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Home Firesby Gene Wolfe
“It wont be long,” she promised.
“Not for you,” Skip said. “A thousand years for me.” Chelle smiled, and all heaven was in her smile.
* * *
Then he was looking down at his hands, and they were wrinkled and old. He stood before a mirror, but there was a mist between them that veiled his face from its own eyes. He raised his hand to push the mist away, knowing that his hand shook, knowing that horror waited beyond the mist.
He woke, sweating and trembling in his narrow bed, rose and went to the washbasin, poured water from the pitcher there into the bowl. The water smelled a little like sewage, but it felt cool and refreshing.
He soaked the cloth again, scrubbed his sweating face a second time. It was only a dream.
Only a dream.
In his dream he had gotten a yellow autoprint that had said she was back and he had been back too, back to the day she left. They had kissed …
That had been the dream. What had really happened?
He got a water bottle, filled his mug, and decanted this purer water into his teakettle. His striker lit the gas.
They had contracted. He remembered that, and it was no dream. Just before she had left, they had contracted. Together they had registered the contract. How romantic it had seemed!
“Youll have twenty years to devote to your career…” Chelle was lovely when she smiled. “Well be rich when I get back, and youll have a young contracta.”
And he was rich, but she would (in all probability) never return to him. Now …
He looked at himself in the mirror, and saw that he needed to shave and that much of his stubble was white. His hair was gray at the temples, too, and through the doorway—what was that beside the screen?
Yellow paper, of course. He always used yellow for client copies. They were so frightened … He smiled to himself.
Always so frightened, though they tried (most of them) not to show it. Part of his job was to reassure them, and so there had been yellow paper in the printer.
Something seized him, and he stepped away from the mirror, trembling.
Five hundred. His watch, picked up from its place on the floor beneath his bed, read zero five zero six. His autocall would not come for more than an hour. He could go back to bed, go back to sleep.
Shave. He would shave instead. Shave, clean up, get dressed, go out and get breakfast.
He went to the window. Magnificent! The view always inspired him. The window would not open, of course. Here, just below the penthouse, the wind would be savage.
Savage and cold.
For the first time it struck him that he could have it replaced with one that would open. He could have a floor-to-ceiling window that would open at the touch of a button. The cost would be trifling and tax-deductible. With a bit of creative accounting …
Trifling for him.
It would be foolish of course. No one would really want such a thing, and he would never do it. But he could.
Boswash, NAU, was waking. From horizon to horizon, lights sparked into being in the tiny windows of lofty structures that were, for the most part, less lofty than his.
That yellow page. The Weyer murder?
He shook his head.
Shaving occupied the next eight minutes. Preshave, shave, aftershave. Good! He had gotten everything done before the power began to flicker, although his shaver could be plugged into the backup if necessary.
He folded the yellow sheet without looking at it and slipped it into his jacket pocket. Breakfast first, he told himself. Business afterward.
And realized, almost with a start, that he had been lying to himself. He knew what was on the yellow paper.
No. He sipped fragrant tea. That had been the dream. His tea was supposed to smell like tea roses; the knowledge planted a garden in his mind: huge bushes with dark green foliage and cupped pink flowers. Or red. Or white. A fountain in the middle, one in which pure water flowed without letup. The subtropics. There would be places there with gardens like that.
Beyond another window, almost out of sight, wet and heavy snow was falling into the sea.
* * *
The penthouse had a private elevator that stopped for no other floor. He smiled to himself as he waited for wide bronze doors to slide back, remembering what the penthouse rented for. This elevator—his own elevator—served the upper fifty floors, but on this trip it would stop for none of them.
The street was cold and dark, as was to be expected. Filthy, too, like all streets, though the snow had arrived to cover its filth. Despite his firm rule against giving to beggars, he rubbed the hump of a pathetic hunchback and gave him five noras. There were only two others out so early. So early, in cold and falling snow. A flourish of his walking stick sent them scuttling back to their places.
A block and a half brought him to Carreras. He sat, and waved a waitress over.
“The usual, Mr. Grison?”
He nodded, holding out the yellow paper. “I need a favor, Aleta. Will you read this to me? Its pretty short.”
