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End of the World Blues

an extract from the novel
by Jon Courtenay Grimwood

 


Floating Rope world

End of the World Blues by Jon Courtenay GrimwoodStumbling through the door, Lady Neku, otherwise known as Baroness Nawa-no-ukiyo, Countess High Strange and chatelaine of Schloss Omga, fell to her knees and threw up all over mother-of-pearl floor tiles. What she'd seen inside his head clung to her like static, and he'd taken memories from her. Lady Neku could still feel the holes.

'Fuck.'

Polyglot, polygoyle...

Polyandrous?

Double fuck. She wasn't allowed to forget what shape those tiles were meant to be, remembering stuff like that was her job.

Lady Neku was also Duchesse de Temps Perdue. Sometime around the start of the last millennium there had been a bout of title inflation. Hyper inflation, her grandfather said sniffily, guards became captains, captains became generals and the fugees got rights. Although, to be honest, they were no more free than before.

When Lady Neku looked again the tiles were triangular.

'Stop it,' she told Schloss Omga, her family's castle.

Maybe the castle was listening, or maybe it just got bored and decided to stop the architectural equivalent of twiddling its hair. Whatever, next time Lady Neku looked, the tiles in her bedroom had changed back to polygons and that was the last change of the day.

Dragging herself to her feet, Lady Neku stared around her. The vomit was already gone, swallowed by the floor and fed back to the castle. Schloss Omga was good at telling the difference between living organics and waste. It hardly ever got this wrong.

'Shit.'

She felt sick. Hell, she'd been sick. The damage to her shadow must be worse than she thought. Lady Neku turned the cloak over in her hands until she found a small tear. He shouldn't have grabbed her like that, she'd almost let the rip close around her. And then where would she have been?

Dead, obviously.

So cross was Lady Neku at having damaged the red cloak that it took her five minutes to notice her memory bracelet was missing, and another five to realise her real body wasn't in the room waiting for her. No back-up beads and no original from which to burn more. This was serious. Actually, it was beyond serious.

She'd left her body on a chair beside the door. At first she imagined her bedroom had just tidied it away, but all her wardrobes were empty. So she checked the room she'd used as a child, just in case household gods were being more forgetful than usual, only her body wasn't there either.

'Castle,' Neku demanded.

All she got by way of answer was an echoing emptiness in her head.

'Come on,' she said.

Again silence.

This was not unusual. The Katchatka family castle could sulk for decades if really pushed, and everyone but Neku regarded Schloss Omga as irretrievably senile and did their best to ignore it. Work arounds, her Lady Mother called them.

Work arounds involved cutting new doors rather than waiting for them to grow and quarrying storage space out of the bloody flesh beneath the council chamber, rather than asking the living core of the castle to withdraw.

Just to be certain she hadn't overlooked her body, Lady Neku checked the first bedroom again, walking along each wall in turn and opening every wardrobe. The castle knew she was looking because wardrobes started to appear that she'd never even seen before. Needless to say, all were empty.

The castle could imitate marble and manage a very good approximation of granite, which seemed to be constructed from the glue it used to stick itself to the slopes of their mountain, but what Schloss Omga really liked was mother of pearl. Neku imagined this was because it had originally been a snail. Although, obviously enough, it had only been a snail in the sense that her ancestors had been human.

They were talking a very long time back. Certainly pre-Cenoarchean, if not actually pre-Cenoproterozoic.

All of the wardrobes that appeared out of her walls were made from mother of pearl, many extruded into intricate rococo shapes that Lady Neku recognised from the library. Either the castle had remembered how to do this stuff, or she was being shown work that no one had seen for generations.

Art had been the topic of the only real conversation she and the castle ever had, though that talk had been rather one-sided. Mostly because few of the castle's thoughts seemed to make sense. Half a million years glitched between humanity's first flint blade and its first image, on a cave wall. Before pictures had been beads and before beads, pigments to make colour. This indicated a conceptual lag between technology and art, which reflected a slowness in the species to understand the importance of symbolic thought. Which was, apparently, the basis for all sentient behavioural organisation.

At this point the castle had paused. Which was Lady Neku's cue to think of something intelligent to say. So she'd wondered, what's flint? And the conversation had been over. Personally, she thought it impressive she'd known what a human was... Humans were fugees, unless it was the other way round.

'These are wild,' said Lady Neku, running her fingers across a pair of flying babies holding a heart pierced by an arrow. Not to mention, kitsch and hyper-clichéd. Although Lady Neku refrained from saying this. The castle could be sensitive about such comments.

Having examined all the alcoves, cupboards and wardrobes, Lady Neku climbed inside the largest, so the castle could impress her with its false back and spiral stairs up to an entire floor that waited empty and anxious. Lady Neku knew this, having been shown the wardrobe before. Its style and the winding stairs had an organic smoothness that spoke of her family's very earliest years at the end of the world.

It wasn't really the end of the world, of course... That would be when the planet turned to cinder and the last wisps of atmosphere burnt off, as the seas would do first, given time. Meanwhile, six overworlds kept the sun at bay and protected the planet as best they could.

Six families owned the off-world habitats, the biggest of which was High Strange, belonging to her family, the Katchatka. And a mesh of sky ropes held a mantle of silver gauze in place exactly a hundred kilometres above the world's surface.

Her brother Petro, who was oldest, said the ropes were alien and no one knew what the mantle around the planet was meant to do. Antonio disagreed, because Antonio always disagreed with Petro. It was Nico, the youngest of her brothers, who took Lady Neku's question seriously. He said the gossamer ate charged particles and the ropes created a magnetic field, which was why it was bad that their bit of sky had ripped.

