Curves in Space
Michael Somers (UTS, Australia)
The surface shimmered with an oily opalescence. When Barton Collate eased in the tips of his forefinger and thumb and worried them against each other, the fluid felt slippery — like a gob of cold phlegm. Inviting. Collate shivered, yanked his fingers out and wiped them against the leg of the suit. He looked up. Grey-yellow light drizzled from an indefinable source over the enormous sea.
In the great search for water, life’s essential ingredient, he’d found an ocean of snot. Profound.
A voice crackled in his left ear. ‘Okay, Coll. Debrief.’
Collate disengaged the head-pod and peeled off the suit. Dirt streaks, scratches and dents in curved ferrous panels met his eyes. After the cool blond world of the simulation, the training centre sphere looked grimy, cheap like a set of some sci-fi ‘zee’ flick. It took a few seconds to adjust to the dim trickle of rusty light. A sim-man rolled in across the gantry to the centre plate and took the suit. Collate stepped off the pad, followed the sim-man out through a battered door and to the debrief room.
Inside, the sim-man handed the suit to Pete Easter. He looked nothing like his name or the nickname it suggested. A former Black Brigade grunt, he bulged muscles through his cam-gear. Close-cropped hair stood at permanent attention. The only cheek-turning Easter would ever do was with his fist.
In the close damp room, Easter spoke with a voice hacked by decades of rough tobacco and afterburner fluid: ‘One of these days you gonna listen to me, Coll — and maybe, just maybe, you gonna survive this lunatic shot.’
Collate collapsed into a chair.
‘God, what now, JC?’
‘You wiped the snot on the leg of the suit.’
‘Oh, for Christ’s sake.’
Easter squinted, set his jaw off-centre. He took a half-tortured Havana from a pocket, plugged it in between his teeth and slowly crossed his bulky arms.
Collate planted his booted feet on the deck. He could still feel the goop’s disgusting slickness. He gripped the seat and began to push, then stopped. Forget it. Time and place, time and place.
‘Look, JC, we launch in two days time. After six months sim-running, how about some credit?’
Easter yanked the butt from his mouth, punched his jaw forward. A mean squint burned from his left eye. Then, his gravelled chuckle scraped the heavy air: ‘That’s right, Coll, live life on that knife-edge. Go on. Piss off, you ratbag.’
As he turned to leave, Collate said: ‘A spurt of J12, and when the dub-suit returns from the surface, a full de-com.’ He looked up at the ceiling, hands on hips. ‘I’d be a fool not to listen to the “Son of God” himself.’ His tone was humourless. He opened the door and exited.
Out in the parking lot, Collate looked up at the sky. Somewhere through the cloak of smog, fifty-thousand light-years away, Galaxy 321-A-Beta-C was winking like it was all a big joke. Collate felt the joke was on him.
… No-one dreamed like this. Doilies of snow twirled in a swift-flowing waltz of scarlet, each dancer faceless, its partner brittle as sugar-glass. On a central dais, Sleeping Beauty lay blue-lipped and still as death. Gallantly, his cloak flowing in the red, Prince Charming brushed her cheek tenderly, withdrew a vial from a zippered crotch-pouch, unscrewed it, and caressed the Princess’s lips with a drop of silvery fluid.
Collate opened his eyes to the Prince’s intense, deep pools. He looked suspiciously like Jesus del Muerte, chemist and owner of a bubble-drink company going under some years back. That was until he discovered his formula for Space-Fizz Soda did something more than put kids in coma-like states. It preserved haemoglobin so it thawed instantly out of deep-state undamaged.
Prince Charming began to laugh. Collate didn’t like it. ‘You know what Space-Fizz Soda is, Barton Collate? It’s out of this world — which is where my business is headed!’ He’d been right. He’d renamed the fizzy drink Haemo-Trip-Coma-Extensor, and launched the next era in space travel. Endless intergalactic distances and the centuries they took to cover faded into seconds of snoozing.
And that’s just where Collate was now, hushing through deep, deep space somewhere between Earth and Galaxy 321-A-Beta-C on the good InterGalactic Ship Clotho 3; out of his world, and tripping away on HT-CEx …
Gentle warmth began in Collate’s chest, bled up his neck to his head, reached to his extremities. His throat felt as if a thick and sour football sock sat in his mouth.