“Sure, Mr. Grison. Forget your glasses?”
“No. Ive read it. I need to hear someone else read it.” He nearly said, “I need to have it made real,” but he did not.
“Okay.” The waitress cleared her throat. “It says, ‘Greetings. You have contracted with Mastergunner Chelle Sea Blue. I didnt know you had contracted with anybody, Mr. Grison.”
“The rest, please.”
“ ‘In accordance with the law, you are hereby notified by Mustprint that Mastergunner Blue is being returned from outsystem. Mastergunner Blue will receive one year and forty-one days of accumulated leave after processing and debriefing. Wow! She must have been gone quite a while.”
Skip nodded. “By Earth-time she was.”
“ ‘Mastergunner Blue is scheduled to arrive by shuttle at Canam Port day one-eighty. ” The waitress glanced at her watch. “Thats this coming Saturday, Mr. Grison.”
“Yes. It is. You dont have to read the rest.”
“It says she mayve been affected by her experiences—”
“I know what it says.”
“And youll have to make allowances for her.” The waitress paused. When Skip did not speak, she said, “Would you like to see a menu?”
He was still smiling at her remark as he poured honey on his buckwheat cakes. Yes, he would love to see a menu. Better yet, a psychological profile.…
Which might actually be possible.
It was oh seven thirty-five when he left Carreras, and oh seven forty-seven when he entered the Union Day Building. The offices of Burton, Grison, and Ibarra were still empty and silent, lit by a single dim fixture.
Once seated in his office, he read headlines on his screen: ANOTHER SUICIDE RING UNCOVERED—NEW ENERGY CONTROLS—SHIPS SEIZED AS CHAOS IN NORTHERN SAU WORSENS. The third made him grin; last week, the same news service had called the chaos total.
Still grinning, he posted a message to All: he would be gone for a week, and perhaps longer. If return by day one eighty-eight (or sooner) should prove impossible, he would notify them.
Next an order to Research: “Obtain psych. profile Mastergunner C. S. Blue; call me at once.—S.W.G.”
After that, he assigned Mick Tooley to baby-sit the jewelry wholesaler case and the cyborg murder—the cases he had been handling personally. Tooley was to call him when necessary, but only when necessary.
Susan had tidied up his desk, and he had done little to disturb it. The wall safe yielded five thousand noras—more than sufficient, he decided, for emergencies requiring cash. A thousand for his wallet, and four thousand more for his briefcase.
From the doorway, Susan inquired, “Mr. Grison?”
He closed the safe.
“I just wanted to let you know Im here if you need me. You beat me in this morning.”
“I do. I was about to write you a note. I want a first-class compartment on a Bullet for Canam. Depart before twenty tonight.”
“I want a suite, one night, at the best hotel near the port. Thats for the day after tomorrow.”
“Yes, sir. Hypersuite?”
“If you can get one.” He paused. “If you cant get a suite of any kind, then the best room you can get. Call me when youve got both, but not before. Im leaving now. I want to get out before somebody ambushes me with something. Let Mick handle it, whatever it is.”
“If there are several trains…?”
“Nothing before noon—Ive got to pack. The first one after that.”
He was ready to go, but she whispered, “Ill miss you, Mr. Grison.” Already feeling the pangs of treachery, he gave her a quick kiss.
Dianne, his secretarys assistant, greeted him with a bright smile and a cheerful hello as he left his office. Skip reflected that Susan would have work for her. As for him, he would have work for himself.
A doorman touched the bill of his cap. “Lester told me you were out early, Mr. Grison.”
If he had made any reply at all, he had forgotten it by the time he reached his apartment.
ANSWERS might or might not be of help. He touched VOICE. “Gifts for returning servicewoman.”
“Ten thousand and up.”
Chelles subjective age would have gone up by two years and what? A hundred-day or so. “Twenty-five.”
“Designer dresses and suits, jewelry, small red car, total makeover.”
“Cruise, private island, show horse…”
He telephoned Research. “Boris? What do returning servicewomen want most? Somebody must have done a survey, and there might be two or three. Let me know.”
* * *
His gift met him at the station. “Are you Skip Grison?” Smile. “Im Chelles mother.”
