THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 674, June 10, 2012
"The World is run by fools who kill children
as they pray and practice hymns in Church. And
that's what I remember learning in third grade."
Should I Write This Book?
Exclusive to L. Neil Smith's The Libertarian Enterprise
AUTHOR' NOTE: if you saw my synopsis of ARES in last month's THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE, you may recall Brody Ngu, youngest son of Emerson and Rosalie Frazier Ngu, and one of four siblings who take it on themselves to rescue the Seventh Martian Expedition when it is cruelly abandoned by the East American government and the United Nations.
This story, Beautiful Dreamerthe original version of the synopsis is dated 1999centers on Brody half a century later, and is intended to be the conclusion of the "Ngu Family Saga" (although there may be yet another in-between volume sneaking up on me). Life has not been kind to Brody, and he feels too old and sick for a second chance.
The question I'm asking here is real, and it is directed to myself as much as it is to anybody else. Like Brody, I'm old. I sometimes feel I'm running out of time. So is our entire civilization for that matter. Everything that ever made America admirable and decent has long since been raped, brutalized, and left by the side of the road to die.
Maybe it's worth writing this story just to escape all that, if only for a moment. Maybe it's worth it so you can escape, too. I like these folks, the Ngus, they're family, more real than any President who ever polluted American air by drawing breath and exhaling. Should I write it, then? Is it worth the effort? I'd like to hear what you think.
PART ONE: LORD HARNESS
At midnight, following countless days and nights of gluttony and drunkenness, Lord Franklin Harness, the most feared and powerful Sorceror in all of Nebraska, finally tires of it all. He wills away the distention and inebriation that have lately been almost his only sensations, and angrily orders his still-drunken companionshe'd hardly call these sycophantic cretins and poltroons friendsout of his presence.
The most recent of his noisy revels began, he recalls, with an almost equally noisy execution-by-torture and splashy beheading of a young peasant boy discovered feeding information to a newsdrudgean Internet correspondentabout everyday life within Lord Harness' domain.
He also seems to remember a fit of temper in which he ran one of his vassals through with the massive electronic warsword that usually stands in its recharger at his knee beside the throne. The idiot had mouthed off, andwell, the sword is gone. The household help must have taken it away for cleaning. He might as easily have willed it oiled and spotless himselfjust as he willed it into existence to begin withbut servants do need work to do, lest they become mere decorations.
Perhaps at his next party, he muses, he'll miraculously bring the poor imbecile he gutted back to liferesurrections being almost as entertaining as public executionsif someone will remind him who it was, and what was done with the body. He doesn't actually need the latter, of course, but it serves the memory, making the feat a trifle easier.
And so much more impressive to others.
The Great Hall, the sorceror begins to notice, reeks of stale alcohol and vomit, but he wills that away, too, adjusting his blood chemistry to a lucid euphoria. Then he summons to his private chambers a pair of teenage virgins he's been saving for just such an occasion. At dawn, they stagger off to wherever they came from, tear-soaked, befouled, and bleeding from the hundred minor abuses he's inflicted on them. Afterward, Lord Harness, who's had no more sleep than his most recent victims, nevertheless sits up sleepless amidst the soiled wreckage of his bed-linens, smoking an enormous Havana cigar.
He is unsatisfied and confused. For a man usually in control of himself, and of everythingand above all, everybodyaround him, it's been a sorely puzzling week. Until now, he's absorbed himself in pleasures and debaucheries to avoid thinking about it, but it seems so much more difficult than it used to be to evade unpleasant or bewildering thoughts. And there seem to be so many, lately, to evade.
For example, this recent business with the newsdrudge. If only his incompetent retainers had captured that one, she'd have been a delight to use, then to torture and execute, right alongside the serf who blabbed to her. But she's reminded him of vague memories it seems he's always had, of having once been a journalist himself, the editor of a small town newspaper. But that was a very long time ago, he realizes.
Indeed, it was a thousand years ago.
On the other hand, more and more frequently he's had disturbing flashesconflicting atrociously with those of his long, resplendent existence as a great magician and the eternally youthful, vigorous Lord Harnessof having been a mere freelance writer, himself. An old, sick freelance writer, with an Asian surname he can't quite remember.
