empty space

A short extract from the novel Empty Space. I talk about Empty Space on video, here & here. There’s a bit of a synopsis here; & various notes & mad or obsolete speculations made when the book was still a work in progress called “Pearlant” here. & more free fiction is here.

Chapter 9: Emotional Signals Are Chemically Encoded in Tears

Last practitioner of a vanishing technique, with specialisms in diplomacy, military archeology and project development, R.I. Gaines–known to younger colleagues as Rig–had made his name as a partly affiliated information professional during one of EMC’s many small wars. He believed that while the organisation was fuelled by science, its motor ran in the regime of the imagination. ”Wrapped up in that metaphor,” he often told his team–a consciously mongrelised group of policy interns, ex-entradistas and science academics comfortable along a broad spectrum of disciplines– “you’ll always find politics. Action is political, whether it intends to be or not.”

Some projects require only an electronic presence. Others plead for some more passionate input. Today Gaines was in-country on Panamax IV, where the local rep Alyssia Fignall had uncovered dozens of what at first sight seemed like abandoned cities. Microchemical analysis of selected hotspots, however, had convinced her they were less conurbations than what she loosely termed “spiritual engines”: factories of sacrifice which, a hundred thousand years before the arrival of the boys from Earth, had hummed and roared day and night for a millenium or more, to bring about change–or, more likely, hold it off.

“Close to the Tract,” she said, “you find sites like these on every tenth planet. You can map the trauma front direct on to the astrophysics.”

They stood on a low hill, planed to an eerily flat surface about five and a half acres in extent, thick with dust despite the scouring summer winds, and covered with the rounded-off remains of architecture. There were pockets of vegetation here and there in the avenues between the ziggurats–clumps of small red flowers, groups of shade trees under which Alyssia’s people gathered each mealtime to rehearse their sense of excitement and optimism. They were discovering new things every day. A white tower of cloud built itself up in the blue sky above the mountains to the south; smoke rose from an adjacent hilltop which seemed to be part of some other excavation. In the end, Gaines thought, anything you can say about ritual sacrifice is just another act of appropriation. It reveals more about you than about history.

“So what’s different here ?” he said.

Alyssia Fignall glanced away, smiling to herself. Then she said:

“It worked. They moved the planet.”

Suddenly she was looking direct into Gaines’ eyes, deliberately seeking out his soul, making contact, her own eyes wide with awe. “Rig, everyone has been so wrong about this place. That’s why I called you! A hundred thousand years ago, using only sacrifice–mass strangulation, we think, of perhaps half the population–these people moved their planet twenty light minutes out of orbit. We think they were trying to keep it in the Goldilocks zone. There’s evidence of increased stellar output–” here she shrugged “–though to be realistic, it’s not high enough to explain much. In the texts we found, they don’t seem to be able to describe exactly what they’re afraid of. Soon after that they give up–vanish from the historical record.”

“Possibly they had some regrets,” Gaines suggested.

“Not in the way I think you mean.”

They stared silently across the hilltop, then she added, “They were some sort of diapsid.”

“Alyssia, this is a result.”

“Thank you.”

“What do you need ?”

She laughed. “Funding.”

“I can get you more people,” he offered.

He received a dial-up from the Aleph project. Alyssia moved away a little out of politeness, her feet kicking up taupe dust with a high content of wood-ash and wind-ground bone. Her people were finding thick bands of the same substance in polar ice cores; there, it was glued together by fats.

She was still excited. That morning, aware she would be seeing Rig again after so many years, she had picked out a short sleeve knit sweater in red botany wool, fastened with a line of tiny faux-nacre buttons along one shoulder; pairing it with a flared calf-length skirt of faded green cotton twill. Her thin tan feet said she was in her forties, but the sunshine and the clothes celebrated only enthusiasm and youth. Gaines stared at her with a kind of absent pleasure, while spooky action at a distance filled the FTL pipe and a voice he recognised said:

“About an hour ago we got uncontrolled period doubling then some kind of convulsion in the major lattices. It’s jumped to another stable state.”

“Is it still asking for the policewoman ?”

“Like never before.”

“Anything else ?”

An embarrassed pause, then: “It wants to know everything about domestic cats. Should we help it with that ?”