He studied her. She was shorter than Chelle and almost slender. Simply but stylishly dressed. “Youre younger than I expected,” he said.
She smiled again, a charming smile. “Thank you, Skip. You have my ticket?”
“Not yet. We can square it with the conductor.”
“Youll be billed if I have to pay my own way. You understand that, I hope.”
He nodded, trying to place her perfume. Apples in a garden? Sun-warmed apples? Something like that.
“There would be a surcharge of twenty percent.”
“Certainly. Ill take care of it.”
Another charming smile. “You look baffled, Skip.”
“I am. I pride myself on my ability to think on my feet, and I was told to expect you. But I…”
“In a courtroom.”
“Correct. I was going to say that even though I put in an order for you and knew you were coming, something about you took me by surprise. I need a moment to collect my thoughts. Wheres your luggage?”
“A nice porter took it for me. I gave him the number of your compartment.”
He raised his eyebrows. “You knew it?”
She nodded. “I found it out—it wasnt difficult. Thirty-two C.”
“Youre right,” he said. And then, grateful for the opportunity to break off their conversation, “Lets go find it.”
One side was Changeglass, switched off now for full transparency. His scuffed suitcases were on the lone chair, a red-fabric overnight bag on the lower bunk, a bed currently disguised as a couch. The door of the tiny private bath stood open; after a glance inside, Skip closed it. He stowed his briefcase under the lower bunk.
She was throwing switches. “Good reading lights,” she said. “That makes all the difference.”
He said, “Its only a day and a half.”
“Thirty-four hours, if its on schedule. So one day and ten hours, since these Bullet Trains always are.”
“We need to talk.” Removing his overnight bag, he took the chair.
“Thats what Im here for.” She smiled, warm and friendly. “To talk with you and my darling Chelle.”
“Can you play the part?”
“I dont play parts, Skip. Really, I dont.” Now she attempted to look severe, but the smile kept getting in the way. “I am your Chelles mother.”
“You mean that shell accept you, wholeheartedly, as her mother.”
“She will, Skip, and shell be right. You, thinking me a fraud, will be mistaken. Please try to understand. For thousands of years, we thought death the end, even though we knew of cases in which that had been untrue. Until we could raise the dead ourselves, we refused to believe that death was not necessarily final.”
Almost unnoticed, the train glided from the station.
“You call me Skip.”
She smiled yet again. He felt that he should by now have come to detest that smile, but found that it enchanted him instead. “I do, Skip, and I shall continue to do so.”
“Chelle calls you…?”
“Mother.” She sat down on the lower bunk.
“Then Ill call you Mother Blue.”
Her eyes flashed. “Not without a quarrel. I have never used Charless surname, and I most certainly dont intend to begin after going though a world of nonsense to terminate our contract. I am Vanessa Hennessey. You may call me that. Or Ms. Hennessey. Or Vanessa. But not Essy or Vanie or anything of that silly sort.”
“Vanessa, then. I dont know where Chelles mother is buried, but it should be easy to find out. Suppose that I do, and that I take Chelle there and show her the grave—her real mothers grave. What would you do then?”
Vanessa laughed. “Why should I do anything? Why should my daughter do anything, for that matter? I was dead, and now Im alive. Pay close attention, Skip. You havent been thinking.”
“Im listening,” he said.
“Are you? Well find out eventually. Every brain scan I ever had—and there were a good many of them—has been uploaded into the brain of a living woman whose own brain was scanned and wiped clean. Once it had been done, that living woman became me, the woman sitting across from you now.”
“Ms. Vanessa Hennessey.”
“Exactly. Im so glad you understand.”
This time it was he who smiled. “Who is legally dead.”
“An error that could be corrected by any competent attorney. Surely you know that a person missing for seven years can be declared legally dead. You must also know that those people sometimes turn up, after which the record is set straight.”
“I paid a small fortune to have you resurrected.”
“A very small one. Yes.”
He wanted to pace, as he had so often in court. “Thus its against my interest not to accept you myself.”
The delightful smile. “Im glad you understand.”
“Thus I shall venture one more question, and no more. None after this. Currently, I am paying the company by the hundred-day. I paid for the first in advance.”
She nodded. “Thats standard.”
