Authors: Paul Park
The Starbridge Chronicles: Book II
By Paul Park
Closer in around the Sun and farther out in space, the nine planets of hell pursue their separate ways—tight, fiery circles and long, cold ellipses. Each is decorated with scenes of souls in torment. Men freeze in icy prisons or burn like torches; they burst apart or weigh a thousand pounds, depending on the differing effects of temperature and atmosphere. And beneath each planet the artist has depicted the kinds of criminals who inhabit it. Under Baqui Minor, for example, he has painted a seascape, a storm raging on a sea of liquid helium. Almost overwhelmed by the waves, a raft breaks through a cloud of spray. Clutched to the deck, miserable men and women huddle together for warmth, a murderer, a tailor, a paralytic, a smuggler, a homosexual, a man with yellow hair. Each carries, cut into his forehead or the muscle of his upper arm, the symbol of his vice.
In temporary orbit around Mega Prime moves Paradise, the source of life, a captive planet among the terrors of the solar system. Its towers and lakes and shining palaces are painted with a kind of wistful brilliance, and its complicated path among the planets is traced with ribbons of gold. Smallest of all the planets, it is also the greatest, painted as if lit from within, surrounded by halos of luminescence which spread out into darkest space. Angels and demons cavort in its upper atmosphere, and on the topmost tower of the brightest palace sits Angkhdt, dog-headed prophet of God, enthroned on a dais, surrounded by companies of the blessed, his mouth contorted in a dog-like scowl. He has opened his hand and released a bird into the air, a falcon bearing a lantern in its claws, setting its wings over the wide abyss towards Earth.
The falcon flies over a recumbent figure, a sleeping giant painted on an empty section of the wall. The bones of his forehead have been stripped away, and within the caverns of his brain sit convocations of God’s priests, holding the synapses of his system in their ancient, spotted hands.
The giant is symbolic of the body of the state. Along his shoulders sit regiments of Starbridges—judges, princes, generals, financiers, all in gorgeous uniforms. Lower down, craftsmen and artisans crouch among the giant’s hands, the pennants of their guilds sprouting from his fingers. Along the passages of his entrails slog tradesmen and merchants in shit-colored robes, dragging enormous packages on sledges. Soldiers camp upon his thighs. And on his legs and feet squat crowds of men and women dressed in yellow rags, working people, slaves.
Yet even these are not the lowest. For the giant has relieved himself before going to sleep. A pile of excrement smokes near his feet, and in it squirm heretics and atheists painted in the shape of maggots—antinomials, adventists, cannibals, carnivores, and a dozen others, the marks of their heresies branded on their backs.
The fresco’s border is decorated with scenes from the life of the Beloved Angkhdt, painted in exquisite detail. In those days every citizen of Charn could recite the story of how the prophet left his wife and family to set out on his journey through the stars. He divided his goods among his friends: to Cosro Starbridge, his gun. To Nestrim Starbridge, his money and his books. To Bartek Starbridge, his livestock and his plow. In this way he divided all the earth. And at the time the fresco was first painted, in the early phases of spring, 00016, in the city of Charn, the descendants of these men held sovereign power. They were the priests and the administrators. They owned every bird and every stone, for their power was in trust from God. They were the wardens of the prison world.
She stood at the window of her brother’s library on the thirty-seventh floor. Beneath her, throngs of people seethed around the first gates of the Mountain of Redemption, the monstrous prison at the city’s heart. Horse soldiers with whips had kept the major streets clear, but there weren’t enough of them to do more than that. Looking down from her tower window, Charity Starbridge could see where an entire shantytown had sprung up around the gate, cardboard boxes and plywood shelters, and people sitting around bonfires dressed in urine-colored rags. Displaced by fire and flood, paupers had come from all over the city to gather at the mountain’s base, to chant the names of rage, to recite in unison the fourteen reasons for despair. Some squatted in the mud or huddled under umbrellas, cowed to silence by the constant rain, but others swarmed against the barricades, shaking their skinny fists and shouting. Here and there in the crowd, men had erected symbols of revolt: a huge chamber pot made out of papier-mâché, dog-headed effigies of the prince of Caladon, inflated phalluses as tall as men. Someone had made wings and a tail and a huge beak for himself out of red cardboard, and he danced on a box above the crowd, a red bird of adventism. Elsewhere, rebel preachers gesticulated and prayed, surrounded by devotees. Charlatans juggled torches, and mountebanks ate fire. And sometimes a dark soldier of the purge would push his horse past the barricades around the gate, wading his horse contemptuously through the mob, clearing a circle around himself with his pistol and his whip. From her high window, Charity saw one of them raise his hand; she heard the shot and saw the man in the bird suit pitch backwards into the crowd, flapping his red wings.
After a few minutes the soldier retreated back into the shelter of the gate, and the crowd closed up where he had been. Charity stared down at him, admiring his black uniform without understanding what he was. Drugs and innocence and social custom had made a prison out of her mind, and she stared down out of her window as if through the bars. Somewhere among the edgeless days of marriage she had lost the ability to think. Or rather, not completely—a week before, she had stopped taking the personality relaxers prescribed to her on her wedding day, and already it was as if a giant bird which had nested in her skull had spread its wings and flown away. Already the precepts of the Starbridge marriage code seemed less consuming. It had been thousands of days since she had last stood before a window looking out. That kind of activity was frowned on in a married woman. But still, it was hard for her to make sense of what she saw. The scene below her was so various and complex, the significance of it so bewildering, that in a little while she gave up trying and took consolation instead in the patterns of color and the shapes of the buildings. Ten major avenues radiated from the mountain’s base straight to the city walls. One, the Street of Seven Sins, emerged from the gate below her, and she took consolation in following the long line of orange streetlights out to the far horizon, where the fire her brother had started filled the sky.
Behind her came a scrabbling and a scratching at the door. She turned and backed away from it, holding her hands behind her as if hiding something. She backed into a dark corner of the room, where the lamps were arranged to make her disappear into a cleft of shadow. Each room in the apartment contained a similar place of refuge, for it was against the law for anyone except her husband or her closest relatives to see her face. But in the course of her marriage she had broken the law many times. And not so long before, she had pulverized it so completely that now she obeyed its strictures not out of modesty but out of fear. She was afraid. In the doorway stood a blind man and his seeing eye.
They hesitated there, a young priest in purple robes with the tattoos of an advocate at law. In his right hand he grasped the silken collar of his servant, a professional moron, scarcely human anymore, the marks of surgical incisions standing out all over his pale forehead.
“Are you there?” called out the advocate in his supple, castrate voice. “Woman, are you there?” His servant was an older man. He crouched down on his haunches, sniffing and peering like a dog, his master’s hand still tight around his collar.
“Are you there?” called out the advocate. He was recently blinded, his sockets still raw where his eyes had been torn away. From time to time, reddish tears ran down his face. “Are you there?” he called out.