It's not so much that you should like stories,
the real point is that the stories must like you.
A sunny midsummer day. There is such a thing sometimes, even in Storyville. Along the hot, dusty streets, narrow dwellings squat, panting, their casements agape.
At 23 King's Row though, windows remain shut, curtains closed. A mixture of sandalwood, cinnamon and cloves smoulders away in a copper censer. Sylvia sits at her table, poised, her pen trolling the ether for inspiration. She smells last night's meal oozing out of her pores. With a sigh, she clasps a scratched wineglass. As she swigs the dregs, a drop of onion-scented sweat plummets from her forehead.
She hears sirens. The Art Patrol. Hovercars drop to a halt across the street. Sylvia surrounds her notebook with silence, encloses it beneath a loose floorboard, covers the board with a rug. With glacial deliberation, she creates a curtain-chink and peers out. Two hovercars, their propulsion fans idling, float above the kerb in front of the house over the way. Four LitVamp Squadders march up the path. One pounds at the front door. My God, they're after Marcel. She topples into the chair, elbows on table, clasped hands propping chin. Her heart is jelly. O my God. Breathe. Breathe. She flattens her palms on the table and presses herself up, leans forward, re-opens the chink. A shackled Marcel, dark moustache drooping, is dragged out of his front door by three LitVamps. The fourth carries fifteen florid notebooks and an assortment of pens sealed in transparent evidence bags. Chewing a stale pretzel, Sylvia pours more sherry into her glass.
Machines fill the splendid, monstrously over-sized, eighteenth-century ballroom. Hundreds of ReconWrite modules form a precise orthogonal array. Each module is an intricate bio-mechanical distillery -- an ornate network of synthflesh and metal, transparent tubing and anarchic wiring. A ReconstructedWriter has two principal components -- a spindly refractory tower and a bulbous word-hatchery -- joined by transparent tubes. All individual modules are recursively coupled and relinked by a seething snarl of wires and hoses. A sickly-sterile holoplasmic glitter of hearts, flowers, moons, stars, heaving bosoms and proud manhoods courses through these tubes and pipework. Nestled in each word-hatchery's heart is a triumph of LitBiotech -- a small blob of active UnDifferentiated Tissue reconstituted from DNA harvested from the remains of its resident writer.
Ted, protectively cocooned in LitBiohaz titaniaflex, shambles through the Romance array. He knocks his left knee against an errant extraction tube; inside, the coursing holoplasmic glitter sputters and turns cloud-grey.
‘Yikes!’ Ted yells at the tube.
He hauls a pulse-spanner from his toolbelt and manipulates the wordstream. Flowers and stars reform but the glitter is not as bright. Ted speaks into his maintenance log: ‘Cartland ReconWrite output pallid. UDT reviv needed.’ He moves on to Heyer. Just below his left knee, there is the tiniest of gashes in the titaniaflex.
From above, Bionetic Incorporated's Historium resembles a mutant mid-twentieth century theme park. The major landmark in the Pancreative Dominion, the Historium lies on a sweeping sandy plain dotted with pine forests, marshes and swamps which stretch out until cut by the viridian hills just beyond the Dominion’s eastern limits. On the plain’s western side, the wide, meandering Nobel rolls seaward between lush banks.
Ted emerges from Romance. The exterior resembles Wuthering Heights but the building is the size of a starship hangar. Bio-industrial smudge hangs above countless chimney stacks -- word-sludge spewed out from cyberedit processors and vaporised in 451-retorts. He climbs into his hover-buggy and speeds along Yellowbrick Road to a mammoth simulacrum of Toad Hall, home to the KiddyLit array and the UnDifferentiated Tissue of writers like Blyton and Seuss.
The genre factories are all immense. There are dozens and dozens. Horror dwells in a goitrous, wavering hell-dimensional cross between the House of Usher and Dracula's Castle. SciFi materialises in a mammoth Nautilus. Literature cowers in a monstrous Anne Hathaway's cottage. The whole Historium is on a Brobdingnagian scale. Except for Storyville.
Storyville is the litworkers' dorm town. It huddles at the Historium's margins close by the Booker, a small tributary of the Nobel. East of Storyville, the land stretches up into the Ben Bulben Ranges -- wooded base moraine with strings of hills, lakes and streams thrown up by the distortions and deposits of the last Ice Age.
‘Ted. I've got to get out of here. It's not safe. Marcel's been taken. They'll process him. If the mindsweep latches on to anything about me, my work ... my God. I must get away from the Dominion. Go to Innisfree.’
They sit facing each other across the kitchen table.
‘This is craziness Sylvia. Just burn the notebooks, ditch your pens.’
