Authors: Michael Swanwick
Tags: #Science Fiction
For my mother,
Mrs. John Francis Swanwick,
with much love
The author is indebted to David Hartwell for suggesting where to look, Stan Robinson for the gingerbread-maddrake trick, Tim Sullivan and Greg Frost for early comments and Greg Frost again for designing the briefcase’s nanotechnics, Gardner Dozois for chains of the sea and for teaching the bureaucrat how to survive, Marianne for insights into bureaucracy, Bob Walters for dino parts, Alice Guerrant for whale wallows and other Tidewater features, Sean for the game of Suicide, Don Keller for nominal assistance, Jack and Jeanne Dann for the quote from Bruno, which I took from their hotel room when they weren’t looking, and Giulio Camillo for his memory theater, here expanded to a palace; Camillo was one of the most famous men of his century, a thought which should give us all pause. Any book’s influences are too numerous to mention, but riffs lifted from C. L. Moore, Dylan Thomas, Brian Aldiss, Ted Hughes, and Jamaica Kincaid are too blatant to pass unacknowledged. This novel was written under a Challenge Grant from the M. C. Porter Endowment for the Arts.
The Leviathan in Flight
The bureaucrat fell from the sky.
For an instant Miranda lay blue and white beneath him, the icecaps fat and ready to melt, and then he was down. He took a highspeed across the stony plains of the Piedmont to the heliostat terminus at Port Richmond, and caught the first flight out. The airship
lofted him across the fall line and over the forests and coral hills of the Tidewater. Specialized ecologies were astir there, preparing for the transforming magic of the jubilee tides. In ramshackle villages and hidden plantations people made their varied provisions for the evacuation.
’s lounge was deserted. Hands clasped behind him, the bureaucrat stared moodily out the stern windows. The Piedmont was dim and blue, a storm front on the horizon. He imagined the falls, where fish-hawks hovered on rising thermals and the river Noon cascaded down and lost its name. Below, the Tidewater swarmed with life, like blue-green mold growing magnified in a petri dish. The thought of all the mud and poverty down there depressed him. He yearned for the cool, sterile environments of deep space.
Bright specks of color floated on the brown water, coffles of houseboats being towed upriver as the haut-bourgeois prudently made for the Port Richmond incline while the rates were still low. He touched a window control and the jungle leaped up at him, misty trees resolving into individual leaves. The heliostat’s shadow rippled along the north bank of the river, skimming lightly over mud flats, swaying phragmites, and gnarled water oaks. Startled, a clutch of acorn-mimetic octopi dropped from a low branch, brown circles of water fleeing as they jetted into the silt.
“Smell that air,” Korda’s surrogate said.
The bureaucrat sniffed. He smelled the faint odor of soil from the baskets of hanging vines, and a sweet whiff of droppings from the wicker birdcages. “Could use a cleansing, I suppose.”
“You have no romance in your soul.” The surrogate leaned against the windowsill, straight-armed, looking like a sentimental skeleton. The flickering image of Korda’s face reflected palely in the glass. “I’d give anything to be down here in your place.”
“Why don’t you, then?” the bureaucrat asked sourly. “You have seniority.”
“Don’t be flippant. This is not just another smuggling case. The whole concept of technology control is at stake here. If we let just one self-replicating technology through—well, you know how fragile a planet is. If the Division has any justification for its existence at all, it’s in exactly this sort of action. So I would appreciate it if just this once you would make the effort to curb your negativism.”
“I have to say what I think. That’s what I’m being paid for, after all.”
“A very common delusion.” Korda moved away from the window, bent to pick up an empty candy dish, and glanced at its underside. There was a fussy nervousness to his motions strange to one who had actually met him. Korda in person was heavy and lethargic. Surrogation seemed to bring out a submerged persona, an overfastidious little man normally kept drowned in flesh. “Native pottery always has an unglazed area on the bottom, have you noticed?”
“That’s where it stands in the kiln.” Korda looked blank. “This is a planet, it has a constant gravity. You can’t fire things in zero gravity here.”
With a baffled shake of his head Korda put down the dish. “Was there anything else you wanted to cover?” he asked.
“I put in a Request For—”
“—Authority. Yes, yes, I have it on my desk. I’m afraid it’s right out of the question. Technology Transfer is in a very delicate position with the planetary authorities. Now don’t look at me like that. I routed it through offworld ministry to the Stone House, and they said no. They’re touchy about intrusions on their autonomy down here. They sent the Request straight back. With restrictions—you are specifically admonished not to carry weapons, perform arrests, or in any way represent yourself as having authority to coerce cooperation on your suspect’s part.” He reached up and tilted a basket of vines, so he could fossick about among them. When he let it go, it swung irritably back and forth.
