A missing tech mogul…
…a jaded reporter…
…a damaged AI returned from a horrifying reality…
…and something lurking in the woods.
When journalist Den Secord is tasked with locating enigmatic tech guru Gregor Makarios, he soon finds his understanding of reality under threat. At the edge of the world, surrounded by primeval forests, in the paradisiacal environs of Gregor's hi-tech hermitage, Den learns of the true nature of our Universe.
This is the way the world ends.
Heart of Darkness meets The Magus meets bleeding-edge psychedelic gnosticism in Stonefish, the debut novel from Scott R. Jones (When Stars Are Right, Shout Kill Revel Repeat).
Scott R Jones's debut novel has something for every sci-fi and horror fan. Cyberpunk strangeness, the paranoia of a Philip K. Dick novel, bleak humor and the horror of culture collapse. "I found this novel irresistible for its willingness to tackle gnostic and philosophical themes with a masterful sense of voice and place," says Ross Lockhart.
"Cosmic madness and mystery..."– Cody Goodfellow, author of Unamerica
"Scott R. Jones is a genuine master of horror."– Ramsey Campbell
"Stonefishearns its bleak, nihilistic position without coming across like that jerk in your first year literary theory class that talks about liking Nietzsche just to be cool, and it's one of the few books I've come across wherein the protagonists look into the abyss only to have the abyss stare back and say "Show us what you're made of, player."– Cody Goodfellow, author of Unamerica and Repo Shark
The meal Gregor prepared for me while I slept was more than decent. The ingredients he sourced and chose, the skilled preparation, his deft plating, all of it was a surprise and a delight and almost did more to unsettle me than the tank full of stonefish or the nighttime monster assault had.
I awoke to a tall glass of cool water on the bedside table and a note from Gregor. Soup's On! and a hand drawn map to the commissary and dining room. I left the med pod, my knee still aching a little, a kind of phantom twang I had difficulty believing was real. It would come and go and manifested not so much as pain as a nudge, or hint, of something changed. Outside, amber light pierced the treetops at a low angle, humming shafts of illuminated mist and pollens. An unseen raven croaked somewhere in the branches above. I had slept through the rest of the day.
Gregor greeted me enthusiastically as I entered the spare dining area. "I see my pharmacological skills haven't failed me; you're just in time for dinner."
"I had a dream," I said, aware in one second that I had, and forgetting it in the next.
"Did you now?" He directed me to a table, pulled out a chair for me. "Well, you're awake now, unless I miss my guess. Have a seat."
"Very formal. Nice centrepiece?" A small holo-emitter on the tablecloth displayed a three-dimensional rendering of a famous Goya. "Is that supposed to help my appetite or put me off the food entirely."
"Poor old guy, huh? Imagine never needing to eat before that moment, and then, hey oh, here's your first meal, tuck in, pops! It's my little meditation. If it bothers you I can turn it off."
I reached for the emitter and turned it ninety degrees. "Nice bum, for an old guy."
"That it is, that it is. The holo artist had to make their interpretations, obviously, but I'm glad they went and tightened him up at the rear, as befits his status. I hope you're hungry, Den."
"Yeah. Yeah, I could eat."
"I'll bet you could." Gregor poured wine from an unusual carafe, shaped like a double-helix. "I'll be right back with the first course."
"I can already smell it. What have you done in there?"
Amazing things, I was to learn. Gregor brought out the first two plates on a large platter.
"Here we have for starters pickled vegetable summer rolls of avocado and Thai basil, with an almond butter dipping sauce, and to hint at the main course we have some prawns wrapped in prosciutto with a roasted garlic aioli."
"Best he could manage was bread and raw fish, Den. Enjoy." He plucked a prawn from the plate and popped it in his mouth. "Damn! See, now that's a bit of all right."
He was understating it, and to great effect. Next up was a pickled beet and radish salad with a goat cheese croquette and nasturtium dressing, and something I couldn't recognize.
"That's pumpkin seed," he said when I asked. "Pickled, also. I do enjoy pickling things. More wine?"
"Please. This is insane. I've never tasted anything like this back home. Where are you getting this from, Gregor?"
He settled back in his chair and put fork to mouth, chewing thoughtfully. "Am I wowing you, Secord? Are you learning something."
"I'm learning I've never eaten well before."
"Hm. That may be. So, enlighten me. Post-scarcity not working out so hot down south?"
"It is and it isn't," I said around a mouthful of salad. "It's just that priorities have changed. There's a lot available but most of it is, well..."
"Yeah. And besides, the interesting stuff is all in the noönet."
"Again, hm. You're destroying that. Slow down!" Gregor topped off his own glass, took a long sip, then left for the kitchen again. But I couldn't slow down, at all. The feeling of filling up with genuinely nourishing food was thrilling. I thought of our family meals at the crèche, the instant this and pre-wrapped that, and wondered at what we were doing there.
And then Gregor was back, with more, and more, and I experienced a kind of low-grade epiphany: he would always present with more. Indeed, he already had, and I was now aware that this was his mode of being: everything would be too much of a muchness. The tour of Stonefish House, his stream of information branching away and away again into other streams, the overloading of the senses he seemed to generate with ease, until I was dizzy with data and unsure of my place in the world. Here, he was doing it with food, but I was finding, and would become ever more aware, that he did this with everything.