Gaines laughed out loud “Tell it what you like.” So many years in, and they didn’t even know what the Aleph was. They could be programming a computer, they could be talking to a god. They weren’t even sure who they were working for at EMC. But Gaines had the complex professional philosophy of any good fixer. “Keep going,” he ordered. “In a situation like this all the benefits are at the front end. Later we find a way out of the consequences.” Most projects seem minor, irrelevant: big or small, cheap-and-cheerful or funded the planetary level, they always remain oblique to the real world. Others flower when you least expect it. They become your own. They lodge right in your heart.

“Get me a K-ship,” he said.

*

SiteCrime, fifth floor, Uniment & Poe: a slow morning. Bars of light from the slatted window blinds fell like weight across the policewoman’s shoulders. Shadow operators clustered viscously in the ceiling corners. (Once or twice a week, the ghost of her old employer could also be seen there. This apparition had been less use to her than she hoped. It consisted only of a face–the face of the older Albert Einstein like a photograph under water, its eyes distended, its mouth opening and closing senselessly–which seemed to be warning her against something.) Her desk was heavy with reports.

In the town of Saudade, topology itself is the crime. While the rest of the planet can offer nothing more bizarre than rape or murder, SiteCrime–the frail human attempt to bring order to a zone which cannot be understood–must deal with boundary-shifts, abrupt fogs of hallucination, a daily illegal traffic in and out of the event site–people, memes and artifacts no one can quite describe. The assistant busied herself with these puzzles. Bells rang faintly in the distance. At approximately eleven forty, shouting could be heard in the corridor outside and she was called to one of the basement interrogation rooms. Two or three days ago, atrocities had occurred down there under cover of a nanocamera outage only now repaired. The fifth floor was alive with accounts, substantiated and otherwise. “It smells like fresh meat,” someone reported; someone else said it was like war had broken out in their building.

Everyone, anyway, wanted a piece of it. Alarms were going off. In-house fire teams, weighed down with hand-held thermobarics and bandoliers of Chambers ammunition, grinned out of every lift. The assistant took the stairs. Halfway down, something so strange happened she never reached the basement. An emergency door opened on to the echoing stairwell in front of her and the figure of a woman emerged on to the landing. She was tall, built, shaven-headed, looking back over her shoulder, finishing a sentence with a word that sounded like “Pearlent.” At that, the assistant raised her hand. “Stop!” she called. Her tailoring launched but would not come up to operating speed: instead, she saw the world at a subtle wrong angle, as if she was someone else, with annunciative light pouring in a dazzle down the stairwell. The figure turned towards her, mouth open in a laugh she couldn’t interpret, and whispered, “Don’t jump, babe!” Half blind and full of inexplicable dread, she watched it vanish round the next turn in the stairs. Footsteps hurried away. Lower down, a door boomed closed. Nothing else. The assistant sat down, breathing heavily, nauseous with waste chemicals from her own overdriven systems. They had not been interdicted from outside; they had simply become emotional and confused. They were all right now. She left the building, and later turned up at Sharp Cuts, a downscale tailor parlour on Straint, where the owner, who had made his way to Saudade City after an accident in an Uncle Zip franchise nearer the Galactic core, took one look at her and said:

“I can’t do anything for someone like you.”

At the same time, his clients that morning–half a dozen gun-kiddies from the beach enclaves of Suicide Point, in for a midprice growth blocker called 7-4eva–were leaving by the back door. Five feet from the assistant you could smell the heavy metals in her blood, the hiked ATP transport protocols, the immune system add-ons: they would be enough to drive anyone away. Among other gifts, she could hear naturally to 50 kHz, then process up to 1000 kHz by frequency-division, heterodyne and expansion systems, the product of which was delivered as one of a hundred realtime visual overlays. Her skin, infra-red sensitive, reported to biological chips laid in subdermally on a metamaterial mesh. These kinds of cuts weren’t police, or even SportCrime. She had Preter Coeur written on her at every biological scale. You could smell the animal smell of the fights, the chemicals in her tears. She encouraged the tailor to come out from behind his counter and stepped in close to him.

“Try,” she said.

*

He would look at anything but her–out the window, all around his storefront. His own hormones had come up in some half-forgotten response. He was trying not to feel helpless. ““I’ve seen you up and down the street,” he said. “This stuff of yours, it isn’t just some franchise job.” She smiled and asked him his name, which he gave as George. She said he shouldn’t talk himself down. He was just the expert she needed. She said she thought she might have an ion channel problem. “You should go to Preter Coeur,” he tried to persuade her. “Here we just do the cheap bolt-ons.” She made him meet her eyes. He went and found a six-regime loupe, which looked like a child’s stereopsis toy from the deep historical times, and she jumped up on one of his cutting tables where he could insert probes.