He blinked. A bright-red feline eye stared down at him. It blinked.
Suddenly, the dreaming was over.
The coffee in Easter’s mug tasted of camel’s piss, something he was intimately familiar with, to his displeasure. Desert — he never wanted to see one again. But it seemed the way things were going, the whole damned planet would soon be one big sandpit. The thought choked him. Damn, he’d have to sip that coffee again. Christ knew he never wanted to touch the poison del Muerte’d managed to dupe the brains trust with.
He took his eye off the monitors. Miserable place. Like the whole of the Pacific coast had become. Miserable sun, miserable sand, miserable surf — and God-awful coffee.
Road-trip time, clearly, and it just so happened to the only joint in this godforsaken place that still made a half-decent cuppa. It would mean catching the sun before it hit the Big P.
Easter punched a blue-topped button. ‘Watch him.’
A voice said yes sir, and Easter pushed back from the console, cracked his neck with a quick side-to-side tilt and exited. He took the untraceable car, headed west with the window down and chewed on a fresh cigar.
He skirted the city centre. Once towering, glistening, now a smoldering hulk masked in grey-brown haze yet to settle after all these years. Its tower-tops made a forest of still, bent wind turbines and busted-up solar billboards. Even in the silence of abandonment Los Angeles, along with the heat it radiated, imposed its presence.
He caught the 10 Freeway and, eight or so clicks out, the ocean breeze. It cooled the sweat on Easter’s arm. Even so, he pulled it in and rolled up the window. Best not tempt fate. He jabbed on the air-filter, but a light tang lingered in the cabin.
The official signs were a blur, but he knew them by heart: ‘Keep out! This area has been deemed uninhabitable. Exposure will lead to death. Enter at your own risk. By order, Los Angeles County’, and in smaller type beneath: ‘Removal of bodies will be at the expense of the families of those deceased’.
Easter clenched his teeth in a wry smile. The skull, crossbones and radiation icon had the desired effect — for the most part. It was a complete crock, of course — all but one thing; the county was serious about revenue.
He passed the first of the hand-painted signs just before the exit to Lincoln: ‘People’s Republic of Santa Monica and Venice Co-operative! All pigs piss off!’
Nice. He eased down from a hundred in good time and made the turn anyway. Lincoln Boulevard’s four lanes looked little changed, a dumping ground of rusting vehicle hulks punctuating the stream of shuttered shop fronts; shattered dreams all, fading into infinity.
The telephone poles were like a fallen rear-guard, some skittled, others leaning every which way. Barbed wire in a losing battle with the sea air curled the length of the road in tangled ribbons the colour of dried blood. He found a break in it and pushed the car savagely through.
A heavy layer of dirt covered the safe-house at Pacific and 7th. Once within the automatic gate, Easter applied a liberal coating of Lovelock factor G from a tube to his exposed skin — hands, face, neck, ears; he massaged it through his hair and into his scalp. He plugged the top of his nostrils with ac-carb filters and slipped clear lenses over his eyes.
The creak of the car door, the silence of the street — it all seemed deader than before.
In the house, he checked his watch and other valuables in the safe, stripped, slipped on a haz-skin and then pulled on suitably grubby civvies. He inserted a buzz-bug out of sight deep in his left ear canal.
His boots sifted through the inch or so of drifting sand being driven by the rising breeze. If ever there was a place that spooked him, this ghost town was it. He followed Pacific as it zigged and zagged, rose, dropped and rose again, from 7th to 6th and 5th. At 4th, he turned left; he was on automatic. Soon enough he’d reach …
There they were, bent like old crones, their crooked fingers reaching out to curse him. Again. California cypresses and Monterey pines ash-grey with only a shadow-memory of life. Not so long ago they’d been tall, green, luxuriant, the pines older branches dipped in welcome, their long needles gathered in cushions for moms, dads, kids and their pooches. Now, Mary Hotchkiss Park was 2.1 acres of scorched earth. Near 3rd Street, Eino Romppanen’s ‘Oneness’ lay in four pieces, a family ripped apart. All the broken blocks did now was brace flushes of sand washing over them.