Lady Neku had a theory about this. Mind you, she had a theory about everything and she was aware her body was still missing. She was merely avoiding panic and trying to approach the matter in a grown-up fashion. Lady Neku's theory said the earliest styles of furniture were fluid and organic because this reflected confidence in the future.

Her family were explorers, new to the end of the world and owners of what remained of human time, which could still be counted in tens of millennia. Not much, maybe, for a planet that had already existed for countless billions of years but it was enough.

When the sky tore, doubts set in. As the fugees stopped coming, the need for reassurance became stronger, hence the regression into fussier styles, an explosion in pointless titles and an endless recycling of cultures long gone. Of course, fugee was a misnomer. They were temporal exiles, removed from their own cultures. Although it had taken Lady Neku's family more centuries than was sensible to realise that they themselves were also exiles, as much imprisoned as the fugees they ruled.

If the cupboard was warm and the stairs warmer, the suite of rooms into which Lady Neku made herself venture was claustrophobic beyond description.

'Hot,' she said.

Inside her head Lady Neku felt the castle agree and instantly felt guilty. She wasn't the one endlessly crawling up a slope, trying to get away from the shrinking lakes, methane pockets and somatolite mats of the dead lands. No one lived in the castle these days, all her family preferred High Strange.

'Need to go home,' said Lady Neku, and felt the castle signal its understanding. She had more of Schloss Omga's attention than she remembered having been given before. 'My body,' she added, trying to keep the hope out of her thoughts. 'Don't suppose you remember where you put it?'

'Didn't,' said the castle.

'Didn't what?' asked Lady Neku.

The castle thought about that. It thought about it while Lady Neku retraced her steps to the twist of stairs. It thought about it while she scrabbled her way down the stairs and out of the cupboard, rank with sweat that stuck her dress to her spine and made hair feel disgusting. And it thought about it while she stripped off her dress, gloves and knickers and watched them dissolve into a puddle on the floor.

There had been a time when Schloss Omga was not alive. Lady Neku knew this because her brother Nico had told her. Walls had been spun from simple shell, the rooms had been soulless, many of them barely sentient. It seemed unlikely but Neku had come to understand something about Nico. However much he might tease her, Nico never lied.

'So,' said Neku, when she felt the castle's attention begin to drift. 'About my body...?'

'Not me,' said the castle.

'You're sure?'

'Quite.' It seemed certain about that.

With a sigh, Lady Neku broke the connection and let the castle return its attention to what ever had been occupying it when she first interrupted; crawling up its slope most probably. All that now remained of Lady Neku's clothes was the cloak. This would never dissolve or need cleaning and that was its virtue. The garment was indestructible and guaranteed to protect its wearer from family explosions, black ice and electric rain...

She'd listened to the label once, hidden in a doorway in Shinjuku, one afternoon when she was very bored. It had kept talking until she had to tell it to stop. And yet, guarantee or not, her cloak was now damaged. Which, Lady Neku guessed was what one should expect if one caught it on a rip in time.

Because Lady Neku was stubborn, and being stubborn often did unnecessary things because she'd already decided to do them, she rechecked the wardrobes in her room. There were a hundred and thirteen, which was at least seventy more than normal.

Among these was her new favourite, the mother-of-pearl wardrobe with the winged cherubs. Neku checked this last, just in case the castle was trying to tell her something, but it was as empty as the others. Her body was definitely gone.

Unless...?

Now that was a thought.

Her mother was perfectly capable of having taken Lady Neku's current real as a way of telling her daughter it was time to grow up. There was only one problem with this. It would mean, firstly, that Lady Katchatka knew her daughter had been breaking bounds. Secondly, it would require Lady Katchatka to visit the Schloss in person, something that had not occurred in Lady Neku's lifetime.

The corridor down to her mother's castle quarters twisted more than was strictly necessary to accommodate the spiral nature of Schloss Omga. Sometimes it seemed that the castle wasted too much effort trying to match form, not so much to function as original inspiration.

'My Lady?'

Silence greeted her.

So Lady Neku waited enough time to be polite and then called again. The Katchatka were a very formal family. Dust covered the table and something sticky smeared the oiled paper screen dividing her mother's study in two. Forbidden from touching or changing anything in Lady Katchatka's room, the castle had chosen to assume this rule applied to cleaning it as well.

When it became clear that not even servants had visited her mother's quarters for weeks, if not longer, Lady Neku turned to go, turned back and went with her original choice, making herself walk away without another glance.

'Castle,' said Lady Neku. 'Prepare me a lift to High Strange.'

'Madame. The overworld is empty.'

Lady Neku wondered if she'd heard that correctly. 'Patch me through,' she demanded. 'Do it now.'

'Link made,' said the castle.

Having tried to contact her mother, Lady Neku tried each of her brothers in turn, staring with Nico, her favourite. 'Where are they?' she asked. When Schloss Omga failed to reply, she asked again.

'I haven't seen them,' the castle admitted. 'Not since...'

'Since what?'

'Your wedding,' said the castle. And Lady Neku found herself kneeling on the tiles, vomiting again. Polyglot, Polygoyle...

Polyandrous?

There was so much Lady Neku needed to remember. So much she needed to forget.

...continues


© Jon Courtenay Grimwood 2006.
End of the World Blues is published by Gollancz on 17 August 2006.

End of the World Blues by Jon Courtenay Grimwood
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