Aestival Tide is the second installment of Elizabeth Hand's post-apocalyptic trilogy that begins with Winterlong. It portrays, in loving detail, the decadence and destruction of Araboth, the domed city created as a refuge from the horrors of war and pestilence unleashed by earlier conflicts.
Although created as a haven, Araboth has become — not a prison, exactly — call it an asylum. Ruled by the three margravines of the Orsina dynasty, it's a society marked by empty pleasures, maneuvering for status that means nothing, and rituals that are even emptier than the conversation.
But the end is coming, the day that the Prince of Storms will sweep in from the sea and wipe the city from the face of the earth. Someday, say the margravines, and so we must continue to sacrifice to the Compassionate Redeemer, an eyeless appetite created by the genetechs, released once a year for the Feast of Fear at the time of the Aestival Tide."
I met Elizabeth Hand at the San Francisco Worldcon when our mutual publisher drove a bus filled with its authors up to George Lucas's Skywalker Ranch for the evening. What a memorable evening it was! I'd also use "memorable" to describe any of Liz's stories and books. She's internationally renowned for her lush literary style and cutting-edge ideas. Prepare to be dazzled by Aestival Tide, a wonderful addition to the Philip K. Dick Award Bundle. – Lisa Mason
"Hand is one of the writers of her generation ... striving to write the kind of literate science-fantasy produced by Gene Wolfe and Jack Vance. Hand's skills are formidable and impressive. Her descriptions of Araboth are given in swift, sure strokes; her command of the English language is far better than that of most science-fiction writers. At a time when too many sf writers are producing pale copies of great work, it is a pleasure to announce that Elizabeth Hand is a writer of considerable talent and power. If she persists, Hand may well become one of the major science fiction writers of her time."– Washington Post
INSIDE OF A REGENERATION vat on Seraphim, the highest level of Araboth, something wakes. Once a man and now something less than that, still it thinks of itself as him; still he recalls the manner of his dying, as though it were a dream.
Because, as the poets say, Death was really just a brief sleep after all. There was a smell of brimstone, and of sleet; then a wash of light the color of the sea. Then, for a timeless reach, there was nothing: that was when he was really dead. But now he is waking once more; and if he had a voice he would shriek to shatter the chamber that imprisons him.
The woman stands above the vat, staring down at the puffy white body with its net of tubes and wires running from it. She knows he is alive again. She says nothing; only leans forward a little, so that the cuff of her crimson surgical gown trails into the vat of nutrients and tangles with a tube running into the man's mouth. Her mouth opens and she whispers a name; and almost, almost she can imagine that he might hear her.
In the tank the man tries to stir, struggles to let his arms flow through this warm pool, but if no longer dead he is still unsure if he is alive. He can feel nothing. His arms are little more than a memory of flesh and sinew, his eyes open onto the saline darkness and there is nothing there to see. He wonders if this is another nightmare—there were many nightmares, untold nightmares, once—or if he has somehow, again, failed his masters. Because if that is the case, he knows where he is. He knows that this is not Hell but a regeneration chamber. He knows that Hell is not other people, as a man once said; Hell is oneself, the same broken body and twisted mind doomed to return to itself over and over again, a barren country where not even Death claims dominion. And from somewhere within the softly churning ocean that is all he now knows comes the memory of another face, a charred-white skull crumbling into ruin as its voice rings triumphantly through the cold air—
" 'Look at the stars! Look, look up at the sky!—' "
But here in the regeneration chamber there is no triumph in rebirth. There is no sky here, there are no stars. He is in a place that sees nothing of the heavens. And then suddenly it is as though a caul has been stripped from his eyes. It seems that at last he can see something.
He sees a face, the face of a woman hovering above his watery crucible. It is a face he recognizes. The watery surface of the regeneration chamber ripples as he flails beneath it, knowing now the truth: that even in death he cannot escape her, even in death she will make a weapon of him. She has found him, she has reclaimed the fallen one and brought him to Araboth. The grinding wheel turns once more and he is doomed again to eternal service in the War in Hell.
