Almost every short fiction venue worth its salt will have some sort of guidelines as to what sort of material they’re looking for… but I suspect almost every editor will confess that, when the story is good enough, the guidelines can flex a little to allow it through.
That’s exactly what happened with “Spider’s Moon” by globe-trotting star-ascendant Lavie Tidhar, which is set in a slightly deeper future than we usually deal with here at Futurismic. But its core concerns are closer to home, and it’s a strong tale well told – so we’re proud to be publishing it for you to read. Enjoy!
By Lavie Tidhar
Night, a full spider’s moon in the sky; hundreds of lanterns hung along the river, and the smell of saffron and garlic and dried lemongrass filled the air; a warm night, candles burning on street corners with offerings of rum and cooked rice, the hum of electric motorbikes, the murmur of a sugarcane machine as it crushed stalks to make the juice.
Ice tinkling in glasses; on small plastic chairs people sat by the river, drinking, talking. A hushed reverie, yet festive. Hoi An under the spider’s moon, French backpackers singing, badly but with enthusiasm, while one of their number played a guitar.
Save me from the raven and the frog, and show me safely to the river’s mouth, O Naga, he thought. Frogs had never been his favourites. Green and slimy, and always too loud. Like rats, almost. Like green, belligerent rats.
Melkior felt a little lost at Hoi An. He had arrived three days before, taking a room in a small hotel just outside the old town. It was, in many ways, a disconcerting experience. Once, Hoi An had been a trade centre, the meeting place of Chinese and European merchants on the coast of Viet Nam, and the old town had been preserved just as it had been, full of charming little cobbled streets and charming little temples and charming old houses – “Charm,” the brochure insisted, “is the defining characteristic of the town”. The old town was a bubble out of time, and visiting it was a wilful act of time-travel, or so it seemed to Melkior. The Hoi An lanterns (“Famous for hundreds of years,” boasted the brochure) still hung everywhere, and barges still travelled down the river, pushed on long poles – and yet it was a lie, too, for the past was not really there, only its semblance, and who could believe in the past (not less a gentle, charming past) under the full spider’s moon?
Crossing from the old town into the new was a disorienting fast-forward into the future: here, beyond the bubble of preserved time, the future happened with every heartbeat, the sound of construction filling the days, houses and office towers rising higher and higher into the atmosphere, as if grasping for the moon. He was here for the new town, not the old; was here for the future, not the past. The juxtaposition of both unsettled him. It had occurred to him he should have stayed in Da Nang, a forty-five minute drive down the road, a busy, bustling, cheerful city that had nothing of the quaint or picturesque (as the brochure had put it). Hoi An was a tourist town, famed for its tailors and shoe-makers, and even Melkior had given in to that extent, having purchased a new, sombre black suit and two pairs of custom-made knock-off trainers, with the company logo hand-stitched into the thin leather. He wore them now, feeling the cobblestones beneath the thin soles.
He went at last to sit on the river, and ordered a glass of sugarcane juice, with plenty of ice. It made him think of the ship – of home. He sipped from it and watched the lantern light dance on the water. Activating his node, he initiated a call through to the Gel Blong Mota.
The connection was clear, without noticeable delay. The Gel Blong Mota, a Melanesian solar space transport vehicle, was hovering in geostationary orbit overhead. “How are the negotiations coming along?”
Melkior wondered how you could communicate a sigh when you sub-vocalised. He said, “Slowly. They seem determined I should play a tourist. I don’t know if they’re delaying me on purpose, or –”
“Have you been to the factory yet?”
He had – though they had blocked all digital recording and left him shut off from the outside world for the first time since the activation of his first node, when he’d been three years old – another disconcerting experience. The factory lay outside Da Nang, an enormous complex where the Vietnamese manufactured their dolls: plastic and rubber humanoid figures with rudimentary personalities, mass-produced and sold in bulk, thousands of human figures lying naked and motionless on a conveyor belt as they were borne to the warehouses for storage and, eventually, shipment.