A ribbon of apricot light laced through the veil of sand and touched the stone. It sparkled. The wind murmured and Easter thought he heard a young woman’s voice. ‘Marble, Dad, it’s golden Italian marble, not stone.’
Yes, there she was, Mary-Patricia. Her smile caught the sun the way it always used to and the golden flecks in her eyes twinkled as they once did.
‘This was his first commission.’ A dreamy voice. ‘It’s been here over a hundred years, in good times and amid all the turmoil of these recent ones, standing for family, commitment and harmony.’
‘You making fun of me, girl?’ The voice was smoother, but the gruff manner was unmistakably Pete Easter’s. ‘Stop changing the subject. Who is he?’
‘Come on, Dad. I thought we came here to spend some father-daughter QT. There isn’t much time before you return to the unit; top-secret op whatever. How Mom survived all those years …’
She’d been right, of course, just like Rebecca, never wrong. What did it matter who she’d been seeing as long as he treated her well, respected her, and they were happy together? Rebecca had given Mary-Patricia her eloquence and her logic and he, what had he given her? … obstinacy and, at the worst times, stoic silence. Never let the bastards see you bleed, never let them know what you’re thinking.
‘I love this park, Daddy. I love that you brought me with Mom and how you let me feel the grass in between my toes. Not like other children …’
The voice faded in his head, and now he saw her mouth turned down, doubt in her eyes for the first time.
‘What’s up, MP?’
‘Dad, I’m scared. I’m scared of the Twelfth Dimension. I’m scared of death from orbit. I’m scared that before they reach me — I know they will — they’ll take you, Dad, you and —’
He’d seen the flash and smelt the burning flesh before hearing the blast. One of the marble heads must’ve hit him and, great warrior that he was, he’d blacked out. When she’d needed him most, he’d been useless to Mary-Patricia.
The only thing that Collate could hear was a soft purring. Ordinarily, he would have thought it to be coming from the computer console, or even the solar-ion drive array … unlikely but, still, it seemed better than the prospect facing him. A giant red feline eye went with a giant feline. Giant felines had giant fangs and giant bloody claws.
Of course, the eye might look like a cat’s, but out here in the middle of deep, deep space it needn’t be a cat’s. Besides, where was its twin?
‘Twin. Each of a closely related or associated pair, especially of children or animals born at the same birth; the exact counterpart of a person or a thing …’ Even the voice purred, in English too. Exhaustion burdened him and the thought slowly formed that after fifty years of sleep he might take a minute or two to kick in again. Perfectly reasonable.
‘Hello?’ Collate said aloud.
That did it; the big, red eye blinked shut and vanished.
‘Makes sense. Anyway, why should any damned cat have two eyes? Sissy’s had only one.’
Sweet Cyclops. Abandoned to die, but then saved by the angel with the golden eyes, just as she’d saved him.
Collate heaved his legs around. It was good to feel his heart beat rapidly, forget the discomfort. One thing Del Muerte and his pinheads had yet to perfect was the waste disposal and blood filtering process in fizzed-out class. Stubborn residues in the plasma made waking a riot. Fucking kids’ soda-pop.
He hobbled to the waste-extractor hose and sump and hooked in, ensuring that the super-hydration intra-vee was regulated to ‘b-flush’ then balled himself into the nook. No door, of course. Anyway this was no time to be prim. If that giant cat wanted to learn how humans executed their most primary of functions, he was willing to show and tell.
In the half-light of the cabin, Barton Collate felt himself dozing. Just like him. Fifty years of intergalactic snoring and he was about to fall asleep on the john. He realised the purring had stopped; now there was a rhythmic tapping like …
… There she was, high-heeling across the marble-floored quad, her jeans like a second skin, dark hair pulled up in a messy twist speared with a chopstick, and golden eyes harbouring deep within … something … He couldn’t put his finger on it, but there it was — and it had thrown him for a loop.
Cradled protectively to her breast was a tiny bundle of fur.
