Please enjoy “New World Blues,” by L. E. Modesitt, Jr., a story inspired by an illustration from John Jude Palencar.
“New World Blues” is part of a five-story series curated by senior Tor Books editor David G. Hartwell. All five are based on a singular piece of art by John Jude Palencar and will be released for free on Tor.com every Wednesday in March.
This story was acquired and edited for Tor.com by Tor Books editor David Hartwell.
She walks into the control center, feeling foolish in the ankle-length purple-gray skirt and the long-sleeved high-collared white blouse.
“Perfect,” says Rikard. “You look like all the locals.”
His use of the term “locals” bothers her, but, rather than express her irritation, she looks past him toward all the equipment.
Rikard turns to glance at the field projectors, smiles, then looks back at her. “Fantastic, isn’t it? Opens the way to new worlds. Maybe parallel realities, or something like it. I leave the details to the techs. We haven’t begun to explore all the possibilities. Even I don’t know all that it can do.”
“You’re still having problems, aren’t you?” She knows the answer, but has to ask anyway.
“Nothing serious. Like I told you, when we pulled Keisha out, she was a bit freaked. That’s all.”
A bit freaked? She won’t talk to anyone. “I think it was a bit more than that.”
“The doctors say nothing’s wrong with her. She’s always been more emotional than you. That’s why I thought you’d be perfect for this. More settled, more mature.”
Over the hill is what you mean. She smiles politely, waiting.
He is quiet for a moment before asking, “Look . . . do you want to do this or not?”
What choice is there? She doesn’t voice that. “Full benefits for Alora for the next five years, and a year’s pay. No matter what.” All that for a liability release. She has trouble meeting his eyes. She always has, even though he is only a few centimeters taller than she is.
“That’s in the contract. Myles witnessed it. There’s a lot of money behind the project. You don’t know how much.”
“I can do it.”
“You’re sure? I don’t want to press you.”
You already did. Years ago, and I’m still paying for it. “I’m sure.” She looks past him once more, rather than into his eyes.
He turns his head and calls, “Stand by for infodump.”
“Ready and dropping,” comes the reply from one of the techs she doesn’t know, not that she knows many of them any longer.
The helmet descends, encasing her head above the ears and above her blond eyebrows, then constricting, not exactly pressuring her, yet she wants to rip it off, push it away. She does not.
“Begin impression,” Rikard orders.
She winces as information pours into her, about the inverted structure of Bliss, the evils of the dark sun Dis, the tentacled probes of the sky-dweller that the locals call the Almighty . . . When she is so saturated with the sights, the smells, the understanding of Bliss that she feels she will burst, Rikard looks up from the console and gestures. “That’s enough.”
The helmet releases its hold and rises away from her. She tosses her head, if briefly, as though the information that has flooded through her has pressed palpable weight upon her, flattening her blond hair, but not disarraying the girl-like pigtails that he’d insisted on.
“Remember. It may look like somewhere on Earth, but it’s not.”
“I understand that.” And you’d better be ready to pull me out if it goes sideways or worse. Again, she does not vocalize that thought. She needs the contract—and the benefits for Alora. As if Rikard ever cared about what his protégé had dumped on her before he’d left TDE . . . and her and Alora.
“Stand by for insertion.”
“Insertion”—sounds obscene, but Rikard makes everything sound obscene.
“Hold the feeling . . .”
Hold the feeling of insertion? Even though she knows that is not what even Rikard meant, she wants to laugh.
“You’re going to be dealing with something that looks like it could be way beyond you. It could be overpowering if you don’t concentrate on what you have to do.” Those are Rikard’s last words as he and the techs set her on the platform.
The humming from the projectors and the field generators rises until she can hear nothing else. Then . . . the world—everything—twists around her, and she has to swallow to keep the nausea from triumphing.
When she regains her balance and sight, she stands in comparative silence in a world she knows she could not have conceived of, with purple grayness all around her. Stunned and silent—for all the briefings and descriptions that they have provided, for all that the impression helmet has forced into her.
“It’s different. It’s not that different.” Her barely murmured words sound empty against the vastness of the grassy plain before her, an expanse extending to a horizon so far in the distance she can barely discern it.
Not that different? The gloom is overwhelming, a form of hell in purple, even though it is really not that dark. She turns, but finds no sign of the portal through which she had been thrust, no sign of the platform. She takes several steps, but her footsteps only carry her across the browned grass that stretches levelly in all directions. The grass bends under her shoes, but does not crackle or snap, for all its brownness. If anything, her steps release a sighing sound.
The light wind comes from the west. She hadn’t expected wind, nor the distant rumbling like thunder.
Finally, she stops. There’s no escape, not until she’s done what she must . . . but she wonders if that will be enough.
He promised . . . they promised . . .