“I did,” he said. “But we’re still negotiating a price.”
“We need the shipment, Melkior,” his brother said. “The dragon –” he hesitated, then said, “Besides, we can’t stay in Earth orbit forever. The tax alone –”
“Ten thousand dolls,” Melkior said, “is a lot of cargo.”
“Nothing we can’t handle,” his brother said.
That was what the representative of the factory had also told him. “Nothing we can’t handle.” Then he had seen the specifications sheet and pursed his lips. “This will cost extra,” he said.
“How much extra?” Melkior had said, and the man shook his head and said, “We must consider all aspects of this job –” which meant more, in any language you cared to think in.
Ten thousand dolls wasn’t a problem if you wanted standard sex-workers or soldiers. What Melkior was asking for, however, was another thing – and he had the feeling the Vietnamese were uneasy about the request.
So am I, he thought. Save me from the hunter and the ghost, and lead me to the sea of tranquillity, O Naga.
Nagas were snake-spirits, a kin to dragons. But there were no dragons.
But there might be.
And the dragon, it was said, had many heads…
“Tell them,” his brother said, and then paused – “tell them they have a week to agree on the price. After that –”
“After that what?” Melkior said, annoyed. “We can’t go to anyone else.”
“We can’t wait forever,” his brother said. “The journey to the outer system –”
“Takes months and months and months,” Melkior said. “A week or two won’t make a difference. And it would take time to produce the number of dolls we need.”
“I am aware of that,” his brother said – testily, it seemed to Melkior. Abruptly, he cut the connection. Damn the factory men, damn his brother, damn this nineteenth century town.
Damn the Naga, too.
He missed the Gel Blong Mota, his quarters there, his brothers and sisters on the ship, the smell of ship-grown prawns from the aquatic tanks. There were good prawns in Vietnam, no doubt, but somehow they didn’t taste quite right. He had grown up with ship-food, and he missed it. Here, they put saffron in everything. Though there was good money in saffron. They would carry several tons with them when they left.
If we ever bloody leave.
He sipped from the juice. He would have tuned in his node to some music-stream but, here in the old town, a sort of protective dam had been placed over the great river of communication, and he could only listen to “Authentic mid-nineteenth century Vietnamese music, most pleasing,” so he left it and just listened to the conversations around him, Vietnamese and French, German and Chinese, Lao and English and Cambodian and a half-dozen more. His attention wandered. Across the water, on the other side of the river, an old man was standing with arms raised, facing the river. A small wind built, rippling the surface of the water. Conversation around Melkior quieted down, and he heard someone say, “It’s the Weatherman.”
The old man’s lips were moving, and his hands were tracing complex shapes in the air – and where he pointed a small cloud formed above the river, and the soft patter of rain began to fall on the water – the old man raised his other arm and with it rose the wind, pushing a second and then a third cloud above the first, creating a symphony of rain –
The winds rose, fell, rose, fell – and now there were waves forming on the river, and a woman in a boat raised a fist, cursing the old man as she was buffeted by the miniature storm –
The wind came on to the bank, howling amidst the spectators, tossing playing cards and flower petals into the air –
A burst of laughter, another curse –
The winds quieted, the clouds merged, pushing slowly into each other, their colour changing as the rain fell, stopped – a higher wind rising, the one large cloud wobbling in the sky, disintegrating in soft woollen threads of white and grey –
The old man lowered his arms.
There were Weathermen on the islands, too, Melkior knew – though Melkior, born on the ship, had only once visited the home islands. They were unique to Earth, weather-artists performing in that vast ecology of rivers and clouds, rain and sun, communicating with the hidden machines in the atmosphere, controlling winds, shaping clouds – the old man came hobbling over the bridge, and the watchers initiated small cash transfers to the old man’s node. He smiled, thanked them, moved on – the river calm behind him.