It all seemed so real, the sunlight trickling through translucent patches in the Foster’s canopy, Richard Serra’s monumental ‘Curves in Space 3’, the only area between buildings completely open to the sky and Collate’s second home. So real, even though it couldn’t be: U-Cal, SanMo, the last of UC’s campuses, had also been the first to close under the Twelfth Dimension. Its Faculties of the Earth and of the Heavens, which included his own astrophysics department, were now shuttered. He let the vision roll, anyway.
‘Who’s this?’ he found himself asking the dark-haired angel.
‘This little waif? Don’t know yet. We’ve only just met and he’s very sweetly agreed to accompany me for now.’ She must have had raw silk for vocal cords.
‘Ah.’ Always articulate under pressure, it was all he could manage before the inevitable brain-void.
‘I’m Sissy. I’d offer to shake your hand, but as you can see …’
‘Oh, yes, yes, of course. Sorry. I’m, um, I …’
‘Cyclops.’ She gave a mischievous smile.
‘He’s just told me his name is Cyclops. A very sophisticated sense of humour for such a young sweetie, no?’
‘You did ask, remember?’ She turned her face from the kitten and back to him and the sun caught a chestnut wisp on the nape of her neck. There was a hint of sweet alyssum, lightly warm.
‘Yes, yeah, that’s right, I did, didn’t I? …’
‘And you’re …’
‘I’m … ? Oh, Jesus — B-Barton.’
‘Don’t let them hear you utter that.’ Sissy pursed her lips. She looked inviting enough to kiss.
A quarter of an hour later, having completely blown off Dr Stellar Scope’s seminar, ‘The blurring of boundaries between dimensions of the multi-verse by the Twelfth Dimension’, he sat in Peet’s sun-drenched courtyard, completely quiet and only half-listening as Sissy’s voice threaded its way into his heart. Cyclops lay asleep on the table equidistant from a French roast, a skinny, single-shot latte and a saucer of warm milk and froth liberally topped with chocolate powder. A light dusting coated the tip of his nose.
‘… I’d just left a pal’s wedding — you know, one of the new official ceremonies: “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here under the omniscience of the Dimension of the Divine” — all very serious — when I heard a tiny complaint from the trash-roller. And there he was.’
‘You know,’ Collate said, ‘you should be careful, Sissy. I could be anyone, even an official, and you’d be in wrist-locks now and on the way to the hall.’
‘But you’re not and I’m not.’
Logical … she’d always been logical, but that time it had been a strange backwards logic; logical after the fact. It took a special understanding of people to instantly extend her trust to him. It took a rare instinct, intuition — in other words, an enormous leap of faith, and both knew the Dimension had outlawed faith.
It wasn’t the wind or the sour smell of the ocean that jolted him. A rumbling rhythm deep in his solar plexus was making Pete Easter feel like puking. Nothing like rising bile to reacquaint you with the here and now.
He stopped to orientate. He was on Santa Monica beach. Surf slid ashore and hissed into the sand. The pier was a half mile north, the lame Ferris wheel, propped like a spare tyre against the roller-coaster track. Only golden ghosts lingered between the other rides.
… Yeah, ghosts — there was Rebecca, pretty, jet-black hair; no more than a girl, really. It was the last time she had worn a summer dress, the last day it was safe to expose skin outdoors officially. Easter had asked her there to propose marriage. As the Martian diamond eased onto her finger, it painted red petals on the sunflowers all over her dress. Next morning he’d shipped out with the 1st Battalion, Moon Wings. He’d been more nervous about the proposal than the deployment.
More ghosts … Rebecca at the top of the Ferris wheel, telling him something. ‘Pete, you’re going to have a new job soon. Chief diaper disposal officer.’ The Pacific had been dark that night, so big and so very menacing. The lights of the fun park, the clack and flash of the roller-coaster and those damned changing neon patterns on the Ferris wheel — they distorted her smile into a maledictive sneer that gave Easter a sudden feeling of foreboding …
He found himself at the foot of the pier and looking up. The sinking sun was a giant blood orange fifteen degrees above the horizon. He’d lost time; maybe too much. Easter ran a hand through the prickles of his hair in a rare moment of indecision. Damn it, he’d come this far. He began to stride southwards in the damp-hardened sand, careful to avoid the lapping surf.