He lies back and considers what he sees in the mirror over his bed. Most of those he grudgingly acknowledges as his peerswielders of great personal power like hissooner or later succumb to a temptation to alter their personal appearance. He, on the other hand, has never given it a serious thought. In the first place, he rather likes the way he looks: tall, broad-shouldered, slender-waisted, darkly-complected but with penetrating blue eyes, a big square jaw (always with a trace of five o'clock shadow), and a spendid walrus mustache.
In the second placedamn! Where did those come from? He gets up on his knees the better to examine the small, curved, ivory-colored horns that now project from his forehead just above the hairline. Thenand not without a touch of ironic regrethe wills the horns away.
Curiously, he rises from the bed and strolls over to another big mirror, hanging on the wall. The stainless steel manacles, dangling on long chains before the mirror from a high wooden ceiling beam, are going to need cleaning once again, as will the carpet immediately below them. But it's the mirror that has all of his attention now. How would he look as an ailing, elderly freelance writer with an Asian surname?
Experimentally, he begins to alter his appearance, losing eight inches of height, putting on thirty pounds and ten inches around his middle, wrinkling his skin, adding a stoop, subtracting rather a great deal of hair, altering the shape of his nose, chin, mouth, and ears. The eyes are still blue, still penetrating, but they belong to another man.
A man he knows nearly as well as he knows himself ...
If only he could remember ...
Intrigued, he begins modifying his creation, straightening out the stoop, removing lines and wrinkles, adding hair to the naked areas of the scalp, eliminating the grey in what was left, removing body fat, putting on muscle where age and a sedentary life have taken it way. Finally, not quite understanding why, he's satisfied, although he's not nearly as handsome as he was before. Before he realizes that he's done it, he announces to himself, "Horatio Brody Ngu, esquire, age thirty-five."
With a shock of sudden recognition, he realizes that he is this Brody Ngunot the vile, disgusting Lord Harness he thought he was, for who knows how long. In even greater shock, he remembers all over again, in minute and grisly detail, exactly what he did to those two innocent young girlscertainly innocent no morethe night before.
He collapses to the carpet, sodden with blood and other bodily fluids, dazed, horrified, grieving for a lost soul he never knew he possessed.
PART TWO: BRODY NGU
Many hours pass in which Brody experiences a kind of fevered semiconsciousness. After what seems like a great length of timeand having sent away several shifts of servants desperately wishing to feed and groom him and expressing the concern they've been carefully conditioned to feelhe finally manages to shake off the malignant residuum of Lord Harness' personality and tries to start figuring out what's happened to him, what it all means, and what he should do about it.
Beyond his name and the fact that led him to itthat he's a freelance writer of some kindBrody knows absolutely nothing about himself, where he came from, or who he really is. He has a vague sense that he doesn't belong here, wherever he is. Lord Harness' rapidly fading memories reassure him that there's a great deal more to the landscape he can see outside, through the arched and leaded windows of this stone-walled castle bedchamber, than the geographic territoryNebraska, a West American state?controlled by his alter-ego.
He does know that he must get out of this medieval fortress and out of Lord Harness' domain as fast as he can. He immediately finds, through an encounter with the guards, that the only way to accomplish that is to reassume the appearance of their overlord. The trouble is, this tends to bring back the evil sorceror's unspeakable thoughts and feelings. It costs him time and energy to regain control of his own being.
Trudging through seemingly endless fields of serf-tended grain, along a hot, dusty, wheel-rutted dirt road toward what Lord Harness' memories inform him is the nearest town, for just a moment Brody wishfully pictures himself riding a bicycleand in a flash, that's exactly what he's doing. This startles him so badly that he loses his concentration and the bike promptly vanishes, dropping him painfully onto the road. For a few minutes, he's so disoriented that he has some trouble keeping his clothing from vanishing, right along with the bike!
Once he's recollected himself, he experimentally tries summoning up an automobilea 2176 Pallatian GnuTriumph. From the make and model of the car in his mind he suddenly realizes he's from the 22nd century!
However, not quite as well-versed in the inner workings of modern automotive technology as he could be, even as a ... as a ... as a what?
As a sciencedrudgea popular science writer!
And unable to hold all the details that he does know in his mind at once, all he manages to create is a useless, foil-thin hollow shell of the car in question, which immediately evaporates. He contents himself with the bike again, mounts it, and completes the trip into town.