Weather hackers, they used to call them. Then regulations came in, and licensing, and now they were weather artistes and mostly worked the tourist crowds – though Melkior had once seen, on a visit to Sri Lanka, the famous Whale Suspended in Storm, with Icicles, by the notorious artist Rohini –
Earth, he thought, suddenly annoyed. He longed to be gone from there, beyond the pull of that heavy gravity, back to the gentle float of space and the clean air of the Gel Blong Mota… Earth loved showing off its weather artists, remind the outworlders what they didn’t have… Though Mars, at least, is getting there, and as for the moon…
Spider’s Moon. He raised his head, looked at it again. Even from down here, the giant shadows could be seen, crawling slowly across the lunar surface. He rose from his seat, paid, walked along the riverfront – ahead of him was the market, to his left rows of restaurants in French Colonial style buildings. We need to conclude this transaction. I want to go home.
Why were they keeping him there? Suddenly, he felt uneasy. They couldn’t know – could they?
He would go back to the hotel, he decided. It was getting late, too, and the streets were emptying, the lights dying one by one –
Was that the sound of footsteps behind him, stopping when he stopped?
Were they watching him?
They couldn’t know, he thought. They could guess, but they couldn’t –
Save me from the beasts of the forest and the spirits of the dead, O Naga, and lead me safely to the mouth of the cave…
Then he saw them.
Three diminutive figures, almost child-like. Dressed in black, they blended so well with the shadows. Dark skin, like his own, but for different reasons – these had been manufactured, made for a very specific reason –
His heart suddenly beating faster, he turned to run, but there were more of them waiting, closing him in –
Shadow dolls. He’d heard rumours, but had never seen one before – disposable assassins, they were sometimes called. If the rumours were true…
“But why?” he said, and his voice wavered, and his palms felt wet with sweat. “Why would you want to kill me?”
They didn’t answer, of course. They had no speech. Even sex dolls were only imprinted with the smallest possible vocabulary. Dolls were cheaply made, mass produced, disposable. They wore out. They were replaceable. He tried to send out a signal but his node was blocked, and they were coming closer. “Why?” he said. His trousers felt suddenly wet. “Why do you want to kill me?”
“They don’t,” a voice said in the darkness. Melkior turned, saw a man standing there. Nothing distinguished about him, but for one thing: the golden prosthetic where his thumb should have been, and then he knew.
It was an Other, flesh-riding. Save me, Naga, he thought, though the dragon was far, too far to hear… “I just want to talk,” the Other said. Then the shadow dolls had taken hold of Melkior and he felt a needle slip in, gently, at his neck, and then he saw nothing.
They had cut open his skull and he could see his own brain in the mirror. There were wires coming out of it… he felt sick. The same man who wasn’t a man was standing before him. He said, “Tell me about the dragon.”
Images rising in the air before them – his brain feeding the machines, the firing of his neurons translated, in a sort of Van Eck phreak, into images and sounds – he said, “No, please –”
“So many dolls,” the man said, “raise suspicion.”
“Ten thousand,” Melkior said, though he knew it was hopeless – knew the Other, too, knew the truth. “Only ten thousand. A good market on Mars –”
“Ten thousand,” the man said. “Yes. A good number – a decent cargo. Yes. But you are not going to Mars…”
In the air before them: a moon of ice and storms, devoid of life, distant, cold – the sun a tiny disc in the sky. A barren world… the Other said, “Ten thousand would not raise much suspicion, no… but it is more than that, is it not? Much, much more…”
“Yes…” Melkior whispered. His brain was betraying him. In the air before them the airless world filled with tiny ants, crawling over the dead rock, ploughing through the ice… tiny human-shaped ants, with warrens deep underground, worker ants travelling in lines across that distant world, and back into their nest, where the dragon slept…
“A million? Two? I am sure we missed a few. They do not reproduce, you know. How many generations would you need to go through before you could start making your own?”
“Not me,” Melkior said, panic rising. “Not –”
“I know,” the Other said. He smiled, a curiously gentle smile. “Tell me about the dragon,” he said.