That damned pier … from its end the three of them had watched the first extra-solar system shot launch from the new pad nine miles offshore. The PR had made it out to be an outer-solar-orbit coms-sat; Easter had known it was the first search for water beyond the Pluto Ellipse. When the blast wave rushed past, Mary-Patricia in her sun-suit and lathered in Lovelock, Easter’d clutched her closer even as she held Lester the cat closer, making sure the soft-toy could see out of its one eye.
He’d picked up another weird vibe then, like someone had poured too much malt vinegar over their fries; he realised later it had been that first shift in the pH of the Big P.
The pier was dead, yeah, but it was still here. Eino’s family idyll in Hotchkiss lay five mind-blank blocks back, shattered but it was still there. But Mary-Patricia, she was gone; not even vapour anymore …
A bullying wind picked up, carrying with it the bass-beat of drums. It could only mean the Circle was hard at it, in communal trance, faces lifted to catch the sun’s dying rays.
Chesney told him once there was a point to it all: ‘There’s been a drum circle for a hundred years. Why do they do it? To keep in touch with reality, man.’ Easter couldn’t see it, but Ches had pressed on: ‘Brother Percussion said, “What’s real? The rhythm, the beat, the moment that you can feel, hear, touch, and that touches you. Everything else is just in the miasma of authoritarian manipulation: the Twelfth-Dee and the divine demons”.’ Easter’d responded: ‘Brother Percussion? That’s a crock, you know it.’ Ches had laughed and taken another toke. They’d left it at that.
Easter’s nausea eased as the thudding moved from belly to ears. The old violinist was his first clue; he was near the old Venice Boardwalk. Bent over his fiddle, silver-haired and with a big toe showing through a hole in his left boot, he drew his bow across three strings.
Then Easter heard the whisper in his left ear: ‘Sweet Jesus. It’s you.’
Barton Collate knew he would feel disembodied as the dub-suit made its descent in the remo-pod to the surface. He would have to fight the urge to pee and hold back from thinking his bum was on fire. He expected these as consequences of planetary entry through a proxy skin and false-positive feedback.
The cat’s eye hadn’t reappeared in a week and Collate had begun to think he might have been hallucinating on waking. All the same, he recorded its visit on his voice log; if real, it had been a lost opportunity. He continued: ‘I’ve decided to auto-save everything on to the solid-state master and the back-up drives,’ he said, ‘so that it all routes to transmission and sends without my having to punch any buttons. No edits, no chance of … I think that’s best, Pete, so that … well, you know … uh, I guess it’ll be whoever’s taken Pete’s place since …’
In all the months of training, no-one had ever mentioned death — his or anyone else’s. But even in the void of deep space, which seemed all but lifeless, death imposed its presence on the one thing Collate was certain of — that he was alive.
Once, Pete Easter had taken him aside and said: ‘Look, don’t for Christ’s sake tell anyone I told you this …’ He’d been chewing a cigar more vigorously than usual. ‘It’s easy to get the jeebies out there. Just remember—’
‘I know. I’ve done the drills. I—’
‘Yeah. But think about this …’
Collate had sensed a difference in Easter. The cigar, for one, was disappearing alarmingly quickly.
‘There’ll be moments when you’ll want to keep looking behind you. Don’t. Do the mental drills; remember it’s the dub-suit and not you down there, though you know it’s going to feel real as hell.’
‘No, listen. Years ago Rebecca told me about this routine she did to keep safe. Whenever I was away on ops and she had to walk along a dark street, ever since LA got toasted and especially since the twelfth-dee, she’d never look behind her. She’d stand tall and walk with confidence. She imagined she had a lit candle on each shoulder, each the light of a guardian angel and they kept her safe. But if she’d turned to look over her shoulders, she’d have snuffed out the candles and her guardian angels with them.’ It was the most Collate had ever heard Easter utter, apart from ops stuff.
‘Sure, Pete.’ He’d thought Easter might have been losing his edge but his eyes had been like lasers and the more unsettling for that.
Now, alone in his ship, 300-thousand trillion miles away, give or take an inch, Collate understood. This was a lunatic shot. Deep, deep space enjoyed mind-bending games and if you wanted to keep it together, you’d better know where your candles and lighter were.