His mouth pulses open into a vapid smile.
‘You're crazy. That's impossible for me. You know it. Futile anyway. They don't need to find manuscripts or stationery. Just gut me with a mindsweep, then bye-bye Sylvia.’
She slams the glass down. A hail of drops catapults over the rim onto the faded tablecloth. Her body caves forward and she rests her face on the rough cotton. Tears mingle with the spilt wine. From his chair, Ted sees nothing but Sylvia's ink-stained fingers groping around in the tangle of her blonde hair. He blinks and finds himself standing behind her, massaging her slumped shoulders.
‘OK, my lovely. Calm down now. It's alright.’
Her sobs subside. She moans. Sits upright.
‘Why am I so afraid?’
Ted scratches below his left knee and then nibbles at her ears. She jerks her head away. He unbuttons his shirt.
‘I'm going to take a shower. Why don't you join me?’
‘Don't you understand? I've got to get out!’
He strokes her breasts. Pushing him back with her chair, she stands and faces him.
‘What is wrong with you?’
‘If you want to get wet, you know where I’ll be.’
He drops his pants on the floor as he struts out of the room.
She lurches to her feet, reels into the bathroom and, clutching its rim, throws up into the toilet bowl. Ted emerges from the shower, leans down and attempts to kiss her.
‘Christ, Ted! This is bonkers.’
Sylvia is aware of the glint in his eye, then of the heart-shaped rash on his leg.
She prods just below his left knee.
‘Oooof. That hurt!’
Ted rubs his smarting flesh. He examines the rash.
‘Good grief! How on earth?’
He stumbles into the shower and pumices vigorously, ignoring the pain. Blood dribbles down his shin. The ragged rash remains.
‘Oh God, Sylvia. You’re right. We've got to get out of here. No wonder I’m so randy. It’s Romance holoplasm. Damn those Historium bastards. Nothing’s supposed to get through bloody titaniaflex. Holoplasmic contamination! Hell!’
Sylvia runs a protesting tongue round the detritus of sherry, pretzel and peptic juices on her lips.
‘No, no! We have to stay now. You’ve got to get treatment. They can treat it?’
Ted slumps in the shower stall. He leers robotically at her.
‘No! No treatment. It’s terminal. I’m going to turn to mush. Only takes a few days. Take me to hospital and they’ll just recycle me. I’ll be nothing but Cartland UDT.’
The cottage inhabits a small clearing by a shingle beach. Inside, Ted lies delirious on the couch. Sylvia writes in her notebook. It is late afternoon.
‘Well here we are. Good old Dove Cottage. More of a wattle and daub hut really. Just one room. Snug enough now I’ve got the fire going. I’d forgotten how cold the nights are here at Lake Innisfree. Ted was a handful all the way up. I drove, of course. His antics, groping, kissing. Nearly went off the road a couple of times. Not to mention narrowly avoiding a head-on smash. Still, our old hovercar made it up the slopes. Grunted and groaned a lot though. Ted’s out of it for the moment, mumbling away to himself on the couch. What a business. To be writing this instead of my novel. Yesterday, when I saw them march Marcel out the door, I knew the mindsweepers would sift his memory matrices and find out about my writing. Time had run out. What a crazy world. Everything’s licensed. Even creativity. And the megacorps have bought up all the licences and automated the process. No more artistic peaks and troughs, no more writers’ blocks -- except if there’s some holoplasm tube malfunction. O Ted stop your moaning. Christ! Just hope the rumours are true about the feral stories. I hope to God I can track some down. They’re Ted’s only hope. An antidote to the insidious pap from the word-hatcheries that’s turning him to mush. At least, that’s what he said in one of his saner moments. And you’ve got to trust the word of a LitBiotechnician Level 2 -- even if he is literally a romantic fool! The wild stories, they can cure Ted and spark my creative juices. My novel’s not dead yet!’
The shadows deepen. Sylvia could not remember being in this part of the woods. Ever. Her breath becomes shallow. The hollow of her spine trembles like a quail's breast. The emergency wordstream containment module from Ted’s maintenance kit sits lightly in her backpack. She switches off the torch and presses ahead. She hears her heart beat. And, from a little way off, an unfamiliar but comforting sound -- a mixture of bird chatter and insect buzz. Shadowy shapes flit from tree to tree. The ground grows softer and springier. The carpet of leaves and twigs thicker. She comes to the edge of a small glade. Moonlight pours down onto the grass. Circling there, glistening in the silver rays, is a wild story-cloud.
A story ring. My God. They do exist. Yes, night is stories’ day and the moon their sun. The cold daylight will never drive away the magic night!