"For the main, we have here a risotto of roasted garlic, spring peas, and locally sourced Dungeness crab, followed by a sockeye salmon, lightly smoked on a cedar plank which, I may add, I cut myself, and that's a charred lemon aioli for dressing."
I could hear his air quotation marks floating around the crab, and the salmon. "So, you want me to believe you went out and caught these crabs yourself? And the fish?"
"That's not what I want you to believe per se, Den. There are other, more pressing things I need to convince you of, but yes. Yes, I went out and acquired these, after a fashion."
The thing was, I did believe him. Tasting (and I'm sure, now, that this was all to plan) was in this case believing, because the salmon in no way had that flat printed protein flavor I had become used to. There was a richness to it, and a delicacy as well, a fresh, revitalizing quality that hummed in my mouth. The creature on my plate had been swimming, and not too long ago. I was tasting life, or what remained of it. This was real food.
"It's amazing, Gregor."
"Ah, you're welcome," he said around a mouthful of cheesy rice. A large flake of crab meat had become suspended in his beard, and he picked up his napkin to dab at it, then popped the meat in his mouth once he had it free. He smirked. "We try not to waste things here. I'm glad you're enjoying the meal, Den."
"I don't know that enjoy is the right word. This is a revelation."
He made his hands into two little guns and pointed them at me. "Over a decade of practice made almost perfect. And it's the least I can do for you here, Den. The least of the revelations I can provide. Will provide."
Gregor leaned toward me where I sat, stuffing my face. He made a tent of his fingers and gathered up my gaze in his own. "I will, Den. Reveal things unto you, my son." I swallowed, hard. The salmon had been expertly de-boned, but something stuck in my throat all the same. "This is a place of revelation, as I'm sure you're already somewhat aware. You will need to be ready. Can you be ready?"
I forced a laugh, and sent a generous mouthful of wine after the obstruction in my throat. "I think my boss would have sent someone else if that wasn't the case, Gregor. It's, like, my job to be ready for revelations?"
"That's your life, Den. Anyone's life. Meta-data in aggregate. It's all revealing, at base."
"So, what do you have for me. Besides dangerous fish and secret doctors. And that you can cook like this."
Gregor raised an index finger and got up from the table. "I'll show you. Finish up and I'll be right back."
Dessert silenced me. Meringues, filled with a raspberry curd, dipped in dark chocolate. I entered some kind of threshold state; the world felt unreal and distant. Gregor saw my face and nodded slowly to himself, appraising, but also clearly pleased with my reaction.
Finally, I was done with the meal, and sighed audibly. Gregor grunted, then stood and began to clear the table. His method was haphazard at best. A single fork on a plate in one hand and the pepper mill went off with him back to the kitchen. Then he returned for another plate, and a water glass. Back and forth multiple times, muttering to himself. I offered to help, but he refused. "You've had a lot to digest, and I can't trust you with flatware after those meringues. Sit, sit!" he said. At one point he refilled my wine glass. Finally, the table was empty.
"All right, all right! Good! Good food, good conversation. Bellies full, minds humming? Yeah?"
"Sure, Gregor. Though I can't help but guess this was all in preparation for some new reveal." To this the old man nodded vigorously, smiling.
"Recall I said I'd come here to find someone. I don't want to wait any longer on introductions."
"I knew it! The doctor. Or doctors. Your staff."
"Pardon? Come on, get up, we've a bit of a walk ahead."
"Gregor, you mean the staff. Surely. Like, who fixed my leg? You must have people up here."
"No people, Den. Why would I retreat from the world for, what, doctors? No. One person. Come on, get up. Let's stretch our legs."
We left the building. Gregor loped along ahead at a brisk pace while I followed. I felt fit and happy, and realized with a kind of comfortable shock that this feeling was a truly novel one for me. The air was fresh and bright in my lungs, loaded with the scent of rich earth and sharp pine and cedar. The ground was firm and welcoming beneath my feet as we walked. Colors popped and shone in the evening light as the sun set behind us, coating the forest in golds and green and a dusky lavender. I actually sighed with pleasure.
"It's nice, yeah?" Gregor called back. He was easily six meters ahead of me. The old man had ridiculous stamina.
"Paradise," I repeated myself.
"From the Persian."
"Paradise. Old Persian word. A walled enclosure, usually a park, or orchard. A place of harvest. That's spot on, son. Paradise it is. This is how they like it. This is where they can let their hair down. Truly I tell you today, the man said, you will be with me in paradise."
"I don't follow."
"You will. We're here."
I had seen the building we stood in front of before, earlier, on the tour. The fallen-tree building, with the white paint and the lichen, the bramble choked roof, and a small jungle of rhododendron guarding the rear. Up close, the bioconcrete showed its age in wide swaths of bright calcification and pronounced ridges bulging from the pockmarked surfaces wherever the material had done battle with the moss and algae invaders. The place only looked like a log jam from a distance; here it was clearly a carefully constructed mesh of horizontally angled tubes.
"There are places like this all through the South," I said. Gregor nodded as he keyed in a long code at the door.
"Heat exchangers, yeah." The door slid open with an almost exasperated sigh. "The coolant tanks are below and out to the back of the place. They don't get up to much in here, not anymore, but better safe than sorry."
"Who are we talking about, Gregor?"
"Come in and meet them."