One thing he couldn’t understand: how did Easter reconcile Rebecca’s candle ritual with her sudden disappearance?
‘This must be Judgement Day, for mine own eyes tell me that Christ is come again. Shall we all grab our loincloths and run?’
Easter eyed the long hair stiffened by sand and sea-salt and streaked with grey, the ginger beard and moustache and the wicked grin.
‘Never trust your eyes, Ches, you know that.’
‘True.’ Chesney Didymus, former colonel of the 1st Battalion, Moon Wings, nodded slowly, as a desert hermit might on attaining some new wisdom. ‘’S good to see you, Pete. Long way across the Styx; long way for a cuppa French roast. Turned your back on the dozen demons, come to join the angels?’
Easter eased into an armchair beside Chesney. The window gave him a clear view of the beach and the Circle; in Chesney’s shack the beat was somehow muted, comforting.
‘Fact is, don’t really know that French roast still exists, Ches.’
Chesney sat quietly, as if he knew there was more to come.
‘Special day?’ The fire in Easter’s voice was ebbing.
‘That it is.’
The sun hit the top of the Pacific. The horizon sizzled. Easter felt the heat rush from the air.
‘New Moon, Pete. Parlour’s in session. They’ll be out soon.’
The Circle’s thudding fell to a low grumble. Ches exhaled and it sounded like a heavy sigh. Eventually, he said: ‘Yup. Speaker’ll be coming, too.’ He sounded weary of a long-standing ritual.
Easter rose. Chesney followed him outside, rollie in-hand.
The Pacific was vast and the colour of slate. The flames of a bonfire rose above the Circle. The western sky mellowed into salmon and rust. Indigo infiltrated rapidly from the East, exposing the odd star here, the odd satellite grid there. Easter could make out the Gagarin and the Tereshkova formations by the crescent Moon.
Then, it was dark.
Easter thought of Barton Collate and Mary-Patricia, each in their own eternal darkness.
‘You think she’s up there, in heaven, Pete?’
‘Of course not.’
‘Come on, man. Those frauds can’t read your mind. A man ought to be allowed to mourn however he wants.’ Chesney drew in deeply. After a short while he sent a pillar of smoke skywards. Easter watched it rise. Maybe it would make it to the edge of space; he doubted it. But no-one ever knew for certain.
‘Law’s the law, Ches.’
‘The law’s a goddam ass! And the Dimension of the Divine is a bunch a bull — the whole “divine” propaganda is. And I suspect you know it is, too. You’re a good soldier, Pete, one of the greatest. But somewhere you began to mistake your orders for the truth.’
‘I’m not paid to think beyond my job.’
‘You can’t expect me to believe that you don’t.’
‘Whatever they order me to do, there’s a reason. Even if it makes no sense to me, I—’
‘You mean like the good Lord moves in mysterious ways? …’
‘… and you must have faith him Him?’
Easter held his jaw tight. The drumming picked up.
‘Who’s to say there aren’t more than eleven dimensions?’ Chesney threw out an arm. ‘Who’s to say there aren’t an infinite number of them? I don’t know. And who’s to say that you really can’t slip into this Twelfth Dimension and beat time, space, space-time and all the other dimensions; change history, hell, live the future before it’s even been imagined — change the very nature of time and anti-time, matter and anti-matter; see the very secrets of existence, hell, be them. Slip into God’s mind and have some fun, if God exists and if that’s your thing. Those spin-doctors knew what they were doing when they called it the Dimension of the Divine, because it is God-like to be able to do all this. It’s a glorious thing, Pete. Yes it is. If it’s real. But when a handful of people take control of this thing and mystify it, make it mythical, and say they’re the only ones around who can be trusted to keep the thing safe — safe from what? who? — that’s when I start to think, bullshit. It’s the same old same old about power and absolute power, only this time they’ve got the ultimate weapon at the ultimate time — they have the people truly believing it all. Pure indoctrination — and the only times in history that I can remember that happening all ended poorly for plenty, like those who were ruled to be of a different mind.’ Chesney was breathing heavily.
The Circle’s pounding was sharp, rapid, climactic.