To reach Angels, the Undercity, one must go down, down through the nine levels of the vast stepped pyramid that is Araboth. One begins at Level Nine, Seraphim, the pinnacle of the Holy City. Seraphim, where the Orsinate Ascendancy dwell—the city's rulers, the surviving members of the deranged Orsina family who still exert their febrile will upon the ruins of the continent outside. The Orsinate, themselves subject to the whims of the true Ascendant Autocracy, who live in the slowly decaying wheels of the HORUS stations, the Human Orbital Research Units in Space, where they retreated after the mass extinctions and mutations of the Third Shining. On some evenings the skygates open in the Central Quincunx Dome. Then the Aviators return in their warplanes, the Gryphons and the great silent dirigibles called fougas arrowing down through the heavy air of Araboth to refuel. Afterward, the Aviators walk unsteadily upon the smooth white avenues, and behind their eyes one can glimpse the flames of islands burning in the Archipelago, and smell in their sweat the sweet reek of a madness that overcomes fear. On these evenings, after the Aviators are gone and the skygate remains open, the Orsinate and their cabinet gather on the viewing platforms and stare up through that little lozenge of ultramarine darkness. They imagine, some of them, that they can see the faint lights of the HORUS stations tracking across the sky—grimy stars dying an interminable silent death even as their masters continue to send their whispered commands earthward, to land with the Aviators on the ancient ramparts of the domed city. It is the only glimpse of the stars that anyone in Araboth will ever see, except for once every decade at Æstival Tide.
On Level One, the Undercity, no one has ever seen the stars. And few of the aristocracy on Level Nine have ever seen the Undercity. To reach it one must leave Seraphim and descend to Cherubim, and thence to Thrones, and Dominations, Virtues and Powers and Principalities and Archangels, each level of the ziggurat larger and more ancient and ruinous than the one above. The levels are named for the Divine Choirs, the orders of angels. A subtle joke played by those who founded Araboth centuries before. Those founders were religious people—thus The Holy City of the Americas—members of two cruel and ancient faiths who joined forces after the Second Ascension and have ruled this continent ever since. And so the oldest level of the ziggurat is Level One, Angels, where once another city stood, before there were domes and mutagenic rains and space stations marking drunken parabolas across the night sky. In Araboth, Level One is the Undercity. And few people go there of their own free will.
There are ancient things in the Undercity. The Beautiful One is one of them; but for centuries the Beautiful One has been asleep. Like the man thrashing feebly in the regeneration chamber on Level Nine, the Beautiful One is somewhere between wakefulness and dreaming; though not between life and death. Because the Beautiful One is not human, and so she has never really been alive.
But now the Beautiful One is waking, too. On the lowest level of the Holy City, Level One where only Angels dwell, there the Beautiful One is stirring. Her glass eyes flicker and her metal lips part and she sees them, the others who have come to worship her. Angels, they are called ironically on the upper levels; the fallen ones. But in her twilight state the Beautiful One does not see angels. She sees a man, tall and finely dressed, and around him pale forms crouched in the darkness, white-skinned, corpselike, their eyes glowing an unearthly green. They are rasas, "the scraped ones," regenerated corpses set to work on Archangels' refineries and the medifacs of Principalities. The ones who are here in the Undercity have somehow managed to escape their servitude above. Even the dead, it seems, can recognize that there are degrees of suffering in Hell. Sometimes the Beautiful One thinks that she hears them call her by an ancient name, their tongueless mouths struggling over the word; and in her sleep she answers them.
But the Beautiful One does not know this, not really. She does not know because she has slept these four hundred years, and dreamed another's dream. Her mind is composed of glass and thread, of circuitry and nucleoreceptive fluids. And dreams, of course, and histories: all the memories of those who came before her.
"Mother." The words are so garbled that only the Beautiful One can understand them. "Mother, Mother. Please."
"Nefertity," whispers the finely dressed man in his crimson greatcoat. It is the sort of clothing, of archaic yet fine, even baroque, styling, that only a member of the Orsinate might wear. His hand caresses her cold glass cheek, presses gently the spot upon her lower lip, the indentation that might have been left by too rough a kiss. "Nefertity, speak to me."
Ah, she thinks. From within the coils of metal thread a flame begins to lick and preen. Ah.
Her eyelids snap open. From the watching rasas comes a sound like a hiss or a sigh, and their pallid hands move slowly.
"Nefertity," breathes the waiting man.
"Ah," she says again; and as her eyes begin to move the room flares gold with light.
"Ah," the Angels cry out, and creep closer as she starts to speak.
"Greetings, sisters and brothers," she breathes. It is a woman's voice, calm and somewhat breathless. "This is the United Provinces Recorded History project, copyright 2109, Registered Nemosyne Unit number 45: NFRTI, the National Feminist Recorded Technical Index, or Nefertity."
