when the world ended
In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals—and yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?
—William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act II scene i
Danilaw Bakare was on a nightclub stage when the world ended.
His third-day job was as a classical musician. He held the lease on a baby blue electric fab bass, and two nights a nonce he joined up with two guitarists and a drummer to play the greats in a repro dive bar in Bad Landing, on the east rim of Crater Lake. They did all the classics—Buddy Holly, Buddy Guy, Gatemouth Brown, Page and Plant. Thompson, Hendrix, Li, Morris, Mitchell, Kad?erli, Kasparyan, Noks, Hynde.
It was one hell of a relief from the first-day job where he spent five days out of nine, and it filled his arts requirement in style. The first-day job was as City Administrator for Bad Landing, which loaned the band a certain notoriety and filled his admin and service logs. He completed the nurturing requirement with volunteer work and babysitting his sister’s kids, half grateful that, given his other commitments, it was a tertiary and half worried he was never going to find the time himself to reproduce.
So he happened to be onstage before a crowd of about one hundred and seventy-five, holding up Therese while she laid fire through “Johnny B. Goode,” when the end began.
As poets had long suspected, it happened so subtly that Danilaw at first had no idea of the historic significance of events beyond a sensible level of unease. There was no drama. Just a brown-faced citizen in a suit and some discreet hardware, as out of place in mufti—and in the club crowd—as a dodecapus at a tea party. She slipped in through the kitchen, pausing behind the tables where the patrons were seated so only the musicians and staff would see her, planting herself at the end of the bar like she’d been carved there. When Danilaw caught her eye, across all those rapt faces, she frowned and nodded.
She had a round face, a straight nose, and a finely pointed chin. He imagined brown or amber eyes behind smoky lashes, and schooled himself to professional coolness.
Damn, he thought. There goes the second set.
His own security was out in the crowd, but he didn’t know who most of them were and he wasn’t supposed to try to find out. So the citizen must have come with a message too sensitive to transmit, even encrypted.
Thinking too much, he fluffed a chord change, but got it back before the progression fell apart on him. He turned over his shoulder and shot a signal to Chuck, the drummer, who threw in a special fill to let Therese know to end the set. She wrapped up the Chuck Berry in half the time it usually took—a minor tragedy. But as soon as she announced the break, he set his bass in the stand and jumped off the stage, landing between two tables surrounded by startled patrons.
“Sorry, Ciz.” He had to turn sideways to slip between them; the aisles were narrow, and Danilaw both broad and tall. When he got closer to the watcher, he began to realize the true depth of the problem. In addition to her suit and chrome—headwire and earset—the citizen wore a Captain’s crimson Free Legate jewel over her left eyebrow and a worried expression across the entirety of her face. When Danilaw came up, she didn’t hesitate and she did not mince words.
“Premier, I’m sorry.” Her voice was light and well modulated, but he would bet it could carry across a crowd if necessary. “I’m Amanda Friar. We haven’t met. I’ve been sent to inform you that the homeward perimeter registers a blip.”
Nothing was scheduled incoming for over four hundred days. And certainly nothing from Earth.
“Rogue ship?” he asked. “Pirates?”
There had been no reliable reports of piracy in Danilaw’s lifetime. But there was history, and there was always a new first time.
Captain Amanda shook her head, giving Danilaw an increment of relief. “She’s broadcasting an identity tag, one there would be no reason to fake.”
That relief faded as he watched her nerve herself.
“An antique tag. On antique equipment. We had to break open the original code files.”
He knew the answer. “The Jacob’s Ladder.”
He might as well have said the Flying Dutchman. But, incredibly, she nodded.
Danilaw rocked restlessly from foot to foot, controlling his body’s desire to fidget by force of will. Floorboards of salvaged wood creaked under his weight, reprimanding him. “Wrack and waste, the Kleptocracy actually did it.”
“And only a thousand years late.” She took his elbow as she led him from the room, back the way she’d come. “Administrator Danilaw?”
Her thin throat showed it when she swallowed. “Do you suppose anyone’s alive on it, sir?”
He shook his head, but he didn’t mean no. Something more like awe and incredulity. “I hate to guess. And if they are, what sort of condition do you suppose they’re in?”
Danilaw collected his open security detail, and Captain Amanda brought him topside. Much of Bad Landing was underground—a compact, low-impact settlement burrowed out of the already-shocked earth surrounding Crater Lake. Surface paths shaded by native vegetation and foul-weather awnings threaded between the gentle slopes of constructed hills. Dwellings, gathering places, and the scattering of rare commercial buildings clustered around meadows and diversity zones. Solar leaves laid flat for the night scaled the water-grooved roofs of earthed buildings and, across the lake, ranks of solar-skinned wind turbines followed the arc of an artificial reef habitat.