“I don’t get most of this,” he said after a minute or two. “I’d be scared and confused, I met you on the street.”

“George, you’re scared and confused in here.”

“Keep still,” he cautioned her. “Jesus,” he said, after a minute more. “They wired everything through the amygdala. You ever act without knowing why ? Cry a lot ? Use metaphors ? Who did this to you ?” He poked around in her ion channels. “Forget I asked that,” he said. He said she could get up, she might feel as if she had low blood sugar for a time. It wouldn’t be much. “You got Kv12.2 expression issues. When they tuned the neuronal gates for spatial perception, they put Kv12.2 on a hair trigger. Every so often that’s going to fall over, you‘ll see damping of the potassium channel. What happens then, the nerve cells fire excessively.”

The assistant stared at him.

“It’s nice when you talk like that,” she said.

“They put a control loop in but someone like me can’t unpick it. You hear any voices when this fault happens ? Speak in tongues ? See anything odd ?”

“Everything I see is odd.”

“Kv12.2,” the cutter said, “is a very old gene.”

He washed his hands under a tap he had at the back of the store. “Even a fish has it. Are you going to kill me ?”

“Not today, hon.”

She left, but almost immediately came back.

“Hey, look, Tango du Chat is just over the road!” she said, as if she had only just discovered that fact about the world.

The parlour filled up with her rank smell again. Outside, the sun warmed each shabby frontage, picking out the unlit bar sign across the street–a black and white cat dancing on its hind legs–while two monas in pencil skirts and seamed nylon stockings gossiped at the intersection of Straint and dos Santos; inside, it was matt black walls, dust. There was a smell of stale lipids in the air around the proteome tanks, with their rows of LEDs and torn posters for year-old fights, long-dead fighters. The tailor, rigid with disquiet, looked away from her as hard as he could. His anxiety flipped suddenly into depression. “You got Preter Coeur written all through you,” he said, “but no one signed the work. This isn’t something they would do for a sport fighter. There’s military stuff in there too.”

“So do you want to get a drink sometime, George ?

“No thanks.”

“Yes you do,” the assistant said.

*

Later, as puzzled by her own motives as anyone else’s, she left him in the bar listening to Edith Bonaventure play the sentimental accordion solo from Ya Skaju Tebe –2450’s favourite song–and drove herself up Straint Street, through acre after acre of industrial dereliction and out on to the Lots, where she slipped her ‘52 Cadillac quietly into the row of cars already parked there, on the cracked expanse of weed-grown cement in a long curve facing the Event site.

The cloudbase was down since lunch, Saudade City afternoon rain coming on. Fifty yards into the gloom, she saw rubble and sagging razor wire. Beyond that the landscape crawled constantly, as if uncomfortable with itself, or as if you were viewing it through water flowing on glass. Further away, you could make out unfamiliar objects being tossed up into the air by a silent but convulsive force. This force, though it had been given many names, was as impossible to understand as the objects themselves, which, scaled in incongruous ways–giant crockery, huge shoes, ornaments and jewellery, bluebirds and rainbows, tiny bridges, tiny ships and tiny public buildings–were so unconstrained by context that they seemed less objects than images, collaged on to a further image of bad weather and ruined landscape. They rose, floated, toppled, thrown up as if by the hands of a gigantic, bad-tempered, invisible child. The assistant shook her head over all this. Cars came and went around her; something big broke the cloud cover and settled near her briefly. (It brought an extra pressure to the air, along with heat, feelings of invasion, the stink of metamaterials and intelligent nanoresins. Then it was gone.) Finally, she started up the car and drove off at walking pace across the cement.

Every afternoon was the same: rickshaws and sedans arrived from all over the city to take part in this drive-in of the Saudade soul. By 3pm the Lots were rammed. A fluttering, soft-focus carnival of mothy adverts filled the air above each car. In the darkened rear seats, someone always had their floral print up round their waist, laughing and grunting at the same time as their friend drove them into a corner in the luxury smell of leather. No one was afraid of the site any more. They came openly, just to enjoy a fuck in its aureole of weirdness. It was quantum sex, the news media said, and could even be good for you. Some of them were going as far as to leave their vehicles and wander the empty streets and piles of rubble in the mist beyond the wire, picking up objects they thought might make souvenirs
.
These were not precisely crimes. What was she to do ?