He slept, and in his dream they put his skull back on and he could no longer see his brain. In his dream he was lying in a comfortable bed and there were two girls with him, and they were naked – no, he realised, not girls – dolls. He could see their serial numbers, etched on a graceful curve of neck. They took turns kissing him, wordlessly, patiently, mindlessly. Worker ants, he thought. Worker ants.
They both spoke simultaneously.
Tell me about the dragon…
“We only work for him,” he said, or tried to say. “He wants –”
He wants a world, the Other said, with that same gentle, slightly-sad smile.
We could not do such a thing on Earth, the Other said. The dolls were kissing Melkior, running smooth hands over his thighs and belly. So crowded… What you wish – such an outworlder idea…
“Please,” Melkior said. He couldn’t move, was trapped in his own body. The dolls kept touching him, their lips like whispers against his skin. “Please.”
Tell me about the dragon.
Save me from the hurricane and from the gale, and guide my ship across the sea, Oh Naga…
There were no dragons back in the old country, back on the lonely islands, in the warm waters of the South Pacific sea… but Melkior was not an aelan boe, nor truly a Man Ples, a man of the place in the old tongue they had taken with them into space. He was man blong spes, ship-born, in the ship that his great great grandfather once worked on and his grandfather purchased and his father captained. The Gel Blong Mota, the Girl of Mota – Mota being a small island their family had possibly come from, though more likely the name was thanks to the ditty that went:
Gel blong Mota
Kam long solwota
Bae me tekem yu
Long aelan blong mi…
Which got progressively ruder with each verse, telling the story of the nameless girl from Mota and the boy who promised her the sea…
Solwota blong spes, they called it. The dark ocean between planets, where their ships travelled as their old canoes once did on ancient seas. Floating islands… Ol aelan I lus, as the saying went. By the time he was thirty Melkior had seen most of the solar system, from the kibbutz-bubbles of Mars to the vast ring-cities of Jupiter, from Polyphemus Port on Titan to the landmasses of Earth… and beyond, as far as Jettisoned, that lonely, lawless outpost on Charon, at the edge of the system, where the starships passed, and where those convicted, or found lacking, or those desperate enough were jettisoned as the great ships left the system and its sun in search of new worlds, never to return…
It was on Jettisoned that the dragon first found them.
A dark city, with deceptive tropical warmth. A city buried deep underground, the dome above it showing the endless storms of ice and snow. A dark city, fissured into the rock of Charon, a city beyond rule, beyond law, a city on the edge – of the system, of human life – where black warez grew unchecked and life was cheap and knowledge the only coin that mattered.
Melkior had been asleep…
A gun lay by his bedside, and alarms had been set all around the room…
His brother sleeping in the other bed…
A restless sleep, the sleep of the jettisoned. And in their sleep the dragon came, a being of ice and flame, and it spoke with the voice of the ice-storms, and it said: Help me.
It was not only humans who had been jettisoned. There were Others on Charon… digital intelligences jettisoned from the starships for reasons unknown, their hardware ejected into that great dark cesspool that flowered on the icy moon…
It spoke to them through their nodes, in shared dream-sleep, and it showed them visions, and it asked for their help, and it offered them riches… it offered them a kingdom, there on the edge of space.
Tell me about the dragon, the voice whispered, this alien Earth Other speaking to him, a thing bred for countless digital generations in the Breeding Grounds, lines of code mutating and merging and multiplying and dying and mutating and merging and growing, growing… who knew what Others thought, where Others lived, what universes they created inside their digital spaces? Who knew how many there were, or what their ambitions might be – or if they had any?
Only a few flesh-surfed, only a few Joined with humans, two minds sharing one body. Only a few showed the slightest interest in human life, beyond making sure their own hardware was maintained and won’t be destroyed by acts of government or terrorists or nature. They were both godlike and infinitely fragile, little machines depending on humans for their physical space, physical existence. Maintenance was their weakness, their vulnerable spot.
