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Story Excerpt

Things to Do in Deimos When You’re Dead
by Alastair Reynolds

Per Ludecus woke with his face pressed to black marble.

He remembered almost nothing. He had no idea where he was or how he had got there.

He was laid out too artfully to have just stumbled and blacked out. It was more as if he had stretched out to sleep, letting go of a spray of cut flowers that he must have been holding. Their pastel-colored bulbs formed a frozen firework-burst around his head and upper body.

He ached a little, but it was only the sort of ache that came from lying in one position too long. The discomfort abated as he pushed himself up into a sitting position. There was a little dizziness, so he did not rush to get to his feet.

Through semi-blurred eyes he took in his surroundings.

Buildings enclosed a wide square floored in black. The buildings were white, their style classical, with arches, pillars, porticos, cupolas, gables, and so on.

Italianate? Possibly. But that was as much as Per knew about architecture.

Judging by their black-paned or mostly shuttered windows, the majority of the buildings were no taller than three or four stories in height. A few spires and clock towers loomed higher, but nothing that struck him as out of keeping with the others.

Above the buildings hung a sky of a deep heraldic blue. The Sun was a yellow coin, neither too faint nor too bright, and low enough to cast mauve-tinted shadows where its light was denied.

Various clocks, dotted on towers, spires, gables, and ornaments, all displayed contradictory times.

Grit prickled his left palm.

It was a dusting of fine pale sand, blown across the square, individual grains sparkling against the marble. Per raised himself to a crouch and gathered up the flowers, feeling some protective impulse toward them. Other than a few petals still dappling the floor, they had not been harmed.

A line from an advertising brochure floated into his consciousness:

Ludecus cultivars: robust against damage.

Per stood up, the last traces of numbness ebbing away. Someone had put antique clothes on him. He wore a loose, billowing arrangement of sheets and gowns, as if he had just stepped out of a Renaissance painting. His arms, legs, and feet were bare. He felt instantly vulnerable, reminded of one of those dreams where he found himself away from home, inadequately dressed.

Pressing the flowers close to his chest, Per padded across the silent square. Gaps lay between the buildings—black-floored alleys and streets feeding off in different directions. All he saw down them were more white buildings, their lower parts steeped in shadow.

He remembered . . . something.

Being on his way somewhere. A duty to family, goods to sell. He looked down at the flowers again.

Touting for business down-system, in the warm worlds much nearer the Sun then Neptune and Umbriel. Starting with Mercury, then working back out.

Twelve months away, he had told his wife. Fifteen at the most. Eighteen at the very worst.

Nestor had accepted. She had known there was no other choice, if the business was to survive.

But this was not Mercury. Or at least no version of Mercury that conformed to his preconceptions. They had domes on Mercury; cities where a person could walk around without suffocating, boiling alive, or freezing. But on Mercury the dayside Sun should have been much larger than that yellow disc above him, larger and fiercer by far.

So not Mercury.

Per circled the square again, uneasily. The city had to be somewhere in the system. If he had arrived here, then sooner or later he would be noticed. If he had been meant to arrive somewhere else, then sooner or later his absence there would be noted as well. People would work out where he had ended up. Nestor would expect to hear from him before long.

That was how it worked. No one just went missing.

The statues had been in the square all along, but his attention had skipped over them on first examination. There were broken ranks of them, tucked close to the bases of the buildings, sometimes beneath overhangs. At first glance, lost in partial shadow, they might be mistaken for columns or other embellishments.

Per walked from statue to statue, studying them intently, as if they might hold some clue to his predicament. But none of the statues struck any chord of recognition. They were nameless, uninscribed. There was a grandeur in their stances, but their faces were anonymous, neither particularly heroic nor exaggeratedly beautiful: just ordinary women and men, albeit draped in loose, unostentatious garments not unlike the clothes in which he found himself. Heel-high banks of white sand softened the lower edges of their plinths.

Something caught his eye: a fast flicker of color in the square. Per snapped around, but whatever had snagged his notice was gone. All that remained was the subliminal impression of movement, of something flashing low across the marble from one corner of the square to the other.

Unease transmuted to annoyance and then quickly to anger. This was not just wrong, it was negligent.

“Hey!” Per said, cupping hands to mouth. “I’m here, you know! Somebody do something!”

His words echoed out uselessly beyond the square.

No answer came.

With a certain reluctance—as if cajoled into a game that he had no desire to play—Per ventured down the nearest of the peripheral streets. The black marble continued, cold and gritty under his soles. He wandered past rows of white-fronted buildings displaying the same classical forms as the structures around the square. Gloomy, shadow-haunted alleys led off to either side, sometimes sloping up and down. Now and then a covered bridge crossed overhead, and occasionally he looked down at a darkening alley beneath him.

