The classic 1990s Philip K. Dick Award winner, the most reviewed science fiction book of 1997—now available in an e-book that constitutes the author's definitive version. With introduction by Jeff VanderMeer
Beneath the glare of three purple suns, three travelers - an old Mexican woman, an automated jeep, and a brontosaurus - have trudged across a desert for hundreds of years. They do not know if the desert has an end, and if it does, what they might find there. Sometimes they come across perfectly-preserved cities, but without a single inhabitant, and never a drop of rain. Worse still, they have no memory of their lives before the desert. Only at night, in dreams, do they recall fragments of their past identities.
But night also brings the madness of the sandstorms, which jolt them out of one body and into another in a game of metaphysical musical chairs. In their disorientation and dysfunction, they have killed each other dozens of times, but they cannot die. Where are they? How can they escape? From this quest form, Stepan Chapman has fashioned a poignant and powerful story of redemption in which pathos is leavened by humor and pain is softened by comfort. It is the story of deranged angels, deadly music boxes, and cellular transformation. It is also the tale of Alex who wanted to be a machine, Naomi, who spent 20 years as a corpsicle, and Eva, who escaped the whale emperor of her native land. The novel alternates between the three characters' attempts to discover where they are with their search for identity through the dream stories which reveal their fragmented pasts. The Troika's satisfying conclusion brings closure to one of the most harrowing journeys ever into the heart of surrealism and the human soul.
"Once upon a time there were three little sisters,"the Dormouse began in a great hurry; "and theirnames were Elsie, Lacie, and Tillie; and theylived at the bottom of a well—"
"What did they live on?" said Alice, who alwaystook a great interest in questions of eating and drinking.
"They lived on treacle," said the Dormouse, afterthinking a minute or two.
"They couldn't have done that, you know," Alicegently remarked. "They'd have been ill."
"So they were," said the Dormouse; "very ill."
The three of them were crossing a desert of white sand. They'd been crossing it for as long as they could remember. Today they listened to the wind as they traveled. The wind hadn't let up all day. It carved ridges in the sand, like isobars on a barometric pressure map.
Two of the suns had set, but one remained in the western sky. It baked the heaps of boulders and the lichens that grew on them. Three sets of tracks stretched across the plain, wavering under a shimmering ocean of air. There were human tracks, tire tracks, and the prints of some huge beast.
The brontosaur's head hung close to the white sand, swinging to the left and the right on her leathery gray neck. She was forty feet long and fifteen feet tall at the hips. She limped arthritically. Her joints were killing her.
The jeep drove along behind her on its four massive wheels on their independent axles. The glassy black panels of its photovoltaic collectors were angled out above its back to catch the last of the day's light. Its drive chain felt sluggish. Its turbines whined, complaining of the heat.
The old Mexican woman walked behind the jeep. Her skin was the color of terra cotta, and her hair was as white as snow. She wore canvas shoes and drab green coveralls with many zippered pockets. Over her eyes, she wore tinted glasses with orange lenses, rims of copper wire, and side screens of copper mesh.
Her name was Eva, and she was more than half mad. Some days she walked in small circles for hours, twisting up her hair and talking to herself. When she did, Alex and Naomi would have to wait for her to snap out of it. Alex was the jeep. Naomi was the brontosaur.
They were all incredibly ancient. Their earliest memories dated back to the Twentieth Century. Alex claimed to be the eldest. On the face of things, you'd expect a brontosaur to be older than a jeep, but Naomi agreed with Alex and maintained that she, Naomi, was the youngest.
None of them seriously believed the stories they told themselves about themselves. They'd forgotten where they came from. They also didn't know where they were. The desert crossing had been going on this way for centuries.
Triads, Alex thought to himself. I need more triads. Animal vegetable mineral, done that. One had her heart cut out. One got locked in a freezer. One gnawed off his own paw. Hah!
Naomi swung her muzzle toward the old woman. What is Father talking about? she asked.