“How am I going to do my job? I’m supposed to—what?—just walk up to Gregorian and say, Excuse me, I have no authority even to speak to you, but I have reason to suspect that you’ve taken something that doesn’t belong to you, and wonder if you’d mind terribly returning it?”
There were several writing desks built into the paneling under the windows. Korda swung one out and made a careful inventory of its contents: paper, charcoal pens, blotters. “I don’t see why you’re being so difficult about this,” he said at last. “Don’t pout, I know you can do it. You’re competent enough when you put your mind to it. Oh, and I almost forgot, the Stone House has agreed to assign you a liaison. Someone named Chu, out of internal security.”
“Will he have authority to arrest Gregorian?”
“In theory, I’m sure he will. But you know planetary government—in practice I suspect he’ll be more interested in keeping an eye on you.”
“Terrific.” Ahead, a pod of sounding clouds swept toward them, driven off of Ocean by winds born half a world away. The
lifted its snout a point, then plunged ahead. The light faded to gray, and rain drenched the heliostat. “We don’t even know where to find the man.”
Korda folded the desk back into the wall. “I’m sure you won’t have any trouble finding someone who knows where he is.”
The bureaucrat glared out into the storm. Raindrops drummed against the fabric of the gas bag, pounded the windows, and were driven down. Winds bunched the rain in great waves, alternating thick washes of water with spates of relative calm. The land dissolved, leaving the airship suspended in chaos. The din of rain and straining engines made it difficult to talk. It felt like the end of the world. “You realize that in a few months, all this will be under water? If we haven’t settled Gregorian’s case by then, it’ll never be done.”
“You’ll be done long before then. I’m sure you’ll be back at the Puzzle Palace in plenty of time to keep your sub from taking over your post.” Korda’s face smiled, to indicate that he was joking.
“You didn’t tell me you’d given someone my duties. Just who do you have subbing for me anyway?”
“Philippe was gracious enough to agree to hold down the fort for the duration.”
“Philippe.” There was a cold prickling at the back of his neck, as if sharks were circling overhead. “You gave my post to Philippe?”
“I thought you liked Philippe.”
“I like him fine,” the bureaucrat said. “But is he right for the job?”
“Don’t take it so personally. There’s work to be done, and Philippe is very good at this sort of thing. Should the Division grind to a halt just because you’re away? Frankly that’s not an attitude I want to encourage.” The surrogate reopened the writing desk, removed a television set, and switched it on. The sound boomed, and he turned it down to the mumbling edge of inaudibility. He flipped through the channels, piling image upon image, dissatisfied with them all.
broke free of the clouds. Sunlight flooded the lounge, and the bureaucrat blinked, dazzled. The airship’s shadow on the bright land below was wrapped in a diffuse rainbow. The ship lifted joyously, searching for the top of the sky.
“Are you looking for something on that thing, or just fidgeting with it because you know it’s annoying?”
Korda looked hurt. He straightened, turning his back on the set. “I thought I might find one of Gregorian’s commercials. It would give you some idea what you’re up against. Never mind. I really do have to be getting back to work. Be a good lad, and see if you can’t handle this thing in an exemplary fashion, hmm? I’m relying on you.”
They shook hands, and Korda’s face vanished from the surrogate. On automatic, the device returned itself to storage.
“Philippe!” the bureaucrat said. “Those bastards!” He felt sickly aware that he was losing ground rapidly. He had to wrap this thing up, and get back to the Puzzle Palace as quickly as possible. Philippe was the acquisitive type. He leaned forward and snapped off the television.
When the screen went dead, everything was subtly changed, as if a cloud had passed from the sun, or a window opened into a stuffy room.
* * *
He sat for a time, thinking. The lounge was all air and light, with sprays of orchids arranged in sconces between the windows and rainbirds singing in the wicker cages hung between the pots of vines. It was appointed for the tourist trade but, ironically, planetary authority had closed down the resorts in the Tidewater to discourage those selfsame tourists, experience having shown offworlders to be less tractable to evacuation officers than were natives. Yet for all their obvious luxury, the fixtures had been designed with economy of weight foremost and built of the lightest materials available, cost be damned. They’d never recover the added expense with fuel savings; it had all been done to spite the offworld battery manufacturers.