The statues continued, dotted along the street, flanking intersections. The amount of sand along their bases was increasing, and with that came a realization that the marble was becoming grittier, the influx of sand more noticeable than in the square. It was piling up around the columns of buildings, forming knee-high drifts in abandoned doorways.

Some way out from the square Per came across a curious and forbidding thing. It was a bridge, accessed by a side-alley. Humpbacked, floored with marble, it vaulted out over a street one level beneath his present elevation. But the bridge had no other end. Halfway across it ended in a display of jagged, broken masonry, as if it had been made complete and then broken in two. Yet there was no trace of the other half: no foundations, abutments, or even a rubble pile.

Per walked the rising curve of the bridge until he was near the edge. He noticed that the broken masonry was a deliberate artistic effect, rather than the result of neglect or vandalism.

He stood near the bridge’s termination, but something compelled him against venturing any further. The drop to the street below was no more than twice his height: enough to sprain an ankle or break a bone, but not exactly the sort of drop to induce a dread of vertigo.

And yet feeling there was: a knot of foreboding in his stomach that seemed to harden and enlarge the nearer he got to the edge.

It was something more than vertigo.

The bridge unsettled Per, but once he reversed his steps to its completed end, all ominous thoughts dissipated. Looking back, it was no more than an odd, folly-like piece of civic art.

Per was certain, nonetheless, that the feelings would return just as swiftly if he went back to its edge.

*   *   *

Putting the bridge behind him, he wandered further, sometimes turning corners, going up and down sloping alleys, crossing complete and perfectly ordinary bridges and ducking under others, no trace of that specific knot of foreboding returning, but always keeping a mental tally of his movements. The tallest clocktower was just off the square, and he made sure not to lose sight of it for too long.

In truth, there was little chance of getting lost. The city turned out to be surprisingly finite. If the square’s width was a baseline of distance, Per could not have walked—as the crow flew—more than ten such units before he reached the city’s termination.

The marble vanished into sand. Banks of sand hugged against the walls of the buildings on the very edge, half-smothering them. Beyond that limit, the sand had built up into dunes with a humped, angular look to them, betraying the carcasses of buildings now entirely swallowed. One or two taller spires and clocktowers jutted out in the distance, but they were tilted over, leaning into some inevitable future collapse.

Per called out again, but with less conviction this time. Where the city had echoed his voice back to him, the pale sand absorbed it with deadening finality.

“Help me,” he called, with diminishing will. “I’m not meant to be here. I’ve got a wife and children!”

He turned back to the square, still treasuring his flowers.

Ludecus cultivars: robust against damage. Five centuries of genetic shaping have given our flowers unrivaled tolerance against vacuum and radiation.

If Ludecus cultivars won’t thrive, nothing will.

Per had wandered vistas like this in dreams. Unlike in a dream, though, the city remained stubbornly rational within its own terms of reference. The steps he had taken, the routes he had chosen, were all reversible. In so far as any part of it was becoming familiar, he recognized statues and architectural features. The clocktower brought him back to the square—the Main Square, he now thought of it—since he had crossed smaller ones on the way to the margin, but nothing comparable with the first.

Per found the approximate spot where he had first come round, still marked by a few loose petals.

He sat down dejectedly, flowers nearly spilling back onto the marble. He had no clear sense of time. None of the shadows around him seemed to have moved an inch. The Sun was still where he remembered, as if jammed in its course.

A thought crystallized: they had put him to sleep and he had woken here. But what if this whole experience was a fault in the process, a sort of pseudo-conscious episode, when he was still meant to be properly under? What if he was still under, in some sense? Perhaps all Per needed to do was go back to sleep again, or at least go through the motions.

He lay down, still holding the flowers, but assuming the position in which he had come round. The marble’s cold reached him through the billowing garments. It was an awareness of cold, rather than the feeling itself: a secondhand report than a direct impression.

He closed his eyes, trying to submerge back into whatever condition he had been in before rousing. Around him Per grew conscious of the city’s stillness, the unblemished sky, the unmoving Sun, the labyrinth of quiet, gloom-dappled streets radiating out from the square.

No movement or change except the stirring of sand, propelled by breezes too faint to register against skin.

Something flashed, pulsing through his eyelids.

He opened his eyes in time to catch a thread of bright color speeding through Main Square. He had been in error before: it was not moving above the marble, but just beneath it, as if what he had taken to be marble was only very dark glass, capable of transmitting light if it was sufficiently bright.