“We’ve fixed everything now,” Rikard had said.
But had they, really? Yet… what else can she do, to keep the benefits? After a long moment, another thought comes to her, not for the first time. You’re too old for this, for being the first with cutting-edge technology, being transported to who knows where. Despite what Rikard said and promised, she worries about the technology and what it might do to her. She fears the technology that has projected her here, wherever “here” is, close as it is supposed to be, far more than what she knows she will soon face.
She concentrates on the grass, not quite like any she has ever seen, mostly browned, with shoots like Bermuda grass poking up here and there, the brown drowning out the hints of green underneath, and the even fainter hints of purple. She realizes that there is not a tree anywhere in sight, just the endless grass and gray-purple sky, although she knows that, somewhere behind her over a low rise, there is a village. That is why she stands where she does, holding the single stem of the flower.
For all the seeming space around her, the purple grayness closes in.
The wind dies away, and for several moments the air barely moves as she stands there, watching, waiting, as the probes in the distance twist in the late afternoon, an afternoon without sun, for the sky-motes diffuse the light of Dis so that only indirect illumination falls across the domain of Bliss.
The sky darkens in the direction she thinks of as west, although she has no way of knowing it that is, except that it seems marginally brighter—or did until the intertwined and seething mass of sky-tentacles began to swim through the deep grayness of the atmosphere toward her, seeking the sacrifice she is being sent to prevent . . . if she can . . . with only a single flower.
Who thought of stopping something like that with a flower, a stupid, stupid flower?
But then, apparently, the weapons Keisha had held had had little effect. But that was what Rikard said, and he isn’t the most trustworthy . . .
Her right hand, the one holding the flower, lifts the long heavy skirt, involuntarily, even as she knows that she can never outrun the onrushing sky-being . . . the Almighty. Still holding the skirt, she half-turns to face the monstrosity that has come to fill the darkening sky. The stillness of the air vanishes, and the wind rises once more. The tentacles near, twisting downward.
She waits, watching . . .
“Say it! Now!”
That command echoes in her ears, as if from a god, and she supposes it amounts to the same thing. She swallows, her eyes taking in the growing roar as the sky-tubes swell, moving toward her, knowing that, despite all Rikard has promised, if she fails, the maid in the village she cannot see, and her daughter, will suffer, though the suffering of her daughter will be longer.
Finally, she speaks, trying to project her voice. “How has it come to this . . . that the dark of the sun reaches out to seize the young and the innocent?”
Her words make no sense, but those are the words necessary to pull the tubes—tentacles, she corrects herself—even more toward her, because they key on sound, especially on the sound of a woman’s voice. Her voice. A voice pitched to divert the tentacles of the hell of the sky from one maiden to a woman, young as she feels, who has already seen and experienced too much.
The wind rises even more, and she clutches the long skirt more firmly with the hand that holds the white flower on a single stem. A white flower of youth and purity, not a rose, for a rose promises romantic love, Rikard had said. That died a long time before, before she’d entered the screens, machines, and projection portals that had sent her reeling into a world that she’d never expected to find, so unlike anything she ever experienced, so gray, so purple, so immensely overwhelming.
As the probing tentacles sweep slowly down from the sky, toward her, she stiffens. The damned thing is real!
The voice, larger than the sky-tentacle that hovers above her, buffets her with power, so that her very bones feel as though they are instants away from shattering: “YOU WOULD DENY ME MY RIGHT AS YOUR GOD?”
It wasn’t supposed to be like this! It wasn’t. Her knees shake, and her eyes burn. Why had she ever agreed? Did you have a choice? Any real options?
Not after the collapse of TDE.
She swallows, then throws her voice at the power beyond the probes. “I deny your right to the innocent. I deny your right to claim divinity if you would take the life of one who has done no evil.”
“EVERY WOMAN, EVERY CHILD, HAS DECEIVED. ALL HAVE LIED. NONE ARE INNOCENT, LEAST OF ALL YOU.”
She knows that. She does indeed, and her bones are but instants from dissolving under the power that towers over her. Wasn’t that what happened to Keisha? No . . . she’d just withdrawn into herself, so much that no one could reach her.
She remembers the words, the silly words. “One can be pure, but not innocent.”
And innocent, but not pure.
“WORD GAMES, CREATURE OF THE DUST AND DIRT. SHALL WE PLAY OTHER GAMES?”
A tentacle, a thin probing tip snaking out from the solidity of the writhing and entwined sky-tubes, plucks the flower from her hand, and white petals scatter as the tentacle lifts it skyward toward the cloud/sky/monster/god that is so much more than it is supposed to be.
For a moment, she freezes. That’s not supposed to happen.
“Keep talking!” comes the command.
“Games,” she improvises. “Are life and death games? Are sacrifices games?”