Don't ask me! Eva told her. How the fuck would I know? Ask him yourself, you fucking pinhead.
Yes, Mother, thought Naomi.
She's in a snit, put in Alex.
She's always in a snit, thought Naomi. She should be put to sleep.
Painlessly? asked Alex. Or after torture? Naomi chewed a ball of cud and considered the question.
The wind whispered over the ridges of the white sand. Alex drove around Naomi and took the lead. Eva went on walking behind the others. It gave her something to look at, other than sand patterns, sandstone outcrops, and lichens. The last of the suns was slipping down behind a mesa. Soon the air would cool off. Then the three of them would stop for the night.
The behavior of the three suns was erratic. One of them was liable to rise while another was setting, while the third hovered at high noon for days on end. At other times they would come close to synchronizing. There seemed to be little pattern in their movements. There seemed to be only confusion.
Eva stumbled over a rock and looked down. Every stone had its own spattering of lichen—burnt orange or pale aqua.
The brontosaur marched on in the failing light, tears leaking slowly from her eyes, suffering the stiffness of her joints. Years of exposure to sun and wind had weathered her sleek hide into rutted tree bark that was stretched like a rickety tent over her spine and ribs. She swallowed her cud and winced from a pain in her hips, pulling her whiskery muzzle back from crooked brown teeth and shrunken purple gums.
Inside the jeep, Alex freeze-framed his optical input of Naomi's grimace and compared it to a reference still from twenty years earlier. Yes, those gums were definitely receding. The ancient beast had never looked worse. She was a ruined specimen. And with Alex's luck, he'd wake up tomorrow inside her head. What a life!
In Alex's view, they must all have gone mad. For whatever reasons, they were now insane. From the heat, or from the cold, or from the isolation or the crowding or the storms. Probably from the storms. What the storms did would drive anyone mad.
The sand whispered past beneath his tire treads. The wind sucked at his solar panels, which were folded flat to his back now, like glossy black beetle wings. His turbines droned like a jar of cicadas. As he bounced across some limestone, his tires scraped their wheel wells. His shock absorbers were thoroughly shot.
Alex had a theory that he'd been born as a man, a fragile construction of bone and jelly. In the laminated circuitry of his mind, he would come across disconnected snatches of the man's life, like scissored clips from some grainy old newsreel. Alex wondered what had become of that man.
Working from his freeze-frame of Naomi, he traced the contours of her head into his file of mechanical drawings, white on a field of blue. He simplified her saurian anatomy into volumes of solid geometry—direct view, side view, overhead. Alex enjoyed building scale models in his brain. It was one of his hobbies. But it was hard for him to concentrate with Eva babbling to herself.
I can't stand any more of this, she told herself. It never ends. It won't leave us alone. He must be mad. No he can't be mad. He's dead. Machines don't go mad. And Naomi isn't mad, she's just a retard. So I must be the mad one. It must be my fault. Oh, Naomi! If only we could be rid of him at last. You and I could be so happy. But there's nothing I can do. He said he would kill me, the bastard. He promised me, Naomi. He promised. Just a lot of big talk.
Eva lengthened her stride, overtook the brontosaur, and walked close behind the jeep, feeling the sand in her shoes. Naomi cocked one eye at her. Eva was shouting at Alex in her head.
Shift it to third, Shithead! You're fucking up the transmission! Shift into third!
Go get fucked, thought Alex. Don't mind me. I'll wait until you're done. Please. Climb on your pet lizard, squirm around, make noise, whatever it takes. In essence, Eva, in brief—go fuck yourself.
She's a better fuck than you'll ever be, thought Eva.
The jeep braked its wheels abruptly. Eva, walking behind it, stumbled into its rear bumper. It revved its rotors, shifted into reverse, and charged at her. She scrambled sideways before it could pin her under a tire. Alex laughed and rolled off in a cloud of white dust.
Naomi could feel her mother's anger constricting the veins inside her own skull. Please, Mother. Please, Father. Please don't quarrel. A storm is on its way. Let's just be quiet and keep moving.