Sensing sleep’s futility—intrigued as much as troubled—Per stood up again.

He watched and waited.

A flash of color came again, but this time taking a different course through Main Square. It was a rapidly moving thread, with a head and a tail, like some swift-slithering luminous snake. Its course was angular: straight lines and hard corners.

Per waited some more.

Once every few minutes, one of those streaks of color crossed Main Square. They came and went so quickly that it was easy to understand why he had missed most of them before. They were easier to see where the buildings’ shadows jagged across the marble; harder to see where the Sun’s light fell unimpeded. Now that Per was fixated on them, though, he realized that the threads followed predictable paths. It was as if there was a fixed network of angular channels beneath the marble, intersecting and branching.

He moved to one of these apparent tracks, wondering if the marble was different in coldness or texture directly above it. He stroked his free hand across the surface, brushing aside sand grains, until his fingers touched a narrow band that was warmer and more yielding than the areas surrounding it.

He pushed a little, and his fingertips dipped into the black.

Per withdrew them just as quickly, then—satisfied that nothing had happened to them—he pushed in deeper, submerging his entire hand to the wrist. The warmth gloved them, a gel-like pressure pushing in from all sides. A dim, watery impression of his hand showed through the black.

It had been no part of his experiment to have his hand in the floor when the next thread arrived, but Per had not really thought that part through. By the time his eye detected the arrival of a thread, it was much too late to instruct his muscles to withdraw. By chance, the thread picked exactly the course across Main Square to intersect his hand. Per felt a sudden electric surge: not pain, exactly, but an intensity of impression that was almost orgiastic. He was already pulling out the hand, but it was still far too slow. The thread fire-hosed through his palm, shattering into smaller, disconnected threads as it did so. Even as he wrenched his hand out of the floor and staggered back, Per observed these smaller threads worm away on divergent paths.

A voice shouted: “The damned fool!”

Another, the tone fractionally more reasonable: “Perhaps we should help him first, then do the judgment-casting?”

The first, a woman: “He won’t know the damage he’s done!”

“No,” said the second. “But given that no one was here to welcome him and explain things, he can hardly be blamed. Remember how it was for us?”

“I don’t want to remember,” the first said, with a melancholic edge to her answer.

“Thank goodness he didn’t try to cross the Bridge of Oblivion.”

“Maybe that would have been the kinder thing.”

“No,” the second said firmly. “I don’t believe that, and neither do you.” He added, encouragingly: “Come on, old thing. Let’s see what providence has gifted us, after so long a wait!”

Per’s left hand tingled, even though it was now fully out of the grasp of the floor. A reflex had him dropping the flowers from the right hand and rubbing life back into the left. He had sprawled onto his back, but at just the right angle to be able to see the two figures crossing over to him through Main Square. They were like the figures on the statues brought to life: a woman and a man, perfectly ordinary in their appearance, wearing loose, billowing gowns, their limbs mostly bare. Like him, in fact.

They reached Per, and without any initial word helped him back into a sitting position. He studied them more closely. They both appeared to be middle-aged, with the woman perhaps a few years older than the man, although of course it was nearly impossible to tell. She had a broad, symmetrical face with expressive lips and narrowed, faintly distrusting eyes. Her shoulder length hair was thickly curled, black threaded with silver. The man had a narrower face, with an aquiline nose and a doubtful, worried set to his lips. His hair was white, cropped close to his scalp: blazing and pale as the sands beyond the city.

“I shouldn’t be here.”

“Nor should anyone,” the man answered, his eyes lingering on Per’s for one foreboding instant.

“How long have you been here?” the woman asked.

“I don’t know. Two or three hours. Maybe more, maybe less. My wife will want to hear from me.” He glanced down at the marble again. “What are those threads? Where is this place?”

The man asked: “What do you remember, before coming here?”

He hesitated before answering. It was as if the memories were sticky, not arriving as fluidly as they ought.

“I was on my way in from . . . Umbriel, on commercial business. My name is Per Ludecus. I’m a flower seller. A plant geneticist. My wife is . . . Nest. Nestor. My children . . .”

The woman cut across his rambling. “You work alone, or in a small, privately run concern. Business is challenging. Your margins are tight.”

“Yes,” he answered eagerly. Then, frowning: “How would you know?”

“Because you traveled the cheap way,” the man replied. Then, nodding at his companion: “Just like we did. Just like everyone else who ended up here.”

At last Per found some cause for hope. “Others ended up here?”