Crouched behind a great beech, Sylvia breathes ever more slowly and silently. She points the maw of the containment module at the story-cloud, steadies her hands and flips the activator toggle. A blacklight vortex disintegrates the moonbeams into a sad confetti. After snaring the story-cloud, the engorged vortex coils homewards. Trapped muffled voices cry ‘What the Dickens!’ When its maw snaps shut, the module is suddenly unbearably heavy. Astonished, Sylvia drops it. Thick clouds cover the moon. The darkness is palpable.
Dawnlight. Smiling with triumph, Sylvia staggers into the lakeside clearing. Hums and chitters rise up from inside the container in her sagging backpack. They catch the attention of a tiny feral story grazing on the moondust scattered among the reeds. A glimmer against the lake’s shimmer, the storyette steals up behind Sylvia and, a-wiggle and a-tickle, spirals into her right ear. ‘Nibble, nibble, gnaw, who is nibbling at my little house?’ Sylvia shivers with a strange pleasure as the words fly like dragons through her veins.
Covering Ted’s whole left leg now, the rash spreads red and ripe. A salacious tendril with a heart-shaped blossom sprouts from his upper thigh and snakes towards his belly. He lies unconscious. Perched next to him on the edge of the couch, Sylvia plugs one end of a synthflesh flexitube into the containment module’s outlet valve. She scrambles to find a breachable blood vessel and then jabs the tube’s hypodermic nozzle into Ted’s arm. It’s only in for an instant. But that’s enough. The rash dissolves. The heart-shaped blossom withers and morphs into a grey cog that ratchets itself up Ted’s torso and stakes its claim on a flat patch of skin over his heart. He stirs. Sits bolt upright. Square-faced. Emotionless. Gradgrind reborn, he wags a square finger at her.
‘Where am I? Now, what I want is, facts. Facts, Sylvia.’
He looks down at his dishevelled clothes.
‘Why in God’s name am I dressed like this? Where’s my black suit, my stovepipe hat?’
‘Ted! You’re back? So thin though. A bit strange. But, no wonder after all you’ve been through.’
Weeping, she throws her arms around him. The module falls from her knees to the floor. He wriggles free and stands.
‘Sylvia. Really. Compose yourself. Emotional outbursts are a blight upon human nature.’ His voice was inflexible, dry and dictatorial.
‘Have some more pie. You know you love my pie.’
‘I simply couldn’t digest another morsel and that’s a fact.’
‘Oh go on. You need fattening up now.’
Sylvia cuts a slice of apple pie and places it on Ted’s plate which is still littered with the unfinished debris of his first and second helpings. She slaps a goodly dollop of cream on top.
‘Tuck in now while I clean up. Then, I’m going to get stuck into my writing.’
‘Writing? Whatever do you mean, Sylvia? You can’t be serious. It’s illegal.’
‘My God, Ted. Wake up! I’ve been working on my novel for more than a year. Ah. Your memory functions must still be recovering. It’ll all come back to you gradually I suppose. Now, if you absolutely won’t finish that delicious pie, at least nibble into a few of these after-dinner mints.’
‘Without a licence? You’ve been writing without a licence? The law is there for a purpose, Sylvia. We can’t have anarchy and chaos. Creativity has to be properly weighed and measured. You know that. We could never afford the licence, even if one were come on the market. I must insist that you cease breaking the law. At once. Otherwise I must report you to the Art Patrol.’
‘What is going on inside that head of yours? Don’t play games. I have to write, you know that. You understood. You supported me.’
Ted’s eyes redden, his lips go ‘brrrrr’. Her face becomes a jagged blur to him.
‘You’re not Sylvia. Sylvia’s no criminal. My wife, my Sylvia can be no criminal. That’s a fact. You’re a witch. That’s what you are.’
‘Patience. Patience. Your mind must still be a little mushy. You will remember though. Soon. So, for the moment, yes, how about some hot gingerbread men?’ Sylvia leers hungrily at Ted. ‘Piping hot, plump ... oooh ... mouth-watering, mmm-mmmmm!’
She goes over to the antique slow-combustion range, opens the oven with mitted hand and peers in.
‘Criminal. Witch. Childeater. You can’t live.’
As Sylvia leans down, Ted charges up behind her and pushes her over. Her head hurls forward. The fall is awkward. Her right leg is broken. The oven heat burns. Sylvia gasps for air and falls unconscious.
‘No respect for facts. No respect for the law.’
He takes Sylvia’s notebooks from her backpack.
‘The proof’s here. The facts are here.’
The room fills with the stench of ginger.