The voice pauses. There is a soft whir, the whicker of datafiles spinning. Then, "The intent of our project is to provide a record of oral histories of those who might otherwise be forgotten. The Albhuz Femicides, the Bibliochlasm of 2097 and the subsequent holocaust have taught us the terrible necessity of projects such as these. Together, the Nemosyne Units of the UPRH will ensure that these voices will not have been silenced forever. As the Recorded Feminist Index of the American Vatican, I represent only one portion of the vast database available through the UPRH. Your local infonet will tell you how to link with others."
The whirring stops for a moment. The waiting rasas remain silent, oblivious to her words. It has been two hundred years since the bibliochlasm has even been admitted as part of the Ascendants' heritage; more years than that since the last nemosyne was believed lost in the infernos of the Third Shining.
"Nefertity," the man in the crimson greatcoat whispers, "speak to me."
The nemosyne clicks; then,
" 'I am the Million,' " she begins. Even the man is heard to sigh.
The Beautiful One Is Here.
THE SCREEN SHOWED A luminous formation like the cutaway view of a chambered nautilus. At various points blinking lights signaled the presence of the Wardens, the computerized guardians of the Orsinate's special entries to the gravators that shuttled them from one level of the Holy City to the next. In the very center of the nautilus a small rectangle glowed brilliant purple—the palace where the Orsinate Ascendancy and their staff lived and ordered the systemized destruction of the world outside the domes.
It was not really a nautilus, of course. Hobi knew that, as did his father, the Architect Imperator, whose long, thin fingers traced and coded new entries onto the screen. It was a bird's-eye view of Araboth; but Hobi was doubtful as to whether any birds remained Outside to see those radiant tiers beneath the domes. In fact, the discovery that there were still birds Outside would have disturbed Hobi greatly. Hobi was only seventeen. His education at the chromium hands of a Seventeenth Generation Tutorial Scholiast had taught him (as everyone in Araboth learned sooner or later) that the world Outside was a treacherous place, even a hellish one. Anything that survived Out There—birds, insects, viruses—posed a threat to the survival of humanity, humanity of course being best represented by those who lived beneath the Quincunx Domes, in particular the Orsinate and their cabinet. At any rate Hobi's education—heavily tilted toward the sort of effete skills (literature, calligraphy, computer programming) that young aristocrats had received for centuries, perhaps millennia—had fallen off in the last year, since his mother's murder. Standing now behind his father, staring at the nautilus on the bright screen, was the first time Hobi had looked at a monitor in months.
"Structural damage to Studio Ninety-seven, Grid Fourteen, Powers Level," a voice murmured. It was a mechanical voice, the voice of the Architects who had designed and now maintained the city, under his father's supervision of course.
"Very good," Sajur Panggang said softly. It was four o'clock, false morning under the Quincunx Domes. A porcelain cup of kehveh steamed on the desk at his elbow. It smelled of chocolate and bitter almonds and made the boy realize how tired he was. Sajur reached for the cup and sipped it absently. "Next level," he said.
Hobi yawned. He had been passing his father's workchambers on his way to the dining room and stuck his head in to say good morning. His father's disheveled kimono and the spent tabs of amphaze on the desk indicated that he had been up all night, again.
"Something wrong?" Hobi asked. He inhaled the kehveh's rich smell and wondered if he should have the servers bring him breakfast in here.
"Mmm? No, no." Sajur bent forward until his nose touched the screen, squinting as a red trail spun out from Powers Level down to Principalities. The Architects were centuries old. While they constantly reassessed and repaired themselves, the image quality on the monitors had been deteriorating for decades now. "Just performing a criterion, couldn't sleep."
"Oh." Hobi leaned against the wall and rubbed the scant stubble on his chin. Sajur had not slept well since his wife's murder, many months ago. The boy rubbed his eyes, stared more closely at the screen. It looked odd: something different about the configuration of the outer walls, maybe. "Is there a problem?"
Sajur Panggang shook his head, then listened intently as the Architects recited the inventory for Principalities Level. "Now Archangels," he commanded when the voice fell silent.
"Nothing has changed on Archangels," said the Architects after a few minutes. Hobi thought of returning to bed.
"Good," murmured Sajur Panggang. "Now Angels. Level One."