“Good. That’s good.”
“YOU WOULD NOT WISH TO DO MORE THAN PLAY GAMES, SMALL CREATURE.”
She forces herself to ignore the power that confronts her, or the tingling and the sense of impending action from the sky-being that towers over her. That is not so hard as she thought, because the massive tentacled being is acting like a typical domineering male. “I do not wish to play games. You are the one who called my observations a game. That is merely a way to avoid addressing their validity.”
“YOU SPEAK OF TRUTH AND VALIDITY. WHO ARE YOU TO DO SO?”
That question she can answer. Amazingly, she realizes that the answer applies to more than the situation in which she finds herself. “Truth and validity do not depend on who I am , or who you are. They are what they are.”
An enormous sound, like a hiccupping rumble, shakes her.
Is that laughter?
“YOU DO NOT BELONG HERE.”
“I belong where I belong. You have no right to demand sacrifices. You are powerful enough that you do not need to bully poor women. Or girls.” Young girls especially.
“WHO ARE YOU TO SAY—”
The wind swirls around her, buffeting her so violently that she can barely keep her feet. She takes two steps back to keep her balance, then forces herself forward, fueled by anger that she did not know she had. “I am who I am! You have no need to prove your power. You’re just being sadistic, and sadism doesn’t become an Almighty.”
After a moment . . . the wind dies away.
“Don’t toy with me. If you want to destroy me, go ahead.” As she speaks the words, they are aimed as much at Rikard as at the immense being above her. “But don’t pretend that those who are sacrificed are willing. Don’t pretend that it’s a . . . trade . . . and an exchange . . .”
She can sense the puzzlement, but that fades, and the laughter that is like thunder enfolds her.
Shaken though she is, she forces the words out: “Almighty you may be, but no good will ever come from seizing the young and the innocent.” She adds, quickly, “Or the pure in heart.”
“TRADE? EXCHANGE?” More laughter follows. “YOU AMUSE ME, SMALL CREATURE. I WILL TAKE YOUR TRADE.”
Take my trade?
Then the sky collapses into a purple deeper than blackness.
Time passes . . . and she remains suspended . . . somewhere.
From nowhere . . . brilliant light floods around her.
When she can see again, she is standing on the platform.
“She’s back! What the hell did you do, Rikard?” The tech’s voice contains tones of worry, anger, and relief. “She wasn’t supposed to disappear.”
Rikard steps toward her, then stops. His mouth opens, then closes, and he frowns, as if something is not quite right. Abruptly, he asks, “Scared you, didn’t it, babe?”
“It didn’t scare you when it pulled the flower from my hand? You said nothing there could touch me.”
“You’d be surprised.”
“That’s bullshit. You still don’t know what you’re doing. I didn’t hear a word from you when that thing was trying to tear me apart with its tornadoes or tentacles or whatever.”
“We had a little communication problem—”
“A little communication problem?”
“It doesn’t matter. I got great shots. We’ll have to dub over those last few lines, but the synthesizer will take care of that.”
Great shots. That’s all you’ve ever cared about. But there’s no sense in saying the obvious. Not anymore.
“Can you believe how real and impressive it all was?” Rikard continues. “Pixar and all the others. They’ve got nothing compared to this.”
“You didn’t think it was real?” It was all too real. You weren’t there.
“Just studio smoke and mirrors, babe.”
“The name is Aleisha, Rikard.”
“Babe . . .”
She glares at him.
He steps back.
She smiles. “Good-bye, Rikard.”
“What? You can’t do that. We need more takes.”
“You have what you need from me. The contract called for one session. One successful session, with the fee and full health benefits for five years. It was successful. Myles recorded it. Find yourself another insecure former ingénue who’s scared to grow up. Or get yourself projected where you sent me.”
“I don’t believe you’re saying this.” His eyes turn toward the banks of equipment. “It’s just a temporary effect. You’ll feel more like yourself tomorrow.”
I hope not. “I like feeling the way I do right now.”
“You . . .”
“Bitch? No . . . just a woman. A real one, after all these years.” She looks at him once more, and their eyes are level. No. Not level. She is actually taller, if only by a few centimeters. How did that happen? She pushes the thought away for later examination.
“Your eyes . . .” His words falter. “Your hair . . .”
“They’re purple-gray. That can’t happen . . .”
“Good. Other things have changed, too. I’ll expect payment tomorrow.”
His eyes are the ones that drop before she turns and leaves him amid the welter of screens and projectors that have created a new world in the studio . . . and more. Her steps are no longer tentative as she turns and strides toward the sunshine that lies beyond the door from the studio sensorium, sunshine she’d never really appreciated . . . until now.
“New World Blues” copyright © 2011 by L. E. Modesitt, Jr.
Art copyright © 2011 by John Jude Palencar