Blind Lake by Robert Charles Wilson
Copyright © 2003 by Robert Charles Wilson
All rights reserved. Used by permission of the author.
This electronic excerpt from Blind Lake is provided by the author for a limited time to voters for the 2004 Prix Aurora Awards. It is not be distributed, reproduced, reposted or republished elsewhere without the express written authorization of the author.
Note: Blind Lake is a Finalist for a 2004 Aurora Award in the "Best Long-Form Work in English" category. To view the other entries visit the MiC Newsletter Aurora Award Supplement. The 2004 voting ballot is available in .PDF format at the Aurora web site. Voting deadline is October 16, 2004
Visit Robert Charles Wilson's website at www.robertcharleswilson.com
by Robert Charles Wilson
Chris rang the bell at the door of the townhouse after his walk from Sawyer's. The scarf helped, but the wind was almost surgical, knifing him from a dozen angles. Stars rippled in the brutally clear night sky.
He had to ring twice, and it wasn't Marguerite who answered, it was Tessa. The girl looked up at him solemnly.
He said, "Can I come in?"
"I guess so." She held the inner door ajar.
He shut it behind him, hastily. Good to take his hands out of his pockets, but his fingers burned in the warm air. He stripped off his jacket, his snow-encrusted shoes. Too bad Elaine hadn't scavenged a pair of boots for him, too. "Your mom's not home?"
"She's upstairs," Tess said. "Working."
The girl was cute but uncommunicative, a little chubby and owl-eyed. She reminded Chris of his younger sister Portia at that age -- except that Portia had been a non-stop talker. She watched closely as Chris hung his jacket in the closet. "It's cold out," she said.
"That it is."
"You should get warmer clothes."
"Good idea. You think it would be all right with your mom if I made coffee?"
Tess shrugged and followed Chris to the kitchen. He counted teaspoons into the filter basket, then sat at the small table while the coffee brewed, warmth seeping back into his extremities. Tess pulled up a chair opposite him.
"Did they open the school today?" Chris asked.
"Only in the afternoon." The girl put her elbows on the table, hands under her chin. "Are you a writer?"
"Yes," Chris said. Probably. Maybe.
"Did you write a book?"
The question was guileless. "Mostly I write for magazines. But I wrote a book once."
"Can I see it?"
"I didn't bring a copy with me."
Tess was clearly disappointed. She nodded her head rhythmically. Chris said, "Maybe you should tell your mom I'm here."
"She doesn't like to be bothered when she's working."
"Does she always work this late?"
"Maybe I should say hello."
"She doesn't like to be bothered," Tess repeated.
"I'll just tap at the door. See if she wants coffee."
Tess shrugged and stayed in the kitchen.
Marguerite had given him a tour of the house yesterday. The door to her home office was ajar, and Chris cleared his throat to announce himself. Marguerite sat at a cluttered desk. She was scribbling notes on a handpad, but her attention was focused on the screen on the far wall. "Didn't hear you come in," she said without looking up.
"I don't mean to interrupt your work."
"I'm not working. Not officially, anyhow. I'm just trying to figure out what's going on." She turned to face him. "Take a look."
On the screen, the so-called Subject was climbing an upward-sloping ramp by the light of a few tungsten bulbs. The virtual viewpoint floated behind him, keeping his upper half-torso centered. From behind, Chris thought, the Subject looked like a broad-shouldered woman in a red leather burka. "Where's he going?"
"I have no idea."
"I thought he had pretty regular habits."
"We're not supposed to use gendered pronouns, but just between us, yes, he's a creature of very regular habits. By his clock, he ought to be be sleeping -- if 'sleeping' is what they're doing when they lie motionless in the dark."
This was the kind of carefully hedged clinical talk Chris had come to expenct from astrozoologists.
"We've been following him for more than a year," Marguerite went on, "and he hasn't varied from his schedule by more than a few minutes. Until lately. A few days ago he spent two hours in a food conclave that should have lasted half that time. His diet has changed. His social interactions are declining. And tonight he seems to have a case of insomnia. Sit down and watch, if you're interested, Mr. Carmody."