“Suppose I stop paying?”
She laughed. “As you will, eventually. I understand that. Lets say when you stop paying. We both know that you will. Ill be returned to Reanimation. My brain will be scanned and wiped, and the earlier scan uploaded.”
“Youll be dead.”
“I will. But I will die secure in the knowledge that death is not final—that if ever Im wanted enough, I can be recalled to existence.” Smiling, she turned to look at the factory buildings and city streets they passed. “Id heard that these things were wonderfully fast, Skip. But hearing it and seeing it … How fast can it go?”
“Sixty-seven kilometers an hour. Or so they say. Thats almost twice as fast as the fastest motor vehicles, so I wouldnt be surprised if they were stretching the facts a little.”
“It is. Were riding on a thin film of air, which is what makes the energy expenditure feasible. These cars are very light, of course. They say four men can lift one.”
She laughed and clapped like a delighted child. “Id love to see that done. To really see it, I mean, with my own eyes. They do all sorts of tricks on tele.”
* * *
Later, in the dining car, she said, “You havent asked me about Chelle. Not one thing. Ive been waiting for it, Skip, but it hasnt happened. Want to tell me why?”
He shook his head.
“She divorced me, youre quite correct. She divorced her father, too, after she enlisted. Were you aware of that?”
“No.” He studied the menu before touching several items.
“It doesnt mean she doesnt love me, and it certainly doesnt mean I dont love her. If you thought she didnt love me, why did you spend so much to bring me back?”
“I hope shell like having you again. I wanted to get her something that would delight her, and you were the only gift I could find that seemed to have much chance.” He hesitated. “I wanted to get you a separate compartment, a nice one near mine. We were too late with that, the train was full.”
“Susan. Susans my secretary. She takes care of things like that for me. I asked if youd mind sharing a compartment with me. They said theyd tell you that you had to.”
“They did. I made no objection.”
“Arent you going to order?”
“I suppose. Whats the green button?” The slight smile that twitched her lips made him suspect that she already knew.
“It means that youre ordering what the previous diner at the table ordered. Women—young girls for the most part—often want to do that. I dont know why.”
“But you know about them.”
“Yes, I do.”
“I wont pry, Skip.” The smile appeared in earnest. “Not now, because I know I wouldnt find out anything. Later, possibly. Some girls are terrified of ordering anything too costly. I was never one of those, but I knew some like that.”
“Others are afraid theyll order something they dont know how to eat. Lobster or pigs trotters, a dish that takes finesse. If they order what the man orders, he cant object to the price, and they can see how he eats it.”
“So you ordered what I ordered, without knowing what it was.”
“It seemed simpler like that. Either Im not hungry at all, or Im so hungry Ill eat anything. Ill know when the food comes. Wouldnt you think theyd have a waiter to take our order? He could answer our questions then.”
Skip nodded absently. “They do that in second class.”
It evoked a throaty chuckle. “We privileged few neednt worry about keeping the proles employed. Perhaps thats whats wrong with the system.”
“It may be.”
“I was a wealthy woman, Skip.”
“Ive almost nothing now. Just a few noras that a woman gave me before she let me out at the station. Im going to need more.”
“You want more. I anticipated that.”
“May I have it?”
“Not now. I have to have some way to control you.”
“Surely there are others.”
“There are, but I like this one.”
She laughed. “Youre rather too much fun to cross blades with. I could cut Charles to pieces in two minutes—it was part of the reason I opted out. Would you like to stay in our compartment while I shower and get ready for bed?”
He shook his head.
“No? I was hoping you would. I was going to charge you for it.”
“No. Ill wait in the bar car.”
A waiter arrived, trailed by an assistant who carried an identical meal. “Questions?” The waiter looked from one to the other. “Additional needs? Monsieur? Madame?”
“Ive a thousand,” Vanessa told him, “but you cant supply any of them.”
* * *
As Skip sat in the bar car sipping Chablis-and-soda, the barmaids assistants helper muttered, “I wouldnt call you an enthusiastic drinker, sir.”
“Im not,” Skip told her. “Im just waiting for the dead woman in my compartment to go to bed.”
Copyright © 2010 by Gene Wolfe
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