*

Still later, R.I. Gaines banged on the door of her room.
When she opened the door, he was laughing and running his hands over his scalp. The shoulders of his coat were wet–this time it looked real. “Hey!” he said. “I hate the rain, and I bet you do too.” Behind him, the port was full of activity. The shadows and lights of alien, fiercely contradictory theories-of-everything poured across the field: three ships landing at once, one of them the General Systems “New World” starliner Pantopon Rose, in from a four-week tour of Boudeuse, O’Dowd and Feduccia XV. Gaines, too, gave the impression of having just arrived back from somewhere. His skin was a little more tan. He wore a bit of bright red cotton as a neckscarf and carried, in a loose bunch, some dusty-looking flowers the same colour. A small cheap suitcase rested on the floor by his leg, as if he had just set it down. The assistant, who felt nothing at all about the rain, stood in the doorway and stared at him.

“First you open the door,” Gaines coaxed her, “then you let me in.”

“Why ?”

He held out the flowers.

“Because I brought something for you.”

Eventually she took the flowers and turned them over in her hands. She had never seen a red quite like it; but the stems were flimsy and brittle, already dry. One or two fell on the floor.

“I’ll sit on the bed,” she said. “You can sit in the chair.”

Gaines gave her an alert look. “Have you invented irony ?” he wondered aloud. In her room, by contrast with the mayhem over at the port, some fleeting piece of physics had washed and softened the light. He placed the suitcase carefully on the bed: its clasps being snapped, complex fields sprang to life, radar green on a velvety black backdrop, unwinding in endless strings around a strange attractor. Additionally, the case contained generous lengths of scabby rubberised flex and a pair of bakelite headphones clearly included for show. “Look inside,” Gaines said. “See this ?”

“Are you really here this time ?”

“First look in the suitcase,” Gaines said, “then we can discuss that.”

She looked.

Immediately she felt herself transported a thousand light years from Saudade City, out somewhere in Radio Bay, inside an EMC outpost so secret even R.I. Gaines had difficulty finding it. Her viewpoint toppled about at high speed. It was jerky and full of interference; once stabilised, it had a curiously assembled feel, as if it had been built up from three-dimensional layers. What the assistant saw was this: a trembling grey space with echoes and a sense of walls far back, and somehow suspended inside it a single perfect teardrop of light so bright she had to look away. It was the tiniest instant. Even her tailoring couldn’t slow it down. A tear, immobile but constantly falling, so bright you couldn’t really see it. Then darkness came down, the viewpoint gave the impression of tilting violently, and the image of the tear repeated again. By the third or fourth repetition, “tear” had somehow translated in her mind to “rip”: at that everything stopped, as if such understanding could be, in itself, a switch
.
She felt elated. “I don’t know what that was!” she said. “Do you ?”

“It’s a thing no one should admit to knowing about. Not you–” here, Gaines gave a wry smile “–not even me.

“We call it the Aleph. We believe it’s very old. When we found it, no one had been near it for a million years–perhaps more. When we ask it about itself, it asks for you.” It was an artifact at least a million years old, he said, the deepest problem anyone had encountered to date in Radio Bay: a built object as far as could be understood, a machine constructed at the nanometer length, the purpose of which was to contain a piece of the Kefahuchi Tract itself. “You see it like that, as a series of repetitions,” he said, “because we’re catching it in the Planck time. You can’t see it for longer because it’s already in its own future, already something different. The pause between images is lag, as the instrument tracks it quantum to quantum.”

The Aleph, he said, was buried inside an abandoned research tool the size of small star: and recently the thing it most asked for was her. The assistant stared at him, then down at the suitcase.

“Is it in there ?”

Gaines shook his head. “It thought for a week, then it asked for a police detective on a planet no one had ever heard of.”

“I don’t understand what I was looking at.”

“For now,” Gaines said, “we think it’s wise to keep the two of you apart.” He closed the suitcase. “Given the weirdness of this.” He added, in a kind of aside: “When we use the word ‘constructed’, we don’t rule out the idea of self-construction.” Then he said:

“We had some trouble finding you from the description it gave.”

Copyright © 2011, M John Harrison. All rights reserved. Please do not copy or excerpt this material without permission.