"Chris," he said. He cleared a stack of Astrobiological Review off a chair.
Marguerite went to the door and shouted, "Tessa!"
From below: "Yeah?"
"Time for your bath!"
Footsteps pattered up the stairs. "I don't think I need a bath."
"You do, though. Can you run it yourself? I'm still kind of busy."
"I guess so."
"Call me when it's ready."
Moments later, the distant rush of running water.
Chris watched the Subject climb another long spiral walkway. The Subject was entirely alone, which was unusual in itself. The lobsters tended to do things in crowds, though they never shared sleeping chambers.
"These guys are pretty regularly diurnal, too," Marguerite said. "Another anomaly. As for where he's going -- hey, look."
Subject had reached an open archway. He stepped out into the starry alien night.
"He's never been here before."
"Where is he?"
"A balcony platform, way up on top of his home ziggurat. My god, the view!"
Subject walked to the low barricade at the edge of the balcony. The virtual viewpoint drifted behind him, and Chris could see the lobster city spread out beyond the Subject's grainy torso. The elongated pyramidal towers, the ziggurats, were illuminated at their portals and balconies by the lights in the public walkways. Anthills and cowrie shells, Chris thought, threaded with gold. When Chris was little his parents used to cruise up along Mulholland Drive one or two evenings a year to see the lights of Los Angeles spread out below. It had kind of like this. Almost this vast. Almost this lonely.
The planet's small, quick moon was full, and he could make out something of the dry lands beyond the limits of the city, the low mountains far to the west and a reef of high cloud rolling on a quick wind. Spirals of electrostatically-charged dust rolled across the irrigated fields, quickly formed and quickly dissipated, like immense ghosts.
He saw Marguerite give a little a shiver, watching.
Subject approached the balcony's eroded barricade. He stood as if hesitating. Chris said, "Is he suicidal?"
"I hope not." She was tense. "We've never seen self-destructive behaviour, but we're new here. God, I hope not!"
But the Subject stood motionless, as if intent.
"He's looking at the view," Chris said.
"We don't know. That's why we don't attribute motivation. If I were there, I'd be looking at the view; but maybe he's enjoying the air pressure, or maybe he was hoping to meet somebody, or maybe he's lost or confused. These are complex sentient creatures with life histories and biological imperatives no one even pretends to understand. We don't even know for sure how good their vision is -- he may not see what we're seeing."
"Still," Chris said. "If I had to lay a bet, I'd say he's admiring the view."
That won him a brief smile. "We may think such things," Marguerite admitted. "But we must not say them."
"Mom!" From the bathroom.
"I'll be there in a second," Marguerite called. "Dry yourself off!" She stood. "Time to put Tessa to bed, I'm afraid."
"You mind if I watch this a little longer?"
"No problem. Call me if it gets exciting. All this is being recorded, obviously, but there's nothing like a live feed. But he may not do anything at all. When they stand still they often stay that way for hours at a time."
"Not a great party planet," Chris said.
She was right about the Subject: he stood motionless, facing the long vista of the night. Chris watched distant dust-devils, immense and immaterial, ride the moonlit plains. He wondered if they made a sound in the relatively thin atmosphere of that world. He wondered if the air was warm or cool, whether the Subject was sensitive to the temperature. All this anomalous behavior and no way to divine the thoughts circulating in that perfectly-imaged but perfectly inscrutable head. What did loneliness mean to creatures who were never alone except at night?
He heard the pleasant sound of Marguerite and Tessa talking in low voices, Marguerite tucking her daughter into bed. A flurry of laughter. Eventually Marguerite appeared in the doorway once more.
"Has he moved?"
The moon had moved. The stars had moved. Not the Subject. "No."
"I'm making tea, if you feel like a cup."
"Thanks," Chris said. "I'd like that. I -- "
But then there was the unmistakable sound of breaking glass, and Tessa's high, shrill scream.