Naomi was correct. A storm was moving toward them across the desert. A storm had caught up with them every day around sundown for several days running. The storms were always painful. When Alex and Eva were fighting, they were especially painful.
None of the three knew where the storms came from. All they had were competing theories. They didn't know who sent the storms, nor how the storms could do what they did. They knew that they were crossing a desert and had been for centuries. What they would find on the far side of the desert, they couldn't say.
They could have covered more distance in a day if the woman would have consented to riding on the jeep or on the brontosaur. But she chose to walk, because riding all day put her in a stupor, and then she didn't sleep well and didn't dream. When she didn't dream, her dreamlessness would inevitably attract a storm. And the storms kept getting worse. Just knowing that they were waiting out there made Eva want to die. The storms were torture devices. But where was the torturer hiding?
Who made their deaths impossible? Who reversed every lethal decision? Who vetoed their suicides? Eva had died more times than she could count on this desert crossing. There was the time she'd thrown herself off a mountain, the time when Alex broke her neck, the time when Naomi had rolled over and suffocated her. None of it had made any difference. The next storm would hit, and in the aftermath Eva would wake up in perfect repair. Who made all these repairs? Who pulled the strings that yanked her from her brain? Who forced her to play musical chairs for a body to live in? Eva wondered.
The first of the stars were out. The wind was picking up.
Naomi lifted her neck and saw a gully up ahead, sunk into the rock, out of the wind. It looked like a good place to spend the night. Naomi would curl up and chew the rocks out of her feet. Then she would piss into Alex's distilling unit and feed Eva some cud. Then they would all try to sleep. Perhaps the storm would pass them by today.
Alex muttered to himself. His speaker volume was at zero, but the other two still heard him. Just like her to tell me how to drive. I'll teach her the proper respect. Filthy little bitch! Putrid little bitch fucker! Disgusting little cunt-sucking bitch fucker!
Is he jacking off in there? asked Naomi.
He's probably trying to, answered Eva. Just ignore him.
Father isn't right in the head, is he, Mother?
No, he's not, Dear. That's it exactly.
Do we have to keep going? asked Naomi.
Tomorrow, answered Eva. Tomorrow we'll start again.
Will we ever get across?
I don't know.
Will you tell me when we get there?
Yes, Naomi. I'll tell you.
Down in the gully, the wind made a hollow sound. Eva sat down and disentangled the hooks of her sunglasses from her hair. She held the glasses in her hands and stared at them. The sunlight struck a red glow from the copper wire. She folded the glasses and tucked them in a pocket. She stuck her hands into the armpits of her coveralls and felt the damp and the heat of her body. She made her hands into fists.
If I were a dinosaur like Naomi, she told herself, I would crush Alex like a small metal bug.
But Eva had been a brontosaur, only last week. Before the last storm or the storm before that. She had been a brontosaur. She should have crushed him while she had the chance.
Before the last storm or the storm before that. Or were they all the same storm, one storm that followed them around? What sort of country were they moving across a week ago? Eva tried to remember. Fields of cracked mud. Miles of dusty mud with jagged fissures like the crooked honeycombs of a million melted beehives.
Today she was inside the woman, where she'd begun. And Naomi, she realized, was also in her natural form. They were all in their rightful places today. Eva hadn't noticed it before.
Down in the gully, there was a floor of loose sand between two walls of rock. The wind gusted past, over their heads. Eva hung her head and gazed at the sand between her thighs. She rubbed her neck. No one spoke.
Naomi raised her head into the wind and grazed at the lichens. Her long rough tongue scraped them right out of the crevices.
Eva walked around the gully peeling dead lichens from stones with her pocket knife. She collected a heap of brown scraps and dug a trench in the sand for a fire.
Alex parked on the plateau, near the brink of the gully. The stars were bright. There wasn't a cloud in the sky.
Suddenly they all knew that a storm was closing in.
