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Authors: Ian McDonald

Empire Dreams

BOOK: Empire Dreams
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Empire Dreams

Copyright © 1988 by Ian McDonald
All rights reserved.

Published as an ebook in 2014 by Jabberwocky Literary Agency, Inc., in conjunction with the Zeno Agency LTD. Published by Bantam Books in 1988.

The following stories first appeared in
Isaac Asimav’s Science Fiction Magazine

“The Catharine Wheel”—IASFM—January 1984
Copyright © 1983 by Davis Publications, Inc
“Scenes from a Shadowplay”—IASFM—July 1985
Copyright © 1985 by Davis Publications. Inc
“Empire Dreams”—IASFM—December 1985
Copyright © 1985 by Davis Publications. Inc
“Christian”—IASFM—October 1984
Copyright © 1984 by Davis Publications. Inc

Cover design by Dirk Berger.

ISBN 978-1-625670-75-5


Title Page


Empire Dreams (Ground Control to Major Tom)

Scenes From a Shadowplay


King of Morning, Oueen of Day

The Catharine Wheel (Our Lady Of Tharsis)

Unfinished Portrait of the King of Pain by Van Gogh

The Island of the Dead

Radio Marrakech

Visits to Remarkable Cities


About the Author

Also by Ian McDonald



the sickness everywhere. Her nostrils are not duped by the desperate odor of antiseptic; there is a peculiar stench to sickness that nothing will conceal, a stench mixed in with the thick, glossy utility paint which, through years of overpainted overpainting, has built into layer upon layer of ingrained despair. From these hopeless strata sickness leaks into the air. There is no concealing the smell of a hospital, it squeezes out of the floor tiles every time a trolley rolls over them, and under the slightest pressure of a nurse’s footstep.

As she sits in the chair by the bed she breathes in the sickness and is surprised to find how cold it is. It is not the cold of the snow falling outside the window, the snow that softens and conceals the outlines of the Royal Victoria Hospital like white antiseptic. It is the cold which encircles death, the cold of the boy on the bed, which draws the living heat out of her, cold and sickness.

She does not know what the machines are for. The doctors have explained, more than once, but there must be more to her son’s life than the white lines on the oscilloscope. A person’s life is not measured by lines, for if that is all a life is, which are the lines for love, and the lines for devotion? which is the pulsebeat of happiness, or the steady drone of pain? She does not want to see those lines. Catherine Semple is a God-fearing woman who has heard the steady drone of pain more than anyone should have to in any lifetime, but she will not hear it whisper any blasphemous rumors. Joy and pain she accepts from the fingers of the same God; she may question, but she never backbites. Her son lies in a coma, head shaved, wires trickling current into his brain, tubes down his nose, throat, arms, thighs. He has not moved for sixteen hours, no sign of life save the white measurements of the machines. But Catherine Semple will sit by that bed until she sees. At about midnight a nurse will bring coffee and some new used women’s magazines; Nurse Hannon, the kindly, scared one from County Monaghan. By that time anything might have happened.

* * * *

“Major Tom, Major Tom,” booms out the huge voice of Captain Zarkon. “Major Tom to fighter bay, Major Tom to fighter bay. Zygon battlefleet on long-range sensors, repeat, Zygon battlefleet on long-range sensors. Go get ‘em, Tom, you’re the Empire’s last hope.” And down in the hangar bay under dome under dome under dome (the high curved roof of the bay, the plasmoglass blister of the ship, the decaled bubble of your helmet) you scrunch down in the rear astrogator’s seat of the X15 Astrofighter and mouth the fabulous words, “You’re the Empire’s last hope.” Of course, you are not the Major Tom whose name thunders round the immense fighter bay, you are Thomas junior, the kid, less than fifty percent of the Galaxy’s most famed (and feared, all the way from Centralis to Alphazar Three) fighting duo, but it is nice to sit there and close your eyes and think they are talking about you.

