nichols didn't miss much, and he'd heard a lot of my stories.
"Yep. Mr. Congeniality himself."
"And you're going for this?"
Hell no, I wanted to say. What I did say was, "You got a better idea?"
No one had an answer for that question. After a full minute of silence, I put my knife away.
* * *
An hour later Hannaday had me and Nichols on the plane trolling for new fish from five hundred feet.
Antonov 17's a funny bird. Looks almost like a kid's drawing of an aircraft, twin props, high wing. Not that big, and a slow fucker to boot, but they really did keep flying forever. The seats had been designed for Chinese grandmothers, not American mercs with incipient butt spread. Tiny aluminum rails with webbing between, idiot cousin to the common lawn chair. Air Munchkin. How the hell a Sov platoon in full kit ever fit inside these cans I couldn't imagine.
I didn't bother with the seat belt.
Hannaday hadn't relieved me of my Smitty, though the Stinger rack was back at camp. Nichols was sucking down another of those Paki horse turds as he fondled the barrel of his Mossberg jungle gun—a 40mm automatic shotgun that should have had Hannaday sweating.
The Gobi lumbered along outside the oval windows, low and slow. The pilot was looking for something.
Curiosity finally got the better of my common sense. "We're doing a pickup out here?"
"Special delivery," said Hannaday, surprising me. He wasn't much given to sharing information.
"We're a thousand klicks from anything."
"And that, my gimpy friend, is precisely why we're here." His eyes narrowed to steel-gray slits. There was another reason he was here, as opposed to somewhere else. Hannaday thought he could run me. He'd done it before.
Excerpted from Last Plane to Heaven by Jay E. Lake. Copyright © 2014 Joseph E. Lake, Jr.. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Foreword by Gene Wolfe
Last Plane to Heaven
Houses of the Favored
Science and Other Fictions
The Starship Mechanic
Permanent Fatal Errors
"Hello," Said the Gun
The Speed of Time
West to East
The Women Who Ate Stone Squid
Looking for Truth in a Wild Blue Yonder
Scent of the Green Cathedral
Steam, Punks, and Fairies
They Are Forgotten Until They Come Again
The Woman Who Shattered the Moon
The Blade of His Plow
The Temptation of Eustace Prudence McAllen
That Which Rises Ever Upward
A Feast of Angels
Phantasies of Style and Place
The Fall of the Moon
A Critical Examination of Stigmata's Print Taking the Rats to Riga
From the Countries of Her Dreams
Novus Ordo Angelorum
Descent into Darkness
The Tentacled Sky
Such Bright and Risen Madness in Our Names
Her Fingers Like Whips, Her Eyes Like Razors
Mother Urban's Booke of Dayes
The Cancer Catechism