"Oh shit!" said Alex.
They did what they always did. They put their heads together. It was the only way they knew to make the storms less harrowing.
Eva climbed from the gully and ran to the jeep. She lay across its hood and pressed one cheek to the windshield. Her coveralls felt clammy in the cold air, but the steel beneath her was warm and dry. She held onto an air scoop. Her hands were shaking. She felt Naomi's head nestling down beside her, Naomi's humid breath flowing around her. The brontosaur's great gray body curled around the jeep. Its tail looped them and settled to the sand, as silent as a cloudbank. Naomi's bulk muffled the wind.
Alex started hissing at Eva. Why don't you cry? Aren't you afraid? You are! You're falling apart! Do you think we care?
Oh shut up! groaned Naomi. Can't you both just shut up?
I hope that the storm drags you off to the moon and puts you down in a rock, the jeep droned on. Then you can cry all you want, and no one will have to listen to you.
Naomi closed her eyes. Nictating membranes slid across glossy green orbs as big as melons. Gatherings of wrinkled leather enfolded them. The three travelers waited for the storm to pounce. The closer together they huddled, the less would be the pain. Otherwise they'd have run off in three directions screaming long ago. It was the storms that held them together.
The wind swept past, neither louder nor softer than before. They were invaded by a premonition of crowding. Naomi's eyes flew open, bulging and wild. She twisted her head and saw thunderclouds in the sky, glimpsed figures moving inside their bruised underbellies. The radiant figures floated on white wings. Electrical halos played around their heads.
"Angels!" Naomi cried out. "I see angels in the clouds!"
"Calm down," shouted Eva.
The storm sucked them up in a howling black funnel.
Their souls were three spiny starfish that scratched and scraped at the sutures of a single skull. They wept, they wailed, they tore their hair, they begged for rescue, they bled, they ate their hearts out, they lost their minds. They ran out of tears, they ran out of breath, they ran out of blood. But the tumor in Naomi's head kept bleeding anyhow, and she couldn't bite it, she couldn't pull it out with her teeth.
They tumbled and spun—claws, arms, wheels, wires, leather, flesh, Eva, Alex, Naomi—uprooted from themselves in some inconceivable direction and then allowed to fall. Down they fell, without jaws, without axles, without hands, clutching at the air.
Naomi cracked open one eye. The eye was on the left side of her head, at the same level as her nostrils. She was back in the brontosaur.
Eva opened her eyes—first one eye, then two, then four. Her batteries felt weak. She shut off her headlights.
Alex woke up in the old Mexican woman, gasping and trembling. His head felt like a smashed gourd. He covered his face with his hands. "I can't take much more of this," he told the others.
But he didn't have much choice.
All of the stars were out. They weren't the stars of Earth. They were too many and too bright. The jeep's metal shell contracted in the chill of the evening, breaking the stillness with an occasional ping or ponk.
Naomi stretched herself, arching her back like a cat. She walked to the mouth of the gully, reciting sutras under her breath.
Alex climbed down from the hood of the jeep. He knelt on the white rock, and his long white hair blew across his face. He began to weep.
Eva charged her magnetos and spun her rotors. It was a nice night for a drive, but her batteries were too low. There was nothing to do but sleep.
Sleep, thought Alex. What a disgusting habit.
I'm still awake, thought Naomi.
Go to sleep, Eva told her.
I can't, thought Naomi. Father is mean and nasty and won't tell a story.
Tell her a story, thought Eva. Help us get to sleep.
I don't know any.
Make something up, thought Naomi. Tell us about the factory.
I never worked at a factory.
Of course you did, though Naomi. You dream about it all the time. Please don't be so mean. Tell us a story.
So he did. And as he did, Naomi dropped off. After she was asleep, she couldn't be sure, as she listened to him, whether Alex was telling about something that had happened to him, or something he'd dreamed, or whether he was actually dreaming and talking in his sleep, or whether she, Naomi, was dreaming the whole thing.