In town, Brody faces an altogether new problem. Each individual he comes into contact with seems to evoke different memories memories that apparently once belonged to Lord Harnessevery one of them negative. This woman, for example, gave herself too easily. That one never would give herself, which is, of course, even worse. And that one over there finally had to be taken by brute force. This man is a gullible fool. That one was easily corruptible. But that one over there is dangerously upright and should have been destroyed long, long ago.
It develops that these negative feelings are mutual. Overwhelmed by the powerful sorceror's personality again, Brody feels himself change unwillingly back into the Lord Harness' hated form. At the same time, he's disoriented, reeling, and conspicuously helpless. Sensing his weakness, an angry mob begins to form about him, apparently determined to beat, stone, and kick him to death in broad daylight, some on their own account, some for the sake of lost friends and loved ones. His last sight is of some kind of animal foot planted in his face.
His final impression is that it was a cloven hoof.
PART THREE: MERRIE
Hours later, Brody awakens in astonishment to the sight of the most beautiful female face he's ever seen: laughing blue-grey eyes above a straight, tip-tilted nose; moist full lips revealing perfect teeth; smooth, flawless skin, a dimpled chin, all framed in shining, shoulder-length raven tresses, the front cut in short bangs. The face gazing down at him could be almost any age; Brody guesses she's around twenty-three.
In a sweet, subtly accented voice, she assures him that he's away from the angry mob and safe now, that half of his bones were broken and he had many other severe injuries, but that the healing powers of her father are great, and that he, Brody, will be back on his feet in just a few days. Forgetting the magic he's seen alreadyand even performed himselfBrody assumes that he's fallen into the hands of an angelor a very attractive religious fanatic, and passes out again.
But apparently Brody's healing powers are great, as well. He quickly regains his health, due more, he thinks, to the radiant presencerather than the tender ministrationsof his charming, bright, and almost painfully beautiful nurse. She introduces herself as Merrie. She explains that she lives here in this little house near the edge of Collinford with her father, Edgar Leaf, retired physician and aspiring novelist. She teaches school. But in the summertime which it happens to be right nowshe acts as her father's secretary.
Merrie appears to be every bit as curious about Brody as he is about heralthough possibly for different reasons. She can't explain why she doesn't really understand how he can be a newcomer to the Collinford area. Except for newborn babies, she's never heard of anybody new before. Unfortunately, he can't provide her with many answers.
But after a few days Brody begins walking again. Merrie delights in introducing him to her home town, a cheerful, colorful regime of clean streets and sidewalks, and pretty, well-kept homes surrounded by white picket fences and broad, perfectly-trimmed lawns, shaded by great overarching trees. It's also a city of neat public buildings, friendly, unintrusive neighbors, happy children, even conscientious public servants who actually seem to recall where their salaries come from.
In short, Brody realizes, it's exactly the kind of "Ozzie and Harriet" fantasy world every self-styled sophisticate reflexively makes fun of, but secretly wishes he could spend the rest of his days in. Basically, what Merrie has to show him is everyday life in a small, prosperous midwestern city of what he remembers as the early Moratorium Era during the first half of the 21st century. He realizes with a start that it's a century well before whatever time2176, apparentlyhe thinks of as his own. His guess is confirmed when he sees, rolling quietly through the downtown streets and peaceful residential areas, automobiles that look as if they belong in a museum.
To Brody, disappointed as he's been by life (now where the hell did that datum come from; for a moment, he has an image of being old, unloved, in terrible pain, and close to death) it's exactly like something mythological and impossibly romantic has suddenly and quite magically sprung into existence. Yet, at the same time, its quality or ambience is warmly mundane, simple, and modest, rather than fantastic. But after all, he argues with himself, what are Brigadoon, Mayberry, Greater LaPorte, even Shangri-La, really, but more or less ordinary places where more or less ordinary people did, do, and will do more or less ordinary things (for the particular time and place at hand) forever?
In another senseas Brody has suspected all along and quickly confirms through further exploration of the town with Merriethere isn't anything ordinary about Collinford at all, despite that reassuring sign at the city limits. For example, it isn't unusual to see somebody like Sherlock Holmes himself (known politely here as "Mr. Sigurdsen") striding down the street, in the flesh, with Dr. Watson at his side in pursuit of "truth, justice, and the Victorian way!"