Three smeeps and a robin hopped or flapped a few steps as Danilaw and his entourage stepped out of the biomimetic berm housing the nightclub, encouraging him to smile. The seventeen-year smeeps hadn’t been out much lately—it was coming up on one of their breeding and ?hibernation cycles—and he missed their dusty rose-violet plumage and trilling cries.
Tonight’s open security detail were well-known to both Danilaw and each other. Karen took point; Banko and Keebler followed along behind, silent in their tuned awareness. Alert but not worried.
Rightminding was a cure for all sorts of things, but political violence wasn’t always one of them. There were logical reasons, sometimes, for war—although in practice that had not happened in centuries. And even for assassinations. But in a community as small and tight-knit as Bad Landing, security had the advantage of already having a pretty good idea of who the crazies and the justifiably dissatisfied were, and Danilaw made sure there were always routes of complaint open to every citizen.
On such a pleasant night, the trails were busy under their canopies. Solar-storing fairylights shimmered in the over?arching branches of several varieties of violet-black xeno?trees, and the nightbirds—robins, screamers, shutterlings—flitted among their branches. The drone of insects hung heavy in the evening cool, throbbing and slower now than it had been at the height of summer. Danilaw kept an eye peeled. A pack of native wild “dogs” had begun patrolling inside the boundaries of Bad Landing—a good sign that the settlement was integrating well, but a possible contributor to the sudden rarity of smeeps. He hoped to catch sight of one, but they were shy and fleeting, and he had yet to glimpse more than eyeshine and a silhouette.
Along the way, Captain Amanda briefed him on her capabilities and what she knew about the incoming vessel. Danilaw listened and observed, for the moment defaulting to learning mode, while the walkers and the wildlife carried on around them. A couple of joggers passed, running either for the fun of it or to fulfill their Obligation. As Danilaw, Captain Amanda, and the security stepped aside to let them by, something small, nocturnal, and fast-?moving brachiated past overhead. It could have been any of half a dozen varieties of treeswinger. It was gone before Danilaw looked up, or maybe it hadn’t gotten close enough to the directional lights for him to pick up more than a suggestion of how it moved.
The closest Administration Building access was within sight of Crater Lake, out from under the edge of the big xenos.
It was called a lake, and drainage meant the water was conspicuously less saline than seawater, but the impact scar from the eponymous bad landing communicated directly west to the Sunrise Sea. There was no sunrise over it now. Favor—dark, reflective oceans agleam behind argent bands of cloud—would already be setting as a waning crescent over the forests in the east. Danilaw couldn’t see Fortune’s poisonous sister-world through the trees, but the skies were spread with silver behind heavy boughs.
He sighed, and turned to enter the access. Danilaw stepped through on Captain Amanda’s heels, all but one of his security peeling away now that he was within the safety of Admin. The access sensors identified his microchip and granted him access, an air cushion lowering the platform smoothly to the deepest level.
He stepped out of the shaft and tugged his clothes back into order. Captain Amanda walked forward, outlined against the observation blisters that bubbled into the water. Karen followed behind, professionally unobtrusive. Using the access had activated the lights, now glowing dimly around the rims of the windows. Danilaw scanned the port briefly for any sign of an inquisitive dodecapus, but no twisting arms or sucker-feet rewarded him.
The creatures, with their color-shift skins and multiple eyes, liked to gather around the windows when the Admin offices were occupied. Although they were gentle omnivores, their size and power were sufficient that they could kill any of Fortune’s waterborne apex predators by suffocation, and they lived largely unmolested among the artificial reefs created by the wind farms.
Danilaw tended to think of them as watching over the human settlers; he was disappointed that none were in evidence. He and Captain Amanda walked the whole length of the observation hall and, before he let her chip-key open the meeting room door, he paused and stuck his head into the final blister.
It was cooler here, surrounded on three sides by the thermal mass of all that water. Danilaw peered into the blackness of the nighttime lake and frowned. What would it be like if that blackness were outer space? What would it be like if that were all you had ever known?
Captain Amanda didn’t sigh, but he heard her shifting from foot to foot.
“Just collecting my thoughts.” He turned back.
She smiled. “Collect mine, too, while you’re in there?”
“If I see ’em,” he said, liking her. You didn’t need affection to work well with someone, but if it happened, it could necessitate fewer adjustments to the rightminding. And it was always easier to like funny people—if they could be funny without it being at anyone else’s expense.
Danilaw thought it might be because humor was on some level an admission of weakness. I’ll show you my defense mechanisms if you show me yours.
Danilaw tipped his head at the door to the conference room, just to the other side of the entrance to his tiny private office. Another weirdness engendered by his role as City Administrator—who worked in an office anymore? Who met face-to-face? Who commuted? But authority required trappings, and to some people archaicism still meant authority.
Danilaw did sigh now. “Come on. Let’s go tell them the paradigm has shifted.”
Excerpted from Grail by Elizabeth Bear. Copyright © 2011 by Elizabeth Bear. Excerpted by permission of Spectra, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.