The light-trail that had marked the descent to the other levels darkened to violet. The nautilus on the screen disappeared, was replaced by a seemingly random series of reticulated squares and rectangles and triangles, crosshatched with a dizzying array of blinking lights. Hobi straightened, peered over his father's shoulders. Shivering he tugged his robe tighter about his narrow chest. He had never seen an enhanced image of Angels before. As far as he knew even his father had no business down there, and certainly the Architects had never renovated it. Only escaped rasas were rumored to live in the Undercity—if, of course, one considered them to beliving at all. Hobi did not. Just thinking about them now was enough to make him wish he had stayed in bed. He rubbed his arms and leaned closer to his father, staring at the display. Even the model of the Undercity was disturbing: the frenetic lines and squares that had nothing of the exquisite order of the rest of Araboth; the black shapeless areas that showed where the ruins of the original city had decayed and even the Architects had failed to restructure them. Hobi had heard stories about people going to the Undercity. Nasrani Orsina, the exiled margravin who was a good friend of his father's, was rumored to have a mistress down there. It was just the sort of dreadful thing you'd expect of an Orsina.
The Architects hummed and whirred. "Diagnostic," ordered Sajur Panggang. Hobi was surprised at how impatient his father sounded.
Click. Click. Click. Hobi shifted his weight to his other foot, trying not to look too curious. After his mother died, his father had forbidden Hobi to spend time in his study. Before, the boy had liked to sip Amity pilfered from his father's cabinets, watching the flickers and faint jets of light stream from the Architects as they programmed renovations and repairs beneath the Quincunx Domes.
But it had been months since Hobi had slipped in here. He wondered, sometimes, just what his father was up to in his study; but he didn't dare ask him. No one disturbed the Architect Imperator. He was too important, the only person in Araboth who truly understood the workings of the Architects. Even the Orsinate's murder of the Architect Imperator's wife had been carefully scheduled to coincide with one of Sajur's interminable love affairs, so as not to unduly disturb his work. Hobi thought that perhaps the Orsinate had misjudged his father. Certainly Hobi himself had been surprised by the intensity of Sajur's grief, which had taken the form of a nearly monkish solitude. As for Hobi, Angelika Panggang had always been a somewhat mythic figure to him. He identified her more with figures from poetry—Medea, Anne Sexton, Quisa Helmut—than with flesh-and-blood women or even certain replicants. So Hobi could only assume that his father's arcane doings in his study were somehow tangled up with his grief.
Now, gazing at the flickering screen in front of him, Hobi still could not imagine what the Architects were doing. Perhaps the Orsinate had commanded a new wing be added to the palace. Perhaps the Undercity had flooded—people were always predicting that; it was a favorite sport in Araboth, along with timoring and guessing who would be the next of Shiyung Orsina's lovers to die a horrible death. The boy nibbled his thumbnail thoughtfully. His father only stared at the screen in silence, tapping one finger against his porcelain cup.
"There is a breach in the fundus of Angels," the Architects replied at last. "The rift at Pier Forty-three is spreading."
"Thank you. Indoctrinate Pier Forty-four."
Hobi glanced sideways at his father. In profile Sajur Panggang resembled his dead wife, the same fine features and sharp nose. They had been first cousins. Like nearly everyone else on the upper levels of Araboth, they were distant relatives of the Orsinate.
"A breach?" Hobi asked, a little uneasily. "What's that mean?"
Sajur Panggang started, looked at his son as though noticing him for the first time. He shook his head. "Nothing. Routine maintenance. Aren't you up a little early?"
Considering how late you were out last night, Hobi thought. He grinned and shrugged. His father frowned and flicked at one corner of the screen. The monitor went blank. Sajur leaned back in his chair, the long ornamented sleeves of his kimono brushing the floor. "Would you please ask Khum to bring some more kehveh? Or no—I'll go with you."
The Architect Imperator stood and stretched. The brocaded sleeves slid from thin wrists to show the emerald mourning bands he still wore. Hobi noticed how his father's hand shook as he picked up his porcelain cup, and how Sajur looked back at the empty screen, the banks of ancient monitors like the walls of a tomb. On one of them the image of the Undercity still lingered, its web of ruined roadways and empty channels glowing faintly. The Architect Imperator stared at it for a long moment while his son waited, puzzled. Then he carefully closed the door and turned down the hall.
Behind them in the empty chamber the other screens slowly started to glow, blue and gold and violet. The Architects began to click and whisper, doing their master's work.