Here he comes, Major Tom; the last Great Starfighter, Space Ace, Astroblaster, Valiant Defender, thrice decorated by the Emperor Geoffrey himself with the Galaxian Medal and Bar, striding across the hangar deck magnificent in tight-fitting iridescent combat-suit, and, cradled beneath his arm, the helmet with the famous Flash of Lightning logo and the name “Major Tom” stenciled in bold black letters. The canopy rises to admit him and the hero snakily wiggles into the forward command seat.

“Hi, Wee Tom.”

“Hi, Big Tom.”

Space-armored technicians are running ponderously to cover as the fighter deck is evacuated. The canopy seals, internal pressurization takes over and makes your ears pop, despite the gum you are looping around your back molars; the space door irises open and your fighter moves onto the launch catapult. What is beyond the space door? Vacuum, stars, Zygons. Not necessarily in that order. Tactical display lights blink green, little animated Imperial Astrofighters flash on half a dozen computer screens. You park your gum in the corner of the weapons-status display board.

“Primary ignition sequence?”


“Energy banks at full charge?”


“All thrust and maneuvering systems, astrogational and communications channels check?”

“All channels open, all systems go.”

“Okay, Wee Tom. Let’s go get ‘em. We’re the Empire’s last hope.”

A blast of acceleration stuffs your teeth down your throat, flattens your eyeballs to fifty-cent pieces, and grips the back of your neck with an irresistible iron hand as the catapult seizes Astrofighter Orange Leader and shies it at the space door. The wind whistles out of you; everything goes red as the space door hurtles up at you. Then you are through, and, before the redness has faded from your eyes and the air filled your lungs once more, Major Tom has looped your X15 up and over the semi-eclipsed bulk of the miles-and-miles-and-miles-long
, throneship of Geoffrey I, Emperor of Space, Lord of the Shogon Marches, Defender of Altair, Liege of the Orion Arm, Master of the Dark Nebula.

“Astrogation check.”

“Enemy force targeted in Sector Green Fourteen Delta J. Accelerating to attack speed …”

“Good work, Wee Tom. Orange Leader to Force Orange, sign in.”

One by one they climb away from
, the valiant pilots of Force Orange: Big Ian, The Prince, John-Paul (J.P. to his comrades
), Captain “Kit” Carson, Black Morrisey— nicknames known and respected (and, in some piaces, dreaded) right across the sparkling spiral of the Galaxy. Such is these men’s fame that it brings a lump to your throat to see the starlight catch on their polished wing-fairings and transform their battlescarred fighters into chariots of fire.

“Force Orange reported in, Orange One through Orange Five, Orange Leader,” you say.

“Okay,” says Major Tom with that tight resoluteness in his voice you love to hear so much. He waggles his fighter’s wings in the attack signal and Force Orange closes up behind him.

“Let’s go get ‘em. We’ve got a job to do.”

nd anything in them you hav

diagnosis was leukemia, but, as the disease was not responding to conventional treatment, Dr. Blair classified it as a psychologically dependent case … No, sorry, not psychosomatic, psychologically dependent is Dr. Montgomery’s expression, the one Dr. Blair would like used. Put simply, the conventional chemotherapy was ineffective as long as the psychological block to its effectiveness remained. Yes, the leukemia has gone into complete remission. How long ago? About twelve days.

Gentleman at the back … sir … This is the thirty-eighth day of the coma, counting from the time when the growth of the cancer was first arrested, as opposed to the complete remission. The patient had been in the orthohealing state for some twenty-six days prior to that while the chemotherapy was administered and found to be effective … Yes sir, the chemotherapy was effective only while the patient was in the orthohealing state. It was discontinued after thirty days.

Gentleman from the
Irish News
… The boy is perfectly healthy—now, don’t quote me on this, this is strictly off the record, but there is no medical reason why Thomas Semple shouldn’t take up his bed and walk … right out of this hospital. Our only conclusion is that there is some psychological imbalance that is keeping him, or, more correctly, making him keep himself, in Montgomery/Blair suspension.

