I was riding black fields in a metal cart when the chronometers shifted and it began to rain heavily. Small explosions as each drop touched the ground. Light and shadow lacquered in the muddy pools. A gate of the city, scrolled with grime, creaked open—and I saw a slash of color. There against the wall. Nothing more.
And now though I watch the streets and alleys each hour from my lab—I cannot trace the source of that aberrant illumination. I do not know why the tocsins suddenly sound with obsessive regularity. In no way can I guess who has fused the lintels over Southgate so they glisten like a nest of glass eels.
The speakers keep hissing. The screen is mired by white files of rain. A woman's leg is brushed by a fist-fall of droplets and seeing the fullness of that leg I desire the image—not so much the flesh itself but its light patina. I bring up one quadrant of the screen. Her sandal swings a few pixels, a silver scrap of foil hangs from the sole—falling halfway to the grille below. A yellow door behind her stands open and from the dark within something gleams. Collective radiation or the white arms of men drinking wine.
The room is a mottled rectangle behind her legs.
The rain registers as light hobs—glitter edged. I can see the same oval of foil against the grill, its texture that of sawed stone. The webbing of the grille shows wear, its plastic cracked and dirty. This woman has the leg of a girl. Wine spills across the wreckage of a table. White arms begin to strobe.
When I look again the light is dimmer and the scene has shifted to another sector. Surfaces conspire to deceive me and colors have lost their mastery. The rain continues to fall.
Assuming that spatial correspondence holds within the city's temporal distortions, a hypothesis which has yet to be denied, I might locate this woman and confront her directly. How would she compare with her opalescent image? The phosphors can offer nothing definitive, and I must of necessity consider my own safety first. This leg I desire could easily be diseased. Or merely a prosthetic sheath concealing the withered stump beneath. And why does this woman-girl choose to walk the streets alone? Is her time frame so different that the transmutations have not begun? And if so, how much am I allowed to tell her?
I decant the recorded leg in freeze frame and global search the sectors for its earthbound simulacrum. I scan the files for a possible cross match. Each time I tap the core where the cables are infested the resolution fades. I must reboot from sequence and start again. A window blossoms in one corner of the screen and a list of names scrolls by. All of these files have been retired to Database. To access their contents I must issue a series of electronic requisitions as tedious and convoluted as the streets themselves. And of course the parameters of such a search would be instantly appended to my own file.
Even as I calculate the risks and probabilities of my distraction, a flake of toxic metal drifts past the randomly scanning lens. I pull back too late. A jet of bad light streaks out at me like a wasp and I fend it off with my right arm. In that instant—everything becomes solid. The speakers issue the syncopated pounding of sub-audible links that vibrate in the dimensions of my bones. A wave of heat pierces the lead across my chest. A murmur sounds in my lungs. A brilliant voice that threatens but does not speak.
Indeed, though my flesh shows no sign of its passage, I believe something did touch and enter my body just then. Perhaps it is that very slash of light I saw splayed against the wall. I must monitor my metabolic rate and watch for signs of transubstantiation.
I link to the Net and discover the attack has not been singular. The toxins now leak from sector to sector. The boards are jammed with calls from others like myself, who watch from their labs, who hour-by-hour transcribe the city as it may or may not be. Yet within seconds the answer comes down the line:
"Monitor metabolic rate. Watch for signs of transubstantiation."
We are the ones who have been chosen . . . for our mania, our dedication, our self-denial. Despite the chaos around us . . . our positions remain secure. The doors to my lab are manually and electronically locked at all times. The fluorescents are never extinguished. The tocsins never disarmed. I continue to preserve and label the chips in their plastic cases. All about me the walls are stacked with a chronological history of my work and my dereliction, an exercise in phenomenology that knows no bounds beyond the birth and death of my own existence.
Beyond which the Net remains.
Once the city ceases its aberrant motion and the tenets of reality are again susceptible to apprehension, our names will be lasered upon stone for all to see. Our files will never be terminated. We will join the phosphors in their lightning dance from core to exalt core and back again. Of this and much more I have often been assured.