“Indeed,” the woman said. “But they’ve gone now. There’s just the two of us, and it’s been that way for a long time. We weren’t really expecting anyone else.”

“If others have come and gone, as you say, then there’s a way out. A way to resume my journey.”

The man made a low sniffing sound. He looked to the woman, some silent, difficult exchange passing between them.

“He may as well know,” he said quietly. “This isn’t a pill that gets any less bitter by delaying it.”

“I’m worried that he’s not what he seems,” the woman confided. “It’s been such a while. What if he’s something sent in from outside, to root us out?”

Something, she said. Not someone, but something.

“If he was an agent, old thing, I doubt we’d have caught him messing with the flow the way he was. He’d be trying to blend in as one of us, not cause aggravation.”

Per regarded his hand as if it had been snakebit. The tingling had abated, but he still had the memory of it. “What did I do wrong?”

“Did you look at the small print, when you choose your mode of travel?” the man asked. “No, silly question: I mean, who does that?”

“What small print?”

Some part of the woman’s lingering distrust seemed to melt away. “I’m Hypatia. This is Cicero. You’ll take a name for yourself, soon enough.”

“I just told you my name.”

Pity creased her features. “That’s your old name. We’ve all had old names. But the sooner you discard them, the better it is. Your old life is over. So are all the ties to that old life, including your former identity.”

“I’ll decide that for myself.”

“He looks like a Hector to me,” Cicero said. “Shall we call him Hector, until it sticks?”

“You’ll call me Per. And, again, what small print?”

“What Cicero’s referring to are the conditions of transit you agreed to when you set off from . . . Umbriel, was it?”

“Conditions of transit?” he echoed.

“There are really only three ways to move around the Solar System,” Cicero said. “Those with money and time may travel awake, in a luxury passenger berth, on one of the high-burn liners. It’s boring, but it’s expensive and boring, so for some it’s a way to advertise their wealth. And you get to see a little scenery on the way. The middle way, the most common choice, is straightforward hibernation. You travel on the same high-burn liner, but they can squeeze more sleepers into the holds, so it’s reasonably affordable. But still not what you’d call cheap. So you go the third way. You’re still frozen, but all corners are cut. The procedures for going in and out of hibernation are streamlined. Significantly higher risk of medical complications—say one in ten thousand chances of death, against one in a hundred thousand, otherwise. And you get shipped whichever way works, on any routing. You’re packed into a self-contained module about the size of a coffin, and that module can be tucked into any vacant slot in any cargo hold, with any consignment, in any class of ship, all the way down to the lowliest robot freighter, or even just shot ballistically from point to point. Statistically it’s the fastest way to get around the system, since you don’t have to sit around waiting for some plump luxury liner to swing round. Fast, usually, but with downsides.”

“I accepted the risk,” Per replied. “One in ten thousand is still low.” He frowned against the stickiness of recollection. “We were in trouble! The slump. The increased rent. Nestor . . . my odds on bankruptcy were about one in two unless I found new customers! I have a family to think about.”

“Had,” Cicero corrected gently.

Per stared at him. “What do you mean?”

“Don’t worry, Hector: there’s no reason that those loved ones aren’t still alive back on Umbriel. But they’re not your loved ones any more. You’re gone. You’re dead to them: quite literally.”

“Your family will already have been informed of your demise,” Hypatia said.

“This is the point where you have to start letting go of them,” Cicero continued. “It’s hard. Trust us, we know. We’ve both been through it. We had lives and loved ones before we ended up here in Florentine, cut off from everything we used to know. We tried to cling on—it’s only natural—but in the end it just causes more pain. You’re dead. There’s no way back for you now.”

“I’m not dead,” Per asserted.

“In the small print,” Hypatia said, “there was a specific clause about conditions arising from a medical or technological event leading to your brain death during any point in the transit. They said that Swift Intersolar had the right to monetize any neural patterns still recoverable from your head. That meant that the company was allowed to extract and commoditize any memories, transferrable skills, or useful personality traits that they felt had market value.”

Per shrugged. “I agreed to that. It’s just small print. It’s how they offset the costs of transit, which are still considerable. And you just said it—it only applies in the case of brain death.” He touched a hand to his chest. “Hello! I’m here and I’m conscious, otherwise you wouldn’t be talking to me. I remember my name, my family, my profession, everything! So there’s been no brain death!”