Their first day out, Brody and Merrie run into Bruce Lee, John Wayne, Babe Ruth, Robin Hood, Judge Dee, Bugs Bunny, and Albert Alligator, strolling down the street, driving by, even sitting in a restaurant having lunch. They watch followers of a white, Protestant Jesus walking with Him through City Park, who encounter a more ethnic Catholic Jesus and His flock. Both sides cheer as the enraged Saviors slug it out. In the same park, as a familiar-looking (if fictional) starship roars across the sky pursued by another, equally-familiar starship firing phasers and torpedoes, Merrie explains that there's a small war being waged between Originalists and Next Generationists, with Darth Vader and the Emperor craftily playing one side against the other.
Perhaps more fundamentally, Collinford is a place where everyone has it his own way. For those of a more sinister disposition (even on an occasional basis), there's the Other Side of the Tracks, with its traditional "dens of iniquity", offering the client flowing liquor, fast women (or men, or donkeys), gambling of all kinds, mindbending drugs, whips and chains, literally anything that can be imagined and desired.
The most interesting point is that these two realms (and many others, as Brody discovers) coexist side by side in a kind of harmony. Individuals travel freely between them, observing the rules of each as happens to be appropriate, with neither trespassing on the territory of the other (although what happens behind closed doors, even in the most "respectable" part of town, is nobody's business but the residents').
Brody and Merrie's explorations are rendered more arduous by his recurring difficulties with memory and identity. From time to time, the sight of someone or something familiar to Lord Harness triggers certain associations, and Brody, to his continuing horror, begins to slip back into the hated form of the evil magician. Sometimes he doesn't realize it until somebody reacts to Lord Harness rather than Brody.
This creates a number of problems. The first time Merrie sees it, she's frantic with terror. It takes a long time to calm her and explain, as best he can, what's happening. Also, it's horrible in and of itself: Lord Harness' memories and moral outlook are intolerable to Brody, often to the point of making him want to scream, vomit, or dash his head against a brick wall to drive the hated images from his mind.
At one point, he and Merrie experience the ultimate terror of transformations when Brody becomes Lord Harness while they're making love.
In addition, whenever this happens to Brody in public, he risks being attacked again. He can hardly blame the attackers, many of them Lord Harness' former victims, but he certainly doesn't want to die (and why does that come as a surprise?) for something somebody else did. And he doesn't want Merrie injured or killed by an angry mob, either.
Worst of all, the Harness personality seems to be increasingly aware of Brody and of what he's been up to. The sorceror looks at Merrie through Brody's eyes the same way a sculptor might look at a block of marble, or a painter at an empty canvas and sees something that cries out to be debased and corrupted. Lord Harness leers at this lovely, innocent, charming girl whom Brody realizes he has begun to love, and Brody, remembering the two doomed teenage girls, trembles in fear for herfor what he himself might do to her as Lord Harness.
PART FOUR: THE M.C. ESCHER ARMS
Downtownand for the first time with obvious reluctance, as if to get some grim but inevitable process over withMerrie introduces him to Collinford's most incongruous feature, the "M.C. Escher Arms", a vast, monumental structure of gray stone that he suddenly realizes resembles Harrad's historic department store in London, England, on Earth.
Thoroughly out of place in the small Nebraska municipality (Brody wonders why he didn't notice it looming high over the city when he arrived), its grey-tan stone exterior, heavy, brassbound revolving doors, and the opulent lobby he can just see through the thick, green-tinted glass set into them, seem about right for old Harrad's, as well, although the establishment, for some reason, presently impresses him more as a great urban hotel than a great department store.
Inside, Merrie informs himher big blue-grey eyes imploring him never to try to find out for himselfpast the plush conventional lobby, it's said that the visitor is confronted with an unending and ever-expanding maze of corridors, branching passageways, curving ramps, stairways, escalators, elevators, pneumatic transports, and matter transmitters, eternally under construction or reconstruction, seemingly with no rhyme, reason, pattern, or plan. Entities (not all of whom are human or familiar, she shudders) whisper out of one shadowed corner or another that for the right price, they can offer the disoriented wanderer a guaranteed accurate, updated, authentic map to the entire place.