Sir, by the door … No, the project will not now be discontinued; it has been found to be medically very effective and the psychological bases of the process have been demonstrated to be valid. International medical interest in the process is high. I might add that more than one university across the water, as well as those here in Ireland, have sent representatives to observe the development of the case and there is widescale commercial interest in the computer-assisted technology for the sensory-deprivation dream-simulation systems. In fact, Dr. Montgomery is attending an international conference in The Hague at which he is delivering his paper on the principles of orthohealing … Yes sir, I can confirm that Dr. Montgomery is returning early from the conference, and I wish I knew where you get your information from, because I only found out this morning; but this is not due to any deterioration in Thomas Semple’s condition. He is stable, but comatose in the orthohealing state. Okay? Next question.

Sir, from the
, isn’t it? May I have your question … Yes, Mrs. Semple is in attendance by the bedside; we have a room set aside for her on the hospital premises; she is able to see her son at any time and spends most of her time in the ward with him. She will permit photographs, but under no circumstances will consent to be interviewed, so don’t bother wasting your time trying … Yes, it was her idea, but we agree with her decision totally. I’m sure you must all appreciate, gentlemen, the strain she is under after the tragic death of her husband, her only child developing leukemia, and now the baffling nature of this coma. Next question. I.R.N?

We have no evidence to cause us to believe that he has drifted away from the programmed orthohealing dream. This would be most unlikely as the dream was designed specifically with his ideal fantasies in mind. We believe that he is still living out this
Star Wars
fantasy, what we call the “Space Raiders” simulation program. To explain a little, we have over a dozen dream archetypes specifically engineered for typical psychological profiles. Thomas Semple junior’s is a kind of wish-fulfillment arcade game, Space Invaders with an infinite number of credits, if you’ll pardon me stretching the analogy. The cancerous cells are represented as alien invaders to be destroyed; he himself is cast in the role of Luke Skywalker, the hero. I believe it was the gentleman from the
Irish Times
who coined the expression, “Luke Skywalker Case,” wasn’t it?

Okay … any further questions? No? Good. There’s a pile of press releases by the door; if you could pick one up as you leave it’d make it worth the trouble of having them duplicated. Afraid you won’t find anything in them you haven’t heard from me. Thank you, gentlemen, for being so patient and for coming on such a foul day. Thank you all, good morning.

* * * *

Shuttle flight BA 4503, London Heathrow to Belfast: after the coffee, before the drinks