“Now and then,” Cicero said patiently, “they get it wrong. An event happens—some incident along the way. Probably a genuine accident. They assess your brain and the system marks you down as brain-dead. Maybe there’s damage, who knows. But what matters is that the terms of the small print are activated. You get scanned at a much deeper level, squeezed like a sponge, for those memories and skill-sets they can sell on. But here’s the rub. You’re not actually brain-dead. So more of you comes through the scan than is meant to. Your consciousness comes along for the ride, but no one realizes it. You end up inside Swift Intersolar’s computers: a data-ghost that isn’t meant to be there. Even the computers don’t know you’re inside them. You’re just drifting around, a loose end running on surplus processor cycles, lost to the world, smoke on the wind. And not long after this has happened, your physical body’s already been marked for chemical recovery. Not that it matters: there’s no way back into that bottle anyway.”

“No,” Per said, in flat denial. “I’m not dead. I’d know if I was dead.”

“I can’t remember if we’re still placing bets on them saying that,” Hypatia lamented. “But I think if we were, I’d still be ahead.”

“Thing is, Hector, everyone feels the same way. They can’t be dead. But eventually it sinks in. Gradually you’ll come around to it, too. You’ll notice things, like the absence of hunger or thirst. Or the fact that you can feel things, like warmth and cold, but everything’s at one remove. That’s because none of this is real.” Cicero swept his arm around the square. “Danae made this. She was the first of us. If not the first, then certainly the first to have enough force of will to impose some kind of structure on the limbo in which she found herself.”

“Danae dreamed up this city,” Hypatia said, with a reverence in her voice. “Out of nothing. All was formless and void, and then Danae forged this. Think of it as a consensual illusion, shared only by those of us who arrive here. She named it Florentine: a city made of willpower.”

“Are you really the last ones left?”

“Yes,” they replied in mournful unison.

“So where did Danae go, not to mention all the others?”

Hypatia and Cicero bid him to stand. They walked to one of the statues Per had surveyed upon his arrival. It was the image of a proud-looking but otherwise unremarkable woman, with scrolls in one hand and the other arm raised in a loose, commanding gesture out to the square, as if to say: look on my works, ye mighty.

Danae left us eventually,” Hypatia said. “She died the Second Death: ceasing to exist even as a pattern within the system. We fade away, in time. We aren’t meant to be here. There are no error-correction mechanisms working to safeguard our patterns against gradual attrition. Entropy chips away at us. We can slow it, but not stop it. Nothing is permanent.”

“Except Danae’s city?”

“Not even that,” Cicero said. “How far did you wander? If you went more than a few blocks in any direction you’d have eventually reached Florentine’s civic limits.”

“I saw sand dunes, and what looked like buildings swallowed up whole. I also came across a strange bridge that I didn’t like.”

They exchanged guarded looks. “You did find the Bridge of Oblivion, then,” Hypatia said. “Well, don’t worry—there’s only one of them, and by the fact of you still being here, it seems you had the good sense not to cross it.”

“I couldn’t cross it—half of it was gone.”

“But if you had stepped over the threshold . . .” Cicero said, leaving the rest of his thought uncompleted. “Never mind that for now. At least you’ll know what to avoid.”

Per remembered the knot of foreboding. “Why put something so unpleasant in a city?”

“Don’t judge it by that one feature,” Hypatia said. “There is beauty in Florentine, as well. Of course much less than there used to be. You could wander in it for days, and never retrace your steps. There were lovely gardens. Gardens and fountains. It was wonderful, once. And it wasn’t empty, like it is today. There were many more of us. There was life, of a kind, even in death. Life and laughter.”

“Danae died, then,” Per said. “And so will you?”

“Each of us,” Cicero said. “Including you. There’s no way to prevent it. In the tiniest of degrees, you’ll have already suffered some small attrition. Some tiny, inconsequential memory, that you could have recalled when you first arrived, but which is now lost. But it goes beyond memory. The sand scours us away completely. It blasts us to nothing. There’s no reversing it, no fighting it. Your fate is to live and die in Florentine, and you can’t change it.”

“Nothing matters, then,” Per said, accepting these propositions as true for the time being, for the sake of argument, even as his core rebelled against them. “Then this is pointless! You’d have been better off evaporating away the moment you were scanned. What’s the sense in an afterlife like this?” But some prickling intuition dragged his thoughts back to the moment when they had found him, staggering backward as he wrenched his hand from the bright flow beneath the marble. “Something does matter, doesn’t it, or you wouldn’t have sounded so concerned.”

“He’s not ready,” Hypatia said.

“Let’s face it, old thing,” Cicero replied. “When was any of us ever ready?”

 

Read the exciting conclusion in this month’s issue on sale now!

Copyright © 2022. Things to Do in Deimos when You’re Dead by Alastair Reynolds

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