Easter stood still and silent, as if all he could manage was to wait for the rush of words and sound to flood over him and away.
‘Pete, the dirty dozen only outlawed faith so they could build their own religion around themselves, because that’s what it is — and if you’ve too blind—’
Easter touched Chesney’s shoulder. ‘Enough,’ he said. ‘I guess I should tell you now; God knows I need to tell some one.’
Jesus del Muerte peeked in through the slit in the cover of the sleep-pod. One eye only. It was red from his having mainlined HT-CEx. He’d woken with a fright from a wild trip, the first one that truly terrified him. The fear had driven him to check on his investment.
For all he knew, the figure within the pod was dead, but for the dim flutter of coloured lights. For all the world — and Barton Collate, for that matter — knew, he was exploring some galaxy searching for water. What he really was unwittingly doing was making Del Muerte richer than he already was. Let them think that, the longer, the better, because they’d all have to buy his Thirsty-No-More waterless re-quencher. Not even the ‘mission control’ team at his secure base knew the truth. Easter was the only other person to know that Collate was hocked to the eyeballs on Haemo-Trip-Coma-Extensor and what he was experiencing wasn’t real.
It all looked so peaceful in there.
‘So MP had a twin. I never knew.’ Chesney and Easter stood at the edge of the boardwalk gazebo, the Parlour.
‘They took the boy when he and Mary-Patricia were born. They haz-tagged him to keep me “honest”. Rebecca—’
Easter saw the Speaker had arrived. She sat on the Parlour low-wall, her feet barely touching the sand; dime-sized rosettes on the leather of her arms were caked in dried blood and grime. Her lips were pursed and lines radiated up from the confluence of her eyebrows. Her eyes stared west, far from the Circle. Her fingertips worried a frayed thumbnail. Her ring caught the blaze of the bonfire and painted shards of red on the sunflowers over a tattered summer dress hanging off her gaunt frame.
‘Has she …?’ Easter whispered.
‘Not a word. For twenty-one years.’
‘It’s over tonight, Ches. I’ve made sure of it.’ Pete Easter blinked away his first tear since Mary-Patricia had died.
The sound of a second set of footsteps wormed into Barton Collate’s subconscious. Good. He could do with the company. This drizzling grey-yellow light was giving him a headache. He took a couple more steps, turned a corner and …
… There it was. Enormous, and its surface was shimmering. He sat at the edge and dangled his feet. A shift in the light caught his eye. The turned to look and there she was, dark hair pulled up in a messy twist speared with a chopstick. Her golden eyes were throwing him for a loop.
She was clutching something close to her breast.
‘It’s enormous, isn’t it?’ Silk threads.
‘Yeah. There’s a … sheen over it …’
‘… a kind of oily …’
‘… opalescence.’ Collate smiled.
‘Yes. That’s just the right word. You’ve always been good at words.’
‘Try your hand at names … one for this little fellow. Just met him. At a friend’s wedding. I think he’s changed my life.’
Collate saw that she’d been cradling a kitten all this time, its eyes the big and unblinking ones of the very young and curious. He motioned for her to sit.
‘A name? How can I? I don’t even know my own; Barton Collate isn’t really it. One of the Twelve gave it to me. I know nothing about my parents.’
‘H’mm … that’s a tough one,’ he said and paused. ‘You know, I really love it here on campus, just propped up against Serra.’
‘“Curves in Space 3”, isn’t it?’
‘I love how these massive forms are never the same. They’re solid but so, so liquid. Light catches the iron and changes the experience each time. I can be sitting, like we are now, or running my finger along one of its massive curves or turns. H’mm … How about Lachesis?’
‘Funny. That was my mom’s maiden name.’
‘Oh … is that where you get Sissy from?’
‘Sissy’s easier than Mary-Patricia Lachesis Easter.’
Del Muerte blinked. Inside the sleep-pod, the lights suddenly went out.
Michael Somers is a Hong Kong writer based in Sydney, a former news journalist who has worked in both cities as a writer, sub-editor and editor in print, TV, radio and on the web. He has worked in civil society, and written speeches for people fighting for a sustainable future. He is working on his first novel while completing a Master of Arts in Creative Writing at UTS.