In the domed stadium where death is played by night, where those seeking work queue by day, my search statement has turned up a possible cross match. Although it is not night, the overheads are lighted to combat the dimness of the day. One quadrant of the translucent dome is partially collapsed and the rain has covered the field with a series of small lakes. The lines of would-be workers wind across the playing arena while others, who have already been categorized but received no assignment, wait in the bleachers above.
I zero in on the leg in question to confirm its identity. Yes, I do think this is the same woman-girl. Her sandals are darker only because the leather has been dampened by the rain. Other legs mill about her, mostly gray-trousered. For a moment I lose her again as the files advance. Then I pan to her face and discover she is beautiful—wide-set eyes, Eurasian features, dark hair covered by a scarf with a few wet strands escaping to cling to her cheekbones. She is looking up at the man next to her, lips compressed in a tight smile. I realize all at once that she has not come to the stadium to seek legitimate work, but to solicit a liaison.
A small bud of rage blossoms within me. Yet once I heighten the magnification, my anger fades even as her beauty pales. I see that despite the litheness of her limbs, this woman is no girl. Lines of worry radiate from her eyes. She is well past thirty and as I peel away the surface of her tightly smiling features to reveal what lies beneath, I find neither power nor promise, but merely the dazed glance of another victim.
I pull back from the individual figures, far back from the field itself, until the workers are only dark lines worming their way through a net of rain.
Though I have never visited the domed stadium, I know its dimensions well. In a few hours its stands will be thronged with spectators, its arena alive with combatants. The crowd will feast and roar. Blood will discolor the tiny lakes. As I push the woman from my thoughts, I look forward to the night's games. Like others, I will watch from the relative safety of my personal monitor and thrill to the clarity of their swift and final judgments.
Outside it is dusk. The light has again succeeded in completing its cycle. I have worked through the entire day without remembering to eat. Doing what? The log shows I have formulated no new theories. I have finished the last of the wine. I have recorded that the city is full and loud, the metal catwalks ringing with noise. I have written of colors which threaten to fast-frame the lot of our being.
For a moment I remember none of this. I think I may have a family. My arm begins to throb as if bound by a tourniquet of ice.
Walking on a ledge scattered with thorns to avoid the streets below, I pull my coat tight against the wind. The hills through which the city now passes are creased with snow. Ahead, the gigantic West End monitor displays a telescoping line of dingy palaces. All different structures I have never been able to track upon my screen. I have heard that their ornate decay is merely a facade, and that strange-yet-vital rituals take place within their walls. I have also heard it rumored that it is decay alone that finds a place of worship there.
Without noticing, I cross the view plane of an active lens. I turn and look back. Past the wild public warrens—the inns, the law-courts and tiered farm dormitories—the rain is falling heavily. The chronometers have shifted once again. A gate of the city, scrolled with grime, creaks shut.
I am riding black fields in a metal cart. Wasp light radiates from the mud-lacquered pools. Small explosions as each drop touches the ground. My legs are those of a girl. Taut and anxious. Diseased as the yellow night.
Bruce Boston is the author of more than forty books and chapbooks, including the novels Stained Glass Rain and The Guardener's Tale. His stories and poems have appeared in hundreds of publications, most visibly Asimov's SF Magazine, Amazing Stories, Weird Tales, Strange Horizons, Realms of Fantasy, Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, and The Nebula Awards Showcase, and received a number of awards, most notably, a Pushcart Prize, the Bram Stoker Award, the Asimov's Readers Award, the Rhysling Award, and the Grand Master Award of the Science Fiction Poetry Association. For more information, visit his website.
Lee Ballentine edits Ur-Vox, a yearbook of new surrealism. His poems have appeared in Abraxas, Caliban, Exquisite Corpse, Mississippi Mud, and many other places in the twenty years since James Laughlin wrote Lee was "pushing up into the Amazon of the new poetry." You can see more of Lee's work in his publications Dream Protocols, Phase Language, and POLY: New Speculative Writing.