Travelling from one point to another, one passes straight through a Tudor banquet, a Roman orgy, or some other picturesque costumed get-together in progress within some great hall or auditorium. Some areas even appear to be out-of-doors, but invariably reveal themselves as exceedingly large rooms with exceedingly high ceilings, currently transformed, for another example, into an 18th century formal garden with decorative statuary and broad stone railings, yet still featuring tables piled high with the most fabulous food and drink imaginable. The odors that fill the air, however, are those of the barnyard or the outhouse.
One subbasement leads down to another, endlessly, none of them really dank or unpleasant. In fact the deeper one goes, the more "normal" things appear, warm, dry, well-lit, clean, and impersonal, just like any service corridor in a decent hotel. Yet one hears the occasional moan or scream and there's an air of ancient evil to the place. Passersby can only wonder what abominations go on behind closed doors.
The thing that's really interesting, Merrie tells himin the ominous, Chinese sense of the wordis that, having at long last found his way back to the ground floor and the gigantic brass-trimmed glass revolving doors marking the front entrance, not every door leads back to the placeor even to the yearthat the visitor came in from!
Unable to restrain himself, Brody demands to know how Merrie knows what happens inside the M.C. Escher Arms. Has she been inside it, herself?
No, she tells him, it was her father. In addition to his many other fine attributes, Edgar Leaf is a powerful, highly-respected magician, independent and unaligned with any of the established factions. Edgar felt it was his duty to try to understand the M.C. Escher Arms and finally brought himself to venture inside on one occasion. He spent what seemed to him like two days and a night, but from Merrie's viewpoint left her alone and didn't return for two years!
"I distinctly remember," Merrie quotes Edgar as having told her after his adventure, "poking my head out through a large glass side door which opened, of all the places in the world, onto a Toronto street, cold and overcast, gritty and grey with winter, and bustling with perfectly ordinary East American Christmas shoppers. A big, smelly diesel bus went by while I watched. The yearaccording to the newspaper in a dispenser I happened to glimpse nearbywas 1975."
Merrie throws her arms around Brody's neck, declaring, now that they've found one another, that if he loves her, he'll never abandon her the way her father once did. She can't say why, but she no longer feels complete unless he's by her side. A man entirely unaccustomed to feeling loved, Brody views this development as some kind of miracle. Feeling her full warm breasts press against him, and with his arms around her slender waist, he gladly promises Merrie he'll never leave her.
She wipes the tears from her eyes and confides to Brody that her father has come to believe, since the two strange day/years he spent in the place, that the M.C. Escher Arms was intended by its builders (whoever they were) as a place that connects every point in space and time with every other point, and that this may be how truly civilized beings get around the universe, instead of spaceships or ... time machines.
"We ourselves," she repeats her father's observations again, "are perhaps only the equivalent of the mice in the wainscotting, without a clue as to who really built the M.C. Escher Arms or how to make proper use of it. Surely there must be answers to every possible question in that placemost of them spurious, no doubtand every one of them dangerous."
PART FIVE: EDGAR LEAF
Even disregarding the M.C. Escher Arms, everywhere they go, Brody observes signs of something very like magic at work in the world. On a drugstore magazine rack, this month's edition of The Reader's Digest promises "30 Days to More Powerful Spells". The store itself offers its customers numerous herbs, potions, and wands in brightly-colored blister-packs. Signs in a window above the same storefront offer the services of "Macbeth's Nifty Drycleaning and ExorcismOut, Damned Spot!"
And the magic apparently works: an ordinary-looking barber waves his hands over a customer's head and instantly produces a perfect haircut. Or he waves his hands over another customer, and hair sprouts where there was nothing but a shiny scalp before. Mechanics dowse over the hood to find out what's wrong with the engine of a car. The town's lawns and shrubs are trimmed with a wave of a gardener's staff.
Something tells Brody that this is not the way things were in the worldwhatever's happened to itwhere he grew up. Deeply confused by what he's witnessed in Collinford (did the same aliens or angels Edgar believes built the M.C. Escher Arms create the rest of the town, as well?), and desperate to put an end to what he thinks of as these "personality seizures"especially before Lord Harness can hurt Merriehe seeks the help of the magician who happens to be her father.