I couldn’t help noticing your briefcase, are you a doctor, Mr. Montgomery?
Well, a doctor, yes, but not an M.D., I’m afraid. Doctor of psychology.
Oh, have to be careful what I say, then.
Ah, they all say that. Don’t worry, I’m not a psychiatrist, I’m a research psychologist, clinical psychology. I’m attached to the R.V.H. team working on orthohealing, you know, that Luke Skywalker thing?
I’ve heard about that, it was on
News at Ten
, wasn’t it, and it was on
Tomorrow’s World
a couple of weeks back. That’s the thing about getting people to dream themselves into getting better, isn’t it?
That’s it in a nutshell, Mrs….
Oh, sorry, there’s me rabbiting on and never thought to tell you my name. Mrs. MacNeill. Violet MacNeill, of Thirty-two Beechmount Park, Finaghy.
Well, you’ve already guessed who I am, Mrs. MacNeill. Might I ask what takes you over the water?
Ach, I was seeing my son, that’s Michael, he’s teaching in Dortmund, in Germany, and he’s always inviting me to come over and see him, so I thought, well, now I’ve got the money, I might as well, because it could be the last time I’ll see him.
Oh? How so? Is he moving even further afield?
Oh no. But you could say I am. (
Laughs, coughs
.) You see, Dr. Montgomery, I haven’t got long. I’m a person who believes in calling a spade a spade. I’m dying. It’s this cancer thing, you know? You can’t even talk about it these days, people don’t like you to mention the word when they’re around, but I don’t care, I believe in calling a spade a spade, that’s what I say. I tell who I like because it won’t go away if you don’t talk about it, it’s stupid to try to hide from it, don’t you think? You’re a medical man, you should know.
Psychological, Mrs. MacNeill.
You see? The very man to talk to. The trained ear. They picked it up about eight months ago, stomach cancer, well on its way, and they said I only had about a year at the most. I reckon on longer than that, but I’m under no illusions it’ll get better. My daughter, Christine, she wanted to put me in that hospice, you know, the place for the terminally ill, but I said away out of that, all you do there is sit around all day and think about dying and they call that a positive attitude. “Dying with dignity,” they say, but if you ask me, I say you live a bit less and die a little bit more every day until finally no one can tell the difference. Me, I intend to keep on living until the moment I drop. Away out of your hospices, I says to Christine, rather than waste good money on that abattoir, give it me in my hand and I’ll spend it doing all the things I’ve always wanted to do and never had the time for. And do you know what, Dr. Montgomery, she gave it me and I took a bit out of my savings and I’ve been having the time of my life.
Now, that’s what I call a positive attitude, Mrs. MacNeill.
You see? That’s the difference between a medical man; ach, I know you’re a psychologist, but you boys with letters after your name are all the same to me, and an ordinary man. You can talk about these things, you can come out and say, “That’s what I call a positive attitude, Violet MacNeill,” while anyone else would only have thought that and been afraid to say it in case they offended me or something. But I wouldn’t mind, wouldn’t mind a bit, what offends me is people not saying what’s on their minds. But I tell you this, there’s just one thing bothers me and won’t give my head peace.
What’s that?
It’s not me, nothing to do with me, why, I’m having the best time, I’ve been to Majorca on one of those winter breaks, and to London to see the shows, you know, that Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd-Webber thing, and I’ve a cousin in Toronto to see, and I have to get to Paris, I’ve always wanted to see Paris, in the spring, like that song, “I Love Paris in the Springtime,” I’d love it any time of year, I’ve got to hang on till I’ve seen Paris. And then there was this joyride to Germany. Which brings me back to what I was talking to you about, don’t I ramble on something dreadful? It’s the kids I worry about, Michael and Christine and wee Richard, I say wee, but he’s a full-time R.U.C. man; it’s them worries me. Now, I don’t care much for dying, but it has to happen and at least I’m not bothering to let it ruin my life, but I worry about what I’m leaving behind. Will the kids ever forgive me?
That’s a very good question, Mrs. MacNeill. Do you feel guilty about dying?
See? Asked like a true psychologist. It’s all right, never worry, dear. In a way, it’s stupid to feel guilty about dying; I mean to say, I’m not going to care, am I? But then again, I do feel bad in a sort of way because it’s like I’m betraying them. I’m like the top layer between them and their own ends, and when I’m gone they move up and become the top layer. Do you understand that?
I do. Would you care for a drink? Trolley’s coming up the aisle.
Oh, please. Gin and bitter lemon for me. Should cut it out, but I reckon when you add up the harm it does and the good, it’s six of one and half a dozen of the other. Now, what was I saying? Oh yes, do you think children ever forgive their parents for dying? When you’re wee, your parents are like God; I remember mine, God love ‘em, they could do nothing wrong, they were as solid as the Rock of Gibraltar and always would be, but they both died in the bombing in ‘41 and, do you know, Doctor, but I don’t know if I ever forgave them? They’d built my life, they’d given me everything, and then it was as if they’d abandoned me, and I’m wondering if my Michael and Christine and wee Richard will think the same about me. Will they think I’ve betrayed them, or will I have given them that kick up the backside into being mature? What do you think, Dr. Montgomery? Do children ever forgive their parents for being human?
Mrs. MacNeill, I don’t know. I just don’t know.
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