But not if you have a world of your own, Melkior thought, not if you have a world to rule and physicalility beyond challenge…
The world of a god, a dragon’s world – And you could have a kingdom.
Images flitting through his mind, made manifest, the dolls restless beside him, the Earth Other curious, moving and examining memories like a child with unfamiliar objects. Melkior thought it would never end, that he would end here, and the dragon’s dream with him, but no –
“I see,” the Other said.
Melkior opened his eyes. He was in the room, but the dolls were gone. Opposite him sat – the Other? Or another? He didn’t know. This one wore a mannequin, a golden machine body, shaped like a man: a bald dome of a head, two golden eyes, smooth, pale, long fingers – “Do you know who I am?”
“A dragon…” Melkior whispered, and the mannequined Other laughed – a rich, warm sound, like liquid gold.
“Your order will be ready within the week,” the Other said. “With our regards. Please tell our cousin…”
“Yes?” he couldn’t believe they were letting him go. The dragon would be angry – wouldn’t he? The secret has been found –
He thought of the dragon, this lone, strange Other on Jettisoned. Where had it come from? Had it been ejected from a passing starship, denied the opportunity to go to the stars? And why?
It must be lonely… Melkior thought.
Had the dragon wanted the secret to be found? Had it planned things this way, so his cousins of Earth would know the plan?
“Our cousin is young,” the Other said. “Tell the dragon there are worlds beyond count, beyond the walls of space. Tell our cousin that looking inwards, sometimes, is more productive than reaching out…”
Melkior said – “I don’t understand –”
There was a flash of soft golden light, a trickle of warm, molten laughter –
When he opened his eyes he was sitting on the river and his glass of sugarcane was half-full before him, and the ice was slowly melting. Across the river the Weatherman was herding clouds.
A ringing, and it took him a moment to realise it was an incoming call. When he answered it was his brother, saying, “What did you do?”
“What?” Melkior didn’t know what to say. How to explain… dread filled him. His brother said, “We just got the authorization from the factory. Ten thousand dolls, to specifications.”
“Melkior…” his brother sighed. “Get some rest,” he said. “You did good, smol brada.”
The connection terminated, Melkior was left alone. There were few people sitting on the river. The lights were dying all over the old town of Hoi An, people shutting shops and going home, to bed. But when I left… what day is it? He didn’t know, but suddenly relief washed over him, as overwhelming as a physical force. When he raised his face the full spider’s moon was there, the giant shadows of the spiders crawling over that bright ball of light, weaving a web of new geography on that once-dead surface.
He closed his eyes and settled back in the seat. When he touched his head there were no scars, no signs that it had ever been opened –
I must have dreamt it ever happened, he thought – though he knew better. He knew Others well enough.
Save me from the Others and the perils of space, and lead me to safety, O Naga…
Beyond even the moon Charon, Hydra circled the dwarf planet of Pluto – a cold, remote, icy moon, unclaimed, all but invisible. He thought of the dragon and his new bodies, his soon to be millions of new bodies, crawling over the moon like ants, building a new geography… millions of dolls moving with one mind, the dragon’s mind, remaking his world –
It was a dream worth having, he thought, and a small smile rose, at last, to his face, like bubbles of air emerging strenuously from the deep bottom of a wide and treacherous river. And perhaps the Others of Earth shared it, to some degree. He finished his drink and rose to leave, glad that his time on Earth was at an end, that soon he would be back on the ship, back in the clean vastness of space: back home.
He walked back to his hotel under the full moon, and thought of dragons.
Lavie Tidhar is the author of linked-story collection HebrewPunk (2007), novellas An Occupation of Angels (2005), Cloud Permutations (2009) and Gorel & The Pot-Bellied God (2010) and, with Nir Yaniv, of The Tel Aviv Dossier (2009). His first novel, The Bookman, will be published by HarperCollins’ new Angry Robot imprint in spring 2010, and will be followed by two more. Lavie also edited the Apex Book of World SF (2009) and maintains the World SF News Blog.