"Wizard, technically," Edgar Leaf explains. "Magicians limit their practice to small practical items like cutting grass or firewood or hair. Sorcerors practice coercive magic, something I regard as highly unethical.
"I seem to recall a time, myself," he tells Brody, "when magic was nothing more than a fantasy entertained by children and weak-minded adults. One day that changed somehow, although most folks around here can'tor simply won'tremember it." He leans to Brody and lowers his voice. "I do, vividly, because, a mere five minutes after making love to a woman, I was suddenly ready and able to do it again! Five minutes! When you're well over fifty and something like that starts happening, then you know you've got to be involved with some kind of magic!"
Magic. Brody thinks about a wondrous creature like the old man's daughter Merrie declaring her undying love for him and silently agrees.
"But for all of that," Edgar continues, shaking his head at his memories, "what happens here right now is well-enough grounded in some sort physical reality. And once you get accustomed to it, it's no more unreal or unruly than the workings of your own mind. The main thing is that, just like anywhere else, 'There ain't no such thing as a free lunch'. It might seem tricky sometimes, but basically, here's how it goes ...
"The most important elements are imagination and persistence. If you can thoroughly imagine somethingmake it something simple, like a drop of water in the palm of your handI mean, visualize it thoroughly, then it will appear. Whether it stays there long enough for anybody else to see it depends on how convincing you make it, how well it corresponds with the other fellow's idea of how it ought to look, how well it obeys physical laws you both remember, and, to a certain extent, how much authority of personality he thinks you possess."
Believing in science and objective reality, Brody begins a snide remark.
"Actually," the wizard interrupts, "it's neither as slippery nor as subjective as it seems. Think of all the elements involved in getting people (including yourself) to believe something that isn't true. There are certain rough laws that govern it, and it isn't necessarily all that negative or evil a process. Fiction writers engage in it all the time, a fact of importance in Collinford, as you'll discover. If a lie, whatever the intent, is plausible, if it's consistent with one's perception of natural law in every possible respect, that helps considerably. And so does a modicum of internal consistency."
"And if they want to believe," Brody offers, "that helps most of all."
Edgar nods. "A drop of water in your palm is coherent. It exhibits width and depth, refraction and reflection, viscosity and surface tension. It's neither too small to be impressive nor too large to hang together. It's cool, transparent, and pretty, like a jewel. The fact that it appeared out of nowhere is moderately entertaining, but nothing to get excited about. It's just a drop of water, so its appearance doesn't seem earth-shattering, nor does it strain credulity too far."
The wizard takes Brody's hand, turns it palm up, and the drop of water appears.
"In short, like any respectable short work of fiction, it invites willing suspension of disbelief, while it has other qualitiesthe memory of a desperate thirst well satisfied, or of a hot summer's skinny-dipthat tend to incline and compel even the most reluctant observer.
"Now, not too big a step, let's make it a penny and put it in your pocket."
Brody is startled at the change, but complies.
"Will it still be there when you get up tomorrow morning, Brody? That all depends on your power of memory and will, doesn't it? But it isn't quite as tedious as you may think. After all, your pocket's still there, isn't it, and your pants, aren't they? In Collinford, it appears that they're no more real than that penny or your drop of water!"
Brody tells Edgar about the bicycle he created. Edgar tells him that that's only the half of it. A determined enough magician can fly, if he wants. He can lift huge weights, hurl lightning bolts, and allow bullets, arrows, and laser beams to pass harmlessly through his body.
"But it wasn't always like this!" the newcomer insists. "You speak as if were something you had to get used to, as if things weren't always this way. I don't know how I know, but wherever it is I came from, magic was nothing more than wishful thinking and foolish self-deception."
The wizard nods. "Something happened", he says, straining his memory, "to change that. Suddenly the world was full of ... I don't know, call them figments of the culture's imagination. Characters I'd always believed were fictional: Hercule Poirot, Mickey Mousewho don't have any of these magical powers, by the way, unless they were originally created with them. Nor can any of them reproduce. Anyway, suddenly I wasn't getting tireder and weaker with each passing year. I could wave my hand and, despite a lifetime prejudice to the contrary, wishing did make it so. Something happened. I don't know what it was."
"About a thousand years ago."
Was that worth reading?